Draped in red Communist banners and propaganda slogans, Vietnam's capital turned 1,000 years old Sunday in an extravagant ceremony intended to stoke national pride and show the world that this once war-ravaged country has moved beyond its dark history.
More than 30,000 people marched in Vietnam's biggest-ever parade, with goose-stepping soldiers, colorful dragon dancers and 10 military helicopters displaying huge Vietnamese and Communist Party flags.
The procession, a third of which was military, started in the capital's historic Ba Dinh Square where the late President Ho Chi Minh declared independence from the French colonialists 65 years ago. Ho's massive granite mausoleum provided the backdrop for the festivities commemorating King Ly Thai To's decision in 1010 to move Vietnam's capital 62 miles (100 kilometers) north to Hanoi, then called Thang Long.
"Experiencing 1,000 years of numerous ups and downs, Thang Long-Hanoi maintains its assured posture and pride, deserving to be the heart of the country," President Nguyen Minh Triet said in a speech.
But the 10-day millennial bash hasn't been without its problems. Traffic congestion on the capital's already-overloaded streets reached manic levels as police closed off main avenues for parade practice sessions, forcing thousands of jostling, roaring motorbikes to sit revving their engines and beeping their horns in aggravation.
The city of 6.5 million was also bloated by busloads of villagers from the countryside pouring in for a glimpse of the twinkling lights showcasing the city's central landmark, Hoan Kiem Lake.
A lavish fireworks display planned for 29 different sites around the city was canceled after bloggers complained that the extravaganza was wasteful amid mass flooding in central Vietnam that has killed 64 people in the past week, leaving 22 others missing and hundreds of thousands more suffering.
The Communist Party said the quarter million dollars saved from not putting off the fireworks would be donated to flood victims. A display at My Dinh National Stadium was still planned as the grand finale, despite four people being killed at the site earlier in the week, including two Germans and a Singaporean, when two containers of fireworks accidentally exploded.
Authorities have been cagey about releasing just how much was spent on the celebration, with one Hanoi official saying $15 million, not including the parade. However, the true price tag was likely much higher given the numerous facelift projects throughout the city pegged to the event.
"I think corruption is really widespread in this system," said Hong Vu, an Australian member of Viet Tan, the banned Vietnam Reform Party, who passed out T-shirts and hats Saturday in Hanoi during a rare event calling for Vietnam to defend its right to sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, which China and several other countries also claim. "There is no controlled system to monitor transparency."
Hanoi considers the U.S.-based group of pro-democracy dissidents, with members abroad and within the country, a terrorist organization, but the U.S. has found no evidence to suggest that. Vietnam does not tolerate any form of challenge to its one-party rule and has jailed several Viet Tan members.
Some $2 million for the birthday party was spent painting buildings in Hanoi's famous Old Quarter, a narrow maze of ancient homes and shops popular with tourists. Another $2 million was allocated to replace tiles around Hoan Kiem Lake, but construction was halted after loud public protests saying it was a waste of money in a country where graft runs rampant.
"The authorities are a little too extravagant on the celebrations," said Tran Thi Ly, 21, a student from Hanoi. "The country still has many other urgent needs to be addressed."
Vietnam remains a poor country, with most people earning about $1,000 a year, but it has made tremendous strides since opening its doors up to capitalism in the mid-1980s. Economic growth has averaged more than 7 percent annually over the past decade, and the rate of people living in poverty has dropped from 58 percent in 1993 to 11 percent last year.
The capital, though not as glitzy as the southern financial hub Ho Chi Minh City, has also evolved from a sleepy town into a boisterous city that has maintained an old-Asian charm with its wide tree-lined streets and colonial architecture.
Street vendors sell Hanoi's famous "pho" noodle soup from cauldrons, as they've done for centuries, near luxury shops such as Louis Vuitton and Escada. The capital's nouveau riche push through a sea of motorbikes in their BMWs, Mercedes and Bentleys, a jarring contrast to the red hammer-and-sickle banners streaming across roads declaring, "Long Live the Glorious Communist Party of Vietnam" and loudspeakers blurting revolutionary songs and socialist slogans.
Vietnam is keen to shed its image as a war-riddled country following decades of fighting in the 20th century, first during the battle for independence from the French that ended in 1954, and then with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese — known here as the American War.
Hanoi was blasted repeatedly by American planes in December 1972 during the so-called Christmas bombings. The war ended on April 30, 1975 when northern Communist forces seized control of the South's capital, then called Saigon, to reunify the country. Vietnam then plunged into isolation and poverty after attempts at collective farming and rationing failed.
Today, relations with the U.S. are strong, and the former foe is among Vietnam's biggest trading and investment partners. But for those who still remember the years of hardship, the capital has indeed lived up to its historic name of Thang Long — or soaring dragon.
"Not everyone is fortunate enough to live to see the capital's millennium anniversary," said Luong Thi Nghi, 80. "I am very happy to witness the development of the county in general, and of Hanoi in particular."