Hanoi - 14 to 23 July 2008
First impression of Hanoi (which means the City in the bend of the river -the Red river in this case) was of heat and humidity even at 8.30 in the morning. We had booked a couple of nights accommodation at a cheapish hotel $20 USD per night - all prices here seem to be given in $ rather than the native currency VND Vietnam Dong- and as part of the deal we had a pick up from the airport which made for a smooth arrival. Mike's Hotel where we stayed in the middle of the Old Quarter was a great choice. The staff were really helpful especially Ma who assisted us booking trains and tours and really went out of her way to be helpful. We provide their website below & would recommend you consider staying there if you're in Hanoi. www.hanoimikeshotel.com Hanoi is a stylish city with some amazing architecture a real blend of French and Asian styles. It has had an extremely turbulent history and was a big centre of communism for a long time and evidence of this can be seen everywhere - the personality cult around Ho Chi Minh (HCM) statues of Lenin, propaganda posters etc - but it now has some western shops and a real gourmet restaurant and café scene.
The Old Quarter where we stayed was a real hub of activity with thousands of years of history. It grew as the real commercial centre of the city and all the streets are named after what was sold in them i.e.) Hang Non (hats) Hang Man (pickled fish) Hang Gai (silk). It is entertaining to just wander around the streets watching the vendors selling and all the activities carrying on much as they have for centuries. You really have to have your wits about you walking around though as the traffic is very intense and crossing the road is a major experience. No one seems to stop at crossings, the technique is just to grit your teeth and move slowly across the traffic. This gives the hordes of oncoming traffic time to judge and move around you, if you panic and run you are more likely to get hit! The city has 5 million people and 3 million motorbikes and all of them seem to be out at once! The other popular means of transport is the Cyclo which sees you being pushed into oncoming traffic by the frantically pedalling driver behind - a great way to see the City all for 50,000VND or $3.50 per hour!
The centre piece of the town is Hoan Kiem Lake which is steeped in legend - especially that of the golden sword which was sent by the gods to the Emperor of the day in the 15th century and used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. It was dropped in the lake and stolen by a large golden tortoise who returned it to its divine owners - thus the name of Hoan Kiem Lake which translates as "Lake of the restored sword." Tortoises supposedly the descendants of this golden one inhabit the lake to this day. It is now surrounded by cafes and seafood restaurants and is a really nice place to sit and enjoy the breeze. It is always full of locals chatting exercising or just chilling out.
Next day we got up and went to the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. This is a major place of pilgrimage visited by many Vietnamese as well as tourists. To us it was all a bit bizarre I've never been to Lenin's red square tomb but imagine it's similar. HCM for those (like me!) who don't know was the president of Vietnam from 1946 to his death in 1969 and the founder of the Vietnamese and French communist parties. His good deeds are strongly emphasized in the education system here and his picture is everywhere -a bit like the King's in Thailand! His preserved body -which spends 3 months a year in Russia being refurbished- is displayed in a crystal glass case in the centre of a big building flanked by 4 very serious guards in white uniform. The queue snakes for ages but actually moves pretty quickly and the rules of entry are very strict - all bags and cameras being take off you no talking no bare shoulders etc You then all march past his white corpse (which still has a wispy white beard) and out the other side. We then saw his stilt house built in the style of Vietnamese ethnic minorities where he lived on and off from 1958 until his death. We still didn't have our cameras back (the very stern lady on the gate had taken it from us whereas other people checked them in later and got them straight back we later found out!) so no pictures of this sorry!
Even allowing for the propaganda Uncle Ho as he is affectionately known does seem to have been fairly decent helping educate the poor and living fairly simply himself . He apparently wanted a very simple cremation so we imagine he might be a bit horrified at his present circumstances as the goose stepping guards bring him yet another fresh elaborate wreath with a great deal of pomp and ceremony! We then saw HCM's museum which has some interesting displays of the history of Vietnam. You can't help but think they had a bit of a rough time here. Geographically they were in the wrong place and were constantly being invaded ..first the Chinese then the French then when the communists took power from the French the Americans arrived! Life for the native population under French rule seemed incredibly harsh so we did feel a bit of sympathy with the communists, who only seemed to have wanted to run their own country, in the early stages anyway.
Nearby is the One Pillar Pagoda which was built in the 11th century by an emperor to thank the Goddess of Mercy for the birth of his son, it is set in a pond of lotuses and is very beautiful. The original was apparently destroyed by the French when they finally left Hanoi in 1954 (bad losers!) and this very good copy was rebuilt by the Vietnamese government.
We next went to the Museum of Ethnology a museum built with a lot of French input which housed a fascinating variety of art and objects from all over Vietnam including those of the diverse tribal peoples. The outdoor area which showed the construction of their houses was particularly interesting. Next stop was the Hoa Lo Prison museum. This prison was built by the French in 1896 to house the Vietnamese independence seekers they caught and it really was pretty grim with awful conditions and various dire torture implements including a full size guillotine. By contrast the American POWs held here in the 1960s after being shot down whilst they "carried out two destruction wars by air and navy against North Vietnam" look like they had a better time…indeed the photographs seem to suggest when they weren't making Xmas decorations they were playing volleyball in the yard!! Not sure that's a totally unbiased view!
In between all this sightseeing I was dealing with a major crisis as the laundry we had gone to had lost much of my clothing including my shorts and undies..eventually they kindly said I could buy new ones and they would reimburse. Much easier said than done ..shopping here is not for the fainthearted the clothes are all like doll's clothes…and it is a bit demoralizing when something marked XXL still doesn't fit ..I felt a bit better when a lady we met said she had been shopping for her 6 & 8 year olds in size M/L adults! Mercifully my clothes all turned up ..bit by bit so all was well! It is great for shopping for all sorts of copy designer good here but for clothes only if you are VERY petite!
On one of our final nights here we saw the Water Puppets. This art form was invented in North Vietnam in the 10th century allegedly by rice farmers as an amusement in the flooded rice paddies and was unknown elsewhere until the 1960s. Traditional music is performed by a band and the puppeteers operate the puppets (some weighing as much as 15kg) from behind a screen waist deep in water. The 17 little scenes depict everyday life in the villages and also some mythical creatures ..fire breathing dragons complete with fireworks. It really is very magical.
Hanoi was a great spot and we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere and had some lovely meals both at street stalls and (once) at a really nice French restaurant (Café Des Arts in Ngo Bao Khanh) which was superb. Whilst the people are very friendly on the whole you have to have your wits about you ..more like Indonesia then laid back Thailand ..they are much pushier trying to sell things and you have to agree a price for services up front or it will be hugely inflated once you are committed. Generally though the people are very charming and you can only hope that all their years of war and turbulence are finally at an end.
One little change here to elsewhere….no stray dogs on the streets! This is a good thing is some ways but we soon found out why when I walked past a dog restaurant in the markets! We have noted down the word for dog on a menu (thit cho) so we can avoid it at all costs!
Over the last 12 days we have used Hanoi as a base and gone on 2 other trips for a few days to Halong Bay and Sapa both of which deserve a page in their own right so I'll slot these in in due course! Now on Thursday 24 July it is time to leave Hanoi and catch the train for 2 hours south to our next stop Ninh Binh.