History and Culture in Hanoi
We arrived in Hanoi during the afternoon and proceeded to quickly and efficiently take an airport shuttle bus into the old quarter of town. Once in the old quarter, being forewarned by numerous travellers about the dodgy taxis operating in the Vietnamese capital, we were fairly diligent in hailing the proper taxi company to our guesthouse. We would be spending a total of 5 nights at the Lucky Hanoi Guesthouse, broken up with a one night stay on Halong Bay.
Five days is a long time to spend in any big city, but luckily for us Hanoi had numerous museums, attractions and distractions to keep us occupied. Most travelers we met told us that Hanoi is not as hectic as Ho Chi Minh City, and while I can somewhat see that, I found that this city boasted a whole different type of crazy. Walking down the narrow streets in the old quarter seemed suffocating. Streams of parked motorbikes restricted the use of most sidewalks so you were forced to share the road with taxis, tourist busses, and yes hundreds of motorbikes. We had a couple of close calls but we managed to come out unscathed after our stay. Funny enough, as chaotic as it looks, we did not see one accident.
On our first day in town we walked around the old quarter trying to find a decent place to eat (this would become a trend). Most visible Vietnamese “restaurants” in Hanoi consist of nothing more than plastic tables and chairs set up on a sidewalk selling an assortment of pho (Vietnamese soup), noodles and rice dishes. Unfortunately these “restaurants” are not at all vegetarian friendly so we only made use of them to quench our thirst; here many 5,000 dong (25 cent) beers were consumed. We did find a decent restaurant chain called Geckos which served a nice array of asian and western dishes for affordable prices. They have locations scattered throughout the city so we always seemed to stumble across one!
On our second day we headed out towards the french quarter of town. To get there we circled the beautiful central lake named Hoan Kiem and continued south where we were drawn in by the wide tree- lined boulevards and cosmopolitan feel of the area. This could have been Paris! It was quite pleasant walking around and taking in the sights and most of all actually having a sidewalk to walk on. I forgot to mention that the temperature was around 20 degrees (15 degrees cooler than Saigon or Bangkok) so even though it was a bit cool it felt really nice being out of the stifling heat. We stumbled into the Women’s History Museum and spent a few hours there. It was fairly interesting and very impressive seeing how hard the Vietnamese ladies work!
The next couple of days followed the same pattern as the earlier days. We walked around a bit and checked out some museums. Our visit to the Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton was a bit of a letdown. The prison was built by the French colonialists and was used by them and later by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. The museum was filled with stories and pictures of how the French held and tortured the Vietnamese prisoners throughout their regime and interestingly enough how well the Vietnamese treated the American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The polarizing views seemed a bit fishy, but like every other war museum in the country this did not surprise us. Aside from a few interesting displays, including the flight suit John McCain was wearing when he was shot down and subsequently arrested, the prison was quite uninspiring. For instance if you have a display that shows the bricks or rocks used in the construction of the building you must know that your material is quite thin.
For me the coolest thing that we visited in Hanoi was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was such an interesting and weird experience that quite frankly I really enjoyed. The mausoleum building itself is a huge stone structure front and center of a big square next to the presidential gardens. Inside is the preserved body of Vietnam’s most beloved leader Ho Chi Minh. There were guards stationed everywhere and we were forced to politely and quietly follow a long queue into the building to see his body and then quickly get out. The aura of the area seemed very communist to me, it is hard to describe but it felt like everyone was watching my every move (they probably were) and one false step or action by anyone would result in a quick and speedy lockup. Very cool!
The last museum that we visited was the Temple of Literature, the oldest university in Vietnam. This again was a letdown. The old buildings were nice enough, it felt like old Japan or ancient China, but the atmosphere was ruined by thousands of schoolchildren running around and making so much noise. The museum did not really have anything on display; you just walk around the ancient complex and see how they studied in the old days. After the museum we walked back towards our guesthouse where we shared a few beers and had some food before putting an end to our Vietnamese adventure!