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Shining the Spotlight on Hanoi

As I’ve mentioned in this post, I really had no expectation of Hanoi. Yes, I did some research, but the city blew me away as soon as we touched down and continued to do so until we left, 4 days later. We were picked up at the airport by a driver from our hostel and he drove us into the city at a breakneck speed, never really minding the thousands of motorbikes, pedestrians, trucks, and other vehicles on his way. Nevertheless, I’m so glad we asked for it. Otherwise, I would have had a nervous break-down trying to navigate the buses of Hanoi. Also, Hanoi International Airport is located quite far away from the city centre, about 1-hour drive, so if you ever plan on visiting this city, inquire your hostel/hotel for a pick-up. It makes everything so much easier!

We were dropped off at Little Hanoi Hostel, booked through Hostel World, an excellent place with an amazing hospitality. I highly recommend it! They give you breakfast every morning (scrambled egg + a baguette + thick & sweet Viet coffee!!). Their location is unbeatable – right in the middle of Old Town, a short walking distance from Hoan Kiem Lake. Bonus point: because of errors in their part, we got the honeymoon suite with an extra-wide bed and a TV, which were copiously used to watch ANTM (All-Star edition!), Viet Idols, old Western movie, Twilight (again!), Up, and some kind of a Nicholas Cage movie. I’m telling you, our entertainment on this trip has been nothing but high-quality! Ahem, I’m being sarcastic, ahem.

For $10/night? Not bad at all!

The only negative thing about the place (or the entire city in general) is its dampness; the sun refused to come out and it felt wet the entire time we were there. This was probably because it was the end of their winter (we were there in the end of February), so it was normal to have consecutive rainy days. Claire washed most of her clothes on our first day, laid them out with a fan blowing on them all day and all night, yet none of them were dry at the end of our stay. The poor girl had to pack damp clothes into her suitcase, all of which she practically unpacked and scattered throughout our room as soon as we got to our guesthouse in Bangkok. Ah well, I guess you take what you get when you travel during the shoulder seasons, right?

Seeing as it was only 11AM after we sorted everything out (i.e. had breakfast, checked in, dropped off our luggage in our room), we asked for a city map and went on our way to wander. Here are some sights we visited while we were there, some of them great, others were, let’s just say, interesting.

Hoan Kiem Lake or Lake of the Returned Sword

Since our hostel is located very close to Hoan Kiem Lake, we made this our first stop for the day. We walked down Pho Hang Ga, took a random left turn and, before we knew it, we reached the edge of the lake. Blanketed with mist and because of the dark clouds looming overhead, the atmosphere around the lake was nothing but eerie. This doesn’t seem to put a damper on Hanoians’ (Hanoiers just doesn’t sound right) spirits as its edge was surrounded by teenagers hanging out, families strolling, and too many newly married couples posing for their wedding pictures. It seems like everyone was getting married that day! In retrospect, it was the weekend before Valentine’s Day, so that probably explains the alarming number of brides and grooms we saw.

Wedding party

Rumor has it that the lake contains a rare species of large, soft-shell turtle that last surfaced in the 1960s and was witnessed by locals and tourists alike. According to local legend, back in the early centuries, the same species of turtle allegedly snatched the Emperor’s sword, while he was crossing the lake, and quickly disappeared into the depths of the lake never to be found again. The mystery deepens because, to this day, authorities have no idea on the number of turtles there are in the lake (if any!).

Scientific name: Rafetus swinhoei or Rafetus leloii

Also in the middle of the lake is the Temple of the Jade Mountain, built in the 18th century to honor several individuals: Tran Hung Dao, a 13th -century military leader, Van Xuong, a scholar, and Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian master and a highly-esteemed writer. The iconic Huc Bridge connects the mainland to the temple ground. Admission was around 10,000 Dong ($1). We strolled across the bridge and walked around the ground witnessing locals carrying on hundreds of years of traditions as they worship together.

Locals burning their offerings

On the side of the temple are these ridiculous-looking trees that were, I admit, pretty awesome!

Temple of Literature

Once we were done with the lake and once Claire was done being a celebrity for the day (many of the newly-weds wanted to have their picture taken with her!), we walked to the Temple of Literature.

Considered to be Vietnam’s first national university, it certainly saw many highly-trained minds walking through its many courtyards.

One of the many courtyards

Its alumni include Vietnam’s bureaucrats, noblemen, aristocrats, and other members of the royalty. The temple itself was built in 1070 and is dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars.

Turtle steeles with the names of those successful at the exams

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I fully give Claire the credit for putting this one on the list. It’s basically a memorial honoring Ho Chi Minh, a revolutionary leader responsible for establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The memorial itself is located on the centre of Ba Dinh Square where Uncle Ho (as he is affectionately called by the locals) read the Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945. Inside the mausoleum, with a carefully controlled temperature and humidity, is his preserved body in a glass case. Every day, hundreds of Vietnamese (school children, adults, and students) go through the mausoleum to pay their respect to Uncle Ho.

The mausoleum is only open for a couple of hours (10 to 12) on certain days. Make sure you check before you go. Also, they’re really strict with your clothing and your posture when you enter. You can’t wear anything disrespectful (i.e. shoulders covered, pants/skirts must extend below the knee), you are not allowed to talk, or even smile, you cannot slouch, and your hands must be out of your pockets, they must be either on your side or in front of you. Oh yea, they mean business!

After going through the mausoleum, we strolled through the grounds to see where Uncle Ho lived. The exhibits on display were: his study, his bedroom, his garage with his car collections, and his retreat house.  The One Pillar Pagoda (which we completely missed!) is located nearby, as well as the National Museum, which we didn’t visit because of lack of time. It’s okay, another excuse to go back!

Watch a Water-Puppet Show

Photo by Claire.

I smirked when Claire first told me she wanted to watch a water puppet show. I mean, how old are we? But, Lonely Planet recommends it and I figured it’s better to give it a chance than to go through the regret afterwards. So, we bought our tickets as soon as we arrived (on Friday) for a show being performed on Monday. This was a perfect timing mainly because Monday afternoon shows are cheaper than weekend shows. Plus, booking in advance ensured that we have tickets for the performance as many shows are often sold out if you try to buy tickets on the same day as performance day.

So, after we had our 10th bowl of noodle soup (no, really, that’s all we had when we were there – noodles with different broths and different toppings), we headed to the Thang Long Water Puppet theater to catch our show. It’s a regular drama theater, except there is a big, rectangular, waist-deep pool of water in front of you, which serves as the stage for the show.

Centre stage

The puppets are supported by large rods under the water, which are then used by the puppet masters, who stand behind the screen, to control the puppets. The orchestra sits on the side and accompanied the entire play with traditional instruments and songs. A little history lesson for you: the water puppet shows originated in the Red River Delta area in the Northern Vietnam in the 11th century. During the monsoon season, the water would flood the rice fields, which were then used to its advantage by the villagers to put on a water puppet show as a form of their entertainment.

Although the orchestra gets a bit loud and screechy at times, I really enjoyed the show and as always, I’m glad I went. If you ever find yourself in Hanoi, give it a try! Our tickets (first class) was  100,000 Dong (about $5), which gave us seats on the second row! It was definitely an affordable attraction!

Hoa Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton

I think it’s safe to say I learned so much about Vietnam’s history (and its blatant propaganda) from this prison-turned-museum. Hoa Lo Prison was first used by the French Colonists for political prisoners and was later followed by North Vietnam to house prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Some rooms have been modified to showcase the condition of the prison cells used by the French Colonists, complete with scary manikins and torture devices on display. These rooms were pitch black, so I chickened out and skipped it.

One room displays the photographs of the political prisoners who were held captive and tortured mercilessly in the prison. Another room showcased McCain’s pilot suit and his parachute. The same room also displays photographs of the American POW in the prison – they’re shown to be having a good time in a Christmas party, singing carols, opening presents, and having cigarettes. When I saw these pictures, I was thoroughly impressed on how compassionate the Vietnamese were towards the American citizens. Then, I got back to Toronto and started doing a little bit of research on the Vietnam War and I found out that the Americans were treated brutally by the Vietnamese government. Frankly, I know nothing about the Vietnam War nor the causes behind it (we never learned it in my grade 10 History class). So, I’m not going to elaborate on this now, but maybe I’ll do it sometime in the near future, when I’ve done enough research on it using more authentic sources (i.e. NOT Wikipedia).

Night Markets

On a lighter note, there is a market happening somewhere in Hanoi on almost every single night. I highly recommend asking your hostel/hotel for some information and quickly make your way over. It’s really the best way to see the culture and sample local fares, like roasted chestnuts, fresh coconut juice, and mix-desert bowls. Claire and I were lucky that the night markets were located a walking distance away from our hostel. We would come back after wandering the city, shower, change, and head out again to find dinner (and souvenirs) at the market.

Useful tip #1: Don’t forget to bring a calculator with you. Many Vietnamese don’t speak a word of English, so it is extremely challenging to bargain with them. But, everything is much easier when you have a calculator with you! Just punch in the price you’re thinking, show it to the vendor, and wait for them to give you a response. As always, though, be aware of your surroundings and don’t draw attention to yourself by showcasing your cash or wear excessive jewelries. Markets are prime spots for itchy hands to target their victims.

We didn’t visit everything on one day as their locations are rather spread out in the city. There are plenty of buses, taxis, and motor-taxis, just make sure you agree on a rate before you let them drive you anywhere. We didn’t go on the buses, but we’ve seen travelers on them, so I’m pretty sure they’re not that hard to figure out. However, Hanoi is very walk-able, so if you are a walker, get yourself a city map and just start wandering! There are so many things to see (and take pictures of) along the way, I’m sure you’ll love it!


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