History. If there’s anything wrong with Hanoi (aside from traffic in the lead up to the Lunar New Year), it would be the history. Far too much of it. Positively dripping with it. And lots of it modern too... French oppression. Japanese oppression. Threat of American oppression... Possibly other oppression. All in the last 200 years. The corollary of oppression of course is opposition and revolution. Fighting. Which leads to lots of history and propaganda - which is history written by winners. None of which was readily apparent when we arrived off the overnight coach from Hue. Of the pair of us, James is definitely more of a ‘recent’ history buff than I... I am far happier amongst the ruins of Ancient Egypt than I am with the history of the 19th and 20th century. But in terms of recent battles we did win one - and that was with the opportunistic taxi scammer who took us from the bus station to the hotel apparently via Timbuktu as his ‘hot’ meter was doing the equivalent of a 45 minute trip to the airport in the space of a 3 km 10 minute trip. He flicked off the meter as soon as we were near the hotel and thus removed the evidence of his own wrongdoing... and of course any rickety leg he may have had to stand on. James gave him just a bit more than he was owed to make him leave. We’ve since read horror stories where solo travellers have been hit for more than a million dong and locked in the car until they paid up and doors were unlocked. One of the benefits of there being two of us... one to get out and organise the luggage whilst one ‘organises’ payment of the cab fare out of sight of money grubbing hands. Anyway - as modern history goes, a battle won. Despite having a pretty good rest on the coach overnight, it had still been quite an adventure, and at 7 am we checked in, had breakfast and then slept for a few hours before venturing out into Hanoi’s old quarter. Lots of character, that’s for sure. We visited a couple of temples quite by accident as we were just having a preparatory wander around and scoping out spots for dinner later in the day. One of the main temples in the old quarter is the Bach Ma or White Horse Temple which was built in the 11th century and restored recently. The story goes that in 1010 when King Ly Thai To was trying to establish the city, the city walls kept falling down. One day a white horse came up to the king and revealed to him exactly where the fortification should be built. To show his gratitude the king built the temple and ever since the white horse has been the protecting symbol of the city.
We ended up at one restaurant that the hotel had recommended - the front area was a bit dire. Very clangy and noisy and road noise coming in... After the debacle of misinformation at the train station we are very much in IT/Insanity mode. As in... yes... keep doing the same thing/asking the same question until you do get a different result/satisfactory answer. So we didn’t like the first part of the restuarant - and kept going - and the very next part was a lovely, quiet, empty, garden courtyard - then beyond that, a much nicer part of the restaurant indeed. Ended up in the courtyard sampling our first bottles of Hanoi beer. James is the beer drinker of the family, but here in Asia it’s either that or cocktails as the wine can be a bit hit and miss due to quality and storage issues - and definitely more expensive. Anyway - safe to report that the Hanoi beer is higher in alcohol (5% plus) and has a stronger malt/hops flavour than the Saigon beer in Hoi An or the Huda beer of Hue. But cold and fresh and not expensive. And a perfect accompaniment to spring rolls and the best mango salad we’ve had in Vietnam yet. In a bid to spread the love with a rolling dinner, we moved on to explore further afield and found another nice spot for a chicken curry. Had quite an early night in the end. Real exploring could wait another day.
We were up relatively bright and early, but what with pottering and so forth we only made it out the door by midday am for our first destination - the Hanoi Ancient House. This is a well put together albeit small display of one of the traditional tube houses of the old Quarter. Tubular in that it’s long and quite skinny (as they used to tax based on the width of the property frontage). A pleasant enough way to start the day. We walked from there to Hoan Kiem Lake, the Red Bridge and Ngoc Son Temple. We’re getting just the tiniest bit ‘over’ temples. From there it was a Grab to get to the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. We admit to gazing upon the mummies in the Cairo museum in Egypt - and that it was weird in itself, but we had no urge to queue up to see Uncle Ho lying in state for eternity. We did enjoy the exterior of the mausoleum - simultaneously Russian and Roman in appearance (it was apparently inspired by Lenin’s mausoleum). We also stopped briefly to see the One Pillar Pagoda designed to mimic a lotus flower. We had a closer look at Hanoi’s Flag Tower on the return journey (the only architectural remant of the imperial citadel). We then stopped for a photo opportunity at the Hang Dau water tank - which would make a gorgeous boutique hotel - or hammam - or something. At the moment just a photo opportunity. It was built in 1894 from the rubble of the citadel and looks like a small but beautifully formed fortress within which to hide one’s water. It was abandoned in 1954 but thankfully not bulldozed - it’s such a contrast to the buildings around it. From this point we accidentally came upon a bustling street market full of goods for the Lunar New Year. Pig statues, pig ornaments, pig phone covers, pig balloons - did we mention it’ll be the Year of the Pig in a few days. Also screeds of yellow chrysanthemums, pink and yellow lillies by the thousands, branches of pink blossom, massive grapefruit/pomelo, cumquat trees and many other auspicious items. Losing an eye to a tree strapped to the back of a scooter is probably a feature on the local actuarial tables at this time of the year. With eyes just barely intact we made it back to our stomping ground and located a Banh mi (baguette/local sandwich) joint we’d been wanting to try - was excellent, however a Hanoi beer in the early afternoon is a definite recipe for an afternoon snooze. Who knew?
Thursday we fared no better and once more didn’t make it out till midday - the force was, quite simply, not strong. Our single destination today was Hoa Lo prison - AKA ‘The Hanoi Hilton’ - US congressman John McCain was one of the most well known names to check in to this establishment when he was shot down over the country during the war. It was built by the French in 1896 and used to imprison Vietnamese during the colonisation by the French. One of the most chilling exhibits is of course the guillotine, one of only two in this part of the world. Imagine the packing list... ‘...baguette, camembert, croissant, beret... whoops - wait a minute, mustn’t forget the guillotine...’ There has been a huge amount of work put into making the prison memorial and exhibits an interesting attraction covering both the French period and the Vietnam War (AKA locally The American War). 80% of the original site (which totalled 12,908m2) was redeveloped and is now the site of the Hanoi Tower, but the remnant of the prison entrance, cells, solitary confinement and so forth was still very interesting... We had planned to continue on to the Quan Thanh Temple and the Pagoda but they were crossed off the schedule due to lack of interest and energy. It was all we could do to whistle up a Grab car and head off to put our feet up.
In the evening we tried the ‘must try’ dish of Hanoi - Bun Cha - noodles with pork patties - and it was pretty yummy if not life changing (with all due respect to President Obama and Anthony Bourdain). We continued onwards to defy the logic of cutting down on packed items and walked along Hang Dau shopping street where they hold the Hanoi Night Market. The plan was reaching the lake for a gentle stroll and enjoying the colourful lights. Despite it not being night market night (the street wasn’t closed off to traffice), we managed to buy me a genuine North Face windbreaker/rain parka en route... in a glorious chartreuse colour. Seriously - had the logo so must be genuine. Right? Anyway - looks like it will keep the monsoons off and James gets huge amounts of wear out of a similar item he bought in Amsterdam years ago. And it’s only 200 grams. No (major) harm done. The eventual walk around the lake with an icecream cone was enjoyable and we can confirm the Red Bridge is still red at night. And the Turtle Tower / Thap Rua, whilst still inaccessible, is much prettier seen by night all lit up (vs. in the haze of the day when it’s barely visible). It’s a sad day when walking in traffic feels almost safe and enjoyable when, despite having 10 lanes of scooters racing past you in close proximity, it’s nevertheless ‘OK’ because it’s a one way street and they are at least going in the same direction. Made it back to the hotel in one piece which is increasingly something to take pride in.
Our final day we ‘grabbed’ over to the Quan Thanh Temple and then walked across the West Lake causeway to the Tran Quoc pagoda. The temple was built in the Ly Dynasty (1010 to 1225) and means ‘The Place of the Gods’. It’s dedicated to Tran Vo (The God of the North) and is supposed to protect the people from evil spirits and influences coming from the north. One of it’s main claims to fame is a national treasure - the 4000 kg bronze of Tran Vo standing 3.96m high and cast in 1677. It is peak time for giving and this temple was no exception - one woman in particular had been to the bank and was busy plastering notes in every possible nook, cranny and offering plate in addition to bringing the temple deity a gift hamper. We continued on to the pagoda. It is one of the oldest in Hanoi and was built over 1500 years ago, however we must admit to reaching ‘critical overload’ on ‘must see’ temples and pagodas. So much is different - so much is the same. Doesn’t really matter if you’re in a cathedral in Rome, a mosque in Turkey or a pagoda to Buddha in south east Asia - one way or another the wealth bestowed within will astound and sooner or later the incense will give you a headache. Short of believing in everything (or believing in nothing), seems like vast swathes of the world’s population will be hideously disappointed when they shuffle off their mortal coils. Nice to visit though even if not meaningful to us in any spiritual way. We had planned to walk the length of Hanoi’s Ceramic mosic mural - at 3.85 km it holds the Guiness World Record the longest ceramic mosaic mural in the world. It was created to celebrate the millenial anniversary of Hanoi and 35 artists from around the world contributed to it. Fortunately the Grab ride to the temple showed us around 60% of it from the taxi and it turns out it runs the length of a highway... so not ideal for gentle and enjoyable strolling.
We whistled up another Grab to trundle us back to town (traffic getter crazier by the hour at this point) via the remaining 40% of the ceramic mural. We stopped at the Dong Xuan market which is Hanoi’s equivalent to Ben Thanh Market in Saigon. Sort of. Seemed a lot more focused on locals selling to locals - which was hugely refreshing as not one vendor hit us with ‘you buy something’ - which is variously a semi-polite question - you buy something? or a viciously barked order - YOU! BUY SOMETHING! They did have a nice fountain inside. It looked lost.
Made it back to the lodgings and had a snooze after some concerted pfaffing about with the packing. Had a new coat to fit in afterall We’ve never flown with Skyteam’s Vietnam Airlines before (the government owned primary airline in Vietnam) - so weren’t sure if they were going to be draconian in their approach to 20 kg checked luggage and 7 kg cabin plus a personal item. We figured if they were to be a bit too ‘detail oriented’, then details could be our friend - for instance, my personal item consisted of my sling bag (=ladies handbag) containing my ipad (=laptop) my umbrella, a large cotten sarong scarf (=wrap or coat), my camera, my kindle and a huge paperback (=adequate reading material for the journey). So there’s about 6 kg in approved personal items. Unlike some carriers where a kilo overweight can be close to A$100 - the overweight fee here was only A$3 for a kilo. Not a deal breaker. Following our compulsory afternoon snooze we headed out for a final dinner and stroll then hit the sack.
We were up early, if not bright, on the 2nd and into a car to Hanoi airport in no time. It was a good 45 minute drive and traffic wasn’t heavy - clearly not a place to be running late to the airport though as it would be a very, very long drive if the traffic was snarled up. We secured exit row seats with no fuss and eventually had a great first flight with Vietnam Airliens. If the urge struck, we could have done yoga in the oodles of space we had in front of us and there was a nice hot lunch with, however, a woeful drinks selection (water or coke/tea/coffee - the country runs on caffeine). But it did the job - plane went up, 2 hours later plane went down with nothing untoward in between. Just like that we went from the top of the country to the bottom and were once more in the heat and brilliant sunshine of the south - in this case the city of Can Tho for a couple of nights of five star luxury before we vamoose to the island of Phu Quoc for a week of tranquility over the Tet holiday.