Vietnam: Hanoi days

18- 20 Jan 2012

It was a very local awakening- the roosters were singing and the cats were fighting on the tin roof. The smell of Vietnamese food from my friend’s kitchen carried me downstairs to a beautiful dining room decorated with glittering Vietnamese New Year banners. I was asked to finish breakfast which consisted of noodles, snails, cabbage and bananas.

SONY DSCVinnie lives with her younger sister, her grandfather and her lovely parents. Her grandfather fought for Vietnam’s Independence against the French colonials and was able to speak a bit of Chinese.  

“Today, you will go and see some Hanoi attractions.” said Vinnie’s mother.

So…off I went to see Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It has a nice blend of East and West, combining traditional Sino-Vietnamese motifs with a very French flair. Charming yes but I’m also reminded of the French colonisation and the fact that Western countries have never and will perhaps ever leave IndoChina/Asia. Unlike some cities where tall skyscrapers fight for space along the skyline, few buildings in Hanoi’s city centre are more than 5 stories. The Old Quarter is a great area to see some uninterrupted colonial and pre-colonial architecture. A walk through and around such quarters and boom- you are back in time.

After passing Thien Quang lake and Van Chuong Lake, the first brief stop was the Temple of Literature on the West side of the city. So how do you know which side is East and West? Look for the railway tracks. As a Confucius Temple, it hosted the first national university in the country. Built in 1070, it was initially intended to be a school for the rich and royals however it later became an university for everyone since there was a shortage of universities in Hanoi at that time. When the French ruled Vietnam, parts of the temple were destroyed to make way for the sick and wounded during the war.SONY DSC

SONY DSCThere are five courtyards – the first is flanked by two gates, the second contains a pavilion, the third and fourth contains halls and the fifth being the grounds of the Imperial Academy.

SONY DSCInside the temple lies 82 stelae depicting the names and birthplaces of 1307 graduates. They were all honoured for their talents and it was a way to encourage more students to study.

One- Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh’s Vestige, Ho-Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum are all north of the Temple of Literature around the Presidential Palace Area. It’s  a great area to relax in and wonderful to just soak up the Hanoi scene.

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SONY DSCHo Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square holds the dear leader’s embalmed body in the cooled, central hall protected by military honour guards. HCM’ last wish to have his body cremated was overlooked. Cremated? what cremated? you will be embalmed.

Things are strict- no talking, no folding arms, no hands in pockets, no slow steps, no revealing clothing, no photos inside the Mausoleum, no purses, no bags, no camera and no water bottle. Follow the crowd, follow the rules, do that loop then leave.SONY DSCOne Pillar Pagoda, quietly tucked between the Mausoleum and Museum is a charming Buddhist temple constructed by an Emperor to show gratitude.

SONY DSCThe Emperor (ruled 1028-1054) was childless and dreamt that the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. He married a peasant girl and later became a father. He built the pagoda in 1049 and was advised by a monk to built it by erecting a pillar in the middle of a lotus pond (purity)- similar to his dream. The pagoda was the site of an annual royal + Buddha-bathing ceremony and was later renovated in 1105 and rebuilt after being destroyed by the French in 1954.

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Guards in front of HCM’s house

Right next to the Mausoleum and the Pagoda is HCM’s Presidential palace (250,000 Dong).  This was the place where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 until his death in 1969.  There’s a nice pond in the middle, his well-kept houses and a garage.SONY DSC

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Pergola

The pergola, where he used to receive his guests is open for visitors. Overall, it was a nice place with surprisingly low security since I ended up accidentally at the Presidential Palace. It’s not usually open to visitors so I was stopped by a guard and he politely asked me to leave. Opened every workday except Monday and Friday afternoon, it is a nice area to hang around.

The oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, Tran Quoc Pagoda near the West Lake along with the smaller shrines around it filled up half a day then it was time to head towards the East side of the city to see the Old Quarter and Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem (Sword) Lake.SONY DSCSmack in the middle of this misty lake is a tiny island where its only occupant is the Turtle Tower.

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The Northern shore of the lake (close to the Old Quarter)  is the 18th century Ngoc Son Temple, located on Jade Island that is connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted Huc Bridge.

St Joseph Cathedral is towards the West of the lake and around the lake are old quarters filled with shops and restaurants.

SONY DSCIt was a grand walking tour around the city and the footpaths around the many lakes in Hanoi offered a great way to mingle with the locals. 

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Random observations:

  • The local girls love to keep their hair straight and long and let’s not forget their love for high heels.
  • Lots of local food stands especially around the lakes and tourist sites. They sell everything from fried snacks to drinks, fruits and tea.
  • More motorbikes than taxis and buses.
  • Since it was the New Year celebration, many people were busy with buying gifts such as plum and mandarin trees. The city was fairly empty as people celebrated the festival at home with their love ones.
  • Crossing the road in Vietnam is easy – walk slowly and decisively, don’t stop halfway and run only if you think you won’t get hit. Not an exercise for the faint-hearted.