The next stop on our trip was Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and home to 6.5 million people. As the plane descended upon the sprawling city an un-erasable grayish haze appeared beneath the clouds. And so the rainy season had finally caught up with us – it rained with purpose during our first night.
By morning the rain was gone but heavy humidity greeted us as we embarked on a walking tour of the city. We identified a few key sights which turned out to be within walking distance from our hotel (located in the Old Quarter). We started with the “can’t-miss” Ho Chi Minh complex which comprises a museum (dedicated to him), one of his houses, the mausoleum and other landmarks. Unfortunately the embalmed body of Uncle Ho (as he is referred to here), was not in the mausoleum – it gets sent to Russia each year between Sept – Dec for maintenance. The museum housed a rich exhibit on Nguyen Sinh Cung (Ho Chi Minh before he adopted his new name which means “bringer of light”). The man lived a long and interesting life – he spoke several languages – studied/lived abroad in various countries and when he returned to Vietnam after 30 years, he became the leader of the communist party and liberator of the country from colonial rule (the French had colonized Vietnam in the late 1800s). He ruled the country until his death in 1969 so he was not alive by the time the Vietnam War’s ceasefire was declared in 1973 (and US forces pulled out). But his dream of a re-unified Vietnam prevailed. And today his face is just about everywhere and on everything around here.
From the museum we made our way to the Van Mieu (or Temple of Literature), the oldest university in the country (11th century) which was preserved beautifully. Temple-like buildings festooned with numerous mythical and religious characters and relics made up the complex.
After a delicious lunch at Koto (right across the street from Van Mieu), we carefully walked around town for a bit before visiting the Hoa Lo prison or the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (as it became known during the Vietnam War). Carefully, as in dodging a swarm of motorbikes (from every direction), which seemed to cover every inch of the streets and at times sidewalks (and of course without conforming to any “conventional” traffic law). Crossing a typical street in Hanoi became a skill requiring a combination of slow calculated baby steps and intermittent pauses until reaching the other side. No hesitation, otherwise you’re toast! The Hoa Lo prison museum was interesting in depicting the severe hardships and exterminations endured by Vietnamese prisoners (or revolutionaries), under French rule. Only a segment of the prison remains today but its walls speak of its dark past. There were also two rooms highlighting the “best living conditions” of US fighter pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam War and detained here. One of the rooms included John McCain’s pilot outfit (helmet, boots and all). Ironically the prison got dubbed “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs whose unfortunate stories of unimaginable torture and death were not depicted at all. Instead the associating pictures and commentary served as ludicrous propaganda depicting US servicemen playing basketball and chess, eating, decorating a Christmas tree, with all of them sporting Kool Aid smiles while in captivity (leaving us to wonder how many people would actually buy into that).
One thing remained on our agenda for the day/night – the water puppet show. The traditional show dates to the 11th century and is a very popular attraction combining Vietnamese music with allegories of country life and culture. All this was told through puppets elaborately performing on a water stage (or mini pool) – making for an entertaining hour.
The next morning would see us on a day tour to Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam’s natural splendors that’s competing to become one of the New 7 Wonders of the world. Doing a day trip from Hanoi was a little ambitious as the round-trip bus ride ate up half our day. Nonetheless we were still able to squeeze in several hours of boating around Ha Long Bay’s beautiful islands (more like rock formations rising from the sea). This unforgettable seascape seemed to extend indefinitely into the horizon, what a breathtaking view! We got to kayak around some of the rock formations and also explored the Thien Cung cave which added some adventure to the easy going boat ride. Even the sun was out in full form radiating our afternoon which afforded us some cool pictures. By the time we got back to our hotel it was past 8pm and the rain had started to dance once again.
The following day was our last in Hanoi. We decided to walk around the Old Quarter and enjoy the bustling streets once again. The city definitely beats to its own drum – street vendors were everywhere vying for their next customer and so were the infinite motorbikes zig-zagging through traffic like bees in a hornet’s nest (as Brigitte put it). The visual intrigue then gave way to the audio, a cacophony of sounds maestro’d by the unabating honking of any vehicle with a functioning horn. Sitting at a cafe and taking it all in was defining of our ventures around Hanoi. Among the other notable sights we covered were the Ngoc Son Temple (on Lake Hoan Kiem), and St. Joseph’s Cathedral, both conforming to Hanoi’s incredible contrasts yet blessing the city with enormous cultural richness and diversity.
By evening we rolled back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and jumped on the 7pm overnight train south to Hoi An (a 16-hour journey).