Hanoi 2011 – Vesak Day

This was our second trip to Vietnam but Hanoi was very different from our first foray to Ho Chi Minh City. It is hard to describe to people who have never been to Asia but Hanoi just felt more relaxing despite other Australian, British, and Americans we met as describing it as too hectic and slightly more chaotic than they had expected. The calmness of the place probably had something to do with the lack of major commerce going on here, the relative deficiency of high rise modem buildings, but I think also a year living in Asia has made us more immune to the chaos than other travelers. That being said Vietnam has more commotion than Laos, especially when in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.

The weekend was a whirlwind of sights in Hanoi, good Vietnamese food, long bus rides to and from Halong Bay and some fresh 25 cent beer.

In Hanoi we only spent about one full day but got to see the following:

Ho Lao Prison (Better known to Americans as the infamous Hanoi Hilton) – only about 25% of the prison complex is left standing as the remainder has been taken over by development of malls and commercial buildings. However, this was a very interesting place to see as it gave a decent history of prison use from French colonial times through the Vietnam-US war. Similar to other historical sights it provided a very propaganda oriented view of the war. They did reiterate how good they were to US soldiers in the prison and how much US soldiers enjoyed it there (half truth or less?). It was slightly depressing but overall fascinating.

Ho Chi Minh Museum and Complex – the museum, mausoleum, and palace grounds of Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as he is known to many was an intriguing place to wonder. It was an odd museum, laid out to venerate Ho Chi Minh more than educate people. It had a great collection of letters and random trinkets but they were not explained that well except to say that they were from Ho Chi Minh and therefore had to be important. Carrie hated this museum while I found the uniqueness captivating.

Carrie in front of the Mausoleum

One Pillar Pagoda – this was next to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and is a must see. It is a Pagoda perched atop a pillar with a simple staircase up to the top. It was intricately carved and had some great twinkle lights inside and a light up Buddha. Very uncharacteristic of other pagodas but fun.

One Pillar Pagoda and Prayer Flags

Temple of Literature – this was originally a Confucius college where people would come to learn about the teachings of Confucius among other things. It really was an old college. It was interesting to see the graduating classes were carved on stone tablets set atop turtles. It was mesmerizing also to see the Chinese tour group carving characters in the air for good luck in the temple here. We really enjoyed touring the grounds here as the gardens and ponds provided a distinctive respite from the sounds of modem society flying by right outside.

Ngoc Son Temple – On Hoan Kiem Lake near our guesthouse there was a lot to see in the way of people walking around the lake, people doing Tai Chi, and others just sitting and enjoying the water. However, the most attractive part was the Ngoc Son Temple that you reach by crossing a picturesque bridge. Inside the temple were people praying, a taxidermy tortoise that symbolizes good luck, and numerous places to just sit and relax in the coolness of the lake. It was nice to see locals just being local and very reflective to see all the people praying for good luck, money, and health among all the other things.

Yes this is a real tortoise that was made into Taxidermy

Otherwise in Hanoi we spent out time eating, shopping, and drinking. Hanoi is known for Fresh Beer (“Bia Hoi”) which was 5,000 Vietnamese Dong or for those keeping score approximately 25 US cents. The beer itself is only about 3% alcohol and has a unique rice/straw like flavor; overall it is very light but satisfyingly refreshing.

Also, for the price you can drink a lot of beer, which we did, at least until the police came to break up the street party. They seemed a little unhappy that the bar had crept too far out onto the street, as all the Bia Hoi joints are sidewalk/street places where you sit on plastic stools and enjoy the street level views. We were happy to indulge in this ritual both nights we were in Hanoi.

Bia Hoi – straight from the keg – with a hose

The meals we had were great and reaffirmed my love of Vietnamese food. We ate a variety of dishes at Newsday Restaurant, where the kitchen seems to be open air even though the restaurant itself is enclosed. The food was all good with some friend spring rolls and tamarind chicken as the stand outs. I would also highly recommend the bun cha (grilled pork patties) and deep fried crispy crab spring rolls served with herbs and rice noodles at 1 Hang Manh Street. The 1 Hang Manh St location is not for the faint of heart though as it is pretty much street food and the staff speaks no English (luckily they only serve one dish so you just hold up the number of fingers to coincide with the number of diners). This was a great local place where we sat next to a three year old (I think) that was fascinated by the white foreigners (“us”).

Bun Cha – so yummy

The shopping was also fantastic with a highlight of silks, wicker ware, lacquer ware, and a variety of other interesting finds. We didn’t buy that much but seeing the colors was fascinating. We also got to wander through some local markets and as always in Vietnam we really felt like we were in a very foreign but yet friendly place. The smells, the sounds, and the people are pretty much how you imagine Indochina to be.

Next post Halong Bay.

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