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Hanoi, the Capital of Vietnam - love it or hate it?

VIETNAM | Wednesday, 30 July 2008 | Views [1457]

From Hue, on to Hanoi, which is very similar to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon in the south of Vietnam. That is not to say that there are no differences however. I would say that Hanoi has certainly made more of an effort not to erode the precious green spaces and lakes that are scattered around the districts. Compared to Saigon, Hanoi is a small city of broad, tree-lined boulevards, lakes, parks, weathered colonial buildings, and some of the nicest hotels in Southeast Asia.

The area in which I was staying was called the Old Quarter, just north of the Hoan Kiem Lake (I swear, it seems like every city in Vietnam needs to have some sort of 'Old Quarter'). Between my hotel and the lake are a maze of narrow streets packed with small shops selling their souvenirs and wares, as well as a number of tour operators seeking to cash in on the rising tourism.

I went to see some of the must-sees of the city, according to people that I have met and of course the guidebooks (where would I be without them...kidding).

First-off, I went for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is an oasis of tranquility amidst the horns of traffic rushing by. It's a fairly big lake, so it took me about 30-40mins to walk all the walk around. The lake is named after an incident that ocvcurred during the 15th century. The Arthurian-like legend goes as follows: Emperor Le Thai To, following a momentous vistory against an army of invading Ming Chinese, was sailing on the Lake when a golden turtle appeared from the depths to take back the charmed sword which had secured the victory and restore it to the Lake from whence it came.

I also went to the infamous water-puppet theatre. It was a 45-minute show which recounted some Vietnamese stories/legends - but I must say that after I while I was a bit bored. Maybe it would have been more interesting if I had known the stories beforehand, so that I could properly understand them. More enjoyable, I thought, was the traditional orchestra which played on an elevated platform in full view of the audience.

Then I went to the Temple of Literature. Now, I am fairly bored of temples now. I know that I shouldn't be, but in every town I have been to I make an effort to go to the temples. I try to understand the ideas underlying the architectural themes and sculptures, but now they all have begun to look the same. I am no longer surprised or curious, it is sad to say. But the Temple of Literature caught me on the back-foot. I was not prepared to like it as much as I did. The temple is dedicated to Confucius, and it became the intellectual and spiritual centre of the kingdom as a cult of literature and education spread through the region. I guess I enjoyed it so much because this temple, unlike so many I have been to so far, was not a Buddhist temple or a Khmer temple, it was something new and unique.

Having been bitten by the motorbike bug, I decided to step up the challenge. I rented a manual motorbike, and wanted to see whether I could manage to motorcycle around the city which is full of traffic (like Saigon, but maybe a bit less so).

So I zipped off in search of Hoa Lo Prison (more often than not I ended up going round in circles). Hoa Lo Prisoin, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, is the prison where American POWs were incarcerated, some for 6 years, after the Vietnamese War.

The other big attraction in Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. I can't remember if I explained who Ho Chi Minh was already, so just a recap: Ho Chi Minh is regarded as the father of modern-day Vietnam. He headed up the Viet Minh independence movement from 1941 onwards, establishing the communist-governed Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. As a consequence of his influential role (Time magazine named him as one of the most influential people in the 20th century), his body was emblamed and put on eternal display for the world to queue up and see. Everyone files in pairs into the refrigerated room where the body is kept, no talking and no straying from the path. Besides the body, soldiers stand at attention.

Personally, I thought it looked like a wax-work model from Madame Tussauds. But who really knows.

The Ho Chi Minh Museum was so boring that it is hardly worth commenting on.

View from the end of a lake in one of the parks in Hanoi.

View from the end of a lake in one of the parks in Hanoi.

Tags: cruise, halong bay, hanoi, sapa, trek

 

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