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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Hanoi, Vietnam

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 20 November 2012 | Views [1408]

Welcome to Hanoi! As the capital of Vietnam, this city is rich with history, culture, attractions and has an overall great atmosphere. We took an 8-hour overnight bus from Phong Nha Farmstay and rolled into the massive, exhaust-filled bus station around 7am. While Vietnam's roads are decades ahead of Cambodia's, this was still by no means an enjoyable experience. But that's the nature of travelling on the cheap!

After finding a centrally-located hotel and dropping off our bags with the front desk, we set off to explore. We decided to stay in the historic Old Quarter of the city- a sprawling tangle of back alleys, pop-up markets, specialty shops, and crumbling buildings. Dating to the 13th century, this is the oldest part of town and has been a central economic center for just as long. Specialized trade guilds were located along each street, which are still named for their crafts, so there is Cloth Street, Tinsmith Street, Fish Street, Leather Street, Hemp/Rope Street, Coffin Street, etc. Apparently Vietnamese residents say the Quarter has changed very little since the early 20th century, besides the constant cacophany of modern traffic added to the already boisterous mix. Just like the mazes of Venice or Montmartre, visitors are told to just wander the streets and let yourself get lost in the madness to truly appreciate the hectic beauty of this neighborhood.

Not only are the daily sights, sounds, and smells amplified here, but the tastes as well! We sampled delicious noodles, meats, and who knows what at countless street food stalls. One woman beckoned us in and with a big smile but without a word placed two steaming bowls of her speciality noodle dish in front of us (like many little shops, one special dish was the only thing she served- no need to order!). It was unbelievably good and we were completely full by the bottom of the bowl. When we had finished she presented us with the bill- $3. Heaven!

Our Vietnamese grandma who insisted on feeding us!
Our Vietnamese grandma who insisted on feeding us!

We also discovered one of the coolest little coffee shops in the city (thanks to a mention in our Lonely Planet guide!) Completely hidden from the outside world, it can only be reached by going through a random tailor shop. In the back is a door to a long, dark passageway. We followed the passage until we reached a beautiful little courtyard full of plants, fountains, and statues- like something out of The Secret Garden! A young girl stood at the back of the courtyard, beside a staircase. She held a coffee menu, we pointed to what we wanted, and then she beckoned us to go up the stairs. We climbed two stories and came to a spiral staircase... up we went until, out of breath, we reached the rooftop of this crumbling building and what should we see, but a dozen or so rickety tables overlooking all of Hanoi's Old Quarter and the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. What a magical place! We had coffee up here twice, including their specialty of coffee with a beaten egg on top, and felt like we were on top of the world.

The secret passage to the rooftop coffee shop
The secret passage to the rooftop coffee shop

Enjoying the view from the secret rooftop coffee shop
Loving the views from the secret rooftop coffee shop

Perhaps the other best part of the Old Quarter is the nightlife! And no, we don't mean bars and clubs like one finds in the States. Hanoi is all about the street scene. In the evening the sidewalks transform into makeshift watering holes. Out of nowhere, a door opens or a food cart rolls up, newly-brewed kegs of Bia Hoi, or "Fresh Beer," are produced, and thousands of colorful mini plastic chairs are set out. The streets swarm with locals and tourists alike, sitting with their knees almost up to their chests on these tiny seats, all enjoying a cold brew for the bargain price of 25 cents per glass. The proprietors of these sidewalk bars seem to violate the laws of physics by creating space for new seats/customers where before there was none. Several times as we'd hesitate near a place that looked invitingly rowdy but overly crowded we'd be approached with big smiles and cries of "Beer here!" "Yes! Come sit!" and before we knew it we'd be rubbing elbows with the rest of the crowd in little chairs produced out of thin air. Often these sidewalk bars just spill out into the street itself to accomodate everyone, making for a thrilling-but-disconcerting experience of having all of the zooming motorbikes streaming right past your head. If one bar ran out of beer, everyone would just move over about 10 feet to the next one! This went on all night until nothing but drops were left in that day's kegs. Repeat that every night and you get the picture- what a fun place! You just had to be careful to watch your intake since it's easy to get out of control at 25 cents a glass.

Enjoying Hanoi street food/beer
Enjoying Hanoi Street Food/Beer

Just south of the Old Quarter is the Hoan Kiem Lake, and it is said that the Quarter resembles a tree sprouting from the cool waters of the lake. The lake plays an important role in the city's legendary history- it's name means "Lake of the Returned Sword." There is a Vietnamese legend that the great Emporer Le Loi went to the lake to pray for help defeating the Chinese, who had invaded and occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years. A giant tortoise emerged and presented a magical sword to the emporer, with which he led his armies to victory and expelled the Chinese. Afterwards the Emporer came back to the lake and threw the sword back in, as it had served its purpose. It is said that ever since the sword has been guarded by the tortoises of the lake, and in fact there is a species of giant tortoise UNIQUE to this little lake that lives here! Sadly, due to the fact that the lake is in the middle of a massive metropolis and people poached these tortoises, there is only one still alive today. There is a little pagoda dedicated to the tortoises on a small island within the lake, as well as a large temple set in the middle of the lake. Named the Ngoc Son Temple ("Jade Mountain Temple"), it is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a Vietnamese hero who defeated a force of 300,000 invading Monguls sent by Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. The temple is said to date to the 14th century and is connected to the shore by The Huc Bridge, which translates to "Flood of Morning Sunlight". The most interesting thing about the temple is actually the stuffed giant tortoise on display in one of its back rooms!

Giant Huan Kiem Lake tortoise!
Hello giant Hoan Kiem Lake tortoise!

Other sites we caught in Hanoi were the National Museum of Vietnamese History which is full of art and artifacts respresenting the full spectrum of Vietnam's turbulent history, as well as the Ho Chi Minh government/residential complex. This is where "Uncle Ho" (First President and founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) resided and where the Northern Vietnamese government was based after the revolution from the French (the seeds of which were sewn by the guild workers of the Old Quarter). It would be a peaceful place to visit, if not for the endless crowds and lines and jostling and security. Still, it is a must-see for anyone new to Hanoi. It consists of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Museum, One Pillar Pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh's Residence compound, since he refused to live in the massive French-built palace. The Vietnamese government reviews and censors blogs written about the country, even after travellers are already back from their journeys, so we will suffice it to say that it was all very impressive and patriotic. It felt similar to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. After extensive security and dress code checkpoints, we were allowed to shuffle in line through the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh's preserved body lies in state. Then we shuffled in line past his house. Then we observed the presidential palace from afar (it was not open to the public).

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Finally the museum-- what a place! Built in 1990, it's a beautiful modern building with two big floors of exhibits. However, stepping into those exhibits felt like falling through the Looking Glass into Willy Wonka's version of Oz. See the photos for examples. We could not make head nor tale of what the message was really about, and from our observations, neither could the Vietnamese visitors. Sarah's best guess is that several different curators/artists interpreted significant events in Ho Chi Minh's life and/or in the 20th century and then created their own artistic interpretation to symbolically represent them and thereby show the modern history of Vietnam. Confused? Yeah, us too. It was definitely interesting from a Museum Studies point of view!

 The beautiful but confusing Ho Chi Minh Museum
The beautiful but confusing Ho Chi Minh Museum

 A final highlight was the traditional show we caught at Hanoi's water puppet theater. Quite the unique experience! Traditional singers and musicians perform while the puppeteers uphold this ancient artistic tradition. The art of water puppetry originated in villages and rice paddies that would flood during the wet season and over the centuries turned into a form of high performance art. The puppeteers stand behind screens and operate the puppets via long underwater poles so that it appears they are just floating unassisted on the water. They performed about a dozen traditional song routines with different puppets for each- one was about a fisherman and tricky fish, one about collecting coconuts, one about planting and harvesting rice, etc. Even though nothing was translated into English, it was great fun to watch!

Water Puppet Show
Water Puppet Show

After several happy days in Hanoi we met up with Sam (Joe's brother) again to travel together to our next spectacular destination: Ha Long Bay! Coming soon!

Huc Bridge, Hanoi

Huc Bridge, Hanoi

Tags: hanoi, ho chi minh, hoan kiem lake, markets, mausoleum, museum, old quarter, street food, vietnam, water puppet

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