Vietnam 2010

A whistle-stop trip from north to south (and a hop next door)

DAYS 1-3: HANOI

Posted by activeafrica on February 12, 2010

DAY 1

I left Cape Town on January 22nd feeling thoroughly exhausted after Christmas with the family (3 kids under 10), a Christmas season private tour and its pre-trip and then 10 days of hosting aforementioned family in the Cape, all off the back of a busy tour season at the end of last year. In fact, the last thing I needed was to be travelling to a foreign country to spend 2 weeks chasing from one new experience to the next. “Get some rest before you come, cos our itinerary is hectic…” These important words were buried deep in one of the many emails Chris sent before I left. And it was precisely because I had not been able to comply with these instructions that I found myself waking from a doze somewhere over the Indian Ocean, sometime on the date/time continuum, sweating and gasping with anxiety and wondering what the hell I was doing back in the air for the seventh time in four weeks.

Hanoi was rainy and cool when we landed and the bureaucrats at the visa counter didn’t arouse warm and fuzzy feelings about the country. But the process was slick and 30 minutes and $50 later, I was the proud recipient of a multiple entry visa. Next stop, baggage hall. As the 5th last person out of the immigration hall, I assumed that my bag would be one of a few lone items awaiting collection from the conveyor. Instead, a crowd three rows deep was gathered around a single conveyor which appeared to be servicing three flights. Luggage was being disgorged at a rate of 3 bags every 30 seconds. A further 30 minutes later, the crowd had thinned, the baggage discharge had slowed and the SQ flight had disappeared from the board above the conveyor. My palms were beginning to sweat and my heart rate was increasing and the only comfort came from two strangers opposite, whom I recognized from my flight and who appeared to be suffering the same pending lost baggage anxiety as I. Since it was a half-full duffel weighing 7.5kg, I figured there wasn’t much to lose and I could get away with not having it and was just starting to adopted a resigned feeling towards it, when a lonely, crumpled figure appeared on the conveyor.

Bag in hand (it really was that light), I made my way to the arrivals hall. In the heaving sea of faces, it was easy to spot the one mlungu in the crowd; tall, bald, big-nosed and watery-eyed (aaahhh…..). Chris had arranged a taxi from the hotel and he was waiting for us as we left the terminal. The ride into Hanoi was an unexpected delight. Although the day was grey, the city was vibrant and colourful as it prepared for Tet (14-17 Feb 2010). Although I was aware of the many mopeds on the roads, I wasn’t prepared for quite how many there were. But after many years of gazing out of taxis and shuttles into Nairobi and Cairo traffic, the drive through Hanoi was a pleasure.

Typically, we try to cover as much ground as we can in our travels, which means hitting the ground running and this was no exception. We arrived at the Church hotel in Hoan Kiem district and went straight to La Place for my introduction to phở. At around $1, a bowl of phở ga (essentially chicken broth) and a bottle of Hanoi beer (another $1) proved the perfect pick-me-up after 20 hours of flying and we were ready to pound the streets. A couple of hours of exploring before we returned to the hotel for a shower and email check and then it was off to Tandoor for dinner. Chris had found this cute little Indian resto during his stay in Hanoi and we decided it was a good spot for dinner. As usual, eyes bigger than stomachs and we left feeling like engorged ticks, but the paneer curry was perfect for me and Chris’s vindaloo was a welcome break from the local food he had been eating for almost 2 months…. And the perfect accompaniment? …the Hanoi beer…

DAY 2

We started the day with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. This is a must-do whilst in Hanoi. Uncle Ho (as he is affectionately called..) is to Vietnam what Nelson Mandela is to us and Nasser was to the Egyptians – although I hasten to emphasise the profound differences in their policies and ideologies!

The Ho Chi Minh museum complex is located in the Ba Dinh district, a comfortable walk from Hoan Kiem District. This was my first experience of communist crowd control. All bags are left at the entrance to the complex, then visitors walk down a covered path to wait at an unmarked spot (Vietnamese visitors seem to just know to stop here; foreigners are left gazing bewilderedly around them). We were then marched to the mausoleum building where we stopped again and deposited our cameras at another booth. As South Africans, imagine the concern with being separated from our backpack at one spot and camera at another spot at least 200m from the first. No one seemed to think it strange, so we complied – actually we had no choice, so we sucked it up..

At the entrance to the mausoleum, we had to get into single file as we walked inside. And here’s where it gets funny.. The place is filled with guards in virgin white uniforms, all standing to somber attention in the dark, austere building. Visitors walk steadily up the stairs, along the corridor and turn a corner and there he lies in a glass sarcophagus. Uncle Ho looks peaceful, his thin, white hair sleek against his head and his long white beard lying tidily down his chest. As we were filing past the sarcophagus (under no circumstances can one stop walking), I heard Chris snigger behind me. He had been walking with his hands behind his back and one of the guards had gestured vigorously to him to put his hands at his sides. The visit took all of 15 seconds. We had paid our respects and it was time to see the rest of the complex. As we left we were discussing the mausoleum. Apparently there had been some question about whether or not that was actually Ho Chi Minh’s body. He had requested to be cremated and his ashes scattered between the north and south of the country. The communist government had, instead, embalmed the body and left it lying in state. There has been some suggestion that his wishes had been granted and that we had paid our respects to a wax figure. But then you hear other stories about his body being sent to Moscow for a dust-off every year. It all makes for interesting discussion, but it would be good to know that his request was respected and the body in the mausoleum is a Madame Tossauds creation.

On the way out, we were directed to collect our cameras which had miraculously made their way there from the ‘way in’. Suitably armed, we made our way to Uncle Ho’s house and this is where I gained an appreciation for a man about whom I knew nothing except what I had seen in movies like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon (Click here for a brief account of Ho’s leadership in reuniting Vietnam).

The Ho Chi Minh House complex is characterized by manicured gardens and impressive French architecture. The palace which housed the French Governor of Indochina was never occupied by Ho Chi Minh. Rather, he lived in a spartan brick building from 1954 to 1958 and then moved into a wooden house on stilts where he lived from 1958 until just before his death in 1969. Visitors can see into the bedroom, dining room and working room of the brick house and in all cases, the simplicity of Ho’s life is evident.

The area is a pretty, peaceful haven in the middle of bustling Hanoi, but since we arrived shortly before the lunch closing time, we were unceremoniously hustled out of the area at precisely 11.30, a rather sharp invasion of our relaxed appreciation of the gardens, the koi pond and orchard.

The Ho Chi Minh museum was also closed for lunch so we made our way to the Temple of Literature. Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam was dedicated to sages and Confucian scholars and provided a training base for talented men. For nearly 1000 years it has preserved its ancient architectural style and precious relics. Today Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam is one of the most important historical and architectural sites in Vietnam. Van Mieu was built in the autumn of the year Canh Tuat, the second year of Than Vu (1070) in the 8th lunar month, under the reign of King Ly Thanh Tong as the first national university of Vietnam. Even today, the complex is the centre of cultural and scientific activities while also offering historical insight into Confucian teachings to both local and foreign tourists.

A quick lunch at a Pho 24, a fast food chain offering quick, basic Vietnamese dishes, revived a wilting husband and it was on to the Musuem of Fine Arts, a beautiful old 3-story building, packed with art representing the cultural heritage of Vietnam.

The building dates to 1930s, built by the French as a school for the daughters of Indochina’s colonial rulers’. In 1962, the government requested the Ministry of Culture to transform the building to include Vietnamese ornamental details from the traditional architecture of a communal house. On June 26, 1966 the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum was officially inaugurated with the total area of 4200 m2, 1200m2 of which is available for exhibition.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the museum, taking in everything from Buddhist iconic art and temple artifacts to minority tribal garments, hard-hitting protest art from both Indochina wars and communist propaganda. A definite winner!

The museum closed at 5pm and we were amongst the last to leave. We headed back to the hotel for a shower before dinner and as we passed St Joseph’s Catholic cathedral, the doors were open so we decided to peek inside. As a ‘reformed’ Catholic, it’s always appealing to spend some time in Catholic churches elsewhere in the world, especially in countries to which Catholicism was imported. And this was a stop worth making. It was Sunday evening and people were slowly drifting into the pews. Chris and I sat near the front, taking in the overwhelming array of icons, alters and flower arrangements (it was only weeks before Tet). Very soon, a group of elderly ladies started to sing the rosary at the front of the church. Another group behind us followed them, and the two groups alternated Hail Marys while everyone sang the Our Fathers. We must have sat there for close to 30 minutes, listening and watching (and scowling at a group of gringo tourists who marched in, took several photos – with flash – asked their guide questions in loud voices and exited just as loudly). By the time we left, the church was filling up and I noticed folding chairs piled up against the back wall. The cathedral is huge and I couldn’t imagine that they would ever use the extra chairs – it certainly didn’t look as if they would be needed that night.

So we returned to our hotel which was just down the road, had a shower, Chris had a power nap and we left again around 7.30pm for dinner. When we came out of the hotel, the Mass had started and I was stunned by what I saw. The whole concourse around the cathedral was heaving with people and the crowd was spilling down the stairs and into the road. In fact, there was no traffic on the road past the cathedral because it was too choked with people. There were large plasma TVs on either side of the door, broadcasting the Mass (interestingly, it was being sung) and people were still arriving. I guess it’s not surprising given that nearly 7% of the population is Catholic. I guess they used those extra chairs after all.

We had dinner at Quan An Ngon, a lively local restaurant in the Hoan Kiem district. Chris had been there previously and had made it a must-do on our trip together. It certainly didn’t disappoint. We sat in the food court part of the restaurant, on low tables, close to the food vendors. The layout of the restaurant is unusual, but very compelling. The centre is a formal restaurant where most of the tourists appeared to be. Then the rest of the inner space is filled with large bench-type tables and right around the edge are the vendors, all of whom offer something different. The large, comprehensive menu is offered in Vietnamese and English so there shouldn’t be too many surprises. To accompany our Hanoi beers, we ordered the beef salad (Fabulous!), pork and vegetable spring rolls and the Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese pancake, stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts and served with mustard leaves, other greens including lettuce, basil or mint and dipped in a fish sauce derivative. Traditionally a southern dish, there are variations on this theme throughout the country. We ate ours with rice paper in Hanoi, although this wasn’t part of the dish we ate in the south. Chris finished off with some caphe sua (Vietnamese espresso served with condensed milk) and I decided to try something different…. So I ordered che, a concoction of glutinous rice, tapioca pearls and coconut milk (I only discovered this when I tasted it..!) with lotus seeds. Best described as .. interesting…, probably the most difficult thing about the dessert was the texture – like drinking a huge glass of bad ‘flu secretions…

Having spent far less than we expected on dinner, we made our way to the Metropole Hotel for aperitifs and a bit of jazz. Chris’s mojito and my (yummy) hot chocolate set us back $15, reminding us that 5* hotels are the same anywhere in the world.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Presidential Palace

Brick house where Ho Chi Minh lived 1954 - 1958

House on stilts where Ho Chi Minh lived from 1958 - 1969

DAY 3

One thing we did get wrong was not paying attention to the opening and closing times of the museums in Hanoi. All seem to be closed on Mondays and Day 3 happened to fall on such a day. We had not really planned the three Hanoi days and had assumed we could visit all the museums over the 3 days we were there. Imagine our dismay when we realized that the War Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum which we had not had time to see the previous 2 days were closed on our last day in the city. Chris had been waxing lyrical about going to the war museum and we were both really keen to visit it, but that will have to wait for the next trip.

We checked out of the hotel after breakfast, stored our bags and headed for Hoa Lo Prison, unaffectionately called the Hanoi Hilton by US POWs during the Vietnam War. The prison gained its name from the street on which it stands. Hoa Lo means ‘stove’ and prior to the French colonial invasion ,the street was filled with stores selling wood-fired stoves. The prison was built by the French in 1901 and was used to detain and torture political prisoners and resistance agitators.

A large chunk of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high rise next door (and ironically, there is a Hilton hotel on the next corner..). With an entry fee of 10 000 dong (+/- 50c!), the prison is a must-see, even if you don’t want to see it all. One thing I have noticed about the tourist sites in Vietnam is that difficult and controversial subjects, like the Indochina Wars and French colonization are showcased with exquisitely compelling bias. The Hao Lo prison is no exception. The first several dioramas describe the torturous atrocities committed by the French on captives from the resistance movements, with detailed biographies and photographs of many of the victims. There is no doubt in my mind that captives were abused and persecuted in the most horrific ways – the guillotine and rows of stocks are pretty good indicators of that. But move along to the rooms showcasing the capture and detention of US POWs and the sense of magnanimity and evenhandedness of the North Vietnamese towards their invader prisoners is overwhelming and solidly convincing. Personal accounts of their detention have been made public by former US prisoners, including that by John McCain and these suggest that their treatment was anything but evenhanded prior to 1969. Of course in war, the truth is always a somewhat obscured blend of both sides’ versions. Original footage and photographs of US POWs, personal effects and John McCain’s flight suit are all part of a highly entertaining and informative (provided one’s personal propaganda filter is engaged) visit.

We had the rest of the day to kill before catching our train that evening, so we wandered the streets back toward Hoan Kiem lake. Lunch at Café 38 on Hang Hanh was a rather delicious selection of Bun cha (grilled minced pork patties served with noodles, leaves, sprouts and a dipping sauce) and Rau xao dau phu (tofu and stir-fried veg, served with rice).

We decided (again too late) to try to catch a Vietnamese water puppets show, but all remaining shows for the day were full (add to list for next visit), so we made for the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake.

The lake is a central part of the city and a sacred place for Hanoians who believe that in the 15th century, the gods gave Emperor Le Thai Tho a magical sword with which he was able to defeat the Chinese invaders. One day, while boating on the lake, a giant turtle rose out of the lake, grabbed the sword and disappeared into the lake, returning the sword to the gods and creating peace in the kingdom. To this day, good fortune is bestowed on anyone who spots a turtle in the lake. We’re waiting for ours to manifest after Chris caught a good view of the old boy one day while walking along the banks of the lake…..

So even though Ngoc Son Temple is a fairly busy tourist stop (we were overwhelmed by Frenchies), it was tranquil and beautiful and a good place to stop and people-watch for a while.

Our touring done for the day, we left the lake and walked back to the Church hotel to collect our bags before heading for the station. A quick, forgettable bite of fries and tiramisu at Café Mocha masqueraded as dinner and we caught a taxi to the station.

A brief spell of confusion with our travel vouchers cost us $5 in tips when some opportunistic little snot insisted on validating them for us, with BS stories of taxi rides and bribes. Fortunately one of his colleagues had an attack of conscience and led us to the train. Our own fault for not checking before we arrived at the station….

Chris had arranged our train tickets through Viet Orient Tours and for $200 per person, we had a 4-sleeper compartment in a private deluxe carriage to ourselves on the King Express. We left Hanoi around 8.30pm and headed for Lao Cai on the Chinese border.

For further travel info and detail on the restaurants and places visited, please see the LOGISTICS and TRAVEL INFO PAGE

Bridge of the Sun (Huc) leading to Ngoc Son temple

Inside Hoa Lo prison

Stupas for King Ly Thanh Tong (L) and King Ly Nhan Tong (R) - Temple of Literature

Street food - a bewildering array of shellfish and seafood

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