Hanoi

Hanoi Hilton, Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

We decided to spend another day in Hanoi before taking a cruise along Halong Bay. We started the day weaving in and out of Hanoi’s motorbikes to make it to Hoa Lo Prison.

Hoa Lo Prison was built by French colonialists during 1900s and was used by the French to torture and interrogate political prisoners rallying for independence. The prison even had the guillotine on show that was used to execute prisoners. After Vietnam’s Independence from the French in 1954, the Hoa Lo Prison was actually then used by the Vietnamese to incarcerate American POWs who’d been shot down during bombing raids.

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The Hoa Lo Prison today tells a very different story of the treatment of the American POWs at the hands of the Northern Vietnamese. The prison denies any knowledge of any torture or interrogations of American POWs. The museum paints a very different picture with photos showing American POWs enjoying their stay at the prison. The photos had captions like’Americans making Christmas Dinner’, ‘American pilots listen to Ho Chi Minh’s speech’, ‘American pilots enjoy playing games in the yard’ and so forth. All the pictures suggest the prison was more like a hotel and the museum even goes on to how say American POWs called it the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
I found the prison a little disappointing with all its Hanoi Hilton propaganda and its inability to show both sides of the story.

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After the Hoa Lo Prison we walked to the Temple of Literature which is also Hanoi’s university. The Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius, who put a lot of emphasis on the importance of studying and scholarship. Like the lake yesterday, the Temple of Literature and the surrounding grounds were full of students in graduation gowns and traditional Vietnamese dress taking pre-graduation photos. I still can’t get my read around pre-graduation/weddings photos but hey!

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We then decided to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. I’d read in the guide book that despite Ho Chi Minh’s desire to be cremated, the Vietnamese buried him in the mausoleum. You can apparently spend 10 seconds in front of his preserved body in his glass casket. We heard the guards at the mausoleum were very strict: no bare flesh, no smiling, laughing or talking, you must be silent and walk in two lines, and hands can’t be in your pockets, nor can they be crossed. We thought it sounded like an interesting thing to go and see, but unfortunately I’d read the entrance times wrong and the mausoleum was closed!

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Next stop : Halong Bay!

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Hanoi Kids Club

After the Museum of Ethnology we headed back to our hotel as I’d arranged a free tour of the Old and French quarter of Hanoi with Hanoi Kids Club. The basic idea of Hanoi Kids Club is that students will give you a free tour of the city so that they can practise their English.

We were met by two lovely Vietnamese girls at our hotel and they took us to various sites. We started off at St. Joseph’s Cathedral which was built by the French and its style is meant to replicate Notre Dame in Paris. Visiting the cathedral prompted a conversation about religion and the girls explained that about 80% of Vietnamese people aren’t religious. I was really surprised by this because Thailand was so religious in comparison. The two girls said they were atheist and when I told them I was Catholic they had lots of questions about how often I went to church, whether I got in trouble if I didn’t go every week or if I had to give the church some of my salary.

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We then made our way to Hoan Kiem Lake or ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’ in English. They told us about the legend behind the lake’s mysterious name. Apparently emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake one day when the Golden Turtle God came to the surface and asked for his magic sword… Anyway there were loads of what looked like couples on their wedding days and students in graduation robes around the lake with photographers. I said to one of the girls that it must be their wedding day or something and she said:

‘Oh no! It’s not her wedding day. These are pre-wedding day pictures!’

The photographers were taking pre-wedding and pre-graduation pictures! The girls explained that you would then have these pictures on display at the wedding (or graduation party) for your family and friends to see. She was so surprised that we don’t have a ‘pre-wedding pictures’ tradition in England. She asked what English people show their guests at their weddings and couldn’t get her head around it.

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Seeing the couples and graduation robes prompted a conversation about what they were studying at university and their goals in life. One girl said she was studying accounting at university but said it was actually her parents’ decision. She said she would have liked to have studied tourism and become a tour guide but her parents had discouraged it. Her mum had told her that later in life it’s difficult to be a tour guide and a mother, whereas you can work part-time as an accountant, earn good money, and still be a good mother.

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We then went to the French Quarter of Hanoi and saw their version of Paris’s Opera. It wasn’t spectacular but it was nice all the same. We then went inside this swanky hotel called the Metropole which still had its bomb shelter from the Vietnamese war. It was a five star hotel and when we walked past prices for a day in the hotel’s spa, one of the girls was so shocked that the price was nearly the same as her mum’s monthly salary.

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I’m really glad we did the tour with Hanoi Kids Club because we definitely got a sense of what it was like to be a young person in Vietnam, and because they took us to this really cool cafe in this back alley with a really nice view of the lake. The two girls encouraged us to try the Vietnamese ‘Egg Coffee’ where egg whites are used to make the froth of the coffee. Apparently it had been invented by a bar tender at the Metropole Hotel during the Vietnamese war when a guest had asked for a Cappuccino but they had no fresh milk. The froth is made from egg whites and condensed milk, and it was actually quite nice!

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We were on the third floor of this cafe and on the way down we passed a room with an altar. They told us it was an ancestor altar and that you put pictures of dead family members, bowls of water and candles on it. It’s basically a shrine to them and you do it to maintain a good relationship with the dead. I asked the girls if they had an ancestor altar in their homes and they said yes, which surprised me because they said they weren’t religious! It seems like quite a religious or spiritual thing to do..

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Good Morning, Vietnam – Hanoi

After Chiang Mai we felt our time in Thailand had come to a natural end and decided it was time to move on to Vietnam. We booked a ‘sleeper bus’ back to Bangkok (which turned out just to be a normal coach for 12 hours) and then flew to Hanoi. After clearing immigration, I went to the cash point and finally got a taste of what it’s like to be a millionaire! I took out 2 million Vietnamese dong and it felt good!! We then made our way to the taxi rank where we were informed a taxi into the city would cost about 350,000 dong! :-(. We decided we’d be tight millionaires and took the bus with all the locals (we were the only westerners on the packed bus) for 7,000 dong each! Getting used to this new currency was definitely going to be interesting. (There’s about 35,000 dong to a pound).

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Good Morning, Vietnam!

We finally made it to our hostel which turned out to be a nice small budget hotel. After Chiang Mai where our room had no windows and plywood walls, we really welcomed a nice room with solid walls, air con and windows. It was like heaven for 6 dollars a night.

We spent the evening walking around Hanoi and boy it’s a crazy city. I think something like 2 out of 3 people own a motorbike in Hanoi – you need to be gutsy to cross the road here because there are very few traffic lights and no stop signs. Every time you cross the road in Hanoi, you’re taking a risk with your life! We then stopped at a little restaurant and had our first try of Vietnamese food. Kyle had some Vietnamese BBQd pork with noodles and I had some seafood spring rolls with noodles – it was delicious. After having Thai food for nearly a month, Vietnamese cuisine was like a breath of fresh air.

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The following day we spent the morning at the Museum of Ethnology, a museum dedicated to Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minorities. It was a really interesting place as they explained each different minority’s traditions and what they cultivated. However, it was really the models of their homes outside in the botanical garden which was the most interesting. It was really interesting to see a museum of this nature as we hadn’t encountered anything like this in Thailand.

Vietnam is really starting to tick all the boxes!

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