From the moment we touched down in Hanoi, it was apparent that our time in Vietnam was going to be drastically different from our days spent in Luang Prabang. Laos provided a snail-paced, relaxed setting to settle into the realization that this travel was for the long haul (It also marked the end of my week-long bout with traveler’s stomach, but Isabel tells me that those details are neither welcomed nor needed here). Hanoi was to be the exact opposite, and as soon as we arrived, I absolutely loved it.
Once we grabbed our bags off the carousel and stepped outside the airport, we were greeted by a young man holding a sign with our names on it – this was our ride to our hotel. Immediately after the doors closed, he darted off down a one-way ramp in the wrong direction, spun a sharp turn, and zoomed around countless motor-bikes on the way to the heart of the city. We sat in silence as our eyes were plastered to the windows (I later learned, once we got out at our hotel, that Isabel was focusing all her energy on not throwing up during the drive).
I could not get over the amount of motor-bikes, and the randomness with which they were operating. Every day I would continue to re-learn and experience that Vietnamese ride their motor-bikes everywhere. By that, I don’t just mean they are plentiful and are the major mode of transportation. I’m talking both the right side of the road and the left side, straight down the middle of the street and up and down the sidewalk. Sidewalks have literally become parking lots for bikes. “But Mark, where are pedestrians supposed to walk?,” you may find yourself asking. Why, in the street, of course! Stick to the shoulder, and have faith that the people zipping by don’t clip you. We saw and were part of so many close calls, and I’m blown away to report we didn’t see any collisions. Though the craziest thing that still gets me every time is when we’re passed by a family of four all squeezed onto one motor-bike (unfortunately, not pictured).
Our hotel, turns out, was in a perfect location (#humblebrag). We were situated right in the center of the Old Quarter, a five minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, plus right in the thick of the best food, and countless bars (a younger me would have appreciated and taken advantage of the latter). So far, most of the places we’ve stayed at have been in amazing locations, walking distance from exactly where we’d want to be. Time and time again, it’s reinforced to us how crucial that is. It’s been down to the research that I did before booking, but as these are all places I’ve never been before, we have to consider ourselves both grateful and a little lucky.
That first night, we dropped our things off in our room, and set out for street food. Isabel found a hot spot just a couple blocks away called New Day. We sat on plastic stools no more than 8″ off the ground, and ate on equally low-to-the-ground folding card tables, set up in the street. And the food was delicious. Motor-bikes zoomed right next to us, in both directions. A woman set up a fruit stand in the middle of the street, forcing traffic to swerve around her. My head was on a swivel the entire time, not being nervous, just taking it all in. The architecture, the signage, the crowds, the large decorated trees sprouting sporadically … I was falling in love with Hanoi immediately.
We spent our days as we’ve always done, exploring by foot. We’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm of casually planning the night before, or even the morning of, two or three points of interest and recommended food options along the way. And so far it’s really worked for us! I keep reminding myself that we’re not traveling for a week or two; there’s no reason to pack in every waking hour, and see every single thing. We’re traveling for a long time and are going to visit a lot of different places. Up until now, the sites have largely consisted of wats, temples and stupas. Hanoi is a much more modern city than the places we’ve been thus far (Bangkok aside). It was a welcome change to explore some museums, and admire the French-inspired architecture – decades of colonialism and unsavory history, aside. … Which segues nicely into:
Our first morning we went to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, built in the late 1800s by the French in order to house Vietnamese political prisoners (you know, people who just wanted to be free). Many Vietnamese were wrongfully imprisoned there up until around World War II, when the French had other matters to deal with, and were too busy to keep their stronghold on Vietnam. Once that war ended, and everyone signed peace treaties and agreed to be nicer to each other, the French suddenly remembered about Vietnam, and returned to re-stake their claim. Then began the First Indochina War (or the Anti-French Resistance War, as it’s known in Vietnam) which lasted for eight years, followed by
decades of peace and prosperity for the Vietnamese people some internal strife, yadda yadda yadda, and the small matter of the US involvement in the Vietnam War (known globally as the Second Indochina War, and in Vietnam referred to as the American War). American POWs were kept here, most notably including John McCain, who served more than five years until his eventual release in 1973.
All this to say, I realized that I knew very little about the details of the Vietnam War. It is immensely interesting, however, solely on the face of it that this prison, initially built by outsiders to house Vietnamese then later used by the same Vietnamese to intern American POWs shot down from the sky, still stands as a museum for historical context (if not including some minor bias – hard to confirm their claim that the American POWs kept were treated far better than the Vietnamese originally detained by the French…).
The next day, we visited the Vietnam Women’s Museum and learned about the roles of women in different Vietnamese cultures. The most intriguing aspect was learning about the part these women played during the First and Second Indochina Wars. Forgetting for a second that we’re American and the very “enemy” referenced in the information placards, badass female battalions fought just as the men did, shot planes out of the sky, destroyed tanks, etc. Remembering again who we are, and where we are and what we’re reading, brought very odd and conflicting feelings (Kind of like the time I went to Berlin, and the first thing I did was go to the Holocaust Memorial and Museum).
Again, all this to say, I know very little about the Vietnam War. But what I do know, is that it ended over 40 years ago, tourism is alive and well, Vietnamese food is #@$&ing delicious, and Hanoi has been my favorite stop on this trip so far.
Okay, now it’s time to interrupt this semi-depressing narrative for Isabel’s favorite inclusion: Photos of Food!
Hanoi also boasts some truly beautiful places. I mentioned earlier that we were a few minutes walk from Hoan Kiem Lake; its name means Lake of the Returned Sword. Legend has it, that back in the 1400s, a Vietnamese King was given a special sword by a Golden Turtle God. He used that sword to end a long war against the Chinese, and reclaim his nation’s independence. One day when that king was boating around the lake, he was approached by the Golden Turtle God. He handed over the sword, which was pulled down into the water, and neither sword nor turtle was ever seen again. Since we were there just days before the Lunar New Year, or Tet, there were sculptures and installations being put up all around the lake. It was a beautiful place to walk around, day or night.
Hanoi’s Train Street might look like it exists solely for Instagram, but I can assure you it pre-dates IG by a significant margin. Branching off from Hanoi’s major train station, is a very thin residential street lined with train tracks. Nestled into this bizarre street are some very tiny family homes and coffee shops, looking to cash in on tourists taking selfies. The train still runs through daily, but later in the afternoon. Yet another brilliant Hanoi example of modernization blending in with, not erasing, its traditional culture. Have to admit, it does provide a photogenic setting.
On our penultimate morning in Hanoi, we set out to the Temple of Literature. With origins nearly 1,000 years old, this temple of Confucius houses many gardens, gateways, and temples. Situated in a beautiful park, it hosts Vietnam’s first national university. Most of the information from the audio guide tour escapes me at this point, aside from one very interesting fact that stood out… The Stelae of Doctors (a series of more than eighty turtle sculptures, whose purpose is to honour talent and encourage study) was deemed so culturally significant, that this section of the grounds was filled with sand and covered with cement during the Vietnam War, in order to disguise and preserve it from attack.
Not pictured, because you’re not allowed to, is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We went on our last morning to visit the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh. Surprisingly free, there are many rules one must follow, or you will be pulled out of line and denied entrance: Dress appropriately (we saw a baby get denied for wearing only socks but no shoes), no hats or sunglasses, large bags and camera equipment must be turned in ahead of time. You walk in single file, in silence, around the grounds. Eventually, you enter a building and notice the temperature just dropped at least 20 degrees. Remain on the red carpet as you walk up stairways and turn down the hallway. Then you enter a very dark room, only dimly lit. Look straight ahead and don’t break stride. As you turn the corner around the perimeter of the room, you’re allowed to steal a glance to your left, and finally you see it:
Flanked by four armed officers dressed in white uniforms, is Ho Chi Minh’s body encased in glass. Hanging from the wall behind the display are two large red and yellow flags: on the left is the Vietnamese flag, on the right is the old Soviet hammer and sickle. It was quite a sight to behold. Once we walked outside and were able to speak again, Isabel, who had seen this before on a previous trip to Vietnam with her family, turned to me and asked, “So?”
Thinking about the lasting impression that image left on me, and our time in Hanoi in general, I could only muster two words for her: “Bad. Ass.”