20 January 2015

Hanoi, Vietnam | Good Morning Vietnam

I wanted to share with you some of my highlights and things to do in the Vietnamese city of Hanoi. It's worth noting that throughout the Old Quarter's roads are labelled things like 'sugar street' and traditionally they would sell corresponding products. Today the Old Quarter is still know for its crafts and Hanoi is a great place to stock up on gifts, although expect to pay a premium for elephant pants and the like (stock up on these in Ho Chin Mihn). The roads are also narrower, so be cautious to wear your bag across your body away from the road and hold on in crowds, just to be safe.
Streets of Hoi An

Beer Corner

Perhaps one of the best and only reasons you need to visit Hanoi is to spend the night on a tiny stool at Beer Corner. The location is actually at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. As the evening settles in you will find freshly brewer beer by the glass mug. This slightly strange tasting beer is actually made fresh each day (yes, really) and will only set you back 5,000 dong which is equivalent to less than 14p at the current exchange rate. Need I say more?
Ok I'll say more. The atmosphere here is great as everyone gathers on the pavement to drink together, squished on the little stalls, which are packed on to the tiny area available. Should the police come you should jump straight up with everyone else. This is not an act of respect, but to allow the shop owners to quickly scurry the stools away, as it is technically illegal to have stools on the pavement. Your stool may not be moved at all, but all rise anyhow.

There's also a seriously great guy that comes to perform for the beer boozers. We decided on our last night to join in. I KNOW there are dozens of videos out there somewhere... See below for an example.

Hỏa Lò Prison

This prison was first used by the French to imprison the Vietnamese and then by the Vietnamese to hold prisoners of war during Vietnam's war with America.

What makes this so interesting is the way the information has been presented. When talking about the french's use of the prison (to imprison the Vietnamese), gaunt models of starving men in shackles are placed in original cells and used to shock the viewer. Items are almost always labelled using propagandistic terms like the 'loyal patriotic soldier'.
On the other hand, the exhibits showing the later use by the Vietnamese for American POWs are warmly lit, serenaded with music in the major key and describe the prison conditions as nothing short of exceptional. Actually the prison is nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton'.
Despite the bias presentation, the prison is definitely worth a visit and had a lot of really interesting information. Like many I suspect, I didn't learn anything about the Vietnamese/American war when at school despite the huge impact it has even still today. The exhibits are reasonably well labelled and show the original cells and items of the prisoners.  A particular highlight was seeing John McCain's suit - I had no idea that he had been a prisoner of war!

Ngoc Son Temple

The temple is located on the Hoan Kiem Lake right in the centre of Hanoi and we only really visited due to its convenient location near our hotel. It was a lot more impressive than we had envisaged (and so is the way of travel).
Despite the busy roads running round the lake, the temple itself was serene and shaded by trees. The trees hung over, tickling the water.
Best of all there is a giant turtle that used to live in the lake and weighs 250kg. If you're lucky you may see one of the turtles that still live in the lake.

Ho Chin Minh's Mausoleum

As my trip made its way North, I had begun to understand that Ho Chin Minh was a very important leader and helped to sculpt modern Vietnam. More than this though, his people display deep respect and fondness of this man, even to this day. Since 1969 when Ho Chin Minh passed, people have made their pilgrimage to pay respects to him. And they do this at mausoleum where his body lies, preserved of course, in the centre of a room bathed in soft lighting.
The queue to see Ho Chin Minh felt odd. The scanners and bag searches are to be expected when you go to see the body of a very important and very carefully preserved dead person. The theme park style queue lines are less expected. The queue was long and although they moved at a steady pace, I was thankful that Mumu had instructed us to leave early.

When we approached the front, you could see the groups of people who had bought huge oval flower arrangements. The officers would march in time and carry the flowers to the entrance of the building. It was only at this point that I looked around and really took in the smart clothing, sober faces, and calm mood.
By the time we reached the room, my emotions were heightened and I felt overwhelmed at seeing the body of a man that I knew nothing about less than two weeks ago. Perhaps it's the link to the loss of my own loved ones, or just being caught up in the mood of others. Either way it remains imprinted in my memory as a prominent experience during my travels.
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