I have to say I am impressed, I came to Hanoi with the impression that it was a sleepy boring city akin to another capital city such as Canberra; a place to store all the bureaucrats, parliament and government offices with nothing much else going on. I am so glad to find out how wrong I was!
I had heard from other travellers a question of whether they would rather spend their time – in Hanoi or the bigger Ho Chi Minh City; the responses were that if you were older or on a honeymoon you should go to Hanoi and if you are part of the younger generation you would much prefer HCMC. But what I discovered about Hanoi I can tell you that is completely wrong and Hanoi is just as big a city in itself nowadays and that older perspective has not seen the light of all the new development that has arisen in the past few years. While there are many remaining traces of the ancient city that celebrated its 1000 year anniversary in 2010, there are many new skyscrapers and modern buildings – the old and new seem to be blended in quite well.
Our first sightseeing stop was the Temple of Literature, which houses the Imperial Academy – Vietnam’s first national university. It was constructed in 1070 and rebuilt many times through the years so there are many architectural styles present (it all looks asian-ish to me). So important this place is that it is featured on the back of the 100,000 Dong bank note. Many fresh university graduates (not of the imperial academy but other uni’s around Hanoi) come here to take pictures in full graduate regalia (Ao Dai for the girls and suits with a robe for the guys) in a sort of ‘fake’ graduation ceremony.
Next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which was situated right at the centre of the government district – around the area are all french colonial style buildings still standing from the French Indochina occupation of Vietnam, most notably the bright yellow Presidential Palace.
Our guide tells us that the body of Ho Chi Minh is actually still preserved in there and that every other year or so they take him out for cleaning and stuff – horrible way to treat someone in my opinion. It was also Ho Chi Minh’s wish to be cremated and his ashes scattered in the north, center and south of the country. But it was a commie tradition to preserve the body of their great leader and so they kept the burial part of his will a secret.
The big building in the pictures below with the dish on top is the National Assembly aka Parliament house which if you can see has many countries of the world’s flags out the front – this is because there is a big convention going on, the 132nd assembly of the IPU (Inter-Parliament Union, some kind of UN?) lots of police lurking around.
Now most of the tourist district in centered around Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning the “Lake of the Returned Sword” (we would later find out the origins to the name of the lake when we visit the famous Water Puppet Theatre). It is a quite busy district with a clusterfuck of a big roundabout at the top of the lake which is surrounded by lots of cafes and restaurants.
As usual I would have at least 3 or 4 Vietnamese Iced coffees a day so I made sure the we had a nice view of the lake to pass the time. As always trust the backpackers to find the best places, this cafe’s entrance was through the back of a retail shop and up a fire escape that also led to somebody’s home but served some real nice coffee at prices much cheaper than the franchises you can see in the picture above.
The area around Hoan Kiem lake is also the Old Quarter where many of the shops have been owned by the same families for generations. Out the front are many plastic stools and low tables where the locals laze about either having hotpot dinners or banh mi depending on the time of day. Each Banh Mi shop had its own wacky spin on the baguette dish which was an absolute pleasure to try all the different varieties.
Also on weekends the main street in the district becomes pedestrianised for the night markets where you can find your usual asian market fare such as clothes, souvenirs, fruits and nuts and so on. Not far from here is also the backpacker district which is conveniently located to the affectionately named “Beer Street” which as you might have guessed is lined with bars!
We spend quite a bit of time there at night doing all manner of drunken antics and so on (they serve big mixer drinks in piglet shaped buckets!); during this time I think we happen on to the local police station… here’s me on a Police bike! (cue bad boys theme song)
Anyway back to the Water Puppet Theatre; despite the rows of seats being cramped as fuck (I have to turn my knees to the side as it won’t fit any other way, its as if these chairs are designed for hobbits), the show is quite good. Although we can’t understand Vietnamese (so many of the jokes went over our head as the locals laughed away) we can appreciate some of the spectacle of the whole thing and the skill of the puppetry itself. The lights and the music make for quite the entertaining show.
So one of the acts also re-enacted the legend of the Hoan Kiem Lake. As it goes, a man named Le Loi had been given a magical sword by a dragon which gave made him grow tall and have the strength of a thousand men. He used it in the revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty and afterwards crowned himself King. Some time later he was boating on the lake and the golden turtle god had surfaced to reclaim the magical sword, and so Le Loi renamed the Lake to commemorate the event. Now just imagine puppets acting all that out – quite entertaining actually.
Anyway I had a really great time in Hanoi and was quite happy that it shattered my expectations completely. I guess since it is one of the worlds fastest growing cities the next time I return there may be many more sights to see, whole new districts created and old ones revitalised by the modern world, yet I still hope it never loses its old world charm that it has retained for over a thousand years.