The ‘Hangs’ of Hanoi
When I think back to the several days I spent in Hanoi, I remember the smell of lilies occasionally wafting through the air and the whir of motorcycle wheels speeding by. We spent hours wandering the Old Quarter of the city. Traditionally each street sold a specific ‘hang,’ merchandise, leading to names like Silk Street. Some streets are still like this today — overflowing with shoes, kitchen and hardware supplies, or even gravestones.
Hoan Kiem Lake creates a central point in Hanoi where people come to stroll, couples canoodle and kids beg their parents for ice cream. One thing I loved about Hanoi was how alive and young it seemed while at the same time being a city that is over a thousand years old.
In Hanoi, people are always stopping and sitting down on plastic stools to drink tea or beer and have some food. There seems to be an endless stream of motorcycles around every corner. This makes crossing the street an adventure or a terrifying experience, depending on your perspective (my mother chose to close her eyes and be guided across).
Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a quiet and calm place to escape the motorcycles and stare at the lake, while always hoping you’ll catch a glimpse of the enormous turtle that lives in its depths (sadly, I didn’t, but the remains of his cousin are on display).
I was fascinated to visit Vietnam because it is still a Communist country. However, my visit to Vietnam left me even more confused about how the country’s political system should be described. Can you have Communism in a country where people are on iPads and the children of government officials drive the most expensive cars possible?
We decided to pay Uncle Ho a visit at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. While standing in the long, snaking line (that does move rather quickly), we met a Vietnamese tour guide who spoke English. He explained that Ho Chi Minh never had a family of his own, perhaps because of his devotion to his country, so every Vietnamese person tends to revere him and see him as an uncle. Most of the people in line around us were very surprised that as Americans we wanted to see the mausoleum. They were curious and really wanted to chat. They wanted to know how old I was and if I was married (the number of times this happened while on vacation with my parents was really strange). But the people watching went both ways. It was fascinating to see people young and old, from across Vietnam making what amounts to a pilgrimage to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh.
We met very few American tourists in Vietnam, like almost everywhere else I’ve been in Asia, the majority of tourists were French, German, and Australian. Being in Vietnam with my parents raised a lot of thoughts and questions for me. The Vietnam War was an event that defined their high school and college years and now decades later because of an adventurous daughter they were in line about to walk by the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh — life sure is strange sometimes. I thought that some people might resent us for being Americans. This didn’t happen once. Instead, everyone we met was warm and kind. The scars of the war are still there, and I’ll write more about this when I blog about the city of Hue.
The soldiers at the mausoleum make sure you stand in a respectful position. The line moves quickly past his body (no photography allowed) and then you are back outside in a complex that includes a museum, Uncle Ho’s stilt house and the mansion that belonged to the Governor General of Indochina. The whole complex is worth a visit.
French Legacy: Throughout the city, evidence of the French colonial era remains. Building address numbers match those found in Paris and cafes serving coffee and baguettes are easily found. St. Joseph’s Cathedral looks like it was picked up from France and dropped into Vietnam.
Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, is a museum today. The prison was built by the French and used to house Vietnamese who got in their way, notably many activists pushing for independence. During the Vietnam War American POWs like John McCain were imprisoned here. The museum, like most in Vietnam, should not be taken at face value. History here is written by the government to serve the government. So while the photos make it look like the Americans here were celebrating Christmas happily and being treated well, the recollections of these Americans differ greatly from this narrative.
Olden Days: The Temple of Literature was one of my favorite spots in Hanoi. The temple is dedicated to Confucius and the first national Vietnamese university was on these grounds. It’s a quiet place that made me want to read a book.
I’m leaving you with some photos of the Old Quarter. It was a feast for the senses, especially the eyes and nose:
Getting There: Jet Star flies to Hanoi from Singapore. AirAsia flies into Ho Chi Minh City where you can catch a connecting flight up to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines or another carrier.
Shopping: Hanoi is a great city to wander and shop in. Across from Impressive Hotel at No. 9 Au Trieu, is a wonderful boutique, Magonn Design, with women’s clothing done by a local Vietnamese designer.
Where to Stay: Impressive Hotel is ideally located on a quiet street near St. Joseph’s Cathedral. I would stay here again, just avoid their airport transfer early in the morning unless you want to almost miss your flight. But the view sure was nice: