February 4th – 8th, 2017
We flew from Hong Kong to Hanoi on a Saturday, one of the last days of Tet celebrations. The Hanoi airport was very nice, with lots of natural light and easy to understand signage. What a difference from the city itself!
The name Ha Noi means “city on the riverbank.” Sounds peaceful, right? Our first impression of Vietnam’s capital city: sensory overload. There are seven million people and five million motorbikes (motos). Let that stat sink in. The sounds of incessant moto and car horns were like music we couldn’t pause, intermingled with the smell of street food and trash. We saw the narrowest tree-lined streets with bright colored signs layered with thousand year old, peeling walls playing host to locals sitting on very tiny chairs enjoying tea and coffee, oblivious to the noise. (About the chairs – we’re talking tiny.)
It truly seems like there are no traffic rules in this place. We’ve seen no stop signs and only one traffic light. Lanes are generally disregarded, as are blinkers. The motos were so close to the car we could reach out and touch the drivers, but we didn’t because we read you’re not supposed to touch the people here (or point, or pay full price for anything). We found the only way to not pump the imaginary break while riding in a taxi is to look out of the side windows, not the front. I jokingly asked John who he thought had the right of way. He responded, “I don’t think there is a right of way…” Welcome to Hanoi!
The buildings here are incredibly narrow and very long. Street property is a luxury – and property taxes are based on the width of the building – so some homes and businesses are crammed in with only a small walking path of access to the street. It’s hard to describe the buildings, but hopefully the photos will help. I will never again complain about uptown houses being too close to each other!
We finally reached our narrow home for the next few days, the Boss Legend Hotel in the Old Quarter, which was a welcomed oasis from the chaos on the streets. The receptionist offered us delicious Vietnamese tea, and we chatted with the concierge about tour options while we decompressed from the taxi ride over. Our room was comfortable and large. We went to see what the rooftop restaurant/bar was all about and discovered a great view of the city and the Red River, which we enjoyed with some fantastic Vietnamese red wine and Tiger Beer.
From the hotel rooftop we could see the Long Bien bridge, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
We decided to walk to the Dong Xuang Night Market, which was very similar to the night market in Hong Kong, less the pork bun magnets. We also checked out Hoan Kiem Lake, which was very pretty at night. Hoan Kiem means “returned sword,” because legend has it that a giant golden turtle god that lived in the lake gave a divine sword to a Viet King to defeat the Chinese after 1,000 years of occupation. After the victory, the king returned the magic sword to the lake. That explains the name and the golden turtle statues. Unexplained were the KFC, Brooks Brothers and Circle K near the lake.
The next day we visited Hoa Lo Prison, where early on Vietnamese revolutionaries were held by the French, then later American POWs (including Sen. John McCain) were held by the Vietnamese. It was a bit disturbing to see the barbaric prison conditions, complete with wax prisoners bound by shackles, but interesting to see how several revolutionaries kept the fight against the French going by holding political “classes” with other prisoners and distributing hand written newspapers. A few brave prisoners even managed to escape by faking illness then crawling through the prison hospital sewer system to rejoin the fight outside. One shocking thing I learned from the tour was that several female prisoners had babies and children in the prison, which had little to no water and often served rancid food. I cannot imagine. Makes it seem like prisoners in America are living at the Ritz. On the flip side, during the Vietnam War, American POWs called the prison the “Hanoi Hilton”
because they were treated with utmost respect and hospitality – they received letters and supplies from family back home, access to medical care and Catholic prisoners were even allowed to leave the prison to go to church on holidays. (Edit by JRL)
After that dark experience (literally and figuratively), we needed a change of pace. We decided on lunch at Madam Hien, a lovely restaurant heavily influenced by the French and serving delicious traditional fare. We got to try incredibly fresh spring rolls; a “Hanoi family plate” which had pumpkin soup, beef sauteed with vegetables, bok choy and caramelized prawns; chicken satay and traditional Vietnamese dessert. We met some very nice Canadians in their late 60s spending a three-week holiday in Vietnam. They gave us hope that we can continue traveling well into our later years.
Later in the day we went to see the Vietnam Natural History Museum, which was… interesting. The sleepy “exhibit” featured photos of historical events in Vietnam history with poorly translated captions taped underneath. We noticed a heavy bias in anything related to Americans and the Vietnam War, but we read that it’s to be expected here. We were able to see, in chronological visuals, the struggle of this country as they had to fight for independence for more than 1,000 years. We learned that it was only during our parents’ lifetime that people could begin to start businesses, own land and prosper in life without the interference of the government.
We took a turn from history to religion when we tried to visit the Tay Ho temple, but we were met by a throng of locals looking at us like we had six heads. The crowds were Mardi Gras thick, with incense burning everywhere. We later learned this was because it was the last Sunday of Tet celebrations, and everyone wanted to get one last prayer in to their ancestors before returning to normal life the next day. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the stalls of items you can buy to “offer” to your ancestors, including beautiful paper with prayers written by monks, which you burn and send up to the heavens.
After quite a full day, we treated ourselves to a cocktail at the “Top of Hanoi” observation deck on the 65th floor of the Lotte Hotel. It was good but would have been great if we could have seen through the smog.
That night we booked an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay, leaving bright and early Monday morning (blog and photos coming soon). We enjoyed our first stop in Vietnam. It’s clear that after centuries of fighting foreign rule, the Vietnamese are now embracing their own culture while fostering an entrepreneurial movement and working incredibly hard to support the one thing that seems to matter most to them – family.