Monday, 21 January 2013

Hanoi - our first visit to Vietnam's capital

Mobile greengrocer - Hanoi style
When we told friends we were going to Hanoi during the Christmas break they all commented on how different it was to Saigon and how much they knew we would enjoy it.  How right they were!  After a flight north lasting an hour and forty minutes, it really does feel like you've landed in a different country, not least because it's so much colder!!!  The temperature is not the only difference, though.  During the several days we spent there, we were struck by other noticeable differences between Hanoi and Saigon:
  • There are fewer motorbikes and more cars on the streets of Hanoi than Saigon.
  • Generally, the people in Hanoi have a much better grasp of English than those in the south.
  • There are far more trees in Hanoi than in Saigon.
  • There is a much wider range of bars and restaurants in Hanoi, especially in the Old Quarter, but they appear to close earlier than those in Saigon.
  • Talking of the Old Quarter, Hanoi feels like a much more characterful city than Saigon - there's a much greater sense of history.
  • Hanoi has lakes and parks; Saigon only has parks.
Am I giving the impression that we liked Hanoi more than Saigon?  Well, I know we were only there for a few days, but I suppose we did!  It had a much nicer 'feel' to it - that indescribable something that determines whether you like a place or not.

Some highlights of our time in Hanoi:
    Typical street scene in the Old Quarter
  1. The Old Quarter - we enjoyed spending time wandering the streets of the Old Quarter, photographing the architecture and sitting in cafes watching the world go by.  The night market in that district was a riot of colour and character, too.  (See more photos of the streets of Hanoi here.)

Red Bridge at night
Hoan Kiem Lake - provides a pleasant walk in the centre of the city (here are some photos of it).  Locals call it 'the lungs of Hanoi' and we certainly saw plenty of people exercising theirs around its shores - joggers, weightlifters, power walkers, dancers, tai chi devotees, to name but a few!  The Jade Pagoda, situated on a small island in the lake, accessed by crossing the 'Red Bridge', is worth a few minutes out of your day, as is a visit to the 'City View Cafe'.  The drinks here are quite expensive and the food isn't great, but the view of the lake and surrounding streets makes up for it!

Water puppet show
The Museum of Ethnology - this museum is a little out of the way, but well worth the cost of a taxi to get there, especially if you are planning to visit the minority people around Sapa.  The museum gives you a real insight into their history and culture and educates you as to how they live now.  The indoor exhibits focus on the costumes and crafts of the different minorities, whilst outside, in the extensive grounds, there are several reconstructions of typical village houses as well as examples of longboats and other forms of transport.  Included in the very reasonable entrance fee is the chance to watch a traditional water puppet show.  (There are photos of the museum here.)

Uncle Ho's Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - whilst not really a 'highlight', no visit to Hanoi would be complete without seeing the man whose presence still dominates modern Vietnam.  It has to be said that the experience of visiting the mausoleum is not exactly a pleasant one!  On the day we visited, it was raining, so most of the potential visitors had been deterred and we only had to queue for an hour!!  The security checks are rigorous, quite rightly, and you have to leave all bags, cameras, etc. at a booth a long way from the entrance, but once you are through this procedure, the soldiers patrolling the queue were over-zealous, to say the least!  We thought we knew what to expect because our friends, Russ and Trish, had been a few months previously and reported back that Trish was told to remove her sunglasses whilst queuing as it was 'disrespectful'.  We were on our best behaviour and exchanged knowing looks as people around us were reprimanded for laughing, having an umbrella up, wearing a hat, and reading a guidebook.  We were sure we were in the clear - after all, we weren't carrying anything, we weren't wearing anything on our heads, we weren't even talking to each other, never mind laughing, but we still managed to transgress - well, Mark did!  He was told to take his hands from behind his back (he was walking a la mode de Prince Philip) and walk with them by his sides!  Having gone through all of that, the 'once around' Uncle Ho was rather surreal - just like viewing a waxwork.  I was struck by the irony of it all when, as has been widely reported, his last wish was to be cremated and have his ashes scattered - a third in the north of Vietnam, a third in the central region and a third in the south.

Uncle Ho's stilt house
Presidential Palace - the palace itself is not open to the public, but the grounds around it are.  In fact, the palace is only used today to entertain visiting dignitries.  It wasn't used in Ho Chi Minh's day, either.  In true communist style, he eschewed its luxury and built himself a more modest dwelling at the side of the lake behind it.  This stilt house, built to a traditional design, can be viewed.  It is said that the simple furniture and furnishings are exactly as they were when Uncle Ho lived there.  You can look at some more photos of the place here.

Inside St. Joseph's Cathedral
St. Joseph's Cathedral - perhaps it was because it was Christmas, but I was really moved by this magnificent church!  The outside was adorned by two massive nativity scenes and several Christmas trees which looked really festive when they were illuminated at night.  The interior was glorious and made even more so by the presence of a wedding party on the day I ventured inside.  Yet again, there are photos here.

87, Ma May - you could easily miss this restored tube-house in the heart of the Old Quarter, but I recommend you seek it out.  You will get a real insight into how and why houses were traditionally built and how people lived in them.

Hanoi has many more places to visit, including a plethora of museums, but we decided not to see them this time - it gives us a reason to come back to this lovely city!

1 comment:

  1. Your experience is too good to Hanoi, I think you have really enjoyed there. Thanks for sharing a great part of your life.

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