We took the train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. Vietnam Railway’s Online schedule and reservation system is easy to use. The train was timely, clean and comfortable. The cost, $28 per person for the 11-hour journey sitting in reserved “soft seats.” Lunch and dinner were included. (Note to cook: please quit your day job).
Arriving in Hanoi at 8:00 pm, we took a short cab ride to our home for the next six nights. Located on the edge of the Old Quarter, we chose a bright airy one bedroom apartment rented through VRBO. Typical to Hanoi, the entrance to our 6-story building is down a narrow alley co-occupied by food vendor kitchens, a nail salon / massage parlor (legit), day care center and other “stuff.” It’s been fun getting to know our neighbors and their daily routines.
Friends recommended we check out a Hanoi Kids tour (thanks Jamie & David!). Hanoikids is a non-profit student-run organization based in Hanoi. College student volunteers escort English-speaking travelers on free tours of Hanoi. The goal is exchanging cultural information while the students practice English. Our delightful well-informed guides, Momo and Daniel, led us around Old Town and the French Quarter. What a great first great impression of Hanoi! Kudos to Hanoikids! Caution: there are some fake organizations out there using the name Hanoikids. Don’t reward them.
No way I was going visit Hanoi and not scope out the spot where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama shared a meal. Talk about two of my idols! If you haven’t seen it, Bourdain’s show on Hanoi is a good watch. The Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant food was good. The scene beyond fun. Order the Obama Combo.
I really wanted to see Ho Chi Minh. Okay, I know he died in 1969. But his body is displayed in a large glass coffin inside a giant mausoleum. Depending on your source, he is sent to Russian or China for an annual beauty makeover. He must have been napping when we visited. No one was getting anywhere near his heavily guarded compound. The map of Hanoi shows a huge green area around the mausoleum including the presidential palace, botanical gardens, Ho’s stilt house and the Ho Chi Minh museum. I expected a delightful day of exploring the area. Instead, all roads led to the exit. Clearly a showcase where the masses are not welcome.
The Vietnam Military History Museum is worth a visit. There are 30 galleries tracing the history of Vietnam’s armed forces, starting with battles against the Chinese and Mongols and chronologically moving to the wars against France, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and America. I found the exhibits of the Vietnam war disturbing. Too close to home even though the Vietnamese perspective rendered was fair.
The Temple of Literature was established in 1070 in honor of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It served as an institute of higher learning. The complex is huge, takes a couple of hours to meander through and is well worth a visit.
The Dong Xuan Market is the oldest and largest covered market in Hanoi. It is a fun manic place to visit. Think Walmart Superstore, Home Depot, the Party Store, JC Penny’s and the Food Court combined. Each section of the market specializes in different types of goods. I so love the smells, sights and energy of a bustling market place!
Hanoi is a great walking city. There are countless nooks and crannies for exploration. Truly something for everyone. The streets teem with motorbikes and the constant din of honking horns. The smell of cooking permeates everything. People are friendly and the city safe. One of our favorite spots turned out to be Hoan Siem Lake. It is surrounded by trees and comfortable benches for relaxing and people watching. The mythology of the lake is delightful. I would return to Hanoi in a heartbeat.
We were treated to a special local scene when Vietnam made it into the finals for the Asian Soccer Cup. In the hour leading up to the game’s end, huge crowds gathered around shops with visible televisions. Groups huddled on curbs hunkering over cell phones streaming the game. The tension was palpable. When Vietnam made its final winning goal, the city erupted in cheers. I found myself shouting along. The partying went on into the wee hours of the morning, way past Hanoi’s enforced midnight curfew. Joyful chants of”Vietnam Ho Chi Minh” erupted while thousands of people paraded on foot, motorbike and car waving the Vietnam flag. I’ve never seen anything like it. I sure hope Vietnam wins the finals!
There is something incongruous about our final day in Vietnam beginning with a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. The truth be told, Conde visited the prison. I opted out. Just downloading the photos he gave me caused the HeBeeJeBees. Here are a couple.
We rounded out the day with a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Both well worth a visit. What a great city.