HANOI (NORTH) – THE CAPITAL OF VIETNAM
Until the late 1980’s Hanoi remained fairly cut off from the outside world but this fantasic vibrant city is certainly making up for lost time. There is an incredible cultural and economic blend that you simply don’t see in other countries. The streets are hectic with speeding motorbikes and a symphony of honking horns but turn a corner and you will find an old man quietly playing chess at the side of the road – like a snapshot from history.
At the center of this vivacious city is the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake – “The lake of the returned sword”. Lengend has it that Emperor Le Loi was boating across the lake when the Golden Turtle God surfaced and requested that the Emperor’s sword be returned to the Dragon King. In honor of this event Le Loi renamed the lake so that it would forever remembered.To this day soft shell turtle are occasionally sighted on the lake but they are hightly endangered and their axact numbers are unknown.
A beautiful and ornate red bridge, The Huc Bridge, connects the central “Jade Island” to the shoreline of the lake. it is magical to walk across in the evening with the neon lights of the city reflected in the mirror like lake below you.
When it comes to shopping in Hanoi you can find pretty much anything you want. Most of the old quarter is haphazardly arranged into areas selling bizarre if you find yourself in an area selling purely mannaquin body parts.
Airport: Noi Bai International Airport is the largest airport in Vietnam and has two terminals for both internal and international flights. The airport is located approximately 45km from Hanoi City center.
City buses 17 and 7 both stop directly outside the terminal and take approximately 1 hour to get to Hanoi City center. The public bus costs around $0.30.
If you would prefer to go by taxi then try to book one through your hotel for the cheapest rates and expect to pay anywhere between $16-$18. If you must use the taxi stand outside the airport then make sure that you choose a reputable taxi company (see Chapter 14 for further information).
Water Puppet Theatre
You can’t visit Hanoi without a trip to the Thang Long Water Puppets Theatre. Located near the Hoan Kiem Lake in the old quarter, the theatre has multiple shows throughout the day ranging from mid-afternoon to late evening. Tickets cost between $3 and $5 and can either be bought online or at the door. Be careful of ticket touts or tourist agents who sell tickets at wildly inflated prices.
The show lasts around 50 minutes and depicts traditional scenes from throughout Vietnamese history. The amazingly lifelike movements of the puppets are enthralling and there is a healthy dose of humor in the show. The water puppet theatre is a great experience for both adults and children alike.
Located in Ba Dinh Square, this in the final resting place of President Hochiminh (Uncle Ho) (1890-1969), who is known locally as “the old father of the Vietnamese nation”.
The building alone is a sight to behold; a spectacular white marble edifice houses the embalmed body of the much-loved Vietnamese leader in a vast cooled room.
Needless to say you must observe a strict dress code and ensure that your arms and legs are covered otherwise you will be forced to purchase an ‘appropriate’ shirt if you want to enter the Mausoleum.
You must also be aware of the behavioral code, for example you must not put your hands in your pocket nor will you be allowed to carry a camera whilst in the Mausoleum as a sign of respect.
The Mausoleum usually opens between 7:30am and 11am however times do vary so check before you go. Tge Mausoleum closes for several months a year, usually around September so that the corpse of Hochiminh can be sent to Russia for ‘maintenance’.
Hoa Lo Prison
Ironically nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners. The majority of the prison complex was destroyed in the early 1990’s however the gatehouse has been kept as a grisly reminder of the atrocities that were carried out there.
The French originally built the prison in 1896 to house Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners who were often tortured and executed. A clear reminder of these deeds is the original French executioners’ guillotine and the tiny cells in which prisoners suffered untold horrors.
The prison was originally built to house around 450 imamates however by 1930 there were over 2000 inmates living in frankly subhuman conditions.
During the Vietnam War the prison was used to detain American prisoners of war, most famously the American pilots Senator John McCain and Peter Peterson. Interestingly John McCain’s original prison suit is still on display in the prison.
Needless to say this is not only a sobering trip but also an incredible insight into what Vietnamese political prisoners were subjected to by the French. Entry to the prison is around $2 and you are free to explore at your leisure.
Temple of Literature (Quoc Tu Giam)
Located just a 10 minutes walk from the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Temple of Literature is worth visiting just to see the outside, even if you have no intention of going in. The gates are usually filled with groups of school children visiting this historical institution of learning.
The Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s first national university, built in 1070 and dedicated to the teaching of Confucius, sages and scholarships. The Temple is also featured on the back of the 100,000-dong note.
The Temple of Literature has five separate courtyards, each acknowledging a different area of study as well as the serene ‘Literature Lake’. Admission ticket cost around $2 and allows you access to all of the courtyard.
Pho cuon (fresh rice noodle roll)
Bun cha (grilled pork with rice noodle and salad)
Nem cua be (crab spring roll)
Cha ca La Vong (La Vong grilled fish pies)
Nearby Attractions: Ha Giang (300km, 8 hours by night bus), Sapa (316km – by train + bus, or by 6 hours of bus only), Halong Bay (190km, by bus), Ninh Binh (110km, by train or by bus).