What would have come to my mind if someone had mentioned Vietnam before my arrival in Hanoi? The war, conical hats, Communism, and maybe Robin Williams shouting "Good Morning, Vietnam" in the rather bad film of the same name. Perhaps this provided me with the right frame of mind to truly come to appreciate this place: few expectations...
We arrived in Vietnam on Wednesday after flying from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok and from Bangkok to Hanoi on Thai Airways. I spent several dull hours in Bangkok's airport in the lounge, wondering why all airports look the same! Can't they at least try to entertain passengers? Build cinemas, open bowling alleys, dig a swimming pool or two. The same boring Duty Free shops and the same rubish junk-food outlets just don't appeal to me anymore. After having had to wait for quite a long time at customs in Hanoi, at least our transport by minibus from the airport to our hotel proved relatively comfortable. I've heard a lot of stories about the madness on Vietnamese roads, supposedly amongst the busiest in the world. Someone must swing a magic wand when I'm around, because I really don't find it that bad! Yes
there are a lot of motorcycles, but compared to India, Vietnam's roads seem quite bearable. Having had a long and tiring day, we decided to have a drink and dinner in the hotel, and to delay exploration of Hanoi to the next day.
On Thursday we urgently had to arrange our travel between Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). A brief moment of over-optimism when booking our flights had caused us to decide to only spend 10 days in Vietnam. Yet we were supposed to travel 1700 km by train on Vietnam's notoriously slow Reunification Express
to make it to Saigon in time....Hmm.... Maybe not! We ended up booking flights with Vietnamese Airlines from Hanoi to Hue and with Pacific Airlines from Danang to Saigon. It will save us a lot of time, and it's not even more expensive to fly than to take the train!
After we had booked our flights, we could finally start exploring Hanoi. It is always tricky to find out in a big city what the most convenient and cheapest way of getting around is. Whereas India has its autorickshaws, Vietnam has xe oms. You are offered rides on the back of
these motorcycle taxis all the time when walking around. They are comfortable, cheap, and a great way of feeling the vibe of the city around you. First, we decided to visit the Museum of Ethnology, which has interesting displays and artefacts of minority populations from all over Vietnam. Next, we visited the wreckage of a B52 bomber, which was shot down during the "American War" as it's referred to here. The rusting wreck turned out to be in a pretty bad state, and the displayed Russian and Chinese-made anti-aircraft guns surrounding the wreck failed to keep us interested for more than 5 minutes. Feeling peckish after a pretty successful morning, we took a xe om to the centrally-located Hoan Kiem lake to have some lunch in one of the overly touristic restaurants on the lake's shore. Hoan Kiem means "returned sword", and refers to a legend in which King Le Loi used a divine sword to drive out Chinese invaders. A day after the war was over, Le Loi was boating on the lake when he encountered a giant turtle, which grabbed the sword and carried it down to the lake's depths. After lunch, we visited the former Hoa Lo
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
Check out the crowds who had come to wish uncle Ho a happy birthday!
Prison, originally built by the French, and later used to house American POWs who used to call it the "Hanoi Hilton". Unfortunately much of the prison has been demolished to make way for a new high-rise building. In the evening, we had dinner in a small restaurant called Bit Tet, local speak for beef steak, which confirmed to me just how tasty Vietnamese food is!
Ho Chi Minh, a revolutionary leader who later became Prime Minister and President of communist North Vietnam, is still a much-loved hero in Vietnam, despite the fact that he died 37 years ago. You see his face everywhere, from the country's banknotes to t-shirts worn by Western tourists, and he is often lovingly referred to as Uncle Ho by locals. On Friday, it was Uncle Ho's 116th birthday, and we had gladly postponed our visit to his Mausoleum until then to catch a glimpse of the mourning crowds who would come to pay their respects to their former leader. It was impressive to see how many people had come out on to walk past the old man's embalmed body. Nowadays, Uncle Ho goes on holiday to Russia for 3 months of the year for
Phil on a xe om
Our preferred mode of transport in Vietnam: motorcycle!
some treatment at a beauty clinic. To mark the occassion, banners could be seen around town and around the Hoan Kiem Lake we found a great number of Government posters. I have no idea what the slogans mean and whether they were put up to coincide with Ho Chi Minh's birthday, but in any case I took photos of a couple of them (see below). After paying our respects to Uncle Ho, we visited the nearby Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, where I managed to buy a fake copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to China at a fraction of the official price. Then we popped in to the Museum of Fine Arts, which was rather dull, before making our way back to our hotel.
Unfortunately, the time had already come to leave lovely Hanoi on Saturday. After repacking our bags for the fiftieth time on the trip, we took a taxi to the airport and caught a comfortable Vietnamese Airlines flight to Hue. More news from central Vietnam in the coming days!
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