Hanoi: Museums, beer and James Bond


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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hanoi
December 12th 2012
Published: December 12th 2012
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On December 7, following our stay at the Phong Na Farmstay, we flew from nearby Dong Hoi to Hanoi, one of Vietnam's major cities and its current capital. Due to a lack of planning ahead on our part, we’ve ended up staying in the city for almost a week, which has had its perks and downsides. The city is much like Ho Chi Minh City in terms of its traffic and volume of people, but it’s a bit smaller with fewer skyscrapers, and the weather is much cooler – I’ve actually been able to utilize the several jackets I packed for the first (and probably only) time during our trip. Since we initially only booked two nights at a small hotel, we had to change hotels for the remainder of the week. Our new hotel has actually proven to be better as far as amenities go, but the manager is quite a character. If you’ve ever seen Father of the Bride II and are familiar with Martin Short’s character “Franck,” imagine a Vietnamese version of him. Super nice and charismatic, but quite loud and pushy with his sales pitches for tours to Halong Bay and other attractions around Hanoi. He’s taken good care of us, though.

When we got here, I was delighted to see the city decorated for Christmas, with lights, wreaths and trees everywhere and Christmas music playing in all the shops and restaurants. I will admit it’s made me more than a little homesick, though, as this will be my first Christmas away from my family. In any case, it’s been nice to be surrounded by some familiar holiday scenery.

Because Hanoi is in many ways similar to Ho Chi Minh City, I’ll try not to be too redundant in this post. I will say that my fear for crossing the street and getting hit by a motobike has returned; after falling off of a motorcycle, the last thing I need is to get run over by one! One of the biggest differences between Hanoi and HCMC is the food. Scott and I have finally broken down and immersed ourselves in the street food scene. We’ve tried a few of Vietnam’s more famous dishes, like Bun Bo (though originally a southern dish, you can find it anywhere), which is basically a bowl of beef and noodles mixed with fresh herbs and an amazing sauce. We’ve also tried Bun Cha, a combination of grilled pork patties, fried spring rolls, fresh herbs and vermicelli noodles more specific to Hanoi. While we’ve eaten these dishes in streetside restaurants, some items we’ve bought directly from street vendors have been steamed sweet buns filled with a mixture of pork and boiled eggs as well as Vietnamese-style empanadas (very greasy, but very delicious!). We also bought a sticky rice dish off of a very cranky lady who tried incessantly to rip us off. Not cool. I think Scott and I would agree that our favorite find, which we’ve frequented on multiple occasions, has been a little streetside restaurant called Bia Hoi Ha Noi. Due to its being mentioned in The Lonely Planet, there are now many locations, but we seemed to have found a great one, even if it’s not the original. Not only does the restaurant serve bia hoi (cheap Vietnamese draft beer), but it has the most amazing short ribs I’ve ever tasted. They serve them to you with a little dish of salt, lime juice and chillies, which you mix together and use as a dipping sauce. I would have never thought of this combo, but it is out of this world. So yes, the food here is GOOD. I’m also now addicted to Vietnamese coffee, a dark roast made with chickery root the Vietnamese adopted from the French during colonization. The Vietnamese have made it their own by adding sweetened condensed milk and serving it over ice. Yum! I’ve also unfortunately been binging uncontrollably on tiny Japanese chocolate filled Hello Panda cookies (found at your local World Market, but slightly cheaper here). Scott is trying to break me of my habit. I’ll keep you posted with my recovery process.

So aside from eating and drinking excessively, what else have we been doing in Hanoi? Seeing the historical sights, of course. We began with a walking tour of the Old Quarter (where we’re staying) that we found in The Lonely Planet. It was pretty average, but we did learn that each street in the area serves a different purpose – there’s a street with shops selling only hardware supplies, one with picture frames, one with mattresses, one with candy, and one with literally only wrapping paper and Christmas decorations. Everyday shopping must be quite an outing for the locals. Our first museum visit was none other than Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, the prison where many American POW’s were held during the Vietnam War. Though the building itself was quite interesting, we found ourselves a bit overwhelmed by the propaganda. Now granted, I was not alive during the Vietnam War, and I am definitely not an expert on it, but I’ve done enough research to know that the pictures, writings and videos we encountered at Hoa Lo were more than a little bit biased. If one were completely uneducated on the subject and visited the museum, he or she would be led to believe that south Vietnam was not a major player in the war, but rather a victim of the American “invaders” and “emperialists” who had come to take over the country. If the north hadn’t stepped in to save the day, Vietnam’s flag might be red, white and blue today. The museum also showed only pictures and videos of American fighter pilot POW’s enjoying themselves during their time at Hoa Lo. Everything we read said that the Americans had it great and were treated better than Vietnamese prisoners, which is why they coined the nickname “Hanoi Hilton,” claiming the prison’s standards were kin to that of a hotel. There was even a video stating that, by the time they were released, American POW’s had changed their minds about America’s involvement in the war and had now sided with northern Vietnam. After visiting the museum, Scott and I were anxious to do some research, and we found that these happy-go-lucky POW’s had actually been tortured to the point of making anti-American comments and their treatment was entirely the opposite of how it had been described at Hoa Lo. Many prisoners, such as Senator John McCain (his uniform was on display at the museum), have spoken and written about their horrible experiences at the Hilton.

We next visited the Museum of Fine Arts, which housed a wide array of lovely paintings and sculptures. After some scrutiny, however, we found much of the art on display to also contain war propoganda – even art that had been created as late as the 2000’s. We tried to enjoy the works, even if they did give off somewhat of an anti-American vibe. When we left, we began to notice signs and billboards all over the place (that we’d somehow missed until then) promoting an event that will take place next week celebrating the 40th anniversary of northern Vietnam shooting down 30 American B52’s in a week’s time during the war. How’s that for a holiday? I’ve heard of celebrating the end of a war or lifting up a national hero, but this… Too bad we won’t be in Hanoi to join in the fun.

Some more positive experiences we had were visiting the Temple of Literature, the site of an ancient school dating back to the times of Confucious, and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where we learned about the various tribes and ethnicities making up the Vietnamese people as a whole. This museum was very cool – we were able to tour life size replicas of the different types of homes inhabited by Vietnamese tribes, and we bought some awesome handemade jewelry in the museum’s shop. We also made the trip to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, a site visited by a number of Vietnamese and foreigners every year. The mausoleum is a huge, concrete structure teeming with guards who enforce very strict rules upon one’s entering. You must wear conservative clothing (no shorts or tank tops) and not wear hats, bring cameras, cross your arms or put your hands in your pockets while inside. You also must not talk, smile or laugh when passing by Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, which is on display in a glass-covered, dimly lit casket. Needless to say, this was quite a strange and eerie experience. Ho Chi Minh looked almost like a wax figure instead of a real person. I guess that’s what happens when you preserve a body that’s been dead for forty-three years.

Another interesting experience we had was going to see the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, at a movie theater showing films in English. We thought it would be nice to enjoy a little taste of home. This was our first time entering a shopping mall since arriving in Vietnam, and it immediately felt like we were back in the states. The mall was located in a more upscale part of the city, had six stories and was filled with western stores, rather than the street shops we’d become accustomed to. When we got to the sixth floor, where the theater was located, we found it to be immaculate, with several stations for refreshments and a computer at the ticket booth where you could choose your seats. Due to the nature of the theater, we were surprised to find that movie tickets only cost $5 apiece, and it was also only $5 total for a large popcorn and two drinks. Nice. When the movie started, we were a bit startled and disappointed to find that the first fifteen minutes had both visual and sound issues. A few people, including Scott, went to report the problem and were told that it was just messed up and would be fixed soon. Thankfully, they were right, and the rest of the film was fine. We were faced with another distraction, however. Apparently it’s perfectly acceptable to talk loudly throughout the movie and answer your phone (and proceed to have a ten minute conversation) during movies in Vietnam. This happened on several occasions, and no one seemed to mind besides westerners like us. Also, half of the Vietnamese viewers left five to ten minutes before the film even ended, which we thought was pretty strange. Overall, the experience wasn’t bad, just a little weird, and the movie was fantastic. Go see it. Do it.

Tomorrow we leave for our three day, two night boat tour of Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long. We’ll then return to our hotel in Hanoi for a night before heading slightly southwest for a few nights to visit the small village of Mai Chau. After that, we’ll go back to Hanoi for one more night (it’s the home-base city of northern Vietnam, connecting all the small towns and villages) before venturing up to Sapa, a beautiful, rural town in the far north, for Christmas. And then, before we know it, we’ll be meeting Scott’s sister (and now my sister-in-law!) Laura in Bangkok, Thailand. I may not have internet access very much until then, but I’ll try to post again soon!


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