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Published: August 27th 2013
Yes, this blog is about Hanoi, but please allow me a quick digression to start with. I didn’t dare get on a motorbike in Sri Lanka or India: no sidewalks many places, unremitting vehicle beeping, big trucks that seemingly want to squash you, thousands upon thousands of people on those crowded streets, and, the coup de grace, lacking street signs with which a map won’t help you ensured that my confidence was sufficiently tenuous to not even attempt to ride on those streets. Some tourists do, I know; and they do it successfully. I, on the other hand, could not garner the courage. However, once we’d got out of India, things seemed to settle down somewhat on the Asian roads – not that it was simple, since it was still Asia – but it wasn’t India or Sri Lanka. Thus, I’d had plenty of practice once we’d arrived in Hanoi and, now feeling confident in my abilities to navigate Asian roads and streets, we rented a motorbike for the day’s sightseeing. As you may have already guessed, it was a mistake.
Oh, there were street signs; there were even traffic lights here and there, though not at every
intersection; and we even had a good map. But what does any of that matter when faced with the massive amount of other motorbike drivers that weave around each other, entering intersections at the same time, some turning left, others right, some moving straight ahead, all at the absolute same time, regardless of the traffic lights or signs? It was a collective consciousness to which I was not privy, nor, perhaps, would I ever be. Turning left at a busy intersection or roundabout was an especially traumatic experience at times: gaping across that mine field, I tightly held the handlebars as the armada of motorbikes roared and swarmed all around me; panicked, I first deciphered their direction, then weaved through them like a soldier running from battle by running right into it. Oh, and watch out for the pedestrians! Crossing the street in Vietnam is nothing less than a leap of faith and, as the driver, you need to be as aware of them as they are of you. It is all a system, a mass colony of determined ants that intuitively know where to go. And in that colony, I was a doodlebug. We planned a full day of
sightseeing for our first day, but ended up seeing only a couple things.
Our first stop was the Temple of Literature. Although its location was not far from our hotel, it took us what seemed like hours to arrive there with my ineptitude on the roads of Hanoi. At one point, I became so frustrated with the Vietnamese cutting me off, and seeing on their faces the frustration that they had with me at not being instinctively alert to their movements, I honestly thought I was going to turn the motorbike around back to our hotel, but, after brief contemplation, I realized that it would probably take us another few hours to find it. At my nervous limits, we stopped in front of a bakery and inquired about directions from the baker. It required some effort to explain to him where we were heading, with a lot of pointing, when he finally pointed across the street. Sure enough, we’d arrived. Now we just needed to find parking…
The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 as a dedication to Confucius and housed the country’s first university. There are several pretty courtyards to walk through,
reached by walking through gates with names like “Jade Vibration”, “Crystallization of Letters” and “Attained Talents”. Following the main gate are ancient stone Turtle Steles which are engraved with the names of all students who passed the royal exams, wherein students, after four to seven years of education at the temple, replied to questions posed directly by the king. We bought some calligraphy there for “Fortune and Wealth”, then walked into a pavilion to listen to musicians play traditional Vietnamese music. Upstairs were alters and statues dedicated to Confucius and other sages and scholars. We stepped out onto a balcony and pensively gazed out at the tiled roofs of the ancient buildings - I couldn’t help but feel studiously contemplative there.
We returned to our motorbike for some more adventure on the roads of Hanoi once our visit of the temple concluded. Our goal was to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, but we only finally found it after closing time. We did have an opportunity to visit it later, but, for the time-being, we instead visited the Presidential Palace nearby. It was built in the early 1900s in the French colonial architectural style that is apparent
throughout the city. Most of the palace is closed to visitation, but it is possible to visit parts of the grounds, mostly the expansive garden and the pond where Ho Chi Minh’s stilt home is located.
Ho Chi Minh technically lived in the palace, but, after Vietnam’s independence, he refused to enter the palace except to receive state guests – instead, abnegating luxury in preference of the symbolic simplicity of an idealist Communist working man, he built a small stilt house in the traditional Vietnamese style near a pond on the palace grounds. He lived in that stilt house – which was indeed simple, with only a couple rooms and an office, and lacking a toilet – for the rest of his days.
Sick of the motorbike and those Hanoi roads, we returned the bike to our hotel, then had a late lunch, or early dinner of Pho soup. We strolled the bustling Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake, before visiting the Ngoc Son, or Temple of the Jade Dragon, which sits atop the lake. It is reached by walking across the beautifully-named “Welcoming the Morning Sun Bridge” (I simply love the names
of temple gates and bridges in Vietnam). Built in the 13th
century, it was built in honor of Confucian and Taoist scholars and military leaders. It houses a supposedly life-sized statue of the Ho Guom Turtoise, which, according to legend, stole Emperor Le Loi’s sword in the 15th
century. The lake was renamed in tribute to this event and The Turtle Tower, located atop the lake as well, was built to commemorate it.
That evening, we attended the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater to watch a traditional water puppet show. The tradition began when villagers would entertain each other using puppets that seemingly walked on the accumulated flood waters in rice paddies. The puppets are made out of wood and controlled by individuals behind a curtain using sticks attached to the backs of the puppets. To live music and singing, the puppets enact various historical events of different ethnic groups found in Vietnam. I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy it, but I enjoyed it in the way I would enjoy watching the movie “Toy Story” - it’s more a show for the kids.
The following day, we visited the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology,
which houses Vietnamese documents and objects pertaining to the various ethnic groups of the country. The museum focuses on the lifestyles of the different ethnic groups, such as the style of architecture used, the typical family hierarchy, the farming methods and tools, and the clothing worn. It was an informative museum and I’d recommend it, though the museum discusses Vietnam’s ethnic groups on a strictly superficial level. The outdoor part of the museum is the most intriguing as it exhibits actual buildings, from houses to group meeting halls, used by different geographical villages. All the buildings from a particular village were built by villagers hailing from those parts.
After trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, we finally visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum before taking a bus out of Hanoi. Thousands of visitors arrive daily to visit the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh, with the line to the entrance at times winding down the streets around the mausoleum for literally kilometers. The day we visited, the line, at our own personal estimates based on signs around the mausoleum, traversed over two kilometers. We walked through the initial entrance where we were required to store our handbags
and, absurdly, our water bottles – note that it was over 40C degrees and we had more than an hour wait in front of us. We walked under a canopy for some time, fighting for our places in an Asian line that is not as defined as it is in the Western world. Doing our best to keep the same people behind us, but unfortunately failing, we finally made it to the entrance. I was then the culprit of a cultural faux pas when, almost at the national hero’s resting place, I was relating a funny story about someone selling fans outside and chuckled out loud – I received some very stern stares. We walked around the displayed body with militant security guards standing at each corner of the clear-glassed coffin. The body can be plainly seen, but does indeed look as if it could have been wax, as some rumors contend.
We finished our visit of Hanoi at the Tran Quoc Pagoda on the eastern shore of West Lake. We decided to take a rickshaw there after leaving the mausoleum when a driver of one accosted us. I knew he quoted us an exorbitant price, though
I don’t recall it now, but for some reason, being hot and tired, I was feeling generous. But I knew I really overpaid when, riding along, we kept hearing from our driver how he could drive us for the rest of the day if we wanted. We declined and, as we exited the rickshaw, the driver screamed to us: “Thank you! This is my lucky day!”
I turned around and, with his hands in the air above his head, gripping the money I’d just given him, he was doing a little dance.
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