The end of Vietnam – Hanoi
Hanoi is a big city so my review can only cover what we did and where we stayed as a family. I can imagine there is definitely something for everyone here – families, teenagers and hedonistic ‘Kidults’.
Our travels started in Vietnam, in Saigon. We stayed initially for 3-4 nights. Great if you want to burn-out within a few weeks: Packing and unpacking, travelling with all the stuff we carry and only just getting to know an area. We only venture for half days because with a three-year-old and one year old; they need their rest. We ended staying at each place longer and longer and finally in Hanoi for one month as a base.
We stayed in a new apartment 15 minutes south of the centre surrounded by shops with a shopping mall in the basement (Times City Megamall). The apartments each had children’s play areas with swings and slides between each of the blocks. It gave us the freedom to go out when we wanted, unlike a hotel and eat when we wanted.
Taxis cost USD $3-4 to get to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I class as the centre. Uber and Grab both operate in Vietnam and are very competitive. I wonder how people make a living when they charge $2 for a taxi journey but illustrates how cheap living can be in Vietnam.
Hoan Kiem or ‘Central’ Hanoi
Hoan Kiem lake or ‘Lake of the returned sword’. From the legend of Emperor Le Loi returning his sword after defeating the Ming Chinese to the turtle king who lives in the lake. The lake is surrounded by the main centres of Hanoi. To the east is the French quarter. The north and west are the old quarter, and the south is the University, embassy and main department store shopping district. Further afield are other areas such as the Presidential palace and mausoleum, again surrounded by more embassies.
The Old Quarter
is relatively easy to navigate. A rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese will help you find your way around. Each street is named after the goods originally sold. What is interesting is to see such narrow shop fronts, originally based on how much they would be taxed. Hence the houses are called Tube houses, which could be as little as 3m wide x 60m long.
The old name was ‘36 streets’ after the ‘guilds’ or groups who set up in the area. It is thought there were originally 36 streets making up the Old Quarter. Many start with the name ‘Hang’, meaning merchandise or shop.
Hang Bac – Silver
Hang Ca – Fish
Hang Bo – Baskets
Hang Bong – Cotton
Hang Chai – bottles
Hang Da – Leather
Hang Giay – Shoes etc., etc.
These were the names from approx. The 13th century, so it‘s no surprise the shops sell different items today. You can still see many commonplace items sold along the same street though. Another example of regional working groups benefiting each other on a local basis.
While Hoan Kiem and the Old Quarter are generally where tourists visit. The expats regularly frequent the Tay Ho area surrounding West Lake. The more affluent side of town. A large freshwater lake with approximately 17km of shoreline. Attractions include the Ho Chi Minh museum and Presidential Palace area, a short walk south of the lake.
Visit the oldest Buddhist Pagoda in Vietnam (Tran Quoc) on the causeway separating West Lake and Truc Bach. See the Bodhi tree (Religious Fig tree) planted from a seedling donated by the original tree from India. The tree the Buddha sat under and found spiritual enlightenment (or Bodhi).
Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province – ‘The Old capital’
Ha Noi wasn’t always the capital of Vietnam. The capital of Dai Co Viet (Great Buddhist Viet), as Vietnam was formerly known was originally in Hoa Lu province some 100 km south of Ha Noi.
The Emperor Ly Thai To the founder of the Ly dynasty, (see pic) moved the capital from Hoa Lu in Ninh Bin province to Thang Long. The original meaning Ascending Dragons (modern day Ha Noi) was far more exciting than Interior River!
The terrain was naturally defensive surrounded by the small but steep limestone mountains making the area almost impenetrable to invasion.
As well as the Hoa Lu temple complex Tam Coc village is a beautiful river setting where you can take a river cruise by a rower controlling the boat by their feet. (see photo)
The Temple of Literature
was originally built in 1070 by King Ly Than Tong to educate the bureaucrats and scholars of Dai Viet. It is a temple dedicated to Confucius where students still come to pray and make offerings in return for good results in their exams.
Each student had to read the four books and five classics as part of the traditional Confucian reading material. The books were all written by Confucius disciples and tested on each.
As the Brits have Oxford University, the Italians Bologna, Vietnam’s first university pre-dates or was built at a similar time in the 11th Century.
Unfortunately, it’s not a continuing University. It was a French war hospital during Tonkin times and has undergone some reconstruction.
It still doesn’t claim to be the earliest whose accolade goes to the University of Al Quaraouiyine, in Fes, Morocco from 859.
Hoa Lo Prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton)
Hoa Lo prison was initially set up as a French prison for Vietnamese political prisoners in the heart of Ha Noi. Nicknamed, the Ha Noi Hilton (allegedly due to the soft treatment of its US inmates) is famous for holding many US PoW. Most notably Governor (and former Presidential candidate) John McCain, after his plane was shot down in West Lake during the Vietnam War.
I still wonder what they call the Hilton hotel nearby?
In the area next to the citadel lies the Ha Noi Military History Museum. The Museum explains (from a Vietnamese viewpoint) the recent wars from the time of Dien Bien Phu. The lead-up to Vietnamese independence and the fall of French colonialism in 1954. There are the many US, French and Soviet built aircraft and military equipment confiscated after the Vietnam war. Many (defused) unexploded ordnance and guns confiscated after independence in 1975. It’s always interesting seeing the terminology, ‘American Imperialism’ on write-ups.
Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s affectionately known, died in 1969 aged 79. Against the wishes of his will, his body is on display at the Mausoleum in Da Binh square. Allegedly to allow all of Vietnams citizens to pay their respects after reunification in 1975.
Behind the Mausoleum are the one pillar Pagoda and his home, a modest stilted house. He chose not to live in the Presidential palace, preferring to live amongst his people.
The Museum of Ethnology
If the many tribes of Vietnam are of interest, but you don’t get a chance to visit any of the villages such as SaPa, then the Museum of Ethnology is well worth a visit to understand the genealogy, culture and language behind the many tribes which make up many of Vietnam’s people.
There is also an excellent photo gallery and mini museum by the French photographer, Rehahn in Hoi An worth visiting.
Get a Tour Guide
We stayed a month and still didn’t see many of the sights. I would recommend getting a tour guide for a day to take you around Hanoi area and to explore the various sites. It’s easy to get lost in the myriad streets. We used a free tour guide service for students who want to practise their English (http://hanoifreetourguides.com).
The girl provided, Huyen, was brilliant and explained so much about the area. The local cultural meanings behind the placement of altars (Feng Shui), gift offerings and general Buddhist practice was well received. Worth it for 1/2 day. We paid her meals & taxis as well as an extra tip for the day.
Our stay in Vietnam showed us a fiercely proud nation, with a willingness to embrace all nationalities.
We have never once felt unwelcome and often got mobbed by young children practising their English. Westerners including French and American are welcomed with open arms. Unlike the, often joking, animosity between French (Frogs), British (Le Rost Boeuf) and Germans (Krauts) which prevails across Europe.
The Vietnamese have an innate curiosity of everything Western and seeing a family with two blonde girls was no exception.
It is rapidly developing, which in some areas it needs to. It needs to balance this with retaining some of its historical and cultural charms. Too many high rise towers are being built, which the infrastructure cannot cope with. Traffic, especially in Saigon and Ha Noi can be a nightmare to navigate. The increased air pollution is a problem, while the overflowing drains during periods of heavy rain need urgent attention. An anti-litter campaign might also be useful as many areas are spoilt by the overload of plastic bags, which has become an ecological threat in some areas. This is the same so far of everywhere we’ve been in South East Asia.
The warmth and smiles of the Vietnamese people are addictive. I will certainly be looking to return in the future.