This post is all about Hanoi and kicks off our trip report on AmaWaterways Riches of the Mekong trip.
Our first day in Hanoi, Vietnam was really a travel day. We left our hotel in Tokyo at 6 for a 9 am flight out of Haneda airport. Ate a very nice breakfast at the ANA lounge and even sampled 4 different kinds of sake. Gotta love business class (and the Chase credit card we used to accumulate the points) – two movies and a nice meal later we’re landing in Hanoi.
We’re now part of the AmaWaterways tour. Upon exiting baggage claim and Hanoi airport, we found the AmaWaterways representative who took us to a van for transport to the hotel. Upon arrival at the Soffitel Metropole hotel, we were quickly checked in and given a welcome folder with some details of the next few days. This was all totally effortless. We unpacked, hung out in and around the hotel and asked about dinner recommendations. Dinner was excellent, as we went with friends whose son had previously been to Vietnam and gave us a recommendation.
First full day
AmaWaterways provided a full breakfast and briefing. Mr. Thoai as cruise manager explained the logistics of the next few days. We had a full itinerary today in Hanoi so we got right to it.
Good Morning, Vietnam
Our morning tour went to three stops. The first stop was the Hanoi Hilton which is where many American POW’s were held prisoner during the Vietnam War (called the American war here in Vietnam). Our guide was excellent and in addition to telling us about John McCain (shot down in Hanoi and was a POW) and Jerry Coffee (who taught other POWs a communication code) also related a personal story.
The story was about someone on one of his tours that asked to see where their father in law was shot down. Turns out it was in his home town and the driver he found was from the same town about 30 miles from Hanoi. Once in town they discovered someone had recovered part of the plane, and preserved it. The Vietnamese man who kept the plane part had also fought in the war. And so the two strangers and former enemies – one American, one Vietnamese spoke for about 2 hours.
One thing clear from the tour of the Hanoi Hilton POW camp is the Vietnamese hatred for the French. The French colonialists took full advantage of Vietnamese labor and used strong arm tactics to quell rebellions. The Hanoi Hilton was simply a reinvention of the French built prisoner camp built to house rebellious Vietnamese.
Next we went to The Temple of Literature built in 1070 as Vietnam’s first university. It contains a temple to Confucius, gardens, dormitories and of course class rooms. Besides the interesting architecture and gardens, there’s an important monument that shows turtles carry large plaques. The remaining tablets contain the names of the students that have passed the final exams – 1300 in all. Only 40 (since the 13th century) have earned the top tier rank (top PhD accreditation).
Our guide explained that the roofs curl up to emulate boats sterns. Always a reminder of the sea faring past. He also explained that Vietnam has 400 universities – but each one only teaches one or two subjects (majors).
The Confucius temple is fascinating as is all the symbology. The dragon, the turtle, the unicorn and the Phoenix each have many representational statues on the grounds.
Want to learn more? Check out this Wikipedia article on the Temple of Literature.
Ho Chi Minh
Finally we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum located near the government buildings (presidential palace, Assembly building, etc). As impressive as the mausoleum was, we met some Korean school children visiting for the day. The 10 year olds were very curious about us, asking us to pose for pictures and “interviewing’ us. (“what did we think of Vietnam?”).
Our guide explained that the people revere Ho Chi Minh because he led them out of French colonial rule and stood for a united Vietnam. He lost power to the more hawkish Communist Party leadership during the Vietnam war. Learn more about Ho Chi Minh here.
After a light lunch of spring rolls, we took a tour through a bomb shelter built under our hotel (Sofitel Metropole). This was actually where Joan Baez wrote one of her war protest songs. It’s an upscale shelter as the hotel was used for visiting dignitaries. Still it was a bit unnerving to visit a concrete encased hole in the ground.
Our tour in the afternoon consists of a rickshaw (cyclo) ride to the Old Quarter, a walking tour and then a water puppet show.
Calming Calamitous Cyclo ride through Hanoi
We were provided with a cyclo -Rickshaw ride from the hotel to and around the Old Town Hanoi. The ride was a combination of calming and calamitous. Calming because the slow pace and smooth ride of being pushed via bicycle was pleasant. Calamitous because traffic was everywhere and came from every direction.
Actually being part of the traffic flow helped us better understand what our guide called organized chaos. Traffic certainly looks and feels chaotic. Yet people (in cars, scooters, bicycles, buses, trucks) do slow down, yield and generally avoid each other. And you can only see this while part of the flow of traffic
Old Hanoi – city of chaos
The old city of Hanoi has many narrow streets. But the over all impression is one of density and capitalism. There were very small shops lining the streets for miles in every direction. Lots of food shops: vegetables, seafood, meats, etc. Business was everywhere and competition incredibly fierce. People are out in the streets all day and late into the nights. They are buying and selling, eating and drinking, socializing and transporting.
Driving and crossing the streets are adventures in their own right. But the sheer volume of people doing business with one another is staggering. This is not communism, it’s capitalism in its purest form. The city is vibrant and alive and while the standard of living is obviously low relative to North America, this country is quickly developing.
Our walking tour ended with a bus ride to the water puppet show
These aren’t your typical Muppets!
The Water Puppet show in Hanoi is a traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment performed twice per year. The Lotus Water Puppet show is for tourists and is performed every day. It’s a unique experience described very well here. There’s live musicians playing traditional Vietnamese music and a dozen or so puppeteers that wade in the water while manipulating puppets of farmers, dragons, unicorns, fox, ducks fish and all manner of other creatures.
We went back to our hotel by 6 pm. We had a light dinner (rice noodles and crab soup) and packed up for our trip to Ha Long Bay tomorrow.
Sights, sounds and smells of Hanoi
This was a long day and we really packed alot in. And we went from thinking of Vietnam as a place we sent troops to fight a questionable war to a place with a rich heritage, a growing economy and organized chaos. Hanoi has given us great food and a window on a former enemy unlike anything you could read about or see a video about. It’s chaotic to be sure. But once you are in the fabric of the city, the chaos is actually quite orderly and appears to be working just fine.
To read about our trip to Tokyo which we did just before this trip, click here.
To continue this series, click on this Ha Long Bay link.
Here’s some other scenes from our day in Hanoi, Vietnam: