Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is a fascinating blend of East and West, with Chinese influence from centuries of dominance, and French design from its colonial past. It is largely unspoiled by modern architecture of the 1970s and 80s, and is now going through a modernization that is making it a rising star in Southeast Asia.
Invading forces from every direction agree: Hanoi makes a fine capital. It has held that title for more than a thousand years, through several invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes. The Chinese conquered the imperial city of of Dai La in 1408 and renamed it Tong Binh. Le Loi repelled the invaders in 1428 and applied the name of Le Thai To; for his efforts, he received the crown and a slew of legends about his heroic exploits, many centred around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. The Nguyen Dynasty gave the city its modern name of Ha Noi in 1831, but they had transferred power to Hue by then; it remained there until 1887, when the French made Hanoi the capital of all Indochina. It changed hands again in 1954, when it was ceded to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after almost a decade of fighting, and it became the capital of North Vietnam; upon reunification in 1975, it assumed that title for the entire country.
The first western-style universities in Vietnam were founded in Hanoi, and today, it is the leading centre of scientific study and research in the country. Hanoi retains much of its older colonial charm, despite the battles that have raged over it; conflict had the side effect of making it largely oblivious to modern architecture, and as a result, few buildings in the city centre area are higher than five stories. The Old Quarter is second only to Hoi An for uninterrupted stretches of colonial and pre-colonial architecture, well-preserved on dense warrens of narrow, wonderfully atmospheric streets. It trades the commercial boom and sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City in the South for a more understated charm, worth enjoying for an extra day or two, and with countless transport options and travel agents, it makes a perfect base for exploration of the North.
As you walk along the street, you may find that people start talking to you. It is a cultural norm there to make conversation with strangers. They might ask you where you are from and other general questions. And be very cautious especially if a lady will approach you and over-solicitously insist that she is a student without being asked what is her station in life.
It takes awhile to get used to that. However, there are times when you find this friendliness extremely helpful, such as when you are lost or need help.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum. This often overlooked museum has recently benefited from an extensive renovation of its permanent exhibitions. The modernised interior is well laid out with information in Vietnamese, English and French, and contains a huge amount of information on the fiercesome female heroines of Vietnamese history. There are also exhibitions on the rituals and traditions surrounding women in family, as well as a beautifully presented collection of intricate hand-made ethnic costumes. A particular highlight are the regularly updated special exhibitions on a diverse range of subjects, from contemporary issues such as single mothers and street vendors to traditional medicine and Mother Goddess worship. English language tours are available on request. 30,000 dong.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. 8.00 to 11.00 from Tuesday to Thursday, and over the weekends 8.00 – 11.00. The city down south may have his name, but only Hanoi has the man himself, entombed in distinctly Lenin-esque fashion – against his wishes, but that’s how it goes. No talking, revealing clothing (shorts should be knee length and no exposed shoulders), or other signs of disrespect allowed while viewing; photos are allowed only from outside, in the grand Ba Dinh Square. Purses are allowed into the tomb, but expect them to be searched by several bored soldiers along the way. Left luggage is handled in a complicated scheme: there is an office near the street for large bags, with separate windows for Vietnamese and foreigners, and a further office for cameras, which will be transported to a third office right outside the exit of the mausoleum. Items checked in at the first office, however, will stay there. Note that the mausoleum is closed for a couple months around the end of the year, when the body is taken abroad for maintenance. free..
Ho Chi Minh Museum. This gleaming white museum and its gloriously ham-handed iconography are the perfect chaser to the solemnity of the mausoleum. The building, completed in 1990, is intended to evoke a white lotus. Some photos and old letters are on display on the second floor, but the main exhibition space is on the third floor. It includes cars crashing through walls to represent the chaos of post-war American capitalism, soldiers charging around with electric plugs, a cave hideout re-imagined as the inside of Ho Chi Minh’s brain, and several other postmodern confections integrated with the main story of the man’s life and his country’s struggle. One of the more informative museums in Vietnam, and perhaps one of the oddest in the world. Guides are available in English, French, Chinese and Russian, but don’t bother; the displays are labeled in English and French, and it’s hard to imagine the guides doing much other than belaboring the point. 25,000 dong.
Ho Chi Minh’s Vestige In The Presidential Palace Area. The exit from the mausoleum takes you right into the grounds of the, uh, vestige, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 until his death in 1969. The nicely landscaped complex includes two of Ho Chi Minh’s houses, kept shiny and “as he left them” by the authorities, as well as a garage with two of Ho’s “used cars” and a carp-filled pond. The Presidential Palace is also nearby, but it’s not always open to visitors. Pamphlets are available in English, Chinese, French, and Korean. Guided tours are usually available if you wait. 15,000 dong.
One-Pillar Pagoda, (Tucked away between the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum). Travellers find the One-Pillar Pagoda either charming and lovely or utterly pointless, depending on how many tour groups are crammed into the small grounds at the time of their visit. Free.
Fine Arts Museum. Only party-approved art is shown here and there is no information in English and only little in Vietnamese. But it is an interesting museum at any rate, with pieces such as the wonderful pictures of soldiers on boats depicted on prehistoric bronze drums, Buddhist art, and revolutionary art of the 20th century wars. Also some interesting silk paintings. 20,000 dong.
Army Museum. Vietnam’s military history extends back some two millennia, and this museum covers it on four buildings with interesting pieces. Item descriptions on museum exhibits are in Vietnamese, French and English. On display outside are the ubiquitous MiG-21 jet fighter, T-54 tank and many bombs and articles captured on Indochina and Vietnam wars. closed monday and friday. 30,000 dong, additional 20,000 dong to take pictures (rarely enforced).
Air Force Museum. There’s a decent outdoor collection of a UH-1 helicopter, Soviet-built MiG fighters, a huge Mi-6 helicopter, and other aircraft; unfortunately they’ve been exposed to the elements for some time and local kids climb over them.
Temple of Literature – Văn Miếu, Quoc Tu Giam St (south of the Mausoleum). The Temple of Literature was founded in 1070 and established as the country’s first university six years later. The courtyard features numerous stone tablets, each mounted on the back of a tortoise, with the names of graduates. 10,000 dong.
Ngoc Son Temple. Extends out into the lake, with small but attractive grounds, displays on Vietnamese history and, more memorably, displays on the giant turtles, including a mummified specimen. 10,000 dong.
Bach Ma Temple, 76 Hang Buom St, Hoan Kiem district. Time: the 12th to the 13th day of the second lunar month. Objects of worship: Bach Ma God (the symbol of God of sun), Long Do God (the god defends the east), confer a title of “Thang Long Capital of Nation royal tutelary god”. Xuan Nguu presenting rite.
Hoan Kiem Lake. A pleasant park in the centre of town, within easy walking distance from anywhere in the Old Quarter. It’s the locals’ favorite leisure spot, and a great place to watch people practicing tai chi in the morning or to sit and read in the afternoon. Hoan Kiem means “returned sword”, and the name comes from a legend in which King Le Loi was given a magical sword by the gods, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese. Later, while boating on the lake, he encountered a giant turtle, which grabbed the sword and carried it down to its depths, returning it to the gods from whom it had come. (You can see a version of the legend at the Water Puppet Theater – see below.) Rumor has it the giant turtles still inhabit the lake.
Ho Tay – West Lake, (northwest of the city). mostly a residential hub of the well-to-do. Hotel Intercontinental and Hanoi Sheraton are on this lakefront. The shores are occupied by numerous fishermen
Lenin Statue & Park, (Dien Bien Phu St, across from the Army Museum). One can always feel the diversity and liveliness of Hanoi there. In the morning, there are low-energy aerobics class for the elders and aerobic class for younger in the morning. During the day, one can enjoy the tranquility in the park since everybody is either at work or in school. In the afternoon, it becomes a playground for children and students as well as for soccer teams and badminton players.
Ly Thai To Statue & Park. The park faces Hoan Kiem lake with a beautiful view of the busy Hang Bai street and the serenity of the willows on the bank of the lake. Many Hanoians view this mini-park as their favourite place because it is a symbol of the integration of modernity and tradition. One would surely encounter a group of youths who is practicing hip-hop and break dance while at the same time, meeting a three-generation family enjoying a walk in the park.
Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton. This prison was built by the French at the turn of the 20th century, in classical French prison design. This is where the French imprisoned and executed many of the Vietnamese freedom fighters. Now a museum (2/3 of the prison was torn down to make way for the Hanoi Towers), the museum exhibits the brutal French colonial regime and the struggle of the Vietnamese people against imperialism in chilling detail. The prison was also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War as it held American POW’s shot down. Little emphasis is given to this period however, and the exhibits shown can be frustratingly skewed in propaganda, choosing to show solely propaganda photos of prisoners being treated well and playing basketball, playing chess, and other staged events. They also claim to have John McCain’s flight suit from when his plane was shot down. 10,000 dong.
B-52 Lake. Until 19 December 1972, this was just a small brackish pond just off Hoang Hoa Tham Street, about 1 km west of the mausoleum. On that day, in a twisted retelling of the Hoan Kiem legend (see above), Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns (possibly with the help of flying turtles) retook the enemy’s eight-engined, 100-ton sword and sent it too, to the shallow bottom of the lake, where it remains today.
Downed Aircraft Memorial. Along Thanh Nien Street on Truc Bach lake there is a stone plaque commemorating the shooting down of a U.S. Navy (not “USAF” as depicted) aircraft in 1967. Peruse the Vietnamese script and you can pick out the name of John McCain, one of the airmen.
Ha Long Bay is just 100 miles East of Hanoi. It’s well worth an overnight trip. While you’re there, rent a junk to visit the bay for either several hours or overnight on the bay.
Ha Long Bay is a beautiful area with 1969 limestone islands jutting imposingly upon the skyline. Unfortunately the place is a tourist trap and the unique panorama is spoilt by a tremendous amount of “junks” which are in fact slimly disguised tourist boats that bear no resemblance to the authentic Chinese sailing vessels of the same name.
Visitors to Ha Long Bay must purchase a ticket (30,000 dong) from the Ha Long Bay management department, which gives the option of following one of two routes:
Su Tu Bien Islet – On the canoe route to Thiên Cung – Dau Go Grottoes, one should visit Hon Su Tu Bien or Sea Lion Islet, which is 10 minutes away from the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. Amidst the vast seawaters of Ha Long, you recognize a high rock jutting from the sea, resembling a lion stretching. (the above from http://wikitravel.org/en/Hanoi)
The Gay Scene
Gay life is abundant in Hanoi, but most of the gay men are forced into marrying and raising a family. Generally hook-ups are made on the internet. This leads to a shadowy scene which is prey for scams and hustlers. The smiling faces of many young Hanoi lads cover a mind that is looking for a way to make a quick dollar. However these criminals are in the minority and if you use your common sense you’ll be OK. It’s always afer to make some good contacts online before you visit, rather than risk all when you get there.