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Hanoi - where Asia, Europe and America meet

25/09/2017

My first contact with Vietnamese culture was when I was probably around 4 or 5 years old. In the end of the 80's there were a lot of vietnamese people working in the town I grew up at. There was even what we called it "the Vietnamese village", which in my memories was more similar to a camping than, a real neighbourhood. I don't have very clear memories but I remember one time visiting a vietnamese family (a young couple) who worked with my father. We were very warm-welcomed in their tiny, dark home and the lady offered me a pair of Hello-shaped pink, plastic earrings. At that time there were no chinese stores or dollar stores in Bulgaria, so these earrings were very different from any other you'd find on the market. It was such a nice gesture. I believe that gift is still somewhere in my parents' house.

Ever since I was curious to visit Vietnam. And after spending some days in Cambodia, we flew from Siem Reap directly to Hanoi. We stayed at the Old Quarter, very close to the Hoan Kiem Lake. By the way, this was the first time in my life I stayed in a hotel room with no windows. That's the beauty of the "tube houses" I guess. First built during the Later Le Dynasty (1428-1788) they can be only 2 m wide and up to 80 m deep. Usually, there's a shop in the front, followed by the workshop and a courtyard, to provide the circulation of fresh air. The living areas would come only after the courtyard. Nowadays they call them "rocket buildings", as they're limited by the ground area of the "tube house" but grow higher.

Our first day in the city was a Saturday. After breakfast we went for a nice walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake. The avenues around it were closed for traffic and packed with locals, enjoying their weekend. Oh, and there were so many brides and grooms taking wedding shots, it was insane! Weddings must be a huge industry in Vietnam.

In the middle of the lake there's the so called Turtle Tower (Thap Rua), built in the 19th century to commemorate the legend of a golden turtle that gave General Le Loi a magical sword to liberate Thang Long (Hanoi) from the Ming Chinese occupation. On the northern end of the lake stands the Jade Mountain Temple (Den Ngoc Son), built in the beginning of the 1800's and accessed by a wooden, red bridge.

From Den Ngoc Son we headed south and passed by the Sofitel Metropole Hotel and the Opera House - both beautiful buildings in French-Colonial style. From there we finally reached the Hoa La Prison Museum. Named Maison Centrale during the french rule, it was supposed to house up to 450 prisoners, but by the 1930's their numbers soared to almost 2000. The museum exposition transmits very realistically the destiny of all those prisoners. During the US period, US pilots would be imprisoned there as well, naming it the "Hanoi Hilton".

The heavy environment of the Prison Museum continued ghosting us even after we left its walls. We headed north and found ourselves in front of St Joseph's Cathedral - Hanoi's most important church. It's also known as Nha Tho Lon. When we arrived, there was actually a mass going on.

Next to St Joseph's Cathedral there's a very colourful and cute smoothie bar, with a terrace overlooking the church. 

After all the walking, we had some rest and a calm, delicious dinner. But it was Saturday night and even though we were tired, we wanted to taste what's Hanoi night life like. We went to Ta Hien street, chose one of the million bars there and sit on those tiny and low, plastic benches they have everywhere. At some point we started a casual chat with the group at the next table and all the sudden half of bottle of gin comes to our table with the promise that we should end with it. Like what? We're just the two of us... How? But the "crazy Korean guy" as his friends called him, insisted on "passing us" the bottle. Apparently, it's a thing. We had to either finish the bottle or pass it to someone else.

I'm embarrassed to say but... we failed 😂 We were not able to finish the bottle, neither to get rid of it by passing it through. I had just invited two girls to join us for drinks when the waiter started yelling that we should all go inside as the police was coming... So, we just left it at the bar and went home. 

After a light breakfast the next day, we crossed the tram line that separates the Old Quarter from Ba Dinh District and continued West until we reached the One Pilar Pagoda. It was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in 1049, honouring the Goddess of Mercy after the birth of his son. The single pilar (1,25 m in diameter) supporting the pagoda represents the lotus flower, blossoming in a muddy pond.

Also in the area is the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. To be honest I was curious to visit it, but we got there late as it's open only until 11 am.

From there we went for a visit to the Vietnam Military History Museum. A huge complex of 30 galleries traces the country's armed battles, starting from the ones against Chinese and Mongols and reaching to the ones against the US. Outside, in the courtyard can be seen French, Soviet and American war weapons, fighter planes and even a very well preserved Soviet MIG-21. Next to the Museum is the hexagonal Flag Tower (Cot Co) - a very important symbol to Vietnam's armed forces.

Our next stop was the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu). Built in 1070 during the Ly Dynasty it served as a centre of higher learning. Honouring the Chinese philosopher Confucius, this temple was inspired by the original Temple of Confucius in the Chinese city of Qufu - it has five courtyards, the first two of which have beautiful gardens.

On our way back to the Old Quarter we found a very cute, french-countrystyle coffee-shop with a hidden backyard, called Xofa Cafe - recommend it highly for some light afternoon snack and fresh lemonade. Another very nice place for dinner, with delicious food in the Old Quarter, for sure is the Lantern Lounge.

Later, we went to a Water Puppet Show at the Thang Long theatre. Normally, I'd consider it too childish for my taste, but I'm really happy we chose to see this one. Dating to almost thousand years back and originally started at the Red River Delta, people say this is probably the most authentic expression of Vietnamese culture. And it was like nothing I've seen before. There was a band playing live with all kind of traditional instruments and at the end the puppeteers appeared from behind the curtain, spending the entire show in the water.
We were supposed to spend our last day in Hanoi in a day-trip to Ninh Binh but the company we've booked the tour with forgot to pick us up. So here's an advice: if you really want to go somewhere book at your hotel. As a result we had one extra day in Hanoi, so we just spent it walking around the Old Quarter. We finally got the Don Xuan Market open (it closes at 6 pm) but it was not what we were expecting. Being the oldest covered market in Hanoi, as it dates back to 1889, I was expecting it to be something more traditional, selling typical Vietnamese, cultural goods. Instead it was packed with more replicas of The North Face jackets, Michael Kors bags and clothes.

Visiting Hanoi was a great experience. It was much more organised than I'm used to see the cities in South East Asia (at least the ones I've been to). It's also an incredible mix between Chinese, French and American cultures with a Soviet-similar organisation. As a person who grew up during a transition period from Communism to Democracy, I got reminded several times of what it felt like during that process. People in Vietnam are kind (just as I remember that young couple from 25 years ago) and even though they've suffered a lot along the way of their country's history, they seem to be out and about, enjoying their kind of freedom.

 

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