Thursday, February 10, 2011

Xmas in Hanoi


Here it was, the end of my journey through Vietnam. After landing in Ho Chi Minh City 20 days earlier, I'd made my way north through this geographically narrow but culturally vast country until arriving in the capital city, Hanoi. It was the longest solo trip I've done to date, but with so much to see and so many friendly people, it never really felt like I was alone.

My time in Hanoi was pretty limited, one day before Halong Bay and another after. It was enough to hit some highlights, see a water puppet show and celebrate Xmas with drunk ex-pats in Santa suits but not much more than that.
My first day began in the very heart of the Old Quarter, at the Ngoc Son pagoda smack in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake. A quick glance at the postcard racks and the assembled crowds of photographers led me to believe that the temple itself is not nearly as popular as the red bridge leading to it. This is not to say the temple does not get its share of visitors. How could it not, when it has a purportedly real, albeit taxidermied, turtle of Gamera-like proportions, whose ancestor allegedly swiped a sword from a 15th century emperor and returned it to the supreme turtle God. For this reason, the name of the lake translates to "the lake of the returned sword".



Lonely Planet had an old town walking tour, that just happened to originate at the Lake of the Thieving Turtle, so that seemed like a good plan to follow on day 1. As I mentioned, I'd already been in Vietnam for almost three weeks and had become somewhat adept at dodging scooters, pedestrians and cars simultaneously. I thought I was ready for Hanoi. I was not. As I tried to follow the walking tour plan, I found myself stymied by the total disregard for sidewalks. The city planners HAD placed sidewalks, right where sidewalks should be, but apparently no one bothered to explain their purpose to the fine people of Hanoi. Or perhaps they did...and told them 'this is the place you should park your bike/ display your wares/ plonk down your little plastic chair for an afternoon meal/ anything but walking really'. The practical result of this is that if you want to get anywhere, you have to join the swarming, honking mob in the middle of the street, turning a simple stroll into a somewhat stressful adventure activity. And that is not even taking account the pressures of actually crossing a street. A skill that I figured I'd mastered by the age of 5 constantly eluded me. I can't even count how many times I had to wait until there was an elderly person/ small child I could use as a human shield just to get to the other side of the road.


Not surprisingly, it got better as you got off the main roads. One side street, Ma May, is still home to several ancient tube houses, so called because they were narrow but long. The one at #87 has been lovingly restored by UNESCO and is now a combination museum/ arts center.




Most of the walking tour led through small lanes, each with its own form of commerce. There was a welder's street, a shoe street and even a holiday decoration street.




There was some culture thrown in, too, such as the Bach Ma Temple, marking the spot where an ancient emperor prayed for a solution to his perpetually collapsing city walls. One day, a white horse emerged from the pagoda and led him to solid ground where the walls could be safely erected. The horse's architectural skills turned out to be bonafide, the walls stood and the emperor ordered this temple be built in honor of the magical horse.



The horse knew his shit.  The walls are still standing.

I finished off the day by meeting up with a friend from Saigon, hitting some outdoor food stalls (not convinced they understood the concept of vegetarianism, she ate and I drank) and in between obsessively checking the weather online, packing for my Halong Bay getaway.

When I returned three days later, it was Xmas eve's eve. We got back late in the day, but with enough time to catch a water puppet show and check out some of the night life with Tony, my kayaking partner from Halong Bay. I had not realized on my first Hanoi go-round what a happening city it was, but the wave of bar fliers that kept appearing on our table seemed promising enough. Exhaustion won out and I pocketed the fliers for the next night.

On Xmas eve, my last full day in Hanoi, I decided that, in order to see all I wanted to see, I'd have to cover too much ground and more specifically, cross too many traffic-clogged streets to try it on foot. In an effort to preserve both mind and body, I had the hotel arrange a pedi-cab for me. Our first stop was to a complex I'd dubbed Ho-land (not Holland, that's different). Better known as the Ba Dinh district, this is where one finds the Ho Chi Minh museum, Ho Chi Minh's office, Ho Chi Minh's car collection, Ho Chi Minh's traditional-style home and finally Ho Chi Minh, himself. The mausoleum where he can be viewed is only open at specific times and on specific days. I was not there on those days. I was, however, able to see the nearby One-Pillar Pagoda, an iconic Buddhist temple...



And the exterior of his imposing constantly-guarded mausoleum.

The entrance ticket into Ho-land also allows you to see, via thick glass, his very spartan office...


and equally simple, but tasteful bedroom.


All throughout the complex, there are vendors on either side of the path, selling anything and everything. It struck me as an odd way to honor the Communist leader, affectionately referred to as Uncle Ho, who had wanted to be buried as simply as he had lived. Instead he got a massive granite mausoleum full of pomp and circumstance surrounded by competing vendors in a massive display of capitalism.


Next stop was Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton. Once a penitentiary used by the French to jail Vietnamese political prisoners and later by the Vietnamese to house captured US soldiers (including curmudgeon and failed presidential candidate, John McCain), it is now a museum. The exhibits focus primarily on the period when the French were in control. On the first floor, where one can visit the cells, see the guillotine and learn of the horrid conditions the inmates endured, there is a piano-heavy horror movie score that plays in the background. It is strangely effective and had me on edge the entire time I was there. The second floor is dedicated to honoring the Vietnamese revolutionaries who helped the country gain her freedom from France, so the music playing is soaring and more suited to the scene in the movie where the couple that is meant to be together runs into each others' arms. Definitely better to get the creepy music out of the way first and then leave on the uplifting tune.




Our final stop was the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple and the site of Vietnam's first university. It features a series of courtyard with quiet gardens, ponds, stelae recording the names of past doctoral students, pagodas and finally a temple featuring a statue of Confucius.





On this particular day, there was a beautifully dressed high school class (at least I think it was high school) giddily taking group pictures all around the grounds.

My favorite is the girl in glasses (second row) throwing down the bunny ears.

With my tour of sight-seeing must-do's out of the way, it was time to get into the holiday spirit. Vietnam has a Christian population 2nd only the Philippines in all of Asia, so there was no shortage of Xmas cheer in the air. There were children dressed as mini-Santas (not surprising since I'd been seeing stores selling wee Santa suits for weeks), decorated store fronts and plenty of bars and restaurants offering special holiday meals.



The Australian-owned hostel where I was staying threw a small party for the guests that evening and it was here that I met Mike, Helen and Laura. Joined by Tony from Halong Bay, once the party finished, we all headed to Highway 4, a superb restaurant that makes it own wine. Between wine sampling, we found ourselves serenaded by British ex-pat carolers in slightly larger Santa suits than I'd become accustomed to. In the true spirit of Xmas, they came bearing bottles of liquor and shot glasses.


We continued the party by pulling out the prior evening's fliers and hitting bars with names as great as Hair of the Dog and Half Man, Half Noodle. It was a fun, laughter-filled night and I owe Mike, Helen, Tony and Laura thanks for being such great company on the one night that I thought was going to suck as a solo traveller.

It was also a perfect, joyous way to conclude a wonderful journey through a country that does not get nearly enough credit for the beauty it possesses. If I could, I would recommend that anyone who has a chance get out there and blaze their very own Ho Chi Minh trail and hopefully they too will enjoy it as much as I did.

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