Hanoi: Motorbikes and More Motorbikes
We arrived in Hanoi not knowing exactly what to expect. Arriving at 8:30pm on a flight from Luang Prabang, we immediately got a glimpse of Vietnam. About 15 foreigners and our bags were stuffed into a van that is supposed to hold 12 people. The driver honked and swerved his way into the city center while most of us laughed at the craziness of his and others’ driving.
Hanoi is one of Vietnam’s most vibrant cities. After spending 4 days there, it has become one of my favorite cities that we have been to on this trip. People are active, the food is delicious and can be found on almost every street corner, the sites are interesting, and it has almost everything else one could want in a city.
The city also boasts many universities. And like most places in the world, many university students are learning English. Students are smart and realize that if they want to learn English, they need to practice. Because they don’t want to pay money to pay for private lessons, they turn to other resources. Why not just talk to foreigners, who are native speakers or know the language very well, to get real-life practice? I first discovered this while sitting down on a bench near Hoan Kiem Lake. A young man came up to me and said, “Hello. I am learning English and would like to practice. Can I speak with you?” I agreed and ended up having a great conversation with him. Within 10 minutes, two other students, who didn’t know the first guy, came over and asked if they could join since they were also trying to practice. It was a great way to ask my questions about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. And for them, they were able to practice their English with a native speaker. As I walked near the lake heading back to the hotel, I noticed that almost every white person who was sitting down also had at least two or three young Vietnamese talking to them. I think this is a great idea for them to improve their English!
Just walking around, one can feel the chaos of the traffic in Hanoi. There are really just motorbikes everywhere. There are so many motorbikes that the sidewalks are full of parked motorbikes, making all pedestrians walk on the sides of the streets. Streets have no real system, going every which way. Some street vendors walk, carrying their products on a wooden stick which they rest on their shoulders. Others have bicycles. Anywhere you look, you will see at least a few street vendors. They’ll sell anything from flowers to pastries to fruits. Essentially, one could do all of their shopping just by waiting on their front doorstep.
Overall, Hanoi is the typical crazy city that may come to mind when you think of Southeast Asia. The city is packed with motorbikes, aggressive street vendors, and food stands selling pho (rice noodle soup) and rice dishes. It quickly became one of my favorite cities that we’ve visited on this trip.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Museum
For most Americans, the name Ho Chi Minh probably does not have a positive connotation. The former communist leader headed northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the most important figure during that time for northern Vietnam in that time, and he has become the most famous national figure even today. Walking around, you see pictures of him holding babies and often of just his easily recognizable face with the long white beard.
In Hanoi, anyone has the chance to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, his dead body, for free. It turns out to be pretty ironic. Ho Chi Minh was someone who did not like many things. He lived in a tiny wooden house in Hanoi and did not believe in owning much. When he died, his request was to be cremated. Now, his dead body of almost 40 years lays inside of a large, elaborate building which is guarded by young dressed up soldier, where anyone and everyone can take a glimpse at him. That’s the definition of irony. The body takes a vacation to Russia three months every year, where maintenance is done to keep him looking decent.
The line long line moved fast and we saw the body for about a minute total. No cameras were allowed, which is fair enough, so I have nothing to show of inside the building.
Just next door is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, showing newspaper articles, replicas or his boyhood home, and other information about his life and the war. The price was 20,000 dong ($1) and was worth taking a walk around.
Hỏa Lò Prison
The Hoa Lo Prison was created during French rule of Vietnam in the late 1800s. The prison was where the French sent political prisoners, those who were against the French government, and was known as being a brutal place. The prison was built with almost all materials imported from France, and they even brought a guillotine (still on-site!) for what they called the most ethical way of execution. Vietnamese prisoners were given horrible living conditions, including rooms with absolutely no light, horrible food, and were constantly beaten. Until WWII, this is how the prison was run. During the Vietnamese War, Hoa Lo Prisoner is where captured American soldiers and pilots were kept, including 2008 Presidential Candidate John McCain. In fact, John McCain’s entire pilot uniform is on display, including his helmet and parachute.
Seeing the prison (25,000 dong, $1.25) was one of the most interesting sites we’ve been to in a while. The extra booklet, sold for $1, gave a lot of good information about the history of the prison. The self-guided tour led through the worst cells, showing different documents and other artifacts, and finally ended in the room with the guillotine.
A ridiculous part of the museum shows how the Vietnamese supposedly treated the American POWs. They museum shows pictures of American soldiers decorating a Christmas tree, playing basketball in the prison, and just generally being happy. In every picture, it shows the Americans laughing and having a good time. However, many former POWs have written books and spoken in public saying the exact opposite, explaining how they were tortured and were given horrible conditions. The Vietnamese government is obviously using the museum as a bit of propaganda.
A popular show to see in Hanoi is the Thang Long Water Puppet show (100,000 dong, $5). The show is in a smaller theater and features puppets in waist high water. The band with live music playing is seated to the side of the stage. The puppets are apparently moved with underwater structures and poles. The puppeteers stand back behind the curtain (out of sight from the audience), while the puppets jump, move, and dance around. Some of the puppets include dragons who spit water, fishermen, fish, a dog, and more. Almost no talking was done, so it was easy to watch for a foreigner who speaks no Vietnamese. Most of the people in the crowd were foreigners, although this is a traditional art form going back over 100 years in Hanoi. The show lasted just 45 minutes, which was the perfect duration.
Temple of Literature
A popular site is the Temple of Literature (20,000 dong, $1), a temple/park in Hanoi. It was used as a university in the 11th century but is now just used as a temple. From the entrance, I walked past several different courtyards which was very green and had various colors from flowers and plants. One courtyard had a reflecting pool in the middle. Finally, I reached the temple which had several different Buddha statues.
The Temple of Literature is a nice place for a stroll, but it had nothing too exciting. It was worth the $1 entrance just to have a look around.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is in the heart of the city and is a popular social gathering place for locals. On the lake is a bridge leading to the Turtle Temple, where supposedly a large golden turtle came and gave an emperor a sword. Around the lake are several restaurants and small cafes. Locals use the lake’s wide sidewalks for running, and others use the benches to relax and hang out with friends. For me, it was a good place to grab a coffee and people watch and have conversations with Vietnamese students learning English.
The weather in Hanoi was a very nice break from the 90-100 degrees (34-38 degrees C) we’ve been having on the trip; 75 degrees (21 C), cloudy, and a bit of rain was a welcome change!
We really enjoyed the four nights we spent in Hanoi. Not only was the city interesting, full of things to do, and a nice change of weather, but we also went to a Couchsurfing event for dinner and met a lot of cool people. Hanoi is definitely at the top of the list for cities in Southeast Asia.