Flying in to Hanoi my excitement increased at the prospect of finally seeing a country I have long wanted to visit. Arriving in time for the Lunar New Year, Tet as it is known in Vietnam, added some spice to the visit with all the many special events taking place in this 1000 year old city. In spite of its age, Hanoi is still a thriving capital, with an historical Old Quarter and an elegant French Quarter at the core of the city. Because Hanoi is located in the delta of the Red River, it is peppered with lakes and parks adding beauty to a city that 7 million people call home.
Hoan Kiem Lake is in the heart of the city with the Old Quarter to the north and the French Quarter to the south. You can walk around the lake in 30 minutes except of course if its New Years Day and most of the 7 million people have flooded the core of the city in celebration. There is a small island connected to the shore by a red lacquered bridge and on the island is the Den Ngoc Son temple where people were busily making offerings in the hopes of having blessings for the New Year. In the middle of the lake is Turtle Tower, erected to tell the story of when the King relinquished his battle winning sword to a Turtle who had temporarily bequeathed to to him in order for him to vanquish the Mongols.
People watching, was at a premium on this special day and a lot of the people were dressed in their finery to usher in the New Year. One elderly lady in a beautiful gown and faux fur coat offered to pose for me when I commented on her dress.
Taking the Hop on Hop Off Bus was a good idea for our first day in Hanoi as it gave us the big picture and helped us decide what we would want to return to on day two. The bus of course had English audio and gave a great overview.
After the HOHO Bus we bought tickets to a water puppet show, a highlight for me. The puppet show was accompanied with ancient instruments and the stories and legends were acted out by puppets In a watery stage. It was really stupendous and the puppets were phenomenal in both costumes, maneuvrability and detail. Vocals were provided by the musician on the flanks of the stage. No flash photography during the show so no pictures except the “water” stage and some of the musicians. The puppets would emerge from behind the screen and act out there parts in the water.
The Old Quarter is a wonderful place to wander and we spent the first evening and some of the next day in the labyrinth of streets named after the artisan guild that occupied them, some for the past 5 centuries or so. Han Quat, for example, is still full of red banners and lacquerware for funerals and festivals and Hang Ma is still home to merchants who sell paper objects.
The narrow houses are called “Tube Houses” and some of them are so narrow at the street they only measure 2 meters. For tax and other reasons Tube Houses grew up and back but never wider at the curb. If you peek down the narrow passages that lead away from the street frontages, there are dark and mysterious storage and living areas.
From dawn til dark the Old Quarter was packed both days that we were in Hanoi. Tet is not just a one day celebration, providing the holiday revellers time to enjoy the fantastic street food, the coffee houses with games or just strolling and soaking it all up.
In the French Quarter there are some remarkable examples of French architecture including the Hanoi Opera House. Day 2 and with a route established by HOHO Bus we wandered for hours, following our noses and stopping at the Women’s Museum, the most visited museum in the city. It was interesting on many levels and certainly telling the story of women tells the story of the country and there was a great emphasis on the bravery, ingenuity and heroism of the women who survived the many violent conflicts that shaped the history of Vietnam. Pink headphones with English audio helped to understand the significant events of the past including family, history and fashion. The exhibits were interesting and engaging and often told the story through the voice of individual women.
Leaving the Women’s Museum we wandered through the French Quarter and came across a New Year’s book fair. Full of families there were books for all ages and it was heartwarming to see so many book lovers in one place, the stalls all decorated for Tet. At this point Dave & Christine felt the inevitable jet lag that is the travelers Bain and they returned to the hotel.
In keeping with the literacy theme I headed toward the Temple of Literature (you gotta love that for a temple name) for the annual calligraphy fair. The Temple is a remnant of the 11C city and consists of 5 inner courtyards modelled after Confucius’s birth place in Qufu China. The entry gates to the courtyards have names like; Well of Heavenly Clarity. The Temple served as a university, where between 1442 & 1779, student results were carved into stone pillars called the Doctors. In the courtyards, Hanoians lined up to buy calligraphy scrolls, insurance for New Years. At the altars inside the courtyards, people were shoulder to shoulder praying and making offerings.
Continuing along the streets of the French Quarter until I reached the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh where white uniformed guards ceremonially guarded the tomb, I entered the giant plaza that makes up Da Ninh Square. Close by were the government buildings and along the way the Canadian Embassy.
On the way back to the Old Quarter where I meant to finish my day with some street food, I came across a wonderful treasure, one of those places that if you were looking for it, you’d probably never find it. But wandering paid off. Along both sides of the railroad track, which were still in use, was an array of small restaurants, food vendors and merchants busy using the space provided by the tracks to back and forth, running hot plates of food and drink from kitchens to tables, up and down spiral staircases and seemingly oblivious to the potential danger of a train.
However, having some kind of advanced warning system there were suddenly shouts and whistles warning everyone off the tracks. I was sitting at a small table, having some delicious noodles when the excitement of the train coming happened, so I had to draw in my knees and hold my breath with everyone else as the train thundered through. As soon as the train disappeared down the tracks the bustle of activity started up again as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Hanoi is a great city and schedules being what they are we had to see as much as we could in the 2.5 days we had. And now on our way to Halong Bay.