From Vientiane, we had a fairly unpleasant bus journey into Vietnam, to Hanoi. It’s a pretty long way to go and the journey took a whole day and night. All of the tourists, the four of us and three very rude Dutch girls, we’re all shoved to the back of the bus, where it was hottest, bumpiest and the most cramped (which was very inconvenient as we were all much taller than the rest of the passengers!). We had already sorted our visas a couple of weeks before in Luang Prabang, so we entered Vietnam without any hassle. Once we finally arrived in Hanoi, our first impressions were that it was very busy and extremely hot. It felt so much hotter than anywhere else we had visited, but this could’ve been because we had just spent the last 24 hours in an air-conditioned bubble. Although we we very tired, we managed to find the bus stop and thanks to Toby’s prior research, knew which bus would take us to the Old Quarter and our hotel. There was a very sweet old couple on the bus who were very interested in us, the four tall and exhausted white people, and they smiled at us all the way to the city centre. That was a nice welcome to Vietnam, which so far had been pretty manic! After a short walk dodging what’s felt like thousands of mopeds, we finally arrived at our hotel.
After some sleep we felt a lot less stressed and were ready to face the city again. It was bustling again in the morning, with people selling fruit and vegetables on the street, people spilling out of cafes and groups of people socialising over a cup of iced coffee. The city that looked so manic the day before looked more welcoming and exciting after a good nights rest.
Our first stop on our tour of Hanoi was the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, where Vietnamese prisoners were incarcerated during the independence struggle against the French and later, during the Vietnam War, American prisoners were kept. It doesn’t sound like a particularly cheerful activity for our fist day, but it was very interesting. I think we all needed to learn a little more about this important time in Vietnamese history if we were to be spending the next few weeks there. However, the prison museum was biased to the point of farce. It was very informative and very brutal with its graphic depictions of how awfully Vietnamese prisoners were treated, but it didn’t seem to offer a fair portrayal of the treatment of all the prisoners. Apparently American prisoners were treated excellently. According to the museum, American prisoners were given gifts and souvenirs, feasts at Christmas and excellent medical care, which contrasts greatly with American soldier’s accounts of torture and horrid conditions. That is not to say that the Vietnamese weren’t treated terribly by the Americans too, but it was quite bizarre to visit a museum that was so biased. With the photographs of decapitated Vietnamese women in a room next to a guillotine and tiny prison cells that were occupied by lots of prisoners at one time, it wasn’t a particularly fun place to visit. I would recommend it however, as it was very interesting, both for the exhibits and also for the spin placed on it all.
We also visited the National Museum of Vietnamese History, hoping for an introduction to modern Vietnamese history, which we were still fairly naive about. We wanted to learn a bit about pre-war Vietnam, about what happened during the Vietnam War, and also about the forming of the communist government that followed. There were lots and lots of exhibits on display, we were quite overwhelmed, but there was little information linking it all together. Matt googled a lot of it as we walked around, helping us to piece together the information for ourselves. We left the museum feeling not much more informed than when we arrived.
As we hadn’t been quite satisfied by the museum, we decided to make a trip to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum the next day, which was a completely different story. We finally found somewhere to teach us about Vietnamese culture and a bit about how the country has been shaped into what it is today. It was well laid out and broken down into easy categories. We learned about the different customs of the various ethnic groups of the country and there was a cool section with communist propaganda posters, which were interesting in terms of content and design. Overall, a museum I’d highly recommend.
We were all quite sick of museums by this point in our stay in Hanoi, but we felt a lot less ignorant. The next stop on the tourist trail was Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. You can’t go to Hanoi without seeing the man himself. A Vietnamese man we met said that although Ho Chi Minh had no children, the people of Vietnam all consider themselves his children; he is the father of Vietnam. There was high security and a strict dress code (shoulders and knees must be covered to show respect). We walked in a slow procession and there were young men in army uniforms ensuring we didn’t stop. He looked in very good condition, if a little waxy, and he glows under a bizarre orange light. The same people look after his body as Lenin, and apparently it costs a lot of money. It was quite a weird activity, but quite iconic, especially after all we had learned in the past few days.
The rest of our stay in Hanoi was a little more relaxed and involved a little less learning. We explored the old town where we were staying, and walked by the Hoan Kiem Lake, crossing the pretty red bridge to visit the small Ngoc Son Temple situated in the water. The area around the lake was always busy, especially in the evenings when there were lots of locals eating ice cream and playing Pokemon Go. We’re not quite sure why but it was nice all the same.
A quest I had while I was in Hanoi was to source Toby’s birthday presents. It was coming up soon and I thought Hanoi would offer the best selection, being such a big city. Well it ended up being a bit too big as Grace and I ended up getting very lost indeed. Our phones were sending us all over the place and we ended up walking very far in the wrong direction. We ended up finding solace in a very fancy air-conditioned shopping centre, where we stopped for food and a break from the heat. Feeling rejuvenated the second half of the shopping trip was much more fruitful, as we found some lovely replacement shirts for him, a new notebook and Grace bought him the Vietnamese book, The Sorrow of War, which is very famous in Vietnam. After that trip, which we thought would take about two hours but ended up taking more than double that, I think we’d had enough of shopping for quite a while.
The final noteworthy place we visited in Hanoi was Always, the Harry Potter cafe. It was completely Harry Potter themed, with costumes, a sorting hat, a house cup, and lots of drinks named after famous potions. We ordered a butterbeer, a felix felicis, an amortentia and a pollyjuice potion. It was pretty nerdy but I loved it, and I’m grateful to the others for indulging me! Hanoi is a pretty good city in general for food and drink. It’s a good place to be introduced to Vietnamese food, and also a good place to visit some more quirky cafes and bars.
Hanoi was good fun and there was plenty to do. It’s very manic, and it takes a day or so to get used to it, but it was definitely a good introduction to Vietnam. We managed to learn a lot about Vietnamese history and culture before we moved on to the rest of the country.