One day I'll touch your soil.
One day I'll finally know your soul.
One day I'll come to you.
To say hello... Vietnam
Hanoi can be best described as a fanciful city bustling with excitement, trying to keep pace with the constantly evolving world. The people are always happy and cheerful, wiping every moment of the bleak past with a delightful smile. After long years of war with France and the USA, the residentsof Hanoi are finally looking at future with renewed hope and vigour.
Hanoi is not just the capital of Vietnam, but also the life and soul of the country. And I feel incredibly lucky that I got the opportunity to have a tete-a-tete with the unyielding Vietnamese spirit. Yes, I travelled to Hanoi and saw myself falling in love with the place one breath at a time.
Hanoi: Day 1
I’d booked Malaysian Airlines from Delhi that landed at Hanoi at 5 pm after a 7-hour journey. I had booked my hotel and taxi in advance because I did not want to experience the pain of haggling with a driver there. Language is a big problem in Hanoi as English is hardly spoken or understood by the majority of the people.
My hotel was called Medallion Hanoi hotel situated in Hanoi City Centre close to the Old Quarter. It was a 3 star property, which was quite good but I wanted something more vibrant, probably a hostel where I could meet fellow travellers. After resting for some time at the hotel, I went out to explore the Old Quarter, also known as the 36streets- a bustling area of narrow streets that lies dotted with numerous small shops and cool cafés.
Just a walk around this area will give you a glimpse about the vivid culture of Vietnam. Vietnam is famous for its beautiful handmade lanterns and you can see some of the shops and cafés in Hanoi adorned with them. If you want, you can also purchase them at highly reasonable rates.
Currency of Vietnam is Vietnamese Dong and its current valuation against US dollar is 22,300 Dongs for 1 dollar. Most of the big cafés and restaurants here take USD as well as VND.
Hanoi is a city with big hearts and a bigger appetite that boasts a burgeoning dining scene. Vietnamese cuisine is one of the best cuisines in the entire Asia because the spices are full of flavor, which give a distinct quality to all their delicacies. ‘Pho’ pronounced fuh is one of the most popular dishes in Hanoi. It is a fragrant and filling beef noodle soup that is traditionally eaten first thing in the morning or late at night. Since I am a foodie, I couldn’t have possibly gone back to my hotel without sampling the city’s most famous dish, so I went to a café called Pho 10, visibly attracted by its name than anything else. Café Pho 10 is a small place good for people who want to get a taste of genuine, no-frills slice of Vietnamese culture. It was crowded with people and the steam from the huge vats fogged its windows. A bowl of Pho costs around 20,000 Dong here, which is almost a dollar. I ordered one and it was delicious. It came with a handful of chillies, bean sprouts and lime that enhanced its taste further. I had ordered some crispy deep fried nem that came wrapped in rice paper, anointed with herbs and fish sauce. I can still feel its deliciousness as I am describing it. If I have to be terse and describe the experience, it was yum!
After a lovely dinner, I went back to the hotel and slept in no time.
Today was the day when I would do all the touristy things in Vietnam; visit museums, pagodas and watch the water puppet show. I was really excited about the latter. It is very easy to get a guide in Vietnam because most of the students are here are certified tour guides who do speak good English. They usually charge 30 USD a day including lunch and transportation, which is quite reasonable.
My guide was a sweet 20-year-old girl named Han who spoke and understood English well. Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex that lies to the west of the Old quarter. It is a special place for all the Vietnamese, because it contains the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh- the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader, who led the Viet Minh independence movement in the Vietnam war. Visitors are expected to follow strict rules here. You are supposed to cover your legs and keep silence while inside the mausoleum. Also you should not put your hands in pockets or cross your arms or eat/drink/smoke while you are in there. The same complex houses the Ho Chi Minh stilt house where Ho Chi Minh lived intermittently from 1958-1969. It is a humble stilt house set in a well-tended garden where the Vietnamese leader chose to stay instead of the sprawling Presidential Palace.
Our next stop was the Ngoc Som Temple, which is Hanoi’s most visited temple. It sits pretty on a pleasant little island in the northern part of the Hoan Kim Lake. The Hic (Rising Sun) bridge that connects the island to the lake shore is usually lined with flags that makes it a happy sight. Set amidst the backdrop of brilliant waters and shady trees, this small colourful temples is dedicated to General Hung Dao (who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century) , La To (patron saint of physicians) and the scholar Van Xuong.
Our last stop for the day was the Temple of Literature that lies about 2kms west of the Hoan Kiem Lake. It is a great example of Vietnamese architecture and is dedicated to Confucious. The first ever university in Vietnam was established here in 1076.
After a long day exploring the architecture and history of Vietnam, I went back to the Old quarter and had ‘Pho’ again at the same café. After a light dinner, I went back to the hotel and slept in no time.
I woke up really early the next day because of all the excitement brimming inside me. I went out for a quick brisk walk and also to explore the breakfast options that I have. I had heard from an Australian friend, Matt, that crossing roads is a nightmare in Vietnam, but I did not face any such problem. I guess the traffic in India is worse. It seriously makes Vietnam look like a commuter’s paradise in comparison.
While I was exploring the places for breakfast, I came across this cute place called Nhac café. I had traditional Vietnamese coffee, bread and eggs and Pho there. The ambience of this place is nice, and the prices are also quite reasonable. All of it cost me only $2. After a hearty breakfast I went back to my hotel to prepare myself for another eventful day.
Han reached my hotel exactly at 10, and then we left for the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. It was more gruesome than I had imagined it to be, but was an interesting sight nevertheless. This prison used to house Vietnamese revolutionaries during Vietnam’s struggle of Independence against the French colonialists. It is an epitome of everything dark and dreary in the history of Vietnam and showcases the inhumane conditions in which the revolutionaries were kept. Later this prison was used for keeping American prisoners of war during Vietnam’s war with America. These prisoners ironically had given the name ‘Hanoi Hilton’ to this prison. This place became so famous as Hanoi Hilton that when Hilton opened its hotel in Hanoi, it had to be called ‘Hanoi Hilton Opera’ to avoid any confusion.
Then we visited the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution, which is a heaven for those who want to understand the history and relevance of Vietnamese revolution.
The last and the most exciting part of the day was the Hanoi water puppet show, which is known all over the world. It is presented at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which is situated close to the Hoan Kiem Lake. If you want to catch a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese art and culture then missing this show is a strict no-no. I enjoyed it thoroughly even though I was not able to understand a single word of it, because the entire narration was in Vietnamese. But it was a visual delight backed by fantastic live music. I had never experienced the magic of music in such a way before. It was an unparalleled experience. True, music needs no language. It is a language of its own.
This was my last morning in Hanoi as I had planned to spend the rest of the day at Halong bay, which is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is located at a distance of 165 kms from Hanoi that takes around 4 hours to reach. After a quick breakfast of bread and eggs, I hopped in the car that with Han. This was my last day with Han as well, because some one else would be my guide in Halong. I wanted to spend whatever time I had talking to her. She told me about her family and the culture they follow in Vietnam. She was a student of Buddhism in the university of Vietnam, and her family lived in the Ho Chi Minh city. It was interesting to note that in some Vietnamese families the woman is the head of the house and she manages all the finances. Also I observed that in Vietnam unlike India women did most of the jobs traditionally associated with men, so it was very common to see a woman toll collector, a woman skipper and even a coachwoman.
Hours passed in minutes and within no time my next destination was in front of me. It was time to bid adios to my wonderful guide, Han, and greet the new one, Jack (English name) who was a young lad of 16. I could see the beautiful Halong bay surrounded by caves and mountains and wanted to explore them soon. I would spend the next two days on the sea, in a cruise, and the idea of kayaking in the bay was exceedingly enticing.
As I stepped on my cruise, I thanked Hanoi for all the good and happy memories it gave me and promised to meet it again in future. Halong was another beautiful experience, but more on it later. As far as Hanoi is concerned, the city has etched a beautiful, indelible memory on my mind.
You feel the same about me, don’t you Hanoi?