The hotel we were staying at in Hanoi was very, very nice, though perhaps not quite as nice as its “sister” hotel that we stayed at before the Ha Long cruise. But the one weird thing about it was that our room had no windows. Technically there was a window, but it was to an interior atrium with no sunlight. I think it’s because of the way buildings are in Hanoi – many are quite tall and are right up against each other. The fireplan showed two windows on our entire floor. This might bother some people but the result was we slept in like we never had on the trip. The room was on the second floor and you could hear the restaurant – again, a seeming downside – and I woke up thinking it was 6:30 or 7AM and the sound in the restaurant had woken me up. But, when Jenn woke up a few minutes later, we realized it was 9AM. We never came close to sleeping this late prior to sleeping in our hotel room of darkness.
The breakfast buffet was both similar and different to the one in the “sister” hotel. I don’t know if it was worse or better, in part because we ate here so many times – and presumably got tired of it – but only ate at the other one most. But it was decent, for sure.
Because of sleeping in we got the latest start of the entire trip. But we were hardly sad about that. Once we finally got out of the hotel, we walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which we were too late to enter, so we couldn’t see his corpse.
Uncle Ho asked to be cremated, so, in the best tradition of one-party states, he was embalmed and displayed in perpetuity in this massive mausoleum. Visiting hours are in the morning, though.
After that we walked by the Presidential Palace, which is not open to tourists.
Given we had already walked this far, we decided to spend our time walking around neighbourhood we were in, instead of walking back to the Old Quarter.
So we found our way to the Botanical Gardens, usually my last stop in a city, when I’ve run out of stuff to see. The Hanoi Botanical Gardens are hilarious because they are basically just a pay park (though the cost is something like 15 cents Canadian). There aren’t many flowers – though it was the autumn – and it’s mostly just paths through trees, with the odd statue and pond. It’s certainly not worth the walk from the Old Quarter unless you are looking to escape the noise. (Hanoi, though less noisy than Saigon, is still pretty noisy.) It’s pleasant and all, and we did sit by the pond for a while, but it’s just a park.
There is a famous lake in Hanoi, which still contains the wreckage of a B-52 shot down during the American War. I had read that it is pretty underwhelming because the wreckage is so small – it’s only a small part of the B-52, not the whole thing – but since we were close we decided to go.
The result was we found ourselves in a fascinating neighbourhood totally different from the Old Quarter and other areas tourists go. Vietnamese cities have tons of alleys, and this whole neighbourhood was alleys and lakes. Hanoi has tons of lakes and this part has a few that just appear out of nowhere as you walk down alleys.
The cool thing about the area wasn’t the B-52 but was the sheer number of surprise lakes hidden down these alleys. It was a little bit like the lake equivalent of a Vietnamese Amsterdam. We stopped and had coffee/juice at the largest one.
It’s frankly shocking that this neighbourhood isn’t more popular with foreigners, though you will notice a “homestay” in the picture, so it is definitely becoming more popular. (And we saw three other foreigners while there, still much, much fewer than the Old Quarter.)
At this point the charm of Hanoi sort of overwhelmed us and we agreed that we liked it more than Saigon. (Well, we might have agreed to that earlier or later, but sitting by the lake having a drink in an area with virtually no tourists and very little honking definitely had an impact on our impression of the city.)
After our drinks, we started to walk back towards the mausoleum area, as we debated whether or not to bother with the Ho Chi Minh museum. Fortunately there are a bunch of different things in that area so we just headed there and figured we’d make up our minds once we got there. (Other sites include Uncle Ho’s famous stilt house, where he lived instead of the Presidential Palace.)
There is a famous “one pillar” pagoda in this area which we took a look at while we made up our minds.
On the walls around this thing were graphic novel-style explanations for the rules of Buddhism. It was pretty hard not to laugh, and I think we did a few times, which was probably disrespectful. But the translation into English plus the images was pretty comedic. I don’t know anything about Buddhism but, according to this artist, if you’re not careful, you might end up playing air guitar to your life’s detriment.
We decided we were going to a bunch of museums in Hanoi and we didn’t need to see a Ho Chi Minh-focused museum. Instead we wandered toward the Temple of Literature and started thinking about food. In other cities, signs for beer mean restaurants. In Hanoi, signs for beer mean just beer, as we found out. Hanoi has a love of “fresh” beer and there are beer places everywhere and we just assumed beer meant food too.
So we sat down at a place with a beer sign but with a proprietor who spoke no English. There was no menu. Eventually, I wrote something out in Google Translate and showed it to her. She shook her head.
Fortunately, a South African man who has lived in Vietnam for 12 years was sitting near us. He asked her if there was food and she said the chef was not there at the moment. After I ordered another beer, the South African guy talked the proprietor into finding us some food. Soon, someone from a stall across the street was delivering food. It was the same thing we ate the night before, but we pretended it was new because they were going out of their way to help us out. I think we liked the stall version of the food better than the tourist trap restaurant version.
After lunch we headed to the Temple of Literature, the name for the oldest university in Vietnam (no longer in use, obviously). Like the Imperial City in Hue, some of the buildings are gone. But the ones that are still around are quite impressive.
The buildings at the very end are reconstructed but the rest of it is original. It’s a nice, quiet place in the heart of downtown.
As we walked from the Temple of Literature to the French Quarter, we somehow ended up in the liquor store area. (Many Vietnamese cities have streets or sections devoted to a certain product.) We wandered through them and couldn’t find any Vietnamese alcohol, wine or beer in any of them. Eventually I spoke to one of the staff who spoke English in the last store we went in, and he said the Vietnamese stuff is in the supermarket. It was a bit of a facepalm moment. We’d seen it in the supermarket but didn’t realize it was only in supermarkets that we could find Vietnamese wine and liquor. Apparently the rice Vietnamese only like foreign wine and booze.
We headed to the “Hanoi Hilton”, the infamous prison. We got there only a few minutes before close but nobody seemed to care and we were allowed to spend as much time as we wanted. The prison was first for Vietnamese revolutionaries when it was French. Then it received its English nickname when it was used to house American airmen. The parts about the Vietnamese were interesting and horrifying. The part about the Americans was, as I had read, silly. It’s brief and emphasizes how great it was for them. And then, like all Vietnamese museums about the war, there is a large exhibit about people throughout the world who thought the Americans shouldn’t be in Vietnam. (As they shouldn’t have been.) That part was a little repetitive from the War Remnants museum in Saigon, though I believe these exhibits featured different protesters. Most the prison has disappeared and been replaced by houses and stores and a mall, but the part that is still there is still interesting, and the exhibits about Vietnamese prisoners are compelling.
I injured my knee in December. (Well, the dog injured my knee.) It was the same injury I had 19 years earlier. So I’m sort of stuck with a bad knee for the rest of my life. But it had not bothered me at all for the trip, until today. At some point while we were at the Temple of Literature, or somewhere near there, my leg started to hurt. And it got worse at the prison. And I started to get worried about my endurance for the last few days. On the other hand, at least it hadn’t bothered me to date.
The night before we had walked by a restaurant and I had looked and the food and thought “What’s that?” And so we went looking for it after we returned to the room and changed. We found it by retracing out strips.
The place served sticky rice with weird toppings including “meat floss” and some other strange things. It was probably our weirdest meal in Vietnam. Unfortunately this was the only time that Jenn forgot her phone, so I don’t have a picture. Look here.
After dinner we went looking for the cheese ice cream that Jenn had in Saigon. (It’s a chain, I assume it is throughout Asia.) After some miscommunication about where we thought it was we eventually found it and Jenn had some and I had it with Oreo though I wished I had tried one of their tarts.
After dessert we wandered around the city, looking for somewhere to have a drink. We found a place down an alley, but this alley was lit better. There we had our first ever Vietnamese dark beer, which they called “black”. (We had some Cambodian stouts, though.) It was a black lager or something.