Hanoi Things to Do Tips by AKtravelers
Hanoi Things to Do: 931 reviews and 2,112 photos
Sunbeam Bridge leading to the temple
In the middle of beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake is Ngoc Son Temple, which has to be reached by crossing the brightly painted Sunbeam Bridge. Both are woth a visit. Once inside the temple, you'll get to wander through the nooks and crannies of eastern religiousity, not much of which I understand. On the other hand, I did understand the embalmed giant tortoise that was supposedly pulled from the lake in 1968. It is the same tortoise that porportedly provide the famous sword used to fend off Chinese invaders. The tortoise was big and very embalmed -- treated with a reverence second only to that of HoChi Minh (also embalmed inthe city).
Tran Quoc Temple amidst the mist
On my last morning in Hanoi, I walked through the rain to visit Tran Quoc temple, whose pagoda I had seen every morning as I commuted from my hotel into downtown. I have no idea what the history of the temple is, but it seemed to be quite popular with westerners and locals alike. I only had a few minutes to spare, and I wish could have spent a little more time here when the rain was gone.
The famous 13th century pagoda in the lake
A great way to see Hanoi as it relaxes is to take and afternoon stroll and circumambulate Hoan Kiem Lake, which is in the center of the old city. On one island sits an old temple from the 13th century, housing an embalmed tortoise from the lake, while on another small island across the lake is a pagoda erected to the famous tortoise who gave an emporor the sword necessary to beat off the Ming invasion of the 17th century. Then the tortoise reappeared after the battle and took the sword back -- legend says it still remains on the lake bottom.
After the walk around the lake, we wandered through some of the nearby shopping streets. In typical Asian fashion, some streets are all shoes while others are all handbags and others all electronics. Because I'm not much of a shopper, I prefer just to breeze through these places. That's what we did, deciding instead to order a beer at a lakeside cafe and watch the light crepusculate as the evening headed towards night.
THe tents on a Haiphong Beach
If you 're in Hanoi and want to cool off at a beach, take the revealing two-hour drive to Haiphong. As you gt closer to this busy port, you start to see the new engines of Vietnam's capitalist economy -- acres and acres of foreign factories and assembly plants amid the shrinking paddies of rice. Globalization has been a good thing for Vietnam, whose people will soon pass $1000 GDP per person. But, of course, you came for the beach and you'll find a decent one, covered in tents and backed by a line of seafood restaurants and beach shops. An intersting experience for such a small time in the car.
Doing my best Jane Fonda imitation in Hanoi
One of the more interesting museums in Hanoi is the Vietnam Revolution Museum, which has more going for it than air conditioning (which is only minimall effective). The Revolution Museum chronicles the rise to power of communism from as it combatted French, Japanese and American power. As you move from glorious martyrdom to glorious triumph, you often unnerve the beneficiaries of this all, since the multitudes of uniformed museum employees (there were more of them than visitors the day I was there) get upset when you stand between them an the TVs they've set up in the exhibit rooms to watch their favorite soap operas. They get mad even when you're reading about the life of Ho Chi Minh!
The museum is also worth visiting for its take on the victory over the Japanese (no mention of U.S. help) and for the winner's view of the wars against the French and Americans. The museum gets boring once the war era ends, as the revolution continues to cover agriculture and manufacturing production. Yawn!! Of course, in reality, agriculture is the most revolutionary change of all -- once Vietnam dumped collectivism and privatized its farmholdings, it went from a net rice importer to the second largest rice exporter in the world. Vive la revolution!!
The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi
A site not to miss in Hanoi, even though it's not air conditioned as well as you'd like, is the Ho Chi Minh museum, which was monumentally hagiographic in a Soviet sort of way, with signs earnestly urging us to live with the morals and humility of Ho. To us, it was often unclear what those words, since most of the text was in Vietnamese with just short summaries in English. I quite enjoyed the tour and I was impressed with the grace our host exhibited when we got to the parts about how Ho defeated the Americans. It could have been quite an awkward moment, but all of us preferred to leave that dispute in the past.
The line moves slowly toward Ho Chi Minh
One of the prime, can't miss, highlights of Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh mauseleum, where I got my first ever glance at an embalmed communist leader. I was with a friend who had seen Lenin in Moscow, and he said the experience mirrored that in many ways, including the need for silence around the body and the reverent slow but steady walk required of the queue standers. Ho seemed to be resting peacefully with his hands folded and his white goatee perfectly coiffed despite all the onlookers. I didn't get as close as I had hoped, so it was hard to tell if he was real but I'm pretty sure most of him was. Unfortunately, long pants are required for this expedition we sweated more than was probably considered reverent.
After seeing Uncle Ho, we were led out the back to his wooden two-room home on stilts by a small lake, with our guide extoling the virtues of Ho's simplicity. Sure, it's easy to live simply when someone cooks and cleans for you -- we noticed that neither of the two rooms was a kitchen or laundry.
By the way, no pictures are allowed of the embalmed Ho Chi Minh. Bummer!
Directions: Ba Dinh District
Entrance to the Temple of Literature
A must see on any visit to Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, which was actually founded as Hanoi's first University nearly a thousand years ago. In fact, the temple/university itself is actually only ten years younger than the city of Hanoi itself. It's a verdant, peaceful park in the middle of the bustling city, with classic Vietnamese architectural features. I loved all the nooks and crannies of the temples, including the stones containing the names of graduating students. Don't miss the pond in the middle of the complex or the true temple area in the back. In fact, the temple area contained a Vietnamese band playing traditional music while wearing old-time costumes.
Water puppet show in Hanoi
Today started out, as I mentioned yesterday, with water puppets!! Apparently, this is a traditional northern Vietnamese art form that's been around for centuries, highlighting peasant themes (which is probabaly why it survived communism) and some local legends (like the turtle and the sword). The puppeteers stand behind a decoratd curtain and use murky water to hide their submerged controls, moving the puppets with great skill accompanied by traditional music. The show is put on in the world's mustiest theater air conditioned by one small unit close to the stage. Luckily, we got fourth row seats so we got some relief from the heat -- the poor people in the top row must have swealtered. As it was, I could feel rivers of sweat run down my belly throughout much of the performance, especially given that I was seated between the two most overweight guys in the theater! In fact, Mike is over 300 pounds, and the little Vietnamese girl assigned the seat next to him looked less than pleased!
That being said, the performance was masterful. These guys are good, which shouldn't be surprising as they've performed around the world in venues like Lincoln Center in NYC. The jumping fish, the rice harvesting, the turtle legend were all done with great imagination. In one scene, two brightly decorated long-necked water birds, danced and rubbed and kissed and intertwined necks until, voila!, out popped an egg. Yes, there was a sex scene!! Avian waterpuppet porn! Eventually the egg hatched to become a small brightly colored bird, evoking applause from the crowd. It was very cool, in a puppet sort of way!
Beware: the water puppets are popular! The night before, we tried to buy tickets to a water puppet performance, but the theater was sold out so we left disappointed with tickets for Sunday morning (there's a sentence I never thought I'd write!).
The outside of Hoa La Prison
Hoa La Prison is better known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton from the Vietnam War days, but is more famous to the Vietnamese for its role in their resistence to colonialism. Here they had a great deal of exhibition space devoted to the atrocities perpetrated by the French, who built this to be the largest prison in Indochina during the late 1800's. Of course, the theme was the depravity of the French and the heroic revolutionary spirit of the imprisoned locals, none of whom ever committed any crime except patriotism. Finally, the last few rooms were devoted to its role housing prisoners from the war, to include John McCain. Since McCain was the son of the four-star admiral at the U.S. Pacific Command when he was shot down, the Vietnamese were always aware that he was a star prisoner, so they kept photos and relics (including his flight suit) from his five years there. They have since updated the exhibit to note that he is the Republican nominee in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, good captalists that they now are.
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