Capital City

Trip Start Jan 23, 2012
Trip End Jun 09, 2012

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, March 19, 2012

It's fair to say there wasn't so much to do in Halong City, so we were glad to leave for our final destination on the tour - Hanoi - the capital city.  We checked in - a very nice boutique hotel - and went on a walking tour with the group around the city to the lake via the market and the old quarter.  

The old quarter is a collection of winding streets, bars, beer corner, restaurants, stalls, hotels, etc - everything a traveller may need.  Hoan Kiem Lake is a man made lake, where a few turtles live. Legend has it that during the battles with the Chinese, the main warrior found a great sword in the lake which he used to defeat the Chinese.  After the battles, a golden turtle rose from the lake and returned the sword.  Therefore known as Hoan Kiem lake - returned sword lake.  In the middle of the lake there is a small temple which celebrates the sword and the turtle.

A popular destination is Ho Chi Minh Masoleum, the resting place of Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho).  In front of the masoleum is a massive square with grass, which you can't walk on to approach the masoleum as seen as a sign of disrepect to Ho Chi Minh.  This is because the square was the place where Ho Chi Minh gave his reunification speech in 1945 to 100,000 Vietnamese.  Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated with his ashes separated between Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City (north, central and south capitals) but the Communist Party wanted to keep him embalmed as a symbol of the party and hence he visits Russia every year to be 'touched up'.  The masoleum itself is a concrete building that is guarded by the military, who ensure that you stay in line, keep silent and keep walking once you enter the masoleum.  It was a very weird experience, as it felt like we were in a sci fi film where we would be indoctrined into the ways of Communism before being let out!

The Temple of Literature is also a famous landmark - built in 1076 it was the first national university.  It was built to study the works of the famous eastern philosopher Confusis from 500 AD.  The Temple was a collection of around 10 buildings in a Chinese style and also included stone tablets showing the successful candidates who studied there.

After checking out of the tour hotel, we moved to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in the old quarter for our first proper dorm for 10 people (the one in Mumbai didn't count as we were the only ones staying in it!).  This place is a real travellers home, with all the comforts a traveller may want - bean bag/sofa lounge, big flat screen tv for films and tv series (including up-to-date top gear episodes), cheap drinks, drinking offers, games, and cheap food.  
While in Hanoi we visited the theatre to watch the famous water puppets with Christine and Anders.  The stage had a band to the left and a shallow water pond for the puppets - it showed life in Vietnam - e.g. rice harvesting and ploughing.  We found the show a bit random as it was completely in Vietnamese, but definitely worth it.

Hanoi and a lot of Vietnam is covered in French colonial style buildings, from the time the French had occupation of the country.  This is shown by the green shutters around windows, and cathedrals in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.  When the communist party came to power, Ho Chi Minh insisted on keeping these old French buildings, as a part of the countries history, and the better ones are now used as government buildings and embassies.

Since being in Hanoi we have enjoyed the food and drink so much.  The food in the north has a lot more flavour than the south.  Our favourites have been Little Hanoi for chicken with five "tastes" (spices) and fried beef with garlic butter and lemon.  We loved Little Hanoi so much we have been twice.  Another favourite is a place which we don't know the name, as it's in Vietnamese, for pork ribs with special sauce and chicken with lemongrass.  For desert the best place to visit is Fanny's icecream parlour (cue the jokes) where you eat the best sundaes.

Since starting the tour, Neill has been making it his mission to 1) find the cheapest beer and 2) drink every possible local beer.  One way to achieve both objectives is a place called 'beer corner' - selling draft beer for 4,000 dong (12 pence) which you drink while sitting on plastic stolls in the street.  'Beer corner' is actually more of a beer junction, where people sit on the corners drinking beer and watching the street sellers and crazy mopeds drive by at eye level.  Another good place to watch the mental traffic is via Highlands Coffee (which is similar to Starbucks and does good cheesecake) as it situated above a main traffic junction.
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