Face to face with Uncle Ho
Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
124Trip End Nov 30, 2011
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Tuesday morning we were up early to go and see Ho Chi Minh. I had unsuccessfully tried to see him on two occasions during my visit ten years ago, so was hoping this was going to be third time lucky – if looking at a dead body can be seen as such. By 8.30am we were at the mausoleum, the holiest of holy places for many Vietnamese, waiting to be allowed to file passed his body. Despite Ho Chi Minh's dying wishes to be cremated, his corpse was embalmed and placed in a glass sarcophagus within a monumental edifice
Within the mausoleum complex there are some other sights to visit and we particularly enjoyed the Presidential Palace complex. Whilst you cannot visit the palace itself, within the grounds are the places where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 until 1969 - most famously the house-on-stilts which symbolises his simple and modest way of living. The house only has two small rooms, a study and a bedroom, with an open outdoor area underneath for relaxing and dining. I wasn’t brave enough to ask where his bathroom was! The other notable building was the unique One Pillar Pagoda, built in the 11th century, and designed to represent a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity. It was relatively small as it is only supported by one pillar, and with so many people trying to go in we chose just to admire it from the outside, rather than fight the masses.
The Temple of Literature is within walking distance of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum so we headed there afterwards. An inscription near the front gate requests that visitors dismount from their horses before entering, but luckily for us we hadn’t brought ours today
It was a hot and humid day which made walking around very tiring, so we decided to go back to the hotel and rest for a little while before exploring the Old Quarter. You could spend hours wandering down the narrow windy alleys of the Old Quarter, soaking up all the sounds and smells. The streets are crammed full of people and motorbikes, as well as street vendors and expensive boutiques alike. There were even streets seemingly dedicated to just one trade such as shoes or flowers.
With only the most expensive tickets for the evening water puppet show left, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat and head for the early performance. This art form originated in the north of Vietnam, and puppeteers now travel all over the world to put on shows. It was only a 45 min show but was fun to watch, despite having no real understanding as to what was being said or sung.
Having seen the most important sights the day before, we were not in a rush to go out exploring on Wednesday morning. We had a leisurely breakfast, checked our emails and then did a little shopping before walking around Hoan Kiem Lake which was certainly not as big as I remembered. The weather was much cooler and the humidity had dropped, which made for a far more pleasant experience than the previous day
On an island on the northern side of Hoan Kiem Lake is Ngoc Son Temple, a small but pretty temple where we were able to watch a calligrapher at work, and see the embalmed remains of a gigantic turtle. Unfortunately scientists believe there are now very few of these giant turtles left in the lake. The tiny Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) located on an islet in the southern part of the lake and dedicated to these turtles, is often used as an emblem for Hanoi.
We headed back into the lovely Old Quarter to soak up a little more of the atmosphere and visit a couple of historic places. Firstly we went to Memorial House, a thoughtfully restored traditional Chinese-style dwelling which gave us an excellent idea as to how the Chinese merchants used to live in this area. We had also hoped to see Bach Ma Temple, the oldest temple in Hanoi, but despite a sign saying it opened at 2pm, after waiting for half an hour for the security guard to get off his mobile phone and open the doors, we gave up and headed to a restaurant for lunch.
We were leaving for the airport very early on Thursday morning to catch our flight to Shanghai, so we spent the remainder of the afternoon packing and relaxing before heading out for dinner. We decided to go to a popular Vietnamese restaurant which we had found on TripAdvisor. It was very simple with no frills and we ended up having to share a table with the locals. I took my last opportunity to order pho which was absolutely delicious and something I will miss about Vietnam
Our travels through Vietnam have had their up and downs, but overall I’m left with a memory of a beautiful country, steeped in history with a lot to offer. I have certainly enjoyed our time here and appreciate the country more than I did 10 years ago. It’s funny how your views and opinions change over time. Tourism is certainly still growing here, and I hope that it is done in such a way that it does not spoil the things that people come to see.
Next stop is the modern Chinese metropolis of Shanghai.