Around Hanoi with Uncy Ho

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Friday, December 9, 2005

Despite Hong the mototaxi driver taking me to Danang airport instead of train station ("no dude, I said 'choo choo'!"), I eventually made it onto the northbound overnight train en-route to Hanoi.

I keep booking things too late so I was relegated to the Hard Sleeper again, but that was ok as I ended up in a cabin with an interesting electrical engineer and a family with small but mercifully quiet baby boy who made funny faces all the time.

Dinner and supper were interesting rice gruel affairs, but the views between Danang and Hue before it got dark made up for that. Apart from a ticket collector checking things at 4.30 in the morning, I slept pretty well, and arrived in Hanoi (an anagram of last stop 'Hoi An' oddly enough) at 8am.

I'm really pushing things time-wise now, so hit the 36 streets area after a quick shower. I had a lot of things to research, do and see today so I had to make it count. The 36 streets are is the Old Quarter of town, a maze of narrow laneways adopted by the city guilds back in antiquity, to serve as the base of their operations. Nowadays it is one of the most densely populated urban areas around, with more than 2100 inhabitants per square kilometre and averaging only 1.3 sq metres of living space per person. I'm not sure if that adds up but I read it somewhere around.

As the streets are a warren and packed with motorscooters racing about in every direction, I promptly got lost and took a couple of tiring and frustrating hours to get my bearings. Once I did, I hit the central Hoan Kien lake area to visit the Martyr's monument, a hunk of white statue amongst the mutli-coloured scooters, as well as a refined and surprisingly serene island temple called Ngoc Son.

The red Rising Sun wooden bridge over to the temple was a highlight, along with the colourful murals, huge paintbrush obelisk and scripting on the solid front gates. The temple itself is shrouded with old growth trees so was very difficult to picture (that's it on the lake pictured a couple of rows up), however some of the peripheral amenities such as a large external fire area came up ok. I sat and gathered my senses there for a little while before heading back into the milieu.

Onto the uninspiringly named but highly worthwhile Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 and a well preserved, maintained and apparently rare example of traditonal Vietnamese architecture in the capital. It's a series of walled courtyards with pathways and gates between them, and a bunch of really nice old buildings and lotus ponds to top it off, all dedicated to Confucius on inception. The main reason it's here is that it was the site of the first university in Vietnam, established in 1076, and to house 82 marble stelae that record the details of men who received Doctorates at the university until the 15th century.

Next stop was a visit to Uncle Ho's museum, although the place runs to Communist hours so wasn't open when I got there. However, the monstrous Russian-designed building that houses the museum was a sight to behold in itself, so I wandered there for a while pondering all the interesting things I would have to miss out on inside. Oh well. Marching army squads and hard-line party members exercising mechanically (and looking sometimes menacingly in the foreigner's direction) in the grounds were also of interest.

Around the way was Ho Chi Mihn's sometime residence between 1954 and 1969, a stilt house modelled on traditional designs still venerated by these faithful followers in a city that certainly has a different feel to its southern rival (Saigon). Further evidence of this could be found around Uncle Ho's mausoleum (also closed in the afternoon), a huge columned box fronted by a massive grassed square (Do not walk on the grass!), flanked by Party Assembly and Ministry buildings on its periphery. The Uncle Ho wanted to be cremated to save land didn't wash with officials in either Hanoi or Moscow, and the building above right is the Russian designed result (they also did the taxidermy).

Final stops included another war memorial, a structure looking like it is meant to house an eternal flame, but the area was cordoned off so I couldn't find out. Rest assured that it was formal, ugly and imposing-looking. Last but not least was the Lenin monument - one of the only remaining (if not the only?) statues of the visionary but superceded man still to be found in the Communist world. Obviously still an important ideological figure here, he has even had his name Vietnamised (LE NIN) for this tribute.

Also of interest was an old Vietnamese house first constructed in the 18th century. Two stories and quite spacious and light, it is wider than 'tube' blocks of today that are as narrow as possible so as to minimise the Frontage Tax that has/had? to be paid throughout urban areas (explains the narrow blocks Saigon too). Decked out in traditional furnishings, the souveneir selling aspect was a little overdone, but it also houses and feeds some traditional artists of the area so worth a peek inside.

Tomorrow I'm off to Halong Bay for a two day tour and then I'm racing to Hong Kong to meet Dad. Will I make it on time? Nobody knows. It will probably prove to be an interesting trip so tune in next time...

Next entry -> World Heritage beauty of Halong Bay

Those crazy bastards...

It's been a bit more than a month since I visited Myanmar, backwater of Asia since a military dictatorship came to power in the 60s to the general displeasure of the international community.

Still, in this time the madcap generals have decided to move the capital of the hapless country to some unknown location in the scrub hundreds of kilometres north of Yangon, thinking it's more central and that they're going to get attacked by the US. You can read about this brilliant move here:

What a bunch of clowns.
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