Ha Long Bay
Bac Ha
Hoi An

Dec. 18, Thur. - We were not prepared for the cooler temperatures when we arrived in Hanoi from Bangkok or the massive number of scooters and motorbikes.  The sound of horns honking was constant. Hian, our guide, wasted no time in getting us away from the airport and focused on a full day of experiencing Hanoi.  The city is preserved in a French colonial architecture which has been somewhat frozen due to its isolation since 1954.  We started in the Old Quarter of the city where our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This very Soviet-looking building houses the body of Ho Chi Minh, lying in state in a dimly lit room, as groups of 50 people pass by. Soldiers and surveillance cameras were abundant.

Off of Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945 is his museum (below) and the General Assembly Hall, slated to be rebuilt until archeological diggings uncovered artifacts from seventh century Hanoi.




As we walk along the grounds, we pass groups of ethnic minorities dressed in their finest on their way to a local festival.  We will see similar people when we visit northwestern Vietnam later in the week.

The eleventh century One Pillar Pagoda (wooden), burned by the French in 1954,  was rebuilt so that it now rests on a substantial concrete column rising out of a lotus pond - Buddhist representation of a lotus leaf emerging from the water.  King Ly was said to have built the pagoda in gratitude to the goddess Quan Am for giving him a sign of his forthcoming male heir. Childless couples visit today believing it to have miraculous healing powers.


The Presidential Gardens and Palace built in 1901 was the home of the French governor-general of Indochina.  It was made available to Ho Chi Minh as his residence but he chose to build a more modest home on the grounds.

Ho Chi Minh's home was built in the northern style of the ethnic minorities in 1954.  Situated beside a pond, it is a very peaceful and relaxing setting where he lived the last eleven years of his life.

We made a quick stop at the Sofitel Metropole to drop our bags and ate lunch at the Le Tonkin.

The Temple of Literature was our first stop in the afternoon.  This revered temple complex serves as a principal Confucian sanctuary and a historical learning center.  Dedicated in 1070, its ground plan consists of a series of five walled courtyards.  The first two courtyards are now grass areas where student dormitories once stood. Central to the third courtyard is the Well of Heavenly Clarity- a walled pond- surrounded on each side by the temple's most valuable holdings, 82  stone stelae mounted on tortoises.

Each stele records the results of a state exam given by the National Academy, between 1442-1779, and consists of biographical details of the 1,306 successful scholars, most of whom were sons of mandarins who would serve in civil or government posts.  The temple is adjoined by Vietnam's first university. 

The final courtyard houses two restored libraries where artifacts found on the Assembly Hall grounds are displayed. The House of Ceremonies contains articles used in celebrations over the years. A pair of drum and bell towers were also built for local celebrations and musical events.

A visit to Hanoi would not be complete without a cyclo (pedicab) ride. We used this time to explore the Old Quarter's guild and artisan district. The 36 narrow lanes concentrate the craftsmen and artisans of this commercial district. Historically the architecture of the district is a result of the merchant stalls that were taxed based on store frontage so merchants minimized street exposure by emphasizing depth and height. Merchants built their living quarters above the stalls (tube houses) some barely 2m wide. Today all activity spills from the store to the sidewalk to the street.

Goods are sold by category on each lane. Scooter and motorbike parts on one street, cookware on another, toys and candy the next, bedding, clothing, yard goods, plumbing supplies and sheet metal parts may be found along the successive lanes.

Glimpses of the architecture above the merchant stalls have French colonial ties.

We leave the commotion and excitement of the street vendors and disembark from our cyclo ride to stretch our legs with a walk around Hoan Kim Lake, heart of old Hanoi City.  We catch sight of the Tortoise Tower perched on a tiny islet within the lake.   Nearby is the Den Ngoc Son (Temple of the Jade Mound) which we access from a brightly red lacquered, arched bridge known as the Sunbeam Bridge.

Beside the bridge is the Writing Blue Tower, with the tortoise and pen symbolizing a pen to write on the blue sky.  The 14th Century temple, beyond its sanctuary, is the home of a giant tortoise over 6 feet long, formerly a resident of the lake.

Locals play Chinese chess on the patio behind the temple.

Along our walk, we pass the renovated Municipal Theatre or Opera House, now flanked by a Hilton Hotel.

Early evening, it is time for us to enjoy a performance at the famous National Water Puppet Theater. Dating back to the 10th century, water puppet performances were held in communal ponds and lakes during festivals of the rice cultivating communities. Traditional stories are enacted by lacquered puppets accompanied by live traditional music.  Levers and pulleys as well as long poles are operated by master puppeteers standing in the water behind the curtains. The stories focus primarily on peasant life, rice farming and the famous Hoan Kim tortoise.

We complete our day with dinner at The Emperor Restaurant and then back to the Sofitel.  It is very strange to see Christmas decorations in such a far away and warm location.


On to Ha Long Bay

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