Hanoi was a much prettier city than Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam was under French rule for several years and many of the buildings were influenced by French architecture. In the center of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) which had a lovely walkway around it. It was an area popular with the tourist and locals alike. It came alive at night, when the temperature got a little cooler. We walked around one night and observed a couple of aerobic classes, badminton, children playing and couples romancing!
The legend of the lake is the 15th-century war hero Le Loi used a magic golden sword from heaven to vanquish Chinese invaders. While Le Loi was boating on the lake in celebration of his successful martial exploits, a gigantic tortoise rose from the depths and seized the blade, restoring it to its heavenly owner. This story was acted out at the water puppet theater. On a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake, is the Tortoise Tower (Thap Rua) which is linked to this legend.
North of the lake, is the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This was a walled city in 1011, when it was first established. Each of the 36 streets was had a specific craft that the artisans practiced there. The word for street is “Hang” so on Hang Chieu one can still find straw mats or “mat street,” but Hang Bong, or “cotton street,” cotton is no longer sold. Today, it is much the same, only with more modern items. One street had only sewing equipment. On another street, there were only shoes. The streets were extremely narrow and very interesting. Ma Mae Street turned out to be our favorite…it had the best restaurants and souvenir shops.
Tube house were and still are very popular in the Old Quarter. This is because people were and are taxed on their size of their store frontage. So, the stores are very narrow and the rest of the house is divided into sections. In some sections, there is the living space for the family, an area set aside for gardening and for the servants. We ate in a restaurant that was originally a tube house.
Other places that we visited in Hanoi were the War Museum. Vietnam has a long history of war, especially with the French. By the time Mark and I got to the Vietnam war, we had pretty much had enough of the museum. We ventured to the art museum. I loved the folk art exhibit that displayed the art of the various ethnic groups. Their weavings of cloth and baskets were beautiful. Many of the paintings, whether it was on silk, oil or lacquered-wood there was a strong influence of military themes.
We visited Ba Dinh Square which is where Ho Chi Minh’s museum, mausoleum and home are. The Vietnamese love “Uncle Ho”. We visited his modest home, which was behind the opulent Presidential palace. It was the gardener’s house that he chose to live in. His mausoleum was closed, which we couldn’t really find out why. Also, in this park is the One Pillar Pagoda. This was built by King Ly Thai Tong who had a dream that Quan Am, the Asian Lady of Mercy, instructed the King to go to a women, who later became his wife and bore him an heir. King Tong built the One Pillar Pagoda to honor Quan Am.
Another favorite spot of mine in Hanoi, was the Temple of Literature. It is such a beautiful, peaceful oasis in a busy, loud city. Again, it was King Ly Thai Tong who founded this temple in 1070 to pay tribute to the scholars of his kingdom. Eventually, it became Hanoi’s first university. In 1484, Emperor Le Thanh Tong started the tradition of carving the names of graduates in stone steles (or slabs) that are held up by stone tortoises. There was an amazing statue of Confucius in a temple of lacquered wood.
We had our own personal cyclo driver in Hanoi. Sing waited patiently for us to emerge from the Army Hotel. Some times, we had to fib and tell him that we were just walking as we wanted to get to the other side of town quicker. So, we would walk a block and hail a cab. Often, it was cheaper than the cyclo driver. Still, we often would take Sing to the Old Quarter where he would drop us off. He was a good cyclo driver and helped restore my trust in them!!!