#9 – Hanoi, Vietnam (population 7.8 million)
The capital of Vietnam is situated in the north of the country and despite its smaller size it is altogether far less frenzied than Ho Chi Minh City down south, which has a population in excess of 10 million.
I visited the previously war torn nation in 1998 when it was far less popular to do so than it is now. The war may have been over at that time for more than twenty years, but everything about the country still seemed to carry the scars and legacy of the battles between the Government & US forces based in the south and the Communist Viet Cong led by Ho Chi from their northern stronghold.
Diplomatic relations had only recently been restored with America’s allies whilst talks were at least underway between Vietnam & U.S.A. aimed at thawing their relationship.
There was still a long way to go mind to be regarded as friends – indeed HCMC’s most popular museum was named the American War Crimes Museum.
I toured the country with my travel buddy Hamish with our route northwards a tortuous one as Vietnam suffered its worst ever floods. Trains were cancelled and bridges washed away and when we eventually braved a minibus from Nha Trang to Hoi An we were to experience the most excruciating & terrifying journey ever – more of that another time.
We arrived in Hanoi from Hue on the overnight Reunification Express train, a rather uncomfortable ride not helped by the two elderly Vietnamese who shared our cabin insisting on eating pungent food and snorting a lot!
With my trip to the Vietnamese capital having been 21 years ago, my memory is somewhat hazy but I do remember that we had an excellent time. Here are a few highlights.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
The centrally located freshwater lake name means ‘lake of the returned sword’ as according to a legend, Emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake in 1498 when a Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) surfaced and asked for his magic sword, Heaven’s Will.
Lợi concluded that Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King (Long Vương) had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against Ming China.
Later, the Emperor gave the sword back to the turtle after he finished fighting off the Chinese. Emperor Lợi renamed the lake to commemorate this event, from its former name Luc Thuy meaning ‘Green Water’.
The Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) standing on a small island near the centre of lake is linked to the legend.
At the time of our visit softshell turtles lived in the lake, but sadly they have now disappeared.
Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple) stands. The temple was erected in the 18th century, honouring the 13th-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in defeating the Mongol invasions of Vietnam; the classic scholar Van Xuong; and Nguyen Van Sieu, a famous writer and official who undertook repairs of temple in 1864.
Jade Island is connected to the shore by the wooden Thê Húc Bridge, painted vermillion red. The bridge’s name is poetically translated as ‘Perch of the Morning Sunlight’.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
The great Ho Chi’s mummified remains lie in a granite mausoleum for devotees to come and pay homage to the Father of the modern nation.
Construction on the building started in 1973 and opened in ’75.
Periodically the body is carted off to Moscow for maintenance by the experts who maintain Lenin in a lifelike state in Red Square.
As luck would have it he had flown his nest during our visit so all we got to see was the outside of the building rather the great man’s mortal remains.
Water Puppet Theatre
Hanoi is home to a rather unusual theatre featuring puppets on wooden poles who skim across the surface of a watery stage.
Re-enacting folklore tales of conflicts, monsters, fire-breathing dragons & gods, a show is a great fun way to spend an hour or so. The Hoàn Kiếm Lake legend is of course a very popular show.
Fire-Breathing Dragons Do Battle At Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theatre
Apart from that, all I remember is the French architecture from when they ruled the country prior to the civil war, US intervention and ultimate Vietnam War.
It rained quite a bit during our visit too and I felt sorry for this lady determinedly going about her business whilst getting drenched. She probably didn’t care in the slightest though…….
We also did a wonderful side trip to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island.