Hanoi: Confucius, Ho Chi Minh, & Old Quarter

All went as scheduled for my flight from Tokyo to Hanoi and I arrived at my hotel around midnight on Weds.  The hotel, the Hilton Hanoi Opera, was about what I expected and check-in was easy, I was upgraded to the executive floor, and the room was very nice – nothing extraordinary, but a solid room with expected amenities.

Having no real idea what time it was on my body clock, I managed to sleep for a little over three hours and then hit the town at 4:30 a.m. local time.  Hanoi has a reputation as an early to bed, early to rise town and I think it might be deserved.  I walked about 10 minutes over to Hoan Kiem lake, which is basically the center of Hanoi, and by 5:30 a.m. there were hundreds of people there – walking, exercising, jogging, swinging their arms around, etc.

In fact, exercising in public parks is quite common here, more so than you expect to see in the U.S.  In addition to assorted exercising, I saw line dancing and playing badminton several times throughout the day and throughout the city during my time here.

After returning to my hotel for a breakfast of dim sum, spring rolls, and coffee in the executive lounge, I headed west for the Temple of Literature, which was about a 45 minute walk for me.  Built originally in 1027, it honors Confucius and also honors Vietnamese scholars and encourages the pursuit of education and wisdom.

Confucius

Confucius

It has quite a bit of information in English and French throughout the five courtyards and can easily be toured in 45 minutes or so.  Like many of the temples that I have visited in Asia, there is only so much time you can spend appreciated the courtyards, the reflection ponds, and the pagodas.

Since I was in the general vicinity, I decided on a half hour walk up to see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum.  The Vietnamese take this quite seriously as it is the equivalent to if we had George Washington lying in state in D.C.  After lots of queueing, a security checkpoint, and admonishments to be quiet and keep our hands out of our pockets, it takes only a few minutes to walk around him.  He looks pretty good for someone who has been dead for 30+ years.

It kind of makes me wish I had gone to see Mao when I was in Beijing a couple of years ago.

After this, it was off to the Old Quarter.  I stopped in route to take in the quintessential Vietnam experience of eating Pho Ga at a food stall on the street.  These are omnipresent throughout the city and perhaps this has been what has kept McDonald’s and KFC out for so long.

Pho is a noodle and broth dish that can be accented with chicken (Ga) or beef (Bo).  I have no idea what the other ingredients are but the woman put in several different types of herbs and spices.  The price was 30,000 dong – about $1.50 USD.

Pho Ga

Setting aside any concerns about sanitation, refrigeration, and the like, the most difficult part of this is sitting my 6’2″ frame onto a one foot high stool that might be one square foot in butt landing area.  But, this is how the locals eat their food, drink their beer, and pass their time.

image

The Old Quarter is a warren of streets just north of the lake.  Comprised of about 36 streets, the streets were originally named for the type of product sold on the street.  So, Hang Gai means Silk Street (Hang=street) while Hang Vai means Cloth Street.  Of course, over the years, the distinction between streets has not held up strictly, but you can still tell when you have passed from one area of specialization to another.

I spent a couple of hours wandering around and it was exhausting.  Noisy, crowded with little space on the sidewalks and streets, it is a place where the term cacophony can appropriately be used in its description.  There is a little touting and solicitation but not near as pervasive as I thought it might be – certainly not as much as a Westerner experiences in a souk in the Middle East or at Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai.

Most of the offers are for tuk tuk rides or motobike rides and some type of pastry that was offered by several older women.  There were occasional offers for massage or to “go boom boom” but this occurred maybe 10-15 times in total during my time in Hanoi.  The good news is that a simple no or shake of the head was all that was needed as the hawkers were not that aggressive.

After seven hours on foot, I was ready for a break and took the recommendation from my hotel for a reputable spa and got a one hour massage for the equivalent of $35 USD.  The spa was located at the Hilton Garden Inn, just a few blocks from my hotel and it was very professional.

After taking a four hour nap, I was ready to explore Hanoi in the evening. I headed to the Night Market in the Old Quarter.  Like other night markets I have gone to, it is basically the same as a “day market” but darker.  That’s it.

Next on the agenda was to have a drink and get some food.  My first stop was Bottoms Up, a small bar that has a capacity of maybe 20-25 people and overlooks the Old Quarter.  Bottled beer ran 35,000 dong and the primary interest of the bartender here was his “mix” of music.  It was actually pretty good and he did not focus on this at the expense of serving.  Alas, there was not much on offer in regards to food, so I headed out.

Finnegan’s Pub is billed as an ex-pat place but was mostly empty when I got there around 10:30 p.m.  But, they did have good pub food and I got a steak pie and chips for a cheap price.  I next stopped at The Polite Pub which has sports on TV and a darts/billiards area in back.  Located on street level, the police stopped by exactly at 12:00 midnight and closed the place down, as I have read is often the case in Hanoi.  But, everyone just went out the door and directly into the place next door, Long Play Bar.

I had been talking with some Brits and joined them next door.  I’m not sure what the licensing differences are but the primary difference seemed to be that this place rolled down the metal gate in front, thereby creating the conditions for one of the tragedies one reads about from the third world where dozens of people die in a fire trap that was sparked by an electrical fault.

Electrical safety

I don’t think electrical codes are quite the same here as back home.

Finishing up the night, I had some good conversation with Shane from California who lives in Thailand with his Thai wife and has been working on a project in Hanoi for the past couple of years.  Having spent 12 years in Southeast Asia, he was able to give me some good insights into the region and he enjoyed running into an American since most of the ex-pats he comes across are Aussie or British.

I wrapped up the night and finished the day with the 20 minute walk back to the hotel.  Having walked all over town, at all hours of the day and night, I never once felt unsafe.  Well, maybe when crossing the street but that is for the next post.

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