Vietnam Part 5 – A Second Look at Hanoi
It was about ten o’clock and pouring rain as our plane from Hue taxied from the terminal. We, and the rest of central Vietnam, had escaped the full wrath of Typhoon Haiyan. We were headed back to Hanoi. I sent a text to our Airbnb host, Tung, to confirm that we were actually leaving and apologized that we would be keeping him up late when he had to get up for work in the morning. “No worries. Glad you’re safe.” He’d been worried about us for days because we refused to leave central VN in advance of the storm.
It was still pouring when we stepped outside at the Noi Bai airport. We still had relatively little luggage, so I bought tickets for the airport bus inside the building. When we got outside, there were large buses and shuttle buses. I asked which bus, and an attendant said it didn’t matter. After the last experience with a large bus, I motioned to Mike that we would take the shuttle bus. We sat as passengers sporadically boarded our bus. I saw the large bus leave, and still we sat, and sat and sat…. It must have been half an hour before our bus was filled to capacity – meaning every seat was filled, including the drop down ones that removed any aisle access. Had I made a mistake in choosing this bus?
It is rather a long drive from the airport to bus station in the north part of Hanoi, so we settled in for the ride. However, even before we saw signs of urbanity, the bus stopped to let off a passenger, who then rushed through the rain to a waiting car. This kept happening. Sometimes a taxi was waiting, sometimes not. Perhaps this was not your typical bus, but closer to the door-to-door shuttle we find at home? The driver had asked for our address, at least I thought that’s what he had asked. I showed him our destination. Tung had told us on a previous taxi ride that if the driver didn’t know how to find his place, to have him call his cell. Tung was already going to be waiting up for us, so I thought there was no harm in also giving him the cell number. However, the driver didn’t seem to have much English and we certainly had no VN, so we had no idea what was going on as the bus continued to empty. All I could tell is that we were still heading south through Hanoi, and with Tung’s place south of the center, that we were headed in the right general direction. As we got very close to home, the bus stopped but the driver didn’t open the doors and the driver didn’t say anything. Mike said to him that we could get out here because it was as far as a vehicle could go, but the driver motioned that we should wait. Then through the heavy downpour we could see Tung coming towards us carrying umbrellas. He walked us home, and after a few moments of hugs and greetings, we all went off to bed.
We hadn’t seen much of the tourist sites on our first stay in the city, so the goal over the next few days was to correct that. This included visiting what became our favorite museum in the entire country - the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The museum is one of several buildings in a complex dedicated to his memory. We had planned to visit them all, but managed to see only the museum, as the others were closed. We think that this was because his body was in transport (it is sent occasionally to Russia for “maintenance”). At any rate, guards were everywhere and unlike the HCMC police, not very friendly or helpful. However, the museum itself was worth the trip. It is extremely modern with beautifully artistic exhibits and relatively free of propagandist material. It is a large place, so if you go, allow several hours to do it justice.
Another favorite was the water puppet show. There is much written about this show, and I think many of the negative reviews are due to ignorance about the art. So two pieces of advice: get your tickets well in advance, so that you can be close to the stage (front row is preferable is you have long legs); and read up on the history of water puppetry. Its roots are in the countryside, and the artistry is closely guarded. We really enjoyed the show, but hope to see a performance in its rural setting one day. There is a small but excellent bookshop in Hanoi with offerings from The Gioi - Foreign Languages Publishing House. You will find many very inexpensive publications on history and culture as well as scholarly tomes that are quite dear.
A wonderfully gentle man whom we met in Hanoi alerted us to the existence of this bookshop. I received his contact information from a “friend of a friend” stateside. He is a Vietnam veteran who returned after the war with the intention of spending a couple of years doing something to counterbalance the physical harm done by the war. Decades later, he remains in VN. His work involves removing unexploded ordinances (aka bombs) and organizing micro loans to individuals, all done through Project Renew. Here is a somewhat dated but still valid article.
The Vietnam War remains a volatile subject today. I won’t offer further comment except to say that if you are interested in supporting his cause, Project Renew is a recognized charitable organization here in the U.S. The website offers a good summary of what they do and the list of sponsors and partners may surprise you.
As far as other common tourist destination, we found the Temple of Literature quite disappointing. We didn’t manage to get to the Women’s Museum in Hanoi, but I wonder if it is similar to the one in HCMC, which I will review later. We also didn’t make it to the highly regarded Ethnic Museum. We did walk a bit of the gigantic art wall running through the northern part of the city. It’s an amazing accomplishment. There is a good write-up on this link.
We again enjoyed various city parks as we did in HCMC. However, in Hanoi many required a small entry fee from tourists. Once again, we found that they offered a wonderful escape from the noise, pollution and chaos of the city. They are well used by residents, so they are great source for people watching. The botanic gardens are small but interesting. The lake area near Thuy’s (West Lake) is much more peaceful than Hoan Kiem. However, we did return to Hoan Kiem to visit the island. Ngoc Son Temple is tiny but interesting. It offers a place of quiet place for reverence of the turtle who restored the sword, not to mention the preserved corpse of a lake turtle. Here is a link to a VN news article about the legend/history and local attitudes.
This temple is also where I found the coils of incense that had so far eluded my search. However, the exchange of funds ended up being a donation to the temple, as the monk insisted I not pay for incense. As we were leaving, we noticed men in business suits excited at a fish one of them had just caught. It seems they had just left a business event at the restaurant on the island. How they came to be equipped with fishing gear remains a mystery.
We also returned to the lake near Tung’s apartment, Thien Quong Lake. Being in a non-tourist part of town, we were the only westerners. We enjoyed seeing the locals, mostly women at that time of day, doing their exercises, while some men fished. It is smaller lake than Hoan Kiem, and probably not worth a special trip, but if you are in the area, it’s a pleasant walk around the park.
People watching is frequently the best part of any trip. It was along the route to Tung’s park that we found a group playing ping-pong in an apartment courtyard. We stood and watched for a while, and were invited to join them. Mike demurred, and had tea as a reward. Never afraid to make a fool of myself, I enthusiastically accepted. I first played opposite a woman, who took mercy on me with her fairly gently volleys. I then played opposite a man. I am far from skillful, but that doesn’t inhibit my competitive sense. I was putting forth whatever effort I could to make good shots, and after I succeeded once in scoring a point, he quickly taught me the errors of my ways.
Another evening, we returned to the old part of the city for dinner too early to be seated, so we stopped at a small street-side bar for pre-dinner beers. Nearby was a man repairing bicycles outside a tiny garage space, with perhaps his granddaughter behind him quietly amusing herself. With a deftness that defies description, he patiently balanced the wheels of a drop-off repair job. No calibration machines – just his eye for the imperfect spin and then a loosening or tightening of the spoke. I asked if I could take his picture, and he responded with a look of puzzled agreement – weird western lady!
Dinner that night was at a wonderful small and rather up-market place called “Madame Hien” - 15 Chan Cam. It is housed in the ancestral home of François Charles Lagisquet, who arrived in Vietnam as a volunteer for the French army in 1885. He later moved to Hanoi, and eventually married a Vietnamese woman. He was the architect of the Hanoi Opera House and lived in Hanoi until his death in 1936. When his wife moved to HCMC, the villa was sold to a Hanoi doctor. After going through various iterations, including housing the Spanish Embassy, it became “Madame Hien” (after the owner’s grandmother and dedicated to all the women of Vietnam) in 2010. There are other restaurants under an umbrella organization called La Verticale. http://www.verticale-hanoi.com/ Assuming “Madame Hien” is a representative example, I would check out their other restaurants in Hanoi. The evening was clear and calm. The setting was beautiful. The food was outstanding. And Mike finally managed to have a taste of Vietnamese rice wine – in this case, brown rice wine– the best he’s ever had, and the only rice wine I have liked.
Our final night we were to have drinks and then dinner with our host Tung and his girlfriend. As usual, we were early, so we settled in at a nearby park to watch some Da Cau, Vietnam’s version of badminton played with the feet. The athleticism required to play this game is astonishing, and by the way, we were not invited to join in. Although the game is played with a large weighted shuttlecock, the players’ moves more resemble volleyball with its sets and spikes. Great stuff!
At this same park there were all ages zipping around on inline roller skates, skateboards, and a strange hybrid – like foot-sized skateboards, one per foot. Each foot rested on a tiny platform with two wheels and no straps. How anyone stayed upright is a mystery. And I finally managed to get a good photo of the crazy VN power lines.
Tung and M. met us for drinks and snacks near the night market. Tung arrived as usual by motorcycle, but without his helmet. In our assumed roles of surrogate mom and dad, he was dutifully lectured, and he dutifully promised to comply. After dinner at a seafood place, we said our goodbyes to Tung’s girlfriend we all went to bed as we had an early flight to HCMC. Tung ordered a taxi for the morning airport run.
The taxi arrived promptly despite the very early hour, and we said our goodbyes to Tung with promises on both sides to stay in touch. Another wonderful chapter had ended.
Have a look at all the photos.
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Vietnam Part 5 – A Second Look at Hanoi