Hanoi for the Holidays

To celebrate Christmas we had a very special guest from home, James’ Dad. Ed had a work trip in Perth, Australia but instead of heading home afterwards he met us in Hanoi, Vietnam to spend the holidays together.  James' Stepmom Carey was unfortunately stuck back home in the States.

We met up at the Angel Palace Hotel on the edge of the Old Quarter, a serene oasis with a busy road just outside the door.  When the taxi pulled up to the curb, the bellman spotted us and rushed across the street to help us with our bags but really to “stop” the traffic. Had we crossed alone, I’m not sure we would have emerged unscathed.  It was a fast paced sea of motorbikes, taxis and cars.  Inside we found Ed, who was already a big fan of the hotel thanks to the wonderful staff. 

Previously I ended a two-week journey through Vietnam in Hanoi about six years ago but only spend 48 hours in Hanoi and for James and Ed it was their first time.  I’m not sure what any of our expectations for spending the holidays there would be or even for just the city itself. Our first night we discussed how we wanted to spend the week during a delicious dinner at the Hanoi institution, Quan An Ngon. We were seated on a small semi-private balcony overlooking the bustling scene below, as the dishes and drinks kept flowing we agreed that THIS was how we wanted to spend the rest of the week – eating!  Ed and I also convinced James take an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay mid-week.     

The next morning we headed out to find some breakfast and would up at a coffee shop.  Wow, I had missed Vietnamese coffee – ITS SO GOOD!  Ed learned to ask for an Americano AND a cup of hot water – voila, a “regular” cup of coffee.  Our only goal for the day was to explore more of the Old Quarter.

Despite the scary street crossings, thanks to thousands of motorbikes, Hanoi is one of the best walking cities. After a motorbike ran over Ed’s foot we realized the secret to crossing the street (there aren’t many traffic lights in the Old Quarter).  When hundreds of vehicles are rushing towards me, my instinct is to try get past them as quickly as possible but when there is no pause in the traffic, that’s the worst thing to do. Rather cross the street very slowly giving the drivers time to see you and steer around you, cause they aren’t stopping.

We walked around the most incredible part of Hanoi, the streets of the old quarter. Stores spill out to the sidewalk, mixed with parked motorbikes and people with carts or wagons of brooms/dusters (all shapes and sizes), china (cups, vases, dishes, plates), plants/flowers, even 100’s of individually bagged aquarium fish! Women walk by with carrying poles with everything needed for an outdoor restaurant: stools, bowls, wash basins, a burner and boiling cauldron of stew (Hanoi’s very own ‘food truck’). Men with mobile locksmith station, cause you never know when or where you’ll need to copy your key. Our favorite entrepreneur was a man’s very own street corner barbershop complete with a reclining chair, mirror and electricity for the shaver; he even had a line of guys waiting!

The streets are named for and organized by the goods sold there. Salt street, silk road (Hang Gai), jewelry (Hang Bac), the Hanoi specialty roasted fish (Cha Ca). We were fascinated by street crowded with welders fusing things together and a road devoted entirely to plastic house-wares.  It is such a unique place, with so much character and 1000-year-old history. 

The two places that we wanted to visit were Hoa Lo Prison “Hilton Hanoi”, originally a French prison “Maison Centrale”, then used for captive American POWs, and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  Most of Hoa Lo Prison was torn down and developed into a high-rise office building.  Having heard so many stories about the prison the remaining buildings and courtyards seem quite small.  Originally built by French colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners, the displays depict prison life for both the Vietnamese prisoners, as well as American POWs. It was gut wrenching to see how the Vietnamese prisoners were starved and brutally tortured by the French. It does help to create the understanding for how important it could have been to the Vietnamese people to retain their independence after France was finally overthrown and reject the occupation by another foreign country thereafter.

There is definitely not an objective voice in the museum signage (most signs are translated in English – a rarity), which tries to paint the picture of a happy, cheerful, and well-fed prison life for the American POWs. Old propaganda videos show American POWs singing at Christmas time and playing card games together but while looking at the old cups, toothbrushes and the bars on the windows I thought of how much the soldiers had to endure – starvation, abuse and torture.  Most of the POWs were American Pilots who had been shot down, including John McCain, whose uniform, helmet and parachute are displayed. 

The same day we also visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and museum, where his embalmed body is on display with armed soldiers standing guard. We quickly entered the solemn building and after a very short wait we walked single file, through the room where he is displayed. Embalmed bodies usually look strange, additionally the low light in the room and the young soldiers add to the overall weirdness of the place. According to wikipedia Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated, which makes me wonder what he would have thought about this everlasting display.

James bought a book about Ho Chi Minh at the museum. One of the most interesting facts revealed to us was Ho Chi Minh's deep appreciation of America's independence and how he wrote to American presidents asking for US support to end French colonialism in Vietnam. I just stumbled on this NY Times Op Ed that discusses a present-day need for a US/Vietnam alliance: