Welcome to bustling Hanoi located in northern Vietnam off of the Red River. Its name translates into “City within the River’s Bend”. Hanoi is the capital and the second largest city in Vietnam. Six and half million Vietnamese call Hanoi their home. Hanoi founded in 1010 A.D. offers a magnificent blend of 600 year-old Vietnamese and 19th century French colonial architecture.
We were greeted at the airport by our wonderful and cheerful tour guide, “Sunny”.
Together with the driver we made our way to our hotel the legendary Sofitel Metropole Hotel. As we started driving, Sunny shared that motorists use their horn as a way of saying “I am here”. So just about everyone is honking their horns. The city is a whirlwind of color, sound, lights, and energy. Traffic in Hanoi is crazy. There is a motorcycle for almost every inhabitant of the city. Motorcycles are more affordable and are used to transport just about anything, from families of four to large loads of food or building materials.
Cars have a 200% tax so only the very wealthy can afford them. There is some public transportation in the form of buses. People rely heavily on taxis, motorcycles, and buses to get by.
The Metropole Hotel, built by the French during the colonial period, exhibits an exquisite Art Nouveau design. (The French colonized and occupied Vietnam between 1887 and 1940). Many notable figures have stayed in the Metropole like Charlie Chaplin who honeymooned here in 1936. The hotel continued to house visitors even during the war and used bunkers during the bomb raids to keep them safe. Today the hotel is restored to its original splendor and even offers tours of its restored wartime bunkers. We spent our first evening in Hanoi dining in one of the hotel’s renowned restaurants, the Spices Garden. We enjoyed some traditional dishes like Pho (Vietnamese Noodle soup) and Bun Cha (grilled marinated pork) and refreshing Hanoi Beer.
The next day we met Sunny in the morning for a day tour of Hanoi. Sunny gave us some basic tips. Like any big city there are pick pockets. We were advised to hold on well to our cameras and bags. We were advised to be brave but determined when crossing streets. Sunny not only offered great information on the sights we visited but shared his first hand experiences of growing up and living in Vietnam. Sunny was our first introduction to the very friendly, positive, and optimistic Vietnamese people.
Our first stop was to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, six years before the reunification of Vietnam. His body was sent to Russia to be embalmed. Today many Vietnamese visit his Mausoleum and his body to pay their respects. Since the line was very long we chose just to visit the outside of the Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was a man of simple pleasures. He chose not to live in the colonial presidential palace that had been used by his predecessors. Instead he built a wooden house on stilts.
We visited the Temple of Literature. It is the oldest architectural complex in Hanoi dating back to 1070 and established during the Ly Dynasty. The center was founded in honor of the Chinese philosopher Confucius and functioned as a center of higher learning. During our visit we saw many school children visiting the facility as well a newly graduated students taking their photographs at the Temple.
We strolled around the Hoan Kiem Lake and visited the iconic red bridge, the Huc or Sunbeam bridge, that leads to the Jade Mountain Temple. We visited Buddhist Pagodas and Temples of Confucianism. We learned a lot about the practice of worshipping ancestors or dignitaries. The Vietnamese set up altars where gifts are offered to ancestors or famous people from the past like rulers, teachers, or leaders.
A visit to Hanoi would not be complete without taking a cyclo tour, a modern-day rickshaw. We experienced Hanoi traffic up close and personal riding through the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter was established in the 13th century by the local artisans. Over the years 36 distinct craft guilds developed. Today, the streets of the Old Quarter are named after the craft guilds like, Hang Gai (Silk street), Hang Tre (Bamboo street), and Hang Huong (Incense street). It was so exciting to see the market activity of dozens of shops and restaurants.
In the early evening we attending the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water Puppetry originated in the Red River delta in the 11th century. So here’s my take on the Water Puppet show. If you have young children, if you have an appreciation for puppetry, or if you have an appreciation for a 1000 year-old art form then I recommend the show.
The accompanying musicians played lovely Vietnamese music with traditional instruments like the Dan Bau. At the end of the water puppet performance the puppeteers come out from behind the screen and do a short performance.
In general, cars, buses, and trucks obey traffic lights but for motorcyclists they are merely suggestions. Crossing a street in Hanoi takes a lot of courage. Even if you cross at a pedestrian cross walk, the vehicles will not yield to you, you have to negotiate your way across the street.
After our busy and exciting day visiting the important sites and enduring the stress of crossing Hanoi streets, we ended our day peacefully enjoying a lovely dinner at the The Green Tangerine Restaurant located in the Old Quarter. The Green Tangerine offered a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, a very typical combination found throughout Vietnam.
On my next posting I will bring you to beautiful Halong Bay located about 3 hours by car from Hanoi.
One of the famous visitors who stayed in the Metropole Hotel was Joan Baez. Many of you may have heard of Joan Baez but for those of you who have not allow me to introduce you to one of the best American folk singers and songwriters of our times. Even today, Joan continues to delight her audiences. She has been an activist in the fields of human rights, peace, and environmental justice. My father was a devoted fan of Joan Baez. At the age of 6 he took me to one of her concerts in Forest Hills, New York. I think I was the only child there. Joan Baez visited Hanoi as part of a Peace delegation in 1972. She was lodged at the Metropole Hotel. During her visit, Hanoi was being bombed and she sought refuge in the hotel’s bunkers. After her trip Joan Baez wrote the song “Where Are You Now, My Son?”, which features spoken-word recordings from the bunker and walks in the city after a bomb raid as well as sounds of air-raid sirens and dropping bombs in Hanoi. You can read the lyrics with the link below. Hearing a Vietnamese woman walking the streets after a bomb raid asking, “Where are you now, my son?”, inspired the title. Today the hotel has a special exhibit of the various guests who stayed there including Joan Baez and a copy of the vinyl L.P. “Where Are You Now, My Son?”.
For further reading: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/04/09/2528063/ap-interview-joan-baez-returns.html
For the lyrics of “Where Are You Now, My Son” http://www.joanbaez.com/Lyrics/whereareyou.html