One thing we learned in our two days here thus far: you don’t just look left and right before crossing the street; you look in all directions while crossing. It’s an essential survival tool, I tell you. Unless, of course, you don’t mind being crushed by a motorbike stampede. It’s a lesson we took to heart yesterday as we ventured outside the Old Quarter on foot.
We originally intended visiting the sights via taxi. But lo and behold, in the process of looking for a safe spot to hail a cab, we walked far enough to reach the Citadel. Hence, our first stop. We strolled through the Lenin Park area, where we had a glimpse of the Military Museum and its landmark, the Hanoi Flag Tower. Right across, an imposing monument of Lenin stood authoritatively in the middle of the park.
We then walked through Le Hong Phong Street, apparently the hub of foreign diplomacy here in Vietnam. Along the way, we saw the embassies of Romania, Kuwait, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan, just to name a few. The Polish and Czech embassies are in the adjacent streets.
Our impromptu stroll through that slice of Europe and Middle East led us to our second major stop: the Hô Chi Minh Mausoleum. It’s ironic how the southern city once known as Saigon bears the legendary leader’s name, when his remains are actually here in Hanoi. Within this colossal marble structure rests the Communist Revolutionary leader who served as the country’s prime minister from 1945-1955 and president from 1945 to 1969.
Perched within the compound is the One-Pillar Pagoda, which is a few steps away from the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Built by Ly Thai Thong in 1049, the hut-like mini-temple was inspired by a lotus blossom rising out of the water. It was actually destroyed when the French departed the country in 1954. The structure standing there now is a reconstruction by the new government.
After a quick (and much-awaited) banh mi fix, we continued further down south to visit the Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam’s first university. Built as a tribute to Confucius, this compound remains a touchstone of architectural preservation. Most of the structures remain solid and intact after many, many centuries and it is still used as a venue for academic rites. Entrance fee to the compound is 30,000 VND.
From that century-spanning ode to academic excellence, we then took a glimpse of the country’s grisly past. We traversed the stretch of Hai Ba Trung to get to Hoa Lo Prison. Built by the French in 1896, the defunct prison complex now serves as a museum. For just 30,000 VND, one gets to see grim relics like guillotines, prison beds, shackles, and pieces of narrow sewage ways through which prisoners once tried to escape. The cells and cachots maintain that cold, spooky atmosphere, notwithstanding the fact that mannequins are now stationed there in lieu of real-life prisoners. The complex also once contained US POWs; same US POWs who gave the prison the sarcastic pet name, The Hanoi Hilton. Among its most high-profile prisoners was Senator John McCain, who served as a pilot during the American War. Nowadays, Hoa Lo Prison serves as a reminder of Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France.
After sampling egg coffee from Giang Cafe and attending anticipated Sunday mass in St. Joseph (in the local language, no less), we had our nightcap/dinner at The Hanoi Social Club AKA the Old Quarter’s go-to artsy place.
So, it’s Tam Biet, Hanoi for now. In a few hours, we’re heading to Halong Bay! Hen gep lai!