Coming from the calm and orderly Singapore, Hanoi felt even more chaotic. Honestly, if I was doing the trip again, I would have structured the order slightly differently. I feel like my first experience of wandering around Hanoi was so overwhelming that I didn’t get the best first impression. But I figured out dinner, and the next day I went to Ha Long Bay, and by the time I got back, I was ready to embrace the city!
I was staying in the Old Quarter, so a lot of my exploration of the city involved wandering around the winding streets and trying to cross streets (which felt very similar to the video game Frogger). It was walkable to most of the bigger tourist sites, but I did use Grab to call cabs for a few trips since it was fairly hot and humid, even in March.
The first monument I visited was the Hoa Lo Prison, which I found fascinating. It captures a lot of the important periods of history of Vietnam. It was built by the French when they were colonizing Vietnam, and was a location where they held the “radicals” who wanted an independent Vietnam. The first half or so was all about the awful conditions in the prison. From there, it talked about how the prison was used to hold American prisoners of war in the 1960s, where it got the name “Hanoi Hilton.” Famously, the American politician John McCain was held in this particular prison. I am always interested to see how different countries represent history, and this one didn’t disappoint. This period of history is spoken about rather differently in the United States, and when I return to Vietnam, I will definitely want to go see more of the sites in the south closer to HCMC.
There were a lot of beautiful temples and older architecture as well. My personal favorite was the Temple of Literature, which was really pleasant to wander around. I also visited the Imperial Citadel, but that one felt like it was more focused on the archeological and preservation aspects of the site. That was interesting but not really what I was expecting when I visited. That was also one I went to right before I was supposed to go to the airport so I spent my time there a bit stressed about making sure I left on time to go back to the hotel and pick up my luggage. Nonetheless, always cool to see some of the older sites in a country. The Imperial Citadel is from 1010 CE, which is almost unfathomably old coming from the United States!
Another relatively touristy activity that I did was the water puppet theater! This reminded me of the Sichuan opera in China, although that one had a greater percentage of locals to tourists. That said, they’re both performances designed to capture specific local traditions, and while I’m not sure how much the water puppet theater is still performed in Vietnam outside of the tourist centers, it was legitimately cool. The stories were apparently about the founding and myths around Vietnam, and while I didn’t follow the parts that were told in Vietnamese, the puppets were beautiful and the effects were pretty impressive. It was also a nice few hours in an air conditioned theater, so it is a worthy addition to any Hanoi itinerary.
I managed to accidentally save my favorite experience for last. One of the interesting aspects of communist countries is the instinct to embalm their leaders and put them in a mausoleum for all to see. I didn’t go see Mao while I was in Beijing, although in hindsight, I wish I had. So while I was here, I made sure I went to go see Ho Chi Minh. When I showed up to Ba Dinh Square, it was clear that I had managed to time it to overlap with a school’s field trip, as I found myself surrounded by tons of Vietnamese children. After going through security and walking through a grand yet foreboding square – it does rather feel like Tiananmen – I went through the freezing cold mausoleum, and stared down at the man who, in death, looked like a kindly old Vietnamese grandpa. The giant Vietnamese flag and hammer and sickle were present on the wall behind him.
All in all, Vietnam was fascinating. I wish I’d had time to travel to everywhere in the country that I wanted, but it was a great taste of the northern part and I look forward to returning for the other places on my list someday!