Hanoi from what I understood has got two distinct touristy areas, one being the Old Quarter and the other being the area which I call the presidential quarter. This is where we decided to spend our second day in the city. From the time leaving our hostel we knew it was not going to be an easy day as even at 9am, the heat and humidity made its presence felt.
Usually on trips like this, we have a look at our Lonely Planet and decided where to go based on some of the suggestions. However, this time round, with my fancy pants iPhone, I had an app that gave you the sights on a map (which also showed your position by GPS) which meant you could actually see where you were going and how far from the sights you were.
We soon found out that some of the sights on the app weren’t open to the public, and we found out the hard way. Our first sight was the Hanoi Citadel which was not mentioned in the Lonely Planet or the hostel map, so we walked around there where my little app told me to go… We should have been slightly suspicious by the fact that there were military all over the place and kept having the blow whistles at us telling not to walk in various directions. At one point when we asked a military guy for direction he simply motioned for us to walk back in the direction we came from.
It was only when we walked back to the main road we noticed the massive sign saying “Restricted Area” that we realised why all the military guys weren’t too happy to see a camera totting couple nonchalantly walking around there. To add to our worry, we realised that the Citadel was not open to the public (or at least to us). Considering that in every direction we seemed to point a camera at there was someone in fatigues and gun, we thought it wise not to take photos, but simply kept on walking until we found some worth photographing without being shot at.
We eventually ended up at the Western lake which had a shrine which we ended up going to see to escape from the morning sunshine and get away from the noise coming from the roads. The shrines were kind of losing their shine on us as we already has seen they all looked very similar.
After resting sufficiently in the shade, we braved the warm sun again and walked towards the presidential palace which, surprise surprise, is not allowed to be photographed from the outside as there are more fatigues and their dreaded whistles, though I did manage to sneak a photo of the former French governors house, which is now painted in sunflower yellow, like almost all public buildings in the country.
As soon as you pass the palace you are faced with what Communism loves: Embalming people and putting them in huge monuments for people to come and visit. In China you have Mao; In Russia you have Lenin and in Vietnam you have Ho Cho Minh, the founder of modern Vietnam. In another stroke of misfortune, Mr. Minh was not in town as he was on his yearly holiday to Russia for restoration work. Bummer. We didn’t see a dead embalmed leader in glass casket.
To add to our miserly we also just missed the closing time for his museum which celebrates his life and work. However once again due to the scorching heat, we headed for the adjacent park which also sports the One Pillar Pagoda, where we decided chill out in the shade for a while until we our stomachs prompted us to move in order to search food.
Once again our search for food led us to a little food street stall where the noodles and very rare beef thrown in it, was as apetising as it looked i.e. absolutely horrendous. It was so bad that we decided to find another place to fill out stomachs with (which ended being in an air conditioned cafe across the street) where we also sought shelter from the sun until the weather subsided a little.
Once refreshed by some better food and fresh (cool AC air) we walked a bit further one to one of Hanoi’s biggest sights: the Temple of Literature, one of several temples in Vietnam dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucious. The temple also houses the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university.
The temple reminded me a lot of the Forbidden City in Beijing due to its architecture, but also the sense of calm and peace it provides visitors from the hustle and bustle from the city around it. The immaculately maintained gardens with its little bonsais are so calming to walk through and the peaceful and ornate temples with its intricate and ornate woodwork are so beautiful that you can’t help but be awestruck.
After the exhaustion from the busy day walking in the heat look for closed sights, the Temple of Literature was such good little break for us, however we needed to get back towards our hostel as we starting our Sapa trek the same evening with the overnight train ride to Lao Cai.
On our way back to the hostel we walked past Lenin Park (Vietnam is still a “Communist” country hence these names), which was filled with kids playing badminton, football and a variety of other exercises, which reminded me very much of when I was in Beijing and saw the same thing in the parks there.
We enjoyed our two days in this bustling city but were really looking forward to a more natural surroundings of the mountains in Northern Vietnam.
This post is based on our day of the 1oth of September 2012