Vacationing in Vietnam 1: Hanoi

At the end of my thesis, Michael and I headed off to Vietnam for a bit of celebratory travel. Overall, we spent eight days in Vietnam. Not nearly enough, but tremendously enjoyable nonetheless. Highlights were the boat trip in Halong Bay and the fabulous town of Hanoi.

On arrival in Ho Chi Minh, we headed straight to the hotel to prepare for our early morning flight to Hanoi. Once in Hanoi, our taxi driver tried to do just what the Lonely Planet detailed in their “Scams” section. After specifying the hotel that we wanted to stay in, he took us to a hotel with a similar name. Kind of like Nike is to Pike. Anyway, we argued and managed to convince the driver to take us to the proper hotel. Funnily enough, it turned out to be much nicer. It was situated on Pho Hang Ma, or Counterfeit street, where imitation ‘ghost’ money is sold for burning in Buddhist ceremonies.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we grabbed a cyclo down to the Ho Chi Minh Mauseleum Complex. Ho Chi Minh was away for repairs, but we had a look through the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Can I say “same same but different”? We would later find out that every Ho Chi Minh Museum has a similar story but at least this one was in a beautiful building. Afterwards, we walked over to One Pillar Pagoda, possibly one of the most beautiful structures I have seen in my life. The temple was built by Emperor Lý Thái Tông, who ruled from 1028 to 1054, because he was told by a monk to replicate an image he had in a dream. In the dream, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara had handed him a baby son while seated on a lotus flower. Lý Thái Tông then married a peasant girl that he had met and she bore him a son.

On leaving, we caught a motorcycle back to the hotel. The driver spoke excellent English and offered to take us to a restaurant at Le Mat, a snake village. We thought, why not, when in Rome…so we grabbed a jacket and off we went. On the way, we crossed the Long Bien Bridge, a cantilever bridge built by the French in 1903 to secure control of North Vietnam. It was destroyed in the war however, some parts of the original structure still remain intact.

Long Bien Bridge

Walking into the restaurant, we spotted several large vases of liquid. It was soon apparent that it was snake wine, something I had tried previously in China but Michael had never seen it before.

One of the snakes was brought out for a dance and we were asked to choose a snake to eat. When we had chosen, one of the waiters cut open the belly in front of us, and ripped out the heart. Then he cut open the throat of the snake, and with the same motion as you would have twisted the water out of a towel, he twisted the blood out of the snake and into a small bowl. The rest of the snake disappeared for dinner preparation.

Dinner consisted of:

  1. Snake browned in fat with chilli and citronella
  2. Grilled chopped snake winded around Lanol
  3. Snake roll
  4. Dry pancake
  5. Crispy fried snake skin
  6. Fried snake by fat pouring
  7. Snake meat grilled
  8. Liver with omelette
  9. Boiled snake with ginger
  10. Coated snake with flour
  11. Soft fried snake skin
  12. Snake porridge – Snake soup

At one point in the dinner, one of the other waiters whisked the blood of the snake into a spirit and presented it as a shot, complete with the still-beating heart. I kindly offered this to Michael, and was particularly surprised when he accepted it.

Here’s to snake… And down it goes…

After being dropped off at the hotel after an interesting dinner, we headed off for a quick drink in the middle of Hanoi after walking around the lake for a while. Then, it was off to bed.

The sights, sounds and smells of Hanoi awaited us on the second day of our trip. After a Vietnamese breakfast of noodles and tea, we called our friendly motorcycle driver and his friend for a tour of the Old Quarter and surrounding Hanoi. Before they arrived, we started the tour ourselves by a quick glance at the Eastern Gate of the city walls.

Off to the Temple of Literature next. The Temple of Literature is the most famous Confucian Temple in Vietnam, featuring on the back of the one hundred thousand dong banknote. I can see why it’s the most famous. It was absolutely stunningly beautiful.

The temple consists of five courtyards. The entrance to the first is via the twin-tiered Văn Miếu gate (above). It leads to three pathways that run the length of the complex. The centre path was reserved for the king, the one to its left for administrative Mandarins and the one to its right for military Mandarins. The first two courtyards are peaceful havens of ancient trees and well-trimmed lawns where scholars could relax away from the bustle of the city outside the thick stone walls.

The third courtyard is mostly taken up by a large pond, called the “well of heavenly clarity.” On either side of the pool are the pavilions sheltering the stele honoring the school’s successful doctorate candidates. Each of the stone slabs sits on the back of a tortoise. Generally, the entire piece is carved from a single block of stone.

The fourth courtyard is bordered on either side by great pavilions which once contained altars of 72 of Confucius’ greatest students but now contain offices, a gift shop and a small museum displaying ink wells, pens, books and personal artifacts belonging to some of the students that studied here through the years. Flanking this courtyard is the bell tower (below). The fifth courtyard held Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1076. This courtyard was bombed and is not yet restored.

After the Temple of Literature, we stopped at the Tran Quoc Pagoda and Temple, one of the oldest in Vietnam. This place was extremely peaceful, and at the time, almost completely underwater. A bodhi tree is situated in the gardens, taken from a cutting of the original tree, under which Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.

We then drove around West Lake, stopping for a picture on the lakeside looking back into Hanoi and a quick look at another temple.

On Michael’s insistance, a quick stop over at the History Museum was in order. Most reviews stated it is worth the trip more for the architecture than the collection. I tend to agree, although the photo below was priceless.

The last stop for the day was Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm). Legend has it that, in the 15th century, Heaven sent Emperor Le Loi a magical sword that he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war, the Emperor happened upon a turtle who took the magical sword and returned it to it’s owner – the Turtle God (Kim Qui). Hence the name Hoan Kiem, meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword” and also known as Hồ Gươm – Sword Lake.

Large soft-shell turtles, either of the species Rafetus swinhoei or a separate species named Rafetus leloii in honor of the emperor, have been sighted in the lake. The species is critically endangered and the number of individuals in the lake is unclear.

Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island on which the Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) stands. The temple was erected in the 18th century. It honors the 13-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in the fight against the Yuan Dynasty, Van Xuong, a scholar, and Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian master and famous writer in charge of repairs made to the temple in 1864. Jade Island is connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted Huc Bridge (The Huc, meaning Morning Sunlight Bridge).

The day finished with our visit to the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre. Whilst I couldn’t seem to get a decent video, I’ve attached a reference to someone else’s on You Tube so that you can see just how cool it was. Can I mention again that I loved Hanoi?