This trip was to be an independent trip, in the sense that we, (my brother and I) were gonna fly to Vietnam and have our own holiday where we would do all of the planning and assume all of the responsibilities. While my brother wanted to go to Vietnam because it was convenient and helped him use up his expiring miles, I had never been to its major cities before, hence we decided on the capital, Hanoi. After a smooth three hour flight from Singapore, I got to experience my first taste of the capital city of this country steeped in history.
During the drive from Noi Ba International Airport to the Hanoi Hilton (the hotel located in the historic old quarter, not the prison located in Hoa Lo), I got to experience some sights and sounds that reminded me a lot of a drive from an Indian Airport to the city but with a few significant differences. The first of these differences was the lack of blaring horn noises from dangerous bus and truck drivers, the second was the significant contrast in scenery - from the beautiful and peaceful shots of rice fields and lush green grassy fields, to the chaotic onslaught of traffic in the city. In the few hours that I have been here i’ve seen and experienced many things. The most significant event so far has been the Hotel staff’s assumption that I am Mrs Natrajan when in fact, Mrs Natrajan is my dear mother. It is evident that from my understanding Nitin in this part of the world seems to sound like a girls name or it could be due to the fact that since my brother booked the hotel, they assumed we were a married couple. Thankfully we cleared this up after check-in.
The drive also allowed me to experience some interesting vietnamese transportation solutions, the first of which were the bus stops which, from my understanding, were just signs placed and random intervals. The second of which were the large number of motorcycles people were using and how they were used for just about anything. Since motorcars are significantly expensive in this country, bikes here are used for a myriad of transport solutions and it makes for an interesting scene. The drive from the airport to the hotel only gave me a very small look into the historic old quarter, famous for its French Colonial remnants, and monuments to the revolution such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the nearby Lenin Garden. As of now my brother and I have yet to see much but as these few short days go by we shall be seeing more and more places. Our first stop today is a cooking class where we shall be learning some vegan vietnamese cuisine, fingers crossed we don’t kill ourselves from our cooking.
Prior to the cooking class the people who ran the class took us to the nearby market where they collect their produce for their kitchen. In the market it was divided up into the vegetable and meat sections. The meat section was rather interesting, mostly in terms of the products available. The products available ranged from fish to eel to toad and to crab. I was rather shocked at one point in the market when there was this one woman preparing frogs. This woman literally bashed the frogs head against the side of a wall and then proceeded to skin them. Had I taken a picture of this, it would’ve been the ideal poster for PETA.
After the rather eye-opening market tour we proceeded back to the cooking school to start the class. As we had signed up for a vegan tofu cooking class we got to try and cook four dishes which utilised the fresh taste and smooth texture of the finest Vietnamese tofu. The dishes ranged from a soup dish which has green bananas in it to something called a tofu cake.
After a solid hour of cooking, in which I found myself to be quite the master in the kitchen, my brother and I then proceeded to eat all the dishes that we prepared. Out of all the dishes that my brother and I prepared, I quite liked the tofu cakes as it was a different way to prepare the tofu plus the garnish of vietnamese herbs added to the pleasant taste. The cooking class also gave us an opportunity to try try Vietnamese wine and beer. Though I was expecting something like Phu Yuk from the James Bond Movie, the Man with The Golden Gun, it actually turned out to be half decent and the beer had a smoother and kinder taste compared to my usual blend of Singaporean made Tiger Beer and Dutch Heineken.
After the cooking class we retired back to our hotel room to relax till night time when my brother and I explored more of the Old Quarter, taking in sights such as the opera house, water puppet theatre, the lake, and the market. We didn’t see much apart from the opera house and a photo shoot for an upcoming bridal fair in Hanoi, thus my brother and I retired back to the hotel room to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead which little did I know would involved trekking through the streets of Hanoi with sweltering mid summer sun overhead.
Today we explored most of what this Capital city has to offer. The day started off with a cab ride to the church where we reached just before Sunday Mass. I was in awe of the French inspired stained glass artwork although at the time I was unable to fully capture these pieces of art with my camera as both my lenses kept fogging up. The architecture had a Notre Dame style facade and the overall layout of the church in essence looked liked a smaller version of the famous church in Paris. Afterwards my brother and I took a nice “gentle” stroll to the lake, I put the inverted commas on the word gentle as we had to fight some of the infamous traffic Hanoi and almost all Vietnamese cities have. After fighting the Sunday morning chaos we reached the lake and I felt an incredibly calming feeling just looking upon the lone Chinese style pagoda which was situated in the middle of the lake. There is something interesting looking upon the old, lone pagoda in the in the foreground of what we know has modern vietnam with multinational companies situating their regional headquarters in the tall buildings stacked around in the background.
After spending some time walking around the lake we walked past a park which had a large monument to a Buddhist Scholar. The look of the statue almost reminded me of Confucius in terms of his facial hair and his stature. Adjacent to the monument was a little park where a junior marching band was rehearsing. Though the tone, intonation and timbre was slightly off due to the lack in tuning, you could see through some of the kids emotions that they were really putting their heart and soul into it and in the end that is what really matters. While the youngsters were rehearsing for their band, a group of teenage youths were getting ready to do some freestyle dance, most of these involved robot style dances. I was hoping for some sort of battle between the band and the youths dancing but sadly a Pitch Perfect/Step Up style dance/band battle never came to fruition.
After the lake we took a visit to the famous Hanoi Hilton, no not the hotel but the prison which was famous for keeping many Americans during the Vietnam War, one in particular was 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain. The prison was not as big as it once was as most of it has been broken down due to construction of new buildings. The prison was first constructed during the French colonial days on a spot that was originally home to ceramic and pottery craftsmen, it was originally conceived as a prison for Vietnamese revolutionaries. The prison museum highlighted this with an example of a turn of the 20th century kiln. After this introduction area there was a section dedicated to some of the Vietnamese revolutionary generals who did time at Hoa Lao prison. These generals are highly revered in this country for their their fight against the French colonialists during the breakup of Indochina.
The section which most people see the museum for is that of the American POWs. This section featured how the Americans were treated there and it showed some of the flight uniforms of the captured B52 pilots. The museum goes to great lengths to showcase how the Viet Cong treated American POWs far better than the French colonial government treated Vietnamese revolutionaries. While I do not know how accurate this is, one of the exhibits showcases American POWs having fun playing basketball and volleyball, interacting with the Vietnamese press, and receiving letters from their loved ones abroad. This museum played a video claiming that the POWs were lucky to be prisoners of the Vietcong as they were supposedly treated well and educated during their “stay at the Hilton".
After the museum my brother and I decided to walk to the Temple of Literature, a place which evokes a educational and literary mindset. Unfortunately this walk ended up being rather uneducated as my brother, the navigator, ended up making me walk a good 20 minutes in the opposite direction. Had the weather been more in our favour I would’ve gladly walked in the other direction back but since it was the middle of summer with the tropical sun blazing down on us, we hopped in one of the city’s cheap cabs and set forth for the temple. The temple was quite crowded and it was only after we walked through the first few gates when we discovered why it was so crowded. It appeared that there were a large group of students, most likely university students, who were celebrating graduation in their shiny bright blue and red robes. The temple featured some Chinese style architecture and Chinese style buddhist idols, it was all jolly calming and relaxing.
After this we set course for Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The museum was incredibly crowded and noisy and majority of the noise came from a championship winning kids football team. This was made evident to us when they turned up in their kit running around with their trophy in hand.
The museum featured many of the famous leaders' personal items including his spectacles. One section dedicated to Vietnam’s territorial claims and disputes featured pictures of the Vietnamese navy featuring shiny new stealth frigates from France. The museum visit was cut a bit short as I couldn’t handle the incredibly loud noise and the large number of kids running about. The raucous noise spoilt the atmosphere for me. Afterwards we went to the Mausoleum and found that it was closed. The most probable explanation for the closure was that the body must’ve been sent to Russia for “restoration works.” The visit however was not a waste as we got to experience the changing of the guard. It was done in typical communist style : military precision with ample goose-stepping. The whole area reminded me of Beijing’s Tian’an’men Square but to about a tenth of the size. I do have to admire the the cleanliness of the area, it was incredibly pristine and the ceremonial uniforms of the guards were clean and very white, not a speck of dust on them. After the visit to the area we then proceeded to the Lenin Garden.
The walk to the Lenin Garden took my brother and me through some considerably calm (in terms of traffic) areas of Hanoi. I assume it was quite a calm area due to the proximity of the Mausoleum and the fact that it was one of the main embassy areas. We walked passed embassies of many different countries ranging from Switzerland, Malaysia, Romania, to Poland. After the incredibly calm walk we reached Lenin Garden which had a tall proud statue of the first leader of the USSR surrounded by neatly trimmed flowers and plants. Opposite the garden was the army museum which is famous for featuring many relics from the Vietnam War, most notably a Mig Fighter jet which took down 14 enemy jets: we could tell by the number of stars painted on the side of the aircraft.
As I was feeling rather exhausted from basically walking around the entire city, I decided to retire to the hotel for some rest but not before a lunch stop at the Sofitel Metropole hotel. The Metropole is to Hanoi what the Raffles hotel is to Singapore, an iconic hotel that dates more than a hundred years. The hotel is mostly famous for its patisseries which feature proper french style macaroons and cakes along with a pair of 1950s Citroen limousines with white wall tires. After a sinful lunch at the hotel’s italian restaurant we deiced to head back to the room just to rest before heading to the market in the evening to buy some souvenirs.
After a well deserved nap we ditched the camera in the hotel room and set off towards the main market area to buy some gifts. I was looking for some material to give to a good friend of mine who’s studying to be a fashion designer and what I found in Hanoi is that majority of the silk stores don’t seem to sell material on its own but pre-made shirts and dresses. After some hunting and navigating through the incredibly chaotic bike traffic we found a small little store where we found suitable material. However we hit a problem, we had the material just not enough of one currency to pay for it so we ended up paying for the material in a combination of Singapore and US Dollars, and unintentionally got an additional discount on top of our bargained price. After the trip to the silk market we had to head to the supermarket to pick up some vietnamese chilli sauce and cashew nuts for our dear parents. After almost getting run over by a horde of motorcycles we got to the slippery-floored supermarket where my wooden soled shoes provided little traction. Finally, we got the nuts and the chilli sauce that my parents had pestered me for earlier that day. The interesting part of the store for me though was the alcohol section as they sold a comically large bottle of some alcohol which they simply branded as ethanol, it looked incredibly sketchy and too much of it would probability kill you.
After exploring the supermarket we went back to the hotel to rest up and prepare for dinner and drinks. Tonight will be quite light as we have to prepare for the flight tomorrow and if we wake up as we woke up today then we would need to rush for breakfast and to the airport in order to catch our flight back home.
This trip has been quite the eye opener for me and though I wish I could’ve stayed longer I got to experience some amazing sights and most importantly got to have an enjoyable time with my brother