On the way to Vietnam we found out that their currency is the Dong at which point Drew’s jokes didn’t cease until we left the country. We decided to stay in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, located in the North and a smaller city than Ho Chi Minh. We stayed in the old quarter of Hanoi, which allowed us to easily explore the city on foot. We arrived around 2 pm and I was starving so our first order of business was lunch. We found a Vietnamese restaurant with an excellent view of the Hoan Kiem Lake. We had an appetizer of three different type of spring roles (one was the Hanoi Spring Roll and we ended up having this a lot during our 5 night stay) and two delicious local entrees. After lunch we walked around the entire lake.
The lake itself is a major tourist site for many reasons. The first is that the Ngoc Son Temple is located on a small island in the middle of the lake and it is the most visited temple in all of Hanoi. People access the temple via a picturesque red footbridge. There’s also an old stand-alone pagoda that is lit up at night. You can see tons of locals sitting around enjoying the lake, selling food, or even doing Tai chi.
Since it was Friday, the weekend night market was open so we decided to head there for dinner. The market is huge – closing down about a half mile of street starting at 7 pm Friday – Sunday. Although closing down is a relative term since people still try to ride scooters through the market. We decided to make our dinner different street food we found at the market. We tried various different skewered meats and vegetables, a bun with vegetables and chicken on it and even a Vietnamese style street ‘pizza’. It was all delicious and SUPER cheap! My favorite by far though was the Vietnamese ice cream which is made from sweetened condensed milk and flavoring (we got blueberry). They poor it all onto a frozen metal counter, chop it until it freezes, then spread it thin and roll it up and put it in your cup.
The next day we braved the heat and walked to a site that is important to both Vietnamese and American history – Hoa Lo Prison. The prison was originally built by the French as part of a complex that included a courthouse and other government buildings. Until 1954 it was used to imprison Vietnamese citizens. However, during the Vietnam War it was used as a POW camp where people such as John McCain were imprisoned. The museum however, primarily focuses on the atrocities that the Vietnamese suffered under the French. In fact, they only mention it was a POW camp once when they say the Americans called it the “Hanoi Hilton’ because they were treated so well they practically thought it was vacation. Wikipedia and John McCain disagree with this interpretation. Wikipedia says ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was an ironic nickname and McCain suffered torture and solitary confinement there. Either way, it was interesting to see and to pay our respects to the Vietnamese and Americans who suffered there. Also, if you were wondering, there actually is a Hilton hotel in Hanoi. Now that’s irony.
Our next stop was only slightly less depressing. We headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and on the way we saw the Flag Tower, which was built in 1812 and is one of the remaining structures of the Hanoi Citadel, a World Heritage site.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and museum were closed the day we went. It worked out well though because there were barely any people there so Drew got some great photos and we weren’t dressed appropriately anyway. We did get to see the changing of the guard there though and I’ve officially lost count on how many of these we’ve seen! Athens and London still take the cake for changing of the guard.
Located close the Ho Chi Minh museum is the One Pillar Pagoda, which was originally located where the Hoa Lo Prison complex was built and subsequently relocated. It is a small pagoda in the middle of a small pond filled with koi fish that stands on a single pillar as its name suggests.
On the way back to the old quarter we stumbled across Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, a 19th century gothic Catholic cathedral. The Vietnamese are primarily Buddhist so it was interesting to see a European style cathedral in the middle of the capital but 10% of the population is Catholic. Since it’s Vietnam we absolutely had to try Pho so that’s what we did before retiring to the sanctuary of our air-conditioned hotel!