Vietnam Holiday, part 1 Hanoi attractions

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the view from City View Cafe Hanoi attractions
A cold & wet Hanoi as seen from the famous City View Cafe

Hanoi attractions are many, I was looking forward to seeing them.  I had some friends coming over from England. They had been backpacking around Asia for about six weeks prior to getting to Vietnam, so I arranged to meet up with them in Hanoi, then take a nice break with them. It proved to be a tremendous trip. I really enjoyed myself and I’m sure Vietnam was a fitting end to their adventure. Leki and Al had been in college with my younger son Sam, it would be great to meet up with them. I have known them both since they were about 16 years old. We were to visit Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hoi An. For the purpose of this blog, I will divide the holiday into three sections. I kept a diary as we went and have edited it geographically, rather than chronologically, as the Hanoi part of the trip, was interspersed with Halong Bay. So here is part 1.

Hanoi

10.30am and I was at Ton San Nhat Airport. I love the buzz at airports, it has never really left me. No matter how many times I go through the process I still get a feeling of excitement when I arrive at the gate. I was off to the north of Vietnam for a few days rest and recuperation, I certainly needed it; not having had a real break for such a long time. The plan was to go to the capital, enjoy the Hanoi attractions for a couple of days then head out to Halong Bay where I was to spend three days cruising round the magnificent bay.

Airport Tan Son Nhat - Saigon
Airport Tan Son Nhat – Saigon

So there I was at the departure lounge of Saigon Airport’s domestic terminal. It’s a bit primitive but serves the purpose adequately. Check in was quite painless, which made a pleasant change. Airports these days have become a mess of security and procedures. Most of it is complete nonsense and serves no purpose other than giving passengers a false sense of security whilst tying them up at the airport for a few hours. Nothing to do with them spending fortunes on overpriced drinks and food, of course, though I have to say overpricing does not appear to be an issue in Vietnam. Quite what the security guard found so interesting about my spectacles escapes me, but he managed to inspect them for a full minute.

The usual Vietnamese obsession with air-conditioning was prevailing as well. It was about 32º outside and I was freezing. I was seated in the coffee bar enjoying my Ca Phe Sua Da and a piece of banana cake, engaged in one of my favourite activities, people watching. The flight to Hanoi is about 2 hours, from the airport to the hotel is about another 45 minutes. So I should be happily ensconced in 5 star luxury by about 2.30. My friends would be arriving later this evening, so I decided I would relax with a few cold ones and chill out for a few hours. There was much that I wanted to explore by way of  Hanoi attractions;  I was last there, about 5 years ago, I have read much about the city.

Hearing my boarding call, it was time to go. The flight was delayed and the gate was changed. This was the second time I have flown out of Saigon in 4 months and the second time I faced a delay and a gate change. Still it wasn’t a real problem and before long we were on our way. We were soon descending towards Hanoi International Airport. I was amazed by the low cloud and we didn’t see the ground until we were almost down. Then reality dawned on me. It was raining, a real heavy drizzle. It was also incredibly cold. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t researched this. All the hours I have written and researched Hanoi and it simply never occurred on me that it wouldn’t be as warm as Saigon has been for weeks.

I jumped in a taxi from the airport and 45 minutes later I had checked into the hotel and was out exploring the locals. I must have stood out like a lunatic. Everywhere I looked the locals and tourists alike were wrapped up in warm fleeces and waterproof jackets. Here I was, wearing three of the five T shirts that I had brought, shivering, wet and pretty miserable. I found a pub that wasn’t too cold and took on some anaesthetic. The weather is one of the least  attractive Hanoi attractions. My friends Al, Leki and Helen, would be arriving later on tonight. Hopefully there would be time for a few beers and some conversation before the end of the evening. By 9.00pm I had received their message. Helen’s flight from Saigon was also delayed and they would wait for her at the airport and would not get in, until about half an hour after midnight.

I retired for the night and looked forward to meeting up in the morning and starting our adventure together.

Time to start exploring the Hanoi attractions

I met up with the guys at breakfast. It was great to see Al and Leki again, they went to college with my son and I have know them for about 15 years. Leki’s girlfriend Helen, I hadn’t met, but she would soon prove to be a delightful person. We decided to have breakfast then go to most famous of Hanoi attractions, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to pay our respects to the most famous leader in all of Southeast Asia. It proved to be quite a visit.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The queues on first viewing seem interminable. They snake round for yard after yard, and we honestly wondered if it would be worth the effort. The queue, does though, move a lot faster than you think and we were soon past the security checkpoint, and making our way to the mausoleum. It is an astonishing experience and one that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone visiting Vietnam. The mausoleum is an imposing structure on the side of an enormous square, in the heart of town. White uniform members of the honour guard keep watch permanently. Inside the lighting is dimmed and the atmosphere austere.

Uncle Ho, lies in state in a glass sarcophagus, with a white uniformed officer standing guard at each corner. His face and hands are illuminated and he is wearing his khaki uniform. The body is in remarkable condition, it is the strangest of sensations looking on as the line of people respectfully file past. One cannot help but grasp the enormous sense of history, lying here. This is the father of modern Vietnam, the man who carried the dreams and aspirations of millions, the man who for millions more, still does. Ho Chi Minh is an incredibly popular and iconic figure in Vietnam.

It was one of those moments where friends share an experience but no words are needed. The four of us left in silence and eventually as we started to speak all expressed the same sentiments. It was an awe inspiring moment. We had been looking at history. I, being the only one who remembered it as it happened, was more fully aware of that than possibly, the others.

From here went on to visit another ‘biggie’ among Hanoi attractions, the museum of literature. This was a brilliant place to spend a few hours and nothing like what I was expecting. It is more of a garden with statues and ornaments, so different from any other museum I had visited. The place was packed out, obviously a big hit with visiting Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike. Local schoolchildren were plentiful and soon took up their seats in the central area to enjoy something of a location teaching class.

We decided that, as lunch was fast approaching, we would seek out some Bia Hoi. This is an institution among Hanoi attractions. Local “breakfast beer” is brewed in many locations around the city and delivered to small drinking dens everywhere. It is called breakfast beer because it is brewed every morning, and not containing any additives, it has to be drunk quickly. The beer houses that sell it, do so until the barrel is dry, then that is it for the day. We went to Quang Bia Minh as recommended by the lonely Planet but to be honest, I don’t think what we had was Bia Hoi at all, but cheap local draft. More exploration is required. We went on to the famous City View Cafe for a coffee and to relax. The view from here should be brilliant but the weather really was not being our friend.

Hanoi
A cold & wet Hanoi as seen from the famous City View Cafe

In the evening we went to see the Water Puppet show in the centre of town. This ancient traditional art form is unique to Vietnam. It started in the rice paddies and the modern adaptation of it, see a flooded staged stage with a back drop. The puppeteers are hidden behind the back cloth and manipulate their mannequins to make them appear as though in the rice fields that are ubiquitous to every part of Vietnamese life.

After the theatre we found a restaurant and simply relaxed. Our last day had been a really tiring but extremely good one. Tomorrow we were off to Halong Bay. I have waited years for this, but that is for part 2.