Wow. What a day. We thought we were going to have a somewhat lazy day ambling the city, but we proved ourselves wrong. It started with us sleeping in some, but deciding at around 9:30 a.m. that we needed to get up and take advantage of the included breakfast before they stopped serving it 30 minutes later. Showered and dressed we headed downstairs to be provided an English menu of 10 or so things we could chose from along with an accompaniment of various fruits, cereal, yogurt, baguettes, and juices. Doug chose an omelet and Lynn opted for fried eggs with tomato and onion. In the small kitchen next to the breakfast bar we could see our server gather ingredients and start preparing while we took full advantage of the fruit – dragon fruit, watermelon, bananas, yum. Everything was delicious.
After breakfast it was time to get down to business. Pending the weather we wanted to make sure we got to see Sa Pa, a mountain community with many rice paddies and hill tribes nearby, and Ha Long Bay, a beautiful bay featuring many limestone islands. Working with our hotel we figured with our good friend, Typhoon Mujigae, that it would be best to go to Sa Pa first followed by Ha Long Bay during our week stay in Vietnam. We chose dates and made reservations accordingly all while hoping the forecast for both places shapes up. Otherwise, you’ll be seeing some very muddy pictures from Sa Pa and a wall of rain from Ha Long Bay. Finished with bookings for the remainder of the week, it was time to figure our the day’s activities. Doug had done some research and discovered that there existed a 4-hour motorbike food tour that had awesome reviews. Lynn was slightly hesitant since she tends to avoid putting herself in seemingly dangerous situations, but Doug was all for it, knowing that it would be quite the adventure. He sent an email in hopes that they would have availability that evening.
Then it was time to decide what to do during the daytime. Looking at a map, our first stop would be Hoa Lo Prison, or The Hanoi Hilton as American pilots once referred to it during the Vietnam War. We navigated the bustling streets there, purchased our entrance tickets, and were greeted with a mix of stern reality, compassion, and a whole heck of a lot of propaganda, but being Americans we also may have been biased. The prison was broken into two sections and the first focused on its initial use of housing Vietnamese political prisoners during French occupation. This section pointed out the vast cruelty inflicted on the prisoners from close confinements where air was dear to shackles which forced prisoners’ feet to always been above their heads when lying down. It even featured a very French guillotine. The next section focused on the use of the prison during “the war of destruction against North Vietnam” or as American’s refer to it, the Vietnam War. It was quick to point out Vietnam’s ability to take down the best air combatants in the world while simultaneously treating the captured pilots humanely by giving them the chance to play sports or attend religious services. Propaganda, much? This museum was certainly an interesting contrast from Hiroshima, where both sides were called out for their wrongdoing. Clearly, Vietnam does not agree.
We’d had our spoonful and took off to the Temple of Literature, a thousand year old temple of Confucius which served as Vietnam’s first national university. The grounds featured many banyan trees within 5 courtyards of traditional architecture, but most notable would be the hundred or so graduates that were celebrating and taking class pictures. We walked throughout noting that we both enjoyed the smell of the musty wood used in the architecture and the prominence of Vietnam’s sacred animals: the turtle, phoenix, dragon, and unicorn of only one is real. While there we got caught in our first downpour but luckily we were on the second story of the main building and were able to spend the time admiring the roof tiles used throughout the complex.
At this point we had completed everything our hotel had recommended we do for the day and it was only 1 p.m.. So, to up the ante we headed off in search of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. We knew ahead time that we would not be allowed in because Ho Chi Minh’s body is currently in Russia for restoration, but we figured the building would be of some interest and there were other tourist things nearby. Upon approaching we were greeted by a giant banner with a date which we later learned is Vietnam’s Independence Day: September 2nd, 1945. The mausoleum itself was what you would expect, a square concrete building with Ho Chi Minh’s name across the top. From there we took a quick tour around Ho Chi Minh’s nearby presidental palace area, which was nicely understated. He had a grand French colonial palace he could stay in but opted to work from a house on stilts he had built behind the palace to accentuate his belief in living simply. Was this more propaganda? Most likely so. Either way the grounds were quite lovely and featured its own fishpond with many tropical fruit trees. It even displayed the various cars Uncle Ho was gifted from other communist-loving nations. At this point our breakfast was starting to wear off so we treated ourselves to some chocolate ice cream while we strolled over to another building that looked important but on our free map was also labeled Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Upon further inspection, we discovered that it was a Ho Chi Minh Museum and we were slightly propagandaed out so we decided instead to find the B52 which was somewhere in a lake nearby.
We walked in the direction of something labeled B52 on our map with a Vietnamese word before it, thinking that that must be it. Roaming through back alleys clustered with hoards of poorly strung electrical wires we passed by lake after lake, but no B52 was to be found. With the handy help of Google maps Doug deciphered that what was labeled on our map was actually a B52 museum. Not really interested in another museum we chose instead to head north to West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi and stroll along the river front. As we were working our way through the alleyways once again, we turned the corner and as luck would have it were staring at a lake with B52 wreckage. Alas! It had been found! Satisfied that all was well in the world once again, we continued our walk by the botanical garden and a Banh Mi cart which we promptly stopped at for a real lunch, and finally ended up at the lake with sandwich in hand to have a seat and relax.
It was getting close to 3 p.m. so after our feet had some time to rest we got up and headed back into the busy streets to our hotel in hopes that the motorbike tour had emailed us, stopping on the way for some fruit juice. At our hotel we learned that yes, in fact, the motorbike tour has space and we would be picked up at 6 p.m. for 4 hours of food and fun. With still some time to kill before the extravaganza would begin we did some internet searching and learned that we each get 30 minute foot massages for a total of$13.50 USD and our feet were in great need of it. By this point in the trip, Lynn’s feet had at least 2 blisters and three callouses taking shape that would appreciate 30 minutes of pleasure. Let us tell you, that is the best $13.50 we have ever spent. After the 30 minutes our feet felt like clouds and Lynn’s two blisters had got away. Those people have magic fingers. We also may have scheduled more massages for the next day.
Finally, it was time for the great motorbike food tour. A man on a scooter arrived promptly at 6 p.m. to tell us that our drivers where right behind. When they arrived, Lily and Amy introduced themselves and gave us a briefing on how to properly handle a motorbike since neither of us had ridden one before. Luckily we weren’t driving, just hanging off the back while these two expertly navigated the streets and sometimes alleyways of Hanoi. We were given helmets, instructed on how to get on and off (don’t get on from the right side or you may burn yourself on the muffler), and where to place our hands (on the rear handles or around them if you want to get cozy). We hopped on and were off! The first stop was actually to the company’s office where we would pay, but after that we were actually off! It was four incredible hours of delicious north Vietnamese street food, nerve-wracking street navigating, and knowledgeable sightseeing. The food was incredible and a lot of items were ones you could not find back home and those that you could, well, these were so much better. Doug’s favorites were a traditional lunch, bun bo nam bo (beef over rice noodles with fresh herbs and dried onion), and traditional breakfast/dinner, pho (vietnamese beef noodle soup). Lynn’s were nem lui (grilled pork wrapped in rice paper with herbs) and bo bia (coconut and sugarcane wrapped in rice paper). And as normally non-coffee drinkers, we both surprisingly enjoyed the egg coffee. Oh my goodness, we were stuffed and ready for bed so that is exactly what we did after we were safely returned to our hotel.
Daily Walking Mileage: 10.1
- The Vietnamese flag is red for the people’s blood and yellow for the people’s skin as Amy and Lily informed us.
- Hanoi actually means “city in the water” because there a ton of lakes throughout.
- Vietnamese usually live with many generations in one home. Homes are tend to be multiple floors with grandparents on one, parents on one, and children on another.
- The restaurants in Hanoi are named after the food that they serve and the name of the food that they serve is very literal. As an example, pho means flat rice noodles and bun is circular rice noodles. So a restaurant called pho bo (with some accents that I’m not including) serves beef with flat rice noodles.