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Hanoi (7/18, 20, 23, 24)

July 24th, 2006 · No Comments

We loved Hanoi! It was easily our favorite city in all of Vietnam. The food was wonderful (finally those French/Vietnamese fusion restaurants we had been craving…oh, and we found the most amazing ice cream shop, Fanny’s), the sights were really interesting, and the shopping was phenomenal.

For photos, click here.


We actually split our time in Hanoi into three short trips, as we used the city as a home base while we were exploring the North of the country. Rather than write everything in chronological order, we thought it would be best to include all our highlights from our time in Hanoi in one post.

We found the most wonderful boutique hotel in the city, The Church Hotel. The location was perfect– right near St. Joseph’s church, just off the Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of a cute shopping neighborhood in the Old Quarter. They took great care of us there and even kept our luggage while we took quick trips into the countryside for a night or two. Best part, it was $45 a night!

The first night we got some last minute seats to watch the Thanh Long Water Puppet Theater. The exact origins of the entertainment are unknown, but it is said to have started in the rice fields of the Red River Delta and used to commemorate the beginning and ending of the agricultural cycle. Puppeteers stand waist deep in water behind the pagoda set and use bamboo poles, strings, and pulleys to extend their puppets up through the surface of a small pond that forms the stage. What goes on under the water is a closely guarded secret–some puppeteers must swim under others! It was surprisingly quite wonderful and very entertaining. Afterwards, we enjoyed what was easily our best meal in all of Vietnam at Bob Chinn’s. It was absolutely phenomenal. Expensive (for Vietnam), but just superb.

On several of the mornings, we woke up early to watch the local Vietnamese exercise by the Hoan Kiem Lake. We had heard that it was interesting to see them practicing their Tai Chi in the morning mist, etc. What I did not expect was to find an absolute frenzy of Vietnamese practicing almost any kind of exercise thinkable. In one corner of the park, there were people playing badminton. A little further up, we found them playing some funny game that was like a combination of hacky sack and volleyball. Along the lake front, people were jogging and walking…until we got to the section where the men had brought out an entire weight room (barbells and benches included) to get buff in the open air. And then there’s my favorite…first I just spotted a few solo women waving their hands frantically around in the air, jumping up and down, practicing some odd combination of aerobics, dancing, and the “I’m so happy, I just won the lottery” dance. But once we walked further up the lakeside, we came across at least a hundred women waving their hands around in unison. The leader had a megaphone and would announce what part of the body the women should pat next (it started with their heads, then their feet, then their butts)… the whole scene was just amazing…and then, at 7:00am on the dot, everyone scattered and went home to get ready for work.

We took a taxi one morning out to the Museum of Ethnology, so we could learn more about the ethnic minorities in the country before we went to Sa Pa to visit the hilltribes. The museum was really well put together, with great descriptions of the different ethnic groups. They also had a fascinating temporary exhibition on what it was like to live under the Communist rationing system. People stood in line for hours, starting at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, just to get their portion of (usually moldy) rice–before the supply ran out. During this time items like a new pair of shoes or a doll were such rarities that those fortunate enough to have one would not use it, but keep it safe in a drawer.

Word of caution: when visiting Hanoi, be on the lookout for taxis with rigged meters. Our taxi ride the full 6 km to the museum cost 50,000 VND. On our taxi ride back, we were less than a kilometer from the museum, when I noticed the meter already read 20,000–and was ticking away, climbing fast. We told the taxi driver something wasn’t right and pointed to the meter, but he didn’t seem to care. So we made him pull over and just let us out there. We easily found another taxi to take us the rest of the way back to the city–at the correct price! We’re not sure how to tell which taxis are ok and which meters have been rigged, but we knew that “CP Taxi” was a company we could trust, so from that experience on, we would ride only in CP taxis…

We also visited the Museum of Fine Arts, which had a collection of reasonably interesting Vietnamese paintings and other works. The museum was unfortunately organized and did not provide hardly any explanations of the works, so we did not appreciate our visit as much as we could have.

We were in the neighborhood, so we decided to visit the Temple of Literature–and we were really glad we did. It was probably our favorite site in all of Hanoi. The Chinese influenced architecture was quite beautiful and the temple very well maintained. It is Vietnam’s oldest institution of higher education, dating from the 11th century. The temple is dedicated to Confucius and educated Mandarins (high court officials) for 700 years. I had been reading a wonderful book on a family’s history in Vietnam, “Sacred Willow,” and the family consisted of a long line of Mandarin officials–so it was especially interesting to visit this site in that light.

We also spent one morning on a “walking tour” of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The area is still quite well preserved. The houses and shops once operated in a cooperative system, with guilds working together to transport merchandise from outlying villages. While “silver street” and “paper street” don’t still specialize in silver and paper respectively, there definitely still are pockets of merchandise. You’ll still find entire streets devoted to motorcycle parts, bamboo poles, or even shoes or knock off bags!

On our last morning, we finally made it to visit Mr. Ho Chi Minh (in his mausoleum) & his house & museum. The complex has very odd opening hours, so this was actually our only day in Hanoi when it was even open. Security is really tight–you have to check all camera equipment and cannot bring in any liquids (this was pre-UK bombing threat discovery)–but this doesn’t stop hundreds of people from lining up each morning to visit and pay their respects to the former President.

So how did we spend the rest of our time? Shopping of course! But this was a new foray for us–into artwork!! Hanoi is famous for its affordable paintings–and Dan and I were determined to make our first art purchase here. So there are two different kinds of paintings in Hanoi–the real ones (costing from a few hundred to usually a few thousand dollars) and the numerous fake painting, or reproductions as they like to call them. All along the main streets we found galleries and galleries containing copies of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Monet’s Waterlillies, or Picasso’s Guernica. In addition, you could find copies of the contemporary Vietnamese artists’ work. After much deliberation (and hard bargaining) we bought two Vietnamese paintings, a “reproduction” and one “real” painting (even with the certificate of authenticity!!). It was really exciting to be buying our first real piece of artwork!

By chance, we had two friends from Stanford who also happened to be in Hanoi at the same time. Maren & Thao had been traveling around Southeast Asia for the past few weeks, usually trailing behind us by only a day or two. We were really happy that they finally caught up to us and we could get together. It was fu
n to compare travel stories and catch up with good friends.

Tags: Vietnam

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