CURRENT LOCATION: Bangkok, Thailand
For our first real day in Hanoi we decided to visit the famous Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed "The Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War. We jumped in a taxi and he dropped us directly outside, for a perfectly reasonable price, with no sign of a scam in sight. He even smiled. It was shaping up to be a great day! Since we had slept through breakfast, we decided to get some lunch at a nearby cafe to keep hunger levels low and prevent meltdowns. Sam had "nachos", which was wonton skins cut into triangle/nacho shape and deep fried, covered in bolognese sauce. Needless to say, these were delicious. I opted for a classic staple of Vietnam - the bahn mi sandwich. This was a particularly fancy one as it was made with teriyaki chicken.
After filling our bellies, we headed back Hoa Lo. The prison has well and truly been converted into a museum and as a result, it has lost some of its appeal as an attraction. The buildings were completed restored and filled with modern decor, and only a few token areas were left as they would have been on the 1960s and before. However, with that in mind, there were loads of "information" panels all in English, Vietnamese and French, so the museum was aesthetically very well presented. I say "information" as the majority of plaques contained blatant anti-French propaganda. This was a nice change from the anti-American propaganda, I suppose, but it didn't feel particularly educational, informative, or objective.
A bit of background about Hoa Lo prison. It's situated in the heart of Hanoi city and was originally used by the French during their colonisation of Vietnam. The prison was used to house mainly Vietnamese anti-colonialists/rebels .... Or as the plaques referred to them, "patriotic revolutionaries". This was the first chapter of the use of Hoa Lo prison. Again, I'm not saying the curator of the museum is not justified in venting the nation's beef with the French, but it was a bit heavy handed. Cramped cells, lined with life-like, wax mannequins whose faces depicted emotions of rage, anguish and despair, photos and illustrations that showed the unbelievable torture techniques, often accompanied by the actual instruments of torture - it was definitely grim. (Sam's note: the lack of objective information available within Vietnam about the 'Vietnam-American War' has naturally made want to learn more about it. While I didn't find the time during our travels in Vietnam, I intend to do some research over the coming weeks, maybe taking advantage of our time in Phuket, and will post about what I learn when I do - which will probably be much more use to those of you who weren't alive during the war, rather than those who were and probably understand far more about it than I ever will!).
After the liberation of the North from the French, the Vietnamese took over control of the prison. The second chapter of the prison was during the Vietnam War where it was used almost exclusively to detain American fighter pilots who had been shot down and captured. The museum went to great lengths to divulge how well treated and looked after their prisoners were. Photos of pilots smiling, cooking, eating, playing card games and even basketball with one another lined the walls. It almost looked too good to be true. However, I guess there is some truth in it - it was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton after all. One interesting fact was that U.S. Senator (and former presidential candidate) John McCain was one of the pilots captured and held in Hoa Lo prison during the war. We made our way through the museum and after about an hour and a half, had seen everything there was to see.
We walked about 2km from the prison into the Ancient Quarter to see one of the oldest residential/commercial areas on South East Asia, and apparently the oldest in the world that is still 'operational'. This was amazing! The streets were lined with fantastic old buildings of various architectural influence. Every single building was not only a house but had an associated shop at street level. The streets or alleys seemed to contain shops selling similar wares. Later Brendan told us that the names of the streets often reflect what was typically sold on them (eg Silk Street). There was a row of shops selling decorative ceramics, followed by plastic furniture, across from an entire block selling party decorations. A fresh foods market, a block with dried goods etc etc. One intersection had all four corners packed with huge bamboo ladders. There were thousands of people running around getting various things and strapping them precariously to their motorbikes! It was so entertaining and fun, we just walked aimlessly for about an hour, watching people and dodging the crazy drivers on the narrow roads. We just walked and walked and got lost in the hustle and bustle. We eventually consulted the map and made our way back to our home away from home.
After a short break at the house, we went in search of a Lomography camera store so Sam could get some more film for her camera. For those of you unsure of what that means, Lomography is a type of funky, plastic, old fashioned film cameras. Sam uses one and she's running low on film. Sadly, after 45 minutes of searching the address listed on the website we only managed to find a barber, a chicken soup stall and clothing shop with the matching address. No luck. Much like many of our other expeditions in SE Asia. Oh well, it was a very pleasant walk back to the house along the lake-front.
That night, the four of us went out to dinner. We tried to go a Mexican restaurant that Brendan frequently orders takeaways from (and highly recommended), but alas, strike two for the day. It was closed. Instead we went to a very hip restaurant nearby where we had a delicious western-style meal. Sam had a bacon cheeseburger and I had a Philly cheesesteak (my second in SE Asia). Delicious! Oh and it was also a celebration as earlier that day Brendan was successful in getting a job! Congratulations to Brendan!! Qiuyi was also very happy, because she said that meant she could fire him as a housekeeper, because he's 'crap'!
On day two we headed out relatively early to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. This is near the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, and has a huge concrete tomb and surrounding garden and grounds. When we got there we were ushered all the way to the other side of the of grounds (probably 1.5km away) in order to queue to get in. As we walked we realised the line was as long as the walk...if not longer! We made a quick decision to flag it, based on the heat and prior advice that it was a bit average once you get in. Instead, we made our way to the Temple of Literature. The walk to the temple was interrupted by the sudden requirement for a cold, refreshing fresh fruit smoothie. After two tasty mango smoothies, we entered the temple. It was erected to celebrate the scholars of ancient Hanoi. Inside of the Temple there are about 40-50 stone plaques atop a carved, stone turtle, with engravings explaining what area the individual achieved their doctorate in. They had a distinctive Chinese-inspired feel as did the rest of the temple.
In the afternoon we took a taxi across town to the Ethnology Museum. This was comprised of 2 huge main museum buildings and a surrounding garden containing many traditional-style buildings of the various groups/tribes of the people of Vietnam. This is basis for the whole museum. It is a celebration of the diversity of the people of Vietnam. There is a massive amount of information on the different cultural groups that make up the country. The museum explores the culture, music, food, livelihood, agriculture, and pretty much all aspects of life for many diverse groups of people in Vietnam. There is history of the origin of each group as well as artefacts to depict what their living situation is like. It's a museum of anthropology and diversity. It was well curated and we both found it to be fascinating. After you have completed both floors of the main building you can wander around see replicas of the buildings of the various ethnic groups. These building are all made using the traditional materials, tools and techniques. To ensure this, the museum would bring in builders from each group to complete each project in the same manner that they would in their own village. You can enter all the buildings and inspect the craftsmanship and skill that goes into making impressively large structures from mainly wood, bamboo and palm trees, and watch videos of the workers constructing them. Highly recommend a stop here if you are in Hanoi!
We got in a taxi to go back to the house, who, after assuring us he knew were he was going drove us around the block and started going the scenic route home. Jaded by too many bad experiences with crooked taxi drivers we got out and walked the rest of the way home. Grrrrr. It was ok though, as the walk home was really pleasant!
For dinner, Brendan took us to a real local restaurant. There is NO way we would've been able to find a place like this on our own, so big props to him for getting us there. The restaurant took alfresco to a new extreme. We were literally sitting in the middle of the street... On plastic children's furniture. It was weird and awesome! The children's furniture is weird, but we were used to it, as most local restaurants seemed to rely on Fisher Price for their decor. However, the area where the restaurant was situated consisted of about 10-15 different restaurants and the extremely aggressive employees outside who were tasked with getting their respective restaurant the most customers. These guys would literally jump in front of people on their motorbikes, forcing them to slam on their breaks and then usher them into a parking spot at their restaurant, all the while, yelling and screaming in an attempt to beat their neighbour. So the atmosphere was nuts! Oh and yes, not to forget we were actually sitting on furniture they had put on the road - luckily the traffic couldn't go very fast as there were so many recruits slowing them all down!
The food was really good. I can't tell you what the names of the dishes were, but we had some spring roll-type things, beef noodles (like instant ramen noodles), and beef with greens and deep fried, crunchy poofballs things, and sweet potato fries. Yeah, dunno what it was, but it was awesome! We were just finishing off the last of our shared, family style meal when something very strange happened. Suddenly, there was a great fuss. The recruits had stopped harassing innocent pedestrians and were now yelling at their customers, and fanatically telling them to move off the street and under the awnings or inside the restaurant proper. Sure enough, we were asked to get up and our table was literally picked up and moved off the street and onto the curb. Within a matter of seconds the roads were clear, the restaurants looked even more bloated, and we had no idea what the hell just happened. We thought, maybe it was about to rain? But, how would they know that? Then about 3 minutes later, a police truck came around the corner. The restaurant employees smiled as they drove past, as if to say, "Evening officers, nothing to see here." As the truck came past we noticed that in addition to the 3 police officers in the back, the flatbed was full of....you guessed it... TINY CHILDREN'S FURNITURE! We guessed that someone had tipped off the restaurants that the police were on the way and they would have been fined for taking up room on the roads. I guess maybe even having their offending furniture "impounded", which would explain why the police were toting around miniature tables and chairs. A great local experience!
Just wanted to quickly say a big, big, BIG THANK YOU to Brendan and Qiuyi for hosting us in Hanoi! It was so great to catch up, meet you, and your two adorable cats (Maomao and Skippy), and pick your brains about Hanoi and the rest of SE Asia. We definitely wouldn't have had the same experiences in Hanoi without you.
So, I'm writing this in the food court in the international airport in Bangkok. We are enroute to Phuket, Thailand! Billie and Pete Harbidge have invited to join them on their holiday. Will and Grace and her folks are joining us there as well, so guaranteed tales of general good times in our next blog!
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 15th April 2015)