There’s really only one thing that comes to my mind when I think of Hanoi, Vietnam. Hot. Stifling, unbearable heat.
Otherwise, it was quite nice. Hanoi was enough like other Asian cities we’ve visited that it didn’t seem too foreign to us. To me it was a little rougher than Bangkok, but more built up than Siem Reap. However, it was so authentically Vietnamese- the triangle rice paddy hats, strange fruits, women carrying baskets that make them look like a walking scale. The streets definitely lived up to their reputation as busy and slightly terrifying, and Stephanie and I often held hands to comfort each other as we weaved around the zipping motorbikes. There were more motorbikes than bicycles, more street vendors than restaurant chains. We were actually surprised when we realized we hadn’t seen a single McDonald’s or Starbucks. Vietnam is one of five communist countries in the world (Goal- get to Cuba, so I can say I’ve been to them all!), but other than the omnipresent Ho Chi Minh, it didn’t impact our travels in the least.
We stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and were only a short walk away from Hoan Kiem Lake. We walked to most places around the Old Quarter, but used taxis for anything slightly out of the way because of the heat. We would go out for an hour or two, and then return to the hotel, exhausted by the humidity. Our first evening we spent walking around the lake and roaming the night market.
Our first major outing was early on our first full day. One of my “must see” places in Hanoi was Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. I had a slightly morbid curiosity about why communist leaders often end up on display, and it turned out to be the best way to immerse ourselves in the culture. Because of our schedule for the rest of the trip, we had to visit “Uncle Ho” on a Saturday morning. Which is apparently when every Vietnamese within a 100 mile radius comes to pay his respects. It was quite possibly the longest line I have ever stood in. We were some of the few tourists; it was mostly locals in line with us. The line wrapped around a city block, and though the guards really did try their best, it was shocking to see just how many people snuck in the line. It would have been more amusing if I wasn’t in the line that people were cutting in to. They’d send their child under the rope, and then claim that they had to go too, because that’s where the kid was. Or, they’d wait until the guard had barely turned his back and rush in. They were mostly good sports when they got caught, and it seemed to be a common game. Another reason the line is so miserable is because of the heat. Even at 7 am, the humidity was suffocating (we knew that June was not the best time to visit for this reason, but still…). To make matters worse, the mausoleum has a dress code- no sleeveless tops, no shorts, no sandals.Our clothes were dripping with sweat by the time we left. Cameras are not allowed, but the mausoleum was very simple. Shortly after you arrive inside the most blissfully air conditioned building in the country, you enter Uncle Ho’s room. You make a U shaped turn around his resting place, giving you ample time to take it all in. He is enclosed in glass, and behind him are two enormous flags, the Vietnamese flag and the Communist flag. The lights are dim and guards stand at the four corners of the room. The crowd that had been talkative for the past hour outside is now absolutely silent. Guards make sure that you move along at a steady pace, but I noticed an ancient lady in a wheelchair who was allowed a longer gaze. It was weird to see such complete reverence. And definitely weird to be an American in that room.
Though it was strange to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, it was enraging to visit the Hanoi Hilton. Hoa Lo Prison has a long history, but most Americans know it as the place where US military pilots (including Senator John McCain) were sent during the Vietnam War. The inmates ironically named it the Hanoi Hilton; however, the Vietnamese don’t seem to understand that the nickname was meant sarcastically. The signs around the prison state that the government “created the best living conditions they could” and that the POWs had a “stable life.” The torture and deplorable conditions that the soldiers actually experienced are not even mentioned. I know that history is often portrayed differently throughout the world, but this was the first time I truly understood how dangerous and disheartening that is.
Our time in Hanoi was very segmented. We arrived in Hanoi, then went on a cruise, returned to Hanoi, left for Laos, returned to Hanoi, flew home. The heat kept us from exploring more than what I have mentioned, but we did fit in some souvenir shopping. Hanoi has made quilled paper an exquisite art, and I was delighted to find cards and boxes delicately decorated with swirls of paper. However, my favorite souvenir from Hanoi is a carved wooden stamp. Like our Korean stamp, this one bears our last name. The artist sat in his pajamas as he carved the stamp, and I loved seeing him work.
There’s a lot more to our trip- stay tuned!