Hanoi, like Kampot in Cambodia became a sort of home for me. Outside of enjoying it in its own right I also used it as a base to get to both Sapa and Halong Bay. Hanoi is smaller than Saigon in population number (still manages over six million) but in many respects a little more hectic. The roads contain everything and anything whizzing around in crazy numbers somehow avoiding accidents. On the paths and the streets however things seem to go a little bit slower. The contrast of people sat around drinking coffee on the streets whilst bikes roar past them was striking.
At the heart of Hanoi is the old quarter. A lake is the center piece enjoyed by many, always with a bride and groom having a professional photo shoot. The rest of the old quarter is a maze of lanes taking you deep into traditional Vietnam. Whilst obviously having its fair number of tourist shops, the narrow alleyways still contain the life and blood of Hanoi. It’s a wonderful place to just stroll and see how people are making a living. I’ll never forget the man I passed every evening who parked his bike on the road with a cage on the back full of rabbits. Amongst the chaos of the roads, motorbikes would race across the lanes to see him, many bought a rabbit, held it in their arms before speeding off. In fact many of the more noticeable sights seemed to happen on the road. I thoroughly enjoyed watching an elderly man push his bike amongst the thousands of motorbikes and scooters. What made it unique was that attached to his bicycle was a huge billboard advertising boatd. Ludicrously dangerous but a superb way of catching everyone’s attention.
In terms of sights I remember two in particular.
The first was Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The moment I heard that I had an opportunity to complete my collection of dead people by seeing someone embalmed; I couldn’t resist…could I? Stupidly I chose to visit it on a Saturday which meant a huge queue had gathered. It took around two hours of standing in the heat of the day to arrive at the entrance. I had to smile at the two armed guards outside the entrance. Similar to the Queens Guard they were under instructions not to smile. That seemed to have passed by one of the poor guys who was having a terrible time stopping himself from bursting out laughing.
When inside I was told off for having a hand in one pocket (something’s don’t change) before being literally thrown by several guards around the walkways and out of the exit. Two hours queuing for ten seconds at best inside. Uncle Ho’s body was partially orange due to the lighting. Some people say that Madame Tussaud has done its works on the body. When looking at him you can understand why the rumors have spread. It was quite interesting to see how basic everything was inside. The flag of Vietnam and Communism hung from the ceiling and four armed guards stood at each corner of the see through coffin but other than that it was a dark stone room. This is no accident as it is designed, as everything about Vietnam’s favourite son is, to show him as a man of the people, having apparently lived a very basic and modest life. It’s a shame the government ignored his desire to be cremated rather than put on public show!
On another day I went to the Hanoi Hilton where American POW’s were kept if they were captured in the North. It wasn’t very interesting other than in terms of propaganda with most of the photos showing the wonderful conditions the American’s were kept in. Something told me a few pictures and information was missing from the wall.
Hanoi probably moves into second place behind Phnom Penh in terms of my favourite city that I have been to. It’s small and compact meaning you can walk everywhere with ease. The roads and more money orientated shop sellers put off some people but for me added to the enjoyment. As I left for the airport we drove past the Mausoleum. The grass area was filled with locals doing individual and group stretching. I remember how in Bundi I was taken aback by the strange exercise phenomenon I witnessed. In South East Asia it is such a common scene. To westerners it’s a comical site but I can’t help but wonder if everyday stretching and brisk walking is far more successful to paying vast amounts of money to a gym to only visit it once a week.