Saturday was pretty much just travelling all day. Got a bus, speedboat, bus and coach before we finally made it back to Hanoi. When we arrived at the hotel we unpacked, had a late lunch, then watched a movie, dinner and then drinks at the Backpackers Hostel.
Yesterday was another lazy morning. Then in the afternoon me, Soph and Lisa went for a wonder. I’m not sure how I feel about the Old Quarter in Hanoi really (where we’re staying and where we’ve spent most of our time). On the one hand it’s dirty and cramped but on the other hand it’s bustling and has a really great culture of community (largely centred around meal times, eating on tiny stools in makeshift ‘restaurants’ that spill out onto the streets). It seems like there aren’t ‘nice areas’ and ‘not so nice areas’ more just standard areas with a few nice shops/restaurants/hotels slotted in unexpectedly.
We then went to a Vietnamese cafe. Everyone says to try Vietnamese coffee so me and Sophie did… I still hate coffee! Lisa got a ‘hot chocolate’ that was just melted chocolate with nothing else, was so sweet.
We had dinner at the hotel and then had reservations at a restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem lake for Lunar New Year (Tet). We had some snacks and some drinks and then chatted until the AMAZING firework display at midnight. There were hundreds of people gathered around the lake to watch the fireworks and everyone cheered as the fireworks got better and better eg love hearts, planets, smiley faces, butterflies… Was really cool. Then after the 15 minute display, they released glitter confetti. When we were walking back to the hotel, there were fires in the street where Vietnamese people were burning fake money, which is supposed to bring good luck. For Vietnamese people, the Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year so pretty much everything will be closed this week as there is a 4 day bank holiday while people spend time with their family and neighbours.
This morning everyone had a lie in and then at lunch Chin and Trung (co-ordinators for our group) gave us some lucky fake money. This afternoon we visited Hanoi’s prison in the French Quarter. It was really interesting to visit it as they’ve now turned it into a museum and commemoration area to all the people that were imprisoned there. It was built by the French in the late 19th century and largely housed political prisoners. The Vietnamese prisoners were treated horrendously and kept in horrible conditions (men and women).
They also executed a number of prisoners with the guillotine. Some prisoners escaped in the late 1950s and 1960s through the sewerage system using acid and blades provide by a nurse… The space was so small I’m not sure how a human being fit through. Then in the 1970s, some American pilots who were captured were kept at the prison, including John McCain (ran for the presidency in 2008), however from the information it appears that they were treated quite well. It was quite emotional to be in the same space that has been the site of so much mistreatment, especially in a country where the people were just trying to defend their own land from colonisers.
After that we went to the pagoda on the West lake and it was HEAVING… I think every person in Hanoi was there. It was really busy because part of Tet celebrations include visiting pagodas around the city to pray and burn money (this is the most important one). Felt a bit inappropriate walking around while people were praying so didn’t take many photos. Was really interesting to see though, I think it must be lovely to believe in something so strongly (Buddhism is the religion in Vietnam).
It was really good to see the other side of Hanoi. It’s much more spacious and has lovely boulevards although it’s still crazily busy.
Me and the girls were so interested in Hoa Lo prison that we visited on Monday that we did lots of research on Monday evening. The prison was ironically nicknamed ‘Hanoi Hilton’ because of the harsh conditions and brutal treatment. We feel cheated by the (now, after research) blatant propaganda in the two rooms dedicated to the American PoWs about how well they were treated. It actually seems that the American PoW were treated awfully (while the Vietnamese publicly claimed to adhere to the Geneva Convention). I suppose this was more in keeping with the long history of mistreatment that the Vietnamese prisoners experienced when it was run by the French. Reminder to self: never be a passive learner, question everything.
Yesterday we got up early to visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on the other side of Hanoi. I don’t really know what I was expecting but that wasn’t it. The building is located in Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945. I didn’t realise the the square also forms part of the site so there isn’t actually anything else there. You have to hand in all your cameras before you go into the actual building where Ho Chi Minh’s body is displayed (hence no photos of ‘Uncle Ho’). You’re then shuffled through by guards dressed in a very smart white uniform. Although one of Ho Chi Minh’s final wishes was to be cremated and scattered in the north, centre and south of Vietnam (with a simple memorial) to represent his vision of a unified Vietnam, the Vietnamese took a vote after he ‘died’ (the Vietnamese believe that Ho lives on) in 1969 and decided to build the current memorial for him. The building is simple but really big. It was interesting to see his body, which is kept in a glass case with Ho dressed in simple clothing, laying down in the middle with his eyes closed and his hands overlapping each other.
We then went to visit Chin’s mothers tea stall in the French Quarter. We all sat on the tiny stools and sat around drinking tea and listening to Chin’s family stories, which were incredible and extremely humbling. For example his grandmother (who was so beautiful) was a spy and married a French officer in order to pass secrets back to the Vietnamese while her actual husband (Chin’s grandfather) formed part of the resistance in the jungle. All in all was a really great morning, full of Vietnamese history.
Yesterday afternoon we were meant to go to see a Water Puppet show, which are famous in Vietnam. However, the hotel misplaced our tickets. So instead we had a long Vietnamese language lesson and are going to the show tonight. I now understand why it’s the third hardest language to learn in the world… You literally have to learn to speak all over again eg they use their throat to make certain sounds and there are really confusing rules about age and masculine/feminine. Safe to say I only learnt the basics: ‘hello’ (xin chao) ‘thank you’ (cam on) ‘discount’ (giam gia). One good thing about the lesson was the we were able to turn off Abba ‘Happy New Year’ and Katy Perry ‘The One That Got Away’ (in all its variations) that have been on repeat in the hotel this week… Then we had a yummy dinner (noodles, omelette, peppers) and just chilled in the evening.
This morning we went to the local Vietnamese market to buy ingredients to make a Vietnamese spring roll… Making use of the very limited Vietnamese we learnt yesterday. To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to it but it was actually really fun. Apart from two angry old women, it appeared the market sellers appreciated us trying to communicate in their language (plus some pointing) and we managed to successfully buy all the ingredients. We’ve found that people in Hanoi won’t haggle with us (some people in the group have been refused service altogether just because they are Western) plus we’re Western meaning the price is higher anyway so we ended up spending all the money we were given (200,000 dong/£7). We then came back to the hotel and all set about chopping and peeling and rolling and frying to make beautiful spring rolls (vegetarian and pork) that we had as part of our lunch.
This afternoon me, Soph and Izzy wanted to to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum but when we got there the lady told us it was shut. The building looked really modern and inviting so hopefully we’ll get a chance to go next Saturday after we get back from Ninh Binh. So this afternoon is more Vietnamese and then the Water Puppet show tonight.
On Wednesday night we made it to the water puppet show… Which is exactly what it sounds like! It’s a really old form of entertainment amongst farmers in the Red River Delta and it was traditionally a secret handed down from father to son as women were not allowed to learn the techniques. The stage was raised on the left where a group played traditional Vietnamese music and then the main stage was lower down and filled with water. The show essentially existed of various scenes with people, buffalo, koi carp and dragons. It was really good to see but I wouldn’t rush back. I liked the music most of all as it was quite soothing. After we went to the Green Mango (same restaurant we loved on Cat Ba island, just double the price!).