As I’ve mentioned before, Hanoi was my home-base. I spent a lot of time in this city and managed to see quite a bit. While I could have a post for each of these sites and experiences individually, I think it’ll be easier if I just outline a few of the highlights.
Hanoi Hilton: Not the hotel. It was the tongue-in-cheek name for the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, given by American pilots imprisoned there during the Vietnam war. The prison is much better known in Vietnam as a symbol of national strength and perseverance. It’s easy to remember that America’s war in Vietnam was just part of the greater struggle within the country. Decades before US troops found themselves in the jungles of SE Asia, the people of Vietnam had been struggling for independence. Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in the 19th century and housed thousands of Vietnamese revolutionaries. The name Hoa Lo can be translated to ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘hell’s hole’ and presumably was not a pleasant place. One of the signature features of the prison, standing as a reminder of its bloody history, is the French guillotine that is displayed in main room. While touring the prison, it was interesting to learn about a war from the oppositions side. History of war is typically written by the victors, and Vietnam portrays the ‘War of American Aggression’ in the way they find appropriate. The line between fact and anti-American propaganda is thin. For foreigners visiting the prison-museum who know nothing of Vietnam, the US would be seen as a nation of war criminals (and I’m not saying this is an incorrect depiction of the US in the 60’s and 70’s). Meanwhile the Vietnamese explain how humanely they treated American prisoners at Hoa Lo during the war. They would play basketball, write letters home, eat Christmas feasts, listen to music and more! I’m not sure John McCain would agree with that version of POW life, but creative license is awarded to the victors.
Cuisine: The food in Hanoi needs its own paragraph. Its delicious. Some of the more prominent dishes I tried were Pho Ga (spiced noodle soup with chicken), Bun Cha (rice vermicelli soup with pork), Cao Lau (noodles with fresh greens and meat), and plenty of Banh Mi (sandwhiches). For a more exotic dish, I enjoyed steamed chicken feet with a side of rice for lunch on two separate occasions. The feet had an unusual texture and I would not get them a 3rd time.
One of my favorite meals in Hanoi was at a local joint recommended to me by the bartender on the Ha Long Bay cruise. It was made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown.’ In the most recent season, Bourdain meets with president Obama during his official visit to the country this past spring. The pair ordered the local bun cha with a side of spring rolls and a beer. After the meeting, the establishment changed its name to ‘Bun Cha Obama,’ offering the presidents order as one of their specials. The walls are adorned with photos from the evening. Another fun characteristic of Vietnamese dining was that excellent places to eat are set up on the side walk. The streets of old town are lined with tiny plastic tables and chairs, no more than 12 inches off the ground. We associate this furniture with a child’s set in the States, but its a common setup for local Vietnamese joints. Anyone over 6ft had a more difficult time eating in this setting.
Other points of interest: Hanoi is a great walking city once you figure out how to cross the busy streets. Old town can be crazy but it has a great energy. The colors and smells mixed with the continuous honking of horns can be invigorating. While the toutes can be nagging, the people are extremely friendly for the most part. You’re sure to get smiles along the streets. The city also has quite a few parks and a beautiful man-made lake. You can find the One Pillar Pagoda in one of the more prominent parks. This is one of the most iconic Buddhist temples in the country. While its appearance is a little underwhelming, it has a long history. It survived 900 years perched atop its lone pillar until the French spitefully burnt it to the ground in traditional colonial fashion during their withdrawal from the country in 1954. Close by is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum which I did not visit due to the insanely strict rules, and the fact I think its bizarre to display the embalmed body of your former leader in a GIANT memorial. Did not need to see that. Plus you have to silently walk through in lines of two, wearing respectful attire, without crossing your arms or putting your hands in your pockets. Downsides of communist rule I suppose.
Overall I’d say Hanoi is my favorite of the three capital cities I visited on this trip. Certainly a spot I would return to (and with a full year visa, I might just do that).