Hanoi was always going to be on our itinerary. It’s a cool city and serves as a base for Halong Bay and Sapa.
Another good reason is that my friend Long lived there and I had not seen him in just over three years.
An extra bonus is that his business includes hotels so we were able to stay with him. He also arranged a driver to collect us from Hanoi airport. This is a huge improvement on Karen’s experience 7 years earlier.
We met Long and his lovely wife Linh for lunch, a local dish called hot-pot and again for coffee at a very cool coffee shop called Cong Caphe. It is here that John developed a taste for Ca Phe Nua – ice-cold coffee with coconut and condensed milk.
Our residence in Hanoi was in the historic Old Quarter. The beating heart of Hanoi, stretched out over a grid of congested windy streets full of hawkers and buyers, food stalls and pop-up bars.
Most of the commercial buzz is generated by the Dong Xuan Market, where “Anything and everything a cart can unload is sold in the market…”.
Another point of interest is the Bach Ma Temple (‘White Horse’). This small temple is said to be the oldest in the city and was built in honour of that fine mare who guided Emperor Ly Thai To to the site to build the city walls.
Just south of us was the Hoan Kiem Lake, and this became a mixture of hangout spot, running track and beacon, to guide us home when lost.
With our backyard established we ventured further out in search of spoils starting with the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, more commonly known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
Originally built by the French in 1896 (not them again!) ,including Guillotine, it was used to house Vietnamese rebels before being used to incarcerate American Pilots shot-down over Hanoi. Famous former inmates include Pete Peterson (1st US Ambassador to Vietnam in 1995) and Senator John McCain, whose flight suit is on display.
The exhibition was a bit grim. The propaganda pictures of happy inmates was at odds with the testimonies of former inmates.
After this visit we went for a slightly lighter note and visited the nearby Vietnamese Women’s Museum.This museum was brilliant – even though we were blatantly charged the foreigner fee.
Set over three floors and recently refurbished this museum charts the role of women in Vietnam from simple agricultural beginnings to the heroic women of the revolutionary struggle. There was a huge collection of tribal costumes and propaganda posters too.
Walking back to the hotel we stopped for lunch one day in P Nha Tho. This little tree-lined plaza is surrounded by French colonial buildings and dominated by St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its twin bell towers. Sitting on the balcony of a local restaurant there was a very Parisian affair about the place. All that was missing was Edith Piaf’s voice beeming from an old radio.
Before heading to Halong Bay there was one more person to see in Hanoi…