1. In Ha Noi, we are not just having a great time visiting the city and its attractions but enjoying the wonderful hospitality of Teng Lam and his wife, Iris. Both are friends of Sunny for many many years, and are godfather and godmother to Sunny's son, Willie. They stay in a 6 storeys rented house which serves as their home and office for the last 15 years. Iris prepared a room on the 5th storey for Sunny and I to use. After the first 2 night, Sunny moved 2 floors down, as his legs cannot tahan.
2. However, one thing that we will miss most in the coming days will be the home cooked food that Iris prepared for our stay here. She went through great effort to ensure that we have dishes that we like over the last 3 days. The other that we will miss is the high speed broadband at Teng Lam's home office. Uploading pictures and videos have been a joy the last 2 days.
3. For our stay in Ha Noi, like HCM City, we left our car parked and moved around by walking or taking a cab. City traffic is never a joy, especially in a city that one is not familiar with. Ha Noi has less motorbikes than HCMC, but there are still many many of them. When traffic lights turn green, they move like a swarm of bees. Like HCMC, if you were to wait for the road to be clear before you cross the road, you would probably stay on the same spot for the rest of the day. When you see a small gap, you just have to confidently move across and hope that the motorbikes will avoid you. Normally, they would.
4. The other thing that Sunny and I found interesting was that Thuan and Teng Lam would only use cabs from certain companies. Between them, they seemed to want to avoid cabs from smaller private cab companies. Thuan would rather dial a cab and wait for it to arrive than waving a cab from a private company. He said that meters in these cabs are known to have been tampered with and each time the driver brakes, the meter jumps. For longer trips, Tian Lam said that the difference could amount to as high as 10 000 dongs. When asked, Thuan said all locals know about this and will generally avoid these cabs. Only tourists and people from outside Ha Noi would use these cabs, he added. So, how do we differentiate them? He said by the company and tel nos marked on the cabs. Also, drivers in cabs owned by govt companies and bigger companies would normally wear uniforms. By end of today (3 June), hopefully, I can differentiate them better. So, arent they regulated? Yes, they are, but they will find their ways.
5. On our first full day in Ha Noi (1 June), we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the Temple of Literature and walk the streets near Hoan Kiem (say return sword in Cantonese, and you will be close to it) Lake and the old (or French) quarters.
6. The vast prison complex of Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in 1896 to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong used it to house American POWs. The museum is divided into sections to depict the 2 different periods. Only the front part of the prison was preserved and converted for use as a museum. The rear end had given way to an office development.
7. In the 1930s, the French authorities housed some 2000 male and female revolutionaries there when it was designed for much less. Exhibits included gruesome exhibits, prisoners chained to each other in a large chamber and prisoner in solitary confinement, French guillotine used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. Here, it gave a list of Vietnamese revolutionaries beheaded, pictures of them and the papers at that time showing the heads displayed in public (obviously to frighten the Vietnam people then). In the female cell, the exhibits include children. Thuan explained that pregnant revolutionaries were also imprisoned and after deliveries the mothers had to look after the babies.
8. In the section showing the American POWs imprisoned here, condition depicted was much better than what the Vietnamese revolutionaries were subjected to by the French. Discounting some exaggeration I would believe theres some truth here. In this section, theres a picture of John McCain been saved from the lake by Vietnamese people after he parachuted from the A4 Skyhawk when his plane was shot, his pilot suit and McCain's visit to the prison some years after US normalised relations with Vietnam.
9. Our next visit was to the Temple of Literature. One picture shows the location where you ought to alight from the horse. Lonely Planet said that if you are only planning to visit 1 temple in Ha Noi, this is the temple to visit. Dedicated to Confucious and site of the first university in Vietnam, the temple was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong of the Ly Dynasty to honour scholars and men of literary accomplishments. The university functioned for more than 700 years, from 1076 to 1779. Modelled after the Confucious temple in Qufu in Shangdong, China, the complex had 5 courtyards. The 5th courtyard was the ground of the university. It was destroyed by French bombings and was rebuilt in 2000, though less the 2 dormitory buildings for students studying there. Restored a couple of times in the last century, this temple showcased some of the best preserved traditional architecture of Vietnam.
10. I found the 3rd courtyard the most interesting. On both side of the Well of Heavenly Clarity were 82 steles mounted on bodies of stone turtles. Names of scholars who passed the doctor laureat tests were engraved on the steles, categorised into 1st, 2nd, 3rd grades. As there were very few students on the steles, I would imagine that the exams were strict and difficult. System was not dissimilar to those administered in China for thousands of years through the various dynasties. The steles recorded 2,313 students graduating as doctor laureats. Emperor Le Thanh Tong (1442 to 1497) of the Le Dynasty was noted for establishing the tradition of carving the names of the laureates of the university on stone steles dating back to 1484. Of the 116 steles corresponding to the examinations held between 1142 and 1778 only 82 remained. Here, we saw many students coming to touch the heads of the tortoises, the steles and then their foreheads to bring them luck for their coming examinations. Apparently, this is a ritual for many students. On many of the steles, we noted that some names were scratched away. Thuan explained that when the officials fell out of favour and punished, the Emperor could demand that the names on the steles be eliminated.
11. After lunch at the restaurant at Hoan Kiem Lake (terrible service quality there!!), we took a walk around the Old (French) Quarters. A area characterised by narrow roads, this was Ha Noi's historic heart. Buzzing with life, very busy, each street, by some design, sold only specific items. Its like a huge department store at ground level. You can just stop your motorbike, pick up the things you want and off you go. They looked like wholesale business, but dont think they mind doing retail too. Together, they sold practically everything - toys, dried food, herbs, clothes, zips, containers, funeral stuff, arts, and many many more. As the streets were narrow, they provided good shade - an enjoyable stroll through the area on the way to Teng Lam's house.
12. Above the shops, we could see remains of beautiful colonial houses, one after another. The facades of the shops were awful; big and loud signboards, little sense given to asthetics. In due course, I am quite sure they will be tidied up. On the other hand, we could see many beautiful colonial buildings elsewhere that were fairly well maintained, particularly those used by govt agencies.
13. Early next morning (2 June), we visited the office of Eviva Tours. Grateful for the services provided to obtain the approvals from the various govt agencies to allow us to drive the Pajero in Vietnam and assigning the cheerful and dedicated Thuan to accompany us throughout our tour, we wanted to drop by the office to personally thank the bosses there. With an office of some 20 plus staff, mostly females based on what we saw, the place looked fairly well organised. We went upstairs to call on Ms Nguyen Bich Van, the General Director of the company. The other ladies in the picture are Ms Trang (red) and Ms Duong (pink).
14. We started the day early because we did not want to be late for Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Opens only between 8-11 each day, we were expecting long lines as school holiday had just begun. And we were right, long lines when we got there at about 9+; many children with their parents, with many parents fanning their kids as it was already very hot and humid. Some waiting time, but the line moved fairly briskly through the Mausoleum. People took off their hats and sunglasses, and foreigners were asked to cover up, out of respect to Ho Chi Minh. Inside the Mausoleum lied the body of Ho Chi Minh, small built, bearing a very peaceful look. Thuan said that the museum only opened half a day each day in order to keep the temperature down to better protect of the body of Ho Chi Minh. Apparently, for 3 mths each year, the body is sent to Russia for preservation work. Also, no cameras were allowed into the Mausoleum.
15. After the eviction of the French forces from Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh refused to stay in the Palace of the Governor General. This building is now used for state functions. Instead he stayed in a more modest colonial building nearby between 1954 to 1958, while he asked that a 2 room stilt house be built for him, modelled after the house he used to stay in North Vietnam during his revolutionary days. A very modest home, he had a study room, a bedroom (no sofa bed, just rattan mat) and work area below the building. Apparently, he was very fond of Japanese kois. Adjacent to this stilt house was an underground bunker, not open to public, for HCM's use during US bombings of Ha Noi.
16. Walking to the Ho Chi Minh Museum in the same complex, we passed the One Pillar Pagoda. Very delicately built, the Pagoda stood on one concrete pillar, with a wooden structure above that looked with a lotus flower. Dedicated to Kuan Yin, this temple was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong who ruled from 1028 to 1054 after he dreamt that he met Kuan Yin and had a son after that.
17. We spent a great deal of time going through just some of the exhibits in the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Could spend the whole day here. Other than pictures, some videos, there were many letters written by Ho Chi Minh and newspaper articles, neatly compiled for visitors to read. One wing was devoted to Ho Chi Minh and the Guongdong province of China, where Ho Chi Minh spent some time there, and where he formed the Vietnamese Communist Youth League. Under one of his pictures were some of Ho Chi Minh's last words:
"All my life, I have served the homeland, the revolution and the people with all my heart and strength. If I should now depart from the world, I would have nothing to regret, except not being able to serve them longer and more" Ho Chi Minh, 1969.
He passed away in 1969. That aptly summed up the life of Ho Chi Minh.
18. By the way, Ho Chi Minh's given name was Nguyen Sinh Cung. As a revolutionary, he had many names in his life, including one Nguyen Ai Quoc. He started using Ho Chi Minh more singularly from 1940s onwards. Must say that theres little about his personal life, including his early years, in the museum. Between us, there was also much debate about whether he was married. Thuan said that he was never married as he wanted to devote his life to the revolution. One source said that he married a Chinese girl named Zeng Xueming during his stay in China on Oct 18, 1926; she was 21 and he 36.
19. As it was school holidays, the complex was swarmed with kids, some in uniforms that looked like scouts. Nice to see that they were all having fun (ice cream was popular), enjoying themselves like kids everywhere.
20. Away from the complex, we next visited the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. Among its various collections, I like the arts collections best. Spanning 2 floors, the collection was sizable, relative to others; lacquer, oil, water colour etc. I would have spent more time browsing through the arts collection if not for the rumbling of our stomachs. No flash photography was allowed. Sorry.
21. Thuan brought us to a nearby street to try Bun Cha, a BBQ pork noddle soup, something thats unique to Ha Noi, he explained. Quite good, a little sweet. Below is the picture of the tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Was told that from this point to the Reunification Palace in HCMC, it is exactly 1730 kms.
22. At 5 pm on our 2nd day here (2 June), we went to see the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. First opened in 1959, the theatre was located near to Hoan Kiem Lake. With a capacity of probably about 200, theatre was almost full, mostly tourists. The various acts were based on traditional legends and stories (including the hoan kiem story a thousand years ago), backed by a 7-8 member musical group with 2 female singers (Sunny complained they have too high a pitch). Thuan said that some locals found it boring. For tourists, it was a good introduction to the Vietnamese culture and music. I have put 2 videos here to give you a taste of it. The 2nd video shows how the show was done.