Indochina with Selective Asia – Chapter 1: Hanoi

The chaos and the dinosaurs

Our previous experiences with Selective Asia made us confident they were the people to organise our tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From the comprehensive selection of suggested itineraries, we blended two together as the basis of our trip. Our consultant’s knowledge of the area was incredibly helpful as we made further tweaks to come up with our tailor made itinerary. 

Touchdown in Hanoi opened our Indochina adventure and we were based in the Essence d’Orient in the heart of the Old Quarter. This perfectly placed boutique hotel is a charming oasis with excellent service. Read my review. 

Hanoi traffic - By Dragfyre via Wikimedia CommonsInitially Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital again since 1954) is a bit of an assault on the senses.  People, scooters, bicycles, rickshaws and cars teem about in a seemingly haphazard way, to a soundtrack of tooting, beeping, ringing and honking. It was worth taking a few moments to watch the locals cross the road and reflect on our excellent guide Vanessa’s advice “just walk but slowly”. It was time to shred the green cross code (observe that and you’ll stand on the same spot all day) and plunge into the maelstrom. We soon realised there’s a sort of rhythm to it, like a dance, where you hope nobody forgets their steps. My ‘balls of steel’ award goes to the lady on a scooter who lost her flip flop in the middle of a major 5 way junction. She stopped right in the midst of it all, propped the scooter on its stand, walked back a dozen steps, slipped on the offending footwear, jumped back on and rode off. All the while the Red Sea of traffic was parting, Moses like, to go around her!

Ceramic mosaicWe started our exploration of Hanoi with a walk along the ceramic mural that runs nearly 4km along the road adjacent to the Song Hong dyke. The ceramics were sourced from nearby Bat Trang and have earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest ceramic mosaic in the world. This colourful creation chronicles some of Vietnam’s history.

Every good city deserves a legend and Hoan Kiem Lake provides the venue for Hanoi. Emperor Ly Thai To is the 15th century hero in this Arthurian style legend, that sees the gods provide him with a sword to rid Vietnam of the Chinese. After victory is secured the sword is snatched by a giant golden turtle and returned to the gods. There’s a little bit about the legend at the pretty Ngoc Son Temple, reached by crossing the scarlet bridge on the lake.

One Pillar PagodaOur tour of Hanoi included Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex. The price for being one of the most widely recognised name in the world and being much loved by the Vietnamese people, was to have his wishes to be cremated ignored. Instead a huge marble edifice is his final resting place; set in manicured grounds and also home to his modest stilt house and the One Pillar Pagoda. The latter building was designed to represent a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity rising from a sea of sorrow.

Temple of LiteratureConfucius says Silver Travel Advisor has the best writers that he never read. OK he didn’t but in 1070 the Temple of Literature was dedicated to him. Later to become a university, the buildings are beautifully preserved and there are many artefacts to admire, such as the stone tortoises holding honorary stelae.

Hoa Lo Prison is a sobering visit and focuses on its use by the French during the Vietnamese fight for independence. Barbaric conditions are described and there’s a guillotine to show how some of the inmates met their end. Also used to keep US prisoners of war during that conflict, it earned the nickname of the Hanoi Hilton.

Dancing dinosaursWalking the city, particularly the Old Quarter, is also an eye opener to Vietnamese culture. Buildings tend to be very narrow, but deep and tall, whilst some seem to have had a garden shed stuck on the roof. Electrical cables are everywhere and the style of wiring at the ‘telegraph’ poles seem to have two styles, the “I’ve dropped a plate of spaghetti” style and the “rats nest” style. A walk along the railway track showed people living or practicing their trade just a single stride from the track, often with accommodation consisting of one or two rooms. ArchitectureLunch itself was an experience, with the floor level BBQ just a foot or two from the kerbside and the ‘plating process’ open to the street. The place was packed with locals, however, and we had a delicious meal with beer for 3 people at about £7. Health and Safety officers from the UK may wish to avoid this place for risk of a nervous breakdown, but we loved it and were so full that dinner was just a snack.

We finished off our stay at a roadside bar just steps away from our hotel in the Old Quarter, people watching and enjoying the nighttime scene. Watching the world stroll by is entertaining enough but then a couple of 8 foot dinosaurs appeared and danced at the intersection. Wow, what do they put in Hanoi beer? How can you not love Hanoi.

Next stop Halong Bay.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia

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Steve Aldridge

Award-winning travel writer

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