Our brief visit to Hanoi gave us a snapshot of an enigmatic city with a lot of potential. Although it seemed as busy and bustling as Saigon, we thought it lacked a certain spark. It’s a quality that was hard for us to define, and part of that might have been due to the crappy weather we endured during our time there. However, we still tried to make the best of it and see what Hanoi had to offer, although not always with a smile on our faces.
Hanoi had some ancient historical sites that were very well preserved, like the Lake of the Restored Sword and the Confucian Academy. The lake was a mythical site in the center of the city where a giant turtle was said to have reclaimed a magical sword that helped the emperor conquer faraway lands. The people of Hanoi then killed the turtle, embalmed it, and put it on display in the small temple at the site. I guess that’s one way to honor your history.
The academy was one of the oldest colleges in Asia and is full of the usual Chinese architecture and symbolism. It was a pleasant, quiet place walled off from the noise of the rest of the city.
During our trip to Beijing last summer with Gina’s sister and brother-in-law, we missed our chance to see Mao’s preserved (and reportedly spray-tanned) body. Since Ho Chi Minh is also preserved in classic soviet style, we headed over to his mausoleum on one of the only sunny days we got in Hanoi. After relinquishing all cameras and electronics, we walked a hurried and hushed lap around the glass casket in the pleasantly air-conditioned viewing room. Folks, it’s worth making the visit for the AC alone. Old Uncle Ho looks perfect and waxy, which makes many think that it’s not his real body. As any true communist knows, the mausoleums of dead leaders should always have visitors exit through the gift shop. Just past the plaques espousing allegiance to the state and bashing the capitalists, you’ll find everything from t-shirts to snowglobes bearing Uncle Ho’s image. The poor guy just wanted to be cremated.
We finished up our time in Hanoi by seeing one of the famous water puppet shows. The presentation originated in the rice paddies hundreds of years ago, and was pretty interesting to watch. At one point the puppeteers were getting a little fancy with the pyrotechnics around the curtains and we expected the whole place to go up in flames.
In the end, we appreciated what we saw in Hanoi but were ready to move on. Ahead of us we had our Halong Bay cruise and a few days of trekking with hill tribes through Sapa before heading to Laos.