Vietnam: Day 3

Our last day in Hanoi!

The weather was still gloomy at that point, but the cold weather was such a blessing because we just walked all over the city that day.

Our itinerary was pretty simple:

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
  • Temple of Literature
  • Hoa Lo Prison
  • A water puppet show
  • And maybe egg coffee on our way back

Culture Day, basically.

I didn’t expect Hanoi to be so walker-friendly. We just followed a map we got from the hotel. We loved that thing so much. Here’s a scan because we like to share:

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It’s pretty abused well-loved as you can see. If you’d like a better copy of this map, please feel free to contact me and I’ll send you a larger, clearer file. ;D

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 At the back you’ll find information on museums, basic Vietnamese sentences if you find yourself lost in translation, a very reliable street food guide (we can vouch for the restaurants here), and equally reliable taxi recommendations.

We got up fairly early on our last day. We had a decent breakfast, had a little help getting a cab from the hotel, then we went straight to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is, as it sounds, where Ho Chi Minh’s body lies. Ho Chi Minh is the most well-known political leader in Vietnam.

You know what time it is? HISTORY TIEMZ.

In his late 20s or early 30s, Ho Chi Minh lived in France where he became very involved in communism and public affairs, inspired by Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution. He founded the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930 and extensively traveled the world as a representative of the Communist International organization.

During World War II, he returned to Vietnam and organized Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, to fight against the Japanese occupying the country. This is when he started using the name Ho Chi Minh, which means “Bringer of Light.”

When the Allies won in 1945, the Japanese withdrew from Vietnam and Viet Minh forces seized control of Hanoi in the north, declaring it the Democratic State of Vietnam where Ho Chi Minh was installed as the president. French troops, however, didn’t want to relinquish control over southern Vietnam, and this eventually led to war that lasted for eight years. Even when the French finally agreed to peace talks in Geneva and elections for reunification were in the works, the anti-communist south refused to accept all this. Pretty soon the Vietcong—guerillas backed by northern Vietnam—started attacking the south. The United States, fearing the spread of communism, provided economic aid and military troops to South Vietnam in the mid-1960s. These events led to escalating armed conflict. This is what we know as the Vietnam War.

In 1968, then US President Lyndon Johnson called for peace talks. Ho Chi Minh, by this time, was already in poor health and had taken a more behind-the-scenes role in the Vietnam War. He passed away in 1969.

In 1975, the Communists were finally able to take over Saigon, the heart of South Vietnam. They renamed it Ho Chi Minh in his honour.

OKAY, now that we’re all caught up, learned something new today, good, mathematical!

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The establishment of this monument was inspired by Lenin’s own mausoleum in Moscow. Entrance is free, but people can only view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body in the morning. We also had to surrender drinks and cameras at the entrance. I had a water bottle, and I dragged my friends all around the compound to retrieve it after the tour because we weren’t sure if we could double back with all the guards around and the possibility of detention in a foreign country hanging in the air. Thank you, friends. Haha.

Oh, and there’s also a dress code. Open-toed shoes are allowed, but people were asked to cover their bare arms and legs.

Tourists had to fall in two lines going inside the mausoleum. It was so cold inside. I mean, it was cold outside because it was raining a little, but the AC was turned up really high, man. It made everything a little eerie.

In a minute we found ourselves in a dimly-lit room and Ho Chi Minh’s perfectly preserved body inside a glass case in the middle of it all. He looked like he was sleeping. There were four or more guards standing stiff as boards around this body. No one was making a sound. You could hear a pin drop in that place, and the guards would shush the pin and escort it outside, possibly detain it if needed.

I read somewhere that Ho Chi Minh actually didn’t want a mausoleum, much less be put on display like that for the entire world to see, but I suppose he left such a positive impact on the Vietnamese that they felt it was a proper way to honour him. The experience was strange and I would probably never line up to see him again, but it was cool at the same time to see history preserved like that. It makes the accounts we read and the stories we hear of the past feel more real.

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This was as close as I got to the exterior until a guard told me to back away. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just a dumb tourist, I’m sorry.

After Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we headed to the Temple of Literature. We couldn’t find a cab that we liked, so we ended up walking all the way there. Thankfully the weather was on our side. It was gloomy, it was cool, it was nice throughout the day.

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The Temple of Literature is famous in Hanoi for being a temple dedicated to Confucius and for being Vietnam’s first national university. Who doesn’t love a temple dedicated to academic pursuits, right?

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Since our tour was DIY, there wasn’t anybody around to explain what the interiors of the temple were or what they meant. I really wished we had a local with us then, but fortunately there were a lot of English-speaking tour groups roaming around. I just got really close to a few of them and listened to the guides. #travelhacks #cheapskatetips

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The Temple of Literature was where Vietnam’s nobles, elites, and bureaucrats went to school. It produced some of the country’s best scholars who were well-versed in Confucianism and literature.

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The lake in the middle of the temple is called the Well of Heavenly Clarity. Reminds me of Ateneo’s Meron Pond.

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The temple is divided into five courtyards. The fifth courtyard, the one farthest from the front gate is where statues of Confucius and his most loyal disciples are housed. By the time we got to this area, there appeared to be a graduation ceremony for elementary school kids. The courtyard was packed with people.

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My favourite part of the temple, though, is the Stelae of Doctors, which I don’t have a photo of. Because I’m such a great blogger and photographer.

On one side of the lake, you’ll see huge slabs of stone with Chinese writing engraved on them. At the bottom of each slab is a stone turtle, which is one of Vietnam’s four holy creatures. The turtle symbolizes longevity and wisdom.

Stelae_of_Doctors_-_Temple_of_Literature,_Hanoi_-_DSC04569
By Daderot (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The stelae were made to encourage students to continue their pursuit of knowledge. Wish I could read the text.

After the Temple of Literature, we were getting a little hongreh, thus we found ourselves at a Pho24 branch. While the pho at Pho24 was good, it wasn’t as great as the pho we had the day before. The Pho24 pho tasted…clean? Safe? A little bland? Sanitary?

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Foreign street food across the board tend to have a ~deliciousness~ that restaurants just can’t replicate. If you don’t eat street food when you travel, man, you’re missing out. Do as the Romans do.

After an agreeable lunch, we hopped on a cab and headed to Hoa Lo Prison.

I initially wanted to cross this out of our itinerary because like I said, I’m a dumb tourist. I just wanted to go around the city and eat my weight in noodles. I thought a visit to the prison would be a boring waste of time.

Well, I was very, very, very wrong.

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Hoa Lo Prison is a tragic relic of a dark time in Vietnam’s history.

The prison was originally built by French colonists in 1896 to hold Vietnamese revolutionary fighters. In the past, Hoa Lo Prison was located in Phu Khanh Village, a crafts and trade community in Hanoi that specialized in earthen pots, kettles, and stoves that were sold widely in the capital. Fitting, because Hoa Lo means “fiery furnace.”

During the French occupation, life was extremely hard for the Vietnamese people. Widespread oppression, chronic food shortage, dwindling basic necessities, poverty. Naturally, the Vietnamese rose against the French to reclaim their independence and sovereignty.

The French responded to this retaliation by building more prisons and heavily suppressing Vietnamese patriots. More prisons in the pipeline meant the French needed more land. They displaced over 40 households from Phu Khanh Village to build what we know today as Hoa Lo Prison, which would become the one of the biggest and most unforgiving penitentiaries in Indochina.

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Hoa Lo Prison was known as a place of torture. Prisoners were shackled to fetters for long periods of time, causing their muscles to atrophy and forcing them to relieve themselves where they sat. Sanitation and hygiene were not priorities, so prisoners had to live with public, filthy, uncleaned waste areas—or no waste areas at all.

Hoa Lo Prison was designed to hold 500 prisoners, but by 1917, it housed nearly a thousand Vietnamese revolutionary detainees.

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There were special dungeons for prisoners who violated the rules and regulations within the complex. These windowless cement rooms were dark, narrow, and lacked proper ventilation and heating. The meals were tasteless and on the verge of spoil, the beatings cruel and inhumane. In the biting winter, guards would throw cold water at the prisoners from time to time, without warning, and lock the doors again.

Going around the prison, I felt like there were weights around my ankles, and the cold really seeped in under my clothes. Visitors talked in hush tones and shook their heads in disapproval in front of the display cases, which housed misshapen bowls, tattered clothes, and the few possessions prisoners were allowed to have.

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There was a narrow hallway of cells reserved for prisoners on death row. I was able to walk halfway through when I had to turn back because everything was so goddamn eerie. I’m not a ‘vibes’ kind of person, but I swear there was horrible juju in that place, and I couldn’t take another step with the chill running down my spine.

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It saddened me that Vietnam had to go through the history that it did, and the effects of that long period of war and trauma is still evident in many subtle ways today. I don’t want to think about robbed potential and instead focus on how the Vietnamese have persevered and preserved the most valuable parts of their culture and heritage. Like water puppets!

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Unfortunately I lost the videos I took of the water puppet show we saw, but water puppetry is a unique Vietnamese tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century. Like the Philippines, Vietnam was largely an agricultural country, and many people lived near rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. Water puppetry became one of their many forms of entertainment.

The puppets are made of lacquered wood and controlled by puppeteers that hide behind cloth screens in a waist-deep pool. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides the music that’s mostly composed of melodic vocals, drums, bells, gongs, and flutes.

The stories the puppets act out are rooted in folklore and rural tales that tell of the daily life of Vietnamese farmers and fishermen, so these are legends, myths, harvest songs, and fishing songs. Most of the people who watch these now are probably tourists and kids on educational field trips, but it was such a treat to see this cultural gem, and I would definitely recommend it to people visiting Vietnam.

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped by Cafe Pho Co, a beautiful, quaint cafe near Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a hidden cafe along Hang Gai Street so we had to go through a souvenir shop and a narrow alley until it opened up to a beautiful, rustic courtyard.  I read online that they serve really good egg coffee.

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Egg coffee has been a Hanoi staple since the 1950s. Hot coffee is topped with a frothy mixture of sugar, condensed milk, and eggs for a uniquely Vietnamese beverage. You can have it hot or cold, and almost anywhere in Hanoi.

At Cafe Pho Co, you order downstairs from a lady behind a counter, and they’ll bring your order to you wherever you are in the building. It has several floors and a roof deck on top where you can enjoy a beautiful view of Hoan Kiem Lake.

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I rarely drink coffee, but I do know the difference between instant coffee and brewed one. And I can say confidently that egg coffee is a nice drink for people who don’t like coffee. Haha. I found it enjoyable over ice even though it was cold and raining outside, and Cafe Pho Co was so pretty. I would have loved to spend a few hours there, just reading or writing or thinking about all the Vietnamese food I’ve yet to eat.

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But sadly, our time in Hanoi was dwindling, and we had to go back to the hotel to cram all our things inside our luggage and head back to Manila.

We managed to squeeze in a last meal along Hang Ga Street. Our dinner before heading to the airport (and before ridiculously overpriced airport Burger King) was banh cuon, rolled rice cakes stuffed with assorted meat and vegetables.

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They come with a sweet and slightly sour dipping sauce, and it was absolutely delicious. Felt like a perfect little goodbye to the city we’ve come to love.

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All in all, it was such a good trip! Short and sweet. Travel with friends, to me, is a test of friendship, and I’m happy to say we passed with flying colours. I can’t wait to see more of the world with these guys. (Also, sorry again to Jus, for cutting her out and being horrible at Instax. Haha.) We’re actually going to Seoul and Busan this November, so watch out for our adventures there.

See you next time, sports fans.

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