We awoke early again, ready to make the most of our only full day in Hanoi. First stop would be the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which closes at 11am every morning. Shorts aren’t allowed, and Sam had to cover her shoulders. After breakfast we rushed out and took a taxi to Ba Dinh square.
We wandered slowly towards the cuboid, marble mausoleum, along the wide pedestrianised street. Everyone was standing outside the monolith, there were no queues, and no one was going in. Was it closed? Two guards in brilliant white stood motionless at the entrance. A guide explained. Turns out Uncle Ho, as he is called, was on his annual holiday to Russia for re-embalming, and he wouldn’t be back ‘til October. Balls.
The Lonely Planet described what we were missing. Even a Google Image search doesn’t reveal anything, as photos aren’t allowed.
The mausoleum is meant to be lotus shaped, and I can see how that might be the case, but its rigid cuboid marbleness dominates, resembling the mausoleums of other famous communists; most notably Lenin. And this was all against his desires to have a simple cremation.
At least that wasn’t all there was to do here. Instead we visited the Ho Chi Minh museum, via the “One Pillar Pagoda” (built in 1054 but destroyed by the French in 1954 and subsequently rebuilt). The museum itself is a grand affair, a bold white edifice that oozes communism; engraved with the hammer and sickle and flying the Vietnamese flag proudly.
Inside we checked our bags through security and began looking around. The first exhibit was a temporary one and it showcased modern Vietnam and Laos relations. Hmm, everything is in Vietnamese, who are these people? Perhaps we need a guide. We enquired, and waited 20 minutes for an English speaking guide, and then gave up. Luckily enough, beyond the first floor, the main body of the museum is in English too.
In the foyer a bronze Ho Chi Minh statue greeted us. An elderly guy, led by what I presume were his sons, jostled to stand proudly beneath it and have his photo taken. The museum is circular, and we quietly wandered in a clockwise direction learning about Ho Chi Minh’s early life, his many names, his many guises, his imprisonments and the following appeals in Hong Kong. Many copies of his letters are on show, and the stirring appeal to the Vietnamese people, written in English, was a fascinating read. “To the revolution…” it begun. Powerful, forceful writing in one of the five languages he could speak.
Exhibits included samples from his cave dwelling where the revolution was devised and extracts from his prison diary. As we wander around, he grows up, becomes prominent, overthrows the French, unites the country, and begins the fight against the American invasion, dying before he could see his country united once more. It reminded me of earlier discussions about the war in Phong Nha and a suggestion that the Americans had fought idealistically against communism, whilst the Vietnamese fought for nationalism.
The botanical gardens outside the complex are lovely, with Ho Chi Minh’s former residence nestling in the trees. We rested amongst the flowers in the peaceful park before embracing the onslaught of Hanoi streets once more. We walked along Chu Van An and P Van Mieu towards the temple of literature, expertly dodging the angry student attempting to sell us things.
Lunch time! We stopped at the excellent and highly recommended KOTO restaurant. Know oneself, teach oneself, its motto proudly says. It’s a not-for-profit business that helps disadvantaged young people learn the restaurant trade. And the staff were lovely; a new trainee practicing her English read us the specials, stumbling on the word “Chardonnay”.
It’s a four storey building with lime green walls, downstairs there’s a delicatessen and souvenir shop at the back. Their recipe book was especially good. Too heavy to buy here, we bought it online and made a donation.
Did I mention the food yet? Well, I should have, because it’s fantastic. Some of the best food we had in all of Vietnam. Smoothies and iced coffee accompanied stir fried duck and Sam’s scrumptious bamboo beef, a meal she still hasn’t stopped raving about. For dessert the mango cheeses (sic) cake was too eye-catching to pass up.
Leaving the air-conditioned haven of KOTO, we once again embraced Hanoi’s streets, tuk-tuk touts and souvenir sellers in the mid afternoon heat. Our unguided tour continued with a visit to the Temple of Literature, practically free to get in. In my head I imagined large decadent halls filled with rows of books. I was wrong; instead we were greeted with gardens and temples and preserved traditional architecture centuries old.
From the great portico, we appeared within an enclosed garden. To the left and right were ponds bearing lotus plants, and brilliant complicated topiary, guarded with ugly red tape. Beneath the first covered building we hid from the sun, already sweltering, the sweat running down my back. A placard explained the history of this ancient Vietnamese architecture. It all remind me very much of the Hue citadel.
Beyond lay another garden, and through another the Khue Van pavilion was a large pond, surrounded by 82 stelae, each different and dedicated to an early scholar. What’s a stelae? In this case it’s a large stone slab with Chinese text, sitting atop a tortoise, one of Vietnam’s holy creatures; they show everlasting respect to talent. Around the pond were well tended flowers, where tiny birds played.
In another courtyard rooms were now souvenir shops, and a red roofed temple housed a bronze stork and tortoise. Beautiful Vietnamese girls in fantastic dresses wandered about the temples, closely followed by their photographers, and watched by crooning old men. No doubt the photos were for a special occasion, but only a couple were obviously weddings. Hidden alleyways on the left and right led the way to the final temple.
This two floored temple was filled with the sounds of traditional music, and upstairs three statues of former kings basked in red light. Our favourite aspect? The huge fans that kept us cool, and momentarily stopped the hot sweats. Subtly, trying to remain respectful, I directed the cool breeze up my shirt. Ahh, bliss.
From the temple we walked back towards our hotel. We wanted to find the duvet we’d seen on our boat trip, and stopped at whatever fabric shop we spotted along the way. The shopkeepers were all eager to make a sell, and happy to help, but none had what we were looking for.
We got lost a couple of times, navigating the labyrinthine streets with GPS and Google Maps. Though, by now, we were crossing Hanoi’s busy roads like experts, the heavy traffic effortlessly swarmed around us, scooters weaving by our moving obstacle, as if this was some sort of social aerodynamics experiment. We were steadfast, calm and successful.
After all that walking and traffic dodging we rewarded ourselves with another stop at our favourite Hanoi coffee shop, Joma. A quick drinks and cake stop, and a bit of free wifi internetting from the comfort of leather sofas.
Eager for more shopping, we found Hanoi’s night market, a single long street filled with souvenir stalls and clothes. Not a patch on the Chiang Mai night market mind. Tomorrow was our final day in Vietnam, of course we should buy things! Table runners, placemats, lacquer drink mats, and even six cups and saucers with tea pot as part of an oriental tea set – with a free bamboo tray. Normally we’d attempt to haggle, but the price they asked for I was very happy to pay, a mere £6. It felt like a good deal, and probably made up for all those countless other occasions where we were overcharged by an incalculable margin. Price tags, such a wonderful invention. I have a new appreciation for UK trade laws.
I left Sam to do a little more shopping while I sought a restaurant for dinner. We chose Green Mango, small, chic and clearly only frequented by foreigners. A guard sat outside. I downed a whisky and honey cocktail waiting for Sam to arrive. My meal was fairly average, but Sam loved her spring rolls. With my carbonara pizza in a doggy bag, we called it a night.