Saturday, January 11, 2014

And In Between the Eating...

Besides eating and walking around the Old Quarter, we also saw some of the sights in Hanoi. One morning we walked to the Temple of Literature, a Confucian Temple that used to hold the most ancient university in Vietnam. It's about a ten minute walk from the Old Quarter, and one of the most popular tourist sites in Hanoi. 

The beautiful grounds are within an enclosed stone wall, and you only have to pay $1 for an entrance fee. It was lovely to stroll around on a crisp and bright morning. 

I really love visiting used bookstores wherever I go travel. Most of the well-maintained ones are treasure troves of history - and not just books of history of the country, but the histories of the books themselves, of how they ended up sitting on a shelf in that bookstore of that particular country. In Hanoi, I went to Bookworm, located near West Lake in an area about a 30 minute walk north of the Old Quarter.

After browsing for a long while at Bookworm, which has an extensive selection of books, we walked along the lake area where we found nice seats and tables near the shore. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to see such nice public seating. Of course, as we sat down, we were immediately approached by a waiter - the seats belong to a lakefront cafe across the street. However, $1 for tea and a plate of sunflower seeds was a low price to pay for the relaxation and the view.

Another very popular sightseeing spot is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh's body is embalmed and on display, similar to Mao's body in China's Tiananmen Square. The Mausoleum is only open until 11:30am every morning, and apparently there is a very long line of people wanting to catch a glimpse of his body. We skipped the viewing, choosing instead to explore the grounds behind the mausoleum, where we saw the presidential palace and other historic sights like Ho Chi Minh's old residence and the One Pillar Pagoda.

St. Joseph's Cathedral is another point on the map that was marked for sightseeing. When we walked over one Monday morning it appeared that the building was closed, though when we walked over to one side we found an open door and got to peek inside. 

The neighborhood surrounding the cathedral is quite nice, with lots of little cafes and shops. I found this place called Joma Bakery Cafe that I immediately fell in love with and went back 3 separate times! They make their own bread and it's divine. 

Hoa Lo Prison has an interesting history. The French used the prison to detain Vietnamese political prisoners during their era of rule, and then Hoa Lo was used for captured American POWs during the Vietnam War. Only part of the building is still intact, and preserved as a historical site; sadly, much of the space has been taken over to build new high-rise buildings. 

The prison tour was quite an interesting experience, seeing how the government presents its historical perspectives. For one, it focuses mostly on the French brutal treatment of Vietnamese prisoners, and only dedicates the last part of the tour to the American experience. Additionally, it tries to claim that the Americans experienced benevolent treatment in the prison, showing videos of POWs laughing, playing games, eating good meals, and even celebrating Christmas. You would think from their claims that the Americans were honored guests rather than enemy soldiers.

Indeed, there is a bit of irony in the nickname "Hanoi Hilton," created by the Americans. They chose this nickname ironically, yet the description in the prison uses this American nickname as literal proof of the fine experience that the Americans received.

Yet I'm sure there must be some grain of truth to their claims. There always exist multiple histories amongst all the sides of any conflict, and I'm aware that I've only grown up with the American one.

Several times during our trip we visited Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. There are a lot of nice cafes overlooking the water, and it's a nice walk around the shores as well, during the day or night. Many locals come here to exercise and do calisthenics - I frequently saw people, especially older folks, strolling around while swinging their arms and pumping their legs vigorously. There is a pagoda in the middle of the lake that can't be reached, as well as a temple that one can get to by crossing a bridge. 

We didn't visit any museums on the trip, which is a change for me, but I think in Hanoi there are many more ways to experience the culture and the history. Additionally, my friend told me that the museums are not very well curated. If I ever go back perhaps I will check out the exhibits but for now I am content with how much I saw and learned on my trip.  

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