Hanoi, Vietnam

The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi (sometimes written as Ha Noi) is the second largest city in the country and has an ‘old quarter’ and a new.

Adelaide – Melbourne – Ho Chi Minh City – Ha Noi. Plenty of food, movies, music and a new e-book. The long 8 hrs didn’t seem as hard as the last 2hrs. At the Saigon airport I caught sight of a Vietnamese hat and knew I had to have one.

The Anise Hotel had clearly been shot in wide screen when we viewed it online, as it was so narrow in real life that you would miss it if you looked down the street from the top. There was a lovely park across the street where people did Tai Chi in the morning and at night.

Attendants were friendly and helpful and the room was snug and sufficient with clean linen and towels. The view from the narrow windows was most surprising in the morning – so many narrow, multi-story houses crammed into the area, with vegetables growing on lattice work from balconies. Mouldy walls and decaying roofs seemed oddly matched to the warm red glow of people inside. Hanging cages of birds cause me to wonder if their song or their taste is what constitutes their allure.

We headed to breakfast early, as we had booked a tour. The brekky was most sufficient – cereal, toast and a lazy susan, in front of which rested a rice-spotted spoon. I spied a couple of campfire-sized frying pans on makeshift burners and was transported back to my science lab days, before eyeing the basket of eggs. A gesture of my hand, more polite than pointing and less pompous than a blessing, brings a helpmate to enquire if I would like an omelette or fried egg? We settle on sunny side up and I toast the bread while a cook is summoned to fry my eggs for me.

Every home should have one.

Fresh watermelon juice and strong coffee, tinted with something vaguely vanilla, sets me up for the day.

The tour departs from the foyer and takes in temples, lakes, museums, mausoleum, the centre of ethnicity, the temple of literature and an on-the-spot art gallery where they work with resins.

The first temple, on the lake, was built around 1049 and was dedicated to the monks who were there. Tortoises are sold out the front so that you can buy one and set it free in the lake with your prayer for long life. Viets say the tortoise signifies long life and they report 2 that lived in the lake for about 700 years!

Chimes hung in the trees and the guide said that Vietnamese use drums and bells (chimes) to get Buddha’s attention so that he can hear their prayer. The practice of praying to Buddha – writing your intention on a piece of paper, going in to the shrine to pray and then burning the paper in the special incinerator that sends the message in the smoke to Buddha, felt simple and sure. Thinking of a very sick relative back home, I skipped steps 1 and 3, promptly took off my sandals and went in. Was it the magic of the moment? I felt the presence of something as I said a quick blend of prayers and was promptly rewarded with a message on my phone. I thought that was very fast – even for a deity responsible for millions of followers, but when I looked at the text – ‘where are you?’ I knew it was from Alan.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Even as I typed ‘in the temple’ and pressed ‘send’, I suddenly realised that he had not followed when the guide directed and was probably in the last place.

I flew out of the temple, loosely slipped my sandals on and did a very good impersonation of a Vietnamese jog as I scuffled quickly down the ornate lane to the last destination.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Husband and son retrieved, I led them to the place where I learned of Buddha’s 8 messages for life, waved my hand at the chimes and view and as they entered the area, faces washed with relied, the guide drew us out and back to the bus.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

It wasn’t the last time we lost Alan and James.

I learned a lot about Buddha and his seven lessons, about the three gates at the entrance to a Vietnamese temple – the past, the present and the future. We always enter by the future because we live for the future and in the hope that we will live good lives now so that we get another life as a human. The present door is used by important dignitaries, so is usually closed unless they are expecting someone important. I learned about Confucius and Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh lived very simply and never married.

Ho Chi Minh museum
Presidential Palace – Ho Chi Minh refused to live in such splendour
Ho Chi Minh’s first residence
His second residence, across the lake, known for its simplicity
Temple of Literature

I also learned about the 54 different cultural groups in Vietnam and the Mong people in Sa Pa, far to the north west. They are the most marginalised people in Vietnam. There are the red mong, black mong, white mong, flower mong and others. They are identified by different coloured clothing or decorations they have on their rooves to signify this.

Museum of Ethnology
Temple of fertility

We saw the water puppets in the evening and they were great. Apparently they were started by farmers in the slow season when they wait for the rain before planting. The town gathers to watch people’s displays and they compete for the best one. Had dinner at a restaurant that had a menu we could understand and walked home, avoiding beggars and peddlers except the one from whom I bought my classic hat.

water puppets (Alan’s photo)

The next day we walked around the Lake, the city and visited the museum of revolution. I’d give the second a miss, but my husband found it very interesting.

St Joseph’s Cathedral
Huc Bridge

That evening, we had dinner at the Anise, as it felt comfortable and safe, then caught the train to Sa Pa.

I would advocate getting guides, at least some of the time, for the added information they provide, as well as the ease it provides in transport and organisation. They usually arrange lunch and/or dinner for you at an establishment they know.

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