After an overnight stay in Hue we went straight to the airport for our flight to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. We booked into the beautiful Metropole Hotel, which has an interesting history. Built in 1901, it is on the edge of the city centre in the French Quarter. Pete and I went out to find drugs (no, not that kind) and food. We were told we could get lunch in any number of nearby restaurants, and there was a pharmacy a few blocks away on the right. The traffic in Hanoi was positively sedate in comparison with Saigon, although there were still lots of motorbikes to which traffic rules (if any) didn’t apply. Having honed our skills in Saigon, we were veterans.
Neither of us was feeling particularly sparkly and when we finally found a pharmacy next door to a McDonalds we decided on the easy option for lunch. I’m pleased to report that Hanoi’s McDonalds food is just as ordinary as the rest of them.
That afternoon we didn’t do much at all in preparation for meeting most of our new travel companions. Ten of us had taken the 23-day option from Saigon, but APT offered shorter trips on parts of the same route. Seventeen people would be joining our tour here in Hanoi and tonight was the welcome dinner. When we reached Siem Reap there would be ninety-four of us.
The following morning Pete was feeling unwell, but I felt OK so I ventured forth for the morning tour wearing my Asian style face mask to try to avoid spreading whatever I had to others. As an aside, when we got back home and saw the doctor, he told us the mask was a waste of time. Viruses are so small they pass through the fabric easily. Besides, the most common form of transmission is through contact on surfaces like door knobs. It’s more important to wash/sanitise your hands often.
We piled onto the bus, much more crowded now with twenty-seven of us, and met our local guide.Unlike our South Vietnamese guides, he didn’t have a horror story from the war and thought the current regime was fine. His only complaint was that his hometown, Hanoi, had grown from a city of half a million or so to a bustling metropolis of around seven million. Driving down the streets he pointed out the only statue of Lenin outside the Soviet Union. He stands in a park, his back turned to the Chinese embassy. Our guide said that was a deliberate snide dig at the Chinese who had strayed from the communist path to form their own version.
Our first stop was at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we would see the embalmed body of Chairman Ho Chi Minh who died in 1969, at the height of the war. Read more about the man here. I was interested to learn his real family was Nguyen. Like the kings in Hue.
Embalming their leaders’ bodies seems to be a uniquely communist tradition. I passed on the opportunity to see Mao Tse Dung in his resting place in Beijing and I have no interest in viewing the corpse of Lenin in Moscow. Since the USSR was the greatest supporter of Uncle Ho, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Russians offered a design for the mausoleum – a copy of Lenin’s in Moscow – and that they embalmed the body. The Mausoleum isn’t a copy of Lenin’s but it has that same blocky, industrial feeling so common in communist architecture.
It’s not easy to get to see the corpse of Uncle Ho in his specially-made-to-withstand-earthquakes crystal coffin. We had to go through security checks similar to an airport. These sorts of places seem to attract nutters and someone in the past had carried out an acid attack, hence the security. Large cameras like my Canon were not allowed, but I’d prepared for that and only brought my phone. Not that photos were allowed inside the mausoleum, anyway. We joined the queue being supervised by guards in white uniforms. Apparently it’s a great honour to be a guardian at the tomb and the men (all men, of course) took their job seriously. I had to take my surgical mask off, probably so they’d recognise me if I did something naughty.
When we were allowed inside, we climbed up a myriad of stairs in suitably sombre dim lighting until we reached the brighter viewing chamber. Ho lay as if asleep in his crystal coffin and we walked past in silence to file back down the stairs into daylight.
Ho’s own wish was that he be cremated and his ashes divided and placed in several locations in Vietnam. But he’d been such a powerful, larger-than-life figure in the struggle for independence that his wishes were overruled. It seems a bit strange to me, given that most Vietnamese are Buddhists and believe in reincarnation. I’m inclined to wonder if the body in the casket is actually a wax work. We’d have no way of knowing. That goes for Mao and Lenin, too.
Just as Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing is in Tien An Men square, Chairman Ho’s mausoleum is in Ba Dinh square where parades and government ceremonies are held. When parades aren’t being held its an impressive empty space. In keeping with a communist state there were quite a few uniforms around, and signs telling everyone what to do.
From the mausoleum we moved to a park that housed the buildings Ho used in his time as president. He refused to live in the French colonial governor’s palace, saying that wasn’t how he saw himself. His accommodation was simple, as were his meeting rooms.
We noticed a number of groups of men and women in military uniform – fatigues rather than parade dress. We guessed they were recent conscripts being taken to see some of their nation’s history.
Our next visit was to the historical Temple of Literature. Built in the eleventh century and dedicated to Confucius, it’s one of the world’s oldest universities. The day we went there a large number of school children arrived for a ceremony, no doubt to do with education. Like most such places it was originally open only to nobles and aristocrats. The men who passed the examinations would end up being mandarins in the bureaucracy. In time, talented ‘commoners’ were admitted if they could pass the stringent entry exams.
When we’d finished all that, we were taken to the edge of the old city where we each climbed onto a ‘cyclo’. It’s like a rickshaw with a bicycle at the back. This is one of the ways the tour company gives back to the community (like the basket boats). An old tradition with a dwindling market is supported and the men (usually older guys) get an income. Although APT paid the riders and tipped them, I expect a few got additional tips from the passengers.
It was a fascinating journey, jostling through the narrow streets with motor bikes, buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians. The architecture is a mix of colonial French and Vietnamese and French bake houses stand side by side with Vietnamese shops There’s a mix of the old and the new here that’s more obvious than it was in Saigon. I took a little video, but my new friend, Linda, took a much better one, so here it is, shared with permission.
We ended the trip outside the hotel and went off to find some lunch before the afternoon activities commenced.
I’d had enough for the day and Pete was still under the weather so we stayed indoors. I’m here to tell you, being ill on holiday sucks. There were some great choices for the afternoon, including a visit to Bat Trang, a 500-year-old village where world-class pottery is made (including a chance to try your hand throwing a pot).
Mike and Linda visited Bat Trang and they’ve been kind enough to share some words and pictures.
Bat Trang is about 15k from the centre of Hanoi beside the Red River, pottery and ceramic making started early in the 14th century. The location was based on the availability of local clay which could be used in the processes. The village became well known for the quality of its products, to such a degree that the King of Vietnam granted it a special status which it still holds.
The first thing you note as you start to walk the village is that pretty much every building, be it large or small, modern or traditional is involved in making, decorating or painting pottery of all shapes and kinds.
Our first stop appeared to be a small traditional house, but once inside we could see teapots being “created”, while they use a manufactured bowl as a basis the handles, spouts and decorative pieces are all made and applied by hand in a very traditional manner.
They were also making small figures which were cast and then trimmed and finished by hand. I was amazed at the detail, and the working conditions.
We then moved on to a slightly larger house where they were making large pots approx. 1.6m tall. The pots were made of two sections which were cast separately then “stuck” together and gazed using a watering can, spinning disk and a plastic bowl. Believe it or not the glaze was dry within a minute. The pots are then decorated by hand.
It’s not just pots and figures which originate from Bat Trang, there are artists who specialise in ceramic pictures which are made in individual sections and then put together. Most of this work is individual commissions, working from personal descriptions, photographs, etc.
It was an intriguing visit. I was amazed at the fantastic quality and range of products being produced in very small, traditional buildings. There is no doubt a Health and Safety Officer would have a fit just walking into the properties never mind looking at the processes.
Our little tour concluded with a visit to the town’s market, and yes you’ve guessed every stall was packed with village products, the pictures don’t do justice to the quantity, quality and range of products available – and all at very reasonable prices.
Thanks Mike, I enjoyed that.
Here’s a bit more about water puppetry and if you wait until the words are finished you get to see the show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxIff980XyM
Instead of heading out Pete and I stayed in the magnificent hotel, enjoying the 5-star luxury.
Dinner that evening was at a choice of several restaurants in the city with different styles of cuisine. Pete and I thought it would be interesting to visit the Press Club, which was over the road from the hotel. We expected to see posters and artefacts from having been – you know – a press club. Maybe articles about the Vietnam war and such. In that respect, we were disappointed. It was a lovely restaurant in French colonial style and it served French food, which was very nice. If I had my choice again, I think I would have gone to a place serving Vietnamese food.
All in all it had been a very full day, especially for those who had also done the afternoon excursion. Tomorrow we’d be doing one of my bucket list items – Ha Long Bay.