Vietnam – Part 1 of 7 – Hanoi

Longing to travel in Vietnam?

This 7 part series, which travels from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, will entice you to experience Vietnam’s vibrancy and beauty; meet its resilient and hospitable people, and marvel at their ability to blend calm serenity with seeming chaos … and make it all work.

Temple of Literature

Hanoi Temple of Literature

Located in a tranquil park, Hanoi’s Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius. Some of the architecture dates back to 1010AD. Vietnam’s first university was sited here. Rows of stone turtles (symbol of strength and longevity) hold large slabs of carved stone upon their backs. Each of these eighty-two slabs (1484-1780) is engraved with names, birthdates and achievements of those who had shown themselves to be the most accomplished scholars.

Within the temple you may be treated to a short concert performed on ancient-style instruments such as the ‘dan bau’ (a one stringed zither) and ‘dan trung’ (a suspended bamboo xylophone-like instrument played with clapping hands rather than sticks). The temple has instruments for sale as well as cds of their music.

National Museum of Fine Arts

Hanoi National Museum of Fine Arts

Plan on combining a tour of the Temple of Literature with one in the National Fine Arts Museum located just across the street from the Temple’s back wall.

Housed in a colonial building, which once served as the French Ministry of Information, the museum is considered Vietnam’s primary art museum (the second and smaller, being in Ho Chi Minh City).

One Pillar Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda

Tourists called it “One-Pillar Pagoda” and the name stuck but the 9 foot square building perched upon its 12 foot high 4 foot diameter cement pillar is really Dien Huu Pagoda.

In 1049 King Ly Thai Tong dreamt of seeing a Buddha sitting on a lotus tower to which the king was led. Upon waking, the King told his lords about his dream and asked their advice. A stone pillar was built in the middle the pond and topped with a Buddhist’s lotus tower. The monks prayed for the King’s longevity and thus called it Dien Huu (lasting life). The king died in 1054 at the age of 26.

In 1954, as the French forces withdrew from Vietnam, they destroyed the pagoda which the Vietnamese immediately rebuilt in the same manner as the original.

Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh

Hanoi Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh

The mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh is in the centre of Ba Dinh Square where in 1945 he read the Declaration of Independence. His glass entombed body is in the Centre Hall protected by a military guard, while other guards strictly enforce the dress and conduct codes of usually two long lines of visitors: legs must be covered, silence must be observed, hands visible at all time, no crossed arms, no drinking, eating or smoking and no photography of any kind anywhere inside the mausoleum. Unless it is an important pilgrimage for you, a walk in the square and a camera click of the building may be enough, leaving you time in Hanoi for other discoveries.

Trấn Quốc Pagoda

Stitched Panorama

Walk over a bridge, passed the locals fishing for carp, to the island in West Lake and visit Trấn Quốc Pagoda; reputed to be Hanoi’s oldest pagoda for Vietnamese Buddhism (over 1450 years old). Because of its original position on a crumbling bank of the Red River, it was moved to its present location sometime in the early 1600s.

There is a Bodhi tree grown from a cutting off the original tree in Bodh Gaya, India under which Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.

Many visitors bring offerings of vegetables and fruit or small amounts of money, but not meat since monks who live in Trấn Quốc are vegetarian. Incense (presented in odd numbers; which are considered lucky) is burned to send wishes to the gods; visitors are welcome to join in the practice. The monks here have, for centuries, shared their knowledge of Buddhism with the public.   Don’t rush off, the sunset views from the temple are renowned for their beauty. Bring your camera.

The Streets of Hanoi

Hanoi Street Vendor

Although the museums and temples are fascinating and pleasant, it is the daily happenings on the streets of Hanoi which will headline your list of Hanoi Remembrances.

People crowd the streets, sidewalks and shops (with many shops so full of product that merchandise spills out onto the sidewalk). Women, bearing long split bamboo poles over their shoulders, balance large baskets of food for sale, from apples piled high to donuts threaded on broomstick handles.

Nowhere is merchandise stacked higher than in the Old Quarter where most streets appear much as they were a century ago. Names of the streets describe what they sell.  For example, on Chrome Street (English translation) they would sell chromed plated products from muffler pipes to fishing lures.

Evening in Hanoi

Hanoi at night

Electric lights against dark shadows highlighted by small coal fires and cooling temperatures bring a refreshed vibrancy to Hanoi. Roads and walkways are just as crowded.

There doesn’t seem to be any regulations regarding cooking or serving food. As well as small inside eateries with roadside walls open, corners are favored for hibachi-style flame-cookers (fueled by coal). It’s difficult to know if people sitting around on their hunches, partaking in the cooked fare, are family members or customers; perhaps both.

Vendors look up from steaming pots of noodles to smile and wave at visitors to their city. People passing will say, “Hello” and a returned greeting will often be met with giggles as if to say, “I spoke another language and they understood me!”

It’s always wise to ask about night-safety before heading out on your own in an unfamiliar locale. The southern section of Hanoi seems comfortable but be sure to get updated information before you go.

Next Up: Vietnam – Part 2 – Halong Bay!

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