Eating in, riding around and thoroughly enjoying Vietnam's capital city!
13.10.2007 - 13.10.2007 28 °C
Hanoi will forever be synonymous in our minds with two things: great food and motorbikes. Having enjoyed a number of fine culinary experiences (Luna d'Autuno, Le Petit Bruxelles, Cyclo and – although somewhat disappointing – Vine), we decided we couldn’t really experience the city without seeing it from a motorbike. So, we spent our final afternoon being whisked about town on the back of motorbikes, playing chicken up close and personal. While we – of course – can’t recommend that anyone should ride a motorbike in a foreign country with an unknown driver and without a helmet, I have to admit that it was the most fun I had in Hanoi. As the bike following Lloyd’s lead bike, we had a couple of near misses as we tried to keep up, but in between the grimaces, I had an ear-to-ear grin for the entire duration as we weaved through every facet of street life. THIS is Hanoi.
We stopped at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, which was opened by the French in 1896 and used by them until 1954 in order to detain troublesome locals. There was a guillotine here for French-style terminations (still visible, with charming pictures of heads-in-baskets). Torture methods at the prison were notoriously inhumane and, for the Vietnamese, this site highlights the struggle for independence, and commemorates important freedom fighters “who sacrificed their lives here to secure the independence and freedom of the nation”.
One large room housed as many as thirty prisoners in a communal setting. Prisoners sentenced to death were kept in solitary confinement in this corridor.
Doorway into Memorial Garden.
Of course, we know the prison better as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, where captured American pilots were detained during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese gratefully commemorate the lives of patriots such as Phan Boi Chau or Ho Tung Mau here, but the most famous western inmate was John McCain: former pilot and now a US Senator. As an aside rather than the main feature, a small exhibition goes to great lengths to demonstrate how well the American detainees were cared for. There’s another side to this story, we’re sure…
Lloyd checks into the Hanoi Hilton
Clothing and personal effects of John McCain at the time of capture.
On our way to the Hanoi Hilton, we found ourselves wandering through a Vietnamese street market selling everything from freshly cut meat to vegetables, dry goods and household paraphernalia. Even though we expected to see Roast Dog at some point during our time here, it was still something of a shock the first time, and it took me a few moments to prepare my mind and permit my eyes to look at it directly. We’d seen some freshly butchered dog meat during our trek but this was different. This was whole, roasted dog that still looked – well – like a dog.
How much is that doggy in the window?
After almost a week here, we are – of course – aware that the Vietnamese diet includes dog-meat and cat-meat. As delicacies, these are not eaten as frequently as – say – chicken or beef, but these meats are brought to the table on special occasions. Cat-meat, for example, is eaten during the first few days of the lunar cycle. During our hill-tribe trek, we encountered hundreds of puppies and kittens, along with the thousands of ducklings, calves and other cute ‘babies’ from the animal world. With this firmly in mind, we decided – even if we opted not to try it - it would be hypocritical to object to the consumption of dog and cat meat. The Vietnamese do not have pets in the same way that we do, and most animals are raised – and extraordinarily well cared for – for meat. It's a completely normal and un-interesting part of life for Vietnamese.
So we eat dog-meat..... Yawn.....
At the Army Museum, we caught up with a little of Vietnam’s colorful military history. From the Vietnamese perspective, the war we most strongly associate with the country is simply one of a series of occupations by the Chinese, the French, and most recently by the Americans. We’ve been struck by the overwhelming warmth of the Vietnamese welcome, particularly given that the Vietnam War – known here as the American War – is still fresh history. More than two million Vietnamese died during the conflict so – for us – it’s quite impressive that the country has embraced tourists – including Americans – as wholeheartedly and genuinely as they appear to have done.
Exhibits at the Army Museum included enough military equipment to keep Lloyd happily occupied for several hours: M-16's, mortars, an Army UH-1 Huey, and an Air Force A-1 Skyraider. But with the bikes at our disposal, we opted to race from the south of town towards the north-east to visit a wrecked B-52 whose tail is still famously protruding above the waters of Huu Tiep Lake. According to the Vietnamese, this B-52 was shot down in December 1972 as part of an important campaign believed to broadly turn the tide against the US, leading to a “complete victory” of the “Vietnamese people’s anti-US resistance for national salvation”.
Lloyd observing remains of crashed B-52
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped briefly at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, set – as you would expect in a Communist country – in a generously sized and perfectly manicured square. Ho Chi Minh is preserved Lenin-style and displayed here, but he is currently out of town getting a few touch-ups, so we weren’t able to visit with him this time.
Our motorbike drivers literally raced each other back to the Old Quarter, where we had time for an excellent meal at Cyclo before heading out in the rain to the train station to catch our overnight train to Hue. Hanoi flies straight to the top of our list of favourite cities: plenty to do, both in town or – relatively - near-by; great food, local and international; warm people and sales people who are not too aggressive; a bustling, lively atmosphere; and finally a fantastic base in the Hong Ngoc Hotel. In summary, we can’t recommend Hanoi highly enough, and are extremely excited to see what the rest of Vietnam has to offer.