Hanoi is supposed to be the bigger, crazier counterpart to HCMC’s more laid back charm, but for my money, I found it to be a little less crazy, in the traffic department at least. Perhaps I was just glad to be in town, as the night train there was pretty brutal, with spotty, leaky aircon and zero sound insulation to couple with the usual tiny, not exactly Zach-sized bed. That night I was meeting Jeonghee at the airport, so I had a day to kill sightseeing.
The first stop was the Hoa Lo Prison, more famously known as the Hanoi Hilton- the prison where John McCain spent a good chunk of the Vietnam War. The prison has a much longer history than that, though, beginning as a undeniably brutal French prison. The displays focus on that brutality, but when it comes to addressing the U.S. POW part of its history, it’s all basketball games and Christmas parties (which they do have photos of). McCain did come back here to visit a few years ago, perhaps to visit his flight suit, so it’s hard to say where exactly the truth lies on the spectrum between this and First Blood, but it’s a sobering place to say the least.
From there I headed significantly further back in time, to the Temple of Literature, a university dating from the 1100s. The complex had beautifully restored grounds and the first two-story temple I’d seen in Asia- an atmospheric wood building full of shrines and learning materials.
Ho Chih Minh’s Mausoleum was closed when I got there as his body was in Russia getting its yearly touch-up (yes, his originally body is on public display like Lenin or Mao’s- directly contrary to his last wishes), but his simple pond-side stilt house he allegedly lived in preceding his death in 1969 was open, and quite interesting. While it would have been incredibly unsafe to reside in at that time, it does function as a symbol of humility.
On a related note, I took up a local motorcycle tour operator named Cheng to tool around the city a bit, first stopping at a small lake with the wreckage of a B52 bomber still poking out of it.
Nearby was a museum housing the rest of the aircraft, several antiaircraft guns, and a series of oddly artistic displays in a style I can only describe as Soviet-style modern art. Cheng was 13 in 1972, and remembers the bombings of that year well. There’s no hard feelings towards Americans in his case, surprisingly.
Speaking of oddly artistic Soviet-style art, the Ho Chih Minh Museum has that in spades, telling his life story through modern art and mixed media in a style that is really cool, but not terribly informative.
The last museum I visited was the Vietnamese Ethnology Museum, and this one was one of the best handful I’ve seen anywhere. The nation has a very diverse amount of cultures and this museum provides a great guide to them all, with clothing, crafts, customs, and most impressively even housing depicted or recreated. The crown jewel was the park out back devoted to the last part, with real houses transported from their original villages, from hill tribe shanties to giant jungle houses on stilts.
My final stop that evening before heading to the airport was a small coffee shop overlooking Hanoi’s central, picturesque (and allegedly giant turtle-sheltering) Hoan Kiem Lake. Their specialty is Ca Phe Trung (egg coffee), a very rich, caramel-like foam topped dark black coffee that was exactly as good as it sounds like.