I was up bright and early on my second day in Hanoi and immediately made my way to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The monument to the country’s great leader, which houses his embalmed body, is huge and there were lots of guards, all in pristine white uniforms, milling around and making sure the visitors behaved suitably respectfully.
Despite being just after 8.30am, the queue to go inside the mausoleum was enormous and stretched all the way around the complex – I couldn’t even see the end of the queue. The only queue I’ve ever seen of a similar size was the queue to go inside the Vatican. Rather than join the masses, we made for the presidential palace grounds instead. The presidential palace is a grand, yellow colonial-style building (below), but Ho Chi Minh snubbed the palace, preferring to live in a more modest house in the grounds instead.
The grounds consisted of a small complex of houses, including a section that showcased the presidential cars and a house on stilts that Ho Chi Minh used as a summer residence. The house was very sparse inside, and there wasn’t much in the way of comfort or belongings. There was also a bomb shelter with a warning bell system – one ring meant the enemy planes were 100km away, but two rings meant an attack was imminent. The palace grounds were incredibly busy and there were so many people you couldn’t walk around at your own pace as there were bodies everywhere you turned. We ended up joining an enormous queue of people that snaked around the complex, slowly walking around in a giant line.
After the mausoleum we headed to the Temple of Literature, the oldest place in Hanoi. The 11th century temple was built in honour of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It’s a beautiful complex of temples and gardens and that day, it was packed with smartly dressed students having their graduation photos taken. The gardens were really pretty and the temple of Confucius impressive. As I walked around, taking it all in, a couple of female guides pointed out a series of stone tortoises topped with stone slabs inscribed with information about the scholars who studied there between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Then it was on to a much bleaker site, the Hoa Lo Prison (above), nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by US prisoners of war. The prison was grim with dingy rooms in which multiple prisoners were confined. The conditions were even worse for those on death row – they were locked in tiny cells, with barely any light, and forced to sit, shackled, on very uncomfortable-looking wooden benches. Some of the photos on display were horrific, and there was a bizarre, propaganda-like display about the US prisoners of war that made it sound as though they were in a holiday camp. Visiting the prison was a sombre, sobering experience, and one which brought home the horrors of war.
It was now lunchtime so we headed back towards Hoan Kiem Lake to the City View Café for lunch. The café is high up, with superb views over the lake, and I tucked into a plate of spring rolls with crab. With the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to spend the rest of the day sightseeing nearby. First up, was St Joseph’s Cathedral, an impressive French-style gothic cathedral, before heading through the streets to the Opera House (above), a grand building in a chic neighbourhood – a neighbouring street was filled with designer boutiques such as Valentino, Hermés and Chopard.
We then walked back towards the lake where we found lots of beaming couples having their wedding photos taken. Vietnamese couples traditionally have their wedding photos taken the day before the wedding so they can show them to their guests on the day. The women were dressed beautifully in long dresses split to the waist, which they wore over silk trousers, while the men were in suits. Some of the women were holding a bouquet, others a bouquet in a basket, and some were accompanied by make-up artists. Most couples had friends with them or bridesmaids who were also being photographed. I really enjoyed sitting beside the water, watching the constant flow of happy, excited couples posing ahead of their big day.
After a nice relaxing half an hour on the park bench, watching the world go by, we wandered up towards the Den Ngoc Son temple, crossing the red wooden bridge to get to it. It’s a peaceful little place and the temple is home to the remains of a giant turtle that once lived in the lake, as well as a very living cat. While we were admiring the temple, a number of people came in and placed money on the shrine in front of us, before kneeling down to pray. We left the worshippers to it and headed back outside, but by this point the heavens had opened, so we sheltered under a large canopy until the rain eased off.
Vietnam is well-known for its water puppetry, an ancient art that developed in the rice paddies, and keen to see one of its famous shows, our next stop was a water puppet theatre opposite the lake. In the centre of the stage, there was a waist-deep pool where the puppets would pop up from under the bamboo backdrop and perform. Six musicians, all clad in traditional dress, sang and performed on either side of the stage. The puppetry was very clever with fire-breathing dragons (I have no idea how the fire worked on water), men, women and various birds of paradise all popping up during the course of the show. It was an incredible experience, and a pleasant and relaxing end to a very busy day of sightseeing.