What to do in Ha Noi
We expected Hanoi to be a crazy, chaotic city like anything other, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a fascinating mix of colonial architecture, lively street culture, and a healthy dose of communism propaganda. While it’s worth a visit, we would recommend no more than a few days in Hanoi – after all, Vietnam is really about the natural wonders!
Ho Lao Prison
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Lake of Restored Sword
Temple of Literature
Ho Lao Prison
đ30,000 (£1/1EUR/ $1.5USD)
The remnants of Ho Lao Prison is an incredible walk through the history, a perfect introduction to Vietnam which a serves a macro-vision to its colonial and revolutionary past. The harsh setting represents the hardships that Vietnam suffered at the hands of the US, and the way the museum is curated is overtly propagandistic and is reflective of the political climate of Vietnam today.
Ho Lao Prison was built under the French, who held, tortured and even beheaded communist revolutionaries here – you can see one of the guillotines that was used, short films explaining life in prison and how it was used as a school to spread revolutionary teaching. I would take the historical accuracy of some depictions with a generous pinch of salt, but it was fascinating to learn their secrets ways of communicating, such as using coded messages written on the bark of an almond tree.
More recently, Ho Lao was used to hold US prisoners during the recent Vietnam-US war. Interestingly the museum doesn’t explicitly demonise the US but has an incredible collection of artefacts, photos and letters from the many US pilots who spent years in the prison – which they fondly nicknamed Ha Noi Hilton for their generously humane and superior treatment of the US prisoners. The Finding Memories exhibition is extremely powerful, with handwritten letters by US pilots who, not only came to realise the US’ wrongdoing in the war, but came to love and appreciate Vietnamese culture. You can also read emotional memoirs and memories of the civilians who lived through the bombings, and understand the effect of the war of everyday lives beyond political affairs.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
No photography – no cameras or phones allowed inside.
Dress respectably – no shorts or bare shoulders.
Who knew there could be such crazy queues to see Uncle Ho’s embalmed corpse in a cold dark room? Full of aggressive Chinese tour groups, local school trips and locals coming to pay their respects to Vietnam’s National Hero, Ho Chin Minh Mausoleum is one of the Ha Noi’s most visited sights. Ho is held as a liberator from colonialism and communist leader. Despite his will to be cremated, a huge Mausoleum Complex was built to house and display his body for the foreseeable future, taking an annual 3-month break for maintenance in Russia. There is a kind of morbid fascination to these open mausoleums, and it’s interesting to see how locals behave – we had an ancient lady in front of us who could barely walk and was praying to Ho the whole time.
The queues are massive, with breaks every 1000 or so where security controls the flow. Once you finally enter, you have to leave any large rucksacks at a cloakroom, walk through the whole complex, leave your cameras at another cloakroom before you finally reach the guarded mausoleum. Once you enter the mausoleum you must not stop, and continue to walk steadily as you pass the glass box displaying Ho’s body.
Skip the Queues
Whilst it is generally advised to arrive early, we ignorantly sauntered in around 10am. We decided a 2-hour queue in 30 degree heat simply wasn’t worth it and turned to leave when there was a quasi-riot. After watching the spectacle for several minutes, we decided to make the most of the chaos and jump in at the first queue gap gates. Not entirely ethical I’ll admit, but we saw the opportunity and we seized the moment. And I feel zero guilty about aggressive Chinese tour groups who were constantly pushing and yelling at all the staff!
Know Before You Go
You can’t take in cameras or phones, but they have free cloakroom (first for any large rucksacks, and second for cameras) that are secure and legit.
Only open 8-11am (hence the huge queues). Get in there early, or arrive later and wait for the inevitable surge to waggle in.
Don’t miss the curious One Pillar Pagoda and lovely temple just outside, where there is also some amusing propaganda on moral dos and don’ts.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and dedicated to Confucius. It is a well-preserved temple which has maintained ancient architectural styles of many dynasties. It was home to Imperial Academy, Vietnam first national university where students lived and studied Chinese language, literature, history and philosophy. It is made up of five courtyards, quiet gardens and rows of stelae on stone tortoises carved with the names of doctorate scholars. Not only is it a stunning example of well-preserved architecture, but students come to this temple to pray for good grades!
I was surprised to see so many Chinese characters in Vietnamese temples and decided to do a little research. How borders change always makes you realise how borders are just another societal construct imposed by political power in order to control people. China dominated Vietnam until the 10th century, ruling what is now part-Southern China and part-Northern Vietnam. Old Vietnamese was therefore primarily influenced by Chinese, importing many Chinese words into its vocabulary.
This is a normal street which just happens to have a train-track run through it! Even if you don’t catch the train, it’s really cool to visit – traintrack lined with houses and people getting on with daily life – feeding chickens, planting, drinking coffee, having a natter, doing laundry.
(trains only come 7pm weekdays, and several times a day at the weekend!)
Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake)
According to the legend, Emperor Ly Thai was given a magical sword in order to defeat the Chinese. After the war, he was out boating when a giant golden tortoise appeared, grabbed the sword and disappeared, returning the sword to the heavens. On the edge of the lake you’ll find Ngoc Son Temple, a beautiful old Taoist temple (30,000VND), where you can find the emblamed remains of a giant tortoise
Shopping – “Made in Vietnam” – cheap labour , clothes from Zara, Mango, Topshop, H&M etc etc are made in Vietnam factories, so they sell many of their products (With tag and all) for half the retail price.
Dong Xuan Market – wholesale markets, you can buy anything and everything.