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Hanoi – Top Ten


The following text is extracted from the book Shadows and Wind, by Robert Templer:

Hanoi changes markedly with the weather. In winter a soupy grey mist hangs over the city, a penumbra of dampness that leaves puddles on stone floors and chills the bones. In January and February Hanoi looks like the set of a damp film noir, all furtiveness and smoky shadows, with a soundtrack of slowly turning cyclo wheels. The winter months weigh most heavily: they are a wearying time of spattered mud and sodden raincoats, of impermeable grey skies that never lift.

The first colour arrives with the Tet festival when the streets of the city are filled with markets selling flowers and kumquat bushes covered with bright orange fruit. From the countryside convoys of bicycles bring in branches of pink peach blossom, a colourful mobile forest offering the promise of spring in the unopened buds. The weather changes precipitously at the end of winter; snuggled down under heavy quilts, one would awake in a malarial sweat to discover that summer had come overnight. Almost immediately the city takes on a more languid feel, windows and doors are flung open: life moves out onto the streets.

Noisy arguments build up in sudden flurries and just as quickly are gone. It is easy to find the glimmer of romance in the almost operatic drama of the streets. But as more city-dwellers have the opportunity to find some peace and privacy, they are doing so. A retired teacher, who with much relief moved out of his crowded family home filled with dozens of children, nieces, nephews and cousins of all ages, into a small house of his own, slyly paraphrased Ho Chi Minh’s dictum that ‘nothing is more precious than independence and freedom’.

Summers are even longer and damper than the winters in Hanoi. Life spreads out around the parks and lakes, particularly in the evenings when a syrupy light touches off the ochre and cream of the crumbling colonial buildings. Late at night, when the streets are empty except for a few cyclos and some night workers crouched at tea-stands dimly lit with ten-watt bulbs, when the blossom perfumes the night air for a few months of summer and when the heat dips, it is easier to appreciate the extraordinary beauty of Hanoi. Old trees create tunnels of foliage along streets lined with colonial villas. In the old city, narrow streets and narrower houses create a sense of a maze, festooned with power cables like jungle creepers swarming over an ancient monument. The street-plan disorientates, the street names confuse but, in its meandering and organic way, the old city delights.

What makes Hanoi remarkable nowadays in a world of increasingly homogenous urban landscapes are its varied patinas and forms. There is no corporate city centre bereft of life after working hours, there are no silent, soulless dormitory suburbs. Hanoi hums all of the day and most of the night. There are a few brief hours after midnight when the city stills, but at four in the morning cocks start crowing in backyards or from balconies and bloodcurdling screams of pigs being slaughtered can shatter sleep.  

1. One Pillar Pagoda

Reminiscent of what the English call a "folly", One Pillar Pagoda was first built in 1049 during the Ly Dynasty, on the west side of the ancient capital of Thang Long. According to legend, one night in a dream, the old and childless King Ly Thai Tong saw the goddess of Mercy perched on a lotus flower, offering him a son. Soon after the queen got pregnant and fulfilled the premonition. The king thanked the goddess by building the pagoda in a lotus pond and naming it Dien Huu, which means ‘good luck’. The luck ran out in 1954 when, piqued at being run out of Vietnam, the French burned the building to the ground. Its replacement was built the following year, the eponymous pillar reconstructed in concrete. One Pillar Pagoda has perhaps the most pleasing shape of Hanoi’s several pagodas. These are generally more captivating in their details than in their overall designs, which tend to be not quite so graceful as those found elsewhere in southeast Asia. 


2. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Confucian scholar. During his youth, he did menial Mcjobs around the world and was influenced by the radical influences he encountered in, ironically, America. Ho Chi Minh subsequently developed into a revolutionary who assisted and then led the ejection of successive occupiers of his motherland: the French, then the Japanese and finally the Americans. President from 1955 until his 1969 death, he was the founder of the modern nation. Vietnam's Communist government accords him a god-like status reinforced by a nationwide personality cult. At the centre of the state religion of Ho Chi Minh worship is his mausoleum, which was designed in typically grandiose but leaden style by the Soviets. They managed to take control of the building project as, they argued, the Vietnamese lacked their experience in stuffing, pickling and displaying dead leaders. Few Hanoians visit these days. It used to be popular back in the days when it was the only air-conditioned public building in the city and therefore gave visitors a welcome respite from the heat. It is easy to imagine what the spirit of Uncle Ho (aka Ho Chi Minh) makes of the place, as he left instructions in his will that he was to be cremated.     


3. Temple of Literature (Van Mieu)

Vietnam's most famous Confucian temple, Van Mieu originally housed the country's first university, the Imperial Academy, which was designed to educate bureaucrats, royalty and other members of the elite. The university lasted over 700 years, from 1076 to 1779, during which time over 2,000 doctors graduated. In 1484, Emperor Le Thanh Tong founded the tradition of carving the names of university laureates on stone steles cemented onto the backs of stone turtles. The temple is squarely planted at the heart of the Vietnamese identity, with its likeness featured on the back of the one hundred thousand Dong banknote.


4. The Fine Arts Museum

The Fine Arts Museum occupies the building that once served as the French Ministry of Information. Classical with eastern twists, the museum houses impressionist, abstract, realist and even ‘superrealist’ paintings and sculptures along with wood carvings, antique reproductions and block prints. The section displaying ancient Vietnamese art treasures is particularly worthwhile. Somewhat unusually for Vietnam, none of the exhibits are obvious fakes.


5. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

One of Hanoi's most amusing attractions, the water puppets have performed at arts festivals everywhere from Hong Kong and Spain to Switzerland. The theatre lies just over the road from Hoan Kiem lake. Cross slowly because the traffic is even crazier than normal for Hanoi.


6. Hoan Kiem (‘Lake of the Returned Sword’)

“For nature lovers, the view of Hoan Kiem Lake is astounding” says the Vietnamese Tourist Authority. ‘Astounding’ is probably pushing it, but few would deny that the sprawling stretch of water smack in the heart of the old quarter is pleasant and voyeuristically entertaining. Watch out for exercise nuts doing knee bends, windmills and bust-enlargement exercises. After completing a leisurely lap of the lake, why not step onto one of the staffed scales dotted around the path that rings the lake? You may, depending on which set of scales you pick, discover that you have miraculously lost five kilos.


7. Ly Thai To statue

Emperor Ly Thai To founded the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) and its ancient capital of Thang Long (‘ascending dragon’), now downtown Hanoi, in 1010. According to one story, Ly Thai To came up with the fancy name after seeing a great, golden dragon rising above the site towards heaven. Maybe such beings really existed in ancient times, despite the lack of any archaeological evidence. Or maybe the brains of the rulers of the time went periodically AWOL, as they didn’t know the hallucinogenic properties of some of their favourite intoxicants.


8. West Lake (Ho Tay)

The biggest lake in central Hanoi, West Lake is one of the city's top attractions. The lake was once a resort reserved for kings and mandarins who built, on the banks of the lake, a row of beautiful palaces and impressive monuments. The windy 14-kilometre path that winds around the lake introduces the visitor to these and other icons including the remnants of the peach gardens of Nhat Tan and of Tay Ho Temple, one of the three main pagodas devoted to the crusading Goddess Lieu Hanh. On one West Lake island stands the Tran Quoc pagoda.


9. Tran Quoc

A flagship of Vietnamese Buddhism, Tran Quoc is Hanoi's oldest pagoda.  Built in the sixth century on the banks of the Red River, the pagoda was shunted to its present position because of river bank erosion. Awash with precious statues, it also features intricate corridors and a bodhi tree taken from a cutting of the original under which Gautama Buddha found enlightenment. Tran Quoc clearly ranks as one of Hanoi's most eye-catching sights.


10. Hoa Lo (‘fiery furnace’) Prison

Just in case you were starting to think that Hanoi is all tasteful imperial splendour, consider Hoa Lo Prison. Or what remains of it: also known as the Hanoi Hilton, the prison has mostly been torn down. The museum that now occupies the shell is fascinating in a macabre way. Originally used by French colonists for political prisoners, the prison was later used by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Engrossingly gross.


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