Hanoi, on the banks of the Red River and the official capital of independent Vietnam since 1954, is one of the ancient capitals in the world. Modernized in many ways, it still retains the charm of bygone centuries with many narrow lanes, broad footpaths and pleasing public spaces - lakes, parks, tree-lined boulevards and monuments. Its two main neighborhoods- the French Quarter and the Old Quarter- are both packed with tourist attractions, including many landmarks with French-colonial architecture. The Old Quarter with 2000 years history is also famous for a rich food culture and trying authentic Vietnamese cuisines here is widely recommended by travel experts. Consequently, our Hanoi journey started with a 4 hour long night food tour on foot with 9 other tourists through many streets and alleys of the Old Quarter. Undoubtedly, it turned out to be a fascinating experience as lovely chat with the very jovial food guide and travelers from many nations blended well with the tasting of the pho ga (soft chicken noodle), banh mi (filled baguettes), bun Cha (grilled pork noodle) and goi cuon (translucid spring rolls) and many other dishes in 8 food joints. The Hanoi beer complemented the meals followed by kem dva (coconut ice cream). A unique specialty of the Old Quarter, egg coffee, concluded the food journey stimulating us for early rise next morning to meet “Uncle Ho”.
Uncle Ho and Restored Sword
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the final resting place of Vietnam's most prominent leader and the Ho Chi Minh museum depicting his life and struggle nearby are among the most visited destinations. Late Ho Chi Minh, popularly called “Uncle Ho" served as its President, led a long revolt against the French for independence and against the American for unification of North and South Vietnam. Founded in 1049, the One Pillar Pagoda, a small Buddhist shrine perched on a single pillar in a small water pond, near by the museum is an eye-catching structure widely photographed. The golden colored Presidential Palace, the French Governor-General’s abode during colonial time and built incorporating elements of Italian Renaissance design right next to the mausoleum, is quite pleasing to any inquisitive eyes.
The Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the country's oldest Buddhists monuments located on a small island near the southeastern shore of West Lake, holds the ashes of important monks and is linked to the mainland by a small causeway. With ever chanting monks and devotees, it was worth a quick visit to enjoy serenity and smell of the fragrance of lit incenses. The Temple of Literature founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius is a nice venue away from the hustle-bustle of the city with marvelous architecture, series of courtyards and well laid out gardens. Interestingly, it was where Vietnam’s first university was founded in 1076 to teach the children of royalty and aristocrats. Admirably, the selections of candidate for studies & of the graduates for employment even then were based on merit. Remarkably, the lists of graduates, diploma granted and text books used so long ago are on display as are the attractive statues of Confucius and his key disciples.
The Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem), a focal point of Hanoi, and temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son) nearby are pretty. According to a legend, in early 1428, the then Emperor was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle surfaced and asked for his magic sword lent to him by God earlier. The Emperor returned it to the turtle considering it as the god’s representative after defeating Chinese invaders. It has, thus, been named as the Lake of the Restored Sword since then. Water Puppetry of Vietnam is well known. The Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre was located right across the lake. It was truly a new experience to watch colorful puppets pop out of the exits of an attractive stage house built in the water and perform on waist-deep water depicting rural life and folklores accompanied by local musicians. A quick drive by the “Long Bien Bridge”, built by the French 115 years ago across the Red River, was educational. The 1.68 km long cantilever bridge was then one of the longest bridges in Asia and was bombarded by the Americans during the Vietnam War to cutoff Vietcong’s access from Hanoi to the very important Haiphong port.
A passage through Hanoi is considered incomplete without a visit to the Ha Long Bay, an UNESCO recognized Natural Heritage about 150 km east of the city in the Gulf of Tonkin with over 1,600 pristine islands and islets. Ha Long means “descending dragon” in ancient Vietnamese. According to a legend, when Vietnam was attacked by invaders from the north, the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her children to defend the country and the place where the descending dragon first appeared was called “Ha Long” to honor the savior dragon. Actually, there are 3 different interconnected bays- Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha, though are generally known as Ha Long all together. The Ha Long is attached to the mainland, more accessible, crowded, and dirtier. The real fun of cruising comes from getting away from the maddening crowd, being in the quieter waters for at least couple of nights and adding a day of village hopping for varied and relaxed experience.
We took 3 Day and 2 nights cruise on Lan Ha and Ha Long Bays. Viet Hai village in Cat Ba National Park was added for observing rural life while enjoying a bit of walk too. The Ha Long sojourn was a real experience. We could absorb the serenity and beauty of emerald limestone islands and clear blue waters while the boat cruised around the bays. With 3 days and 2 nights at our disposal, it was possible to see stunningly beautiful sunsets and sunrises over crystal clear water, sleep and relax and observes gorgeous view all around during quiet nights and sunny days. Kayaking, cooking demonstration, Tai Chi, squid fishing and swimming on the pristine beaches included in the cruise package added fun and knowledge. A well-stocked pay bar was at call and three sumptuous meals- breakfast, lunch and dinner- consisting of local and continental cuisines were at our disposal too. A grilled sea bass with fried vegetables, Ha Long seafood soup with mushroom, green mango salad with shrimps, sautéed squids with vegetables, BBQ pork ribs, fried prawn, BBQ king calm, lotus root salad, phos were among the many items served. Given that we had chosen a decent company we were spared of nuisances arising from overcrowding, poor hygiene, rat or cockroach infestation reported on cheap cruises at times.
In conclusion, while Ha Long cruise, food tour and Hanoi sightseeing were all interesting one key highlights of the sojourn that remains vivid in memory is the passage through remote Viet Hai village in Cat Ba National Park, where we had a chance to taste snake wine and meet its brewer. Interestingly, the snake wine production entails soaking a whole snake in rice alcohol and was first consumed in China almost 3000 years ago as an important curative and reinvigorating traditional medicine. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………