Thursday 20 July 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam: The Lotus position

Asian adventures

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. The tomb of the Communist leader is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese.
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. The tomb of the Communist leader is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese.
Street vendor in Hanoi
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan continues her once-in-a-lifetime trip to Vietnam with a visit to the capital city of Hanoi.

Mention Hanoi and one of the first things a person over the age of 50 is likely to say in association with this Vietnamese city is Hanoi Jane; the Academy Award- winning actress, Jane Fonda, now highly respected as an advocate for women as well as for her movies, was once vilified because she was photographed on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and the name stuck

During her trip to Hanoi in 1972, she stayed in the Metropole, then called the Thong Nhat Hotel. Later that year another famous American, Joan Baez stayed in the hotel; the singer found herself caught up in warfare and recorded her song, Where Are You Now My Son in her hotel room during an air raid, and the sounds of that raid are audible on her recording.

Hanoi was the last stop on my trip to Vietnam, organised by Wendy Wu Tours, and because I'm a huge admirer of both Jane and Joan, I was thrilled to be going there; the city is not quite the same as it was in the 1970s - it suffered badly during the Vietnam War - however, certain parts have been the same for centuries.

The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is actually 1,000 years old; it was founded by Emperor Ly Thai To in 1010. He built a royal citadel and a settlement of 36 streets incorporating all sorts of trade guilds grew around it. These streets - known collectively as the Old Quarter - are still there and to varying degrees still sell the same goods and services. So, in Hang Gai, which means Silk Street, you will find silk, and in Shoe Street, yes, there are shoes and lots of them. If you're not careful, your own shoes will be removed from your feet by zealous young men who will insist on repairing them. It's fine if your shoes need repairing but be sure to work out the price first, you're at their mercy if you don't, as happened to one of the guys on our tour.

Some of the 36 streets bear no relation to their original trade. Hang Mam (Pickled Fish Street) for some curious reason is now all about marble headstones.

It's still an extraordinarily vibrant area as we discovered when we were brought through the maze of somewhat ramshackle streets on cyclos - a cyclo is a sort of rickshaw with the driver cycling behind you. The traffic in Hanoi, like all other cities in Vietnam we visited, is a bit chaotic but these cyclo drivers are experts so we all survived the ride safe and sound.

In contrast to these tiny narrow streets, Hanoi is also home to wide tree-lined boulevards with stately period houses - a legacy of the French, who colonised the city in the 1800s. Both areas were full of street-food vendors peddling fragrant feasts but we tended to eat in the restaurants. We had a lovely meal in Old Hanoi in the French Quarter. Gordon Ramsay apparently is a fan and if it was good enough for Gordon it was good enough for us, and the mango beef salad and chicken with lemongrass were sublime.

Street vendor in Hanoi
Street vendor in Hanoi

Between these two areas is a wonderful lake - Hoan Kiem Lake - and these days it's popular as a place for hanging out and trendy coffee houses and bars are springing up. I can recommend Luc Thuy café, where we enjoyed delicious cocktails.

In the centre of the lake is the iconic Turtle Tower. Hoan Kiem means Lake of the Sword and according to legend, a golden turtle gave Ly Thai To a sword, which he used to banish the occupying Chinese. Sometime later when he was out boating the turtle reclaimed the sword. The tower was built in the 1800s to commemorate the event.

Though initially it seems confusing, Hanoi is actually quite a compact city and it's full of interesting pagodas and temples, like the enchanting One Pillar Pagoda. Another local legend surrounds its creation. Apparently the king had a dream in which the Goddess of Mercy sitting on a lotus flower came to him and presented him with a baby son. Sure enough, soon after his new young queen gave birth to a son. To give thanks, the king had a temple built in the shape of a lotus flower. Like a lot of the monuments in Hanoi, it's been recently restored, having been burned by the French in 1954. Another site worth visiting is the Temple of Literature, which dates from 1070 and which was founded in honour of Confucious, the Chinese philosopher - it's a fabulous campus with much to fascinate both fans of history and architecture.

A more recent monument is Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, a huge square structure which houses the great leader's body; he was president until his death in 1969 . It's a place of pilgrimage among Vietnamese and the day we were there, hundreds of tiny schoolchildren were lined up to pay their respects. It seems Ho Chi Minh himself would turn in his grave if he knew; apparently he was a very modest person and he expressly asked that he be cremated and his ashes scattered in North and South Vietnam, as he had devoted his life to unifying the country.

However the Communist Party vetoed his last wishes and instead had his body installed in the mausoleum in 1975. His lack of pretension is obvious in the house he lived in in Hanoi during his presidency. The presidential palace itself is a lovely complex to explore; there are gorgeous grounds, planted with mango, frangipani and weeping willows, and ponds full of carp and lotus flowers, the national flower of Vietnam, but the great leader only wanted a simple home and had a small structure on stilts built for that purpose.

Known now as Uncle Ho's house, it comprises two rooms, and the simple furnishings include a bed, a typewriter, a telephone, a radio and some books. He did love his fish, hence the carp and he loved to garden and the result is a place of light and colour and fragrance, an oasis away from the bustle of the city. Another oasis was the Metropole Hotel, which I just had to visit.

Afternoon tea was being served in the Club Bar and it was just the thing to toast Jane, Joan and the Vietnamese.

Factbox

The 12-day ‘Vietnam at a Glance’ trip is available from €2,790pp with Wendy Wu Tours, including all international air fares, domestic transportation, departure taxes, all accommodation, all meals, entrance fees, guides and daily tours and visa fees for UK, Irish and EU passport holders. A free inbound Business Class upgrade is available for travellers who book by July 4, when travelling from Heathrow with Vietnam Airlines. During the 12 days, visitors will enjoy three days soaking up the charms of Hanoi. The rest of the tour takes in the hip city of Saigon, the legendary Cu Chi tunnel network used by the Viet Cong, rural Vietnam in Tra Que village, Hoi An and a cruise along the tranquil green waters of Halong Bay.

For more see wendywutours.ie  or call 0818 776 380.

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