It was now the twenty-fourth day of my Big Indochina Adventure, and my time in Vietnam would soon be coming to an end. In just three days, I would be heading on some solo travel to finish my six-month trip. But for now, I was determined to enjoy my time in the country of beautiful beaches, culture, food and coffee!
The day began with a flight from our current location of Huế, the capital of Vietnamese Buddhism, to Hanoi, the country’s actual capital city since 1802.
After a speedy flight of just over an hour, we landed in Hanoi and checked in to our hotel, which was situated in the bustling Old Quarter. It was apparent straight away that this was an extremely busy city and motorbikes seemed to come from every direction, as we dodged and swerved each time we crossed a road. A whopping 86% of Vietnamese households own a motorbike, and this seemed to be even more prevalent in Hanoi.
Similarly to Hội An, the city of Hanoi is rich in culture and has a fusion of French, Chinese and Vietnamese influence. Its architecture was very impressive yet again, and the narrow streets were heaving with market sellers and locals, enjoying the famous egg coffee and phở; both of which I was excited to try.
As soon as we had checked in, we were departing our hotel once more and heading straight out on our city tour. We met our new local tour guide, Sinh, and he supplied us with lots of knowledge on the sites we visited.
Our first stop was to The Temple of Literature. Built in 1070, the temple is often cited as one of Hanoi’s most impressive tourist attractions with its walled gardens surrounding the ancient architecture.
The Temple of Literature was originally Vietnam’s first university and was dedicated to the Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Originally, the university would only accept aristocrats and royal family members, but it eventually opened its doors to anybody who passed its requirements. This started as a set of eighty-two exams, and there are eighty-two stone turtles found on the temple’s walls to represent this. As turtles are also a symbol of longevity, successful graduates had their names engraved on them, to symbolise long and prosperous lives ahead.
Sinh told us that the Vietnamese people value education very highly and that almost everybody in the country can read and write. The country’s communism forced people to learn, which Sinh believes is one of its positive elements, and that it has led to very little homelessness existing in Vietnam. Though Vietnam is still a communist country because it has only one political party, it is not economically communist, meaning not everybody in the country earns the same wage. Speaking of money, the Temple of Literature can be seen on the 100,000 dong notes, indicating its importance to the country (although 100,000 dong sounds like a lot, it is actually equal to around £3!).
Inside the temple we saw a statue of Confucius, and we were told that the university practiced his methods of education. He wanted students to be fully interactive and had no interest in passive learning.
There is a multicoloured flag flying high on the temple grounds, and this symbolises the gods and also represents the five essential elements for harmony in the environment; earth, water, fire, air and space.
Sinh informed us that the city of Hanoi is one thousand and nine years old and to celebrate its thousandth year they made a mosaic mural telling the story of Vietnam and its people. It consequently won a Guinness World Record for being the longest ceramic mosaic wall.
Our next stop was to the Presidential Palace and the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s body is kept.
The Presidential Palace was built between 1900 and 1906 in French Indochina to house the Governor-General, and this explains its French Colonial architecture. It also features elements of Italian Renaissance design, and the only way somebody looking at it would know it was in Vietnam would be from the mango trees that grow on the grounds.
Apparently, once Vietnam achieved independence in 1954, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the Presidential Palace for symbolic reasons. Eventually though, he built a traditional Vietnamese stilt house and carp pond on the grounds and moved in to the abode.
Though the palace is not open to the public, government meetings take place within its walls. Members of the public are also allowed to walk around the grounds and admire the palace’s splendour for a fee.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is located near the palace and it was built after the leader’s death in 1969. It was inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. The words, Chủ tịch Hồ-Chí-Minh. Nước Cộng Hòa Xã Hội Chủ Nghĩa Việt Nam Muôn Năm are inscribed on the top of the building, and this means, “President Ho Chi Minh. Long Live The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
After our city tour, the evening’s entertainment was a chance to unwind and witness a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, situated just a short walk from our hotel, is world-famous as the original theatre of this unique art form. Dating back to the 11th century when rice paddy fields in the Red River Delta were flooded, the villagers would make their own entertainment by standing in the waist-deep water and moving puppets across the flooded grounds. This ingenuity led to an exquisite method of puppetry, and music was later introduced to add an extra dimension.
At the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, a Vietnamese orchestra play traditional music using drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes and cymbals. The authentic Vietnamese operatic songs tell the stories that are acted out by the puppets and the show comprises of Vietnamese folk tales and legends and takes the audience on a journey of ancient village life in a humorous fashion. Stories include the celebration of the rice harvest and dances of mythical creatures. The puppeteers use large rods to support the puppets and make it appear as though they are moving across the water, whilst the eight puppeteers hide behind a bamboo screen.
The water puppet show was enthralling and beautiful, with a mystical element and an almost hypnotising quality.
After a fascinating day spent in Hanoi, the following morning we were heading on an overnight trip to Hạ Long Bay, before returning to Hanoi for our final section of the tour.
We took a four-hour drive to Hạ Long Bay and had a short break at a service stop en route, where we were shown a really wonderful centre which opened in 1996 and is a place for people with disabilities to display and sell their artwork. We saw tapestries, embroideries, sculptures, jewellery and more. The art was absolutely stunning.
After marvelling at the art that I sadly could not afford on my traveller’s budget, we continued on to Hạ Long Bay. Once we arrived, it was easy to see why this was such a popular tourist destination, as the towering limestone islands topped by rainforests, as well as the emerald waters, were so picturesque. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best weather, but the beauty was still evident.
We were staying on a junk boat to fully embrace our surroundings, and tonight we would be having a ‘fruit salad’ party, as we were all dressing up as delicious fruits that can be found in Vietnam. I was a proud watermelon!
We enjoyed our evening on the tranquil waters, singing karaoke (probably very embarrassingly), drinking, being merry and relishing each other’s company for one of the last times.
The following day, before heading back to Hanoi, we visited some large caves that surround the bay. These are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are called the Sung Sot (or “surprise”) Caves. They are the biggest caves in Hạ Long Bay. Fishermen used to get fresh water from inside them, but they are no longer allowed as they have a protected status. The caves’ rocks feature stalactites and stalagmites and visitors used to graffiti them, though this is no longer allowed. We saw some graffiti that dated back to 1911, as well as a turtle-shaped rock and a natural heart shape. Sinh told us some really interesting information about the caves and the surrounding areas, and this was a great chance to find out about the place we had spent the night, swaying back and forth on our boat, from both the alcohol and the waters underneath us!
After a wonderful experience in Hạ Long Bay, it was time to head back to Hanoi to finish our tour. Once we had completed the four-hour drive, some of us headed to a colourful café called “The Note Coffee” to try some of the famous Vietnamese egg coffee and leave some post-it notes on the walls, as is their custom.
Though I wasn’t a huge fan of the egg coffee, it was interesting to try this delicacy, and also be with my tour friends in such amazing surroundings, with rainbow-coloured post-it notes in every direction. Some of our tour buddies who had left us in Cambodia had even written us a post-it from their time in Vietnam, which was a challenge to find, but worth it to see their lovely words!
On our final evening together I tried phở, a delicious noodle soup originating in northern Vietnam and which I really recommend to anybody who finds themselves in Hanoi. This last night together was a chance to say goodbye with some drinks and promises to stay in touch. I would certainly miss my new friends once I ventured out on my own.
I had the most incredible time on my South East Asia Adventure around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and I knew I would never forget the friends, memories or beautiful landscapes. However, now it was time to travel onwards, so watch this space for my next blog post all about Marvellous Malaysia!