I'd planned for us to spend our first day in Hanoi touring the sites and the old town with the help of Hanoi Free Tour Guides, a program I stumbled across thanks to TripAdvisor. Hanoi Free Tour Guides is a non-profit organization run and staffed by university students looking to practice their English or other foreign languages. Basically, you say what day you'll be there, suggest what you'd like to see in Hanoi, how you want to get around town, and how long you want your tour to last, and they send a university student to help you. I chose a full day tour starting at 9:30 am, including the Ho Chi Minh museum, Hoan Kiem lake, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, and the Temple of Literature. We were met after breakfast in our hotel lobby by Giang, a cute girl in a denim overshirt and flowing cotton skirt. We'd initially asked to do the tour by pedal bike, but realized it wasn't exactly our tour guide's thing, so we took cheap taxis instead. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Museum, to meet up with Giang's friend Hao.
I wasn't sure about the Ho Chi Minh museum at first when I was making my selections. I find history interesting, but mostly ancient history. But Giang strongly recommended it, so we went along. We soon realized why: the people of Northern Vietnam love their “Uncle Ho”, and they talked about him so passionately that we soon found ourselves absorbed in the quotations, photos, and stories that are Ho Chi Minh's legacy. In his youth, Ho Chi Minh traveled the world, trying to discover what kind of government would be right for his people and help them get out from under the thumb of the various countries that had been oppressing them. In the end, he decided that socialist communism was the way to go. He learned to speak more than 5 languages fluently, and came back to his homeland, determined to change the way things were for his people, and inspiring generations to come.
Front entry to the Ho Chi Minh museum. Entry is free for Vietnamese citizens.
Rena and our lovely guides, Giang and Hao
Ho Chi Minh, posed under a tree and a rising sun
The "woman king" of ancient Vietnam, who crushed an oppressive regime
"All the peoples on Earth are equal. Each people has the right to life, happiness, and liberty."--Ho Chi Minh
We then did a quick tour of the One-Pillar Pagoda, which had to be rebuilt after the French Indochina war but is no less beautiful for all that. The temple was originally built nearly a thousand years ago by the emperor Ly Thai Thong. After dreaming that a Bodhisattva handed him a baby boy on a lotus flower, the emperor married a peasant girl and had a son with her, and a monk told him that he should build the pagoda in thanks.
Synbolic lotus flowers surround the temple in thanks to the boddhisatva who appeared in the emperor's dream
The one-pillar pagoda, surrounded by a throng of people
At this point it was getting pretty hot and sticky, so we had some ice cream and a nice lunch near the lake with the girls.
A cool refeshing melon and chocolate icecream
Much like in China, people in Vietnam have a long lunch break where they go home to sleep for a few hours, so we walked around for awhile until the tourist sites re-opened after 2pm.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh's tomb, a popular pilgrimage site, has over 200 people in line during regular viewing hours
Unfortunately this temple was closed when we wanted to visit
Tauney and Rena, Asianing it up!
Our girls, posing for a photo
Then our next stop was the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple and home to the Imperial Academy,Vietnam's oldest university. While we were visiting, we were treated to a display of traditional Vietnamese music near the main entrance, and a large number of young Vietnamese ladies dressed in the traditional long dress and fitted trousers, called an aodai, flocked to the site to take graduation photos. Vietnamese student life includes a number of pilgrimages to historical sites. For middle school or high school graduation, the place of choice is Ho Chi Minh's tomb and the museum. For university and college graduation, it's the Temple of Literature. Also nearly 1000 years old, the temple has changed little over the years, and visitors can see the original students quarters, examples of their tools and school uniforms, and the massive stone steles, supported on the backs of turtles, which honoured the most prestigious graduates from around 1400-onwards. Turtles are one of the four holy animals of Vietnam, representing wisdom and longevity, so it is fitting that they should be represented in a place of higher learning.
The final building of the temple grounds
Altar honouring Chu Văn An, the founder of the Imperial Academy
A giant bronze bell, which it turns out was made only in 2000!
After the Temple of Literature, our next stop was Ho Chi Minh's residence, beside the presidential palace. Having been fully inspired by Ho Chi Minh at the museum, we were very interested to see how he'd lived. I've always thought that politicians, if they're really for the people, and not just for themselves, should try to live simply. Ho Chi Minh did just that. He was offered the presidential estate, with all the staff and fancy meals and servants it entailed, and he declined. Instead, he chose to live in the electrician's hut, about a hundred meters away. His apartment is still maintained much as it was in his time living there--sparsely furnished, a portrait of Karl Marx on the study wall. The only hint at his elevated status were his three cars, beautifully preserved and cared for in the garage beside his home.
The presidential home in Hanoi, in its bright yellow glory
Eschewing the trappings of life in the prsidential palace, Ho Chi Minh chose to live in the nearby electrician's quarters
Three cars belonging to Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh's antique cars, perfectly preserved in his garage
A peacock on the grounds of the presidential palace
The final home of Ho Chi Minh in the days leading up to his death
Our final stop with Hanoi Free Tour Guides was Hoan Kiem Lake, or the Lake of the Returned Sword, home to the world's largest and most endangered species of soft-shell turtle. Legend has it that the emperor Le Loi was out in his boat when a golden turtle god surfaced and demanded the return of his magic sword, Heaven's Will, which had been given to him previously by the Dragon King in order to fight against the oppressive Ming dynasty of China. He willingly gave up the sword and renamed the lake in honour of the event. It's unknown how many giant turtles still live in Hoan Kiem lake, but there have been sightings in the past ten years, giving hope that the 200mx600m lake still contains these gentle giants.
The Hoan Kiem Turtle Temple, built in thanks to the Turtle God of the lake
Rena and her friend, the tiger, at the Hoan Kiem Temple
Hao, Giang, and Rena on the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake
Before leaving, Giang and Hao helped us buy some tickets for the Thang Long Water Puppet show, an ancient form of puppetry still practiced in Hanoi today. Tickets are around $3 for the 40 minute show, and it's well worth it! We had time for some shopping and a quick bowl of noodles before the 9:15 show, the last one of the evening. None of my photos really turned out well, since it was too dark, but it was an amazing show, and we're still not really sure how they maneuver the puppets so well in the waist-high water.
The Thang long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi
They told a number of simple myths and legends through traditional song and puppetry in a way that was understandable to all, though there were pyrotechnics and robots involved as well-- a modern touch I'm sure, but one that made for a memorable show. This being our first full day in Vietnam, it was a really great way to learn a bit more about the culture we would spend a week with.
I strongly suggest that anyone with a few hours to kill in Vietnam contacts Hanoi Free Tour Guides The passion and knowledge these girls showed was remarkable, and really helped us make sense of the tourist sites that otherwise wouldn't have meant that much to us, since most of the signage is in Vietnamese or traditional Chinese characters. Rena and I both agree that this was one of the best things we did with our time in Vietnam! Thanks so much to Giang, Hao, and Hanoi Free Tour Guides!
Source: Tauney's Travels