A bus ride through Saigon morning traffic and a two hour flight on Vietnam Airlines was all it took to be transported ovet 1000 km to the capital city, Hanoi, and a whole different Vietnam. The weather cooled by 15 degrees and the overall atmosphere turned more conservative and at the same time more modern, with skyscrapers and cars appearing more dominant than mopeds and street vendors. The bus, driven by Mr. Hung (meaning brave), quickly joined the flow of traffic and headed for Duong Lam, a traditional little village with a population of about 2000, which received a Unesco Award of Merit for cultural heritage conservation in 2012.
Lunch was served at the home of the local soy sauce maker, a traditional viet style house built in the 1700s and inhabited by the same family already for 14 generations. The “humble meal” was far from modest by Northern European standards at least: pumpkin soup and different types of appetizers were followed by steamed rice accompanied by fish and chicken dishes, and the feast was concluded with some fresh bananas grown in the area. The local soy sauce, served along with the meal, was quite different compared to Kikkoman etc.: thick and reddish brown with a strong fermented taste. Not bad as such, but it would take a bit of getting used to before it could be called a treat.
Lunch was followed by a walking tour of the village to see the four things a Vietnamese village apparently always has: a gate, a well, a temple, and a pagoda. The narrow lanes were dotted on both sides with small shops, each dedicated to a certain service or product. After making it through the surprisingly busy market area, a nunnery with close to 300 unique buddhas was a nice, quiet, and peaceful haven to escape to.
The village was then left behind and central Hanoi finally reached after six in the evening. Bags were quickly dropped in the room at Mercure Hanoi La Gare before heading to the old town area for dinner at Pho 10, apparently the place to go for really good pho bo in Hanoi. Two steaming bowls of pho soup with extremely tender beef for a mere 110 000 dong (about 5€) tasted delicious and brought a welcome warmth in the cool evening.
The following day began with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, apparently a must when visiting Hanoi. The guidelines were clear and enforced by soldiers in crisp white uniforms: no cameras, hats, talking or pointing allowed, and keep your hands out of your pockets! Thousands visit the mausoleum daily, walking in line two-by-two, just like nice little kids on a school field trip. Ho Chi Minh himself looked well preserved, apparently thanks to the yearly upkeep which he gets transported to Russia for. Then there was a tour of the park and houses where Ho Chi Minh spent the last 15 years of his life.
The morning continued at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which included an open air exhibition of the traditional building styles of some of the 54 ethnic groups inhabiting Vietnam. After walking about for a couple hours, lunch at Home, a restaurant which hires mainly local orphans, was a delight.
Then on to the Van Mieu Temple of Literature, the site where the first Vietnamese university was founded in the 11th century. None of the original buildings are left anymore, but stone steles with names of mandarins carved on them still remain. This is a place of worship for students nowadays, with the the main guideline of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” represented in several forms.
The second temple of the day was the Ngoc Son Temple on a tiny island in Hoan Kiem lake, one of the many small lakes dotted around the city. The temple contained the second embalmed corpse to be seen that day, that of a giant turtle. Apparently another giant turtle, estimated to be about 2 m in length and a 100 years old, still lives in the surrounding lake and is spotted a bit more often then Nessie in Scotland.
A short walk in the narrower streets of old town Hanoi made everyone’s ears ring due to the constant beeping and hollering of the mopeds drivers. A perfect place to escape from the noise was found on the third floor of the Hanoi Social Club, a nice little place with cool drinks, tasty veggie burgers, and good music. A pleasant ending to a busy day.