Friday, March 26, 2010

Picturesque Hanoi

This was my first time going to Vietnam. I bought Air Asia tickets to visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City separately. Visits to those cities were schedule in February 2010 and in May 2010. Before the visit I had studied the maps of both cities and which places that must or worth visiting. As usual I had to find a good accommodation, place of good eating and a proper transport to bring me around.

I heard a lot of stories about Vietnam especially during the war in the 1970’s. The war had pushed many people to seek a third country. Bidong Island in the north east of Peninsular Malaysia was once used as a refugee centre for the Vietnamese seeking a third country. It was administered by United Nation Commissioner for Human Refugees (UNCHR).

Hanoi was once the capital of North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City was the capital of South Vietnam. With the union of Vietnam in 1976, Hanoi was made the capital. The total population of Vietnam is around 84 million. It lies in the east coast of South-east Asia. Hanoi is located in the north 150km from the south west of China border while Ho Chi Minh City is located to the south.

The map of Hanoi

Hanoi Noi Bai to City Centre
My travel to Hanoi started on 22 of February 2010 with my son, Amiruddin. We flew Air Asia in the early morning from LCCT Sepang, Kuala Lumpur to Noi Bai International Airport in the north of Vietnam which took 3.5 hours. We reached Hanoi at 8.30 am Vietnam’s time. The airport looked new but there seemed not many crowd in the lobby. The distance to the city is 35km.

At the airport, I took a taxi to Hanoi Capital Hotel right in the city centre near Hoan Kiem Lake. The 3-star hotel is indeed had easy access to the green spaces, Hanoi’s old quarter, market, museum and Vietnam’s famous puppet show. The hotel was located at Hang But street. I did not encountered problem of reaching our hotel as the driver was sent by the hotel manager. I checked in at 10 am and was given a room at the fourth floor. The hotel has 7 floors and it is like a shop house. Most hotels in the Hanoi‘s old quarter were like this.

In Hanoi, there were many street names with the names of Hang. Hang But is one of them. Hang But is located between Hang Thuic Bac and Bat Su. However, Hang Bot is situated 4 km away. The difference is only But and Bot. So be careful with the street names if you visit Hanoi. You may lost your hotel.

We were lucky to get an early check-in. If not we have to wait at 2pm, the usual checking-in time. The hotel receptionists Tom and Phuy were helpful. Since it was early, I relaxed in the room and took a nap to counter the lack of sleep the previous night.

Stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake

By 12pm, I went out of the hotel and started to stroll around the city centre. First I started to walk to the Hanoi Mosque, Annur Mosque located near my hotel. It was closed. No signs of people. I was told by a bakery shop attendant opposite it, it is only open on Friday as many Muslims from various embassies in Hanoi will congregate there. I conclude that there were not many Muslims in Hanoi. If not, the mosque will always open everyday.

The bridge leading to Ngoc Son Pagoda.

We left the mosque and turned right and reached the famous Dong Xuan Market. It is a multi- storey building selling clothes, souvenirs, carvings, jewellery, nuts and dried fruit, porcelain and others. It is surrounded by rows of shop houses. I managed to buy a few souvenirs like key chains and t-shirts. The girls who manned the stall spoke English.

We continued our walk followed Hang Duong and Hang Ngang roads southwards towards the lake, Hoan Kiem Lake. The roads in the old quarter were narrow around 30 feet wide. Roads were full of motorcycles, being the most important modes of transport in Hanoi. Trishaws were few as they were manned by human power. Trishaw can not go far. I only saw only in old quarter. It is popular among the foreign tourists. The shop corridor with a width of 5 feet was used as bikes parking and you hardly can walk along it. This pushed you to the street itself. I was nearly hit by a motorcycle coming from the opposite direction. The honing of vehicles seemed the norms in Hanoi.

Hanoi Old Quarter

Shopping street
Talking about buildings, most buildings in the old quarter were double-storey buildings. The odd thing about the building is that you cannot erect a free standing building here as all were seen to be a continuous one. Some buildings were higher up to 7 storeys and this is normally hotels. You seldom find in old Hanoi hotels with a 30 feet wide frontage.

The Metropole Hotel.
As I followed this street southward, it led me to the Lake. Its water looked quite dirty with floating grease. The lake attracts many people. Surrounding the lake were properly landscaped with potted flower plants, benches, footpaths, shady trees and lakeside restaurants. The red wooden bridge leading to the Ngoc Son Pagoda (temple) in the lake looked unique. Martyr’s Monument and Thong Long Water Puppetry Theatre were very close to this lake.

Then I continued my walk to the south until I reached Hilton Hotel and Opera House. This area is quite different from the congested old quarter. The road is wide and the buildings were bigger with different architectural styles. I notice the Sofitel Metropole Hotel is unique and has historical heritage. This hotel also houses designer shops like Louis Vuitton etc. In front of the hotel were many antique cars were parked. The hotel has double windows, the glass on the inside and the timber louvres on the outside. This kind of window is common when you walk along other roads in Hanoi.

The Water Puppet Show

I was determined to watch the puppet show. We walked to the Thong Lung Puppetry and bought the ticket. The ticket price was VND40,000 per pax. Inside, the water puppet show was shown to us. The theatre was full. On the left stage, a few players were seen playing instrument and story telling. In the lower stage, there was a small pond where the puppets were moving around dictated by the players behind the bamboo screen.The people who played this puppet stand in the water behind the screen. The story was about Vietnamese people. I just watched the puppet movements and tried to understand the story. It was like wayang kulit (shadow play in Malaysia). Here in Vietnam, they emphasized this show to woo the tourists. The show lasted for an hour.

Puppet Show

Nisa Restaurant

By 5pm, we were still around the lake and were feeling hungry. We went to Nguyen Huun Huan street (behind the Puppetry Theatre) to search for a Muslim restaurant. I had already searched in the internet. We found Nisa Restaurant. This restaurant has a few floors. On the ground floor it has seven tables which can accommodate 30 people in a go. There is another floor if the ground floor is full. We ordered rice with chicken curry. It tasted good. This cost us VND 140,000.

Muslim Restaurant

Conversation with the owner
The facade of the buildings reflect the tradition and land ownership pattern.
As we were eating, the owner came in and sat at my table. I got the opportunity to talk to the owner, Ben Taat (Malaysian from Johore). This restaurant had been here since ten years ago. This is the restaurant that we frequented for dinners during our stay in Hanoi. So I said to him that his restaurant is sustainable. He told me that he had bought a property behind this building to convert it as another restaurant. To me, business in food seemed lucrative.

Lost Direction

As the day was getting darker, we made our way back to the hotel. We followed the road that we came. Unfortunately we lost our direction as we could not find Hang But street as it was not written on our map. We get the help from the shop assistant in Hang Gai street who made a hand written map for our use. It was quite difficult as this is our first day. Then we asked another shop assistant at another shop, only then it was successful. The Hang But was a few streets away. We had to follow Hang Manh, turned left to Hang Non, turned right to Hang Thiec and Thuoc Bac. At last we found our hotel. This Hang But is actually situated between Bat Su and Thuoc Bac streets. This taught us lesson map alone does not help. A compass is necessary to aid map reading. A new method is to bring GPS around. For the first day, we walked arounf 5.5km.

Side walk is used for eating and cycle parking.
Ho Chi Minh Museum

The next day, we went to the museum: Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum. It was quite a long walk from my hotel. They were located along Duong Hung Vuong. We started our walk to the north going through Bat Su, Hang Dong, Hang Ruoi and turned left to Hang Luoc. Then we walked to Galaxy Hotel and turned left to Pho Phan Dinh Phung road. This road is busy and has many interesting buildings. On the left are Hanoi Citadel (military area) and on the right there were business premises, church and military offices. Mind you, you can not take pictures of the military buildings.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

At first we reached Phuo Hoang Dieu road where there were Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Planning and Investment.This area was well guarded by uniform guards. Then we moved forward to Duong Hung Vuong road where the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Mausoleum and Ba Dinh Square were located.

At Chua Mot Cot road, we turned right to go into the museum. There is no fee. We were the last persons to enter the museum at 11am (the morning session). The museum is large enough and it has Vietnam history, many artifacts and sayings of Uncle Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s famous leader who died in 1969. I learned that Ho Chi Minh was a great leader of Viet Nam.

One Pillar Pagoda next to the museum
Spending about an hour, we went to One Pillar Pagoda. A few stall selling films, post cards, ice creams were located near this Pagoda. I wonder many people here were still using films in their camera (not digital). A few metres away was the pagoda. This wood Pagoda sits on a pillar in the small pond. Some people went on steps to pray.

Temple of Literature

After visiting this museum, mind you, we could not enter the mausoleum as it was closed. We walked to the Temple of Literature. This temple was the first university of Vietnam. Walking to this temple, we had to cross Lee Hong Phong, Ngo Nguyen Thai Hoc. Once at Thai Hoc, we turned left and crossed the road to Pho Ton Duc Thang. This road is wide and had interesting buildings such as a 7 storey hotel which is very narrow. It was infront of the Temple. The temple is located right in the Quoc Tu Giam Park. The temple is surrounding by a wall and only had an entrance from Quoc Tu Giam Street. I paid VND 10,000 for the entrance fee. This temple has five interconnected courtyards. At the last courtyard there is a timber building where information on the temple was kept. I found this area is serene.

Temple of Literature

Inside of one of buildings

Inside the temple

Student visit to the Temple
Outside this walled temple, there is a display of arts and writings by its city inhabitant. Paintings and arts are painted and crafted by many elder people. I found those involve in this activity wear special colorful dress and mortar. I did not spent much time at this display as it was already late and we were hungry. Eating fish o fillet at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant nearby gave us some energy and rest after walking a few kilometres.

Walk Back

Following the Thai Hoc street, we turned right crossing and walked to Duong Le Duan road where the Hanoi Railway Station is located. We managed to take pictures of the railway coach and did not bother to enter the station. I found this area is busy with traffic and major hotels such as Mercure Hotel is located around this area. We continued our walk to Pho Ly Thoung Kiet. It is a long road and has a lot of attactions such as posh hotels, good restaurants and office. The buildings are different from the old quarter. After five crossings, we turned left and walked into the old quarter area again. This time, we followed Qouc Su Pho street. This street has the Cathedral and cafes and fashion house. Most foreign tourists or travellers like this area. We walked northwards and reached the hotel. Ahh…it was tiring and took rest in the room. That was the end of the morning walk. I calculated the walk that we had done from the map was roughly 9.6 km.

Artist outside the Temple

Railway track

The Markets

The next day, we started our activity very early. After breakfast, we went again to Dong Xuan Market but the stall that we intent to buy have not opened. Then, we walked to another morning market Noe Khai. This market consists of shop houses. The ground floor was used as the shop. The business is not located in a single building complex. So, if you want to buy, you just walk along the street and buy the product that you want. Since this is a wet market, it is quite dirty.

We stopped at a park next to this market. This park has a big statue that was written Hanoi 1946. A few elderly were seen sitting on the curb and some use the tarmac as a badminton court. Some refused to take picture with us.

The Galaxy hotel is just opposite this park. We crossed the road and again visted the Dong Xuan market. This time the stall was already open. The girls were happy to receive us. They seem to recognise us. Without wasting time, we bought t-shirts and a replica of Hanoi trishaw.

The Artist, The Flowers and The Street Vendor

We proceeded to the south using Hang Duong. I saw colorful handmade bag at one of the shops and was very interested to own it. But the price offered was not good, so I dismissed the intention. Once I reached Hang Be street, I met a portrait artist in a shop. He specialised in black and white portrait drawing using pencil. The drawing was so real. He is 87 years old! I took a picture with him.

Posing with 87 year old artist.
We continued our walk to the lake again. This time the lake was so calm. The park around it looked cheerful with flowers. The Le Thai To road begin to swell with motorcycles. We turned back northward to Hang Trong, Hang Non and begun to look at some buildings and their activities. This old quarter shops remind me of old inner cities in China.

A common way to sell the products.
On the way back to the hotel, I wanted to buy fruits from a lady street vendor. In Vietnam, it is common to see people selling fruit or vegetable using two baskets and a pole, The pole was used to shoulder the two baskets while he or she walks. This lady can not speak english and did not have a calculator to tell me the price of one kilo of orange. What she did was, she showed me the amount of money that was needed for a kilo of orange. Wow, it was simple as that. I did not agree with the price. I bargained and showed the money that I was willing to pay. Once she agreed, the transaction was done. This was my first time using this technique.

The next day, I was prepared to leave Hanoi. By 6am, we were ready to go. I settled all bills especially the hotel transfer to Tom. Tom was the one who prepared our breakfast. As it was dark, we waited for the taxi to arrive. The taxi was arranged by the hotel. Sharped at 6.30am, the taxi arrived and Tom took our luggages and put into the taxi’s boot. The ride was 45 minutes.

When we reached the airport departure hall, there were many people queuing to check in. AirAsia counters were full of people. They were either going to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. We waited for 30 minutes to check-in. Once we got our boarding pass, we straight away went to the departure lounge passing through the immigration and custom counters. We were very concern about the liquid that we brought with us. This time, not a single liquid item was confiscated by the authority. By 9am, we departed Hanoi and reached Kuala Lumpur three and half hours later. So that was my story. I like Hanoi old quarter as it really shows a way of life of Vietnamese. It has histories within their activities, the narrow streets and unique houses or buildings. Those who wish to experience Vietnam city life in the old days can visit this old quarter. I strongly suggest movie maker do something to portray old quarter lifestyle to the whole world. It is indeed an intereting place to visit.

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