We arrived at Hanoi at 5:30 in the morning. The train rocking all night made for an uneasy sleep for everyone. We made our way to our hotel and waited for a tour guide to assist us with our travel plans for the next 30 days. Sharleen had a delicious bowl of bún ốc from a street vendor, a snail noodle soap.
Old Hanoi was especially dense. Streets were a little more than a car width with many off-shooting alleyways. Aside from cars, there was two way moped traffic and bicycle traffic with no stop lights. During the day the sidewalks were used for moped parking, which makes foot traffic on the sidewalks nearly impossible. Consequently, everyone walks in the street. Every block sports different types of eateries. Some places have sit down tables inside. Others have a sign on the wall with plastic benches and stools and calf-high tables. There were also street vendors with push carts, bicycles, or with bamboo poles and baskets selling foodstuffs. Every block also has a travel agency, souvenir curios, at least one spa and a massage parlor. Many times business double up offering food and travel, food and massage, souvenirs and massage, or a variety of other combinations. At night the landscape changes. In some sections of old town, the streets were blocked off to car traffic. The mopeds on the sidewalks disappeared and vendors and tables extended into the streets. People sold balloons, condoms, cigarettes, and candy. Smartly dressed, revealingly dressed, or uniformly dressed food hawkers encouraged people to sit at their restaurant with slogans like “free beer”, “we have what you like”, “enjoy our food”, encouraged passing tourists to sit and eat.
Many women were dressed in short mini sheath dresses advertising beer or other products. An entire cheer leading squad with pompoms advertising some liquor walked up and down the streets. It was a place clearly geared for tourists and their needs. I was approached several times: “You want woman massage?” “No thank you.” “Oh, you want man massage?” “No Thank you.” The irony that some of these overtures came from “Grab” drivers was not lost on me. Clearly there was something for everyone.
We toke short walks from old town to Hoan Kiem Lake. On weekends the roads around it were closed off to traffic. The only traffic that was dangerous were all the kids in the electric mini cars. The lake itself was jade green, with a small island in the middle appropriately called Jade Island. It honored a military leader who defeated the Mongol invasions of Vietnam.
The fee is nominal and there were a few monks to do upkeep.
There were some replicas of soft shelled tortoises on display. Sadly, the last known Ho Kiem soft shelled tortoise died in January 2016. So it is now an extinct species. The lake is polluted, and had been cemented. There were no more locations to lay eggs. In the 1980s a fisherman abused one of the shelled tortoises by beating it with a crowbar. There were three more giant soft shelled tortoises left that were a different subspecies (Click Here), left in the world. The turtle was one of the four mystical creatures in Chinese and Vietnamese lore. I found it interesting that something so revered, was also so mistreated. Throughout China you can eat turtles.
Le Loi, credited with gaining independence from China and starting the Le Dynasty, came to the lake with his sword Heavens Will. A giant tortoise appeared and took the sword into the depths of the lake. No one has found the sword since.
Temple of Literature
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who lived around 550BC, had a profound impact in this entire region. His goal was to bring ethical order to the behavior of feudal lords in China. He believed in continuous self improvement and opening the door to education as a way of self-betterment. Vietnam welcomed these ideas and enshrined them in the Temple of Literature which was a university built in 1070 to honor Confucius. There were records of over 1300 doctorates that were conferred between the years of 1400 – 1700 on stela within one of the courtyards.
Near the North side of the lake was the Thang Long Theater. It performed daily water puppet shows. A unique variation on Asian puppetry, it has been a staple form of entertainment since the 11th century. Even though we did not understand the Vietnamese, and we were far removed from the rice fields that the puppets would originally appeared in centuries ago, the performance was still enchanting. We even recognized the myth of Le Loi and the Heavan’s Will sword play out in water puppets.
Sharleen got some hot tips on restaurants in the French Quarter from her friend. The streets over here were wider, less traveled, and there was more room on the sidewalks. We also saw more stop lights. The first place we visited was a restaurant where Obama and Bourdain famously shared a beer. (Click here for an image of the two sharing a beer). Sharleen loved the massive egg rolls. Just down the street was Pho Thin. The girls loved this pho.