After almost 2 weeks in Vietnam we finally made it to the capital city: Hanoi. Our stay there was broken up with our trip to Ha Long Bay but in total we spent around 2 and a half days exploring the city – definitely long enough!
The main attraction is the old city; a buzzing and manic centre of criss-crossing streets. It is a shopping district and each street, or section of a street, is dedicated to certain items: I bought some new shoes from the shoe section and some t shirts from the t shirt section – it’s a very easy way to shop. However, despite the raving tripadvisor reviews of the area I have to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan. The traffic was dangerous and chaotic and the tooting of squeaky, motorbike horns migraine-inducing. I expected a charming old centre and was instead presented with dust and chaos – most disappointing.
We did visit some interesting sites though including the Women’s History museum; I had no idea what a pivotal role women have played throughout Vietnam’s turbulent history, in particular during the American War. They fought alongside the men and there were even units made up entirely of women. Women who had lost 2 or more children (or family members) to the war were decorated with the title “Mothers of Vietnam”. It was an incredibly powerful and patriotic museum dedicated entirely to the women of the country – a sight which is sadly a rarity in the world.
We also visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, a prison which was given its nickname by the American soldiers who stayed there during the war. It was initially built by the French Colonists and used to detain any opponents to their rule. The museum highlighted the brutal torture routines and living conditions imposed upon the local people by the foreign rulers. In comparison the American prisoners of the war in the 60s were treated like guests; they celebrated Christmas within the prison and there were numerous pictures showing them playing volleyball and receiving letters from home. Or at least that’s what we were told, a quick Google search reveals an entirely different account of the prison! The way these historical sites are portrayed by the Vietnamese is often more interesting than the places themselves!
Our final tourist stop was to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We walked to the other side of the city and were ordered through security checks and to stand in various queues. Following behind a soldier dressed in dazzling white we were marched to the entrance of the mausoleum. We waited as a more senior officer paraded down the pavement in order to carry out uniform checks on all the guards. In single file we all walked the red carpet round the preserved body of Vietnam’s first president, the father of the people. It was a very surreal experience but a perfect way to end our stay in such a beautiful and mysterious country.
It was in Hanoi that we also joined the G Adventures part of our trip. There is so much to see in South East Asia and our trip is only 7 weeks so we decided that the best way to see more was to join a tour – and I think we were probably both a bit scared that after 5 weeks in each others company we would be desperate to spend time with different people!
It was such a shock to the system: for so long it had been just the two of us deciding when and how to travel and wasting time deciding which hotel we should stay in next etc. For the first few days I felt completely at a loss after giving up all control to our lovely Thai CEO (chief experience officer), Bom. But luckily it was Bom who completely made the trip. With a smile that took over his whole face he never failed to make the journey easy, exciting and completely safe. He always knew the best place to eat, whether we wanted local street food or a 5* dining experience, and the best places to visit, happily organising as much as he could for us. He wasn’t just there to herd us around but often joined us for drinks and meals and made the entire experience so much fun and so interesting.
The entire tour runs from Bangkok to Bangkok with people joining/leaving in Saigon and Hanoi.I was sceptical at first about the tour thinking that it’s not a proper way to travel round a country – it’s too easy! And while I still think that, I also don’t regret it for a second. While the tour wasn’t perfect, we were able to cram so much into 2 weeks which we wouldn’t have been able to do had we been relying on public transport.
And it’s because we crammed so much in that I haven’t had much time to blog. And while I fly back home to England in less than a week I still have plenty to write about!