Have I told you about our visit to Hanoi?
We were living in Hong Kong in 2008, and had no plans for the summer. Usually we’d fly to Canada or to Europe, but that year, I decided we’d do something different. “We’ll go to Hanoi and then to Tokyo”, I told the family.
It was our Summer of the Cities ending in Vowels…owels…owels…
We’d booked 2 rooms at the Sofitel Metropole; what a thrill to discover, on arrival, that we’d been upgraded to the top floor, which included free breakfast, afternoon tea, and…wait for it…a butler. Per room. This poor woman didn’t know what to do with us. We didn’t need her to unpack for us, or polish our shoes or check our food for poison. She tried so desperately to buttle us, and oh, how we wished to be buttled, but I fear we were just too boringly middle class.
After unpacking while our butler stood by smiling grimly, we went out to explore the city. Very near our hotel is a beautiful lake. We got up early every morning to run round it, hoping to offset the calories we’d eaten and imbibed the day before.
Our hotel reminded me a lot of other elegant colonial hotels I’ve been in: The Empress, Raffles, the Peninsula. Once we set foot outside though, the vibrant street life of downtown Hanoi was buzzing with an energy seen only in crowded Asian cities. This place was hopping!
Crossing the street became a game of Vietnamese Roulette: Lars would lead the way, checking over his right shoulder, seeing a hole in the traffic and boldly taking his first step off the curb. Michael and I would shuffle behind him, thinking if one of us got hit, the other two would keep the injured one upright until we got to the other side. With no apparent slowing down or veering, the traffic managed to avoid us.
We walked all round the city. It was hot, about 30 degrees each day, but with plenty of stops at restaurants for cooling drinks, we were fine. You soon learn to avoid the hottest hours of day when you’re in the tropics. We spent most afternoons huddled in the tea room upstairs, swilling back fruit-and-alcohol-laden drinks and eating scones and sandwiches. And taking dumb pictures.
A visit to Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I was determined we’d spend the night on a purpose-built junk, sailing around the islands. We set off early one morning and came home late the next evening. I felt like we were inside a postcard, one that was so beautiful, it just had to be fake.
Meanwhile, back in Hanoi…
Because we had a teenage boy with us, a trip to the Military Museum was in order. There, we learned about Dien Bien Phu and the American War, as it’s called in Vietnam. A fascinating visit, and I highly recommend spending the afternoon there.
We visited Maison Centrale.
Such an innocent name for what was a prison and place of torture. Built by the French in 19th century, it housed Vietnamese prisoners of war:
Of course, most Americans would know this as the Hanoi Hilton, the name given by American Prisoners of War during the 1960s and 70s. Most famously, John McCain spent time there as well.
I get told off by a guard
Lars and Michael played golf one day, leaving me to my own devices. I spent it wisely, going to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to visit Uncle Ho. Of course, he’s kind of dead now, but I queued up to get a look at him lying in state, before being herded along by the guards. It was so cold inside the bowels of the building, that I hugged myself to stay warm. Immediately a guard began poking me sharply on the arm, telling me with hand gestures: no hugging! No! Apparently it’s disrespectful to hug yourself in the presence of their national hero. Good to know.
We loved our time in Hanoi. In so many ways, it reminded us how Hong Kong used to feel, before it got all sophisticated and modern. I’d love to go back again, to see what, if anything, has changed.
Somehow, I bet the motorbikes will still be there.