The flight from Hue to Hanoi is short, uncomplicated and snack-free. We arrive at 5.45pm and it's almost dark.
This city is old, celebrating its millennium in 2010. For many years it was Vietnam’s capital until 1979 when HCMC took the title. We see a great change in this city in the ten years since we have been here.
In the hour it takes to get from the airport to the hotel we’re learn the basics about this city and are not surprised when Tuan tells us that the population has doubled (from three to six million) in two years. We reckon the motorbike count has quadrupled in the past decade. At least!
As we pass the Red River we are told that this delta is every bit as important as the Mekong, and now the government is expanding the SIX-star codominiums nearby.
We’re now 1700 kilometres from HCMC and ‘Hanoi’ or Ha Noi as some write it, is the new name. A thousand years ago it became Thang Long.
Tuan points out some signs: Vitamin Go Go, and Vitamin Miaow Miaow. Go Go indicates that dog meat is served (that’s the flesh of dogs, not from a can for dogs!) and you can guess the other.
We ask about the dragonfly motifs we see repeatedly on souvenirs and Tuan explains this is because the flying dragon is a symbol of Hanoi. I'm glad to have that explained as I would never have made that connection!
Close to our hotel we begin to see a colourful mural on the walls of the freeway and learn it extends for four kilometres and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest ceramic mural. The work was completed by Vietnamese artists with many artists from other countries invited to be part of the project that celebrated Hanoi’s one thousand year anniversary in 2010. We are cheered to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge and some aboriginal art at one point.
We book into the Medallion Hanoi Hotel, a little taken aback when our transfer bus cannot pass down the increasingly small streets, and stops to drop us off in what seems the middle of shops. It turns out our hotel is in the centre of the old town where streets (called the old name, (Hang) are only wide enough for small cars, cyclos (endangered soon, it seems), and the endless stream of motor cycles. So we drag our cases the hundred metres or so wondering what we’ll find.
The Medallion Hotel, though, is modern and clean and the rooms are generous. We come to be delighted at staying in this very central position where anything is just a walk or a quick taxi ride away.
We dine at Au Lac House (as the name suggests near the lake) with dining available in separate rooms of a delightful old French building. We sit at a long table beside a whitewashed fireplace with a picture of a Chinese woman over the mantelpiece. Ceiling fans, a vase of pink and white carnations, a carved screen and parquet floor, and string music as a background. French colonial at its best.
The food, though is Vietnamese. Crab spring rolls in the thinnest of wrappers gets two ticks in my notes. Green mango salad follows, beef with spicy black pepper sauce, stir-fried prawns in a surprisingly good tamarind sauce, and a crème caramel to follow. These remind me what a marriage made in heaven the Vietnamese influence is on French cuisine. Or should that be the other way round.
The next morning we are picked up from our hotel by one of the few vehicles that can do that – cyclos. San Souci is printed on the back of my driver's Tshirt and I watch that throughout our half hour or so tour of the old city. I remind myself that the translation is ‘without care’ as motor bikes whiz past centimetres away from my toes and my fearless driver pedals us out into intersections right in front of buses and cars.
Still it’s an amazing way to see the city as it wakes: men squatting on 15cm stools having coffee, women balancing heavy poles with baskets of fruit or cooked food on either end, shutters going up on shops.
I’m at street level with the smells (pork cooking, star anise, smoke – and an excess of exhausts) and sounds (a cockerel crowing, dog barking, blaring horns) and everything happening around me.
Our next destination is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the pride of the capital. Here the great man himself lies in state we are told. I have no photographs as my camera had to be handed in (plus my water bottle and a banana). The camera was easier to retrieve than the other things at the end of the tour.
As this suggests, security is incredibly tight. We inch along in a queue that snakes about half a kilometre from the entrance gates to the huge building which holds his remains. There are school groups of brightly dressed children, families, and wide-eyed people making the pilgrimage from distant country areas. And tourists like us, but not many western faces. Thirty three million are said to have visited since it was opened in 1979.
Once we enter the Mausoleum (closed Mondays and Fridays and three months of the year) we are hurried along. One of our group is told to cover her arms, another to straighten her Tshirt. We must be quiet and respectful. You’ll have to believe me when I tell you the great man lies like a wax figure in his coffin in the centre of the room. No photos are allowed.
While the others visit the home of Ho Chi Minh (which I had seen on another visit – I, meanwhile, retrieve my belongings) we then visit the University, established in 1070AD and the first in the world. Here, the King set the exams and marked them and interviewed candidates.
Lunch is at Mam Restaurant in Hang Mam (Fish Cake Street). The streets were once connected with just one industry or product and still bear the names today, although they now have a mix of shops. The cuisine here includes Japanese, although our spring roll, stirfry, claypot braise, rice, vegetables and dessert of fruit follows the fairly standard pattern. Pumpkin soup is another staple – appearing several days in a row, to my delight, but not to all on the trip!
Fortunately the meal has reinforced us for a sad start to the afternoon. The Hoa Lo Prison or ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as it became known to the west was the place where now-Senator John McCain spent over five years. The displays in the several rooms of the prison are sobering and disturbing. We see the entrance to the sewers, the avenue for some escapes, and also a room filled with pictures aimed at giving a view of the good treatment of US GIs.
No one should visit Hanoi without scheduling a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre. It is quintessential Vietnamese entertainment. The puppets are moved on long sticks from behind a screen and of course they involve farmers and buffaloes, but also the odd dragon, some fireworks and a bit of a romantic theme, like theatre productions almost anywhere. It is a strangely different thing to see with the little puppets woodenly wading around in a pond at the front of the theatre.
After this we meet a couple of local friends who take us on one of the electric buses that line up near the lake. Fortunately these open-sided vehicles can negotiate the narrow streets of the old city. As night falls we see the area come alive as if someone has hit a switch, as people come out to dine on the pavement and shops do a brisk trade with the throngs of people walking by.
After about 30 minutes we return to the lake, then take a taxi to the Ban Tom Ho Tay restaurant on West Lake for shrimp cakes, a favourite of theirs. We are soon seated lakeside, digging into piles of greasy fried cakes and dipping them into the constantly replenishing dipping sauce. Along with salad and fried peanuts. This makes a fine meal. It’s the equivalent of ‘going out for fish and chips’ here, except there are the ubiquitous spring rolls which we eat far too many of, and the whole meal costs just a few dollars.
Where else but Vietnam!