A Not-so Christmas in Hanoi (Day 2)

Blessed Christmas everyone! It sure doesn’t feel like Christmas as we started roaming the streets up and early in the morning. People are onto their own business. Where we stayed – the Old Quarters there are rows and rows of shop houses each specializing in their separate trades. There were some shops selling silk & linen, others selling flowers, still others displaying all kinds of stainless steel tools and wares. Sandwich in between these shops are Pho (noodles in Vietnamese) stalls. They need little to operate a business like that, just a large pot, some bowls and chairs for sitting. Locals often sit in a circle slurping in hot soup and chatting up. Life is busy and laid back at the same time.

The weather is awesome! It’s cold and chilly about 12c – perfect weather for long walks. After a simple breakfast of French baguette, cheese and jam, we headed to the Ho Chin Minh Mausoleum. It took us about 30 minutes from the Old Quarters. Along the roads our senses were captivated by many sights and sounds.

This is how Vietnamese read the newspapers

You decide – frog legs or chicken feet?

As we approached the mausoleum complex, the entire landscaped changes, from the hectic wheezing of vehicles and endless shop houses, it turned into this open air flat ground with hand trimmed gardens and uniform guards keeping watch over the entire area. Upon entry, we had to surrender our bags and hand carry items as security is extremely tight. We walked steadily towards the mausoleum as uniform guards sternly looked on. Timing was great because we managed to witness the change of guards. Then we were summoned to enter, keeping a respectful composure, one is not allowed to talk, laugh or even whisper. Guards are positioned at every corner making sure no hanky panky goes on. Mr. Ho’s body lied peacefully in a clear window casket as visitors walked paid their respect. Locals revered him much as they bowed and clasped their hands together before exiting the hall. Despite knowing little about Mr. Ho, there was some kind of aura while in the mausoleum.
Later we visited two other museums around the vicinity – Ho Chin Minh’s Musuem and the Army Museum. Much of it was about the Vietnam war and how the French invaded Vietnam and later Vietnam fought back for its independence. Patriotism is raw and uninhibited – from the menacing looking guards along the roads to the way locals speak of such love for their country.

We roamed the streets a bit more before sitting down for some street food. This was really one of a kind. We stumbled upon a group of people seemingly squatting but actually sitting on extremely low stools. Just a hand-stretch away from them sat this lady with a pail of coals and a hot pan with oil. She would tossed long white rectangular shaped tofu into the hot oil and carried on with snipping some other dough like thing. Intrigued by what the sight and smell we sat down for a meal. Our platter came with hot tofu, noodle cake which was cold, veggies on the side and two bowls of sauces; one tasting like some fermented yam juice and the other like lime. It was quite tasty but later made my stomach also quite queasy!

We made our way to the Hoa Lo prison situated in the middle of the city. A small prison but definitely worth the visit. Clay like prisoners was crafted to depict a real life scene of how they would have looked like in the 1930’s. We entered the “hell of hells” made up of two separate cubicles with the width enough to fit only one skinny person. The nastiest of all criminals would end up in this dungeon, strapped at the feed, with no light and no room to move. We learned about political prisoners who for the love of their country got thrown into prison to endure ruthless torture. We saw how unbearable prison life can be and how inhuman people can become even to their own kind.
Moving forward from gruesome stories, we retreated to the Ho Kiem Lake a famous walkabout for locals and tourist. It’s a peaceful spot to escape given the endless buzz in the city. Even around the lake there was a lot of activity going around; people exercising, ice cream sellers, couples cuddling and touts trying to sell you someone or another.

Since it’s Christmas, Lonely Planet suggested that we hopped over the St. Joseph’s Cathedral to see what’s happening. Nothing much really (much to our disappointment), they had a Mass going on and lots of motorbikes surrounding the place. Not an unusual scene. We went on to have more Pho instead… and later some “spectacular” street side corn for dessert.


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