The intriguing tale of Hanoi

  • Vietnam has always fascinated me, and the credit largely goes to Hollywood. As far back as I can remember, majority of the Hollywood war movies have been based on Vietnam, especially those in the late 80s and 90s. Stars referred to it as 'Nam', from Platoon to Apocalypse Now, Rambo to Forrest Gump and Hanoi Hilton. Every movie showcased bravado, military strategy, physical and psychological trauma, and the likes. The war was a complete waste in every aspect; men, machines, and resources. The fact remains, a nation of farmers and cattle grazers gave Uncle Sam a tough fight, as they were unwilling to let go of their freedom. We were intrigued and that’s how the holiday plan was made. I bring you my experiences from the city of Hanoi - the capital of Vietnam.

    Touchdown Hanoi!! The airport is in the back of beyond. On our way to the hotel, we drove past construction sites of buildings and flyovers that reflect the government’s efforts to transform Hanoi into a modern city. We also came across huge manufacturing plants of well-known electronic MNCs. In this two-wheeler frenzy country, owning a car is a matter of luxury. In some cases, the two-wheeler functions as a multi utility vehicle, where it is used as a goods and personnel carrier. Amidst all the madness, we made way to the Old Quarters to Mercure Hotel, a boutique property with all the necessary amenities, centrally located with access to the railway station, restaurants, and the city center, all within 10 minutes walking radius. Old Quarters has the original street layout and building architecture of Hanoi from the French era, each frame is picture perfect and Instagram worthy. The easiest and the best way to move around this part of town, is on foot or cycle-rickshaws.

    We visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Palace, One Pillar Pagoda, the Flag tower and Vietnam Military History Museum, Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake, Hoa Lo Prison, Opera House (Nha Hat Lon), Hang Gai Street (night market) and Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. There is just so much exploring that needs to be done.

    Vietnamese people love their food and beer. They eat almost all the meals out keeping the restaurants buzzing and packed during meal hours (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner). It is virtually a nightmare to get a table at a decent joint. Please note, by 10 pm most of the places shut. We made it a point to try authentic dishes like the Vietnamese Pho, Nasi Goreng, Goi Cuon (Pork and Shrimp spring rolls), Doner Kababs, Grilled Meats, and others.

    The most famous dish here is the Vietnamese Pho. However, I personally loved Goi Cuon; this is an interesting dish where the ingredients are served on a huge platter. The roll is prepared by selectively placing ingredients on a thin sheet of rice paper. It is served alongside tangy sauces; very light and variety of flavours get extenuated with every bite. Quan An Ngon is the place to go for Goi Cuon. Hoan Kiem Lake is the centre of attraction, crowds of young and old come together in the evening for their walks, to catch-up with friends, and artists come here too; dancers, singers, painters, and many other talented people. The lake is surrounded by interesting places; the night market, water puppet theatre, the super fancy Metropolitan Hotel that overlooks the lake with the Opera House behind it, lots of souvenir shops and the most famous ice-cream brand Kem Trang Tien.

    A trip to Hanoi is incomplete without visiting the night market. It has everything from food, clothes, bags, souvenirs to shoes. All fakes of popular luxury brands like LV, Gucci, Prada, etc are available at throw away prices. In the market, at one of the cross-sections, was this doner kebabs’ hawker. He made the most outstanding Doner kebabs, I’ve ever had. There was magic in his sauces, the meat had us coming back every day during our time at Hanoi.

    The two places etched in my mind; Hao Lo Prison which was built by the French for 450 prisoners, but in reality had 2000 inmates at any given time, as indicated in the 19th century records. A lot of prisoners escaped its walls and through the sewer grates. A gruesome relic, the ominous French guillotine, was used to behead the revolutionaries. The museum is thought-provoking; ironically, the U.S POWs nicknamed it as ‘Hanoi Hilton’.

    Second was Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, breathtaking performance of the puppets that dance on water, one of its kind and this tradition goes as far back as the 11th century. Every evening is a full house, people hoot at the presentation and grandeur of the event. Words can’t explain the experience, “One has to see it, to feel it”!

    Author : Jagmandeep Singh