Hanoi was our home on either side of a fantastic trip to Halong Bay. We arrived early on the morning of the 31st December, with the intention to find a party and celebrate the arrival of 2014. The overnight train had been a bit of an adventure itself; Laura woke up halfway through the night to find a man going through her bags at the bottom of her bed, then, in our sleepy post-train state we paid the taxi driver approximately 20 times more than we should have done…not a great start to our time in the capital city! Along with Naomi and Al from Ireland, we checked into the Little Diamond Hotel, sorted out our Halong bay trip for the next day, then headed out to eat and search for the celebrations…
There was just one problem. The Vietnamese don't really celebrate our traditional, Gregorian calendar, New Year. They have their own celebration called Tet, celebrated at the same time as the Chinese New Year. Therefore there wasn't much of a party to be found. This didn't stop us, we headed for Hoan Kiem lake and had our own party, making as many locals celebrate with us as we could.
As you would expect from a capital city, Hanoi has its fair share of museums. Some were excellent (Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the Women's Museum, the Museum of Ethnology) and some were less so (the Temple of Literature, the water puppets). We were shown round the Women's Museum by Tiem, from Hanoi kids, an initiative that pairs university students with westerners for a day. The name of the initiative betrays the educated and well informed young man that enthusiastically showed us his hometown, then took us for traditional egg cappuccinos; the day was a real highlight of our trip for me!
The Women's Museum and the Museum of Ethnology gave a superb insight into the lives of Vietnamese people, the sections on the northern ethnic groups were particularly fascinating- the houses these guys can build from the most basic of building materials are unbelievable.
Hỏa Lò Prison was an interesting experience. The prison was built by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later used by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The American prisoners of war dubbed it the “Hanoi Hilton”, a place where, according to survivors, horrendous torture was part of everyday life, torture that was used to get written or recorded statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated the POWs. According to the Vietnamese guidebook, the prisoners lived in excellent conditions, had access to plenty of food, played sports on a regular basis and even enjoyed a turkey dinner at Christmas. We've learnt to take a lot of what is written with regards to the war here with a pinch of salt; it's difficult to distinguish between truth and propaganda.
The former Republican Presidential candidate John McCain spent 5 years in the Hanoi Hilton, after the plane he was piloting was hit by a missile and came down just north of the city. In the guidebook he is shown seemingly enjoying his time in the prison, a view hugely contradicted in his autobiographical account 'Faith of My Fathers' where he describes in detail the torture he and his fellow prisoners received. In 1968 his father was named as commander of all the U.S. forces in the Pacific area and John was offered an early release by the North Vietnamese, who wanted to appear merciful for propaganda purposes. McCain turned down the offer; he would only accept repatriation if every man taken in before him was released as well. I'm not going to pretend I know a lot about his politics or policies, but after learning about what he went though during the war, I have huge respect for the man.
Before we left Hanoi we managed to catch up with friends from earlier travels. A couple of nights on Beer Hoi (fresh beer, 20p a glass!) were had with Griffin and Al. We met Griffin whilst were under the influence of beer and English boys on a boat trip in Cambodia. He has an infectious laugh and quality banter. Al, Alan, Al, Al, was the Bristolian we had met in Phong Nha Ke Bang, who was highly amused (not) by us repeatedly quoting the gopher YouTube clip at him. A clip I will leave you with now, as I will never grow tired of it!
Love to all,