AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

Hanoi: Day One

We decided our first stop would be to visit the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

It was only a short walk but the streets of Hanoi are chaotic. The footpath is filled with people sat on small plastic stools, or cafes spill out onto the path or usually they are full of parked mopeds. These means we spent a lot of time walking on the road. The roads in Hanoi are crazy! How no-one was getting killed every second I have no idea. It’s a free for all between bikes and cars. They swerve, skip red lights, drive into each other, don’t give way, squeeze, etc.

The prison was very different to how either of us expected it. We knew nothing about its history prior to the Vietnam war, and about 85% of the visit is focused on the years prior to 1954 when the French were running the region. It showed how badly the French treated the prisoners and it was pretty bad. But the language used hinted at a huge bias. The prisoners were “Communist revolutionaries” and “patriots” and the French were “imperialists”. When prisoners escaped they were ingenious. There was a small section about the use of the prison during the Vietnam war, which showed American prisoners been well looked after, receiving medical treatment and playing games. The Vietnamese portrayed the prison as a model of how to treat POWs. But this conflicts with American stories of torture and poor treatment. Although apparently treatment was improved towards the end of the war. We bought a guide book but it focused almost totally on the French period. I guess you’d want to focus on that after experiencing such horrible treatment, but the story is told in a biased manner and skips over bits of history, we’re used to more impartial displays and exhibitions and admitting that both sides did wrong.

After the prison it was time to eat. We wandered for a while and finally found a bakery. Annemarie’s was fine but I chose badly. My bread had what looked like orange fluff in it. No idea what it was but it tasted horrible.

We sat by a fountain near the Opera House. Apparently the opera house is modelled on the opera house in Paris.

That was just a stone’s throw from Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword”. The story behind the name sounds like some strong mind altering substances were involved.

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At the top of the lake is the famous Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre, to see a water puppet show. This is a form of entertainment which originated in the north of Vietnam in the 11 century. We booked tickets for the next show which was due to start about 45 minutes later. The show was certainly different. The puppets looked amazing, very bright and colourful and masterfully controlled. The stories were a bit repetitive, man fishing, tries to catch fish, makes many failed attempts and splashes a lot, then finally catches fish. I spent most of the time yawning. Different, it certainly was, but not hugely entertaining. All speech was in Vietnamese, which was amusing considering that about 90% of the audience was not from Vietnam for our show, or the show’s immediately before and after ours.

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We finished the day by trying to walk to Long Bien Bridge. The huge bridge built by the French at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately, getting there proved a huge headache so we gave up for the day.

By the lake there was a Thai restaurant which we decided to try. The food was delicious and as always the service was very good. Vietnamese people are generally very friendly and helpful and when in a restaurant they are so polite and helpful it’s great. Surprisingly for its central location the restaurant was almost empty, maybe three tables occupied. We counted 14 staff, no wonder the service was so fast. The Christmas decorations were weird, we were boiling hot and they had tinsel with snow on.

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After eating we took a short wander through the night market. This is an area of the city which looks about the same at night as everywhere else does during the day. Shops heaving with fake branded goods of every sort – Del Boy would’ve been in his element here! The only problem is the shops take up all of the path, this means you have to walk on the road, which probably decreases your life expectancy by a few decades. There appears to be no rules for using the road in Vietnam, anything goes. So bikes and cars just swerve and go where they want, making walking on the side of the road a risky business and crossing the road becomes a terrifying leap of faith that the bikes will go around you.

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Posted from Hanoi, Hanoi, Vietnam.

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