From Siem Reap, Cambodia we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam for the last leg of our Asian trip. In Vietnam, we went from north to south: Hanoi (plus a cruise in “nearby” Ha Long Bay), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Posts on these other locations will be coming soon. The first thing we noticed in Hanoi was the significantly cooler weather. Coming from Cambodia it was a real shock, Hanoi was in the 60’s F in January vs. 80’s F in Siem Reap.
Hanoi Old Quarter
We spent very little time in Hanoi itself. Our hotel was conveniently located in the Old Quarter, and within walking distance of everything we wanted to do.
The main tourist sites are in Hanoi Old Quarter, a densely packed section of the city with lots of little shops, temples tucked into hidden corners, and scooters everywhere! Scooters are the transportation vehicle of choice in Hanoi and Vietnam overall.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
This lake and park in the Old Quarter provides a serene contrast to the busy streets nearby. There is a story of a Turtle God associated with this lake that is quite interesting. I won’t retell it here, but look it up on Wikipedia. There is a monument called “Turtle Tower” in the lake commemorating this legend.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
A pretty odd sight in Hanoi is this Neo-Gothic 19th century Christian cathedral. It is the oldest church in Hanoi and was built by the French colonial government. According to Wikipedia, it is the headquarters of Archdiocese of Vietnam which serves 4 million Catholics across the country. From the mid 1950’s until 1990 the cathedral was closed, during this era Christians suffered major persecution. I’m glad the cathedral survived. While it cannot compare to what one finds in Europe, it still has its charm situated as it is in Hanoi.
Hỏa Lò Prison (aka “Hanoi Hilton”)
If you do nothing else in Hanoi, take the time to visit the Hỏa Lò Prison, now a museum. This prison is famous for being the “home” of Senator John McCain, after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. He was held as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years, from late 1967 to early 1973 and along with other American pilots, he suffered greatly. All American prisoners were released in 1973.
Rather than focusing on the American prisoner era, the purpose of the museum is to tell the story of the suffering of the Vietnamese people (particularly members of the Communist Party) at the hands of the French during the colonization period beginning in the late 1800’s, which laid the foundation for what became the Vietnam War. The French built the prison in 1896. It was turned into a museum in 1993.
The prison is located just south of the Old Quarter and is quite close to St. Joseph’s Cathedral (discussed above). The prison used to occupy a much larger area, and only a small portion remains, undoubtedly due to the value of real estate in this part of Hanoi. I am glad they persevered at least a portion of this prison for modern day tourists.
The pictures of American POW’s in the museum are quite interesting, they make it look like it was a social club!
As we visited Hanoi, my sense was that it’s less progressive and dynamic than Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and that turned out to be the case. I will share more on Ho Chi Minh City in another post.
Please note that Vietnam requires a visa, which is not difficult to obtain. Complete an application on line, print out the paper work, and take this information with you to receive your visa upon arrival at your point of entry.
Our main purpose in visiting Hanoi was to serve as our departure point for a Ha Long Bay cruise–our next Vietnam post!