Arrival by Train
The train arrived back in Hanoi at 4:45AM. Although our cabin mates, two Australian young men, were much quieter than the Vietnamese family on the trip up, I didn’t sleep well. The last half hour of the trip as the train entered the outskirts of Hanoi I sat in the dark and watched the morning’s activities – streets filling with motorbikes, markets bustling, and newspapers being sorted and delivered.
At this hour Hanoi is pleasant. We could actually enjoy the walk back to the Old Quarter in the soft morning air without fear of being hit by a motorbike. Our hotel was still dark, the clerk sleeping on the lobby couch. We decided not to wake him quite yet and found a little café to wait and watch the sun come up. A Vietnamese place with sturdier wooden stools rather than plastic. The coffee was good, brewed Vietnamese style in individual glasses.
After sorting our bags at the hotel, we went out for street noodles, making sure to find a “kitchen” with the sturdier blue stools. The best noodles of the trip. The broth laced with chili and lime and including chunks of tomato and sliced green onion along with the traditional beef.
written by Don
The Military History Museum focuses on glorious victories of the scrappy Vietnamese Army. The complex consists of three buildings, each dedicated to a phase of Vietnamese military history, as well as a 19th century flag tower, all surrounding a central courtyard.
One small building covers early 10th Century campaigns against the invading Chinese, complete with maps sporting red and green lighted arrows to help you visualize the clever strategies employed. The real thrust of the place, however, is on the modern Army and the more recent struggles against the French and Americans.
For the most part the exhibits in the buildings are pretty basic, consisting of period photographs and cases full of weapons. The French section dwells on the pivotal battle at Dien Bien Phu while the American exhibits cover a little more ground, culminating in the fall of Saigon.
On display is the American Jeep that the North Vietnamese commander commandeered to pick up the president of South Vietnam so he could drive him to a radio studio and broadcast news of the surrender. They also feature the tank that knocked down the gates and was the first to enter the Presidential Palace.
There is also a creepy diorama of a jungle hideout complete with cooking and sleeping nooks as well as loads of unexploded ordnance, apparently dropped from American B52s, embedded in the ground and littering the landscape.
The real star of the show is the collection of military equipment and weaponry in the courtyard. In addition to a Russian MiG 21 there’s lots of captured equipment, including a Huey, multiple artillery pieces, tanks, and most spectacularly a big sculpture-like pile of parts from various shot down aircraft. Smashed up B52 engines, F111 jets and old French radial piston power plants all tossed together in a pile. All in all a very worthwhile stop.
The Temple of Literature
Not in the mood to stand in long lines we skipped Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda. Instead we headed for the Temple of Literature, hoping for a break from the noise and congestion. The Confucian temple originally built in 1070 is a series of five walled courtyards with manicured gardens, pavilions, and stone stelae mounted on tortoises. As the name indicates this was a center of learning and housed the first university in Vietnam. The pleasant gardens under a canopy of large trees could be a respite from hectic world outside its walls. But the sanctuary was thick with tourists making it difficult to get into the spirit of the place.
Written by Don
The remnants of the Hoa Lo Prison lie tucked in the midst of several towering new hotels and office buildings. The exhibits tell the story of how the French took this quaint little artisans enclave, peacefully cranking out ceramic goodies, and turned it into a center of oppression of the proud Vietnamese resistance. They do a pretty good job giving you a feel of the place and have retained several of the small, dark cells, complete with leg shackles and torture implements.
They do go a bit over the top in the propaganda department, however. Plaques describe how the Vietnamese prisoners received old sow meat, moldy dried fish, small chubs with their guts and stunted morning glory. The American pilots imprisoned here (including John McCain), on the other hand, spent their carefree days raising fat chickens for Christmas dinner, decorating their cells for the holidays, receiving letters and gifts from home, and taking part in spirited basketball and volleyball games in the courtyard. It must have been hard for them to say goodbye when the war ended.
Quang An Ngon Restaurant
Near the prison is Quang An Ngon supposedly one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Hanoi. A courtyard style establishment with long wooden tables packed with mostly Vietnamese patrons. If you could get through the crowd you could walk around the perimeter of the dining area and check out what was cooking.
We tasted the grilled pork sausage rolls, seafood vegetable stir-fried rice, grilled mackerel and stir-fried greens translated as “cayote”. The sausage was more of a cold cut than sausage and not particularly flavorful. The seafood stir-fried rice, however, had all the flavor of a well made paella. The mackerel was a little overcooked but tasty. And although the stems of the greens seasoned with garlic had a pleasant mild flavor, they were thick and hard to chew. Best in Hanoi? I hope not, but good food and an interesting people watching opportunity.
Exhausted from the night train and the fact that I’m catching a cold, AGAIN, we took the afternoon off and enjoyed the quiet of the hotel room far above the chaotic streets of Hanoi.
Green Mango Restaurant
The menu at Green Mango is mostly western. We ordered the Thai tom yum soup, smoked eggplant salad, Thai green curry with chicken and seafood risotto. Both of the Thai dishes were well seasoned with just enough heat to make them interesting. The seafood risotto had good flavor but looked like it was made with long grain rice which doesn’t “cream” the way a good risotto rice should.
The eggplant dish was the big disappointment of the evening. Tasty eggplant needs at least a little bit of oil to give it that rich quality that makes eggplant yummy. This had none. Just the sweetness of a Vietnamese sauce and the smoky flavor of the eggplant. Definitely not a marriage made in heaven.
The restaurant dining room is simply decorated, with soft green walls, dark wood furniture and low lighting. Service is attentive. That pleasant ambience you are looking for after a day walking the crazy streets of Hanoi.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Vietnam page.