Hanoi wasn’t always the imperial capital of Vietnam. That title went to Hue which I visited in February last year. Today Hanoi (or Ha Noi as it is more correctly written) is the socialist republic’s capital and the one city which more than any other place symbolises the determination of Vietnam to reassert itself as a unified country.
The central figure in the struggle for unification is that remarkable person, Ho Chi Minh, or uncle Ho as he is affectionately known. Born in 1890 in a strictly confucian family HCM travelled the world even landing up as cook and dishwasher at a hotel in Ealing, London. If you pass New Zealand House in London, you’ll also find a blue plaque confirming that HCM worked there too in a building which previously stood on its site. Sadly he died in 1969 just six years before he saw his dream of a liberated Vietnam realised.
Theoretician, fighter and poet, Ho is truly the father of the nation and the first site we visited in Hanoi was the mausoleum where his mortal remains are embalmed (contrary to his wishes to be cremated). We were lined up in double file by the watchful eyes of guards uniformed in immaculate white and with the background of patriotic songs. Short of visiting North Korea I felt this would be a very similar experience.
Fortunately, the queue of acolytes was not too long and we soon gazed on the luminous effigy of the great leader complete with his trademark goatee beard.
Our visit did not end there, however, since we were also able to visit the working quarters where Ho efficiently and simply worked to realise the nation we experience today. His house on stilts was particularly charming and the whole area was beautifully landscaped in a park graced with a little lake.
Hanoi is a city of lakes each surrounded by joyfully lit promenades and is full of glories from past eras of its complicated history. After our homage to Ho we visited the confucian temple of literature with the memorial steles to its brightest students placed on the backs of stone turtles which, presumably, symbolise, that learning is something that has no get-quick way of achieving it.
The French colonial era has left an imposing opera house and a neo-gothic cathedral besides a large area of graceful villas and some very parisian boulevards.
We also enjoyed the gallic orientalist architecture of the history museum which has excellent displays of artefacts from past ages including a a very nice exhibition of the significance of mythological animals in Vietnamese culture.
If HCM city has more zest then Hanoi has more grace and, certainly, a more equable climate. It actually has four seasons while HCM city only fluctuates around three degrees throughout the year.
After watching a delightful water puppet performance, for which the country is famous and which derives from the red river valley on which the town is sited, we wandered around the old quarter which is surely the most fascinating part of this most fascinating city, now rated as one of Asia’s top five destinations.
Certainly a radical change from our previous stay at Luang Prabang, Hanoi completely charmed us with its frenetic, but never impersonal, energy and its several quiet parklands and lovely city lakes.