Jan. 10, 2017:
Last night, we returned to our lovely lodgings at the Metropole Hotel, and met our fellow travellers on our tour. It seems like a nice group, and we had a very good group dinner in the Metrople restaurant. This morning, we awoke to a gentle rain. However, it was difficult to tell where the rain stopped and the humidity began! Undeterred, we climbed into open-sided buggies for a tour of the old town area. If we thought the traffic was dense yesterday and the day before (Saturday and Sunday), we had NO clue! Not only is Ha Noi incredibly dense, but with a population of about 7.5 million, there are about 4.5 million motorbikes, and it felt like all of them were on the road this morning!
The lunar New Year celebrations (“Tet”) will begin Jan. 28th this year, and the shopkeepers are showing anything and everything people will need to celebrate. Even with the misty, foggy morning, the colors, and especially, the flowers are amazing!
After our buggy ride, we go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum to view him as he lays in perpetual state. Given that is was his final wish to be cremated, one has to wonder if it is him, or a wax copy. In any event, it is a very solemn place, with more restrictions on dress and manner than you see even in St. Peter’s Basilica. There is a whole park surrounding the Mausoleum, including “Uncle Ho’s” humble house, and the government offices where he conducted the business of North Vietnam, complete with bomb shelter. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, before reunification of Vietnam, so he never saw his dearest wish achieved.
Inside the memorial park is a lovely pagoda suspended over a reflecting pond by one pillar, named, appropriately, the One Pillar Pagoda.
Our next stop was a visit to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed by the American POWs who were incarcerated there as the “Hanoi Hilton”. We were able to see some of the cell blocks preserved, which had fairly horrible conditions. But there were also some interesting exhibits (including John McCain’s flight suit) and photographs, such as propaganda pictures of the American pilots being allowed to celebrate “normal” Christmas events such as tree-decorating and attending Mass. My takeaway from the experience was that it was a hard but worthwhile visit.
We then had an excellent lunch at the Seasons of Hanoi. After lunch, we attended a a classic form of Vietnamese entertainment, the water puppet show at the Thanh Long Water Puppet Theatre. This ancient art form originally developed to tell legends and stories of daily village life to peasants who were not able to read. However, today, it is still a celebrated tradition, although perhaps enjoyed more by children and tourists than adult Vietnamese. However, it was an enchanting show, with its musicians dressed in traditional garb, playing ancient instruments, while the puppeteers stood behind a bamboo screen operating puppets representing dragons, phoenixes, rice farmers and emperors. All in all, it was a satisfactory first day!