Where We Be
Delicious street food and draft beer (Bia Hoi) make for fun evenings in Hanoi
Hanoi, Vietnam
This is the entrance to Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French in the late 1880s and called Maison Centrale ("Central House") -- a euphemism
for prisons in France. U.S. prisoners of war shot down over Vietnam sarcastically called it the Hanoi Hilton during their imprisonment here.
Hoa Lo literally means "stove" in Vietnamese but translates more loosely as
"fiery furnace." Most of the prison museum is devoted to a discussion of the
terrible treatment received by the Vietnamese at the hands of the French.
Two rooms are devoted to the U.S. airmen imprisoned here as POWs -- including John McCain,
who revisited the prison in 2000. His flight suit and other memorabilia are on display here.
We continued walking to the Temple of Literature, built in 1070 AD to honor Confucius.
As early as 1076 it  housed the Imperial Academy, Vietnam's first national university.
Inside the Temple of Literature are some elaborate shrines and decorations
It’s a peaceful oasis in the midst of all the Hanoi craziness
We particularly liked this diminutive statue of two monks
playing a board game amongst the ankle-high foliage
Feeling footsore, we paid $4 to be wheeled at bicycle speed through
the crazy streets of Hanoi. Motorists zipped past us like we were
standing still, and some of the turns through traffic were hair-raising.
Close to the pagoda is Ho Chi Minh Museum, dedicated to the life of "Uncle Ho" who
fought for Vietnamese independence from the early 1940s until his death in 1979
A bit further along is Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a big cube of a monument. Vietnamese soldiers in
full dress whites keep a watchful eye. Soldiers march by instead of just walking so it feels very military.
The mausoleum is stark and imposing. Heroic military music plays from speakers
hidden in bushes near the site. Inside are the embalmed remains of Uncle Ho.
Vietnamese military drill out in the open across from the mausoleum
Ba Dinh Square itself is an enormous rectangle -- huge and empty feeling. Vietnam's
declaration of independence from France was declared here in 1945 by Ho Chi Minh.
Just outside Ba Dinh Square is the Presidential Palace (built 1906), a restored colonial
building in "imperial yellow" -- a color associated with French imperialism in Vietnam
Motorcycles are ubiquitous. Even the sidewalks aren't safe! And crossing the street can be a real
challenge: it requires a steady walking pace and a good deal of trust as motorcycles thread around you.
Sidewalks in the Old Quarter are a study in chaos!
Parked motorcycles and obstacles galore make every walk an adventure.
This was so different from anything we'd experienced before that we loved it!
The Old Quarter bubbles over with energy -- not to mention inexpensive lodgings, restaurants,
and shops. We stayed at the central and friendly Tu Linh Palace II for just $22 per night.
These helmets let you motor around Hanoi in style.
We particularly like the "Hello Kitty" helmet.
Memorial House (or Heritage House) in the Old Quarter is worth a visit. It's known as a “tube house” for its unique
architecture, with a small storefront street-side and a long series of connecting rooms and courtyards heading back.
The lake is an oasis of green at the city's center
Hoan Kiem is the lake at the center of the Old Quarter –
and in many ways the symbolic center of Hanoi itself
At the southern end of Hoan Kiem is the French Quarter
with its fine colonial architecture, including the Opera House
A sure sign that capitalism is alive
and well in Vietnam these days
Even Robin, who is 5'2", seems big sitting at these tiny chairs and tables! We ordered banh xeo -- ultra-thin rice cellophane
wraps with bean sprouts, pork, veggies, and fish sauce. Robin also discovered she loves French fries with soy sauce!
We got a kick out of this mural outside St. Joseph Cathedral showing the
Magi pointing to -- a fern? The real star is actually off-screen to the right!
These gatherings are a nightly event in Hanoi's Old Quarter --
hardly surprising given the price of a draft beer is just 25 cents
Aerial photo of Hoa Lo prison from the time of the Vietnam War
Our final stop was West Lake, where we saw Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in the city,
built in the 6th century AD. Each niche in the pagoda is filled with a white Buddha statue.
A small temple sits on an island at the lake's northern
end. It's easily reachable by pedestrian bridge.
Hoan Kiem means "Lake of the Returned Sword." The story goes that a turtle gave a magic sword to the emperor
of Vietnam in the 15th century -- then took it back once independence was achieved from the Chinese.
On our first night in Hanoi we had great fun
wandering through the chaotic streets of the
Old Quarter. And when we say chaotic we mean
it! You have to pick your way through the busy
streets since the sidewalks themselves are
almost completely obstructed with parked
motorcycles, street food vendors, diners on
stools, piles of boxes and goods destined for
stores, utility poles, leaning ladders, and so on.
Of course this is exactly what makes Hanoi so
much fun -- as long as you don't get run over!

It seemed as if the entire city was out having a
party. Everyone was out eating and drinking on
small plastic chairs and tables that packed the
sidewalks and spilled over onto the streets.
Motorcycles threaded through the crowds at
slow speeds. Eventually we parked ourselves
at a local joint where the “Bia Hoi” (draft beer)
was only 5,000 dong per stein -- that’s 25 cents!
Over the next few hours we drank ourselves
silly while striking up conversations with fellow
travelers from Australia, Scotland, England,
Germany, and the Netherlands -- not to mention
four friendly Vietnamese at a table next to ours.

At one point a police van quietly pulled up and
everyone sitting in the street -- tourists and
Vietnamese alike -- picked up their stools and
moved to the sidewalk. The bartender told us it
happens every night: the restaurants aren't
supposed to spill out onto the streets, so the
police cart off any unclaimed stools they find
there. But if the stools are held by patrons on
the sidewalk, they are in a “safe zone” and it’s
no problem!
In Vietnam you can carry a cool million around in your pocket
like it's nothing. 500,000 dong = $25.  (20,000 dong = $1.)
St. Joseph's Cathedral looks like a
weathered version of Notre Dame
This is the real Hanoi Hilton -- not the facetiously named
prison that held U.S. POWs during the Vietnam War
Hoan Kiem Lake
French Quarter
Old Quarter
The "Hanoi Hilton"
Back in 1945, 100 political prisoners held by
the French crept through this underground
sewer door and managed to escape Hoa Lo.
Hoa Lo Prison -- the "Hanoi Hilton"
The "Hanoi Hilton"
Temple of Literature
Ba Dinh Square
Some sections of the prison wall still stand
Near Ba Dinh Square is One Pillar Pagoda, a famous
Vietnamese pagoda built around 1030 AD. Designed
to resemble a lotus blossom, it rises out of a small pool.