Extending our Uniworld cruise itinerary, we add extra days in Hanoi. Being a long flight, our adventure begins on our hotel room balcony admiring the lights of the city and one of Hanoi’s two lakes just below. Ordering room service, we enjoy large bowls of steaming pho. Blending Chinese, French and native cuisines, pho seems a perfect way to start our holiday in Vietnam.
Our initial excursion delves into history, investigating Vietnam’s 11th century Temple of Literature and first university. Once heralding royalty, a bronze bell hangs atop the white, three-story gateway. Inside, two peaceful courtyards enclose shady lawns ideal for scholarly studies. A third encloses a large rectangular pond lined with ornamental bonsai trees and large stone epitaphs. Names of esteemed writers, sages and doctors are etched on each stele.
In a fourth courtyard, a dragon-handled incense burner stands before artifact storage halls, the House of Ceremonies and red columned temple. The temple’s two tall bronze cranes stand atop turtles. Told of the gift of long, happy lives, shipmates stretch out, simultaneously rubbing one crane’s chest and its turtle’s back…
Statuettes of Confucius and his four main disciples sit on tables behind worshippers’ offerings of cookies, oranges and beer. Glass cases beyond display students’ inkwells, books and robes. One encloses a gilded rendition of the beloved Hoan Kiem turtle.
Our next stop is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. White uniformed guards direct us into its long line-up, where guide Tri recounts Ho’s endeavors to liberate Vietnam from French colonists, Japanese invaders and U.S. interventionists. Filing solemnly past his embalmed body, we see Ho looks complete at peace.
Quietly exiting, we proceed to a large yellow mansion, once the French Indochina’s administrative headquarters and later North Vietnam’s presidential palace. Proving too grandiose, Ho moved into humbler quarters beside the garage. A soldier chauffeured him around in the diplayed small Renault. Loving his humility, the Vietnamese called him ‘Uncle Ho.’ His last house rises on stilts on the opposite side of a large pond. He died in the bunker below.
Our day ends at Hoa Lo Prison, converted into a museum that well reflects over a century of Vietnamese struggles for independence. From 1896, France jailed and guillotined rebellious nationalists here. Dim communal cells exhibit gray sculpted prisoners shackled together on long platforms. Plaques describe their desperate conditions and failed escapes. We see several visitors burning incense at memorial shrines in the courtyard.
During the 1965-1973 Vietnam War…or US Intervention, Hoa Lo incarcerated attacking bomber pilots. These American officers dubbed Hoa Lo the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’ A long hallway displays photos of John McCain and his cohorts. McCain’s cot remains in an adjacent room.
Heading next day into Hanoi’s historic heart, we admire the mosaic wall bordering the highway. Many sections depict an scene. Some include giant dragons, turtles, storks and exotic flowers. “World businesses, nations and individual artists created its pictorial sections in celebration of Hanoi’s thousand years as capital.” Tri explains. “Setting a world record, it extends almost seven kilometers long,
At Hoan Kiem Lake, we transfer onto open-air electric cars and fully experience Hanoi’s narrow 13th century lanes. Thanks to government and UNESCO support, heritage low-rise buildings remain sustaining this historic district’s bustling shops, galleries, tiny cafes and boutiques.
Navigating amid numerous motorcycles, some scooters and a few bicycles, we pass shops selling gorgeous silks, mysterious vegetables, spices and quirky keepsakes. Being the Tet holidays, red and yellow lanterns adorn several blocks. In many spots, individuals are burning faux money to revere ancestral spirits. Returning on a wide boulevard, we see modern buildings and large monuments to revolutionaries. Leaving our e-cars at the lakeside park, Tri points out an island temple honouring Vietnam’s unique lake turtles.
Tonight we return to the old quarter and attend a traditional water puppet show. We’re seated above the stage, a large rectangular turquoise pool. Entering through a green curtain, four dragons zip around, spitting sparks and spraying water. As other porcelain puppets appear, musicians sing, blow horns, bang gongs and thump bamboo xylophones to dramatize the action. A two-stringed violin, wooden flute, lute, oboe and drums present haunting melodies accentuating further splashy vignettes: men fishing with nets and poles, boys swimming, boaters racing and a gala royal procession.
One memorable scene presents water buffalos plowing a rice paddy, ladies planting and harvesting flourishing fields. Our favorite portrays exotic birds chasing each other in a very splashy mating ritual. The resulting eggs hatch into playful chicks.
Our excursions reveal Vietnam’s determination, artistic culture and reverence for wisdom!
IF YOU GO
• Check out The Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong Cruise at www.uniworld.com
PHOTOS: by Rick and Chris Millikan
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