Our evening arrival in Hanoi was somewhat less than stellar, as we checked into our guesthouse to find the room barely larger than a closet (I had reviewed photos online, and it had also received excellent reviews). Now, we’ve stayed in some pretty tiny rooms during this trip, but this one topped them all. After placing our bags on the floor, one of us had to be in the bed at all times, since we could not both stand simultaneously in the remaining space. The only surface in the room was occupied by a small tea set, which meant we ended up sleeping with some of the unpacked luggage. Perhaps most hilarious, though, was the shower. In a bathroom barely wide enough to accommodate a toilet, the shower head was mounted to the long wall and pointed parallel to the floor – firing powerful jets of water in a flat stream, directly across the three-foot gap to drench the far wall (but not the person showering).

After discussing this with the front desk, the manager offered to relocate us to his new, pricier hotel, just a few doors down, which had only been open for 10 days. We ended up in the top floor of a brand new hotel, in a gorgeous room covered with flower petals and towel sculptures, with nearly the entire hotel to ourselves. Not only was the room beautiful, but when the Chinese embassy decided to alter the date of our visa completion to a day we planned to be in Halong Bay, the staff volunteered to go pick them up from the embassy, refusing any payment we offered. Plus, they had a painting in the lobby of Kermit the Frog playing the banjo which, in Jenn’s book, makes any hotel worthy of five stars. Overall, it was fun being their guinea pigs for their new hotel and the staff was simply wonderful.

Our exploration of bustling Hanoi took us past the Presidential Palace, then around to West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi with a shoreline of roughly 17 kilometers. At West Lake is the Trấn Quốc Pagoda, which was originally built in the 6th century and is the oldest temple in the city. Just south of the lake is a remarkable exhibit – the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, housing what is presumed to be the genuine remains of the famous Vietnamese leader. Visiting the memorial was a slightly bizarre experience – first, you are funneled past the mausoleum, with “no photography” signs everywhere, to a security checkpoint which strips you of your backpack but allows you to keep electronics. A couple hundred meters further, another security guard takes your camera, but still allows cell phones through. Eventually, we made our way past a number of armed guards into the dark mausoleum, and spent about 30 seconds walking around the glass case with the remarkably well-preserved body inside before being ushered out again. Cameras are reclaimed at yet another security checkpoint, having been apparently delivered there by a guard, yet still requiring you to go back to the beginning to collect the backpack. All in all, a weird (and oddly inefficient) but unique experience.

One of our favorite parts of Hanoi was taking in a puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. It’s thought that water puppetry actually originated in northern Vietnam’s Red River delta, in the 11th century, as entertainment for local farmers when the rice fields would flood. Typical water puppetry depicts local life, or illustrates Vietnamese legends and stories. The puppets themselves are operated on long bamboo poles, submerged in the water and controlled by the puppeteers behind screens. I wasn’t sure what to expect, never being the greatest fan of theater and having no experience watching puppets, but it turned out to be outstanding. The show was entirely in Vietnamese, but the themes and skits were clear, charming, and funny. Frustrated fishermen, elusive fish, playful dragons, solemn turtles, dancing fairies, excitable birds, and even a mischievous, tree-climbing cat made an appearance.

While wandering the capital, we also decided to visit the Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison. Vietnam’s first national university, the Temple of Literature was built in 1070 for Confucian scholars. It was pleasant but rather unexciting except for the doctoral stelae – proclamations of doctoral graduates, carved into enormous rocks on the backs of turtles (a sacred symbol of wisdom). The presentation of a portion of the prison was similarly uninspired, except for the remarkable descriptions of the living conditions of the U.S. prisoners of war that were detained there. Many of the photos were similar to what we saw in Saigon, but the descriptions of the POWs’ treatment were even more glowing. A photo of John McCain in what looks like a somewhat pained smile is presented with a caption about treating his wounds. A series of captioned photographs depict an idyllic life for the POWs, which “may not be as comfortable as home, but…” their only serious hardship is lack of family, and even that is apparently mitigated by the receipt of regular packages and mail. A nearby video plays scenes of wartime violence for the Vietnamese people, interspersed with opposing joyful scenes of U.S. soldiers in prison camps, and ultimately concluding with the narrator contemplating that the POWs probably felt themselves “lucky” to have been captured by the Vietnamese. The whole scene was incredibly bizarre, and it’s difficult to accept that such propaganda still exists in the face of a world connected by the Internet.

A famous part of Hanoi, the Old Quarter is also a unique place to explore. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an ancient part of the city, dating back over 1000 years, and used to be a source of artisan jewelry, metal and woodwork. Though typically referred to as “The 36 Streets,” the area actually now consists of over 70 streets full of shops. In the old tradition, many of the streets are still entirely dedicated to one particular craft or another, with some streets taken over by paintings, while another sells decorative ornaments, while still another has shops full of fabrics, buttons and threads. It’s a colorful and noisy assault on the senses – throngs of people weaving amongst the motorbikes and cars, food vendors and shop owners shouting and talking loudly, and a thousand different items for sale in every window.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a new city without new food. Egg coffee, or cà phê trứng, is a strong coffee topped with a sort-of meringue, made by beating egg yolks with sugar. The result is a delicious, sweet-and-bitter drink that was one of the best coffees I’d ever had and something I may try to duplicate at home. I also tried ca kho, a braised fish with ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk, at a local restaurant called Minh Thuy, where we reunited with a friendly Austrian girl that we had met previously on a bus in Saigon. Of course, I also tried the ubiquitous bánh mì which, though little more than a Vietnamese sandwich, has its own local flavor with spicy sauces and spreads.

Overall, we enjoyed our time in Hanoi, finding it to be a stark contrast to the modern and polished Ho Chi Minh City. The dark alleys and twisting streets of the capital city proved to be full of delicious food, friendly faces, and new experiences.

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