HANOI, Vietnam -- It was raining heavily outside the Ho Chi Minh
Mausoleum, yet a queue of pilgrims snaked around the block waiting
for a look at Ho's body in its glass case.
I was told that many had come from faraway regions of Vietnam to
pay their respects to the man who was the leader of Vietnam's
revolution and president of the republic until his death in
Only Vietnamese have to queue; as foreigners, we were slotted in
about midway along the line, and it was only a short while before
we filed into the building and passed the glass sarcophagus, Ho's
final resting place.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, located in the French Quarter, is open
from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and weekends;
entry is free. It is closed from September to December.
Nearby stands the Presidential Palace, the office and living
quarters of a succession of Indochinese governor generals; the
simple house on stilts, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from
1958 to 1969 (admission 25 cents); and the Ho Chi Minh Museum,
which is divided into two sections, "past" and "future." The museum
is open daily from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30
The French Quarter also contains the Hanoi Citadel, One Pillar
Pagoda, the Botanical Gardens, foreign embassies and government
The open space and wide boulevards of the French Quarter are a
relief from the 36 narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, where a
maelstrom of people, vehicles and carts laden with goods compete
At the northern edge of the Old Quarter, the three-story Dong
Xuan Market is Hanoi's largest bazaar, famous for its hundreds of
stalls of fresh fruits and vegetables.
To the south, with tree-lined pathways skirting its
circumference, glistens lovely Hoan Kiem Lake.
Throughout the city rise colorful temples and pagodas, including
the Temple of Literature, one of Vietnam's cultural treasures, now
sadly in need of restoration. Founded in 1070 and dedicated to
Confucius, it was built to honor scholars and men of literary
The French influence on the city is felt in the Presidential
Palace, the Government Guest House, the Opera House modeled on the
old Paris Opera and the famous Metropole Hotel, now run by the
A crude artifact of French rule (1860 to 1945) is the Central
Prison, named the "Hanoi Hilton" by U.S. prisoners of war held
there. Built by the French during the French Indochina War
(1946-1954) to hold Nationalist prisoners, it later was used by
North Vietnam to jail U.S. pilots shot down during the Vietnam War.
A small part of it is now open as a museum.
One of the unique experiences in Hanoi is a performance at the
Water Puppet Theatre on the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. This
fascinating hour-long show, based on an art form that originated
more than 1,000 years ago, provides an insight into daily rural
life to the accompaniment of a traditional orchestra playing
flutes, gongs, drums and various stringed instruments.
The show is popular with tourists, and it is advisable to book
in advance (tour operators usually do this). Performances are held
daily at 8 p.m. Admission is less than $2, and about $3.50 for the
best seats and a cassette of the music.
All this sightseeing makes you hungry, and Hanoi offers a
dazzling array of choices from top-class restaurants to a myriad of
At the top end of the range, restaurants such as Seasons of
Hanoi (Vietnamese food), Le Tonkin and Nam Phuong are found in old
French villas. Equally tempting are the smaller cafes selling local
specialities like grilled fish served with dill, turmeric, rice
noodles, peanuts and fish sauce; seasoned pork grilled over coals
and served in a tamarind-based soup; and a rice noodle soup served
with either chicken or pork.
Together with the local beer, you can have a filling and tasty
meal for only a few dollars.
Dog is a specialty of northern Vietnam, and restaurants with the
sign thit cho are devoted to this one dish -- be warned!
Another option is to visit Cafe Koto, established by
Australian-raised Vietnamese Jimmy Pham. Pham set up a school to
train street kids in all facets of the hospitality industry,
including cooking and serving customers, and the first graduates
are already taking positions in some of Hanoi's leading hotels. The
cafe offers excellent food at reasonable prices in a great
Hanoi is an excellent base from which to explore other parts of
northern Vietnam. These range from the hill tribe areas north and
northwest to the Chinese border, to the stunning beauty of the
Halong Bay east of the capital.
The "highway" to Halong Bay initially follows the road to
Haiphong, Vietnam's major port; the roadside is a mix of small
villages, rice paddies and small industry -- vignettes of
Vietnamese daily life.
The roads are generally narrow and chock full of traffic --
quite hair-raising at times.
About 2,000 islands are scattered across the Gulf of Tonkin and
a variety of tour boats (ranging from large junks to small
runabouts) provide the means to explore a few of these craggy
Ha Long means descending dragon, and the legend is that a dragon
plunging into the sea created these outcrops by the lashing of its
tail -- a much more interesting theory than the geological
It is worth joining one of the full-day tours (including a fresh
seafood lunch) of the islands, but shorter trips are available.
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