Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, a fusion of old and new

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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 1969.

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.

Guards keep watch outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, which is open to the public. 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 p.m.

The French Quarter also contains the Hanoi Citadel, One Pillar Pagoda, the Botanical Gardens, foreign embassies and government offices.

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 for space.

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 accomplishment.

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 Sofitel group.

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 roadside stalls.

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 atmosphere.

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 outcrops.

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 explanation.

It is worth joining one of the full-day tours (including a fresh seafood lunch) of the islands, but shorter trips are available.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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