Moving on from Temple of Literature
Leaving the picturesque Temple of Literature behind we found ourselves back on the bustling streets of Hanoi. Having done a lot of sight seeing since the early morning we felt like heading back to the hotel (hello jetlag!), however, due to the proximity to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum Complex we decided to tick another sight in Hanoi off the list and complete the round we had set ourselves in the morning.
Home of the Embassies
The district where the Mausoleum Complex is located is home to most embassies. We made it into a game, who could spot the next one and were curious if we could find the German and British embassy among them. The large mansions, almost all of them in a French Colonial style but often with features of their home lands, were all well protected by guards in uniforms, some standing outside the gates and along the walls, others enclosed in their little huts. Some of the villas were beautiful with wooden shutters and balconies, others were hidden behind high walls and we could only just make out the rooftops.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum Complex
When we reached the grounds of the Mausoleum Complex we saw busloads of Vietnamese tourists everywhere. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is a popular place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese people. The first building that caught our eye was the actual mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where the former prime minister and president of Vietnam has found his eternal resting place in the brutalist, marble building, which was designed in true communist style. The large red flag with the yellow star was gently blowing in the wind across from the mausoleum. A wide empty promenade, except for a few tourists, runs in front of the imposing structure.
This is how I imagine parts of Pyongyang to be like, plenty of space for the parades and communist armies to parade along. The mausoleum houses Ho’s dead body, despite his wish to be cremated he still lies deep in the building in a glass sarcophagi. His frail body has to travel to Russia once a year to be re-embalmed. On the few occasions when the public is allowed to view the dead body, the queues can snake hundreds of meters through the ground and waiting time may be hours. Especially the older generation revere him and he is affectionately called “Uncle Ho”.
One Pillar Pagoda
Walking to the left of Ho’s mausoleum we bumped into the guards, with their impeccable, white uniforms, striding along for the daily “Change of the Guards”, that apparently could rival the London’s equivalent in pomp. We watched them stride past and then found ourselves at the One Pillar Pagoda. The wooden temple is as the name hints set on one single stone post, inside a murky little pond. The stairs leading up to the temple were crowded with visitors. I preferred to admire the peculiar structure from down below anyway, the colourful Buddhist flags everywhere just added to its charm. Jerome was more interested in the souvenir shops than the actual sight. He had been after a non la (cone hat) since our arrival in Hanoi. After some bargaining we got a simple one for about 3USD, not sure if that was a good deal or not. Anyway it made Jerome happy and he immediately put the hat on, proud of his purchase. We also got an ice cream and sat down in the gardens of the pagoda, when we saw some long tailed critters running past we quickly jumped up and left, savouring the cool treat while walking.
The Presidential Palace
To enter the Presidential Palace grounds we had to find our way back to the front of the mausoleum and shortly after to a little entrance gate where we purchased tickets (in our opinion far too overpriced) and were searched for weapons and explosives before finally walking into the grounds. The Presidential Palace was straight ahead and could not be missed with its yellow coat of paint. The beaux-arts style building is entirely off limits for visitors and can only be admired from afar. Turning left we saw gatherings of people in front of some houses, first there was the collection of cars the president had used, next door the politburo’s meeting room, with tables and chairs and House 54 where president Ho Chi Minh lived. The rooms looked rather bare and we could not imagine living in any of them, they looked rather devoid of any homely comforts.
The Botanical Gardens
Chris and Jerome were keen to leave the history behind and get to the botanical gardens, which are located right behind the Presidential Palace. We reached them by strolling past a large pond with kois and fountains. The gardens, as with the rest of the grounds and buildings were rather a disappointment to us and we failed to see the attraction to all the Vietnamese people. There was a concrete pagoda and a flower trellis where Uncle Ho used to receive his guests. From here the garden was cordoned off and guards controlled that no one was trying to get past, but they seemed to ignore two girls walking up the back stairs of the Presidential Palace to take photos. When I stood close to them to take a photo as well they just smiled and turned their heads away.
Uncle Ho’s Stilt House
The same applied for the stilt house, it was underwhelming, I had imagined a beautiful structure like we had seen in Japan, overlooking beautiful gardens and rooms albeit in minimalist style. Instead we found a humble, traditional stilt house with concrete floor and only the absolute essential furniture inside. There were telephones and a helmet that Ho Chi Minh had used and the bed he once slept in. He truly was a person who needed little in his life, I guess other presidents and leaders should take him as a good example.
The exit was lined with souvenir shops and a café, very much like at any other attraction all over the world. The souvenirs though were mostly related to Ho Chi Minh, there were plates, cups and holograms and some other tat to keep the kids happy too.
Train Tracks through the Middle of Hanoi
By then we had enough of sightseeing, our feet started to ache and our legs were tired. Realising that we could catch the train running through town at 15:20 we walked towards the narrow part of the tracks that we had discovered earlier that day. The boys went to find some cool drinks, while I strolled along the tracks to find the best spot to stand for the trains passing. People still sat on the tracks with their plastic chairs, enjoying a cha among neighbours and friends. The doors to some of the houses were open and I got glimpses of their modest life. Kids were watching TV, an old lady was hanging her washing outside and one woman was mopping the floor. There were other tourists, some with guides and all had their cameras and phones ready for action.
The Train for Sapa
Suddenly I could hear a whistle and saw the lights of the train appear in the distance. The thick diesel fumes gathered on top, between the narrow gorge of the houses. It approached much faster than expected and we all squeezed ourselves onto the house walls. I could feel the wind blowing through my hair and taking photos of the train close up, was much harder than I had anticipated. There was no chance any of us could see into the carriages, the windows were to high and no one was looking out, as they were all closed shut. Then, as soon as it had appeared it was gone, into the distance, bound for Sapa. The boys were still gone and I was at that moment sad they had probably missed the spectacle. Further on I could see the barriers at the level crossing rise and suddenly the space filled with hundreds of mopeds and motorbikes heading in all directions. Walking back towards our agreed meeting point I waited for quite a while, thinking they might have been lost.
Relaxing Tea at Cafe Xofa
Eventually they turned up and told me that they watched the train pass at the next crossing but failed to find some cool drinks for us. However, they had seen a lovely little café, called Xofa, in a side street and that’s where we went to have a chance to relax, rest our feet and drink some cold ice tea.
Back at Hotel Lapis
Too lazy to walk back we hailed down a taxi – always make sure the driver resets the meter – and soon we returned to Hotel Lapis. There we spent the evening by the rooftop pool, until the daily rain showers started. Dinner was a quick affair at the restaurant, Nha Hang Ngon, opposite with an outdoor courtyard.
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