Fast Facts: Hanoi
Official capital of the socialist republic of Vietnam (NOT Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City)
Government: Socialist Republic (i.e. communist)Location: North VietnamPopulation: nearing 4 millionCurrency: Vietnamese dong ($1 = 17,500, a steep decline from the almost steady 16,000 rate)Mood: from cool to frenetic, a more relaxed city compared to the more popular and chaotic Saigon in the south (Hanoi is a 2-hour plane ride from Saigon. Mas malayo pa sa Manila-Davao.)
Mornings in Hanoi are mild and soothing. The weather has vastly improved compared to my March departure when I was frozen stiff at 6 degrees. Even London was never that cold, not in the way that it suddenly sprung on us from a high of 21 deg C to a low of 6 deg overnight – on a crazy March weather. The seasons of the world has gone awry and unpredictable. My first official day in Hanoi was laidback and comfortable.
A TEMPLE WITHOUT A NAME
After picking up my passport from Teyet, who was radiant and welcoming, I stepped out of Tung Trang. There is an unnamed temple just across Tung Trang; something that not a lot of tourists staying in this area take notice. Just across my hotel, this temple is nestled unassumingly beside a huge tree, its dry leaves dramatically blanketing the roof of the temple. In the past, I have been tempted several times to set foot inside, but civility stopped me. It felt like intruding to the privacy of the local folk. Pati ba naman itong obviously not a tourist haven, din na pinatawad? But I am curious. I shall regret it if, on my 3rd visit in Hanoi, I am still unable to visit this hidden temple.
“MY OWN GOD WILL BE THERE WHEREVER I PRAY.”
I gathered enough resolve and wandered inside. This is Vietnam unabridged and unedited! The rooms were smoky as incense was constantly being offered by the few local visitors who were there. There were several “altars” scattered inside the compound. Offerings consisted of fake money, lotus flowers and roses, some fruits, and pastries too. I nodded to the old man sitting inside. One hello and a smile. I asked if it was alright to take some photos and when he smiled and even muttered, “You welcoom”, I clicked away. I whispered a silent prayer before stepping out. My own God will be there wherever I pray. And I felt a sense of peace.
From there, I ventured the opposite direction leading to where the fruit vendors stand. Yup, they have atis (sugar apple -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar_apple). I picked two ripe ones and paid 30,000 dong ($1.70). Just 3 months earlier since I left Vietnam, the dong has depreciated from the long-standing standard exchange rate of 16,000 dong to 17,500 dong to a dollar. I can spend even more with my US dollar. Mura na nga, mas madami pa ngayon ang mabibili ko sa aking pera. (My dollar has more purchasing power.) I decided to head to my favorite place in Hanoi, the enthralling Hoan Kiem Lake. I have mastered and relished the walk from my hotel to the lake which usually takes me 15-20 minutes. My atis (sugar apple) on hand, I traversed the main street of Hang Gai (I always forget the name of this street.)
I decided to pass by the Visitors Information Center to change some dollar to local money. Since I have several leftovers from my last visit, I just had $50 changed. Most of which won’t be spent here, but I’ll be able to use it in Saigon, my last leg. I want ready money when I get to Saigon. Surprisingly, a Gloria Jeans already occupied half of the Tourist Center. I found it an amusing thought how a socialist country has thoroughly embraced the ways of the capitalists. Talk about the need for re-education (a concept they seem to adhere whenever their minions stray away from their ideals). LOL. Their rate at this Tourist Center is a little high. Tourists needing legal tender are better off changing elsewhere. $1 = 16,250 dong. Elsewhere, it is $17,500. I am in a hurry so it almost didn’t matter. My mind was shooting ideas like lightining bolts. I have places to go!
I crossed the street to get to Hoan Kiem Lake. My lake! Ahh! LOL. Sat at a bench facing the mist-shrouded lake. I started chipping off my atis and allowed time to drift by. This is my “smelling the flower” moment. In 30 minutes, breakfast was consumed. I planned on getting a proper meal after some window shopping. I hiked to the other side of the lake, crossed the street and got inside the mall. I never learned its name coz the marquee in front has a tongue twisting Vietnamese name. From the side of the building, it says “Vinaconnex” so it must be the name of the mall. “Vina” is a popular prefix for naming consumer products in Vietnam: Vinasun taxi (a safe and generally reliable taxi in Saigon and Hanoi), Vina phones, Vina dairy products. The mall (sans cinemaplex) has about 5 floors carrying a variety of products. It is similar to the former Manuela – Starmall! I couldn’t find a darn Northface bag, a product that my dear brother wanted me to purchase, since Northface is proudly a Vietnamese product. Not bad. I am sure I will find one in Saigon.
From Vinaconnex, I started my “go-where-my-feet-takes-me” mode. I walked and walked and walked. Until I found a little park with the bust of a Jose Marti Perez aka Anh Hung Dan Toc Cuba. I have no friggin’ idea who he is, but he must have done something spectacular to merit a little space in the bowels of Hanoi.
Here’s what I learned so far! HE IS FAMOUS! Our dear friend Jose has bigger statues at the Central Park in New York and several more in Havana, Cuba. An airport is even named after him there. José Julián Martí Pérez (January 28, 1853–May 19,1895) was a leader of the Cuban independence movement from Spain and as well a renowned poet and writer. He is considered the national hero of Cuba and often referred to as the "Apostle of Cuban Independence". In many literary circles he is considered the Father of Modernismo. I realized the connection. Cuba and Vietnam are one of the few remaining communist nations in the world (along with Laos and China). Sabi nga ni Paris Hilton, “That’s hot!”
COULD BE VEGETARIAN
As expected, I seem to have lost myself walking sans direction until I noticed the familiar structure in front. Paris Hilton’s family-owned Hanoi Hilton and the beautiful Hanoi Opera! The last couple of times I was here, I came by taxi straight off from the lake. That’s when I realized I had been walking a considerable distance already. Yes! My feet were starting to complain, but hey, I’m the boss – not my feet. LOL. Just across the Hilton, I chose a well-placed Roma Café. I had “com than lonxao chua ngot” (ang baho pakinggan) otherwise known as “tender pork with sweet and sour sauce”. Despite its bland presentation, it was muy delicioso. Oh my gosh! There was a smattering of vegetables spread across the pork cutlets with rice – and a coke (45,000 dong - $2.50). Ewan ko ba, dito sa Hanoi, napapakain ako ng vegetables. They sure know what to do with their greens. If I lived in Vietnam, I’d be a willing and healthy vegetarian.
My waiter was a gracious one. He was almost always beside me during the whole meal. Though I appreciate the whole effort, it tends to be a tad embarrassing. You are suddenly aware of how huge you engulf your spoon-sized bite. LOL
After my meal, I decided where to go. Enough of unplanned walks. I was tired. I spread my map over the cleared table. Snap. I have been in central Hanoi; western Hanoi through Thu Le Lake; North Hanoi though the dreamy Hotay (West Lake). East of the city is just the Red River which I’ve seen several times on my way to out of town jaunts. Yet I have never roamed the southern area. My finger was pointing to the body of water – May Mau Lake and its surrounding Thong Nhat Park! There is also a smaller annex of a lake called Thien Quang Lake! I have my next destination. Feeling smug, I finished my coke and just observed the spur of activity infront of the Hanoi Hilton.
Somehow, this city doesn’t seem to wallow in dire poverty. Facades, lobbies, entrances, exteriors. Feels like home.
· Hotel - $20 reduced to $10/room/day or 175,000 dong or PhP450
· Airport pick-up - $12 or 210,000 dong or PhP540
· Sugar apple/Atis (2 pieces) – $1.70 or 30,000 dong or PhP76.50
· Brunch (Tender Pork with Sweet and Sour Sauce and rice - $2.50 or 45,000 dong or PhP112.50
· Coke in can - $0.57 or 10,000 dong or PhP25.65
· Bottled water - $0.34 or 6,000 dong or PhP15.30
· Dollar changed to dong - $50 or 812,500 dong or PhP2,250
Hanoi Map. The enclosure represents the Old Quarters area where majority of backpackers and tourists congregate. Just south of the Old Quarters is the dreamy Hoan Kiem Lake - considered the heart of the city. Further south, is the May Mau Lake.
Temple without a name (above and below).
The Old Quarter's main street - Han Gai. Hoan Kiem Lake is a 15-minute walk from here.
Jose Mari Perez - Cuba's national hero.
A photo of Jose Mari Perez (left); Perez's statue at New York's Central Park (center); Perez's monument at La Quijote Park in Havana, Cuba. (right) - Kamukha ba sa ulo nya?
Entrance to the Hanoi Opera.
This is the Eye in the Sky!