Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hanoi, Vietnam Part 3

We figured the best way to cover as many attractions as possible with 2 kids in tow is to hire a private tour. We arranged one with the hotel we are staying at (just to make sure that everything is in order and accounted for) and paid US$200 for the whole family. It includes all entrance fees, a private driver, an English tour guide and lunch.

We were picked up at 830am and brought to our first location - Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the embalmed body of the country's respected leader, Ho Chi Minh is kept. When we got there, there was already a long queue outside the Mausoleum, largely made up of school children. According to the guide, this is the first place where all tourists should come because it holds the reason behind the making of Hanoi. However, we were also aware that one must keep very quiet once inside the building. No photographs, no noise. Visitors must also be properly attired - no shorts, slippers, singlets etc. We were wearing bermudas and sandals and with two young children, it became very clear that it would be less stressful to just admire the building from outside.

Visitors lining up to enter the mausoleum.

The tour guide gave us a good history of Vietnam and it's political growth. We asked a lot of questions and we were very pleasantly surprised by our guide's honest answers. We were given insights into the country's social, economic and political scenes and more importantly understood the country at a whole new level, away from what we read and know from newspapers. Strangely, with this understanding, I became more at ease with Vietnam and am more able to embrace it like never before.

We walked through the humble residential areas of Ho Chi Minh, and discovered his love for people, who referred to him by the affectionate title of 'Uncle Ho'. He rejected big and fancy houses left behind by the French, and opted for a small humble wooden house. A fish tank was kept in his house so that he could entertain children when the locals visit. We walked through the neatly kept gardens -  a space frequented by the locals till today.

Visitors lining up to visit the humble residence of Ho Chi Minh from 1958 to 1969. It is dubbed "The House on Stilts".

Inside the humble abode.

The French Governer's electrician's house, in which Ho Chi Minh stayed when he took over as Presdient. He found the French Governor's mansion too extravagant and opted to stay here while his "House on Stilts" was being built.

A refurbished garage showcasing the cars used for official duties.

Next, we went to the Vietnam Military History Museum. A short drive from the Mausoleum, we were greeted by a restored Soviet MIG21 fighter jet and a T54 main battle tank. The entrance ticketing booth provides storage lockers for bags and other belongings, and we strolled to snap our first souvenirs with the military memorabilia.

The entrance room gives an overview of Vietnam's miliary history from the founding of the country, through the tenth century, all the way to the French invasion of 1858. When we think of the Vietnamese miliary might, we often envision the jungle warfare of the Vietnam War against the Americans. It was interesting to find out from the exhibits that the country's involvement in armed conflict went much further back in time to the era of spears, swords, and cannon balls.

Further on, the exhibition takes us through the French Imperialism, followed by the Vietnam War era (1949-1975). There was an impressive display of military hardware, most of the items accompanied by interesting write ups, stories, and descriptions. There were re-creations of the famous 'boobie traps' used during the campaign, and displays of other infantry weapons, uniforms, helmets, and equipment of captured French and American soldiers and airmen.

Exhibits depicting improvised explosives and 'booby traps'.
Photographs and displays honoring the heroism of the soldiers who launched suicide anti-tank attacks using 'Lunge Anti-Tank mines'.

In the S4 House, there was a large sand model linked to a video screening, with coordinated lighting depicting the various battles of the Ho Chi Minh campaign as they appeared in the film. We did not have much time to enjoy the indoor exhibits for too long as the Museum's indoor sections were closing for lunch.

Visitors enjoying the film screening and sand model depicting the Ho Chi Minh campaign at the S4 House.
However, there was much more awaiting us in the outdoor section. The courtyards were a massive display of military vehicles and aircraft used by the Vietnam's People's Army, as well as those captured from their adversaries. There were amoured vehicles, helicopters, jets, missiles, artillery pieces, mines and much more. Among them, the wreckage of an American B52 bomber shot down over Hanoi in 1972, and a downed Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter which we had the opportunity to climb into.

Surface to air anti-aircraft missile used to defend Hanoi against the B-52 bombing raids.

A sculpture made from the wreckages of downed aircraft.

CH-47 Chinook Helicopter

Sitting in the pilot's seat.

A-37 Dragonfly Light Attack Aircraft.
From the narrations, displays, and coversations with the tour guide, I was impressed by the resilience of the Vietnamese throughout their war history. It was evident that the strength of the Vietnamese defence mechanism lay not in equipment or technology, but in the the unity of its people.

It was lunch time, and we requested for the tour guide to take us to a place with a wide variety of local food... and what a variety there was at Quan An Ngon!

The eatery is fashioned like a Singaporean food court or Marche restaurant, with numerous stand alone stalls selling all sorts of Vietnamese fare. You can visit the booths to buy dishes or make your selection from a menu.

The guide told us it's 'all you can eat' affair with the bill included in the cost of the tour, and we delightfuly obliged by choosing a variety of noodle soups, fresh spring rolls, and barbequed meats. Everything seemed to be served with sides of fresh leafy greens and sweet sauces. For the spring rolls, we selected mainly the healthier 'fresh' versions. While I cannot recall the exact names of the dishes, the following are mouth-watering photographs of some of the dishes we chose (apologies for making this post look like a food-blog, but if you're a foodie, proceed with caution!):

Grilled chicken and pork on skewers with barbecue sauce

Fried prawn cakes. These are small wafers with a whole shrimp (shell included) fried into a crispy crunchy cake. Goes well with the sweet sauce provided!

Pork spring rolls

Prawn spring rolls

Vietnamese pancake (Banh Xeo). These resemble a thin, fragile crispy crepe fried with shrimp and vegetables that you break into pieces and wrap in thin rice paper skins with mint leaves and dip into your sweet sauce. 

Rice noodle spring rolls with peanut sauce

Pork spring rolls in the process of being prepared for the palate!

Eel noodle soup.... eeeeeeeeewwwwwwllll...
While leaving the complex after a sumptuous meal feeling all satisfied, we saw a peddler selling fresh Jack Fruit and the thought of a bag of sweet munchies to accompany us during our ride was too much to resist.

Next we proceeded to Vietnam Museum of Ethnology where the essence of the different ethnic groups in Vietnam is housed. The main building showcases the cultural and social make up of each ethnic group. Videos showing how they perform daily tasks, including spiritual rituals, are also shown. The only obstacle, which is a big one, is that the videos are without English subtitles. We kept having to bombard our guide with questions. The other displays are accompanied by English, though not in much detail. Nonetheless, the museum had enough artifacts and pictures to occupy my elder daughter and I while the second one took her much needed afternoon nap on her daddy's tired shoulders. Just when we thought the one and a half hour walk around the museum was it, we were told that there was more.

Behind the main building is a real-life display of the different ethnic groups' houses. According to our guide, a lot of effort was spent to bring the ethnic houses and 'tombs' (where they house the deceased) from their original sites to the museum. Visitors are also allowed to enter these houses. One needs to be respectful when entering these houses and be careful not to make too much noise and ruckus. Shoes cloths (just wear it over your shoes) are also provided to prevent visitors from dirtying the houses. We entered one of the houses and were initially unsure as to whether the bamboo underneath our feet would support our weight. The minder in the house (I was told they have a minder/volunteer in each house) assured us that the house was very strong and urged us to continue. We did and after a while, both my older daughter and I got a hang of it even though the creaking sound of the bamboo did a great job instilling uncertainties every now and then. The minder explained that the loud sound often made going to the toilet a burden for those sound asleep in the house. I could so imagine.

What followed next on our tour itinerary was an hour ricksaw ride around the Old Quarters. It seemed a bit surreal sitting in a ricksaw admist the rush in the old quarters. The last time I sat in a ricksaw was when I was a little girl and my grandmother would bring me along for her marketing chores. The ricksaw uncle would always pick us up at her house and wait for my grandmother to finish her errands at the market before sending us back again, through the small quiet alleys. All these for SGD$1-2. However, Singapore was developing rapidly and soon, ricksaw uncle stopped working.

Now that I got to sit in a ricksaw again, I felt as if I was a young girl again. Only this time, I had a young girl with me. Tourists were fascinated with the ricksaws and started taking photos. Being hospitable, we posed along. The kids did a great job publicizing for the ricksaw drivers that more tourists came to snap the 'authentic' scene. As we moved along, the ricksaw drivers, in their limited English, tried to find out where we were from and did a very basic introduction of the areas or buildings we went pass. Simply put, they gave us the names of places and buildings but it was good enough as it helped in our orientation. We were dropped at our hotel after an hour and it left us a better impression of the Old Quarters and a determination to explore more of it the next day.

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