When you’re travelling in Saigon or Hanoi, you’d be constantly reminded, by well-meaning hotel staff, to take care of your backpacks and avoid flashing mobile phones or fancy digital cameras. It can make you more cautious than necessary. Honestly, I think the rules of travel are applicable anywhere in the world. As a traveller, you always need to be aware of your belongings, period. We travelled just as we’d travel anywhere else and we did well. For most of the trip — we walked around and covered airport transfers by prepaid cabs. Running cabs can be a tricky affair and it’s best to check the base fare and if the meter is working correctly. The ride from the Old Quarter to Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum is about 15 minutes and we were charged twice the base rate. On the way back, our cabbie showed us a chart with the standard fare. I’d say, trust your instinct and don’t let caution ruin the experience of exploring the city on your own.
1. Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum
In the month of July, on a extremely humid day, the walk from the main entrance to Ba Dinh Square can feel like eternity. The sprawling grounds are dotted with a number of iconic buildings. Signboards aren’t always easy to locate. Fortunately, the crowds are and following them will lead you to something. It’s hard to miss the towering building of Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum. The design is minimalistic, sombre (because of its grey bricks) and yet, seems to be larger than life by sheer size. I can totally understand why he’d be against the idea of a shrine of this sort. It seems to be in direct contradiction to the ideals he stood for. The Mausoleum was closed on the day of our visit and we had to make do with the view from the outside.
2. Changing of the Guard
The grey skies cast a shadow of gloom below and the heat eventually got to me. I walked further to explore, while Basil stayed behind — waiting for the tour groups to disperse. And that’s how we got lucky. The changing of the guard is very impressive and definitely not to be missed. It takes effort to be covered from neck to toe — in the sveltering heat –and avoid any attempt to wipe that bead of sweat of your forehead. The guards had won my admiration. They were perfectly poised and marched impeccably. In the background, the gardeners did their job with equal precision and didn’t care if they photobombed my video.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Basil couldn’t get enough of the guards and aimed his lens towards the security guards — on the other side. The grounds cleaning crew couldn’t escape his lens either.
3. Presidential Palace
Keep following the crowds and you’ll reach the gates of the Presidential Palace. It’s best to read the rules before you enter inside. Like most places of religious or historical importance, there’s a strict dress code. It makes sense to carry alternative clothing to enter these places.
The Presidential Palace isn’t open for tourists and you’d have to squint your eye to get a closer look at the building. Built in early 1900s, in characteristic French architectural style, this bright yellow building served as the residence of the Governor General of IndoChina.
Fortunately, there’s more to explore within the Palace Complex. Most of the paths are lined with signboards and it isn’t very difficult to find the route inside. Peering into the glass windows takes you back in time. From vintage cars to carefully (a bit eerie) laid tables — a lot of effort has been paid to preserve the memories of the past.
A slight detour will take you to the botanical gardens. Few tourists venture here — making it all the more alluring. A walk through these isolated paths is soothing and can temporarily take your mind off the heat.
Post independence, President Ho Chi Mihn opted to live in a traditional Vietnamese stilt house. Tourists are allowed to walk through the outer perimeter of the wooden walkway and get a glimpse into the private life of the most influential man in Vietnamese history. The pond, in front of the house, is armed with fountains and schools of carp.
4. One Pillar Pagoda
The One Pillar Pagoda is a stone’s throw away from the Presidential Palace. As you can guess, the pagoda is supported on a single pillar — emerging from the pond below. It was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong to venerate Quan Am after the birth of a son. The pagoda is believed to symbolise a lotus flower and over the years has undergone a series of modifications.
5. Ho Chi Mihn Museum
The Ho Chi Mihn Museum lies with the Mausoleum Complex. It’s a short walk away from the One Pillar Pagoda. We hadn’t visited any museum in Hanoi and it was our last day in the city — it made sense to venture inside.
The museum is dedicated to the life of Ho Chi Mihn. Photographs, artefacts, and quotes follow his life from humble beginnings to his eventual rise as an iconic national leader. Sadly, the dim lighting doesn’t make reading very easy — especially after you’ve spent the early hours of the day in the heat.
The Ho Chi Mihn Sandal is an ingenious way of utilising old rubber tyres and we had to get two pairs in memory of our trip to Vietnam.
6. Streets of Hanoi
We wandered around and came across some interesting streets. I wish we had more time to soak in scenes from local life. It was approaching noon and we had time to visit one more tourist attraction before calling it a day.
7. Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature was built in honour of Confucius by Emperor Ly Thahn Tong. Surprisingly, the grounds within were empty and few tourists wandered around. The rules for dress code and conduct apply here as well. Make sure you read the huge board at the entrance. Inside, ponds were covered with lotus blooms and the lush gardens were covered in green.
Back in the day, the Temple of Literature attracted the brightest students across Vietnam and was the first university of the country. Red dominated the wooden panels and rooftops.
8. Unwind at a local Spa
I was a bit hesitant to try a traditional Vietnamese massage and I’m glad I changed my mind. Now, it won’t be very difficult finding a good spa in the Old Quarter. We were offered lotus tea and given a small questionnaire to fill. I opted for a back and shoulder massage to ease out my sore muscles and Basil opted for a foot massage. It was definitely worth it and something you must try in Vietnam.
9. The Nightlife of the Old Quarter
After a brief period of rest at the hotel and the relaxing massage — it was time to say goodbye to the Old Quarter. Over the weekend, the streets of the Old Quarter are closed for cars and open for tourists. Honestly, the noise was too much for me. It might be your thing — if you like a good party.
The night market is a great place to shop for souvenirs or just walk away from the noise.
Our week long trip to Vietnam had come to an end and with a heavy heart we had to board the night flight back to Seoul. Vietnam will be hard to forget and we hope we can make it back someday.