In a city of contrasts, a tourist visiting Hanoi can in the space of a few hours experience the sacred and the crassly commercial, the high anxiety of negotiating anarchic traffic and the splendid tranquility of a walk around an inner-city lake.
On this second visit to the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having already taken in the mandatory sights of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, the Imperial Citadel and historic sites such as the Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war, I got dropped off at the tiny, perfect Den Ngoc Son temple across a picturesque bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Amid the bustling preparations for the lunar new year, Tet, to come, visitors and worshippers flock to this legendary location. In the 15th century, Lê Lói, who became emperor and founder of the Lê dynasty, was on this lake when he received the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, from the Golden Turtle god, Kim Qui. Thus did Vietnam gain independence from China. Later Lê Lói returned the sword to the turtle god, giving Hoan Kiem its name, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”
Next stop is the Temple of Literature, not exactly what an English major might expect, but a complex of courtyards, monuments and temples dedicated to Confucian teachings and scholars. Explanatory panels in the central courtyard present archival documents and photographs of the French occupation of the city, which started in 1873. Within 12 years, the Concession was complete and the ancient capital, first established by the invading Chinese army in the seventh century as the Red River fort, was a mirror image of a 19th-century French capital. Vietnam, forever conquered and then repelling invaders including the Chinese, the French and the Americans, or ruled over by authoritarian royal families, presents a perfect case study in the nature of power.
The Women’s Museum, on a main street in the Hoan Kiem district, earns its reputation as the best museum in the city. Outstandingly curated displays on four floors, take us through centuries of female influence from marriage and family, to women’s participation in war and revolution, to the development of women’s fashions. Most inspiring is the history of Vietnamese women’s involvement in combat from 1945 to 1975. A typical heroine is Kan Lich, who directed a female guerilla force against American troops at 18 and was honoured in 1968 as a Hero of the Nation for participating in 49 battles and bringing down an American Dakota plane.
Beyond the centre of Hanoi and well worth the short taxi ride is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where detailed reconstructions of minority habitats and customs give the visitor a very clear picture of the Vietnamese population. Fifty-three ethnic minorities, divided into five main groups, make up the contemporary population of Vietnam. The majority, Viet or Kinh peoples, account for 87 percent of the 95.5 million population (as of 2017). The arts and crafts and traditional lifestyles of minorities such as the Red Dao or the Black Hmong are all on display here, but are best appreciated with a visit to their homelands, mostly in mountainous regions of the country.
Strolling through the old quarter of Hanoi in January you’ll quickly get a taste of what a huge occasion Tet is. The coming Year of the Pig, will be very lucky for those born in such a year, and as you wind your way through busy, narrow streets some of them specializing in the sale of silver, silk, stationery or flowers, you can feel part of the celebrations. And after a day of dodging scooters and cars on the streets of Hanoi, no better place for a final stop than at Body and Soul spa, where I experienced the best massage ever.
From top: Den Ngoc Son temple; Temple of Literature; Yao family relic, Museum of Ethnology; Kan Lich, Women’s Museum