A long queue has formed to gain entry into the Presidential Palace area, a broad square that is dominated by an imposing granite column where Ho Chi Minh lies embalmed. The fervour displayed by those gathered reminds us of Tirupati or Palani in miniature. ‘Uncle Ho’ is on public display in a glass sarcophagus at this mausoleum. The Communist leader is regarded a God here.
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam and the oldest capital in South East Asia, founded in 1010 CE, is a blend of enchanting Europe and chaotic Asia. Tree-lined, French-style boulevards, lakes and congested streets swarming with the popular mobike taxis or xe om, as they are called locally, characterise Hanoi that was under the sway of the Russians, French, Chinese and Americans at various periods in history.
Ho Hoan Kiem, the ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’, is the social and cultural hub. Legend has it that Le Loi, a 15th century hero and emperor, received a sword from a magic turtle at the lake’s edge which he later used to drive away the Chinese from Vietnam. A little away from the lake edge, the Ngoc Son Temple stands majestic, accessed by a red wooden bridge. A few hundred metres away from the lake is Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a tourists’ paradise. We take a leisurely cyclo ride through the maze of narrow streets, named for the goods they vend. ‘Tube-houses’, with narrow fronts, flank the streets that sell everything from eats to inexpensive souvenirs. Apparently, the pavement is the happening place in Hanoi, it’s commonplace here to have it double up as kitchen and living room where cooking and entertaining happen routinely. People huddle together at street corners over steaming bowls of pho, the local noodle soup.
Come evening, we watch Vietnam’s trademark Water Puppet Show in the Old Quarter. The Thang Long Water Puppet show, performed on an under-water stage narrates the origins of the Vietnamese people by enacting the marriage between Lac Long Quan, the dragon King, and the fairy, Au Co.
Our last stop is Hanoi’s infamous Hoa Lo Prison, only a fraction of which is now preserved as a museum. Nothing prepares one for the French-built hell-hole, Hoa Lo, literally meaning ‘stove’, and sardonically named the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by the American POWs. We are overwhelmed by a sense of disgust and revulsion as we see the dank cells where Vietnamese revolutionaries were held captive and subsequently guillotined, various grisly exhibits showing acts of gore.
The scars of wars are well masked as Hanoi forges ahead with its economic reconstruction. The city’s openness to the world is evident in the harmonious coexistence here of people from diverse cultures.
(The writer is a travel enthusiast)...