Saturday, 6 January 2018

Hanoi & Halong Bay

Viet-Cam tour – Final leg

Hanoi which was the capital of North Vietnam is now the capital of unified Vietnam.  We can see here a blend of tradition and modernism what with the tiny plastic chairs and stools scattered at the roadside stalls and tall narrow Vietnamese houses along with French colonial buildings and skyscrapers in the Old quarter.  Our first visit here was to the Temple of Literature, one of the temples of Confucius, and home of the nation’s first university.  The temple was built in 1070 and was reconstructed during the subsequent dynasties and major restorations have taken place as late as in 2000.  The temple is also featured on the 100,000 dong note. It was here, in the medieval era, that the philosophy of Confucianism and literature was taught, and we can see the names of all scholars who studied here and got doctorate, etched into a series of stone tablets.  After years of study, students were allowed to take the first-degree examinations held once every three years. Those who qualified in this exam were named bachelors. A year later, they would travel to the capital to take part in a further set of examinations. Those who qualified here were awarded a doctorate.  As a Ph.D., a scholar was then eligible to join the ranks of the mandarins. We have in the temple tablets of Doctors from 1442 palace exam. The temple
was built to replicate Confucius’ birthplace, with five courtyards and various temples and other buildings throughout the expansive grounds.  Inside the temple, a series of manicured gardens lead to pavilions and a well-preserved pagoda where there is a shrine for Confucius. The various pavilions and halls with statues, of the present building were places of study sessions and the exam. halls of the then University.

From the Temple of Literature we went to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a tall pillared marble building modelled after Lenin’s crypt in Moscow.  Here the embalmed body is on display in plexiglass casing, and a dress code of long sleeves and pants is required to visit.  The mausoleum was closed for a couple months, a regular feature every year when the body goes to Russia for maintenance and opened only day before, our guide said. In the
mausoleum complex is also the house on stilts, the humble dwelling of Ho Chi Minh on the pattern of traditional rural dwelling.  It’s set in a well-tended garden next to a carp-filled pond.  Near that there is a modest house used by him as President. The palatial Presidential Palace, used by the French Governor, was only used for official receptions. In the complex there is also a Buddhist temple, One Pillar Pagoda.  This temple was built in eleventh century by the emperor in gratitude for finally being blessed with a son. The temple was meant to look like a lotus flower blossoming from a single pillar in the pond, similar to the one seen in the prophetic dream of the emperor.  Inside, there is a small shrine to the Bodhisattva of Mercy.

We next visited Hoa Lo Prison Museum.  This prison was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese political prisoners and later used for American POWs who sarcastically called it the Hanoi Hilton.  Major part of the prison was later torn down to make way for the residential building and the rest was turned into a museum.  The museum grounds contain the communal jail cells, solitary cells, and  the guillotine used by the French and there is also a lot of information on Vietnam's long battle against France's colonial rule.

After lunch we went on a cycle-rickshaw ride touring the old quarter of Hanoi for an hour.  The narrow alleys, plenty of street food on offer and number of pavement vendors selling fruits and vegetables was reminiscent of Indian street scene but with the difference that the streets were litter free and clean without potholes and overhanging wires. After the cycle-rickshaw ride, we went to Ngoc Son Temple, also called as the Temple of the Jade Mountain,  which is built on a small island, called Jade Island, in Hoan Kiem Lake.  The lake marks the historical centre of ancient Hanoi and is a focal point for its public life. The lake is also one of the scenic spots in the city and so it is said that if the Temple of Literature is the leading cultural and historical site in Hanoi, Ngoc Son Temple is the most scenic temple of the city.  The temple is dedicated to military leader Tran Hung Dao who defeated an armed force of 300,000 soldiers sent by Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century to invade Vietnam. Besides his shrine, there are also shrines for scholar Van Xuong and Confucian master Nguyen Van Sieu.   The temple has also some ancient artefacts including ceramics and a preserved specimen of a giant turtle found in the lake weighing 250kg.  The
turtle is one of the nation’s four holy creatures, the other three being the dragon, the unicorn and Phoenix and the turtle is a symbol of longevity and wisdom.   From the temple we went to the Water Puppet Theatre.  Skilfully carved wooden puppets are manipulated upon a stage of water to tell amusing anecdotes about life in rural Vietnam. All performances are accompanied by live traditional music with traditional Vietnamese instruments and vocalists.  In the night we had dinner at an Indian restaurant, Little India Restaurant, where we met a few Indians staying in Hanoi.

Next day we vacated our room in the Hotel and left with hand luggage to join an overnight cruise in Halong Bay.  Rest of the luggage we left in the custody of the hotel for collection next day.  Ha Long Bay (also"Halong Bay") is in northern Vietnam, 170 km east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic ocean topography and is included in lists of natural wonders of the world.  Halong Bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin and is located in Ha Long city.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and large parts of Ha Long Bay are officially protected from development. In Ha long Bay, there are around 1969 limestone monolithic islands rising spectacularly from the sea. Most of the islands were formed over 500 million years ago and each island has a massive amount of trees. There are several large
caves located within the island. In the two bigger islands there are people living permanently and on these islands, there are beaches and hotels serving the tourists. Some small islands are the habitat of several animal species, such as chickens, antelopes, wild monkeys and species of lizards. 

Oasis Bay was our cruise boat.  It had 3 decks, 18 fully equipped en-suite luxury cabins with balcony, a bar, a restaurant besides dining area and sundeck. After the welcome drinks we were shown to our cabin.  Lunch was served as the boat was cruising the bay, skirting round various islands.  There were other boats, big and small, besides ours doing the rounds.  As we surveyed the assembled guests we noted that there was an Indian couple with their teen-age daughter and had our seats changed to their adjacent ones and enjoyed their company in dinner that night and at brunch next morning.  They are from Bengal and now stationed in Jakarta, Indonesia where Surya Kant Chakraborthy, the head of the family, was working.  In the afternoon the boat anchored at Frog Pond area where a few went kayaking and some took to swimming while we did the watching from the upper deck soaking in the soothing scenery.  Evening there was a cooking demonstration where Rajam joined the chef to learn a popular dish of Vietnam, spring roll. After dinner we retired to bed.  In the night the ship was only rocking back and forth in a fixed spot and we could see the lights of the distant boats which were also rooted to their spots, engaged in a similar exercise. In the morning there was a Tai-Chi session which was attended by Rajam only.  There was also a visit to Sung Sot Cave in Bo Hon Island, the biggest cave in the Bay.  As it involved climbing 600 steps, a part of them quite steep, we didn’t go for it. Brunch was served at 10 a.m. as the boat was cruising back to harbour and we landed in Ha Long harbour at about noon.

We went back to the Hotel in Hanoi, where we checked in again, collecting our luggage, as our flight back to Sydney was only at 11:50 p.m.  Hanoi E Central Hotel was the hotel of stay in Hanoi.  We had a few problems with the hotel.  The room allotted on arrival on 9th Dec, was a small one, so small that we struggled to keep our luggage.  But for the few hours stay after return from Hanoi they allotted a spacious room with a good view which made us feel bad.  Further the lift operated from the first floor and we had to climb the staircase for going up to room or going down to street.  But one redeeming feature is they tried to help us and apologized for allotting the small room in the first instance and gave a take-away for the night.  The tour on the whole was pleasant and we left for Sydney with happy memories. And to cap it, the flight was only half-full and we could shift to empty seats in the back to sleep well and arrive in Sydney without any jet-lag.
Photos taken in this leg of the tour can be seen in Flickr album “Hanoi” @  Photos taken in entire tour can be seen in Flickr album “Vietnam Cambodia tour” @

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