Vietnam Vacation: Hanoi Sightseeing

Last week I read an article that a secret war bunker in Vietnam had just opened to the public as part of the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi. This was particularly interesting because a year ago we were exploring that very bunker.

We had planned to visit the Vietnam Military History Museum on a Friday, knowing that most Hanoi museums are closed on Mondays. At the gate, we were dismayed to learn that the War Museum is closed on Mondays and Fridays. This was a major blow because it had been Phil and Joseph’s first choice, and we would have to leave for the airport before the museum would open the next morning.

View of closed Military History Museum from gate.
Cannon at Military History Museum as seen from restaurant next door.
Cannonballs seen from restaurant next door. Thank goodness for telephoto lenses.

After  a walk in Lenin Park and lunch, Hanna suggested visiting the nearby Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, a fascinating archeological site that has been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

Joseph, Philip and Vladimir Lenin.
Hanna, Laura and Joseph at the entrance to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.

We wandered through several courtyards and explored buildings in various stages of reconstruction, some with towers, tiny stairways and hidey-holes, and many beautiful architectural features. Hanna mentioned that some of the buildings had not yet opened the last time she visited.

Palace at Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.
View of courtyard from tower.
Hanna and Laura coming down from Tower of the Concubines.
Central tower at Imperial Citadel.
Staircase with dragons. The dragon heads have been supported to avoid crumbling.
Dragon gargoyle on tower roof.

In one of the buildings that Hanna had not yet seen, we discovered doorways to steep staircases. Seeing no signs to the contrary, we went down the stairs where we discovered the bunker. Hanna was very excited to find a new site for field trips, and pointed out that all of the information tags were translated into English, which is not the case in the War Museum.

War room in bunker.
Phones in bunker war room.
Detail on table fan.
Phil emerging from bunker.

After leaving the Citadel, we walked along the perimeter of the War Museum, looking at captured vehicles through the fence. Although we were sorry to miss the War Museum, the Citadel was an outstanding alternative and a great way to end our sightseeing. We’re glad to see that the bunker is officially open to the public and highly recommend it.

Captured aircraft at War Museum.
Phil and Joey peeking in at land vehicles.

Earlier in the week we visited several other attractions in Hanoi. On Christmas Day we walked partway around West Lake, renowned as the largest lake in Hanoi and the location where John McCain’s plane was shot down.


We stopped at Tran Quoc Pagoda, the most ancient Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi. An eleven-tiered tower is the most striking feature of the pagoda.  A bodhi tree in the garden was grown from a cutting of the original tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Every tier of the tower features six arches, each containing a status of Buddha,

Hoan Kiem Lake is also known as Turtle Lake. According to legend, King Le Thai To was given a magic sword by the Golden Turtle God during a war against China in the 15th century. One day as the king boated on a Hanoi lake following victory, a large turtle grabbed the sword in its mouth and disappeared into the lake. The king interpreted that the turtle god had lent him the sword to drive back the enemy, but reclaimed it once the nation was free, and renamed the lake Ho Hoan Kiem or Lake of the Restored Sword. A giant turtle still lives in the lake. Hanna happened to be present when it was captured in April 2011 for veterinary treatment.

Turtle Tower on Ho Hoan Kiem.
Bridge over Turtle Lake.

The lake grounds feature a bridge and an island with the Turtle Tower. We had the good fortune to visit the lake both at night and during the day.

Vietnam is prominently featured on a globe at Ho Hoan Kiem, seen at night.
Western hemisphere of the globe at Hoan Kiem Lake, seen during the day.

Hanna’s friend Jenny also had family visiting for Christmas, and we met up at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We checked our cameras and backpacks before entering, but Phil forgot about his pocketknife and it was confiscated at a later checkpoint. Admission to the mausoleum, consisting of shuffling quietly past Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body, was free. Another 5000 dong (about a quarter) secured admission to the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house and the One Pillar Pagoda.

The Presidential Palace.
Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the presidential palace, instead choosing to live in this simple two-room stilt house.
The One Pillar Pagoda, built in 1049 by King Ly Thanh Tong in the shape of a lotus.

Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French around 1900 to house, torture and execute Vietnamese political prisoners considered to be agitators for independence. During the Vietnam War, it was used to house American prisoners of war, who nicknamed it “The Hanoi Hilton,” sarcastically for its crowded and unsanitary conditions. Much of the prison was demolished in the 1990s, with the remainder converted into a museum. Most of the museum is dedicated to the French era, including a guillotine and a drainpipe through which more than a hundred prisoners escaped in 1945. John McCain’s flight suit is among the paraphernalia on display in the smaller American section.

Guillotine from French Colonial era.
Drainpipe used during 1945 escape from Hoa Lo Prison.
Christmas scene drawn by an American POW during the aforementioned 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi.

Following the mausoleum and prison, Hanna wanted us to see the Temple of Literature. Phil and Joseph had enough sightseeing for the day and opted to return to the villa. Hanna, Laura and I decided on a girl’s afternoon and evening out consisting of a little more shopping, the temple, and dinner on Chicken Street.

Hartman girls at the Temple of Literature.

The Temple of Literature was the first university in Vietnam, founded in honor of Chinese philosopher Confucius. and consists of five courtyards. Our favorite was the second courtyard, known as the “Constellation of Literature Pavilion,” home to a huge bronze bell to be rung on auspicious occasions.

Brass bell at the Second Courtyard.
Giant drum at Temple of Literature.
Confucius say, “Hanna and Laura very pretty.”

We learned a lot about Vietnam’s rich heritage during our stay, but our limited time kept us from seeing everything we would have liked. Besides the Vietnam Military History Museum, other sites on our wish list included:

  • Vietnam Ethnology Museum
  • Van Phuc Silk Village
  • Bat Trang Ceramic Village
  • more of the Old Quarter
  • inside of St. Joseph Cathedral

and that’s only in Hanoi. Maybe next time . . .

Vietnam Vacation: Happy Christmas!

Losing 13 hours in time zone changes on top of a 30-hour commute landed us in Hanoi mid-day Christmas Eve (never mind that it was midnight to our brains). The first sign of Christmas in Vietnam occurred as we arrived in Ciputra.


Considering that the majority of Ciputra residents are expatriates, this was not surprising. The villa was also decorated for Christmas.

Hanna helped to decorate the Winkleman’s tree, at which time they offered her the use of the villa for our stay.

Jet lag allowed us all to sleep well that night. We awoke at a reasonable hour to open presents and make gingerbread pancakes for breakfast.

Santa and his six-foot-tall elf.
Hanna models her coveted purple Snuggli.

It was lovely to spend Christmas morning with Sarah, who graciously took our annual family portrait.

Christmas Day 2011, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Joseph still looks really jet-lagged.

After breakfast we headed to services at Hanoi International Church, held in the Hanoi Club hotel.


Laura with a festively adorned lion guarding the entrance to Hanoi Club.

The Christmas service theme was “Gifts to the Lord.” Congregants signed up in advance to offer gifts ranging from music, both vocal and instrumental, to artwork and cookies. A family from India explained their home traditions.

Hanoi International Church is interdenominational and widely member led. JP was the clergy responsible for the homily and Eucharist that Sunday. As I dipped my bread into the common cup, I accidentally dropped it in. JP offered me a replacement and said that it happened all the time. I’m not so sure about that, but it was nice of him to try to make me feel less clumsy.

Hanoi International Church altar.

After the service there was a period for fellowship, and we helped JP to sort and count the offering. The offering basket contained Vietnamese dong, US dollars, Hong Kong dollars, Thai baht and euros. JP suggested that we change some of our large denomination bills for smaller ones – easier for him to deposit and for us to spend.

JP and his wife Aimee hosted a Christmas potluck at their home in the Swedish Camp. We sampled a variety of American, European and Vietnamese dishes and met many of Hanna’s friends. JP invited me to read When Jesus Was Born – my first international reading!

Because Vietnam is a Communist country, we were not expecting many Christmas trappings outside of church or Ciputra. There turned out to be more than we expected.

Lighted Christmas decorations on one of the trees surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake.
Life size nativity at St. Joseph Cathedral. There is still a significant French Catholic influence in Vietnam.
Sarah and Hanna’s office window at Hanoi University of Science and Technology.
Classroom with decorated blackboard.
Picture drawn by an American prisoner at Hoa Lo Prison during the Christmas Day bombings of 1972.
Poinsettias outside the Presidential Palace museum.

Chúc mừng giáng sinh! (Happy Christmas!)*

New Year, of course, is a worldwide celebration. Hanoi rang in 2012 with a flower festival at Hoan Kiem Lake.

“Hanoi Rendezvous of Streets and Flowers 2012”

We were there for the first of a four-day festival, witnessing final preparations for an 8:00pm opening celebration. The theme of the 2012 festival was “Floral Heritage,” with a nod to Vietnam’s UNESCO heritage sites, including the Temple of Literature and Ha Long Bay. The Dutch embassy provided more than 4,000 pots of lilies for the event.

Construction of a mural featuring the tower at the Temple of Literature.
The 2012 Tet holiday heralded the Year of the Dragon.
Joseph’s turn as photographer.

Chúc mừng năm mới! (Happy New Year!)*


*Assuming Google Translate is accurate.

Vietnam Vacation: Mai Chau Nightlife

Besides eating, shopping and riding bikes, what else is there to do in Mai Chau?

Well . . . one can read,

play cards with the bus driver,

engage the kids in peek-a-boo,

Celeste and Phil.

or perhaps contribute to the delinquency of a minor . . .

Disclaimer: In actuality, Bella neither imbibed nor gambled at Mai Chau. Mainly, she was just real cute.

But once darkness falls it’s hard to do much of anything, so JP arranged for a native dance troupe to perform for us. Some of the dances were about love, some about springtime and butterflies and sunshine, some about the harvest. The performers, a number of whom we recognized from the village shops, danced with scarves, fans and other props.

The finale was a dance with bamboo poles, similar to tinikling. The audience was invited to participate, and afterward, to partake from the jug of sweet rice wine featured in the harvest dance.

A group of French Jews who were staying in another part of our guest house asked to attend the dance performance with us. Later, they graciously allowed us to observe as they celebrated the final day of Hanukkah. (Apologies for the blurry shot; my camera battery was nearly dead.) Then they invited us to toast the holiday season with vodka.

The girls had met a group of college students in the village earlier in the day and had been invited to a bonfire. Hanna wished to remain at the guest house, but Sarah offered to accompany Laura. The bonfire was held in a field outside the village and was attended by about 20 students from another university. Most of the students ranged in age from 18-22 and studied engineering or English. All of them were eager to practice their English speaking skills with Sarah and Laura.

They played a game in which everyone joined hands and circled the bonfire. Periodically someone would abruptly change direction. If that caused a break in the circle, the two people who had dropped hands would have to sing a song. Even though Sarah and Laura never lost hold of hands, the students made them sing anyway because they were Americans. They chose “Jingle Bells.”

Some of the group told stories. A boy and girl sang a love song duet. One of the students baked a sweet potato in the bonfire for Sarah and Laura to enjoy. There was no profanity, no drinking and no fights. Laura enjoyed herself immensely, and would have liked to stay longer, but Sarah brought her back to the guest house after a couple of hours.

Laura and a student from the bonfire.

And finally, it was time for bed. Since the kids had gone to sleep earlier, this involved shuffling between the curtained areas to find our own sleeping space. JP had recommended sleeping in our clothes, since it was just a single overnight. We changed into fresh dry woolly socks to keep our feet warm. I kept my hat, gloves and jacket on as well and piled on a few extra quilts. It was, more or less, cabin camping in Vietnam.

Mai Chau was a great little getaway from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. It was also a fantastic bargain. Our share of the cost of the trip, including transportation, lodging, food and the dance entertainment, totaled 3,000,000 dong, the equivalent of $30 per person. Beverages, shopping and biking were the only extra expenses.

Hartmans at Mai Chau, December 2011.

Vietnam Vacation: Mai Chau

Although we could easily have spent an entire week in Hanoi, Hanna wanted us to experience more of Vietnam. We certainly had no objection. Early on it looked like we would be able to tag along on a staff retreat to the coastal city of Hoi An, but the retreat was rescheduled to a date after our departure. I was keen on seeing Ha Long Bay, one of the New7Wonders of Nature, however December weather is iffy on whether it will be a clear enough day. Hanna’s supervisor, JP, offered to organize an outing to one of his favorite getaways: Mai Chau, a native Thai district in the mountains about 135km (85 miles)  northwest of Hanoi.

JP, his wife Aimee and daughters Celeste and Bella, Ken and Gail, teachers at Concordia International School Hanoi, Hanna’s coworkers Sarah and Mary, and we five Hartmans piled into a fifteen-passenger minibus. About two hours later we pulled into the village of Ban Lac.

The Mai Chau district is known for its stilt houses built from bamboo and timber. Houses are elevated about 10-12 feet above the ground to both protect the houses from the elements and provide shelter for animals. Our guest house was a single large room, divided into separate sleeping areas by suspending quilts for walls. There were separate “rooms” for Phil and me, Ken and Gail, the Cima family, and the four single girls. Lucky Joseph, being the only single male, got a space all to himself. A pallet was made up for each person from a stack of quilts and a pillow (we brought our own pillow cases along). We were shown where extra quilts were kept in case we got cold during the night. Then a mosquito net was suspended over each sleeping area.

Mai Chau guest house
Sleeping area with pallet and mosquito netting.

Our group was large enough to have a sleeping area to ourselves. Smaller groups might be placed with other guests, especially during busier times of the year.

Bathrooms were downstairs, as well as a common eating and gathering area. Each building had two bathrooms, with a sink outside. There was no separate area for the shower inside the bathroom, simply a shower head on the wall and a drain on the floor.

Laura relaxing in the common area. Bathrooms can be seen in the background.

Lunch and dinner were served family style, with a wide variety of dishes (described in my earlier post, Vietnam Vacation: Food). Meals are included in the lodging rate, but beverages are priced a la carte. Each individual or family kept an honor system tally of beverages available from a refrigerator in the common area. We drank mostly bottled water, except for Joseph who indulged his soda addiction. Phil and I sampled a bottle of Vietnamese red wine with dinner. Let’s just say Vietnam is not renowned for its wine. We ended up giving most of the bottle to JP to use at the next communion service.

Mai Chau is also known for its homespun textiles. There were numerous stalls in the village, each displaying a variety of scarves, quilt tops and other products characteristic of the area. Nothing goes to waste – fabric scraps are used to fashion hacky-sack balls, caps and purses.

Mai Chau textiles.
We bought about 40 homespun Mai Chau scarves, enough for Phil to distribute his female employees and other colleagues. Some of the weavers cut scarves straight off their looms to meet our demand.
Laura buying a tiger stripe scarf. By now she had gotten fairly proficient at bartering.

The afternoon of the first day a group of us – JP and Bella, Sarah, Mary, Hanna, Laura and I – rented bicycles to explore the outlying areas, while Phil and Joseph decided to hike. The weather was comfortably mild and the roadways and paths were not too challenging considering we were in the mountains.

We saw several types of industry during our two hour ride,

Man working with water buffalo in a rice paddy.
I believe this is a rice mill.
Brick factory.
This is some sort of medicinal root cultivated for export to China.

passed a school with friendly children,

“Hallooo . . . “

crossed a rickety bridge,

JP and Bella, Laura, Sarah and Mary crossing the rickety bridge.
Don’t look down.

encountered a number of dogs,

Laura playing with some puppies.
Tired mamma dog with her puppies.
The dogs we encountered in Vietnam were not threatening, but were not friendly either.

rested on a bridge,

Bikes on bridge.
My girls.

and were invited to tea.

This home was located across the road from the brick factory. The owner invited us to join him for tea.
Our host. He told us stories about his son, who is serving in the military.

Next week I will continue with the memorable evening we spent at Mai Chau.

Vietnam Vacation: Shopping

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing here in the United States. Last year I was blissfully able to skip it, since we planned to bring all of our gifts home from Vietnam.

The exchange rate was hovering around 20,000 Vietnamese dong per US dollar during our visit, a nice round figure for calculating prices. One of Hanna’s friends, a German expat, wanted US dollars to go to graduate school in the States and offered us an excellent rate for his surplus dong, much better than we could have gotten at a bank or money changer. We were multi-millionaires!

Vietnamese currency. There are coins for the lower denominations, however they are rarely used.

Hanna took us to the Hanoi night market our first evening in Vietnam. It was Christmas Eve, and we were exhausted from traveling, but it would be our only chance to go.

Dong Xuan night market, held on weekend evenings in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

This gave us our first opportunity for souvenir shopping as well as our first lessons in bartering. Hanna, having lived in Hanoi for nearly a year, was an invaluable asset. She knew the going prices for merchandise and when to walk away, although this made Laura quite unhappy when she was willing to pay the asking price for a backpack but Hanna would not let her buy it.

Most merchants knew enough English to barter. Those who didn’t punched their asking price into a handheld calculator and handed it to us. We had three choices: agree (although that would be silly at this point), walk away (no fun in that), or enter a counteroffer on the calculator (optimally a lowball bid so that the seller could tsk-tsk and renegotiate until common ground was reached).

Laura pouted a little while about the backpack, but recovered enough to poke fun at Hanna for the singsong voice she adopted during bartering. A typical exchange went something like this:

  • Hanna (upon receipt of the first offer): Oh, no, no, no. Too much, too much. I bought this much less at another store. (Gives counteroffer.)
  • Merchant: Oh, no, no, no. Cannot be, too cheap, too cheap. Who sold for that?
  • Hanna: I bought one week ago, two blocks that way. (Gestures vaguely “that way.”)
  • Merchant: Same same, but different. This better.
  • Hanna (shaking head): No, no, just the same. We will go back to other store. (Turns away.)
  • Merchant: For you, best price. (Gives counteroffer.)
  • Hanna frowns and holds her chin in her hand for a moment, considering, then makes another counteroffer.
  • Merchant accepts. Smiles all around.

Laura caught on quickly, although she staged one minor rebellion and bought a Mickey Mouse scarf against Hanna’s better judgment. We bought a few gifts and souvenirs that evening before our menfolk pooped out altogether.

Later during our stay we returned to the Old Quarter for sightseeing and more shopping, learning a few more tips along the way. For instance, there are so many stores in the Old Quarter that it is easy to forget where they are located. Most shops provide business cards so that a shopper can find them again. Hanna had quite a collection. If a merchant makes an offer in dollars rather than dong, it means s/he will accept dollars in payment. Also, while bartering is acceptable at most stores, there are some with firm pricing. In general these are specialized artisans or craft cooperatives. How to know for sure? If a store has individual price tags on each item, then the prices are fixed.

These are some of the noteworthy fixed-price stores we visited:

  1. Gingko Biloba T-shirts – high quality, original design tee shirts. The girls and I each bought a “Vietnam Telecom” tee shirt.
  2. Mekong Quilts – beautiful handmade quilts. The girls each picked out a “Circles” quilt. Phil and I selected a quilt reminiscent of the ones we would see later at Mai Chau. The store kindly delivered our purchases to Hanna’s house later that evening so that we would not have to lug heavy quilts around the city.
  3. XQ Viet Nam – exquisite hand embroidery. The finished products are breathtaking in their detail. There are works in progress throughout the store, which also contains a museum dedicated to the art. The store will wrap purchases securely for airplane transit.
  4. Craft Link – a not-for-profit organization for traditional crafts artists offering a wide assortment of scarves, jewelry, clothing, purses and home accessories.

Although Craft Link was a fixed-price store, it had a clearance section! Not only did we find the journal Laura had been seeking, but also some lovely silk scarves at an extremely reasonable price. I bought all of the scarves they had left to give out as gifts. At first I felt a bit bad at how inexpensive some of our gifts were, until I rationalized that distributing the cost of our air fare among the gifts made then quite expensive.

There seemed to be a store featuring Apple iPhones on every corner, and counterfeit goods abounded. Copies of brand-name luggage, watches, and clothing were available ranging from obvious fakes to not being able to tell a difference. The labeling sometimes gave it away, though. A sock merchant on one corner had identical socks branded “Tommy Hilfiger,” “Tommy Hlfger,” and “Tommy Helen.” I sincerely wish I had taken a picture.

Laura wanted to have a dress made by a tailor during our stay, but there was not enough time. Hanna had quite a few outfits made while she was there. She would go to a fabric market to buy material, then the tailor would make each garment to measure. Hanna also had a traditional ao dai made for herself, Laura and me. I wore mine to Phil’s office Christmas party and received many compliments.

JCMG Christmas Party 2011. This party pic cost more than the infamous “Joseph the Pineapple Vendor” shot in Hanoi.

I would have to say that the girls and I enjoyed shopping more than Phil and Joseph did. Joseph did barter for a hammer and sickle tee shirt all by himself, but passed on the opportunity to get an inexpensive foot massage (40 minutes for $6). Phil took Joseph to a money changer just for the experience. Phil’s major purchases were for scarves for his female employees from Mai Chau (I know, I know . . . I promise to post about Mai Chau next week) and robust Vietnamese coffee.

Toward the end of our visit, the girls and I happened to pass by the store with the backpack that Laura wanted. We stopped in and Laura practiced the skills she had been honing all week. This time she scored the backpack . . . for even less than Hanna had coached her to settle for. Unfortunately, it started to unravel inside right after we returned home.

Next week: Mai Chau!