Our trip to Vietnam began in the capital of Hanoi. The cold gray skies in the North were the only dose of winter we saw this year (pause for sympathy) and we were happy to use it as an excuse to hibernate for a few days after hitting the town.
Lotus Boutique Hotel in Old Quarter was walking distance to the main tourist sites which is easier said than done with motorbikes driving on the sidewalks. The front desk staff was one of the best we’ve encountered on our trip. Mia greeted us by name each morning and sat with us at breakfast to show us the city map and circle the highlights. When we inquired where we could purchase a SIM card one staff member escorted us down the street to a sidewalk vendor and translated for us until we left with the one we needed.
We hit the town with HanoiKids, a free guided tour of the city with college-aged students wishing to practice their English. Our guides first took us to The Temple of Literature, a Confucius temple built in 1070 and Vietnam’s first national university. Confucius didn’t impart any wisdom on us but we were happy to be in the company of our guides who told us about the significance, past and present. We walked through a beautiful garden with topiaries of each animal of the Zodiac calendar. Here they had us guess the five elements central to Eastern philosophy: wood, water, fire, metal, earth.
Our visit continued to a courtyard with a pond called the Well of Heavenly Clarity. It was lined on either side with large stone turtles called Turtle Steles. Turtles are a revered animal to the Vietnamese as they represent longevity and wisdom. These stone turtles looked like tombstones and were carved with the names and hometowns of students who passed royal exams for doctoral degrees from 1442-1779.
The Temple of Literature still has special significance today. It is featured on the 100,000 Dong banknote and students come to pray before taking exams and use the picturesque grounds as a backdrop for graduation pictures.
Next, we toured a historic shop house where we saw how a family would live, including the ancestral altar that is an important part of every Vietnamese home, past and present. Among the sparse furnishings was a bed that consisted of no mattress just hard wood, like a dining table. And we thought we had encountered some hard beds in our travels!
We finished out the day with our ‘kids’ sitting on tiny stools discussing local customs and culture over a bia hoi (fresh beer) before having our first taste of authentic Vietnamese Pho (noodle soup).
The next day we went to Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton” where we saw pictures of John McCain and his pilot jumpsuit was on display. The prison was originally used by French colonists to hold Vietnamese political prisoners and then was used by North Vietnam to detain American pilot POW’s during the Vietnam War which, in Vietnam, is referred to as the American War or U.S. Invasion. We came away with a heavy dose of skepticism after seeing exhibits portraying terrible mistreatment of the Vietnamese prisoners during French rule and a country club like atmosphere for American POW’s.
Next, we took a stroll along Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi. Stretching across the beautifully landscaped lake was a show stopping bridge illuminated in red which reflected nicely on the lake.
We had dinner overlooking one of Hanoi’s busy intersections where pedestrians, street vendors, cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks dance around one another in a chaotic symphony.
We left Old Quarter for a two-night stay at the Crown Plaza West Hanoi. We stayed for free using points with an IHG Points Break Getaway where we only paid 5,000 points per night instead of the usual 20,000 the property would cost. With our status as IHG Rewards Club Members, we were upgraded to a spacious room on the top floor with access to the executive lounge where we enjoyed daily complimentary breakfast, tea service and cocktail hour. Needless to say, we didn’t leave for two days. Sorry Uncle Ho, we’ll catch you next time.
Next, we were off to Ha Long Bay, for a junk boat cruise in the Bay of Descending Dragons. Read more about it here.