Hello folks, I’m back in Hong Kong after a short but fun trip to Hanoi and Sapa in Vietnam and I can’t wait to tell you all about it!
I’ll start with Hanoi where I spent the first day roaming around the city centre.
2 weeks before my departure, I found Hanoi Free Tour Guides, an organisation that works on the same principle as Hanoikids described in my last post. My tour guide Yen, is a University student who majors in Economics. She met me at the hotel at the agreed time. Actually she was 10 minutes early and ran across the road after spotting me wandering around nearby!
Yen first brought me to a dessert place at 46 Hang Gai Street where they served more than 10 different varieties of desserts. We sat down beside one of the many busy roads with short plastic chairs with tables and she ordered the local favourite Hoa Quả Dầm (pronounced as hua kua3 zem4) for us.
It is basically cut fruits mixed with coconut cream and you add ice to it. A very simple yet refreshing dessert, cheap too at 20,000 VND each (about US$1). Because of the coconut cream, it actually tasted a little bit like chendol. Think I can try to replicate it at home.
After the dessert, we walked to the Hoan Kiem Lake with Yen trying to protect me from all the motorbikes and cars while we crossed the crazy busy streets!
1. Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword)
The legend goes like this: national hero Le Loi swept the foreign invaders (Chinese) out of the country with a sword borrowed from the King of the Sea. Then one fine day while the King was sight-seeing in Thang Long Capital (present-day Hanoi), a golden turtle genie appeared at the lake requesting for the sword to be returned. The turtle then kept the sword in his mouth and dived under the water. Hence the name: the Lake of the Restored Sword.
Many people were walking and sitting around the lake while enjoying the serenity. According to my guide, it is also a popular place for couples to take their wedding photos. We saw 2 couples that day.
Also, there are turtles living in the lake and they do come out of the murky water every now and then. I didn’t manage to spot any live ones although I did see a stuffed turtle preserved in a glass case in the Ngoc Son Temple situated in the northern part of the Lake. It was huge, probably more than 1.5m long (I tried to measure with my body length lol). I can imagine the excitement if anyone see a live turtle that big in the lake.
Ngoc Son Temple
The entrance fee is 20,000 VND (about US$1) for an adult and students pay only 10,000 VND.
Just after the ticket office, there’s an iconic red bridge constructed in classical Vietnamese style connecting the little island (which the temple sits) to the lake shore.
The small temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao (who defeated the Mongols), La To (patron saint of physicians) and the scholar Van Xuong. There’s a nice little pavilion facing the lake and is a great place to get away from the noisy Hanoi streets.
There is a large pen-shaped tower built at the entrance of the temple with the Chinese characters “Ta Thien Thanh”, which literally means “to write on the blue sky”, implying the height of a genuine and righteous person’s determination and will.
The tower erected on the little turtle islet in the middle of the lake was the former fishing site under King Le Thanh Long. It is said that a temple was built on it but there seems to be no trace of it. No access is allowed into the Turtle Tower or onto the islet so we could only view it from a distance.
2. Temple of Literature (Van Mieu)
Following a short stroll around the Sword Lake, we took a taxi to the Temple of Literature. This is a temple of Confucius which also houses several pavilions, halls, stelae of students and Vietnam’s first national university.
When I stepped into the compound, I almost immediately felt a sense of calmness. Strange and indescribable. There were a few other tourists but all I could hear was the sound of the man sweeping leaves on the floor.
According to my young guide, the Constellation of Literature Pavilion (below) with the circular window depicts the sun. The sun rays are reflected onto the pond (called the Well of Heavenly Clarity) and then get reflected onto the people entering the courtyard thus ‘cleansing’ the human being before he/she enters the temple. I cannot verify her story but thought it was interesting and does make some sense.
We then saw some 82 stelae of doctors lining along the sides. These carved stones recorded the names and birth places of the graduates of the royal exams.
As we walked further into the compound, we saw the temple with the statue of Confucius and his 4 best disciples.
Just outside of the Confucius statue, we saw a shrine with 2 statues of crane standing on top of turtle. At this point, Yen told me the story: it was said that the two animals were helping each other out during the different seasons; when it’s dry the crane will carry the turtle to another location where there is plenty of water and when it’s wet and flooded, the turtle provides a standing point for the crane. A ying and yang (sky and land) combination.
There is a big drum and big bell inside the University compound, used to inform the students when classes / exams start and end.
In one of the buildings, a statue of a famous Vietnamese teacher was erected whom the people now worship, just like Confucius. Upstairs in the same building, there are 3 statues of the Kings responsible for the construction of the Temple.
I like this place a lot because it is quiet and peaceful.
3. Hanoi Citadel
Yen then brought me to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (former residence of Vietnamese monarch). A big stage was being set up when we were there in preparation for Hanoi’s Liberation Day on 10 October and the gates were locked.
Most of the structures were destroyed by the colonial French in the late 19th century although some structures remain, like the Northern Gate, Steps of the Kinh Thiên Palace and the Flag Tower. Some of the old French barracks and buildings have been destroyed to make way for a new museum within the Citadel which houses exhibitions of the excavated monuments.
The Citadel is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which I guess is why we had to pay entrance fee of 30,000 VND for an adult and 15,000 VND for students.
4. St. Joseph Cathedral
My guide had to attend a class in the evening so I went to the St. Joseph Cathedral alone after taking my dinner nearby (will talk about that in a separate post).
The church was built about 120 years ago and is Vietnam’s answer to Paris’ Notre Dame with the twin towers and Gothic arches. Although it looked old on the outside, the interior of the church looked like it had been given a new coat of paint recently. It is a relatively small church with stained glasses on the walls. Nothing fancy but cosy and quaint.
Some kind of celebration / ceremony was going on when I was there, people were singing in harmony from their seats. Afraid that they will be disturbed (and I’ll be scolded) I did not wander around much.
The day ended with me going back to the hotel and finding the whole street out of power! I had to take a shower and pack the luggage with my little torchlight before catching the overnight train to Sapa. I’ve always wanted a “local experience”, think I got what I wished for!