With humidity inching towards 100 percent, Hanoi was a complete swamp this morning. We couldn’t let that stop us from seeing the city though, so after all becoming millionaires (16,000 dong to $1USD exchange) we hired a guide and driver (with a well air-conditioned car) to show us around. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, which like Mao in Beijing, is considered a holy site. Vietnamese queue by the thousands to see Uncle Ho in his glass sarcophagus — except from September to December when his body is sent to Russia for “restoration.”
Afterwards, we visited the somewhat strange Ho Chi Minh Museum, filled with exhibits singing the former Communist ruler’s praises. The complex grounds had a few other sights within walking distance, including the One Pillar Pagoda and the impressive Presidential Palace, a grand building constructed in 1906 and used by the French during occupation that stood in stark contrast to the simple stilt house we saw that Ho later ruled from.
We loaded back into the car for a short drive to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which introduced us to the country’s 54 ethnic groups. Our favorite was the Bahnar, who had this really sweet traditional communal house where we were served a cup of steaming tea (exactly what we wanted in 95 degree heat).
Next stop after a quick noodle lunch: the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), built and dedicated to Confucius in 1070 and later established as Vietnam’s first university (nowhere near as solid as UNC).
It would be impossible to come here and not visit Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by U.S. POWs during the Vietnam War. We saw John McCain’s flight suit and toured the wretched facility, which was originally built by the French to detain Vietnamese. Afterwards, our guide took us to the Ngoc Son Temple, a meditative spot that sits on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.
With our jam-packed day complete, we headed back to the hotel to rest. Our tour included a traditional water puppet show later that evening, but we couldn’t find the motivation. Instead, after struggling again to locate an open restaurant, we were ripped off by another taxi driver before making our way to the Hanoi Hilton — the real one — for drinks and air conditioning.