Indochina Day Eighteen
19.02.2020 - 19.02.2020
Although our hotel was in the middle of the city, in Hanoi's Old Quarter, we were woken early by the insistent crowing of a nearby cockerel. But no matter; we had enjoyed a good night's sleep and were ready to see something of the city.
View from our room at the Essence Hotel
~ I was struck by this old traditional house tucked among the newer buildings
After a good buffet breakfast we waited for Huan, our guide, on the steps of the hotel, observing all the activity on the streets.
In Hanoi's Old Quarter
~ all taken from the steps of our hotel
When he and our driver Cheung arrived we set off on our city tour, driving past a long mosaic mural (3.8 kilometres according to Huan) that was created to mark 1,000 years of Hanoi being the capital of Vietnam, in 2010.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
We drove to the West Lake or Hồ Tây as it is known in Vietnamese, where we visited Vietnam's oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc. It was originally constructed in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor Lý Nam Đế (from 544 until 548), and is therefore over than 1,450 years old. At that time it was sited on the shores of the Red River, but when the river started to encroach on the temple’s structure, in 1615 it was relocated here to Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) islet, linked to the shore of the lake with a small causeway.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
But before you get too excited about the antiquity of this temple, I should tell you that, unsurprisingly, all its various components have been restored or even rebuilt over the years. Most date from the 17th century but the tallest pagoda was rebuilt as recently as 2004! Nevertheless it is a picturesque and interesting site to visit, even on the rather dull morning when we were here.
Outside Huan pointed out a carving of a turtle, one of the four animals considered sacred in Vietnam, symbolising protection, longevity and wisdom. In a traditional Vietnamese fairy tale, the turtle had a powerful sword that helped the Vietnamese to win a war against the Chinese. We were to see more turtles, and the other sacred animals (dragon, unicorn and phoenix), elsewhere in the city.
Huan explained that the temple was in two sections. The first is devoted to the local religion, worship of female goddesses known as the ‘Mothers’. This religion was present in Vietnam before the introduction of Buddhism and has, like religions elsewhere, been absorbed by the now dominant major faith. Thus the goddesses are now often described as female Buddhas. The green Mother has domain over the mountains and forests, the white over the water and the red over the sky. Linked to this is a belief in honouring all mothers.
Altar in the Mothers' temple
~ note the variety of offerings ('Choco-Pies' seemed to be an especially popular offering in all the Vietnamese temples we were to visit)
In the courtyard here is a sacred fig tree, known as a Bodhi tree. This was taken as a cutting from the original sacred tree in Bodh Gaya, India, under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment, and was given as a gift in 1959, to mark the visit of the Indian president Rajendra Prasad. It is thought to bring good luck if you walk around it, which must be done in a clockwise direction. Of course we did so.
Sign in the courtyard
~ please dress respectfully
The second temple is devoted to pure Buddhism. Here we saw the series of different Buddhas behind the central altar, representing the past (at the back), present and future - the happy Buddha. In front of these is a female figure who, Huan told us, provides a connection between Buddhism and the local religion.
The line of Buddhas
A side altar, and lamps
Outside Huan pointed out the posters illustrating the effects of good and bad karma, including a suggestion that 'wasting time on travelling for fun' would bring 'mobility problems'! Other warnings included 'Preventing others from doing good things' would bring 'a paralysed body later on', and 'Being disloyal to your country' would bring 'a lonely and empty person'. Some were more positive, e.g. 'Giving away lands for public roads, Brings talents and fame to children and young people'.
Posters outside the temple
The West Lake
The West Lake / Hồ Tây is a huge body of water to find in such an urban setting – I had expected it to look more rural! It is 17 kilometres in circumference and covers over five square kilometres. It is surrounded by a mix of restaurants and coffee shops, apartments, hotels, small gardens and several temples. Unsurprisingly this is considered one of the smartest area of the city in which to live.
Selective Asia had proposed a bicycle ride around the lake but as I don't cycle Huan instead was kind enough to arrange a ride in an electric car as an alternative, so that we could see the lake at a slower pace than driving. It was still a little fast for photography (and a little cool in the open air) but I grabbed a few shots in passing.
Traffic near the West Lake
West Lake scenes
We stopped to visit another temple, Tao Sach, which Huan suggested would be interesting for us to see – less touristy than Tran Quoc and therefore quieter. It was indeed! A sign outside had said that the temple was closed to visitors because of concerns about spreading the Coronavirus but it seemed to be open, and consequently we had it to ourselves apart from one other woman who arrived soon after we did and left again after a brief look around.
Incidentally, it was only here in Vietnam that we started to become properly aware of the impact that the Coronavirus was having in the region, although we still had no inkling that it would affect our own, and everyone else’s, lives so enormously.
Entrance to Tao Sach
On one of the temple buildings
This temple belongs to the Tao Dong Buddhist sect founded by the monk Thuy Nguyet, who used to teach in pagodas around the West Lake, in the 16th century. According to a legend Tao Sach takes its name, which means 'Reading Book Under the Sun', from the story of a 13th century prince. Uy Linh Lang was the son of King Tran Nhan Tong and Queen Minh Duc, and wanted to become a Buddhist monk but was denied by his parents. So he ordered a small pavilion to be built beside the West Lake as a place for reading and meditation, performing poetry, discussing literature and engaging in martial arts with his friends. When in 1287, the Yuan-Mongol emperor launched a third invasion of the country, Prince Uy Linh Lang joined the army and achieved numerous military feats. When he died, in 1300, his father the King commanded that a temple be built in the memory of his son. At the beginning of the Tien Le dynasty (the 15th century), the simple shrine was renovated and enlarged to become Tao Sach pagoda.
Today the temple also serves as the head office of Hoa Nghiem, a Buddhist charitable association.
There were more striking gold Buddha statues and mother goddesses, and on either side of the altar were guardians, one friendly and one fierce, each with a serpent.
Gold Buddhas in Tao Sach
In the grounds was a sleeping Buddha, a gleaming white standing Buddha flanked by what I assume are two goddesses, and 18 stone statues in different poses which Huan told us represented the best monk masters of this sect.
The sleeping Buddha
Some of the 'monk masters'
There was also an attractive miniature mountain landscape, known as Hòn Non Bộ, such as are often found at temples in Vietnam.
Hòn Non Bộ detail
Hòn Non Bộ detail
We continued our electric car ride back to the point where we had started, passing a water park (closed because it was off-season and chilly, not because of the Coronavirus) with more colourful street art on the surrounding wall.
Street art in Hanoi
We also passed a row of fortune tellers and I managed to grab one photo as we went by.
Street fortune teller
Back at the start point we picked up our regular car and driver Cheung, who had been patiently waiting for us, and headed to one of what seemed to be hundreds of small coffee shops on the lakeshore. We all enjoyed a coffee sitting by the water's edge - although the day was quite cloudy, and a lot cooler than we had experienced during the rest of our trip, it was still quite pleasant for sitting outside.
Cheung and Huan at our coffee stop
Coffee shops by the West Lake
Dog at the coffee shop
After our coffees Huan proposed that we drive past Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, so we could get some photos even though a visit wasn't on our itinerary. Huan told us that when he died Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated, but the ruling communist party decided that instead he should be embalmed to lie in state here, copying the style of Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow. Older people who visit are very moved, he said, often to tears (reminding me of our visit to the Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang last year) while younger ones also really respect him. But in Huan's view his wishes to be cremated should have been followed.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
The Temple of Literature
We went next to the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and the site of Vietnam's first national university, the Imperial Academy. The temple was founded in 1070 and the academy established six years later. The students were the sons (no daughters, naturally!) of Vietnam's nobles, royalty, and other members of the elite. The buildings were reconstructed in the 14th century and have been restored numerous times, most recently in 1920, 1954 and 2000.
The university moved to Hue when that city became the nation’s capital in 1802, but a school continued to operate here. Today it houses a small museum and also continues to be a place of devotion for locals.
The Great Portico
Carving detail on the gate
As we entered Huan pointed out the animal carvings either side of the Great Portico. One depicts a carp turning into a dragon, a message to students that with hard work anything is possible, and the other a fierce tiger, inspiring the students to achieve success.
Dragon and lion carvings
Beyond this gate is a second, and beyond that an attractive courtyard with rectangular lily ponds. A path leads through the centre, with two other paths on either side (see photo lower down this page, taken from our lunchtime restaurant, KOTO). The centre path was reserved for the monarch, the path to the left was for the administrative Mandarins and the path to the right was for military Mandarins. A similar courtyard lay beyond the next gate. These garden courtyards were intended to be quiet areas where scholars could relax away from the bustle of the outside world.
Beyond these we came to the third courtyard, passing through the Khue Van pavilion. This was built in 1805 and is considered a symbol of Hanoi. Its upper level features a circle within a square – the circle represents the sky and the square the earth, illustrating the yin and yang harmony between the two.
In the centre of the courtyard is a much larger pool, known as Thien Quang – the Well of Heavenly Clarity. Huan showed us a good angle to get a photo of the Khue Van pavilion without other tourists (with a bit of patience!) It was busy here, as it had been at the Tran Quoc Pagoda – no sign yet that the Coronavirus was impacting too much on visitor numbers although no Chinese tourists were in evidence. Huan also pulled out a 100,000 dong banknote to show us how exactly the same image appeared on its reverse
Khue Van pavilion and Thien Quang
100,000 dong banknote
On either side of this courtyard open sided buildings shelter the Doctors' Stelae. These were first made in 1484 to honour talent and encourage study. They sit on the backs of turtles, the symbol of longevity and wisdom for the Vietnamese people. Of the 116 original stelae, 82 remain, which record the names and birth places of 1307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams. Students at the university were required to sit three exams: regional, national and royal. The last of these was held at the royal court every three years – if students failed, they had to wait three years before trying again. Only those that passed this final exam could become government officials – it is their names that are recorded on the stelae. The stelae also praise the merits of the monarch and name the mandarins tasked with organising the exams.
One of the Doctors' Stelae
At the far side of the fourth courtyard are two halls. The first is the House of Ceremony, where emperors, doctors etc. would come to pay their respects and make offerings to Confucius. A bronze statue here of a crane standing on a turtle signifies a prayer for longevity and eternity.
Crane statue, and nearby lion dog carving
The second hall is the main sanctuary with a statue of Confucius himself. On either side of him are his four closest disciples Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi and Mencius. The air here was full of the heady smell of lilies placed in front of the statues and of incense – this is still very much a place of worship.
Statue of Confucius, and incense
Disciples of Confucius
The university classrooms used to lie behind this hall but are no longer there, having been destroyed by the French in 1946. They have been replaced by several buildings in a traditional style, two of which house education department offices and one a small museum with pottery found during archaeological digs here, some old textbooks, costumes, and a statue of Chu Văn An whom Huan told us was considered the 'best' headmaster in the history of the academy.
Statue of Chu Văn An, and old text book
On either side of this building are square buildings, one housing a drum and one a bronze bell, both of them recent additions but of traditional designs. The drum in my photo is over two metres wide and stands 2.65 metres high; it weighs 700 kilos.
The drum, and musician playing the dan bau
On our way back through the complex we stopped briefly in the inevitable a souvenir shop, where a group of three musicians was playing traditional music, to promote a CD. We both shot videos but didn't buy the CD! The single stringed instrument, which I especially enjoyed hearing, is a dan bau or gourd zither.
Lunch at KOTO
By now it was lunchtime. The Selective Asia itinerary for this city tour proposed eating at a street food area frequented by office workers, but Huan said a few tourists had recently experienced stomach problems after eating there and instead recommended a restaurant just across the road from the Temple of Literature, KOTO. Like Friends, which we had visited in Phnom Penh, this is a social enterprise (set up and run by Australians) which takes deprived young people and offers them training in the hospitality sector, either in the kitchens or front of house. It also provides training in life skills, enabling them to be self-sufficient.
Huan secured us a great table on the roof terrace (four flights up!) and we had a really tasty light lunch, sharing a combo platter of different spring rolls, some fresh, some fried. My photo was taken after we had already eaten half of them!
Spring roll selection
Looking down at the Temple of Literature
Afternoon in the Old Quarter
After lunch we drove to the edge of the Old Quarter and set off on a walk with Huan. He took us along the railway line which cuts through the city here down the centre of a street nicknamed Train Street.
Tourists on Train Street
I gather that trains still run a couple of times a day on this line, passing just inches from some of the buildings – signs at various little cafés along the road advertised the times. I would have loved to have seen that (it’s quite a tourist draw) but even without a train this is a very photogenic spot and we took our time on our walk, taking lots of photos.
Café on Train Street
Street art on Train Street
Life on Train Street
At one spot Huan asked for my phone, set its camera to panorama, and took this rather cool shot of the two of us.
On Train Street
From here we followed a route along the western fringes of the Old Quarter, taking lots of photos as we went.
Life here is lived on the street, so it is a street photographer's dream!
Plenty of time to read the paper
Traditional and modern style
In Hanoi's Old Quarter
Time for a snack
Playing Vietnamese Checkers
As well as all the activity it was interesting to see the mix of architecture, with old and sometimes crumbling French Colonial buildings interspersed with a handful of newer ones, and almost all with some sort of business operating out of the ground floor. Vietnam may be a Communist-run country, but since opening up to the world it has also opened up to private enterprise (and also, incidentally, to freedom of religion - hence the restoration and revival of the temples).
Shops in Hanoi's Old Quarter
~ the shop bottom right is an undertaker's, with traditional flower tributes outside
Funeral car outside the undertaker's shop
We crossed a more open square (actually more of a rectangle), Hang Dau Garden, in the centre of which is a war memorial. It was erected in 1947 to commemorate the suicide bombers who fought against the French re-occupation that followed the defeat of the Japanese in 1945.
Hang Dau Garden war memorial
We ended up at Manzi, a rather cool café / art gallery in an old Colonial house. We relaxed over a drink (coffee for Chris, mint tea for me, and a weird avocado and chocolate smoothie for Huan) and checked out the contemporary art on display.
Electrical repair shop, and barber, near Manzi
We then headed back to the heart of the Old Quarter for a final stop, to enjoy a beer in a small bar on Ta Hien Street, also known as Beer Street. From here it was just a few steps to our hotel, and the end of what had been a very enjoyable, if whistle-stop, tour of Hanoi.
Evening in Hanoi
We decided to stay in and eat at the Essence Hotel's restaurant this evening, as it is reputedly one of the best in the area. The service was lovely and most of the food was good, but my chicken Ga La Nep (chicken thigh chunks wrapped and cooked in nep leaves) was disappointingly ordinary and not worth the effort it took to unwrap it! But we had a nice evening and a good chat to the English couple at the next table, whose daughter, we learned, lives in Phnom Penh very near the Anise Hotel where we spent the first few nights of this trip.
Ga La Nep
Chris's much nicer duck croquettes!
It had been an excellent day, one of the best of the trip, and I was left wishing that we had planned for a longer stay in Hanoi which I found a very appealing city. Huan had been a great guide and we had seen a lot, but it would have been good to have had a second day to explore a bit on our own. However, we did have exciting plans for tomorrow!