On Saturday, we left the Hanoi Sheraton (point A on map below) to see many of the major tourist sites in the city. Our first stop was Ngọc Sơn Temple, or the Temple of the Jade Mountain (point B on map above) that sits on a small islet in Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The temple is dedicated to Trần Hưng Đạo, a 13th century military leader and accomplished tactician. With an army of peasants and untrained conscripts, Trần Hưng Đạo repelled two invasions by Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) and his Mongol Horde through use of guerrilla warfare.
After leaving the temple, we confidently jumped into the traffic and crossed the road so that we could head north into the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter dates back to the 13th century and it is the traditional home to the skilled craftsmen who lived, worked, and traded goods here. The streets were named for the merchandise that was sold on them, e.g., Hàng Gai (hemp and rope), Hàng Dau (shoes and footwear), Hàng Bac (silver), Hàng Be (bamboo), Cầu Gỗ (formerly flowers, now women’s accessories), Cha Ca (roasted fish), Hàng Thiec (tin items), Hàng Da (leather), Hàng Dao (silk), Hàng Dong (brass), Hàng Duong (sugar), Hàng Hom (wooden chests), Hàng Ma (paper), and Hàng Thung (barrels). We walked through the narrow streets where vendors were selling their wares. There were many people, particularly women, carrying shoulder-poles loaded down with produce.
After wandering through the Old Quarter, we hailed a taxi to take us to the Temple of Literature (point C). The Temple of Literature dates back to 1070 when it was built by Lý Thánh Tông to honor Confucius and his key disciples. In 1076, the nation’s first university, the Imperial Academy, was established within the temple to educate the elite. The Imperial Academy was here for over 700 years before it moved south to Huế.
The Temple of Literature spans more than 13 acres. It is surrounded by a large brick wall, it has five interior courtyards, and three pathways that run from the front to the rear of the complex. The middle walkway was reserved for use by the king, the path on the right for the military, and the one of the left for the bureaucrats and other nobles.
The first two courtyards were peaceful, quiet areas where the scholars could go to relax and think. The Constellation of Literature pavilion, a well-know symbol of Hanoi, is the gateway between the second and third courtyards. The third courtyard contains the Well of Heavenly Clarity around which are two large pavilions. These pavilions house 82 turtle stelae on which were carved the names of those who successfully passed the royal exams beginning in 1484. The turtle, a symbol of longevity, is one of Vietnam’s four most revered creatures; the other three are the dragon, the unicorn, and the phoenix.
The fourth courtyards contains the Dai Thanh sanctuary, where Confucius and his four closest disciples — Yanhui, Zengzi, Zisi, and Mencius — are honored and worshiped. Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BC. He was a teacher who taught ethical behavior for individuals, families, and the state. The fifth courtyard was home to the Imperial Academy and it included classrooms, storehouses, and dormitories.
From the Temple of Literature, we walked to Ba Đình Square, home to the One-Pillar Pagoda or Chùa Một Cột (point D). The One-Pillar Pagoda is a Buddhist temple that was built by Lý Thái Tông, the second king of the Lý dynasty, son of Lý Thái Tổ and father to Lý Thánh Tông. The story behind the temple is that the emperor dreamed that he met Quan Âm, the goddess of mercy, sitting on a lotus blossom and she offered him a son. Soon afterwards he married and his new wife bore him a son. In gratitude, the emperor built the pagoda with a shrine to Quan Âm on a single pillar to represent the lotus blossom upon which she sat in his dream. In 1954, the defeated French forces destroyed this temple when they were on their way out of Vietnam at the end of the French Indochina War. It was subsequently reconstructed on a concrete pillar.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (point E) is close to the One-Pillar Pagoda. Unfortunately for us, it is only open in the morning, so we were unable to see the stuffed Uncle Ho. In his will, Ho had asked for his remains to be cremated. The government, of course, knew better (don’t they all believe this?), so following in the great and grand tradition of the Communist pantheon of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, Ho’s body was preserved and put on display.
I wonder if someday we will see the Obama Mausoleum when Uncle BHO — the sixth pillar in this pantheon after Fidel — ultimately passes? Unlike Uncle Ho, this narcissistic demagogue has probably already begun planning his own memorial, perhaps with the Greek columns he loves so well. What do you think — will he be posed at a teleprompter spouting his lies?
Next door to the mausoleum is the Presidential Palace (point F). The French built this structure in the early 1900s as the residence for the Governor-General of French Indochina. The palace and the area surrounding it are fabulous examples of French Colonial architecture, almost all of which are painted the same mustard-yellow color. The tropical landscaping provides the only clue that this neoclassical, Beaux-Arts styled building is not in Europe. For symbolic reasons, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the Presidential Palace, and even now the building is primarily used for high-level government meetings.
Our next stop along the way was the Cửa Bắc Catholic church (point G). Built in the 1930s by the French, Cửa Bắc, originally the Church of the Martyrs, is one of the three major Catholic churches in Hanoi; the other two are Ham Long church and Saint Joseph Cathedral. President and Laura Bush visited Cửa Bắc during their visit to Hanoi in 2006. When we were there, the church was locked, so we were only able to look at the outside of the property.
Our final destination on our self-guided walking tour was Trấn Quốc Pagoda, a Buddhist temple on a small islet in West Lake (point H). This pagoda dates back to the sixth century. It was initially located on the banks of the Red River, but it was moved to its current location in the 1600s since the riverbanks were unstable. The most eye-catching part of the temple is the 50 foot tall, 11 story lotus pagoda. Each story has six arched doorways in which sits a statue of Buddha.
After a brief respite at the hotel, we headed back to the Old Quarter for dinner. We enjoyed a very pleasant meal at the Green Tangerine restaurant on Hàng Be Street followed by a one-hour pedicab ride through the Old Quarter. A pedicab is basically a pedal-powered, three-wheeled cycle that has one-wheel in the back (with the driver) and two in the front to support the passenger seat. After we got in, I wondered whether I really wanted to be in the middle of Hanoi’s crazy traffic with virtually no protection from accidental collisions with other vehicles. The driver seemed oblivious to other traffic as we rode through the narrow streets; I expect that he is so accustomed to pedaling among the cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians that it was truly a non-event for him.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.