Vietnam Trip Day 12 – Hanoi Walking Tour and Hoa Lo Prison Museum


For one more day we relied on the Lonely Planet as our tour guide. We followed the set path through the Old Quarter which took around 4 hours but this includes the time spent in Ngoc Son Temple, the Memorial House, Dong Xuan Market and some shopping. Yes, we finally bought some souvenirs for friends and family and three old propaganda posters for our new flat. The three small (A4) prints cost us a total of 170, 000 dong. Some of you hardcore hagglers will surely get a better price but it doesn’t hurt us to pay £5 on a new wall feature. We started looking for silk and cashmere scarves as well but couldn’t find a decent price yet.

The walking tour starts off at Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) which is located at the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake and can be accessed via the red Huc (Rising Sun) Bridge. The temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, La To who is the patron saint of physicians and the scholar Van Xuong. Inside you’ll find a rather large stuffed lake turtle, fine ceramics and altars. It’s a pretty little temple but it shouldn’t take you any more than 30 minutes to go through it and snap a few images of the lake and bridge.

Next we walked past the Martyr’s Monument and the Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese art form which is said to be fun to watch. Puppets are operated by skilled puppeteers who have to complete a three year training programme before they can appear on stage (behind a bamboo screen). The shows usually tell stories and legends and are accompanied by a live orchestra. Our friends had already been to the show and showed us a few videos. They enjoyed the first 15 minutes but it then gets very repetitive so we decided to give this “tourist trap” a miss.

Walking past numerous shoe shops some of which sell rejected seconds by well-known designer brands (I will definitely have a closer look at these on our last day in Hanoi) we reached our second point of interest, the Memorial House. This is a restored traditional merchant’s house that is worthwhile seeing if you’re around in the Old Quarter. Entrance is 10, 000 dong. For that you get to see a number of rooms spread over two floors around two beautiful courtyards. Some of the original furniture has been retained such as a gorgeous wooden cabinet, chess games and a wooden bed which isn’t as uncomfortable as it looks (mattresses are a modern luxury). There are also some crafts for sale but you’d be better off buying them at the market as the prices charged here are a lot higher.

Bach Ma Temple was closed when we got there so we just walked past it to the Old East Gate. Nothing exciting to report on this. Quick picture and off we went towards Dong Xuan Market. This is the largest market in Hanoi but surprisingly untouristy. They sell everything from crockery, to clothing and footwear, food, jewellery, fabrics and some silk and pashmina scarves. If you know how to sew you best head upstairs to the cloth market to buy the materials to make your own clothes. Alternatively, pick up your favourite design and take it to a local tailor who can then do his/her magic.

The majority of the retailers’ level of English is close to non-existent. Paper and pen or a calculator are necessary to negotiate a price. Be careful when looking at souvenir stands of which there are only a few. Some of the stall owners must think all Westeners are proper daft and will try and trick you into buying whatever they have for sale. I was looking at a wool scarf and this guy says “real silk”. I am pretty confident that I know the difference between wool and silk so just said “yeah, right” and walked away as I couldn’t be bothered arguing or haggling at this point. I will be back on our last day though which we have dedicated to be shopping day before we head down to Phu Quoc.

The Old Quarter really is one big outdoor shopping paradise. Most of the street names translate to the product that is sold on this particular street,  ie Hang Gai is full of silk stores whilst Hang Da should in theory be full of leather selling merchants. Make sure you don’t just focus on what’s on sale but do look above shop level and you will see some stunning old architecture amongst the modern chaos of houses.

We finished our walking tour at around 2pm, just in time for some Banh Ghoi which we really enjoyed again.

In the afternoon we just spent some time in the hotel deciding and researching what to do in the evening before we headed to the Hoa Lo Prison on 1 Hoa Lo. The prison is just a five minute walk away from St Joseph Cathedral and really worth a visit. The entrance fee is 20,000 dong. For us it was one of the better museums in the city. The museum tells the history of the prison starting with the French occupation and its function before and during the American War. Each room is introduced with some information around the function of the room and its prisoners. You can also watch a documentary filmed during the American War on prison life for the prisoners of war. The documentary is propagandist footage though and portrays prison life in a much more positive light than most of the actual prisoners will remember.  One of the most famous western prisoners was John McCain. His story about his capture and the five and a half years in prison greatly differs from anything portrayed in the film. It took us around an hour to complete the tour but you can easily spend more time in it.

For dinner we decided to proper mingle with the locals and go for some Bia Hoi at Bia Hoi Ha Noi on 2 P Duong Thanh. We also ordered some spare ribs to go with the beer which were very tasty indeed. Just opposite there is another Bia Hoi Ha Noi which clearly has copied the original and is trying to profit from its success. They have some kind of waiter placed outside to lure you in. Just ignore him and make sure you go to the original. Funnily enough we were the only foreigners in the place whilst Bia Hoi Ha Noi (the copied version) on the opposite corner saw a few more foreign faces that night. It probably doesn’t make a huge difference where you have your beer in the end but I just don’t like people tricking me into believing that I have come to the right place when I haven’t. There’s a bit of German pride involved in it all.


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