The Vietnamese have developed a huge cult around their number 1 national hero who they affectionately call Uncle Ho. They show the utmost respect, loyalty and gratitude for him and his efforts for the country. All large cities have a museum dedicated to him but it is Hanoi that attracts the majority of visitors from all over Vietnam and the rest of the world. Why? Because the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved and displayed in the mausoleum here. For the Vietnamese it’s almost like a pilgrimage, for us it is fitting all pieces of the nation’s more recent history together.
We took a taxi from the hotel to the mausoleum which is west of the Old Quarter. The taxi ride only cost 50, 000 dong which is a good investment if you don’t fancy walking 30 to 40 minutes in the heat. Luckily there were no queues that morning so we got into the mausoleum quite quickly. We had to hand over our supply of water and our camera. The camera was returned to us straight after we exited the mausoleum. Any other possessions are returned at the main exit. Make sure you wear long trousers or skirts/dresses that cover your knees and a shoulder covering top as otherwise you won’t be allowed in.
Access is granted to a smallish number of people at intervals so we had to wait around 10 minutes for a crowd to build up. You are then accompanied to the mausoleum which is guarded by stern military in crisp white uniforms. Once you enter the mausoleum which is a massive block of concrete in typical communist style refrain from talking and laughing. Don’t put your hands in your pockets and take off your hat. As expected the mausoleum is refreshingly cold. The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved in a big glass sarcophagus. It’s a really bizarre experience seeing the pale and almost wax figure-like body of Uncle Ho who died 44 years ago. There’s a walkway around it so you can see him from all angles. You’re not allowed to stop and the queue moves at a steady pace. At the time of our visit we were the only non-Vietnamese visitors and it was great to observe people’s reaction upon seeing the man that has liberated the country from colonialism. In total you will spend no more than 5 minutes in the mausoleum. Entrance to the mausoleum is free.
Within the same complex you’ll find the Presidential Palace (an impressively restored colonial house; not open to the public and only used for official official receptions), the Stilt House (preserved as Ho left it), a collection of cars he used during his life and the Botanical Gardens. Entrance for Vietnamese is free but foreigners pay 25, 000 dong to get in. The setting is beautiful and even though there isn’t much to do and see it should be on your list of places to see when in Hanoi.
Next we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Again it’s within the same complex and will cost you another 25, 000 dong. To be honest you could give this a miss and spend your dong on some bia hoi instead. The exhibits are poorly labelled and nothing really makes sense as the photos and their significance isn’t explained. There are a lot of Vietnamese newspaper articles that have neither been translated nor paraphrased. The second floor hosts a large statue of Ho and a surreal exhibition reminiscent of badly executed modern art that poorly attempts to interpret Vietnam and its nation’s history. Maybe if you’re Vietnamese it all makes sense although the locals themselves seemed to be more eager to find the next great photo opportunity than trying to understand the weird displays. It took us a whole 20 minutes to complete the set path around the museum without having learned a thing about the great Ho. Quite disappointing really!
After we collected our now boiling water we walked to the Temple of Literature south of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. The entrance fee is 20, 000 dong. The temple was founded in 1070 and is a rare example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. Vietnam’s first university was set up here. Many of Hanoi’s secondary school graduates come here to have their graduation pictures taken. On the day we visited there must have been at least 100 within the relatively small temple area – the girls in traditional dresses and the boys in their best suits. Funnily enough, wedding photography isn’t allowed on the grounds. It’s a lovely picturesque place but our experience was spoilt by the heat and the masses of tourist and school excursion groups.
After a really delicious lunch at Minh Thay’s Family Restaurant on 20 Ngo Huyen (the chef in this little restaurant was a contestant on Master Chef Vietnam and made it to the top 7) we went to the History Museum and Revolution Museum which have recently been combined and operate as one museum with two locations within very close proximity. The combined entrance fee is 40, 000 dong for adults. The Revolution Museum, where we started our museum tour, consists of a collection of photographs and random exhibits such as spoons and bowls said to be used by famous Vietnamese revolutionaries during the resistance against the French and the American War. Again it’s a museum for Vietnamese that have a solid knowledge of tne nation’s fight for independence and reunification. Little is explained with regard to the overall context of the exhibits and their importance which makes it difficult to understand the whole picture. It almost feels as if the museum fails to educate which ideally should be its main purpose.
The National Museum of Vietnamese History is diagonally across the road. It’s poorly signed so we had to ask for directions. This part of the combined museum is your typical national history museum that exhibits pottery, jewellery, weaponry and other artefacts from a wide range of eras. It’s the kind of museum you’re dragged to on school trips and always dreaded the experience. As an adult you attempt to appreciate the significance of the exhibits a lot more but if you’re like us the visit won’t take you much longer than half an hour. I promise we tried to enjoy it and some stuff is really interesting but in the end I was more interested in the old furniture on display (and imagining how they could fit into our flat) than the numerous stone carvings.
As a little treat and out of curiosity we then walked through the French quarter to Cong Caphe on 152 Trieu Viet Vuong. It wasn’t until a day later that we realised this coffee shop is now a chain with locations all over the city and that we didn’t have to walk for half an hour to get there. Anyway, it was worth the journey. The cafe is decorated with kitsch Soviet memorabilia but surprisingly cosy and kind of retro-cool/chic. It attracts a younger ultra fashionable crowd tapping away on laptops and the latest smartphones. The coffee is super delicious. My SO doesn’t drink coffee at all but he thoroughly enjoyed his caphe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) and I loved my coconut sorbet coffee which easily is the best coffee I have ever had. Beat that Starbucks! I really hope that this chain soon comes to the UK although there is no doubt that I will be easily paying a fiver for the same coffee that cost me £1.
Dinner that evening was the worst dinner we had during our whole holiday. We had to wait around 45 minutes for it to be served and then it was cold. Clear case of it not being cooked on the premises. We hardly ate any of it and needless to say didn’t leave any tips that night as the service was pretty crap overall as well. The place is called Bun Bo Nam Bo – Bun Cha and is located on 39C Ly Quoc Su.