Good morning, Vietnam! Hanoi was our first stop in a three-week tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, offered by AmaWaterways: Vietnam and Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong. We had sailed with AmaWaterways once before, a Danube River cruise, and were very impressed with how they operate. We arrived in Hanoi mid-morning (late evening as far as our bodies were concerned) feeling somewhat refreshed, following a 16-hour flight over the North Pole from Boston to Hong Kong, courtesy of Cathay Pacific business class. This was our first time flying business class, and I cannot say enough how much a difference business class probably made to our journey. Business class entitled us to utilize the business class lounge in Hong Kong where we were treated to luxurious showers, yummy food and refreshing beverages while awaiting our 2-hour connection to Hanoi. We barely noticed the 12-hour time difference! We stayed at the Hilton Hanoi Opera (using Hilton points) on our first night in Hanoi, and the Hilton upgraded us to a suite with Club privileges. It was very nice and I felt badly that we were only staying the one night.
We realized on our first day in Hanoi that crossing the street was a life experience to remember. There were practically no traffic lights and scooters continuously zipped by in every direction. Sidewalks were not even safe as scooters drove down the sidewalks as often and as fast as they drove on the road. We finally settled on hiring a rickshaw driver to take us the two blocks to the hotel where our friends were staying. This proved to be a near equal harrowing experience but the rickshaw driver knew what he was doing and delivered us safely to our destination in a matter of minutes. We joined Chris and Pamela at the Sofitel Legend Metropole, a French hotel chain, for our next two nights in Hanoi. The Sofitel was every bit as beautiful and even more luxurious than the Hilton.
We spent our first full day in Hanoi walking around the area near the hotel. We walked to Hoan Kiem Lake which means "Lake of the Returned Sword," and visited the Ngoc Son Buddhist Temple located on Jade Island at the northern end of the lake. Legend has it that Vietnamese Emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake one day when the Golden Turtle God Kim Qui surfaced and asked for the return of the magic sword that the dragon king Long Vurong had lent him in his fight with the Ming Emperor of China. Le Loi agreed and returned the sword, which Kim Qui took to the bottom of the lake for safety, where it remains today. The entrance to Jade Island is a famous and colorful bridge known as the Huc Bridge, which is featured as this blog's photo caption.
Our official tour started the next day with a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, the prison of fame known as the "Hanoi Hilton" where nationalist and communist Vietnamese political prisoners were tortured by the French and where the North Vietnamese held US bomber crews during the Vietnam War. The prison was ultimately demolished in the 1990s but the gatehouse still stands as a museum. It was one of several heartbreaking visits during our tour. Other stops this day included a visit to the impressive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature. We were also treated to a one-hour rickshaw ride through the old city, which proved to be more exciting and interesting than we expected. That evening we attended a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.
Hanoi - with its thousands of scooters overburdened with wares, people selling foods we had never seen before on the sidewalks in front of their homes and storefronts, Buddhist temples and Asian architecture everywhere - was the most unusual place we had ever visited up to this point in time. But a new day and a new year was upon us with promises of beautiful Ha Long Bay ahead, and New Year's Eve spent overnight on a luxurious and traditional Vietnamese junk.
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