You know what other amazing things there are to do in Hanoi? Museums and historic sites! I'm a geek, I know. But honestly, you have to spend some time in them, they're full of incredible insights into the country.
So, first? The Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội,). Built by the French, it is modelled – unsurprisingly – on the old Paris opera house, and is one of the musts of any historic tour of the city. Just standing in front of it, looking at its forms... this place sure talks loads about that one specific part of Vietnam's history.
Then, there's this very traditional house at 87 Ma May (87 Phố Mã Mây). From the late 19th century, it's one of those narrow buildings I had talked about before, where the house just stretches on and on all the way to the street behind. The second floor had a nice family altar, and the bedroom one of those big, firm Chinese beds with huge sturdy legs and a thick frame.
Now, those two you can do in really brief visits. But the next one demands at least a couple of hours to be fully appreciated: the National Museum of Vietnamese History (Viện Bảo tàng Lịch sử Việt Nam). Not only is the building unique, with an unusual architecture in the deep ochre colour you find in other historical sites, it's simply full of fascinating artifacts, like ancient drums with geometric patterns, animals and dancers (and lovers!); numerous pieces, including wooden beams, with beautiful Chinese calligraphy; Hindu figures full of movement and life; paintings and sculptures that at first glance seem Chinese, but then you notice there's something different about the use of colour or the lines; mother of pearl inlays and even quartz lingams, something that is extremely unusual.
A different building, also part of the museum, holds the intense recent history of the country. Here you can see everything related to overthrowing the different powers that sought control of these parts... a harrowing and lengthy series of processes...
We also visited the Vietnamese Women's Museum (Bảo tàng Phụ nữ Việt Nam). It's wonderful to see a whole museum dedicated to women, and covering everything from wedding rituals, Taoist manuals and textiles, to a more sobering look at women's participation during the Vietnam war, doing everything the men did, being spies, generals, couriers, you name it. Strong women, facing really hard times.
One night, in the mood for something lighter, we saw a water puppetry (múa rối nước) performance, which is something I'd recommend anybody do. It takes place in a stage filled with water, and puppeteers handle the puppets from behind. Personally, I was mesmerized. And we were very lucky to have visited temples and museums before watching the play, and to have lived in Asia for quite a while now, because all the different stories made much more sense thanks to all the context we had. There was the turtle of the lake bringing a sword, there were dragon boat races, lions playing with balls... Just awesome.
Ah, yes. And the Ho Chi Ming Mausoleum (Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh). This one, we failed. We didn't realize the day we planned to go it was closed. Darn. So we were just left with seeing it from afar, yet respectfully (those guards are very zealous custodians).
But what we did see, and enjoyed greatly, was the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts (Viện Bảo tàng Mỹ thuật Việt Nam). You must be thinking that nobody's got enough time to see so many museums. But we did. And I'm so happy we went to this one (actually, I should thank the habib, my museum-locator!). And at this one, we saw beautiful art, including Avalokiteshvara (that is, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion) sculptures. What caught our attention was not the multiple arms (that always fascinates one, of course), but the bases – these Buddhas were being held up by mythical beasts rising from the clouds. I had never seen anything like that! Most of the contemporary pieces weren't really worth it, but a few I did love.
We're almost done, ok? Another place we visited was the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (Hoàng thành Thăng Long). This place served as a seat of government for about 800 hundred years, and it's a major complex that begins with a very Chinese gate. There are exhibition halls inside, and many, many buildings, but frankly we were somewhat exhausted by the heat and humidity at that point, and were content with just wandering around after enjoying the gate.
Finally, the Vietnam Military History Museum. Funnily, what we saw at the National Museum of Vietnamese History had given us a pretty complete picture of the country's military history, so we could skip many of the explanations and head to what you come for: the Flag Tower of Hanoi (Cột cờ Hà Nội), a military post built before the French, and the many planes and military vehicles and bombs... So horrific, to imagine one of those things flying over you and dropping death and destruction on your village... Terrifying.
Sorry for the long and lengthy post. But really, great place for educating yourself. And isn't it wonderful to visit a country and leave with a fuller understanding of it, and not just with food pics?