HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, October 31, 2011

Das Capital

I wasn't sure what to expect from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, as well as the country's second-largest city. Many Saigonese disparage the metropolis for its supposed bad weather, unfriendly people, boring social scene, and terrible traffic. (How traffic anywhere could possibly be worse than Saigon's is beyond me.) Some of this can be chalked up to the geographic rivalries present in any country, but even several of my expat friends that had visited Hanoi had nothing nice to say about it. There are also some lingering political feelings towards Hanoi: for Americans, it was the belly of the communist beast during the Vietnam War; and it is the center of the cult of personality surrounding Ho Chi Minh.

The truth is that Hanoi is far more aesthetically pleasing and architecturally interesting than Saigon. There are at least seven lakes within the city limits, as well as more pleasant parks than in the southern hub, and the sidewalks are better and more pedestrian-friendly.

Then there are the buildings. Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th birthday earlier this year, so the city has a long history. Layers of the past are evident throughout Hanoi's streets - the Old Quarter is packed with Chinese shophouses; gorgeous French colonial buildings dot the Embassy District and the area south of Hoan Kiem Lake; and several monstrous examples of brutish Soviet design, from the times of strict communism, remain. Saigon has only been part of Vietnam for a few centuries, and the French and Soviets did not have as much of an impact here as they did up north, so most of the city sort of looks the same. There are a few pockets of architectural and historical gems, but nothing like in Hanoi. The people seemed friendly enough, and the weather was fine.

After eating breakfast, we walked over to Ba Dinh Square, the Vietnamese equivalent of Moscow's Red Square. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sits in a huge old French building at one corner, the former palace of the Governor of Indochina sits at another, and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum looms dead center. Before his death, Ho had made it clear that he wished to simply be cremated, but the Vietnamese government had other ideas. So, the mausoleum, similar in design to the imposing tombs of Mao and Lenin, was built, using stone taken from every part of the country. Ho's embalmed body is usually on display inside, but his corpse had recently been flown to Russia for its yearly cleaning, so we weren't able to see the old man himself.
Behind the mausoleum is a lovely landscaped area, where Ho lived before the war. His stilted house sits next to a placid pond, shaded by numerous trees. There was an incredibly rude group of older Vietnamese women from the countryside touring the area at the same time. They clearly did not know how to interact in the city; simply shoving their way past people and blocking the entire path to take pictures. (I know, this is common in Vietnam, but these women were awful.) They started grabbing Western females and shoving them into pictures. They clearly had not seen many white people before and, judging by how fascinated they were by the carp in the pond, hadn't seen live fish before either. I thought I was going to be ignored, since the group was only focusing on foreign women but, sure enough, as I was walking away from the house two women grabbed my hands with a death grip and threw me onto a little footbridge, where I was made to pose with multiple people from the group. This was extremely annoying, but I managed to play along and smile for their cameras, while Tin, Rhona, and Jen laughed hysterically at me.
Uncle Ho's humble abode. Hey, not a bad name for a hotel.
hey, whitey!
I finally escaped the grasp of the obnoxious women, and we walked over to the aptly named One-Pillar Pagoda.
Just behind the pagoda is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a shining example of massive Soviet architecture. The interior is swathed in marble and dark wood - it could easily stand in for the headquarters of the KGB in a movie.
The museum, as you can probably guess from the name, is dedicated to Ho's life, from his birth in rural Vietnam; to his travels abroad; to his education in the international socialist community and, finally, to his struggles against capitalist America. If I'm honest, the museum was pretty confusing and mind-numbing. The displays were a bizarre combination of abstract and modern-industrial, with most exhibits trying - and failing - to pull together disparate ideas and influences that may or may not have had any connection to Ho and his beliefs. Two that actually sort of worked were a deconstructed version of Picasso's Guernica; and a table holding giant pieces of fruit set in front of a picture of factory smokestacks, which illustrated the tension between the environment and civilization.

The rest of the museum was simply full of too much information - hundreds of laminated pages about the first Vietnamese communist; Ho's time in France, etc. - and far too much Yay Socialism!, Boo U.S. imperialism! I'm not afraid to criticize my country, but after reading about the "valiant fight against imperialist American influences" for the 600th time, I just turned my brain off. These old-fashioned sentiments are also a joke here, considering how influenced young Vietnamese are by American pop culture, and how badly so many in this country wish to study or work in the U.S.

We left the museum only mildly brainwashed, and headed over to Ngo Cam Chi, a street packed with stalls serving northern specialties. We passed block after block of foreign embassies along the way, as well as a large statue of Lenin, before having a delicious lunch.
Later that evening, we wandered over to the Old Quarter (I was sans camera) to check out Hanoi at night. One thing I really liked about the city was the prevalence of bia hoi joints. Bia hoi means fresh beer - the brew is made in the morning, and served until it runs out. The alcohol level is low, and the drinks won't win any taste awards, but they get the job done, especially since they only cost a few thousand dong. We picked one fresh beer restaurant at random (where one item on the menu had the unfortunate typo of 'crap hot pot'), ordered some eel, squid, beef, tofu, morning glory, and rice, and kept the beers coming. After stuffing ourselves we checked out the neighborhood's massive night market, which stretched for blocks and was far larger than any similar market in Saigon. I kept buying beers from street vendors and was a bit tipsy by the time we started making our way back to the hotel. I had thoroughly enjoyed my first day in Hanoi. What exactly were all the whiners on about?


  1. Yay Hanoi! Boo Saigon! Seriously, though, I'm glad you enjoyed your time here.

    I'm also a huge fan of the large table with oversized fruits, and its clear message of environmental destruction. That giant banana will ruin us all!

  2. I know! I can just picture that thing strapped to the back of a motorbike, creaming people at red lights and leaving a path of destruction.

  3. I don’t understand why you think the one pillar pagoda is influenced by Soviet. It is traditional pagoda of Vietnamese. If it does, it much be by Chinese , which Japan and south Korea also be influenced in some perspectives.