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Thursday, April 12, 2018

HANOI - old quarter

A visit to Hanoi is not complete without a stroll through the Old Quarter.
Originally, it's 36 streets were arranged by trade: silverwork, leather, textiles and the like.
Nowadays, whatever the trade of the individual shops, the main income generator surely is catering to tourists... hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, souvenirs, tour operators and massage.
Comparing the current layout of the quarter to the old maps of the place, it looks like time has stood still and little has changed. The same grid, and shophouses that, apart from the merchandise, would not have been very different from a few hundred years ago.
But of course, that is a wrong inference as the Old Quarter, too, is affected by unceasing and unrelenting change.
Very unexpectedly, I chanced upon this apartment building that has risen where once a few shophouses stood. I was struck by the easy way the old and the new blended aesthetically. I would have loved to see the interior and most likely would have come away green with jealousy. That location, and most probably combined with all conveniences of a modern residential unit, it couldn't get any better.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

HANOI - coffee shop

Back in Hanoi after a long absence, it's been almost six months.

Enjoying my morning coffee in my favourite coffee shop where the Christmas decoration still hangs above the door.

Watching Hanoi glide past.

Many changes to be noticed.
The building construction site across the road, that used to be a massive hole where prestressed concrete piles were driven into the ground, is now a multi-story structure and will eventually be an office complex.

The coffee is still Trung Nguyen, incredibly good, and the price still an incredible 20 Dong--that's about 10 cents US$. Compare that to the 2 US$ I pay in Jakarta for a double espresso in Starbucks.

This is just the joy of the Vietnamese coffee culture.
The delicious food started this morning with banh cuon and pork ribs noodles. For lunch, I went to the best bun cha place I know... just around the corner and if Anthony Bourdain had known about it he would have taken Obama there.

Wishing you all the very best...

Saturday, October 22, 2016


The Vietnamese Women's Museum in Hanoi pays a well-deserved homage to the slightly over 50% of the country's population who in many other parts of the world do not get the recognition for their tireless contribution to national well-being and welfare. More than 70% of women hold a job in Vietnam, a percentage that is much higher than in most countries around the globe.
The Museum does, however, provide little information about this high participation rate. Most likely because the display of this would lack visual attractiveness—visitors of the museum, any museum in fact, quite understandably, want to see more than statistics, diagrams, histograms, graphs and charts.
The Vietnamese Women's Museum, in its very well organised and displayed presentations, thus presents Women in History on one floor, and ethnic minority groups, with emphasis on the role of women, on another.
Vietnam is a multi-ethnic country. Some 86% of its population of 90m, belong to the Viet, also called the Kinh group. It is safe to assume that the people one meets in Hanoi, Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon), Danang, Hue, or other towns in the flat coastal areas, are Kinh. The highlands of the interior, especially in the central and northern parts of the country, are, however, the original homes of the minority groups, 53 of which are recognised as separate ethnic communities with their own language, traditions and culture. The French had called these groups collectively Montagnard, but their individual names range from Tày, at 1.7m people the largest minority group, to O' Đu or Brâu, the smallest, with fewer than 400 members each.
A striking feature of the Montagnard is that the women are seemingly as doing all the work. At home they care for the children and prepare the meals, the ingredients for which they obtain from fishing, foraging and their fields they have ploughed, planted and harvested. They bring the crops in from the field, take care of storage and tend to the animals. They dye and embroider the cloth from which the clothes are made they wear… interestingly, these traditional dresses are worn at work, at home and when relaxing, if there ever is such a moment!

Women at work

Many of the ethnic minorities are matrilineal societies. Daughters are preferred and ownership of land follows the female line, while often the youngest daughter inherits all. Such a nice touch… rather than the oldest son being presented with the lot.
The Women in History section on the floor above concentrates on the role women played in the battle for the reunification of the country: which could not have been won without the silent sacrifices of the women whose children and husbands died for the Motherland. In recognition of their sacrifices the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly established the honorary title of Heroic Mothers of Vietnam, granted to women who had lost more than two children, their only child, only one child, or their husband and children, or their own life. In December 2008, almost 50,000 women received the title. Nguyen Thi Thu of Quang Nam lost ten children and two grandchildren; Pham Thi Ngu and Nguyen Thi Ram of Ho Chi Minh City lost eight children and were also awarded 'Hero of the Popular Armed Forces'.

Photos of Heroic Mothers

The popular Army or Guerrilla Forces had been founded in the villages to fight against enemy raids and destroy enemy posts. Nearly one million women participated, the largest group of which consisted of 7,365 women. This group fought 680 battles, destroyed 13 enemy posts and killed or captured 383 enemy soldiers.
Women involved in civil resistance undertook many key roles, including care of wounded soldiers, supply of troops and financial and food requisitioning. For the Dien Bien Phu campaign alone, women donated 2,381,000 workdays to the transportation of food and arms.
A most remarkable example of this is the 'Human Bridge' which was recorded in 1968 during the Tet Offensive by Pham Thin. The battle took place in Tan Bien District Tay Ninh Povince. Many soldiers were wounded and the section of young volunteers C2012 were in charge of transporting the wounded to the rear. A heavy unexpected rainfall flooded the normally dry Ba Chiem River. Complying with the directive 'Do not let the wounded get wounded twice' the volunteer girls went into the river to make a human bridge in order to carry the injured to secure areas.

Human Bridge

In the South women represented 40% of the guerrilla and militia forces. Female artillery groups destroyed planes, 105mm artillery guns and fuel stores. In Hue a group of 11 female militia members defeated a battalion of marines killing more than 100 GIs.
Many posters revealing the double-function of women are displayed, together with photographs of women performing what could be typical daily task, were it not for the rifle strapped to their back.

The two posters below show the female guerrillas being trained and in their roles of providers of the food to keep the nation going, combined with that of defenders of the country.

No wonder the poster that celebrates Independence Day portrays women… 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

HANOI – Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword)

The sword in the title brought victory to Emperor Lêơ Lơi in his 10-year insurgence against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. After the war, the sword, which still belonged to the god who had lent it him, had to be returned. And when one day boating on the lake, a giant tortoise snatched the sword from him, Emperor Lêơ Lơi understood that the god had taken it back. The lake, which was known as Luc Thủy (Green Water) Lake, was then renamed Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, or the Lake of the Returned Sword. And in the middle of the lake is Turtle Tower. 

In the northern part of the lake lies the Temple of the Jade Mountain—Ngoc Son Temple—which is connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted Morning Sunlight Bridge, or in Vietnamese The Huc bridge.  
The temple was erected in the 18th century and honours another military leader, Trần Hưng Đao, who, in the 13th century, distinguished himself in the war against the Yuan Dynasty.

The temple complex extends to the shore where a first entrance gate with two large red Chinese characters: Happiness (Phuc) on the right, and Prosperity (Loc) on the left. 

Just inside this gate is the Pen Tower (Thap But), built of stone and standing on a mountain, representing the earth, it is ten metres high with a tip resembling a writing brush—the symbols on the tower say Writing on the Clear Blue Sky, meaning, always be truthful. A small altar has been erected halfway up the mountain where one can pray to receive permission to enter the temple.

The second gate has a tiger on the left and a dragon on the right post. The third gate is topped by a stone representing an ink stone or inkpot.

 After crossing the Morning Sunlight Bridge one enters the temple through the fourth gate above which is a small room with circular windows, called the Moon Gazing Pavilion. Observe the various Taoist and I Ching symbols around the gate before you go to the temple within.

The area surrounding Hoàn Kiếm Lake is among the most relaxing. Day and night it's a focal point for people enjoying its calm and doing, alone or in groups, what they have come to do. Early morning is the time for exercising—stretching, work outs, tai chi—and in the evenings young couples look for some undisturbed time together, while families enjoy a refreshing walk. And all through the day snacks and drinks, coffee and ice cream can be enjoyed in the open-air cafés. 


Friday, January 1, 2016

HANOI – Imperial Citadel (Hoàng Thành Thăng Long)

Any tour operator will tell you that the must-see objects in Hanoi are Hoàn Kiếm lake with its Ngoc Son Temple and Turtle Tower; the Temple of Literature; Hi Chi Minh's mausoleum and museum; the One Pillar Pagoda; and the old town. What is too often left off the list is the Imperial Citadel and adjacent archaeological site where more foundations of the remaining structures of the ancient Imperial City are systematically being excavated.

The Imperial Citadel was listed, in 2010, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although many question the reason for the listing. One of the reason cited is that it was UNESCO's "gift" to Hanoi on its 1000th anniversary… maybe. The site is, it cannot be denied, a bit empty of ancient imperial structures. What one sees are buildings of non-imperial origin (built during the colonial days), but that hardly diminishes the attraction of a leisurely walk exploring the WHS. It is moreover within easy walking distance (30-40 minutes) of Hoàn Kiếm lake.

The Vietnamese pronunciation of Hoàng Thành is nowhere near the one vocalised by a foreign tongue, and the taxi driver consequently put me down at the nearest spot to the Citadel I could think of and convey across the language barrier: the Lenin statue—when splitting the name into its distinctive components it becomes Vietnamese, almost.

Flag Tower

The entrance appeared to be across the road from Lenin and after paying 40,000 dong for my ticket I found myself in the Vietnam Military History Museum—a jumbled up collection of equipment used to oust the French and the Americans, including a crashed US fighter plane and a few antique canons. The Hanoi landmark, the Flag Tower, is located on the grounds of the museum, and through the back-fence I could see the South Gate, the most prominent part of the Citadel. But to get there I had to leave the museum and turn right twice. Got it!
Hoang Thanh Thang Long (Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the old name of Hanoi) was built in the first decade of the 11th century, on the ruins of a Chinese fortress. Many buildings of the original citadel were, during the following centuries, demolished and rebuilt, lay-outs were changed as well as building styles. And at the end of the 19th century, the French colonial upheavals led to a final round of destruction. The Flag Pole was spared, together with the South Gate, the number one attraction.

south gate
dragon steps

Of the Kinh Thien Palace—built in 1428 and destroyed by the French in 1886—only the Dragon Steps and the foundations remain. The Dragon Palace, built by the French to house their Artillery Headquarters, now occupies the place. But, due to a lack of explanatory panels, it is not really clear which one is what. There are references on various websites to a Princess Pagoda (French: Pagode des Dames) and on site there even a panel with a reproduced postcard of its portal, but no structure like the one depicted can be seen anywhere. However, when googled, Princess Pagoda apparently is a building, very much obscured by trees, at the far end of the site.

Gateway to- and Pagode des Dames

The North Gate is apparently located somewhere behind the Princess Pagoda…, unfortunately a wall obstructs further progress and I was thus unable to make visual contact.

The Vietnamese military command under General Giap, had its headquarters in a building called D67, which is located in the Citadel and now open to the public. 
A photo display includes this newspaper cutting of its erstwhile proceedings. 

D67 in action

The Citadel is much larger than the part accessible to the public. Adjacent to it and across the street archaeological excavations are slowly uncovering the foundations and more remains of the old fortress. Not much to see there as this type of excavations consists mainly of carefully scraping and brushing layers of earth away. But the whole site could do with an explanatory map indicating the various buildings and other items on show—a huge bronze bell is, for instance, displayed without a word in English about its origin or function. The map could then be overlaid with an outline of the original Citadel and the findings from the excavations.

The Citadel is, however, a worthwhile object to visit and enjoy an hour or so of pleasant viewing. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

HANOI – winter 2015

The first morning the sun was lighting up my window. But when I looked outside something was clearly different from similar mornings three months ago. The girls sitting straight backed on their mopeds do not wear the usual T-shirt and wee little shorts, but padded coats and long trousers, and gloves—not to prevent darkening of their porcelain skin, but to keep warm.

To fully understand this we need to blank out the traditional belief that Vietnam is scorching heat with tropical downpours—images that linger from the 60s when the nightly news was saturated with GIs facing exactly those conditions. But that was of course in the country that was called South Vietnam, and the GIs never made it to the north.
Quite obviously, the north is different: four distinct seasons is one major difference. June, July, August and the first part of September are hot, with an average temperature of 32⁰C and heavy rains; December, January and February are cold, temperatures averaging 17⁰C; and the in-between months of spring and autumn are, temperature-wise, exactly that—in-between. The Hanoi tourist office suggests that autumn is the most beautiful and romantic time to visit Hanoi (September up to mid-November) with temperatures averaging 25⁰C due to warm sunlight and a cooling breeze.
Apparently that advice has not been heard far and wide. Now, December and almost Christmas, the old town is flooded with tourists. While the local inhabitants wear winter clothes, the tourists, and in particular the westerners, are dressed for summer. As the Hanoi winter temperatures are similar to cool summer days in western Europe and America, that is unsurprising. 

Looking at my recently downloaded tourist map to get an idea where to go next, it suddenly struck me that the Red River, on the southern shore of which Hanoi is located, is hardly ever incorporated in the tourist routes and objects. So I set out to explore the Red River to find out why.

What I hadn't realised is that this section of Hanoi bordering the river, that is the area between the two bridges, had streets outlined but without names, obviously the map is only meant for tourists visiting Hanoi's old town. And thus, I soon found out, tourists are a rarity in that section. I was looked over, and a few schoolkids even tried out their English on me… hello, how are you…! something that simply does not happen in the old town.

The area was difficult to access. An elevated road (built on a dike that protects the old town from the flash floods for which the Red River is famous) separates the two parts of town. On the old town side, the dike is adorned with the mosaic-murals that I have written about in a previous post.

After having traversed the dike I found myself at the entrance of the immense distributors' wet-market. It is not marked on the map, not for tourists, as it is muddy and smelly. And at the other end only a few alleyways (but indicated on the map as roads of the same width as those in the old town…) leading, I assumed, in the general direction of the river. After a few wrong turns and dead-ends I spotted a sign for the Riverview Hotel which led me to the river floodplain, an area that is heavily cultivated: I spotted wild growth and horticultural plots. The river was apparently a few hundred metres farther, but as far as I could see, beyond my reach. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

HANOI – little things that strike me…

I came across this hydrant, judging by its paint a fairly old one, and was amazed that it still had its cap (or maybe it's a spigot). Jakarta hydrants do not have them anymore. Removed and taken to a scrap-metal dealer. Even the nuts, used to bolt the struts together of the Java-Madura bridge that were easily accessible from its roadway, were removed within a few weeks after the bridge was officially opened.

It also struck me that the covers of the below-street-level sewers or ducts, are made of concrete with a proper water to cement to aggregates ratio, while the ones made of cast iron have not found their way to a scrap metal dealer.

And such a delight to be able to walk on well paved wide pavements, though parked cars and motorcycles often frustrate one's passage.
Especially now during the cool autumn month of October, walking the Hanoi roads is a real joy. 

One of the most amazing things in Hanoi is the way cables (electricity, telephone) are strung overhead. How can anybody know what is connected to what. But it looks that on some main roads the old system is being replaced by something neater; at least that's what I think the cables being cut down means.

In respect of scrap metal dealers, I suddenly remember the story of the railway tracks. It happened some 50 years ago in Holland. In a pub that I frequented as a student, I had made the acquaintance of a scrap metal dealer. He often stood me a beer and I listened to his stories. One day he almost shouted: WTF is happening to the world, I can't even trust my fellow dealers anymore… To me that sounded overly naïve, or was it stupidity, that made him expect fair, gentlemanly commercial practices where in fact there were none.
But anyway, this is what happened. He had been told of surplus rail the national railway company had sold. And as the original buyer suddenly needed quick money and was prepared to sell some of the rail at a considerably reduced price, they were bought by my acquaintance.
While loading the rail at the site—along the Rotterdam-Schiedam railway line—he was approached by a railway inspector who inquired in a heated way what the fuck he thought he was doing. He couldn't even complete his explanation before he was told that he had to immediately unload again, as these rail were to be used for the construction of an additional rail track. And whatever papers and contracts my man tried to show, he was to unload double quick, or the police would be called.
My acquaintance had lost a considerable sum of money, and the seller had left for an unknown destination shortly after receiving the money. urprisingly, I was treated to a night-long drinking spree plus a meal of fried chicken and chips.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

HANOI – shopping malls

… but first an addition to the previous post, Autumn in Hanoi. What a pleasant surprise, last night, a lady was selling roasted chestnuts in front of the hotel. She used one of these clever burners where a thick-walled stone vessel shaped like a flower pot, is heated from below with gas fire and filled with charcoal. When hot, the chestnuts are roasted in a wok on top of the burner.
These chestnuts are either from the south of China (the world's largest producer), or just across the border in Vietnam, as the fruit (it's a fruit, not a nut) needs temperate climates.

In the past days I did one mall each morning. And it led me to compare these shopping centres with the ones in Jakarta. The general conclusion is that the (top) malls in Jakarta are of a much higher standard, more luxurious and offering a wider variety of goods, and moreover seem to be frequented by larger numbers of customers. My experience is, of course, restricted to weekdays. During the weekend, many families and couples will likely hang out there. The ones included in my survey are: Vincom Towers, Royal City, Lotte Tower, Trang Tien Plaza and Parkson.

Vincom Towers, the oldest one, is fairly small and conventionally arranged around a central core, which allows an easy overview of shops. The range of goods for sale is standard, apart from the very big Lock&Lock offering a mouth-watering selection of household items and kitchenware.

Vincom Mega Mall Royal City, the newest addition to the Hanoi malls, is a huge two-storeyed, underground mall. If nothing else, its size is an experience. Its layout, however, is a handicap to easy shopping. The long main corridors with branches at 90 degrees do not aid in the search for a specific product or shop, while the maps and information boards are unclear and even incorrect. Vietnamese, a tonal language, is not spoken by many foreign visitors, and English is still in short supply among the Vietnamese population. The other day I ordered ba:n mi:, thinking I would get bánh mì, but got a questioning look instead, and that in a shop selling nothing but the baguette type sandwich.
The information centres of the Mega Mall, where no one speaks English, do not really help foreigners to find their way around.
Restaurants and other food outlets are scattered with no real logic to it, rather than being concentrated in a food court or restaurant alley. Apparently, some visitors picnic in the wide corridors on weekends.
The mall made a rather sterile impression, and for shopping I found it unattractive. 

The large number of shops selling furniture did astound me, as except for high-income earners, in the majority of homes furniture is restricted to a low table and beds.

But the water park, bowling alley and ice rink are exceptionally attractive and worth a visit.
The listed prices at the rink are for season-tickets (45, 90 and 180 days) for either weekdays and week-ends, with the latter more expensive, but single-day tickets can probably be arranged. It doesn't appear to be intended for hockey, as its shape is square, not rectangular; it looked long enough to accommodate a hockey rink (61 m) and maybe the boards could be placed, but I did not see any of the lines needed for a game.
The water park is probably as much fun for adults as for children. I didn't get a chance to observe it from the inside, but the posters looked exciting.

Lotte Towers is the mall to spend hours upon hours shopping and relaxing behind a coffee, or having a meal. Nicely laid out, clean and light, clear information boards at the base of the escalators, and a good assortment of shops and food outlets. The large Lotte supermarket is also worth a visit. 


Trang Tien Plaza offers a collection of high-end boutiques selling international luxury brands. Perfumes, jewellery, shoes, clothes, and on the top floors a number of restaurants. It is the place to go when looking for top brands.

And finally Parkson, a smallish but pleasantly laid out mall. Good selection of shops and articles. Definitely worth a visit.

Having done my blogging duty, I'm off to enjoy a bánh mì from the outlet next door. Easy, no confusion, they already know me there, and to order I only have to point at the pictures of the menu on the wall.