Discovering Indochina–Hanoi, Vietnam: Day 2


This post continues with our discovery of Hanoi. Our first day taught us that Ho Chi Minh was a more interesting leader than we knew about (click this link to see that post: Hanoi: Day 1) On this day we will find out a bit more about the history of Hanoi.

Historical Overview of Hanoi

Hanoi has, as I researched it, had a long history, with roots dating back to 3000 BCE. Vietnam – specifically the Red River Delta in which Hanoi is located, has an even longer history, with traces of human (and prehuman) occupation that date back 500,000 years, and signs of early civilization that are 20,000 years old. This was one of the first areas in the world that adopted agriculture. The need to have a single authority to prevent floods of the Red River, to cooperate in constructing hydraulic systems, to promote trade exchange, and to fight against invaders, led to the creation of the first Vietnamese state. In 2897 BC: Hùng Vương established the Hồng Bàng Dynasty in Vietnam (then known as Văn Lang). This was an early Bronze Age culture that benefited from the copper deposits in the area. The Red River, running from southern China through Vietnam, later became the route that was used for the Chinese conquest and occupation of Vietnam.


Hanoi had many names during its history. These names tell a tale about the history of the city and Vietnam itself. One of the first known permanent settlements in Hanoi is the Co Loa citadel (Cổ Loa) founded around 200 BC.  During the thousand-year occupation by the Chinese (from 111 BCE to 938 CE)  it was known first as Long Biên, then Tống Bình (Chinese: Sòngpíng, “Song Peace”) and Long Đỗ (Chinese: Lóngdù, “Dragonbelly”). In 866, it was turned into a citadel and named Đại La (Chinese:  Dàluó, “Big Net”).

In 1010, Ly Thai To, the first ruler of the Lý Dynasty, the first Vietnamese ruler of North Vietnam (Đại Việt), in order to create a sustainable dynasty, moved their capital to the site of the Đại La Citadel. Claiming to have seen a dragon ascending the Red River, he renamed the site Thăng Long (“Rising Dragon”) – a name still used today. Thăng Long remained the capital of Đại Việt until 1397, when it was moved to Thanh Hóa, then known as Tây Đô (the “Western Capital.” Thăng Long then became Đông Đô, the “Eastern Capital.”

In 1408, the Chinese Ming Dynasty attacked and occupied Vietnam, changing Đông Đô’s name to “Eastern Gateway” (Chinese: Dōngguān), Đông Quan in Vietnamese. In 1428, the Vietnamese overthrew the Chinese under the leadership of Lê Lợi, who later founded the Lê Dynasty and renamed Đông Quan Đông Kinh (“Eastern Capital”) or Tonkin. Right after the end of the Tây Sơn Dynasty, it was named Bắc Thành (“Northern Citadel”).

In 1802, when the Nguyễn Dynasty was established and moved the capital to Huế, the old name Thăng Long (“Rising Dragon”) was modified to become Thăng Long (“Ascending & Flourishing” – Note: these names seem the same to Westerners, however inflections in Chinese make them different words). In 1831, the Nguyễn emperor Minh Mạng renamed it Hà Nội (“Between Rivers”), its modern name. Hanoi was occupied by the French in 1873 and passed to them ten years later. As Hanoï, it became the capital of French Indochina after 1887.

The city was occupied by the Japanese in 1940 and liberated in 1945, when it briefly became the seat of the Viet Minh government after Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. However, the French returned and reoccupied the city in 1946. After nine years of fighting between the French and Viet Minh forces, Hanoi became the capital of an independent North Vietnam in 1954. Hanoi became the capital of a reunified Vietnam when North and South Vietnam were reunited on July 2, 1976.

This history shows how Hanoi was occupied and controlled by many different entities over the last 2000 years. This has had a major effect on the people here. Many of the original cultural elements were eliminated, replaced by Chinese influences, which are still strong today. Then Hanoi was returned to the Vietnamese  (“Vietnam” recognizes the dominance of the Viet tribe. Vietnam means, literally Man of the Viets.}, who ruled from Hanoi for several hundred years before the Capitol moved south as the country expanded to the south by conquering the Champa enpire.   Vietnam then endured a long period where the French influences were strong, particularly in Hanoi, which was the capitol of the French effort to colonize Indochina. Finally Hanoi was Vietnamese again, and the capitol of the country, as it is today.

The Temple of Literature

(Vietnamese: Văn Miếu)

We start the day’s tour at The Temple of Literature, an ancient site, first started by the Ly Dynasty. The temple was constructed in 1070 under King Lý Nhân Tông and is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars. The statues of Confucius, his four best disciples: Yan Hui (Nhan Uyên), Zengzi (Tăng Sâm), Zisi (Tử Tư), and Mencius (Mạnh Tử), as well as the Duke of Zhou (Chu Công), were placed in the temple. For the first years, only the Crown Princes were allowed to study here.

This soon became the first university in Vietnam. In 1076 , the Quốc Tử Giám, “Imperial Academy,” was established within the temple to educate Vietnam’s bureaucrats, nobles, royalty and other members of the elite. It was modeled after the Chinese Guozijian, or Kuo Tzu Chien, the “School of the Sons of State,”sometimes called the Imperial Academy, Imperial College, or Imperial Central School. This was the national central institute of learning in Chinese dynasties after the Sui. It was the highest institute of learning in China’s traditional educational system.

The design of the Temple of Literature is based on the one at Confucius’ hometown Qufu in the Chinese province of Shandong. It covers 54,000 sq. meters, and has three entrances and pathways that run through it. The center entrance is for the Emperor, the one to its left for administrative Mandarins and the one to its right for military Mandarins.  The university functioned for more than 700 years, from 1076 to 1779

We enter through the Great Gate.


You can see the Emperor’s gate in the center. If you look carefully you can see one of the Mandarin gates to the left. Everybody uses the Emperor’s gate now.


Through the Great Gate, we enter the The First Courtyard. This extends from the Great Gate to the Great Middle (Dai Trung) Gate, which is flanked by two smaller gates: Attained Talent (Dai Tai) and Accomplished Virtue( Than Duc). The extra decorations were for the recent Tet holiday. When we returned to our tour bus after the visit, in the space of less than two hours, many of the decorations had been removed.


Entering through the Great Middle Gate.


This plaque tells the story of the 82 stelae that are here, in the Third Courtyard.


These 82 stelae are said to be the true treasure of the Temple of Literature. On them are 1307 names of doctor laureates, from the Royal Exams from 1442 to 1779. There were 116 Royal Exams during this timeframe, but some of these stelae have been lost to time. Only the best of the students even qualified to take the examination. The final ranking was provided by the monarch himself, who interviewed and questioned each person who passed the exam, and assigned them all their final rankings.

The stelae line both sides of the Third Courtyard. They are mounted on turtles. The turtle was one of the four holy creatures of Vietnam, along with the dragon (long), unicorn (ly) and phoenix (phuong). The turtle is a symbol of longevity and perfection. The placement of the doctors’ stelae shows everlasting respect to talent.



Next we entered the Fourth Courtyard. This features, in the center, the House for Ceremonies (Bai Duong), where ceremonies took place on auspicious occasions. The next building is the Dai Thanh Sanctuary, where Confucius and his four closest disciples, Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi and Mencius, are worshipped.


There is a fanciful lion in the courtyard.


Inside the House of Ceremonies.


A phoenix bird is here. In Vietnam, the phoenix is considered the paragon of virtue and grace. The phoenix is full of movement, grace, pride and nobility. The phoenix appears only in peaceful and prosperous times, and hides itself when there is trouble. Thus, it is the sign of peace and the symbol of good times.


We are now in the Dai Thanh Sanctuary, gazing at the Great Confucius.


Near him, shown in the photo below, are two of the four great Disciples that are housed in this temple.


We are headed out now. In the Third Courtyard again. In the center of the courtyard is  the Well of Heavenly Clarity (Thien Quang Tinh). Around it today are displayed posters of renowned modern Vietnamese poets.


Hanoi Hilton – Hoa Lo Prison

The Hoa Lo Prison is a place of infamy. First as the brutal prison that the French used against the Vietnamese people during their colonial occupation from 1886, when it was built, to 1954, when the French left Vietnam. During French days this prison, designed for 600 inmates, by 1954 housed up to 2000 people held in subhuman conditions. It had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and of the bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French.

It was later called “The Hanoi Hilton” by US pilots imprisoned during the US-Vietnam war, brutally tortured – some to death – and manipulated for Vietnamese PR purposes.

The plaque in the prison talks about the history with the French. It says nothing about the history with the US. This is generally not told, or when it is told, it is with extreme untruth, saying that they tortured no one, and the prisoners liked it so much that they called it “The Hanoi Hilton,” misrepresenting the sense of irony in the name.


Here is a photo of the old grounds.


A photograph of the prison during French days.


Introductory sign to the French history and exhibits.


There are several rooms of sculpted, life-sized figures of Vietnamese prisoners.

The scenarios are life-like, showing the prisoners interacting.


A sign, expressing the Vietnamese view about the French colonial prison.


Imagine what is would be like to live each day with your ankle bolted down to a board.

Rows of men, locked into place.


Each has one ankle that is confined so they cannot move. All day, all night, locked onto a board.


The prison had special cells for the worst prisoners (usually the ones with the strongest political views towards Vietnamese self-rule).


They are shown living alone in small cells, bars on the window of the door, no other windows.


There were also women prisoners held here. I guess the French believed in equal rights for women (or equal wrongs against them).


Carol is about to look into one of the rooms of women.


You can see how gallant the French were towards the Vietnamese women; None has their foot chained down. Note that a child is shown here, too, with its mother still caring for it.


Some of the women are shown in very bad shape, being cared for and comforted by others.


In courtyards outside the cells, exhibits show the reality of the life of the prisoners.

These bronze plaques show torture at the hands of the French.



The sign below describes the bravery and desperation of the prisoners who escaped through a sewer.


Here is the pipe through which they crawled to their escape.


One exhibit shows a 22 year-old American, Roger Allen LaPorte, who burned himself to death in front of the UN on 10 November, 1965. He is viewed here as a hero. This was after the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, in Saigon on 11 June 1963. This monk is seen as one of the real Vietnamese heroes of this war.

This exhibit shows something that I was told by our Vietnamese guide. I asked him how people felt about the French and Americans, both of whom they had wars of liberation from. I was told that they still hate the French; they were arrogant and never bothered to see anything from the point of view of the local people.  Their feelings for Americans, I was told, are much better. This is due in part to people like Roger LaPorte, who protested against the actions of the American government.


This picture is in a group that also features photos of the bombing of Vietnam by the US.


A special room shows one of the French guillotines that was used at this prison. This shows one of the big inventions of the French.


There is something about this that makes me feel uncomfortable. (If anyone asks, maybe I will tell them the story.)


The guillotine receptacle. The head-bucket is pretty long, Maybe this is to catch the spurting blood after the decapitation?


There is another poster that shows execution, and then the severed heads, after the execution of three people, having been sentenced to death by the French in 1908.


Out a door we see bas-relief sculptures.


They are scenes of prison life, carved into a stone wall. The figures are larger than life.


Beyond these carvings is now the tallest building in Hanoi, built over that area where the American prisoners used to be held and tortured.


They show only brief information about the US pilots held here.

The plaque talks about ‘best living conditions’ for the pilots, but actual interviews with the pilots after their release show this be a lie. From wikipedia:

Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. The aim of the torture was usually not acquiring military information; rather, it was to break the will of the prisoners, both individually and as a group. The goal of the North Vietnamese was to get written or recorded statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them. Such POW statements would be viewed as a propaganda victory in the battle to sway world and U.S. domestic opinion against the U.S. war effort. In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American POW so subjected made a statement of some kind at some time. (As one later wrote of finally being forced to make an anti-American statement: “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”) Realizing this, the Americans’ aim became to absorb as much torture as they could before giving in; one later described the internal code the POWs developed and instructed new arrivals on as: “Take physical torture until you are right at the edge of losing your ability to be rational. At that point, lie, do, or say whatever you must do to survive. But you first must take physical torture.”


Prominent in this exhibit were photos of destruction caused by US bomber raids on Hanoi. According to the North Vietnamese, these bombing raids were not really against military targets; there were few concentrated military targets in North Vietnam. Rather, these were terror attacks against the civilian population.  The Americans said, however, that there were many strategic targets, including airfields, train lines, fuel dumps, and SAM Anti-aircraft sites.



TV screens showed video taken at that time. Prominent were videos of US B 52 bombers. These were the aircraft used in many of these bombings, operating from high altitude, above much of the defense capability of the Vietnamese, except for the Russian-made SAMS, which took a heavy toll on the US aircraft, until the US adjusted their tactics. The most famous campaign against North Vietnam, ordered by Richard Nixon, called Linebacker II, took place over just 11 days, 18–29 December 1972. The average plane dropped more than 10 times more bombs than the bombers in WW2, such was the power of the B52 ‘Stratofortress’.

All together, the number of bombs dropped in Vietnam was 3 1/2 times more than the US dropped in WWII, about 1000 lbs. of bombs per Vietnamese citizen. Vietnam is much smaller than France, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, so the bombs per square mile would have been much higher than WWII.


Vietnam is also proud of its capture of US Fighter pilots, like John McCain.


Here is his flight suit.


The Vietnamese seem very knowledgeable about the US political power structure, and show this in the exhibits.

They show a photo of Robert McNamara, seen by many as the key player in the escalation in Vietnam that happened under both Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from 1961 to 1968. .


Here is Henry Kissinger, before the treaty signed in 1972.


Ahhh … we are out of the prison. It felt kind of dark and depressing to me. I am glad to be outside. I see a bonsai tree in a small pot in the courtyard. I have never heard it talked about, but the Vietnamese seem to enjoy this are very much. We saw many wonderful specimens in many places during our visit.


There is a small shop on the grounds. You can buy books (especially in Vietnamese) and prints.

Here is a friendly one for Uncle Ho.


And a copy of one of his New Year messages, translated by a school student (I think):

Last year was full of glorious victory,
This year the forefront’s sure to win still bigger ones.
For Independence, for freedom,
Let’s fight so the Yanks quit, and the puppets topple.
Forward fighters, countrymen!
North and South reunited, could there be happier spring?

Spring, 1989 – Ho Chi Minh


Uncle Ho is shown as the loving grandfather on a large poster on the front of a nearby building.


Now we are through with war and politics for the day.

First the group has a nice lunch together in a good North Vietnamese restaurant.

Wonderful bowls of soup are a feature. The one seen below was served boiling over a charcoal fire. The rest of the ingredients were put in by the girl who is shown here, eating.


BBQ meat on skewers also is popular (and tasty).


Here is our table of happy eaters.


Quan, our guide, also had hot soup on a fire that he finished cooking at the table.


I ordered pork in bamboo. This is what I got. Notice the orange flower on the bottom left? It is a carrot, carved.


We are on the street again. This afternoon is unscheduled, so Carol and I continue to explore on foot.

A common kind of street vendor is one that sells French rolls and bread. After the French heritage, these are popular throughout Vietnam.


We passed a lady selling whole roasted ducks. These are more ‘whole’ than the ones offered in the USA (or India).


A veggie lady. So many different kinds of greens surround her. Notice that there is a plastic pot with white objects floating in water to the left of the lady. These are potatoes, already peeled. A quicker way to make a meal when you get home. Vietnamese “convenience food.”


We walk again by Hoa Kiem Lake. Across the street is this classic Hanoi house. It is four stories tall, but maybe only 10 or 12 feet wide. Hanoi land has been very expensive for a long time, so they learned to build tall houses on small-sized lots. The window treatment looks more French than anything else. Just what you would expect in Hanoi. Either French or Chinese.


A shop nearby, with lots of things for tourists to buy. Many of the visitors near the lake are Vietnamese, and I think they are the target market for this shop.


Here are some of the Vietnamese visitors, four girls, maybe college students.


I see across the lake the wooden red-painted Huc Bridge that leads to Jade Island on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain sits. This is our goal for the afternoon.


A couple, sitting near the bridge, oblivious to the rest of the world.


The Temple of the Jade Mountain

(Vietnamese: Đền Ngọc Sơn)

We get to the red bridge. Last night we photographed it as it was “afire with red lights.”


Here is the gate from the shore. This is closed at night.


The red Huc Bridge, or “Morning Sunlight Bridge,” flying brightly colored flags. This is obviously seen as picturesque by the locals.


Almost to the end of Huc Bridge. The temple is about 200 years old, so that trees have had time to grow a complex root structure.


The Vietnamese sacred unicorn, the “Ly”, on one side of the gate to enter the temple grounds.


Near the gate is a fire niche, with a hot fire burning inside it.


This is a fire made from (mostly fake) Vietnamese and American currency put in it to burn after New Years. Below, Richard burns a 10 rupee note.


We enter into the temple.


So many flowers and offerings are on the altar. This is a big period for temples, after Tet.


Looks to be a temple to Confucius.


Visitors bow before the shrine.


All around the altar are offerings, even stuffed in the mouth of this horse!


Bills lying everywhere. These are mostly just fakes, I think, or very low denominations. Maybe they are real? They look so new and unused.



More people making their offerings and paying respect.


Also in this temple is a statue to the Ho Guom Tortoises, famous in the legend of this lake.


These are big tortoises, 2 meters long. They are an endangered species. The lake’s population of them is unknown.


Joss sticks burn and smoke. Most visitors light 1 or 5 of them (always an odd number of sticks).


Nearby is a Chinese calligrapher. Posters with a Chinese character are a popular thing to get after Tet, to hang in your house.


A pretty Vietnamese girl in a native costume. The white dress means that she is unmarried.


Roots hanging from trees meet the water. Maybe a banyan tree, I guess.


Walking back over the bridge.


These birds are for sale. It is common for Buddhists to buy one of these and release it. In China, and so in Vietnam, the release of animals, particularly birds or fish, into their natural environment is an important way of demonstrating Buddhist piety. In China it was known as fang sheng. This practice is based on a passage in the Mahāyāna Sūtra of Brahma’s Net (Ch: Fanwang Jing), which states that “…all the beings in the six paths of existence are my parents. If I should kill and eat them, it is the same as killing my own parents. … Since to be reborn into one existence after another is the permanent and unalterable law, we should teach people to release sentient beings.”


Some kind of political demonstration, with Communist flags flying from motorcycles. Since Vietnam is a one-party state, the only political symbols seen are Communist.


Fanny Ice Cream Parlor

We end the day by going to the Fanny Ice Cream Parlor. It is at the Southwest end of the lake. We have heard of it from other members of the tour group.


Nice interior, kind of a classic “Ice Cream Parlor” look.


They used to serve gelato, but now they have changed over to artistic, and humorous, ice cream creations.

This was served at a nearby table.


Even the locals think the creations are worthy of a photograph.


Here from the menu is Ice Cream Fondue, for a group; chocolate sauce and a bunch of different flavors.


We ordered Ice Cream Sushi. Here it is, before we dive in. Eight ‘sushi’ rolls of different flavors of ice cream, coated in black sesame seeds to look like a nori wrapping. Two sauces (chocolate and strawberry) to use with the sushi, and fruit slices (mango and a local fruit we have seen only in Vietnam) are also on the plate.


Happy after the ice cream, we walk back to the hotel. On a street corner we come upon many cigarette vendors, with high stacks of cartons (and packages) of ciggies.


Night Train to Hue

That night we were to take a sleeper train to Hue. It would take all night to get there.

We are at the train station in Hanoi.


The sleeper cars look like those from movies, with compartments and a long hall.


Four to a compartment. Comparing these to the one Indian sleeper we rode in one night a few years ago, the beds were comfortable, and we both actually got a few hours of sleep (which for me was unlike the Indian sleeper car).


We enjoyed Hanoi more than we had imagined. If we had another day or two there, I think we would have been able to find more sights to see and enjoyed ouyrselves.

My only issue there was the motorcycle driver who ran over my foot. While you are not supposed to get angry in Vietnam, like at poor restaurant service, I yelled at the guy who ran over my foot. I later checked with the guide, who said it was OK to get angry in this circumstance.

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3 Responses to “Discovering Indochina–Hanoi, Vietnam: Day 2”

  1. Núi ngự Bình - Điểm đến Huế Says:

    Núi ngự Bình – Điểm đến Huế…

    […]Discovering Indochina–Hanoi, Vietnam: Day 2 « Living in the Embrace of Arunachala[…]…

  2. traveliving Says:


    […]Discovering Indochina–Hanoi, Vietnam: Day 2 « Living in the Embrace of Arunachala[…]…

  3. Kiran Uday M Says:

    Great stuff Richard !

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