But once that job was complete, I wanted to do at least one or two touristy things, given that I was smack in the middle of one of Hanoi’s historical districts. The Old Quarter has a history going back several hundred years or more.
I took two self-guided walking tours. The first was to West Lake (Hồ Tây), but before I reached it, I spent most of the afternoon in the Vietnam Military History Museum, which was on the way. I’ve already posted a few photos from the museum here. The second was to a smaller lake, Hoàn Kiếm, home to a Confucian temple and surrounded by many restaurants, hotels and shops.
The day I visited West Lake was rather dreary, and I have few attractive photos of the area. In fact, having spent most of the afternoon at the museum, I really only got as far as Trúc Bạch Lake, at West Lake’s southeast corner, before I decided to have a cup of coffee and rest my weary legs. Trúc Bạch Lake is where Senator John McCain (then serving in the US Air Force) was shot down on October 26, 1967, and there is a monument to that event there.
It was starting to rain as I finished my coffee and cheesecake, so I walked back to my Airbnb before the rain got too heavy.
The weather was more hospitable for my second walking tour to Hoàn Kiếm Lake, where I visited Ngoc Son temple. This part of Hanoi has been settled since the 500s, when the Emperor Lý Nam Đế built an encampment there. (Interestingly, Lý Nam Đế’s family came from what is now China. His Chinese name is 李南帝 Lǐ nán dì. It’s a reminder that our present-day national borders are a recent construct, historically speaking, and that China has been a major influence on this part of the world for millennia.)
A few things stand out for me from these walkabouts. Hanoi has preserved many of its old buildings, even those from French colonial times, even as sleek, modern high rises have been erected around the Old Quarter. This has preserved a lot of the charm of the Old Quarter and gives it a European feel. Trees have also been preserved. Some have grown so wide that they take up the width of the sidewalks, and pedestrians have to walk in the street to go around them. I’d wager some of the trees are a couple of hundred years old at least. Traffic is nuts, but probably more manageable than I’ve heard it to be in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Everyone has a scooter or a motorcycle, and crossing a busy street requires you to bravely walk across as these two-wheelers swerve around you. Some intersections have no traffic control at all, and watching cars and motos weave around each other is dizzying.
OK, enough chatter. Here are some more photos. Most are from the Hoan Kiem area, but the first two are closer to West Lake.
According to legends from the 15th century, King Lê Lợi received a mystical sword from the Dragon King. With this sword and the blessings of the gods, Lê Lợi was able to win Vietnam’s independence from the Chinese Ming emperors. After the victory, the king went boating on Hoan Kiem Lake, then called “Green Lake”. A golden turtle surfaced, took the sword from him, and swam away. Neither the turtle nor the sword were ever seen again. Green Lake was then renamed Ho Hoan Kiem — “The Lake of the Returned Sword.”
Coming up: A week in Da Nang
Also published on Medium.