Tuesday 3/12/13 - Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature, Cooking Lesson, Cheo Performance, Hanoi's Old Quarter

The next morning, we woke up at 6:30 a.m., half an hour ahead of our alarm. We talked about how much fun we had had last night with Loi, and we looked forward to meeting our guide Cuong at 9 o'clock this morning. We each took a nice shower and then headed downstairs for breakfast. When we stepped out into the hallway, we noticed a little black bag hanging on the door containing the morning's English-language Viet Nam News. We brought the paper into our room and then went back out into the hallway. There was a nice painting of the hotel at the end of our corridor. The hallway looked very regal with its rich dark wood doors and woodwork. We took the elevator downstairs.

We enjoyed our breakfast at the Metropole's French restaurant, Le Beaulieu. The dining room was large and spacious. There were fancy omelet and pho stations, but we stuck to the more continental buffet items: fresh baguettes, cheese, home-made yoghurt topped with fresh fruit, dim sum dumplings, fried tofu, flan, home-made frosted donuts, granola, and fresh orange juice. Everything was laid out in such a way that there were never any lines at the buffet. Food stations were spread out and easily accessible. A French press was left on our table so that we could have as much of the delicioua coffee as we wanted.

We enjoyed all kinds of delicious fresh fruit. Wedges of pineapple were painstakingly carved into delicate patterns. We tried the white dragonfruit...a succulent fruit with green cactus-like exterior, with a white fleshy interior flecked with small black seeds. We know the same fruit but with a bright pink flesh from Guatemala, where it is called "pitaya." Breakfast was served on fine china plates with the Metropole Hotel's mongoram. It was quite fancy. The waitstaff were very polite and attentive. They delivered us a little tiny silver spoon for our yoghurt as a regular spoon wouldn't fit in the mouth of the small glass jar.

We were about to leave the table to meet Cuong at 9 o'clock in the lobby when a cheerful Vietnamese man approached us. "Would you mind if I join you for coffee?" Though we felt this was very sweet and friendly, we made apologies for having to leave to meet our guide... The man's face broke into a wide, knowing smile. "You're Cuong, aren't you?" I asked. He nodded enthusiastically. We all had a good laugh at his creative way of breaking the ice. We knew from the get-go that we had similar senses of humor and would get along just fine.

After chatting for several moments, Craig and I quickly stopped back at the room to get our day packs. We met Cuong in the lobby. There was a book about the history of the hotel on display at the bellman's desk. Cuong flipped it open and showed us a picture of his late father, who had worked here for years. Then he flipped to another page and showed us his wife Nhung's picture. She has worked at the hotel since 1978 and is currently the manager of the Vietnamese restaurant on premises, Spices Garden. It was nice to know that Cuong's family has a history with the hotel, as the hotel was so lovely.

We headed outside together into the drizzling rain and Mr. Giang was waiting with the car. It was nice to see him again, and he greeted us warmly. Today was a city tour, and we didn't really know what to expect. The weather was drizzly and gray, but it was warm. We wore our rain jackets and were quite comfortable.

Cuong announced to us that there are three things you need to know in order to understand Vietnam: 1) The words Viet and Nam (which translate as People to the South [of China]) 2) Ho Chi Minh (beloved revolutionary revered as the founding father of modern-day Vietnam) 3) Dien Bien Phu (the battle at which the Vietnamese defeated the French, which would result ln Vietnam being split into North and South at the 17th parallel in 1954). Ho Chi Minh and his people to the south of China had been able to expel their invaders, which would give them confidence to turn around and ultimately do the same to the Americans.

Mr. Giang pulled the car over in Ba Dinh Square and we hopped out of the car. Cuong had his nice camera with him, and told us that he loved to take photographs. He said that he would get some printed for us so that we could take them home with us. That was so thoughtful - it's always difficult to get pictures of the two of us together when one or the other of us has to be behind the camera.

Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, which we had driven past with Loi the previous night. It was an imposing granite structure, designed with Soviet-style starkness. We hadn't thought that we would get to go inside the mausoleum, as it is always very busy. But apparently this morning the queue was reasonable, so Cuong led us to the line. He said that he would wait outside, holding our cameras and bags, which weren't allowed in the mausoleum. The queue progressed and we needed to pass through a metal detector.

Vietnamese people come from throughout the country to pay their respects to their "Uncle Ho", many of them children on class field trips. We stood amongst them in the queue with our hands at our sides, as instructed. Men in military uniforms kept the queue moving at a brisk pace. The atmosphere was tense. We were ushered into the building. There was no talking allowed. A group of schoolchildren was exiting as we entered. Some of the kids couldn't control themselves, and waved to us and said hello. We tried not to encourage them, as we didn't want to get them, or ourselves, on the bad side of these guards.

We solemnly walked into the building and around the perimeter of a room where we saw Ho Chi Minh's preserved body lying in state. There are only 2 other leaders whose bodies have been preserved in this manner: Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. As the Vietnamese viewed the body, they folded their hands together and gave a small bow. Ho Chi Minh was lying in a glass casket. Military guards ushered us all through very quickly. There was no time to dawdle. There was no indication that this was a body which had been on display for 43 years!

We reunited with Cuong outside, and we walked around the campus. We saw the very pretty yellowish-gold French colonial-style Presidential Palace. Cuong explained that French colonial buildings like this one were very often painted this yellowish-gold color. Yellow had been the royal color of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam, and the French appropriated it during their colonial period. When Ho Chi Minh had been in power, he eschewed this ornate mansion in favor of more humble quarters. He insisted on living in the servants' quarters from 1954-1958. These servants'quarters were now on display. People huddled around the glass front wall to peek inside at Uncle Ho's austere apartment. The rooms had high ceilings and nice hardwood floors, but were furnished sparsely. We saw a bedroom, a dining room, and an office. Above Ho Chi Minh's wooden desk were portraits of Marx and Lenin.

Seeing that even the leader of the country could be happy living humbly, the Vietnamese felt better about their simple lives under Communism. But Cuong dispelled any notion that Uncle Ho was a humble man. "They called him the father of the nation, and he quietly accepted it. How can this man be the father of a thousand year old nation? He was not humble." He certainly was a bit flashy when it came to automobiles. Here was a garage which housed his three luxury cars. Two of them were Soviet, and one was a Peugeot. We couldn't help but think of Camper Van Beethoven's song "Joe Stalin's Cadillac." We could easily imagine them writing a verse about Uncle Ho's Peugeot.

There were huge crowds at the custom-built modest house on stilts that Ho Chi Minh occupied after 1958. We were content viewing it from afar, as trying to get inside would have taken way too much time. After snapping a couple of photos of the house reflected in the waters of a pond. We continued walking through the grounds in front of the mausoleum. There were screens showing videos about Ho Chi Minh, and there were souvenir stalls where you could get a bronze bust of Uncle Ho, his face depicted on a collectible plate, or a photograph of him hugging a young child, and other classic propaganda.

In the gardens there was a large jade stone which had very recently been discovered underground in the south of the country and had been brought here to Hanoi as an offering for Uncle Ho. The landscaping was very pretty. Everything was lush and green. We noticed some construction going on behind the mausoleum. They are building a modern dome behind us, and it reminded us of the Reichstag in Berlin which we had toured in 2004. Cuong said that is what it was modeled after. What a small world!

Next we went to see symbolic evidence of the thousand-year old culture here in Hanoi, the One Pillar Pagoda. This is a wooden pagoda originally built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong to thank a goddess for his single son. The current pagoda is actually a replica, since the French destroyed the original in 1954. There was a sign there which listed the rules of the place, including that hand holding is forbidden.

Cuong called Mr. Giang, who appeared out of nowhere with the car. We hopped in and took a short ride to the the Temple of Literature. This is a temple to Confucius which was built in 1070 and served as the nation's first university. We passed under the beautiful Van Mieu Gate which housed a large bell. Red paper lanterns were strung along the walkway. Five courtyards represented the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and soil. Five qualities were striven for: righteousness, patience, wisdom, loyalty, and virtue. The emphasis was on being a good [hearted] man first, and only after that focusing on knowledge and education. "The talented man is our national asset" became their slogan in 1442.

We wandered around the five courtyards, looking at the various slogans written in flowers. There was a Well of Heavenly Clarity within the third courtyard. We saw 82 giant stone stelae engraved with the names of scholars who passed examinations to become mandarins. The stelae were perched onto the backs of stone turtles, a symbol of longevity.

We admired a giant bronze urn which was as tall as we were in the fifth courtyard. We entered the Confucius Temple which contained altars and statues. There were hundreds of schoolchildren sitting on plastic stools listening to a presentation about the history of the place. Just then the presentation ended and the children dispersed. In one of the statues, Confucius was making the sign of yin and yang, or balance, with his hands. The furniture and accessories in this temple were red lacquer and gold. We marveled at a bright and shiny gold-plated ceramic tortoise. People had left offerings of fruit, money, candles, flowers, and incense.

The Vietnamese schoolchildren seemed more interested in us than they were in the temple. They smiled and laughed and greeted us in English, asking where we are from and what our names are. It was adorable. At one point we turned around and noticed dozens of children following us, like we were the pied piper.

Mr. Giang picked us up and then drove us through the French Quarter of Hanoi. Wide, tree-lined boulevards showcased French colonial architecture, most of it yellow. We saw the train station, Ga Ha Noi, opened by the French in 1902. Its two outlying wings are yellow French colonial, whereas the center is simple and concrete and blocky, having been rebuilt in the Soviet style after being bombed by the USA.

Next we drove a short way out of town for a cooking lesson. We entered a courtyard which had a fish pond in the center. An older woman was tending an altar in front of a small building. Cuong told us that she was a practitioner of the fairyism religion, and that maybe we would be able to talk to her after our cooking lesson.
Cuong led us into a bamboo building with a thatched roof. Some cheerful ladies greeted us, and got us outfitted with aprons. They also tied a kerchief around my hair. We would be helping to prepare a three course lunch for ourselves. A cooking station had been set up on a table, with space for food preparation in addition to a gas cooktop. They put thin plastic gloves on our hands which were way too small, and Craig's hand busted through. We were all suited up and ready to go.

The first course consisted of pork and mushroom spring rolls wrapped in home-made rice paper. The first step was making the rice paper. Water was boiling in a pot on the cooktop, and fabric was stretched over the top of the pot. A thin rice and water mixture had been prepared, and we dunked a ladel into it. We poured the ladel-full in a spiral motion in a thin layer on top of the fabric. We swirled the spoon three times. They then covered the pot for a few seconds to let it steam. Then when it was done, we needed to use a chopstick to peel it off of the fabric without tearing it and deposit it without wrinkles on a banana leaf. Needless to say, this was a nuanced task, and we were very clumsy at it at first. It was a source of much giggling, and we all had a great time. After each rice paper was done, we spooned a pork and mushroom mixture into the center of the rice paper and then rolled it up into a springroll.

We prepared a plate full and then sat and enjoyed eating them with Cuong and Mr. Giang. We dipped the springrolls in fish sauce, and they were absolutely delicious. A note about fish sauce: before we started eating Vietnamese food, the mere thought of fermented fish sauce as a condiment seemed repulsive. We skeptically tried it in the Vietnamese restuarant near our house, and were pleasantly surprised. It is at the same time savory, sweet, and salty. We were happy to be served fish sauce today for dipping our springrolls.

Unlike last night, I was fumbling with my chopsticks. Cuong tried to teach me proper form, but I was unable to master it. I had to continue in my own unique unorthodox way, causing lots of giggles from everyone.

For the second course, we coated little bits of fish in a mixture of custard flour and tapioca flour and fried them in oil on the cooktop. As with most Vietnamese cuisine, presentation is key. This could not be left out of our lesson. Craig and I were shown how to create flowers out of cucumbers, and how to make a rose out of a tomato peel. We had to do this with some surprisingly primitive-looking blunt knives, and needless to say the final product didn't look much like a rose. But our cooking teachers were somehow able to use these selfsame knives to create beautiful nuanced carvings. When we were done, we all gathered at the table and helped ourselves to fish, which We dipped in mayonnaise, put onto a thin sheet of rice paper with carmelized onions and greens, and wrapped it up. We dipped it into a soy-like sauce and it was delicious.

They called Craig up to the preparation area and had him make a sauce of water, vinegar, fish sauce, and brown sugar. They heated it up on the cooktop, added garlic and chilies, then added bean sprouts and beef. They cooked it very quickly and pour the mixture into a bowl of rice noodles. The plate was divided into four quadrants for visual appeal , and you were supposed to mix it as you eat.

The food was all delicious and we ate until our stomachs were bursting. The guys had a Ha Noi beer and I had a Coke Light. For dessert we had green bean custard. Though its consistency was rather like mucus, it tasted pleasant. we mixed rice into it and had pineapple which was of course cut into intricate patterns.

Our cooking instructors were interested in which course we liked the best. They thought it was quite funny when Craig said he liked all of them. Everything had been delicious, but if forced to choose, I would say that the fish springrolls with carmelized onions had been my favorite. Quite surprising for someone who doesn't usually enjoy fish at home. We said our goodbyes and thanks to our teachers. They had taught us a lot and provided a lovely lunch, and we had provided them with lots of entertainment.It was such a nice little oasis...the landscaping and trees made it feel very remote, even though it was just a short way from the highway.

Next, we went back into the city and Cuong introduced us to the Old Quarter, where he lived as a child. The streets here were narrow and crowded. Buildings have a narrow small footprint but are several stories high. Hanoi is extremely crowded, with only 2 square meters per person. These peoperties in Old Town sell for millions of dollars due to high demand. He showed us the Golden Wings II Hotel, which now resides in the building which was until recently his parents' family home.

We walked a couple of buildings down and went into the Ngoi Nha Di San (Heritage House). This is an 18th century dwelling which has been restored to its former glory with elaborate woodwork and containing beautiful antique furniture and musical instruments. We watched a man doing black and white painting and calligraphy, and a woman playing a 16-stringed instrument. We went upstairs and saw some elaborately carved wooden doors which opened onto a balcony. A bird in a cage nipped at me as I tried to photograph it. We inspected some beautiful wooden furniture with inlaid shell embellishments.

Cuong took us to a street which contained silver and gold shops. We turned down some alleyways behind the storefronts visible along the narrow streets. There was a whole world hidden back here, families living in small, dark apartments with their kitchens and bathrooms in small outbuildings in the alley. Although the conditions are cramped, they prefer this life in the Old Quarter to the new, modern, suburban apartments and townhouses that the government has been erecting. They know all of their neighbors here and everything is close by. They have a sense of community that they feel they would lack in modern apartment buildings. These people are not poor. They have new motorcycles and flat screen TV's. This is where they have always lived and they want to stay, even as the area starts to become more gentrified.

Next we went to a community house (dinh, in Vietnamese) for a private cheo performance. Cheo is Vietnamese popular opera, and these performers were part of the national troupe. We were very lucky to have a private performance of this art form which dates back to the 11th century in the Red River delta area. We sat next to a beautiful ancestor altar. Four musicians sat in the background, playing a variety of instruments: flute, percussion, a stringed instrument played with a bow, a stringed instrument looking somewhat like a banjo. Male and female singers and dancers appeared in elaborate, colorful costumes with expressive make-up and exaggerated facial expressions. They welcomed us and poured us cups of tea, and handed us yellow roses and betel nut carved into a flower.

They proceeded to act out three stories. The dancers' movements were very fluid and graceful. One of the stories is a folk tale called Thi Kinh, in which a woman falsely accused of killing her husband disguises herself as a man and lives as a monk in a pagoda. Upon her death she becomes a Buddha.

Other tourists wandered into the community house, and they were allowed a peek at the performance, but they were not allowed to stay. It was very surreal that this entire performance was just for us. Toni had outdone herself on this igtinerary.

The performers passed out small amounts of dong (Vietnamese currency) to us as a symbol of good luck. Women danced with fans, swords, and fire. Costume changes occurred onstage, blocked from view by fans or shimmering pieces of silk. At the end of the nearly hour-long performance, Cuong got our photo with the troupe, and one of the actors presented me with a yellow fan as a souvenir. This had been truly a private performance just for us, and we felt extremely lucky to have been able to experience it. It was surreal.

Next we went to a nearby building which houses Cuong's family's ancestor altar. Ancestor worship is very important to the Viet people. Today was the first day of the lunar month, so Cuong needed to make an offering. Although Cuong's family owns the building, under communism the family was forced to take in boarders, and now several families live rent-free in the building, none of them being Cuong's family. But they still maintain the altar here. We entered the building and followed a narrow corridor deep into the building. Cuong lit some incense and then showed us a family history book through which he has traced back his ancestors for eight generations. Being more progressive than prior generations, he and his brothers have included wives in the previously men-only historical records. It was very thoughtful of Cuong to share this special family tradition with us, and we felt honored.

Afterwards, we headed back out to the street and Cuong hailed three cyclos (bicycle rickshaws). We each got into one and were pedaled around the Old Quarter. Motorbikes and cars swerved around us in the chaotic streets. The number one rule of the road in Hanoi seems to be "beep and pass". Noone stays in their proper lanes, and it is a free-for-all, but somehow it all works, like intricate choreography. It had been sprinkling and cloudy for most of the day. It started to actually rain while we were in the cyclos. For most of the day, it had been misty and dark, but this was the first actual rainshower. We were under a roof on the cyclos, but our drivers weren't, and we felt a bit guilty.

We passed through the "36 Streets" section of the Old Quarter. In the 13th century. there were 36 streets which were each devoted to a particular artisanal trade. Today the various trades still cluster here, and we pass silk shops, gravestone artisans, paper lantern displays, hardware shops, flower sellers, and even one featuring a stack of safes. Once in a while my driver would tap my shoulder and direct my attention to something interesting that we were passing.

Craig felt a little bit uncomfortable being chauffeured around by someone like this, but it is a popular tourist way to see the city. It lets you get an intimate look at what goes on in the streets without needing to worry about getting run over by the unpredictable traffic. As we passed flower stalls we were enveloped by the fragrance of the fresh blossoms.

We became aware that our cyclo ride was taking us onto larger roads. Large buses started to pass us, and tehre were stoplights to contend with. We realized that the drivers were delivering us to the Metropole Hotel. Cuong's wife Nhung is the manager of the Vietnamese restaurant at the hotel, Spices Garden. Though the restaurant was currently closed in between lunch and dinner seatings, we were seated at a table and enjoyed tea, chocolate pastries, and fresh fruit. Nhung came over to greet us. She was very sweet, and invited us to come back for dinner this evening.

We said goodbye to Cuong for the night and headed upstairs to our room. A man arrived to turn our room down for the night. He delivered two small macaron pastries, put down the shades, turned down the bedclothes, and got our slippers out for us.

At 7 o'clock, we headed back down to Spices Garden. We only wanted a light meal, as we had eaten quite a bit at lunch. We felt a little bit underdressed in the restaurant; a lot of the patrons were wearing business suits, including a German government official dining with a large party at the next table over from ours. But I at least had a skirt and blouse and Craig had a nice shirt and slacks.

Madame Nhung took our menus away, assuring us that she knew what we wanted despite having just met us. Craig got a Halida beer and I had vodka with passionfruit juice. Our first course was a banana flower salad with chicken. It was delightfully light and flavorful. Next came a bowl of beef pho (rice noodle soup) and a slate dish bearing an assortment of eight different spring rolls, all artfully presented, of course. Everything was incredibly delicious and had contrasting flavors and textures. As much as we enjoyed it all, we didn't have room in our stomachs to finish all of the spring rolls. For all we know, she may have even had more courses planned out for us, but we just didn't have any more room. We were served a small scoop of mango sorbet for dessert, and Nhung suggested camomile tea so as not to interfere with our night's sleep. She and Cuong took such good care of us!

With our bellies full, we took the elevator back upstairs. We arrived back at the room at 9:30 p.m. I wrote up the day's activities in the journal and then we went to sleep.
Outside Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Outside Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (photo courtesy of Cuong)

One Pillar Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda

Van Mieu Gate, Temple of Literature

Van Mieu Gate, Temple of Literature

Well of Heavenly Clarity, Temple of Literature

Well of Heavenly Clarity, Temple of Literature

Urn in the Fifth Courtyard, Temple of Literature

Urn in the Fifth Courtyard, Temple of Literature (photo courtesy of Cuong)

Confucius Temple, Temple of Literature

Confucius Temple, Temple of Literature

Schoolchildren talking to us at the Temple of Literature

Schoolchildren talking to us at the Temple of Literature (photo courtesy of Cuong)

Craig making a piece of rice paper to wrap our springrolls

Craig making a piece of rice paper to wrap our springrolls (photo courtesy of Cuong)

About to sample our springrolls

About to sample our springrolls(photo courtesy of Cuong)

Craig exploring Heritage House, Hanoi

Craig exploring Heritage House, Hanoi

Community house where we watched a private cheo performance

Community house where we watched a private cheo performance

Cheo musicians

Cheo musicians

Cheo actresses performing the story of Thi Kinh

Cheo actresses performing the story of Thi Kinh

Cheo actress

Cheo actress

Cheo Troupe

Cheo troupe (photo courtesy of Cuong)

Cuong lighting incense at his family's ancestor altar

Cuong lighting incense at his family's ancestor altar

Cyclo rides in the Old Quarter

Cyclo rides in the Old Quarter (photo courtesy of Cuong)

Cyclo ride through Hanoi's Old Quarter

Cyclo ride through Hanoi's Old Quarter

Arriving at the Metropole Hotel by cyclo

Arriving at the Metropole Hotel by cyclo

Tea at Spices Garden

Tea at Spices Garden

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