We stayed in the Old Quarter while in Hanoi. The streets are very narrow with store fronts, restaurant seating and motorbikes taking over the narrow sidewalks. There is also a heavy flow of crazy traffic, honking their horns. It feels as if someone put hectic NYC into the narrow, winding roads of Ancient Europe.
We explored a temple on an island in the lake (Hoan Kiem Lake). The temple is called Den Ngoc Son and you reach it by crossing a red wooden bridge, called Cau The Huc. The bridge is painted red because red is the color of happiness in Vietnamese culture. The temple is dedicated to General Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century.
We found a free walking tour that is run by Hanoi University. The university club sends a student to meet the tourist at their hotel/hostel. Together, we walked around Hanoi for three hours. The guide answers questions, explains customs, discusses traditions, and tell you about the sites around town. This experience also benefits the students because the club caters to students studying the tourist industry or foreign language. We took our tour with Jeanie. She is a senior and is studying English. She would love a job giving tours in English once she graduates. We had a lovely time walking around the city with her. We asked her many questions about her life and she in return asked us about life in America.
We started out the tour at the gates that lead to the Den Ngoc Son. There are three gates that lead inside. Jeanie explained to us that there are always three gates as the journey to a god or hero should not be easy. The first gates represent happiness and long life. The second gates show challenge on the right and success on the left, wishing those that enter challenges but successes. The third gate, with a boat on top, represents peace.
On the far side of the lake is a pagoda. It is called Thap Rua (turtle tower in English). This pagoda is a place to worship the turtle god. It is believed that the turtle god lives in Hoan Kiem Lake. The only person allowed on the island with the pagoda is the care taker. Turtle tower is considered the emblem of Hanoi.
We walked further to see the oldest church in Hanoi, called St. Joseph’s church or cathedral church. This church was built by the French and inaugurated in 1886. The French built this church on the grounds of a temple that they demolished. It was simply decorated on the inside, but it did show the traditional vaulted ceilings and stained glass.
Together with Jeanie, we went to Hoa Lo Prison. Technically, the prison is about two blocks outside of Old Quarter. This was the largest prison in indochina. It was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese nationalists that threatened the French rule. The French even brought building materials from France to build the prison. The French called the prison Maison Centrale. At this point in history, this prison was an awful place. The prisons were tortured, scared and starving. During the Vietnam war this prison was used for captured Americans. “Hanoi Hilton” was coined to describe it, and there are photos of American military playing volleyball in the prison.