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Hanoi's Legacy of War and Colonialism (Vietnam Part II)

Research trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Co Loa and Halong Bay for my upcoming novel "Woman at the Citadel."

View Vietnam 2008 on AC Frieden's travel map.

HANOI, Vietnam (Jun. 16, 2008) -- After a nearly three hour flight from HCMC, I finally arrived in Hanoi, the capital, on Monday afternoon. I was eager to see Vietnam's capital, in particular its beautiful French architecture and sites relating to Ho Chi Minh, all of which have tremendous historical value as I research for my new novel, Woman At The Citadel, a mystery set in 1951 Indochina. After freshening up at my hotel (Sofitel Plaza Hanoi) that afternoon, I headed to the French and Old quarters to see the vibrant street life.

Exploring Hanoi's Historical Center

(above) Hanoi's urban maze seen from my hotel room at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi, where I stayed my first two nights in the city, before my side trip to Halong Bay.

(above) View of West Lake from the other end of my floor at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi. The hotel stands at the juncture of the Red River, Truc Bach Lake and this small lake.

(above) Hoan Kiem Lake (meaning "Lake of the Returned Sword" or simply Sword Lake) is located in the historical center of Hanoi. A scenic trail surrounds the lake, making it a favorite place for many city residents to relax, walk, or jog. It is bordered by Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Thai To streets. At the south end of the lake is the Tortoise Tower (Thap Rua) standing on a small island. At the north end is Jade Island, home of the 18th century Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple). Jade Island is connected to the shore by the red colored wooden Huc Bridge (pictured below).


(above) Streets in the evening are as busy as they are by day. The beeping and honking of motorbikes and cars never ceases, and neither does the constant, dangerous criss-crossing flow of motorcycles. This intersection is near Hoan Kiem Lake, at the south end of the Old Quarter.

(above) A view of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, which I visited in the morning along with a mostly Vietnamese crowd. The former Vietnamese leader (mostly known as "Uncle Ho") who died in 1969 and since then his body lies in repose in a glass coffin surrounded by uniformed honor guards in this dreary structure. The experience reminded me of Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow, which I visited several years ago. The mausoleum is located in Ba Dinh square, near where Ho Chi Minh read the country's declaration of independence in 1945, prior to the French crackdown on his movement.

(above) The city's Opera House, built by French colonists between 1901 and 1911, stands 34 meters high on the east end of Trang Tien Street (formerly Paul Bert Street), adjacent to the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, which opened in 1999. The music hall was reopened in 1997 after a complete restoration (after almost two decades of neglect). A great place to relax is the outdoor lounge adjacent to the Opera House (above right).

(above) The Presidential Palace is located in the central part of Hanoi. The palace was designed by Auguste Henri Vildieu and built between 1900 and 1906 to house the French Governor-General of Indochina. It has the typical features of French colonial architecture. When Vietnam became independence in 1954, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the building for symbolic reasons, choosing instead to move to a nearby cottage. In 1958 he moved to a newly built traditional Vietnamese stilt house with carp pond a short distance from the palace. The building is painted a mustard color like most other colonial era structures in the city and is surrounded by lush gardens and a wide variety of trees, including Buddha trees and mango trees.

(above) An honor guard stands at the base of Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House, the residence and workplace of the president from 1958 to 1969. The house is a small, simple building, consistent with the leader's image of modesty and bond with his people.

(above) Adjacent to the Stilt House is a reinforced concret bunker, used as a shelter by Ho Chi Minh during the frequent U.S. bombing raids over the capital.

(above) A vintage 1953 Citroen rests in front of the five-star Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, a plush old (and fully renovated) colonial hotel that first opened in 1901. Having booked a room in the original (historical) wing of the hotel for my last night in Hanoi (right after my side trip to Halong Bay - see Part III), it was a chance to go back in time to an era when French food, art, language and culture was the dominant influence in the region.

(above) The Metropole hotel is beautifully restored and incredibly inviting, and one should not forget it's long, complicated history even after the French left in 1954. Following North Vietnam's independence, the new national government maintained it as the official hotel for visiting VIP’s. During the war against the U.S. and South Vietnam, the hotel became a base for press and diplomats, who also frequently used its bomb shelter (American bombers were obsessed with destroying the nearby Long Bien bridge and often errant bombs landed in the vicinity of the hotel and other civilian areas). Throughout the '70s and '80s, the hotel, which was named Thong Nhat (Reunification Hotel) on the renamed Ngo Quyen Street (formerly Henri Riviere Street), was rapidly deteriorating due in part to a lack of funds. It was only in the mid-1990s that the Metropole got its new name and extensive facelift. Today, this 232-room luxury hotel with two restaurants, three bars, a swimming pool and health club, remains the most opulent address in the city.

(above) Among the important sites in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, the site of the oldest university in country (dating back to the 11th century). The stone tablets commemorate old scholars who attended the institution.

Visit to the Co Loa Citadel

One site that was a priority to visit was the ancient Citadel at Co Loa, located in a village of the same name about an hour by car northeast of Hanoi. The citadel is the setting for the main scene of my novel's prologue (an unusually abstract prologue, for that matter). It was important to see this place first hand, and even more so because there was very little literature describing the place and even fewer pictures on the Internet or in books. So, I headed there in the afternoon of my first full day in Hanoi. I hired the same driver that had given me the city tour in the morning.

(above) On the way to Co Loa, my driver took me to the Long Bien Bridge that crosses the Red River. This 2,500 meter cantilever bridge was built in 1903 by the French architect Gustave Eiffel. Before the country’s independence in 1954, it was called the Doumer Bridge (Paul Doumer was the Governor-General of French Indochina). At the time, it was one of the longest bridges in Asia. During the Vietnam War the bridge was bombed regularly since it was the only one across the Red River and connected Hanoi to the main port of Haiphong to the east. Today it is used by motorbikes and trains only. Car traffic is diverted to the nearby Chuong Duong Bridge (which my driver took) and other newer bridges.

(above) The Citadel at Co Loa was first built during the end of the Hồng Bàng Dynasty. The fortress forms a spiral-shaped complex of the then new capital. The site consists of two outer sets of ramparts (the outermost perimeter is 8 km) and an inner citadel. Recent excavations have revealed unique treasures, including pottery, drums, weapons and other rare artefacts.

Back to Hanoi

(above and two below) There are so many things to see in the Old Quarter, and the best way to experience this vibrant part of the city is by cyclo.



(above) Saint Joseph Cathedral, opened in 1886, is another historic site in Hanoi. This church has the largest Catholic congregation in northern Vietnam (just under 8% of the population are Catholics).

(above) The Hoa Lo Prison (later nicknamed by Americans as the "Hanoi Hilton"), was a prison used by the French colonial administration in Indochina for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of wars, many of them U.S. pilots shot down during bombing raids of Hanoi. The prison was built in Hanoi by the French at the end of the 19th Century (the French called the prison Maison Centrale) and is located near Hanoi's French Quarter. Torture was often used by the French at this facility. It was progressively expanded during the early 1900s and by the fall of French rule in 1954, the prison held more than 2000 prisoners mostly in horrible condition. Many of Communist North Vietnam’s new leaders had spent time in the prison prior to independence from the French. During the Vietnam War, the first U.S. prisoner was a pilot shot down in August 1964. Conditions were tough for U.S. prisoners, many of whom have since described torture and degrading treatment during their captivity. Navy pilot John McCain, who later became Senator and is the 2008 presumptive presidential nominee, spent most of his nearly six years of captivity at Hoa Loa prison after he was shot down in 1967. Now a museum, only part of the prison’s structure exists today after much of it was demolished during mid-1990s to make way for a high-rise. An interesting BBC article last week covered an interview with the prison’s then commander, Tran Trong Duyet, who has since retired to the coastal city of Haiphong. The most shocking claims he were that the prisoners, John McCain in particular, were not tortured during their captivity.

(above) The Vietbank (formerly the Banque d'Indochine), an art deco building.

(above) Hanoi's Military Museum is located on Dien Bien Phu Street, near theLenin Monument and adjacent to the vast complex of red-roofed buildings that form the country's Ministry of Defense Headquarters (below).


(above) Built in 1812 by Emperor Gia Long, the Flag Tower, is all that is left of an ancient citadel, which was destroyed by the French forces in 1895 (in French, "La Tour de Drapeau"). With a height of just over 33 meters, the Flag Tower served as a communications center and observation post for the French and symbolized the colonial dominance over the city. Today, the it sits on the grounds of the Military Museum, near the Lenin Monument and a host of other government buildings.

(above) Among the military hardware on display is the Soviet built SA-2 surface-to-air missile that was responsible for downing a large number of U.S. military aircraft during the Second Vietnam War.

(above) As an author, I'm naturally curious about bookstores in the places I visit. This store is on the busy Trang Tien street, a few blocks from the Opera House. Of course, they are great sources of information when researching a place, but -- if my future book does well -- the stores could be good book signing venues at a later date.

I spent two nights in Hanoi at first, and then headed to a three day side trip to Halong Bay, about three hours east of the capital. (see part III of my Vietnam blog). I then returned to Hanoi for one more day/night to get pampered at the Sofitel Metropole and see a few more sites before leaving the next day (after a wonderful morning massage at the hotel) for HCMC.

Leaving Hanoi

I headed to the airport for my flight back to HCMC. Hanoi left a wonderful impression on me and was a tremendous help for my research.

(above) A series of 17 fighter aircraft shelters are located on an apron adjacent to the northwest end of Runway 11L/29R at Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport (located 28 miles (45 km) north of downtown Hanoi). The shelters house Vietnam Air Force MiG-21 fighter jets. Although the MiG-21 is an old design, the country still operates about 100 such aircraft, many of them maintained with the assistance of India, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. For additional information about Vietnam's recent security and defense arrangements, read the recent article by Carlyle Thayer (unaffiliated with this blog).

----- Travel Essentials Summary (and ratings) -----
Hotels: Sofitel Plaza Hanoi (9); Sofitel Metropole (10)
Restaurants: Au Lac Cafe (8); Brasserie Westlake in Sofitel Plaza (9); Le Beaulieu Restaurant in Metropole (10)

All photos and text Copyright © 2008 A.C. Frieden. No reproduction permitted without prior written approval by A.C. Frieden. For reproduction rights and higher resolution images, send email to afrieden[at]avendiapublishing.com.

Posted by AC Frieden 01:40 Archived in Vietnam

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Hey AC Frieden,
I just checked out your captivating blog. We met briefly on yesterday's flight from Ft. Meyers to Charlotte. I was curious about your next novel so when I googled you I ended up here. Great photos and glimpses.It brought back memories of the cyclos in Saigon. I joined so I can do my own blog. Just returned from a trip to Finland with my 14 year old and attended a 2 day music fest. Before that, a yoga retreat on St John, USVI. I have the travel bug again after a hiatus. Did you ever see the documentary called Cyclo? It's dated but pretty cool. Also one called Ao Di. I think that's the spelling.

by mojopoet

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