Did you know that Hoan Kiem Lake, our charming teal green oasis in the midst of the city, is actually a souvenir of the Red River? About six hundred years ago, the Red River shifted leaving this pool of water. I’ve only learned this recently, and I love the image of the lake (also known at Ho Guom) as a “souvenir.” Over the past several years, I’ve learned a lot about Hanoi. These are some of my gems:
- What may be the oldest, extant colonial French building in Hanoi is at the south end of Hoan Kiem Lake, not far from my hotel. Check out the date noted in bas-relief – 1886 – at 3 Hang Khay Street.
- Ho Chi Minh arrived in Hanoi for the first time in 1945 when he was in his mid-50s. He lived in a house at 48 Hang Ngang Street in the city’s Old Quarter.
Also in Hoan Kiem Lake, the Tortoise Tower was built by a wealthy 19th Century businessman as a burial site for his parents. But Hanoians didn’t agree that such a public spot should memorialise just one family. The businessman buried his parents elsewhere.
- Hoa Lo Prison where U.S. Senator John McCain whiled away years during the war was opened in 1899 after the colonial French razed a pottery village. Hoa Lo means pottery kilns. The Americans knew the prison as the Hanoi Hilton.
- The One Pillar Pagoda at Ba Dinh Square is a replica of the original, which the French razed when they abandoned Vietnam in the 1950s.
- During Vietnam’s war with the United States, curators at the Temple of Literature buried the monumental turtles and the stelae that contain the names of 1,306 doctor laureates. Why? So the bombs wouldn’t destroy them.
- Here’s a spot-on description of Hanoi in winter, written by Robert Templer in his book Shadows and Wind: “In January and February, Hanoi looks like the set of a damp film noir, all furtiveness and smoky shadows with a soundtrack of slowly turning cyclo wheels.” I love the comparison to film noir, but Templer wrote those words back in the late 1990s. Cyclos no longer dominate the roads as they did then.