A walking tour around Hanoi’s old quarter

I booked the only flight I could find for under $50 to Bangkok, which leaves on the 2nd of June. In the meantime I have a few more days in Hanoi, the first of which I decided to fill by taking my feet on a walking tour of the city’s old quarter (courtesy of Lonely Planet). I started by crossing the red painted bridge to an island in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, which is home to Ngoc Son Temple (admission 3000VND). Due to the admission fee being waived for locals, many Vietnamese chose to relax here under the peaceful shade of the trees.
When I visited, there were more tourists (mainly Asian) taking each others photographs in front of a giant tortoise than there were looking around the temple. To explain the presence of a giant tortoise here, i’ll firstly have to tell you the story behind the name of the lake. Legend has it that in the 15th century, heaven gave Emporer Ly Thai To a magical sword which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. Once the war had ended, the emporer was out in his boat one day upon the lake, when he noticed a giant golden tortoise swimming on the surface of the water. The tortoise snatched the sword and subsequently disappeared into the lake. Ho Hoan Kiem means ‘lake of the restored sword’, as people believe that the tortoise restored the sword to its divine owner. There have since been actual sightings of tortoises in this lake, the remains of one such tortoise (which died in 1968, weighed 250kg and measured 2.10m in length!) are preserved and on show at Ngoc Son Temple. I guess the locals believe that this tortoise is one of the desendants of the great golden tortoise . . .
I continued my tour past the shoe district and through Hanoi’s colourful (and smelly!) market. It seems that Hanoi’s old quarter is full of ‘districts’ : around the market are numerous shops selling shoes of every colour and variety, and there is also a jewellery district, a district where artisans carve gravestones bearing an image of the deseased, a line of shops selling straw mats and ropes, a row of herb sellers (the carcophony of various aromas fills the air even before you reach the shops themselves), tin box makers and a collection of blacksmiths on the corner of Pho Lo Ren and Phop Thuoc Bac. There is also an entire street selling ‘ghost money’, which is used for burning in Buddhist ceremonies. I saw an example of this when I was in Laos. I was walking through Savannaket’s peaceful and almost deserted streets just after a funeral prosession had passed, and I noticed $100 bills scattered all over the road.
Cua O Quan Chuong, the quarter’s well preserved East Gate, is situated just before the turning into the street where all the ‘ghost money’ is sold. I was just about to photograph the gate when a lady in a conical hat transporting bananas ‘Vietnamese style’ (in two bamboo baskets suspended from the ends of a long wooden pole which rested on her shoulders) walked into my shot. She made an interesting photograph out of what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary shot of Hanoi’s East Gate.
I continued on to the neo-gothic St Joseph Cathedral where a collection of children were playing football outside, and that game where you kick an object resembling a shuttle-cock between players, not allowing it to fall to the ground. It’s a sight you’ll see everywhere in Vietnam, on the roads and the pavements and in the parks, and it’s a game which requires a great deal of skill. I couldn’t get into the cathedral – apparently the gates are only opened when mass is held – so I sat in a little street cafe opposite drinking coffee and watching the football and shuttlecock matches.
Evenings aren’t as much fun when you’re travelling alone so I wandered over to the Little Hanoi (1) Restaurant for a meal (not to be confused with the seriously overpriced Little Hanoi (2), a block away from the lake) and then took advantage of the free internet facility at my hostel by sending several well overdue emails to my friends.
Ngoc Son Temple
Typical Hanoi street scene

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