We strolled around the massive walled grounds of Reunification Palace, but weren’t able to go in as most government-affiliated attractions close mighty early. So we sipped on some delicious coconuts, snapped a few shots, and hopped on a taxi to Saigon Square.
Saigon Square was like an indoor version of Mongkok Ladies Market on steroids. I was very impressed by the huge selection of goods! We headed to Banh Xeo for a delicious din din.
Next stop was the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Vietnam. We skipped the Skytower Observatory Deck in favor of the Strata Bar one floor higher on the 50th floor. The views were surprisingly extremely stunning, and put Saigon into perspective. With the romantic setting and gorgeous views, we decided to pig out on a second dinner of Strata Burger & fries, and scrumptious blueberry sundae. Then we rubbed our pot bellies, snuck down to the Observatory before getting caught, and snapped 579402 more pics of Saigon.
After another foodie adventure at the Vincom Center, we called it a night. At 4 55am, we rolled out of bed and prepared ourselves for our…unique domestic flying experience to Hanoi.
People always say that even though Hanoi is the true capital of Vietnam, Saigon is more developed and commercialized. When I stepped off the plane into suffocatingly humid weather and hopped on a rickety bus that took us to the domestic arrival terminal, I was unimpressed. Since Saigon airport taxies are known to go to extreme lengths to rip tourists off, we decided to book a car through our hotel. Before we could leave the airport, we were flagged down by a Communist police officer who exchanged stern discourse with our driver.
Finally, we were allowed to start our hour-long trip into the city. I completely knocked out until we were already in Old Quarter. Wow…I was immediately blown away by the quaintness that surrounded us. While there was the signature Vietnamese hustle-bustle, the roads were narrower, blooming flowered trees abounded, and the northern Vietnamese culture was omnipresent. If I had envisioned what Vietnam looked like, it would not be too far from this.
We were further blown away by the amazing service provided by our hotel: Pearl Suites Hotel. They were super polite and treated us like royalty, immediately ushering us downstairs to enjoy a complimentary delicious breakfast. There were actually menus and a small breakfast buffet laid out. We were upgraded to the best suites in the hotel on the top floor, and provided with free laptops to use and complimentary this and that. They were so nice to the point that we were slightly sketched out…but their service was impeccable. They even thought to provide us with free umbrellas to use for the rain.
After some resting, we headed out to explore Hanoi with the private car our hotel provided. First stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Since the Mausoleum is only open to public before 11:30am, we were unfortunately unable to see Uncle Ho’s preserved body. However, the magnificent grounds with perfectly manicured lawns, a multitude of waving Vietnamese flags, and intense soldier guards were quite an experience themselves.
Next, we headed to the Temple of Literature & National University, the oldest university in Vietnam constructed in 1076. It was picturesque and I was extremely surprised to see the overwhelming Chinese influence in the architecture, landscaping, and even the widespread presence of Chinese characters.
The beauty of the temple contrasted greatly with the dark and ominous Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed Hanoi Hilton. Although quite small, the Hoa Lo prison was an eye-opening lesson on the brutal French-Vietnamese political struggle. The structured route led us through gallery like rooms, actual prison cells, and stone recreations of prisoners. I was surprised to see a huge emphasis on the plight of Vietnamese female prisoners, but disappointed by the minimal coverage on the American POWs that were also held here. Overall, very haunting but very insightful.
Next, we were off to Lake of the Restored Sword, or Hoan Kiem Lake, and Ngoc Son Temple. We never made it to the latter. Aside the beautiful Vietnamese counter to Hangzhou’s West Lake, we were involved in an intense b*tchfight with local cyclo peddlers. We hopped on 3 cyclos to circle the Lake upon agreement of 100,000 dong/person ($5 USD). This was already a rip-off in Vietnamese standards, but our peddlers were friendly and took us around both the lake and into Old Quarters. The escalation occured after we got off and were about to pay. They suddenly turned angry and insisted repeatedly for 200,000 dong each, arguing that they had taken us extra around the Old Quarter. We immediately yelled back stating there was NO indication or any mention of extra costs. Unfortunately, they did not speak much English so my angry b*tching did not do much.
Vincent and his pro Vietnamese saved the day. The conflict escalated as they started to get angry and looked violent. They closed in on us, and my biker started swearing at Vincent and calling him crazy. We weren’t budging. Vincent did his sexy pose and barked back in Vietnamese: “You get 300,000 dong total or zero. Take it or leave it we aren’t paying more!” K slipped away to find a police officer in case they got violent. After more bitching and angry yelling, they realized they were wasting time and not getting more customers, so one of the peddlers snatched up the money and they backed off with the death glares. I quickly advised the nice Taiwanese tourists behind us to not fall for their scam, and we walked away triumphant. After some Vietnamese coffee at Helio and chicken from KFC (not so good), we filed into the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for the prime attraction of the night.
The show was beautiful! The live music and exotic singing was paired amazingly with the water puppet show. The puppeteers are superbly skilled and everything was coordinated and executed perfectly. Fishes, cows, fisherman, coconut picking boys, pretty girls, and dragon puppets took turns starring on the stage of light blue water. Amazing show! Despite our intense b*tchfight showdown today, I am really loving the groove of Hanoi. 🙂