Hanoi and the Reunification Express

Our final day in Hanoi began with a visit to the Temple of Literature which was built nearly 1000 years ago. It was a place for the best students from each of the provinces of Vietnam to study. Such students would take the royal examination and be admitted for their excellence. It was made up of five courtyards each serving a different purpose. The fourth courtyard was the classroom and contained a small temple for Confucius which highlighted the links to Chinese culture and architecture that can be seen here.

Relaxing in the Temple of Literature
Relaxing in the Temple of Literature

Additionally, there were various shrines across the temple complex to which local Buddhists would come to pay their respects: Confucius, who students cramming for exams pray to and make offerings, alongside altars dedicated to a number of the old kings of pre-communist Vietnam.

The Hanoi PrisonFollowing the temple visit, our next stop was one of particular interest to me: Hoa Lo Prison,better known by its Vietnam War-era nickname, the Hanoi Hilton. Whilst a large part of the prison has now gone, a visitor centre has been built within it to explain the history, which began with the prison being used by the French administration of Indochina (a French Colony at the time). During the time leading to the rise of Communist North Vietnam, many of the leading “patriots” that would form the government of the future were imprisoned here. Conditions were incredibly austere with significant use of shackles upon legs to pin prisoners in place. A guillotine also remains there to reflect the former use as a place of execution.

French colonial-era prison mock-up
French colonial-era prison mock-up
During the Vietnam War, the prison rose to prominence as the home to American POWs, specifically pilots who were shot down over the country on bombing runs. The imagery showed how the Vietnamese treated the American prisoners and about the reconciliation visits by prominent American former inmates that occurred in the past two decades. Claire and I found this really interesting and gave us an insight into another side of Vietnam’s past that we never really knew a great deal about.

We returned to our hotel to check out and then proceeded to get a Hanoi Noodle soup at a soup bar very popular with locals. This was beef with noodles and was delicious, served in a way unique to Hanoi.

Claire and I with noodle soup
Claire and I with noodle soup
With a free afternoon before our 1800 departure, Claire and I settled on a walk to the nearby Military Museum which contained a great detail on the development of the military in Vietnam across the centuries, particularly the American war time. With exhibits ranging from UH-1H helicopters, US Air Force aircraft to various tanks captured during the war, it was amazing to see these war horses siting effectively as trophies in the as-was enemy’s capital. I found the exhibit on the use of guerrilla tactics particularly interesting, especially how they would set booby traps to target passing US troops.
Aircraft relics at the military museum
Aircraft relics at the military museum

The long walk in the sweltering heat (about 32 Celcius and 90%25 humidity) really took it out of us, so we popped into the on site cafe to stock up on a sugary drink and some French fries to gain additional salt to replace what we were trying to sweat off. Leaving the museum and popping over to see the status of Lenin, a statue of Communism, in the park opposite led us to the decision to not walk (which would have been stupid) and instead hired the services of a local rickshaw to get us back. If we thought crossing the mad Hanoi roads was crazy, the journey on them at the front of a cycle driven tricycle was truly terrifying!

Anthony & I with our Vietnamese rickshaw driverHaving survived the rickshaw experience, we met up with our day room partners and got ourselves washed and refreshed, repacking before we went for the Reunification Express, the sleeper train to cover the 500km from Hanoi to Hué. A quick bus transfer followed and we were swiftly delivered to Hanoi railway station, the unintended destination of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond during their Vietnam special. Whilst we were going on the reverse journey to them, we also were traveling in First Class, in an effort to get the best quality cabins for us. I frankly wasn’t expecting much, having heard lots of stories about the ‘delights’ Claire experienced during her Chinese sleeper trains.

Boarding Coach 10, Claire and I made our wait to our cabin which we would be sharing with two other members of our group. I was pleasantly surprised to find the cabin clean and fairly comfortable (although at this stage I still had reservations about the toilets that would remain locked until after our 1900 departure). To ensure that we were adequately fed to survive the 13 hour journey ahead of us, Dat had arranged for us to have takeaway food delivered to the train that would be hot for us to consume before we left. I had beef with lemongrass and chilli, served with rice whilst Claire had stir-fry chicken and veg noodles – although we shared as usual! Both were delicious and consumed with gusto, washed down with plenty of water in an effort to replace that lost in the hot afternoon.

Inside our cabin on the sleeper train
Inside our cabin on the sleeper train

The train left at 1900 prompt, driving through communities not dissimilar to those we had wandered through on our Street Food tour. Despite knowing about this in advance, it was still bizarre to see people walking and sitting around, getting on with their lives at home as our train passed literally centimetres from them. As darkness surrounded our train, we began to focus inside the train, talking and sharing our stories with our cabin mates.

Before we knew it, it was time to get some sleep and time for me to face my biggest concern: the toilet facilities. Claire’s stories about the Chinese sleeper toilets requiring you to paddle to get to them had made me act to avoid this experience as long as possible. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to find them of a standard and condition at least equal to that found in a typical suburban pub or cinema in the UK – more than satisfactory for our needs!

Suitably relieved, it was time to sleep and wake up in the third stop of our pan-Vietnam tour: Hué, the perfume city.

Anthony & Claire

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