Sleep is awesome, you guys! You should totes try it! Last night I fell asleep the moment my head touched the pillow at around 20:30 -I woke up wide awake at 2AM, thinking the jet lag was going to screw me over, but next thing I know my alarm is waking me up at 7AM.
The early start was because I planned to go the Ho Chi Minh memorial complex, and the Mausoleum inside only opens from 08:00 to 11:00. I took a taxi there and found the longest queue I’ve ever seen. Hundreds and hundreds of people, only about 5% westerners, and it did that Disneyworld thing where you see a massive queue outside, but then you get in and there’s another massive queue inside. It actually moved relatively fast, but to give you an idea, I joined the queue at 8:30 and only entered the mausoleum at 10:00!!
After all the queuing, you arrive at a rather small cement building guarded by lots of uniformed officers. They make you leave your bags outside and instruct you to not speak, point at things or put your hands in your pockets. We were led into a dimly lit room where Ho Chi Minh’s body is displayed on a glass case. After a brisk walk around, we made it out again.
The rest of the complex includes the presidential palace, closed to the public, and the old residence and offices of Ho Chi Minh, everything an odd shade of mustard yellow. The pond and the grounds are pleasant, but check out the amount of people all around:
Those are heads dotting the bring of the pond! I had debated whether to visit the place or not… In the end I decided that the cult of Ho Chi Minh was very much a part of Vietnamese culture that had to be witnessed. Of course, I didn’t know the waiting would take hours…
On the way back I visited the Imperial Citadel, what remains of the imperial city built over a thousand years ago. I was hesitant because the maps I had and the Lonely Planet guide only mention it in passing, like there isn’t much to see, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a very large expanse, and while none of the imperial buildings remain -the French demolished entire ancient palaces during the 19th century- there are beautiful gardens and gates.
Today must have been graduation day for Vietnamese students, because all the sites I visited were full of formally dressed teenagers taking pictures with their diplomas. It took good timing to score some pictures without them!
The citadel includes a vast archeological digsite that isn’t much to look at, several colonial buildings with exhibitions, and beautiful bonsai gardens all over. Very much worth the visit!
It was past noon when I finished, so I made my way to Koto, a restaurant right next to the Temple of Literature that doubles as a non-profit for disadvantaged youth. I was served a massive stir fry that I was unable to finish, but I was at the nadir of my energy so I appreciated spending a good while sitting down.
Then I crossed street to the Temple -it was so beautiful! This place was a university in 1076 (!!), teaching primarily Confucian literature and poetry. It was a beacon of culture and learning for many dynasties, and today makes for a very inspiring visit -even with the throngs of crowds around.
The site is comprised of several courtyards connected by gates and buildings. You can see it best in this model they have inside:
Around the middle they have 82 stelae, big stone slabs where they used to inscribe the names and achievements of the brightest scholars the university (Van Dieu in Vietnamese) produced. Like now, higher education could last anywhere between 3 and 7 years, and students had to take several tests -the last one administered by the King himself! The stelae with their names are placed on top of big tortoises, because that is one of the four holy animals of Vietnam, along with the unicorn, the phoenix and the dragon, so good job on choosing one animal that actually exists I guess.
The last building houses a shrine to three Vietnamese emperors with ties to the temple. Like all shrines I’ve seen here so far, people leave money, incense and fruit on the altar as offerings, but also boxes of cakes or milk -surely you’re gonna have to eat those eventually?
After these visits, I had regained my energy and wanted to make the most of my visit to this part of the city, so I made two quick visits to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Army History Museum.
The Museum of Fine Arts (above), where I was one of only three or four visitors, is a somewhat limited but representative collection of Vietnamese painting and sculpture from the prehistory all the way to the present age. The entrance, to this and to most sites I visited today, cost 30k dong (1,25€).
The Army History Museum occupies a couple of ugly, barely maintained buildings with exhibitions that look like they were made in the times of the USSR and haven’t been touched since -think linoleum and plastic maps with little lightbulbs. The only interest lies in their collection of American fighter jets, helicopters and tanks captured during the war and displayed with no small amount of pride in the courtyard. Give this one a pass, unless you’re seriously a war history fanatic and know what you’re going to find here.
I walked back to the hotel with Google Maps (I bought a prepaid Vietnamese SIM card, 1.2GB of 3G mobile data for 190k VND, around 8€). I’m getting used to crossing wide streets with crazy motorcycle traffic, but I still spend way too much time just standing on the edge of the crossing just gathering the courage to throw myself out there. Today, one couple of tourists used me to cross after! I’m a Day 2 traveller now, hah!