The French Quarter, the History Museum, Hoa Lo Prison

After overextending yesterday, I slept in today and took it slow over breakfast. Today’s my last day in Hanoi, and I used it to visit the last few items on my list.

I got out at about 10 and walked along Hoan Kiem lake, all the way until the French Quarter. It’s still gray and misty, but less muggy than yesterday. Google forecasts rain for my whole Halong Bay cruise tomorrow and my trip to Sapa after that, and even in allegedly sunny Hue it’s raining, so I guess I should just resign myself to wet holidays…

The French Quarter is certainly different from the Old Quarter, with bigger buildings of Western styles, albeit often with the yellow colours you see so often in French colonial houses. The most recognisable sight in the quarter is the Hanoi Opera House (above), which is like a miniature, tropical Opéra Garnier.

Right next to it is the National Museum of Vietnamese History, a big yellow building more grandiose perhaps than its collection might merit. I feel like the Lonely Planet guide oversells all of these museums, the best of which are just passable, while downplaying the Imperial Citadel… The history museum isn’t nearly as derelict as the army museum though. Its collection is focused mostly on prehistory up until the 16th century (I think there’s another site with a more modern collection, but I didn’t find it and I believe you need a separate 40,000 VND/1,68€ ticket). Like the war museum, they make you put your bag in a locker, then close it with a regular lock and you carry the key during your visit. It’s not super confidence-inspiring…

On the way back from the French Quarter, I walked past some enormous high-end department stores where all the luxury brands had set up shop. I also saw the famous Hotel Metropole, apparently built here in 1901. I took a detour to visit the Hoa Lo Prison, euphemistically labeled Maison Centrale by the French, grimly known as Hanoi Hilton by the Americans.

Apparently on this site was a pottery village that the French leveled and turned into a big prison complex (only part of which remains) for Vietnamese insurgents. After the departure of the French, it became a detention camp for captured American soldiers. It is now a sobering museum depicting the inhuman conditions in which prisoners were kept. Apart from the building itself, the cells, the grounds, and so on, they display several official historical documents that were interesting to be able to read -the ones from the French era were in French, whereas the ones from Vietnamese independence afterwards were translated into English for the prisoners.
In addition to being a lesson in history, Hoa Lo is also an exampe of unabashed propaganda: most of the exhibition is dedicated to laying out in macabre detail the horror the French put Vietnamese men and women through, but the section recounting the Vietnam war only speaks about how well American prisoners were treated. The only pictures of them are of Christmas dinners, smoking around a table, playing sports on a courtyard, like it was an all-inclusive resort. No doubt those people would tell a different story.

I had lunch at a restaurant next to St Joseph’s cathedral, then made my way back to the Old Quarter. I window-shopped along Hang Gai and stopped by the Bach Ma temple (pictured above) along the way. It is a tiny shrine to a spirit that took the shape of a white horse to help emperor Ly Thai To complete the walls of Hanoi. Apparently the site itself is really old, but no part of the shrine seemed very old (Internet says it was restored in the 18th century, but it looks even newer). Here the shrine had big baskets of fruit, but also mineral water, beer, and even Coke (I guess the white horse really likes his high-fructose corn syrup).
I went back to the hotel and rested before going out for an early dinner. My street, Ma May, comes alive at sundown, with all the restaurants and bars filling up as all the backpackers come back from the daily trips. I have an early start tomorrow, myself, as I’m leaving for my Halong Bay cruise! Cross your fingers that it doesn’t rain!

1 thought on “The French Quarter, the History Museum, Hoa Lo Prison”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s