On Sunday we spend over an hour queuing to enter the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we got to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself. The majority of visitors, around 90% according to our guide, were Vietnamese and many come to see his body every year. We were surprised by this diligent pilgrimage, especially as you are herded past his body fairly quickly. Ho Chi Minh had requested a simple cremation, instead his body is preserver for all to see, the price of his success. He is deeply respected by the Vietnamese as a liberator from colonialism and for his communist ideology.
Next we headed to the temple of literature where Vietnams first University was established in 1076. Students spent many years studying here and examinations were set by the king himself. Anyone failing the examinations would have three generations of their family decapitated. In 1484 the Emperor ordered that stelae be erected to record the names, places of birth and achievements of exceptional scholars. 82 of these still stand, each with a turtle base, a sign of longevity. We saw many Vietnamese praying at the temple and presenting gifts to help them do well in their studies and even a graduation party having a celebratory picture.
The Ethnology Museum showed us the customs and traditions of the many, many different Vietnamese tribes. Each has its own unique style of building houses, clothing and even burial ceremony’s. Many of the hills tribes still lead very simple lives and are very proud of their heritage and traditions. Also at the museum was a water puppet show where the puppeteers stand behind bamboo curtains waist high in water whilst a little band and singers tell the tale that is unfolding, this type of puppetry is unique to northern Vietnam.
The Ngoc Son Temple is built on an island on Hoan Kiem Lake where a little red bridge connects it to the shore. On the island, in front of the temple, locals play Vietnamese Chess and look out over Turtle Tower which sits on a small island at the southern end. A stuffed lake turtle is proudly presented here, said to weigh 250kg, along with some ceramics and an ancient bell. The temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao (who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century) and the scholar Van Xuong.
We got even more in the thick of the traffic madness during the Cyclo Tour of the Old Quarter. Here the streets are narrow and congested and they are named after the items the shops sell, silk street, shoe street, etc. Many of the building are narrow and distorted as the building tax is dependant on width. Locals sit by the roadside eating, drinking and playing a form of chess.