Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Hanoi day 2 – the history museum, a prison, and a temple

My first day in Hanoi was with a personal guide, and covered places to the northwest of the Old Quarter including the Imperial Citadel, the Vietnam Military History Museum, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and the Tran Quoc pagoda at West Lake. My second day was a solo trek to places south of the Old Quarter- the history museum, the Hoa Lo prison (the so-called Hanoi Hilton) and the Temple of Literature. In between, I had done to Ha Long Bay, stayed overnight, and come back.

The National Museum of Vietnamese History

Walking through the OId Quarter in the morning.
My hotel was in the midst of the Old Quarter so getting to the history museum was a pleasant walk through the quarter to Hoan Kiem lake, which at daytime is much more subdued and placid than nighttime, though there was some group exercising going on. I turned left (eastwards) when I reached the end of the lake and walked towards the Opera House, which I’d walked to see the night before. The Opera House is quite fancy, being modeled after the Paris Opera House when it was built in the beginning of the 20th century, though a little smaller than I expected. It’s by a roundabout, and surrounded by swanky stores and hotels, including a Hilton hotel, which is not called the Hanoi Hilton for obvious reasons (it’s actually called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, haha), and even the Hanoi Stock Exchange.

Hanoi Opera House.

The National Museum of Vietnamese History is near the Opera House, but on another street and maybe about 8 minutes walk away. The museum is in a elegant yellow building that was built by the French but with a blend of French and Vietnamese design.
The museum has two floors and features exhibits and artifacts ranging from prehistoric times to the declaration of independence from the French in 1945. The rooms are kind of old, but relatively well-maintained, and there is English, and French, on all signs.

There were your typical ancient stone tools and weapons, your not so typical human skulls and bones, and some impressive bronze lampstands and ceramics. By not so typical, I mean the display of skulls and not the state or form of the skulls themselves. There were massive bronze drums and massive wooden boat-shaped coffins which stored objects as well as the dead person. There were objects that were similar to Chinese, due to Vietnam’s Chinese influence and occupation up to the 11th century AD, such as stone steles (tablets with words inscribed on them), ceramics, coins, and bronze weapons. And there were paintings of Vietnamese victories over the Chinese, including actual wooden stakes that helped Vietnam win naval battles. These stakes were placed in shallow waters and superior Chinese fleets were lured into these waters where the stakes sank their ships.
This huge painting commemorates a naval victory over the invading Mongols in 1288.

Old texts were written in Chinese characters, which Vietnamese was written in until the 16th or 17th century when it became romanized and converted to its current form. As the dragon is a holy creature in Vietnamese culture, as it is in Chinese, it features a lot in old architectural and imperial court designs. There were even Vietnamese paintings of scenes from Journey to the West and History of the Three Kingdoms, both Chinese classics. There were Champa stone elephant and garuda (mythical bird that is prevalent in Cambodian culture) statues, remnants of the Champa kingdom which existed for almost 1000 years in Central Vietnam.
There were imperial court objects such as paintings of court life, which really resembled similar scenes in Chinese history, royal swords, and mandarin (officials) robes. The independence struggle against the French had its own room, of course, with Vietnamese flags, weapons (guns, swords, even spears), and a giant painting of Ho Chi Minh giving his declaration of independence speech in front of a large crowd.

I learned of a new culture – the Oc Eo culture, which existed in the Mekong Delta in the south for 10 centuries until the 10th,  and then basically vanished, which confounds me a little. It seems the kingdom just disappeared and all traces of it vanished with the exception of artifacts. There’s a room dedicated to the Oc Eo culture, with beads, bracelets, stone statues of Brahma and Vishnu and steles inscribed with Sanskrit, suggesting Indian Hindu influence. The most interesting exhibits were the wooden Buddhas that were almost 1400 years old, the first ancient wooden statues I’ve ever seen. Interestingly, Oc Eo is believed to be part of the Funan kingdom, which is described in Chinese historical records. At the side of the museum, the lawn is full of statues and steles and even a replica stone pagoda.
Wooden Oc Eo Buddha statue from around the 6th century AD.

After I left the museum, I went into the Revolution Museum which was across the street, but it was closing for its midday lunch break, so I just took a few photos and walked back out. Many museums in Vietnam close in the middle of the day for lunch which is at least 1.5 hours. It’s kind of funny for me, as closing for lunch seems out of place in Asia, but I guess it’s similar to the siestas in Spain and Latin America. The Revolutionary Museum is also in a French-built building, yellow, and quite elegant.

I stopped for lunch at a small restaurant which was both cheap and nicely decorated. I had a a bottle of Bia Hanoi and beef noodles, then I was off again. I was going to the Temple of Literature, which was to the West and conveniently near the same street, which made it easy to walk – just keep going straight. At one stretch of this street, there were decent colonial two-storey buildings with many bookstores, and English books were on offer, especially Lonely Planets. They were roughly the same price as the cover price, so they were real. I would later encounter booksellers in Cambodia selling Lonely Planets for half price or even less on the street, wrapped up and most likely photocopied fakes.

I decided to go to see St. Joseph’s Cathedral so I walked up some side streets, which were quiet and seemingly deserted with a few stores and cafes, proving that not all of Hanoi is noisy and bustling. It was large, tall and kind of ugly to be honest, as its exterior was heavily smudged black as if it had been burnt – this is actually pollution. Why it’s not scrubbed clean, I don’t know. The design looked nice if not grand, being Gothic and modeled after Notre Dame in Paris. It was my first time seeing a cathedral in Asia. This cathedral is actually the headquarters of Vietnam’s Catholic diocese. There was a gate around it and I initially thought it wasn’t being used.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral, in all its blackened, Gothic glory.

I walked back down to the main road to continue towards the Temple of Literature. At this point, I checked my map and I realized I was close to the Hoa Lo prison (Hanoi Hilton), where captured American servicemen were jailed during the Vietnam War. The prison building, which is now a museum, has been preserved but it lies behind two large modern apartment towers called Hanoi Towers, making for quite a contrast. The prison’s famous nickname “Hanoi Hilton” actually obscures the fact it was built by the French in the late 19th century and used to hold Vietnamese.
The museum entrance has “Maison Centrale” painted above the doorway, so I was unsure at first whether I’d reached the correct place. As it is, once you get inside then you definitely know it used to be a prison. The main detention rooms have been kept as they were, with human mannequins used to show how Vietnamese prisoners were kept, often shackled in beds in the big rooms or in small dungeons for solitary confinement. Many of them were political prisoners who advocated for independence from France.  Signs told of the poor conditions the Vietnamese were kept in, including the sparseness of their diet, while objects such as bowls and prison clothing were displayed. Out in the back, there’s actually parts of two sewer doors on display, including one which over 100 prisoners escaped through during 1945 to fight against the Japanese (in World War II, the Japanese invaded Vietnam and overthrew the ruling French colonialists, but then the Vietnamese rose up against the Japanese- you got to hand it to the Vietnamese, they’ll fight anyone).  There’s a small room displaying newspaper clippings from around the world of Vietnam solidarity protests during the Vietnam war, including many in the West and even the US.

Then there is the room about American prisoners, and the exhibits include hockey nets and guitars (because it was all fun and games for the Americans who were treated so well), and articles and photos of Americans enjoying themselves, including a Christmas drawing of Santa delivering gifts from a train. Moving onto more sober stuff, the main exhibit is John McCain’s flight suit, because he was actually held here after he was shot down during a bombing raid over Hanoi. I also got to flip through an album containing black-and-white photos and details of American prisoners, all of them looking downwards and somewhat fearful.

The most fascinating exhibit, in a macabre way, is a giant guillotine, which was actually used on Vietnamese prisoners by the French. The guillotine was narrow and high, which made it seem more creepy. There was indeed a bucket at the bottom to collect the heads after the blade sliced through, and pictures at the side showed heads of executed Vietnamese put on display. Outside, there is a memorial to the deceased and white images of prisoners carved into the walls. Overall, the prison was more interesting than I’d thought, as I was ignorant of its history besides being used to hold American servicemen during the Vietnam War. I did think it was cool to see John McCain’s flight suit and a guillotine, despite its evil history.

An actual guillotine, which I never thought I’d see in Asia.

John McCain’s old flight suit, even including the parachute that he used.

I continued to walk westwards, passing through streets that were businesslike and not at all touristy, every now and then stopping to check my map. I have to say, “central” Hanoi is an easy city to navigate on foot, since the streets (outside of the Old Quarter) are relatively straight and the streetnames are easy to read, since Vietnamese uses Roman letters, as opposed to Chinese or Korean or Cambodian which have their own script etc.  The Temple of Literature is kind of far from Hoan Kiem Lake, and it might take at least 20 minutes to walk there (I stopped at the “Hanoi Hilton” and the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in between).
After some more walking, I spotted the temple grounds which looked bigger than I expected and was surrounded by a low wall. I didn’t know where the entrance was so I decided to keep on walking, thinking that it might be along the street , instead of turning left. Instead I had to turn left eventually and keep on walking to the end, then turn left again before I reached the entrance. The entrance gate is a whitish-gray stone structure topped by a bell and features pillars inscribed with Chinese.

Temple of Literature 

Now why would you visit this temple? The Temple of Literature has a long history of almost 10,000 years, having been built in 1070. It was both a temple, honoring Confucius, and an Imperial Academy for scholars and bureaucrats, an ancient university if you will. The temple grounds is quite nice and rectangular, with a large garden and pools in front that leads to several successive courtyards, each which you pass through a gate to get into. The third courtyard features a central pool (Well of Heavenly Clarity) and large steles mounted on turtles on both sides. The steles honor the scholars who graduated from the Imperial Academy here. The architecture is very similar to Chinese, which is not surprising given that the temple was built to honor Confucius at a time when Chinese influence was still very recent. The main building that formed the academy is at the back in a two-storey building, where three Vietnamese kings who played big roles regarding the temple and academy are honored in altars. Some of the temple, such as the final courtyard, have been rebuilt due to decay and war.
Photographs are prohibited inside some of these buildings, so you can only appreciate the statues and rooms with your eyes (not that there’s anything wrong). As I saw in many places in Vietnam, there were several large bonsai trees in pots filled with water, a style that’s probably unique to Vietnam.  There were many local visitors here when I went, so I guess it’s a popular destination for Vietnamese. By the time I was done, I was ready to do the long walk back to my hotel. I had to check out by 6 pm, since I had a train to catch. I was going to Hue that night on the Reunification Express overnight train.


Hanoi Opera House, from the side.
Exercising on the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake.
DSC08924  DSC08984
Champa stone staue of a Garuda (mythical bird) with a Naga (mythical snake) in its mouth. Both “animals” are common in Cambodian temple architecture.

Vietnamese weapons, texts, drum, and flag used during the independence movement against the French in the 20th century.

Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.

The final courtyard in the Temple of Literature.
Hoa Lo prison (“Hanoi Hilton”).

Jail room inside the Hoa Lo prison.


The result of the guillotine’s deadliness.DSC09220

The entrance to the Temple of Literature.



Ministry of Rites, in the Imperial Court at Hue (the capital in the 19th century).
Animal sacrifice seems to be going on in this painting in the national history museum.


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