We’d heard only positive things about Hanoi Kids Tours, a student run organisation established in 2006, offering free city tours in order for young people to improve their English speaking skills. This not profit organisation doesn’t ask for any payments, only that you cover your volunteer tour guide’s expenses, such as admission fees. We had a couple of locations in mind that we’d wanted to visit for a while and thought it would make a good half-day trip with a Hanoi Kids guide.
We were met outside our flat on a Saturday morning by our guide; a recent accountant graduate who had been volunteering for Hanoi Kids for 5 years. He had excellent English and a slight BBC British accent which impressed us. Our first stop was Hoa Lo Prison (originally named Maison Centrale), a French colonial jail for political prisoners, and later used during the Vietnam War for POWs, including John McCain. Originally, the prison intended to house around 450 inmates but records indicate that in the 1930s there were close to 2000 prisoners all piled into the dark and dreary cells. It was very eerie walking around the stripped back interior, even on a lovely sunny day. Most of the exhibits related to the prison’s use up until the mid-1950s, focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France, including a memorial to those involved in the revolutionary movement. Our tour guide informed us of various torture methods used against political prisoners by the colonialists. The sight of a guillotine was also a poignant reminder of the brutality this country has endured throughout its history. No wonder that many of the prisoners attempted (and were sometimes successful) to escape through the sewers!
The museum was packed full of interesting material, but we found that having our guide talking us through each display made the visit so much more enjoyable. Rather than simply skimming information boards, we merely listened and absorbed the information.
Next up was the Temple of Literature, a 15-minute walk away (in the sweltering heat). Founded in 1070 by an Emperor, the Temple is dedicated to Confucius. It honours Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. It was also the site of Vietnam’s first university, when entrance was only granted to those of ‘noble birth’. The architecture was extremely well preserved and the complex was set in a beautiful garden of ponds and leafy trees.
November appears to be the time of year all of the university students flock to Hanoi’s most scenic locations to take their graduation photos. Even though they aren’t due to graduate until May next year, apparently the cooler temperature and flattering lighting makes this month the prime time to whap out the Canons. Crowds of young Vietnamese clad in their gowns were swarming around the Temple trying to capture the best angle.
It was lunchtime by the time we’d been guided around both very different but equally impressive locations. (We would recommend them as a combination to do on the same day for this reason and the proximity to one another). It was time to kick back with another caphe nau da for a lazy afternoon.