Given the location of our hotel, on this trip we spent most of our free time in Hanoi just hanging out in the Old Quarter; sitting by Hoan Kiem Lake, walking down Silk Street, Paper Street, Brass Street, Bamboo Street, checking out the stores and people watching.
On two other days we took advantage of the services of Hanoi Free Tour Guides. As the name implies, this is a completely free service with guests paying only for transportation and any entrance fees. At the end of our first tour with the service, we attempted to give the guide a tip and he told us that he could not accept it as a tip but if we wanted to donate the money to a charitable cause, he would pass it on.
The service is manned primarily by university students who are either studying tourism services or who are looking for the opportunity to practice speaking English and other languages with native speakers.
On one afternoon, our guide met us in the hotel lobby and we hopped into a cab for the half hour ride out to Van Phuc Silk Village. While there is still some weaving going on in Van Phuc, these days the village is mostly devoted to shops selling silk by the yard and finished products.
We did stop into one mechanical weaving workshop that was one step beyond a hand loom. There is some discussion that some of what you find in Van Phuc may not be 100% silk but in general, it is one of the better places in Hanoi to get the greatest selection and prices on “silk” products.
To be perfectly honest, we had mixed feelings about visiting Hỏa Lò Prison, beter known during the US/Vietnam War as the “Hanoi Hilton“. Prior to that war, this prison was used by the French colonials to house both men and women prisoners.
In the end, we were glad that we took the time to go there.
As might be expected, the facts as presented on our tour are quite a bit different from the reports we heard in America. A big part of the tour highlighted how much better the Vietnamese treated US prisoners of war than the French treated the Vietnamese prisoners. Regardless, I’m sure whoever was in charge, it was a miserable place for anyone being detained there.
The prison is located near Hanoi’s French Quarter. Some parts of the prison are off limits to tourists but there are 2 floors to the main building where we were allowed to go. The downstairs of the prison has been kept as it was used in those two conflicts with one area showing the conditions of the Vietnamese when held by the French and another shows the American conditions while being held by the Vietnamese.
The upstairs of the complex is devoted to bigraphical and other information as well as photos of some of the mostly Vietnamese prisoners. One thing that we found interesting was just how much focus there was on Senator John McCain‘s time spent at the prison. He was in the center of several displays including one of the US Navy Pilot’s uniform he was wearing when captured and some video footage of Senator McCain as well as other prisoners.