Heaven, Ho And Halong





PATRIOTS and sages live forever, if the memory of their exploits goes on.

This is what memorials are for. When the going gets tough, the knowledge of victories past and the wisdom of the ages also unite and inspire a people.

In Hanoi, a go-to memorial is the Ho Chi Minh Complex. The six-in-one treat houses the 1) Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, 2) Presidential Palace, 3) House No. 54 where Ho lived and worked as president for four years, 4) the House on Stilts he moved to in the last 11 years of his life, 5) the One-Pillar Pagoda and 6) the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Ho led Vietnam’s revolt against French colonial rule, establishing Vietnam as a republic in 1945, serving as its first president, and seeing the French off once and for all in 1954.

Though Ho wanted to be cremated, his body was instead embalmed, and in the style of other Communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, publicly displayed in a marble and granite mausoleum we entered in respectful silence.

Emerging from the mausoleum, we, journalists, asked matter-of-factly, “How do you know it’s really him and not a wax figure?”

Our Vietnamese tour guide Hung assured us it was the man himself, saying Russian technology was regularly used to maintain the remains.

Ho’s mausoleum stands at the center of Ba Dinh Square, where in 1945 he had read Vietnam’s Proclamation of Independence.

House No. 54

Close by is the Presidential Palace built in neoclassical style in the early 1900s as the Palace of Indochina’s Governor General. When the Vietnamese took over the mustard yellow building in 1954, Ho refused to live there, using it only to receive state guests.

He chose to live instead in a modest structure called House No. 54, also colored yellow.

“What’s with the yellow?” we asked.

“Yellow is the French colonial color,” Hung replied. “It represents power.”

Ho later moved to a wooden house on stilts modeled after the homes of the ethnic tribes he had lived with in the mountains of northern Vietnam during the years of revolt against the French. Steps from the house, an extension dining room doubled as the entrance to a bomb shelter.

Vietnam’s first president may have had modest digs, but he traveled in style. Three of his cars are on display in the garage: two given by the Soviet Union—a stately black 1954 ZIS with serious grille and headlamps, and an olive green 1955 Pobeda—and a gray 1964 Peugeot 404 courtesy of Vietnamese residents in New Caledonia (France).

A Peugeot? I guess he had no hard feelings against the French.

Pillar of hope

At the famed One-Pillar Pagoda shaped like a lotus flower, we inspected the single stone pillar supporting it representing the stem. The tiny wooden temple was built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who, yearning for a son, was said to have seen in a dream a Buddhist deity giving him a baby boy laid on a lotus flower. He soon fathered a baby boy, and in gratitude, built the pagoda as a shrine to Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy.

Our tour guide swears by the efficacy of the prayers made at the shrine. He said he prayed for a baby boy there, twice, and he now has two sons. The problem is he now wants a baby girl, but he doesn’t know where to pray to get one.

Temple of Literature

Emperor Ly’s son, Ly Thanh Tong, built the sprawling Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius, sages and Confucian scholars that we visited next. Built in 1070, it hosted Vietnam’s first national university, the Imperial Academy, which educated crown princes, senior bureaucrats, and Vietnam’s elite and most talented men.

From the 15th to 18th centuries, 82 royal exams were held here, the king himself providing the questions. On 82 stone steles commemorating the exams are inscribed the names of the 1,307 graduates (doctoral laureates) who passed them. There was great motivation to succeed. The best student received a title and properties, and became the king’s adviser and son-in-law.

In one of the halls in the five-hectare complex, an altar featured what looked like nine-foot-tall mythical creatures that no man, woman or child seemed to pass up on the chance to rub from top to bottom. I later asked Hung about the creatures.

“You mean the phoenix standing on the turtle?” he replied. “The turtle is for longevity; the phoenix is for beauty.”

“Beauty?!” I gasped, my dismay at not having accessed the creature’s powers showing.

With 11 years of tour guiding experience behind him, Hung pacified me with the words: “Oh, you’re beautiful enough already.”

Three kings are honored at the Temple: the one who founded the temple; his son who founded the Imperial Academy in 1076, setting the foundation for the development of Confucianism in Vietnam; and the one who ordered the national exams held every three years and erected the first doctor steles in 1484 to honor talent.

Stone and heaven

Over lunch at the Red House Restaurant, we had a cultural experience of a different kind when our waiter showed his skills not only in throwing in the ingredients of our seafood stew in the right order in the cooking pot on our table, but also in gyrating and energetically flexing his body in a dance challenge with a member of our group.

The next day, we got “stoned” feasting our eyes on the pearl, ruby and sapphire bling at the stops our tour bus made on the four-hour drive to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay, 165 kilometers north of Hanoi, is a Unesco World Heritage Site for its aesthetic and geological value. Only a stoic would not be moved by the karst landscape of 1,969 islands by turns peeking out of and towering over the 1,553-square-kilometer bay.

Limestone makes up 90 percent of the islands, creating the Thien Cung cave, formed over 11,000 to 700,000 years, in Dau Go island.

“Caves are the result of water seeping into cracks and slowly eroding the limestone,” a board on the site read.

Thien Cung means “Heavenly Palace,” and it is not because of the 200 steps tourists must negotiate to see the cave, making it feel like heaven when they finally get there. Rather, it refers to the cave’s beauty and structure.

Back on our boat, the “Hailong Dream,” moving through Halong Bay with barely a ripple, our group talked cinema, politics and plots with islets called the “Fighting Cocks” and the “Duck” as backdrop.

Queue blues

A day later, we were back at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport for our return flight to Manila, feeling like we had known each other for years, even if it had only been four days.

With an hour to kill before the check-in counters opened, our group formed a queue at the Burger King in the terminal for a quick dinner. But our trip ending on the wrong side of my menstrual cycle, I was irritable and wanted real food.

Going all around the terminal to find the only restaurant serving noodles and rice meals full, I reluctantly dragged myself and my luggage back to Burger King.

Checking the menu board, I groused, “What? No chicken meal? Don’t they serve anything other than burgers?”

Ian of Sun.Star Pampanga, nursing a severe sleep deficit from trawling Hanoi’s night market till the wee hours, rolled his eyes upward, pointed to the signboard and said, “Hello? Burger King?”

“That doesn’t mean all they can serve is burgers. They serve Coke. That’s not a burger,” I shot back. I ordered a cheeseburger.

Lining up at the immigration counter, I grumbled again at how we could have coasted through this process if they had just opened two more counters.

Exasperated, Ian said: “You be a dominatrix in the Philippines. You lead the country. Invade Vietnam. Then you get to decide what the Burger King here serves and how the immigration system works.”

This is what happens when you put two irritable journalists together. They still make sense.

Okay, Ian. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll consider it.

Search On For 10th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards

Search is on for the 10th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards


By : Tawid News Team



The search is on for the best agriculture stories for 2016 for the 10th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards.

For this year, Bright Leaf will be going around the country via a caravan with more activities for participants on top of the meet-and-greet sessions with local media practitioners, which include roundtable discussion on pressing agricultural issues with local government officials, representatives from the Department of Agriculture, and community leaders; workshops on feature writing and photojournalism in selected areas; and beneficial community-related activities in selected localities.

Now on its 10th year of honoring the best and the brightest in agricultural journalism, the new Bright Leaf caravans will visit 15 cities, the highest number of places that Bright Leaf has ever visited in a year to bring the contest to a wider audience.  Bright Leaf will kick off with a workshop on writing in Ilocos on April 22, 2016 at the Vitalus Resort, Sabangan Santiago, Ilocos Sur at 5:00pm.

Launched in 2007 by PMFTC Inc., Bright Leaf invites journalists from all over the Philippines to submit their stories and photos for a chance to bring home the prize for the following categories: Agriculture Story of the Year; Agriculture Photo of the Year; Tobacco Story of the Year; Tobacco Photo of the Year; Best Radio Program or Segment; Best Television Program or Segment; Best Agriculture News Story National; Best Agriculture News Story Regional; Best Agriculture Feature Story National; Best Agriculture Feature Story Regional, and The Oriental Leaf Award, an special award is given to those who have won five Bright Leaf Awards in any category.  The Oriental Leaf Awardees become part of the Bright Leaf Hall of Fame, an elite group of journalists.

There is no entry fee required to enter.  Journalists and photographers may submit several entries for consideration.  However, an entry may not be entered in more than one category.  Entries should be published, aired, or broadcast between September 1, 2015 and August 31, 2016.  The deadline for submission of entries is September 1, 2016.

Entries may be in English or any of the Philippine languages.  For entries that are not in English, participants will need to submit an English translation.  Winners will be receiving cash prizes, premium item, and an all-expense paid trip in an Asian country.

Halong Bay: A Trip To Remember

Halong Bay: A Trip to Remember

By: Henrylito D. Tacio


In the last two years, I have been to places listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage.

Last year, I was in Beijing where I had the opportunity of scaling The Great Wall of China. This year, I had the pleasure of mesmerizing at the beauty of Halong Bay, some 165 kilometers away from the capital of Hanoi in Vietnam.

Both trips, by the way, were sponsored by the PMFTC, Inc,. which is behind the Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards. As part of the prize, an Asian trip is given to all winners in all categories.

This year, only nine travelled to Hanoi – except of Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Anselmo Roque, who cannot come for health reasons. The photographers are well-represented: Mauricio Victa, who was elevated to the Hall of Fame for winning the contest five times, of Business Mirror; Franf Cimatu, winner of Tobacco Photo of the Year, of Baguio Chronicle; and Dave Leprozo, Jr., the man behind Agriculture Photo of the Year, of Manila Standard.

Only five winners of print media were present: Sun.Star Cebu’s Cherry All Lim (Agriculture Story of the Year), Sun.Star Pampanga’s Ian Ocampo (Tobacco Story of the year), Manila Bulletin’s Rizaldy Comanda (Agriculture News Story, National), and Baguio Midland Courier’s Hanna Lacsamana (Agriculture    Feature Story, Regional). I won for Best Regional Feature Story for my 3-part series on food security which was punlished in Edge Davao.

The radio and television were represented by Ronde Alicaya of DXCC RMN in Cagayan De Oro City and Ruben Gonzaga, the host of ABS-CBN’s “Agri Tayo Dito” (a national television show but based from Davao City).

Most of us were first timers in Hanoi so almost everyone was excited. First, we toured the historic places in Hanoi. On our third day, we went to Halong Bay, which I first saw in the Discovery Channel when I was still in the United States.

According to a travel magazine. Halong Bay is a mature karst landscape developed during a warm, wet, tropical climate. The sequence of stages in the evolution of a karst landscape over a period of 20 million years requires a combination of several distinct elements including a massive thickness of limestone, a hot, wet climate and slow overall tectonic up lift.

Although we left Sofitel Metropole Hotel early in the morning, we qarrived at the seaport by 11:30. We did have two stopovers: the first one, where we had our snack and the second time was at the place where pearls are cultured.

Immediately after parking, all of us trooped to the building where our journey to Halong Bay would start. Our tour guide, Hung Nguyen, bought the tickets for us. And when we went out from the building, we were completely mesmerized.

The protruding mountains were too gorgeous to look at – though they were still far where we were standing. It was a little bit cloudy – sort of haze – and cooler (after all, it was still winter for me).

“It is either we go ahead climbing the Dong Thien Cung cave first or we eat lunch,” Hung asked the group. However, he suggested of doing the former before the latter so we won’t be heavy (courtesy of the meal) in scaling the 100-step stairs going up.

That was what we did. As soon as we boarded the deluxe boat that would bring us to one of the islands of the Halong Bay, all of us could only wonder. Most of them were already taking pictures as we approached one of the islands when I broke the silence: “Excuse me, excuse me.” And everyone allowed me to pass without any howl or protest.

I went straight to the upper portion of the boat and everyone followed me after that. We had fun taking photos of the several islands before us. “This is worth our trip,” said Ruben Gonzaga.

After hitting the shoreline of the island where the Dong Thien Cung was located, we stepped at the cemented stairs and proceeded immediately to the ticket booth. Then we took the steps going up. When we reached the 50th steps, we stopped and had our souvenir picture taken.

We took the remaining 50 steps and went inside the cave. I was totally captivated by what I saw inside. Colored lights were used to make the different forms of stalagmites truly enthralling.

“When the French left the country, they never told us that this cave existed,” Nguyen said. “It was a fisherman who discovered this place. He was trying to find a place where he could keep himself dry from the rain. He saw a small hole and went inside. And the rest is history.”

After conquering the cave, we went back to our boat. Feeling so hungry already, we had sumptuous lunch. We had steamed rice and the usual Vietnamese tea. But the viands were superb: steamed shrimp with ginger, fried fish with tomato sauce, fried squid with butter, steamed clams with lemongrass, seafood sprong roll, stir fried chicken with onion and mushroom and pumpkin soup with shrimp.

After eating, we went to the rooftop of the boat and took more photos. There are about 1,969 islands, according to our guide. Curiously enough, that was the year too when the country’s first president, Ho Chi Minh, died.

Selfie here and selfie there-that was what most of us were doing. Gonzaga, on the other hand, took some footages which he said he will use for his TV show. The three award-winning photographers were also doing their own thing.

In one of the rare moments, I took a photo of Ditas A. Atenor (food stylist who also writes for Philippines Graphic.) who was wearing a black dress and donning a Vietnamese military hat.

After an hour, all of us stood still. We were silent. The air was cooler (but we were wearing jackets anyway) and the sun was nowhere to be found. There was sort of a fog all over the bay but we can still marvel at God’s creation.

Ha Long Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin, within Quang Ninh Province, in the northeast of Vietnam. Covering an area of 43,400 hectares and including over 1,600 islands and islets, most of which are uninhabited and unaffected by humans, it forms a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars and is an ideal model of a mature karst landscape developed during a warm and wet tropical climate. The property’s exceptional scenic beauty is complemented by its great biological interest.

Before the 19th century, the name Halong Bay had not been recorded in the old books of Vietnam. It had been called An Bang, Luc Thuy, and Van Don. It was not in the late 19th century that the name Halong Bay has appeared on the Maritime map of France.

Haiphong News, published in French, reported: “Dragon appears on Halong Bay.” According to the story, a certain Lieutenant Lagoredin captain of Avalangso met a couple of giant sea snake on Halong Bay three times in 1898. Not only the ieutenant but also many other sailorssaw those species. The European thought that those animals looked like Asian dragon. That appearance of strange animals led to the name of Quang Ninh sea area today: Halong Bay.

Even before we have visited Ha Long Bay, several Vietnamese writers have hailed it. “This wonder is ground raising up into the middle of the high sky,” wrote Nguyan Trai. Nguyen Ngoc penned: “…to form this first-rate wonder, nature only uses: stone and water…There are just only two materials themselves chosen from as much materials, in order to write, to draw, to sculpture, to create everything…It is quite possible that here is the image of the future world.”

“It is the wonder that one cannot impart to others,” Ho Chi Minh rhapsodized. Lord Trinh Cuong, overflowed with emotion, said: “Mountains are glistened by water shadow, water spills all over the sky.”

In 2000, UNESCO added Halong Bay in its World Heritage List, according to its outstanding examplesajor stages of the Earth’s history and its original limestone karstic geomorphologic features.

“Comprised of a multitude of limestone islands and islets rising from the sea, in a variety of sizes and shapes and presenting picturesque, unspoiled nature, Halong Bay is a spectacular seascape sculpted by nature,” UNESCO said. “The property retains a high level of naturalness, and despite its long history of human use, is not seriously degraded. Outstanding features of the property include the magnificent towering limestone pillars and associated notches, arches and caves, which are exceptionally well-developed and among the best presented of their type in the world.”

Hanoi: Paris Of The East

HanoiParis of the East


By: Henrylito Tacio


Haven for tourists with its tree-fringed boulevards, more than two dozen lakes and thousands of French colonial-era buildings, definitely one of the world’s top 10 best destinations.

After Beijing, China last year, it was in Hanoi, Vietnam this year. Both trips were part of the prizes I won in the 8th and 9th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards, respectively. While the first trip was exciting, the second sojourn was undoubtedly memorable.

After all, the picturesque Hanoi is dubbed as “the Paris of the East.” With its three-fringed boulevards, more than two dozen lakes and thousands of French colonial-era buildings, Hanoi is a haven for tourists. Last year, the TripAdvisor listed Hanoi as one of the world’s top 10 best destinations.

The country’s capital, it is considered the second largest city with a population of about 7 million people. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is the largest city with more than 10 million people.

Hanoi means “river within or inside.” But in the past, it was called Long Bien, then Tong Binh (meaning “song peace”) and Long Do (dragonbelly). Later, it was given the name Dai La (“big net”) and Dong Kinh (“eastern capital”).

We left manila at the wee hours when most people were already going to bed. We arrived at the Noi Bai International Airport when people were still snoring in bed. But it was good we had dinner two hours before we landed. The travel time from Manila to Hanoi was about three hurs; Manila is one hour ahead of Hanoi.

The hot weather in Manila came to mind when we were welcomed with the cold weather. Hanoi has a distinct winter and summer season. The cool but mostly dry winter lasts from November to April when temperatures average 17-22 degrees Celsius with the coldest months being January to March. It was good that I brought winter jacket and pants that I used when I visited the United States some years back.

After checking-in at the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole, we immediately rushed to our bed. It was still 3 a.m. and we had to take our breakfast at 8 a.m. because our first day tour would commence by 11 a.m. Despite being sleepy, all of us were ready for our 11 a.m. tour.

Our tour begins

Our first stopover was the Hoa Lo Prison. It is commonly translated as “fiery furnace” or “stove.” The French called it Maison Centrale – literally, Central House, a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France.

Only a small portion of the vast prison complex that was built by the French in 1896 remains; most exhibits are related to the prison’s use up to the mid-1950’s. you get to learn how Vietnamese tried to get independence from France. There is also that ominous French guillotine used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries.

But most Filipinos remember it as the prison cell of American pilots who were captured during the war. The prisoners of wars called it “Hanoi Hilton.” Among the famous inmates were Pete Peterson (the first US ambassador to a unified Vietnam in 1995), and Senator John McCain (the Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2008).

From there, we went straight to the Hoan Kiem Lake, the historical and culutural center of Hanoi. This charming lake has a small island on which the Turtle Pagoda stands. It marks the spot where. According to legend, a turtle rose from the water bearing a magis sword with which Le Loi, a 15th century Vietnamese hero, drove out the Christian invaders. This must be the reason why it is also called as Sword Lake

A porpular spot for visitors at the Hoan Kiem Lake is the Ngoc Son Temple, which means “Temple of the Jade Mountain.” It is connected to the lakeshore by an elegant scarlet bridge built In classical Vietnamese style buildings of the temple include the Pen Tower (Thap But), the ink-slab (Dai Nghien), the Moon Contemplation Pavilion (Dac Nguyet) and the Pavilion against Waves (Din Tran Ba).

From the lake, we walked to the cinema where we watched the water puppet show. It is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century. The modern version uses puppets made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large bamboo rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water.

The water puppet show lasted for almost an hour. When we went out from the theater, we were treated to a cyclo tour and explored the Old Quarter of Hanoi. During the French colonial period, rickshaws were introduced but it was rejected. So cyclo, a three-wheel bicycle taxi, came into existence.

Now a little bit of history about the Old Quarter. In the late 19th century, the French occupied Hanoi. They demolished many of the old Vietnamese buildings and replaced them with imposing French-style villas. Today, the area is home to some of Hanoi’s fanciest restaurants and hotels.

On our second day, we visited the Ba Dinh Square, where President Ho Chi Minh read the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. When the president died, the granite Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was built to display his embalmed body. It remains a major site of tourism and pilgrimage.

Not far from the square is the Presidential Palace, which was constructed by Auguste Henri Vildieu, the official French architect for French Indochina. When Vietnam achieved independence in 1954, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the grand structure for symbolic reasons. Eventually, he built a traditional Vietnamese stilt house and carp pond on the grounds. He lived in the said house until his death in 1969.

While the palace remains strictly off-limits to visitors, the expansive garden and pond at the rear of the palace is wide open. A 300-foot path called “Mango Alley” leads from the visitors’ entrance, around a carp pond, to the stilt house claimed to have housed Ho Chi Minh from 1958 to his death in 1969.

The Chua Mot Cot (or One-Pillar Pagoda) is not far from the stilt house. It is said that many Vietnamese believe the pagoda looks like Buddha sitting on a lotus flower. It was first buikt in the 11th century to honor Buddhist advisers who supported Ly Thai To, the founder of ancient Hanoi.

Capping our tour

We capped the day’s tour with a visit to the Fine Arts Museum, located near Van Mieu or “Temple of Literature.” A temple of Confucius, it hosts the “Imperial Army,” Vietnam’s first national university. Built in 1070, it is one of several temples in Vietnam which is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars. It is said that many of the country’s scholars took their examinations here and their achievements are recorded on stone stele.

Our last day was spent in Ha Long Bay, about 164 kilometers east of Hanoi. It was approximately four hours’ drive via the Red River Delta. We made a stopover at Hai Duong Town to take a short break.

Ha Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 square kilometers, including 1,960—2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years or formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst has reportedly taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate.

In 2000, the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has inscribed the Ha Long Bay in its heritage list “according to its outstanding examples representing major stages of the Earth’s history and its original limestone karstic geomorphologic features.”

Raiding Hanoi

Raiding Hanoi





(First of two parts)

IF you ever arrange to meet a local in Vietnam, always ask for his first name, said our tour guide Hung when we arrived in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, last February.

That’s because 40 percent of the people in Vietnam are surnamed Nguyen, including him. So if you just say, “Mr. Nguyen?” almost half of the people in the room will stand up.

Nguyen is the name of Vietnam’s last dynasty.

“During the dynastic wars, the Nguyens tried to kill people from other families, so many families changed their name to Nguyen,” Hung told this assortment of journalists and tobacco executives as we motored to our hotel, the elegant Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a landmark in the city’s French Quarter that first opened its doors in 1901.


The Hanoi trip was part of the prize for the winners of the 9th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards initiated by PMFTC Inc. to encourage journalists to produce stories on the agriculture sector. PMFTC is the combination of the businesses of Philip Morris Philippines Manufacturing Inc. and Fortune Tobacco Corp.

Bonding with this writer from Sun.Star Cebu were the other winners: writers Rizaldy Comanda (Manila Bulletin), Hanna Lacsamana (Baguio Midland Courier), Ian Ocampo Flora (Sun.Star Pampanga) and Henrylito Tacio (Edge Davao); photographers Dave Leprozo Jr. (Manila Standard Today) and Frank Cimatu (Baguio Chronicle); radio and TV program or segment winners Ronde Alicaya (dxCC RMN, Cagayan de Oro) and Ruben Gonzaga (ABS-CBN Davao); and writer-photographer Hall of Famer Mauricio Victa (Business Mirror).

Joining us were Philippines Graphic writer Ditas Antenor; the competition’s media judges The Philippine Star columnist Alfred “Krip” Yuson and BusinessWorld columnist J. Albert Gamboa; and PMFTC’s Bayen Elero-Tinga, Dave Gomez, Didet Danguilan and Marco Angelo Eugenio, among others.

Hanoi Hilton

Located in the country’s north, Hanoi is Vietnam’s second largest city. But even with seven million people, traffic was not that bad. And on our first day out, we quickly arrived at the 19th century Hoa Lo Prison built by the French for Vietnamese political prisoners.

We didn’t know it, though, as the sign on the entrance looked innocuous: “Maison Centrale” (Central House). In fact, this is what maximum security prisons in France are called.

Ravenous for coal and other natural resources, the French had seized Vietnam in the late 1800s. From 1896 to 1954, they kept more than 1,600 revolutionaries in the prison, suppressing their dreams of independence by starvation, torture and execution. Today, images of their shackling, and the remnants of dark, airless dungeons and the guillotine bear witness to the subhuman conditions in which they were kept and the grim fate that met those who dared to challenge their colonial masters.

During the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo held American prisoners of war caught by the North Vietnamese. Bitter POWs gave the prison the moniker “Hanoi Hilton.” A famous former resident is now U.S. Sen. John McCain, who spent five years here after his plane was shot down in 1967.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Breaking out, we turned to a lake with a legend.

Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) hosts the Turtle Tower, so called because lots of turtles lay eggs on the islet where it stands. Turtles are considered holy creatures in Vietnam.

The lake itself got its name from a legend that the 15th century Le Loi, lent a magic sword by the Dragon King with which he defeated the Chinese Ming Dynasty, was now boating on the lake as emperor when a golden turtle surfaced to seek the sword’s return to its master, the Dragon King living underwater. The emperor did as asked, giving the lake its name.

As legend has it, the turtle surfaces from the sea bearing the sword on its back in times of turmoil. This is why the death at the lake of a giant turtle last January was viewed as a bad omen.

Hung said the 200-year-old turtle embalmed and displayed at the Ngoc Son Temple we were entering, for example, had died in 1968, “the year of the Tet Offensive, which we lost.”

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese started an assault on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam during the “Tet” (Vietnamese New Year), only to suffer heavy casualties when South Vietnamese and US forces repelled them.

“Ho Chi Minh (leader of the communist North Vietnam) died a year later,” Hung added.

The Vietnam War was fought after North Vietnam sought to reunify the country by force under communist rule following resistance from the anti-communist South.

The 19th century Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) on Jade Island is accessed through a red wooden footbridge over the lake. The Taoist temple is dedicated to the legendary 13th century general Trần Hung Dao, who thwarted multiple attempts by the Mongol Empire to invade Vietnam, the scholar Van Xuong and Confucian master Nguyen Van Sieu.

Lunch attack

During lunch at the Anh Hoa Restaurant, we sat so politely at long tables, our 22-member group sharing a meal together for the first time, that I never saw what was coming.

Ditas, the Philippines Graphic writer, heretofore a stranger, launched an attack, asking me point-blank how old I was. I retaliated by seeking her age as well. So we can both keep our dignity, I will not disclose our answers.

What happened next could only be described as a raid.

Waiting for our bus to take us to our 3 p.m. water puppet show, pandemonium broke out when some members of our group reported that the shop next door selling wallets, bags and other gift items was quoting prices in Philippine pesos and accepting pesos as payment as well.

There was no more excuse for those with no Vietnamese currency to stay on the sidelines. “Panic buying,” as a companion called it, ensued.

We arrived 10 minutes into the 45-minute performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, where we received the bizarre instruction to hide our cameras as we entered the building or risk paying a fee for them, while also being told that taking photos during the performance was allowed.

Pedal pushing

Between the theater and the Hoan Kiem Lake was the parking bay for the cyclo ride we took after the show.

We sat like queens on the 45-minute ride to explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the trishaw driver’s slow, rhythmic pedaling feeling right at home amid the street vendors, shops and market sounds in the one-kilometer ancient merchants’ quarter. I made a mental map of the colorful shops, which were just walking distance from our hotel.

Walking in Hanoi is an adventure in itself, for Hanoi’s roads are busily shared by buses, cars, bicycles and motorcycles, the last of which are deemed the most dangerous to pedestrians for their drivers’ aversion to using the brakes.

Hanoi has three million motorcycles for its seven million residents, and it’s not because the Vietnamese just want to show off their balancing skills.

“There is a 130 percent tax to buy a car,” Hung said. “This is to limit the number of vehicles on the road since the infrastructure is not sufficient.”

Incredible political will, if you ask me.

Eat, then pray

Later, chicken, hot soup, spicy noodle salad and beer materialized on our dinner table at the Nha Hang Lao restaurant—just what we needed on a nippy evening in our tavern-like nook.

Eating in Vietnam is a guilt-free affair. Its cuisine’s ample greens give the ladies confidence that no bloating will appear on the stomach or face after the gorging. When the cellphones, tablets and cameras came out, we readily flashed our pearly whites as the clicking went on and on.

Visions of Facebook glory went up in smoke, however, when back at the hotel, we got a stark reminder in front of the bathroom mirror that green, leafy vegetables like to hang around—between the teeth, including one’s front teeth—making them impossible to hide in close-up photos.

(Next week: “Heaven, Ho and Halong”)