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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 19 Feb 2007

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam


It's hard to sleep with people treading on your head. Granted i should not have slept down the aisle, but it's far comfier than the squashed seats. Ever since Laos I had been kipping down on the floor, but the bus to Hanoi was the only time when i was constantly woken by an ill placed shoe or sandal. I spent most of the night awake. So at around three in the morning, when we stopped at a roadside cafe busy with Vietnamese slurping down large bowls of Pho, i decided to stretch my legs and ordered some congee - rice soup. The Vietnamese are clearly very passionate about their food. So passionate that a women approached me to show me how to eat my meal. In spite of any particular taste preference i may have had, the only way to eat this dish was to add lashings of sugar, soy, spices and chives. No arguing. This was the second time this has happened to me, it's almost as if they take pity on foreigners who are deemed too stupid to eat it the correct way.

I don't remember arriving in Hanoi, most probably because i was only half awake. Thankfully we found a fantastic hotel for just 8 dollars a night. Ocean Star - I highly recommend it.

The accommodation in Vietnam has been fantastic. Every place we stayed at was affordable, modern, spotlessly clean and with all mod-cons. This hotel even had big fluffy duvets rather than the limp and lumpy variety found throughout the colder areas of South-East Asia. It was certainly necessary here. The weather was and unwelcome change from Hue; grey, overcast and ever so slightly nippy.

Hanoi is largely a city of shaded boulevards, city lakes, large public parks and a mix of Vietnamese and French colonial architecture. We were staying in the old quarter however, which is far more interesting, retaining its original street layout and architecture. At the beginning of 20th century, the old quarter was the city and consisted of about 36 streets. Each one specialized in a particular trade (such as silk or jewellery) as artisans and merchants gathered in a particular area to do business. The specialization was reflected in the street name. Pho Hang Bun (Vermicelli), Pho Hang Ma (paper product), Pho Hang Bac (Jewelry). The names may be same but few streets exclusively retain their original commerce. However the quarter is still a bustling area full of small artisans and merchants.

It was a fascinating place to wander around - something we did alot, mainly because we were constantly lost. The area is a warren of small streets and crossroads that all look the same. The area was packed with stalls, shops, and craftsmen spilling out into the streets. It wasn't posible to walk on pavements but the roads were eqaully difficult, clogged with speeding mopeds and bicycles. Not for the first time was it exhausting just to walk out of the hotel door.

Hanoi is the main metropolitan area of North Vietnam and the political heart and capital of the country. As such it has numerous cultural and historic monuments to enjoy. However we actually did very little. It had been an exhausting sprint up the length of Vietnam and we had only a few days before we were due to take a boat trip in Halong Bay. So we only spent one day sightseeing.

The traditional house at 87 Ma May street is described by the tourist board as ancient house - a strange description for a house built in the early nineteenth century. Renovated in 1999 the house itself was a narrow, pretty building complete with a bright courtyard, ornate woodwork and traditional toilet/washroom. Unfortunately 87 Ma May street was little more than a shop; almost every room was stuffed with tourist nic-nacs. The attraction of the house is to appreciate the traditional lifestyle of a nineteenth century Hanoi resident, impossible when the structure is secondary to the gifts inside, rather than the reverse.

The house is located near Hoan Kiem, a large lake in the centre of the city. We took a stroll through the busy side streets and reached the lake where a women suddenly placed a bamboo stick with a bag on each end on my shoulders and a conical hat on my head. Hanoians certainly know how to extract money from a tourist. We were required to buy a bag of apples if we wanted a photo. I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to attain photographic evidence of me looking foolish (again), so i gladly bought an (overpriced) bag.

The lake is central to Hanoian folklore. In a myth similar to Arthurian legend, it is said the gods lent King Le Loi a magic sword to help him battle Chinese invaders. After ten long years of struggle the war was won. Having secured Vietnam's freedom and independence the king was boating on the lake when a giant turtle surfaced, took the sword in its mouth and plunged into the deep. The king therefore named the lake Ho Hoan Kiem or Lake of the Returned Sword.

In the centre of the lake is a small island with a shrine (the Turtle Pagoda) at its centre. We paid the small entrance fee and crossed the traditional wooden bridge. Hanoi is noisy, busy and occassionally stressful. It was nice to sit on a bench on the islet, watch groups of old men play chess and enjoy this peaceful oasis. The temple itself was largely uninteresting - nothing i hadn't seen before - but to the side of the temple was a room containing a preserved turtle found thirty years ago. The reptile was huge. It had to be at least five feet long. In 1998 there were reports of turtle sightings in the lake. Some are meant to be two metres large!

These were the only attractions we visited. Quite minor really. I wanted to see the Ho Chi Minh mauseoleum. After 'Uncle Ho' died, in violation of his wishes to be cremated and buried throughout Vietnam, his body was embalmed and put on display in a granite mausoleum similar to Lenin's Tomb. As luck would (not) have it, the mausoleum as closed.

We did spend an evening at the theatre though. The acting was rather wooden, but only because we were enjoying Mua Roi Nuoc - Water Puppetry. This art form is unique to North Vietnam and originated in the tenth century. Using what natural medium they could find, the rice padddies, farmers in the Red Delta region devised this fascinating form of entertainment.

Modern water puppetry is performed in a pool of water. The water surface is the stage and puppeteers stand behind a screen controlling the puppets with bamboo rods and strings hidden beneath in the water. The way the pupets moved and were manipulated was very impressive, especially the procession of candle holding women, and dancing, fire-breathing dragons.

A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provided background music and singers of Cheo (a form of opera) sang songs and provided the voices of the puppets.

Most of the skits were based on rural themes. 'Dancing Frogs', 'Harvests Festival (returning to the native land after college graduation)' and 'Rearing Ducks and Catching Foxes' told stories of everyday life in Vietnam's past. Though we could not comprehend the commentry or songs, the skits were understandable, and often humorous. Other performaces drew more on North Vietnamese legend and national-folk history, including the tale of King Le Loi and the restored sword.