26 March - 1 April, Hanoi
26.03.2009 - 01.04.2009 29 °C
Nestling the northern shores of Hoan Kiem lake lies Hanoi's oldest quarter, bristling with pure raw energy. Swarms of motorbikers haunt the spiderweb of streets and alleyways that are stuffed with cafe's, travel agencies and a great many shops selling the usual plethora of handicrafts, conical hats, Ho Chi Minh shirts and all manner of other trinkets. Beware for the uninitiated, this place unleashes a full on ground assault on all your senses. A constant wail of klaxons fill the air, conical hatters tugging your sleeves at every corner, beggars roaming the streets, pipe smoking cyclo drivers yell out on top of each other "hey, u want ride?!". Honk honk. motorbikes up our ass again. No turning back now because the fruit sellers are haunting us "ey, mista, u want sum fruit, come to my shop". Aaah, get out of our face!
This place is like a lucid acid trip spun out of control. The famous white rabbit tumbling down the rabbit hole. We seek refuge in a cheap nasty hotel with fungus for wallpaper and relentlessly haggle down the price even cheaper. Sure enough we get evicted, politely we might add, the very next day. There's a first for everything. The lines are drawn and so we are lured into a pleasant walhalla across the road - the Sunshine hotel. Inside a haven of peace and tranquility awaits. Almost like stepping into another dimension. We're sold and are so not going to leave this place anymore. Air con, cable tv, complementary fruit, in room internet and buffet breakfast as a bonus. They even have outrageous fortune on the box (through the Asian Ozzie channel showing bits of NZ). We haven't been amongst such luxury for months (but it seems much longer). So it comes that from our ivory tower we plot our next moves on the city; a wild beast that requires taming.
Madness aside, this part of town is fully immersed into its own vibe of atmosphere. Once dawn announces its presence, the pavements rapidly fill up with color coded plastic kiddie seats where the locals and outsiders alike go hard on the Bia hoi beer and xeo. Episodes of laughter echo through the alleyways while aromatic wafts of fried chicken permeate the air. The cafes are booming with hip city teenagers sipping their lattes and flavored bubble up tea (a sweet tea with goo balls added).
The choice of foods and snacks on offer is astounding. Garage-style eateries with all manner of fried goods on display, fighting for your custom. The locals go hard on it. Best of the bunch are the mobile doner kebab stands where they whip you up a sizzling but tender pita kebab in seconds, all for only 15,000 dong. Crazy! Pepperoni's is another instant hit - all you can eat pizza & pasta for 79,000 dong. Does life get any better really? A good place for people watching too, all five stories of it. All the well off young Vietnamese pop in on their lunch break and the narrow pavement outside congests with scooters. Properly set up now we can finally re-celebrate Alana's birthday (read our misadventures in Mai Chau) over the next couple of days. There's lots to do and entertainment is at a premium. But first some rice wine from the supermarket.
The center of Hanoi reaches around the lake so we stroll past the myriad of neon lit shops, have mince turnovers and spring rolls, enjoy coffees from a rooftop cafe and sit in on a nighttime session of water-puppeteering. This ancient art of waterpuppetry originates from the flooded rice paddy fields of North Vietnam and that's where it remains most alive, with farmers operating the multitude of puppet limbs from behind a bamboo screen. No surprise a few of them perished from all manner of water-borne diseases.
The contemporary setup hasn't changed by much, with the added exception that the audience is seated in plush and comfy loungers watching the play unfold in a waist deep basin of St Paddy's green water to the tunes of gongs, bamboo xylophones, flutes (sao) and one stringed zithers (dan bace). Some of the performances are incredibly eclectic and vivid; fishermen catching fish from their boats, fire spewing dragons and phoenixes courting a graceful dance. How do they pull it off? No less than 8 puppeteers emerge in their waders at the end of the show!
And so we wail away the days. Downtime is filled up with booking Lao visas, Halong Bay tours and train tickets, in between visits to Hoan Kiem lake (lake of the restored sword) and Ngoc Son temple which gravitates in the middle of it. Legend of the great golden tortoise who leaped out of the water and grabbed the sword from the emperor. Allegedly the turtle still swims around...
Dedicated to Confucius, the temple of Literature. Vietnam's first university from 1076, to educate the sons of Mandarins with its courtyards, gates and pathways. On emperor Le Thanh Tong's command 116 stelae were erected here from 1442 onwards to celebrate the achievements of its doctorate recipients. It's a pretty serene place to wander about, a break away from the city while idling the time away in its gardens.
The Hao Lo prison is another thought provoking sight we don't mind sweating several miles on the tarmac for. Better known as the Hanoi Hilton by the prominent US pilots pow's who spend some quality time here during the war. An Old yellow french brick facade is all that remains, courtesy of the skyscraper that was erected behind it not too long ago. It was popular, even John McCain spent some time here during his sabbatical, and he never got his flight-suit back either - gutted!
Most mind bending perhaps is the Vietnamese account of events that unraveled here. Dark filthy dinghy cells, most of the exhibits actually relate to the Vietnamese struggle for independence. It even has part of the original sewerage system some blokes escaped through back in the French era. Entertainment is provided by the great many photos and videos of the great time the American prisoners had during their time here. VIP treatment, Xmas parties, basketball and holiday camp activities to name just a few. Must be the best piece of propaganda we've seen so far and good for a laugh.
All of this is one big baloney sandwich of course. Bones were broken, souls were shattered, whips were cracked and the monthly electricity bill racked up too, aside from the usual bouts of malnourishment and disease. They were probably at least as good at it as the French and Americans, and the latter remain well practiced today. Yet, none of this is a particularly well kept state secret but it makes you wonder; who are they trying to convince so desperately, and why are they so bad at it?
Our last exploration in town, a venture into the wealthy areas. Amongst which the presidential palaces, embassies and administrative buildings reside. It's an important politically laden neighborhood, judging from the number of guards and guns doing the rounds. The elusive one pillar pagoda lies nigh. World famous in Vietnam we find out it is exactly that - a concrete pillar with a tiny pagoda perched on top. Not sure what to make of it.
Then the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum next door. An immensely imposing concrete cube inspired by the moody socialist, Leninist, Marxist architecture. You can imagine the thunderclouds brooding above it, yet its a shiny day. At 11am Pandora's box remains firmly shut, courtesy of the ludicrous early opening times it enforces. Bummer too, we really did want to see the revered Uncle Ho. Barred by invisible boundaries we cannot cross at the risk of being whistled at by the army of cops that swarm the cube, and guarding a dead body 24/7 they take their job seriously. We better be on our way.