Sebastian King continues his trek to find hidden Asia and discovers the ancient tradition of water puppetry in the centre of Hanoi, Vietnam.
All the hard work was done beforehand. We’d booked a hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, aptly titled 'Hotel Elegance 2' and managed to catch a cheap flight from Singapore to Hanoi with Tiger Airways for $20 (US). The rooms were clean and cost $30 (US) each, including breakfast; a bright start to our Vietnam adventure.
The first thing that struck us about Hanoi was the mopeds. Every time we attempted to cross the road a never ending sea of metallic petrol powered bikes swarmed around us as if they were hungry robotic sharks. But we always seemed to make it to the other side somehow. Like aliens on a strange and unrecognisable planet we would have to adapt to Hanoi, this brave new world. Our survival was dependant on one overwhelming rule: not to hang about when crossing the road.
Above : Moped Madness in Hanoi
Our first stop, the Temple of Literature (see article thumbnail), was established in 1070 as a Confucian temple. It’s free to enter and commands a grand presence fit to rival any regal establishment.
In the grandiose main hall orchestras strape, blow or twang their appropriate instruments. Outside, the wind is continually thick with the smell of burning incense whilst there are three three courtyards each complete with their own dainty lakes to check out. The third of these courtyards is lined with rows of stone turtles.
These monuments are dedicated to the 2,313 students who passed Emperor Le Thanh Tong ‘s rigorous tests. Turtles are seen as good luck throughout South East Asia, this may explain why the head of each granite reptile had been worn away by human touch. We took no chances and rubbed the head of every single stone turtle on show. I figured we might need some luck later on in our travels.
In Hanoi there’s never any shortage of hustle and bustle. There’s always something to do and somewhere new to explore. After soaking in the enchanting views of the Thap Rua pagoda rising from the seductive waters of the Hoan Kiem Lake we headed in the direction of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Water puppetry originated in the villages of the Red River Delta around the 11th century. Having a few dollars to burn we figured this would be a fantastic introduction to the cultural heritage of Vietnam. We each paid $15 (US), took our seats and waited eagerly.
An orchestra, seated just above a pool of water, began their resume. In the pool below wooden puppets danced in unison, their masters cleverly concealed behind a red velvet curtain. A story that revolved around Vietnamese life in the paddy fields enfolded before us. A menagerie of animals from dogs to dragons waited their turn to grace the stage.
The dragons were my Skinny Friend’s favourite. They propelled plumes of sparks from their mouths whilst dancing in harmony as they slinked through the lucid water. The show lasted around an hour and forty minutes and was worth every cent of the entrance fee.
Above : The puppet masters take a bow after the show
Back on the industrious streets of Hanoi our stomachs growled incessantly. It was time for a spot of local cuisine. We strode towards the Hai Ba Trung District and ended up in a restaurant called the 'Highway 4'. We were led up a wrought iron staircase to the top floor by a waiter. Wooden slacks made for walls that separated the eatery from the manic streets below and cocooning it within its own halcyon ambiance. The tables were traditionally low with cushions for seats.
This was a place that oozed its own personality. My skinny friend commented that there should be more places such as these in the world. I agreed. We ordered a platter of pork filled spring rolls for 64,000 dong, which equated to about US$4 (US). I practised my Vietnamese on the waiter and learnt how to say “no thank you”. This would be of much use later, when having to bat thousands of money-hungry street traders out my path. I memorised the words “Comn Gammon”. We tipped.
Above: It's Very Common To Find Families Eating Outside Their Property In Hanoi
One thing Hanoi has a lot of is funky little art and craft shops. With hardly any chain stores in sight, basically every booth offers hand crafted goods such as jewellery, silk robes, or necklaces. I bought a suede cowboy hat in a vain attempt to look like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones. My Skinny Friend was quick to inform me that I looked more like a cretin hoping to personify a Hollywood star.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is especially bohemian. We spent the majority of our days there sampling the delights of the local beer and exploring the depths of the neighbouring craft stalls. This place is far from just another Asian city that grows hazy in the memory. Hanoi has its own breed of charm that will certainly make travelling there unforgettable. Just look out for the mopeds.
Above: The Fish Market In Hanoi's Old Quarter Is A Different World
Top Tip: Jump in a rickshaw, and venture around the hectic streets of Hanoi. Not only can this help you decipher your bearings but it’s as close an experience to driving in Hanoi, which I can assure you is about as exhilarating as well written thriller.
Lost? Missed the last instalment? Catch up here (Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Singapore)
Alternatively to read about Seb's next adventure click here (Ha Long Bay, Vietnam)