Tuesday, March 13, 2007 Vietnam Vietnam

Water puppets, stuffed pigs and dead presidents

Waiting for a fare [Enlarge]

There are easily enough things to do in Hà Nội to keep you occupied for three days. On our first full day here we decided first to take a stroll to the nearby Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which is the old town's main landmark. It didn't take us long to discover that 'strolling' and 'old town' are not words that can be used in the same sentence. Instead, we ducked and weaved through the traffic, dodging street stalls, hawkers, parked mopeds, moving mopeds, cycle-rickshaws and chihuahuas. The streets were not as clean as Bangkok's but compared with India it was a breeze. We learned later that a law came into force last year banning parking on all pavements (US: sidewalks) less than three metres wide. Either the law has been repealed, or it is being completely ignored. It is physically impossible to walk down the pavements on most streets because of the thousands of parked mopeds which line them. A lot of shops even have ramps up the kerbs and into their doors so that the shop owners can ride their mopeds through into the back room to park them!

Bridge to Den Ngoc Son [Enlarge]

We finally reached the lake and things got a lot calmer. On an island in the lake is a Buddhist temple, reached by a red, wooden, flag-decorated bridge. We paid our 8,000 đồng entry fee (0.26 GBP / 0.50 USD) and crossed the bridge.

Like all the temples we've seen so far this one was full of a mixture of devout pilgrims and bemused tourists—but here there were also a lot of chilled out locals who had come to find some peace and quiet on the island and get in a game of xiàngqí (Chinese chess) with their mates. As well as the temple, the small island had a range of shopportunities to rival even Turkey! We passed on the chance to buy a Good Morning, Vietnam t-shirt or an army issue cap, and we went back onto the street to walk the rest of the way round the lake. The lake acts as a huge traffic island controlled (in theory) by traffic lights. At the lake's far end we found a particularly busy corner and Glenn got the camera out to shoot a 'traffic chaos' photo. As we stood there, a traffic policeman appeared from nowhere, and after a minute sauntered into the middle of the melée. Then he climbed up onto a circular podium, and just stood to attention! We expected him to spring into action, arms flailing as he directed the traffic, but instead he just stood there, absolutely motionless. The only difference his presence made to the flow of traffic was that it now had to squeeze around his podium. It wasn't an improvement, but it did make a good photograph.

Traffic policeman [Enlarge]

Next day (Sunday), the first thing we did was to visit the Museum of Revolution. The exhibitions here track Vietnamese history from the French colonial occupation in the 19th century, through the inception of the Communist Party in 1930, liberation from France in 1954, the war against America culminating in Ho Chi Minh's glorious victory (which he achieved six years after his death), and finally reunification of the country in 1975. It's very much an old-school museum, not an interactive activity centre in sight. The main interest factor lies in seeing the Northern Vietnamese perspective on their recent history, which is (unsurprisingly) a lot different from what we're taught in the west. It was a reminder that there are two sides to every story. Before leaving the museum, we looked for the loos (US: bathrooms). They were signposted down a long corridor, at the end of which were a pair of strange exhibits, invisible to anyone who didn't venture all the way to the end of the corridor: a couple of glass cases containing a large dead pig and two equally dead chickens. It seemed that they had not been expertly stuffed, because they smelled very bad indeed. In the pig's cabinet, a crowd of dead flies lay on the floor underneath the poor animal's head. Obviously even they hadn't been able to stand the stink. We're not sure why these two exhibits had found themselves in the Museum of Revolution, but we didn't hang around long enough to find out. We went to the loo quickly and made a hasty exit.

One thing that almost every tourist does in Hà Nội is to see the famous múa rối nước (water puppet show). This is a centuries-old artform which used to be put on in villages during the floods of the monsoon season. Now it takes place in a normal-looking theatre, but the stage is flooded and the puppeteers have to stand for the whole show waist-deep in water. We booked tickets for the 17:15 show on Sunday, which was the fourth of seven that day. It wasn't too surprising then that the musicians seated in a small balcony to the left of the stage looked a little bored. The hour-long show began with some folk tunes and then the puppets emerged and began their skilful dancing. Unfortunately the show was entirely in Vietnamese so we didn't understand too much of what was going on, but basically it consisted of scenes from traditional Vietnamese life being played out: everyday things like fishing, rice planting, and catching frogs; important events like a college graduate returning home to the village; and mythical stories like phoenixes and dragons dancing.

Monday is museum-and-attraction closure day in Vietnam, so we stayed in for most of the day and made good use of the hotel's free wireless internet sorting out some bits and pieces to do with our tour of China, and working out how we're going to get from there to Japan via South Korea without flying. We were just considering what to do for dinner when all the lights went out. We're used to power cuts. We had power problems in Scotland before our trip started, then we had more in İstanbul, Goa, Jaipur and Delhi. We didn't want to stray too far outside in the darkness—the traffic is scary enough when the streetlights are working—but we were getting very hungry. So we walked out and ducked into the first restaurant we found, almost opposite our hotel. All the lights were off (obviously) and each table was lit by a cosy candle. It looked very inviting; busy, but with space for two more. We went in, sat down and ordered a couple of Bia Hà Nội (the local beer). We had a very tasty dinner and were just lingering over the last dregs of our second beer when the power came back. There was a cheer from inside the restaurant and much horn-honking outside.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum [Enlarge]

Today is our final day in Vietnam, but as our flight to Hong Kong is not until 19:10, we had more than enough time this morning to pay President Ho Chi Minh a visit. Yes, he's been dead for the last 35 years, but every morning from 08:00 to 11:00 you can visit him in his glass tomb within his huge granite mausoleum. Before he died, Uncle Ho requested that he be cremated, but his wishes were ignored, and instead he was pickled by his devoted subjects. The mausoleum is imposing yet serene: a bit like the Taj Mahal's more sinister twin; built of dark grey polished granite and very communist in style. We joined the queue which snaked round the corner and stretched a full block away from the mausoleum. A few thousand respectful Vietnamese pigrims and curious Westerners had obviously had the same idea as us—Ho Chi Minh is still a crowd puller! It took us 49 minutes to shuffle two-by-two round the corner, along the street (stopping to be relieved of our camera and phone at security), up the steps, round the corridor, up a flight of stairs and into the room containing the tomb. It then took less than one minute to be herded through one door, be physically manhandled by the attending Vietnamese army guards around three sides of the tomb, and then be ejected from the other door. Presumably the use of force is necessary so that the queue can be kept moving at a reasonable pace. The president was lit by a strange reddish light inside his glass-walled coffin and was attended by a total of some ten to fifteen guards: four to actually stand guard around the coffin, the rest to do crowd control or stand to attention in the other parts of the building. We were one of the last few people to be let in for the day. When we emerged back into the daylight the queue had vanished, and some guards soon came out to roll up the red carpet at the entrance and close the big wooden doors.

We went over to a bistro near the Opera House for some lunch, after which it was time to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags and wait for our taxi to the airport. We have enjoyed our short visit to Vietnam, and feel that there is a lot more to see and do here than we have managed. This evening we are flying with Vietnam Airways to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, former British colony and gateway to the People's Republic of China.