There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Hanoi (2), Bat Trang, Quan Ho Music and Fighting Cocks: Part 3 Of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 1
On to Part 3
Next morning we set off with Joe to visit Bat Trang, Dong Ho, Tam Tao and several other ‘craft villages’ that lie north east of Hanoi in the Red River delta.

Crossing the river on Chuong Dong Bridge gave us a good view of Long Bien, the city’s oldest bridge built by the French in 1902, its metal superstructure once supposed to represent a rising dragon. Hanoi was founded as Thanh Long – Rising Dragon – in 1010 and adopted its present name only in 1850. Unfortunately, American bombing removed the bridge’s central section and it was rebuilt without the nineteenth century ironwork.

Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi

We drove through the outer suburbs, our car a big fish surrounded by a shoal of darting motorcycles. Suddenly a policeman appeared in front of us waving a red stick. Our driver pulled over and got out. The policeman first saluted with a humble ‘servant of the people’ attitude, then instantly changed his body language to ‘swaggering bully’. Apparently we had crossed an amber light. How the policeman picked this marginal transgression out from the swirling mob of unruly traffic was beyond me, but a fine had to be paid before we could continue.

We passed an airstrip which has been largely unused since Noi Bai International airport opened in 1978. Of considerable importance during the war, it is now looks rather neglected. It is surrounded by fishponds, generously excavated by the Americans in their efforts to close the airstrip.

I had not been optimistic about our trip to Bat Trang. I expected to be shown round a huge show room with a thousand other tourists while in the corner half a dozen locals demonstrated some of the relevant processes. I could not have been more wrong.

Painting ceramics, Bat Trang
We walked along the narrow streets of Bat Trang, opening doors almost at random and wandering in to workshops where girls were hand painting ceramics. These were genuine cottage industries and we wondered if Stoke-on-Trent would have been like this a hundred and fifty years ago. At least the air in Bat Trang was breathable as there were no pot banks belching out smoke. We saw fuel for the kilns being prepared - coal mixed with dung and then slapped onto a convenient wall to dry - but we were not aware that any of the kilns were actually in operation.

Mix it all up......

...and slap it on a wall to dry

We did not see any pots being made either, but the skill on show from the painters made the trip worthwhile.

Pots and kilns
Bat Trang, Hanoi
The village centre contained several shops but there was no pressure to go in or to buy, and, even better, there were no other tourists in town.

Deliveryman, Bat Trang

We drove on to another village where the business was bonsai trees. 'Bonsai trees are very expensive,' Joe observed, pointing at the prosperous-looking houses. Larger than the Japanese variety, Vietnamese bonsai are very popular - no forecourt or foyer is complete without one - and business was clearly good.

Bonsai Banyan tree

The Red River delta is extremely fertile providing two rice crops a year with a planting of soy beans or potatoes in between. The roads run on dykes, with the paddy fields below. Agriculture is intense, but there is also a large population, the next village being always visible across the fields

The next village is always visible across the fields

Dong Ho was billed as the artist’s village, but only one family is still involved in traditional block printing. Most of Dong Ho is now given over to the manufacture of paper funerary objects. After death a person must be provided for in the afterlife and this is achieved by burning paper replicas of the goods they owned – or coveted – while alive. Paper shoes, clocks, washing machines and motorcycles are common.

Paper Hondas stacked on shelves, Dong Ho
For men who die young – and the real motorcycles take their toll – a paper bride can be incinerated to ensure all their needs are met.
Paper brides await their husbands, Dong Ho

We moved on to Tam Tao where we had been promised lunch in a village house followed by a performance of Quan Ho music. I expected to be taken to a large house with a lot of other foreigners and then, after a bland set meal, we would all move on to an auditorium. For the second time that day I seriously underestimated Haivenu Travel.

We parked beside the wall of the village Taoist temple, walked across a small bridge and were shown into the yard of an ordinary house. In the open front room the only table had been laid for two. We sat down and the woman of the house brought us a fish, some chicken, spring rolls and vegetables. We ate a genuine Vietnamese home cooked lunch, and very good it was too.

Lunch in a village house
Tam Tao, Hanoi

After lunch four singers,

Quan Ho singers, Tam Tao

accompanied by two musicians....

Quan Ho Musicians, Tam Tao

...gave us a private performance in a pavilion in the courtyard of the temple. We enjoyed the show; Quan Ho is a form of folk singing which is not too exotic for the western ear and is far preferable to the insipid Sinopop that blares out from the shops of Hanoi. It was not quite a private performance as several local youths gathered around the pavilion to listen. They were welcome.

Pavilion, Taiost Temple,
Tam Tao, Hanoi
The rest of the local youth were gathered across a stream watching two fighting cocks. Cock fighting is legal, Joe told us, but betting on it is not. I have no idea how they police that. Persuading two birds to fight to the death to amuse human beings is barbaric, and I will make no attempt to defend it, however, on this occasion they were merely practising, no spurs were involved and no blood was spilled. The birds, lean, muscular and incredibly aggressive, even seemed to enjoy it.

Fighting Cocks - no blood was spilled
Tam Tao, Hanoi

Back in Hanoi in the late afternoon we walked up to the cathedral. The French built Hanoi a neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral in the 1880s. Dedicated to St Joseph its interior is elegant and relatively plain, as Catholic cathedrals go. It also contains the relics – more precisely the skull - of the Vietnamese martyr St André Dung Lac, executed in 1839 by the emperor Minh Mang for being a Christian.

St Joseph's Cathedral
Thus ended our first stay in Hanoi. The next day (Sunday 25th) we would head for Ha Long Bay, returning on Monday afternoon for an hour or two before catching the night train to Lao Cai. We returned again on Saturday the 31st for another day in Hanoi and a visit to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.

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