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…..

Friday, 23 March 2012

Hanoi (1), Ethnic Minorities, The Old City and The Water Puppets: Part 1 of Vietnam North to South

Hanoi is some 250km south of the Tropic of Cancer. Descending the aircraft steps beneath a leaden sky with drizzle blowing in the distinctly cool breeze, we found ourselves reassessing our concept of ‘tropical’.

We were met by Truong (‘call me Joe’) and his driver who took us into Hanoi. There were few private cars on the road, but Vietnam is a land of motorcycles - some 60 million of them - and they swarmed about us like angry bees. Fuel costs over £1 a litre and with a typical middle class income being less than £100 a month, saving for a car is pointless when it takes half a month’s salary to fill the tank. The road system struggles to cope with the traffic there is, so perhaps this is no bad thing.

Traffic backed up as we approached the bridge over the Red River. With both southbound lanes congested first motorcycles, then commercial vehicles and cars started to invade the northbound outside lane, and then both northbound lanes. It took twenty minutes to reach the centre of the bridge where we encountered the northbound traffic invading the southbound lanes. In the middle of it all was a policeman, twisting and waving his arms like an inept swimmer desperately trying to keep his head above water.

Beyond the bridge it was easier going and we soon reached the Museum of Ethnic Minorities. After our drive and a two hour flight from Ho Chi Minh it was now lunchtime, so we headed for the museum’s café.

It seemed time to make our acquaintance with pho the universal Vietnamese breakfast and light lunch sold at every restaurant and at countless roadside stalls. Flat rice noodles are submerged in well-flavoured stock, a few bean sprouts are added, maybe a spring onion, some herbs - usually coriander, sometimes basil or mint - and a spoonful of nuoc mam, the ubiquitous fish sauce (which, like its distant cousin Worcestershire Sauce, does not taste fishy). A couple of slices of fiery bird’s-eye chilli might be included or they might be served separately with a slice of lime. Finally several slices of bo (beef) or ga chicken are popped on top. We ate the solids with our chopsticks and slurped the rest from the bowl Chinese style. The Vietnamese, we later observed, eat pho with chopsticks in their right hands and a spoon in their left. As the Chinese have yet to invent the spoon (except for their impractical ceramic version) they do not have this option. We enjoyed our first encounter with pho, which was fortunate as there were many more to come.

One of the large ethnic buildings,
Hanoi Museum of Ethnic Minorities

The Museum of Ethnology is vast. 86% of Vietnam’s population are ethnic Vietnamese, the Kinh, while the rest is made up of 54 different minorities (a suspiciously similar number of minorities share China with the Han Chinese.) These groups, whose size varies from a few thousand to several million, live mainly in the northern and central highlands, some had even been uncontacted prior to the Vietnam War (or American War as we learned to call it) . Each has its own distinctive customs, clothing and buildings and the museum was comprehensive enough to be bewildering. One of the biggest northern groups is the Hmong whom we had met in China (here and in the two following posts) and would meet again soon. The Chinese Hmong refer to themselves as Miao, but as this means ‘barbarian’ the Vietnamese Hmong regard it as offensive. Hmong means ‘free people’, though we failed to observe that they were any freer than anyone else – though they were often poorer. 

One of the longer ethnic buildings
Hanoi Museum of Ethnic Minorities

In the grounds of the museum were reconstructions of some of the more exotic ethnic buildings and funerary carvings.

Lewd figures cavorting round the coffin remind the dead of what they are missing
Hanoi Museum of Ethnic Minorities

Struggling with more knowledge than we could usefully digest, we drove into the centre of town, the car dropping us just north of the old city. We walked the last kilometre through the grid of narrow streets, each one dedicated to one sort of shop or trade. In one street they sold food, in the next ceramics, in another religious accessories. In the metalworkers' street, welders in sandals and sun-glasses showered the pavement with sparks, unconcerned for their own safety or that of passers-by. 

Chillis, garlic, ginger and much more
Street of food sellers, Hanoi

When we reached our hotel the driver had already delivered our cases. ‘He couldn’t get a decent price for them in the market,’ Joe explained.

Interesting wiring,
Street of religious artefact sellers, Hanoi 

In the early evening we walked to the water puppet theatre beside Hoan Kiem Lake. Several such theatres exits in Vietnam, but this is the original and the best and it is the duty of every visitor to Hanoi to pay them a visit.

The band at the Water Puppet Theatre
Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
A packed house, almost entirely foreigners, listened to the excellent band for a while before the puppets made their entrance. Operated from behind a screen by puppeteers standing waist deep in water, they could be persuaded to do remarkable things. The action was accompanied by music and words, though ignorance of Vietnamese could not disguise the ‘that’s the way to do it’ nature of the dialogue. Allegedly, water puppetry was invented by local farmers with nothing else to do during the periodic floods - clearly the devil finds work for idle hands. At 45 minutes, the performance was just the right length; they could show off all their tricks – some more than once – before the audience becoming restless.

Water Puppets, Hanoi

Afterwards our driver delivered us to the Ly Club, one of Hanoi’s best restaurants, where we were to have dinner with a representative of Haivenu Travel. The extraordinarily charming Le Thi Thuy Nhu has worked for Haivenu since gaining a degree in tourism at Hanoi University.

Lynne and Nhu at the Ly Club

Nhu (given names come last in Vietnamese) was excellent company, and the food was very good, too. I will let the menu speak for itself.

Ly Club Menu
(click to enlarge)

After we said goodbye, we knew that Nhu would spend the next hour riding her motorcycle to the village outside Hanoi where she lived. We merely had to walk through the door, step into the waiting car and be back at our hotel within minutes. I know we were paying to be pampered, but sometimes it does not seem entirely fair.

On to part 2: Ha Long Bay

Back To Prelude
Ray Bans in Heathrow and Saigon

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