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Monday, January 23, 2006

Ummm...Water Puppets???

After Hue, I was curious to see what Hanoi could possibly offer . . .
Thinking on it, it’s amazing how much of Vietnam I’ve seen in the last few weeks. I don’t know that I thought I’d see so much and be here so long, but it’s been a wonderful experience.

Hanoi. Another bustling city, smaller than Ho Chi Minh, and less developed, but equally overwhelming. In Hanoi, the streets are narrower, so the motobikes ride on the sidewalk to escape the traffic on the street. You just feel the chaos a bit more here. But, what makes Hanoi a little more charming than Ho Chi Minh are the lakes, Hoan Kiem in the center of the city, and West Lake in the north. Both are expansive and offer a bit of tranquility amidst the frenzy of the surrounding city. Most of my time was spent in the Hoan Kiem district, north of the lake, in the Old City. I literally spent hours wandering the streets, getting lost, getting found and watching the people live their daily lives. Continually fascinated by how the Vietnamese live, observing them has been my favorite part of traveling Vietnam.

Now, while there are so many wonderful Vietnamese people who smile these huge, friendly smiles at you as you pass, want to talk to you, want you to listen to their stories, there are an equal amount of annoying, ridiculous Vietnamese people who you want to strangle b/c they’re so eager to please (story in a bit – my Halong Bay tour guide), or on the other end of the spectrum, so eager to scam you, that you just lose patience. My first moment in Hanoi was one of those experiences. My taxi driver. A kid, possibly sixteen years old MAX, was driving me from the airport to Hanoi. While many of the taxis advertised being metered rides, the meters are often rigged so they charged at a higher rate. Getting into his taxi, I said, real meter or high meter?? “Meter, Meter. Correct. Meter,” was the answer I got in return. Ok, fine…let’s just get to the hotel. “Vietnam happy you here, lady. What you hotel?” I tell him. Fine. About ten minutes into the ride, “16” turns around again, “What hotel you say?” I tell him again. Turns around again. “Music? Me like music.” Me: “Sure.” Well, I wouldn’t have agreed had I know he was about to render his own rendition of all the songs he put on. “16” started singing at the top of his lungs to Seal-like Vietnamese classics that sounded like “Kiss From a Rose,” or “Future Love Paradise.” I mean, save-your-shit-for-shower-or-when-you-don’t-have-a-passenger BELTING out song, kids. I almost died. I couldn’t even laugh, I was so annoyed. And we’re stopped dead in traffic. And, we’re only ten minutes into the 45-minute drive and already the meter is higher than the whole ride should cost. Needless to say, when I got to the hotel (2 whole discs of tortures later), the concierge took care of me, making sure I only gave him ¼ of the actual fare on the meter b/c he was scamming me AND made me listen to his puberty-ridden falsetto the entire way.

My sightseeing in Hanoi, with respect to the war, consisted of visiting the Hanoi Hilton and the Army Museum. Since I was in the North of the country, the slant is so pro-Communism. At the Hanoi Hilton, the holding tank for downed pilots (most famously John McCain – who was an inmate for SIX years), there’s a room that depicts the American experience at the Hanoi Hilton. The captions under the photos are ridiculous. They say things like:

“American pilots wearing loose, comfortable, clothing that they enjoyed.”
(pilots in prison issued uniforms)
“Happy American pilots receiving mail and presents from their loved ones at home.”
(getting mail – one assumes. That is what is depicted in the photo.)
“American pilots walking with polite Vietnamese soldiers on quiet city streets.”
(being led, heads down through people-packed streets, to their new home at the prison)
“American pilots singing joyful songs of their hometown at evening get togethers.”
(a prisoner with a guitar)

I was laughing out loud going through, as the photos are rare moments of normalcy (possibly) that have been caught on film, with narration. Mind you, only THESE are the photos that are plastered on the walls of the Hanoi Hilton of the Vietnam War. You KNOW what side is telling the story here. Interesting to see. Then, I went to the Army Museum, which also showcases the North Vietnamese struggle during the French and American wars. I’m in Hanoi, I completely understand that the war is going to be told their perspective, 100%. But, at the Army Museum, I found a virtual graveyard of downed American warcraft, with corresponding facts like, location destroyed, date, Vietnamese lieutenants names, # of enemy KILLED in each mission – very disturbing. The outside of the museum is a trophy chest of such machinery, in the middle standing a HUGE plane, tail-end up, layers upon layers of mangled metal, that perished and is preserved on site. It’s very sobering to see all of this, PROUDLY displayed.

Having had enough of the war, I decided to go to see the Water Puppets Show. Water puppetry is a Vietnamese folk art that has persevered through the years. Everyone told me that I HAD to go to see the Water Puppets while in Hanoi. Now, I was very torn on whether to bother doing this or not. I’ve never been a big puppet fan, whether the puppet being of the marionette or sock-on-hand variety. I wasn’t the child who engaged in puppet shows as recreation. I stuck more to playing house or doctor. And, as an adult, I have vehemently refused to see Avenue Q (I know, Kim….I’m still very sorry), after seeing The Lion King where they use sticks to make Lion puppets over their heads which I found VERY distracting and made for a sub-par evening of theater. Add to all of that (as if it’s not enough of a reason NOT to go), I’m not into Asian dance, music, theater, for the most part. Don’t think me closed-minded, please. I just know what I’m going to have patience for. And, as you all might’ve guessed, the Water Puppets of Hanoi – yeah, not so much. I walked out. Puppets + Vietnamese song + WATER (?) = MISERY. And yet, all the people around me were clapping as if they were watching the Royal Ballet perform Swan Lake. I just don’t get. And….. I’m very much OK with that. ☺

On my last day in Hanoi, I went to see all the sights decided to the life of Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho, as the Vietnamese refer to him. He is so revered, so loved in this country, especially here in Hanoi, that contrary to his wishes to be cremated, HCM’s body is actually preserved and on display Tues-Thurs-Sat and Sunday mornings. (But, not during the months of August thru October, when he is sent out for “maintenance.”) The whole experience was interesting. Considering he’s HCM, you’d think there would be more security, but because the people honor him and his teachings to the letter, there isn’t need for “high” security, nobody would DARE dishonor HCM in his resting place. Imagine the same for George Bush? HA… Anyway, I had to borrow a long sleeve shirt, out of respect – a pretty yellow chiffon number – to view the body and then you walk in a single file line to the mausoleum, up many levels of red-carpeted stairs, into a square, cool marble room, with a glass tomb. There lies a spot-lighted, smiling Uncle Ho. Maintained. It’s all a little weird, but also, incredibly fascinating.

From Hanoi, I took a day trip to Halong Bay, about four hours to the east. Here, rising up from the clearest emerald colored water are about 3000 limestone formations, many of which house caves that are wonderlands of stalagmite and stalagtite. Also on the bay, are villages, where Vietnamese people live in houseboats, fishing for their livelihood. Amazing and beautiful place. Sobering to view such daily life. But, in the ‘annoying Vietnamese that try too hard category’ is Hai (pronounced “Hi”), my tour guide. Hai is thirty, and according to him “single but not sure why” and Vietnamese born. Here’s the catch: Hai speaks like he’s lived in London his whole life. Like, grating, put your fingers in your ears to make it stop, cockneyed London accent spoken in movies like Snatch, Trainspotting, etc… And guess why? That’s where Hai learned his English from. THOSE MOVIES. When he first spoke, I thought he was imitating the English couple on the tour. Then, he kept talking like that – using words like posh and bullocks and snog, asking the couple if his English is “up to snuff” and if they would like some “fish and chips” for lunch instead of the Vietnamese “grog” they serve on the boat. And this continued ALL DAY LONG. Everytime he spoke, if I closed my eyes, there was a skinny, crooked-tooth, fair-skinned white guy with a skull cap and week’s worth of scruff, a mug of beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, staring back at me.

Finally, I took an overnight train to Sapa, or the rice-terraces up north. Getting into my overnight carriage, I’m greeted by “Kay and Alan from Connecticut.” Kay immediately gives me a sick attitude because my bag doesn’t fit under the beds in the compartment, out of her eyesight. Does it matter? It’s next to my bed, she can walk and get up w/o touching it. We’re sleeping for the duration – it’s 10 PM, we arrive at 6 AM – are you doing seniors yoga in the crawl space, Kay???

Me: “Is this really a problem for you?”
Kay: “Well, it’s huuuuge. It’s in my way and maybe you should just put it on your bed.”
Me: I’m not putting it ON my bed. And how, exactly, is it in your way?”
Kay: Well…. (looks away from me and to the upper bunk to her husband) Aaaallllaaan, it’s HUGE. I’m just going to take a pill so I don’t have to deal with it. (Back to me) I just think it’s very large.”
Me: And why does that concern you? You’re going to sleep, no? Didn’t you just say you’re going to “take a pill?”
Alan: “You do that, Kay. Take your pill.” (Rolls eyes at me.)
I’m still sick, have NO patience for whiny moms from CT to survey my baggage issues, so I turn to her, give her a disgusting forced smile and go “Oh, and goodnight.” She never spoke again. Success. The Marie you all know and love. Hehe….

Sapa turned out to be a mess. It was 20 degrees tops because of how the wind was coming off of China while I was there. I had wifebeaters, a North Face and bronchitis to keep me warm. So, I never left my hotel room for two days except to eat soup in the restaurant, sleeping off my illness.

Onto Thailand. Vietnam was awesome, but I think I’m ready for a change…

More soon…

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