Hanoi : 'Drip Drop. Tic Toc. Ho Ho. Beep Whistle. Boom Boom.'

Hanoi Travel Blog

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The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.

Drip Drop.

It was pretty darned grey and wet when I first turned up in Hanoi about a week ago.  Bleary-eyed, Mike and I had spilled out of the night bus from Hue and with the rain coming down upon us had little will to do more than roll into the “free” taxi that the local hotel tout offers for a “look at room”.  It’ll do, although the guys that run what I shall refer to as my ‘Nemesis’ hotel will cause me some minor problemos in my time in the city.  One of them stems from a need to have their assistance in acquiring a Chinese visa for me.  My next intended destination.  [see Appendix for info on Chinese visas].

The visa will be later than promised.  They will also take a deposit from me ($5) for our room for when we return from Ha Long Bay but upon my return they’ve given it to someone else and I can’t stay.  Charming!  Thanks ‘Nemesis’ hotel.

It rains pretty incessantly our first day in Vietnam’s capital.  Mike and I take a sodden stroll about the Old Quarter.  The ‘Temple of Literature’.  And in all the time I end up spending here (thumb-twiddling whilst I await that visa) the sky will rarely be prettier than a lighter shade of grey.  That’s not to detract from the city though.  I’m still enjoying the novelty of cool weather, breezes and the odd dusting of drizzle.

  Hanoi is a fairly watery city anyway.  The Song Hong ( ‘Red River’) runs through its east flank.  The vibrant tourist-magnet Old Quarter of the city sits around little Hoan Kiem Lake (the site of the city’s origin Myth) but there are many other ‘lakes’ within the city boundaries.  The watery dissipation of the land too as it fragments into the Gulf of Tonkin; the Red River Delta and Ha Long Bay 100km or so east.

One of the most interesting things I go and see whilst in Hanoi is a performance of the north’s famed Water Puppetry.  A historic entertainment form of the Viet people that originated with farmers in the 10th Century.  The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre sat on the north east corner of Hoan Kiem Lake helps keep the tradition alive and lots of grinning tourists happy with shows about 5 times a day for 40 - 60,000VND ($2.

30- $3.40).  I highly recommend you go.

The performance stage takes the form of a pagoda-style house sat behind a watery expanse.  This is called a Thuy Dinh and houses the talented puppeteers who for the next hour will “wow” and entertain you with beautifully enacted scenes of daily activities from traditional, rural Vietnamese life.   Swimming, splashing, twirling, gliding and hopping through the water a procession of beautifully carved and painted wooden puppet people and animals such as birds, ducks, fish, buffalos and their tenders, foxes, snakes and more symbolic creatures such as Vietnam’s sacred four : the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Lion and the Tortoise.  All of this accompanied by a fabulous narrative orchestration of music played on traditional Vietnamese instruments.

Water Puppetry : traditional entertainment in the north since 10th Century.
  The two-stringed lute, the skin-drum and the oriental Theremin beauty of the monochord.

Ho Ho

Hanoi is of course the seat of government for the nation.  And was the epicentre of activities for the Vietnamese Revolutionary Government from 1945 until full, unified independence was much later achieved.  This eventuality of course owes a significant debt to the leadership of the nation’s father figure.  The ‘friendly face’ of Revolution.  President Ho Chi Minh.  Affectionately referred to by the Vietnamese as “Uncle Ho”.  Despite his last requests stipulating that his body be cremated and that his effigy be not canonised and reproduced Uncle Ho’s affable, smiling face is to be found reproduced with any number of purposes the length and breadth of the land.

An example of a 'Thuy Dinh' Water Puppetry performance stage.
  I refer to him as Uncle “HO HO HO!”.  The endless images of this gentle, cuddly, grinning old man, often in poses of paternal affectation, holding and hugging young children and almost always set with his iconic long white beard against a bright socialist red background, cannot fail to bring to my mind every time images of good old Father Christmas.

The second wish that he be cremated was also passed over.  It is not the right of heroes to possess their own futures it seems.  Ho Chi Minh lies, perfectly preserved and in the stately repose of death within the large, stark, modernist looking mausoleum that is the focal point of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex.  A park containing various buildings of historical significance to the nation and the Ho Chi Minh museum, another modernist structure filled with slivers of history and large slices of frankly surreality with its curiously uninformative; visually left-field displays and exhibition rooms.

Uncle Ho and Doves

Mike and I pop along to meet the old chap one morning.  A strange, effecting experience.  My first real live, Dead President.  If that makes sense?  Silence in the mausoleum.  Coolness.  Stillness.  The large glass walled sarcophagus.  There he lies.  At peace.  Bathed in soft red light.  Hands apart on torso.  Asleep?  That white, white beard glistening slightly like cotton-candy ice in the mausoleum lights.

Whistle Beep.

I’ve met a bunch of people travelling through Vietnam of the opinion that Hanoi rivals and supersedes Saigon for automotive havoc on the roads.  It’s a busy ol’ city don’t get me wrong but this is patently not the case.  Not a patch on the sheer volume, almost a liquid river flow of headlamps, chrome and exhaust pipes that gush with dangerous constancy through the tarmac tributaries of Saigon.

St Joseph's Cathedral (Hanoi's Notre Dame)
  They even stop at traffic lights in Hanoi!  For sure though the beeps, toots, honks and strange vibrato bus-horns that blast’n’fade their “COMING THROUGH!“ trumpet warnings all over Vietnam are the constant soundtrack to your stay here.

Hanoi elicits a noticeable travel first from me.  Caught emotionally off-guard and a little tetchy whilst trying to focus on timing a road crossing so that I don’t die, I have to deploy the ‘F-word’ at a (I’ll be polite) purveyor of public transportation for the first time.  A highly irritating moto-taxi driver is whistling and cooing and making odd noises to get my attention.  This annoys me more than any number of verbal propositions or even a grabbing of the arm.  Meaningless noises sent out purely to try and provoke some kind of knee-jerk, Pavlovian response; a turn of the head and acknowledgement from the target.

Hanoi street market.
  Focus on not dying.  Focus on not dying.  “Coo!  Whoo!  Eeee!  Aaaaay!”.  I turn around.  “Look mate if you want to f**kin’ talk to me talk to me, but no I don’t want a f**king bike!”.  “So you wan’ bike?”.  The gall of it!  “No I f**king don’t need a taxi, so please f**k off!!!”.  “Oh okay...You wan’ marijuana?  Boom-boom?”.  F*****ck!

Hmm?  A little uncharacteristic of me for sure.  But “Hey, c’mon! Seriously!”.  I think I’ve done pretty well so far.  Since leaving Europe over 5 months ago I must have been propositioned approximately 7,499,999 times for any number and combination of “moto?”, “taxi?”, “tuk-tuk?”, “Massa?”, “Boom boom?”, “Marijuana?”, “Opium?”, “Drink? Whiskey-vodka-gin-rum?”, “Smoke?”, “Sheesha?”, “Girls?”, “Good banan?”, “Young girls?” … and aaaaall of this has been declined, every single time politely, with good grace and mostly with a smile.

  One little blow-up permitted?  Right?  My name is Steve, not Job.  Okay?

Tic Toc

Tic toc.  Tic toc.  My time in Hanoi is running out.  I await the arrival of my visa from my ‘Nemesis’ hotel.  What to do? There are a number of interesting museums to visit in Hanoi of which two I attend.  The first the Women’s Museum (of which more in my other Hanoi entry) and on my last day in Hanoi, the Vietnam Ethnological Museum.  This venue provides a very well presented, exhaustive and extremely informative overview of the many, many ethnic community groupings that compose modern day Vietnam’s population (but more of that in my next entry on Sapa).

   The Museum is a timely education for me as I shall be heading for enthnically diverse Sapa in the northwest by train tonight if all goes to plan. 

The museum is chock full of costumes, tools, implements (practical, religious, artisan, domestic), videos of traditional life and community ceremonies and all explained in great detail.  Vin (whose name means ‘Cloud’) also accompanies me and kindly elucidates on matters a little more for me.  Outside is a large walk-around enclosure where replica homes and ceremonial buildings/ burial tombs etc have been reproduced by the craftsmen of their respective communities and can be observed and entered.

Tic toc.  Tic toc.  It approaches five o’clock.  I arrive at my ‘Nemesis’ hotel.  I was here at the same time yesterday when they also said I would have my passport.

  They assured me on further asking that this would be the case.  But it wasn’t and I’d already bought my train ticket to Lau Cai/ Sapa.  I was pretty angry.  It’s not the first time they’ve seen me pretty angry.  Tonight though, thankfully, my passport’s with ‘em and the elusive Chinese visa sits within its pages.  “Phewf!”.  Also following my hint yesterday that they needed to make reparations to me they are to buy me a sleeper ticket (rather than the martyr-to-comfort hard seat I’d plumped for yesterday)… only thing is I have to come back to ‘Nemesis’ at 19.30 now to get it!  “What?  Why?!”.  “Please just come back 19.30.”.  Jeez.  They’ve had 24 hours to get this!  Whatever.
Fabrics rolled at Dong Xuan market
  No biggy anyway, all the trains to Sapa beyond this point are late trains trundling out of town at about 22.00... Right?

I’m sat at dinner.  As usual it’s not long before my private bubble is accosted, burst and I have to forego George Orwell’s company for that of Johnny.  A slightly tipsy ’n’ loud but extremely friendly, gregarious Hong Kong guy who’s lived, worked and married into Hanoi these last 10 years.  Tic toc, seven o’clock.  Johnny and I chew the fat.  All sorts of crap.  One eye on the clock.  The tipsier he gets the more he expands on his love and respect for Britain as the former colonial overseers of his homeland and a nation he feels effusively grateful to for having (apparently) elevated HK to the successful position it sits in today.

  “This neva woulda happ’n unda the Chinese! NO!”.  Not a debate I’m super interested in.  Not today or within the confines of a blog anyway.

My beer and plate of fried rice with chicken and egg are soon polished off and I am press-ganged into changing tables, meeting Johnny’s Hanoi Mrs and having another drink with them and his work colleagues.  All fine.  All good fun.  But one eye on the clock.  Tic toc.  As the hour swings around.  It’s okay.  I don’t know what train my ‘Nemesis’ are putting me on but it can’t be until 22.00ish.
Still at 19.50 I tell Johnny I must be off to get a train ticket.  Tic toc.  He understands.  Enthusiastic good byes from everyone and Johnny very kindly insists on picking up the bill for my dinner and drinks.

  What a stroke of luck!

Boom Boom

As soon as Fortune kisses me on the one cheek she slaps me back across the other.

I walk briskly to my ‘Nemesis’ hotel and through the doors.  It’s 20.05.  They struggle to find the ticket that’s ‘kindly’ been purchased for me.  It is indeed a sleeper berth at 240,000VND ($14) as opposed to my 98,000VND ($5.50) slum-seat yesterday and it… it?… it departs at 20.35!!!  “Holy sh*t!”.  You f**kin’ morons!!  “Guys this train departs in 25 minutes!”.  “Yes iz okay!”.  “NO! Not f**kin’ okay!  I have to get back to my hotel, get my bags and get to the…”  Oh f**k it.

  Tic toc.  Tic toc.  No time to argue this one… let’s go go GO!

I dash back to my hotel.  Bluster a sweaty, undignified “good bye and good luck” to Claudia, a beautiful Taiwanese FMF (Five Minute Friend) whom I’d chatted to earlier and had hoped to share the journey to Sapa with on the 22.00 train.  Sadly no more thanks to my ‘Nemesis‘.  And the money I saved through Johnny’s generosity now has to go straight in to the pocket of a grinning moto-taxi driver!  Yes, after my blow-up the other day I now need one of these guys to save me!  I try not to impart any sense of panic or hurry to my driver (although both these imperatives are in full swing!) as I figure encouraging an after-dark Hanoi moto-taxi driver to “Please hurry up!” is about as conducive to one’s longevity as sitting astride a horse, high up on a canyon-cliff top, whipping it across the rump with a birch stick and shouting “Gee up Ned!”.

At one point on the journey, stopped at traffic lights, in a bid for ‘keep the driver sweet’ male solidarity, and observing a particularly refined example of the female posterior perched on a moped seat in front of us I furtively state in tones of mock-machismo “My man, Vietnamese women have the best bums in the whooole world!”.  His head cocks back towards me.  Smiling.  A primal, instinctive moto-taxi reaction.  He deftly enquires “You wan’ massa? Boom-boom?”.  Sh*t, my 7,500,000th proposition and I invited that one with open arms.  “NO!  I want a TRAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN….”.

[ Appendix : ‘Chinese Tourist Visa’ ]

Whilst travelling in Laos I heard a solitary vague rumour that visas to enter China from Vietnam were no longer being issued in Hanoi, but still in Saigon.

  This sounded odd but actually is true at the time of writing.  Yes, despite the fact Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and the last and nearest major administrative hub before hitting the Viet-Chinese border.

I'll spare you the anecdotes of my sufferings and just leave you the info.  China currently DOES NOT issue Tourism visas to non-Vietnamese nationals in Hanoi.  Fear not.  The Chinese Tourism or 'L' visa can still be obtained without too much hassle in Hanoi but you will have to go through an agent of some variety or other.  Almost any hotel/ hostel in Hanoi worth its salt will offer the service.  I paid $45 for the visa over a 6 working day ‘processing’ period.  This actually is the same time and monetary cost I had factored in anyway.

Giarai tombs are surrounded by carved wooden images of the primary stages of men/ women's lives... which apparently includes heavy bouts of self-pleasuring ;O
  If you want it quicker (3-4 working days) you shouldn’t have to pay more than $65 - $75).  Just one passport size photo is required.

If you’re reading this and will do the same journey as me you may consider picking up the visa in Saigon.  The Chinese visa remains valid for approx 3 months from the date of issue and is only activated, valid for 30 days, upon entry into the country.

lavender_land81 says:
it's great blog, Steve! it gave me a good laugh... it sounds quite a crazy trip, but i am sure it's unforgettable! i am going there next month, hopefully i dont have to meet any 'nemesis'

Happy New Year to you! have a great 2012! :)
Posted on: Dec 30, 2011
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The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in t…
The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in …
Water Puppetry : traditional enter…
Water Puppetry : traditional ente…
An example of a Thuy Dinh Water …
An example of a 'Thuy Dinh' Water…
Uncle Ho and Doves
Uncle Ho and Doves
St Josephs Cathedral (Hanois Not…
St Joseph's Cathedral (Hanoi's No…
Hanoi street market.
Hanoi street market.
Fabrics rolled at Dong Xuan market
Fabrics rolled at Dong Xuan market
Giarai tombs are surrounded by car…
Giarai tombs are surrounded by ca…
The rain pours down on Hanoi Day 1…
The rain pours down on Hanoi Day …
My favourite, chaotic evening eate…
My favourite, chaotic evening eat…
Bay Mau Lake.
Bay Mau Lake.
I saw this Melon Dudes mystery …
I saw this 'Melon Dude's' mystery…
Revolutionary Red : Ho Chi Minh
Revolutionary Red : Ho Chi Minh
Traditional Water Puppets
Traditional Water Puppets
SAW VI : The Puppets Revenge :O
SAW VI : The Puppets Revenge :O
Mother of Pearl craft plate (detai…
Mother of Pearl craft plate (deta…
Old Quarter city gateway.
Old Quarter city gateway.
Outside the Old Quarter boundaries…
Outside the Old Quarter boundarie…
The large indoor fabric market : D…
The large indoor fabric market : …
Dong Xuan Merket hall.
Dong Xuan Merket hall.
I am Weeeeeasel!.  Popular expen…
"I am Weeeeeasel!". Popular expe…
The Vietname Ethnographical Museum
The Vietname Ethnographical Museum
Under Construction at the Ethnolog…
Under Construction at the Ethnolo…
A Bahnar Communal House : this is …
A Bahnar Communal House : this is…
Sorry darling, I think Ive got a…
"Sorry darling, I think I've got …
Tree Print (Hanoi)
'Tree Print' (Hanoi)
Making Snow
'Making Snow'
The Ho Chi Minh museum : its kind…
The Ho Chi Minh museum : it's kin…
photo by: mario26