Temples, puppetry and the grottiest street cafe in Hanoi

I hadn’t planned to do a lot more sightseeing in Hue once the others left but the extra 24 hours here gave me a good chance to get this journal up to date and was a welcome break from the constant company I’ve had since leaving Mui Ne. Travelling with people has the added benefits of making booze cruises and full moon parties and even simple things such as an evening meal and a few drinks a lot more fun, but it completely abolishes any sense of personal space or independence that travelling solo offers you. In spite of this I did feel a little odd eating breakfast at Cafe on Thu Wheels when all the other diners were sharing laughter and conversation with their friends.

Through no fault of my own I almost missed the overnight bus to Hanoi. It was 5:45pm and I was the only person sitting in the hotel lobby with a backpack by my side. So I asked the lady at reception if everything was ok, only to be told that the bus had already left because I wasn’t there on time. I’d been sitting in the lobby since 4:30!!! So she called a moto taxi to drive me to the T.M Brothers office in time to catch the bus at its last point of call before leaving Hue. Due to the extra weight in my backpack after my shopping expedition in Hoi An, I almost lost my balance and tumbled off the back of the motorcycle everytime the driver put his foot down!

I was the last person to get a seat on the over-crowded and over-booked bus : the Canadian guy who boarded just after me was given a wicker mat and told to sit on the floor! Ironically, although it may not be the most comfortable way to travel, at least he had room to lie down and therefore had more chance of getting some sleep than the rest of us.

I read my book (Graham Greene’s “A Quiet American”) for a few hours until we made our final refreshment and toilet stop just before midnight. From this point onwards my eyes became increasingly tired after every hour that passed, but sleep was a long way from my grasp. Not only was the air conditioning not working but the bus was so hot I was sweating like I had some kind of fever. Moreover I was convinced the driver was about to fall asleep at the wheel : he was driving so erratically and swerving all over the road as if he thought he was on a racetrack. Everytime I closed my eyes I was woken by the urgent sounds of car horns and the glaring headlights of the approaching vehicle.

We arrived in Hanoi at 5:30am and were greeted with the surreal sights of aerobics classes in full swing around the lake, numerous joggers limbering up as if they were preparing for a marathon and badmington matches taking place along the sides of the roads. Food vendors lined the pavements, selling bananas, mangosteens and crisp white baguettes out of large bamboo baskets suspended from either end of a long wooden pole; locals were wolfing down bowls of noodle soup with chopsticks, sat on tiny red plastic nursery school stools. This was at a time when in Britain the only signs of life, other than the birds chattering in the trees, would be a postman just beginning his rounds or a milk cart trundling quietly through the streets.

Due to it being Ho Chi Minh’s birthday the day before, many of the streets were cordoned off and we had to continue our hourney to the old quarter in several smaller mini buses. As I walked to the Holiday’s Hotel where the others were staying, I was hassled the entire way by one of the local touts, despite the fact that I made it perfectly clear that no amount of persuasion would encourage me to stay anywhere other than the hotel at which my friends were currently staying. The Vietnamese are certainly a persistent bunch of people!

Despite my plan to creep quietly into the room with the hotel’s spare key, the porter insisted on knocking loudly on the door and a very sleepy-looking Sam opened it. A mattress had been set up for me on the floor and within 5 minutes of me entering the room, I was lying down on it fully clothed, the warm feeling of imminent sleep washing over my incredibly tired body. I awake 3 hours later when the others were rising and Emma had just returned from her run. We had a late breakfast at the Whole Earth Restaurant, booked our tickets to the water puppet show this evening and then began our long walk over to the Temple of Literature, on the outskirts of central Hanoi.

The Temple of Literature was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, who dedicated it to Confucius in order to honour scholars and men of literary accomplishment. It was also the site of Vietnam’s first university, established in 1076. It’s made up of several gates and courtyards enclosing several serene lakes in the middle of the complex. We watched a traditional Vietnamese musical performance using unusual stringed instruments and a large curved xylophone made of bamboo. Neil was given a traditional hat to wear and was lead up on stage along with 2 other members of the audience. We had a good giggle and judging by Tasha’s video footage, so did Neil.

Emma and I walked back from the temple while the others caught a taxi (lazy buggers!) and spotted several barber shops which had been set up along the pavement, using a stool and a mirror attached to the wall. Also very surreal!

The Water Puppet Show this evening was original, energetic and nothing like I’d expected. The orchestra were in full view of the audience at the side of the stage and not only did they perform the musical score but they also communicated the voices for the characters. The story line was summarised in English in the programme but was performed entirely in Vietnamese. I don’t know whether I expected some meaningless childish antics like Punch and Judy, but The Water Puppet Show was actually a story, performed in short scenes, that was both energetic, amusing and captivating. It’s a shame we hadn’t managed to get seats a little closer, as I’d love to have been able to capture some of the magic on camera.

We went back to the Whole Earth Restauarant for dinner (where they do a selection of vegetarian dishes which are designed to look and taste like meat) and then we found possibly the grottiest street cafe in Hanoi at which to drink some beer Hoi. It was so reminiscent of being in a sewer that we half expected a couple of rats to join us at our table. It also had, by Tasha’s own admission (as she was the only one brave enough to visit it), “the worst toilet in Vietnam.” Think Trainspotting, only take away the presence of a western toilet, or any kind of toilet for that matter . . .
Photos :
Barber shop set up on the side of one of Hanoi’s streets
Tradional Vietnamese music performers at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

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