Jan. 10th, 2017


Jan. 10th, 2017 11:52 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
The airport in Hanoi is a long way from the city centre, with the journey taking nearly an hour. Fortunately, I had pre-arranged a pick up with the hotel, meaning that there was someone there to meet me as I got off the plane. The guidebook had warned me about scams regarding taxi drivers from the airport and so I felt this was the safest option. The driver was friendly enough, and it was great to watch the sun descend over the city as we approached it. The closer we got to the centre, the more manic it became, with the streets getting narrower and the traffic denser. The number of motorbikes in particular increased but this was definitely more of a car orientated city than HCMC. The Spring Flower Hotel, where I was staying for two nights, was pretty much right in the downtown, shrouded by trees and motorbikes so hard to see. The lady at the check-in desk was nice and the friendly porter walked me to my room, where I unpacked, relaxed for half an hour and opted to explore the local area.

It was around 7pm and I had arranged to meet a handful of local furs in the morning. Consequently, I had the rest of the night free and not fancying an evening on my own in the room, I thought I might as well look around. There was an interesting looking walking tour of the Old Quarter in the guidebook which took in most of the major sights, so I joined it halfway as this was the most conveinent based on the location of my hotel. As I was walking, I noticed a larger number of tourists than there had been in the south, with many of them frequenting the lively bar joints around P Hang Bo. There was also a not insignificant number of older Western gentlemen with young local women. In the dark, perhaps the walk wasn't as good as it would have been in the daytime but I did get to experience a flavour of the city, particularly around some of the markets which really only come to life at night. Alas the most eclectic and biggest covered market, the Dong Xuan Market, was closed but at least I did get to see the Cua O Quan Chuong, the well-preserved Old East Gate of the city which was perhaps a little Arabic in style and lit up in a warming yellow light. As I was walking around, I did see a number of blacksmiths still hard at work, making things like mirrors and tin boxes for the tourist market. As was often the case in other cities, each craft had one particular part of the city and I also saw some herb merchants as well as shops selling toys and silk.

One of the highlights was the St Joseph Cathedral, built in the neo-Gothic style and inaugurated in 1886. It's humungous facade which soars into the night sky over a charming little piazza containing a statue was breathtaking, with the twin bell towers and centred cross above a clock defining its form. Alas the Cathedral wasn't open but it was certainly worth a visit as it was the most discernable attribute of the French colonial period in the country. Another highlight was the area around Hoan Kiem Lake, the body of water that sits pretty much bang in the centre of the city. In the middle of this there is an island upon which sits the Ngoc Son Temple, meaning Temple of the Jade Mountain. To get there, you must cross a scarlet bridge constructed in a classical Vietnamese style, but alas by this time of night both of these were closed. They were lit up rather fabulously though while the nearby Martyrs' Monument depicting a woman with a sword and two men holding guns and a torch was a poignant memorial to those who died fighting for the independence of Vietnam. Being a furry, of course the frieze of a tiger near the Temple's entrance was the thing that grabbed me most.

Crossing the road, I then walked past the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, which was described by the guidebook as containing performances most akin to 'Punch and Judy In A Pool'. The art of watery puppetry, or roi nuoc, is over one thousand years old but has only really travelled outside of northern Vietnam over the last fifty. Believed to have been invented by rice farmers who saw the potential for the water as a stage, or during a time of flood, the farmers carved water-resistant human and animal puppetds from the timber of a fig tree and staged performances in lakes, ponds or flooded paddy fields. These days a tank of water about waist-deep in depth is used with the glossy painted puppets being 50cm long and weighing up to 15kg. Puppets can last for about four months if continually used and indeed creating puppets is a good livelihood for many northern Vietnamese villagers. Eleven puppeteers are involved in each performance with training taking three years, with it very much being a family business. Some puppets are attached to poles while others float on the water, with the darkness of the auditorium making them appear magical. Live music also accompanies all of this, and it really would have been great to see, but alas it was late and the place was closed. Next I headed towards the temple at house 102 but it was down a dark alleyway and I was somewhat scared to go in, despite it being marked by a large rainbow tapestry hanging from a lamppost outside.

After this, I was feeling somewhat peckish and being unable to find the restaurants the hotel had recommended to me, I headed back to the drinking area to go to a bar that served beer from the Pasteur Street Brewing Company. This wasn't quite a branch bar but they do run in close cooperation, so I grabbed a pint of a beer I had not yet tried in HCMC as well as a platter of local Vietnamese meat and cheese, along with some local jerky. It was all rather delicious, with the variety of cheese being quite a surprise, and it was a relaxing way to end my day. I had actually seen the bar as I had walked past on the walking tour, but as there had been no-one in at that time, I decided to make an excuse about money, promising to come back later. When I did, which was when I ordered food, there was a group of American backpackers sat at the table in front of me, recalling their travelling experiences quite loudly. Normally this would have annoyed me, but their tales were actually quite exotic, if only because they had gotten involved with things that perhaps they shouldn't have done. Still, sat on my own in a bar, their tales were quite amusing and it passed the time as I waited for my food to arrive. After I had eaten, I toyed with having another beer but the early start was really starting to take its toll and the rowdiness of the area was starting to grate. It was one of those places where restaurant owners pestered you to come in as you walked past, and it was teeming with locals and tourists drinking while sat on plastic chairs on the pavement. The atmosphere was quite stoked, with loud music eminating from a number of clubs, and it was all a little much for me in my tired state. As a consequence, I headed back at about 10pm before grabbing a shower and going to bed ahead of a full day ahead of me on the Thursday.

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