16 Feb Hanoi: Puppets, Presidents and Prisons in the Vietnamese Capital
Hanoi. Its labyrinthine streets are home to some of the best restaurants in the country, an abundance of street sellers offering baked delights to tickle any taste buds and one of the most famous water puppet theatres in the country. Throw into the mix a photogenic lakeside setting and you have a truly fascinating city. I must say my first impressions of Hanoi weren’t as glamorous as this. Having arrived from the stunningly beautiful Halong Bay, the hustle and bustle and congestion of Hanoi was a shock to the system and the city wasn’t as easy to navigate as Saigon. And despite what I had heard about the north of the country being colder than the south, it was humid and buzzing with life. I’d like to say I made the most of my time here, but after more than one drunken night drinking rocket fuel (ghastly multi-flavoured shots) and convincing the owner of a reggae bar to allow us a lock-in, I was a little worse for wear, but still determined to see what the place had to offer.
First stop was the prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, made famous more recently for its previous incarceration of US senator John McCain. It was here that American POWs were held during the Vietnam War and visiting it was both fascinating and moving in equal measure. After that myself and my travel buddies headed to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the final resting place of the former president himself. We were in luck as he had just arrived back from a stint of being ‘freshened up’ in Russia, so we were able to enter the tomb and file past his glass-encased body guarded by soldiers. To say he’s looking a bit yellow and waxy would be an understatement, but after years of chemical preservation, who can blame him? It is forbidden to take photos inside the mausoleum, as well as showing any kind of facial expression whatsoever or making any movements with your arms. This just somehow adds to the slightly surreal and intimidating atmosphere.
From here it was on to Ho Chi Minh’s former residence, a lovely palace and outbuildings along with a placid lake; fairly modest considering who it used to house. And finally, of course, no trip to Hanoi would be complete without a trip to see the water puppet show at Than Long Theatre. The cheaper seats are the best as you get a better view and reduce the chances of getting splashed, but even the most expensive tickets are still low in price. I have to say that I wasn’t as blown away by the puppetry as I had hoped and the production is fairly childish in it’s conception (well, it is puppets after all) but I was glad I had experienced it because it is such a well-known part of the culture and something every visitor should be able to say they have seen.
I can’t profess to having seen all of Hanoi. Even my over-priced cyclo ride back to the budget hotel through rush hour traffic didn’t manage to open my eyes to all it had to offer. The people of Hanoi certainly make you work for their kindness unlike in other parts of the country. But it is all these eccentricities which make it a fascinating city and one which is worth taking time to explore.
Currently trying to downsize her life in an attempt to be able to travel more, Julia has a penchant for good food and cheap beer. Most recently having visited parts of SE Asia, her confused ramblings can be found over at Homeless and Confused.