Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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A fine drizzle was descending on Hanoi as I headed for the town centre. I took refuge in a cafe on the 'wrong' side of the river, where the friendly proprietress seemed delighted to have a customer, albeit a difficult one with whom a small play had to be acted out to establish that he merely wanted a hot, black coffee. I crossed the railway bridge, the only bridge which cycles are permitted on, and found myself in Hanoi's old quarter, a capillary network of narrow streets and crowds' inconstant collision. I rejected a smart, 10USD room on grounds of price, and was recommended a 3USD dormitory around the corner which was more or less exactly what I was after.
Dormitories are useful for meeting people, so I was pleased but not surprised to end the day with a visit to the theater with Veerla, the girl from the next bunk, to watch the famous water puppet show. Water puppetry is a traditional Vietnamese artform, which makes ingenious use of the fact that most of the land is knee-deep in water. The puppets are manipulated with rods under the water, which keeps most of the mechanics out of view. When performances were held in muddy paddyfields doubtless the concealment was even more thorough. The show is entirely for tourists, so it consists of a series of short vignets, each depicting an aspect of Vietnamese culture. The harvest or fishing, for instance, or the sacred animals (Turtle, dragon and lion). They are set to the music of traditional instruments and there's no dialogue.
The show was only an hour long, and managed to hold my attention for most of the show. There was also a solo perfomance on a particular traditional instrument, called a Dan Bau. This was a species of zither, with a single string, anchored at one end, and attached to a small, flexible metal spike at the other. By manipulating the spike as well as the string, the player was able to produce beautiful ululating notes. Apparently by tradition only men were allowed to play this instrument, and never in the company of women, since they would inevitably fall in love with the player. This player was a woman, and an alternative explanation for the prohibition presented itself. There was something quite immodest about watching her twitch, flick, stroke and, it seemed, massage the instrument.
We followed up the puppets with a trip to the nearby jazz club, where we nursed one drink each, for reasons of expense, while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and exchanging life stories.
The following day I had to set about obtianing a Laos visa, which was a relatively simple but time consuming task, primarily because I prefered to walk everywhere rather than deal with motorcycle taxis. This chore complete, I found myself in the vicinity of the 'Temple of Literature'. This was one of the worlds oldest universities, training the top mandarins for the government of the region for centuries. The entrance fee of 5000dong would be halved on presentation of student ID, but I found that even I was not tight enough to fish out a fraudulent card in order to deprive a historical monument of 9p. The 'temple' was mostly garden with some elegant pagoda-style buildings to give it structure, and I passed a peaceful half-hour wandering around.