Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hanoi - Hilton, Water Puppets and Snake Head Fish

Hanoi: Paris of Asia
Remember the days of the Reds? Mention Mao or the Soviets or Hanoi and one became suspect as a communist supporter and might be interrogated.  The way things used to be. We lived in fear that we would be consumed by socialism and our freedoms taken away.

Sin Chao Vietnam!  Yesterday, I arrived on Vietnam Airways in Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam in the day, once the enemy, now chief government headquarters for all of the country. Friendly folk welcomed us and we realized how much politics and propaganda had defined our beliefs in the ‘60ties and ‘70ties. It’s soothing to think that today Vietnam is not associated with any terrorist movement, and therefore can welcome a visitor no matter what his take on life.

Tube House
As we crossed the wide Red River on one of the six gigantic  concrete bridges built in the more recent decades and entered the streets lined with old French colonial structures, I felt relieved and that, hey, this city of 32 lakes has a feeling of Paris, with an army of motorcycles and bicycles. Truly, it’s hard to conceive of how many of these machines occupy the streets in Vietnam. The “hated” commercialism thrives everywhere without constraints, especially in markets that line every single street, it seems. Even Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier, Hermes have stores near the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Who’da thought? 

There is a mix of old Vietnam in the faces of people my age, (women carry produce using the traditional shoulder poles  - or quang ganh)  but weird colored hair, tight jeans, short skirts and giggles of the handsome younger generation, their ears attached to cell phones or taking fotos with Ipads as they manouver their bikes through the streets or visit the pagodas and cafes.  Yes. Everyone wears a helmet and a mask. The humidity and pollution occupy the air but, glory among glory, it’s about five degrees cooler here.  

Paper Cars y Houses
 Yesterday, I spent 15 million dong. Don’t faint, son. Everyone here is a millionaire. 15 million dong is about 700 dollars. I had to buy an additional suitcase to carry my millions of dollars of purchases. Just kidding. It’s all so extraordinary when you learn about how other people live and how friendly and helpful they can be. And I learned that once there was a queen of these parts, Hai Ba Trung, in the 4th century. Also that people don’t eat breakfast at home, but grab a baguette on the run to get to their morning tai chi in the nearest park; then they have early lunch so they can have another baguette about 3 in the afternoon. Yet all are skinny. 

Baguettes all day
I have to remember that Hanoi is an ancient city, founded in 1010 because a King (Ly Vhaito)  saw a flying dragon flying up from this area and since dragons are symbols of good luck and power, he put down stakes in this area. The city often flooded, so in 11th century dikes were put in. Architecture is unique. Generations of families crowd together in 3-4 story skinny, tall, long tube houses sort of like my home. The front part on the first floor is the shop or business. The back, the kitchen. Stairs go to the second floor where there are two bedrooms and one bath and stairs to the third floor, also two bedrooms and a bath, and the roof is where there is a shrine to honor ancestors (or a family temple) every new moon and full moon and where they hang their laundry. These homes are packed together like a New York City street and they have balconies well attended by pots of flowers and leaves and bonsai.  

Diorama in Hanoi Hilton
Hanoi is also where Sen. John McClain and other American service men who parachuted into Hanoi fields during the Vietnam War (1964-1973) was interned as a POW. First “tourist” stop was the famous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison now called Maison Centrale), a prison built by the French to house 400 prisoners in the French Indochina wars prior to the “American” War.  There is a diorama of the way things used to be, and plenty of photos, and examples of escape routes and what it was to be cuffed with iron on a concrete bed. Sen. McClain and other American POWS were given a “happy” experience, according to the photos in that section: celebrating Christmas with savory meals, playing pool, soccer etc., all of which I took with a grain of salt. Sen. McClain had also donated remnants of his uniform, etc. for this museum, and has visited twice. The bulk of the prison facility is gone, only a wing stays to be this museum. In another room were photographs of how people all over the world protested the Vietnam Wars, as did I and many of us students at Memphis State University who were involved with the theatrical production “Hair”. Near the POW room was the death room and the remainder of two guillotines used by the French to sever heads (with photos) and also the water torture tank.  Se la vie. I noticed the scant number of visitors were a few Americans and a group of elderly Vietnamese.

Burning lucky gifts
A Horse is A Horse
The restaurants in Hanoi are four star, offering elegant settings in old homes with contemporary French style flower designs that reminded me of the French creative use of greens and whites during international WAFA shows.  Lunch at La Lua (Wild Rice) included fried prawn/banana spring roll and barrared fish, considered the best fresh water fish better known as “snake head” fish. My bravery was rewarded. It was delicious. After the Old Quarter madhouse, we visited a pagoda on the lake, walking over a typical red Chinese bridge and then watching folks send messages to their ancestors (this was a full moon night). In the markets, Buddhists purchase paper images - paper cars, houses, clothes, fake money, etc. and then they burn these in the special brick oven outside as they pray for their ancestors and send good thoughts and gifts to them. So if you think your deceased brother needs a Ferrari in heaven, buy a paper one (about the size of a large tray) and burn it, and he will receive. Hmmm. Interesting concept. There was also a bigger than life sized red lacquered horse in the temple, the first time I’ve seen a “holy” horse in my tours of Buddhist temples in Asia.

Touring the Old Quarter was a nightmare. Noisy, crowded, having to dodge mo-peds, rickshaws, bicycles, people hanging out. Various guilds (the mat guild, the metal pot guild, the sugar guild “own” its section of the street, a hold over from ancient times when guilds were associated with country villagers who came to town to build temples for praying for prosperity. There was an overwhelming amount of “stuff”, and in this wholesale market, there didn’t to seem to be that many transactions, but what do I know? I couldn’t even find a soccer jersey. 
String musician

Water Puppets for sale
But this led to the Water Puppets Theater. Everyone touts the Water Puppets, which are just that, highly lacquered wooden puppets which are used to tell/sing tales/myths in shallow water. The puppeteers are hidden behind a screen and use long poles from behind to move the characters, different from the way marionettes or hand puppets are manipulated. We went. It’s a tourist thing that has been around one thousand years. It was rooted in the rice agriculture of the Red River Delta, centered around the village communal pond. I was more impressed by a young woman in white, one of three female musicians, who looked as if she was plucking the air and holding a thin wooden spindle. Apparently it was a thin thin invisible wire, but she preformed so serenely it was the best of the theatrical event.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We are enjoying and learning so much from your blogs. Hanoi sounds like a fairly civilized, interesting big city.
Hopefully, a lot of your friends and family are reading your blogs. Each one is an in-depth study of a part of the world that most of us will only see through your eyes and words. Thank you for sharing your amazing adventure with us.
Nancy Williams and General Weirich hosted a CPIT (Child Protection Investigation Team) Protocol meeting, yesterday, in Mayor Luttrell's conference room. Thought you might be interested in knowing that Commissioner Jim Henry and members of his staff attended this important meeting.
This is a big night for the Grizzlies. So many are hoping they win after a heart-breaking two point loss in the last game. This is a must win in the series or the Grizz will fall three games behind.
Love you,
Geraldean and Judge
P.S. Have you ever thought about becoming a history professor at The University of Memphis?