Monday, March 06, 2006

A little culture courtesy of Hanoi

Hanoi has been an interesting experience. Much like our time in Paris, we've only experienced it in 2-3 day portions as we've taken side trips to experience more than just the city itself. Add in the fact that we've been using the town as a logistical center for our China travel plans and one might think we haven't seen much of the city itself.

Thankfully, the town lends itself to easy visiting. The Old Quarter is fairly pedestrian friendly (there is only a 30% chance you're going to get run down by something) and has an interesting history. In the 13th century Hanoi's 36 guilds established themselves in one area, all on a different street. As a result, as you walk through the old quarter you move from the Shoe Street to the Electronics Street to Silk Street, etc. Our hotel was on the Silversmith street but could just have easily been mistaken for Pho Hang Du Lich (Tourist Street).

While in Hanoi, we also took in three very diverse cultural activities: the Thang Long water puppet theatre, the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

The Thang Long water puppets are a traditional art form from Vietnam that tell traditional folk stories as well as show life of the rural Vietnamese people. The show itself was about 50 minutes complete with a ear-splitting live music show, pyrotechnics and a lot of very interesting puppetry. The puppets are directed by eight workers who sit in the water (behind a curtain) and move the puppets via a large wooden pole. As a result, their movements tend to be a bit jerky but in the case of the animals, it seemed to give it a more realistic feel. The human puppets on the other hand looked like they were getting drilled with about 100,000 volts :-) An interesting experience, if only to hear some authentic music and see the famous puppets up close.

Our next stop was the Temple of Literature. The temple was founded in 1070 by the Emperor Ly Thanh Tong who dedicated it to Confucius in order to honor men of literary and scholarly accomplishment. The temple itself consists of a number of courtyards, all of which served various purposes but were reserved for the king. Nowadays they're reserved for tour groups and in the case of our visit, an entire school of kids.

The coolest part of the temple though was in the third courtyard. This is where the 82 stone stelae (all on top of a stone tortoise) stand and hold the names of all doctoral holders from 1442 to 1778. Each one listed the name birthplace and achievements of the doctoral holders. A nice nod to past educational achievements and one I'm sure a few of my friends who have PhD's wish they could have had themselves.

Our final stop was an eerie one. We went to visit the embalmed body of one Ho Chi Minh. The whole process went quite quickly; once you clear security you are kept on the move from the entrance, past the very soviet feeling empty roadway, past the sentries, up the stairs past the body and out the door. And just like that it's over.

A few interesting thoughts though went through my mind as we buzzed our way past the body of THE symbol of Vietnam over the past 50 years:

- There seemed to be soldier every 10 yards or so, including four on the corners of the tomb itself. A little research proved me right as evidently they are required to be no more than five paces apart. Becca and I wondered whether the guards are required to be there all the time; I voted yes.

- There is some question as to whether the body in there is actually HCM anymore or whether it's a wax sculpture. Unlike with Mao where there is actually an admitted wax embodiment, they swear it's the real thing. Of course no one is actually allowed close enough to it to really know.

- How much the mausoleum itself is an affront to the beliefs of Ho Chi Minh himself. He asked to be cremated and spread throughout Vietnam as he believed being buried took up valuable space. Instead they've taken a huge chunk of land in the middle of Hanoi and made it a reminder of a time past.

All in all, Hanoi has been a very interesting cultural experience. We've found it in many ways more enjoyable than our time in Saigon but at the same time, much more hectic. With it being the capital there are quite a few more cultural things yet it definitely lacks the western feel Saigon had.

One final note that seems to best show the coexistence of a communist government overseeing a free market economy: The roads here are 100x crazier thanks to all the motos drivers, most of whom only learned to drive within the last 3-4 years. Before that all people knew were bicycles. As a result, people try to make moves they used on their bikes with their motos, sometimes with disastrous results (we've seen more wrecks here than in the rest of SE Asia combined).

The locals have told us that the rules on importing cars (there currently is a 300% tax on vehicle purchases and you can't buy used cars) is about to be loosened and car ownership is about to increase dramatically. So what will most likely result is people trying to make moves in their cars that they used in their motos. Ack. This development can just about guarantee that this is the last time we'll see Hanoi this way for a very long time. As we told our tour guide Manh:

"You let us know when the car rules get invoked and then we'll come back to visit you in about 5 years once people have gotten the hang of driving"


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