Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Brides.

With no more than about 12 hours to explore Hanoi we decided not to bother with a hotel. The tour office at Ocean Tours was nice enough to let us chill out upstairs using the internet, drinking free coffee (and Milo) and we could shower to freshen up. A few hours after we had arrived from the Sapa overnight train, we had refreshed ourselves, recharged our camera and netbook, dumped our photos, updated our internets, written postcards, changed our clothes, repacked our bags and chatted with the Aussie couple who’d travelled from Sapa with us. They were about to head out on the Ha Long Bay tour we’d done three days prior. We just wanted the cafes to open for breakfast.

The caf้s did open, and we returned to the fancy one and had more Nordic Eggs. I suppose I don’t need to re-list the lavish ingredients, buy I will note it only cost $5 each, including real coffee. With our energy replenished we headed out into the quiet Sunday morning. Hanoi is a crazy chaotic city with endless streams of scooters zigzagging in every direction in a mess of horns and exhaust fumes. Except on Sunday mornings. That Sunday morning everything moved at a much softer and quieter pace, it was almost peaceful without the constant blaring horns and ducking and weaving traffic. The exhaust fumes still lingered, they gathered and swirled to form a thick layer of rich smog.

We walked to the Theatre to buy a ticket to the Water Puppet show for later in the afternoon, with a stroke of luck we arrived at 9:30 to find that there was a Sunday morning show at 9:30. We paid too much for a VIP ticket sitting near the front that let us use our camera, but we didn’t realise we’d paid to use our camera, so while sitting inside the dark theatre, we did use our camera. But we did it like sneaky stealthy ninjas. Ironically almost none of the photos worked. Without the flash the puppets were too blurry and when we did use the flash it picked up too much mist in the atmosphere. Oh well, the video worked well.

The puppet show was amazing and good honest fun. Sure they are designed for kids, but it was definitely a spectacle which appeals to all ages. Basically a group of puppeteers stand in knee deep water behind a screen and use long poles to move puppets around on the surface of the water in front of the screen. The water is dark and gives the illusion that the puppets are walking on the water (or swimming, rowing, fishing etc.) and all of this is accompanied by a traditional musical instruments and singing performed by the band on the side of the stage.

After the puppet show we went for a walk around the lake, which was convenient as we were already at the lake and to not walk around it seemed a waste. The lake was quite pretty, despite the lingering smog and greenish sludge that alleged tortoise live in. But without the sludge there wouldn’t be a lake as the sludge is the lake. We found it hard to believe tortoise could live in the sludge, but the gardens around the lake were quite pretty and scattered with some quite obviously phallic and almost vulgar sculptures.

There were a lot of couples on benches around the lake, perhaps drawing inspiration from the garden art. There were people playing badminton as there almost always is, there were energetic forms of Thai Chi, contemplative students, squealing children on bicycles. But more than anything else, the lake was drowning in Brides.

It would be a funny thing to be a bride at the lake in the Old Town precinct of Hanoi on that smoggy Sunday morning. I could imagine that a bride returning to the professional photographer weeks later to see to proofs of the photos, would probably entail a humorous conversion at the point where you realise every single photo contains at least one other, completely different and unknown bride, lingering in a pose across the other side of the lake in the background of the photo. Yes, there were lots of brides at the lake, and shit food too. We ordered a drink instead and left the lake, sad that we didn’t spot a tortoise, and suspicious whether the tortoise saw us.

We walked around the streets for a while sucking in the energy of Hanoi mixed with a solid portion of smog, and found our way to a foot massage place situated five floors up stairs, that required a foot massage after climbing, so was actually quite convenient. Our feet and legs still ached from climbing the hills of Sapa and our foot massage (which actually covered shoulders head and back too) was so relaxing I drifted in and out of snoozing, trying hard not to snore while the lady rubbed away.

The massage was perfect but was let down by a few irritating details. The first being the guy sitting next to Prue who smoked a cigarette throughout his massage, not too pleasant when in a room with closed windows five floors up. The second was the massage lady who began her spiel by letting us know she was overworked and underpaid, the ended the massage by asking for a tip. I would have given her a tip if she had not asked, because the massage was good. By asking for a tip, they make you feel shit, you don’t want to tip them after they ask, so we didn’t.

The third let down was our lunch. We walked past a nice looking restaurant on the way back downstairs. The view from the balcony at the restaurant looked out over the street to an intersection of five roads. In Saigon we were treated to the joys of watching busy traffic from a vantage point, sadly being Sunday there wasn’t as much traffic, but it was still entertaining to watch and you always think any second there will be an accident, but it never happens. The view was nice, the food was shit, it reminded me of the lake, we could still see the lake. I figure it is the lake’s fault the food was shit, or it could be the chain restaurant we choose to eat in.

We wandered through the street stores and markets back to the travel office to regroup. Back at the travel office Prue remembered she wanted a pillow for the 24 hour bus ride to Laos. We wandered back through the street stores and markets looking for a pillow. It is a funny thing that when looking for something you never find it, but when you stop looking (or have found it) it is everywhere.

The streets of Old Town are named according to the things that are generally sold there. The street our travel office was on was called “silver” street, and there is a “shoe street” for shoes a “silk street” for clothes and a street for toys but we didn’t know what it was called, probably “toys street”. Either way we took a punt and headed to “cotton street” to find Prue a pillow, greatly reducing our chances of not finding what we were looking for.

After acquiring the pillow filled with cotton for a “cheap cheap” price, we wandered back to the sanctuary of the travel office. Prue comically tried to sell her pillow for double what she paid to every street seller that stopped us to buy something for double what it was worth. The shoe was on the other foot, and strangely it made walking “home” a lot easier. Back at our upstairs little haven at the travel office we reorganised our bags, showered, changed into clean clothes, updated our internets again, dumped more photos and I drank more free coffee adding free Milo into the mix for extra flavour.

Feeling fresh again we thanked our hosts at Ocean Travel for their hospitality and headed off around the corner to catch our bus to Laos. We were finally leaving Vietnam, though about a week behind schedule and with a sour taste left in our mouth from the aggressive money scamming personality of many Vietnamese. Regardless, Vietnam was a beautiful country and we met many lovely non-ruthless people Hopefully our bus would get us across the border before our visa ran out, so that we’d be able to return to paddle the caves of Ha Long bay, walk the hills of Sapa, peruse the stores of Hoi An , cruise the various mountain roads on an Easy Rider or just sit and watch the traffic.