After our return from Hạ Long Bay on Friday afternoon, we spent the remainder of our holiday in Hanoi, the political, educational, and cultural center of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Sài Gòn), the nation’s largest city as well as its industrial and business center, is located 700 miles due south of Hanoi (see the map below for the geographic relationship between Bangkok, Hanoi, and HCMC.). Hanoi is the current capital of Vietnam; from 1902 to 1954, it was the capital of French Indochina, composed of the current countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; from 1954 to 1976, it was the capital of North Vietnam.
Hanoi dates back to 1010 when Lý Thái Tổ, the first king of the Lý Dynasty, reportedly saw a dragon rising from the Red River. He named the area Thăng Long, or Ascending Dragon, and established his capital at this site. The city was named Hà Nội by King Minh Mang in 1831. Hà means river and Nội means interior, so Hà Nội means the city within the river. The Thăng Long name, however, is still frequently seen throughout Hanoi today.
The Hanoi Opera House, or Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội, (point A on the map below) was the departure and return point for our trip to Hạ Long Bay. The opera house was on our “must see” list, so we were delighted that we could knock it off the list so early in our visit. The opera house was built by the French between 1901 and 1911; it was modeled after Paris’ Palais Garnier opera house that was built between 1861 to 1875 and that was home to the Paris Opera through 1989. We were unfortunately unable to get inside the opera house since it offers no public tours; the only way to see the interior is to buy tickets to a performance.
Hanoi is a low-rise city. Unlike Bangkok, which is dominated by skyscrapers, there are few large office towers, high-rise apartments, or even tall hotels. At night, the city is quite dark — there are relatively few billboards and very little of the external lighting that you see in cities in the U.S. and in Bangkok. Vietnam is larger than Thailand (90 million people vs. 65 million) but far less developed. The U.S. military presence in Thailand during the Vietnam War helped build Thailand’s infrastructure, in particular the roads and airports, and the country has maintained this advantage over the years. Several people have told us that Vietnam today reminds them of Thailand 20 to 25 years ago.
Vietnam’s economy stagnated during the first decade after the war due to the nation’s failed experiment with Communism (please take note President Obama!) In 1986, the Vietnamese government instituted a policy called Đổi Mới, or Renovation, that allowed the economy to move from a failed centrally, planned state to a market economy. While the nation is still nominally Socialist, Đổi Mới allowed for private ownership of farms and factories, provided economic deregulation, and encouraged foreign investment. Almost all the flags that we saw flying throughout Vietnam were the national flags with a yellow star on a red field, however the occasional hammer-and-sickle flag can still be spotted, typically at government institutions.
Traffic in Hanoi can best be described as semi-organized chaos. There are at more motorcycles on the road than cars and taxis, buses, trucks, bicycles, and pedal-powered rickshaws combined. Traffic signals are almost non-existent while horn honking is incessant as vehicles weave in and out. At most intersections, traffic enters simultaneously from all directions and yet somehow everything moves, albeit slowly, with no gridlock.
A local guide explained to us that when there are accidents, the bigger vehicle must pay the smaller one, e.g., if a truck hits a car, then the truck pays but if a car hits a motorcycle, then the car pays. He seemed to indicate that this caused drivers of large vehicles to be more careful while pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists could be assured that they would get money if they were hit. A win-win situation, I suppose. We saw one accident while we were in Hanoi, and the motorcyclist laying on the street writhing in pain surely did not appear to be comforted, at least right then, by the fact that he was going to get some cash from the taxi that hit him.
During our visit to Hanoi, we stayed at the Sheraton Hanoi (point B) on West Lake, or Hồ Tây, the largest lake in the city. On Friday evening, we took a taxi from the hotel to the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre (point C), right across from Hoàn Kiếm Lake and on the fringe of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Our taxi let us out right next to the lake, so we had to cross the busy street to get to the theater. With heavy traffic and no signals, the only way to cross is to walk into the roadway as motorists, motorcyclists, and bicyclists stream by. As we traversed this crowded road, I kept thinking about the 1980-era video game Frogger with me as the frog and with the clear understanding that if we stopped we would likely quickly die. We obviously made it, and over the course of the weekend we became a bit more comfortable joining the locals for jaunts across busy thoroughfares.
Tickets for the Thăng Long Water Puppet show cost $3 (basic) and $5 (first class), so being fabulously well-to-do Americans (or some such thing), we opened the wallet and got the best. We even opted to pay the extra $1 for a ticket for our camera so that we could take pictures during the show. Despite purchasing tickets less than 30 minutes before the performance began, we ended up with front row, center seats that gave us a fabulous view of the stage (see pictures below); the only drawback was the water droplets that frequently landed on me from what I assume was a blocked A/C line high in the ceiling. The water puppet show lasted just under an hour, and that was plenty long enough.
Vietnamese water puppets date back about 1,000 years. This art form was invented by rice farmers in the Red River delta who used them for entertainment. I guess that they needed something to do while they waited for the rice to grow; I wonder why Nebraskans have not done something similar as they wait for their corn to grow? Anyway, the puppeteers stand behind a bamboo screen and control the wooden puppets via long rods that are hidden under waist-deep water. The puppets perform short skits that relate folk tales as they move through and over the water accompanied by music from the orchestra and songs from vocalists.
After the show, we grabbed a cab and headed back past the Sheraton and on to Bobby Chinn’s restaurant (point D). The setting, food, and service were all spectacular. We ate upstairs in a small dining room that had just four tables. While the restaurant is much larger, the setting made us feel as if we were guests in someone’s home. The room was a bit dark, but the wait staff provided magnifying glasses with built-in lamps to all diners so it was easy to peruse the menu. We enjoyed a fresh Vietnamese spring roll, Alaskan scallops with edamame, corn crab soup, blackened barramundi, salmon with wasabi mashed potatoes, and a dessert sampler with coconut sticky rice pudding, a traditional crème brûlée, a chocolate taco, and a chocolate crème brûlée.
After dinner, we returned to the Sheraton to get a good night’s sleep before venturing out in the morning to visit many of the other “must see” sites in Hanoi.
Please join me in wishing a Happy Birthday to my lovely baby sister!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.