After a lazy morning and a little errand running for the next day’s trip to Ha Long Bay, we go to buy tickets for the water puppet show. The girl in the box office stares impassively at us as we stand about two feet away from her dull plastic window, trying to decide which show time to buy for. Having reached a decision, I step forward and open my mouth to ask for the tickets only to have said window abruptly shut in my face. A sign indicates the box office closes between noon and 12.45, and I guess the girl’s a real stickler for punctuality. If I were an uptight person this behaviour would annoy me but hell, I’m on holiday. We’ll go explore Hoan Kiem Lake and come back in 45.
Truth be told, Ngoc Son Temple and the red “Sunbeam” bridge that leads to it are better appreciated from a distance. They look very picturesque when enveloped in the mist over the water, but once you actually get closer the temple’s fairly standard issue (except for the huge preserved tortoise carcass, that is) and won’t hold your attention long unless you’ve never seen a temple before. At the entrance to the bridge, I photograph a souvenir stall through its back door, and like the slightly different perspective it gives from the storefronts beautifully laid out for us tourists.
The banks of Hoan Kiem Lake seem as well-maintained as any park in Singapore. We stroll past a small series of modern art sculptures, a long line of propaganda posters, and scattered instances of furtive hand-holding and UST (for those of you who weren’t geeky enough to be active in the online X-Files communities of the 90s, that stands for Unresolved Sexual Tension) among young Vietnamese couples who should perhaps have been in school instead.
My usual penchant for bizarre statuary is amply sustained by this delightful white tiger on an ornamental wall near the entrance to Ngoc Son Temple. I want whatever mascara he’s got. Alec wants his ‘tache.
While we’re on the topic of statues, check out some Soviet Realism in the tropics!
Inspired by the spirit of revolution, our stomachs remind us it’s lunch time. And thanks to wuyuetian, I know just the place. Eating here probably breaks a couple of the food rules in the travel guide – all the raw vegetables look like they’ve been rinsed in tap water – but if you have to get food poisoning somewhere, you might as well get it from a meal as magnificent as this. (My stomach was fine, Alec’s was…rather more affected. Thank God for growing up in Southeast Asia, I guess.) Although I wasn’t too keen on the big stuffed spring rolls, the bun cha (grilled pork patties with rice noodles, to which you add herbs by the handful and ladle over delicious gravy that’s about 2 parts MSG and 1 part stock) is probably the best street food I’ve ever eaten. Our total bill, for huge unfinishable servings of pork patties, spring rolls, noodles, herbs, a Coke and a San Miguel, is 65,000D (S$6.50/a little over 2 pounds) – less than the price of a solitary San Miguel in most bars in Singapore. Thanks again, wuyuetian! I wouldn’t have had a clue about this place without your tip!
The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre show (photo at the top) is quite charming, although water puppetry doesn’t seem to focus as much on the subtleties of an individual puppet’s movement (please note I know nothing about puppetry and my only basis of comparison is what I saw at the start of Being John Malkovich) as on getting the puppets to do synchronised dances and formations together. There are also light-hearted skits about villagers chasing fish around by thwacking themselves into the water, villagers chasing cats around by thwacking themselves into the water, and villagers chasing each other around by thwacking themselves into the water. And, of course, they do the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake. All good fun.
After the show we walk around the cathedral area and do a little shopping on Nha Tho. This is most definitely an expat zone, with Spanish restaurants and suchlike, and cool shops full of cool things that I can’t bring myself to afford. I buy a weird little buffalo lantern thingy at a poky little place at the end of the road where the prices are less scary. My family thinks it’s hilariously ugly.
Since we’ve had local street food for lunch, the natural contrast in a trip to Vietnam is fancy French food for dinner. The outside courtyard of Green Tangerine is beautiful, and so romantic that I almost forgive Alec for forgetting to bring our travel guide. Almost.
This is what we have for dinner, and yes, I’m such a sad person that I actually copied all of this from the menu:
- Crab remoulade with orange zests on a layer of fresh asparagus, served with scallops marinated in orange flower essence separated by a sesame lace (Alec)
- Scallops marinated in lavender flower presented on a bruschetta pancake (Me)
- Beef cheek braised in red wine perfumed with raspberry vinegar, with small diced potatos and apples enhanced by dates (Alec)
- Pork fillet rolled in blackcurrant and “ngo” herb served with stuffed bamboo shoots and small vegetables crusted with sesame (Me)
- A sort of taster dish, with chocolate truffle, creme brulee, a grape stuffed with sorbet, kiwi paste in a pastry shell and probably something else we couldn’t identify (Alec)
- Creme brulee in Calvados, served in an apple baked in red wine (Me)
Total bill: 53 USD. We leave a 100,000D tip because the service has been lovely, despite being fully aware that that alone is more than our entire lunch cost.
Perhaps you’re wondering why we don’t seem to have explored the Old Quarter much. We did, but it’s just so difficult to capture its incredible appeal in words and pictures. Hanoi feels like its constant influx of tourists have little effect on its real life and the Old Quarter epitomizes this.
Yes, souvenir shops and hotels and tourist eateries spring up everywhere, but Hang Dau is still thronged every night we walk through it with happy Vietnamese women, a street full of shoes reflected in their eyes, and their men patiently waiting on motorbikes parked four deep. Yes, I do often have to politely decline the “Salut! Photo?” offers of the ubiquitious girls carrying baskets of fruit at either end of their yoke, but for every one of those girls there’s a wizened old lady in a conical hat carrying anything from plasticware to prawns at the ends of her yoke, and we mean nothing to her.
On the same street where I decide against buying a conical hat because I think the price is too high and I’m not in the mood to bargain, other shops feel it’s still worth their while to continue in the trades they have spent their lives in. I sincerely hope they never let us change that.