Saturday, July 9, 2011

Good morning, Vietnam!

      We took a very early flight from Bangkok so arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam with time to spend a day that was heavily scheduled with visits to the American embassy, where we met with an articulate Georgia Tech grad who gave us some insights into Vietnamese/U.S. diplomacy, then to the Thai embassy where the Thai ambassador talked about ASEAN (like the European Union for southeast Asia), and then to a water puppet show!

      Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese art.  If you’re wondering what a water puppet is, you’re in the same boat as most of us as we entered the theater.  First we listened to some beautiful music performed live by musicians using traditional Vietnamese instruments.  Then the show began, which was actually a series of vignettes accompanied by the musicians.  All the dialogue was in Vietnamese but our programs did provide a general overview of each vignette so we were able to get the gist of the scenes involving a buffalo fight, a horse race, a courtship song and dance, and a fish transformed into a dragon.  Somehow the puppets are manipulated from below the water.  Very hard to explain, but it's cool!

Water puppet shows involve fireworks, fighting puppets, music, singing, and an audience dying to know how it is all done from underneath the water!

      On our way to dinner I had time to admire the beautiful architecture one can find all over the city.  Hanoi (which celebrated its 1,000 year anniversary last year) is slightly run down in some spots and extremely run down in others, but the beautiful architecture which I assume is left over from the French colonial period is still lovely.  Evidently in colonial times there was a tax on property based on road frontage; therefore, Vietnamese buildings are extremely tall and narrow, like Victorian townhouses.  Most of them have roof gardens, which I imagine is like a haven of tranquility for the owners as they relax on their roofs high above the noise and stifling heat of Hanoi (more on the heat later).   

      Our introduction to Vietnamese cuisine was a gastronomical extravaganza.  Entering the narrow exterior of Sen Ha Thanh Restaurant we wound our way up several flights of marble stairs to a private room where we were asked to make ourselves welcome at the buffet.  The buffet…. almost an inadequate word.  Live oysters, mussels, crab, clams waited to be cooked to our order.  Ditto for the fresh prawns – 5 inches long.  I can’t even remember the variety of the food, but I do know that the French influence can be evidenced by the Vietnamese cuisine, especially the desserts.  After several trips back to refill our plates we were all fans of Vietnamese food and ready for a good night’s sleep after our long day. 

Good morning, Hanoi (... otherwise entitled "Getting H-annoyed")

      Day 2 in Hanoi started with a visit to a museum of Vietnamese history (which was strangely silent about French colonialism and America’s involvement).  Then we visited a couple of Buddhist temples, which of course aren’t active any more since the Vietnamese Communist party frowns upon religion.  They are of the Ramayana Buddhism sort and therefore different than most of the temples we saw in Thailand.  Frankly, not that interesting.  There was a cool pagoda there and it was nice that they had survived the French occupation and fighting, the American war, and communism.  Another sumptuous lunch followed.
Street vendors, usually women, abound on the streets of Hanoi.  They're usually selling fruit and either travel by bike or walk the streets with their goods in two baskets connected to a stick balanced on their shoulders.

Typical architecture on a Hanoi street
      In the afternoon we had a couple of free hours in the tourist section of the city.  It was over 100 degrees, the humidity was unbearable, the streets were crowded and claustrophobic feeling, and the air quality is really poor (lots of diesel and leaded gas fumes).  On top of that, the shops were filled with low quality goods at high prices and the sales people in Hanoi are really "Hanoi-ing" (get it?) as they grab at you and keep shoving merchandise in your face when you just want to browse.  Needless to say, our free time was not enjoyable and I found myself longing for Thailand.  I disgusting heat rash broke out on my legs, my clothes were drenched, and I didn't even take any photos as I felt so limp it just seemed too much effort to raise my camera.

The day improved, however, when we visited the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, an organization begun by a couple of Aussies who wanted to help the "street kids" of Hanoi have a better chance at making a life for themselves.  The best thing I can come up with to describe this non-profit is sort of a "Boys & Girls Club" for troubled Vietnamese youth.  A few of them are housed there, but most of the kids served by the Blue Dragon just come during the day for academic, social and sometimes legal support.  Kids are provided training and English lessons so they can get jobs in high-end hotels instead of living on the street.  They do community service and participate in other activities to keep them from turning to crime and to help them stay in school.  A worthwhile organization which gave us yet another insight into the real world of Vietnam which most tourists don't get to see. 
Believe it or not there is a bicycle underneath all these baskets and this guy is riding it

      Blue Dragon runs a clinic and shelter for kids on the street, rescues kids from sweatshops and helps them stay in school, has paid college tuition for 17 of their kids, and the Australian who founded it has been named one of CNN's "Heroes" for 2011.
Blue Dragon kids foundation

One of the Australian guys running Blue Dragon

It's kind of a Boys Club for Vietnamese street kids

We stayed in a very ritzy hotel - the place where dignitaries stay when they come to Hanoi.  Anyway, a few drinks in the bar and before you know it we're doing salsa line dancing.  Never thought I'd be line dancing to Latino music in Vietnam!