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Bridge to Ngoc Son temple

Today we had planned to follow the walking tour of the Old Quarter in Lonely Planet. We started at the Ngoc Son Temple which is on a small lake at the northern end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Walking to the temple we passed a smartly dressed lady burning piles of fake money and sheets of paper decorated with horses. These are offerings to the gods which hopefully will bring good fortune and will do so quickly.

The temple was small compared to others we have seen but it was colourful and ornate inside. In a room off to the side was a large model tortoise, allegedly found in the lake. Local legend has it that Emperor Ly Thai To was sent a magical sword by Heaven so that he could chase the Chinese out of Vietnam in the fifteenth century. After the war he came across a giant tortoise in the lake. The tortoise grabbed the sword and disappeared to the bottom of the lake, taking the sword back to Heaven. The lake was then renamed Hoan Kiem Lake which means Lake of the Restored Sword. A small pavilion towards the south of the lake is called Tortoise Tower.

We followed the walking tour up into the old town, past shop after shop selling shoes, all made for tiny Vietnamese feet. Off to the left was a small street market selling fruit, vegetables and general household wares. It felt like almost every other stall was one cooking and selling food. As I was just thinking to myself that the smells were overpowering and unpleasant but would make Stef feel hungry he popped up and said “smells good doesn’t it”. I suppose if you like the smell of cooking oil that has been well and truly used many times over frying slightly suspect bits of meat and vegetables then yes, it smelled good but it was not for me. The locals were quite happily squatting on low stalls and slurping away.

From here we joined back onto the Lonely Planet trail and wound round to P Hang Bac, one of the main streets in the old town. It was crammed full of small shops each with colourful displays outside but lots of western tourists ambling around and through. A small shop on the left was where people come to have memorial gravestones carved. They look like pieces of slate about thirty centimetres by twenty. What makes them unusual is that a picture of the deceased is carved onto the slate.

A detour up a side street took us to the Memorial House, which we both found a bit disappointing. The write up in Lonely Planet creates the impression that it will be a really interesting place to see how Chinese merchants used to live. The building has been beautifully restored but it is now just one big shop where they try to sell you paintings on rice paper, textiles, wooden boxes and all the other trappings of tourist souvenirs.

It was interesting to see the layout of the house though. Ironically, it had similarities to some of the houses we had seen in Victoria in Canada. Local taxes were levied on the width of houses at street level so they are all narrow but stretching back a long way. The front room was opened out onto the street and is where the merchant sold their wares. A small courtyard behind this provided light and ventilation. Beyond here was another room which led to a further courtyard which served as the kitchen. The roof tiles were all imprinted with a good luck motif.

Upstairs were the living and sleeping rooms of the family. The front room had very stately and impressive wooden furniture made in dark heavy wood that they called iron wood. A large table was flanked either side by a bench and against the wall a decorative sideboard was home to the house’s altar to the Ancestors, a central theme in all Vietnamese homes. On feast days and anniversaries the family all remember and offer prayers to their ancestors. The bedroom furniture was equally heavy with a solid wooden bed that looked incredibly uncomfortable to sleep on. Apparently though it is cooler to sleep on a hard wooden bed than a comfortable mattress, something that is no doubt quite important in the heat of summer.

We then gave up on walking around the rest of the old town and opted for a cyclo ride instead. It was a great way to get around and to see the different activities on the go. Each street was originally the home of merchants selling a particular type of commodity and to a large extent this distinction still holds true. We passed shops selling clothes, shoes, toys, Chinese style lanterns, bed and bath linen, tin boxes, bathroom cabinets and saw and smelled the herb and spice sellers. The cyclos wound around the narrow streets of the old town and this was definitely a great way to see it. It was a real profusion of exotic bits and pieces, a classic Asian cocktail.

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Ye Olde Calligrapher

In the afternoon we took a taxi out to the Museum of Ethnology with the driver taking such a circuitous route that the fare was double what Lonely Planet said it should be. We had the same experience on the way home too. A French man who arrived at the museum at the same time as us loves and works in Hanoi and he confirmed that it is a frequent trick that the cabbies play on Westerners.

The museum was well worth a visit. It has extensive displays about the ethnic minorities in Vietnam, their ways of life, traditional costumes and culture. There was a large exhibit on the different types of pottery made in different regions of the country and how it had developed over time. Another display showed the technique for making the conical straw hats that you see all over the place. I had assumed that they were woven but no so. A conical frame is made and then wide straw leaves are stitched onto the frame with not a bit of weaving in sight.

In one of the upstairs galleries they had a large collection of wedding photos spanning almost one hundred years showing how the ceremonies had changed over time. It was a fascinating insight into the changing times in Vietnam but it also made me feel sad as well. The older photos were from a time when arranged marriages were still the norm. Weddings were simple ceremonies and at the end the bride was escorted to her husband’s house to become part of his family. Almost without exception the brides in these photos looked very unhappy and very apprehensive about what was in store for them.

As time passes, weddings started to take on a more Western feel with white dresses, flowers, cars and big celebrations. Somehow it seems odd to see Asian ladies dressed up in big meringue style wedding dresses. This though was not interesting as some of the photos from the early days of the communist regime. These all showed banners reminding the bride and groom and their assembled guests that the Party and the country were more important than the individual. Some of the pictures were from weddings taken during the war with bride and groom in their military uniforms.

Outside in the gardens are reconstructed houses typical to some of the ethnic minorities. The Cham house was a cluster of different buildings (storage, living, sleeping), all within a fenced in compound for one family. Another was an enormous long house from the Ede ethnic group, built from bamboo and raised off the ground on stilts. The stairs from the ground up to the level of the house were made from a tree trunk with large niches cut out. It was functional but not the easiest set of steps I have climbed. Inside the long house the floor was simply bamboo matting resting on bamboo poles. We were both waiting for it to cave in and give way but it did not. There was a large communal area for eating and then the rest of the forty metre long house was divided into smaller rooms for the families of each of the daughters and granddaughters of the extended family.

The Bahnar communal house was raised on a much higher platform, about four or five metres off the ground and in total from the ground was about twenty three metres in height. I wished there was someone who could explain why the house was so high because there were no separate floor levels inside. It was simply a rectangular pyramid shaped construction with just one open room inside. The Tay house, again on stilts and built from bamboo, the main room was in the centre of the house and round the edges were smaller areas, some with bamboo walls to give some privacy, for the sons, father, mother, daughter and newlywed couple.

The evening found us back in town at the Water Puppet Theatre, a typical North Vietnamese form of entertainment. A small orchestra were on one side of the stage and the rest is given over to a large pool of water, coloured green to hide the mechanisms for the puppets. The backdrop is a bamboo style house which hides the puppeteers from view. The puppets are made of a buoyant type of wood and are manoeuvred around on large poles with strings attached to some of their limbs for more animation. The puppeteers are themselves stood waist deep in the water for the duration of the show.

Lasting about an hour the show runs through different scenes from everyday village life and it is a riot of colour and laughs. The puppets, quite rough in design, are brightly painted and some breathe fire thanks to fireworks attached inside their mouths. A boy wanders across the rice paddies on the back of his water buffalo playing his flute, men are out fishing trying to catch very animated and golden fish. A fox chases ducks, lions and phoenixes dance, a student returns home after graduation and thanks his ancestors and boats race each other across the stage. It was great fun to watch and is a must if you ever visit Hanoi.