After an hour’s journey along winding, misty roads, which left Luke feeling rather nauseous, we arrived back in the border town of Lao Cai. The town itself didn’t have much to offer, and we had 8 hours to kill before the departure of our sleeper train to Hanoi, so we decided to pay for a hotel room for a half day so we could nap, have Wi-Fi and just get away from the dingy streets for a bit.
The sleeper train was our best yet! Our compartment had all the old school charm of French colonial era furnishings, with wooden panels, comfy beds, lamps and to cap it all, a table with a lace cloth and a little vase of fake flowers. We slept really well, possibly because the train travelled at such a sedate pace, taking 8 hours to travel 180 miles! We arrived in Hanoi around 5am, and still quite groggy allowed ourselves to be hustled off the train and into a waiting cab. Rather suspiciously, the company name was absent, but the sign on top proudly proclaimed ‘metered taxi’. I watched the meter like a hawk, and as expected, it whirred through the numbers at an abnormally fast rate, so we stopped the cab by a lake in the town centre and walked the rest of the way. The streets were misleadingly quiet at that hour, and it was quite a pleasant walk to our hotel.
As our room was still occupied, we relaxed in the lobby for an hour, helping ourselves to the free tea. At 6.30am, we headed to the park once more and watched people doing Tai Chi and early morning stretches. Feeling stiff from our night on the train and our walk with our heavy rucksacks, we decided it was a very good idea and did some stretches of our own. On our way to find some breakfast, we spotted a shop called ‘Lucy’. Of course, I had to pose underneath it for a photo!
We stopped at a local café for a bowl of pho bo, Vietnam’s answer to the ubiquitous noodle soup we had encountered throughout our Asian travels. This consisted of slender white noodles in a tasty broth, a liberal sprinkling of spring onions and thin slices of beef. There was a bowl of marble-sized cut limes and ground chilli which you added according to taste. The owner and his son were really friendly and enjoyed teaching us a few Vietnamese phrases, including how to count from one to ten. Despite Vietnamese having six tones, we found our pronunciation attempts were more readily accepted and understood than when we had tried to speak Mandarin – but perhaps they were just being kind!
At 10am, our hotel room was ready, so we headed up to shower and made arrangements to meet Luke’s school friend, Bruce, and his travel pal, Ash. A little later we ventured out into the streets once more – and found quite a different story! The early morning tranquillity was long past, and now the streets were packed with scooters, which zoomed unexpectedly around corners, weaving and swerving out of each other’s way. Shops and street side stalls spilled out onto the pavements, so most of the time we had to walk in the road, cringing as the bikes whizzed past. It was much crazier than anything we had encountered in China and I had palpitations when it came to crossing the road. Nowhere have I felt the need for 360° vision so keenly! There were women walking the streets with baskets suspended from a bamboo pole that they wore over their shoulders. They were selling fruit and veg, fried doughnuts and vivid salad greens and had the traditional conical hats on their heads. The traffic that rushed by was equally laden – tuk tuks and motorbikes alike had improbable loads strapped precariously on the back. Where shops did not occupy the prized pavement space, cafés had set up rows of plastic tables and chairs where customers tucked into pho bo, or drank the local bia hoi (a home brew that is drunk the day it is made) and watched the whirlwind of Hanoi life as it seethed around them.
In the afternoon we went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry was invented in rice growing regions of northern Vietnam around 1000 years ago. Flooded rice paddies were used as the stage, and a pagoda was built to hide the puppeteers (who stood waist deep in water) from the audience. It is thought that the performances were staged to celebrate the harvest or to mark special occasions. We filed into the stalls amongst the tour groups and found our places near the front. The front of the large, watery stage was draped in red velvet, whilst the backdrop was a pagoda fringed with embroidered curtains. Below these, bamboo screens reached down to the water’s edge. To the left, an orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments was setting up. After a short introduction to explain a little about the art, the band struck up and the show began.
The combination of the music and the colourful, lacquered wooden puppets frisking about in the water was quite magical. The show consisted of a series of vignettes illustrating rural life, folk tales and legends. The puppets were incredibly clever. Operated by wooden poles and strings under the water, they appeared to glide on the surface and some could even move their limbs, in a charming, jerky fashion. We saw a little boy playing a flute on a water buffalo, a cat chasing a duck up a tree and fishermen pursuing beautiful silvery fish whose slick bodies gleamed in the lights and were jointed so well that they writhed and cut through the water like the real thing. There were gaudy, sinuous dragons that breathed crackly flames of sparklers and sent puffs of smoke out across the water and rows of farmers planting rice in the paddy. Many of the scenes had a silly, slapstick sort of humour that had me giggling like a child at a Punch and Judy show. In all this time, we did not spot the puppeteers once. The acts were tightly choreographed and some required quite some coordination – men trying to catch a slippery fish in a basket for example, so it was all the more impressive that the puppeteers were such a distance away behind a screen.
Whilst I was mesmerised by the antics of the water puppets, Luke had fallen asleep because it was warm and dark in the theatre. When I nudged him, he indignantly whispered, ‘What’s up? I’m watching it!’ – but I noticed his eyes were closed when he said this. He is rather adept at sleep talking. At the end of the show, the eight puppeteers emerged from behind the screen in their waders to take their bows. It was fun to see the hidden performers!
On leaving the theatre, we decided to do a guide book walking tour of the town, ending up at the hotel where we were to meet Bruce and Ash. It was hectic, but we survived! One street was completely given over to stalls selling trinkets for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. I like to call it Tat for Tet. Lanterns and plastic decorations with tassels and New Year messages were stacked at every stall, which glowed red and gold in the street lights. We each bought a dangly ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi’ (Happy New Year) charm for our rucksacks. Finding ourselves pressed for time, we had to rush through the jam-packed streets as fast as we could to reach Bruce’s hotel, getting a little lost in the process and with the traffic fumes stinging our throats. Eventually we arrived, some twenty minutes late, and I worried in case they were a tad Hanoid…
Bruce and Ash were both extremely tall, and whilst I had been starting to feel like a taller than average person myself after travelling through China and Vietnam, I now felt distinctly diminutive. We headed to a lively street lined with bars and restaurants and had our first burger and chips in a long time! It is nice to ring the changes from noodles and rice now and then! We had an enjoyable chat exchanging news and travel stories. They had come through the US, New Zealand and Australia and showed us some rather terrifying close up photos of a cage-diving trip with great white sharks. On wandering back through town and dodging the traffic, Ash told us he had seen a lot of tourists on crutches – it was easy to see why and we hoped it wasn’t going to be us! Now and then we would see a tourist zooming through the throngs on a hired motorbike; they were braver (or more stupid) than us!