Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The size of York but with London's population

Wednesday 30th March 2011

MP3 track of the day: Hells Bells - ACDC

Weather: Cloudy and cool. Around midday the sun did make an appearance; the clouds were parting however it only lasted a couple of minutes.


I'd prepared myself for a day of boredom. I'd got up early and I was eating my breakfast, at 8:00am, keeping one eye on the front door. Today my Chinese F1 ticket was due to arrive and I didn't want to miss it. After breakfast I inquired into a tour and traveling north into China. A trip to 'Ha Long bay' seems pretty straight forward to achieve; getting into China, on the other hand, does not. A few telephone calls later and it seems whether I take the train, or the coach, I cannot get a direct service to Kumming. Instead I get dropped off at the boarder, at a town called 'Lao Cai'. After crossing into China I will need to purchase a coach ticket – at the local bus station - to Kumming. All of this wouldn't normally be a problem however most Chinese don't speak a word of English. Some serious thinking had to be done. I could fly however, at £150.00, it's a lot more expensive than making my own way over land. Currently I haven't got a clue what I'm going to do.

After this helpful, but daunting, travel advice I took a seat and started to read my book. As I had finished my book about the Vietnam War I went back into Rome with another of (enter authors name) books. Only a few pages in a small Vietnamese chap, with a Fedx package, went to reception. Reading the address label it had my name on it. I intervened between him, and the receptionist, showing my passport. He handed me my package. It was only 9:30am and I now had my F1 ticket within my hand. With this, and with my accommodation booked, I was off to the race … if I can get into China that this. I have to say that 'Booking' have been amazing. I'm sure that I haven't been their easiest customer, however their customer service department have been outstanding, helpful and incredibly efficient. It's easy to forget that customer service still occurs within the world when you're stuck in South East Asia. With my ticket in my hand I went out sightseeing.

I headed into the French quarter. It was only ten minutes south of where I was staying however, due to the manic traffic and the amount of people, it took a little longer to cut my way through the chaos. Within the French Quarter there were four museums:

· The History Museum

· The Museum of Vietnamese Revolution

· The Museum of Vietnamese Women

· Hoa Lo Prison

The closest museum to my accommodation was the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution. I managed to walk straight past it, by mistake, as I was drawn to this beautiful golden building with a very impressive main tower. 20,000 dong (66p) it cost to enter the History Museum. I paid the entrance fee and went up the curved, elevated, path that lead into a grand entrance. The golden building was very beautiful; it felt very colonial. Once inside I had to place my bag within a locker before the security guard would let me through. The first exhibition were items from the ancient capital of Hue. Apparently the museum has more artifacts, from the old imperial capital, however it's awaiting it's renovation to display the other items. What was on display was a temporary exhibit and it consisted of eight, well lit, glass cases within a black room. I didn't know it then but this exhibit would become my favorite within the museum. The reason I liked it so much was because there was a beautiful book, made out of gold, and a golden seal beautifully crafted into a dragon. I peered through the glass case for quite a while, looking at these two objects. Fearful that the Vietnamese guard might think I was planning on stealing those two exhibits I moved on.

The museum went through the ages of Vietnam. Not being in a very 'museum mood' – and the fact most of the writing was in Vietnamese – I skipped through the exhibits rather quickly. It felt as though the museum had emptied it's entire back collection of Neolithic artifacts and placed all of them on display. Rows upon rows of stone spear heads, axe heads, tools and pottery were placed in front of me until all the pieces seemed to blend together. There were other bits and bobs including wooden stakes, clothing and religious stone sculptures. I walked leisurely around the tiled museum floor stopping only when a piece jumped out at me (not literally). It had taken me an hour and a half to see the contents of this museum. I had one final look at the golden book, and seal, before heading back out into the city.

The grounds had a few more exhibits, but nothing major. I then found myself, reading my guidebook, outside the front gate of the museum. The time was 11:15am, which presented a problem. My guidebook informed me that two of the other museums, that I wanted to see today, had 'lunch closing time' until 1:30pm. I therefore decided to use this time to take a few photos, of the area, before having a spot of lunch. I headed back to my guesthouse for lunch and ordered a truly Vietnamese dish … a burger. It was okay, but not as filling as I'd hoped. I'd planned on stopping by the cake shop I spotted yesterday however, once I'd had a closer look, it didn't look that great.

I soon found myself around 'Hoan Kiem Lake', heading south towards the Museum of Vietnamese Women. I found the museum – but not before entering a school by mistake – where the entry price was 30,000 dong. That was a little more than my guidebook stated and, considering a guy at the hostel didn't rate it that highly, I decided to leave it. I headed towards the 'Hoa Lo Prison' where, amazingly I found it open at 1pm. I re-read my guidebook where it state that the prison closed for lunch and re-opened at 1:30pm, however here we were with the doors wide open and the ticket office waving me in. I purchased my ticket however I was a little skeptical that the doors would close five minutes after I'd entered.

Hoa Lo Prison was constructed by the French to keep 'political Vietnamese revolutionaries' in. Afterwards the North Vietnamese used the prison to hold captured American pilots. It was funny how, when the French used the prison, the conditions were terrible, torture was rife and the Vietnamese inmates were treated worse than animals. However, during it's use as a 'prisoner of War camp' the North Vietnamese allowed the American prisoners to have Christmas dinner, decorate their sells and play games within the courtyard. There was evidence to back the above conditions; there were photographs, paintings and eye-witness accounts during the French occupation and photographs during the prisons use as a prisoner of war camp. Even if the information, at this museum, was truthful it still presented communism as a 'can do no wrong' political view. Even if the North Vietnamese never used 'Hoa Lo' as a prison it never mentioned the amount of people that regime imprisoned, killed and possibly tortured.

Once outside I headed back towards the History Museum; across the road was the Museum of Vietnamese revolution. I paid the 15p entrance fee and entered the museum through a side door (due to maintenance work at the front). This museum had to be the most boring museum I ever had the misfortune to enter. Thirty-six agonizing rooms containing, what felt like, everything under the sun was present. Just like in Vientane's (Laos) history museum the 'American Imperialist and their puppet regime' was back. The exhibits were either bias, or boring, and therefore I decided to skirt through the museum rather quickly. Room twenty-six had to be my favorite; the room was dedicated to 'revolutionary plastic plumbing pipes'. If anyone's wondering what 'revolutionary plastic plumbing pipes' looked like I can safely say that they look the same as any other within the known world. The only saving grace, for this museum, was one piece. Looking like a bomb with a tree sticking out the end this was, apparently, an American listening device. Dropped from a B-52, just like an ordinary bomb, it planted itself within the ground disguised as a small tree. This harmless bomb would then allow the Americans to listen for any enemy movements within the area it fell … clever that. I gave the museum the time it deserved and was out within the hour. I headed into town for a hot chocolate and small cake (quite nice though not as nice as the cakes within Hoi An). The day was drawing to a close; I spent the last few hours of daylight walking around the French, and old, quarters taking photos. I also tried to get further information about getting to Kumming with little success.

I came back to the hostel around 4pm and chilled for a little while; I was back out, and on the streets of Hanoi, at 7pm. It was dark by now, so I made my way to my intended target with haste. Tonight, in the middle of this mad city, I was going to have a civilized evening. Yes, I was going to the theater. The 'Water puppet theater' was a tourist hot spot and a 'must do' according to fellow travelers. I rocked up at the ticket booth, thirty minutes before the next showing, to see if there were any tickets left. 'Only one' was the answer from behind the counter; I snapped up the ticket and went in. The theater was very grand; read carpets leading up a stone, with wooden hand rails, staircase that went into the theater. My seat was right in the back left-hand corner; This had one negative and two positives. The negative being that I was quite far away from the stage, however the positives were that, as the staircase was in front of my seat, I had copious amounts of leg room and the exit was right next to me (meaning if it was rubbish I could make a quick get away).

The stage was like any normal theater stage, only flooded with water. Instead of having a 'pit' for the musicians, they were put on an elevated platform to the right-hand side of the stage. This was great as all the musicians were in traditional costume playing traditional instruments. At the back of the stage was a traditional Vietnamese / Chinese style gateway. Unlike Vietnam the performance started bang on time. First of all we had a few traditional pieces of music, followed by the puppets coming through the gate.

These 'water puppets' started way back in the 17th Century when a farmer, presented with a flooded rice paddy, had the idea of turning it into a performance stage. The performance wasn't a continual story, it was more a group of very short stories. Most of the stories were themed around peasants and farming; there were peasants picking rice, looking after buffalo and picking coconuts. The occasional dragon popped up but that was it. Culturally it was a very interesting evening however I couldn't stop myself wondering how it was all achieved. Half way through the performance I could see the sticks, under the water, attached to the puppets however that didn't explain the puppets freedom of movement. You could have paid an additional 20,000 dong to use your camera. This I felt spoilt the performance as a few secrets were revealed with the help of the audiences camera flashes. After fifty minutes it was all over; I exited quickly and headed back to my hostel to find the Aussies I had met in Ho Chi Minh City. I had something to eat before retiring to bed.

I don't like Hanoi. It's like a city the size of York – though not as beautiful - with a population of London. It's manic and, even though it's a walkable city, getting anywhere takes a lot longer than expected due to parked scooters blocking the pavements, the roads being totally congested and the constant stream of Vietnamese people asking me if I want a motorbike, pineapple, bicycle, two-man tent or if I want my shoes cleaning. As many Vietnamese have pointed out my shoes are dirty, however they are walking shoes … they are supposed to be dirty. Considering I love South Vietnam the North is becoming a massive disappointment. I would like to leave Hanoi tomorrow but there's still so much to do. Tomorrow I plan to visit 'Uncle Ho', his house and his museum before visiting the West Lake and a pagoda. There's also the Military museum, and the Temple of Literature. I also need to organise a day trip to 'Ha Long Bay' (maybe for my birthday) and then work out how I'm going to get into China. It's ironic but I find myself wanting to do everything possible within Hanoi … so I never have to come back.

Toodle Pip!

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