Friday, December 09, 2011

Day 54 - 55: Puppets, Singers and Fine Arts

On Sunday we went to the Fine Art Museum in the morning. I was hoping for something more; three floors of ceramics, lacquer paintings and silk paintings, whilst undeniably well crafted, didn't do much for me. There was one gallery of oil paintings which weren't bad, but other than that I much preferred the slew of mini galleries dotted around the city.

After lunch at a small cafe we went to the water puppet theatre. It was an enjoyable 50 minutes of puppet wizardry, with puppets mixing water, fire and smoke to make an accessible spectacle, accompanied by a 9-piece orchestra. Kids would definitely love it, whilst adults no doubt marvel at the ingenuity of the stage and performers.

We found a cracking bakery called Fresh Garden which sold fantastic filled rolls, croissants, cakes and more, and bought a few things to eat before the Ca Tru performance. We met up with Tom and Holly for a couple of drinks beforehand, and went to Hanoi Backpackers to track down someone who had been on one of the Halong Bay tours who Tom knew. We didn't find him, but by sheer serendipity bumped into a Danish girl who had been on a Kangaroo Cafe tour, had loved it, and had got the pictures to show us. It looked like a lot of the reviews on Trip Advisor were indeed nonsense, and armed with this information we proceeded to head to Kangaroo Cafe's second outlet to buy the 3-day, 2-night tour for Tuesday.

With this done, we met Lan at the Ca Tru theatre and took our seats. The musical style was unlike anything I've ever heard. There is a singer (usually female although during one of the switchovers a man took the lead) who plays a wooden percussion block - for want of a better word - with two sticks in one hand, and one in the other. She sings from her belly with very little mouth movement and it is surprising how powerful her voice got. She is accompanied by someone on a three-string lute, one of the longest instruments you'll find, and someone playing a small drum rather erratically. The lyrics are usually traditional folk songs describing Vietnamese life, and the pace is quite slow. When the female singer - who is apparently well renowned in Vietnam for her ability - switched with one of the men, the rhythm got a bit jauntier. If a picture tells a thousand words, a video should cover a few million:

During an intermission we were given information on the instruments used and then had the opportunity to try and play one of them. I had a bash at the drum, excuse the pun, and found that it was actually pretty difficult to play. You'd think hitting a bit of stretched skin on some wood with a single stick to get one of two possible notes out of it would be fairly simple. This is not the case - for me, anyway.

We were introduced to the main singer afterwards who translated through Lan, and asked if we enjoyed the performance. Whilst not something I would rush out and buy a CD of, I could truthfully answer yes, it was actually a very enjoyable hour and a half.

Feeling peckish, we grabbed a couple of nibbles and drinks from Gecko before retiring for the night.

The next day we decided to try and find Gilly some sunglasses and t-shirts. We half succeeded. Luong Van Can is known as "sunglasses street". This follows an odd theme in Hanoi: all of the shops appear to compete with each other on the same street. All of the silk shops are next to each other. As are the sunglasses shops, the shoe shops, the clothes shops, the flower shops, the Christmas decoration shops, the home furniture shops, and so on. If you can find a niche market, odds are there will be 3 or 4 shops in a row selling that product. On our way to sunglasses street we saw a road with 4 consecutive shops selling store mannequins. I'm not joking. Anyway, after eight identical sunglasses stores, Gilly got into the haggling game when she finally found a pair she liked. I liked the owners too - they thought we were students, and said I didn't look a day over 25. Result all round.

T-shirts were a different matter. Vietnamese women's sizes appear to range from XS (our version of XXXS) to L (our version of S). Gilly tried a medium which didn't fit, and then a large...which was still too small. Men's sizes seem to be different. For no reason other than I liked the colour, I tried on a small t-shirt and found it fit perfectly. So I bought it. Gilly's face was understandably a picture.

A trip to Ha Loa prison was on the cards for the morning as well, we stumbled on it quite by accident - everything we'd read said it was closed on Mondays, but this wasn't the case. An interesting self-guided tour around it ensued; it was the place they kept American pilots that were shot down during the Vietnam War (or American War as it's known here). It was known sarcastically as the Hanoi Hilton Hotel by the POWs and guests included one John McCain, Republican contender for the 2008 US Presidency. His flight jumpsuit is on display amongst much paraphenalia and Vietnamese propaganda about how well US prisoners were treated. Eavesdropping on an organised tour, one Vietnamese tour guide debunked this quite bluntly: he said prisoners were tortured for information. Not particularly shocking news, but his matter-of-factness was a refreshing change after all of the rose-tinted info we'd been given in previous museums.

We tried and failed to identify the train services to Hue from the main train station (we are going to Hue immediately after returning from our tour), so went across the road and grabbed lunch at a place called The Deli. I think it was a catering company but had a cafe upstairs, and the freshly made curried chicklen baguettes we had were superb.

The rest of the afternoon was spent pottering about the city. We bought water and a box of wine for the tour the next day (drinks are not included and have to be bought on the boat), had dinner at a restaurant called Aubergine, tried unsuccessfully to track down Jazz Club Minh (the location mentioned in the guidebook appears to have closed down but the website is still active, so maybe it's moved), then went back to the hotel ready for a 6:30 alarm the next day to begin our Halong Bay tour.

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