Art Galleries, Prisoners and a haircut...finally - Hanoi, North Vietnam


Outside our hostel, the streets are wet with rain. On a drizzling day in my own capital I like nothing better than a stroll around town - ducking and diving into an art gallery or two. So what better to do today on a rainy sunday in Hanoi. 

But first I decide to chance a long over due haircut at a very posh place that uses Joico products. Its essential really as my hair length has gradually made the transition from “happy go lucky beach babe” to “Lives alone with cats.” Time for a trim. 

When I get back I see Christine who has just come from the hospital. She managed to break her middle finger swinging over a waterfall in Luang Prabang. It was seen to by a Doctor from the same hospital who were unable to disgnose a simple case of appendicitis in The Essex. The bandage is off but her middle finger is decidedly wonky and veering to one side: 

“The Doctor here said they should have bandaged it to my fourth finger so that it could heal straight. But because they didn't its bent...” she says morosely. 

When she says it it makes obvious sense – you always see people with their fingers bandaged together - oh dear - another victim of the Luang Prabang emergency services!!! 

She decides to go and do another sight – Tam Oc island which has the same strange lumpen karst formations but is inland. I decline – I know the weather shouldn't matter but it does! I know i'm not going to enjoy any natural sight in the pouring rain. 

I go for lunch at a street food restaurant called Bam Bo Nam Bo. It specialises in one dish only from the South of Vietnam which is delicious – grilled beef and noodles in a sweet soup topped with mint, coriander, green mango , peanuts, chilli and fried shallots and at just under 2 pounds a satisfying feed. 

Because I really don't walk anywhere I decide to confront my fear of the motorbikes and hail one for a for 30,000 dong (a quid) . He drops me off at the Women's museum slightly damp but exhilarated and alive! 

Hanoi, North Vietnam

Its interesting to have a museum entirely dedicated to the role that women play in Vietnamese society. I've always made the crass and general assumption that Asian women play a secondary and submissive role in Eastern culture but the parameters of their role are less clear cut in this country. You only have to look in the fields and on the streets to see how many of the people bent over double and hoeing or plying their goods on the capital's streets are women. The first item is a film on female street vendors. The streets of Hanoi are filled with women of all different ages in their traditional conical straw hats with back breaking yokes of fruit. The film looks at why some of them do it and where their men folk are. They often live in the rural areas outside Hanoi and work 12 to 15 hour days getting up at 2.30am to buy flowers or fruit from the market to sell on the street , only returning home each night around 7pm when they have made enough money. Very often the husbands are sick and so they have no choice if they want to be able to feed their children and put them through school. They talk about being chased through the street by the police that constantly try and move them on and how they never get to see or spend time with their husbands. Its an interesting short film that humanises these women that are so easy to ignore. Other areas of the museum explore the Vietnamese worship of their Mother Goddess of beauty, pure heart and joy. She is a Gaia or Pacha Mama type deity that has various incarnations representing the heavens, earth, water, mountains and the forest. Special Dancers invoke the spirit of the incarnations and give away gifts to the crowds that gather to watch their transformations. 

There is also an exhibition on the role of women in the ethnic tribes of Vietnam. Whilst some are traditional patriarchal communities where the bride is offered as a dowry - some are actually matrilineal and it is a daughter that they pray for to be their first born. Later that evening when a vendor tries to sell me some deep fried chocolate buns and sees the 20,000 dong in my wallet and says: 

"please 20,000 me Vietnamese...me poor." I part with it readily... 

I take a short pitstop for a milk chocolate coffee and then another motorbike in the rain to the Fine Arts Museum which is a tranquil haven and just the perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon. There's an interesting collection of sculpture of Buddha in various forms ( unusally skinny) as well as paintings from the 19th and 20th century that both mimic the European style as well showcasing the traditional Vietnamese technique of using laquer, wood carvings and crushed egg shell. There are also statues of more strong women highlighting their contribution to the war effort – crouched and setting barbed wire traps....making bamboo spikes for road traps. 

I finish the day with some clothes shopping down Hang Bo and walk towards the great Central Lake. In Lonely Planet they recommend a little cafe above a silk shop that has great views over the lake at night. Word has obviously spread as a surly woman on the door makes me take my order there and then mount the slippery wrought iron steps to roof level. I have the local speciality of a coffee with egg white folded into it which makes it light and fluffy (salmonella here I come!) and watch as the rain sweeps the lake and red and green lights start shimmering on. The sound of the motorbikes and horns are distant here. 

The next day I somehow manage to sleep til 12 – back of the net! Lunch is Bun Cha – grilled pork patties in a bowl of sweet soup with green mango slivers, with mint, coriander, lettuce and vermicelli along with deep fried spring rolls stuffed with fresh crab meat. Yum. Christine and I walk down one of the main roads lined with great big trees and their dangling tendrils strung with song birds in cages. 

Birdcages of Hanoi

Today we visit Hoa Lo Prison. The area was a village that specilaised in making earthenware pots before the French colonised Vietnam and cleared it out – building the huge prison and their own head quarters in the town. There they kept some 300 revolutionaries including women penned up in tiger cages (underground chambers with slatted poles for rooves that the guards could walk over.) They tortured them and fed them maggoty fish, stringy morning glory river weed and buffalo meat so dried and old it looked like leather. They were kept shackled in tiny dark cells with some sentenced to death as young as 14. There is a section here just focusing on the tole of female revolutionairies who were praised by Uncle Ho (Ho chi minh who eventually led the communist revolution) as the fabic of Vietnanese society. 

One – Nguyen Thi Min has written: 

In defiance of all tortures: 

Beating, Hanging, squeezing or wrenching, 

I remain always resolute and loyal, 

Ready to sacrifice myself for the assignments

To be done to the utmost. 

In her blood on her cell door. 

It explains how the women looked after each other in their compounds, the younger ones giving up their floor space near ventilation to the older prisoners – rationing their scoops of water and rewarding those who used less. 

In the 60s and 70s the prison was used to house American P.O.W s who sarcastically referred to it as the Hanoi Hilton, although they were treated well in comparison to other prisoners, allowed to play chess, basket ball, celebrate xmas etc. Its interesting how Communism can rally a country....and again i'm appalled at my terrible knowledge of history. I know nothing about the Vietnam war – my history lessons stopped at 1945. They had a saying - "one does the job of two" – to get everyone behind the war effort – and that became "one does the job of three" when people had to sign up to fight. 

Emaciated mannequins  - prisoners of war

The Vietnamese like to bring the horror of the prison alive with emaciated mannequins and sinister, foreboding music. I'm amazed again at how tough Vietnamese women are and how hard they have fought. And again at how tenuous and fragile our liberty is. Vietnam has had such a bloody history of invasion and I am stunned again at the pointless barbarity of human beings. Have you ever read Eckhard Tolle ? He writes very eloquently on the craziness of war in the opening chapters of either "A New Earth" or "The Power of Now" I strongly believe that human beings are essentially good. But this is a sobering point of reflection on our race's easy capacity for senseless cruelty towards each other.

A Temple of Literature, a Theatre of Water Puppets - Hanoi, North Vietnam

Hanoi is a dusty, noisy, hooting blur of whizzing motorbikes, tree lined roads and street food sellers. Women in pointed bamboo hats with fruit baskets on yokes bustle side by side with street cafes selling Pho – the Vietnamese soupy broth of rice noodles and meat, and baguettes. Birdcages complete with little yellow song birds hang from the trees. Apparently they are bought and set free as gifts. The motorbikes must outnumber people 10 to 1. There are hardly any cars here in comparison (apparently you pay 100% vat on a car) and they weave in and out honking their horns. They also park on the pavements so its impossible to do anything other than walk on the road. Its a little scary. I manage to meet up with Christine -the 42 year old French lady from Cannes who has realised that I will need some “luxury” after the bus ride and booked us a twin room for 11 dollars each a night. Expensive for Asia but i'm grateful and after a cheap eat of noodles with beef for about one pound fifty we retire and I manage to sleep for a good 12 hours. 

The next day we are joined by Yoanne a photographer and Jerome, both from Paris. Jerome is tall, tanned and very very handsome. He has worked in media and production and then travel in Soho in London and in Paris. My attention is drawn. I've realised I can't just have casual sex with anyone – even if we are just ships that pass in the night – they must be the full package -i'm not going to lower my standards! We decide to go for lunch – all of us have a hankering for spring rolls! 

We find a place where you can get fried spring rolls stuffed with crab meat. They come chopped up on a plate with a broth of sweet vinegar and garlic and a plate of noodle and greens. You then put the noodles and greens into the soup and dunk the spring roll or Nem in. Very very tasty. 


Temple of literature

Then we check out the Temple of Literature. Its late afternoon so the heat of the day has just started to subside. The temple was built for sages and scholars in the late 11th century and dedicated to Confucius. It houses Vietnam's first university and was built as a series of courtyards around a lake “of literature.” The atmosphere inside is tranquil. Lots of wooded trees and red lanterns and topiary too - foliage cut into 


the shapes of monkeys and even a snake. The temples have dragon hoisted incense burners outside and golden buddhas inside. We take a walk to the lake opposite the temple to watch fishermen throwing out their rods and then walk back to the old town and find a nice leafy, arty cafe to sit in. Like Vientiane the French influence is strong in Vietnam. Cafes and baguettes abound. I have my first Vietnamese coffee (which I love) which has a strong, bitter chocolately flavour. Condensed milk is the norm here as well instead of fresh milk in hot drinks– and my palate seems to have become accustomed to it! 

There is art on the walls and a leafy courtyard garden upstairs – its a gay cafe. Apparently Hanoi and Vietnam has one of the most progressive attitudes to homosexuality in South East Asia. This i find out from Jerome. .... 

We have been talking about why we are travelling... 
“Oh I just quit my job and had to go...” I say

“Me too” says Jerome

“ I quit my job and then my boyfriend...” 

Typical. I should have guessed. And just in case I didn't he's dropped the fact he's gay into conversation about three times! Still he's a lot of fun so I start mentally lining him up as a husband for Zeb instead. (We've always had the same taste in men.) 

That evening Christine and I go for a walk and see the main lake in Hanoi and check out the view and then find a restaurant that's been recommended by the hostel. We eat pork fried in lemongrass and honey, aubergine in garlic, rice and more fresh spring rolls. Scrumptious. 

The next day we move down into the dorm (6 dollars a bed) to economise. We go for a walk around West Lake and to see the oldest pagoda complex in Vietnam – Tran Quoc Pagoda which was constructed in the sixth century. 

The sun is boiling and Christine is doing her best to stop me from getting run over by the motorbikes. The trick is to not look at them and keep watching the road ahead. (Definitely don't stop because that confuses them and make them swerve to avoid you.) I start to whimper so she grabs my arms and briskly sees me across roads. I have my little silver umbrella out again as its so hot– and think “i could really do with an ice cream.” We are walking along the side of the West Lake past lots of little sea food restaurants and cafes and my prayers are answered with a little Italian style ice cream parlour. I have strawberry and sweet chestnut and Christine has passionfruit and chocolate. Delicious. 

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda is set out into the lake and is beautiful to see at sunset. The main Pagoda structure is a rusty red brick and has little white buddhas sitting in enclaves all the way up it. The temple has a serene air to it as the sun sets across the lake. There is a Bodhi tree in the grounds here which has grown from a cutting of the same tree under which Buddha sat to gain enlightment. I am told off for entering one of the temples in shoes – and visitors must be appropriately dressed. (always a struggle for me at the best of times...!) 

That evening we get another rip off taxi back from the Pagoda to the Water Puppet Theatre by Hoan Kiem Lake. Basically agree a fare before hand or they rip you off. This one has a dodgy meter and we end up getting charged 200,000 Dong (about six pounds) when we should have been charged 30,000 ( a quid!) 

The Thang Long Water puppet Theatre tickets cost either 60,000 dong (about 2 pounds) or 100,000 (for the back half of the auditorium) but you get a good view from anywhere and the show lasts an hour. The water puppetry is a traditional art form that hails from the rural areas of Northern Vietnam and as far back as the 11thCentury, when villagers would carve little puppets out of wood, varnish them and then make up shows and perform them on the water when the rice paddies flooded. The little skits are based on stories and folklore passed down by generations and were used to both entertain each other and also to appease their spirit world. 

The show is accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra with narration at intervals. 

Its really sweet! The pool of water is lit a deep turqouoise and the puppets come out on rods and tell little stories of killing bulls, parading with parasols and falling in love.