Reboot in Hong Kong
I was going to create a new blog to cover our travels in Vietnam but that seemed like a lot of trouble for a three week trip so I decided to resurrect the old 'train' blog. I last touched this almost a year ago. The title is still vaguely relevant - we will be taking a couple of rail journeys. However, most of our long distance travel will be by plane. One thing about this arrangement does concern me. Writing blogs on long train journeys is easy. You have lots of time to reflect and compose. That won't be the case this time around. But I won't lack inspiration. We visited a card shop in Dunedin last month and I noticed a card showing a New Yorker cartoon. It was of two dogs talking. One said to the other, "I used to have my own blog, but now I have returned to just mindless barking and howling". I'm sure it was some sort of sign.
We arrive in Hong Kong at 5.45, ten hours after leaving Auckland. Our flight to Hanoi leaves at 14.30. The airport is beautiful (and familiar) but we don't appreciate it. We have eight hours to kill and we've seen Hong Kong. Monica dons her eye mask and ear plugs and stretches out across two small seats. Airport seating is designed to stop this sort of thing. She didn't sleep last night and has yet to capture the holiday mood. I buy some Vietnamese currency: one pound is worth thirty three thousand dong. I purchase millions of dong. I sense there's going to be trouble ahead with this. Monica abandons all attempts to sleep and casually posts extended emails to her friends and family (she should be writing this stuff, not me).
A half-empty Vietnamese Airlines Airbus deposits us at Hanoi airport. This is not a beautiful place - though not as ugly as Heathrow. We are met by our hotel driver who is embarrassed in front of the other drivers when Monica asks to photograph him. It turns out his name is Gwyn - though that may not be how he spells it. There is no evidence of Welsh ancestry - mention of St David's Day draws a blank stare. The journey to our hotel takes an hour. Hanoi's roads are treacherous. They are packed with people driving scooters - often whole families on a single bike. Car drivers are obliged to avoid them (I think) as the scooters weave in and out of them. Scooter drivers either have a death wish or think they are immortal. Gwyn drives like a shark among minnows. At Monica's request, he teaches us the Vietnamese for Yes, No, and Thankyou. I would prefer he kept his mind on the road. We pass safely through the metropolitan sprawl of Hanoi into the centre. It is mostly low-rise, poor and run down.
In the evening we decide to visit the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. There is a performance at 18:30, and we hope to get tickets. The theatre is on the northern edge of Lake Hoan Kiem, about twenty minutes walk from our hotel in the historic Quarter of town. We have to cross a number of roads to get there. The traffic has not abated, nothing stops. There is a technique to crossing streets. You simply take a deep breath and step off the pavement (or what serves as one). Walk steadily to the other side, not changing speed or direction. Trust the scooters to take evasive action. They've had lots of practice. We are employing the skills we acquired in Ulaan Bator, and at least there's no ice. I don't know what the road accident statistics are for Vietnam and I don't want to know.
We arrive at 18:29 and get almost the last two tickets for the show. The tickets cost about three pounds each for seats in the front row. Amazing. The audience is almost exclusively Western - there are lots of buses outside, transport from larger posher hotels than ours. The show is enchanting. There is a small orchestra of traditional musicians, and a couple of girls expert in Van and Quo ho singing - recognised by UNESCO as " an immaterial cultural heritage of humanity" - I read the brochure. The puppets perform in a large pool, enacting scenes from rural life and Vietnamese myth. There are puppet famers, fishermen, fish and buffalow, and dragons expertly controlled by unseen puppeteers until they break cover at the finale. An "authentic Vietnamese experience that maybe few bother with now, kept alive by tourists. I felt priviledged to be there.
We dine in a restaurant near our hotel. Its few customers are outnumbered by the charming staff. The food is great. In our room in the hotel HBO is playing with Vietnamese subtitles.