Another day in the city of Hanoi and my wife and I continue our explorations.
The only thing we had planned was some pre-booked tickets for a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show in the evening, so the whole day was ours to discover.
We decided to set into the city and make our way towards Hỏa Lò prison in the old quarter. This historical museum was once a functioning prison, built by French Colonial powers in 1896. It was originally designed to detain Vietnamese resisters and it’s quite chilling to see the different cell blocks. Visitors can visit the block for male prisoners, the block for female prisoners (and their children), and the one for prisoners designated for execution.
In true French style, two guillotines were installed in the prison to perform said executions, and one is still on site.
The conditions of the prison are what you would expect—horrible, and nothing brings it home like wandering the cold and dank corridors and cells.
The museum also features many display cases that exhibit personal items used by the prisoners, plus other grisly objects such as shackles and clubs.
In one of the outer courtyards, you can see segments of what was once the sewer system of the prison. Some prisoners were actually able to escape Hỏa Lò through this sewer grate. They went on to become influential political leaders in Vietnam.
Another part of the museum focuses on the second phase of the prison: detaining American’s during the Vietnam War. Many prisoners came to Hỏa Lò Prison between 1964 and 1973, including US senator John McCain. These men were treated much better than the Vietnamese were by the French Colonial powers—in fact, an American nickname for the prison was “Hotel Hanoi.”
After we left the museum, we wandered along the wall of the nearby courthouse (also built during French Colonial times) enjoying the textures, colours, and patterns of the blacked stone.
We passed the courthouse and Marcie discovered a fashionable clothing store that sucked her in like a black hole. I lingered outside, taking in the sights and sounds, when she suddenly reappeared with an expression somewhere between bemusement and anger. When I asked her what was up, she said the lady kicked her out because she was too fat.
“She didn’t actually say that,” I said, and Marcie went on to explain that the lady kept pointing at her body and throwing her hands wide then gesturing to the clothing and narrowing the gap. So, yeah. More or less, she said “too fat.”
We rounded the courthouse and Marcie was instantly cheered, because we found ourselves on a quiet street composed completely of bookstores (well, okay, one shop was a café, but it was full of books, too, and called “The Book Café”).
We had so much fun exploring the different stores and finding familiar titles, but written in Vietnamese.
Then, in one shop, I discovered the Vietnamese version of a book by my friend Margriet Ruurs, Stepping Stones, which is a beautifully-conceived picture book about refugees, and illustrated with stones. We felt compelled to buy it! Actually, we ended up buying a few books, even though they were in Vietnamese. Well, what can we say. We’re book people.
We ventured onward, through the old quarter of Hanoi, absorbing and trying to digest all of the street life. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but the contrast here is sometimes overwhelming. You can find a boutique clothing store and, next to it, a dingy alley, then a temple, then a humble grill where someone is serving street meat. Many people sell their items right on the sidewalk or by riding up and down the streets on their bikes.
At one point, I noticed a woman trudging by with a type of styrofoam cooler filled with writhing—well, I can only think to call them worms, though I’m sure they were something else. Larvae? They were most definitely intended for eating. I didn’t stop her to probe for enlightenment.
We also noticed many people in very poor physical condition, such as one woman walking on legs bent at right angles at the ankles, her contorted feet splayed outwards. Still, people carry on here, despite their conditions. It really makes us feel grateful for the clean simplicity of living in Canada.
There are so many textures and small details to notice in Hanoi. It’s hard to capture them all—but I try: doors, shutters, and bits of ornamentation peering out from the clutter of the city.
Our final adventure of the night was visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre and watching a mesmerizing show.
Full disclosure: puppets kind of terrify me. It’s their frozen faces and stiff limbs. And the human puppets fit that exact bill, but there were so many other wonderful creatures to be seen in this show: happy ducks, the legendary tortoise of Hoàn Kiém Lake, a playful cat, and dragons that breathed fire (that effect in particular was spectacular).
The performance consisted of fourteen “mini-shows” chronicling fables and stories from Vietnamese culture. The stage, if you will, is a pool of water and this is where the puppets play. The puppeteers are hidden behind a curtain and wear hip-waders (they came out afterwards for a bow), After leaving the theatre, you can enter the foyer to see many traditional puppets on display.
Some puppets are also available for sale. Marcie, of course, ended up buying one: a fairy puppet with diaphanous wings.
One more day in Hanoi before heading off on an over-night trip to Halong Bay!