Hà Nội – Water Puppets, Final Phởs & Farewells
We had reached day 18 of 30 by the time we disembarked in Vietnam’s capital city. Although a few of us were carrying on through Laos and Thailand, some of the group were leaving after day 20 and flying back to their homes across the world. As in any large group, smaller syndicates are formed through similarities in interests and/or age groups. The group I had become acquainted with included Joaquin, Kirstin, Katharina and, from day 10 when she arrived, Uli. The three girls would be leaving on day 20, along with Kieran, Dane, Heidi, Rose and Daniel, so it was important to make the most of Hà Nội.
Our first stop was at the Water Puppet show… We had no idea what to expect from the experience, but it had been described to us as “unmissable”, “incredible” and “entertaining”, so we were hopeful. We were wrong to be hopeful. With three women crooning into over-amplified microphones in the corner, we sat for over half an hour watching puppets on sticks being dragged through the water by invisible bodies, struggling to understand the storyline. It was not incredible or entertaining, and certainly not unmissable; it was bizarre, and not something I would go back to see in a hurry!
After a quick stop at the Hà Nội Opera House, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Back on day 10 in Hồ Chí Minh City, I had asked Kirstin to go for a meal with me. To my surprise, she had said yes, and for the next week, over a couple of dinners and drinks on the beach, we had become closer. As she was leaving to travel home (to New Zealand) in less than 48 hours, we were going for dinner alone on her penultimate night. Rod had told us of a nice restaurant on the other side of town, but after reaching the place and finding it had gone out of business, we improvised and found a lovely fresh fish restaurant, where one has to walk past the tanks and choose their food as it lives and breathes.
Later that evening, we met the rest of the group at Murphy’s, the Irish bar in town which Rich, the only Irishman in our group, had managed to sniff out with no issue. A night of fun and dancing later, and the next day had arrived, bringing with it a trip to Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum. Surrendering our phones, wallets and cameras, we stepped in to the ominous building.
He has been embalmed, and is preserved perfectly in a glass case to this day, 44 years after his death. It’s an incredible sight; a corpse that looks not dissimilar to an old man having an afternoon nap. His security presence was the feature of the visit that affected me most. Ten at a time, we were allowed to walk three walls of the room where he lies, in single file, hands in front of one’s body at all times. No photography, talking, food, drink or chewing gum. The old lady in front of me, walking slowly with a cane, stopped for a second, whereupon one of the sixteen guards surrounding the body immediately stepped forward and told her to keep moving. I stepped off the red carpet by no more than a couple of inches and was scolded by another guard. Scary, but extraordinary to have seen the man who gave his name to the most densely populated city in Vietnam.
About a five minute walk away was the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, dedicated to Vietnam’s revolutionary struggles against foreign powers. Widely seen as a propaganda tool of the Vietnamese Communist regime, the museum is filled with memorabilia providing a comprehensive overview of his life and leadership for Vietnamese independence from the early 1940s until his death in 1979.
“My ultimate wish is that our entire party and people, closely joining their efforts, will build a peaceful, reunified, independent, democratic and prosperous Vietnam, and make a worthy contribution to the world revolution.” – Hồ Chí Minh’s testament
After another night on the town, our last day in Hà Nội was upon us. We were up and about early to make the most of the day, and set off for the Temple of Literature, which includes the “Imperial Academy”, Vietnam’s first national university. Built in the 11th century, the pavilions and halls were used for offering ceremonies, studying and taking exams.
Now, the temple is a tourist attraction, but is still frequently used by locals for prayer purposes. There are five courtyards, each with their own beautiful features: topiary, pavilions, the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” and mountains of offerings for Confucius.
And that was that. Our time in Vietnam had come to an end, and it was with a heavy heart that I packed my rucksack and started to say farewell to the people who had made the last three weeks incredibly memorable. Parting with Kirstin was very difficult for me; she had made Southeast Asia a lot of fun and, as well as being intelligent and beautiful, she had a brilliant sense of humour and made me smile. J.M. Barrie wrote, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” I think I said, “I’ll see you soon.”
Vietnam had been incredible; everything I could have hoped for. I cannot wait to return, but for then, it was time to head to the airport and catch a flight to Vientiane, iPod headphones jammed in my ears and feeling sorry for myself…