As our travels continue in Vietnam, we’re quickly realizing that there is as much to do in the evening as there is in the day. Hanoi comes to life at night, but in a completely different way than Hong Kong or Tokyo. Instead of neon lights and tall lit buildings, you’ll see outdoor markets, bustle people and the light casting onto the street from stores and bars open late into the evening. We’ve managed to see a Water Puppet Show, have some amazing meals and even caught a ride on the back of one of Hanoi’s ubiquitous motorcycles.
Water Puppetry, a subject completely unknown to us, is apparently an ancient Vietnamese art form that dates back centuries. Conveniently enough, there is a Water Puppetry Theater located just a stone’s throw away from our hotel. Mix in a ticket price of just five bucks and it we couldn’t resist a visit. We place the 45-minute performance, with several shows an evening in front of a small crowd of mostly tourists, firmly under the very entertaining and very unique categories. I can’t remember the last time I took in a puppet show, but this is the first time I’ve seen one where dozens and dozens of custom-made puppets perform in and on top of a pool of water. Everything from dragons to young, umbrella-wielding maidens to hunters skip, shake and dance seamlessly around the pool while executing some complicated manuevers by unseen puppeteers. These people-behind-the-curtain twist and bend rods while knee-deep in water behind screens. The figures themselves are well decorated, fun and nimble. They move with ease and make use of the water. Each act is accompanied by musicians who sing and play various instruments just off stage. There was as much talent in the music as there was in the puppetry which is why it was Brooke’s favorite part of the evening. Sure, the whole performance was in Vietnamese but you get the general gist of each plot. Very cool to see, but also kind of glad it was less than an hour.
One of the real highlights of Vietnam so far has been the cuisine. We’ve enjoyed two amazing meals at the New Day restaurant and the Quan An Ngon. Who needs a five star dining experience (a moist towlette will run you an extra twenty cents on the bill) when you have busy, friendly hotspots occupied by locals and tourists alike? Although the spacious Quan An Ngon was much larger and mostly outdoor, both restaurants were tasty, mind-boggingly inexpensive, delivered amazing service and felt about as authentic as you can get. At New Day, we were encouraged to swing through the kitchen so we could get a first hand look at dishes before we ordered. Menus included everything from various soups, fried pork and chicken dishes, barbecued anything, dumplings, noodles, glutenous rice balls. All delivered by waiters who smiled non-stop and were eager to practice their English. I’m not doing it justice, but each night, there has been something wonderful about these sensational dishes showing up in front of us. We never quite know what we’re going to get, but dinner has surpassed expectations each time.
We ended one of our nights with a unique experience. After witnessing the plethora of motorbikes zoom around Hanoi for the last few days, we were done being spectators and ready to see what a ride really felt like. Not quite brave (foolish?) enough to rent our own, we opted to let someone else drive. Once again, the incomparable staff at the Hanoi Moment hooked us up. Late in the evening, two of the staff took a break, conjured two spare helmets, and pulled their bikes around font and invited us to hop on the back. We spent the next 45 minutes getting a scenic tour of Hanoi and the experience of zipping through the busy streets among thousands of other bikes. To be fair, we’re pretty sure our guides went easy on the throttle for our sake. First of all, it is a lot less intimidating and a lot more fun being on a bike than to be in the street trying to dodge one. Since all of the motorbikes move at a manageable cruising speed, navigating, maneuvering and avoiding everything from pedestrians to other bikes seemed easy. It’s remarkable: you ride so close to the swarm of other bikes, that you almost have to resist the urge to reach out and grab ahold of any one of them. As a nice bonus, the cool breeze helped to counteract the oppressive humidity. After our ride, we arrived at one conclusion back at the hotel: these bikes are a damn enjoyable and efficient way to get around Hanoi.
We’re thoroughly enjoy the pulse of this different city. Hands down, Hanoi is unlike any place we’ve visited so far. Tomorrow? Ha Long Bay and getting a glimpse of the late Ho Chi Minh and, ah, how he looks today.