Making your way through the traffic in Hanoi, whether by foot, bike, motorbike or automobile, is like playing the game of pick-up sticks.
In the game, a bundle of 50 sticks is released on a tabletop. Each player in turn tries to pick up a stick from the jumbled pile without disturbing any of the others. It is a mentally and physically challenging game.
When the pile is gone, the player with the most sticks wins. Like a pick-up sticks player, a pedestrian, bicyclist or motorist becomes a winner when they have picked a path unharmed through Hanoi‘s traffic tangle.
During my December visit, I saw few traffic accidents in the city. Considering the millions of motorbikes (often ridden by a mother with an infant sitting on her lap and a child clinging to her back, or a deliveryman obscured by his cargo) that cross paths with those of cars, buses, trucks, people pulling handcarts, bicycles and pedestrians, that is a miracle. Or, maybe, it is just common courtesy.
Speaking of tangles, I have never seen anything quite like the mess of overhead power lines, telephone and television cables in Hanoi. The wires, all twisted together and hanging from poles or banyan trees, look like mad dreadlocked hair.
These wires are an eyesore and a huge public hazard.
In June 2013, the English-language daily Viet Nam News reported, Nguyen Thi Nga, a resident in Hai Ba Trung District’s Lang Yen Street, received an electric shock while opening her shop door near an electric pole after heavy rain. Even though uninjured, she has a panic attack when she thinks of it.
“ ‘The whole area is covered with messy and dangerous wires, and they threaten local lives when it rains,” said Nga, adding that after big rains last year, electric discharges damaged many appliances in nearby homes.”
Electric poles holding hundreds of heavy, tangled wires particularly threaten residents in the capital city’s old tenement houses. A group of tenement houses at 30 Pham Van Dong Street is an example, Viet Nam News reported. “Many loose wires hang down from power poles and some even touch the heads of passers-by.
“ ‘Wires even hang down near the public playground, which threatens out children’s safety, said Dam Thi Diu, a 33-year-old resident in Tu Liem District, adding that promises to clean up the problem had been made many times.”
Vu Quoc Hung, deputy director of the Ha Noi Power Corporation, told Viet Nam News that “Hanoi will try its best to have the cables buried on 321 city streets by 2015.” That effort is now coming down to the wire.
The Red River runs through North Vietnam and its folk theater, which includes Cheo and water puppetry.
Dating back to the 11th century, water puppetry was created by Red River Delta rice farmers who built simple stages on the surfaces of ponds and paddy fields. The shows were supposed to entertain the villagers and the spirits, so that they wouldn’t make mischief.
Nowadays, water puppetry is performed at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. After entering the theater, you walk up a narrow, wooden staircase to a first-floor landing. Wooden puppets, laquered white — and some around 30 pounds — are piled on the floor.
The puppets perform in a big pool of water; they enter the water stage through a curtain strung behind it. They are controlled through a pole-and-string rig, hidden beneath the water surface, by eight puppeteers standing in waist-deep water behind the stage.
Musicians, sitting on one side of the pool, provide music and sound effects on traditional Vietnamese instruments. They also do the puppets’ voices.
The night I went to the Thang Long theater, the program included a folk music opening, followed by a 14-scene water puppet performance portraying rural life (planting rice, fishing, chasing the fox that tries to catch ducks); sacred animals (dragon, unicorn, tortoise and phoenix danse); and national history (Le Loi, a 15th-century hero, returning a sword to Kim Quy, the Golden Tortoise God, on a lake in Hanoi).
The puppets, either vividly lit or shrouded in fog, moved on the water stage like ballet dancers, twirling, diving and swooping in intricate patterns. At the end of the performance, the puppeteers emerged from the water to take a dripping bow.
Water puppetry is a preserved art form. “The secret of how water puppet shows work has been kept quiet for centuries. The puppeteers even have their own dialect and codewords to prevent someone from overhearing talk of a particular technique,” according to the Thang Long theater.
“Trying to figure out exactly how puppeteers can control the intricate movements blindly is part of the magic of each water puppet show. Great shows of skill include passing objects from puppet to puppet and other coordinated movements, which have to be done by instinct rather than sight. The musicians, who can see the puppets, sometimes shout code words to warn the puppeteers when a puppet is not where it should be.”
The performance I saw delighted children, adults – and, not doubt, spirits with mischief on their minds.
China has its Peking Opera. Japan has its Noh Opera. Vietnam has its Hat Cheo theater. Tales of life in North Vietnam’s Red River Delta are told through musicals at the Cheo theater, Nha Hat Cheo Vietnam, in Hanoi.
This form of musical theater (“hat” means “to sing”) satirizes social classes in North Vietnam, from farmers, monks and students to wealthy people, dates back to around the 11th century. Until the 16th century, these musical tales were performed by traveling, amateur troupes in village squares and building courtyards. Today, they are performed by professionals at Nha Hat Cheo Vietnam, a theater in Hanoi.
Hat Cheo has little in the way of scenery, costumes and makeup. The accompanying orchestra comprises drums, bamboo flutes, fiddles, lutes and zithers.
Every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m., the Hanoi theater offers a top-of-the-pops program, titled “5 Most Favored Lyrics of Cheo Art Music.” The program is “a new and innovative approach to introducing audiences to the traditional Cheo art,” according to the theater.
There’s no place like Hang Ma Street for the holidays – any seasonal holiday, from traditional Vietnamese to Christmas.
Christmas is celebrated in Vietnam, and widely across Asia, as a major shopping holiday. And in December, Hang Ma shops were brimming with yuletide treasures: synthetic Christmas trees leaning against front windows; Santa Claus suits and hats in all sizes, from baby to daddy, hanging from rafters; ornaments, tinsel and wrapping paper crowding shelves; and glitter banners reading “Merry Christmas” adorning entrances.
Instead of a full-length musical, the program includes pieces played by the Cheo orchestra and individual members. One piece, titled “Ways To Pass the Hardship and Sorrows,” is played on a bau, a one-stringed zither which makes a soulful sound. Another piece, titled “Xuy Van Sharing Her Sad Mood and Broken Heart,” is played on a bamboo flute.
The program closes with the orchestra playing “Fate of a Bad Luck Lady,” a piece with a decidedly downbeat title. After hearing it, audiences may wonder whether to give the musicians a standing O, or a standing Oh dear!
On the road from Hanoi to Halong Bay, you’ll see mile after mile of industry. In fact, almost no stretch of the 100-mile-long, main highway is without some form of industry, from single human to heavy.
Just across the Red River, on the outskirts of Hanoi, I saw workers with bodies shaped like question marks tending rice fields. An hour away, I saw mountains with red gashes from clay mining; a nearby village had bricks and clay pottery stacked high in front of shops. Passing through another village, I saw garage-like shops displaying elaborately carved, wooden furniture – massive bed headboards, dining sets and sofas fit for the palaces of ancient kings, or the new Vietnamese McMansions.
Nearing Halong Bay, there is a dreary stretch of highway. The road and villages are covered in soot. “This is a coal-mining area,” my guide, Tran Huong, said. I didn’t need to be told.
Between these villages, I saw all sorts of highway vendors: women in triangular straw hats, selling fruit and vegetables, squatting on the side of the road, their toes within inches of bicyclists and speeding vehicles; men keeping a nonchalant eye on black sandals and shoes, displayed in rows, looking like dashed lines along the highway.
The industry of the Vietnamese is one of the country’s wonders.