Tuesday, 23-12-2014. Day 125.
Prisons, Puppets, Food Tour Redux
So, as you may remember, we're traveling with Sam's friend Jenji and her family for a few days, and each of our families took a different Hanoi street food tour the night before. When we hooked up at the beginning of the day (after our free breakfast at the hotel, of course), we compared notes and photos from our two tours.
It was unanimous that our tour looked to be the better of the two (theirs wasn't bad; ours was just better). In fact, ours looked and sounded so good, they wanted to take our tour that evening. We'd had such a great time on it that we were totally up for doing it again, so we quickly booked another go-round with our man Ha, then we went out to investigate more of Hanoi for the day. Our first stop was Hỏa Lò Prison.
Hoa Lo Prison
Hỏa Lò Prison was built by the French (who called it Maison Centrale) in the late 1800s when they controlled the area. It was where the Vietnamese political prisoners were taken after they stirred up a little too much trouble. Much of the prison was demolished in the 1990s, but just enough of it was left intact and now functions as the Hỏa Lò Prison Musuem.
The bulk of the exhibits were from the Indochina era and detailed how the French built the prison and how they treated the Vietnamese prisoners unfortunate enough to be held there. It looked pretty brutal.
This was the prison that was infamously called the Hanoi Hilton where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War. There are only two rooms that deal with this period of time, and overall they're pretty light on details.
However, the exhibits here make it look more like the American soldiers were held at a laid back weekend camp than a prison with harsh conditions. There are pictures of the American POWs playing football, making crafts, enjoying Vietnamese food, and laughing with their Vietnamese jailors.
In one of the rooms we watched a creepy propaganda film about how well the U.S. soldiers were treated at the prison. It plays in a loop, not too far from where John McCain's flight suit is on display.
Cha Ca Ha Noi
And then it was time for lunch, so we walked up the road for a few kilometers (past St. Joseph's Cathedral) to try one of the local delicacies, Cha Ca Ha Noi.
Cha Ca Ha Noi is the snakehead fish cooked right at your table with morning glory and dill, and this is supposed to be one of those things you have to try before you die. So, checked that off the list.
After lunch we had to hustle back down the street toward Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the Water Puppet Theatre.
Water Puppet TheatrE
When the sign says "Water Puppets," that's exactly what they mean. The show's action takes place on a stage that's a shallow pool of water. If you think that sounds somewhat strange, you'd be right.
Handmade puppets, controlled by hidden puppeteers, act out different stories (something like fifteen different tales) during the hour-long show. Some of the skits are comedic and some are dramatic, but they all deal with Vietnamese life. We saw skits about the daily life a Vietnamese farmer, the emperor losing his sword to the turtle god in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and a few about the four sacred animals of Vietnam.
Accompanying the puppets, there's a small group of musicians and singers off to the side who give the skits voice and emotion.
The entire show is in Vietnamese, but artistry of the puppeteers is pretty impressive so it's relatively easy to follow along what's going on (the informational pamphlet, available in many languages, helps with this as well).
After the show was over, we all relaxed for a little while before we met Ha in our hotel lobby and headed off for another thrilling Vietnam street food tour.
Night Food Tour, Round Two
Again, or a full post about the events of the food tours from Samantha soon, but one of the places Ha took us was a hot pot restaurant. To get there, we had to walk down an unlit alley and climb four flights of stairs on a rickety spiral staircase (passing people in apartments on the way up), before we popped out on a rooftop building that was filled with Vietnamese diners. We never would have found this place as straight tourists.
The food was pretty good, but more interesting was the rice wine the place made. They specialized in more unusual varietals, like monkey paw wine (which is rice wine fermenting with severed monkey paws) and bird head wine (which is, well, you can figure that out).
Yeah, that's pretty out there (and no, we didn't try any), but Vietnam is notorious for eating many strange things. Dog, for instance, was a topic of conversation (we also avoided that). On the way home, we saw a cat in the street and I asked Ha if he's ever eaten cat. He replied, "We're Vietnamese—we eat everything!" So there you go.
And, of course, we had to end the night at Giang Café again for a cup of egg cream coffee. I think it was even better the second time.
We returned to our hotel for our final night in Hanoi. In the morning, we'd be taking a bus to Ha Long Bay.