14th February 2011
Clarkson on Top Gear’s ‘Vietnam Special’ (an episode that my loving husband has subjected me to enough times to challenge the strength of our marriage) stated that to most people ‘Vietnam is a war, not a country’. The well trodden tourist routes take you past sites of military importance, beaches with partying backpackers endlessly quoting Apocalypse Now and cities bursting with girls, girls, girls. Of course the legacy left behind by American GIs is evident and the countryside and it’s people all bear the physical and emotional scars of battle and famine but there is more to this land than violence.
As much as I wanted to join the crowds of tourists being herded to the north Vietnam town of Sapa to experience ‘authentic’ minority village life, the fact that we had spent the last few months in temperatures no lower than 27°C meant that we were in no way suitably attired for the 0ºC mountains. I realise this was a great shame but we consoled ourselves by vowing to return to Vietnam and thoroughly explore the northern regions. Instead, after a perturbing confrontation with a verminous taxi driver, we spent several hours in the fantastic Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi learning about the many colours of Vietnam. This is without a doubt the most comprehensive and well considered museum I have experienced so far on our travels. The modern building and it’s surrounding grounds are home to expertly displayed ethnographic artefacts from the 54 ethnic minority groups who make up Vietnam. I must admit that it is taking some considerable will power not to blather on endlessly about the successes of the contextual display techniques but I will say that whether or not you have an academic interest in anthropology or museums, the Museum of Ethnology will keep you enthralled. Despite spending the better part of a day here I left wishing that I could return over and over again. The sign of a great Museum.
As an addition to our day of cultural heritage we purchased tickets to watch the traditional Múa rối nước, which literally mans ‘puppets that dance on water’. Borne out of a long tradition of puppetry in Asia, this art form began in the paddy fields of north Vietnam some 1,000 years ago. Villagers would stand in the flooded rice fields and perform tales of folklore and mythology using wooden puppets supported on rods so that they seemed to be rising out of the water or dancing on top of it. In the modern age, the illusion is completed by the use of bamboo screens forming part of the scenery behind which the puppeteer is obscured from view. A traditional orchestra accompanies the performance and the narrative is told through north Vietnamese opera.
Seated in the second row of the theatre, gazing at the small square pool of murky, turgid water, the cautionary warning that those in the front rows may get wet, was at the forefront of my mind. I was half expecting a miniature Shamu to come bursting out of the water splashing fetid liquid over a coach load of Chinese tourists and our good selves. Did I get my tetanus shot updated? Can you get botulism from water? But I needn’t have gone into blind panic. As the lights dimmed and the ethereal, haunting melodies from the Đàn bầu (monochord) instrument drifted round the room like the delicate trails of frankincense in a church, I think I felt my heart flutter. Twinkling candle-lit lotus flowers floated across the water, radiant golden koi rose out of the dark lagoon, pirouetting in the air and a rainbow dragon snaked and swirled causing ripples in the water that it then slithered over. Men and women fished, danced and harvested rice whilst princes peacocked for the princess prize. And all the while the silken tunes, dramatic chanting or drum bangs kept me entranced.
Whilst there is no doubt that the world should know the horrors of the Vietnam war, I have come to realise how sad it is that for so many (myself previously included), this land is just country of camo greens and detonating explosives and not of vibrant textiles and melodious music.