Rickshaws, Wet Marionettes, and a Prison

Fun Fact, revealed to us this morning by our tour lead Phil: 49% of Vietnamese carry the surname “Nguyen”. It’s like “Smith”, “Jones”, “White”, “Brown”, and “Black” combined. The reason, as you might suppose, is historical rather than genetic: Nguyen was sort of the Kamehameha of Vietnam, a strong king who united the country and who was greatly admired both at the time and after, so much so that large swaths of the population adopted his name. He took power in 1802 in the city of Hue, which remained the capital until the end of World War II. Vietnamese autonomy lasted until 1857 when the French moved in and things got ugly. (The French, of course, hung in there for nearly a century until being driven out in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu.)

This genealogical wisdom having been imparted after breakfast, we set out on the day’s adventures. Yesterday I mentioned with just a soupçon of implied contempt about the tourists traveling around by rickshaw through Old Hanoi’s street market area as we ourselves explored it more virtuously on foot. I wrote that, of course, not knowing that this morning we would be those selfsame tourists, 15 of us in a slow-motion convoy of rickshaws, cameras clicking away. And that’s OK… we covered a lot more ground than we did yesterday. So here we are gearing up. 

…and here is the wagon train underway.

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The street scenes were much as they were yesterday, of course, so here are a few selected images. (They should appear on your screen as a slide show.)

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But the still images don’t really convey the sense of pervasive motion and noise. To help you along in that direction, here’s a one-minute video that I shot from the rickshaw:

Now you have a much better sense of what the streets of Hanoi look and sound like. (A more complete impression would require you to smell all the spices, foods, garbage, and everything else. But I can’t help you there.) The bad news is that rickshaws do not have a very promising future. There are something like 350 of them operating at present but the city is trying to cut that number by about 75% because it considers them both obsolete and hazardous. The “obsolete” part I get; but since they are being forced into near-extinction in part by the ubiquity of motor scooters — of which there are nearly one per person  — then to my mind someone has gotten his “hazardous” designations a little confused.

Our next stop was to the studio of Mr. Phan Thanh Liem, an internationally-famous craftsman and practitioner of a vanishing traditional Vietnamese art that I will admit right up front I had never heard of until now: water puppetry. (No, you idiot: you can’t make puppets out of water. You make puppets and operate them in the water.) Here is the 55-year old Liem — the seventh generation of his family immersed in the craft — in his puppet-making studio.

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The performance venue is a small indoor pool, a little bigger than a child’s backyard swimming pool. Liem and his assistant stand behind the backdrop, dressed in waders or even a wetsuit if needed (if performing outdoors on a cold day) and manipulate the puppets via attached rods that are held invisibly below the surface of the water.

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Notice that the water is reddish brown. That is by design, local red mud having been added to the basin water precisely for the purpose of rendering it opaque and thus concealing the control rods. The puppets move around, flail their arms, spritz water, and generally animate in various ways for dramatic effect as the puppeteers present various scenarios to music: a boat race, a fight, or pretty much anything that involves a lot of thrashing and splashing. Here are a pair of peacocks, the one on the left having just extended its neck.

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At the conclusion of the performance, Liem emerged to reveal both his assistant and the mechanism, and then we were allowed to play too. It’s harder than it looks: the puppets are heavy fig wood, so it takes a lot of torque to move them around in the water at the end of the meter-long rods. A puppet that is used regularly in performances only lasts about 5 months.

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Of course, what you really want to know is what the performance itself looks and sounds like. I’ve got you covered: here’s the video.

 

You will be unsurprised to hear that in the age of smartphones it is difficult to get young people (which at our age is almost everyone) excited about this. Liem has two teenage sons whom he is getting involved in the work, but it is unclear how many more generations will find enough of an audience to prevent the art from extinction.

We moved on after lunch to Hoa Lo Prison, best known by its war-era sobriquet: the Hanoi Hilton. (There is in fact an actual Hanoi Hilton as well, or more accurately a Hilton Garden Inn. The difference is that Hoa Lo never put mints on anyone’s pillow, and the Hilton staff are not in the habit of torturing their guests.)

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The original main gate of Hoa Lo

Hoa Lo is of course best known for its 1964-1973 wartime role, but its actual history goes back a lot further, and no less grimly. It was built by the French around 1890 at the height of their colonial subjugation of the region; called Maison Centrale, it was intended to house up to 500 political prisoners, i.e. anyone advocating for independence. It was notoriously cruel even then, with banks of prisoners shackled together and two onsite guillotines.

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It never really shed its provenance as an instrument of political repression, housing a number of prominent independence revolutionaries in the 1930’s and 40’s. These included the wife of Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp, who scored some serious payback by later masterminding the battle of Dien Bien Phu that drove the French out of the country altogether.

The museum display, needless to say, makes much of the Communist victory over the Americans and the subsequent normalization of relations (though the latter took 25 years; full relations were only established under President Clinton in 2000). It is alas presented in cringingly stereotypical propagandistic terms, very 1970’s Soviet in its gestalt: “brave revolutionary patriots fighting imperialistic aggression,” etc. etc. Lots of photos of bombed villages juxtaposed with images of captured Americans being very humanely treated (medical exams, trimming a Christmas tree, writing letters home). A single sentence remarks baldly and with suspicious ambiguity that US captives were treated as well as circumstances allowed.

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I found this whole tone very unfortunate. Stripped of the propaganda tropes and self-congratulatory vocabulary, much of what they are saying about America’s behavior toward them is true. We as a country were phenomenally, incomprehensibly cruel and stupid to no useful end whatsoever. (Good thing we don’t act like that any more, right? RIGHT? <throws smoke bomb and runs from room>) But having been ceded the high moral ground by our own hubristic foolishness, they kind of throw it all away by denying any and all of their own human shortcomings (e.g., torturing American captives). It seems not to be enough to paint themselves as the good guys, which in many senses they were; they seem so insecure in the role that they deny anything short of moral perfection for themselves (which they most emphatically were not). In that sense the museum seemed to me like a lost opportunity for an honest dialogue. I left the place dissatisfied.

But I guess all those years of comradeliness with the Russians gave the Vietnamese government a propaganda habit that’s hard to break. En route to dinner tonight, we were distracted by an unexpected multimedia event in a city square: an over-the-top schmaltzy song-and-dance, sound-and-light show exalting Ho Chi Minh, the city of Hanoi itself, and, judging from the images projected on gigantic screens, elaborate highway overpasses and construction equipment. Singers and lithe dancers emoted all over the stage at high volume as the fog machines cranked out the ethereal mist; hammers and sickles waved. It was utterly surreal, like some satire of a holiday celebration in the old USSR commemorating increased production of tractor parts by more than 30% over the most recent Five Year Plan.20190919_181937

They call the economic system here “Red Capitalism” and judging from the proliferation of gleeful consumerism that is taking hold here — we passed a Rolls Royce dealership today — that sounds like a pretty good term. But seeing the unabashed embrace of Westernism on the streets juxtaposed with this evening’s bizarre performance is still a little difficult to process.

So that was today. I’m off to bed now to get some rest for tomorrow’s activities. Those tractor parts aren’t gonna weld themselves, you know.

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