Friday, November 12, 2010

Turtles and Literature

Note: Please note that I’ve posted twice today! So there are two new posts, this one and “Welcome to Hanoi.”

Note: More pictures from this post can be found in the album titled “Vietnam: Turtles and Literature.”

This morning I woke up around 7:30am and started getting ready for the day around 8am. When I left the apartment, it was with Andy, who gave me a ride on his motorcycle to VimCom Towers, a massive two-tower, several-story-high mall. Then he went off to work and I went off to shop. My mission this morning was to find something – anything! – to treat my chafing welts. I managed to pantomime a baby crying from diaper rash and they pointed me to something called “baby cream” in a nice little jar. I bought it, along with a baguette, some Laughing Cow cheese and a bottle of water. That was all in one supermarket-like store. Then on my way downstairs, I saw a sock store… seriously, that’s what it was called. I went in and bought myself a set of pantyhose, which was recommended by a friend of mine who is a U.S. Marine. She told me that Marine recon personnel often suffered from chafing and wore pantyhose to prevent it. Hey, I’ll try most things at this point!

Luckily, when I woke up this morning the welts had gone down and the chafing wasn’t bothering me so much. I put on a belt, in the hopes that it would hold my pants up around my waist and keep the crotch where it’s supposed to be instead of rubbing my thighs raw.

IMG_0033Enough about chafing. After the mini shopping spree, I went to Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem lake. It’s a tiny islet connected to the mainland by a pretty red bridge; the same bridge, in fact, that I’d admired my first day in Hanoi. I paid my entry fee and walked in, immediately coming upon some kind of family ritual, where a mother took her little child up some hilly steps to a shrine. This was before crossing the bridge to the islet. Then I crossed over, admiring the view to either side when I was in the middle of the bridge.

The story of Hoan Kiem lake, which translates to “Lake of the Restored Sword,” is quickly related as this: long ago, a king in need of help against invading enemies was given a sword from the gods. He kept this sword long after the battle was won. One day, as he was rowing around the river in a boat, a huge tortoise arose from the deep and snatched the sword, taking it back to the gods who’d given it to him in the first place.

IMG_0050Appropriately, there is an exhibit on the islet of a huge tortoise. I believe my guidebook said it’s actually the embalmed remains of one of the lake’s tortoises. Also, these are one of several holy animals here. The islet was pretty, with a shrine and statues inside, representing (I think) Confucius. There wasn’t much else to do but circle the islet, which took only a few minutes, take a look at the scenery and the temple proper, and then head on back over the bridge. It was a scenic little walk.

Because I was in the general area, I went to see if I could buy a ticket to a water puppet show, which is apparently a well-known Vietnamese craft and specifically recommended for watching in Hanoi. Unfortunatley, when I went to the box office to buy a ticket for a show this evening, I saw that they were sold out through Sunday. This helped me solve a dilemma, however: I decided to go see if I could find a reasonably priced hotel room and, if I could, to come back and buy a ticket for Monday night or Tuesday early afternoon.

Off I went to attempt to find the hotel the Canadians had recommended to me the day I arrived in Hanoi. I saw a few backpacker hostels but they looked a bit rough, so I didn’t stop to check them out. I’m sure they would have been cheaper, but it turned out that the hotel the Canadians liked was well-priced ($18/night because I picked one with a balcony window on the street) and available for Monday night, so I booked it. Then I went around the corner to confirm my weekend trip with the travel office and to tell them where to pick me up tomorrow morning.

These chores completed, I caught a motorbike to Van Mieu-Temple of Literature, a one thousand year old campus.

An aside about the motorbikes: called xe om (pronounced ze-ohm), you can find these guys waiting on their bikes – sometimes sitting, sometimes laying on them, sometimes sleeping – on almost every corner in Hanoi. Many times they’ll call, “Moto? Motobike?” as you pass by them. The more aggressive ones will ask where you’re going and follow you a little bit. There seem to plenty of nice ones, though, who upon seeing your interest will jump off their bike and see where you want to go. The good ones charge about 20,000 dong for a five to ten minute ride, more for longer trips. Today I found good ones! They have an extra helmet and you can choose how you’d like to ride: straddle or side saddle. I don’t know how to side saddle and so I always straddle and hold onto the back of the seat with one arm. It’s an adventure every time, because no matter if your driver is fast, slow, careful or reckless, it’s the other drivers you’ve got to watch out for. I mostly close my eyes when things get hairy and so far that’s worked out great.

IMG_0054 Anyway, I got dropped off at the Temple of Literature, bought my ticket and walked on in. It’s an open air grounds, with successive gates leading into different courtyards. It was quite pretty and I took my time wandering through and reading the signs, which can be found in English, Vietnamese and French, although not always together. My favorite was a courtyard containing a large square pond with turtles in it. It was called “The Well of Heavenly Clarity.” In the last courtyard, I sat on a bench and enjoyed some music, which turned out to be live music. I realized this when I heard applause and so I went to investigate. Sure enough, there were about four women on a small raised dais in the last temple area, playing on traditional Vietnamese instruments.

IMG_0076They only played for about two minutes after I arrived and then they were done. People were encouraged to go look at the instruments and try them out. There were interesting string instruments and something a bit like a xylophone, but made of wood.

After getting my fill of the grounds and starting to feel slightly glazed over, I left the area in search of KOTO on Van Mieu, a restaurant my guidebook said was responsible IMG_0082 dining because it’s a social reform business, training kids from the street in the culinary arts. I had tiger prawns, which were presented very prettily and which tasted wonderful, and an apple juice with ginger and lemon. I took my ease a bit, reading some light stuff (“My Man Jeeves”) on my iPod and enjoying the quiet and coolness of the restaurant.

Relaxed and fed, I headed back to the Hoan Kiem lake area to attempt buying tickets for the water puppet show. Unfortunately, by the time I got there they were sold out through Tuesday. I’m going to go to their website and see if I can book there, and if not, I’ll try to call and book over the phone. I was bummed, but decided to just see how it plays out.

IMG_0053 After walking around the Old Quarter a bit, finally seeing St. John’s Cathedral head on, I decided to walk over to a vegetarian restaurant my guidebook recommended. I was hungry but not for street food and I figured this would be interesting cuisine. The whole premise of the place is to follow Buddhist thought, which means no harming living creatures but also respecting all people as equal. The idea is, they make the food there to look and taste just like meat, so that they can follow all of their tenets.

While I can’t say I would have confused the tofu for meat, I really did enjoy the meal. They had set menus you could choose from or you could order a la carte. It was a small, hidden away place and I was the first customer in IMG_0084 for the evening. I ordered the first menu, which had cooked greens (turned out to be baby bok choy), mushrooms, tofu with tomatoes and chicken with ginger (not real chicken, of course). There was also a soup and some steamed rice. It was fantastic! The baby bok choy was sweet, the mushrooms were wonderfully chewy and salty. All of it was quite tasty, with the only thing not being quite to my taste the cinnamon pate. I also ordered something called lassi, which turned out to be a yogurt drink that was also very good.

When I’d first come into the restaurant there was a cameraman and a professional Vietnamese woman filming right out front. They ended up coming into the restaurant proper and taped an interview with me about the food as well as another diner who’d come in later. Maybe I’ll be in a documentary or advertisement!

Another lone diner asked if she could join me, and so Ash from Ashville, NC, and I ate together. Ash has been in Vietnam for almost six weeks and will head back to the US next week. She clowns and tries to do rehab through clowning at orphanages, hospitals, old folks homes and other places. She’s twenty-five and quite serious about her word. She was fun to chat with and eat with. We walked out together and then parted ways after exchanging e-mail addresses.

With that, I headed back to Michaela and Andy’s apartment. They’ll be out late tonight because the Austrian embassy is holding a ball, which they attended. So I’ve been repacking, catching up on my blog (duh!), applying the baby cream to my thighs and in general, relaxing.

It really felt like a good day today! I can’t wait for the tour to begin tomorrow…

--Z

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