From The Hanoi Hilton To Boozy Bia Hoi

City life at its rowdiest in Hanoi allowed me to make friends that shaped my life, while silent contemplation of its history brought me back down to earth.

It was truly a place of contrasts.

I spent one evening slugging Bia Hoi in a boozy, high-ceilinged hall. Where jugs chinked together and splashed sticky hops over linoleum-clad benches. Friends’ laughter boomed into the rafters and out onto the streets, which were equally busy. Petite plastic chairs spilled onto pavements throughout the old quarter, waiting for hungry bums to sit down and slurp hot soups and steaming portions of pho.

In the build up to Christmas, everyone was full of the holiday spirit – locals and visitors alike migrated from church masses, to food stalls, to beer halls and eventually into nightclubs. I danced with them into the early hours wielding long island iced-tea cocktails as long as my arm and draping myself on sweaty new mates who were also embracing the nineties tunes blaring from the cranky speakers.

Although, the build up to that party couldn’t have been more different.

The morning had started with a visit to the Hanoi Hilton. Not a hotel but the once-gatehouse of the infamous Hoa Lo prison, now a museum. Initially used by the French to hold political prisoners and later given its nickname by American prisoners during the Vietnam War. Art, interactive information plaques and mocked-up cells took me on a journey of torture, hardship and death. The mood was sombre as I, like other visitors, tried to come to terms with the horrible histories.

Afterwards, I welcomed the still reflections of Hoan Kiem Lake and its stately Ngoc Son temple. A stroll around what appeared to be the quieter half of the old quarter, gave me time to contemplate Vietnam’s many contradictions. In roughly a fortnight I had covered ground from Ho Chi Ming to Hanoi and seen a hell of a lot in between. Dusk was smoggy but tranquil, the hubbub of that fun evening about to descend.

A two day jaunt on Halong Bay (which I’d managed to sandwich into my last few days) just about blew away the cobwebs of that revelry. And afterwards it was back to Hanoi’s nightlife, albeit a less boisterous affair.

Traditional water puppetry, a northern cultural staple originating in the 11th century, was the final curtain on my travels in the country.

Musicians played to support the story of a cast of tiny but colourfully costumed characters. A little like opera, I couldn’t really understand what was going on, although I was pretty sure there was love, a signature battle and a death. The handmade set was a regal mix of reds and golds and the stage lights were set low. The splash of the shallow pool as the puppets moved, an occasional reminder that water was involved.

The performance was a fitting tribute to my time in Vietnam. A moving emblem of all the talented crafts, cultural practices and rich history I had encountered along my route. Ancient influences that drove modern business, that in turn would propel the future for this place full of contradictions and vivid colours.

It was Christmas Eve 2010, and one that I would never forget.

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