I didn’t do very much in Hanoi when I first arrived, mostly wander around the city centre by myself or with M, my Norwegian friend from the guesthouse that I met on my first day. I met M and her partner N at the doorway of our guesthouse, setting out for a day in Hanoi, and from getting recommendations on places to go, I ended up tagging along with them for the rest of the day.
Hoan Kiem Lake
One of the main things you’ll definitely see when wandering around the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword. Legend goes that a Turtle God gave one of the Viet kings Le Loi a magic sword to protect his kingdom, and after he was done he returned it to the god in the lake, hence the name.
These days, you won’t see any mystical gods, but you will see lots of Vietnamese spending their evenings and weekends just hanging out around the lake. Families with noisy kids, dating couples, friends hanging out… the Vietnamese enjoy chilling out in the streets of Hanoi. Oddly enough a lot of couples were taking their wedding shots in the vicinity too. Some were in the traditional Ao Dai, others in more modern fluffy dresses, but I had to have seen 10 couples of more just walking around the lake that day.
But you just might see a giant turtle! There’s one that pokes it head up from time to time, but there was a huge stir recently when they found it injured, and there was quite a movement to help save it, and it’s currently in a ‘turtle hospital’ in the lake. A preserved one is on display on Jade Island, a little islet in the lake connected by a curved red bridge, but you have to pay a small entry fee to get there, which I didn’t bother to.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
I did get down to watching the water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre though. It’s one of the must-do’s in all the guidebooks, and it is packed with tourists! It’s hard to miss the place with all the tour buses stopping in front of it. The theatre was fully booked when I tried to get tickets 10 minutes before the start of the show, but because I only needed one ticket, I managed to get it… 2nd row from the front even!
There are shows on every hour from 2pm onwards, and shows every day. There are 2 categories for the tickets – 100,000 VND and 60,000 VND. The puppets and stage are pretty small, so my advice is to fork out for the more expensive tier and sit as far front as you can. You’re supposed to pay a ‘camera fee’ of 20,000 VND if you want to take pictures, but honestly I don’t think they’re that strict about it, you can sneak your camera in without a problem. But because they don’t really regulate this, the cameras constantly flashing throughout the show can get a little irritating.
The show itself is all in Vietnamese, so I have no idea if I was missing out on any story lines. It starts off with live music on instruments which look like a mishmash of Chinese and Malay inspired instruments. The puppet stage itself is set above a pool of water and the puppets controlled from behind on long sticks. Water puppetry developed from farmers working in the paddy fields, so that’s how the traditional stories are told as well. It can get pretty fancy with fire effects and splashing around (but you won’t get wet, no worries)
Culturally, it’s definitely something unique to Vietnam. Personally though, I kinda fell asleep at one point, so while it’s something I would do once just to check off the tourist list, I don’t think I’ll be headed back to watch it.