At around 5 a.m., Craig tried to check the time on the alarm clock and wound up accidentally knocking a glass off of the bedside table and onto the floor. It smashed on the beautiful dark hardwood. This is why we can't have nice things! We got up at
6:30, picked up the glass, and wrote a little apology note to housekeeping with a little frowny face. We once again enjoyed the luxurious shower and got ready for the day.
At 8 o'clock, we went downstairs to breakfast. As we exited our room, we brought in our copy of The Viet Nam News, an English language newspaper which was hanging in a little canvas bag on our door. Cuong's wife Nhung had invited us to eat breakfast at Spices Garden because she would be working this morning. We asked at the reservation desk, but they had no two-person tables available. We didn't want to take up a larger table than we needed, so we went to Le Beaulieu instead. We enjoyed our breakfast of coffee, fresh orange juice, homemade raspberry yogurt, baguettes with cheese, dim sum, bacon, cereal, flan, fresh pineapple, hash browns, white dragonfruit, and a shot of mango smoothie. It was all delicious and we love the atmosphere of the dining room.
We had seen posters in the elevator for the hotel's "Path of History and Underground Bomb Shelter" tour.
"During the American War (1964 - 1975) the Metropole's bomb shelter served to protect guests from air raids, including famous visitors Joan Baez and Jane Fonda. In 2011 it was rediscovered and reopened in May 2012... Daily Guided Tours...with our Ambassador of History at 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., and 6 p.m."We had seen people gathering in the lobby on prior evenings for this tour, and we really wanted to be able to participate during our stay. We knew from our itinerary that we should be back to the hotel by dinner time, so we stopped at the activities desk on our way out of the restaurant to reserve two slots on the 6 p.m. tour.
We met Cuong at 9 o'clock, and Mr. Giang drove us to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. The museum celebrates the 54 ethnicities that make up modern-day Vietnam, showcasing the cultural differences that make each unique from one another. Cuong told us that we would be encountering and interacting with people belonging to a variety of minority ethnic groups during the remainder of our trip.
The outdoor part of the museum is really interesting; they have taken actual structures (houses, tombs, boats, etc). from various parts of Vietnam and have reconstructed them piece by piece on the museum grounds. It was very surreal, because surrounding the museum's campus were modern high rise buildings which dwarfed the traditional architecture.
This outdoor section of the museum was swarming with schoolkids who all said hello to us. We walked from structure to structure, noticing the difference in architectural styles between the different ethnic groups.
First we saw a wooden house of the Cham people from southern Vietnam. The Cham are an ethnic group that is found within Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. They are descended from the people of the kingdom of Champa of the 7th-18th centuries. Some Cham practice Islam and others practice Hinduism.
Next we saw a 25 meter long Khmer racing junk which had won many races. The boat was very impressive, made of wood and decorated with bright paint. The population of Khmer living in Vietnam numbers around 1 million.
Next we went into a Viet house. The Viet, or Kinh, make up the ethnic majority in Vietnam, comprising 87% of the country's population. There were beautiful carved wood details inside the house. Craig was inspecting the woodwork. We saw a lacquered ancestor altar, similar to the one that we had seen yesterday at Cuong's familial home.
Next we saw a Bahnar communal house (nha rong). There is one of these in the heart of each Bahnar village. It can be distinguished from other buildings in the village because of its very tall roof. It had steep ladders which were carved out of logs. The style of architecture looked vaguely familiar to us. The communal house is a place where public activities are held, including education for the youth, ceremonies, trials, etc.
We saw a water puppet theatre. We recognized it from seeing Vietnamese water puppetry on TV. The theater "stage" was a waist-high pool of water above which there was a small pagoda called a thuy dinh. The idea is that puppeteers stand behind the pagoda, wading in the water, controlling lacquered wooden puppets with bamboo rods. This unique art form dates back to the 10th century, and was originally performed in rice paddies.
Next we saw an Ede longhouse. The Ede are a matrilineal society, and whenever a girl living in the house gets married, the house is lengthened by an additional compartment. Such a longhouse can grow to 100 meters long. This particular example was surprisingly long.
Next was a wooden tomb of the Giarai people, which was adorned by very explicit sexual wooden carvings. Cuong explained that these were instructions for the next generation on how to procreate. This was followed by another tomb, this one of the Cotu people. It was carved of wood and was carved with representations of water buffalo, dragons, and chickens, which were brightly painted.
Cuong directed our attention to a Tay house, a wooden house built on stilts with a thatched roof. He told us that we would be sleeping in one of these for our homestay tomorrow night. The area under the house is tall enough for a person to stand, and it is usually used as a shelter for the family's animals. The Tay are the largest ethnic minority in the country, with 1.6 million people. Craig wanted to linger and have a closer inspection of the architectural details, but Cuong hurried us along, insisting that we would have plenty of time to inspect a simiilar one tomorrow night.
We approached a house that looked very different from the wooden ones we had seen so far. It had orange earthen walls and a thatched roof. It looked to be built on a foundation of flat rocks or bricks. There was a small opening for a door, but there were no windows. It was the traditional architecture of the Hani people. Only 10 percent of the Hani population lives outside of China.
By now, we had walked through the entire outdoor exhibit. Craig had really enjoyed looking closely at the architecture of the different structures. We could have spent a lot more time here, but we still had the entire indoor museum to visit as well. This whole museum experience was kind of a teaser for what was to come in the trip. Cuong admitted that it would take at least an entire day to do the museum justice, but we didn't have that much time.
Cuong left us on our own when we went inside. We made our way through quickly and admired the various exhibits dedicated to the culture of the various ethnic groups of Vietnam, snapping pictures as we went so that we would be able to inspect them in detail later. Highlights included a large ritual tree which was built tall to shade and protect the entire community both literally and symbolically. There were wooden water puppets which depicted dragons, water buffaloes, fisherman, ducks, and other symbols of Vietnamese life. These are what would have been used in the puppet theatre that we had seen outside.
Musical instruments included drums and stringed instruments. There were miniature wooden models of some of the houses that we had seen outside on the grounds, as well as boats. Each ethnic group has its own unique style of dress, and the detail of the weaving was very intricate. We saw fish and dove traps, tools, weaving looms, wooden pillows, furniture, and a very interesting jacket made out of tree bark. There was an exhibit of block printing processes, similar to what we had seen in Jaipur, India. We saw weapons such as bows and arrows and spears. There were dioramas depicting funereal rites, weaving, religious rituals, etc. As we were at the very beginning of our trip, we didn't have much context to all we were seeing. But it certainly excited us for all we would see within the next couple of weeks. After only about 30-40 minutes, our time at the museum was up. It had been a whirlwind.
Next we drove to Thanh Chuong Viet Palace. Nguyen Thanh Chuong is a painter who has been quite successful since the market opened up in the 1990's and he has been allowed to sell his paintings internationally. His paintings are rather abstract and generally feature brightly colored children and water buffaloes. We knew that we were going to see some of his art. We weren't sure what to expect, and we wondered whether it was some kind of gallery or maybe even a studio where we could watch him at work.
We drove around 20 miles outside of Hanoi, and entered the property through an elaborate welcome arch, similar to the kind which exist in many Vietnamese villages. We passed underneath the cement and brick arch and found ourselves a lush garden paradise with banyan trees providing shade. Cuong explained that Thanh Chuong has used his considerable fortune to collect culturtal artifacts from the Viet (kinh) people from all over the country. He has relocated buildings, which are filled with art and furniture. The gardens are beautifully landscaped, and contain gazebos, pagodas, and statuary. The compound is a serene oasis. And we had it all to ourselves.
Though there was a small gift shop and a food stand, we only saw one other couple there. Thanh Chuong considers the entire property to be an art installation, so the placement of every building and every object was deliberate. With our entry ticket, we were given a very nice little guide booklet which included photos and descriptions of Thanh Chuong's paintings as well as the Viet Palace campus itself.
It was a very relaxing and peaceful environment. We walked through the beautifully landscaped gardens, past a water puppet theater. We went in and out of buildings, which ranged from pagodas to a replica of house where Thanh Chuong was born in Bac Giang province. The latter had earthen walls and a thatched rood. It reminded us of the Hani house that we had seen at the ethnology museum this morning, except this house had windows and shutters.
In one building we saw Thanh Chuong's vast collection of wooden water puppets. There were traditional altars and wood carvings on display. Nothing was behind glass; everything was placed where it would be if somebody was currently living in the house. Tables were set with tea sets. Offerings of money, incense, and flowers sat on altars. Carved wooden furniture was inlaid with mother of pearl insets so fine that they formed Vietnamese characters. Several of Thahn Chuong's paintings hung on the walls. He has a very bold colorful style which is reminiscent of cubism.
A wooden buffalo bell hung on one of the doors, and it clinked as we walked through. Both the bell and its clappers were made of wood, and they sounded vaguely like a xylophone or vibraphone. It was quite a pleasant sound and I decided that I wanted to try to buy one before we left Vietnam.
Much like the ethnic museum, we could spend an entire day here admiring the artifacts of Viet culture in a very relaxing and peaceful environment. But there were entire buildings we didn't even have a chance to enter. It was a fascinating place, and it seemed like a well-kept secret.
As we drove away toward our next destination, we passed through rice paddies and cemeteries. There was a lot of constructioon going on and we were detoured onto some very rough roads. we stopped in Tam Tao village. We paid our respects in their communal house where the village's ancestor altar stood. The caretaker proudly directed our attention to the bust of Ho Chi Minh on the altar. Cuong was offended by this. He asked why they were displaying Ho Chi Minh, instead of focusing on the founder of the 300-year-old village. The man replied that the tourists enjoy seeing it. Cuong advised the man to remove Ho Chi Minh's statue from the altar, because discerning tourists would prefer that the altar be authentic, honoring the founders of the village. He said once again that Ho Chi Minh, having only been involved in Vietnam during the past century, could not be the father of a thousand year old nation.
We stepped inside a little gazebo surrounded by pools of water. We were seated to watch some people from the village perform some folk songs. These performers were not professionals like yesterday's cheo performers, but instead were local farmers who like to keep the tradition of their folk songs alive during their lunch hour. They wore traditional garb: a loose fitting tunic and pants for the man, and long robes for the three women. The older woman poured us tea while they all sang a welcome song. Two other women accompanied them on musical instruments which somewhat resembled hammered dulcimers.
The female singers had three or four layers of clothing on, and they would shed layers as the performance progressed. They sang a song which is basically a promise to a boy that a girl will take her shirt off. At the end of the song, she takes off the shirt, but still has plenty of other layers on. It was obviously a flirtatious song, and reminded us a bit of the Love Market documentary that we watched on the flight over.
Their melodies were quite catchy and pleasant. Cuong knew all of the songs and cheerfully sang along. The performers wore big round flat straw hats which they put onto our heads for photographs. They ended their performance with a song which Cuong said was titled "Stay, Please Don't Go." After the performance, we enjoyed a picnic lunch with food that Cuong had bought from the hotel: fresh baguettes, bacon, mortadella, and cheese from the Metropole. He had a Heineken for Craig and a Coke for me. We had oranges and white dragonfruit for dessert.
The performers peeled off their final layer of costume to reveal jeans, sweat pants, and T-shirts and prepared to go back to a Wednesday afternoon in their daily lives. We appreciated them taking time out of their schedules to acquaint us with their age-old customs.
After lunch we drove to Bat Trang, a village known for its ceramic production. The village lies across the Red River from Hanoi. We parked near the riverbank, and entered the village's communal house. It was on a much larger scale than Tam Tao's had been, and featured huge pillars made of trees of a very wide circumference. This village has had great success with pottery sales, and is therefore quite affluent. There was a gilded altar, there were paper ritual horses, drums, gilded parasols...it looked like a procession could break out at any time. In fact, while we were looking around, a film crew appeared and started setting up their equipment. We're not sure what was being filmed, but we left them to it.
We exited the communal house and wandered through the narrow alleyways of the village, peering into ceramic shops. They made all kinds of products, from human-height blue and white vases to piggy banks.
A local man we met on the street invited us into his house and chatted with Cuong in Vietnamese. We sat on carved wooden benches and faced a flat-screen TV with four vinyl records hanging above it on the wall. Our host used to be a teacher but now runs a business creating ceramic lighthouses and exporting them to Spain. He gave us each a shot of alcohol made from sticky rice and we toasted one another. He stuck some tobacco into a water pipe, lit it, and took a deep drag. He said that he is also a fortune teller, and judging from our ages, he could tell that we were compatible. This guy was a character.
We thanked him and said goodbye, and visited some of the ceramic workshops along the alleyways. All of a sudden, we heard the sound of a motorbike racing towards us from behind. The alley was narrow and we were wondering how we could get out of the way of the speeding driver. As he approached us, he slowed down, and we realized it was our host. He clapped Cuong on the shoulder and then drove off with a big smile on his face.
We saw various stages of ceramics production in the various workshops, from molding to drying to painting. They used lightbulbs to dry the liquid in the ceramic molds. We saw a young man using a mechanized potter's wheel to attach the fancy lip to a meter-tall vase. The clay was gray and smooth. We kept feeling like we should buy something from the artisans, but nothing seemed to be for sale in any of the workshops.
The alleyways led to a clearing where we found a centralized market where the community sells its ceramic wares. This explained why we hadn't seen things for sale up until now. Cuong had essentially taken us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the village, to show us how all of these ceramics had been created
We wandered through aisle after aisle of brightly painted ceramics. It was funny to see piggy banks and traditional tea sets next to Angry Birds figurines on the shelves. We picked out some small mementoes and the prices were very inexpensive. We just hoped that they would survive the rest of the trip intact.
We arrived back at the Metropole at 4:45 p.m., in plenty of time for our 6 p.m. hotel tour. We stopped into our room to freshen up and noticed that housekeeping had put the yellow rose we had gotten yesterday at the cheo performance into a vase with some gerber daisies.
We headed down to the lobby and admired the art. There were several painting of a similar style by Dang Van Quynh. These were paintings done in oil paint, in only shades of black, white, and gray. The paintings depict the narrow crowded streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, with cement telephone poles, government loudspeakers, and a rat's nest of electrical wires. The paintings also had a certain texture and depth to them, the oil paint was piled on thick in places. It looked like it had been created using a palette knife rather than a paintbrush. The paintings were scattered around the lobby, and we closely studied each one. They were brilliant. They also reminded us of the street near Cha Ca La Vong restaurant on our first night in Hanoi.
We also saw a painting by Thanh Chuong, whose estate we had visited this morning. It was a colorful abstract painting of a child with a water buffalo. Later we would explore the grand staircase (we usually used the elevator) and would find more paintings by each of these artists.
The 6 p.m. hotel tour group assembled in the lobby. Since the hotel's establishment in 1901, it had a storied history. But the main focus of the tour is its role as a haven for activists and journalists during the war with the Americans. We met Duc, the hotel historian in the lobby, and he took nine of us on a very informative nearly hour-long tour of the hotel, which culminates with a trip to the air raid bunkers beneath the hotel.
The bunkers were only rediscovered 18 months ago. Although some of the same staff still work here now, they had repressed the memories of the bomb shelters, and their existence had passed out of knowledge for decades. They had been built in 1965, and later when the hotel pool was added, the orientation of its shallow end was chosen to accommodate the bunker underneath. When doing some restoration on the Bamboo Bar next to the pool area in 2011, workers hit the concrete of the bunkers while digging, thereby rediscovering the shelter. The hotel excavated it and restored the area, and had just began these tours within the past few months. It was very exciting that this was all such a recent discovery. We seemed to be here at a very interesting time in the hotel's recent history.
Duc showed us a display case of various objects and photos from the hotel's history. Then we walked down a corrider which housed an exhibit called the Path of History. There were various posters listing important events in hotel history and prominent guests over the years. Duc was a compelling speaker who obviously really had a personal connection to the subject matter, and we enjoyed his presentation.
We donned hard hats and walked down the steps next to the swimming pool and bar to the bunkers. Each bunker was narrow and was only meant to house 10-12 people. In addition to stability, this also helped to contain panic from spreading (during air raids, hotel staff would be present in each bunker with just a few guests each). Most guests at the time were either journalists or activists. The air raid sirens near the opera house would go off at night as carpet bombs fell on the city. Guests would have to get up 3-4 times per night to get into the bunkers. There was an air intake valve but it was not always open due to fears of chemical warfare.
At Christmas in 1972, Joan Baez came to Hanoi to deliver Christmas letters to the American POW's imprisoned at the "Hanoi Hilton" Hoa Lo Prison. Her 13 day stay at the Metropole, then known as the Thong Nhat Reunification Hotel, coincided with the so-called U.S. Christmas Bombings on Hanoi, where 60 bombing raids took place over 11 days. It was the heaviest bombing in the history of the world, according to Baez. As a guest staying at the Metropole, Joan Baez spent time in the hotel's bomb shelter during these raids. She had a portable tape recorder and recorded audio for what would eventually become her 20-minute opus "Where Are You Now, My Son?" while in the bunker.
While we were in the bunkers, they played an excerpt from the song. You can hear a Vietnamese mother wailing about her lost son. Joan's words are poignant and it gave us chills to hear this down here in the very bunkers where some of it was recorded. We could hear the air raid sirens and the bomb blasts in the background of the recording.
We could see how much it affected Duc, who was a child of 10 at the time, and who had to go into personal bomb shelters under the streets (basically manholes) around Hanoi which could house an adult and a child to protect them from shockwaves and shrapnel. Duc gives these tours four times a day and it is obviously very emotional for him. He concludes the tour by saying that be believes in forgiveness; that he is glad that former enemies can now become new friends. We ascended from the bunker and were given a complimentary drink as we all chatted about what we had just learned. We thanked Duc for sharing his knowledge with us. We are very lucky that we were able to take this recently established tour. It gave a lot of historical context to this lovely hotel. The hotel is lucky to have someone as learned and personable as Duc to guide these compelling tours.
We went back to the display cabinet in the lobby to get a closer look at some items that Duc had shown during the tour. There was an autographed copy of Joan Baez's album "Where Are You Now, My Son?", inscribed with the words
"To the keepers of the memorial, and the staff of the Metropole who took me down to safety in those days...best regards to the current staff, the bartender. May peace last."This was a new addition to the hotel collection. Though Joan Baez herself had not yet returned to the hotel, her good friend Martine Habib had visited last month, had taken a tour of the bunkers, and had presented the hotel manager with this album.
Also in the display case was a bottle of wine which was excavated from the bunkers, as well as some ceiling fragments. There was a copy of Life Magazine from April 7, 1967. The cover showed a black and white photo of Hanoi citizens ducking into manhole-like personal bomb shelters along the hotel patio, just as Duc had described. We stopped into the gift shop on our way back to our room and purchased Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a book by Andreas Augustin, which recounted the hotel's history.
We realized that we hadn't even eaten dinner tonight. Ourlunch had been enough to keep us satisfied, and we were so interested in the evening's tour that we never even thought of food. We went back to the room, and snacked on some of the goodies that Loi had given us last night a gelatinous green paste that came in a brightly colored square cardboard box. The snack itself looked more like green slimethsan food, but
We really enjoyed our few days in Hanoi. It is a vibrant, bustling city full of lively, friendly people. We could easily have spent more time there; we barely scratched the surface. But it was an excellent introduction to Vietnam. We went to bed 10 p.m., as tomorrow we would be bidding farewell to the city and heading to the more pastoral Ha Giang province to encounter some of the ethnic minorities of northern Vietnam.
UPDATE 4/10/13:I just read in the Huffington Post that Joan Baez returned to Hanoi and the Metropole Hotel a week or two after we were there! Very glad to hear that she made it back. And we're sure that Duc and the hotel staff were thrilled to get the chance to speak with her. Her painting of a Vietnamese boy now apparently hangs in the lobby.
"She was quick to visit the recently unearthed bunker that sits just beyond one of the hotel bars. Soon after descending, she put her hand to the cement wall, closed her eyes and sang out the African-American spiritual, "Oh Freedom," a song she often sang during civil rights rallies in the United States in the 1960s.Joan Baez's stay at the Metropole was also featured in the shared blog for all hotels that have Paths of History installations. Photos show Duc and the hotel's general manager giving Joan Baez a private tour down the Paths of History corridor, and into the bomb shelters.
Tay house, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
water puppets, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Welcome arch, Thanh Chuong Viet Palace (Photo Courtesy of Cuong)
Gardens, Thanh Chuong Viet Palace
thuy dinh, water puppet theater, Thanh Chuong Viet Palace
Water puppets, Thanh Chuong Viet Palace
Pagoda, Thanh Chuong Viet Palace
Nha Tuong Van - The House of Good Omen
Painting by Thanh Chuong
Thanh Chuong Viet Palace
Tam Tao singers
Steph and Craig with the Tam Tao singers (Photo courtesy of Cuong)
Our host in Bat Trang (Photo courtesy of Cuong)
Ceramics production in Bat Trang
Duc, the Metropole Historian
Metropole Bomb Shelter
Metropole Bomb Shelter
Autographed Joan Baez Where Are You Now, My Son? album inscribed to the hotel
Joan Baez revisits the Metropole bunker, April 2013 (AP Image)
Joan Baez's painting now hangs in the Metropole lobby, April 2013