Whether or not you wish to buy anything, your first encounter will likely be with the children who sell postcards and maps. Of course, they are found all over the country but in Hanoi many are orphans who have a special card to prove it, which they will immediately show to foreigners. They are also the most notorious overchargers, asking about triple the going price. A reasonable amount of bargaining is called for.
In the Old Quarter , the three-storey Dong Xuan Market is 900m north of Hoan Kiem Lake. The market burned down in 1994, killing five people (all of whom had entered the building after the fire started, to either rescue goods or steal them). The market has now been rebuilt and is a tourist attraction in its own right. There are hundreds of stalls here, employing around 3000 people.
Hang Da Market is a relatively small one, but it is good for imported foods, wine, beer and flowers. The 2nd floor is good for fabric and ready-made clothing. The market is located very close to the Protestant Church.
Home Market (Central Hanoi map) is on the northeast corner of Pho Hue and Pho Tran Xuan Soan. It is a good general-purpose market with lots of imported food items and a good place to buy fabric if you plan to have clothes made.
Cua Nam Market is a few blocks north of the Hanoi train station. The market itself is of no great interest (except maybe for the flowers), but D Le Duan between the market and the train station is a treasure trove of household goods, such as electronics and plasticware. It’s a particularly good shopping area if you’re setting up a residence in Hanoi.
Punch & Judy in a Pool
The ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) was virtually unknown outside of northern Vietnam until the 1960s. Depending on which story you believe, it originated with rice farmers who spent much of their time in flooded fields and either saw the potential of the water surface as a dynamic stage or adapted conventional puppetry during a massive flood of the Red River Delta. Whatever the true history, it is at least 1000 years old.
The farmers carved the puppets from water-resistant fig-tree timber (sung) in forms modeled on the villagers themselves, animas from their daily loves and more fanciful mythical creatures such as the dragon, phoenix and unicorn. Performances were usually staged in ponds, lakes or floods paddy fields.
Ancient scholarly references to water puppetry indicate that during the Ly and Tran dynasties (1010-1400) water puppetry moved from being a simple pastime of villagers to formal courtly entertainment. The art form then all but disappeared, until interest was rekindled by the opening of the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi.
Contemporary performances use a square tank of waist-deep water for the ‘stage’; the water is murky to conceal the mechanisms that operate the puppets. The wooden puppets can be up to 50cm long and weigh as much as 15kg; they’re painted with a glossy vegetable-based paint. Each lasts only about three to four months if used continually, so puppet production provides several villages outside Hanoi with a full-time industry.
Eleven puppeteers, trained for a minimum of three years, are involved in each performance. They stand in the water behind a bamboo screen and have traditionally suffered from a host of water-borne diseases-these days they wear waders to avoid this nasty occupational hazard.
Some puppets are simply attached to a long pole, while others are set on a floating base, which in turn is attached to a pole. Most have articulated limbs and heads, some also have rudders to help guide them. There can be as many as three poles attached to one puppet, and in the darkened auditorium it looks as if they are literally walking on water.
The considerable skills required to operated the puppets were traditionally kept secret and passed only from father to son; never to daughters through fear that they would marry outside the village and take the secrets with them.
The music, which is provided by a hand, is as important as the action on stage. The band includes wooden flutes (sao), gongs (cong), cylindrical drums (trong com), bamboo xylophones and the fascinating single-stringed dan bau. The body of the dan bau is made of the hard rind of the bau, a Chinese cucumber, and produces a range of haunting notes through the use of w ‘whammy bar’, a flexible bamboo stem attached to one end of the sound-box, which alters the tension on the string.
The performance consists of a number of vignettes depicting pastoral scenes and legends that explain the origins of various natural and social phenomena form the formation of lakes to the formation of nation states. One memorable scene is a wetly balletic depiction of rice farming in which the rice growing looks like accelerated film footage and the harvesting scenes are frantic and graceful. Another tells of the battle between a fisherman and his prey which is so realistic it appears as if a live fish is being used. There are also fire-breathing dragons (complete with fireworks), a slapstick cat-and-mouse game between a jaguar, a flock of ducks and the ducks’ keeper, and a flute-playing boy riding a buffalo.
The performance is unquestionably entertaining. The water puppets are both curiously amusing and graceful, and the water greatly enhances the drama by allowing the puppets to appear and disappear as if by magic. Spectators in the front row seats can expect a bit of splashing.
A couple of kilometers out of town, on the road to the airport, is the Flower Market (Cho Hoa). IT’s at its busiest around 5am, but if you get there before 7am you can enjoy the frenzy of colors and scents. There’s an astonishing skill to stacking and pilling massed of bunches of flowers on the back of bicycles and motorbikes, so that they almost totally obscure the drive but still just leave room to see! It’s a great photo-opportunity.
In the greater Hanoi region, Mo Market is far to the south of the central area, on Pho Bac Mai and Pho Minh Khai. It’s not a place for tourists, as the main products are fresh metal, fish and vegetables, but may be of interest to expats who prefer to do their own cooking.
Buoi Market, out in the far northwest, is notable for live animals (chickens, ducks, pigs and so on), but also features ornamental plants. You can probably find better-quality ornamental plants for sale at the gardens in front of the Temple of Literature.
Around Pho Hang Bong and Pho Hang Gai, just northwest of Hoan Kiem Lake, are plenty of shops selling souvenir T-shirts and Viet Cong (VC) headgear. T-shirts are either printed or embroidered. It might be worth nothing, however, that neither Ho Chi Minh T-shirts nor VC headgear are very popular apparel with Vietnamese refugees and certain war veterans living in the West. Wearing such souvenirs wide walking down a street in Los Angeles of Melbourne might offend someone and possibly endanger your relationship with the local overseas-Vietnamese community, as well as your dental work.
Pho Hang Gai and its continuation, Pho Hang Bong, are a good place to look for embroidered tablecloths, T-shirts and wall hangings. Pho Hang Gai is also a good place to have clothes custom-made. Take a look along Pho Hang Dao (just north of Hoan Kiem Lake) for souvenir Russian-made watched.
IF you don’t make it up to Sapa, there is a wide selection of ethnic-minority garb and handicrafts available in Hanoi; a stroll along Pho Hang Bac or Pho To Tich will turn up close to a dozen places. Craft Link (Central Hanoi map; 8437710; 43 Pho Van Mieu) is a not-for-profit organization that buys good quality tribal handcrafts and weavings at fair-trade prices, and funds community development initiatives for the artisans.
There is an outstanding shoe market (Pho Hang Dau) at the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake; however, it’s difficult to find large sixes for big Western feet.
For the best in CDS and DVD (usually about US$2), there are several shops along Pho Hang Bong and Pho Trang Tien. Be aware that they’re bootleg, though, so not strictly legal.
On Pho Trang Tien you’ll also find many shops willing to make dirt-heap eyeglasses in a mere 10 minutes.
La Boutique and the Silk (Old Quarter map; tell: 829 5368; 6 Pho Nha Tho), near St Foseph Cathedral, is well worth stopping by. The original design are inspires by Vietnamese ethnic-quality Lao silk.
Khai Silk (Old Quarter map; tell:825 4237; email: [email protected]; 96 Pho Hang Gai) is another place in vogue for silk clothing. The proprietor, Khai, is fluent in both French and English, and the clothes are modern and Western in design. There are also Khai Silk branches in the posh Sofitel MEtropole and Nikko Hotels.
Ipa-Nima (tell: 924 1872; 59G Pho Hai Ba Trung) has a fabulous collection of clothes and what can only be described as designer-kitsch beaded tops and accessories.
Several beautiful furnishing shops are located on Pho Nha Tho.
Aspiring young artists display their works in Hanoi’s private art galleries in the hope of attracting a buyer. The highest concentration of upmarket galleries is on Pho Trang Tien, between Hoan Kiem Lake and the Opera House – just stroll down the strip. Most art galleries have some English-speaking staff, and are open daily until 8pm or 9pm. Most range from a few dollars into the thousands, and polite bargaining is the norm.
In a cluster around the Old Quarter corner of Pho Trang Tien and Pho Ngo Quyen are Gallery Huong Xuyen (web: www.huongxuyengallery.com), which also stocks some beautiful greetings cards; A Gallery (web: www.vietnamesepainting.com), with both permanent and visiting exhibitions; and Hanoi Contemporary Art Gallery (web: www.hanoi-artgallery.com), with some ceramics as well as paintings. Just about opposite these is Nam Son Art Gallery (email: [email protected]), another interesting contemporary exhibition gallery.
Close to the Dan Chu Hotel is the well-established Hanoi Studio and Van Gallery (web: www.vangallery.com).
Hanoi Gallery (110 Hang Bac; open 9am-8pm daily), in the Old Quarter, stocks a great selection of old propaganda posters, with translations of the slogans, and mailing tubes for easy carrying or mailing.
Handicrafts & Antiques
There are quite a number of stores in Hanoi offering new and antique Vietnamese handicrafts (lacquerware, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, ceramics, sandalwood, oil paintings, prints and assorted antiques (real and fake). Pho Hang Gai, Pho To Tich, Pho Hang Khai and Pho Cau Go are good areas for souvenir hunting.
Furniture Gallery (Old Quarter map; tell: 826 9769; 8B Pho Ta Hien) is an enotmous warehouse of antiques, paintings, furnitures and handicrafts.
Vietnamese House (tell: 826 2455; 92 Hang Bac), not far from Furniture Gallery, is a small but attractive shop dealing in a hodgepodge of old and new treasures.
There is a strip of antique shops on Duong Le Duan, across from the Nikko Hotel (see Central Area map), but most tend to be overpriced