Stepping through the airport doors we were pulled into Vietnam’s undercurrent. A throng of people hailing taxis, shuttles or buses swarmed to join the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, the kingdom of motorbikes.
There are over four million motorbikes in Vietnam’s capitol, one for every two people. All of which seem to be out on the roads at once. Instead of bird sounds the air is filled with the beeping of horns. Traffic rules, if any, are more guidelines than actual rules. Even our bus would drive down the wrong side, swerving when a truck came barreling upon us. Crossing the street is a life or death decision. Everyone for yourself.
Smoke and fumes, the constant roar of the streets, calls of “hello, hello!” from hawkers selling everything from dumplings to hookers, so much color and movement in every direction that the chaos grabs a hold of you and takes you into it’s midst wide eyed and muddle headed.
Finding sanctuary takes some leg work. Once we pushed our way along through the crowds, we found a few precious moments of peace in traditional Vietnamese places like the Thang Log Water Puppet theater and the Ngoc Son Temple.
Puppetry staged on water has a thousand year history in Vietnam. Water plays a large part in the daily lives of the people here. Rice growing and fishing are intergal to this wet culture with heavy flooding during the wet season. Their unique mastery of puppets performing in water is a beautiful and fun art form. Watching fire breathing dragons, leaping frogs, a fox chasing ducks accompanied by the lilting sounds of traditional folk music soothed tired brains until the lights came back on and we joined the river of tourists heading for the exit.
Across the street from the theater there is red bridge jutting out into Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake is surrounded by the frenetic pace of rickshaws, tourist shuttles, women selling flowers and treats, people rushing about, but over the bridge through the gates guarded by a dragon and tiger sits a temple that provides a contemplative pause. In Vietnam there are four sacred animals: dragon, turtle, phoenix, and unicorn. Ngoc Son Temple, the Temple of the Jade Mountain houses a large bronze turtle through it’s intricate doors. Flowers and fruit are gorgeously displayed for the gods. Strolling along the tree lined rimmed of the temple courtyard slowed the rhythm of our feet briefly, but it was closing time and the guards were locking the doors behind us as we returned to the pulsing rush of the city.