Holiday in Hanoi
What do trendsetting travellers seek out when they holiday in a new city? The newest restaurant? The hippest nightclub? The designer label that all the in-the-know locals are raving about? Well, maybe. But first on the must-see list for any really cool globetrotter (ie me, haha) is the museum of ethnology. And so it was that my travel companion* and I found ourselves at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology on our first morning in Hanoi – and because I know how cool all of you are, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this little virtual visit.
The museum comprises two buildings – one devoted to the peoples of Vietnam (there are 54 ethnic groups in the country so there is quite a lot to take in!) and the other showcasing ethnic groups in South East Asia.
A magnificent photographic display forms the introduction to the “Vietnam” building…
… and, heading upstairs, there are two floors full of displays about the customs and cultures of various groups, with tools, toys, and costumes among the items on view.
If I had stopped to take notes of what I was looking at I would still be there now, so unfortunately I didn’t jot down which particular groups these images show, but the people in the photo below are conducting a funeral service…
… and I do remember that this spectacular outfit is from the Lolo group (do you recall that I fell in love with a similar jacket not long ago? That’s why I was glad to see this version and find out which group made it).
All the displays were fascinating but the building is not air-conditioned and I was just about having to wipe the sweat from my eyeballs in order to keep on learnin’ – so we decided to head outside to the garden of architecture. For a traveller who doesn’t have much time or money to go gallivanting all over the place to visit ethnic groups in their traditional lands, museums like this are a blessing – there are houses from all over the country conveniently gathered in the one spot (and when you get tired, there’s a vocational training cafe where you can have lunch or a coffee and cake! Even the most hardcore lover of culture needs their touristy little creature comforts sometimes…).
Again, I didn’t take notes on which houses belonged to which group, but this particular one was very, very long… (check out the juxtaposition of the traditional dwelling with the new apartments that back on to the museum’s grounds! Anyone living in the apartments has arguably the best “backyard” in Hanoi!)
Inside the long house looks like this – I’m fairly sure this was for multiple families or even for a whole village to live in – why else would there be a huge drum inside the house?
You’d be forgiven for thinking this mud house was somewhere in Africa… (the perfect backdrop for my white dress!)
Rodin must have visited Vietnam at some stage…
I have to admit that I did not attempt the stairs to explore this house, but not because I was scared of them (although, actually they do resemble a death trap. Imagine how annoying it would have to be to go in again and get your phone if you’d forgotten it on your way to work in the morning. As I’m sure happens all the time to the inhabitants…**).
My reluctance to enter this house was only partially due to the stairs – it was actually more because I was getting a bit lightheaded from dehydration: the mark of an excellent museum is when you are so absorbed by the displays that you nearly faint from thirst before you know it! Off to the cafe we went… and then, finally, to the South East Asia building, which, mystifyingly, is a lot more modern than the Vietnam building, complete with air-conditioning!
If, like me, you’re a lover of folk textiles, this is like walking into a little piece of heaven. Most of the displays are behind glass, though, so in terms of getting good photos, it’s not ideal.
I gave up trying to snap the outfits and resolved to buy the museum book instead, then promptly forgot because I got distracted in the Craftlink shop at the museum entrance. Best. Museum. Shop. EVER. (No ridiculous plastic figurines of mummies or other tenuously-linked-to-the-exhibition themed items among the merchandise such as you often find in other museums. Just great textiles, jewellery, cards and other crafty knick-knacks that are theoretically great for gifts but are really too good to give away!) We loved the shop so much that after browsing and buying there, we hot-footed it to the other branch to make it there before closing time – and also managed to drop in to the Temple of Literature which is just across the road.
My travel partner was disappointed at finding no books there and suggested it should be renamed the Temple of Illiterature, but I think its real name is because it commemorates scholars who passed exams on that spot centuries ago. There’s probably a lot of other little gems like this to discover in Hanoi (which I liked a lot more than Ho Chi Minh City) but we were really only there for one full day, because there were natural wonders such as this to explore in Ninh Binh.
This area is called Tam Coc and is made up of waterways running between limestone cliffs – it was overcast when we went so these photos don’t do it justice, but you can take my word for it that it’s breathtakingly beautiful.
The main thing to do in Tam Coc (apart from riding around on bikes and taking in the views of rice paddies) is to head out for a spin on the water in a foot-powered boat.
It looks like the guy in the back is just kicking back and coasting along, but in fact he is rowing with his feet. Mad skillz, he haz ’em. I’m not sure who came up with this idea but it seems to be peculiar to the Tam Coc area – I didn’t see this anywhere else in the same region. Maybe it’s a patented technique or something?
I didn’t see this anywhere else either – a guy selling plants from a boat parked in the middle of nowhere under the cliffs. I’m not sure who his target market was because I don’t think any tourists would buy them! Anyway, his entrepreneurship made for a nice photo – as did this scenery the next day at Trang An. It’s not far from Tam Coc but the plant life is a lot more lush, and it’s recently been given UNESCO status (as in, about a month ago!).
The water is clear and full of fish and this river plant that looks like a whole lot of tails waving around.
The boat trip goes for about two hours, during which time you travel through several caves (if you’re tall, this could be challenging, as the boat only just clears the ceiling!) and stop a few times at little temples (cue cheesy photos).
At one of the stops we found this strange object on the side of a path (actually there was one on either side of the path). We thought it was some kind of light until we got closer and realised what it was. Can you guess?
It’s a carnivorous mushroom!! (Plus some cigarette butts… but don’t get me started on those). It was covered in tiny insects which it had been trapping in its net. Not the kind of thing that’s advertised on any tour brochure or UNESCO promo, but it’s little discoveries like this that make a trip memorable, don’t you think?
If you are heading to Vietnam I would definitely recommend stopping at Ninh Binh – we were only there one afternoon and morning, but you could easily chill out for a few days and spend time cycling around. The scenery is fantastic and the roads are not too busy, meaning even a novice cyclist like myself can cope. Plus, I can highly recommend the hotel we stayed at – the owner was friendly and very helpful and the whole place was spotless. A lovely spot for a holiday!
*Although I don’t normally go into personal stuff on this blog I thought I should mention that my travel companion was the guy I mentioned at the end of this post – however, he decided (at the start of my Vietnam trip) that we’re better off as friends. I’m not at all happy with the situation but can’t do much about it. It would seem my fate as a crazy (single) cat lady is fairly much sealed – now I just have to actually get the cat.
**I was kind of joking about the people living in this kind of house forgetting their mobiles, but actually they probably do – in one of my very first blog posts (hence the weird spacing), I talked about trekking to an Akha village that had no electricity, yet ALL the guys had mobile phones. Kind of makes sense, because if they go out hunting in the jungle or to tend their fields, it helps to be able to let their families know they’re OK and what time they’ll be back for dinner (and what they’ve actually caught for dinner, I suppose?).