Heritage appreciation tour, or adventures and misadventures in Vietnam and Myanmar (Part 2)

Second day!

City tour in the morning until about 1 PM, then fly to Yangoon via the official/national carrier of Vietnam.

The tour was self-made – based on what the Internet provided as the must-see and must-not-do in Hanoi as suggested by travellers. But definitely, one important provision for the itinerary was the inclusion of a World Heritage Site (WHS) found in the city (if applicable).

This is how the itinerary for the day was designed:

08.30: Arrival at Tran Quoc Pagoda

09:15: Depart for Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (WHS)

09:45: Expected Time of Arrival at Thang Long

10:30: Depart for the Temple of Literature

11:00: Temple of Literature

12:00: Lunch

13.00: Depart for Hanoi International Airport

Via Klook (again, what a very convenient way to book a private charter car), we were able to book a half-day private charter. Even a few days before our flight to Hanoi, the charter/private car provider, VTS contacted us to let us know our booking information: from the name of the driver, the type of vehicle, driver’s contact information, and the vehicle’s plate number. VTS was also responsible for the private transfer on our arrival. A day before the tour, the company wished us to have arrived safely in Hanoi and at the same time, informing us that the driver would arrive 8:30 AM the next day.

True to their words, our driver (Mr Tam) arrived at 8:30 and our city tour started!

We planned an itinerary but Mr. Tam suggested a better route.

We started with a quick visit at the Hanoi Cathedral, then the Temple of Literature, the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the Tran Quoc Pagoda, and of course the Citadel of Thang Long, a UNESCO WHS located in Central Hanoi.

Hanoi Cathedral (Photo: SAPT)
The main courtyard of the Temple of Literature (Photo: SAPT)
Still, at the Temple of Literature (Photo: SAPT)
Entering the second courtyard of the Temple of Literature (Photo: SAPT)

The Temple of Literature and the Citadel of Thang Long impressed me the most in this half-day tour. These sites are the highlights of our city tour. My impression upon arriving at the Temple of Literature was amazement in such a way I asked myself why the complex is not even in the Tentative List of Vietnam’s WHS. The fortress gates are massive – as massive as those from Hue, in South Vietnam.

Considered as the country’s oldest academic institution in the Humanities, the Temple of Literature is one of the most picturesque heritage sites in Hanoi. This is something that my brother observed as soon as we arrived, being a millennial himself. While I enjoyed the beauty of the surrounding in a socio-cultural way, he enjoyed every bit and piece of it in an “instagram” way (LOL).

But I digress, every corner of it is picture-worthy that even I had to do some quick poses to capture the beauty of the moment.

The complex has several courtyards that resemble Chinese classic gardens, especially those in Su Zhou (another UNESCO WHS that I shall be posting in a few days). The brochure writes that the landscape and the architectural design of the entire compound are somehow inspired by Qufu architecture, a quaint town in China, the hometown of Confucius.

No wonder there is a strong presence of Chinese landscape and Chinese art in the surroundings of the complex. However, getting closer to the pavilion dedicated to Confucius, there seemed to be a transformation from Chinese into something “Vietnamese” as the designs somehow reverberated motifs of the Nguyen tombs in Hue.

My favorite part in the compound is the series of turtle steles called doctors’ steles. The turtles are blue stones with elaborate motifs that apparently were carved to honor the contributions of the scholars in Vietnam’s art, culture and education. The turtle, we were told, is a symbol of longevity and wisdom.

The UNESCO Marker of Thang Long (Photo: SAPT)
The Flag Tower (Photo: SAPT)
The South Gate (Photo: SAPT)
The magnificent steps of Kinh Thiên Palace (Photo: SAPT)
The Archaeological Site Entrance (Photo: SAPT)
One of the excavated sites (Photo: SAPT)

The next highlight of the tour: Citadel of Thang Long! It involved a lot of walking – super tiring but all worth-it.

If you are a cultural savvy such as we are, the archaeological site is an amazing encounter. It is important that your imagination works vividly – I guess that’s the point of any archaeological site! The curator provides a vivid description of what might had been and the role of the visitor is to imagine how that what might had been looked like.

Officially named Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – Hanoi, it was inscribed during the 34th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee Convention held in Brasilia, Brazil in 2010. The inscription was based on three reasons (a.k.a. the outstanding universal values).

First, the dossier notes that the site bears witness to the meeting of influences coming mainly from China in the north and the Kingdom of Champa in the south.  It expresses a set of intercultural exchanges which shaped a unique culture in the lower Red River Valley.

Second, the official document of the 2009 state-nomination sums that the Central Sector bears witness to the long cultural tradition of the Viêt populations established in the Delta and the lower Red River Valley.  It was a continuous seat of power from the 7th century through to the present day.

Finally, this heritage site is directly associated with numerous and important cultural and historical events, and leading artistic expressions and moral, philosophical, and religious ideas.  The succession of these events marks the formative and development process of an independent nation over more than a thousand years, including the colonial period and the two contemporary Wars of Independence and reunification of Viet Nam. 

The royal palaces and edifices built during the Ly Viet Dynasty in the 11th Century were largely destroyed in the late 19th century. Culprit? Colonlialism! Colonizers? The French!

The few remaining structures within the royal compound are the Doan Mon Gate in the South, the flag tower, the magnificent steps of Kinh Thiên Palace and the Hậu Lâu (Princess’ Palace). Adjacent to the main palace are the remains of the Imperial City, which is the archaeological aspect of the entire complex.

Upon entering the complex, I immediately noticed the water puppet theatre/auditorium. As a theatre and performance scholar, I was struck by awe to see for the first time what I just read in journals and other references. I would be forever grateful for having been given the permission to see up close the backstage area of this open-air auditorium inside the citadel/complex.

Me, presenting the puppet theater auditorium
Backstage pass! (Photo: SAPT)
Backstage access (Photo: SAPT)
The stage of the Puppet Theater (Photo: SAPT)

The múa rối nước, literally, to make dolls dance on water, is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta in North Vietnam.

The dolls/puppets are made out of wood and then they are lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large bamboo rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play.

A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music accompaniment. The instrumentation includes vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, a tradtional monochord, even gongs and bamboo flutes. Song accompaniment are modelled after the cheo, a traditional Vietnamese opera originating from the north. The cheo singer is the narrator of the entire performance while the narrative sung is acted out by the puppets. According to some references, the musicians and the puppets often interact during performance; the musicians may yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or a word of encouragement to a puppet in need.

The traditional theatre form is normally performed during rice festivals in rural areas of North Vietnam. Performers often use the performance as an offering to the gods with the intention of good and bountiful harvest.

Did we get to see one? No! Sad, but there is a next time!

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