Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Soaking up the culture

While waiting for my Chinese visa to arrive I’ve had plenty of time to enjoy some of Hanoi’s attractions. The first place I went was the Temple of Literature, founded in the 11th century for the study of Confucius’s works. As well as a statue of Confucius, on the grounds are 82 ‘stele’ - a stone tablet on the back of a tortoise - which represent the 82 examinations that were held from the 1400s to the 1700s for doctoral candidates. Behind the temple is the Fine Arts Museum. I was intending on paying only a quick visit here but stayed longer as I became engrossed in the large collection. On the ground floor are incredibly detailed wood carvings from the tenth century, colourful statues of Buddhist monks, and a sculpture of a thousand-armed and thousand-eyed goddess. On the floors above are contemporary art but these were not nearly as impressive - painting after painting of revolutionary soldiers or ‘Uncle Ho’ playing with children and all of them in murky greys and browns. Judging from this museum, one might think that even if socialism is good for society, it is bad for art.

The triumph of socialism in Vietnam is the main theme of the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. Although there weren’t many labels in English, it is a fascinating collection of photos and artifacts from when the Vietnamese started rising up against the French colonial government in the second half of the nineteenth century, encompassing the formation of the Communist Party in the 1920s and its connections with the Soviet Union, and the armed struggles against the French and the US after the second world war. A more long-term history is found across the road in the History Museum which includes human bones and items found in Vietnam that are 400,000 years old. Nice collection of Champa sculptures too.

The hotel I’m staying in is just around the corner from the St Joseph Cathedral and I dropped by when a service was happening. I sat and listened to the 30-40 Vietnamese singing Christian hymns for a while. One middle-aged woman must have thought I was a Catholic and she seemed very pleased that I was there.

I also went to a Water Puppet performance. The stage is made of water which the puppeteers stand in but behind a screen manipulating the puppets that have poles attached to their bases. Seems a very awkward way of holding a puppet show to me but it was fun to watch. I couldn’t discern any story but there were dragons and fish and kings and peasants portrayed.

Not sure if this counts as a cultural attraction of the city but something I’ve acquired here are DVD collections of some of my favourite film directors such as Fellini, Godard, and Antonioni. These are incredible value - the Fellini one contains thirty films and cost 150,000 dong which is about $10. They’re pirated of course but I still don’t understand why pirates think box-sets of the films of Jean-Luc Godard could possibly be a money-spinner.


  1. Well pirates are nothing if not fairly business minded, so they must have twigged that people such as yourself would be passing through from time to time. In fact it's rather fun imagining the process of creating these pirate DvDs. Is there some Mafia overlord in charge? Does s/he appoint a committee to determine what films will sell to westerners? Presumably they know that new releases are worth a punt but how do they decide what collected works/greatest hits to do? Do they get on IMDB and look for the top rated? Or do they just google "great directors" and see what comes up?

    Always had a side interest in military history. In fact I wrote a chapter for a book recently, the theme (of the chapter) being the morality of Great War executions. Tis on the blog now if you want to explain to me why I am heartless, cruel and wrong as some seem to think.

  2. Be careful where you go with those DVDs - I was in France recently and they had big notices up at the airport warning that being found in possession of counterfeit products can result in huge fines and prison time.