I should be getting used to these early starts by now, but it is still a struggle to be ready in time for the minibus that takes us through the rush hour traffic of Hanoi, streets solid with bicycles and scooters. A bumpy road leads south, and we arrive three and a half hours later at Duc Khe Village on the Yen River. Our group is outnumbered by the souveneer vendors at the river-side, all seemingly desparate to be first to secure a sale. Some are even trying to press souveneers into our hands for us to pay for ‘later’, but we have been warned not to accept anything.
Our guide has been sorting out our boat trip to the Perfume Pagoda, and finally we are ready. We are directed to a small flotilla of red iron rowing boats, each designed to carry three passengers. They are rowed by women and children. My relief at getting away from the hawkers is short-lived, as the boat ride is very uncomfortable. I am perched on a six inch high wooden seat resting on the bottom of the boat that rocks alarmingly every time our rower, a boy of I guess about 12 to 14, pushes with the oars. My two fellow passengers are on a similar plank just in front of me. I cannot relax for fear of falling off and upsetting the boat, but due to lack of sleep I have some trouble keeping my eyes open.
It is definitely worth keeping my eyes open for the scenery though. We are being propelled down a shallow weed-filled river along the centre of a breath-takingly beautiful flat valley. Limestone crags rise abruptly up on either side and farmers, bent double, tend the flooded rice-fields that line the river. We pass a number of riverside shrines.
As we land, we are again beseiged by hawkers proffering beads, postcards, and canned drinks. Once all the boats have arrived, we set off for the temple. It is a steep and tiring walk, especially so in the heat, though it takes us along a pretty path with views of the surrounding densely-forrested craggy peaks. The cave itself, said to be the most beautiful in Vietnam, is a disappointment. Our guide however is very knowledgable and is keen to explain the meaning and significance of the various altars and other items in the cave. We later learn that he normally does the Cat Ba Island tour, but had arranged a swap today to cover for a collegue who is ill.
We return to the base of the hill for lunch in a shaded open-air café with ceiling fans hanging from the bamboo canopy. The stir-fry lunch is simple, but as usual excellent. Close to the café is the seventeenth-century Chua Thien Chu—the Pagoda Leading to Heaven. It is a more rewarding sight than the cave, with secluded courtyards and multi-coloured flags fluttering in the wind off the eves of the main priests’ house. From within can be heard the sound of heavy snoring.
Our rower on the return boat journey decides to join in a race with a couple of other boats, and recruits an additional helper. The two work in tandem, one pushing and the other pulling on the oars. The two boats in front of us, fortunately empty of passengers, are playing dodgems, but we come past unscathed.
As we re-enter Hanoi in rush hour, a lone policeman is trying to direct order out of chaos, standing on a round podium in the middle of a sea of scooters, bicycles, and minibuses. We eat this evening at Al Fresco’s, a western-style restaurant run by a very extrovert Australian. He seems to be able to be in three places at once—issuing instructions to the staff, visiting the tables to check that everyone is happy with their meal and welcoming new customers in at the door.
A performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is a wonderfully light-hearted and relaxing way to round off the day. It is a kind of Punch and Judy on water. It begins with an instrumental overture played by the band to the left of the stage. We are then presented with various scenes from rural life acted out by marionettes made to dance over the water by puppetters hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stage. The whole performance is peppered with humour, including a fisherman in a boat battling with a very lively fish that eventually pulls him, somersaulting, off his boat and into the water. The fluidity and life in the puppets’ movements is absolutely captivating. An accompaniment is provided throughout by the musicians, who sing, and play a variety of bowed and plucked stringed instruments, flute, drums and bells.