The theatre ended up being much bigger than I’d envisioned—about the size of an American movie theatre rather than a small salon. The stage was a green pond backed by an elaborate temple structure. On the left there was a platform for the traditional orchestra to play various scores.
The mostly foreign audience settled to a low hush as the puppet show was introduced in Vietnamese, English and French. The art of water puppetry, we were told, has been traced as far back to the 12th Century Hanoi court and is one of Vietnam’s “most precious traditional art forms”.
The musicians took the upper stage and began playing a lengthy piece. An older woman plucked away at a one stringed instrument that vibrated shrill psycadelic frequencies. Traditionally, only men played this instrument and unmarried women were forbidden to listen to it because it was assumed that they would be overcome by the beauty of the tunes and fall in love with the players. The other instruments aren’t known for their seductive powers, but they sounded fine to me. There was a long, narrow guitar instrument that was manipulated with flighty hand movements. The orchestra also abounded with various harps, clicking sticks and percussion instruments, to polish off the very busy, exotic sound. Two young women sang on top of the orchestra, with stammering nasal voices, which completed the traditional music.
After the first musical scores, wooden puppets popped out of a green mat screen and began to dance robotically around the water. There was no real plot since the only objective was to entertain nobles, or in this case, European tourists. The crowd chuckled at the petty antics of the human and animal puppets. A crowd of young children would have laughed uproariously.
The scenes had names like On a Buffalo with a Flute or Unicorns Play with a Ball, each more visually spectacular than the last. For a medieval art form, it was technically elaborate. Dragons spewed water and smoke and children hoped onto each others shoulders. In one scene, the king returned a sacred sword to a mystical giant turtle after defeating the Mongols in a famous battle.
After the Dance with the Four Holy Animals, the puppeteers emerged from behind the green screen and the audience packed into the lobby. I was shocked to find that the city had been caught in an thunderous rainstorm. The rain came down in thick pellets, covering the roads in inches of rain. An eight foot dive into a cab got me decently wet and the drive to the restaurant was like a scene from Jurassic Park.
We found the Highway 4 restaurant and climbed up a few stories of slippery stairs to get to the roof level tables. The rain pounded the tarp roof and the sky flickered with frantic heat lightning. The seating was on ground cushions and the six of us squeezed into the cramped spaces as the waiters brought elaborate menus.
Highway 4’s claim to fame is its exotic selection of traditional Vietnamese spirits. The drinks menu began with a few dozen straightforward Vietnamese brandies—apricot, mushroom, rice, etc, but the last few pages got interesting. For about 50 cents, the menu offered samples of liquor distilled from silkworms. Or geckos and starfish. Or black bees. I took the dive and ordered those three with my meal.
Oddly, the three shots tasted more less how you’d expect them to. The gecko shot was tangy and the silkworm had a bitter, musty taste that lingered. The bee liquor had a very obvious hint of honey and was the only one that was objectively enjoyable.
The food was no less wondrous and most of us tried to get something relatively unusual, although none of us took full advantage of the restaurant’s cornucopia of Asian delicacies. Mark ordered huge fried frog legs, which everyone enjoyed and Clelia received a delicious beef dish served in a flaming package of tin foil. Emily tried out the grey water buffalo meat and Susan enjoyed stuffed squid. Elias and I both felt the urge to eat crocodile, which turned out to be very tasty as well.
Vietnam has to be the only place where it's possible to eat or drink almost ten animals in one meal.
Clockwise from lower left: Crocodile, frog legs, strange assorted liquors, stuffed squid, water buffalo, beef