Pythons & Biceps in Hanoi’s Outskirts

Just leaving the Water Puppet performance in central Hanoi — where tourists pack into tight rows of plush red seats in an air-conditioned hall to watch an hour-long performance of dancing fishes, dragon, turtles, farmers splash in the water to a live soundtrack of traditional Vietnamese music; it feels a bit tired, but at $1.30 a ticket it’s hard to skip — I got a call from a friend here, Adrian, a Quebecois photographer here to document shipping, industry and circus performers on a art project for a few months. As soon as he mentioned ‘nightclub opening,’ ‘python guy’ and ‘would you like to go?’ I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi heading to the circus to head off to Hanoi’s farthest-flung outskirts to a nightclub that had no idea what was in store. (Nor did I).

On the back of Adrian’s bike, we followed Vietnam’s most famous ‘python artist.’ Mr Tong, a 40-something circus performer, wore a tight black shirt, black slacks and tan loafers — he’s been working with pythons for 16 years. ‘It’s the most important act of the circus,’ he said at one traffic light, in English. ‘Wait till you see the crowd go crazy tonight. I’m the big performer of the opening.’ Thirty minutes later we pulled off a main road, and onto a new development’s fringe, where — reached by a red-lantern-lit sidewalk into a former field, was a booming outdoor courtyard packed with local families crouching at small plastic tables watching a 1-2-3 mix of performances. On stage was a guy wearing a ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ jacket and sporting a Kajagoogoo hairstyle (bleached spikes, relentlessly ’80s), belting out vocals (and dance moves) to a pre-recording synth track. Some kids held their ears at the high notes.

We got ushered into the ‘VIP room,’ a FBO regularity. It was an open house with a plain tiled floor, a few bamboo mats on the ground with a dad smoking a water pipe and some kids sitting around. In a corner was a simple bed, with a couple models applying more make-up before their upcoming choreographed dance peformance with a gay guy with a show-stealing grimace and shiny fake red-leather pants with long Daniel Boone white fringe.

Mr Tong, meanwhile, was getting ready. He had put on a leopard-skin headband, leopard-skin wrist bands, bicep bands stretched taut over his bulging muscle, and a single shoulder strap over his broad shoulders. I asked where the costume came from. ‘This? I designed it,’ he said. ‘It’s based on the Vietnamese legend of Tac San: a jungle man who saves a princess.’ Is that something like Tarzan?, I asked, noting the similarity of the name. ‘No, it’s not Tarzan,’ brushing the long tail of his full hockey-style mullett — the only one I’ve seen in Vietnam. Certainly no sideburns in the way to stop his hair-brushing flick.

A few minutes later Mr Tong jumped on stage to a ‘Night at the Roxbury’ soundtrack, clapping wildly. Out of a basket he pulled two giant pythons and wrapped them around him. Occasionally he pulled unwilling and very frightened girls and boys — maybe nine or ten years old — out of the audience and draped them over their shoulders. Family members and other kids jumped up and down in their seats, clapping uncontrollably.

Mr Tong was a little more subdued after the performance. Wiping off sweat, he mentioned he’d been to New York before. ‘I spent a week in Madison Square Garden with the Ringling Brothers,’ he said. ‘New York’s great. It goes nonstop. I stayed up so late that month. Sometimes after 1am!!’

Unexpected things like this is pretty much why we travel.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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