Cutting through red tape

"No! I don’t want any of your stupid little dangly conical hats. I didn’t yesterday, I didn’t this morning when I passed you, and I didn’t when I passed that woman selling the exact same thing five metres back there. Thank you."

That’s what I wanted to say to the hawker in Hanoi. I really wanted to say it, and I was aware that just wanting to say such things made me a hypocritical, nasty and socially insensitive redneck. Instead I smiled. "No, thank you!"

Vietnam was breaking me. I had been there for nearly a month, travelling overland from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi on an extended holiday – I was using Bangkok as a base for travel at last! I had two assignments to complete while I was there, both related to that most curious of north Vietnamese traditional performing arts: water puppetry.

I’d seen the water puppets on a previous visit to Hanoi, where the best troupe is reputedly based. They were pretty cute. The wooden puppets are mounted onto a float, and are manipulated underwater by puppeteers who stand behind bamboo blinds hanging from an indoor pagoda built over a pool. The music is feisty and loud, and both tourists and Vietnamese children love them.

Gathering a bit of background information about the puppets and their history would be a snack. I brushed aside my daily experiences in Thailand of having to leap immeasurable obstacles to extract the most basic information from people (in English – so yes, it’s my fault).

A typical Thailand example: I want a brief comment from a stock analyst to include in a story.

"Well, my manager is the only person allowed to make comments to the press," the woman it takes a half dozen transferred lines and repeated explanations to reach says.

"Can I speak to your manager?" I ask.

"He doesn’t cover that area," she laments. "I do."

"Well can you ask your manager if you might be allowed to make a comment in this case?" I prompt. She puts down the phone and comes back in a few moments.

"Look, I’m very busy. Can’t you call someone else?"

Twenty-five years of living under communism would probably make those sorts of calls more difficult. But mere inanimate puppets? They’d be a cinch.

To err on the side of caution, however, I had tried to prepare by calling the puppetry theatre while still in Bangkok. Incredibly, I found the right person within two quick calls.

"Just give me a call when you arrive!" she said. "No problem!"

"I won’t have much time in Hanoi. If possible, could I arrange times to speak to people now? I could send you a fax or an email with what I’d like to know," I said helpfully. You gotta have that fax or email fallback in Thailand – a name to quote at least, but a piece of paper is always a better bet.

"No, just show up!"

In Hanoi it was drizzling. It was enough to make the light for photographs rotten and your clothes continually damp, but not quite enough to get the ubiquitous postcard sellers and shoeshiners to stay indoors. I was unnecessarily grumpy and tired; the charm in those dilapidated old shopfronts eluded me and I just wanted to be back in Bangkok. Only the puppets stood between me and my flight home.

I called the theatre, but they hadn’t heard of the woman I had spoken to. "Miss Tan," I repeated with some desperation to a voice that kept breaking into hysterical giggles. "Is there someone else there I can talk to who deals with the press?"

"No, no one else!" he giggled joyfully.

I physically went to the theatre, where someone called the director on my behalf. He was available for an interview the next day.

At the appointed hour my interpreter Jim and I we were led to seats in the foyer. A few of the attendants appeared and whispered apologetically to him. "The director has a very important party to attend," Jim conveyed. "He cannot make his appointment."

We made another appointment for the following day. "If the party was so important, why didn’t he know about it yesterday?" I whined rhetorically to Jim on the way out. Jim explained politely that the director was an important man, and it wasn’t unusual for such people as us to have to make repeated calls in order to meet with somone like him. Communism hadn’t quite managed to make everyone equal after all. I was in familiar territory now.

The next day the man with my assignments in his hands appeared. He sat on the edge of his chair, fingering his gold watch and tapping his toes impatiently as Jim translated questions.

"When did the theatre open?" Jim asked.

He smiled, tapped his toes noisily and embarked on a seemingly intriguing and lengthy anecdote. He laughed, Jim made a few encouraging remarks. He was really quite personable after all! Finishing with a drum of his fingers on the table, he smiled at me.

"1985," Jim translated.

And so it went. "We want to take Vietnamese culture to the world," was one complete sentence I did manage to write down. Could he give me any references to works in English on water puppets? Any materials at all? No, there was nothing- just an out of print book we might track down. Could I interview some of the puppeteers? He would have to check and let me know the next day.

We didn’t track down the book, but I did attend a performance that night where I discovered that there was an English-language program that did in fact contain plenty of good information in English. It also completely contradicted much of what the director had said. I was ready to conclude that puppets sucked.

The next day I planned on heading north for a three-day trip, giving me just enough time to squeeze in some interviews before flying back to Bangkok. Jim emailed me to let me know he had made arrangements to interview puppeteers right in the middle of it. I explained that I had said I couldn’t make that time; he was obviously reluctant to cancel the appointment.

"I made up an excuse," he told me eventually. "Don’t tell them it was because you had paid for your ticket to go away – that is an unacceptable excuse to a Vietnamese."

A few days later, I interviewed the puppeteers and got Jim to delicately ask the director how it was that some of his facts conflicted with the program.

"The program says the troupe began in 1969. I was wondering what exactly it was that began in 1985?"

The director looked at his watch, he tapped those toes and drummed those fingers, before nodding sagely and launching into an explanation. The history of the theatre was clearly complex; there were nuances and shades of meaning that he was quite clearly taking the time to explain to Jim.

"Yes, those dates are different," Jim translated.

On the way back to my guesthouse for the last time one of the hatsellers approached me.

"Looking, looking! You want to buy, yes, yes?"

"How much?"

"One dollar." I handed over the money and took the red-stringed hats, planning to hang them over my computer screen. They sit here, reminding me to appreciate how easy – relatively – information is to access here in Thailand. And of how easy it is to misdirect your temper.

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