The Sunday before last was the 995th anniversary of the foundation of Hanoi. According to legend Hanoi or Thang Long as it was then named, was chosen as the site of the nation's capital when a Vietnamese King saw a dragon ascending to heaven, the name Thang Long literally meaning Ascending Dragon, just as Ha Long means Descending Dragon. How the particular day this event took place on x many hundreds of years ago was remembered is anyone's guess.
As part of the festivities a whole series of events was organised, including a huge dragon dance meet which took place outside of the Opera House at August Revolution Square. Hundreds of truckloads of dragon dancers from the districts of Hanoi converged to produce a dragon that measured almost a kilometre long. The dragons shook their stuff and put a performance on at the Ly Thai To statue garden on Hoan Kiem lake. How this event went is anyone's guess as I've yet to meet anyone who isn't Vietnamese who knew the time it was taking place!
What we had actually heard about - although the time was suitably vague - was the evening event that was to take place at Truc Bach lake, the little brother of neighbouring West Lake.
Feeling exhausted from three nights worth of partying at the Toilet bar, the Ilubar and a rather snazzy new place below the Business Club on West Lake, I was almost tempted to give it a miss. After some persuasion - and having given up responsibility for finding the perfect spot - I rendevouzed at a cafe Mark and Kate had previously visited before.
The omens for the night were good, huge searchlights swept the skyline, while two stages sat crouched at either end of the Youth Causeway (unfortunately facing away from our position), their lights bathing Truc Bach in a yellow glow. Dragon headed boats prowled across the lake depositing floating candles across the water, while the humid air seemed to grow thicker as the lights gave it form. Now and again a giant multi-coloured air balloon would gently ease itself into the sky, it's interior glowing like a low wattage lightbulb.
Beyond the buildings opposite to us, three large balloons could be seen peeping from behind, now and again they would bring their lumbering load into view - a giant dragon.
Alongside the lake the cafe's began to fill, an excited multi-generational gathering of Vietnamese, with a few ex-pats thrown in for good measure, and at 8pm the festivities began with a bang. Quite literally just around the corner from us, a huge barrage of fireworks was let off, some of them seeming to streak just above our very heads.
Music echoed across the watery expanse separating us from the stages, and for a while we took in the ambiance as little could be seen from where we were sitting. Then at last the moment of truth was at hand. The three giant balloons slowly wafted up on their wires revealing a huge golden and red dragon, squiggled as though in upward movement, it's tongue sticking out.
As the pageant unfolding on the stage came to a climax, almost a thousand rainbow hued balloons were released, picked up in the searchlight beams. As this stream of balloons wafted upwards, small flickering bluish lights could be seen attached to some, producing a sparkling trail into the night sky. At this point the dragon's balloons were liberated and the majestic beast (albeit attached to the equivalent of waterwings) meandered it's way skywards. Mark and me agreed that so far it had been one of the most impressive events we'd yet seen in Hanoi as we took in the scene. We joked at what a small central highlands village would make of the dragon when it eventually lost buoyancy and sunk to the ground, or whether we'd be lucky enough to snag a balloon with a blue flickering light.
Then the fireworks began. Just like the ones that kicked off the event, these weren't just a symbolic few zipping into the darkened sky, oh no, more a blossoming boom of flame, just that little bit too low for comfort. This time the fireworks were positioned to the front and left of us, again across the lake. The rushing white lights careered across the sky, amusingly enough now and again hitting a couple of the balloons in the still upwardly moving column, veering off in new directions and causing a frisson of excitement. The crowd was enjoying the spectacle as it entered it's final stages, when an errant firework was deflected off course by the trail of balloons and scored a direct hit on the dragons head! Boooom!! The dragon's head took the full force of the missile, the firework sending out silver sparks as the head spitooned away from it's body. The now decapitated dragon began to float up at a faster pace with some of it's ballast now gone...all was not lost, the dragon representing Thang Long/Hanoi was still floating majestically into the night sky...until....a second firework scores a direct hit on one of it's supportive balloons, which blossoms into flame in a quite impressive piece of pyrotechnics in it's own right! Now, with it's middle balloon gone, there's nothing to save the once proud creature from disaster.
After initial shouts of dismay, the surreally bizarre nature of the event begins to tickle the collective funny bone of the crowd. Laughter ripples along the lake side as the doomed dragon dives headless into the ground behind the buildings to our left. We discussed the issues later as we finished off our beers and waited for the traffic to clear. My view was that they had put a former army veteran in charge of the fireworks, and that he'd experienced some kind of war flash back, what with all the searchlights and everything my belief was that he'd remembered his anti-aircraft training and had deliberately taken out the lumbering low flying B52/dragon. Mark had a more realistic view of the event and put it down to poor health and safety in putting the fireworks too close to the balloons. Bah! I know which explanation I prefer. So from Thang Long - Ascending Dragon to Ha Long - Descending Dragon in one night!