Hanoi and Halong Bay

Flying into Hanoi we were greeted with lots of cloud and so we’re feeling a bit chilly here for the first time in a month. To be fair it’s still 21 degrees but after the relentless heat and humidity it feels fresh.  The locals must feel it worse as they’re buzzing about in heavy winter coats whilst we are still in shorts and short-sleeves!

Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place. Greatly revered as the saviour and the father of the nation.

Hanoi is magical and the old quarter is a maze of small streets crammed with little shops, bars, restaurants and, of course, motorbikes. Exploring (and getting a bit lost) is really enjoyable and each street is named after what is sold on the street. We’re staying on shoe street (more of that in a sec), we’ve seen paint street, electric appliance street (not sure that’s the exact translation) and Christmas Street. We did take a look at the shoes – especially when Converse were less than £6 but being Vietnam the largest size available is 8 1/2 so unfortunately only one of us ended up happy!

‘wired’ technology is very much the thing here!

So with the weather on the gloomy side we set off for Halong Bay a 4 hour drive away. We’ve been looking forward to this part for a while as we’ve heard so many great things about it so we were a bit disappointed that it was cold (relatively) and cloudy. On the bus on the way down we could only see the motorbike in front, the fog was that bad! Eventually we got to the bay and boarded our boat, the Dragon Pearl… 2. We shared the boat with 16 other people and set off. The bay is absolutely beautiful (despite the weather) with thousands of limestone islands majestically emerging from the water. The legend is that a dragon landed here and their flailing tail cut out the rocks to create the bay.

That afternoon we landed on one of the rocks to see the caves and try a bit of kayaking which was brilliant fun. Had a shower back on board (which was surprisingly good) and went for a fabulous 5 course dinner. Lots of lovely seafood as you can imagine. The night tipped into the slightly surreal (and a bit cheesy) when we were presented with several food carvings of a dragon, an eagle and a faithful representation of the Dragon Pearl II and encouraged to clap enthusiastically as the crew came and introduced themselves. It is amazing what you can do with a pumpkin…

 

mites or tites?

Pumpkin art!

Legendary carving – to be fair it is impressive given the number of courses the chef had to prepare and the size of the kitchen!

We shared a table with David and Niamh from Dublin who are doing some travelling before they arrive to live in Sydney for a while. We had a fun evening with them and, after a spot of squid fishing (or fisting as our host pronounced it – oh er!) we literally drunk the bar dry – well of local beer anyway!

Kayaking – Apparently they won (….no one was racing!)

Visited a floating village the next day where the local women rowed us around on traditional bamboo boats (bless the poor woman who got us heavyweights – we did tip her well!)

Floating village and Oyster farm. There’s even a floating pearl shop…in Vietnam an opportunity to sell is never squandered!

mind yer head!

4 hours back to Hanoi, one last dinner and then bye to Vietnam after a brilliant couple of weeks. Next stop Hong Kong…

Hué

So another quick (3 hour) rail journey up the coast to the city of Hué. Views from the train were stunning as it hugged the coast but unfortunately overcast when we pulled in – no where near the UK weather we’re seeing on the news – hope everyone is okay.

View from the train (Danang to Hue). Shame about the grubby windows.

Hué used to be the capital of Vietnam and there are a lot of historical building to see here. The citadel is a massive space in the middle of the town and it is being restored at the moment – another victim of the war.

Flag Tower – Hue old Town

We also took a dragon boat to see some of the other sites on the banks of the river. The dragon boat is below and the family who run it also live on it so we were joined on our trip by their 11 month old baby girl – talk about flexible working! The only drawback was that we were on the boat for several hours and therefore a captive audience when the owner set out her shop on the floor of the boat with silk shirts, pictures etc. Guilted into buying one shirt (it’s pretty hideous btw) we had to draw the line when the deep blue, sun and stars kimono came out!

Our Dragon boat driver. Does a lovely line in silk kimonos too.

2 hour boat journey to the tombs lined on the banks of the river

 

The old Citadel – Hue

Hungry fish at feeding time!

The mausoleum for one the old Kings was an interesting place and relaxing boat a great way to get around. Having managed to get a few souvenirs we decided it was time to send our first parcel home so off the the post office. The clerk then produced 3 forms to complete with a very detailed list of contents of the parcel, how much each item was plus the names and addresses of sender and recipient three times! The parcel was 4kg but to be fair most of that was the packaging they used – an old beer box wrapped in about 10 metres of sticky tape, wrapped in brown paper and then tied with those plastic cords. If anything inside survives it will be a small miracle and in any case it will be 2-3 months before it gets there as it’s going overland.

The nightlife here is pretty lively and there are good food options and lots of bars offering drinks promotions. Octopussy and DMZ are the places to be. Surprisingly for the first time really we’re hassled on the way home from the bars by old men on cyclos (rickhaw style transport with one single seat at the front of the pushbike) offering us ‘lady massage’ and more descriptively ‘lady boom, boom – one hour’. Er, don’t think so…

and the beer today is Huda…fair to middling this one

So, given the the train option was 17 hours overnight (hence no view for most of it) and they’re not great we opted for a 55 minute flight up to Hanoi. Think we’ve ‘done’ the Vietnamese train thing…

 

 

 

Hoi An

The beach was definitely the way to go for a bit of a chill out. Good job really as we took a 14 hour train up the coast to a place called Danang before heading a further 45 minutes to the town of Hoi An.

The train journey wasn’t too bad despite hearing some horror stories about the journey involving filth, food poisoning and cockroaches. Obviously it’s not 5 star travelling and the seats are definitely designed for small bendy Vietnamese people (especially when the seats are in full recline!) So, it’s not comfortable but there’s always plenty going on including the commotion each time we stop at a station and an tsunami of Vietnamese traders board to sell their wares.

It always gets a little fraught just before the train is due to set off again. The train staff shout at the sellers as they rush to conclude their transactions. On one station a particularly keen vendor launched herself through the window and gets stuck. There was genuine suspense as half the carriage tried desperately to push her back out before the train started moving again…and there’s no doubt it will start, small salesperson attached or not!

Wouldn’t be so bad if the fold down tray worked. Alas, it doesn’t…and everything falls off.

Not so bad…


So, Hoi An – a lovely little place that used to be the heart of the trade route and as a result it has a lot of influences from the big trading countries of time gone by. Each having left their influence in the architecture and culture which makes the place a bit of a time bubble. It is very tourist focussed which initially feels a bit weird after Saigon and Phnom Penh as it means that practically everyone there makes their living from tourists so we have become experts at batting off the hawkers – there is a shakey-hand thing you can do that seems to do the trick nicely!

 

Seriously think we should get jobs as UNESCO inspectors as everywhere we visit seems to be one of their sites -Hoi An and My Son (pronounced ‘mee-sun’).  A quick google confirms they do have quite a lot – 962! So that’s probably why. To be fair they are all very beautiful or have some other historical significance. My Son was particularly interesting as it’s a complex of ancient temples, older even than Angkor Wat in Cambodia, unfortunately bombed to bits by the Americans as some of the Viet Cong were based there during the war.

Most of the original brickwork is still intact and in good condition versus the 30 year old renovated bricks which are crumbling and covered in moss. Despite numerous attempts to recreate the ancients’ building techniques – it remains a mystery…

Thu Bon River, Hoi An

Ancient temples at My Son in the shadow of Cat’s Tooth Mountain (above)

Our ‘My Son’ guide or is Gangnam Style’s Psy moonlighting?

The preferred mode of transport here (as most of Vietnam) is the motorbike and they are everywhere. We’re having a bit of a contest to see who can spot the most unusual motorbike cargo/the most people on a motorbike.  Family of 5 is the record so far on one. Alas by the time the camera was whipped out they had sped by. We’ll try to get quicker to capture this incredible sight (always the little baby right at the front gripping the handlebars for dear life!)

The food here is superb and cheap. We have some basic (but lovely) Vietnamese food along the banks of the lantern-lit river: 2 starters, 2 mains, bottle of wine, large bottle of water – under a tenner! You can eat a lot more cheaply than that too…Our pockets are going to sorely miss Vietnam as Australia is shaping up to be by far the most expensive bit of the trip. We can stay in Vietnam in a very comfortable hotel for 4 nights, including breakfast for less than 1 night in the IBIS in Brisbane!

‘Little Hanoi’ Bar and Restaurant…yummy and cheap.

Today’s beer is…Larue

 

Why did the chicken cross the road? It’s Vietnam – must be a death wish!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Hue next – a couple of hours train journey up the coast…

Let’s go to the beach, beach…

Bit out of our daily budget but we thought we’d splurge a little….

There’s not much to do here but lay on the beach, watch nice sunsets, and chill out. Kind of nice for a few days. Only thing of any small note here is that we were mistaken for Russians – bizarre…Oh how we laughed!

Off to Hoi An in the morning on a 14 hour train journey…

 

 

 

Saigon

If only all buses could be this good (there’s even suspension!)

The bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is still known locally) is a much better experience. We were able to get the marvellous Mekong Express. Couldn’t be more different to the previous bus trip. The 6 hour trip flew by and the border crossing was very interesting. The Cambodian side of the border is like a mini Vegas – giant casino hotels and not much else. Must be something to do with the Vietnamese gambling laws.

 

 

 

Bit of a palaver to cross the border. We got off the bus on the Cambodian side and were stamped out of the country, boarded the bus, drove on about 100m, got off the bus – this time with our backpacks. We then queued to be stamped in and took our bags to the airport style scanner which looked like a hangover from the communist era.  The man on the other side of the scanner was sprawled across his seat in a deep slumber – UKBA, watch and learn (unfortunately photography was prohibited or it would have been a corker!)

 

We arrived in Saigon, off the bus and into the arms of some particularly assertive hawkers but we grabbed our packs and stomped off in search of our lodgings. In, out and straight for a beer which today is…..Saigon Green, very refreshing it is too.

So, the rule here is that the smaller the chairs, the cheaper the beer. We start off here – big chairs and even a table – bottle of beer is about £1.20 (quite pricey for SE Asia). By the end of the night we ended up on tiny plastic chairs on the edge of the road. Bottle of beer is 30p – happy days! Here we met James and SJ who have been here 3 weeks, they’re planning to teach English for the next year. Stumbled back several beers later.

Bui Vien Street. Small chairs, small price…very simple.

Next day we explored Ho Chi Minh City. Starting with the War Remnants Museum we saw another troubling part of the region’s history with American planes, tanks and artillery as well as the horrific torture used during this time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reunification Palace – the tanks rolled in here in 1975 and this place was frozen in time.

Tiger cages, where some Vietnamese prisoners were held. Barbed wire lined – horrific.

On the way back from pounding the streets we came across the new Saigon Sky Tower so went up to the viewing deck for the stunning Saigon sunset.

Sunset over Saigon. View from the 52nd Floor of the Sky Tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t have great expectations of Saigon, it was more of a transit stop on our way up the coast but we loved it, vibrant, cool and like other SE Asian cities – seemingly on the up after recent troubles. Crossing the road though remains a big challenge. The only way to do it is to forget all Western road safety practices, hold your nerve and just walk out into the street.  Hopefully most vehicles will just ride round you (they’re coming at you from all directions). Great if you’re an adrenaline junkie, tough if you’re an uninitiated Westerner and suicide if you’re a little on the infirm side!

This pic really doesn’t do it justice. The Green Cross Code does not apply here… Oh, and neither do road markings!

We’ve covered a lot of ground of the last 2 weeks so we leave Saigon to slow down for a few days on the beach near Mui Ne.