Last known location: London, England

Hectic Hanoi and Heavenly Halong

We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, and on leaving the airport were immediately approached by loads of taxi drivers and mini bus companies.  We were fully prepared, though, and politely ignored them all whilst marching to the “Vietnam Airways” minibuses lined up, which had been recommended in the guide book.  However, we hadn’t taken into account Vietnams copy-cat culture, which means that pretty much every name mentioned in the Lonely Planet is taken on by several other businesses trying to cash in on the “brand”.  We eventually asked some Vietnam Airlines staff where we needed to go and they pointed us in the right direction.  We negotiated down to a sensible price and then sat waiting in the minibus for half an hour.  A Belgian guy was with us and when we realised we weren’t going anywhere until the bus was full, we climbed out and jumped into a taxi with him.  I was in Vietnam about 10 years ago, and it seems the traffic situation is much the same.  Thousands of motorbikes/mopeds weaving in and out of the cars and lorries, neither of which seems to understand the term “stay in your lane”.  So, it was a bit of a crazy half hour, and I spent much of it grabbing the handle on the inside of the car door and swearing a lot!

Our taxi driver took us into the Old Quarter of Hanoi and tried to drop us at a hotel that wasn’t ours, again a copy of a Lonely Planet recommendation.  I refused to get out of the car until he took us to our hotel, and was given the dirtiest look by the man who was trying to lure us into the new place.  We did eventually make it to the Rendezvous Hotel, where we had a really great room on the 6th floor.  Lots of stairs but nice and quiet and the all important air-con.  Hanoi was really warm, especially after coming from Busan, which was freezing!

We headed out to explore and promptly got rather lost.  The Old Quarter in Hanoi is really busy, and few of the streets have pavements you can walk on so there’s a constant concern that you’re about to get run over!  It was noisy, with horns beeping every second, and much dirtier than Japan, but really fast paced and exciting!  After finding our way again we headed to bia hoi junction, which is a crossroads in the middle of town where you can get cheap beer that’s brewed daily for about 30p!  Loads of tourists were there, in fact it was the most Westerners we’d seen since we’d started travelling.  But we were very happy to chill out for a bit taking in the atmosphere.

After a couple of drinks we went to a restaurant recommended by our hotel.  It only serves one dish, Bun Bo, and is pretty basic, but the food was really good.  It’s basically a broth with noodles, beef and veg with some crushed peanuts on top.

The next day we did some more exploring; first stop was Lake Hoan Kien, a large lake in the centre of the Old Quarter.  In the middle of the lake is a small island with a temple dedicated to Ly Thai To, a legendary Viet military leader, credited with saving the city. Strangely, it also featured an embalmed Giant Tortoise!

Next stop was Hoa Lo prison, or the “Hanoi Hilton”, which, before housing American POW’s, was one of Indochina’s biggest prisons, famous for imprisoning Vietnamese political protestors.  Conditions looked to have been pretty grim, with a lot of men in shackles for most of the day.  The prison is now most well known for taking in American prisoners including John McCain, during the Vietnamese war, and they claimed to have looked after them very well.  Not sure if it was the most impartial view, but the pictures we saw certainly portrayed a happy bunch!

That afternoon we got tickets for the water puppet show at the theatre near the lake.  This is a traditional Vietnamese form of theatre that apparently originated in the rice paddies of Vietnam.  It was certainly different to anything I’ve ever seen before, but not the most riveting theatre in the world.  Maybe I was distracted by Dan, who was standing next to me because he couldn’t fit his legs into the seats!  Luckily we were at the back so didn’t cause any disturbance but it was a bit of an uncomfortable hour!  The whole stage is filled with water, and the puppets seem to dance about on it, so it is quite clever, but not entirely riveting!

We stopped for a snack on the roof terrace of a building overlooking the Lake, and then did some more exploring of the Old Quarter, stopping at Memorial House, a traditional merchants house which had some beautiful wooden beams and artwork.  A whole family slept in the house but there was only one bed, intended for the grandparents. This was followed by more Bia at the bia-hoi junction (it’s rude not to when it’s so cheap!) and then we headed for dinner and an early night before our Halong Bay trip the next day.

We’d booked our Halong Bay trip through the hotel and got picked up by a mini-bus early on Tuesday morning.  There were about 10 other people on the bus but we all snoozed on the way to Halong City.  After a while waiting for our departure to be approved by the local police/mafia (we weren’t sure which, but apparently the mafia is a big problem in Halong) we got onto the boat where we’d be spending the next two days.  It was lovely, with a sun deck and lounge area, and our room was great.  After lunch, served while we were sailing further out into the bay we went to a small floating fishing village in Bai Tu Long Bay.  From there we got into kayaks, Dan and I had a 2-man, and did some more exploring of the area.  We managed surprisingly well, but did do some serious drifting, and I often stopped to “admire the view” (read – rest my arms!)

Halong Bay is beautiful; calm water filled with great big rock islands.  When we got back to the boat we jumped into the clear water and had a swim.  Bliss!  Afterwards there was a sunset party on the deck with Vietnamese red wine and a spring-roll master class.  Not too shabby!  We had a delicious dinner of fresh fish and celebrated the birthday of an Australian guy who was part of the group.  Lots of terrible European trance music – it was all they had – and some bad dancing later and we went to bed!

Day 2 on Halong Bay was even better.  Most of the group were on a 1 night trip so they left after breakfast and me, Dan and an Australian girl got to spend the day with our own personal guide.  We kayaked to our own private beaches and went swimming in beautiful clear waters.  Jealous yet?!  We also went to Monkey Island, which had a beautiful beach and stunning views after a somewhat treacherous climb up a small mountain!  No monkey’s though, unfortunately, we were told it was too hot for them!  That night we enjoyed another sunset party and then had an early night.  All that swimming and sun really took it out of us!

Our third and final day saw us head to Sung Sot Cave, which means “Surprising Cave”.  The big surprise seems to be a large phallic growth from one wall of the cave, which had been much-hyped by the tour guide.  The cave was beautiful though, with 3 large chambers and some amazing stalactites/mites.  We spent an hour or so there before heading back to the boat and cruising back to port.  Another very bumpy bus ride to Hanoi followed, and we had a couple of hours to get ready for our night train to Hue.

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