Hanoi, Halong, Hanoi
26.12.2012 - 01.01.2013 16 °C
We’d been in Hanoi for a couple of days, but it had only been a quick stop before travelling to Sapa and then a few days over Christmas when we didn’t really want to be sightseeing. So we’d not really had the chance to explore. We’d been staying in the Old Quarter which is an area full of back-alleys and street sellers, where each little lane offered a different product or service and motorbikes ruled. If we’re honest, we didn’t really warm to the place as it was fast-paced, dirty, congested, loud and you always had to walk on the road due to the amount of motorbikes/stalls on the pavement. It was all in all a typical big Asian city, perhaps the type you might find in an 80’s kung-fu film ;-)
We had a bit of time before Ha Long Bay, so we set about taking in some sights for a couple of days. The first day we went to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university and now, due to the American War, one of the few places you can see a good example of Vietnamese architecture. The place was pretty, but we had more fun chatting to some Vietnamese students who had taken a shining to Louise when Chris went off to photograph a dragon (!). The Premier League’s massive in Vietnam and Louise held her own in a game of “do you know…Wayne Rooney?” (swap the name here and you get the picture). Football is a good ice breaker with many Vietnamese (before you can
move on to more interesting topics, says Louise).
Day 2 we started the day with some lovely street food before heading for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. You could, if you wanted, go and see Uncle Ho’s body lying in state, but this isn’t something we massively wanted to do as he’s clearly very precious to the Vietnamese and you have to look at a stuffed dead body! Mmm…We ended the day by deliberately taking on rush hour traffic on the back of a ‘xe om’ (motorbike cuddle). It’s one thing to stop and stare at the madness on the roads, but it’s an all together more thrilling experience to be weaving amongst the other motorbikes and cars.
The highlight of the two days was on the way to the mausoleum when we headed to the nearest local coffee shop for a ‘happy room’ break. There was a group of Vietnamese old boys outside (including one guy called John who lived in Detroit and kindly acted as translator) sharing an afternoon bottle of Vodka. We asked for a couple of Vietnamese drip coffees but by the time Louise had come back from the happy room Chris had already had vodka shot number one and was being inducted. We spent an hour with them drinking vodka, exchanging wedding photos with the lady owner and eating free oranges. One of the old guys kept standing up to give us hugs referring to Chris as “ooohh Chriiisty!” and said with a straight face “you 29, me 60... you are my son now”. Another guy said that to Louise that “to see us so happy, made him feel it wasn’t too late for him to feel happiness again either”. All in all, it was very touching. They refused to let us pay for anything as John had said “today you’ve made an old man very happy”. They sent us on our way a bit tipsy and with big smiles on our faces. :-D It was refreshing to have a couple of days speaking to decent Vietnamese people, because after the Sapa incident we were getting a bit sick of being ripped off.
We’d done a few tours recently, which due to better transport links isn’t something we’ve really needed to do in previous countries. There are big advantages to tours, such as journey times are reduced, sharing the experience with other backpackers while getting lots of good tips on places to go, and also getting well informed knowledge on not just the tour subject but any other question you want to ask the guide about the country you’re visiting. But then there are also disadvantages to tours, you lose some freedom, sometimes it can feel like you spend more time travelling than sightseeing, if you don’t warm to the people you’re with (and are stuck with them!) and depending on the guides enthusiasm, it can feel a bit monotonous! We’ve been picking and choosing when we need to do them, or just when it’s more practical. Ha Long Bay was a definite tour, as the place is seriously massive and to do it ourselves would have been expensive.
We’d heard a lot of horror stories about Ha Long Bay tours (rats and cockroaches on the boats, food poisoning terrible service and in the worst case 11 people drowning in 2011) as they sell for as little as 40 pounds for 3 days to thousands of pounds depending on your desired level of comfort. We elected for a 3 day tour with reputable company and paid a bit more than we’re used to, to boost our chances of a good experience.
We were picked up by minibus and headed straight out of Hanoi for the boat. Our guide ‘Tiger’ informed us half way that due to windy conditions we wouldn’t be able to board until 2pm, a couple of hours later than scheduled. Although bad news, it was nice to see they were taking things seriously. So we had lunch in a harbor restaurant and all got to know each other. The group consisted of us (obviously), a lovely German couple called Benno and Karolina, Maria a nurse from Spain who was travelling with her boyfriend Manuel from Switzerland, a Dutch family whose kids were all studying in the UK and a couple of Czech girls who kept themselves to themselves. Everyone was very chatty and we soon realized that they could all speak at least 3 languages fluently (French, German, Spanish, Russian, English etc)… thankfully, they elected to speak English most of the time! It made us feel a bit lacking, so one of our new year’s resolutions is to get bilingual (on your asses).
When we reached the boat it wasn’t as we’d imagined (still nice though), mainly because in 2011 the government had demanded all boats be painted white. However, once on board and with a beer in hand the beauty of Ha Long Bay was revealed from the mist. We cruised past the ‘Kissing Cocks’ islands (below - named by Chris, the official title is Love Chickens Islands) towards Surprise Cave, a large cave in one of the limestone karsts and our first stop.
As all the tour boats set off together at 2pm and a lot of one day tours took in Surprise Cave, this was a bit of a procession and we all had some reservations that the tour would be marred by the popularity of the Bay. The cave wasn’t the best we’ve seen but still impressive and despite losing Tiger in the masses on a couple of occasions, we had a good time. As for the surprise part of the name, judge for yourself
Afterwards, we all sat down for dinner and did a bit more getting to know each other before crashing in our cabins. Despite paying $4 for a small can of beer (ouch!), the boat was lovely and the rooms were certainly better than we were used to.
We started day two with a trip to a lagoon, in the middle of the bay. To access the lagoon we boarding rowing boats, as we had to enter it through a gap in the limestone karsts that surrounded it. We should have visited it the previous night but due to schedule running late, Tiger had us out of bed at 6am to be the first ones there. It was worth it, the place was so quiet and we all had some time away from the bustle to appreciate where we were. Next stop was Ti-top Island, 425 steps up to the top of a very tall limestone karst with panoramic views of the bay. Again, we were so early, every other tour group were still on their boats so it was just us. It was lovely and laid to rest our fears of
After the Ti-Top Island, we made our way to the largest of the islands Cat Ba Island, to visit the National Park. After a bit of boat hopping, we said goodbye to the Dutch family and said hello to Angie, a Chinese girl who after travelling the world now lives in Singapore. She was very chatty and quickly integrated herself in to the group. After arriving at Cat Ba Island, we were all given bicycles and went for a 30minute hilly ride to a local village. This was to be the start and end point of a 1 ½ hour trek through the jungle, led by Tiger. In the UK a tour would have started with an over the top checklist about everyone’s physical well being and a talk through the specifics of what we would be doing. But this was Vietnam and before we knew it we were literally climbing limestone rock faces, hiking through jungle and traversing high log bridges with no handrails. Perhaps the fact that we didn’t have time to get nervous made it all rather matter of fact so we cracked on and had a good laugh. We were at the front of the group being led by Tiger, which seemed an advantage until he jumped out from behind a massive leaf, scaring Louise witless! Funny, but we were scrambling down sheer rocks at that point (still funny, says Chris).
At the end of the jungle adventure, we headed for the hotel to celebrate New Year like never before! During the day, Tiger had got chatting to Angie and discovered that she was a demon table tennis player (her former coach now coaches Argentina no less), so he’d invited her out for a game as he was a keen player too. Angie, wanting moral support, invited us along, so we all jumped on the back of motorbikes and headed for the local hospital. The doctor’s staff room was the scene for the 3-0 white-washing that Tiger gave Angie and we stood by drinking beers (bought from the doctor’s canteen!) and taking in the match. After the win, Tiger took on all the other players and as testosterone levels reached their peak, Vietnamese men were banging walls with their rackets, punching the air when a shot was won and almost piling in to us in order to reach their shots. It was all rather dramatic and very aggressive (in a sporty way), but it was also very funny to watch. After the game Tiger took us to his favourite fresh seafood restaurant (as in pick your own from the aquariums outside) and ordered for the table. Chris gorged himself on the nicest Oysters and Prawns he’s ever eaten. The vegetable mixes weren’t exactly shabby either! When the night came (below), the drinks flowed, culminating in free Champagne on the beach and a 2am bed time. Great day and night had by all! :-)
We woke at 6am again to get breakfast and start the long journey back to Hanoi. We’d all had 4 hours sleep and were suffering a little from the night before, but still maintained strong conversation all the way back to the minibus before the heat and the busy 2 days caught up with everyone and we all passed out! Back in Hanoi, we capped off a great trip by meeting up for some street food (fried eels) and Bia Hoi before saying goodbye to our new friends. We were so busy chatting that we’ve not taken as many pictures as we should have done. But there’s some more en route courtesy of the other guys.
Our time in Vietnam drew to a close after our tour of Ha Long Bay. We had one more day in Hanoi, which we used to do a lot of travel admin and finished with a delicious tofu based meal (below). We spent a total of 9 days in Hanoi and had learnt to love it for all the things we initially didn’t like about it. Hanoi is a special city, a million miles away from all the cities where you feel could be anywhere and is the place that best sums up the Vietnam that we know and have come to love. 30 days was no-where near enough and we’d love to come back :-)