… And back to Vietnam. All along the way, people had warned me that Hanoi was cold and that I’d have to dig out my jeans and hoodie from the bottom of my backpack. They weren’t lying. I think it was 20 degrees, which is warm by London standards at the moment but when you’ve been used to sweating in 34 degree heat its not so good. It was also overcast. No more sun. It made me appreciate how laidback and cool Luang Prabang had been when I tried to cross the road for the first time in Hanoi. Back to the motorcycle craziness. I got a great room in a place recommended by my friend Ruth smack bang in the middle of the Old Quarter. Felt quite safe there – people sat on the pavements eating and drinking til really late. I had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner with the locals! I sat down at this street restaurant and was like, OK what do I do now? My hotel receptionist helpfully wrote this for me to show anyone giving me food “Tôi không ăn thịt heo”. I showed this to the waitress and she came back with a big bowl of noodles with lettuce, coriander and vietnamese basil leaves at the bottom, some beansprouts, small tender slices of beef, crushed peanuts, and sweet sauce over the top of the lot. It was good! It cost me 50,000 dong. About £1.50. In my time in Hanoi I did a lot of wandering. I was approached by a lot of people who didnt just straightforward offer a moto ride or something, a lot were after your money. I didnt like being seen as a chi-ching! But the people in my hotel had been really good, warning me how to handle people who did this and so on. I had an amusing time at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. A group of Vietnamese students said hello to me. They were curious of me and wanted to practise their English. One of the boys who had been quiet for some time eventually came out with “I love you. Do you love me?” Everyone laughed. He was bemused by everyone’s reaction. I said I was married. Easiest way out of any situation like this. It seems that presence or not of a wedding ring in Asia makes no difference, you always have to explain you have a husband somewhere. And whenever this is given as an answer, the next question will be “Do you have children?” They were great fun and took turns having their picture taken with me. I probably value the short time spent with them more that I would the time I would have spent at the Museum if it had been open.
Went to the Museum of Literature because apparently it was a “must-see”. Tip: take a guide so you know what you’re looking at. I didnt. Epic fail. I found the Hanoi Hilton, aka Hoa Lo Prison far more interesting. Again, a place of learning, this time about the revolutionaries imprisoned during French Occupation. It made me a bit mad; why were these people who wanted their country back being jailed for expressing that right?
I tried to find the infamous BBQ chicken street for dinner – a long line of dirty chicken sold on the street. Oh yes. But what a dummy, I forgot to pencil the exact location and later that evening back at the hotel, I discovered I had been just a block away when I gave up looking. Blah. I was also going to try some ‘chon’ coffee, apparently the highest grade of coffee, its been through a weasel’s bum. Nice. I had a sniff. It was way too strong to be drinking at 10pm. Next time. Hanoi was also the first place I got Vietnamese coffee with cow milk, not the condensed stuff they love overhere. And you know? It still tasted really good despite no longer tasting like chocolate.
When you travel to Asia you have to take your life in your hands and run with it. This is how I feel everytime Im on a local bus, boarding an internal flight or sitting in a car with no seatbelt. I was anxious about which cruise to pick for Halong Bay. But you know what? I pretty much stuck a pin in and picked one. I had gone to the backpackers the night before to suss out the crowd. A girl I met in Laos said the backpackers cruise was the best thing she had ever done. I dont know if it was lack of sun, tiredness (couldnt remember the last time I got 8 hrs sleep) or the suicide Tuesday effect of suddenly being alone again but I just didnt fancy it. So I went with what my hotel recommended. I just hoped it was full of like-minded people…
The next morning I was picked up nice and early. There was a young Aussie couple on the bus already. Score! It took about an hour to get everyone and we had a nice mixed group of ages and nationalities. I got talking to Hugh from Swansea, a nice bloke a bit older than me who’d been living in Leamington Spa for ages. I was NOT liking the weather. Thunderstorms. Rain. Grey. Got to the port at Halong and they said we wouldnt be able to set sail because of poor visibility. I hadnt seen a risk assessment (haha) so was more than happy with this outcome although everyone else was itching to get going. We had lunch on the boat in the harbour and halfway through we started to move! We sailed for ages past big lumps of limestone. Despite it being a not very nice day, the sight was still amazing. I know different trips do different things but on this one we went to visit a big cave, Sung Sot Cave, and did some kayaking. We had dinner on the boat and watched the sunset. Well, what we could of the sunset given the crappy cloud cover. There were so many other boats around us, it was cool just to sit on the top deck and watch their lights come on. A couple of the guys went for a swim. They came back and said it was cold. The evening was spent doing karaoke. I sneaked up stairs to sit on the top of the boat. It was just nice up there and I went back downstairs, everyone was going to bed, even the young ones! Whaaaa?! It was only about 10pm but we had had an early start and we were due an early morning the next day. I sat down to have a drink and do some writing. Hugh managed to wander back from wherever (its a boat, theres not so many places to wander) and also came to get a drink and then an English guy, Steve, who was 25, came back too, & we sat out drinking til about 1am. We could hear one boat still had their party music on. Steve and I talked about getting in the landing junk attached to our boat and sailing across to to the party but when we looked the junk had gone! Steve suggested swimming across. Hugh said this was not a good idea. So we went to bed.
My room was great – very big and clean and a nice bathroom. Score again!
The next day, just me, the Aussie couple (who turned out to be very quiet), a German couple and a French couple stayed with the boat. Everyone else was only spending a night in Halong Bay; we were going to go to Cat Ba Island and stay there. We said our goodbyes to everyone and transferred to a smaller boat. We stopped at Lan Ha Bay which had a good beach. We talked about swimming and though the water was not too cold, the sun still didnt want to come out so we just climbed up a cliff. I got attacked by monkeys, the little buggers. Our guide had to chase them away. I didnt get bitten or anything so it was OK. They just came running at me and were jumping on me, one of them was pulling at my skirt, raaah!
We got to Cat Ba and this is where I experienced my favourite bit of the whole trip – a cycle ride. We cycled past very blue turquoise waters, whizzed down hills, through cave tunnels and jungle and alongside buffalo and cows in the paddy fields. We stopped at a bungalow resort (where I was staying that night with the Aussies) and went on a short jungle trek. Everyone laughed at me because I was the only one who got bitten by mosquitoes. Rubbish. But I saw loads of different butterflies – orange ones, white ones, yellow, black, blue, so that was cool.
Aurore and Thibeau, the French couple, and Radenko and Cam-Ha, the German guys, were staying at a hotel in Cat Ba town so when we got back, they left me and the Aussies at the bungalow site. I went for a nap under my mosquito net and slept for 3 hours, getting up only for dinner. Dinner was nice and the Aussies went back to their room straight after. Luckily, a large group of Dutch and German travellers were also spending their 2nd night there and when they saw me alone, they beckoned me over and we stayed up chatting for a good couple of hours.
The next morning after breakfast (and the best pancakes I’ve had this entire trip), we rode back to the harbour. Thibeau, Aurore, Radenko and Cam-Ha were already on the boat with our guide coming to pick us up. It was good to see them and we sat on the top deck swapping stories even though it was really cold. We were the chattiest group on the boat and I felt that we were forming a special bond which I havent had since Siem Reap. People trying to read disappeared below deck one by one. It was getting colder. We transferred back to our big boat to sail back to Halong. The trip to Halong was not nice. It started to pelt down with rain. I could hardly see any of the rocks, it was that bad. We were distracted by a cooking lesson. I had a go at making decorative vegetables. I was rubbish.
Still, we got back safe. Despite the weather Id been pleased with the trip.
We had lunch in Halong with people who had started their trip the day after us but who had stayed on the boat for just one night. I pitied the people who would be having their 2nd day today on Cat Ba. Not a nice day. Using the toilet after lunch was an experience. Cam-Ha and Radenko had already been during lunch and they just kept laughing when they came back. We kept asking them why but they werent really letting on. Aurore and I went. First we were hit by the stench. It was BAD. And like, really bad. I stood there covering my face waiting in the queue. Somebody came out and said there was more than one toilet inside so Aurore and I went in and then realised why a queue had formed; there was only one toilet with a door at the end by itself. Alongside there were 4 or 5 cubicles with a raised squat toilet. And no doors. I looked at Aurore. She looked at me. We both looked at a middle-aged woman behind us. When she realised what we were going to do she screwed her nose up at us and backed away. We gotta do what we gotta do so we went for it. We sat down to relieve ourselves and realised the toilets had been built so small that we could actually lean forward and have a conversation with each other. That was interesting. Perhaps not something Ill do again but we were laughing all the way to the bus. Even the Aussies joined in with the joke.
I fell asleep on the bus, completely knackered, completely out of it. I woke up only when our crazy driver was honking at someone or swerving past someone. Later on, Aurore challenged our guide, Ken , and the guide from the 2nd tour to a sing-off. That was good fun and kept us going all the way to Hanoi. I now know the words to Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! It really was something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ad6S8JwkVz8
Back in Hanoi I arranged to meet the 2 couples later. I hadnt planned to go to the Water Puppet Show but I figured in a group it could be fun. We got to the theatre but all shows were fully booked so we went to get some ice cream instead. This was followed by some dinner and drinks with my new friends. I was sad when I had to leave to get the night train down south. But not for long; this was the start of another Vietnamese adventure…