Days spent – 12 days (6 November 2016 to 18 November 2016)
Places visited – Hanoi
Books read – Chickenhawk
Things done – Vietnam History Museum, Sapa Tour, Ha Long Bay Tour
Highlight(s) – Ha Long Bay
Lowlight(s) – Hassle
Cost – £386.86 (£32.24 per day)
Good morning Vietnam. After thirty days in China, my plan for my twelve days here is to see a few things and chill. Therefore, lots of coffee has been consumed sat in a nice chair is some of Hanoi’s coffee shops. It’s not a bad way to live life really.
One of the things of interest I did was my Sapa tour. To get there it’s an overnight train from Hanoi. Damn, I thought I’d left those trains behind in China! Ah well, I’m used to them now. Although if you’re in the ‘upper bunk’ here the train rocks as it’s going down the tracks and that sensation takes some getting used to. The train arrives at 05:30 and it is hammering down. Oh great. We dash for our awaiting bus whilst trying to avoid getting wet through. Our first step is a hotel for a potential shower, but more importantly, a buffet breakfast. A buffet ‘anything’ is always well received by me. Some Western food and fried rice and noodles. All is well. Thankfully, the rain has abated slightly and we can leave voluntarily as opposed to being dragged along.
We meet our guide at the hotel, she’s tiny, shorter than five feet! We’ll be trekking through the village she grew up in but she now lives with her husband and three-year-old son. She’s twenty-one. We set off from Sapa where they’re building a new eyesore of a hotel to cater for tourists like me… Soon we are on this trail that’s slick from the rainfall. There’s an Irish guy in our group wearing very unsuitable footwear. He basically skis down. Luckily, we are assisted by Vietnamese ladies who must have mountain goat somewhere in their previous bloodline. They guide us expertly over this terrain which is actually quite difficult.
We get to this village where our guide grew up. There’s a school which she of course attended. Suprisingly, it’s a boarding school, and the kids are aged up to about nine or ten. Our guide explains that often the kids will be left to cook for themselves. High school runs from eight until eleven, after that it’s off to work. It’s a hard life out here. Our eldest ‘helper’ is forty-five, she looks at least seventy.
We spend the night in a ‘homestay’, although every accommodation source seems to call themselves that. At least ours doesn’t have wifi! Our beds have mosquito nets. Shit! Should I being using these? It’s winter, probably not. Hopefully not. The weather closes in a little on day two. Visibility due to cloud is generally no more than fifty metres, we were so lucky on day one. We get the night train back to Hanoi. An 04:35 start tomorrow, sigh…
The lowlight of Hanoi is the hassle. I can’t explain why but it really, and I mean really, bothers me. If I want a bike, I’ll ask for one. If I want a doughnut, I’ll ask for one. If I want my shoes cleaned, I’ll ask you to do it. If I want to buy your rubbish, knock-off merchandise, I’ll show an interest in it. I got to the stage where I stopped saying “No, thank you” and just blanked them, this saddens me. I better get used to it I suppose, I’m going to India…
There’s a crazy market here too. On Sunday evenings the main shopping street gets filled with even more knock-off merchants under rigged up tarpaulins and bright lights. The street gets very busy. I’m due to Skype home but I’m late because my hostel is on this street and I have to fight my way through the crowds.
In Vietnam, I read Chickenhawk. It’s a novel written by an American helicopter pilot. Not much of it has stuck with me to be honest. It’s interesting and quite sad at times but I feel a story from one of the grunts on the ground may have been a better read. It’s interesting to hear him describe landing in the hot landing zones. He uses the word ‘ting’ for when bullets hit his helicopter. I lose count of how many tings there are in the book. Reading him describe when his friend crashed and died and after (and during) the war the affects of his PTSD wasn’t easy to read.
I was a little underwhelmed by Vietnamese food to be honest, maybe I didn’t go to the right places enough. My first meal, which costs thirty thousand dong (just over a pound), is bun cha (accents are too complicated for me here – sorry!). This is grilled meat with vermicelli and vegetables, alongside is the ever-pressent nuoc cham which is supposed to be poured over everything, but I didn’t know this yet, I’m having it ‘neat’! It’s sweet, sour, spicy and fishy at the same time, very nice but pretty strong neat! One evening at my hostel I get chatting to Jackie and Mike. We have some of the free beers and then go hunting for food and end up at this great place that does duck that’s cooked in front of you. It’s really great and you get served free rice wine which the proprietor obtains from the farm where he gets the ducks. One litre is a dollar! This goes down a little too well… It’s a great group (I think the Irish girl in the photo below was worse for wear before me), we are joined by two Japanese ladies, it was nice to get my Japanese out again but I’ve forgotten so much! Come ten, I’ve had it, my hostel has the quilt rolled up at the bottom on the bed. It hasn’t moved, my legs are on it, my head’s on the pillow. I wake up fully dressed. Ooops.
The second of two things of interest I did was the Ha Long Bay tour. Ha Long translates as descending dragon, cool name. This is a better group as it’s a little less ‘couply’. We have a great guide called Dem who I’d highly recommend. It starts with a four hour bus jorney from Hanoi during which we introduce ourselves. We have all the I’m… and I’m from… and I’m in Vietnam for X weeks. Ok my turn, I’m Ian, I’m English, I’m travelling the world and I’m five months in. Which is received by oohs and ahhs. It’s too easy to forget that what I’m doing is pretty cool. The bus is weird because there’s barely enough room to walk the aisle! The fat Spanish woman on our tour struggled. That’s right, a fat Spaniard, there’s a novelty!
We arrive and put on lifejackets for the two minute transfer to our ‘big boat’ which we’ll sleep on tonight. After a decent and varied lunch we go to Hang Sung Sot (Amazing Cave), which nearly lives up to its name. After that it’s kayaking in a lagoon where boats can’t go and there’s wild monkeys which I’ve never seen before. We head back to the boat as the sun sets over one of the islands. The sun throws its rays in a massive arc, it must have been impressive because Dem’s taking photos and he’s here twice a week! As we’re on the boat deck enjoying a beer the (super)moon, not to be outdone by its celestial counterpart, tries to compete with its own rise over the star-strewn sky. Bliss.
Dem informs us that we are to be up at six! Six! I thought I was on holiday! This was supposed to be my relaxing time. I’m actually up a little earlier in a vain attempt to see the sunrise. I peek out between the curtains but it’s already daylight, bugger. I head to the top deck (that’s right I have more than one…), according to others it wasn’t much to see anyway. The main highlight of the morning was watching other boats pass us. People in their rooms don’t realise we can see them, they’re naked! After that excitement we go to Ti Top Island, here we get great panorama shots of the bay but it’s very busy up there! It’s an action day, after climbing to the top of that small island we head to the main island (Cat Ba Island), here we go cycling and jungle trekking.
I’m relieved as night two is spent in a hotel, you’ve already seen the view… Bliss… For dinner we go to a local restaurant, beers here cost six thousand dong (twenty-two pence). Bliss… Day three is simply retacing our steps (or waves or tracks) back to Hanoi. To keep us entertained Dem does a cooking class and shows us some tricks with cards and cups. The tour concludes with the inevitable bus back to Hanoi. As we approach one junction Dem says we can turn right which is four hours to China or we can turn left which is four hours to Hanoi. He asks for a show of hands. Mine is the only vote for China. Don’t try to tempt me Dem…
Strawbs – written 11 December 2016, published 12 December 2016
The view from the hotel you’ve already seen…
Us cycling on Cat Ba Island
One of the lakes in Hanoi
Ok so after the Sapa trek I needed my shoes cleaned…