Hanoi and North Vietnam
Fresh off our 12 hour bus ride - they aren't fun, but I met a friend, Dill, so we aparently managed to keep a chunk of the bus awake. It's lucky we aborted our attempts to get everyone singing - we arrived into the heart of Hoi An. This town is one of the only ones in Vietnam not to have been damaged in the numerous wars. Sadly, our first taste of it was at 6am on a very wet day! Thankfully the bus dropped us at a really nice, cheap hotel - there's a lot in Hoi An - where we crashed until lunchtime and the sun had appeared. Actually, it was in full force by that point, and those of you that know me will know what the sun does to me...
Digressing slightly, I'm going to move onto the buses. Poor old Dan was becoming less of a fan of the buses than me, and often felt terrible whenever we arrived anywhere. I was ok, as long as I reacted fast enough with my knee when I saw the person in front going for the tall person crippling lever (or recliner as it's known). I 'd also like to know who's [insert expletive here] idea it was to put reclining chairs on buses and planes in the first place, and why on earth they recline to the almost horizontal position! It's madness, and seeing as every bus we took was full to capacity, strikes me as a waste of money unless of couse they don't like tall people who moan about recilining chairs.
The town is based around the old quarter, where you can find some wonderful, traditional shops specialising in custom made outfits, galleries - I can really recommend checking out some Vietnamese art! - restaurants and street cafes, perfect for watching the world go by. Watching the world go by is, incidently, one of my new favourite pasttimes! It's fascinating watching and listening to people. I'm especially a fan of the Japanese and Korean tourist groups (but heards might be more appropriate).
As you can guess from that, we spent a while just ambling round the streets and looking in shops. It's really not the kind of place you rush as you'll end up knocking people over, much like the bikes squeezing down the narrow streets! Flowing through the South side of the town is the Thu Bon river, which serves as the main artery into the town, and a great place to eat. We also did a lot of people watching, and we worked on honing our pool playing skill (or lack of - you need beer for pool). We also ran into several of our friends from Nha Trang. It's the kind of place that really draws you in with it's peaceful laid back ways, and we really wanted to stay for longer, but decided it would give us a reason to come back in the future!
Moving onto Hue - the former Imperial city - the bus journey was a much more respectable 4 hours, and once again I bumped into a friend from Mui Ne, Dave, so that journey passed fairly quickly, but no singing this time and it was during the day.
Once again, our arrival was slightly odd, but this time because they seemed to have forgotten to build any streets lights! It was actually quite an unnerving experience, especially when I wandered off to get money from an ATM along dark streets, continually tripping over potholes. We also made the long trek to the train station in the dark - some 2km - to book our overnight sleeper train tickets to Hanoi (we didn't like the thought of another 16 hours on a bus!).
Come the next day, it was glorious sunshine, and we set off on foot - for a change - to explore the Citadel. Crossing the perfume river, and then entering into the Citadel was like entering another world! It was akin to entering Angkor Wat for the first time, with large open streets, sparse buildings and moats. Our first stop was the Antique Objects Museum, which contains items from the royal dynasties over the last 2000 years.
Next up, we worked around the outer wall of the Citadel, and in through the Ngan Gate, then into the Imperial City through the Ngo Mon gate. Sadly, most of the Citadel's buildings have been destroyed in the wars, but a few are still left, and you can walk around the grounds. Of those still standing, I thought that the Royal Reading pavillion was the most regal, but we also went into the royal theatre - there seemed to be no shows that day - and round to the Queen's palace.
Exiting the Citadel, we stopped for a bite to eat in what is described as one of the best, if not the bestm restuarant by the guide books, and is run by a family of deaf mutes. It's called Lac Thien, and I'd have to agree that the food was truly excellent!
Taking the overnight sleeper to Hanoi - a 13 hour journey - was far more comfortable than getting the bus. We were in the SE1 train, which is classed as a soft sleeper which means soft bed and 4 persons per berth. A hard sleeper - yes, harder matress - has 6 people per berth. Our ticket also included a meal, which was rather unexpected and not something you get on the buses! We pulled into Hanoi around 6.30am. I also managed to leave my (older) glasses on the train... Fool!
Once again, we checked straight into a hotel, and crashed for a few hours. Our hotel was in the Old Quarter, which in my opinion is the best place in Hanoi to be. The streets have a real buzz to them, with street sellers, open front shops selling just about everything and scooters constantly trying to run you over - when the buses aren't trying to run them over!
There's so much to see in Hanoi, but you can also just wander around. We visited the Military Army Museum - which still uses phrases such as 'Puppet-regime' and 'spies' in the literature, unlike the Ho Chi Minh version - the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Opera House and History Museum. We also went to a show at the Water Puppet Theatre, a traditional art form created by the farmers to entertain the local villages, and since performed all over the world.
But, we also did that 'watching the world go by' thing again. Our favourite was to sit in the City View bar overlooking the most ridiculous traffic system ever devised - yes, we saw a few (not serious) coming togethers. I was reading a local paper which said that in December and January, there were 148(approx) deaths on the road, and another 300(approx) injuries, and they attributed this to Drunk driving and speeding. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the way everyone goes hell for leather at each other when the lights change, or driving the wrong way down streets, or manouvering then looking!
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is an area of bizarrely shaped rocks, caves and beautiful blue water. With fond memories of our 3 day boat trip in Australia, we decided to spend 2 days on a junk - why are they called that? - in the bay. Now, before I get onto the bay, everyone on the junk - including us - was expecting there to be slightly more decorum on the seas. In fact, it was worse! There was a small harbour, and all the junks basically just pushed their way to the front, pushing others aside, creating a floating mass of wood. We were amused as one junk performed this task, and managed to lift the roof off the neighbouring one! The skipper was not happy!
The formations in the bay are amazing! You just want to go and explore every bay and island. I could have spent months there. But alas, we were on a tour, and it's a national park anyway, so you have to stick to certain areas. Our first stop was the 'Amazing Cave' - I kid you not, that's it's name! Obviously the French were feeling adventurous when they named it!
We also squeezed in some Kayaking and a dip in the - rather cold - ocean. Everyone thought we were mad, but it was so refreshing and felt great! Dan and I also made use of the upper sundeck as a launch point for jumping into the water, some 20 feet or so. It was great fun. The people on the boat were also great, and once again, we'd been lucky to get such great company!
Our second day was dissappointing sadly. We headed round to Cat Ba Island to collect some more people, which meant to more swimming, and no early morning wake-up swim sadly. We did pass a rather impressive 'floating city' though, where lots of the fisherman and street sellers - yes, they operated in the harbour too - lived and worked. That evening, those left in Hanoi met up for dinner and drinks.
The next stop is Laos, which is either 1 hour on a plane, or an 'horrific' 20 hours on a bus. Guess which we're doing... We're both sad to have left Vietnam though as we've had a fantastic 4 weeks! but we're definately both planning on going back there, and recommend it to everyone!