On the flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, I realised I’d forgotten to include the funniest / weirdest thing about China in my last post; the fact that Chinese people loved nothing more than taking photos of us. Talking to other travellers, this seems pretty common – as well as sneakily snapping away and giggling, quite a few came up to us and asked to pose. I thought I wouldn’t have an excuse to include this in a post, but within 24 hours in Hanoi it had happened again!
Hanoi is an amazing city, totally different from any of the Chinese cities. It’s very laid back and low key, and in the Old Quarter where our hostel was, it feels much smaller and more intimate. The traffic is still pretty mental though, with just about every person cruising round on scooters, with no regard for traffic rules. Sitting in a bar on the corner of a crossroads for a couple of hours on the first night, we saw groups and families of 4 or 5 crammed onto the bikes and zipping around the junction as if they were the only ones on the road. Don’t think we will be hiring bikes here…
After a couple of days we arranged a tour out to Ha Long Bay, an incredible stretch of coast with almost 2000 limestone karst peaks and islands shooting up out of the water. The first day felt a bit like we were cattle being herded, following countless other boats to the same spots, cramming into the same famous cave and then hiking up the same peak.
After braving the bugs in our cabin all night we were picked up early the next day by a smaller local boat, which was well worth the extra Dong.
We spent the day practically on our own, with hardly any other boats around. The sun came out and the entire day consisted of sunbathing, jumping from the boat into the sea and kayaking into lagoons through tiny caves and tunnels. To top it off, we saw monkeys! We did have some mild drama when the tour company phoned to say that the boat we had been on had broken down, so we spent a couple of hours imagining our bags at the bottom of the ocean, but they were in the new (and nicer) cabin at the end of the day.
The journey back to Hanoi took most of the following day, with the morning on the top deck and the afternoon in the minibus. That night, after spring rolls and beer, the only English language channels we could find were showing football or Titanic – Law won.
After Ha Long we had lined up another tour, this time to do some trekking in Sapa in the far north of Vietnam. Our night train was fine, with nicer cabins than China, but we did arrive a couple of hours late. We had booked a home stay in a small minority Hmong village with a local guide, around 12km away from the town. The first 500m were fine, until our group was stopped by ’government’ officials. Apparently, our guide hadn’t filled out the correct paperwork and so they wanted to take us to their offices in town. This is a standard scam in Southeast Asia, and not knowing what to think we took it easy and sat in the road.
The guys, and by this point it seemed half the village men had come out, finally let us pass, after taking the the guides licence away and hooking us up with a new one. We were all thinking that the poor local guide woman had been screwed over, though we did later find out that she had been in the wrong – apparently she was taking the dollars for the entry fee and trying to sneak everyone into the valley without buying tickets!
It wasn’t a particularly taxing hike, but the views are breathtaking of the rice paddies, villages and mist topped mountains. We were followed down the mountain by several local women in traditional dress, who were friendly and helpful all the way – until we reached the bottom when they surrounded us and tried to make us buy crap! It was quite intense, so we did end buying a pretty pointless bag for a couple of bucks. They were good at guilt tripping.
We spent the night in a home stay, which is basically the loft of a building with a load of mattresses on the floor, but we were with a good group and the food was nice.
We then spent two nights on trains, one into Hanoi and then again the following night onto Hue. The latter journey was less pleasant, in the hard sleeper class and over 2 and a half hours late, but we made it.
So, we’ve had intense monsoon rain, seen the ’Hanoi Hilton’ prison (full of propaganda about the American War and POWs), dived off a boat and kayaked through caves, seen low-level corruption, hiked through muddy tracks, haggled for a haircut and gotten millions of Dong out of the bank. Not bad for 10 days in ’Nam.