Published: August 24th 2008August 7th 2008
Our night flight from Vientiane to Hanoi was supposed to take less than one hour but it ended up taking much longer. The tropical storm brewing over Hanoi was causing havoc with air traffic in and out of the airport. As we sat on board the Vietnamese Airlines Airbus we began our descent into the airport, the nighttime approach hindered by dismal visibility caused by the low altitude cloud outside. Down we went but the first approach was aborted by the flight crew at the last second, the plane buffeting from all sides as we climbed through the hot, humid turbulent air. The jet engines screamed up to full throttle.
No announcement came from the cockpit and the cabin remained deathly quiet. All around, people closed books and held their children's hands. The jet went down for the second attempt, descending into the troubled lower altitudes. Outside was nothing but murk, only the occasional flash from the wingtip navigational strobes could be seen. Suddenly the aircraft made a sickening lurch to the left, and up ahead a woman screamed. The cabin became silent as we headed for the runway. Ten seconds later the engines spooled up once more for full
power. The landing had been aborted a second time. We climbed with the overhead bins rattling in frustration. They were the only sound apart from the screaming.
Actually, I made the last bit up, but you get the picture. We ended up circling over Hanoi for another fifteen minutes before the pilots sensibly diverted to the coastal town of Danang. An hour later we were on the ground, safe and sound.
From the airport we were bused, all one hundred and seventy of us, to a plush hotel in the centre of town. For some of the young backpackers on board the flight this was like winning the lottery. Two teenage girls sitting behind us whooped for joy when they saw the hotel. “We were going to pay two dollars for a hostel! This place will have showers!”
We didn't see much of Danang because we had to be up at 4am the next morning to be bused back to the airport. But from what we did see, it looked a nice place. With the sun peeking over the horizon, the view from the top of the hotel was wonderful. The mountains in the distance served as
a fantastic backdrop for the river in the foreground.
We eventually got to Hanoi at 9.30am into an overcast and humid day. Despite our weariness, our first port of call was Hoan Kiem Lake, located in the centre of the city, about ten minutes walk from our hotel. It was a large green expanse of water surrounded by shops, cafes and restaurants. As we traversed its southern edge, Angela asked me what was so special about it.
“Well,” I said, reading from the guide book, “according to some legend, a 15th century emperor decided to have a sail on the lake. He'd beaten the Chinese army or something and wanted to celebrate. Anyway, he was sailing about, probably waving to people, when a golden turtle appeared from the depths. It nicked his sword and swam down into the depths.”
The lake was clearly a focal point of Hanoi. People of all ages were wandering along its edge or else sitting on one of the many benches surrounding it. Teenage couples seemed to favour the lake more than any other group. They sat canoodling underneath hanging branches. In the middle of the lake stood a small structure known
as the Tortoise Tower.
“Not the Turtle Tower?,” Angela asked. “After the one that stole the sword?” I hastily consulted the guide book. But no, it was definitely called the Tortoise Tower. A bit odd.
Along the eastern edge of the lake was a quaint red bridge leading to a small island. It was the home of the Ngoc Son Temple, dedicated to the god of Literature. We crossed the bridge, and after only a few minutes found the temple to be quite unremarkable except for one thing. In a tiny room, inside a glass container stood a golden turtle. People wandered past it, snapping off photos. We did the same thing. We could only presume it was linked to the legend of the lake.
The old part of Hanoi was located to the north of the lake. To get there we had to cross a busy road. “There's a pedestrian crossing”, I said. But it might as well have been invisible. Every vehicle simply ignored it. There was only one thing to do; we had to follow the example of the locals. We stepped of the pavement and walked out, slowly but confidently. Traffic swerved around,
almost encircling us in the road. Sometimes bikes were only inches away, but keeping calm we made it to the other side alive.
The streets of the old town were manic: beeping, beeping and more beeping. Motorbikes and cyclos forcing their way through the already crowded streets. At each intersection a myriad of peddlers stood selling shoes, hats, watches and fruit. Wandering about amongst all this madness were the conical-hat wearing women. They carried horizontal sticks over their shoulders, pots dangling from each ends. In the 15th century, this part of Hanoi was made up of guilds, each taking over a whole street to hawk their goods. For instance, there was a street dedicated to sword makers, and another specializing in silverware, but nowadays much of this has gone. But not all. As Angela stepped along the uneven pavements, we passed streets dedicated to the sale and repair of shoes, and further along, rather morbidly, one small street was the home of gravestone merchants.
Inevitably, Angela soon found a silk shop. We just had to go in. “I bet it's expensive,” she said as she opened the door. Twenty minutes later she had been measured up for a
dress and underskirt. “I can collect it in two days. A fitted silk outfit! It's gorgeous! And only forty dollars! That’s twenty quid!”
Later, we went for a meal in Bobby Chinn’s, an upmarket restaurant catering for, as far as we could tell, a mainly western clientele. It looked grand from the outside, and we were ushered in by a well-dressed waitress, we couldn't help but be impressed. Mr Chinn, half Chinese, half Egyptian, was born in New Zealand, educated in England, but worked in New York in the financial field. Disillusioned with the cut throat world of hedge funds and world markets, he eventually moved into the restaurant business. We sat down and perused the menu.
“My salmon's raw,” said Angela. Our food had arrived a couple of minutes earlier. I looked as she showed me the red flesh in the middle of the fish, clearly not cooked. I cut into my salmon finding the same thing. The outside of the fish was pink and cooked, but in the middle was stringy, deep pink, and obviously undercooked.
Angela and I never complain in restaurants, it’s simply not in our nature. For instance, back in Bangkok, when
I’d found a hair in my fried rice, we hadn’t complained. But Bobby Chinn’s had already riled me prior to the arrival of the salmon. It was do to with the beer on offer. Whenever I'm in a foreign country I always have the local beer. It's only fair that my money reaches the local economy, albeit it in an alcoholic way. In all the bars of Hanoi so far, I'd bought the local produce, appropriately named Bia Na Noi, so when we'd entered Mr Chinn's and the waitress had asked us what drinks we would like, I had immediately ordered a local beer.
“Sorry sir,” said the aloof waitress. “We have run out of local beer. But you can have international beer. Would you like a Heineken?” Ran out of local beer? What a bloody joke. According to the menu, the international brands of beer were almost double the price of the local brew. So now, with our raw fish, I was ready to complain for the first time in my life. When the waitress approached, asking if everything was to our liking, I shook my head. “No,” I stated. “Our salmon’s raw. Look.”
The young Vietnamese
waitress bent down to inspect my plate, and then straighten up. “No, sir. It is not raw. It has been smoked for five hours before cooking. It is delicious. There is nothing wrong with this salmon.” She smiled, and then gave me a look possibly reserved for heathens of the restaurant trade.
I wasn’t convinced. I poked about in the fish with the waitress watching my every move. The inside was red and uncooked. “So you're telling me this isn't raw?” Opposite me, Angela looked embarrassed. Let's just forget this, she seemed to say.
The woman looked down and smiled a most condescending smile. “Yes it cooked.” She might as well have said: And you are far too uncouth to be dining in a restaurant such as this. Please leave by the back entrance and eat your fodder from the large trough in the alleyway.
We ate the food, and although quite delicious (despite the rawness) it still left a bitter aftertaste in our mouths. Our waitress, a local Vietnamese girl, was quite easily capable of working in a fine French restaurant where it is a requirement for the waiting staff to hold an aloof attitude. Leaving
the restaurant, I wondered what Mr Chinn would make our experience. “It wasn't that bad,” said Angela, as we flagged down a cyclo driver to take us back to our hotel. “And besides, we got to hobnob with the elite of Hanoi's for a while.”
A cyclo was a pedal bike with a seat for two attached to the front. It was a form of transport neither of us had sampled but the experience turned out to be a good one. To be among the thick of Hanoi's traffic was exciting when a pedestrian, but in a slow moving bicycle, with only a tiny metal bar as protection, it was exhilarating, especially at junctions where every powered vehicles skimmed past us beeping their horn. I turned around to speak to the middle aged man peddling away behind us. I asked him if he was tired. The man grinned. “Me? No! I no get tired. I pedal for one hour and not get tired!”
The next day was a relatively early start. We were driving to Halong Bay, famous for its limestone mountains jutting out from the sea. The journey took three hours, but the time passed quickly: the
scenery outside was the Vietnam we’d imagined. Conical-hat wearing farmers working the lush and verdant paddy fields, water buffalo grazing by the side of the road. The countryside of Vietnam was indeed beautiful.
Our guide, a man called Tang, spoke up. “This area we are passing now used to be paddy fields belonging to farmer.” Beyond the road the land looked bare and barren. “He grew rice to sell or to feed family with. But then foreign companies come.” Outside we were passing a massive white building, perhaps a factory or warehouse, and emblazoned on it was the giant logo of Canon. “The government want foreign company in Vietnam so they get money. They sell land to Japanese. But the government pay farmer for his paddy fields. He get lot of money and he is very happy. He buy big house.” Tang paused, regarding the scene outside “But farmer is uneducated man. He soon spend all money. And he has no way of feeding family now. His land is gone; he cannot sell his rice, he become very poor man. This farmer and lots of others like him are now big problem for my government.”
The road to
Halong was full of beeping traffic all swerving at the last minute to avoid a crash. But the speed we drove at was relatively slow. And our driver was particularly skilled. He could judge to an inch when to overtake or nip back in. As we continued through a small town, Tang pointed out some houses on our right. Most of them looked unfinished; all bare concrete and gaping holes where the windows should have been.
“Builders make just shell of house,” Tang explained. “Then sell them. As you can see, some have been bought and completed.” Completed wasn’t the word I’d have used to describe the dwellings outside. Granted, the fronts looked magnificent, all ornate and colourful, but the sides were still bare concrete. It was as if the owners had only enough money to partially finish their home. This seemed a great shame. For the briefest of seconds the houses looked top notch, but as soon as the angle changed, the concrete sides became visible, all grey and unfinished.
Halong bay looked amazing. The sort of place you might see on a picture and promise yourself that you will go there someday. The harbour itself was
a nest of colourful boats, all waiting for the crowds of tourists to board them. Beyond the boats, out at sea, was the main draw of Halong Bay - the magnificent limestone scenery rising out of the sea like mystical mountains. Hundreds of individual formations towered above the water. It looked beautiful, even in the overcast conditions.
We boarded our boat with three other people, soon sailing off through the emerald sea. In the distance we spotted a fish eagle swoop down towards the surface. “This is beyond amazing,” said Angela as we sailed close by some the unreal formations. “And look, there's a fish market.”
Our boat pulled alongside a floating market specializing in seafood. Lobsters, shrimps, blue crabs and large fish were on show in large tanks. We spent fifteen minutes perusing the specialties before returning to our own boat.
Our boat trip also included a visit to a limestone cave called Dong Thien Cung, one of the more accessible caves of a huge system. “It was discovered by a policeman,” Tang informed us as we climbed to steps to reach the mouth of the cave. “He was chasing a monkey when he lost sight
of the animal. When he investigated, he discovered the monkey had gone into a hole. The policeman looked into hole and discovered big cave.”
As we entered the large cavern it looked stunning. Water dripped atmospherically from the cavernous roof and one a stray droplet even landed on my neck to travel down my back. “It's spine-chilling in here,” I said as we headed deeper into the cave, noticing the ambient lighting placed to highlight the stalagmites and stalactites. “The only thing spoiling the effect is all the tourists. They’re everywhere.” They were pointing their cameras this way and that as they were ushered through to the next point of interest by their guides. But how could we complain? We were doing exactly the same thing.
“See that rock formation?” said Tang, pointing to a large piece of limestone looked like a gigantic female breast. “What does it look like to you?” I almost said what had been on my mind but managed to stop myself just in time. Tang looked from Angela to me.
Angela had the first guess. “Erm...some kind of turtle?”
Tang smiled. “Good guess but you are not correct. Mr Jason, what
does it look like to you?”
I coughed, stalling for time. I couldn't very well say, well Tang, it looks like a great big woman's tit. It's even got a nipply bit jutting out. I might as well have added that I enjoyed molesting bats. I rubbed my chin, desperately trying to come up with something else. “Hmmm...is it a dragon?” I knew that dragon's featured heavily in this part of the world. It was as good a guess as any.
Tang shook his head. “No it is not a dragon. It is a woman's breast. It even has a stalagmite that resembles the nipple. By touching this rock it will bring good fertility to women.”
“I really enjoyed Halong Bay,” I said as we settled back into the car for the journey back to Hanoi. Angela nodded; the boat ride had been a very peaceful way to spend four hours. Suddenly there was a roar of thunder outside. Almost immediately rain lashed against the windscreen drowning out any forward vision. As localized flooding began everyone outside produced thin plastic sheeting in which to cover themselves and twenty minutes later it was dark. Flashes of lightning would
briefly silhouette the horizon as the wipers went hell bent for leather. Our driver was concentrating hard, that was plain to see. Many of the motorcycles and small trucks we overtook had no lights. How we didn’t hit any of them was a miracle. When we got into Hanoi itself, the place was flooded; the streets awash with water. We arrived back at the hotel safe and sound. An hour later decided to brave the rain to go and find somewhere to eat.
“Bloody hell!” yelled Angela as the cyclist went sprawling over the bonnet of our taxi. The poor cyclist probably didn't see him coming. A few seconds before the impact, our driver had elected to do a u-turn in the busy road to get us to our restaurant. It was during this manoeuvre that the collision had occurred. The young man on the bicycle seemed okay though and as we watched he stood up and rubbed his head, just as I imagined a man who'd been ran over by a car would do, then he climbed back on his bike and peddled away. Our driver didn't seem too bothered either. Without a word he continued his u-turn,
pulling up without running anyone else over.
The next morning it was still raining. It came down in great big greasy blobs of water which soaked our clothes to the skin. We joined the queue to see Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body. Suddenly, a line of people were allowed to push in front of us. All were men in their sixties, most wearing some sort of fading green uniform. The vast majority of them wore medals. “I reckon they're veterans from the war,” I said. I was pleased that they'd been allowed to push to the front. They had surely earned the right.
Two white-uniformed guards stood to attention at the entrance, each with a bayonet-tipped rifle. We filed in, feeling the chill in the air, and seconds later came to the tomb-room itself. Two large red flags adorned the rear wall, one of them the gold star on red background, the flag of Vietnam, the other a golden hammer and sickle, the sign of communism. Four guards stood to attention around the body of the great man himself, his wispy beard easily recognizable from the pictures we'd seen of him on the local currency, the Dong. As
we slowly walked around his glass enclosure the body reminded me of Lenin in Moscow, the waxwork appearance making it hard to imagine we were looking at an actual dead body. Ten seconds later we were out, back into the rain, making way for the people behind.
“Right,” I said. “Now to find the One Pillar Pagoda. It should be around here somewhere.” The rain had actually got heavier and everywhere people were taking refuge from the torrent wherever they could. But not us, we had a mission and we had to complete it no matter what. But without a picture of the pagoda or even a map of where it was, we were at a loss.
“What is it anyway?” asked Angela. “Cos I hope I'm not getting soaked for nothing.” I hastily consulted the guide book for reference. I told her that the One Pillar Pagoda was the only remaining building from the original walls of the city. We eventually found it and were glad we did. It stood in the middle of a small pond littered with lily pads. Happy, we caught a cyclo back to our hotel. So the third country on our South-East
Asian epic was finished. We headed to the airport for our flight to Cambodia.
-Safe city for tourists
-Lots to see
-A good mix of traditional and modern
-Halong Bay is only a few hours away
-Conical hats on the paddy field farmers
-No hassle from touts and vendors
-People don't seem to smile as much as neighboring countries.
-Noisy and polluted traffic
-The main sights are not that close together
There are more photos below