Published: October 20th 2006October 20th 2006
St Josephs cathedral, Hanoi
Matt takes a minute to escape the madness
The thought of a 30 hour drive on a pre-war coach along unfinished roads and across another unorganised land border crossed my mind for only a minute before the decision to hop on a plane and be in Hanoi in 50 minutes was made. My fears of a bi-plane emerging from a rusty aircraft hanger also vanished as we arrived at a brand spanking new Vientiane airport (at least something there is finished) and boarded a half empty Vietnam Airlines plane with lots of legroom and before we knew it touched down in country number 4, Vietnam.
We had booked a guesthouse on the web as arriving at night we didn't fancy the backpack laden walk searching for a room in such a big city. To our surprise the guesthouse emailed us back to say they would collect us from the airport (30km from the city centre) and lo and behold as we walked out of arrivals a man bearing a card saying 'Carl Lyons-David' was waiting for us. The car journey into Hanoi was 10 times scarier than the flight and we arrived at Lucky Eden, our 5GBP a night home, to find the internet promise of aircon, hot
Attack of the killer Mopeds
Hanoi in rush hour.....Hanoi-ing
shower and TV was in fact true and the staff, especially two year old Mee, couldn't be more friendly (this may because we appeared to be the only people staying there).
Hanoi is absolutely crazy, with hundreds of thousands of mopeds, no acknowledgement of traffic lights and a distinct lack of pedestrian crossings, it is not the most relaxing place to explore by foot and we spent most of day 1 learning how to cross the road which entails just holding your breath, making your move and letting the flow of mopeds move around you until you reach the other side.
With all this going on around you Hanoi is the sort of city that if you only stayed for a day, you would end up hating, but if you stick with it and switch off from the traffic and constant moped horns you come to realise what it has to offer and how crazy the locals can be.
For instance at least half of the population seem never to get dressed and just sit on child sized plastic chairs on the street wearing their pyjamas, whilst others think nothing off strapping two live pigs on to the
Carla stays the right side of the bars at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi
back of their mopeds.
The food here isn't as good as we have experienced in Thailand and Laos, for one no sticky rice but also no street scene to emerge yourself in and many more international restaurants with higher prices. Our first meal in a fairly upmarket place leads to an incident where some type of rodent runs straight across the restaurant floor and up a cable into the roof!! The staff assured us it was ok by shouting "only Mickey, only Mickey" although Roland may have been a better name for what we saw!!
The best places we found to eat were called KOTO and 'Baguette and Chocolate' both sort of like Jamie Oliver's 15 (but without the high prices, TV series and publicity) giving Vietnamese street kids the chance to learn cooking and front of house skills - the food was excellent and the prices reasonable.
A bout of acute sinusitis led us to a travel clinic, a 70 quid bill and a couple of days in our Guesthouse room watching Entourage on HBO (if they show this in the UK, you have to watch it!!) and highlights of the Premier League I have missed.
Sun sets over Halong Bay
By day 4 with me feeling better we head out to finish catching the sights, these include a prison museum (which detailed how the French detained and punished the locals before the Communist uprising), the temples around the lake in the Old Quarter and our favourite district, the Latin Quarter around St Josephs Cathederal which has French inspired coffee shops and galleries and is the best place to relax in an otherwise stressful city.
By day 5 we have had enough and book train tickets to our next destination 14 hours south, Hue - another Unesco world heritage site, like Luang Prabang (Laos), of which we have high hopes. But before we left we booked our first organised tour of the journey to what proved to be one of the highlights so far.....
A 3 hour bus journey from Hanoi, Halong Bay is a Unesco protected area of calm sea and 3,000 lime stone islands which is just heaven on earth, especially when explored by small boat which allows you to drop anchor and sleep overnight in one of the most peaceful locations in all of Asia.
Our boat the "Santa Maria" only had
All Bar One - Hanoi
The plastic kiddie chairs replace the wooden benches and the beers only 7p a pint!!!
room for 14 and we were lucky to get such a nice and diverse group with people from Russia, France, America, Denmark, a lovely family from New Zealand and 2 sisters from Brazil (two locations later on in our journey and a place offered to stay at each).
After setting sail at 12 we all sat down for a seafood lunch before heading up on the top deck to sunbathe and chat before reaching the main bulk of the islands about 2pm. The scenery was just breathtaking and after exploring some caves we drifted further in, dropped anchor and swam in the ocean whilst the sun set in the distance, it was fantastic. Although the tranquility was somewhat shattered as it got dark and a strong current pushed us all away from the boat making the swim back somewhat like front crawl on a treadmill.
After dinner (more seafood) some people played cards whilst we sat under the stars and drank a bottle of red wine we had sneaked aboard with the Brazilian sisters. The contrast to Hanoi was unbelievable and after an early breakfast, kayaking and lunch back at the harbour we had almost forgotten how noisy
Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum
Normally you could go in here to see the great mans body..BUT it was shut as he does a 'weekend at Bernies' and goes on holiday to Russia for repairs in October.
Hanoi had been, until we arrived back in the evening to be greeted by the sounds of a thousand moped horns, screaming children and men loudly gobbing on the streets....bring on Hue!!!
There are more photos below