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Published: March 23rd 2013
Have just arrived in Hue, perhaps not in the best of moods after a mammoth journey over the past day and a half, will get to that a bit later. This might be a bit of a long one, so...
First off, Hanoi. Spent three days in the city, just wandering around and enjoying the relatively cool weather. I know that it’s probably about 5 degrees wherever you are reading this from now, but 25 degrees in Hanoi was nice and cool after the Bangkok heat. That said, I’ve been in Vietnam for ten days now and have barely seen the sun once. It was nice at first, but I soon grew tired of overcast skies and serious humidity. It also rained in Hanoi for a day or two. Not heavy rain, but enough to bring up all the dirt from the ground. I lost count of the amount of people I saw walking around in flip flops with completely black feet.
I ended up staying in the Hanoi backpackers hostel, a decent place to stay but also a bit of a party hostel. It's run by a bunch
of Aussies who drink a lot, so I joined in. Spent the rest of my time in Hanoi checking out the old quarter and visiting a few of the war museums. The old quarter is a bit crazy. First of all I thought I was going to die every time I crossed the road, the traffic is absolutely mental. The people here drive like... well like idiots really. I thought Thailand was bad but this is something completely different. However everyone I’ve met has told me Saigon is worse, looking forward to that. The war museums were interesting enough, but you had to know your stuff before you went in. Absolutely no background was given on the events surrounding the war, just pictures and artefacts. I’d already done a bit of reading on it before I went in so I was ok, but if you’re going to visit one of these museums some prior research is essential. The anti American and French sentiment of some of the museum’s displays was understandable, and somewhat expected. And of course some of North Vietnam’s less than stellar behaviour during the war was also omitted.
After three nights I’d had enough of
drinking with the hostel crowd, and booked a trip to Sapa in the north west of Vietnam, near the Chinese border. This involved taking a night train to Loc Cai and then a one hour bus journey to Sapa town. The night train was interesting, as I was sharing a cabin with a middle aged American couple and a seventy (yes 70) year old backpacker from Dublin. Well he left Dublin in 1959 and has never been back, but still retained some of his accent. After having to swap beds with one of the Americans because he couldn’t reach the top bunk, he had a few interesting stories to tell about his life. But then he wouldn’t shutup and had some fairly controversial views on gun control and homosexuality that were making the rest of us uncomfortable, so I headed to the dining carriage (no disco this time though) for a bit of peace and quiet. By the time I got back everyone was asleep, so I did the same.
After getting to Sapa town, we set off on a two day trek through the mountains. This however was much easier than the Chiang Mai trek I did.
Both the weather was a lot cooler, and the terrain much flatter. After trekking through the valley and paddy fields we reached a small mountain village where we were to stay with a Vietnamese family for the night in a homestay. It was really just a very low budget B&B however, with dinner thrown in. After dinner we had to drink some rice wine with our host family. I’m not sure why it’s called wine because it’s anywhere from 35-50%, depending on who made it, and it’s all homemade. After 3 shots I’d had enough, horrible stuff. The family kept drinking though, some people must have had about 10. The village was quite touristy however; everywhere you looked was another homestay with a bunch of western tourists sitting outside drinking and playing cards. The next day we trekked back down through the valley and returned to Sapa, where we had a few hours to look around. After taking in the view when the weather eventually cleared up, and also a surprisingly good Indian meal, we were put on a bus back to Loc Cai and then a night train to Hanoi. I ended up sharing a cabin with three Asians
this time, not much to say about that journey other than the fact we couldn’t understand each other. The trek was good, and definitely worth doing, but a combination of cloudy weather and an abundance of other tourists meant I preferred the trek I did in Chiang Mai. Sapa is a cool little town though, and I can see why people choose to stay more than a few days there instead of just doing a quick trip from Hanoi.
Back in Hanoi and I had planned to visit Ha Long Bay as quickly as possible. However it was St. Patrick’s Day (advertised as the biggest drinking day of the year in the hostel) and by now a few of the Aussie staff knew I was Irish and was expecting a big night from me, I duly obliged. The next day was a write off, so it was the 19th before I set off for Ha Long Bay. Hanoi is an interesting town, and can be very nice when you stop and take it easy in and around one of its many lakes. The old quarter is a bit weird though, entire streets selling just sunglasses, or entire streets
with just tailors. I’m not sure why they have the shops laid out like this, it makes looking for individual things a bit of a pain. Also along with the traffic being mental, everyone parks their scooter on the path so you end up walking on the road in most of the smaller streets. Definitely worth a visit but I think the five nights I spent there was a bit much; three would definitely be enough, maybe even two.
There are a number of different tour operators that do trips to Ha Long Bay, but I’d heard stories from other travellers about ending up on boats full of middle aged Korean people who go to bed at 10 o’clock, so I opted to book my tour through the hostel. The Castaways tour that they organise themselves involves two nights and three days of mainly drinking (what else would you expect from these guys), although it is twice the price of some of the other tours. As soon as we boarded the bus we were informed we were now playing buffalo, some game I’d never heard of before. This meant anyone caught drinking with their right hand had to
down their drink and then get another straight away, also anyone caught saying the words ‘ten’ or ‘mine’ had to get down and give ten pushups straightaway. So after a four hour bus journey to Ha Long Bay we boarded the boat and the booze cruise began. After a number of people being caught out with the buffalo rules, we arrived at the castaways island and met the group that were already on the island. We were tasked with a small obstacle course for initiation and then the nights drinking began, not much else to say there really.
The next day involved a little more than merely alcohol consumption. First we did a quick kayak trip around the entire island, which took about 45 minutes. You could kayak wherever you wanted but there are hundreds of these islands that all look identical so I figured it’d be extremely easy to get lost and stuck to the island we were staying on. In the afternoon there was high speed tubing, this involves hanging on to an inflatable tube that is being dragged behind a speed boat. The boat then turns across the waves it has created, and you try
(and fail) to hang on. You end up skimming across the water before finally coming to a stop. Out of the three big turns I managed to stay on once, fell off once, and was completely wiped out on another. Good fun, and I managed to escape serious injury. After this I tried a bit of rock climbing, aiming to get about half way up the big climb, which I managed to do. The evening hit, we prepared an initiation for the new group arriving, and then the drinking started again. After managing to avoid being caught out at all the previous day, I think I had to down one drink and do thirty pushups that night. That’s about thirty more pushups than I’ve done in the past year. Ha Long Bay is obviously a very beautiful place, I’m sure most people have at least seen pictures of it, however at this time of year the weather is quite cloudy. Also the water is filthy, nobody was keen on swimming in and around the beach we stayed on, because of all the crap that was floating in the water. Castaways was fun, but maybe a little bit too much of
Bus From Hell
It's worse than it looks
a party for me. I’d have preferred to take it easy and have a few beers in the evening, but that wasn’t happening. Also at $200 I’m not really sure what you got for your money, we were sleeping on mattresses laid out on the floor in a bamboo hut. Most other tours were $100 or less and you slept in a cabin on a boat.
Felt very stiff the next morning, a result of the tubing, and maybe even the pushups. At 8am we boarded the boat back to the coast, where most people had had enough drinking by this stage. However there were still a few cracking open beers on the way back, not for me. Back at the coast and we were put back on a coach to Hanoi, eventually arriving at 5.30. I’d arranged to be picked up to board a night bus to Hue at 5.30, so I was in a serious rush to get everything ready for the trip. I managed to do my packing and be ready by 5.45; luckily the bus guy hadn’t arrived yet. I didn’t have time to get any food; I figured there’d be food for sale by the bus station. After waiting over an hour, the bus guy turned up and by about 7 I was outside the bus company. There was no bus station, just a bus waiting by the side of a road somewhere in Hanoi. I’d read most of these buses stop for food anyway, no problem.
After a load of waiting around the bus finally leaves at around 8. I’d been travelling or waiting around to travel for twelve hours by this stage. The bus sets off, and it's far less comfortable than I’d hoped. Although it was a sleeper bus, with fully reclining chairs, they were designed for midgets (or maybe just Asian people). If you were much over 5 foot you weren’t going to have a great night’s sleep on this bus. Somehow when leaving Hanoi they’d managed to drive under some low lying cables which had ripped off the air vent on the roof of the bus. They stopped to try and put it back in the place but only half managed it, we now had a sunroof (and a serious breeze whenever the speed got up). I tried to get as comfortable as possible and settled in for the night. After not getting much sleep over the past two nights in Ha Long Bay, I thought I’d sleep through the journey. I woke up at around 11.30 in the evening to the sound of a bus engine revving, and us going nowhere. The bus has broken down; the third bus that has broken down on me since I’d arrived in Asia. However unlike the others this wasn’t a quick fix. After trying in vain to fix the problem, we were told another bus would pick us up in two hours. We slept on the bus and waited, and waited, and then waited some more. It was 7am by the time the new bus turned up. And the new bus even managed to have slightly smaller beds than the last. Whatever, I was just happy to finally be moving again. I'd now been travelling for almost 24 hours, and was only just outside Hanoi, we had a long way to go.
We stopped for lunch in some grotty ‘restaurant’ at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t really care, I was happy to finally eat something other than the Mentos I’d had in my bag since leaving Thailand. Managed to somehow order some noodles with what I think was pork. After taking a look at the place I decided not to touch the meat, probably a wise decision. Next thing a commotion breaks out, plates and cups are smashed and I look round to see two locals fighting on the floor. The other locals rush over, and manage to break it up. A bit of a surreal situation, as most of the backpackers sat there eating their noodles wondering what the hell they were doing there. Then the surreal situation got even worse, about 60 seconds later one of the guys from the fight reappears with a knife in his hand. We’d had enough by this stage, rushed back to the bus and stayed there until it left. I don’t think anyone got stabbed, and in all the panic we’d managed to get away without paying for our noodles, so maybe it was a good thing in the end? The rest of the bus journey was fairly standard, just extremely long and not very comfortable.
Finally reached Hue at around 8 this evening, 36 hours after leaving Ha Long Bay, absolutely starving and extremely tired. I've just had a pizza which has improved my mood immensely. Hue looks nice enough, will check out the sites tomorrow before quickly moving on to Hoi An on Sunday. Unfortunately I’ve already booked an open bus ticket all the way to Saigon with this crowd, and I don’t think I have the funds to just throw it away and get the train instead. Might have to source something in the chemist that will make the night bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang a little more bearable. That said, the longest bus trip is now out of the way.
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