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Published: October 24th 2012
Halong Bay is usually high on any tourist’s list of things to do and see in Vietnam. Once we’d boarded the boat, it didn’t take long for us to find out why. The limestone that dominates northern Laos’ forested landscape with steep mountains and deep caves is mirrored here, rising majestically from the blue sea. Halong Bay is very similar to Ao Phang-Nga, off Thailand’s Andaman coast, but it covers a far wider area. So despite the huge number of tour boats, the vast size of Halong Bay means that it’s possible to escape to quiet coves. Here, with the sound of the sea lapping the cliffs and infinitesimally slowly eroding the karst, you’re alone. Oh, except everyone you’re sharing a boat with is there too.
We’d begun our travels, almost nine months earlier, with a four day boat trip, from Lombok to Flores, in Indonesia. The accommodation had been fairly basic and the food reasonable but nothing special. There are a limited number of operators who ply that route, whereas in Halong Bay, the array of options is bewildering, and the occasional horror stories worrying. We did our research, but ultimately, got lucky. The boat (Christina) was comfortable, and
for us, luxurious, the food excellent and buoyancy-threateningly plentiful.
We’d made our connection to Halong Bay with minutes to spare, thanks to the late arrival of our bus into Hanoi (the hell bus from Hue). We chanced our luck again, booking an overnight train to mountainous Sapa, departing a few hours after our boat docked for the final time. Ultimately, we made the train with time to spare, and soon wondered why we didn’t travel like this more often. Four clean, comfortable beds in a cabin, reading lights, space for luggage, water, snacks – we were ending our trip on a roll. The only downside was the pre-6am arrival time.
A couple of hours later we were stumbling and slipping down the soggy terraced hills of Sapa, following our guide, in a group far too large for a day’s trekking, and including two Polish pensioners. Our numbers were swelled further by a trans-generational posse of strikingly-attired local Hmong women, offering an unnecessary helping hand, while carrying hand-woven sacks ominously full of tourist trinkets. With our backpacks, we collectively resembled an unlikely procession of refugees, weaving through farming villages and the lush agricultural mountainside landscape.
Sapa is a
Hang Sung Sot cave
A huge cave full of strange things, Halong Bay.
multi-ethnic region, seemingly inhabited by the last groups to arrive in Vietnam (aside from Westerners). One such group was the Hmong, who arrived from nearby China only two centuries ago, to find the space that remained for them to farm was in the mountains of northern Vietnam and Laos, one mile above sea level. They’ve lived an interesting existence since, not least being trained by the CIA to form a counter-communist force in the ‘Secret War’ in Laos. Over homemade rice wine, we tentatively asked our (Tay, non-Hmong) guide and (Hmong) host about this, and the subsequent treatment of the local Hmong population (the Hmong population in Laos were persecuted and many fled to the U.S., via Thai refugee camps) but were met with blank looks and vague answers. Clearly our investigative skills still require some work.
Most of our group left Sapa after only one night, hopping on the train back to Hanoi. To come all this way for less than two days seemed perverse to us, so we’d planned a third day of wandering up hills and down valleys in the cool, damp but refreshing air. After a night on mattresses in bamboo house, we found ourselves
in a delightful little hotel, courtesy of our benevolent travel agents, who seemed determined to leave us with a very favourable impression of Vietnamese hospitality. They certainly succeeded. Though, in truth, as we were reminded when left to our own devices in Hanoi, the standard and value of accommodation in Vietnam is noticeably higher than in other South East Asian countries, particularly Myanmar and parts of Indonesia. More end-of trip reflection follows shortly.
The sound of motorbike horns echoing around the sweltering labyrinth of Hanoi’s old quarter was a stark contrast to our three day retreat in Sapa’s cool air and wide open spaces. The streets of this corner of Hanoi are alive with hawkers, backpackers, touts, gift-shops, crazy motorcyclists, locals working all hours, and on one memorable occasion, thunderous rain that flooded the streets and stranded us for over an hour under the canopy of a boutique hotel.
The old quarter could become overwhelming, so we were glad to escape to the pleasingly enthralling Women’s Museum, housed in a modern-looking building, featuring excellent displays that were colourful, engaging, informative and poignant. The nearby Hoa Lo Prison Museum was more popular, judging by the number of tourists. It
Young Hmong women
In the valley below Sapa
is undoubtedly a worthwhile attraction, but is tinged with propaganda from which the Women’s Museum was mercifully free.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, featuring the communist leader's embalmed corpse in a glass box, and hundreds of Vietnamese devotees in a long snaking queue, was a sight to behold and a reminder of what a contrary country Vietnam is. Uncle Ho was a controversial but impressive man, committed to freeing his nation from the imperial yoke, and bettering the lives of his countrymen. He died in 1969, before he saw his dream of Vietnamese freedom and reunification realised.
In recent decades, Vietnam has undergone a free-market revolution, which has undoubtedly improved the lives of many of its inhabitants. Yet wealth and poverty uneasily share the streets, access to information is controlled (Vietnam was the only country, aside from Myanmar, where we have had trouble accessing the BBC and Facebook), and women are forced into destitution when their husband passes away or turns out to be a drunk. All the while, Uncle Ho’s benevolent face smiles down from posters and up from banknotes. What would he make of it all?
Of course, tales of poverty and injustice are
not unique to Vietnam, or Asia. But the cynical use of the Uncle Ho’s image, when most of his beliefs have been all but forsaken, is quite shameful. Aside from this strange personality cult, there is much to like in Vietnam - the hospitality and the food to name but two - and it usually reflects the people, not the government.
Our flight to Athens provided ample time for end of trip reflection. Aside from having a continuous series of memorable experiences, and learning a lot about the world around us, and inevitably, about ourselves too, we clocked a lot of stats! Here are the main ones…
London to Athens, the long way
37,500 miles (60,000 km)
13 flights (17 including changes)
11 countries (including 24 hours in Singapore, but not 3 hours at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport)
23 landmasses and islands (set foot on)
8 time zones (spent at least a day in)
1 night in a monastery
1 night in a convent
7 nights in homestays
4 stays with couchsurfing hosts (thanks!)
8 overnight train journeys
6 overnight bus journeys
Uncle Ho's final resting place
No photos allowed inside. In fact, even lingering for a second too long was deemed worthy of a polite reprimand.
6 nights on boats
29 scuba dives (each)
3 mountains climbed
40 (at least) beer brands drunk
11 foreign languages attempted
36 nationalities met
2 encounters with bed bugs
1 serious food poisoning
2 mystery illnesses
20000 words (plus captions)
1200 photos (on the blog)
That’s all folks, for now, anyway…
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