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July 29th 2012
Published: July 29th 2012
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Dear All

Wow, what an amazing place to be writing this blog update from. I am in the middle of a rice-paddied tiny village on an island just off the coast of northern Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, just on the edge of the spectacular Halong Bay. Arrived here yesterday in one of the most incredible journeys I’ve ever taken, and I’m looking forward very much to updating on these last couple of days towards the end of my blog.

But first of all the link to my last blog, which I last wrote in the imperial Vietnamese city of Hue, Central Vietnam. The day after writing this, I cut out another potential overnight bus journey and caught a plane to Hanoi from Hue airport, which itself was surprisingly in the news (BBC website) the day before my arrival due to a runaway bull which was going manic on the airport runway. It caused disruption to flights for 4 hours before they finally managed to tranquilise the beast – unfortunately it also died a short while after, perhaps an overdosed dart…? However, the airport was up and running again when I got there, the flight was smooth, and
Rice PaddiesRice PaddiesRice Paddies

Viet Hai Village
on Thursday afternoon I touched down in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.

By most accounts Hanoi feels a very different city to its southern counterpart, Saigon. While Hanoi is the country’s capital, with its associated political and administrative headquarters, Saigon is its economic beating heart. Certainly the latter felt very upcoming and progressively modern, with wide boulevards and tall buildings, whereas Hanoi felt much more graceful, with history, beauty and panache. Both suffer the same nightmarish proportions of motorbikes and traffic, though in Saigon the streets are wider and seem much more able to cope. In Hanoi, the streets are narrow, but still seem to carry the same amount of two-wheelers – apparently a total of 2 million motorbikes exist in the city, zooming, winding and beeping their way in one seething, anthill-type mass. Another lesson in learning to cross the road Vietnamese style: just keep walking, don’t hesitate – it does work, though takes a fair bit of courage.

So Friday was my day for exploring Vietnam’s capital. First up, a visit to the famous Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and compound. Communist party founder, revolutionary leader, and today seemingly the nation’s spiritual leader, Uncle Ho (as they call him) is embalmed and entombed within the dramatic block of a mausoleum, drawing Vietnamese from all over the country to pay homage to the founder of their modern state. It was Ho Chi Minh who declared independence from Japan and France following the end of World War II, leading to France going to war with the Viet Minh, and subsequently the Americans taking the reins from the French in 1965 as the Viet Minh sought to extend its control down into southern Vietnam, which had maintained more of a capitalist approach to its self-determination. Indeed, US involvement in the war has to be seen in the global context of the developing Cold War, and the containment of the spread of communism in the world. The last thing the free world needed was another powerful commie state, and thus the US have my full backing in the decision they made in 1965. What could draw me into a debate, however, is the methods they employed particularly towards the end of the war, but I will leave that perhaps until another time. A messy subject, which I feel put the USA in the unforgiving situation of being damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t…

Anyway, the mausoleum contains the embalmed body of Uncle Ho, but is unfortunately closed to the public on Fridays. Typical! But I did fit in a visit to the city’s most famous and humble Temple, the nearby One Pillar Pagoda, built in the 11th Century but sadly destroyed by the departing French in 1954 (!!). It was rebuilt soon after, and was lovely. Also nearby, the traditional stilt house where Ho Chi spent a lot of his time between 1958 and his death in 1969. After this, a motorbike ride to the nearby Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university founded also in the 11th Century (making it even older than Oxford or Cambridge!). And finally, another moto ride back to the centre of town. Hanoi is amazingly centred on a beautifully serene lake, the Hoan Kiem lake, with a lovely island-temple in the middle reached by bridge, and the crazy Old Quarter of narrow streets, small shophouses and hundreds and hundreds of steaming motorbikes. Spent a good hour or two exploring this part of the city to top off my sightseeing for the day.

Following such a busy day I spent the rest of it tucked up in my room – top floor in the Serenity Hotel, with a stunning view over the city, especially as that evening there was an electrical storm that went on for hours. Unfortunately there is no lift in the hotel, so the climb up six storeys was quite tough, while the roof of the room seems to be made of metal, as it heated up something chronic in the daytime and took ages for the a/c to have any effect. Thus, a bit of a sweaty night with not too much sleep unfortunately…

But wow, yesterday, just has to be the best day of my trip so far. A very busy one, but just splendid. Took first of all a boat tour of the stunningly beautiful Halong Bay, a large group of karst limestone pinnacles and islands just off the coast of northern Vietnam, running over 100km up to and beyond the border with China. Supposedly rivalling even the pinnacles of coastal Thailand, there were just seemingly hundreds and hundreds of tall, great towers of rock covered in lush vegetation rising up out of the emerald sea as far as the eye can see. A truly splendid tour on the boat, not marred too much by the throngs of other tourists.

Now, I freely admit that Vietnam is a delightful country with amazing places to see. Unfortunately though, the rest of the world now seems to know this too, and for the last two weeks I have certainly not been alone in my travels. There are many other travellers here from all over the world, and the locals appear to have responded very well, making travelling in the country, from booking tickets and hotels to finding your way around, very easy indeed. However, the other day in Central Vietnam I was beginning to tire slightly of this, so I booked myself into this amazingly remote and stunningly sited place I’m in right now, the Whisper Nature Bungalows in Viet Hai village, Cat Ba Island, just nextdoor to Ha Long Bay. The journey here yesterday was just amazing. After my boat tour on Halong Bay, I was dropped off at the main harbour on Cat Ba Island, the only Western tourist around. From here, an hour’s trip further on a small motorboat around to the other side of the island – a lovely journey through the karst landscape, with just me and the friendly boat driver, passing by small villages actually floating on the sea (!) and other boats of the villages’ inhabitants moving around. An hour later at sunset we pulled up into a tiny remote harbour, surrounded on all sides by lushly vegetated vertical cliffs, to be greeted by only the sounds of crickets and tropical birds filling the air. A lone motorbike rider was waiting for me in this tranquil place, to bike me the final 6km to the local village of Viet Hai, on the outskirts of which is this amazing place. Here I am right now, in a thatched-roof bungalow (a/c and bathroom…!), surrounded by rice paddy fields and hulking great limestone pinnacles – a paradise! I spent a happy morning this morning biking around the nearby area with a couple of other English guys staying in the bungalow nextdoor, with hardly another tourist in site, and the lush, tropical Vietnamese jungle and island to ourselves. It has been magical.

Indeed, this type of travelling now might (hopefully, at least!) be the shape of things to come. On Tuesday I fly to Laos, seemingly a much more rural, slow-paced kind of country,
Temple of LiteratureTemple of LiteratureTemple of Literature

Tiered Gateway Entrance
with apparently less tourists. I start taking my malaria prevention tablets today, and am already reaching for my mosquito net and repellent in preparation. To be honest I don’t wholly know what to expect in Laos, and even more so after that in Burma, but I have a feeling it will be less fast-paced, less energetic and more relaxing than Vietnam.

Don’t get me wrong, Vietnam has just been amazing. I have thoroughly enjoyed travelling here, but I am now looking forward to hopefully a bit of time more off-the-beaten track, as well as being away from motorbike mayhem… We will see of course what is next in store.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I hope all are well back home. Especially to the people in London, I hope the Olympics have got off to a great and proud start J

Will write again soon


PS It has been quite difficult accessing Facebook whilst in Vietnam - the government seems to block it here (as well as the BBC website, for some reason...!). I get the feeling Laos and Burma may be even more stringent with their internet blocking. So although I think I'll be ok updating my blog, I'm not sure from now on whether I'll be able to paste these new blog entries onto my FB page... Just to let you know.

Additional photos below
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Confucius Statue

Temple of Literature
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Ngoc Son Temple

Hoan Kiem Lake
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Ngoc Son Temple

Hoan Kiem Lake

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