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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hanoi
July 8th 2012
Published: July 11th 2012
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We have started writing this blog sitting on the flight taking off from Hanoi to Nha Trang, and we are subtly reminded that despite appearances, Vietnam is still enveloped in some poverty, the majority of the people on the flight haven't flown before and the old lady next to us is speaking rather excitedly in Vietnamese to us, despite the fact we have clearly shown we speak no Vietnamese! They all look around standing over to see out of the windows and cheer for take off and landing. They also stand up during the landing bloody crazy fools! We wander how many of these women worked the streets in Hanoi in their conical hats selling old fruit and flowers and for how long to be able to afford the air fare now making it easier as they become cheaper so they can see more of their beautiful country.

We are on our way to Nha Trang as we say, stated as the beach capital of Vietnam where the American soldiers landed during the war and found entertainment if they weren't recuperating in Bangkok with the lady boys that began roaming the streets during that time. We took this as opportunity to reflect on our time in Hanoi. We had been excited that we could swap the flight to a day early meaning we would actually see the capital. We arrived in decent time as the sun was setting beautifully over Hoan Kiem Lake the centre piece to this vibrant yet old fashioned city. The middle of the lake is home to Thap Rua, the tortoise tower as legend has it the Emperor Ly Thai To was sent a magical sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam and after this success in mid 15th century a magical giant golden tortoise swimming at the top of the surface grabbed the sword taking it to the depths to its divine owners. This tortoise is now embalmed at another sight on the northern part of the lake within Ngoc Son Temple, we went to this temple the next day and it is a very relaxing meditative spot with many areas to set joss sticks to pray for your religion, although we were unsure exactly what this was! It had a very ancient Chinese feel to it all though!



We found our hostel and all seemed well, 2 double beds, an ensuite, air conditioning and tv plus a fridge, we were set. At $8 for the room it was the cheapest yet! We showered and headed to a restaurant recommended to us by the not quite so trusted Lonely Planet. However, it did not disappoint although a little expensive at $15 for 2 meals and 2 drinks we were very happy. It was a vegetarian restaurant as we still did not want to try our luck with meat for fear of eating our four legged friends, Lauren had a superb pumpkin pasta and Ben had tempura vegetables with a sweet chilli sauce. We went for a lovely evening stroll around the lake, encapsulated by the romance of the city. Don't get us wrong this was the busiest place we have ever been to since leaving Heathrow but along the lake there were no bikes to hit you and not a huge amount of hawkers and couples sat overlooking the lake holding hands, sharing food looking deep in conversations and each others' eyes, it was very beautiful! As we left we were bombarded with cyclos, men driving bicycles with a seat to sit two side by side on at the front, similar to rickshaws wanting to drive you nowhere and motos- literally men driving motorbikes to take you somewhere and hawkers selling everything from fake lonely planet guides to giant balloons in the shape of cartoon characters! We found retreat in a bar overlooking the lake and enjoyed a long cocktail and beer. It was definitely a worthy evening watching out and squirming at people crossing the road. It has to be said as in most places outside of the UK, zebra crossings mean nothing. Literally nothing. They don't even expect it to have people on, pedestrians are the evil lurking where a bike wants to set his path, the inferior race. Watching them cross the road was painful as in England Lauren would always say, "don't worry the car will stop they don't want to run you over", here we really don't think that would stop them if you are in their path prepare to die! And there was no use walking on the pavement you faced too many obstacles, from tiny plastic chairs full of locals eating street food, to parked bikes and toys literally falling out of shop fronts! To cross the road was indeed like holding your breath and looking straight ahead, keeping a steady pace and hoping the bikes dodge you, the scariest gauntlet every faced. We sit here having left Hanoi so obviously it worked but damn was it scary, but as they say every experience adds up!



We got back to the hotel thankful we were still walking and settled in for the evening, or so we thought, I mean let's be honest you didn't think it would be peaceful?! Of course not we got a friend although even we were surprised of this kind, let's play a guessing game...a busy, frightening busy city full of people eating on the streets and throwing food down drains and rain water washing amongst it all, what is the usual animal of suspect? Yep you got it we entertained our very own rat! So of course Lauren screamed as it ran under our door and round the back of the dresser and fridge area, we scrambled up on to the bed and managed to lean over to open the door for Lauren to jump out and get the owner! He moved us up a floor and as we grabbed our things, grateful we never unpack, we saw the guys moving furniture and a big slam, hopefully they got it! Of course the new room was the same and we had a Gekko but it got to the point where Lauren just had to squeeze shut her eyes and pray for morning! Whilst texting her dad we came to the agreement Lauren is a 4 star girl, well we shall see if that manages to change throughout the next few months!



The next day we set out to have a full day sightseeing grateful as we wouldn't have had this opportunity if it hadn't been for the tubing incident! We saw a lot more of the same of crazy driving, grateful we would not be getting on a bike and encountered weird and wonderful people selling not very weird and not so wonderful items. The sheer amount of bikes is overwhelming even when trying to cross small streets and you rarely see cars but for taxis that are out to scam you of your precious dollars and dong. We took some cash out an became instant millionaires ($47!) we headed a good 5km out of the immediate centre and took in West Lake the largest lake in central Hanoi and saw a lovely pagoda in the middle, we also took in the sights of the flag tower and headed to Hi Chi Minh Mausoleum where against all of his wishes he has been embalmed. Unfortunately we could not enter as it was closed on Fridays but the complex offered other sights of the great uncle Ho as he his often referred. We saw the stilt house, the presidential palace and the one pillar pagoda. The most famous pagoda from the early 11th century. We took in the sight of the stunning St. James's Cathedral and said a prayer for Lauren's great nana and were quite shocked to find out roughly 8% of Vietnamese are practising Roman Catholics. We stopped at the Temple of Literature famed for its scholars and honours the teachers and chilled out in their peaceful gardens, the one place we found solace in the frightfully busy city. We could see why the people are proud of their city, it is steeped in history since it was named capital 1000 years ago and there is so much to offer.



The evening showed more of this with a visit to the world famous water puppetry show. We were treated to an hour of Vietnamese music and singing and a fantastic water puppet show. Even though all the dialogue was in Vietnamese we still felt like we followed and appreciated the humour. We also headed back to the same restaurant for dinner which was actually a highlight of the day. Lauren had a unique dish of rice and curry within a pineapple and Ben had vegetarian quesadillas with peanut butter, very tasty! We then headed off to another must see for us, Minh's Jazz Club. Well worth the hard struggle to find it, and we sipped on cocktails and beer listening to the fantastic music and female singer.



We had an early but exciting start on Sunday to the must see Halong Bay. When we initially discussed Vietnam we had been unsure of visiting, Ben had been before and didn't rave about it, only visiting Hanoi and Saigon and Lauren was unsure about paying £44 each just to get in. (Having bought the visa in laos it only cost £35 take note). When we spoke to people though everyone seemed so excited about Vietnam and jealous, all we asked was why? Most responses were "that Top Gear episode was great when they went to Halong Bay!" so we thought if we are doing this we must go. We tried to book a tour online before we left, before we even had visas and the cheapest we found was $95 each but they even tried to scam us before we arrived in the country saying the bus was full and we would have to take a private transfer of a further $120! We happened upon one of the several thousand tour agencies and booked the same itinerary for $22 each! We were picked up at 8am as promised but we were not expecting the mode of transport. Yes you guessed it motorbike! On the very streets we had congratulated ourselves for not needing to go on one! Lauren was absolutely bricking it! It was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating 8 minutes of our lives!



We arrived then at the actual mode of transport, an air conditioned mini bus. We set off armed with croissants and cookies for the 3 and half hour trip. Only to stop off en route at some random bizarre selling beautiful locally made antiques and clothes plus heavily overpriced chocolate bars. In Hanoi a mars bar would cost you 20,000 dong, roughly a dollar, here they were 50,000 dong! When we finally arrived about 12.30pm we started to get very excited we could just make out the thousands of limestone islands that loomed in the distance. But to get to them was a nightmare! The ferry port was a carnage of people and tour operators trying to find the correct captain and "ship" as they looked like tired weary boats in need of some serious TLC. Considering they do these tours every day and it is a world Unesco heritage site you would naturally assume they know what they are doing. Unfortunately not so. And unfortunately is was our first grey dreary day and the heavens did decide to open casting a grey light over what should have been a stunning backdrop.



We did find our boat eventually and set sail about 1.30pm, and as we came into view of the formations we really did appreciate the beauty and decided that the grey sheen added eeriness and mystery to the formations that really do jut along an invisible coastline. We passed some phenomenal natural marvels and relished the opportunity, as the rain had ceased, to go up on deck to get some great photos. Lunch was then served and we abstained from the off putting seafood and rice that had no flavour just stodgy texture and thanked ourselves for the cookies we had earlier! Then came the fun! Kayaking through the hidden grottos and caves even if for only 30 minutes! Lauren sat upfront and was on hand photographer while Ben paddled at the back. We found some great caves that boats could not get through and marvelled at the natural scenery that was unfolding. We also passed the floating villages and saw everyday folk going about their business while living amongst this beautiful landscape and wondered how they actually manage. No doubt the hundreds of boats that come through every day bring all the supplies they will need. After some more time being steered through the islands we docked and went into the main cave that has been protected by the site and serves as an enlightenment to what the islands hold. You had to be pretty imaginative when our informative guide showed us the rock formations of a giant nipple and dragons! Gave brilliant entertainment though but you really couldn't see what she was pointing too apart from the obvious giant nipple!



After that it was back to the boat followed by bus followed by another crappy shop that resembled a smaller ikea, hot dogs available! Just what was in those hot dogs... We were dropped off in the centre only a couple of roads from our hostel which was due to the main roads being closed for the Sunday night market. Well cattle market might have been a better description, there are no photos as you could not move to take any it was overcrowding and overbearing and still motorbikes tried to get through! All roads surrounding this were blocked with parked bikes on roads and pavements and it was a miracle we didn't get burns from all the exhausts we had to work hard to avoid! We managed to scrape through in one piece and went to a local chain called Gekko and shared a margarita, enough to take our malaria tablets with and went to rest our weary heads.



Unfortunately when we returned we had a text off Ben's dad with very sad news that Ben's grandfather had sadly passed that morning. It obviously left us feeling very crushed but we wanted to rejoice his life and smiled about the great memories we had and allowed ourselves to see how lucky we are to be doing this trip of a lifetime, and so happy we saw him the day before we left. Rest in piece grandad Kenny, we love you.



Things of note:

Horns are muted as they go off every micro second in every direction not as an angry driver as in the UK but to warn you they are there- but we know you are everywhere at all times!

You can eat on every street corner but they prepare the food and smash ice on the road, the very road you walk down

Ho Chi Minh is everywhere on every note and picture at every sight or monument

There is no evidence of war in modern history beyond the hats that men wear that resemble what is seen on Vietnam war films, khaki helmets.

Helmets for bikes are not that exactly, they are like peaked caps but hard, they have no front and do not cover the face yet they all cover their mouths with surgeon masks even if just sitting by the lake! Every shop also stocks them!

When foreigners speak to each other they always converse in English! We were sitting next to a group on the tour that were Spanish, Vietnamese and German yet common ground is of course English. The same is restaurants, it's English or Vietnamese no matter where you are from!

When we got the airport shuttle to the centre of town, a man got on to see where all needed dropping off for hotel bookings, but it wasn't to tell the driver we were all pushed off at same time, it was so he could sell his accommodation, and when you were evacuated throngs of men and bikes were waiting to heard you like cattle to the places where they get commission!

What would we do differently:

Book a different taxi firm it was fine we weren't ripped off but he nearly fell asleep at the wheel three times, must have been why we got $5 cheaper the drivers don't sleep!

Thefts:0 we were very vigilant

Near misses:0 surprisingly!

Fallouts:0


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