Week 7- Vietnam Part 1- Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An

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February 4th 2013
Published: February 4th 2013
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One of my favourite defining moments in each different country that you visit it the moment when you step out of the airport/bus/train station and your first impression smacks you in the face. First impressions are important. They are truthful, unbiased and they hurtle towards you quickly and effortlessly. You have little say in the matter. Pace of life can almost always be defined in the flow of the traffic and our first Vietnamese taxi ride from the airport to central Hanoi is probably one of the best examples of this that I can possibly offer you. We were woven through a sea of beeping motorbikes, scooters, bicycles and buses, taxi man swerving in his relentless attempt to break through the impenetrable wall of traffic ahead. The beeping was probably the strangest part, not so much on the busy roads but we have been in Vietnam for over a week now and even when the roads are empty, the beeping is continuous. Hanoi remains the craziest place I have ever been to with or without the beeping and though it may not be essential in terms of traffic, it is absolutely paramount in creating the audial backdrop of the city.

Halfway through our taxi ride, Bill joined us and offered to take us to his hotel. We're not stupid, we know that things like this will often result in us getting absoutely ripped off, but sometimes, when you have no idea where you are or where you're going and someone is offering you a quick solution you just go with it (and try to discount the blown up prices obviously). In this case, it paid off and Bill actually gave us a really nice room at 'Tulip Flower Hotel' for a really good price and over the next few days, helped us with anything at all that we wanted. Lesson learnt; there's a difference between being careful and just being dubious of absolutely every offer that comes your way.

During our time in Laos, we had embraced the laidback atmosphere and with not too much ground to cover, we had taken things very slowly. Hanoi denoted a different pace altogether however and with a plan to get all the way to the South in just 2 weeks, we knew that things would be moving a lot quicker from the outset.

Halong Bay is one of the biggest attractions in Northern Vietnam and for good reason. With a bay of around 2000 limestone islets to explore and the promise of good weather, we immediately booked a 2 day, overnight cruise for the following day. I cannot emphasise enough how good this trip was. It would be hard not to enjoy it purely for the fact that you are cruising through one of the world's most beautiful natural wonders, but when you throw in an incredible sunset, delicious seven course feasts of freshly barbequed seafood and a family room that rivals any we have stayed in on our trip so far, it becomes something more.

The photos look like something from a fantasy world but if possible they don't capture it truthfully. I thought that I had witnessed the epitomy of beautiful on Koh Phi Phi but as we sailed through the eerily still water amidst a maze of towering stacks and the sun began to set, casting around us a cove of velvet silhouettes, it truly surpassed anything I have ever seen and became spectacular. We watched from the top of a limestone stack as the deepening orange, evening sun descended beneath the horizon, soft shadows fell all around us and the boats stilled in the water for the night. With around 20 passengers maximum, we spent the evening chatting, getting valuable advice from the others about how to make the most of our remaining time in Vietnam and witnessed Jess and Copps perform a truly criminal rendition of 'pretty woman' on karaoke.

Before heading back to Halong City the next afternoon, we spent the morning exploring the huge caves encased within the stacks, kayaking and enjoying a mini cookery lesson on the top deck as we sailed back through the stunning bay. We arrived back to Hanoi in the early evening still in slight awe of what we had seen and looked forward to exploring the chaos of the Old Quarter for the next few days. Anybody who knows us will understand how excited we were at the prospect of visiting the old Vietnamese prison, Hoa Lo, complete with weapons of torture used on prisoners of war. Pretty sick, pretty gruesome and in fact really sad, Asian prisons really are just as horrific as they sound.

As I have said, and I make no exaggeration here, Hanoi is the craziest place I have ever been to. At home you wait for a gap in the traffic to dart across the road safely. In Hanoi, there are no gaps so the only viable option is to close your eyes, walk steadily to the other side without stopping and pray that you will se spared by the onslaught of scooters. These are no normal scooters however. They carry many strange and exotic products. So far we have seen one tree, one wardrobe, one newborn baby, a three metre high stack of toilet roll, cages of chickens and the best yet, a live pig. When you've seen a pig on a motorbike, you've pretty much seen everything. I've become numb to this randomness. I would not be at all surprised if I saw a grazing water buffalo climb onto the back of a scooter, put on a little helmet and speed past me down the road.

We stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi which is where most of the action seems to take place. The most fascinating way to explore this maze of streets is just by wandering through the chaos, the air thick with fumes and rich scents (both appealing and foul all at once) and allowing yourself to just get lost as the locals line the pavements on plastic chairs and stare at you. The magic of these streets lies in the 'Hang' streets, each one dedicated to a different item. Among many others there is 'Hang Giay'- Shoe street (amazing), 'Hang Da'- Leather street and 'Hang Ga' which sells only chicken. This way of commerce creates a unique atmosphere of both old and new combined. Our favourite street was a toss up between toy street (one side for girls and the other for boys) and cake street which needs no further explanation. I'm still undecided.

Fully embracing the culture vulture reputation, we visited the cathedral, museums, the opera house and in the evening we ventured out to sample some of the city's nightlife. The following day, feeling a little fragile, we went to the English Cinema to see 'The Impossible' which was extremely sad and boarded our first Vietnamese sleeper bus to take us further South to Hoi An. Most things in Vietnam seem to be much more legit/organised than in Thailand and Laos but there is always an exception to the rule and this bus was it. It was a chlosteraphobic's nightmare. The windows steamed up so much that the bus became a germy, condensation prison. Sarah and Jess took a seat at the back which we quickly realised did not move into any other position than horizontal and could be likened only to a coffin. I managed to claim an aisle seat but unfortunately with the bus at full capacity, a strange Vitnamese family set up camp in the narrow aisle next to me and decided to have a picnic.....all night.....which smelt.

Hoi An is a quieter, historic beach town and what I assume is the tailoring centre of South East Asia. The town is stacked with neat little shops displaying suits, beautiful dresses, shoes and pretty much any garment you could possibly desire. The shelves are piled high with different silks of every colour for you to choose from and with each piece made to your specific size and requirements for a ridiculous price, it is a shame to leave Hoi An without a souvenir.

We stayed at a hotel called 'Grasslands' which although being a slight walk from the town centre, had really nice rooms and helpful staff. On our return the first evening we had a visitor waiting to greet us. It was a huge, hairy spider with a big, evil, glowing eye. There were tears as we tried to formulate a plan to kill it as we all agreed that we would not be able to sleep in the room unless it was dead and in at least four pieces so that it could not possibly come alive again. It was more difficult than first anticipated, mainly because it was more like a small bear than a spider and bears are hard to squash with a shoe. Nevertheless, armed with a converse on each hand, we cornered the fucker and I pummelled it to a pulp....good friend.

The following day we all got stuck in, once again, to our new hobby....bike-riding (badass I know), tried to find the beach and ended up riding for about 2 hours down a dual carriageway. Our map reading skills left a lot to be desired and we ended up in a strange fishing port. We never did find the beach. Failure. In the evening we went into the town for dinner, found ourselves in the night market and drank strange gin from a strange bar. The small town lights up at night with chinese lanterns glowing orange over the river. It is desperate to become a party town, every hour is advertised as happy hour, but truthfully its just not got that atmosphere about it. The bars, dotted sparsely with tourists and pumping out dance music just don't slot in against the pretty backdrop. Still.....the gin was good.

On our final day in Hoi An, we all decided that we wanted to get some custom made, leather Jesus shoes. We all had our feet measured/ drawn around, chose the leather, chose the style and five hours later they were ready....and we love them. We had to move quickly and our first week in Vietnam ended as we got onto an overnight train and headed on our way down to the party town of Nha Trang ready for booze cruise bars and theme parks.

More on that in my next entry. Enjoy x


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