"Brainy turtles and sleepy dragons"

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March 5th 2013
Published: March 14th 2013
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Blog 22nd February - 5th March.
Vietnam: Hanoi - Halong Bay - Sapa - Hue - Hoi An

"Brainy turtles and sleepy dragons"

With the India box 'ticked' (for now at least) we waved goodbye to a hot and sweaty Bombay and jetted off for South East Asia.

Nearly two days and a full pack of wet wipes later, we safely arrived in Hanoi -capital of Vietnam in the far north of the country. The weather had dropped 15 degrees and we were officially back in winter again, though it made for a nice refreshing change (sorry to rub it in readers, appreciate the UK has just had a second bout of snow!).

Staying in the city's Old Quarter we were thrown right into the melting pot. On the way into the city we saw suburban rice paddy fields and conical hatted farmers replaced by roadside diners with play school furniture, caged singing tweety birds and countless hanging carcasses awaiting supper. The roads are just as crazy, every Indian rickshaw has been replaced by a motorbike ten to one. There's no need for people carriers, transit vans or livestock trailers here, there are literally no limits as to what you can get on the back of a two wheeler. Whole families with babies perched over handle bars and their weekly shop (a few dead chickens, rice noodles and a watermelon) heaped up on the back of a small scooter! The street corners come alive at night with speciality meats as varied as your imagination will allow - Tesco suppliers would have no questions asked here. Hanoi is also famous for its micro breweries of fresh beer - Bia Hoi. Street corner bars pop up everywhere selling glasses of beer for 5000 dong (about 15p). At that price I am delighted to say Jo has even succumbed to the taste.

We packed in a few sights to our first day in Hanoi, including their national museum, lake temple and the temple of literature. The museum portrayed Vietnam's endless struggle for independence against the Chinese, French, Japanese, the French again and finally the Americans. Their view of the American War is very one sided (history is definitely written by the victors) with strong undertones of propaganda. That said there seems to be no public animosity towards the yanks these days, with many people donning American fashion labels and baseball caps. A highlight of the day was 'stroking a turtle' at the temple of literature. Once the country's one and only the university, the students would pray for good grades by stroking the head of giant stone turtle - an apparent source of good luck and tremendous wisdom. The place is still packed today with young visiting students queuing up in the hope that a quick stroke will make up for little revision or missed coursework (we've all been there). Jo was gutted they didn't have any real turtles to play with (which has now kicked off chat for a possible Galapogas visit) but we did see a giant taxidermist one which had been hauled out of the lake 20 years ago.

Day two saw us jump firmly onto the tourist trail as we headed for Halong Bay. As one of seven new Natural Wonders of the World it's on everyone's todo list. We saw more western tourists on this visit than we had done in all of our trip so far (including the Taj Mahal). Despite the crowds and the drizzly overcast weather, we donned our macs and it was still a site to behold - a collection of 2000 islands rising from emerald waters half a mile from the coast. 'Halong' means 'descending dragon' - as per the legend the bay was created when a great dragon descended from the mountains to rest in the sea leaving only its pinnacles visible on the surface. Many of the islands themselves are full with grottoes and great caves. We visited one cave which was first discovered by the French and is now famous for the 'cock rock' (dirty frogs) because it is home to a giant phallus shaped rock now with 'very tasteful' pink lighting. Our trip also included a kayaking session in the rain amongst the islands and floating houses and we spent a night there on a boat. After narrowly avoiding an evening of karaoke to 'ABBA:Best of!', it was great to wake up early to see the islands slowly appear through the deep morning fog.

Following a quick turnaround in Hanoi we were back on the road again with a night bus to Sapa - a mountain village just a stones throw from China. Here we enjoyed some more breath taking views whilst on a two day trek with a tribal guide. We had initially been apprehensive about making the trip as the weather is notoriously bad at this time of the year. When our 12 hour bus pulled in to Sapa at 8am we thought our worst nightmares had come true - the fog was so thick we couldn't see 3 metres in front of us. Our search for the guesthouse was like pinning the tail on the donkey blindfolded, only this said donkey was hidden down a random street half a mile away.

We cracked on nevertheless with our trek and by lunchtime we started to see a glimpse of the great valley below and soaring mountains above. The sun continued to burn through and by mid afternoon the weather was perfect. The hillsides are made up of cascading rice fields, scattered with mini waterfalls and streams. The people here are from varying minority tribes where Vietnamese is not their first language. Our guide Zao came from the H'mong tribe and was hugely knowledgeable about local customs. Jo was immediately eyeing up her bright multi-coloured tribal dress for a future market purchase and was gutted to find these clothes were not for sale anywhere as Zao had personally handmade and embroidered them.

We stayed in a local village home-stay (ish), where our over-enthusiastic hostess had a real penchant for rice wine and we chanted "mot hai ba Yo!" (one two three Drink!) as we drank shot after shot. We had opted for a hard route for the trek and got exactly that. As the legs began to tire on the second day so did our coordination. I nearly fell down a cascade while Jo found herself having a mid morning mud bath. It was like waiting for the inevitable in slow motion as she slowly started to slip into a rice paddy bog, going..going..gone! We finished up the trek at Zao's own home where we had lunch.Her husband was cooking so we were treated to some real fine dining of instant noodles (pot noodle-esque), before a rather hairy 10 mile 'xe om' motorbike taxi back to Sapa.

Now the plan from here was to take the same night bus back to Hanoi, spend the day sightseeing and chilling out before getting another overnight bus down to the centre of Vietnam -easy peasy. In reality it was a bloody nightmare! The conductor was insistent we took top bunks on the bus, I am so glad he did. We were only half an hour into our journey when the local lady opposite started throwing up everywhere. More sick bags were ordered from the front and I really felt for the couple lying on the bottom bunk directly below her. As the bus snaked down the mountain we were tossed from side to side and sicky lady showed no signs of easing up. Now I should have realised something was up when I actually fell asleep around midnight and woke up six hours later. The bus wasn't moving - we were locked up in a traffic jam for 10 hours.

It took 22 hours before we finally reached Hanoi - the day was nearly over and our next journey loomed. Sadly we missed our chance to sneak a peak of 'Uncle Ho' (Ho Chi Min - they have his body embalmed and on display at his Mausoleum), and we only saw 5 mins of our pre-booked water puppets performance (which is a lot more sophisticated than it sounds). We also missed out on a quick bite at Hanoi's famous Pho Nghi Tam - a street filled with over 60 dog meat restaurants. The Vietnamese believe eating these woofy delights at the end of month brings tremendous good luck. We're not convinced but maybe our time will come later..

Our third sleeper bus in four days brought us to Hue in north central Vietnam- a former capital, the area is home to a number of royal monuments which were all but destroyed by US bombs during the war. Apparently, an American General supposedly said they had to 'destroy Hue in order to save it!' We spent a full day strolling through town visiting the Citadels, and Citadels within the Citadels, and Citadels...(you get the idea). Hue was a fairly relaxing town but there was little more to do after a day or so. Our journey south had also brought a return to the tropical heat and humidity. It was necessary to locate some bia hoi liquid refreshment and we had a fun evening out with some friends we'd met on the way down from Hanoi.

Our next stop on the list was the wonderful Hoi An. Once a great trade port it used to be the epicentre for the world's silk production and many of the country's exports. But when the river silted up many years ago the port moved north and it's as if everything in town has stood still ever since. The ancient buildings remain and the charming streets are lined with lanterns and flowers. It's touristy but in a good way. The town's silk legacy remains and this is the place where everyone comes to get their clothes custom made. 'When in Rome' we thought as Jo and I went all out on a new suit, dress and jacket. It was a great fun experience and whilst the 'fittings' were still a little intruding they were a lot more professional than in India - this time my trousers were actually the right length! But after our rather outlandish and impulse purchases, It was necessary to lock the blinkers onto Jo for the rest of our stay. Her beady eyes were running wild and I was quickly getting hauled from stall to stall - She's like a box of Pringles, once she shops she just cant stop! We didn't get a chance to enjoy our new wardrobes for long however, as they're boxed up and currently bobbing their way back to the UK via SeaMail. Fingers crossed they will get home before we do. Sorry mum - that's another box for storage!

Hoi An is also famous for its food. As you may have noticed, how much we like a certain place is often governed by our taste buds - I'm a Green after all and Jo is also a little truffler at heart too (I will be in trouble for that!). Having been so spoilt in India (two dicky tummies aside) it has taken us a week or so to properly adjust to Vietnamese food. Whilst the street food of the north was fun, you have no real idea what you're eating and it's all pretty bland, same same but different. This all changed in Hoi An where we feasted on some cracking pork and seafood dishes. Their local plates of cau lau, white rose dumplings and savoury pancakes were awesome. Further to this, while the French can be criticised for over 100 years of colonialism, the country can be grateful to them for the stamp they left on bread making, pastries and cakes. Hoi An is scattered with fab patisseries and we found ourselves visiting maybe one too many, as well as enjoying the country's amazingly thick black coffee with condensed milk - delicious!

So.. After racing around the north this was a perfect place to slow down and take everything in. We ended up staying four nights because we liked the place so much. We were also preparing ourselves to head south on our next adventure. Away from the coast and up into the mountains, would we be in for an 'Easy Ride'?...

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15th March 2013

White rose dumplings so exotic, and halong bay looks so mysterious and inviting. A bit worrying the produce on the back of the motorbike!You are both beginning to look like seasoned travellers.

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