Hey everyone! So we loved our time in Laos and survived Vang Vieng, and headed off to Vientiane airport for our pricey flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. As Emma told you we took the easy option by avoiding the 24 hour sleeper bus after reading too many scare stories online. Luckily we’d been spending under our daily budget for some time and so had been able to take the one hour flight instead.
So at Vientiane airport we used our remaining Kip on some noodle soup for Emma (the best she’s had so far, really spicy and fragrant with a poached egg on top) and a typical Laos staple of a ham and cheese sandwich for me. We were over the moon to find we had enough kip left for a big bottle of Beer Lao to share, our last 🙁 We boarded the flight and after more free lunch onboard we arrived in Hanoi.
We’d already booked accommodation at the Little Hanoi Hostel who were offering a free airport pick up service, so we walked out of customs to be greeted by a small Vietnamese guy holding up a sign with my name on it. We jumped in his people carrier and after a hair-raising hour of weaving through the masses of scooters, we arrived at our hostel.
Later that day we ventured outside into Hanoi’s old quarter to see what we could find. Immediately in Hanoi you are struck by the sound of horns, there are scooters everywhere and sounding your horn is like an intricate language meaning everything from ‘I’m here, don’t you dare pull out on me’, ‘you pulled out on me damn you!’, ‘I’m a big tour bus overtaking you and I like to sound my horn just to make you shit your pants’, ‘my horn is jammed permanently on’ to ‘hi Dave it’s Hung’. Horns here are also significantly louder than on British vehicles, horns on trucks and coaches twist your stomach they’re so loud.
Due to the masses of bikes, crossing the road can be a little tricky. We, as all westerners do when first arriving in Vietnam, stood on the kerb and waited, craning our necks left and right hoping to spot a gap in the endless traffic that would never arrive. You soon learn by watching the locals that you simply need to walk, the traffic will find its way around you somehow and you will make it safely to the other side. You see, no matter how lawless the roads appear, all drivers are alert and anticipate hazards, like a pair of westerners in their way, and swerve around you.
The old quarter in Hanoi is a maze of small streets, none ever meeting at right angles and each named after the produce or industry present on that street. You will find roads just selling paint, scrap metal or opticians for example. We knew our route home each night by what was being sold; ok here’s coffee street, straight on, here’s the road that smells of Chinese herbal medicine, straight on, there’s the massive shoe stall with thousands of Vietnamese girls rummaging through piles of sandals, straight on and left at the bamboo ladder shop. The city definitely has a charm that’s very hard to describe, all I can tell you is that we loved it. The buildings all show signs of the French colonial past. Upper floor balconies have balustrades and the buildings themselves are painted in an array of colours, so despite the traffic it is a beautiful city. Weirdly buildings are taxed on their width, so all houses are extremely narrow, extremely deep and often extremely high too.
We took a walk North and West up towards Trúc Bạch lake stopping off at a second hand bookshop on the way, we were hoping to pick up a relatively recent copy of Lonely Planet’s Vietnam guidebook. We found plenty of tatty copies but all priced upwards of £10. We walked away knowing we could find it cheaper elsewhere. We walked around the lake which was pretty dirty, lots of dead fish floating about and old rice sacks tied off at the top had been thrown in, we tried not to think about what was inside them.
At a restaurant that night we noticed a Lonely Planet Vietnam book for sale on their shelf at a good price. It was wrapped in cellophane and the staff made it clear we couldn’t remove the cellophane unless we bought it. So we paid and unwrapped it to find all of the pages were photocopies. The cover was excellent and the few colour pages that always appear inside we’re present and again pretty good quality. We left that night feeling slightly shafted but impressed at the forger’s photocopying skills. Flicking through the book we found repeated references to ‘Bia Hoi’, fresh beer it translates to, or draught beer and is apparently available all over Hanoi. We walked miles through the old quarter and had never noticed it, forcing us to drink the pricey bottled beer. Finally one night we noticed a sign saying ‘Bia Hoi 5,000 dong’, that’s about 15p. We took a seat at a table on chairs that were clearly intended for infants and ordered two glasses. Sat outside on the pavement, the beers arrived straight from a metal barrel in small half pint glasses. The beer is made partly from rice we think and so has this smoothness not dissimilar to a Hoegaarden or some other wheat beer, it’s really refreshing. All around locals are raising their glasses to toast and knocking back glass after glass, munching on the peanuts and spring rolls being sold by the snack ladies walking past every five minutes. It’s a great atmosphere. Sure enough just as we’re ready to order our next glass we notice a familiar face, our Australian friend Ron was walking past, we thought he’d flown back to Australia after his time in Laos but instead he’d decided to see Vietnam too. So we had a lovely evening chatting away with Ron, who we soon realised had just arrived in Hanoi after taking the 24 hour sleeper bus from Laos! He was looking pretty exhausted as he told us the hell he’d endured on that trip, no space to move in his tiny sleeper bed, cockroaches running around his feet and a stinky toilet that couldn’t be reached due to the buses’ aisles being full of sleeping locals. We were glad we’d taken the plane!
The next day we took a cruise out to the incredible Ha Long bay, staying onboard for two nights. This place really is something special as you’ll see from our pictures. We splurged a bit on this trip, paying for a midrange boat so as to avoid the budget booze cruises, it was worth the extra dosh as we got a lovely room and some of the best food we’ve eaten so far. Plate after plate of the freshest sea food we’ve ever eaten was brought out for us, fresh prawns grilled in their shells were presented with amazing roses of carved vegetables, tender fried squid, we were in heaven. The views on deck of the sunset were spectacular, sipping a cold beer and looking out on the sun falling behind the mountains is a definite highlight of the trip so far.
I need to point out that some crazy government official decided that as the bay has been designated as one of the new seven wonders of the world, all of the junk boats in the bay must now be painted white. Previously they were all different colours and I can imagine the scene on the bay being quite incredible from the boats alone, but now they’re all white and grimy. White shows up the staining from the exhaust fumes and the dark paint underlying was starting to show through, making the boats all appear quite dirty. Shame.
During the second day on the boat we headed over to a quiet area of the bay where we could kayak. Covered in some pricey sun cream that we’d bought in Hanoi, we kayaked to a small island where we could swim. The sand was made up of coral and quite sharp in places, still the sea was warm and we enjoyed our first swim in the ocean so far on our trip. When it was time to go back, Emma got in the front of our two-man kayak, I then waded out and stepped up into the back seat. Being the uncoordinated twat that I am, as the kayak was tilted by a wave I lost my balance and fell over the edge into the shallow water landing on my back on a large jagged rock… ouch! My back, arms, fingers and feet were covered in deep gouges. I was bleeding quite a lot so I tried to rinse all of the cuts in the seawater thinking it would clean them. I then discovered that my expensive prescription sunglasses were no longer on my head, they’d come off when I fell, quite a few people were helping me to try to find them but we had no luck. Our guide came over and put his hand in the murky water and immediately found them, one arm had snapped clean off and was lost forever, hopefully I’ll be able to get the lenses put into new frames.
That afternoon we got back to our boat and discovered we were both glowing lobster red, our factor 30 sun cream had done nothing at all, no one else onboard had burnt so we had to assume our sun cream was dodgy, ‘same same’ (an Asian saying) but 100% fake! Luckily two kind American ladies (Nancy and Pam) onboard took pity on the scuffed up beetroots and gave us their leftover sun cream and loads of other magic potions like antibiotic cream. I covered my wounds in the latter as they’d started going green and sure enough everything started healing up a treat.
We had a great group on our boat, the kind American ladies I mentioned, a nice Australian guy called Kim, a Dutch cyclist/painter called Geert van Keulen and a young Vietnamese girl called Nhung. We had a great evening chatting with Nhung where we got some real insight into the life of your average Hanoian, property there is up there with the most expensive in the world. Despite families owning houses in the old quarter that might be worth millions of dollars they are cash poor, selling their house would mean giving up their lives to live in the suburbs where they would struggle to make any money at all. Girls move in with their in-laws when they marry, a couple will never be able to afford their own house. The parents will give up a floor of the house to them or build another floor on top if they can afford it. You can imagine that with big families things can get quite tight. Many people do not even own houses and will never be able to, so they pay 10,000 dong (about 33 pence) a night to sleep in a small sliver of space, in a room with many other people in the same situation. Often married couples cannot even live together. What we found most shocking was that our daily budget (£60) is twice the average monthly wage of a Hanoian. Life is not easy for the average person here.
Geert the Dutch painting cyclist kindly let us browse through his sketchbooks, he’d made some great paintings of the bay and as we looked back through his book we found a picture of a bar we’d visited in Luang Prabang, it brought back happy memories for us. He’s cycling all over South East Asia on his own and will be following the Tour de France afterwards on his bike, a very interesting guy, you can check out his website here www.rideintothemirror.com.
So after an epic three days/two nights on board we headed back to Hanoi, bumping into our mate Ron again that night. We had an early start the next day as we had our first Vietnamese train to catch South to Ninh Binh, but that didn’t stop us sinking a few more bia hoi before bedtime 🙂
…epic gallery warning…