We flew into Hanoi's new airport, Noi Bai, which has no character (or Bank or ATM machine leaving us relying on US dollars to get to Hanoi - the greenback will do fine until you can get some Vietnamese Dong (20,000 to the pound making us millionaires with heavy wallets once we got some)). The drive from the airport to Hanoi had some of the most charming and interesting sights we've seen on our trip. So many people wearing conical hats - it must be like wearing knickers from Marks and Spencers; people working in waterlogged rice (paddy) fields, backbreaking work with only the help of a wooden plough dragged by oxen; everything (and anything - including an upside-down pig,) carried on the back of a motorbike.
We were scammed at least once a day in Vietnam and the first was five minutes after clearing customs...
For the first time ever we were met at the airport by a man carrying a
piece of card with our names on it! We assumed that Sue and Jacqui had sent a taxi as they'd arrived the day before us - that's very nice of them,
we thought. The taxi driver agreed when we asked if that was the case and said that the hotel (Classic Street in the Old Quarter)
would pay -
excellent. But first we had to find another person to come to the hotel with us - strange.
Richard scoured the quiet airport and found a massive American, Stephen, who agreed to come with us but when we got to the hotel Stephen
decided not to stay. We were rushed into the hotel and booked in, and asked to pay 10 dollars for the taxi ride - what a surprise but
it was the going rate so we weren't too bothered.
We decided to have a look around Hanoi as we weren't meeting Sue and Jacqui until later so we set off with our trusty Lonely Planet (LP) under our arms. We were charmed - but lost. Classic Street was on the map but not on the street where it should have been. Luckily we had picked up a card in the hotel and found out that we weren't staying in the hotel we thought we were. When we got back we found out that Sue, Jacqui (and Simon and Louise who they'd met at the airport) had been scammed by the hotel the day before. They had taken a taxi from the airport and asked to be dropped at the Star Hotel (in LP) but the taxi took them to the Classic Street where they were rushed through booking in and it wasn't until they were wondering around Hanoi and got lost that they realised they weren't staying at the Star Hotel!! They then emailed us to say where they were, and we all assumed that it was the Classic Street mentioned in LP. It was lucky that we did take the taxi the hotel sent for us otherwise we would have had trouble finding the right hotel as there are a number of Classic Street Hotels in Hanoi. Taxi drivers in Vietnam won't take you where you want to go but will take you to the hotel that pays them the best commission. A good start!
Hanoi has a lot of character with busy, bustling streets and markets in the Old Quarter, a pretty peaceful oasis in Hoen Kiem Lake with its temples - and impressive monuments such as Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - (the first and probably last embalmed communist leader we'll see). The Thang Long Water Puppet Show was interesting - if a bit long.
Hanoi was our first encounter with rampant CD and DVD piracy - so we stocked up as much as we could: 20+ CD's and over 30 DVDs (CDs were 50p and DVDs £1.50 a go). The DVDs were a slight worry as they listed different regions on the back, and our player only allows a limited number of changes to the region it will play, but we later found that all the discs had been stripped of any region protection so they all work fine! It's amazing what sort of movie or music you'll buy at those prices...
Crossing the road - can take some time. There are such a lot of motorbikes, cyclos and bicycles coming from every direction that you will never be able to see a clear path straight across the road. The only way to cross is to walk slowly across the road weaving around the traffic and remarkably as the path behind you closes back up the path before you will become clear. Once you get used to it - it's fine - not really scary at all.... and if you are lucky you won't be beeped too much.
You need earplugs. The Vietnamese don't just use the horn to warn of possible danger, they use it for every and no reason. Sometimes we've been on buses and counted 80 honks a minute from that one bus giving us all headaches. But Hanoi is also noisy because people get up before dawn and there are public announcements and music blaring onto the streets through load speakers early every morning.
The Vietnamese are not night birds. Since we've been trying the bars in towns and cities of the world we had high hopes for Hanoi. It has some lovely bars and restaurants. We particularly liked Cafe 135 which was run by Ben and Sharon from Australia, sophisticated, busy, good value, great atmosphere and great food. If you want to do anything after 11pm it becomes quite difficult - the streets become deserted and most places shut. We found a couple of nice bars open after 11pm: R & R Tavern and Hanoi Pub but when we got back to the hotel just after midnight it was locked up with the shutters down. After knocking they raised the shutters enough for us to crawl in and we found that all the staff were sleeping on the reception floor and we'd woken them all up. Sorry. This happened at nearly every hotel we stayed in in Vietnam.
We were lucky enough to meet some other members of the Bale family. After having such a great time with Becky in Hong Kong we really hoped that we would meet Becky's Mum, Barbara, and her two sisters, Nancy and Lily who live in Hanoi. After a few emails and telephone calls we caught up with them and had tea at their house the night before we left Hanoi. They have been in Hanoi for 5 years and have a lovely house. It was so nice to meet them and hear what it is like to live in Hanoi and we can understand why they enjoy living there. We wouldn't say no to living and working there for a while.
We went on a two day trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi. The scenery was stunning and similar to Phang Nga Bay in Thailand with literally hundreds of islands but this seemed even more impressive with sheerer cliff faces, a higher density of islands, interesting caves and floating villages. We visited Hang Dau Go (Grotto of Wooden Stakes) and Thien Cung Caves where the stalagmites, stalactites and cauliflower rock formations were beautifully illuminated.
During the trip small fishing boats would moor to our boat and you could buy very fresh seafood (it was still moving). The crew of our boat would cook the crabs, huge langoustines, mussels or whatever you had bought. Louise and Jacqui bought some black pearl jewelry on the boat with pearls gathered in Halong Bay. By coincidence, one of the people on board, Silvano, was a gem trader from France and he examined the pearls to check their authenticity - they were real.
At dark we moored at Cat Ba Island and had our first terrifying experience of getting off a boat when there isn't a sensible way off. We had to walk around the thin edges of the boat, clinging on and feeling our way along and then jump onto another boat, walk through that and then jump onto the land. I think I would have been more likely to fall in if it hadn't been dark and I could have seen the water below me. Thankfully we didn't have our full packs with us, just our daypacks. Cat Ba is a little fishing island that is just starting to cater to tourists. The pretty harbour was full of fishing boats. The hotel was another example of a common Vietnamese phenomenon: tall, thin hotels with no lifts. In this one we were on the 5th floor, Simon and Louise got the short straw and were on the 9th (and the staircases are not intended to be negotiated with pack on!). Here's a picture of Richard eating chips with chopsticks.
The quietness and stillness of Halong bay and the layers of distant, shadowy islands all around gave a mysterious, almost eerie, feeling.
We took the night train from Hanoi to Hue which took 16 hours but we had a comfortable soft sleeper bed and got some sleep. General opinion was that Hue was pretty rubbish but that's probably a bit mean. Part of the problem was the weather, it was cold and miserable and we just aren't used to British weather anymore - I think that clouded our judgement a bit.
The other was that there isn't
really any nightlife although we did have a nice meal one night at Tropical Garden Restaurant. Unfortunately we had to sit inside because
it was too cold to sit in the lovely garden but we had good entertainment in the form of some traditional Vietnamese music and singing.
We booked a tour through our hotel (A Dong Hotel), the staff seemed very friendly, but the tour wasn't quite what we were promised (the tale of our time in Vietnam frankly). We had been sold a dragon boat with guide for the day to take us to Thien Mu Pagoda and some royal tombs, all fees included. As soon as we got on the boat we were perfect prey for the woman who hopped on to sell us postcards, pictures and ornaments. We had to look at every single thing. Once she had sold us enough things she hopped off. Thien Mu Pagoda was impressive and set in lovely grounds, seeing the Buddhist monks chanting was a highlight of the day. Next stop - the Tomb of Tu Duc. We got off the boat and were told that we had to pay £1.50 each to get a motorbike to the tomb which was apparently too far to walk - 6.5kms - scam. We said we'd walk anyway and we took a nice stroll past other tombs, small settlements, paddy fields, scarecrows with conical hats on, butterflies - stopping now and then to ask the way. It definitely wasn't 6.5km. Tu Duc's tomb is a massive complex and really nice but unfortunately like so many other places in Vietnam it costs more to take a photo or some video than it does to get in so we haven't got any pictures.
After that we decided not to go and visit the other tombs as they cost US$4 each to get in (not included in the tour) and we asked our 'guide' if he could
take us somewhere for lunch. He took us to what was probably the restaurant in his village. We had to climb a muddy slope to get there
and the floor was mud. They were obviously surprised to see us there - the grandmother of the house couldn't stop staring and smiling at us.
We used the LP language section to ask for 2 noodles with vegatables and 1 with chicken but they all came out the same - noodles with
coriander and something which looked a bit like chicken roll! It was nice to see life on the Perfume River, many people lived on the banks of the river but a good
number live on the small boats which constantly cruise up and down the river.
We had a scary bus ride to Hoi An around the mountains on the coast. The scenery was beautiful but as Richard said sometimes we nearly were the scenery. We sat at the front of the bus and the driver never took his hand off the loud, piercing horn - headaches and sickness all round. LP recommends you need earplugs in Vietnam - they are absolutely right but we didn't have any. The highlight of the trip was when we stopped for a break and a school boy of 11 named Tan came to practise his English on us. He was really good and only asked for a pen when he left us which is what most of the kids want, if they aren't after money. Someone else was asking for coins which many people collect in Vietnam as they don't have any - all notes right down to 100 dong (0.5pence).
In Hoi An we stayed at the Hai Yen Hotel which Louise and Simon had booked for us all - a nice hotel. Hoi An, along with Hanoi, is somewhere you could stay
for more than a couple of days. It has a really pretty harbour, chilled coffee shops and bars and not forgetting the great
tailors to get some new clothes made which will fit you perfectly.
We liked Treat's Cafe for it's happy hour (two vodka and tonics for 75pence) and atmosphere; Tam Tam Cafe for it's great tuna
crepes and steaks, chill out area with books and pool table; Good Morning Vietnam for good Italian food and Hai's Scout Cafe for lattes,
baguettes and cake.
We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An for the Full Moon Festival where, every month, they turn the lights off in the town at 7pm and have a party. The streets were lit with pretty lanterns in every colour and it was fun to sit in a bar in the dark. Families came out to enjoy the fun and games such as the 'hit the pottery hung on a string' game - a bit like pin the tail on the donkey where you are blindfolded and have to walk forward and try to break a bit of pottery hung in front of you with a stick. Well done Sue for managing to hit the pottery but not hard enough to break it and get the prize but Jacqui - you were a mile off!! Glad we're on another continent otherwise we might be in trouble for that remark.
A day trip from Hoi An to see some Hindu temples of My Son, built by the Champa Kingdom between the 7th and 13th centuries. It wasn't that great and even our guide said he thought it was the worst trip he went on!! High praise indeed.
We got our train tickets from a very nice helpful travel agent. When we got on the train we realised that he had charged £3.50 extra on the ticket price for each ticket. He shouldn't have charged more than 60pence or so per ticket to cover the collection of the tickets from the train station but unfortunately we didn't notice until we were on the train. He seemed so nice...
The 11 hour train journey took us to Nha Trang and we met Toni and Amanda in our six person hard sleeper cabin.