The Hanoi bus was horrible with extra padded seats in every aisle to make it five people per row again. But this time it was intimate, a boy right in front of me and me having to lean my back on the women's legs behind me. Strangely enough I didn't feel tired and three hours of break neck driving later we arrived in Hanoi, to be immediately swarmed by moped drivers offering us a lift into town. The Italian man and I decided to go to a Vietnamese restaurant by the main lake in town and take it from there. Funnily enough the moped ride that followed was the scariest i have ever had. The bus journeys are wild but you get used to them and put your faith in something higher and just seat back and enjoy the ride. The moped are different as your feel much more of a mortal when you realise the slim margins preventing your from instant impact with the concrete. For thirty minutes my driver weaved his way through the insane traffic of Hanoi. Everyone has a moped here and they all dance the tango with each other, all the while weaving, bobbing and beeping there way around. When we hit ground I was relieved as it was genuinely scary ride after fourteen hours of travel already. We headed to the restaurant and scoffed down Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, which is effectively a chicken soup with noodles and various extras. I then moved onto some spring rolls and a cup of Vietnamese coffee. I have had the Vietnamese coffee before and in my opinion it is the best in the world. It comes thick, strong and chocolaty in taste with condensed milk added at the bottom of the cup for a sweet and super strong kick of caffeine. I then bumped into a Australian guy I met in Laos who was biking his way around South East Asia and we exchanged a few stories and information on places to stay. At this point I said goodbye to the Italian man and headed to the hotel I had decided upon. Obviously the hotel didn't exist anymore as my Lonely Planet is two years old and after trudging around I settled on a $12 room in the center of town with the intention to check into somewhere more salubrious the next day.
Hanoi worked its charm on me initially as I dragged my tired torso around its maze like road system and tried to avoid death by moped.
If there are eight million people living in this city then there must be millions of mopeds on the streets. Hanoi's traffic makes Bangkok seem like a walk in the park. These mopeds are everywhere and their riders range from four deep families (usually with the child right at the front glued to the windscreen and in front of the driver), to three deep families, to young kamikazes, to men riding on the back arms outspread and clutching onto two huge window frames.
The fact they rarely seem to crash makes it all the more insane. Crossing the road requires balls of steel; just as well I came armed to the teeth then. Although there are double lined marks at various intervals for pedestrians they are mostly ignored by the mopeds. Here is what you must do - pull shoulders back, head high in air, begin walking in a straight line slowly but surely and do not stop until you reach the other side. Do not run! This tactic seemed to work and other pedestrians will act in a similar manner in order to protect each other. After several days I was sauntering around town and crossing roads like I had lived there all my life, you do get the hang of it but it requires some fearlessness. The city itself proves to be a good introduction to Vietnam and has been described as the 'grand old dame of the Orient' in that it captures the past as well as the present of Vietnam.
It is indeed graceful and atmospheric with its chic tree lined boulevards left over from its colonial legacy standing side by side with its uber chic boutiques and a distinctly modern outlook. This contrast between the old and traditional and the modern and dynamic is manifested best in the generational gaps that exist here. The youngsters look to the future and the old generation have one foot in the past.
I chose after the first night to base myself in the historic Old Quarter
where mopeds swarm through the tangled web of streets that have apparently been a center of commerce here for over 1000 years. Some relative luxury was in order after having been on the road for several weeks so I checked into one of many Prince Hanoi hotels. Paying $35 a night was quite a rise after Laos but for this I had a superb room with cable tv, fridge, hot water, bath/shower, big double bed, wooden floors and ornamental wood furnishings. Happy with the room I tried to make contact with the Swedish girls but missed them so decided to just relax with a massage and eat well and get an early sleep. This time I opted for a sauna before my massage and although it was only twenty minutes it nearly flattened me and I realised I must be in need of a lot of rest. The massage was nice and after I headed straight for some street food and wolfed down some chicken noodle soup for $1 with a Hanoi beer. Asking the lady for more noodles in my soup with hand signs led to confusion as she produced a second bowl of soup, oh well I was hungry anyway and ate that as well. Wondering back to my hotel room my stomach was wobbling with all the liquid and I settled in for the night.
The next day after some dead leads I finally managed to track down their hotel and we met up and spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets and just taking it in with some window shopping and light eating. We made a visit to the Vietnamese Women's Museum
which provided an interesting insight into the historical and contemporary roles of Vietnamese women with three floors devoted to family, history and fashion. Lets just put it this way; Vietnamese women are tough as boots, do all the work and run the show. Men are left to imagine they wear the trousers. Later in the day we met up for drinks and proceeded to have an extremely fun night that involved way too much drinking and various amusing incidents like the man who tried to sell me drugs while his friend tried to pick pocket me and the woman who amorously grabbed my crotch in the middle of the street when I asked her for directions home. I must admit I was enjoying myself
Sleep didn't come easily though and I had started to sneak into a pattern of bad sleep and tossing and turning at night in my bed. I was tired from travelling on buses so much and had started thinking about Oi too much. Although I didn't realise it at first these thoughts about Oi were not only slowing me down but ruining my sleep. Having told myself before I came travelling not to get attached to a girl in order to keep my freedom this was now happening. It isn't a bad thing maybe but I felt like my mind was not as free as it was before. Instead of thinking about where I was and what I was doing or was going to do I was thinking about her. I determined to try not to and to stop contacting her for at least several days as we had been emailing each other a lot back and forth. With the Swedish girls having to leave a day ahead of schedule for Laos I was left to my own devices and decided to visit Halong Bay to the north and then head south to the central plains area. To be honest I was looking forward to leaving Hanoi
as the constant moped sounds, people trying to rip me off and general hum and drum had gotten to me. I love cities but this time I wanted open spaces and some peace and quiet. With this in mind I checked out some tour companies and opted for one called Ocean ... as well as booking a two legged ticket from Hanoi to Hue in the central plains and then onto Nha Trang in the south.
Another poor nights sleep and I arrived like a zombie at Ocean Tour's doorstep ready to begin the trip to Halong Bay. Lin was our charming tour guide and proceeded to talk to all seven of us for an hour on the mini bus about Vietnam in general. Everyone was clearly tired and would rather doze off but her enthusiasm was infectious and soon people were asking questions and participating. It was a good way to bring the group together. About four hours later after driving at surprisingly slow speeds through paddy fields and anonymous towns we arrived at Halong Bay. Why did the man drive so slow? Apparently on this highway we travelled there is a speed limit of over 40kms/hour and he was once stopped and fined a month's wages for driving at 50km/hour. Nice to see the police are corrupt in Vietnam too - I had noticed them scouring the streets in Hanoi for customers where they would stop someone and cart of their moped to the local station for a hefty fine. I hate the police in Asia. What can you say about Halong Bay that has not been said before?
Very little so I will keep it short. It is beautiful, misty, romantic, mysterious and inspiring. Although I was the one singleton amid three loved up couples I was happy to stop and breath the clean air and enjoy the views. It was also thankfully not that busy as We sailed around the bay, did some kayaking through a hidden cave, swam in the see and had some really superb sea food on the boat for dinner.
Several cocktails later I tried in vain to catch some squid for breakfast with the fisherman who gave me a sad looking 'fishing rod'. After an hour not even a bite and so I went to bed to catch some sleep for the next day's activities on Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest island within Halong Bay and is rugged, craggy and jungle clad. We took a really nice bike ride 5 kms from the pier to the village we were staying and passed rolling hills, emerald green waters and soaring eagles on the way. Once we arrived at the village i was struck by how rich all the locals were, satellite tvs, brand new karaoke systems, fake designer clothes and other trappings of wealth were there. It seemed they were growing fat of the tourist dollar and although the location felt genuine enough the welcome didn't.
I must confess I have yet to warm to Vietnam because they treat tourists like meat, like we all have huge dollar signs over our heads and a ready to be ripped off. Its so painfully obvious they want our money and little else, at every stop you make on a guided tour there is someone ready with a stall to sell you food and drinks. It gets annoying after a while. Moaning aside Cat Ba was lovely, we made a two hour hike up a hill and although the view was obscured with fog it was still pleasant. In the evening I could hear the barking of dogs echoing round our village as it lies at the foot of a big hill and is surrounded by other hills in the distance. It felt like a slightly spooky Jurassic Park as you watched the scenery from your porch at night. Another early night as tomorrow I would have a twenty hour journey to Hu in central Vietnam.
Hopefully the rest of my journey would reveal a softer side to the people, maybe it wouldn't. Either way the country was proving to be more challenging than Laos or Thailand did and less appealing as well. It feels rewarding in some ways but I miss the smiles and warmth of the Thai and Laos people
Arising sleepily I headed to the bus station to begin my bus journey from Sam Neua to Thanh Hoa in Vietnam and then hopefully onwards to Hanoi in the same day. What would my journey bring this time? Chickens surely I thought. My companion for the ride was an older Italian man from Tuscany who I met the day before when I helped him out with information for the bus. The bus rode around several shops looking for customers and then kicked off the journey from the northern bus station at around 9am, all the while passengers would slowly be picked up along the way. Luckily it was a mini bus so the ride was fairly comfortable and it would not be until the last leg of the journey that it got really busy and they pulled out mini chairs which laid in the aisle and made the bus five seats wide. The landscape was pleasant with rolling misty hills as we ascended deep into the roof of north eastern Laos and headed to the border crossing. Many winding roads later we reached the crossing and within thirty minutes we were through which surprised me, and they even offered us to exchange our Loas Kip to Vietnamese Dong at the border. A quick stop for lunch later and we were off, this time much faster than before as the driver proceeded to overtake in all the wrong places and pick up passengers when they hailed the bus. I must admit I admired his kamikaze spirit. Grinning and beeping his horn constantly for around four hours we arrived after nine hours later at Thanh Hoa (mention north Vietnam landscape) and without blinking were getting our bags on a bus to Hanoi. This was great and meant we would get there the same day we left Laos, which is good going. Had the kamikaze driver been on a schedule to make it to the bus stop in time for the Hanoi bus?