Following in the footsteps of Top Gear

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Monday, October 11, 2010

So, you may have noticed it's been awhile since our last entry. Would you believe us if we said we had been really busy and just couldn’t find time?... No?

 Don’t blame you frankly because it is not true; we just somehow didn’t get around to it and have been doing lots of sitting on beaches. Thanks to everyone who has left comments and sent us e-mails of encouragement (and e-mails berating us for not writing one for 4 weeks!);  it is nice to know that people are reading!

So, where were we? I believe we left the story when we were deposited at the closed border of Vietnam and China by the night bus at 4am in the torrential downpour. Once over the border, we negotiated our way to the pleasant, if very touristy (at least in comparison to China where we had become used to be one of a few westerners around in many of the places we had been in) mountain town of Sapa in Northern Vietnam. Vietnam immediately felt totally different to China, the loos were thankfully much nicer, the food less spicy, the service culture more alive and suddenly there were children everywhere.  We spent a couple of days pootling around the mountains on a moped, marvelling at the scenery when it emerged from the clouds, hiking through the villages and enjoying the fact that beer & cocktails were suddenly really cheap.

We then hopped on a train to Hanoi where we were excited to be meeting up with Sarah’s parents for a couple of weeks in Vietnam & Cambodia and found ourselves a grotty little hotel around the corner from their very nice one! Hanoi was fun, especially in the old town, a slightly crazy city with narrow streets where much of the economy seems to be conducted on the pavements: thousands of people eating, drinking, selling, buying, working, chatting, sitting on little plastic stools. There are also more motorbikes than we have ever seen before in our life and Sarah’s poor road crossing skills were exposed ruthlessly. The trick seemed to be just stepping out into the road and walking slowly and deliberating across without changing speed, preferably in a group. It seemed to help if you don’t look at the hoard of motorbikes bearing down on you because if you did they assumed you would avoid them!  To be fair Sarah made it until our last day before actually hitting a bike, and that may have had something to do with the few street beers she’d had at the time.

After a couple of days seeing the sights of Hanoi and eating fabulous and amazingly cheap food, we headed off for Halong Bay where we were going on a beautiful luxury cruise boat (our place was very kindly subsidised by Nick & Ann as an early 30th for Gordon!). Halong Bay was as beautiful as everybody says it is and it was fantastic to spend a couple of days in luxury surroundings after 6 weeks of finding the cheapest room we could. The highlight was perhaps on the 2nd day where we kayaked over to a cave, climbed through it with torches and then came out onto a lagoon completely surrounded by massive cliffs where you could jump off the rocks to have a swim. We had an unusual dversion on the trip back where we stopped to take some photos of some locals who were harvesting their rice paddy.  They thought this was brilliant and posed for photos, and then invited us down to help harvest the rice with them - making use of us to finish off the field!

After the boat, Nick & Ann were catching a flight further down the coast to Hue and we were going to follow on a night train that night. Out best laid plans were put to waste though as there were massive storms and landslides further down the coast and all the trains for the next 3 days were cancelled.   There ensued a stressful couple of hours where we got a refund from our train ticket, bought a bus ticket, went out to the bus station, decided not to get the bus, came back to the train station, got a refund of the bus ticket, tried to find another train, failed, tried to buy a flight, failed and then ended up giving in and going to get a hotel. In the end, the only option was to book a flight to further down the coast and wait for Nick & Ann to catch up with us. It actually worked out very well in the end as we found a really nice little guest house called Hoa’s Place out in the middle of nowhere on China Beach near Danang where we met a bunch of nice people all going to the beach by day and sitting in the common room drinking beer by night. Inspired by watching Top Gear we hired a moped (manual- which made the trip through Danang city exhilarating in a "oh my god I’m going to die" kind of way) and went up to the Hai Van pass, where Nick and Ann conveniently came past on the road with their guide and picked us up to take us on down the coast to Hoi An.

Hoi-An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam and Sarah wasted no time in getting into the tailors and commissioning a plethora of new clothes. She was forgiven for doing so because while she visited the tailors Gordon sat in the bar across the road drinking 25p ice-cold glasses of fresh beer, marvelling at how high the flood markers were (2008 one was about 8 foot above the ground- and this was in the centre of town) much to the delight of the friendly barman who we were on first name basis with by the time we left. The additional clothes were also only allowed on the basis that Ann was able to take half of them back to the UK in her hand luggage!  To pass the time while we waited for Sarah’s lorry-load of clothes to be made we once again followed in the footsteps of Top Gear and headed down the beach for seafood lunches and body-boarding, and even fitted in a cookery course where Gordon impressed everyone with his ability (read: attempt) to make a tomato rose.

Next stop was the Mekong delta where another very nice Vietnamese guide organised by Nick & Ann’s agency took us round the river sights and floating markets, albeit in the pouring rain that meant we all invested in some particularly fetching ponchos. It was then on to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon to most of us) where we took in the harrowing and fascinating (if very one sided and propagandistic!) War Museum and went to the compulsory Cu Chi tunnels where Nick managed to squeeze into the tiniest of bolt holes that the Viet Cong used- impressing the group and guide in equal measure.
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