Hectic Hanoi, Heavenly Halong...

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Thursday, December 20, 2012

Not sure what to expect in Hanoi, first impressions were that it was Ho Chi Minh City but with lots (and lots) of cars as well as motorbikes - and with a noticeable shift in the friendliness of the locals. We had picked up on the latter in Hue and came to the conclusion that it was perhaps the opposite of our (perceived!) North-South divide - i.e. here, the Southerners are the friendly, welcoming ones and the Northerners would, quite frankly, like the tourists to go back to where they came from so that the locals get on with their daily business in peace. There’s enough traffic on the streets (including pedestrians as, in true Vietnam style, the pavements are blocked by motorbikes, shopfronts etc) and so we can understand this. 

The streets of the Old Quarter are named after the trade which was common on that road. This is still evident today - metal workers, tailors, cobblers, tanneries and some of the more modern trades (such as the white goods market) line the same streets and ensure competition for business is fierce.

We attempted a walking tour of the Old Quarter. A was keen to show that he could follow rudimentary directions and “take charge”. While slightly concerned this could all go horribly wrong, V was more than happy to take a back seat and not have to think about crossing the road as well as navigating. Five minutes later, just as V asked A if he was sure he knew where he was going, A exclaimed “how did that happen? We’re back at our hotel!”. That’s right, we’d walked around in one big circle. At this point, after composing ourselves and trying to hide from the hotel staff who we’d only said goodbye to a few minutes earlier, A attempted to hand the responsibility for safe passage through Hanoi back to V. After three weeks in Vietnam, V was having none of it and so we abandoned the walking tour and headed towards the Hoan Kiem Lake. Even V had a few hiccups trying to find this (A had resigned) and was quite concerned about how she and A would make it out of SE Asia now that her usually faultless internal compass had started to fail....

Once we had ensconced ourselves in a coffee shop overlooking the lake, order was restored. The lakeside setting was fantastic and it was the perfect place to watch traffic (still our new favourite pastime). We were relatively insulated from the cacophony of traffic noise and general mayhem and enjoyed our coffee safe in the knowledge that we wouldn’t get run over (although we were only on the fourth floor, so this was by no means a certainty). 

Once ready to again brave one of the most intense cities we have ever visited, we headed towards the Temple of Literature, primarily because this had been described as “a peaceful retreat”. We had of course just spent some time in a relatively (because it’s all relative here) peaceful retreat, but we very quickly decided that we were more than happy to spend the day “peaceful retreat hopping”. Imagine then, having battled through hectic Hanoi, our frustration on entering the Temple of Literature. Yes, yes, the history around it was very interesting, but whoever described it as a “peaceful retreat” had clearly never been there. The walls of the Temple mean that you can’t see the traffic, but you can still hear it. It’s fair to say that Day 1 in Hanoi was all a bit much.

The following day, we escaped the city entirely for the very beautiful boat trip to the peaceful (finally!) Perfume Pagoda. The Perfume Pagoda itself is a cave and is one of the most religious sites in Vietnam, popular with Buddhist pilgrims. It felt like a very special place and the burning incense from which it gets its name really added to the atmosphere. To reach it, we took a small rowing boat through some wonderful countryside. 

The boat trip  would have been more peaceful if it hadn’t been for the little boy in our boat singing “row, row, row your boat” repeatedly....the return leg was just as noisy, but more entertaining. This time, our entry for next year’s X Factor had some competition from a local romeo who was serenading his girlfriend while an elderly lady rowed them along the river......this was followed by some impromptu disco dancing in our boat, with the little one thrusting his hips into A’s back. 

From one boat to another, we set off on a two day cruise around Halong Bay. Our trip was around the Bai Tu Long Bay area, which, according to local legend, is where the Baby Dragons remained after they had helped the Viet people fight off invaders in Vietnam’s early years. The weather was distinctly British - cool, overcast and a little bit damp. This added an air of mystique and romance to the trip as we sailed amongst the stunning limestone karsts, which appeared to be floating effortlessly on the emerald waters. 

After exploring some caves on one of the islands, we spent some time kayaking around some of the karsts and loved being able to sit so close to the water and get right up to the rocks. V realised that she had forgotten to Google “Halong Bay sharks?” (a common Google search any time we head to the water) but all thoughts of this were dispelled once on the kayaks. We were snap happy but we doubt that any of our photos could do justice to the beauty of this place.The cruise also included a trip by bamboo boat (again, rowed by a woman!) to a local floating fishing village, Vung Vieng. This village, which is in a sheltered lagoon, began life as a few fishing boats sheltering from the open sea. Today it is home to about 350 people.

As an aside, our fairly frequent trips on rowing boats have made us increasingly paranoid that we need to lose some serious weight. On every single trip, regardless of when we set off within our group, we are always the last to arrive and our rowers always appear to be the most out of breath. On the bamboo boat, for example, we were overtaken by another bamboo boat containing a family of SIX. Enough said. Or perhaps it’s the additional weight from A’s beard?

After cruising back to dry land, we decided that we hadn’t had enough of the water theme and so took in a water puppet show. Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theatre is renowned for great performances and was, thankfully, close to our hotel and our favourite traffic watching spot by the lake! We weren’t sure what to expect from the show, which was a narrative of the tribal history of Vietnam, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Watching traffic followed by a water puppet show - what a great way to spend our last night in Vietnam! Please stop laughing at this - we promise we’ll get out a bit more as soon as we get back home!

While we’ve had an awesome time in Vietnam, we’re both feeling a bit “‘Nam’d out” and very much ready to leave. We’re also really looking forward to our next destination - the apparently timeless Luang Prabang in Laos.

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