Trip Start Mar 31, 2010
Trip End Mar 31, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

12 hours on the overnight train this time to get to our next port of call heading north, Hanoi.  Vietnam is very kind to the tourist in being a long thin country and putting most of the sights in a straight line that is easy to plan.  One side effect of this is that we keep seeing people we vaguely recognise from previous destinations, which also happened in Borneo where we followed a well established itinerary.  Anyway, the train is by far the best mode of transport so far; we leave at 5.30pm and we are well equipped with a picnic and a bottle of wine from Dalat, in Vietnam's central highlands.  Its surprisingly decent wine, not too far off what you might expect from a carafe of local wine in Europe.
Much is made of Hanoi feeling like a European city, which we would disagree with.  Yes there are some buildings left behind by the French colonialists, and many other buildings that have been influenced by that style, but its not really a style you see anywhere in Europe and at any rate, the vibrancy and the way people live here is thoroughly Asian.  There are however, as in Saigon, some very authentically ex-pat restaurants here and one vignette of Hanoi life that really struck us was after eating in a very Italian restaurant, run by Italians stood at the bar constantly drinking wine, we walked out onto a tree-lined boulevard with a gothic cathedral at the end of it, and opposite us on the pavement was a street kitchen, with dozens of locals sat on tiny plastic chairs spilling onto the road jabbering away to eachother or into their phones and slurping their noodles.  What's more, they were mostly better dressed than anyone in the smart Italian restaurant; all the women wore skirts and heels and leave sitting side-saddle on the back of a scooter with a helmet matching their outfit. 

The other most notable aspect of Hanoi is that life takes place on the streets.  The centre of the city is made up of fairly narrow streets, and the shops are all fully open at the front, with their wares spilling out onto the street, there are then people selling things from places on the pavement, as well as itinerant merchants with bicycles.  There are always people sat on the pavement cooking and eating, or drinking coffee and playing cards.  The sad thing is that the huge number of scooters in the city need somewhere to park and they all choose the pavements.  This is a bit of an inconvenience as it means you always have to walk in the road, but more importantly it must also threaten this way of living and conducting business on the pavements, as well is making it sometimes just too much effort to negotiate a path through the parked bikes to get into a particular shop, which can hardly be good for commerce.  There is no public transport within any of the cities we've been to, and its also clear that people use their bikes for very short journeys, so it seems this is only going to get worse.  Nonetheless, walking around the narrow old town streets is endlessly fascinating and we're happy wandering around aimlessly much of the time we are here.

We went to a water puppet show, which is rather delightful.  The stage is a pool of water with the puppeteers behind a bamboo screen at the back, with wooden puppets of people and animals on the end of long bamboo poles.  Some of scenes are dances of the 'sacred animals' - the dragon, the unicorn, the phoenix and the turtle, and some show scenes of village life, like ploughing the fields or planting the rice.  Its all rather silly in a way, but the puppeteers are brilliant and the sight of the puppets frolicking around the stage is enchanting.

Our only major problem has been that we had planned to get our Chinese visas in Hanoi and then get the direct overnight train to Nanning, where we wanted to start our trip around China.  We had read that people had been having problems with getting visas in Hanoi and that it was best to use an agent.  After arriving early in the morning from the overnight train, we went to see an agent who told us that they couldn't get us visas any more; we couldn't believe this and made the mistake of going straight to the embassy.  After an overnight train, we were not mentally equipped to deal with the trauma of queueing at an Asian embassy, and after an hour of no progress we had to admit defeat and went back to the hotel thoroughly dejected.  We did some more research, made sure we had all the documentation and went again the next morning an hour before the embassy opened; stood there for an hour while almost everyone else who arrived after us managed to push in front of us in the queue, and once inside established for certain that foreigners can't get a Chinese visa anywhere in Vietnam.  Our options were to send our passports back to the UK for an agent to process the visa, or go to Hong Kong, where we could get them ourselves.  We decided on the latter, so we're flying back there and will have a good partial introduction to the madness of China there.  
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