IndoChina - Hanoi and Halong Bay. Yin & yang

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Goooooooood morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test! This is rock and roll! Time to rock it from the Delta to the D.M.Z.!"

Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam

Yes, yes, a predictable way to start this entry but what else did you expect!

We flew in on Laos Air, who aren't allowed to fly in the EU or the US altho' that might have as much to do with their lack of planes that could fly that range as their safety record. In the event our twin-prop seemed pretty new and we had more leg room than we had had on AirAsia and the only scary bit was how quickly we seemed to be going when we landed.

The road from the airport right to the street the hotel was on was an exercise in chaos and cacophony. Car, Minibus, truck and moped horns blare out on an almost constant basis, drivers all vie for the same same on already grid-locked roads. And not controlling any of this are hundreds of uniformed officers of one sort or another. Every street, junction or slip road has a uniformed officer making no noticeable difference whatsoever but I guess it keeps the uniform and peaked cap businesses in Vietnam busy.

Alongside the road are the houses and shops. Tall and narrow. The Vietnamese govt. tax property on the basis of floor space taken up by the ground floor of a building. The result is that people build high and narrow so everywhere are houses one room and a staircase wide but 4 or 5 stories high.

If the roads seem mad from the relative safety of our minibus it didn't prepare us for the assault on our senses when we stepped out from our hotel later that night. It was overwhelming. On foot Hanoi takes on a new level of madness. The idea, as a pedestrian, is that you step into a gap in traffic – this is an imaginary gap – and slowly walk across the road whilst traffic slows down (slightly) and weaves its way around you. In theory fine, in practice it’s nerve shredding as traffic bears down on you from all directions, and I mean all directions, with little indication of slowing down. That we made it back to the hotel unscathed is astonishing!

The only thing that seems to temporarily halt the traffic are the VIP motorcades which seem to regularly sweep thru' the city stopping everything else in their wake. Whilst we were in Hanoi it was Russia's President Medvedev getting the VIP treatment. I do like the fact that in a communist country - well communist in name at least - where all are supposed to be equal some are more equal than others.

The following morning we basically did the tourist thing; Ho Chin Minh’s mausoleum or at least the square and the museum – Uncle Ho was in Russia for his summer holiday so the actual mausoleum was shut. We went to the one-pillar temple, the temple of literature, where a graduation ceremony was taking place and then had lunch in Koto – I mention this because it’s worth a mention. Firstly for the food which was very good but secondly because it’s set up along the same lines as Jamie Oliver’s '15’ restaurant which takes disadvantaged kids and gives them a chance to build a career. Koto stared before Jamie Oliver’s place so perhaps he got the idea from here. Whatever, it’s worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Hanoi.

The following morning we bundled into a Soviet-style bus to take us to Halong Bay, to the east of Hanoi. The journey itself was 3 hours of blaring horns and near misses. The rules of the road simply don’t apply in Vietnam and I suspect that only an Italian could cope here.

But we arrived safe and shaken around lunchtime and were taken straight to the luxury barge (basically a floating hotel) where we’d be spending the night. 

Halong Bay is simply stunning. The yin to Hanoi's yang. 3000 limestone islands and rocks rise from the sea, most covered in bushes and trees. We sailed between the magnificent limestone karsts as overhead eagles or hawks swooped down of the fish. If there was a negative it was the sheer number of other boats in the bay. As capitalism takes hold in Vietnam Halong Bay is ripe for tourist exploitation as the number of barges increases year or year. On shore new roads are being built on reclaimed land to service the new hotels that are springing up. As dusk set the barges’ lights went on and parts of the bay started to look like a floating city. Regardless of the number of barges it did not distract from the calm and the quiet that settled over the bay. After dinner we watched the Top Gear Vietnam special from a couple of years ago and the photography brought home what a mad and beautiful place Vietnam is.

After a peaceful night’s sleep on the barge we headed back to Halong City and then back to the madness that is Hanoi. There, after stocking up on snacks, we boarded the overnight train south to Hue, the political centre of Vietnam for a period until 1945. 

We had a compartment, shared with 2 others from the group. The beds were a little cramped – I’m not the tallest guy I know, but both my feet and my head where brushing against each end of the bed - but perhaps marginally wider than the coffin I had on the overnight train in Thailand. As before Claire nabbed to bottom bunk leaving me to clamber to the top one and hoping that I’d get a little sleep...
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James on

Halong Bay looks absolutely stunning from your photos

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