Dropping our H's - Hue, Hanoi and Halong Bay

Trip Start Jan 27, 2006
Trip End Sep 09, 2006

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, May 1, 2006

PHIL : Loaded with clothes, we headed north again by bus to the historic city of Hue (pronounced Whay as in Whay Hay !!). This was once the former capital of Vietnam and is packed full of temples, tombs, ancient palaces and pagodas. Hoo-bloody-ray.

We were only staying for one night as this was really a staging post on the way to Hanoi - we planned to catch the sleeper train from here as it doesn't stop in Hoi An, and frankly there was no way we were doing another overnight bus ride !!

It was absolutely stifling. We wandered along the river looking for a cafe with shade, fans and freezing cold Sprite. Finding one, we collapsed into our plastic chairs and were instantly serenaded by the most ubiquitous music in Vietnam - the hammer and angle-grinder shuffle. It is amazing, this country must be on the up because no matter where you go somebody is building something. And it is usually in the next room.

Once the sun had gone down a bit, we headed for the ancient citadel. We were, we admit, templed out by this stage. We tried to be interested, we really did. But it just wouldn't come. After a couple of hours messing about we hailed a cyclo (a 3 wheeled bicycle with a double seat on the front) ridden by a member of the Living Dead. At least he was after he had taken the two of us the mile or so back to our hotel. Poor bugger. We tipped him very generously with the hope he would use it to buy some oxygen at the local hospital !

The thing to do in Hue is to take a boat trip on the wide, scenic Perfume River. With 5 hours to kill before the train, we did just that and headed an hour upstream to yet another tomb-temple-pagoda complex. Suckers for punishment. It was actually pretty serene; or it would have been was it not for the TV crew recording an overwrought woman miming a slot for 'Karoake TV'. Karaoke TV is not as glamorous as it sounds.

At 3.30pm we climbed on board the Reunification Express bound for Hanoi. Sounds cool, eh ? It was. We had a sleeper carriage all to ourselves for most of the journey. Sam took full advantage of this romantic opportunity and fell into a deep sleep around about 6.30pm ! Terrific.

The disadvantage of the sleeper train is that it arrived in Hanoi at 4.30am. We had planned to avoid all hassle and hawkers by simply ignoring them all, getting a cup of coffee at the station and waiting for the hotels to begin to open in the Old Quarter. Then we would take a cab in our own time.

Good plan, bad execution. The moment we got off the train we were approached by a very plausible (to me anyway, but I've never been much use before 10.30am) hawker who bundled us into a cab promising that 'lots of places are already open'. You'd have thought I would learn. God help her, Sam tried to stop me. Suffice it to say I went into a full-arms-and-legs-bag-kicking temper when the taxi driver attempted to drop us at - you guessed it - his mates' hotel. Sam found us a coffee shop.

With the hotel room sorted, we pottered out into the Old Quarter. Hanoi has a very French feel, but mixed with mad Vietnamese traffic and noise. It is intoxicating. We wandered for hours window shopping and people watching, taking it all in. In fact, we pretty much did that for two days, although we did manage a visit to the highly recommended Ho Chi Minh Museum. It is very good although - as you would expect in a communist country - the revered leader of the nation doesn't have a blemish on his character and the glorious revolution is celebrated without any argument.

We were to hear a very different side of this story over the next couple of days.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That means it is lovely and needs protecting, a bit like Felicity Kendall. We took a two-day tour of the bay, sailing slowly around the islands, inlets, caves and bays. Beautiful.

Whilst on the boat we met and became friendly with a Vietnamese couple - Dani and Bi. They live in Australia now and have done for the last 27 years. They - along with their families - had been boat people. Dani was from South Vietnam. When the revolutionary forces from North Vietnam won the war (the Americans had 'strategically withdrawn' by this stage) Dani along with countless others was subjected to 're-education'. He managed to get out. 27 years later and he is still angry but returns to visit family who could not buy their way out of the country. Bi, caring mother and constant gardener, was delightful and just wanted a quiet life. They were lucky enough to find one in Australia. We were lucky enough to share a few hours with them.

Back to the city for our last couple of days in Hanoi, in Vietnam, in South-east Asia. Wow. What a blast it has been. We have seen some wonderful sights, met some remarkable people, have made new friends and learnt more than we thought possible. On our last night, sitting on minute plastic seats outside a tiny bar on a street corner in the Old Quarter, we raised a glass of 'fresh beer' (7p a glass !) to all our memories and went for a final slap up Vietnamese meal at a great restaurant called Little Hanoi.....and started to put all the weight we had lost in India right back on again !
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