Trip Start Nov 14, 2008
18Trip End Mar 10, 2009
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Where I stayed
We arrived inot Hanoi late on Sunday the 18th & true to word the taxi man organised by the hotel was waiting for us. Very polite he introduced himself with a shake of the hand. On the way into the city he explained a few sites & told us a little bit about Vietnam. As soon as you hit the outskirts of Hanoi you can see the influence the French have had on this place. There are loads of old French buildings complete with balconies and if straight from a film set the balconies are stuffed full of all sorts of rubbish. Even though is is nearing midnight the streets are still alive with mopeds & life. We pass a massive flower market, Orange trees are very popular it seems. Loads of people of all ages are sitting on the pavements either on really tiny plastic seats or perched like crows. Foods being cooked/eaten, drinks are being handed out - this place is very much alive! Having come from Japan quite possibly the most orderly, polite civilised country in the world to only a hint so far of madness is quite a switch
We are woken up the next day by anyone of a million noises; it could be the beeping mopeds, it could be the banging of building works or it could be the cockerel - although its 8.45am , does it not realise the time keeping responsibility it might have?!- why is the old bird crawing so late? People might not have gotten into work on time due to its tardyness!
We wander downstairs & find that brekkie is free in the hotel - bonus. Its a very simple affair; you have a choice of baguette with jam, cheese,butter or egg. Tea/coffee. The baguettes are freshly baked & really light; they are lacking in flavour & for this reason the jam & cheese is probably the best option. Get my first taste of Vietnamese coffee; its thick & sweetened with condensed milk - within 2 slurps I'm addicted! Before Brekkie I asked the lady at reception a few questions regarding trains/Halong Bay trip etc etc. Before my brekkie arrived she had booked the train journey & confirmed the Halong Bay details - she's efficient
Time had arrived to leave the hotel & brave the world beyond the glass doors. We needed first & foremost to find an ATM as we had zero local currency (Dong). Our hotel had given us a map wit the main areas of interest marked on. We couldn't find the first ATM marked out so aimed for the next closest. Problemo no.1 was we needed to cross a road at a crossroads, were there any lights - no! Aside from the zero lights the whole area was the maddest traffic I'd ever seen; mostly moped/motorbike based the traffic flowed quite smoothly in ALL directions - someone recently described it as shoals of fish who all can move quite hecticly without banging into each other, this was what we were viewing in front of us except it was real live people sitting on dangerous machines! The orange trees we had seen yesterday at the night market now appeared on the back of a fair number of bikes, there of course were millions of other things being carried & I might need to keep a look out for the wackiest item on a bike! What also makes this whole situation worse is that you have to walk on the roads as the pavements are covered in parked mopeds, people sitting on small stools, people squatting like birds, people cooking stuff surrounded by vast piles of ingredients and goods for sale. With this latter point it depends where in the old town you are as to what items are blocking the pavement; they seem to keep their shopping all separated, so there is bag corner, shoe corner, silk street, paint street, duvet & bedding street, clothes street, beer street etc etc I was quite glad of my long trousers as I became more aware of mopeds driving within millimetres of my legs - those exhaust pipes are very hot
So back to the crossing of the cross-roads road! Having stood on the corner for a good few minutes just amazed at the chaos in front of us we decided to make a go of it. Linking arms we felt was a good idea & then simply shuffling out into the road; it really isn't a natural feeling walking out in front of traffic! We tried not to stop during this first road crossing venture & it quite clearly worked otherwise I may be writing this from a hospital bed using a pen in my mouth! I wasn't scared at all during any of this - the traffic i find quite exciting & you do get a bit of an adrenaline buzz from the whole experience. We do manage to find an ATM; obviously my bank card doesn't work (working now btw as after email smile to ask what the feck is going on they let me know my card can be used & thanks for letting them know I'm in a foreign country - so what exactly was the conversation I had regarding my rtw trip 5 months ago then - idiots!) Jackie gets us some Dong & I'm quite surprised to see its the exact same style as the Aussie & Kiwi$ - the really sensible plastic money. No idea why the Euro didn't go down that route; Pete would be most pleased that the notes would fit in his Aussie wallet as well!!
We take a walk through the streets taking all the mayhem in & eventually get the calmness of the Lake
Soon its time to get back into he madness & off we head. We decide to walk round the lake & pop into what is on our map as "large market" but actually turns out to be a huge department store complex; it was quite bizarre walking in from the craziness outside into a western posh store. Having gotten a bit used to the traffic I start get a bit annoyed when the traffic doesn't do what its supposed to do; ie I find myself glaring at a motorbike & putting my hand out towards it as it drives straight towards me! At this junction there are actually traffic lights complete with red/green pedestrian me; green man = walk??!! The traffic is still coming towards you at this point so I'm not sure how that sign works!
Have got mixed up with the timings as we got in late on the first night; keep thinking that we have another full day in Hanoi & then we are off on our Halong bay trip the day after; wrong! Jackie settles in for a night of HBO - I think she managed something like 5 films on the trot! I go downstairs to upload Jacks video of the Hanoi madness & do some emailing. I give her a wee call from reception to see if she wants some dinner, but the Western comfort of HBO is too much of a pull in scary SE Asia! My dinner is really nice & costs all of £1.10 for a chicken curry - no wonder the backpackers like it here!
Halong Bay day! There are certain parts to this trip that I've been imagining being on for months & this is one of them. Unfortunately its raining & really misty- great! The cheeky owner chap had told us to get up at 7.15am, come down for brekkie at around 7.45am & then the bus would come for us at 8am
We are basically caught up in Hanoi rush hour - no different from any other city with the exception that towards the suburbs the traffic includes many dogs & a fair few cows! Funny how I am now totally used to being driven with vehicles of all sizes driving straight towards you, the "motorway" has no central reservation or marked lanes so it really is every vehicle for itself, everyone wants to stay away from the sides as they are the most potholed so thus it is that everyone wants to drive in the center of the road as it is the smoothest bit - only there isn't room for everyone in the center of the road! I am looking forward to the peace in Halong as my ears are ringing from the traffic & constant horn blaring. Its a really nice journey passing the Vietnamese going about their business. Most of the journey is though farmland with rice paddies and vegetable fields filled with cabbage & other UK looking veg. I hope I manage to get some pictures of these scenes as I didn't think I would ever see People and Ox pulling ploughs through fields, at one point a lone man/woman with the classic pointy Vietnamese hat is in a huge field with one single hoe thing picking away
Back in the bus & within a couple of hours we are at the port at Halong. Its not as large & touristy as I expected it to be. We dont stop there which is a bit confusing but instead take a left up a hill towards a big touristy 4* Hotel. Our driver manages to reverse too far back & cracks the bumper - not clever! We are here to pick up a couple of Americans called Casey & Jerry. So on they get & off we go back towards the dock. Our passprts are taken off us as they are required by law to register all foreigh guests. All the boats look the same; I'm guessing they are all pretty new copies of original Vietnamese fishing boats. Although there are loads of these boats there is something nice about the fact they are all built in the traditional style rather than the classic white/grey metal modern tourist boat style. We eventually find our boat & our bemused to see the very steep uneven steps leading down towards a plank which is being set up between said uneven steep steps & the middle deck of our boat. Add in the fact they cant get it horizontally flat so it sits on a squint slanting off to the right. Our guide jumps up and down on the plank & declares it safe! How on earth am I first in the line to get on the boat?! I decide on a quick walk across this potential accident site and make it across. At least we only have day packs having left the main bags back in Hanoi; the Americans have big suitcases!! We are seated in the spacious main cabin whilst the crew busy themselves with sorting out lunch. One by one we are taken down to our rooms. I'm really surprised at the quality. We have a nice big twin room complete with Ensuite & shower! There are 6 rooms on board so the boat will never seem that crowded. For $59 I think that's a great deal. Back on deck and we all sit down at a rather posh looking table. Shawn the Canadian even takes off his baseball hat staing that his mum would want him to be polite at such a grand looking affair
After our lunch we all went up onto the top deck to watch the fabulous Halong Bay drift by. The top deck had nice comfy padded sun loungers on which again I didn't expect
We climb up some well made stairs & enter the first cave. The place is reminding me of Gibraltar caves but not quite as big. Tam talks about some of the shapes he sees in the stalagmites; one being a chicken "not a real one of course!" Up some more stairs to an even bigger cave. The best is left until last & we are led through into a vast cavernous space. This place must have been used in films & if it hasn't it really should be. It looks like a classic underground baddie factory in James Bond where the workers are all in uniform & mining carriages transport uranium and other such baddie goodies around!
Whilst we wait for the rest of our group to catch up, another guide points out a stone out to the side of us; it looks like some childs legs dangling over the edge - some prehistoric stone kid sent to the naughty ledge!
Back on the boat & next stop is the floating platform where we have free use of the sea kayaks. Life jackets all handed out for those of us wanting to go for a paddle we jump down to get into our kayaks. I'm given my paddle which is essentially a goalpost with 2 paddles strapped on the end. The paddles are straight as well - helpful. After only a few strokes my arms are knackered as the paddle weighs a tonne! Due to fact the paddles are straight we seem to keep making for the left. We have a pleasant hour or so looking around the coast around us & even get into a lagoon via a low tunnel. On the way back I'm trying to video thus not paddling; Jackie doest realise so isn't paying attention to direction - so we are directed straight into the tunnel wall! Back to the boat & we notice quite a few of the young lads hanging off the top of the platform looking into the sea
We go up onto the top deck for a wee beer & sunbathe. Jerry & Casey are already up there complete with a beer each. They had had a good afternoon until the point where Casey when getting out of the kayak at the platform drops her camera right into the sea; so thats what all the boys were looking for. Everyone else comes up to join us & within minutes Shawn has decided he wants to jump into the sea, so the top is off and after everyone has got their cameras ready hes off. As soon as he splashes into the water 2 rowing boats quickly paddle from behind the boat with them shouting at him "you want anything off the boat" - classic! Where exactly is he supposed to have kept his money?? I really wish I'd kept the video camera running a bit longer to have captured that. Speaking to him later he never even noticed them!
Dinner was fabulous with the same format as lunchtime. We settle down with some more beers and to be honest I've real recollection of what we talked about except the general consensus was that I should have a show on the road & that Casey would come & produce! Shawn kept giggling to himself & said he must get a tape of us talking as our rubbish could keep him amused on long bus journeys when he was bored
Tam told us he was off for a Tet party on the floating platform & that if we took anything just make a note of it. Part way through the evening they came back & emptied half the fridge of its beer to take to their Tet party - better be enough left for us! At one point Jackie noticed that slowly but surely more and more people were coming in and sitting around us - quite clearly desperate to get the karaoke started. Then suddenly one of them got brave grabbed the mic, turned on the system full blast & started to sing away some Vietnamese song - forget about us paying guests sitting here like!! It was highly amusing but after 4 or 5 songs on the bounce that we didn't know & all at full volume we decided to go outside - booted out from our own lounge - ridiculous! I have to say I found this quite amusing but Jerry the American was less than amused. They were taking their karaoke very seriously. Shawn went off to the platform to see if he could join in the game of poker the rest of the party were playing - he was back within the minute so I'm guessing that was a no! At one point the electricity went off and came back on again - it so happened this occurred at a time when Jerry wasn't with us - he'd only gone & reset the generator hoping it would switch of the TV! Didn't work. They then decided they would take back the TV room by storm, we disappeared off to the toilets & came back to find the Vietnamese sulking on he sofa, Greenday on the TV at normal volume & all our group back sat where they were to start with
I was looking to some peace & quiet after Hanoi to sleep to. What kind of stupid idea was that?? Firstly the generator was beside our bedroom so that in itself was noisy. Next Jackie started coughing away, however it was the dog that wouldn't stop barking that broke the camels back
For some reason breakfast was at 7.30am - none of us looked too fresh! Jackie went downstairs for a wee snooze. I stayed att he front of the boat & chatted to Casey/Jerry. I commented to Jerry that it was nice to see a Pilot with a Pilots bag rather than a sales rep & did he actually have anything in there. Mostly paperwork but also a place to hold the Captains hat. How exciting both of them had their captains hats with them - what a great photo. They thought a better photo would be with me in the Captains hat. Even better than that I wanted to sit where our boat captain was & pretend to steer; he only gave me the whole seat, big wooden steering wheel and all - for 30 seconds I was in charge of the boat!
Both Shawn & I gave Casey our cameras to go & take some picture as she was feeling lost without her own camera. Its kind of the reason there are so many picture of Halong Bay!
Coming into land at the main port (after picking up some folks from Catba Island) I was amused to watch our captain try & squeeze his boat into a space that wasn't there
We had to wait around half an hour for the bus to come & pick us up. In the meantime the Vietnamese women beside us in the shop started to look through each others hair grooming for beasties. I'm pretty sure this was done just to freak out us Western tourists - but you never know!!
Bus was crowded on the way back, there wasn't any seats for one of the guides so he sat on the floor. Back in Hanoi we said goodbye to Casey & Jerry. They had kindly offered us a room in Saigon if we ever passed through there. They had also been really helpful in giving us some great info regarding Jetstar Pacific - the Ryan air of Vietnam.
Off for an early night & whilst catching upon emails the local cat decided to pop through the widow & fall asleep on my lap! Managed to Skype Boyley & thankfully George never noticed this betrayal! Took Theresa outside on the Skype so she could see a bit of Hanoi. It was late the traffic was quiet - it was amusing however to watch the Vietnamese kids staring at the laptop pointed towards the traffic
Wanted to have a look around Hanoi at some silk shops to get an idea of how much the Silk would cost. Jackie also wanted to look at bag corner as she had noticed a Kippling factory on the way out to Halong. Managed to pick up a huge silk sleeping bag liner for $8 & also got myself a North Face 40litre Rucksack for $15. According to the locals these are 90% authentic as they have either been QA rejects & fallen off the back of a lorry or have been made in someones house after hours with the same materials & same machinists. I was also very tempted with a Kippling holdall bag which they were selling for $20ish - these retail at way over £100 at home.
Before going back to the hotel we have lunch back at the original spot on the lake. We then decided on a beer & thought lets try the Irish bar. Sure enough there is an Irish bar in Hanoi - complete with allegiances to Man Utd, Liverpool, Spurs & Arsenal! Didn't spot any Celtic stuff which is a first. In the toilet they had a photo of Eileen Donan castle in Scotland - most surreal! We opted for a local pint coming in very cheaply at 8,000dong a pint due to happy hour (that's around 30p) It was actually very nice & pretty strong - I would bet that many a happy backpacker has ended up in here! Back to the Hotel for the prearranged time of 6Pm & we are greeted by 2 very anxious looking owners. Apparently Taxis wont come into the Old Quarter after 6pm as the traffic is really bad so were going to have to go on her bike - now
Onto the train & into our cabin. I have encountered skank train before so the set-up wasn't a surprise to me. Indeed I have seen far far worse! I think at this point though Jackie was questioning why she had wanted to come travelling with me! Our cabin was for 4 people & shortly in came 2 Germans. The girl wasn't feeling well & obviously had no idea what state the train was going to be in so wrapped her head up in her hoodie & her own blanket and lay down on her bed looking quite disgusted - oh what a fun night this could be! At this point 2 Aussie girls came running onto the train hoping they were on the right one. They had got to their hotel at 6.30pm & same issue as us no taxis in the old quarter. They had opted for the mototaxi & were dropped on on the wrong side of the station so had to walk across the tracks - bit stressed they were! Once they settled down they came back down to see us. By this time the train had set off and I cant believe how close to people houses & the pavement this train got as it made its way through Hanoi - You would have to tell you kids not to step out of the front door when the train was coming other wise they would me mince! Talking of mince 5 minutes into the journey our train suddenly jumped & screeched to a halt. What was worse was the train started to reverse. A strange feeling of excitement and utter nauseousness took over at the thought we had run someone over. In my head this person was squashed to a pulp & quite dead - no slight dent in someone's bumper was I imagining. Jackie also thought that perhaps a cow had got it. As it happens someone had merely thrown a stone at the drivers window so excitement over!
There was potential for a fun trip with the majority of passengers being on-board Westerners however it never really turned out that way which is a shame. I guess it didn't help that we hadn't brought anything with us like food, water or beer!