Alfers Fest: Vietnam Edition

Trip Start Sep 01, 2012
Trip End Mar 03, 2013

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

After roughly two weeks spent making our way North through Laos, exploring what turned out to be a mesmerising country, it was time to enter the last country of our six month trip – Vietnam.

There was added excitement to this particular leg as we were set to meet up with the rest of the Alfers clan in Hanoi for Alfers Fest: Vietnam Edition. The previous edition, having taken place in Oman, was a great family reunion and everything seemed set for an event that would be just as exciting. Of course, we had to get into Vietnam first.

The only (cheap) way to get from Luang Prabang in Laos to Hanoi was by bus. We were left with very little confidence in the comfort of our ride when we Googled the particular service. The first two hits were ' Death ride from Hell' and 'Rather fly'. Despite this were were determined to keep up with our overland exploits and paid up for what was touted as a '24 hour ride'. We were set to leave at 6pm and arrive the next day at 6pm. When we arrived at the bus station we had flashbacks from our African bus stop experiences (and there were many). Live chickens were being loaded into all the free spaces, large shopping bags were shoved along the corridors and there was a general sense of mayhem.

Finally the bus did get on its way (with half of Laos in it) and we started one of the most painful journeys of our trip so far. The first sign of trouble was early the next morning when we passed through the most retarded border post in history. We were never quite sure whether we should be standing in the “I might scan your bags if the mood takes me or I might shout at you in Vietnamese' queue or the “I'll take your passport and then head off for a quick coffee break queue'. It was really quite confusing.

Never the less we eventually pulled into Hanoi 6 hours late (30 hours in total). The fact that we had broken world records for  the longest bus ride did not console us much. It was after midnight so we did not have much hope for locating Laura, who was already in Hanoi, but we were exceptionally hungry so headed off in search of food. It was obviously closing down time as the police were out in full force on the streets, making all the bars and restaurants shut down in the typical communist fashion – loud hailers attached to vehicles with a screaming man inside.

We suddenly heard a whisper from the alley as we walked by. It was a man beckoning us to come closer, asking in hushed tones if we wanted beer and noodles. Why yes, we said, and followed him up a dingy stairway to small noodle shop. Just what we needed, far away from the prying eyes of the cops.

The next morning we finally met up with Laura, who in a fit of worry for our late bus and unknown whereabouts, went partying with the other backpackers (which is why we could not find her). We spent the rest of the day planning our trip to Halong Bay, one of the most popular and fascinating destinations in Asia. We also had to sort out the new hotel for the arrival of the parental unit (AKA, Mom and Dad) who were set to land the next morning.

All that hard work led to a bit of a thirst and we ended up participating in one of the peculiar Vietnamese traditions of sitting on small plastic kindergarten chairs, drinking beer from a cooler box on the pavement and dodging police when they came past to shut the party down. A good few hours were spent meeting a number of locals and backpackers. Whenever the police came around everyone would just have to stand up, the owner of the seats would pretend to pack up and then as soon as the danger passed it was back to business as usual.

The day finally dawned for the start of Alfers Fest when the parents touched down in Hanoi. We had four days to spend with them and catch up on everything and we did not waste a moment. The next two days were spent exploring the city and its history, spending lots of time just sitting on the shores of the central Hoan Kiem lake drinking beers or coffee (depending on the time of day) and doing what all good family reunions do – catching up on the months spent apart.

These moments also acted as a refuge from the insane traffic in Hanoi (really one of the busiest we have experienced). The majority of traffic comes from manic scooters flying past and the advice you get when arriving in Hanoi is seriously this: ”Just look straight ahead and walk at a steady pace. Don't hesitate and don't stop. They should miss you”. This does not inspire confidence, but as the Alfers clan learnt, it is really the only way and we eventually became semi-experts in traffic dodging.

One of our favourite moments in Hanoi was a street food walking tour. An enterprising young woman had started this tour which takes you through the markets and street food stalls of Hanoi, allowing you to sample everything you smell as you walk down the streets. The tour offered great insight into the life of the Vietnamese as well as the culinary side of Hanoi such as the various noodle soups, pork broths, spring rolls and rice desserts. At face value we would probably not have eaten half of what we did had we been on our own, so it was a fantastic way to get over any gastric sensitivities and dive headlong into the ubiquitous Vietnamese street culture. After a few hours of the tour we were stuffed beyond belief and headed to a small cafe to relax. Here we spent the next six hours just chatting and drinking Beer Hanoi. A great way to end off a superb day. 

After careful research on the best cruise boat to use, we eventually headed off on our two day tour of Halong Bay. The UNESCO World Heritage site boasts nearly 2000 magnificent limestone karsts (or islands) dotted around the turquoise coloured bay which make for a spectacular scene as we cruised through them on our luxury vessel.

In the rare moments when we were tiring of the scenery, there was plenty to keep us busy, including numerous delicious (and plentiful!) meals on the boat, cave tours in the aptly named 'Surprise Cave' (which distances itself from the dreary caves we have seen in Asia to date and was actually rather surprising in its beauty) and kayaking around the islands. It was also great to be able to go to sleep in our comfortable cabins, moored in the middle of the beautiful bay and wake up to the mist rising off the cliffs in the early morning. A definite must when visiting Northern Vietnam.

It was then  back to Hanoi for the last night of Alfers Fest where we took in the famous water puppet show, which is an ancient Vietnamese tradition, followed by dinner at our favourite eating place in the city, New Day, for one last noodle soup and Beer Hanoi. 

At this point it should be noted that the Alfers family has probably single handedly kept the economy of Hanoi going with our forex. We were indeed the vendors' dream as we bought numerous trinkets, presents and items of clothing from the many stalls and little shops that line the streets of the Old Quarter. Although sizing in Asia is still an issue for western ladies of a certain build, this didn't stop the shopping spree – and as we trawled the night market we were particularly amazed to see that one size fits all puffer jackets were obviously high in demand as they were being sold for about 5km along the road, much to the amusement of Grouch Chi Min (our nickname for Dad during the trip which was inspired by Vietnam's old communist leader, Ho Chi Minh).

The next morning Mom, Dad and Laura had early flights to catch (Laura off to a conference in Thailand and Mom and Dad back to Oman) and we had a sad goodbye outside the hotel, but already discussing the next reunion (Lesotho seems promising).

We have a slight change of plan as we have heard that Sapa (in the North, on the Chinese border with Vietnam) has some excellent hikes available. Tonight we head off up North for two days of walking through the apparently spectacular scenery before we begin the trip South to explore the rest of Vietnam.



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Laura on

Es-choooossse meeeee ladies and germans....that was a very good post :) Accurately captured a wonderful holiday :)!

Shannon Mclaren on

Indeed it did Laura - jolly good blog - and in only a few days - make a life time of memories. Nice :)

Helen and Joe on

What a superb holiday we had. Thanks so much Hayley and Duncs for organising the trip to Halong Bay and all the great activities in Hanoi. Loved getting together and chatting and eating and drinking the wonderful beer and seeing such fascinating things. But most of all just seeing you both so happy and having had such an amazing time together.

Grou Chi Mihn on

It was quite smoggy in Hanoi, but...

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