Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay and Hoi An
12.07.2009 - 12.08.2009
I arrived in Vietnam excited to learn all about the history and see a different culture to that I had experienced in Thailand and Laos. Vietnam did not disappoint! It is a very 'real' country and although it is now receiving a lot of tourists it has not compromised any of its charm or every day life as a result. Before heading to Vietnam we heard reports of the people not being as friendly or appreciating tourists as we did experience this but in a way that was part of Vietnams appeal...sometime in the guest houses you felt like they thought they were doing you a favour by giving you somewhere to sleep...customer service is pretty much not existant and the customer is almost always definately wrong.
We reached Hanoi after a 30 hour hot sweaty bus journey from Vientienne and treated ourselves with a nice air conditioned hotel room, the first glass of decent red wine in 6 months and some tapas! We stayed in Hanoi's old quarter which was crazy, loads of people loads of motorbikes, shops selling random things from Giant hot pink cuddly toys to fake money and red chinese lanterns. In Hanoi there are 8 million people and 6 million motorbikes and what appears to be no sense of road rules...crossing the road you have to be brave basically just walk at an even pace and the motorbikes will zip round you...very un-nerving and to begin with it took us ages although we were pro's by the time we reached Saigon. We spent the first morning queueing up to see the body of Ho Chi Minh the famous communist leader of Vietnam, his body has been preserved in the same way that Mao's and Lenin 's bodys have in their respective countries and he draws Vietnamese people and tourists from around the world to queue for hours and then spend 30 second looking at him. Vietnam is much more heavily influenced by China then Thailand and Laos had been so it was good to see some different temples and pagoda's as we were starting to get a bit templed out! On our first day in Hanoi we also made the great discovery of Fannys ice cream. It was a little French style ice cream parlour that did every type of ice cream falvour you could imagine from Durian to Green Tea to rice flavoured. We discovered that on the first friday of every month they held an eat as much ice cream as you can from 6.30pm to 11pm and thereafter the rest of our Vietnam trip was planned around arriving in Saigon for the first Friday of August in order to participate.
The next morning we left and headed up to Sapa a small hill town on the border with China. Sapa was beautiful, we took the sleeper train and ended up getting in at around 6am so the morning mists were surrounding the mountain and the air was so nice and refreshing in comparison to the humidity of Hanoi.
Sapa is home to many different hill tribes most of whom were all out to great us off the bus and from then on that morning we had our own fan club of Hmong women and children following us around trying to sell us their handicrafts and making general chit chat. We booked a trek for two days and one night and set off the next day again with our Hmong fan club in tow. The trek was supposed to be mild but was quite trecharous as the hills were really muddy and slippy, I had decided to go for the socks and sandals look as I sent my trainers home and my sandals rubbed a little and ended up putting my foot into a massive mud spat that soaked me half way up my leg within an hour of setting off. Luckily as we were getting hot and sweaty trekking we stopped at a lake and were able to jump in and have a swim. The Hmong women led us to their village where we had the famous Vietnamese Pho for lunch and then we were handed over to the Dzao tribes women who took us onto the next village and our homestay for the evening. To begin with we were a little disappointed with our homestay as our expectations were that we would be staying in someones house in a village however when we turned up it was a converted barn with beds and a pool table and a Kareoke machine. Disappointment soon turned into a fun evening though after we had a massive feast of local food and rice wine and then sang Kareoke keeping the rest of the villagers awake until about midnight. The next day we continued with our trek and made it another waterfall before heading back to Sapa. After a few days resting and not doing too much we headed to Bac Ha Market which brings Vietnamese people from around the north every sunday due to the different types of fruit and veg that can only be grown in that region and the colourful flower Hmong tribe who go there to find their husbands and wifes. The market was great and afterwards we got to go visit a flower Hmong village and were invited into their houses.
The Vietnamese love their food but they certainly see animals as food rather than pets I have seen some shocking sights.....massive pigs alive and strapped onto the backs of motorbikes on the motor way...dogs for sale at the market ...aswell as on sale in the dog meat resturants.....whole baby birds on squewers ready for the BBQ....and two little pigs in a bag with just their nose and eyes peaking out looking at their mate piggy being roasted on a spit roast (this was my worst one!)
The way back down from Sapa was not quite as comfortable as the way up, we got to the train station and they only had hard seats left for the journey...my oh my they were definately hard and we were knee knocking again the people sat on the opposite seats. We managed to while away the 9 hour night trip by one of us sleeping on the grotty floor underneath the seats whilst the other tried to make themselves comfortable on the wooden bench. Halfway through the journey just as we were about to nod off the Vietmanese train guards came and kicked and shouted at us..it was pretty frightening as we didn't really know what was going on or what they wanted, in the end they just wanted us to move our bags away from the window..I am sure there are politer ways of doing it though!Needless to say it was not the nest nights sleep ever and I was glad when we got back to Hanoi and checked into a hotel to finally get some sleep.
We booked a trip out to Halong Bay staying over night for one night on a junk ship, it was brilliant! Halong Bay was very beautiful with massive limstone peaks coming out of the water, we went kayaking off the boat and visited some caves in rocks. The trip was loads of fun only 12 of us on the boat in total so we stayed up under the stars drinking beer, playing cards. and eating good seafood.
Hoi An was next on the list, we bought an overnight bus ticket from Hanoi and arrived the next day. The Vietnamese bus drivers were crazy and I feared for my life, first of all we were cheapskates and decided to buy sitting seats for the sleeper journey so whilst everyone else had beds we just had the front two seats of the bus where we could see everything that was coming towards us as the driver overtook using his horn as a sign of making the people on the other side of the road move over a little bit so he could squeeze the bus through! It was Sarahs birthday the day we arrived so we celebrated in style buying her a tradintional Vietnamese cone hat and decorating it for her to wear around the bars in the town.
The accomodation in Hoi An was really good value aswell we got a hotel with a pool for 6 USD eacs so we jumped in the pool most days to cool off after exploring on bikes or having a busy day of shopping. Hoi An is famous for having loads of clothes and shoe makers who can make anything to order very cheaply...I manged to restrain myself just getting one pair of shorts made up and a dress and top for my mum. I am not sure how but although I sent a parcel home from Hoi An my rucksack is still incredibly heavy and requires strategic packing in order to fit everything in...I have also now aqquired another rucksack which also appears to be full to the brim!
Whilst in Hoi An I had a really bad toothache that painkillers would not get rid of so I succombed and went to a local Vietnamese dentist to sort it out...he was very nice and the room was clean although he wasn't the most gentle of dentists and I came away with a bit of a bloody mouth.
Hoi An had one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen, white sand, blue sea and hardly anyone there..the sand was so hot though you had to wear flip flops right down to the water. Whilst in Hoi An we went on a local bus trip to Marble Mountain and China Beach near Danang. We took the local bus there as it was supposed to be loads cheaper than getting a motorbike however what we did not realise was that the conductor of the bus would try his luck with us and charge whatever he wanted...finally after a lot of negotiation and stubborness we ended up paying just a little bit of the tourist inflated rate on the way there but the full tourist rate on the way back as we were threatened to be chucked onto the side of the road if we didn't pay. Marble mountain was really cool, loads of caves with marble temples and buddhas inside them. One of the caves was used by the Vietcong as a medical centre during the war although it was only a mile away from China beach were all the American soliders were resting and partying.
Nha Trang is a beach resort where the Vietnamese people come for their holidays, we spent a few days here..the first at a natural mud bath where we bathed in pools of mud then soaked ourselves off in the natural hotsprings before jumping to the jacuzzis and pools....great fun! The next day we went on a funky monkey tour of the islands which turned out to be a bit of a booze cruise. We only got off the boat to jump into the sea to a floating bar where we drank horrid shots(embarrassing for me as there were no life rings left and I had to wear a massive orange life jacket that kept popping open and bobbing me around with no control), the bar on the boat opened at 10am in the morning, the owner of the baot funky monkey got his band on board and gave us renditions of loads of badly sung songs from different countries...oh and we did some snorkling! Anyway it was great fun and the best bit was at the end of the day when we were on the beach of the final island and it started raining, instead of running under cover everyone just ran and jumped into the sea...definately the best place to be!
One of the nicest days of my whole trip so far was visiting a local orphange just outside Nha Trang, we were only the 3rd group of westerners ever to visit the orphanage and we spent the day playing games with the children, carrying round the babies, letting them take photos with our cameras and listening to them sing songs that they had learnt. The orphanage is not a recognised charity of NGO it is run by one women who takes in orphans from the local area, she provides food and clothing for them aswell as a place to stay. Some of the children had skin diseases as they don;t have a fresh supply of clean water but the hostel that we sayed with in Nha Trang is raising alot of money through various activities within the hostel and attached bar to get them the money for a clean water supply.
The Hill station of Dalat was next on the itinery and I was looking forward to going here for one reason...the Vang Dalat red wine....the best wine you can buy for a pound a bottle and kept us going for many a night in Vietnam!
As it was rainy season in Vietnam and Dalat was high in the mountains it rained here most of the time we stayed. We managed to book an easy rider day tour for the following day that we arrived. The next morning bright and early three easy riders came to pick us up and take us for a tour...there were two youunger guys who were both friends and then the leader of the pack! We got on the back of the bikes and off we went into the rainy mountains...the weather was a shame but fun all the same, we had to wear massive ponchos over our helmets and clothes! We went to a silk worm factory, saw and tasted the local rice wine being made, went to the local flower farms, went to see the coffee being grown and farmed and then went to the elephant waterfalls where we got soaked climbing underneath! It was such a cool day and the best bit was the scenary, driving along with the wind in your hair (well from underneath the poncho) seeing all the mountains and green hill sides.
The last point on our trip of Vietnam was Saigon...and we made it in time for the first Friday of August and the all you can eat Fannys ice cream buffet. It was a riot...we got there at 6pm and had to queue outside the ice cream place as there were operating a one in one out policy...inside was unbelievable in so many ways. First there was more than just ice cream that was all you can eat...they had a massive chocolate fountain, fresh fruit, ice cream cones, wafers, pancakes, chocolate sprinkles, organge juice, hot chocolate, sultanas and walnuts......an absolute sugary feast! There were about 4 ice cream bars with all the different flavours in them but instead of the organised queuing system that we would definately have in the UK is was a mass frenzy...basically she who shouted the loudest and pushed in the hardest got the ice cream! I managed to eat my way through 12 scoops of ice cream with generous lashings of chocolate fountain and a pancake before calling it quits...my fav flavours where cinnamon and ginger! One of the girls I was travelling with a tiny Chinese Californian girl managed to get through 24 scoops of ice cream and only stopped when she got a taste of the Durian flavoured ice cream that left a bad taste in her mouth.
Anyway that was a great introdution to Saigon and it only got better from there! Saigon is a really cool city, easy to walk about if you are brave enough to cross the roads with millions of motorbikes zipping in every direction. The only way to do it is to look the drivers in the face, walk at an even pace and hope that they zoom round you...failing that you will be standing at the side of a road for hours waiting . Saigon had loads of really cool outside eating places and beer Hoi drinking establishments. Beer Hoi on the side of the road was the equivilent of 10pence for a glass full so plenty of nights were spent there only moving to get a bowl of noodle soup. We went on a day trip to the Cuchi tunnels when we were there which was really interesting it was amazing and pretty scary to go down some of the tunnels they were so dark and cramped and small you could hardly believe that the Vietcong spent months down there. We learnt a lot about the Vietnamese war with America in Saigon and visited the war remanents museum which was the best museum I have visited on my trip and very moving. Some of the images on display I think I will rmember for the rest of my life particluarly of the people from the My Lai massacre and the agent orange victims.
I was really sad to leave Vietnam, it is definately my favourite place in South East Asia I have visited so far there is so much to see and learn and do, the countryside is so different every city you travel too and it really felt like we were in Vietnam having to get accustomed to their ways of living rather than them comprimising for tourists.