06.03.2016 - 09.03.2016
Mike dropped us at Vientiane airport late morning and luckily we'd given ourselves over 2 hours because we were waiting on the check-in queue (of only 10 people) for almost an hour. While we were waiting Lauren tried to change our Laotian kip to Vietnamese dong at the two different money-shops. She was told by both of them that they'd run out of dong and could only give US dollars so, reluctantly, that's what we got. When Lauren brought the exchanged money over we quickly realised that the assistant had miscounted our kip and given us an extra $50... which was nice.
Eventually we got through check-in and security and boarded our nice little short flight on Cambodia Angkor Air to Hanoi, Vietnam. On arrival we picked a taxi and took the hour journey to GA hostel, right in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. Our first impressions of Hanoi were the weather; in stark contrast to Vientiane it was overcast, misty and cold. As we approached the centre the roads became frenetic; beeping cars and motorbikes aplenty, twisting and turning around each other on huge crossroads, roundabouts and narrow little side streets, all while avoiding the hundreds of tourists and street stalls. As soon as we were in the Old Quarter the sheer volume of noise also hit us; the people, the cooking, the driving, the beeping and the distant sounds of sirens and construction. Thankfully our hostel was down a 2 foot wide, maze-like back alley (guarded by a large cockerel), which meant the noise wasn't an issue.
Our 8-bed dorm (up 3 flights of narrow stairs with very low head-hitting ceilings) was world's away from our jungle cottage but perfectly suitable. As per I took the top bunk and after some familiarisation and the usual awkward hellos to our dorm-mates, we wriggled out into the crazy, polluted space of Hanoi Old Quarter. Lunch was at a cheap (but yummy) Vietnamese greasy spoon called Noodle and Roll where we got stuck in to the traditional phở soup (hold the beef) and Lauren had her first taste of the North Vietnamese beer Halida.
We had a short walk around the Old Quarter; eyeing up the street food, counterfeit underwear and trendy T-Shirt shops. Crossing the roads took a bit of getting used to. We tried to put our India heads back on but everything was moving a bit too fast. We wrongly invested trust in the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings which were always ignored by road-users and pedestrians alike. The key seems to be a certain level of confidence coupled with a certain level of obliviousness. In fact I think we would have been better off blindfolding ourselves and just going for it; using the force to ensure the traffic goes around us.
Back at the hostel we sat for a couple of hours in the communal area, injuring our coccyxes on the wooden floor in the process. We did some forward travel planning and eavesdropped on some fellow backpackers' conversations. We particularly enjoyed the very political and historical chat between an Aussie and Swede (who were passionately agreeing with each other).
The next morning we were met outside our hostel by Xeo; a university student/tour guide who volunteers for Hanoi Kids free tours. Xeo walked us round a large portion of Hanoi, stopping at Hỏa Lò prison (originally French but later on used in the Vietnam war), the Confucius Temple of Literature and Kem Trang Tien (a popular ice cream parlour). Xeo was a very lovely, intelligent and interesting girl. She asked us as many questions as we asked her which made the half-day tour fly by. Two curious things she told us were Vietnam's policy on 'family size goals' - if a family wishes to have more than 2 children they can face benefit cuts, fines and even termination of employment. She also talked a little about Vietnamese superstitions. Although the country is generally quite secular, many middle-aged and elderly Vietnamese people believe in superstitions such as not marrying someone born in the same year as you as it will bring bad luck. Another topic Xeo touched on was dog meat; she told us how her beloved golden retriever was poisoned and that a day after they buried him, his bones were dug up and removed, likely being sold on for food. I expressed my disdain at so-called Western animal activists deploring East Asian's consumption of dog meat while chomping on bacon sandwiches and I said that as a carnivore, it would be hypocritical to turn-down dog. Xeo agreed with my stance but told me to avoid the meat because of the risk of ingesting poison.
After saying our goodbyes we chilled for a while and then head out to hipster veggie joint Hanoi Social Club. the food was pretty good but it was way overpriced and we felt a bit like we were back in Manchester's Northern Quarter. On our way out of the restaurant I discovered that my DSLR camera had decided to break. Great. In opposition to my usual knack of catastrophising, I took the breakage in my stride knowing we'd eventually get it fixed or replaced (if budget allowed).
Back at our hostel we got chatting to the Swedish guy we'd nosed at the night before who played around with my camera for a while before confirming what I knew, it was completely fucked.
The following morning we were collected by Viola Cruises and spent the next 4 hours on a mini bus with our fellow cruisers. After doing a little bit of research into Halong Bay excursions, we'd decided on a mid-range 'cruise' as opposed to the cheap ones. With over 1000 'junk' boat companies offering 1 day and 2 days trips out to Halong Bay from Hanoi it can be a bit of a minefield selecting one. We were introduced to our tour guide Lucky, who sounded more Australian than Paul Hogan (his English teacher was an Aussie) who was incredibly warm and smiley. Our cruise colleagues were made up of a 5 Brazilian guys, a German couple, a Swiss couple, a French couple, a Uruguayan couple and a large group of middle-aged Indonesian woman (approx. 10 of) and two long suffering men.
Halfway through the journey we stopped at an interesting sort of drive-through service station. The buses drive up to the side of this large open shopping mall, let you out and then drive around in a semi-circle to meet you at the other side for pick-up. So, much like an Ikea you have to walk the entire shop floor to get out. On offer are all the goods that tourists and holidaymakers lap-up; clothes, marble garden ornaments, lacquerware and imported confectionery (Toblerone, M & Ms etc.).
It became quickly apparent that the large Indonesian group of mostly ladies were, how can I put this, a bit mental; they spent most of the 4 hour journey screaming, laughing, taking photos of each other, loudly chatting (or maybe it was arguing) and playing crap pop on their phones. My sort of women.
Arriving at Halong Bay we were escorted onto a small boat that took us all to our cruise-boat. Now I've never been on a cruise, and I suppose one night's stay on a boat is hardly a cruise, but I was quite enamoured by our little floating home. Our bedroom was quite plush; comfy double bed and a very impressive bathroom with a hot and powerful shower. Plus we had our very own deck to look out onto the water and karsts; shame it was really friggin' foggy so we couldn't see shit.
After a yummy lunch in the dining hall we got on a small bamboo boat to sail around the last few remaining floating villages. The woman on the boat with us were clearly very excited by picturesque surroundings and many photo-opportunities;
We then visited an operating fresh-water pearl farm where we were educated on the pearl-cultivating process. We actually were treated to a live kill where an oyster was picked from a tank, forcibly opened and had its ovary cut open for a shiny pearl to pop out. We learned that for all of the oysters farmed, only 30% actually produce pearls. Which all seems a little unnecessary for so many to be killed and disposed of. I forgot to ask if the dud ones are sold on for food - I hope they are. Needless to say Lauren and I weren't interested in buying anything from the jewellery shop attached to the farm.
For dinner that evening we were overwhelmed with food. There was plenty already but because we had Lauren and a vegan on our table, we were treated to loads of extra dishes too. As if that wasn't enough, it was International Women's Day so the few men on the boat were instructed to serve us all cake and wine which made the Indonesian woman fall into hysterical laughter.
After a long sleep we woke up to find the sun had burned through the mist and clouds. With our new tour guide Phong we sailed over to Sun Sot caves where, filled with solar energy, Loz and I giddily clambered around the stalactites and stalagmites into nooks and crannies. The cave is known to the locals as 'Surprise' cave and the story goes that these caves and all of the karsts came into being as a result of dragons descending and spitting out jade into the water.
At the foot of the cave is a little cove were we paddling in the turquoise water and took some group photos for the Brazilian guys.
Back on the boat we checked-out and watched the head chef creating some impressive decorations out of vegetables;
That was it for Halong Bay; it was a shame about the weather but the water and islets really were a spectacular sight and the boat along with the Indonesian's provided me with much amusement. I even managed to read a whole book in the two days; which isn't like me at all.
The drive back was a little terrifying as our driver had a habit over overtaking vehicles that were in the middle of overtaking someone else. For a lot of the journey we seemed to be on the wrong side of the road. Cue lots of frantic screaming from the women.
We got back to Hanoi much too early for our 19:30 sleeper train to Hue so we hung out at a café for a few hours trying to tackle our land-sickness.