Hot, busy and very noisy
29.06.2010 - 07.07.2010 38 °C
Not being an expert flyer, I'm sorry to say that I had to relinquish my grandfather's penknife which I had mistakenly kept in my cabin luggage when boarding my flight at Vientiane - domage.
Flew into Hanoi and had my first experience of Vietnamese traffic on the taxi ride into the city. There are NO RULES - whoever has the most nerve is the one who 'wins' in the battle of the crossroads, roundabouts or anywhere! Car, bus and motorcycle horns are going the whole time, even at 3 in the morning when there is no other traffic. I think the men (primarily!) just like the sound of their own horn, if you know what I mean.
I walked for miles around Hanoi City, managing to dodge the cars and motorcycles. At one junction, this old lady and I waited for what seemed about ten minutes before there was a slight gap in the traffic - we grabbed each other and made a dash for it. All we could do was laugh at each other when we reached safe ground.
Queuing appears to be an unknown concept in Vietnam. I patiently waited for my ticket to come up at the train booking office and watched all these people pushing and shoving their way in front of the next person - I gave up in the end and got the hotel to book my train tickets - coward.
On my visits to the tourist spots of Hanoi (!), I met a three-generation family while I was taking a breather at the Temple of Literature. Grandma came and sat beside me and started fanning me, not herself, and laughing merrily. It turned out that she was 62 (looked 92) and had completely blackened teeth from chewing betal nut leaves all her life. My second day of tourism took in the Ho Chi Minh Complex and a water puppet theatre - very unusual. I found a real food market which had all kinds of live fish and dead meats, including what looked like dog's head.
After the noise of the city, the 2-day trip to Halong Bay was a very enjoyable change. The boat was fabulous, the company very enjoyable and the scenery just breathtaking. It really is as good as the photos you can see on any website. We were presented with so much food and had a great time visiting huge limestone caves, kayaking into deserted coves and diving off the boat before yet more food at supper. The next morning, we visited a large floating village of 'real' fishermen which had its own floating school. The drive back to Hanoi was pretty traumatic - the long straight pieces of road allow the drivers to play chicken. We stopped at a factory where people affected by Agent Orange (remember folks) produce various items for sale to tourists - very moving.
Took the night train north to Lao Cai, just on the border with China, which is the end of the train line. From there, it's an hour's drive to Sapa - hill village of the H'Mong tribe which I'm afraid I found very disheartening. I was supposed to visit a Sunday market in Cat Ba but I couldn't face the total of six hours of windy roads in a bus stuffed to the roof so I stayed the day in Lao Cai - not the best experience I've ever had as it was so hot and not a lot to see. The guy at the cafe where I stopped for iced coffee brought out a paper fan for me to use. The geography around Sapa is beautiful, just like the postcards. I could have bought a postcard in Hanoi and saved myself the hassle.
After a morning hike to Cat Cat Falls through a 'genuine' tribal village and over a very rickety wooden bridge, I had a massage back at Sapa town before we got the bus back down the mountain again and then the night train back to Hanoi with the same girl I met on the train north - great company to share my wine with.
As soon as we arrived back in Hanoi at 4:00am, I had to find my next train which was taking me south to Hue. This was a 14-hour trip from hell. The air conditioning broke in the carriage with over 100 local people and ME. There was a TV blaring above the shouts of the people, rubbish all over the floor after each meal and then, to top it all, Jeremy Clarkson on the TV, in Vietnamese!! The adults laugh uproariously at Tom and Jerry cartoons and keep whacking me to indicate the funny stuff on TV.
Hue was quite a haven of peace after the last week of chaos. It was so clean and subdued compared to Hanoi and I had a great walk (5 miles) along the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda. After fending off endless people trying to get me onto their motorbikes, I decided to just ask a guy if he would take me back to town. He gladly agreed and dropped me at The Citadel where I spent the afternoon, again in blazing heat but interesting to walk around the Forbidden City, loads of which was destroyed by bombing in 1947 (French - IndoChina War?).
Have had a pretty non-stop week but the sights and sounds have been quite astounding. Can't say I'm not looking forward to testing out the beaches at Hoi An and Nha Trang next week.