A Travellerspoint blog

June 2013

XXXIX - XXXX: Hanoi to Hue

The overnight bus journeys begin!

sunny 39 °C
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The overnight sleeper buses in Vietnam are notorious, infamous even, for their lack of comfort and the insanity of their drivers. Nevertheless, the thousands of negative trip advisor reviews were ignored and three tickets were bought for the 12-hour bus ride to Hue leaving at 1800. After a lie-in and two breakfasts (I was hungry) we checked out, dumped our bags at reception and found a nice streetside cafe for Felix's last Vietnamese iced coffee. The owner seemed glad of the low-season business and introduced us to his two birds who were given baths and a fruit buffet next to our table. Felix's taxi arrived at 2pm, so we shook hands and made plans for a reunion beer in the autumn - Oktoberfest! Back at reception, Muhn admitted her feelings for Felix to me: "he's just SUCH a nice man". I agreed of course, waiting for my own compliment but it never came.

I met up with Russ & Rachel a few hours later and we each set off on our own missions before the bus came: Russ went in search of pizza for our evening meal on the bus; Rach headed down the street to grab some last-minute souvenirs; I sat at the table in the lobby writing postcards and watching the bags. Unbeknownst to Rachel & I, there had been a power cut in the food quarter and when Russ arrived flustered and irritated in a taxi he explained that he had only managed to get one pizza. Our shared knowledge of night buses told us that we'd have a food stop at the half way point so we weren't overly worried, and we had a reserve stash of Pringles, Oreos and teeny tiny bananas. The hotel staff very kindly gave us clean towels to have a shower before the bus journey, though this proved to be completely unnecessary once we arrived at the travel office in our taxi and were drenched by a surprise rainstorm!

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Dripping wet and with strict instructions to put our shoes in plastic bags we found our seats, double-decked semi reclined chairs with a small storage compartment which were laid out in three rows along the bus with a walkway either side of the middle row. We all ended up on top bunks, and Russ & I quickly realised that we were a good foot longer than the seats! It was far from comfortable despite being a "VIP" class bus, which essentially just means it has a smelly onboard toilet and doesn't have to make any toilet stops. We devoured our shared pizza a little too early in the trip, as the very angry driver (short man syndrome methinks) announced that there would be no food stop. There was no entertainment so the bus was soon illuminated by various blue gadget screens, and I was very impressed at R&R's practised journey routine - Rach even changed into her pyjamas! As a few muffled snores started I put my earphones in and prayed for sleep to come swiftly.

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Russ awoke after an 8-hour sleep as we approached the Hue outskirts, and looked round to see two pairs of very bloodshot eyes. For Rach and I sleep had never arrived, and we had had to endure hour upon hour of high-speed, often near-miss driving on pothole-ridden roads which had been especially brutal for the top bunk sleepers who faced a constant risk of being launched onto the floor. This, coupled with the bright interior bus lights, endless horn beeping and the snores of the giant man at the front kept most of us awake all night and we couldn't help feeling quite resentful towards Russ' well-rested face. The sleep-deprived rage helped us meet a couple from Manchester, Neil and Rachel, and after checking in at our hotels we arranged to meet up see the city together. Without the luxury of a partner to keep me warm I opted to stay at the Hue Backpackers, with a very nice dorm room with mini lockable charger lockers and giant suitcase-sized under-bed storage. I met the other four for breakfast downstairs (egg & cheese burger!) and we all set off across the very lovely river to visit the Citadel, Hue's main tourist attraction.

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It is very easy to do Hue in a day, and before we'd even arrived at the Citadel we had all decided that we would leave the following day! Lonely Planet had advised that the entry fee was 55,000 dong so even allowing for inflation we were a little surprised to have to fork out 105,000 dong each to get inside. I wouldn't have cared so much if I hadn't then found that the east gate to the citadel was open with no admission fee, and I was already regretting the money I'd spent on a glass of sugar cane juice from a nearby street stall which had triggered all sorts of wonderful stomach cramps. Inside, the citadel is made up of a collection of restored buildings and ruins within two outer walls and a large lily-filled moat. There is no set route around the complex so after setting off in search of decent photo spots I managed to lose the others and didn't see them for the rest of the afternoon. Outside the east gate there is a Vietnamese antiquities museum and a small car park housing several captured US tanks and planes from the war. I gave both a moment of my time before clearing out the nearest supermarket and scoffing a giant cheese baguette, Pringles and a dodgy yogurt in the park.

Back at the hostel I narrowly avoided being dragged out to a club by my new roommates and after a reunion spent the evening playing pool and abusing the bogof beer deals at a bar, before an interesting Skype chat informed me that my little brother had decided to throw himself and my bike off a wall and ended up in A&E! I booked myself a $5 bus ticket for 8am and had the worst night's sleep of the trip - it had been over 3 weeks since my last night in a dorm and with a few too many beers on board I spent the next 7 hours in a cold sweat convinced that there were giant bed bugs lining the walls.

Posted by WorldWideWill 12:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

XXXVII - XXXVIII: Ha Long Way to Ha Long Bay

Enter the happy room

all seasons in one day 32 °C
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We left our backpacks at the hotel and jumped on the 4-hour minibus ride with only a daysack and a bottle of water each - so liberating! We were introduced to our guide for the trip, a self-declared comedian called Tinh who started his speech with a description of Hanoi's bridges and a few too many references to how beautiful they are "provided there are no more U.S. bombs dropped on them". He informed us about the "happy room", the odd Anglo-Viet term for a toilet stop, and finished with a 'hilarious' anti-vegetarian joke about eating cat, dog and monkey on the boat after he'd taken note of our dietary requests.

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At the halfway stop - a tactical commission-earning shop selling everything from cookies to giant marble statues - the weather turned nasty and as we neared Halong City the clouds became darker and the rain fell hard. Brilliant. We were herded into the waiting area with the hundreds of other tour groups while we waited for our boat to be prepared (there are over 600 boats operating in Halong Bay and it can get very congested, extra time should occasionally be budgeted for climbing across other boats to reach your own!), but there was now a very reluctant atmosphere in the crowd as the mist fell across the Bay and obscured the magnificent views. Tickets punched, we were welcomed onto our 'Fantasea' boat with refreshing moist flannels and a cup of juice, then dropped our bags in the room before lunch. We had a luxurious twin room with a brand new bathroom, air conditioning (turned on at night) and stunning views across the water. Fortunately the rain brought cooler temperatures and made the stay very comfortable.

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Our first mealtime was a farce. Tinh announced the imminent arrival of the food and then told all of the vegetarians (3 of us) to stand up and move to another table together, "to make things easier for the crew". The initial laughter turned into rage, particularly from the British girl from our hotel who was being asked to eat away from her boyfriend! The mob mentality triumphed but soured the mood, which was a shame because the food was incredible: a giant buffet-style spread on each table that included fried beancurd, tempura veg, tofu salad and mini omelette rolls. Felix and I befriended a Dutch couple, again from our hotel, and spent the first hour of cruising through the Bay exchanging travel plans and plotting revenge against our new dictator.

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The first stop on the tour was the Dau Go cave (the Cave of Wonders) and we got our first real taste of how busy the tourist scene is in the Bay. Tinh treated us to a 15 minute history speech outside while we all stared at our feet or at the hundreds of other boat passengers that were walking past with no lectures from their guides. I was especially distracted by my first sighting of a floating trader, a woman in a rowing boat completely full of snacks, drinks and cigarettes who would stealthily row up behind people stood on the jetty before thrusting a pack of Oreos at them. We rushed through the cave, desperate to get to the kayaking spot, but not before Tinh had pointed out the various animals and phallic shapes that could be seen if we let our imagination run free. At the cave exit is a very opportunistic gift shop asking for 50,000 dong for a small bottle of water! The kayaks were waiting for us at a floating pontoon in the middle of the bay nearby, and Tinh was very strict with our 40 minute time limit. Felix and I were the first on the water and set off at full steam. I had the crazy idea of trying to circumnavigate one of the smaller islands and it felt fitting that I should embark on something so suitably challenging on the 10th anniversary (ish) of my completion of the DW canoe race. We turned back after what must have been over 30 minutes of paddling, having realised that we had picked one of the biggest islands in the area and there was no sign of the end! The human-sized jellyfish were starting to freak me out a little too, so we sped back to the boat hoping we weren't too late (and working on various excuses if we were).

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Tinh met us with a red face, and in an attempt to avoid his lecture about how we'd let everyone down I abandoned Felix in the back of the kayak and ran back to the boat. The final stop was Tiptop Island, where a depressingly small beach and an alarmingly high hill gave people the choice of a swim or hike before sunset. Seeing the human soup in the 'swimming area', Felix and I decided to stay on board (much to Tinh's consternation) and spent the hour playing cards. Our anchor point for the night was in a small bay with only a handful of other boats, and after a huge buffet dinner with some very dodgy soup we stayed up chatting with the Dutch and the Belgians and slowly cleared the onboard beer fridge. No one took Tinh up on his offer of a karaoke evening, choosing instead to attempt squid fishing - made much harder by the traders and beggars that kept appearing out of the darkness! Soon the engine stopped for the night and we let the waves rock us to sleep.

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Predictably (I suppose) we were woken just minutes before our alarms by power-happy Tinh banging on everyone's doors. Fortunately breakfast was of the delicious and filling variety so there was minimal resistance when we were all asked to "check out" at 8.30am and put our bags in the restaurant so that the crew could prepare the rooms for their next guests. After paying off our bar tab I found most of the crew asleep in the newly vacated rooms, but decided not to mention this to my fellow passengers...

We set sail for Cat Ba Island, a beautifully peaceful journey through an empty stretch of water flanked either side by very impressive limestone cliffs and floating villages. We dropped off the 3-day passengers and said our goodbyes to Tinh who was more concerned about who had stolen his pens - we had been given questionnaires to fill in and he had not scored well. Despite the rain we spent the next two hours sat on the top deck under the canopy with our new friends, Rachel & Russell (the Brits from our hotel who had nearly been separated at dinner last night). We ordered tea from the bar and shared a pack of Oreos before discovering that lunch was being served at 11am! Our new guide thought I was joking about being vegetarian, so I had to share Rachel's non-meat alternatives (including a bowl of peanuts) before we disembarked back at Halong harbour. The bus back took us to another expensive tourist trap shop with very Vietnamese promotions:

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For Felix's last night in Vietnam we ended up having a giant pizza with several cheap beers, followed by a walk through the night market and a few hours spent taking light trail photos by the road. I was very sad to be losing my German travel buddy, but I made loose plans to hook up with Rach and Russ the next day when we would discuss the journey south.

Posted by WorldWideWill 18:46 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

XXXVI: Good Morning Vietnam!

A very lazy day in Hanoi

sunny 38 °C
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My night on the floor was surprisingly comfy, if not a little dusty, and I bounded downstairs for the free breakfast - fresh baguettes with eggs and Vietnamese coffee. We spent the morning in the hotel waiting for the cleaners to finish so that we could move rooms, and ended up with a very nice triple room with fridge and a view over Hang Cot street. One of the giggly staff said I was handsome as we left, so I was in a good mood when walked through town to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

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On the way we had our first encounter with the Vietnamese Army, very sharply dressed soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the Defence Ministry who were thoroughly unimpressed when we tried to cut through after misreading the map! Our walk took us past the War Museum and the Flag Tower and we arrived at the Mausoleum shortly after 10:45. This ugly communist building houses the preserved body of Vietnam's biggest national hero, Ho Chi Minh himself. All of the streets in Hanoi were adorned with red flags and banners in celebration of his birthday (an annual display), but instead of finding a queue outside it was silent and deserted (aside from the very smartly dressed guard who shouted at me for crossing the yellow painted line in front of the steps outside!). A quick recheck of The Book showed that we'd missed the last admission at 10:15 and it wouldn't reopen until the following morning! Just round the corner was the Ho Chi Minh Museum so we made the most of the walk, paid the 25,000 dong and went in to absorb some history. Or rather we would have, if they hadn't started ushering everyone out of the building after ten minutes in preparation for their closure for lunch at 11:30! To be honest, neither of us could make any sense of the place anyway - essentially the life story of 'Uncle Ho' has been offered up for interpretation by several abstract artists and the whole place is filled with a mad jumble of sculptures, photos and weird exhibits including a giant table of fruit.

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On the way out I was surrounded by at least 30 Korean men and a couple of them shook my hand and asked where I was from. When I said "the UK" they asked if I liked Manchester United and if I'd heard of Ji Sung Park (the footballer, a few of them were wearing shirts with his name on the back). When I said that I'd lived in Manchester for five years they broke into a chorus of "ooohhh"s which sounded identical to the aliens from Toy Story. Felix was highly amused by this but I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic so we left without waiting to see if they'd say "the Claw...".

We briefly toyed with the idea of going back to the museum when they reopened at 2pm, but after a delicious Vietnamese iced coffee (easily my favourite national specialty) at a local cafe we gave into the oppressive heat and had a slow walk back to the Old Quarter. I'd had a tip-off from Sam (from the Cameron Highlands) about a tailor that had made his wedding suit, and with the promise of mates rates I wanted to find him and tick off "get tailored suit made" from my bucket list. We had another cafe stop while we waited for Mr Nam to return from lunch, and then spend a good while browsing the materials in his shop. I had been forewarned that he spoke no English, so all communication was done over the phone via his daughter (there were several calls, bless her). Eventually I was left with a time dilemma, as it would take him 3-5 days to complete and I would need to buy my own silk lining from the market as he didn't stock the colour I wanted! Lunch was needed before tackling the indoor market and we ended up at Egg Talk, where we got a whopping 2% discount for 'liking' them on Facebook! With all that saved cash burning holes in our pockets we walked in, and swiftly out, of the Dong Xuan market away from the stale heat and hundreds of hands pulling our arms towards their stalls.

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After a nap we booked our trip to Halong Bay, and it was rather overwhelming to be presented with a dozen different brochures and having to choose the right tour operator. In the end we settled on a 2-day, 1-night trip on a midrange boat for $75 each - based on the pictures it would be a little more luxurious than we needed but the $50 trip offered a very basic route and no activities. We had dinner plans with Felix's friend and arranged to meet him at the Opera House. A miscommunication outside the hotel resulted in the two of us being squeezed into a one-man rickshaw, pedalled by an alarmed and dangerously old man. In hindsight we could probably have walked there in the same time that it took, and it would have been safer too - our 'driver' decided to take the highway for a couple of miles and I could only sit and film the cars and bikes whizzing past us, praying that we'd make it through each junction. We paid the drenched man his 50,000 dong despite his attempt to drop us off on the wrong street and met Christian (who had clearly been waiting a while). He took us South of the Old Quarter to a very Bavarian "brauhaus" where we had a few giant beers and smoked cheese followed by an expensive but tasty meal on the balcony. We chatted for a couple of hours about Christian's work at the World Bank and how the different blends of communism had benefitted Vietnam and stunted Cambodia's growth, and at the end he very kindly picked up the bill.

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Back on our patch we spent a long while browsing through a great little shop selling old propaganda posters from the war, and then finished the night on another streetside plastic chair with a pint of bia hoi. I made Felix watch Animal House on HBO before bed, essential viewing.

Posted by WorldWideWill 12:37 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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