As per our ‘see-all-of-the-country-before-deciding-where-to-stay’ ploy, we flew to Hanoi to stay a few days before we steadily make our way down the country on one of the ‘open bus’ tickets.
If anything, it’s busier here than in HCMC. Perhaps it’s an illusion caused by the generally narrower and older streets. There’s still a large French influence and a nice lake in the centre but we didn’t particularly warm to the place. Walking around the streets, we are constantly hassled by vendors and scam merchants – no matter how many times you say ‘No’ to some of them, they still don’t get the message. It can be very tiring. Helen fell for the old ‘would you like to hold my shoulder pole and feel like a real peasant’ routine. Naturally, I took a shot and then was hounded by pleas to buy some of her fruit. The usual: ‘my family will starve to death today if you don’t buy…’ stuff.
We took a ‘cyclo’ ride for about a mile; the guy wanted 400K dong but we negotiated down to 200K. At the end of the trip he moaned on about how hot it was (what a surprise!) and wouldn’t let us go until we’d paid him the original 400.
We met an Australian couple yesterday who told us that they got locked in the back of a cab after refusing demands to pay double the agreed fare. Good advice, they told us, was to photo the guy’s licence/id and say that the police are going to be informed. Eventually, the driver backed off.
For the first couple of days in our hotel, we had all sorts of treats: fresh fruit, coffee in room, fawning staff until we finally agreed to buy a tour from them. Since then, all the little extras have disappeared!
Add to this the fact that we are very close to China and that means more street ‘gobbers’… you get the picture.
So, Hanoi (in my native Yorkshire tongue, fittingly pronounced ‘Annoy’), will not be hosting the pleasure of our company, nevertheless, we did have a couple of interesting trips:
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Vietnamese see HCM as their national hero and naturally everyone wants to visit his tomb. We arrived at about 9.30am to be met by, no kidding, about a mile-long queue! It was baking hot but at least the queue was moving. After about an hour and a half we got in – after extensive warnings about leaving cameras and mobile devices outside. I was told off inside the mausoleum for speaking: making gags in this solemn environment was, apparently, a no-no. Outside the building in the extensive grounds, foreigners pay to walk around the gardens, locals can go free. There are exhibitions of the old man’s car collection and his house on stilts. The blurb tells us that he eschewed the luxurious life he was entitled to as president and lived quite frugally: a fact not entirely borne out by this delightful part of Hanoi. Helen got miffed by a group of girls fussing and wanting photos of them posing with me. This happened a lot in China. It was an ordeal for me too, I explained to Helen!
Well, what can you say about this place: it’s simply spectacular. The pictures speak for themselves. We took a 2 day trip: one night on a boat and one night in a hotel in the picturesque town of Cat Ba on Cat Ba island, famous for its langurs. My highlight was kayaking and Helen was needlessly worried that I’d overplayed my rowing skills!
The bay (you’ll remember, devotees of Top Gear) contains over 2000 islands of Karst limestone. Helen asked our guide what he was called: ‘Ko Mi Chuk Ee’, he replied. ‘That’s a long name’, said Helen, and the guy went on to explain the reason. Eventually, it dawned on us that his name was ‘Chucky’ and he’d said: ‘Call me Chucky’. How we laughed…
Another amusing situation arose later that evening: we were at a bar and got chatting to the barmaid. She told us her name but we didn’t catch it. Helen asked her: ‘How long have you been in Cat Ba?’ She kept replying like: ‘Yes, of course’. It turned out her name was ‘Ha Long’! Living in Halong Bay, for her the potential for confusion was endless.
We met some very nice travellers: a lovely couple from Tipperary (‘Have you ever been?’ they asked. ‘No, too far’ we jokingly replied), Ida and her mum from Indonesia who were great fun and, amazingly, a very quiet couple of trainee dentists from Seattle (see my last rant about loud Americans!)
Despite the breath-taking beauty of this place, it is (unsurprisingly) teeming with tourists and is becoming very polluted. I fear for the future unless something drastic is done.
Back to Hanoi
I won’t leave without mentioning one or two positives. We liked the local brew: ‘Bia Hoi’. This beer is brewed in micro-breweries and delivered daily in casks to many shops/cafes in the town. It has no preservatives and is drunk the same day. It’s very cheap, as little as 25 cents (16p) a glass, and quite strong. It also has a reputation for stonking hangovers!
6 am today we took a walk round the lake to see all the locals exercising – very interesting. This spectacle happens every morning. Everywhere you look there are groups of people (mostly women, it seems) stretching and doing Tai Chi moves to music booming from a nearby ghetto-blaster. All around the lake there are individuals doing every conceivable move either silently or to music. It is quite extraordinary. Although it 6 in the morning, before sunrise, the humidity was oppressive.
See video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMKaljuWNlw
PS. The opportunities for having fun with the language here are enormous. My favourite so far is ‘Hang My Dung’ – no doubt this will soon be surpassed.
See pictures taken on Mekong delta trip: https://picasaweb.google.com/100342402825089704103/20120823Mekong#