Hanoi, Halong and horns

On tour  in Vietnam

Vietnam was a bit of an adventure – not just because I hadn’t been there before, but it was my first package holiday for more years than I can remember, my first budget holiday since a ropey Indonesian dive boat in 2009 and my first holiday with a close friend and his two teenage daughters. We chose Vietnam it was one country we wanted to visit, it offered great value for money and is still developing as a tourist destination. Or as one friend said “Vietnam is the hot destination at the moment”.  What made our holiday possible was a last minute cheap package through a great tour operator – Unique Tours Vietnam.  We packed with an open mind.

Hello Hanoi

Hanoi is a city if six or seven million occupants (depending on your tour guide) and four million scooters. Driving from the airport through the streets, the well weathered remnants of refined French architectural legacy sat next to neon lights and sixties style socialist concrete dwellings.

We stayed in the old town, a traditional trading neighbourhood with streets named after what used to be sold there. Our hotel – the Land Mark, was in Hang Dao – Peach Street. Other street names included Hang Ga – Chicken Street and Hang Tie – Bamboo Street. The hotel front was so typically narrow; we would have missed it if we blinked..

Our rooms were on the top floor, where we had an outstanding view of the local railway line built perilously close to local housing. We soon got to know the trains as the drivers blared warning horns through the night… budget holidays always have a trade off! I dedicate these two pictures to my brother Gordon Thomson …

Despite this, the hotel was clean, the staff very friendly and the breakfast was a surprisingly good ‘nose bag’ – the French had taught Vietnam how to bake delicious bread and pastries.

Our first day in Vietnam was a full on tour of Hanoi, including a couple of museums, more temples than we could really absorb and of course the Ho Chi Min complex.  This is what I found most interesting – seeing how the modern architect of the nation is remembered.  Here is “Uncle Ho’s” bedroom, along with his trademark white hat…One of Ho Chi Min’s speeches with tracked changes – long before Microsoft word!

As cities go, the lasting impressions of Hanoi I have is that despite the volume of traffic, there are no jams and it was constantly flowing. Although there was a constant din of scooter, car and train horns, there was also a sense of calm modesty and clear purpose with how people go about their daily business – the mobile fruit and veg vendors, steam boat food hawkers and shop owners. The best antidote for this very full day was a one hour massage and manicure – a bargain for $20, followed by a feast of a dinner costing $26 for four.

A slow boat near China

The next day we were collected bright and early for our transfer to Halong Bay to begin our three day two night cruise on board the Dragon King.  Halong Bay itself is absolutely stunning and attracts more than four million tourists a year. We spent both nights anchored at Hang Luon and I counted no less than 26 other boats….

On our second day afloat, we were whisked off to a day boat and taken to a cultured pearl farm, Cat ba – a national park and super stunning spot where we pretty much spent most of the day kayaking in local caves followed by swimming.  We rounded off the day with a visit to Soi Sim, a pretty little island with a beach. After a short 20 minute climb, we had a terrific vantage point!

Our last day on board the Dragon King started off with more swimming, a spring roll cookery lesson then early lunch before returning to Hanoi via a very picturesque route,  including a floating village that even had a bank!

On return to Hanoi, we spent the evening shoe shopping where we snapped up bargains galore – Adidas, Van and Tom  brands all a fraction of the cost. It was during the evening that Hanoi lived up to its nickname “beep beep city.  It reminded me of Cairo in many ways.  The noise from horns and traffic in general was constant and getting across the road was a game of chicken, which I had already mastered in Cairo using eye contact and the palm of my hand.

Paddling and paddy fields

Our final full day in Vietnam was mostly spent in a minibus. Although only 120 km from Hanoi, Ninh Binh was a five hour round trip along a dreary semi-urban landscape.  On arrival however, we were rewarded with some stunning scenery.  First stop was Vietnam’s ancient capital Hoa Lu and the temple built for of the first king of Vietnam.  After lunch, we then had a lovely sampan boat tour in a very pretty spot along the Truong Yen Valley…

The only thing that spoiled this beautiful afternoon was the cornered hassling to buy drinks, snacks and souvenirs at the half way point, and being told what tip we had to give.  This was the first and only time we came across “rip off tourist” tactics throughout our stay in Vietnam.  A short 40 minute cycle ride out to the paddy fields worked off our lunch rounded off our day trip before heading back to Hanoi.

Snakes (?) and scooters

On our final night in Hanoi, we decided to try street food. Perhaps considered high risk given we were travelling the next day, but it had to be done!  With no labels and language limitations, we picked out what we fancied. This was then grilled and plonked on our table, which was about 50 cms high.  We still didn’t positively identify some of the things we selected – but some were delicious and some were very chewy, suspecting that snake might have been one dish!With our bottles of Hanoi beer and almost squatting on our pixie type plastic stools, we tried to blend in, appearing “cool” as we ate and drunk only inches from the passing traffic, mainly scooters of course…

On the subject of scooters, I should mention some of the different loads we saw some of them carrying during our week in Vietnam. Unfortunately most  passed too quickly to capture on camera, but here is a list of the more memorable loads we saw:

  • 2 x 2 metre high ceramic vases
  • A number of bird cages with life birds
  • A number of bags containing goldfish, fairground style
  • Semi mature bougainvillea bushes
  • Wheelbarrow, spade and cement mixing bucket
  • 3 large sacks of eggs

I did however manage to capture not one, but two loads of plastic wear right outside our hotel…

There were of course other more traditional ways of carrying goods and produce …


 Lasting impressions

Vietnam had an obvious interest to me because of its modern history and my time spent time in the post communist Balkans, both in and out of uniform.  Surprisingly, the Vietnamese  acknowledged the end of the French colonial era in 1954, yet there was very little mention of the US intervention and unification of North and South Vietnam in 1975.  Strange given that it was a Vietnamese victory.

Overall, Vietnam was a hit.  We all had a  great time, relaxed and enjoyed taking in all the different elements of the country and culture.  I would go back in a heartbeat as we only saw a tiny part of the country and there is so much more to see e.g. Sapa farm stay’s, Mekong delta trips, Southern Vietnam beaches etc,  Although our package tour was very structured, full on and great value for money, I must confess I missed not doing my own thing.  This of course however was mitigated by having someone else to do all the thinking and organising, so it balanced out I guess.  I do agree that it is a hot place to visit as you do get a sense that you are visiting a beautiful unspoiled country that has a fascinating modern history.  Vietnam is also amazing value, has outstanding food and of course wonderful people that really want to show you their country.

So a very fond goodbye Vietnam and thanks for some great memories – and a cool coolie!

PS Apologies for some formatting issues with this post – it was transferred from my blogspot hosted blog and I am unable to fix some of the glitches.

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