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Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam
Tuesday, 15 June 2010 13:02

Hanoi  and Halong Bay 13.03. – 22.03.

As we were enjoying Laos so much we decided to cut Vietnam short and only visit our highlight, the Halong Bay which meant flying to Hanoi. We left hazy lazy Luang Prabang and arrived in Hanoi to be greeted by grey drizzle, manic traffic and a dismal landscape. A bit like being back in England on a cold November day all of a sudden.  By the time we got to our hotel near the old city with only a few near crashes we were a bit overwhelmed by the noise and traffic and wondering what the hell we were doing here. After we got to our hotel room we were rather underwhelmed – the somewhat bare room stank of smoke and was directly above some narrow alleyways which were filled with motorbikes blowing their horns. This was not going to be a peaceful few days.

We headed off to get some food and within 5 minutes we had seen someone fall of his scooter. There are thousands of them on the road and all of them blow their horn at pedestrians. Basically everyone blows there horn at anything smaller than them so with a mixture of lorries, cars, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians on the road you hear nothing else. The roads are packed and as the pavements are full of parked scooters or people sat down drinking tea you have no choice but to walk on the road. And when the road is full the scooters ride down the pavement or down the road the wrong way if it is quicker. Within minutes I was a nervous wreck wondering how the hell I was ever going to cross a road without getting knocked down. During the first few days Heiko and I spent a lot of time at opposite sides of the road waiting for each other until I had enough courage to “go with the flow” and let the traffic part like the Red Sea. Funnily enough the traffic drives around you if you just keep going.

We spent the next couple of days researching what kind of trip we would do and exploring the city. There are some lovely old colonial buildings and interesting markets and some decent restaurants. Unfortunately the weather was miserable, either humid or cold and usually drizzle not far away.


Don't worry about the barriers, the monuments
are only a few hundred years old and UNESCO

Before we left for our Halong Bay trip we went for dinner with Isabel, the daughter of a German couple we had met on our second Galapagos trip. Isabel works in a hotel there and her parents had given us her number as we had mentioned we would be passing through Vietnam at some point on our trip. Unfortunately Heiko was violently sick outside the restaurant and had to leave early but at the end of the evening Isabel and her partner James kindly invited us to stay with them after we returned from our Halong Bay trip. They live out near the Lakes, a quieter ex-pat area where you can walk around without constant fear of being run over.

On the morning of our Halong Bay trip we had to get up pretty early but were told the breakfast buffet would be open (by this point we had changed to a nicer hotel round the corner).  However there was no buffet just a menu with some breakfast things including spaghetti but none of which were available apart from sausage, bacon and toast. We ordered the fruit platter and received a lovingly arranged plate with an apple cut into wedges which tasted salty! As Heiko tried to explain that it tasted of salt by pointing to some salt, the language barrier came down and surprise, surprise the staff came back with another plate of more apple with a pile of salt next to it. We finally found someone who spoke English who then explained to us that they wash the fruit in salt water as it is healthier. Whatever.
We set off with empty stomachs and in the minibus we were introduced to Jochen the German who doesn’t like speaking German or going on trips with German tourists. Bad luck really seeing as he was German and was surrounded by Germans that day. Luckily he was put on a different boat. The toilet stop was – surprise, surprise – at a handicrafts village where you could buy handy souvenirs such as marble sculptures and have them shipped home for a USD 1000. We just bought a bottle of water and some biscuits.
As we reached the Bay the weather was still cloudy and we were not greeted by the picture postcard shot we were expecting. We crossed three junks to get to our boat and wondered if we had been downgraded as the boat and the berth didn’t look like the pictures we had seen. The boat had also seen better days and soon got an extra bashing from the concrete boat which was manoeuvring between the junks filling them with drinking water. How great to be back on a boat again!
We had been told the menu would include lots of seafood which is great if you like it. I had ordered a vegetarian alternative but each time the food started coming I thought I was going to have to fill up on plain rice, omelette or tofu and tucked into the first few greasy dishes only to find that something nice cam at the end which I hardly had room for. Oh well, at least we wouldn’t go to bed hungry.
On our first afternoon we were rowed by a local through a floating village where they even have dogs and a school. Apparently these fishermen can earn quite a good living from seafood and pearls.

Not too happy that captain had a bed at the wheel.


The next morning we boarded a different boat to head to Cat Ba Island where we would spend the second night of our trip. On the way we had a kayaking trip around some of the islands and caves accompanied by our guide who up until this point had spent most of his time on the mobile phone and ignoring us. He did however take a couple of pics of us in the kayak.


After another huge deep fried lunch we relaxed on the boat and lo and behold the sun came out! Up until this point the Halong Bay was not giving me the wow effect I had hoped for, probably due to the weather. The limestone cliffs and islands are pretty but when the sun is shining and the sea is turquoise it seems just a little bit prettier if you can ignore the litter in the sea and on the beaches.

 Left: Cholesterol anyone?

In the afternoon we checked into our hotel (quite luxurious for our standards) which had a lovely view over the beach. The water was not that inviting though as it was bloody freezing so I made do with treating myself to a massage. This involved a tiny Vietnamese woman walking on my back and massaging it with my feet. I’ve seen it on TV but I never thought I would have someone’s feet near my ears whilst having a massage.

Left: Water from a flea market?!
Above: Cat Ba Island

Now that we were our guide’s only tourists he seemed to feel obliged to join us for mealtimes. Or was it just because he could eat the nice 3 course meal in the hotel? He was a nice enough guy but he had managed to avoid us most of the time on the boat and now we were having to arrange what time to meet for dinner and breakfast whereas we would have preferred to do our own thing. After breakfast the next morning we realised we would be leaving earlier than expected and didn’t have time to look at anything of interest on the island. Great. Our guide came at 12 and we spent the next 6 hours on a bus, speedboat and in a car travelling back to Hanoi. Again, the very belated toilet stop was in a handicraft shop. We bought some Belgian chocolate.
At long last we arrived back in Hanoi and took a taxi to Isabel and James’ place, a lovely 5 store Vietnamese house to die for. At last some home comforts such as a washing machine, a comfy couch and decent music. Over the next few days Isabel and James showed us some of the nicer aspects of Hanoi which left us with fonder memories of Hanoi than we might otherwise have had. Thank you!


Visiting a local village famous for pottery
with James and Isabel.

Later in the day we went to an outdoor food court
which is a collection of the various street foods to
be found in Hanoi. 
We let James order and show us how to dip, dunk
and roll our food. And he told us what it was - not
always that obvious!

Left: desert, agar, agar, pureed waterchestnuts
coconut milk I believe - very interesting!

And then it was back to Luang Prabang for a week before heading to Southern Laos.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 June 2010 07:13