Tuesday, May 18, 2010

H is for Hue, Hanoi and Halong

Next stop was Hue, a few hours north. Though one of the oldest centres of politics, culture and religion in Vietnam, its charms were a little lost on me. It was hot, I was sick, we’d spent the morning tramping round trying to find a hotel and, having ended up in one of the two backpacker areas, couldn't walk down the street without being accosted by cyclo and motorbike drivers. Every 10 metres they’d try to rip us off with their ridiculous prices, and then look indignant and outraged when we told them we preferred to walk. We did find a lovely chap later that day when all our go-go juice had been sapped strolling around the old walled city, who took us for an hour tour before going back to the hotel where we flaked out at 8pm.

From Hue, we went up to the Vinh Moc tunnels in the DMZ before going on to Hanoi. We didn't want to go on one of the painfully long bus tours that take you all over the DMZ looking at every single old bomb crater so just got a car to take us to a nearby town where we could leave our bags at a restaurant and later join up with the sleeper bus to Hanoi. The owner of the restaurant wanted to charge us $10 to hire a motorbike for the day – twice the price of any others we’d taken elsewhere but it seemed, being in the arse-end of nowhere, we had no choice. However, a kind spirited and entrepreneurial soul sitting at one of the tables nearby kindly stepped in and offered us the use of his own personal bike for $6. We took him up on his offer and set off to find the Ho Chi Minh trail (now rather more a highway than a trail, but still very beautiful) and made our way to the tunnels via the Truong Son National Cemetery, where tens of thousands of dead Vietnamese soldiers are laid to rest across the hillsides.

The Vinh Moc tunnels are seriously impressive. We’d been to the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon on our last trip but these are much smaller and adjusted for tourists. Vinh Moc is the real McCoy. They stand exactly as they were when the 40 or so North Vietnamese families built them, lived in them, ate and drank in them, and even gave birth in them – 17 kids were born down there in the murky darkness. Our guide, a

young, bandy-legged guy dressed from head to toe in white, looked like he was off to a disco rather than to show a couple of tourists round 2.8km of underground tunnels - it was quite useful though as we couldn't lose sight of him in the dimly lit tunnels even if he scurried ahead, shining like a beacon, and believe me, at 26m underground, it gets pretty darn dark. Somehow he came out still gleaming whereas Flo and I emerged into the light, blinking and covered in streaks of mud all over us.

We got back to the restaurant a bit earlier than planned. The bus was due in at 6.30pm so we had a bite to eat and waited. And waited, and waited. In typical South East Asian style, the bus schedule was a pretty fluid affair and at about 8pm it turned up, only to park and offload its passengers for another hour’s break. The driver was tired and cranky and majorly pissed when he saw our luggage, then refused to tell us which were our seats until he’d had his dinner. We discovered why when we eventually got on – he had sold them to a couple of local lads he’d picked up on the way and they were happily tucked up and snoozing away in our beds. It was packed, so when he booted them out, they set up camp on the floor, leaving us to guiltily avoid stepping on their heads anytime we wanted to go to the loo or stretch our legs. What followed was twelve hours of honking, swerving, bumpiness with regular forays into oncoming traffic. We were then unceremoniously dumped at a busy corner on the outskirts of Hanoi and herded into a taxi with a few other Western faces to go and see a hotel. The hotel in question was bang in the middle of the old town on a narrow streets lined with a lively wet market, which scored high points for its colourful, lively atmosphere but nil points for the terrible smell and animal offal in the gutters. We quickly decided that though it was very interesting to wander through, we didn't want to walk directly in to chicken slaughter and butchery first thing in the morning.

We found a cool little place a few bocks away that had a balcony overlooking the street, then spent the rest of the day just moving from café to café, snacking, drinking coffee and relaxing. Hanoi was nice though it somehow felt more like China than the rest of Vietnam had. Perhaps because we were both still a bit sick and tired, the continuous hawking was really beginning to grate - at one point I though I might smack the next girl who tried to force her basket of bananas on my shoulders to take a picture and then demand money from me. In the city we walked for a day, saw the very nice Temple of Literature, spent ages trying to find Uncle Ho’s stilt house which turned out to be closed, walked past his mausoleum where his embalmed corpse was on a maintenance trip to Russia, around the various lakes whose murky green waters were filled with belly-up dead fish and ended up on the rooftop bar of the Sofitel Plaza. Its thirteen stories make it one of the tallest buildings in the city and with a beer in hand, we watched the sun go down across the city.

That night we went to see the water puppet show – a bit like a wet version of Punch & Judy, this originated in the waters of the village rice fields where guys in waders would stand thigh deep in water behind a backdrop, operating various brightly coloured puppets who act out folk tales and dances, some funny, some serious and all quite entertaining. The waders make it a lot more and there are far fewer cases of foot rot and parasites these days

apparently. We were quite taken with the puppets themselves and spent much of the next day hunting down a couple of specimens that seemed in reasonable condition and had the right balance between old and worn and old and crappy. After some hardcore bargaining, we got two of the little fellas for just a few dollars each and they are now nicely installed in their new (dry) home in our living room.

The next day we were up early and off to Halong Bay. We had taken an executive decision not to go on one of the many organized tours and make our own way there. It didn't seem to tricky and we were off to a good start, finding a bus with spare seats that set off almost immediately for Hai Phong where we could take a boat to Cat Ba island and then find passage on a boat around the famous landscape of the bay.

The bus stopped every five minutes, picking up more and more people along the way until every available inch of floor was covered with small plastic stools with one and sometimes two people perched atop. What was amazing was how relaxed everyone was, leaning on strangers for support, and good humouredly contorting themselves to allow others to pass them. A couple of hours later we arrived at Hai Phong. 20 minutes too late for the boat that had just departed for Cat Ba and 2 hours too early for the next. There’s not a lot going on in Hai Phong, particularly down by the port but we found a little café where a nice lady whipped us up some noodles and made our way back to board the boat.

What we had not realized when planning our little jaunt was that all the fast hydrofoils depart early in the morning and the daytime boats were slow, lumbering beasts. This was fine for the first couple of hours on board but nearing the first of the islands, a huge swell appeared, rocking the boat from side to side and crashing angrily across the stern, and turning every stomach on board. We were glad to get to reach dry land, despite only a having a few hours of daylight left to enjoy. We were lucky enough to find someone still at his desk in a hotel tourist agency who suggested we head to the national park and make the 1 hour climb to the viewing point to get a feel for the island and lending us (once again) his personal motorbike for the trip.

The climb was not too bad. We hurried ourselves along, worried by the thought of being caught out on a muddy path in the middle of the jungle in the dark, and made it quickly to the top. There was not a soul around and the only sounds was an eerie metallic clink, clink, clink as the wind caught the loose roof edge of the iron viewing platform that towered above us. The view from its foot was fantastic but from the top, it was even more impressive, offering a 360 degree look at the surrounding park with layers of jagged green mountain tops disappearing in to the evening mist. Quite a sight combined with the adrenalin rush from the climb up the rickety scaffolding, and the realization that I may perhaps, be developing vertigo in my old age.

We spent a quiet night in a waterfront hotel, poorly chosen from the hundreds on offer, it had been recently painted and the fumes gave us both a funny head by morning but we set off into the brisk, grey morning to find our boat for the day.

Not quite what we were expecting, the boat was an old junk but had none of the elegance we’d seen in the brochure. Our companions for the day were a family of Romanians and an odd couple consisting of a French/Vietnamese guy and his Vietnamese girlfriend who later disappeared after a visit to a cave. We never found out what happened to them as we were switching boats to head back to the mainland, though I have my suspicions they had jumped ship and joined up with a much louder, karaoke-blaring behemoth that was docked a few boats down.

Though the weather was a bit dreary, the rain held off and the scenery was hauntingly wonderful. It just kept going, with craggy cliffs jutting from the water, eagles circling and small

fishing boats and villages scattered amongst them. We were really pleased to have taken our chosen route as when we later switched boats to complete our circular journey to Halong City and back to Hanoi, the islands thinned out as the boats multiplied and we realized we had succeeded in avoiding much of the tourist trap. This realization was quickly confirmed when we arrived in Halong City itself where hundreds upon hundreds of boats are moored, filled with camera toting sightseers and surrounded by a car park jam packed with coaches, horns blaring and whistles blowing. We definitely took the long way round with the bus that returned us to Hanoi dropping us an hour on the wrong side of the city. It was a very long day indeed, but tired and happy to have seen one of the wonders of the Asian world, we were back, and in our final hours of Vietnam.

We left the next evening by sleeper train. The cabin was very comfortable and we had plenty of space. An overnight journey, there was no chance of sleeping through the night. Aside from the two border stops required, we also had to change cabins after a burning rubber smell turned out to be a small electrical fire. Fortunately the train was not too busy and there was space for all. We made it back to Nanning in China, through mountainous green countryside that echoed the lines of Halong Bay. The train schedule had, of course, been changed without notifying anyone and we were pleased to have gone for the afternoon flight, and eight hours later we were back in Shanghai.

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