Good morning Vietnam! In part two of our visit to the land of the ascending dragon, it’s visas, vistas and verdure …348 days in.
We’ve got into the habit while travelling of taking the early bus or train in order to make things easier for us when we arrive at our next destination. We may miss out on a few extra hours seeing the sights in the previous location but we’ll arrive during daylight, local buses will still be running or if there’s still a couple of kilometres to go we can walk (with a lunch or drink stop if it’s hot). Although the accommodation before our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi may have been poor value, by 9 am we had landed and we were trying to locate the local bus that according to our guide book was only 5000 Dong each (18 p) to the city centre! Having heard of many airport scams we were a little sceptical of offers of help and information. Once more we discovered that the world still has plenty of friendly, helpful people, as after trying to sell us a more expensive ticket the conductor did give us the correct instructions for locating the local bus. The price may have increased slightly but that $1 we saved would buy us two beers that evening!
We’d been looking forward to our return trip to Vietnam, it’s springtime and therefore would be a drop in temperatures compared to the central plains of Thailand. Plus, Hanoi is the bia hoi (fresh beer) capital and promises to keep my New Year’s resolution from 2016 going strong! Although the mercury did drop a few degrees we gained an increase in humidity so not quite the relief we expected, ah well at least the bia hoi was good and cheap. It was just as Mike remembers from his trip (ahem) years ago, sitting on street corners, perched on tiny stools generally only found in pre-schools back home, drinking a glass of freshly brewed beer with the locals for the cost of a pint of milk back home (unless I’m now really out of touch following post Brexit inflation)!
Capital cities can often be a bit of a let down, brimming with people, congested, polluted and that uneasy feeling keeping you on your guard against hawkers and scams. Although Hanoi certainly has all of these attributes I really enjoyed the city, basing ourselves in the old quarter it has an easy, laid back feel with food vendors selling the ubiquitous and delicious Pho spilling out of every nook and cranny. I’m sure not everyone will share my view and arriving in Hanoi as your first taste of Asia it would be a bit of shock to the system, with cars, scooters, bicycles and buses all vying for space on the narrow roads, however those bustling streets still retain some of the trades and businesses that helped shape the city. These snapshots of everyday life helped us to navigate the warren-like streets, our closest bia hoi station was at the end of bamboo street, where you could buy ladders and myriad bamboo items, heading back to our hotel from the lake we turned left at padlock corner and finally one evening just minutes from our hotel I was surprised to see a blacksmith hammering away on another street corner.
There are enough museums and sights to see in Hanoi to keep you entertained for weeks, or so it seems when flicking through the guidebook. After reading good reviews online we decided on a trip to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Providing an insight into the role of women through Vietnamese history and with a fascinating floor describing the ethnic minority groups and their traditions, it was an interesting and well laid out museum, worth the modest entrance fee. Surprisingly for a capital city, Hanoi has two lakes within walking distance of the downtown area, the large Ho Tay lake which was a great location for Mike’s early morning runs and the much smaller Hoan Kiem lake on the edge of the old town. The Ngoc Son temple at one end of the smaller lake, is apparently the most visited tourist location in the city and there was always a steady procession of tourist and locals strolling round it. Our prominards around the lake always took longer than intended as we chatted to locals who were keen to improve their English.
In our return visit to Vietnam we planned to use the free two week visa to explore Hanoi and the north and finalise the plan for the rest of our trip. In the days leading up to our flight we’d been doing quite a bit of research and planning; however, it all hinged on whether our visit and visa application at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi was successful or not. Having planned our itinerary, booked and printed details of our accommodation for the first five nights and our flights back home and having photocopied half our passports, we were outside the embassy the next morning waiting for it to open. We hoped we had everything we needed for our appications but alas no, we quickly hurried back to our hotel to print out our travel insurance details and a bank statement as proof of funds for our trip. Handing over the pile of paper we also gave them our hotel phone number in case of problems and were told to return in four days after going to the bank 3 km away to pay the fees. Walking away our minds were filled with doubt as to the outcome, firstly at $30 it seemed way too cheap, applying back home would be around £80. Had we supplied enough information? Would they let in two unemployed bums? As for once we were truthful when ticking the box on employment. After no updates the next day, we decided as it was the weekend and nothing would happen, we may as well go off to Halong Bay while we waited.
When we embarked on our trip 11 months ago, although we didn’t really know where we would or wanted to visit, Vietnam and Halong Bay have always been on the list. When Mike talks of his previous sejourn round Southeast Asia post university, Vietnam was his favourite destination from the trip and Halong Bay has a magical feel in his stories, so I was looking forward to our visit. Adverts and posters encouraging you to visit Vietnam always feature the scenery of Halong Bay, with clear blue skies and turquoise waters with karst formations rising up out of them, it brings back memories of watching Bond films set on tropical islands as a child. I should point out that the scenes I was thinking of, Scaramanga’s villa in The Man with the Golden Gun, was in fact filmed in Phang Nha Bay in Thailand, same same but different as they say.
We both realised that in the years that have passed since Mike’s previous trip, the tourism industry in Halong Bay has exponentially expanded and to try and recreate a similar cruise experience would only lead to disappointment. Having heard positive stories from other travellers and the guidebook about the lesser visited Cat Ba island and Lan Ha bay, next door to Halong Bay, we headed there instead. Arriving on the island the skies were more moody grey than powder blue but it seemed quiet enough and we had our pick from hotels in town that line the harbour front.
The majority of the 285 sq km island is a national park, so the next morning we hired a scooter and went off to the park headquarters to hike a few trails and see if we could spot any langurs. With fewer than 65 golden-headed langurs remaining, they are the world’s most endangered primate and are endemic to the island, although we didn’t manage to spot any on this visit. We climbed up to the view point to admire the rest of the island and if it had been a clear day we would have seen the smaller islands out in the bay too. It was an enjoyable morning walk, although the sprained ankle I sustained from the uneven stairs on the way down curtailed our plans for any further walks round the park – fear not Mum as this blog is published it’s back to normal!
Instead of cruising round the bay on an expensive trip on a junk boat or a cheap but alcohol fuelled backpacker boat, we opted for a kayak trip. Kayaking I thought would get us closer to the karst formations and without the chug chug of a noisy boat engine. We spent the day kayaking round Lan Ha bay, visiting secret lagoons, shipwrecks and hoping to spot some Langurs as we paddled round the back of Cat Ba island, still no luck. The tour was run by Asia Outdoors and by paying a little bit extra (£20 each), we had nicer kayaks than some of the other tours we saw, a relaxed feel to the day, rather than rushing from cruise to kayak and ticking off the sights of the bay as a whole and a delicious lunch. It was a fun enjoyable day and helped the trip to Halong Bay live up to my expectations, although no glorious blue skies, ah well you can’t have everything!
It was soon time to head back to Hanoi and find out if our visa applications were successful…