Hanoi, Sapa and Halong Bay
22.05.2012 - 30.05.2012
The first thing that struck me on the way to the hotel from Hanoi airport was just how peacefully underdeveloped Laos had been, for an entire week there had been no incessant beeping of horns, no traffic, no ugly high rise buildings, and no one trying to rip you off at every corner. So long to all that, Hanoi does it all with avengance, starting with the taxi driver who promised the journey could be paid in dollars, only on arrival to decide he only wanted Dong and with a very unfavourable exchange rate, what can you do other than pay? At least it was only a couple of pound more. On the subject of exchange rates, upon withdrawing cash I instantly became a VVietnamese multi-millionaire due to one pound being worth 32,500 dong!
At the Splendid Jupiter hotel (not too shabby but not all that splendid, and certainly nothing like the photos on its website) I met Graeme, my little brother who I'll be spending the next 3 weeks in Vietnam with. The rain was torrential as we headed out to get some tea, we had to wade through water a foot deep so didn't get very far or see much of the city that first night, but did find a decent little restaurant which had large bottles of Tiger Beer for 10,000 dong (about 30p) - cheaper than water.
Our first full day in Hanoi was spent walking around the old quarter, and our second day was spent walking round the new quarter, by which time we had just about figured out how to cross a road when a non stop stream of hundreds of motorbikes, cars, buses and bikes head towards you on a 4 lane road, and a few go the wrong way too just to keep you on your toes. Turns out you just start walking and amazingly the drones of vehicles part ways and go around you, much like most of Hanoi it should be complete chaos but actually it just works. The first day we took in the cultural highlights of the old quarter including the Women's Museum and Hoa Lo prison, both with superbly propagandist displays "the evil French colonialists who brutally tortured the beautiful people of our motherland" etc etc. I found the water puppetry which is supposed to be another cultural highlight completely rubbish - sorry, I just don't get puppetry if it isn't Thunderbirds of Team America. Another wet night followed but we did find a beautiful restaurant for tea - Little Hanoi 1 (managed to avoid the fake one a few doors before it), only six tables and it was packed full but the food was well worth the wait. On second day we took in the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum before we'd had enough of the heat, noise and general mayhem of Hanoi. It is a great city to experience but 2 days was plenty for us. On the positive side we did find some great street stalls serving delicious Pho Bo (Hanoi speciality of beef noodle soup).
That night we left for Sapa and our first experience of a sleeper train. The beds in our 4 berth cabin were far more comfortable than the hotel so got a great nights sleep before the 5am arrival at Cao Lai and windey minibus journey up to Sapa, an old French hill station high in the Northern Vietnamese highlands. With the altitude came beautifully cool temperature (about 18 degrees) but also lots of rain and mist. The first days walk to a local Hmong village was pretty average (made worse by the hoards of Japanese tourists, especially the ones who hand out bagfulls of sweets to the local children), but the highlight of Sapa was the second days much longer trek through the hills of steeped rice paddies, tended by water buffalo, and to several much more remote tribal villages. The only annoyance is the group of Hmong tribeswomen who accompany you and then start the most insane sales efforts to get you to by their handicrafts - it's actually quite unpleasant how desperate they are for you to buy things.
Another sleeper train back to Hanoi and then we were straight on to a bus to Halong Bay. We'd booked Sapa and Halong Bay as organised tours, it felt like a bit of a cheat not doing it all independently but northern Vietnam is kind of completely set up for this thing, plus it was nice to let someone else organise everything for a few days. Our Halong Bay package involved a night on a Junker boat and tour of the bay followed by a day and night on Cat Ba island, the largest island in the bay. The scenery is beautiful with the hundreds of islands rising high out of the calm sea, but ultimately I just found the experience a bit underwhelming. Maybe my expectations had been too high, maybe it was the fact everything was so touristy and busy, or maybe it was the food we got which was pretty terrible, but it just wasn't what I'd hoped for. Cat Ba island was the same, some great scenery and a lovely beach, but too many local tourists making it a bit like the Benidorm of Vietnam.
Back in Hanoi there was just time to discover another fantastic little dive of a restaurant (if you can call a little room with plastic tables and chairs and all the food cooked on a single gas ring in the corner). Gordon Ramsey wouldn't be impressed with the hygiene but the food was great - although we've no idea what it actually was. The weather in Hanoi that evening was really nice and with it the streets were packed with people - eating, drinking, socialising, they just do everything on the streets and it makes for a really great atmosphere which we had missed previously due to the rain. Then it was on to a sleeper bus (another first) for the 14 hour journey South to Hue. I won't bore you with more bus tales, but the sleeper bus is that good for sleeping.
I can't say that North Vietnam has been my favourite place so far, but it has mostly been an interesting experience with a few very good highlights.