27.04.2014 - 21.05.2014 35 °C
Despite the rather nightmare journey over the border (see previous blog) it ended well enough by arriving in Da Nang much earlier than expected; we had been told the journey would take 24 hours (ick), but after *only* 18 we had reached Da Nang, hoorah. Still it was not our ultimate destination, we were going on to Hoi An, but fortunately this was just a short (ish) journey on a local bus direct from the bus station in Da Nang.
From Hoi An bus station we trudged, true-backpacker style (bags on and sweating buckets but refusing to spend money on a taxi) towards town and soon enough found decent accommodation for just $10 on Ba Trieu road just a couple of minutes’ walk from the old town. Our first thoughts of Vietnam is that it is considerably better developed then its neighbours Laos and Cambodia, it has similarities to those places but is distinctly Vietnamese (same same but different, as they say). We also soon learned that the iconic conical hats are not a thing of the past, nor only to be found on agricultural field workers, they are everywhere! It looked like Vietnam and we liked it.
Hoi An is a lovely old town, very pretty, a bit touristy but worth seeing. It is filled with old wooden houses, historical artefacts with sights including a folklore museum and Japanese Covered Bridge. Our street by being just outside the old town, had a variety of cheap options for food and drink, including a couple of places selling draft beers for 3000 Dong (around 8 pence), the cheapest we have found to date, so of course we had to partake in a few of these one night… After which we stuck our heads into neon-lit ‘Club Volcano’, we were about to retreat since it was empty but the bar boy came over and persuaded us to come in for (very!) cheap drinks, free pool and table football, assuring us it would get busier soon... After a short while a bus load of Vietnamese people piled in, it must’ve been some family event as there were all ages including a couple of kids. Soon enough we were drinking shots of Johnny Walker with the menfolk, then Rach joined in a dance-off and we thoroughly kicked everyone’s arse at table football (they weren’t expecting that!). As suddenly as they’d piled in, the party left, leaving just us and about 5 Western tourists who had wandered in in the meantime. Soon after we went across the road to home, not sure as to whether we dreamt the whole thing as it was so strange!
One day we enjoyed a pretty cycle to the beach, the route there looked a little like southern Goa, with its waterways and palms. On approaching the beach annoying guys kept whistling at us telling us we had to leave our bikes with them (for a fee of course), but this was not true as we could cycle past and park where we liked (though it is necessary to either pay to park or stay at one beach bar/restaurant where you can park for free but of course in exchange for spending money on food and drinks...) but you can choose where this is, not just where the first guy tries to make you, pretending he has authority because he has a whistle! We had a good day at the beach though, it was a nice change from the old town and gave Rachel a chance to top up her tan, impressed as she is at having tan lines for the 1st time in her life (this has taken several months living in Asia to achieve, and still probably no-one would notice unless she showed you her white bum!)
Due to fully booked trains as it was a national holiday (Independence Day) we ended up staying an extra day in Hoi An so decided to go diving, our first SCUBA since Thailand. It was very different to our previous experiences, with strong currents and poor visibility, but worth doing as we have now tried ‘drift diving’ and we did see some interesting cauliflower shaped coral. Plus the day included a delicious lunch and couple of hours to relax on the beach of Cham Island before heading back to mainland, so a good day in all.
After Hoi An we took the scenic 3 hour train to Hue, this was a lovely rail line on a mountain pass with views of the sea below. Hue, though, turned out not to be as interesting as we’d expected and certainly the main attraction of the town centre, the Citadel, was underwhelming and vastly overpriced for what it was. We did enjoy a boat trip on the Perfume River including visits to the Kai Dinh Tomb and Thien Mu Pagoda, but otherwise Hue would’ve been a bit of a non-event. We did meet a cool Mexican guy there called Marvin, who was heading in the same direction as us so we swapped details with a view to meeting up in North Vietnam.
From Hue we got ourselves on an overnight train to Hanoi, we had pretty nice cabin and ok journey, met three geeky Germans, slept well and managed to do some blog writing etc, it was a good journey. In Hanoi we found a v nice room in the Old Quarter and we were excited that, for only £10, it had a minibar, free drinks and fruit, complimentary delicious breakfast and even a lift (we haven’t had the luxury of a lift since Julie and Martin were paying in Thailand for our birthdays!)! Soon after arriving we met up with Sarah (our lovely friend from Manchester who has been living in Hanoi for 2 years) at ‘Beer Hoi Corner’, a cross roads with about 15 small bars selling cheap draught beer and snacks, popular with tourists, ex-pats and locals alike. It was great to see Sarah and we passed many hours catching up, we even bumped into the Germans that had been on our train form Hue and had a drink with them. We chatted over drinks with Sarah for hours and hours, and hours, until 5am even, crikey, at which point we realised it was time to head to bed, which we managed to do after about 30 minutes wandering lost through the small streets of the Old Town unable to locate our hotel, even though we had been no more than 5 minutes from it… Oh dear… We are too old for this business!
After the night before, the next day mostly consisted of long lie in and not a lot of useful activity (!) although we did manage a walk around the old town a little including a loop of Hoan Kiem Lake before meeting Sarah again in the evening for Indian food and then drinks in an ex-pat bar that was full of young British, American and Aussie folks mostly working as English teachers. Next day, we got our bums into gear and made it to the Museum of Vietnamese Women, which was very good, and the Hoa Lo Prison, which was first used by the French to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries and then by the Vietnamese to imprison American POWs. Both very interesting, especially so in how the prison exhibitions go to great lengths to demonstrate how harshly Vietnamese prisoners were treated when the French were in charge and yet how well they treated the US POWs, possibly a bit of propaganda here... In the evening we met up with Sarah yet again at a ‘Beer Hoi’ slightly out of town that had a ridiculously strange, incomprehensible menu that made us laugh till we cried (delights on offer included ‘soup cook-axis coincides contract’ and ‘spicy hot-pot cement frog’ some photos to be added). We also met up with Marvin and arranged a trip to Ha Long Bay with him, which after shopping around we got a 3 day deal for $74, half of some quotes (definitely worth shopping around, a young German couple who ended up on our trip paid £130 for exactly the same thing, only to then be told their deal didn’t even include kayaking and having to pay $3 extra each for that!)
Ha Long Bay was beautiful, although we had some amusement at the dis-organisation of the whole trip (changing around the itinerary, waiting around quite a bit, trying to charge extra for ridiculous things…) but we had a good group of people and amazing weather so a wonderful time in all. We kayaked into some lovely ‘caves’, saw floating villages and had fun jumping off the boat into the sea, all amidst the stunning backdrop of the karsts. We spent one night on the boat, in the peace and quiet of the bay and one night on Cat Ba Island, where we stayed in a basic but functional hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the sea front, with a few decent bars and shops. When we had a blessed few hours of ‘free time’ from the itinerary, our group of 7 went to the nearby beach for a few hours of swimming and sunbathing, before heading back to our boat for the journey back to the mainland.
Back in Hanoi, we had a day here just hanging around. It was nice to get to know the city quite well without feeling the need to see ‘sights’ all the time. Since we had first arrived here though someone had definitely flicked the switch for summer to ‘On’, in our first days here we enjoyed the pleasant mid-20s temperature, but when we arrived back form Ha Long it was a baking 35C and remained that way for the rest of the time! We really enjoyed our time in Hanoi and both agreed that it was probably top on our list of the Asian cities we had visited. The buzz, the sights, the people, the food and of course seeing a familiar face in Sarah and meeting her mates all made us feel quite at home. And we still had a couple of days to go in Hanoi after our next trip – to Sa Pa.
We took another overnight bus to Sa Pa, a small market town north east of Hanoi, only a few Kms from China, so close in fact that we had a ‘Welcome to China’ text message from a Chinese telecoms company! Sa Pa is a lovely mountain town, known for its rice terraces and tribal people, we liked the feel of it straight away. We bmped into Marvin here and had dinner with him before he headed out of the country into Laos. From Sa Pa we did a 2 day trek with an overnight homestay, similar to what we had done in Myanmar but still very interesting and beautiful. Some river swimming was done, a few beers and local rice wines consumed and chats with fellow travellers were had. One member of our group was a very pleasant Indian man, in his 50’s, from Delhi, who however has spent much of his life in London where his aunt and brother live; it transpired over dinner that his house in London is on the very same street in Hanwell that Tess grew up! Well, to meet someone, in the hills of North Vietnam, that actually knows Mayfield Gardens was amazing indeed! What a small, small world… But then, these encounters are what travelling is all about….
After two days in Sa Pa we took a horrendous overnight bus back with lady next to us (*right* next to us, we were on the triple seat at the back of the bus…) constantly either throwing up into a bag or shouting v loudly on her phone. All night. Not much sleep was had, we would guess at 0 minutes in fact… We therefore headed straight back to our lovely hotel but alas, as no rooms were available so early so we then went straight out to visit Uncle Ho, that is the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum, what else would you rather do after a sleepless night on a bus??! (Ho Chi Minh is widely seen as the father of modern Vietnam and it is here that he declared independence in 1945 – now his body is embalmed at the mausoleum in true communist style. We even heard that every year he goes on ‘holiday’ for a month to Russia to have his body re-embalmed). We spent rest of day resting back in hotel and catching up on sleep.
The following day was spent wandering around even more and visiting to the Museum of Ethnology, which was interesting after having just visited the tribal regions in the North. From there we went to meet Sarah yet again to partake in her leaving do for her last night in Vietnam before she moves to a new job in Borneo (via a month back in the UK). This meant another late night, because the curfew in Hanoi means all Vietnamese have to be off the streets by 11pm unless they have special permission (foreigners, though, are free to wander around all night and there are shuttered bars to accommodate…) Sarah was staying out until 5am to stay with her Vietnamese friend who could not go home between those hours – shocking business!
Our last day in Hanoi we visited Temple Of Literature, ate our final Pho at a street stall (noodle soup, the national dish which has been eaten at least once per day while here), and finally lugged our stuff on local bus to airport for night flight to Manila.