Arrive early in Hanoi and through immigration and out to meet Audley rep in under 30 minutes from landing. Very efficient, although the immigration guy was allowed to smoke in his “cabin” – a strange sight.
Difficult to gauge first impressions as it is dark but so many motorbikes, some with a whole family on and none of them seemly having any highway sense. Hotel Silk Path in old quarter and very modern and despite noise outside, very little noise inside. Early night after room service of two deserts for $15.
Thursday 15 November
Our first full day in Vietnam. Visited the shrine of the Buddah of the North who faces north to ward off the evil of the next door ( in the north – China ) then on to a Pagoda by a lake, past a fisherman and a rubbish collection boat. And still there was more to go to in Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
As you would expect, a very regimented operation but no cameras allowed so only outside pictures taken. Climbing up the stairs on a red plastic carpet sounds like marching but we all file past his body that is guarded by 9 statue like guards who take it in turn to guard him for an hour at a time. We are told by our local guide, Loi, that it is an honour to guard the founder of “modern” Vietnam who died before the North beat the South in the Vietnam war in the early 1970’s.
He actually wanted to be cremated with his ashes split into three for burial in the North, the Centre and the South of Vietnam. What he would have thought about being preserved ( now ) for over 40 years is not worried about by the present leadership and countrymen who still revere him.
After a look around the adjacent grounds, we visit a site that was the former university dating back many hundreds of years. There are many tablets that bear the names of students although the writing is in Mandarin. The tablets were place on carved large tortoises and during the civil war were all covered in sand to protect them from the American bombs. As the tablets are in places over 6ft tall, a lot of sand was obviously used.
It was graduation day and many students in traditional costumes were celebrating. Pictures were being taken by what could have been professional photographers or just fellow students studying photography as some of the poses were very original. Fortunately we were allowed to take photographs of the girls in what I must say were stunning costumes.
The Hanoi Hilton is next on the list, so called as American captured soldiers were treated well there during the civil war as opposed to their treatment elsewhere – a bit of a propaganda exercise. The prison was used quite savagely by the French and even up to the early 1900’s witnessed beheadings for misdemenas – gruesome.
We say good bye to our transport for the first part of the day and now walk the streets of the old town. Again, as in Bangkok earlier in the week, every conceivable item is for sale, especially food which is cooked by the side of the road amidst the fumes and of noise that is Hanoi’s perpetual traffic jam caused by scooters who seem to have no regard for lane sense, direction sense, or indeed any fellow user sense. Bikes ridden the wrong way, jumping red lights, crossing in front of each other, unsafe loads, dogs in tow, families on board just to name a few. It is a wonder that there are not more accidents although Loi says there are many, although thankfully not serious ones.
A couple of purchases later and we are back at the hotel for a well earned rest. We get chatting to a young lad who is a tour guide who was struggling with his English. He needed help as he is setting out an itinerary for some American students and wasn’t sure on phraseology. Sal helped him though.
Dinner was at an Audley recommended restaurant – Verticale Madame. Restaurant- a French influenced restaurant that cost $100 for the four of including desert, drinks and coffee /tea! Still that noise of the bikes and the horns although the Hotel, the Silk Path, was peacefully quiet.
Friday 16 November
We have to leave Hanoi for Halong Bay early so a 7:00 breakfast, check out and just enough time to run the gauntlet of the Hanoi rush hour to get that one last photo of the hotel before we set off for the 50 or so mile drive to Halong Bay.
Now, whilst a 50 mile drive from the centre of London, may take about 2 hours, here it will take close on 4 excluding a 45 minute stop at a craft centre where handicapped people make things in a Government funded “workhouse”. We really only looked at a few areas but the quality and craftsmanship was excellent although there was not a great deal of evidence of handicappedness. A couple of things were bought but it was noticeable that the cashiers and vendors appeared to be able bodied persons.
The road was not up to any B road UK standard, and again, lane sense was not practiced at all by any driver, even ours. We passed many types of housing, many of them in the thin style that is popular in Vietnam.
Lorries trundled along at probably 20 mph which is why it was such a long drive. It appears that many planned improvements (road, underground, rail etc, have been started but worked stopped although it is understood that a Subway system is in course of the early stages of construction).
We parted with our main bags, and boarded our traditional South China Sea Junk taking on board only clothes etc. for two days. Our room is spacious with a bathroom bigger than P & O’s cruise bathrooms although the bed was a bit too big for the room.
Lunch was soon served and was very elaborate and with separate dishes provided for those of us with allergies to certain foods.
We thought that it would be a relaxing time but not a bit of it with a planned kayak trip planned. After negotiating another Junk we went under a cave where virtually no motor boat would go and none were allowed and with Sal in front mastering the kayaking we went round the bay, stopping to admire the monkeys.
Our return to the Junk was all too quickly upon us and although we both had difficulty in getting out of the kayak, it was thoroughly enjoyable.
One of the guys on the Junk is an Australian from Melbourne who is disabled, with one leg and one arm and had managed the kayak well with his brother. We got chatting and we very nearly missed the next activity, a visit to a beach for swimming or a climb to the top of the hill. Sal and Sylvia stayed on the beach whilst Phillip and I climbed the 420 or so steps for the views.
A commotion at the top was caused by someone collapsing who was reported to Phillip by the Aussie as being me! In fact it was a German aged about 70 from another boat who, we found out later, did not make it despite mouth to mouth and chest pumping and had tragically died. Very sad and just shows you how fragile life is.
A young girl from our boat was there at the top when it happened, had assisted and put him in the recovery position but there was nothing she could have done – there was no telephone etc. at the top to summons help. Understandably, she was somewhat upset as to why she could not have done more for him.
The return by tender was again organised chaos as all the tenders – probably 25 of them, vied for the 4 berths available. Too many people on the quay and too aggressive driving by the tender drivers, no wonder at least two people fell in the water. It was just as if they had been taking lessons from the scooters of Hanoi.
A fruit carving lesson back on the junk and the swan prepared was wonderful even if it did take him the best part of 10 minutes. A brief sit on deck prior to the excellent dinner and then a showing of the Top Gear Vietnam programme shown on the BBC a couple of years ago which went down well with those who watched it.
Saturday 17 November
We have now been in SE Asia for about a week and have done so much it is difficult to know where to start. Today is no different with an early start (even earlier had we been bothered with the Ti Chi at 7am) to board a day boat and visit some caves. The main boat was taking other passengers back to the mainland as some had only come for a day, we were here for two days returning with new passengers. Only eight transferred to the day boat, all Brits. Phillip and I were the only ones canoeing out of the eight day boat passengers whilst Sal and Sylvia and the other four went out on a bamboo san pan.
Canoeing away from the day boat with Dai, our guide, we entered a cave to reach a lagoon completely cut off from the outside world with us having just entered by the only method.
Peace was everywhere, hardly a sound from wildlife as well. A paddle to the end of the lagoon and another cave, much lower than the first and with a 90 degree bend in it. Out the other side was another lagoon only accessed through the second cave.
I have never been in such a peaceful place. Countryside invariably has wind noise and cattle or sheep noise but this had nothing except the very occasional bird song. The echoes from our voices were magnified wonderfully around the sheer cliffs that encompassed the lagoons all of which were covered in lush green vegetation. Certainly one of the highlights.
Both caves had thousands of stalagmites dropping their acidic water from the limestone each as wonderful as the last or the next.
Back to the junk and Phillip went swimming before we set sail for a village on the water which incidentally had been featured on the Vietnam Top Gear special. Some of these residents never go to the land, buying what they want from a supply vessel and making a living fishing and selling gifts to tourists. Dai by now was our guide and told us all about the school on the water, their mini hospital, weddings and life in general there, a hard but fascinating existence.
Lunch on the go whilst we cruised to our next stop, the Pearl farm. Lunch was a splendid presentation of about four mini courses and they had even catered for our allergies.
Sunday 18 November
Another early start for today a cave visit. Only Phillip and I as the 138 and 153 steps required to get up to and out of the cave system really weren’t Sally and Sylvia’s thing. The caves when we got there, after a slight detour in the tender to another floating village were magnificent, surpassing probably Clearwell caves known to us in Gloucestershire. Sadly it is now time to leave Ha Long bay and chug slowly back to retrieve the rest of luggage, pick up Loi and the driver and head for a water puppet show on the way back to Hanoi.
Water puppet shows are unique to SE Asia and the 20 or so minute show was put on for us 4 + two other Audley clients who were also on the Junk but were going down the Vietnam coast afterwards.
Lots of little tales shown in the puppet show, mostly farming themed although they did have some running races. Very colourful and skilfully performed with fireworks.
Some bananas and peanut goodies provided with some tea and a sort of dumpling – very nice but we had also eaten a ” packed lunch ” provided by the tour company so couldn’t do it justice. We were given models of one of the puppets as a memento, very sweet and I do wonder if they made a profit on the time spent with us.
The return to Hanoi was very tortuous and we arrived at the hotel at about 5pm having been held up in heavy weekend returning traffic. We then had an hour to sort our luggage for the next few days, sort any washing out and shower etc. We were to leave what we could at the hotel as we were using the same hotel on the way back from Sapa in 4 days time.
Meal booked on Loi’s recommendation at Seasons Hanoi and get taxi in view of shortage of time. Food good but service a bit slow as we had to be back at hotel by 7:30 for a pick up and drive to station for overnight train to Lau Cai.
We had “upgraded ” to a two berth cabin from a 4 berth one and it was just as well as 4 would have been a complete squash. We had been warned that we probably would not sleep much and the warning was justified although I only recall four stops some of which seemed to be for passing trains. The train left on time, passing through the Hanoi streets with the masses of scooters waiting to pass overr the level crossings as soon as they could after the train had passed. Toilet facilities were basic but Westernised, a trolley service passed through early on and we arrived at 05:20 the following morning, 15 minutes early!
Monday 19 November
The square at Lao Cai was jammed packed with mini busses of all sorts meeting, probably, everyone off the train. Our guide was found easily enough and we were probably one of the first away on our climb of about 38 km to Sapa. A surprisingly large number of shops were open at this time of the morning and not just tourist shops. The ride was less stressful than in Hanoi but still noisy and did include some unauthodox driving, such as overtaking on the wrong side around a 90 degree blind bend! I just shut my eyes.
Victoria Hotels and Resorts welcomed us at about 7am and we managed a doze until breakfast at 9am. Our new guide, Hoi then took us on a walk to an infant school at Matra village (occupied by a Black Hmong minority tribe) where we were given the opportunity to look around a couple of the classrooms and took tea with one of the teachers. There appears some changes afoot locally which would give the government more say in teaching rather than the local community.
We walked past animals galore, pigs, piglets, water buffalo, ducks, chickens to name but a few. A Water buffalo costs the farmer $1000 and is only used as meat for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. The crops grown were on every conceivable piece of land and included rice fields and other crops such as Chou and a salmon farm, met some locals who managed to sell us some bags. One of the vendors could speak English very well and could also converse in French. She could have been a tourist guide!
Sal was able to do the couple of steep inclines we encountered on the way very well and we were met further on on the path by the transport – our third driver today and we had only been in the area 6 hours.
A relaxing afternoon followed.
Tuesday 20 November
What a day! A walk down into a valley to see some local villages (Red Dzao Villages of Ban Lek and Ban Moi) lived in by some minority tribes some of which were Chinese in origin (about 700 years ago). The walk was about 4km long we were told but took over 5 hours including stops for lunch etc. First of all, we were driven to the entrance track and managed to pick up a group of locals from the Red Dzao Tribe, four of which walked with us until we stopped for lunch and bought things from them. On the way we were shown many types of plant including tobacco plant and different types of farming in the rice fields, passed many animals including water buffalo all the time having to answer questions from the four ladies who were all keen to improve their English.
The area is obviously geared up for tourists and although it is nice to see the villages, the pestering did get on your nerves a bit. There were many souvenir shops en route as well as a few stalls from which Phillip & Sylvia bought lollipops for some young kids and then some pens (7 for a $) for a couple of girls who had also been given some leftover food from our packed lunch. The girls were very pleased, shared the left over food between them but not with other children.
We did learn that one of the ladies that had followed us all the way down from the entrance track was aged 16, had just left school yesterday (today is a public holiday to celebrate school teachers) and wants to go to high school but has to work in the village first before she can go. She was very shy and perhaps was just trying to learn English so she could earn some money from passing tourists.
Another one was 34 but looked well over 50! It is indeed a hard life, with children running around with no shoes and poor clothing. It is also a life that could disappear if the old traditions, such as the preparation of incense sticks, is not preserved.
The route is obviously a well trodden one and the party, including the guide had to pay to go through the village. The road was tortuous but mostly downhill. Some of the road further on had been concreted over and the idea was that when the road had been improved by the locals, the government would give the village some money.
An absolutely fascinating insight into how the tribespeople live and survive.
Wednesday 21 November
A day of rest and a visit to Sapa, a bustling town with a lovely market selling many North Face products, but sadly nothing for anyone under the age of about 11. Bought a couple of pressies but didn’t go for the $13 trainers as I thought, do I really need them? (as it turns out I should have bought them as my trainers developed a hole and had to be ditched 15 days later)
Went to ATM to get more folding money. Extracted 3 million Dong which is about £95 and for which I was charged a service charge of about £0.63p!
Sal tried on a blouse but their sizes are so stupid, she couldn’t get into a XXL which was too small, although the North Face trousers she bought were the same size as they would have been at home but a third of the price.
We retreat to the hotel past a ubiquitous scooter that this time carried two over large vases (we saw it again later with four vases on!) whilst Phillip & Sylvia lunch in town and collect the altered blouse Sylvia had bought.
Left Sal at bottom of hill on her own whilst I fetched the hotel’s “golf trolley” to take her up the hill. Hopefully the driver was happy with his $2 tip.
Hoi collected us at 5 and we were on our way to Lao Cai and the train back, rounding the twisty roads, descending from Sapa and passing many bikes with no lights, many children helping their homes by carrying things and lorries on the way to the border crossing.
Dinner takes longer than expected so we never get to see the Chinese border under half a mile away but have our 3rd driver of our N Vietnam visit (7 journeys) which for tipping purposes was ridiculous and confusing.
Train noisier than coming and seemed to stop more frequently at first than the other one did nearer its journey’s end. Perhaps the other three night trains were different. Not sure there will be much sleep tonight and the train is supposed to arrive in Hanoi at 04:35.
A few stops later and we get to a station which at 11:45pm seems to be a hive of activity awaiting the trains to and from Hanoi and Lao Cai. Platform vendors everywhere and each carriage manager on the platform with his or her lamp “guarding” the open doors at each end of the carriage. Setting off on time, we decide to use the rather rustic looking toilet facilities. I don’t think I have ever gone to the loo in a room that has been pebble dashed before, let alone trying not to hit the floor because of the uneven ride!
Thursday 22 November
Overnight sleeper ride on the train, arriving in Hanoi promptly at 04:20, was not as disrupted as I had thought, maybe because we are tired and could sleep anywhere, and trundling through the Hanoi suburbs seeing the streets virtually devoid of motorbikes was eerie. Each level crossing though did reveal a few bikes and a crossing attendant even at this time of the morning.
Had a history lesson on the origins of the Vietnam war from our new guide en route to the airport who had completely different views on the present regime to those of other guides but was nonetheless a good orator.
Catch a flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) which was on time, full and with good food but foul coffee. How come Vietnamese airways, a communist state run airline, has a business class, not that we went business class?
Arrival at HCMC and we locate our new guide and driver who takes us on our pre arranged tour to Cu Chi underground tunnels the Vietnam Cong used in the war.
Quite a well presented “museum” which showed us some of the traps used, the size of the tunnels and other implements used at the time. The tunnel we were allowed to go through had been especially enlarged to take modern day Western visitors who tend to be larger than the SE Asians. I for one was grateful of the alterations as I had to shuffle in a crouched position anyway.
Despite it’s history, you have to admire the resourcefulness of the people who built the tunnels and that is replicated today as they use everything, there is little waste.
Vietnam is a large rubber producer and there were many rubber trees in perfect lines near the tunnels that seemed to stretch for miles.
On way to hotel, passed several hairdressers. Visuals can be deceptive as the hairdressers in question were all young girls and provided the service in a private room. Whilst prostitution is illegal in Vietnam, hairdressing clearly isn’t!! Understand later that there are also two types of karaoke bars, one of which you wouldn’t take your wife or girlfriend to!
During brief time we had at our hotel, sorted luggage out for Mekong river cruise the following day as we could only take small hand luggage.
Dinner tonight at a BBQ restaurant for 855,000 dong which with 145,000 tip was about $50 for a 3 course meal + drinks. Was puzzled by a skirmish at restaurant in which it appears a waiter was being sacked and forcibly removed from the premises, very bizarre.
Rummaged in the lively night time market market for bargains and returned to hotel. We have been in three beds in 24 hours! Sounds not quite right really.
Friday 23 November
Not a particularly early start but our guide suggests we have a few minutes sightseeing around HCMC on the way to our Mekong cruise. Saw the former South Vietnam President’s palace, the post office, looks like a Railway station, and the Notre Dame and drove down their Oxford Street. Certainly HCMC is far more sophisticated than Hanoi – I liked it.
Drive to our Mekong River cruise starting point sent us through more towns full of motor bikes and past many a market. The service stations here revolve around lots of outdoor seating and a hammock or two strung up between the trees. Drivers stop, buy their drinks and use the hammocks for free for their rest.
Onto a small long tail type boat for a short journey past many a barge selling so much produce, including pigs, and get off at a small stopping point where they showed us how the rice is turned into products including rice wine, an interesting tasting experience.
Arrive at larger Junk, Mekong Feeling, and set sail with two other Audley travellers (David & Pippa) for our overnight on the Mekong. Lunch is again a scrumptious affair – just too much of it again – as we sail on past many a building including some brick kilns. There are only six passengers on the boat but with 7 cabins, we have plenty of room, it is like our personal cruise. Again, cabin spacious.
Afternoon walk after a speedboat ride to a local community. Access to the boat is interesting and the boat’s engine stops mid river. The look on the girl staff member’s face was priceless, she was not a happy cookie. Fortunately the boat was soon moving again, probably some weed or fishing line in the propellor and we disembarked for a leisurely walk through the jungle that appeared to be home for a number of people who live off the land and river. We were shown many different types of fruit growing, from water coconut and sweet potatoes to jack fruit, durian (the smelly one), pineapple, a fruit like a grapefruit. Basket weaving was also in evidence. We even saw a frog being devoured by a snake, some pigs, many chickens and snails eggs.
Just before we return to the boat we were treated to a fruit feast of many of the fruit we had just seen and some bamboo leaf models were presented to us.
Back on the boat and it was time for a shower in our wet room. Water was too hot really for a shower but we managed and we left our cool room for an 8pm meal only to be met by millions upon millions of insects flying around the lights. We are told they were not midges but just insects, however, they were just everywhere but by 10pm had virtually disappeared. Fortunately, insect repellent seemed to have done it’s job and no bites.
Another multi course meal for dinner this evening with some local wine. Won’t say it was the best or worst wine but we drunk it. Food however, was excellent again.
Saturday 24 November
Another early start and although we missed one of the floating markets, we managed to get to Cantho for a short small boat ride to the floating market, saw a pineapple sculptor who provided us with half a pineapple on a stick, fascinating. David bought some garlic from a vendor, about 10 bulbs for $1 and we bought some headwear. Rain threatened and started whilst we were at the floating market. Not drizzle like we have at home but monsoon heavy rain.
Met Xuan at the jetty and got into our uncomfortable worker’s type transit van. After an hour or so, stopped and walked around another village, more of a shanty town where houses have been built illegally and some of the rooms visited were very spartan and basic including one where there was no flooring, it was just solid mud. The road we are now on is narrow, rutted and by now full of puddles as it absolutely chucked it down whilst we were walking around the village. Fortunately Xuan brought two umbrellas and also bought a pink and orange “pack-a-mac” for Sally and Sylvia – very fetching, not.
Lunch was at a crocodile farm and transport into it was right to the door as it was still absolutely pouring. They have 15000 crocodiles in pens, some of which were exported by road to China, a journey that must take days if not weeks.
Sunday 25 November
Get rid of my remaining Dong by combining it with some $ for guide’s tip and board boat for Phnom Penn although floating weed may hold us up.I hate this tipping business.
Today is sunny and despite the early start it is very hot. So, why are we chugging along on the Mekong for what seems like an eternity at about 1 mph when this is a speed boat? Why did Audley travel put David and Pippa on a private vessel and us on one for 34 people? Mind you, why did we go in a transit to Chau Doc whilst David and Pippa travelled on the last vessel’s, speed boat, a journey of about 4 hours in an open top boat in the rain with at least two stops for fuel and on one occasion, abandonment whilst the driver got help!
We gather speed after 40 minutes and at least some air now starts to pass through. The problem was a broken gear but a replacement was available and fitted by the crew – possibly a regular problem.
Heavily populated by the river side as is usual in Vietnam with many house boats and ferries. Fishermen abound.
On towards Cambodia but first we have to go through the formalities of border control, the first part of which is dealt with on the boat at a cost of $23 each.
At the Vietnamese side of the border, we disembark for exit formalities and back on the boat. A query on a fellow passenger’s passport delayed our departure some 30 minutes and we pass on to the Cambodian border.
Enjoyed N Vietnam more than S Vietnam, especially Halong Bay and Sapa. Whilst I would not rush to go back to Hanoi, it would probably have to be a place to go to to get to Sapa, Halong Bay and the north. Although I liked Saigon, by the sounds of it we saw everything that there is to see so a return visit is probably not worth it.