Xin Chao! Good Morning Vietnam!
So, arriving in Hanoi was a real jolt to my senses after being in sleepy Laos! The city was loud and furious, the residents drive fast, talk fast and hustle you fast too! There are a gazillion motorbikes on the roads but no proper pavements so walking anywhere involves taking your life in your hands. You have to be fearless, maintain eye contact and just strut across the road like you own it, bikers will drive around you beeping, all good fun!
I was staying in Hanoi’s old quarter and was pleased to find it full of character with a really sociable vibe. As darkness fell, the streets came alive with sellers,drinkers and local young people, all crowded under the neon lights and mess of cables that hung overhead.
Locals sell a dirt cheap beer called Bia Hoi on the street corners, it’s about 40p a pint! I sat down with some German guys who told me that they were playing a game, it they walked past a Bia Hoi stall in Hanoi, they had to sit and have one. They were only half way down the street and already quite merry! I felt pretty lucky that so many travellers spoke my native English and had a good laugh with them over some rudely mispronounced Vietnamese phrases.
Being a culture vulture, I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The beloved late president died in 1969 and they have preserved his body since then. The mausoleum is guarded by formidable soldiers who make you walk in two by two. I didn’t stay in the crypt for long, Ho Chi Minh looked like a sleeping waxwork eerily lit by an orange coloured light, it’s just really creepy.
I also visited Ho Lak prison (aka the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton). It details the torture that prisoners received, also really creepy. The thing is, you’ve got to visit these somewhat depressing places when you travel because they educate you about the real life history of the country that you’re in. The knowledge you gain gives you a new level of respect for the locals that you meet.
The evening turned into fun and frolics starting at the bizarre water puppet show (amusing but not mind blowing entertainment) followed by a Vietnamese dinner of Bun Cha where we said goodbye to five of our group and hello to two newbies. I found fellow Brit Emma to be very bubbly, sociable and she was looking to party!
As I like to befriend people of all nationalities, Emma and I had a few beers with some American guys who we met in a bar. It turned out they were in the Military and were such a great laugh. We chatted and eventually performed some impromptu karoke (singing loudly at our table), belting out the songs Hotel California by The Eagles and Livin on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. I was just glad to escape my group and converse with some ‘young people’.
It was an unexpected late night and I hadn’t packed to leave early the next day, causing a whirlwind at check out. This did not impress my group (mainly retirees) who took the opportunity to bitch about me. For me, fun and spontaneity trumps being sensible every time.
The soundtrack of my trip continued to be polluted with squawking drivel. Daily, certain members of my group avidly checked and discussed the temperature and news in their home towns and beloved provinces. It drove me INSANE!!
Personally, I believe in mindfulness and being present. I don’t care about the local news when I’m travelling or what people are doing back home. Travel should be pure escapism from the drudgery of the life you left behind.
I was lucky enough to experience an overnight stay on a junk boat in the famously scenic Halong Bay. Friends had told me how beautiful it was and they weren’t wrong.
The bay is an area off the coast of Vietnam where thousands of grey limestone karsts protrude from the calm teal coloured South China sea like ancient art. They create a serene blue grey haze everywhere you look and it’s just stunning. The boat slowly chugged around giving me ample time to take photos from the roof deck.
The weather was overcast but I happily boarded a smaller boat which took our group to a secluded beach. The sun broke through the clouds and so it was bikini time! I explored the surroundings by hiking up to the highest viewpoint, it was sweat inducing but awesome. Then some very naughty monkeys ‘attacked’ my fellow travellers. I just wandered off on my own (as I’m prone to do!) I climbed a big rock in my bare feet and just chilled on the beach drinking in the views.
I made sure I was back on the boat for the start of sunset, glass of red wine in hand and my camera in the other. And that sunset was truly unforgettable, the fiery orange sun blazed a hot trail across the shimmering water, turning the sky pink, then orange, then purple… Sigh.
My guide finally let me escape IJ (loud snorer) and bunk in with my soul sister Farzana (howtogreetapenguin.com)
We are the same age, both British, both were on a career break, both had recently visited Peru, both love photography and both addicted to Instagram. The only difference being that she is caramel and I am vanilla. Hehe! After a much needed decent night’s sleep on the boat, we headed back to Hanoi where we caught a train further South to Hue.
The overnight train to Hue (pronounced Way) was so much fun, four of us girls had our own cabin with bunk beds! So we put on our pjs, drank beer, ate cake and played cards. I took the time to catch up on my journal and amused myself by hanging upside down from my top bunk to scare Farzana. She got used to my ways (quiet in the day and mental at night).
On arrival in Hue, we spent the whole day on a magnificent motorcycle tour of the town and countryside. They wouldn’t let me drive so I had to settle for riding shotgun.
There are no road rules or traffic lights, so you place trust and faith in your driver, calmly balance on the back, no need to hold on and just enjoy the views. Would you believe that was my first time on a motorbike! It was so exhilarating, I loved it! The driver kept telling me to get closer, I can only assume he liked feeling my thighs on him!
The soundtrack looping in my head was Born to be Wild.. “get your motor running.. Head out on the highway”
We darted around the countryside and stopped at a number of landmarks including: the ruined Royal Palace,
An Emperor’s tomb
The Holy Lady Pagoda
A coliseum where tigers fought elephants, the evidence being claw marks on the walls. We also stopped at a rice milling factory and watched a tiny old Vietnamese lady mill rice. She had the biggest warmest smile on her face!
Lunch was at a monastery, cooked by a nun; not my average Tuesday! Whilst travelling, my standard days were generally sightseeing and being a culture vulture during the hot humid sunlight hours, but when the sun set…well, The Gremlin came out to play!
Night time in Hue was no exception, we went to a bar called Brown Eyes. It was rammed full of local cool kids, Aussie back packers, drunk girls and one particularly handsome blonde Canadian guy. Spot him in the pic. I got chatting to him but he disappeared, then I noticed all theses girls swarming around him. They were falling over themselves and pawing at him. I then found out that he was a young Hollywood actor called Alexander Ludvig who has starred in The Hunger Games, Lost Paradise, Vikings.
I told Emma who got so excited she marched right up to him and asked for a photo! I tried to be cool and nonchalant which didn’t really work. The funniest thing was that the only person he smooched was slightly clueless Farzana who only walked over to say goodbye to me. She did not stop apologising but I found the whole thing really funny.
Needless to say, it was another late night, I slept through my alarm and did the usual race to wash, pack and chug down some coffee! So it was Tam Biet (goodbye) to Hue and onwards to my favourite place; Hoi An.