Vietnam Adventure – Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hue

 

image

Xin Chao! Good Morning Vietnam!

Hanoi

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!

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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!

image

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’.

image

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.

image

Halong Bay

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

My guide finally let me escape IJ (loud snorer) and bunk in with my soul sister Farzana (howtogreetapenguin.com)

image

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.

image

Hue Baby!

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).

image

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.

image

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!

image

The soundtrack looping in my head was Born to be Wild.. “get your motor running.. Head out on the highway”

image

We darted around the countryside and stopped at a number of landmarks including: the ruined Royal Palace,

image

An Emperor’s tomb

image

The Holy Lady Pagoda

image

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!

image

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!

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

Exploring Northern Thailand

          thai 11 thai 12   thai 16

So I spontaneously decided to go to South East Asia, although it was a last minute decision, the idea had been burning in my mind for a number of years. There were various reasons why I hadn’t gone previously and those reasons had recently disappeared, giving me the freedom to finally embark on my longed for trip.

thai 1

The Indochina loop is a well-travelled backpacking route and I knew plenty of people that had already done it and absolutely loved it. I had no travel buddy available to accompany me so I booked onto an organised trip. There are some notable pros and cons of doing this.

 

The pros were that I felt safe with a group; the mountain of itinerary admin was already done for me, and I was travelling with an English speaking guide who made sure that we visited only really remarkable places. The downside was having no flexibility to stay longer in any particular place, being confined to a group of people for one month and not being able to branch off and be independent. If I’m truly honest I was disappointed with the group that I found myself in, mainly retirees who liked regimented structure and needed their hand held every step of the way.

thai 37

I soon learned that I like to wander with abandon! There were only two girls who were my age that I could relate to and I lucked out with my trip long roomie. I’ll try to be polite.. she was a 68 year old hypochondriac battle-axe who we shall refer to as ‘I.J’. She was grumpy, short tempered, talked at me rather than to me and her loud snoring kept me permanently sleep deprived. Consequently, I had to practise Zen like tolerance which inevitably waned as the trip progressed.

thai 22thai 7thai 31

Travelling is an amazing, wonderful thing to do and if you get the opportunity to see the world then take it… but what other blogs don’t tell you is that loneliness can hit you at any time, especially if travelling solo. It makes you question your choices but ultimately makes you a stronger, more resilient, more confident person.

thai 35 

Bangkok

Bangkok was just as crazy as I’d anticipated, crossing the road was a like running the gauntlet and hoping not to get mowed down by a tuk tuk! I was based near China Town and went exploring on my own, but I got lost and ended up roaming the urine soaked back streets like a homeless mongrel. I met the group and took a klong boat along the river to Wat Pho temple. Along the river way I saw so many ramshackle huts where families lived in very basic conditions, some watched as our boat motored by, others slowly hung their washing out to dry and ignored our curious foreign eyes. Others approached the boat sold their wares from their own boats.

thai 17

The temple visit was my first introduction to Buddhism, a fascinating religion and way of living which instantly grabbed my interest. I then took the opportunity to visit the spectacular Grand Palace with my fellow Brit Farzana. Tip: The dress code is strict so be prepared. We struggled our way through the pulsating crowds in the searing midday sun. The grounds and the many temples were striking and beautiful, but annoyingly tainted by tourists boisterously pointing their large DSLR cameras.

thai 2thai 19thai 18thai 24thai 20thai 21

The other well known place that I visited was the infamous Khao San Road, a stretch of Bangkok dominated by international backpackers. The strip consists of neon bars and open air restaurants where the young backpacker set mix with tourists, all sipping on cold drinks and enjoying fragrant Thai food. It’s worth a visit just to mingle, to people watch and to sense the atmosphere. I would say that a few days in Bangkok is enough, it’s the gateway to Thailand and there is so much more to see of this wonderful country.

Chiang Mai

thai 33thai 23

The next leg of the trip took place overnight on a sleeper train to Chiang Mai, a real novelty to me and I got way too excited about climbing up into the top bunk and swinging like a monkey. It was hard to fall asleep on a moving train but I got some shut eye before breakfast was served.

thai 28thai 34

Chiang Mai was refreshing compared to Bangkok; clean and scenic and less busy. I took an awesome cooking class with a local lady, first buying fresh produce from the market where I saw an array of delights; live fish, buckets of frogs, colourful exotic fruits and vibrant spices. Vannee was a good teacher and under her supervision I cooked like a total boss; green curry, pad Thai, shrimp and cashew stir fry followed by mango sticky rice mmmm!

thai 3thai 4thai 5

A major highlight of Chiang Mai was Doi Suthep temple, situated high on the hill overlooking the town. As the pink orange sun set, candles glowed and monks chanted to Buddha. It was a real privilege to watch. I received a blessing and a bracelet from a monk which felt pretty special.

thai 6thai 7thai 8

Another more hedonistic cultural pursuit (to say the least) was when we went to watch a Ladyboy show! Wow, it was seriously rather raunchy in parts but I witnessed some top quality lip syncing, hehe. At one point I was serenaded by a curvaceous performer under the spotlight… certainly a first for me haha!

thai 26thai 15

A really good way to explore any rural town is to hire a bike and have a wander. I enjoyed a relaxed four hour bike ride along the Chiang Mai countryside; you get to see how local people live, as well as drink in the scenery.

thai 27

Our group stopped outside a school to say hello and laugh with the kids, they were so happy to see us! Later, the coolest thing that I witnessed was a monk being tattooed right on his belly. The artist was using sharp bamboo dipped in black ink whilst the monk was held down by others.. Totally awesome sight!

thai 10thai 9

Chiang Rai
As I proceeded further North towards the vast Mekong River, I paid a flying visit to the town of Chiang Rai. There sits the majestic White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) a stunning dazzling white temple. It’s new and it’s unconventional but just so bedazzling to the eyes, a must see for anyone travelling in that area. Make sure you make a wish at the wishing well, it might just come true!

thai 13thai 14

Koh Tao – Wait and see… Koh Tao shall have its own separate post.