Vietnam - Hanoi - Mekong Delta
May 27, 2005
|Wednesday 11th May, we took a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines, which contrary to our expectations was one of the most pleasant flights we've taken. The cabin crew were so friendly, Qantas, BA etc could learn a lot...
We arrived in Hanoi city by shuttle bus, eventually that is after having to bump start the van when it stalled on the outskirts! Was this to be bad omens of our time in Vietnam... Anyway, we were dropped off at the wrong hotel but decided to stay there anyway as we were keen to get out and explore. The first thing that stikes you on arrival in Hanoi or anywhere in Vietnam is the sheer number of motorbikes! They are everywhere. To cross the road, you basically have to just walk, slowly and steadily and allow the bikes to swerve around you. They don't travel so fast as there are so many so it's fairly safe. To wait for a gap in the traffic could waste an entire morning!
We had a short stroll around the main areas then went to the water puppetry show that evening. This art form is very traditional particularly in the countryside around the north. The many scenes tell stories and legends, however, our Vietnamese being pretty non-existent we had to guess what was going on. Nonetheless, it was very enjoyable.
Next day, we wanted to go to Ho Chi Minh's Mauseleum, however, when we got there we found it was only open from 7am to 11am. We got there at 10.55am!! We're sure the cyclo guy knew but he was quite happy to take his 20,000 Dong! Instead we went to the Temple of Literature, a fascinating place of learning for the Mandarins from the 11th Century right up until the early 20th. The buildings were pretty impressive with stone tortoises in memory of many of the college's best scholars.
We then went to the Ethnology Museum, showing the lives and traditions of the many ethno-linguistic groups (54) which make up modern Vietnam. It was really interesting especially the re-construction of a bike, complete with fishing baskets that a guy used to ride around the streets of Hanoi. At times, it is said he carried over 200 such baskets (see photo). How he kept his balance.. In fact, everyday we've seen bikes overladen with all sorts of products from 3 metre long poles, to live pigs! Often, as many as four or five people could be on one scooter - we had three and a backpack only last week!
Leaving Hanoi, we headed for Halong Bay, a Unesco protected site - not that you'd know it from the blatant disregard for littering rules shown by most of the locals on board the boats. "I've finished my coke" Over the side. "No more cigarettes" Packet over the side... Anyway, Halong Bay is made of some 3000 islands, according to legend created by a family of dragons. Not sure about that... The trip was pretty disorganized. We were shifted from one boat to another. Nonetheless, we had a good two days there. We visited a couple of caves, stayed one night on the boat and one of Cat Ba island. Day two we went for a 3 hour walk (it took 1 hour - the rest was spent waiting) then spent the afternoon on the beach with an American girl and a Canadian guy we'd met on the trip.
We then went back to Hanoi to catch out first overnight bus... It was actually better than expected, in that there was room for a double seat each (Jo got the 5 back seats all to herself!) and the air-con worked pretty well.
We were due to arrive in Hué at 7am but at 7.30am pulled into a restaurant "for breakfast". We were fast learning that the bus tickets are so cheap (US$25 open ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh for example) as there is a very noticeable commission culture for the bus operators. So we were stopping for the fourth time of a 12 hour trip. As it happens, it was a very fortunate stop as we were able to organize a trip around the De-militarised Zone (DMZ), along with a couple from Amsterdam (Bart & Shanna) and a couple from Windsor (Steve and Helen). We spent 6 hours going around the various sites; an American bunker well within the DMZ. They could see for miles having destroyed square kilometers of jungle; the Ho Chi Minh trail - a series of tracks used to move troops and equipment secretly from North to South Vietnam; National Cemetary - 10,000, many un-identified Northern Vietnamese soldiers buried there - one grave of a twelve year old female recruit; Vin Moch tunnels - original Viet Cong tunnels where they stored weapons, food and lived at times; the bridge which now links North and South across the Ben Hai river (the previous border); finally we visited an abandoned US M41 tank. We then got an horrendous, but comical minibus to Hué. It was a 11 seater, but we had an ongoing battle with the other passengers and new passengers to protect our space... we already had 13 on board along with around 10 x 50kg bags of rice, scattered amongst us, our backpacks, slow cookers... And still the driver wanted us to squeeze more on.
We spent one night in Hué and in the morning visited the ancient Citadel of Hue, basically more temples. That afternoon, we caught the daytime bus to Hoi An. We arrived at Hoi An at the Grassland Hotel - another commission opportunity for the bus people. We didn't mind, it was a brand new hotel, complete with swimming pool and really nice en-duite, air-con rooms - all for $9 a night. Oh, and free bike hire. We went out for dinner that evening, after a swim of course, with the other four and found ourselves in Treats Bar. Jo and Helen decided to scout out the tailors (Hoi An has 200 of them!) whilst us boys decided to drink Saigon and Tiger beer - Shanna had already gone home ill. There was then a power cut and the town was in total darkness accept for this small bar with a generator - yep, Treats Bar. Sorted. We carried on drinking and waited for the girls to come back.
We spent the next couple of days spending a small fortune on new tailor-made clothes. We got so much for our money, it's untrue. Cashmere suits for $50, shirts for a fiver. We found time to go to the beach in between fittings but were hassled big time for pedicures, manicures, massage, hair removal.
We left Hoi An after 3 nights and headed to Nha Trang, another beach resort, on the overnight bus. This time it really was horrendous. No room, no aircon, so much luggage. Not nice. Anyway, we survived and found a hotel by the beach in Nha Trang. We dumped our things and headed straight for the beach, glad to find a resort where you could pay 10,000 Dong for a sunbed and not be hassled by vendors and touts. They were there though and the fresh seafood cooked on the beach was pretty good. We spent 3 nights in Nha Trang with the other two couples and a guy called Mark, who Steve had met in Chiang Mai. Mark is a Man Utd fan, from Sussex of course though, and Steve Arsenal. The night of the FA Cup Final was fun. Neither of them happy in the end; Mark because they lost and Steve because Arsenal didn't deserve it. We went out on the town most nights and had a great, but tiring, time. We even found time to do a couple of dive with Rainbow Divers. Pretty good diving with great visibility. No big sharks but a fair few fish and spectacular coral.
From Nha Trang, we got the daytime bus to Dalat in the mountains. A six hour trip which turned into eight! When we arrived, it was so cool, it was great. Bart and Shanna had come with us and the four of us went out to organize a trip for the following day. We decided to go with the "Easy Riders", a group of motorbike riders who take tourists on trips around the Dalang area and further away if you want.
We met the Easy Riders at 8.30am and headed for a day touring the mountains and villages of Dalat. It started off really sunny, but being in the mountains and with it heading towards the rainy and monsoon seasons, by mid afternoon, it was time for a thunder storm! We got soaked, but it didn't spoil it at all. It was quite fun really. At one point though, Jo's Easy Rider went off without her - he thought she was on the back! Binh had to take Mark and Jo and catch him up. Joe being one person lighter and Binh one heavier meant it took a good five minutes for us to catch up, all in the pouring rain. Binh and Mark were in hysterics the whole way. You probably had to be there but it was really funny.
After Dalat, we went to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), however, we were rapidly running out of time, so just stayed overnight before going down to the Mekong Delta for a boat trip. The boat trip was actually disappointing. The guide didn't tell us anything of the history of the place or the significance during the war at all. We just toured a succession of local craft villages (more commission opportunities we suspect) and drank numerous shots of dodgy spirits. We drew the line at snake and scorpion wine though! Some people tried it and said it was the nicest of the lot - that doesn't say too much, however.
Second day of the Mekong trip took us to the Cambodian Border.....