Vietnam: Hoi An, Ha Noi and Ha Long Bay 11th – 19th January
Our visit to Cambodia and to Vietnam, to date had been organised and led by All Points East. We had mixed feelings about being on an organised tour, even though we were the only group members for all but five nights. The other participant, who left us to join a tour of Laos and Myanmar, would really need a section all to herself as she was quite mad, in that her grip on reality was quite tenuous. She purported to be a travel guide with experience in 103 countries, but could not cope with the practicalities of travel; she believed herself to be psychic and was guided by the spirits and being of upper class heritage called everyone ‘Sweetheart ‘ or ‘Darling’, referring to everything as ghastly or simply divine. All harmlessly benevolent, we thought, but actually she was a serial complainant who twisted reality to support ridiculous complaints. Thus she continued to email us that the people in Laos were ghastly, the Mekong was disappointing and the hotels unacceptable (bad karma). We were lucky and pleased to be shot of her. The other downside of being on a tour was being organised to be up, out at specified times, having restaurants and even menus chosen for us and feeling generally reduced to infirm or child status! The upside was seeing the Mekong Delta and Cambodia, mostly by a series of river trips that we could never have planned ourselves.
We were pleased to be off the leash for our final eight days in mid and north
Vietnam. We had booked two destinations with a further two overnights in Ha Noi : Hoi An and Halong Bay. All lived upto expectations in terms of grandeur, beauty and historic architecture. But we had not properly researched the weather. Hoi An was cold and very wet, whilst Halong Bay brightened up for our second day but was generally overcast. It’s winter in both places, so we should have expected it. After two months in high temperatures it came as a bit of a relief, but one which palled when we found we were unable to dry our clothes out because of high humidity.
From Ho Chi Minh City we flew to Da Nang for our taxi transfer to Hoi An.
I will remember it, as already mentioned for the cold and rain. But we had some good times: repeat visits to a tailor where we had garments made from the batiq fabric we had bought in Indonesia, wandering around the very beautiful old town and good natured negotiating in the markets. The jacket I had made was beautifully tailored and fitted. So much so, I asked for a matching dress from the cotton lining material. This was only slightly less successful, mainly due to the unflattering style I had chosen. Yes, I have put on a mound of weight since I have been away!
We did manage to see around one of the many ancient merchants’ houses and the outside of many more but this is a real tourist resort and we were often squeezed and squashed in a crush: too many people in a small area. It rained solidly on our second day and we took refuge in a beautiful riverside Oriental style hotel until mid afternoon. Later that evening we walked from our stylish but damp, dank homestay to a local restaurant, past paddy fields, then a surprising track through them to a very pretty restaurant. All this executed in the dark and pouring rain!
On our final day we doggedly walked to the beach- Hoi An is renowned for both its river frontage and its beach. We arrived, it rained, we sat on sun loungers on the beach and drank undrinkable local coffee which we had to surreptitiously throw away on to the beach whilst the café owner wasn’t watching. Only the British recline on loungers in the drizzle! When the rain came on more seriously we retreated to a small local café – and had one of the most delicious meals of our stay there. Later on we went to the tailors’ workshop for final adjustments to my dress, not quite a sweat shop but not far off and very different from the shop we had started in. From there we did a very tacky night market and had a meal in a small restaurant overlooking the market. The lights around the river, from floating lanterns and small boats and riverside properties were stunning.
From Hoi An we flew to Hanoi. It was crazy, that is,the traffic was probably the most treacherous I have had to negotiate, even including Kampala. The numbers of motorbikes and scooters outnumbered cars, buses and trucks by a very long shot and they drove relentlessly, not even looking at pedestrians. We refined our technique for crossing the road by the time we left. Join the flow of motorbikes and gradually move diagonally across them, slowing them down as you go and sprint across the oncoming lane when there’s a gap. We held onto each other, pushing an pulling till we got across. Our hotel always walked us out when we had a taxi and it took three of them in a human barrier to get us over the road. It was unfortunate we had little opportunity to look UP at the houses on the ridiculously crowded streets as we were located in the Old Town and some of the architecture was wonderful – historic French style homes squeezed between ramshackle shacks.
Form Hoi An we flew to Han Oi via Da Nang. After an overnight in a lovely hotel, we were taken for our three day cruise of Ha Long Bay. We knew that the bay is crowded with cruise ships – and it was – but we were delighted when we saw ours, La Fairy. It was small, with only eleven cabins and ours was one of only two with a private balcony. The ship was in Oriental style with dark wood panelling and furniture and beautiful carved decorative panels in the cabin. It was very atmospheric and the crew could not have been more attentive, hence we ran up a larger bar bill than we realised! The bay itself is really lovely with sandstone pinnacles rising like stacks and mountains from the sea. When the mist came, there was an ethereal quality, the world in monochrome. When the sun shone it was magical. On the second day the boat went to an area less populated by other vessels and we had the place to ourselves for a while. Really lovely. Along the way there were organised activities: kayaking, stop offs at amazing caves and lagoons, a walk up to the top of one island, 420 steps and a cookery demonstration. We were less than delighted to have our time so minutely structured, especially when we were evicted from our beautiful boat and transferred to a day boat, along with the passengers from several other boats. This was to allow La Fairy to return to port to pick up a new batch of two day tour passengers. We protested because our boat and cabin provided more warmth and shelter than the day boat but in the end the sun came out and we managed to monopolise the available loungers, enjoying the view, the sun and the beer. We enjoyed the cruise, especially the time on our boat, on our balcony and the amazing multi course meals that appeared every few hours. We met some interesting people from all over the world. The bay was not as polluted as we had been led to believe and there was not a lot of rubbish. Its status as an UNESCO world heritage site has apparently encouraged a clean up. We did not swim in the water, it was green and murky and the weather not conducive in spite of periods of sunshine.
We were transferred back to our HaNoi hotel for a further night before our flight to India. As previously we encountered real/fake/seconds of North Face, Kipling and other big name makes which ultimately proved to be irresistible. Goodbye Vietnam, it’s been great.