Good Morning Vietnam …Actually not such a good morning in reality. Hanoi is cold, grey, misty, spitting rain and windy. Weather that will stay with us for least the first 6 days up to writing this. Coming here after the Eutopia of Singapore doesn’t help as the city has little to recommend itself. The buildings with, rare exceptions, are generally uninspiring, the parks mundane, the people have big city mentality, and the roads are packed with hundreds, thousands of motorbikes. The cold is invasive and everyone is wearing woolly jumpers, puffer jackets, gloves and scarfs. Food is mainly street food or found in open sided restaurants that afford no respite from the chill to ill-equipped travellers such as us. Sadly neither do the hotel rooms that have no heating.Whilst here we have seen Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum (a large block of concrete fronted by doric columns) in which said President lays under vacuum sealed glass for daily inspection by the masses. Although there are gardens and a large square surrounding this the highlight was seeing lots of soldiers in poorly fitting lurid green uniforms with oversized caps being drilled in silly marches.
We have seen the infamous Maison Central (Hanoi Hilton) jail in which political prisoners and American GI’s were held during the war; a huge statue of Vladimir Le-Nin (Not sure if the Asianisation of his name was a mistake or to make his communist views more palatable); A water puppet show which was interesting in a lets-try-and-pretend-its-great-coz-its-an-ethnic-tradition sort of way. In truth it was watchable but I can’t help wonder whether the warmth of the theatre coloured our thoughts; The temple of Literature and one or two other temples were very nice but not a reason to come back. Because of the cold and rain we decide to change our plans of going further up country where it is worse. This does mean we will have to forego the pleasure of hiking in Sapa and seeing Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay which seems a shame but we have decided to save seeing the iconic images associated with those places for another time when they might be appreciated more. Consequently we jump on the wonderfully named “Reunification Express” for an overnight journey to Dong Hoi. Trains are generally better than India but the driver of this particular one was a bit heavy on the brakes so the ride on our three tiered, very hard bunks was bumpy and we didn’t sleep very well.
As we leave Hanoi I leave you with a couple of interesting things of no touristic value but are still worth noting. Crossing the road in Vietnam. This is an exercise performed slowly and with assured movements. Hesitate and you are dead. The technique is to walk out amidst the on-coming traffic staring down those who hold your fate in the movement of their handlebars and continue moving at a steady rate. This allows bikes, cars to compute your speed and direction and swerve around you accordingly.
Bikes are king here. Pavements are used for parking them on and for short cuts. Markets are crowded beyond belief but still a motorcyclist will drive through the people and shop from the saddle – Even trying on clothes without dismounting.
Dong Hoi is spread out with wide avenues and a few shops. There is little to see here but it has a better feel than Hanoi. We walked along the front and looked out over the grey sea and thought how like a UK seascape it looked. We have not really found a restaurant of any note so are a little bit hungry and since we have not managed to shake the cold weather we have stayed in our hotel room which was very nice. Big room, efficient service and quiet street makes for a happy traveller. We went walkabout and looked down various streets and eventually went into a shop to buy something to drink. Who would have thought that the sentence “Do you have diet coke” could inspire such a reaction. The shopkeepers daughter (Van) spoke English having been in Newcastle to do an MBA. Whilst the shopkeeper himself (Thin) had worked in Birmingham and Coventry for 5 years before opening his shop in Dong Hoi. They didn’t have diet coke but they did sell wine so sat us down and plyed us with glass after galss of a good red Shirraz. After 30 minutes of chatting and drinking shots of wine (odd but that’s how they drank it) we were then asked to come back for a further drink a little later. Why not we thought and so slightly drunk we jumped in a cab to our hotel to scrub up and returned at 7.00pm to find the whole family there –Grandmother, cousins, a few friends. We sat down at a table in the shop and there, whilst customers still came in. we were served a meal of fatty wild boar, pork knuckles, cabbage and noodles – Weirdly Rachel suddenly became vegetarian but said it was ok because “Chris loves all this sort of stuff” waving her hand over the chewy, fatty meat. Luckily a lovely piece of fish, ordered in especially, arrived shortly afterwards with some rice and all of a sudden Rachel wasn’t a strict vegetarian so would graciously (and ravenously) try some. More wine flowed and although our conversations were somewhat limited and relied heavily on posturing and sign language we had a great time. These lovely people were generous in spirit and in preparing this meal for complete strangers and welcoming us into their home. We were made to feel so welcome and were completely overwhelmed by it all. Leaving three hours later with embraces, pictures and fond memories of something very special and a rapidly improving view of Vietnam.
Yesterday we took charge of a 125cc mopedy thing and whizzed 45km off to see the caves at Phong Nha. Apparently the third biggest caves in the world. The journey there was miserable and very windy. Our bodies were freezing cold and when we saw the sign for a café we pulled over for coffee. Sadly it was all closed for winter but the owner, who was chatting with some friends next door, took pity on us and went inside and made us some Vietnamese tea to drink whilst the coffee brewed. We communicated with sign language and via google translator. We kicked a can with her three children and joked with her and her husband when he arrived (somewhat surprised to see us) some time later. After 45 minutes we literally had to drag ourselves away and, once again, were treated to Vietnamese hospitality and not allowed to pay. It may be cold here but this warm fuzzy feeling that these people give us goes a long long way to keeping off the chill.
The caves themselves were amazing. A thirty minute boat trip along the river through limestone hills to the cave entrance where we transferred to a smaller punt like boat rowed by two locals. On this we travelled through the colourfully lit initial caverns for 600 metres and then onward 1.5km into the mountain. The underground river runs through the caves whose ceilings are 15 to 20 metres above us and our way is lit by only our head torches and single spot light. It is eerie, beautiful and quiet with only the paddling sounds to break the silence. Amazing stallamites/tites are everywhere and I and 3 others brave a 300 metre trek on foot over, under and through rocks to an underground lake beside which we stood in darkness and experienced, in the words of a polish woman in our group, “The most complete black nothingness I have ever seen”. A great day made wonderful by the simple act of sharing a coffee. Tomorrow we leave Dong Hoi and head further south…still seeking warmth… to Hue