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Vietnam

Cruising Ha Long

A weekend in Ha Long Bay

Booking a trip to Ha Long Bay can be a minefield. The internet and guidebooks are full of people getting scammed by paying money for a luxury boat and ending up in a rust tub. People we had met had explained horror stories of people getting beaten up by hotel owners or of being charged for breakages that did not exist. Tales of food poisoning are rife. Luckily we avoided all of this and the Cristina Cruise that we booked involved a beautiful cabin on the upper deck with the poshest bathroom we had had throughout the trip and some entertaining company thrown into the mix.

You have to be pleased when the tour guide who is going to take you on a boat trip for three days is called Duck. At least it suggests that he is at home on the water should there be a repeat of the well publicised sinking of a year ago in the same area. And it was in these capable hands that we set off on our three day trip of Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long is recognised as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The bay is situated in the North of Vietnam and is characterised by hundreds of majestic cliffs standing aloft from the middle of the sea. Cruising through the cliff dotted landscape whilst nibbling noodles and gazing through the glass walls of the onboard dining room was a memorable lunch time! Our boat was even equipped with a sundeck full of sun beds for an afternoon snooze in the sun. Unfortunately this sun deck was not much good as it was absolutely freezing and drizzling in a way that is generally quite detrimental to soaking up vitamin D.

On the boat we quickly created a group camaraderie with the other passengers. What is the best foundation for new friendships? An overwhelming shared hatred of something. In our case it was 'The American'. This is not to say we have a particular dislike for Americans. In fact on this trip we have met some really nice and funny Americans. It was just this one American on our trip that we all hated enough not to even learn his name. This American was loud, obnoxious, rude and ignorant to the degree he asked me the question, 'Why do the Vietnamese hate the Americans so much? What have the Americans ever done?'. When responding that it was likely that it was something probably to do with the Vietnamese War he responded, 'Was there a war? I've never heard of it!' Throw into the equation that this guy was a self made millionaire and had retired at the age of 35 from the business of “Offering credit to people who we know cant afford to pay it back so that we can take their car and stuff” and our communal hatred was confirmed. That's right people.... a loan shark! Luckily for the rest of us, whenever the boat stopped at a place of interest he went wandering off to find beer and a “massage with a happy ending”. This meant we had plenty of time to mock him between ourselves with as much wit as we could manage.

Day one on the 'junk boat' brought us to number of caves and beaches, which is probably obligatory on visiting any exotic destination. The first stop was a huge cave, previously inhabited by the French military prior to the war of independence. It was large, airy and filled with stalactites and stalagmites. As we strolled around the cave with our new found friends, Andy suggested that the cave would make an excellent club, perhaps similar in style to that found in the 'Canteena' scene in Stars Wars ' A new Hope'. Annie quipped that she would especially like to see Darth Vader on the decks, whilst John wanted to see Jabba the hut as a bouncer! When we got to the point where the ewoks were glass collectors and Princess Leah in one of the caves as a pole dancer we thought it had all gone too far and left the cave sharpish before one of us could enquire as to the cost to rent the place for the night to put our money making plan into action. Worryingly we also had with us a Swiss Banker who was quite enthusiastic about backing the scheme with investment.

After zooming round the cliffs and caves in a sea kayak and nearly getting capsized in the process by a passing speed boat we returned to our luxury cruise (ooh er!) to engage in a nights entertainment Vietnamese style. Now in true Asian style that involves one main thing... you guessed it, Kareoke! To add an air of occasion to the party, the Captain of the boat started off the singing. For the time that he did his party piece (eight tunes in a row) I am not sure who was driving the boat. Although to be honest, I observed that even when he was at the helm he tended to be reading the newspaper and driving the boat with his feet so it probably did not make much difference he was away from his post.

The effect that Kareoke can have on the Vietnamese cannot be understated. As soon as those terrible keyboard string backing tracks come on, every local in the room gets a glassy look of sheer pleasure and seems to have an involuntary reaction to clap along and mime the words, whether they know the song or not. Adding to the excitement on the boat was the fact that after each song, the Kareoke programme gave the singer a percentage rating as to how well they had done. This added an extra dimension that the Captain, the first mate, the tour guide and the bar lady could not get enough of.... Who was driving that boat!!!!

After showing scepticism at the Kareoke eventually everyone joined in. The star of the show was Swiss Banker Armin, who after insisting all day that he would never sing kareoke spent most of the evening throwing himself to his knees and shouting into the mike to every power ballad in the Kareoke book. When Andy got 100% for a Nirvana rendition the place went wild and the Vietnamese treated Andy like a local hero. Eventually at 10pm and a million beers later, the party was politely asked to quieten down so that the Singaporian granny who had somehow ended up on the Kareoke cruise could get some sleep.

This left the rest of us to engage in a slightly quieter game of 'Oreo Challenge'... a game learnt from 'India's Minute to Win It' and soon to take over the world. The aim of the game, to get an Oreo biscuit from the middle of your forehead to your mouth using only the muscles in your face. Everyone on the tour loved it. The bar lady loved it. The Captain loved it. I can't complete it.

A hangover and a night in a Cruise Cabin later, we arrived in Cat Ba Island where we were instructed the next activity was a trek up a mountain. After the first 30 steps I was slipping like a spider on roller skates on the wet ground and I decided that the boys would be more successful without me. I retreated back down to the start to spend the morning drinking hot Vietnamese coffee with other people either with my inept sense of balance or an enormous hangover who also thought the idea of trekking up a wet mountain before 10am was a ridiculous way to spend a day. Andy and John returned to inform me that whilst the trip gave a beautiful view, I would have also caused my self a beautiful injury by attempting it. Filled with caffeine we continued to Cat Ba town which had about the same amount of charm as Blackpool in the week after the illuminations have been turned off.

After a quick trip to the local Monkey Island (the first of many we have visited on this trip) where Monkeys litter the beach entertaining themselves with stealing the food and drink of passing tourists, we did what is the obligatory activity when visiting a less than exciting town, go out to the nearest bar, play drinking games and talk cod shit with the people you are with. After making new friends with the barman Anthony and his boyfriend, and luckily managing to get rid of 'The American' for a night by suggesting there might be another massage parlour in town he hadn't visited (turned out it was actually a floating restaurant that he made a fool of himself in) we headed home in an inebriated state to face the hangover again the next morning. Needless to say we were detoxing after Halong!

A trip back on the boat to Ha Long City and we were back on the road to Hanoi with just enough bus time to meet some friendly Melbournians and play various games of 'would you rather'. A hillarious few days that wont be forgotten in a hurry! On to the next of the big 'H's of Vietnam.... Hue.

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Breaking into Vietnam

Hanoi

After drunkenly booking a flight from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok during 'wine and cheese night' in Cambodia (Lucy, Will, Andre... why did non of you stop us?) we found ourselves heading to the Vietnamese border for Hanoi with two weeks to sprint down the coast.
We had started to think Vietnam didn't want us after our problems acquiring a visa in Vientiene and the cancellation of the bus meaning that Andy had to sleep in the under seat luggage compartment from Laos to Vietnam, but we were prepared to force ourselves upon the country. Expecting further hold ups, and half expecting to see our photos behind the security counter at the border with 'No Entry' written above them, we instead went through the easiest and quickest border crossing we have perhaps experienced in South East Asia. No 'stamping fee' or 'tea money' changed hands, our visas were quickly stamped and approved and after a quick scramble to locate our passports in the pile of 'foreign ones' that they unceremoniously dumped on a public table for collection we were in! Vietnam tried to hold us out but damn it they did not succeed! We entered the country with big smiles and proud stances clutching our entry stamped passports with a sense of celebration; we had finally made it!

We were however wildly unprepared with no guidebook upon our arrival in Hanoi. Andy had previously sacrificed our guidebook when angry at the fact it had an overly substantial East Timor section that was both irrelevant to our trip and pretty hefty weight wise. However, the excitement of a new country and a new challenge literally had Andy shaking with excitement on our arrival! With the quick purchase of a $3 photocopied Lonely Planet Guide, which was only missing the pages on the top 1-8 of the top 15 things to do in Vietnam.. the top eight cant be that good anyway, we made a hasty plan over a beautiful Vietnamese coffee and hit the streets of cosmopolitan Hanoi Old Town.
We had heard negative things about Hanoi from those that had passed through. In addition a certain friend of ours of Vietnamese descent (no names there then) had also told us to spend no time there and instead head further South. However, I have never been more glad that we entirely disregarded all the advice we had heard. Hanoi was a buzzing and charming city full of sights and smells that were distinctly Vietnamese. From bustling carts full of dried squid, conical hats atop ladies on bicycles to Beer Hoi on the street for 20p a glass. The city is centred around a lake with an island temple in the middle and it was from here that we got our first real viewpoint of the city.

We also got our first introduction to a distinctly Vietnamese tradition, the pre wedding photographs that each couple have in the full wedding day garb. As we walked along the lake (around the lake, we had got into Vietnam but we had not acquired the powers of walking on water) there was a different couple in all their glory posing for their photographs. As one couple posed in a prime location, a queue of bridesmaids, brides, grooms and photographers appeared waiting for their turn and looking bored as they munched on crisps with denim jackets or sweatshirts over their wedding finery. Once they reached the front of the queue the couples donned looks of fanatic love as they gazed at each other for the photographs. Strange, seeing as these were the couples that two minutes before had been bickering in Adidas tracksuit jackets over the last wotsit. For anyone visiting Hanoi, I cannot recommend enough the joy of sitting by the lake watching this charade of forced romance. People watching at its finest!

Along with hitting a few of the museums we had one real plan in Hanoi. With my everlasting fascination with Communist Leaders and Andy's love for the weird and wonderful one thing stood out.... going to visit the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself and take in the spectacle of his preserved body.

After the hustle with the tuk tuk drivers we instead took a metered taxi to the resting place of 'Uncle Ho' and were suitably impressed when we pulled up to an impressive building fronted with a sculptured lawn in an imposing grid pattern which gave the building a certain grandeur. Unfortunately when we began making our way down the paved grid lines towards what we thought was the entrance we began to realise we had made an enormous mistake. Clearly, these paved grids were not paths but decoration. The lawn was no garden but apparently sacred. We discovered this only by getting right to the middle of the grid before being spotted by the angry whistle patrol. Suddenly guards in bright white caps with equally bright shiny whistles unleashed an orchestra of warning whistles at us. As we had reached the centre of the grid we became confused as to the best way to get out of the situation and began wildly running up and down the grid pattern to find a suitable way to get off the sacred lawn. For some reason, doing a 180 turn and returning up the straight path we had come did not occur to us. After a strange and wonderful game of cat and mouse we managed to get out of the grid and returned to the road confused as to what had just happened and with a new found wariness for a man with a whistle.

After eventually finding the entrance and following a bizarre collection of security points which each seemed to have their own individual requirements about what size bag was acceptable. We entered the tomb. Filing silently through dark corridors we suddenly entered the square room resting place of Uncle Ho. Now unless Ho Chi Minh was actually made of Styrofoam when he was alive, I have some doubts that the 'body' we saw had at some point been the fellow with the cheery looking beard. However, the reverence from the other Vietnamese visitors laid pay to the claim that this was Uncle Ho and not Faux Chi Minh as I initially suspected. Andy again managed to upset the guards by dawdling and was silently instructed in the art of turning a corner which brought us back into the light and with a strange sensation.
It was only after speaking to my Grandma on the phone on the evening of our visit that I realised what a strange activity this was. After explaining our days activity my Grandma responded, 'Well you are certainly doing some strange things.... visiting a corpse before breakfast on a Tuesday'. I had no real response to that. She was right. It was strange.

The other stop in Hanoi was the excellent Museum of Vietnamese Ethnology. By large the museums we have visited in South East Asia have been traditional affairs full of glass cases full of fragments of pots and board after board of information misspelled (sometimes hilariously so) of English explanation. As interesting as the subject may be, this approach more often than not kills the exciting history it is trying to educate the visitor on. Therefore we were so happy when visiting the Museum of Ethnology that it had taken a different approach and was not only insightful but had things to play with (an important aspect of all museums I think). Learning about the cultural minorities in Vietnam we had an educational wander through each district within one building and saw brilliant photography, sculptures and models of houses and technology. But it was in the garden where the excitement started! With swings and tightropes, full size replicas of traditional straw houses to climb about in and massive steps to climb to get up in the first place it was fun for kids and big kids alike. We went home thoroughly educated and massively entertained.

Impressed with the start of Vietnam and eager for more we undertook the mine field of booking a trip to Ha Long Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world....

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged hanoi ho_chi_minh Comments (0)

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