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Al's epic odyssey "A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving." - Lao Tzu

Hanoi & Halong Bay

VIETNAM | Sunday, 1 November 2009 | Views [1536]

The overnight bus from Hue to Hanoi was the longest so far, 14 hours with two or three stops. What made this one worse is there was nothing blocking the oncoming headlights in my face so I ended up trying to sleep with my head under the blanket. The main highway is a single lane in each direction and the traffic don’t dip their lights at any point. As a passenger I was blinded by some of the oncoming trucks, how the bus drivers cope is beyond comprehension. I suppose by dipping the headlights they might need to take their hand off the hooter, so they don’t.

Got to Hanoi quite early in the morning and got off on the wrong foot. I had a dispute with one of the motorcycle taxi drivers over the fare to my hotel of choice, so I took another one. My mistake… In hindsight he probably was drunk. We almost crashed into another bus which gave a massive honk on his hooter, partially deafening me and then weaved in and out of traffic in the general direction of the old quarter. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go and he was clearly taking me somewhere else, so I eventually bailed, paid him a part fare and walked the rest of the way.

The backpacker / tourist area of Hanoi is mostly around the old quarter with cluttered busy streets selling every conceivable item. There is a real bustle about the place, but it has a very different feel to Ho Chi Minh City. There is virtually no pavement as every available inch is used for selling or eating. It can be a bit of a dice with the motorcycles for a bit of roadway to walk on. Apart from the taxi’s there seemed to be less persistence from the stall holders and it was quite pleasant to wander around.

I booked a three day two night trip to Halong Bay, one of the “must do” trips in Vietnam. The prices vary considerably and while all trips seem to go to similar areas, the quality of the boat and accommodation can vary. I paid bottom dollar and ended up on a really dodgy boat but with a fantastic bunch of low budget travelers.

The scenery is absolutely spectacular and photographs cannot reproduce the feel of the place. It’s definitely a trip that should be one everyone’s to-do list. The first day was a trip to a massive limestone cave on one of the 1900 islands followed by a visit to a floating village and a trip in a small boat through some caves, finally mooring for some swimming and diving off the top deck for the more adventurous.

We followed this up with a good drinking session on the upper deck under the starts. While most of the boats were relatively quiet we had such a good time that a bunch of folk from a neighboring boat moored alongside came over to join us.

Because we had run late the previous evening we missed out of our scheduled hour of kayaking, so we were woken by the throbbing engine at around 6am and had early morning kayaking around some of the islands at 6:30am. There’s nothing like a bit of early morning exercise to clear the head.

After this we travelled to one of the larger islands and checked into a hotel. Because we were apparently on the budget tour, our hotel was set well back from the town and wasn’t of a particularly high standard. I went off on a separate afternoon cruise to Monkey Island where there were troops of monkeys strolling around this coral strewn beach.

That night about 10 of us went down to the local pub, which closed way too early at around 11. We decided to give karaoke a try. Walking back towards our hotel in the slightly less savory part of town, we went in to the first karaoke bar and asked is we could have a go. Unfortunately it turned out that this place was purely a brothel and he didn’t actually have a karaoke, although he did offer us massages. The next place we tried was also a brothel (though seemingly unused at the time of our visit) but he did have a karaoke machine so we negotiated a price on the beers and then let rip for a few hours. Half the songs were sung in Spanish and half in English. Unfortunately there weren’t any Hebrew numbers for our two Israeli friends.

At the end of a few hours of hearty sing-a-long we tried to pay the bill. Only to find we were locked in and disputing the bill with the Madame. We had been under the impression that the cost would be the beers however there was now an extortionate room hire cost added. After much arguing, bartering and general grumpiness we eventually reluctantly paid up and were let out. I later quizzed our guide as to the general practice and was told that that was in fact a reasonable price. I don’t know how the locals can afford it. As backpackers we found it quite steep.

Anyway, the memory of being locked into a brothel in Vietnam over a dispute over the bill makes it all worthwhile.

The next day was the long trek back to Hanoi, first by boat and then by bus. A word of advice to anyone planning a trip to Halong Bay - it’s a long way to get there do the three day trip as a minimum, it’s too far to go for the one day or two day cruise.

I had planned to do a tour of some of the sights of Hanoi before I left for Bangkok, but I unfortunately ran into a bunch of mates who I’d met in Delat and Nha trang and we got stuck into a few pubs in Hanoi, so I never made it.

I also never got to do the other “must do” Vietnam trip, the trekking to the hill tribes around Sapa. That just leaves me with another reason to return.

Tags: halong bay, hanoi


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