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Halong Bay from home in Vietnam

THAILAND | Monday, 22 September 2008 | Views [701] | Comments [1]

If Laos had been a gentle walk in the park, then arriving in Vietnam felt like a shot of espresso to the heart.
The pace of life was immediately evident on our first night in the capital Hanoi. Everywhere we looked there was a blizzard of human life - locals dining on the pavements on small plastic chairs, shop vendors selling everything from shoes to shark's fins and any remaining space taken up by speeding scooters and cyclos (cycle-driven rickshaws). Negotiating this sea of humanity entailed a certain degree of skill especially with heavy backpacks strapped like shells to our bodies and crossing the road proved to be adrenaline sport in itself. Scooters, cars, bicycles, cyclos and humans all seemed to swarm around in some bizarre dance, moving in any direction they fancied and it made any passage for pedestrians all but impossible until we watched the locals and followed suit. At first it took about 20 minutes for us to make our first attempt but we soon got the swing of it. The trick was to slowly walk into the traffic with conviction and allow the mopeds and cars to weave their way around you not unlike Moses parting the Red Sea. It was a skill we mastered in the end and ultimately took a masochistic pleasure in.
Whilst "Vietnam in a week" seemed like a tall order we had managed to whittle our itinerary down to three or four essentials on our journey from north to south. The highlight of our trip however was undoubtedly Halong Bay. Bobby had made a big deal of wanting to see some massive limestone stacks similar to the ones found on Thailand's southern beaches as part of our trip but as our schedule did not allow for this, Halong Bay provided a perfect replacement. Situated on the coast two hours east of Hanoi, Halong Bay is a collection of three thousand islands, some no bigger than a small skyscraper but all examples of stunning prehistoric architecture. After debating which of the many tour operators to go with we decided to opt for a 3 days/2 nights option that involved spending one night on a junk boat and one night on a deserted island.
We set off in a minibus from Hanoi with our travel companions, Cat (Scottish), Miranda (Welsh), Hayley (South African), Rachel (Irish) to be joined later by three Italian slow coaches. On arrival in Halong Bay we were able to inspect our junk boat cabin and grab a quick welcome drink before we set sail. If our expectations had been high for the trip we weren't disappointed. The scenery was genuinely awe-inspiring and our first couple of hours were spent just casually floating from one amazing rock structure to another before dropping anchor in a secluded bay between islands. We then exchanged our junk boat for sea kayaks and paddled in convoy through dark limestone caves inhabited by squeaking bats. The afternoon was completed by daring each other to jump off the top deck of the junk boat as illustrated in our pics whilst taking care not to jump on the numerous jellyfish lurking in the warm water below. After a dinner of shellfish and seafood, we retired to the top deck of our boat to watch a fantastic electric storm which our snap-happy Italian companions Claudio described as, "God taking photographs of us".
Our second day involved further exploration of the islands and a trip to the 'Amazing Cave' which was unsurprisingly pretty spectacular. Then after a journey on the open sea we wound up on a secluded island for our second night. The afternoon was spent sea kayaking around the island in the blazing hot sunshine and a lot of rest and recuperation on the beach. We spent the night in a Bamboo Beach Hut which would have proved idyllic if it weren't for the visit of an unwanted guest in the middle of the night. 

Bobby had woken to the call of nature and no sooner had he opened the toilet door than he quickly recoiled blaming a sea of mosquitoes as the cause. The only option available was to venture outside to the beach in the moonlight to conduct his business. The episode soon became farcical as Kate joined him in his trip and managed to slip in the moonlight on the bamboo steps and came crashing down flat on her face. It was only in the morning that Bobby revealed that the cause of his consternation had not in fact been a swarm of mosquitoes but a large foot-long rat that had winked at him from the sink! As the morning developed it became clear that we had not been the only ones to be visited in the night by vermin as each of our travelling companions regaled us with their own particular nightmare - Italian lady Stephanie coming off worse as she woke to find a rat cuddling up to her neck.

The expedition was rounded off the next day with a trip to the largest island in Halong Bay, Cat Ba. There, we explored another cave known as the Hospital Cave which had been a refuge for Chinese and North Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam war. We then undertook a 12km mountain bike ride. Although the whole expedition did take a sizable chunk of our budget for this leg of the journey there was no doubting in our minds that it had been well worth it.

On returning to Hanoi we spent the next day, getting acquainted with Vietnam's hero Ho Chi Minh, with a visit to his museum. We would also have enjoyed the opportunity to gaze at his waxy body in the massive Mauseleum he resides in but they kept him locked up on Thursdays. We also got some history down us by visiting the the "Hanoi Hilton" prison, where Presidential candidate John McCain was holed up for the duration of what the Vietnamese call understandably call "The American War", plus we spent time at the Women's Museum where we learned the impact woman have made on Vietnamese society.

Our next stop was Hoi An - another example of French Colonial charm in the same vein as Luang Prabang in Laos. After another overnight train we set up shop in a cheap hotel and ventured into town. It didn't take long for us to be won over by the shuttered shop fronts and streets framed with purple bourgainvillea. We decided to stay an extra day and get some clothes made as Hoi An is famous for its tailoring. After perusing the many options, Kate decided on a classy red winter coat for New York whilst Bobby settled on his first ever made-to-measure formal shirt. The clothes were completed in 24 hours and despite being a little tight round the arms were exactly what we ordered. The remainder of our time was spent enjoying traditional Vietnamese dance and music performances alongside a mooch around the many museums and traditional houses open for display in Hoi An.

Our schedule poked us in the ribs after three days and we realised that we were up against it to complete Vietnam with enough time for Cambodia so we took a quick flight to the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). We spent the next 48 hours further exploring theimpact of the "American War" on the Vietnamese with a visit to the appropriately titled War Mueum. Although created from a Vietnamese perspective, the museum was deeply affecting and is a document of the atrocities the America soldiers commited in Vietnam and made you realise what an utter waste of time and life the whole exercise was.

With our minds topped up on history and our eyes suitably popping from all the dizzying spectacles we'd seen, it was time for us to climb aboard another bus for the six hour journey across the border and our last Asian adventure in Cambodia and a visit to the mystical majesty of the largest temple on the planet - Angkor Wat! 



Was enjoying this until the rat entered the scene! Yuck!

  Robert Windsor Orr Sep 23, 2008 10:09 PM

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