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Adventures of Boo

Vietnam - North

VIETNAM | Saturday, 22 March 2008 | Views [1045] | Comments [1]


I arrived at the airport in Hanoi, Vietnam on the evening of the 13th March and the adventures started from word go. While going through immigration I met a well travelled French guy called ‘Oliver’. We decided to share a taxi into town which was to be a good 45min trip. Once we made it out of the airport we headed towards the taxi rank to be mobbed like rock stars by eager drivers. Before getting into the vehicle we were sure to confirm the set fare into town of 180,000 Vietnamese Dong. Earlier in the airport I’d exchanged a US$100 note for 1.55 million Dong. It was nice to finally be a millionaire but I knew it was going to take some time to get used to all these zeros!

Already 10pm we asked our taxi driver to take us to a Hotel listed in the ever trustworthy travel companion, the Lonely Planet. Apparently the ‘Old Quarter’ was the place to go for foreigners, Hanoi’s historic heart pulsating with life and heaps of Hotels. Once in the city it became apparent that we’d got ourself a driver who barely spoke english and didn’t really seem to know where he was going. He tried to drop us off at an alternate Hotel stating the famous phrase ‘same, same’. As if I hadn’t heard that enough times in Thailand already. It didn’t look like the Old Quarter at all and we made it clear (via gestures and angry looks) that we weren’t going to budge from his taxi till he took us to our pre-arranged Hotel. Our mate seemed to understand this so he made a few calls (presumably for directions) and was finally on his way again. We finally got to the Hotel and disembarked from the taxi and towards the reception only to be told that it was FULL. Great! We got our backpacks and started drudging through the streets of old Hanoi looking for a place to stay at 11pm. It soon became clear that it wasn’t the only full Hotel as the same response lobby after lobby was starting to wear thin on our travel weary feet. At one Hotel we came across an American called Pat who looked as if he was about to pass out on the bench along with his backpack. Funnily enough he was also looking for a Hotel with vacancy. The guy at the reception informed us that this Hotel was also full but that he’ll make a few calls to try help us out. Well a few phone calls later he had managed to locate a room with 3 beds for $25 a night in total so we decided to bunk up together. A few blocks later down the road we checked in to the ‘Friendly Hotel’ and were prety quick to settle down for the night as it was already after midnight and it had been an adventure in itself.

Heading out of Hanoi

After a few days of strolling around the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, dodging the motorbike congested streets and going mad from the constant blaring of horns (which is perfectly normal here) I decided to head out of town to Hai Phong. This is one of the stepping stones to Halong Bay and Catba Island. On the 2hr bus trip from Hanoi to Hai Phong I was sitting next to a University student called Dinh returning home for the weekend to his parents place. He was keen to practice his English which was fairly limited and I took the oppurtunity to learn a few words in Vietnamese. He invited me to come to his parents place, and since he looked harmless and nice enough I accepted the offer not knowing fully what I was getting myself into. His Father is a furniture maker and they live in a narrow 2 storey house besides a busy road. His parents spoke maybe 2 words of English so effective communication was somewhat limited. They were happy to look at photos I’d brought along with me on this trip for these very occasions. Dinh informed me I was welcome to stay and accompany them on a shopping trip to ‘Lang Son’ the next morning on a bus (at 4am mind you) 300km north at the Chinese border. Many goods manufactured in China are available here in this border town for a cheaper price. I would only discover the next day that it was also some sort of pilgrimage with the bus stopping in many different towns on the way to Lang Son to visit the temples and give offerings and prayers to the gods. That evening after spending some hours going through phrase books with Dinh teaching each other our respective languages and was time to go to bed that it dawned on me that I was to share a double bed with him! Well, this surely put me out of my comfort zone as I’d only just met the guy and with the language barrier it made it difficult to properly understand the situation. Well I can report that it went fine with no body contact involved. So how nice was that, a stranger offering you a place to sleep next to them in the same bed. I wonder how many of us would do the same back home?

Day trip to Lang Son

As I’d mentioned, this bus trip was an early start. Got up a little after 3:30am and was on the bus before 4am to be greeted by a sea of curious faces who spoke no English. Still half asleep I smiled and took a seat at the rear with the men (woman were at the front of course) and was promptly handed a beer! That was my breakfast, drinking beer on a bus full of Vietnamese at four in the morning. After stopping at many temples on the way and going through the ceremonies at each one, we reached Lang Son at about noon and had a huge lunch. They love to eat and the food is varied and very good. One very noticable cultural difference is that they throw all the food scrapes during the course of the meal UNDER the table on the floor. So before long there is a pile of chicken bones, used napkins and unwanted food accumulating under the tables. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, just went against my principles of table manners.

Then came the shopping at the markets buying Chinese goods. They went nuts buying blankets, food, whitegoods (hair dryers, rice cookers, hotplates) and cramming the bus full. I branched out big time and bought some batteries and a set of new underpants, nothing too bulky and extragavent hey!

The Vietnamese are very proud people and Dinh and his family wouldn’t let me pay for anything. They were very generous and friendly and by the end of the trip apparently were very fond of me, giving me food and a warm parting hug as I left for Catba Island the following day.

Catba Island

I’d caught the slower ferry to Catba Island, the largest island around Halong Bay, and after a few hours docked on the rugged jungle-clad rock and immediately was to discover this quieter and more relaxing place. Being the low season the hotels were practically empty so I had my pick of hotel and room! What a luxury after the first night in Hanoi. For just $5 a night I had a room on the 5th floor with my own bathroom and a view directly over the harbour. The hotel was called ‘Phong Lan’ and the owner Mr Tung was a friendly guy with good english who was born on the island and also conducts rock climbing tours.

The next day I embarked on a day boat tour of Halong bay to check out the amazing sites of these limestone vertical cliffs rising out of the sea. We stopped and visited a large limestone cave which at sometimes had been inhabited. It was unfortunate that the boat captains torch was low on battery and we had to navigate the cave using the flame from lighters and light from mobile phones but we had fun and managed not to fall down any of the excavation pits. There were constant money making scemes along the trip where they try charge you for entrance fees and the short row-boat trips from the big boat to the shore. Bargaining has to become second nature in Vietnam and asking for prices beforehand is a good idea to avoid surprises.

The south of Catba Island has a number of good beaches which are apparently packed out during the high season in the summer months. It was overcast for most of the time I was there and the temperature fresh from the sea breeze, but still warmer than Tassie!

Tags: catba, dong, halong bay, hanoi, vietnam



very interesting to read your story...

   no name Apr 3, 2008 6:24 PM

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