Indochina 2016 - Vietnam

Halong Bay

Entering Vietnam at an airport was, as expected, quick & easy and after we'd found Vinh, our guide for this leg of the tour, we were soon in another minivan and heading into Hanoi on a wide, modern motorway.

Hanoi traffic, seen from the minibus

As we drove in the traffic got busier & busier, from heavy to intense to unbelievably packed to outside my ability to comprehend. The number of cars remained more or less constant but around them more & more motorbikes, mopeds and motor scooters joined the roads, flowing like a liquid and taking advantage of the tiniest gaps to squeeze through. As the riders increased and the streets grew narrower the rules of the road seemed to be treated more as guidelines than hard & fast regulations and things like signalling, lane discipline and deciding which side of the road to drive on became more of a personal choice, although traffic lights were generally observed. From the safety of the minivan this sea of anarchy looked like a disaster waiting to happen but somehow the hordes of drivers not only managed to avoid each other but the whole mass kept moving, what looked like an inevitable gridlock never materialised.

Having checked in to the hotel we then assembled to walk these impossible streets on our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant. An extra complication immediately became apparent - the pavements were clearly not intended for pedestrians and were filled with parked motorbikes & small eateries with gas-powered stoves and little stools for diners, meaning we had to walk in the street itself. With traffic streaming past on one side and shop owners extolling their wares on the other we walked our narrow line, crossing over only when Vinh had established a clear path, seemingly by staring down the oncoming vehicles.

Hanoi street corner

Interestingly it didn't take long to pick up the street protocols and we were soon quite blasé about crossing the most forbidding city streets. The trick seemed to be to wait for the tiniest break in the flow of traffic then make eye contact with the oncoming drivers and proceed across at a slow but regular pace. The vehicles didn't stop for you (unless there really was nowhere else to go) but would weave around your path, meaning that a sudden stop would put everyone in jeopardy. After a while it became second nature, culminating (for me) in Saigon where I crossed ten lanes of traffic without breaking a sweat. I've read that removing most traffic restrictions in urban areas leads to lower speeds and a more observant & cautious attitude from drivers & pedestrians, something like that was certainly working in Hanoi.

The restaurant itself was built in the Vietnamese 'thin & tall' style - apparently property taxes were established by the length of your street frontage so this dimension was minimised and the building extended back & up as required. In this instance the result was a kitchen on the ground floor, a tight staircase, and differently styled dining rooms on each storey. The food, as we found all the way through Vietnam, was delicious, ample and very cheap, even in relatively fancy places like this.

We were only in Hanoi for one night (we would be returning later) and next morning we were off towards Halong Bay where we'd be staying on a 'cruise boat' out at sea. En route we stopped at a pottery 'factory' where we observed ceramics of all shapes & sizes being made and which featured an extremely pushy sales assistant in the associated shop - if you expressed the slightest interest in a piece or asked for a price (nothing was tagged) she was immediately off towards the tills to wrap it up as if you'd agreed to buy it.

Our cruiser, Halong Bay

Arriving at Halong Bay we took a small motorboat out to our cruiser which was moored a little way offshore. As we chugged out of the harbour the hundreds of islands in the bay slowly emerged from the misty distance and our small flotilla of tourist boats wove their way through their dramatic shapes. The bay was stunningly beautiful with the tall islands poking out of the still waters like drowned mountain peaks (which is essentially what they were), their green slopes broken by rocky cliff faces and the reflections balancing their towering masses. Watching them from the boat added to their stately majesty as our gentle progress slowly revealed new views & aspects. For the two days we were there I never tired of the natural beauty on display and the overnight stay meant we could watch them fade away into dusk and gradually appear with the dawn. An amazing place.

While out in the bay we had a couple of excursions - one to visit a series of caves in one of the islands and the other to paddle round in kayaks. This led us through a flooded passageway to a lagoon inside one of the island and, when we paused from rowing, a sense of isolate stillness with only the primordial cries of birds echoing off the slopes to disturb the silence. From timeless tranquility we moved to lively activity as we spotted a group of monkeys gathered by the waterline who responded with gusto when Vinh tossed them some fruit. Very cute.

On our journey back to Hanoi we stopped at the Production Workshop For Disabled People, a project to teach arts & crafts skills to people injured by the Vietnam war and its aftermath, which is now mostly those with birth defects caused by their parents' being poisoned with Agent Orange. The works were nice, if a bit too obviously touristy for my tastes, but in amongst them I found a semi-abstract tree embroidery that was just my cup of tea. The manager thanked me profusely for buying it and apologised that I wouldn't be able to meet the artist as they were all at lunch. I left feeling pleased that I'd bought a nice artwork and warmly contented that I'd done something, however slight, to repair the damage done during the war that had been splashed across my childhood memories.

Mobile shop, Hanoi

Back in Hanoi the road around the Hoan Kiem lake, not far from our hotel, was closed to traffic as it was the weekend (I'd totally lost track of days of the week by this point) which made a leisurely stroll much more appealing. The streets bordering the lake were filled with activity - people rode hired 'hoverboards' (some of which had added wheels & handlebars, making a sort of compact go-kart), children drove tiny electric cars, circles were playing da cau (a sort of Hacky Sack played with a shuttlecock), a band were playing some passable rock music, and much more. There was some minor hassling of tourists to buy tickets or tacky keepsakes but it was easy enough to brush aside. Several places were advertising 'Weasel' coffee, made from beans that have (ahem) 'passed through' a civet before being roasted, but our guide had assured us that the genuine product was extremely rare & expensive and usually presented to visiting dignitaries. It was hard to decide whether a faked product would be better or worse than something actually picked out of rodent poo but I wasn't really tempted to try either.

That evening we visited a water puppet performance, one of those 'traditional arts' that only seem to be watched by tourists. The show was entertaining, if a little baffling at times, but the very entertaining small orchestra providing backing music was frequently overwhelmed by the over-amplified voices of the two female singers who were, in traditional style, consistently high & screechy. After the theatre Vinh led us to a eatery popular with the locals (we were the only foreigners there), very plain & undecorated and apparently only serving one dish - a bowl of rice vermicelli to which you added various other ingredients to create a harmonious whole. It was, as we'd come to expect by this point, delicious. A poster on the wall denounced a rival restaurant on the other side of the street which had opened with exactly the same name in an attempt to take advantage of this place's renown, apparently this was common business practice here.

Sax Santa, Hanoi

Music at the water puppets performance

Next day we had a series of outings. First was the Temple of Literature, a Confucian university founded a thousand years ago. The building itself was interesting, if a little drab after the temples we'd seen earlier in the tour, but it was host to dozens of young women dressed in similar pastel-coloured costumes who were here for some sort of pre-graduation ceremony. Next we visited the Hoa Lo prison where the sufferings of Vietnamese prisoners fighting for independence from French colonialism were described in graphic detail while the American prisoners in the Vietnam War were presented as enjoying a mildly inconvenient incarceration. I appreciate that patriotism will colour the way conditions are portrayed but this felt like the continuation of a propoganda exercise that everyone else had moved on from. Finally we walked back through the Old Quarter with its myriad of shops, markets, street sellers and sights, including a train line that ran directly outside rows of houses, no fence or railings of any description.

There had been Christmas decorations everywhere we'd been on the trip (purely for the tourists I was assured on several occasions) but the hotel lobby sported an odd feature - the life-sized Santa mannequin was posed playing a saxophone. I'd seen a similarly equipped figure in Vientiane and wondered what cross-cultural miscommunication had led to this odd juxtaposition. Still, it amused me greatly and I hope to encourage the Sax Santa phenomenon to spread further across the globe.

Back at the hotel we collected our bags and set off for the train station to catch our sleeper service down to central Vietnam. In our modern & well-equipped cabins we polished off the takeaway suppers we'd ordered earlier, tucked ourselves in and, with whistles & clanks, we were off.

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