On Day 13 it was yet another early start as we boarded our (by now much hated) bus to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is on the North Vietnamese coast near China, and is, you've guessed it, a bay. The name, in case you were interested, means Bay of the Descending Dragon. It's based on an old Vietnamese myth. We had a boat all to ourselves with very comfortable cabins and a nice chillout area on top to sunbathe, and we sailed out into the warm blue water, past the floating villages of fishermen. The journey to our mooring spot for the night was spectacular - we travelled between limestone islands with jungly vegetation on top. We stopped at one of the islands to visit some caves inside which contained huge caverns filled with stalagtites and stalagmites, formed in much the same way as the ones I went to visit in Borneo.
After the caves we relaxed on board the boat, chatted, chilled out, and had a few drinks. Some people even went swimming in the water, which was azure blue and as warm as bathwater. For lunch and evening meals we dined on amazing meals of fresh seafood. In the evening we watched an incredible sunset and lay around on deck chatting and looking at the stars until it was time for a much needed early night. A very relaxing and memorable day.
On Day 14 we awoke in the middle of a huge thunderstorm, the rain was literally falling in sheets. We sailed back to harbour and hurried off our boat onto our bus, where we journeyed to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. The city has a history which dates back around 1000 years, but was largely constructed under the French occupation, and as a result has a very Parisian feel about it - tree lined boulevards and little cafes. It felt very strange to think that I was actually on the other side of the world to Paris!
For lunch we went to a restaurant called KOTO, which stands for "Know One to Teach One." It was set up by a former Intrepid leader, and is a catering training scheme for disadvantaged street children who would otherwise fall into a life of crime. Upon starting the programme the teenagers are provided with accommodation, medical insurance, a small wage and a bike. The programme takes 18 months and aims to qualify the teenagers to work in some of Hanoi's best catering establishments. It has been enormously successful and the operation is gradually expanding. It was the inspiration for Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant in London, which I assume you know is based on a similar thing.
That evening we climbed aboard a cyclo for a tour of the city. Cyclos are basically like wheelchairs with a bicycle attached to the back. As the traffic is tremendously heavy in Hanoi, it was somewhat disconcerting to be driven through it in rush hour, but drivers in these countries seems to have a kind of sixth sense for avoiding accidents, and we made it thorugh unscathed.
It was totally amazing to witness the sheer number of motorbikes on the roads in this city (and in Vietnam and Cambodia in general.) For most Vietnamese the family car is a motorbike, but obviously this can lead to a few space problems when it comes to transportation. The most people I have seen on a motorbike at one time is five. Other things I have seen on a motorbike include: an entire family inclusive of grandmother and baby, a breastfeeding mother, a karaoke machine, a life-sized inflatable dolphin, a cage containing a pig, a dead cow. There are so many more examples that I would be writing all night if I went through them all. Crossing the road is therefore a bit unnerving, but we began to develop a knack for it. You basically step out into the endless stream of motobikes riding five abreast, and walk very slowly across the road (if you are lucky - and I was, experiencing only one near miss) they will notice you and swerve to avoid you. It is not especially safe but seems to work reasonably well in the almost complete absence of pedestrian crossings.
The cyclo trip around the city was really enjoable. I always think early evening is a good time to view any place, as people are finishing work and preparing the evening meal or socialising. There were a lot of people sat around on the pavements doing nothing, and a suprising number of people playing badminton on the pavements. We were dropped off at a theatre, where we went to watch a display by the Vietnamese Water Puppets - which need no further explanation. The puppets depicted a number of scenes from Vietnamese mythology and culture, and the scenes were performed to traditional Vietnamese music - very good. After dinner we went for a drink at one of the many stalls that sell beer for 10p a pint(!) and a delicious Vietnamese meal, before I went home to bed.
On Day 15 we got up to go and visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh party which fought against the Americans and the South in the Vietnam War. Uncle Ho (as people like to call him) requested to be cremated after his death, and his ashes split between the South and the North of the country to symbolise his desire for Vietnam to be reunited. However, upon his death in 1969, the powers that be decided not to follow these wishes, and for wont of anything better to do with him, he has been lying around in a glass case in a mausoleum in Hanoi ever since. Massive queues of Vietnamese and tourists go to see him every day. After close inspection I must say he looks a lot like Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid (pop-culture reference mum and dad, you can ignore it). He also looks surprisingly good for someone who has been dead almost forty years. The reason for this is that he is briefly removed once a year for the authorities to apply a new coat of whatever keeps him looking so healthy.
After this we went to have a look at some of the local houses and places of work for Ho Chi Minh, before visting a museum all about Uncle Ho. I discovered during my time in Vietnam that Vietnamese museums are not very good. They contain a great number of artefacts and photgraphs, with explanation of what these items are, but there is absolutely no explanation of the context of these things, and therefore if you don't know the history of whatever you are looking at in intricate detail, you are left very baffled. Nonetheless, it was vaguely interesting to see a collection of pamphlets and speeches by Uncle Ho during his time in power. He seems to have been a fairly good guy with the right idea, but then it's somewhat difficult to make that assumption based on a visit to a museum about communism in a communist country. According to our guide though, it all went downhill after Uncle Ho died, and Vietnam is now blessed with a corrupt and inept government.
After this I went with a couple of the girls for lunch by the very attractive lake in the centre of Hanoi, and then to the Revolutionary Museum, which was about the various wars Vietname has been embroiled in over the last 150 years. Unfortunately the same rules of Vietnamese museums applied (see above) and the experience was somewhat less than illuminating.
The day was saved, however, by an exceptional curry for dinner, and a few very cheap and strong cocktails at one of the bars in town, followed by an exhilirating ride home on a motorbike taxi with Katherine. It was rather a long-winded journey as the driver insisted on driving through darkened streets whilst beeping his horn at nothing in particular, to draw attention to the two western girls on the back of his motorbike.
Day 16 was a very relaxed affair. I went for a browse around the shops in town with a couple of the girls, before returning for a very good Vietnamese massage in the massage parlour over the road from our hotel. The only slightly embarrassing fact was that I was so sweaty from the hot and humid climate, that the girl had to sit me under a fan for a good few minutes to dry me before beginning the massage. She was a really sweet girl though, and despite the fact that the only word she knew in English was "ok" and the only Vietnamese I knew were words for "hello" and "thank you", we had a surprisingly good conversation!
After this we headed to the train station for our overnight train (my fourth, and hopefully the final one of my life). However, although we had been briefed to expect a skanky and old train with dirty bedsheets, it was a huge improvement on what I had been anticipating. There were four beds to a compartment, and a door to the compartment, thus minimising noise. I shared with three non-snoring girls, and although the beds sheets had probably been used a few times, it was still a massive improvement on sleeping on the flea-ridden floor of a Bornean longhouse.
We arrived very early in the historical city of Hue (pronounced Hway) and went straight to our hotel for a wash. after this we came back out and boarded our transport for the day - motorbikes (don't worry, I wasn't driving - probably not wise after failing my driving test in the Cook Islands). We used these modes of transport to travel around the city for the day, and it was fantastic. We visited the Imperial Citadel, which was the former home of many kings, mostly destroyed in the war but international funding is allowing it to be gradually rebuilt. I learnt from this that Vietnam is probably the only country in the world to be able to boast a transexual king in its past. Still not sure how that worked. After this we went on a ride through tiny back lanes and out into the Vietnamese countryside. This was one of the highlights of my trip so far - racing down raised tracks between paddy fields. The rice had recently been harvested and resown, and the green shoots were poking up through the water, which was blue and white reflecting the sky. There were a few workers in traditional conical hats in the fields, and jagged mountains in the distance. It was stunning. Other highlights of the day consisted of a delicious vegetarian lunch, a trip on the Perfume River, and a trip to see a woman with one arm making conical hats, one of which I bought. It has been a nightmare to preserve it without it getting squashed ever since, but I am determined for it to make it back to England.
After this we were exhausted, but headed out for a luxury dinner at a French restaurant. Tip: don't order Duck a l'Orange in Vietnam. You are likely to receive a few pieces of duck fat in a a bowl of orange-flavoured soup.