It is easy to see why Vietnam is popular amongst travellers, particularly first timers and / or those out on their gap yaar. For one thing, it's cheap. Beers cost 70p. A four course meal costs £4. For another, it has the perfect balance of adventure and comfortability. Vietnamese culture is undeniably different from the West with their mad driving, Street salesmen, temples and weird looking food. But at the same time, unlike in India, the country completely caters to the traveller. There are tour guides, student hostels, English speaking staff and Westerners aplenty. You feel safe in an environment that is at once different but somehow also familiar. Vietnam is like dipping your toe in the waters of travelling.
This is all very easy to say after having been to India and China which, being much more difficult to navigate and acclimatise ourselves to, ensured we felt confident in this less extreme environment. For example, when it came to the traffic, there was no hesitatation. We knew to just start walking into the road and that the vehicles would swerve us. When it came to street vendors, we knew to be firm when we didn't want something. We also knew to be less cautious and actually try some of the stuff on offer. As a result we enjoyed some nice sugary pastries on almost a daily basis.
Another reason why people enjoy Vietnam so much, the main reason, is because it is a great country. As in India, the locals are friendly and disarming. They're also similarly shrewd and thrifty. When getting the shuttle bus from the airport to our hostel in Hannoi, there were no more spaces for the last two passengers and so the driver quickly presented two small stools that would serve as makeshift seats. He wasn't going to let a small thing like car capacity stand in the way of his making a few more dollars. Everywhere we went, the Vietnamese smiled and, when the opportunity presented itself, were eager to talk to us. This friendly demeanour spoke to and helped create the relaxing atmosphere that was present in the Old Quarter, a concentrated area of bars, restaurants and shops that travellers frequented throughout the day. There was something about that Old Quarter. Whether it was the good local food (a blessing after China), the quaint coffee shops and juicers, the hoards of people scattered on the streets (Vietnamese and Western alike), or the charming vendor owners I'm not sure, but there was something about that place which made me feel more relaxed or lighter than I had at any other stage of the trip. We spent every afternoon and evening, just soaking up the special atmosphere.
We did other things too. On our first day we visited some of the local temples, a market and a prison Museum, the latter being a particularly interesting sight. It revealed the modern history of attempted colonisation in the country, first by France, something I knew nothing of, and then, after the people rose up and liberated themselves in the early 1950s, by America. It was both interesting and thought provoking to learn details about a country and its internal events that are normally reduced to a footnote in Western textbooks.
Stepping into the culture was important. As relaxed and enjoyable as Vietnam is, there is an ever present danger of it becoming another trip to Napa. With hoards of young people in the immediate area, booze cruises and bar crawls thrive. DJs, probably all called Dave, station themselves in buzzing bars and announce free shots with mainstream music playing in the background. The one night we took part was cool. Talking with old friends and new ones after quite a long time amongst a non English speaking nation was refreshing. But I wouldn't want it every night. That's another holiday altogether in my opinion.
So I was kinda glad we didn't do the extended cruise around Halong Bay, which would have likely involved the more booze cruisey aspect. Instead we just took a boat through a series of disconnected mountains that, much like in Yangshuo, appeared to have just risen spontaneously from the watery depths. It created a pretty incredible and unique setting. Best of all, we were able to go kayaking through them. Even though this meant me exposing myself to another practical activity that would potentially end up embarrassing me, I was eager to do it. It allowed us to make our way through small caves into pools of water, surrounded by the imposing floating mountains. We could be right in amongst it. And I wasn't even that bad. I actually kinda felt like Boromir wading down the river towards the grand gates of Gondor. That was until I stepped out of the kayak, my trousers dripping wet (something I thought went with the territory), and my guide, looking at me alarmed, said: ‘’0what happened to you? You fall in?’ Pippin it is.
After the Halong Bay trip we spent most of our time in the Old Quarter, sometimes because of the weather but often because we just wanted to. It felt like we could have spent a few more days just chilling iun Hanoi, indulging in our relaxed routine, but soon enough we had to leave for Hue, our next stop. Another overnight bus awaited us.