The train journey from Hue to Hanoi is a bit bumpy. The train rocks from side to side so that when you wake up in the morning it feels as though your head has been shaken violently for ten hours - which it has and no amount of paracetamol is going to help! Ho hum. We were given an extensive meal in our cabin which we shared with two quiet young Vietnamese guys, which was fairly inedible (lukewarm soup with one limp bit of pork skin, hairs and all, anyone?) aside from the spring roll which was just delicious and we had brought our own provisions as is now a standard practice for us on these journeys.
On arrival at just before 6am we took our time gathering ourselves and missed nearly all the touts, apart from one who offered a taxi to his hotel and the rate seemed to be ok and we just wanted to sleep without being jerked around from side to side! On closer inspection it was a filthy place but it had a comfy bed and right in the old quarter which is an atmospheric chaos of little streets overflowing with people and shops and cars and motorbikes. Not sure if we were quite in the mood to appreciate it so much. For a start we were very much loking forward to checking into the Hilton that we had booked so many weeks ago and had pretty much kept us in the country when the temptation was to cut our losses and head back to Thailand or divert into Laos or something. We split up and explored the city and did a little bit of Christmas shopping which could be wrapped expertly for next to nothing on the side of one of the streets in the old quarter.
The next day (Christmas Eve) was very exciting - being treated like royalty with our own check-in desk on the 7th floor and jumping onto the most comfy bed in the world and free internet and massive plush bathrom with a bath which is an unimaginable luxury. We headed off to an even posher hotel called the Metropole and had a glass of Champagne and gorgeous lunch and booked our Christmas dinner after devouring the menu word for word. We later headed to the lounge in the Hilton for free drinks, of which we both took advantage of and headed out into the town following the crowds in no particular direction. We ended up outside the big Notre Dame-esque cathedral (St.Joseph's, I think it is called) and bought a floaty balloon and a santa hat and found a place for dinner where we could watch the growing crowds as it got late into the night.
On Christmas day we had breakfast in bed and yearned for some Chistmassy music which would have made us even more homesick than we were already feeling. We managed to drag ourselves to the lunchtime carol concert in the huge lobby and felt a pang when the choir of blind children sang a very passable "silent night"... Calling home was also tough but very rewarding and reassuring to hear familiar voices after so many months.
Our dinner was superb and we had lovely wine and Cheryl looked a million dollars. Hard to remember our last Christmas when we got engaged - was it only a year ago? So much has happened and we have grown so much as people and as a couple - can't all have happened within a year surely?
We woke the next morning all groggy from the rich food and gallons of vino and decided on staying another day, after 30 seconds of weighing up present comfort with the agony of packing and leaving within a few hours. So we had another lazy day of swimming in the pool and room service and free stuff from the lounge. It was a bubble of perceived comfort but I think by the end of Boxing Day we were ready to kick on and start up the journey again, which was spent in a dodgy guest house above a travel agents that we had booked our onward travel into Laos from.
That was quite another chapter. We had planned to go by bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang in Laos, which on the map is no more than perhaps a 14/16 hour road trip. Unfortunately the lady just kept on agreeing with our suggestions - for example when we asked what time the bus left Hanoi... pause... longer pause... "perhaps 7 o'clock? 8 o'clock?" one of us piped up and she said yes, 7 and 8 and 9.30am although in fact it wasn't nothing of the sort and she was just repeating whatever we said (adding her own bits as a vlever diversion) and it was going to take DAYS of travelling to get there by bus!! In the end we booked the plane tickets for a direct connection, irrespective of the costs just to get rid of this mad country and to somewhere a bit more sane!
So after nearly one month we left the next day to another country. We have got real mixed feelings about Vietnam and I think it is only now that we are starting to be more charitable when talking about Vietnam to other travellers but have heard a lot of similar stories to ours from those that spent 4 weeks there. Conversely, it seems that those who spent just two weeks came away with a far rosier impression. Never mind. We're out of it now and the next chapter starts with the beautiful city of Luang Prabang in the backwater of Laos - the most laid-back nation in South East Asia.