I arrived in Hanoi after a good but very long journey and it took a few days to recover. I stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, full of narrow streets with tall 'tube' houses (so called as they are only one room across and several storeys high) with a hive of activity on the street outside. The other thing I was struck by was the hundreds of motorbikes and scooters weaving their way along the roads tooting their horns. In fact the biggest hazard I have encountered so far is in attempting to cross the road as the traffic never stops. The art is to step out and stroll across, letting the traffic swerve around you. The biggest no no, is to stop in your tracks...only at your peril. The pavements are also busy with people sat on very small stools cooking or eating.
I spent the first couple of days exploring the city and getting a sense of the place, busy, noisy. people working hard at making a living. There are numerous street sellers carrying their goods in baskets on their shoulder. On the Friday I decided to go to the museums only to discover they are closed on a Friday. Travelllers lesson number one - read the guide. That evening I went to a restaurant, ordered my food and then the reastaurant plunged in to darkness. Yes a powercut. However, the show must go on. The staff brought out candles and my waitress brought out a fan and promptly began to fan me. Impressively my food soon arrived, which I ate by candlelight and with the waitress still fanning me. That's a first.
After Hanoi, I took a trip up to Ha Long Bay. The first leg was by bus to Ha Long and then by boat. Getting on board was a feat in itself as I gingerly edged my way along a very narrow gangplank with over 20kgs strapped to my back. Phew. The islands were quite stunning (will upload photos as soon as) and as it was overcast it made it very atmospheric. I slept on board the first night and spent the evening playing cards with two New Zealand couples. The following day we sailed to Cat Ba Island for some trekking. Unfortunately there were too many people around, so I was glad to get back down as soon as possible.
After Ha Long Bay I arrived back in Hanoi for an overnight stop and then an early start to the airport to fly to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it is still locally callled. The journey was quite eventful, starting with the taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel! I had to yell at him to wake him up and insist he put the radio on and turn the a/c up. I was reassured only by the sound of him singing...well it was better than the alternative. I then eventually found the check in desk, which was tucked away in a corner in the basement and proceeded to my gate in plenty of time. However, they changed the gate at the last minute and an American woman and I found ourselves boarding the plane just five minutes before take off and literally just enough time to buckle up.
I thought Hanoi was noisy and busy but Saigon was even more so, but with such a friendliness and warmth about the place. I really liked it. There is also a definite French feel about the architecture with wide boulevards. Again I spent a couple of days exploring. I wnet to the War Remnants Museum, which I found very upsetting, full of photos of Vietnamese injured during the Vietnam war. the following day I went to the Cu Chi tunnels. An Australian couple staying at my hotel were going too. Ray was a veteran from the war and his first visit back to Vietnam. His wife told me that he served on a gun with two other Australian soldiers and all their children have contracted a cancer related illness before the age of 35. Coincidence? On the way to the tunnels our guide told us how life has changed since Clinton lifted the trade embargo in 1995 - and capitalism came to Vietnam. This answered lots of questions as I had not really experienced Vietnam as a communist state. Our guide told how prior to 1995 everyone tended to wear the same style of clothes, shoes, hair, but now people enjoy much more individualism. Something the younger generation appreciate in particular.
The tunnels were much more interesting than I had anticipated. Sixteen thousand people lived in the 200km of tunnels during the war. Sadly only 5,000 survived, the rest dying mainly from illness such as malaria. We were shown how the people cooked, washed, made weapons and booby traps. Gruesome to say the least. One of the tunnels has been widened for the tourists and electric lighting installed. However, our guide was insistent we went down one of the original tunnels. Now small enclosed spaces is not my idea of fun, but... The tunnel was less than a metre high and only a shoulder width apart and within seconds I was plunged into darkness, so I had to feel my way ahead. Fortunately there was a guy infront and it was good to be able to talk with him until he announced he suffered from claustrophobia. He then yelled back that there was a snake...alive and kicking. Time for the nearest exit.
From Saigon, I travelled south again to the Mekong Delta. The tributaries were much wider than I expected and the people living there use the river for everything, trade, washing, cooking, bathing. In the early evening we saw several children bathing in the river, the smaller ones wearing lifejackets. They were standing in the middle of a circle of posts in the water, presumably to protect them from getting carried out with the current. We slept on a floating hotel. Not as grand as it sounds but fun all the same.
In the morning we carried on by boat up the Mekong river to the Cambodian border...
I've enjoyed Vietnam and in hindsight would have liked to have stayed a few more days and visited Sapa. It has gone very quickly. I've also met some nice travellers along the way from all over the globe, lots from Australia and France, but also New Zealand, Switzerland, Netherlands to name a few.
Next time from Cambodia...and I will upload photos as soon as I find somewhere who has the technology