Well, where was I? Was it Monday, or Tuesday. No, it was Wednesday, because I was on my way from Laos to Vietnam or was I? Anyway, (miss you mum!! x)
So we had made it to the Vietnamese border: we were walking across this one. We did the 'one leg in each country' trick. Couldn't resist. The border control on the Vietnamese side was interesting. The guards were friendly - for some reason, I had been expecting hostility. They made a token effort of searching our rucksacks- and then helped me pack it again.
We had been planning to go from the border to another town and then getting a train on the Reunification Express up to Hanoi. As it was, there was a bus to Hanoi at the border so after a while spent dithering, we decided to go for it.
The trip which followed will be forever known as That Bus Trip. 10-11 hours. 2 buses: The first bus had less legroom than the worst cattle class flight. The seats were solid. The window seat had a shard of glass dangling ready to drop out and impale Celia's arm through the open window. We lept about like popcorn in a pan as the bus bumped its way along. The horn was quite possibly the loudest we have heard so far - and used very frequently. Bus number two was a 'VIP' mini bus thing. It was already full to the brim when we got on- including fold down seats in the aisle which I had to share with various randoms as we continued the journey. At one point, I had the shaved head of a snoozing monk lolling onto my shoulder (they're not supposed to touch / be touched by women), personal space issues with a couple of creepy guys sat next to me and the knees of an american guy pressing into the back of my seat. This lasted for about 2 and a half hours.
It was during this trip that I got gobbed on. Vietnam is definitely back in the region where it is ok to spit, gob, hoike up, whatever you want to call it. The guy in front of me felt the need to clear his throat / chest and sent it out of the window. It caught the breeze, flew in my window and there it was, a globular strand of shiny white flemmy stuff on my trousers. Eeeuuuw. The guy must have known what had happened- not least because I made a big point of showing my disgust as I asked C for tissues. Of course he didn't apologise. I now have a nervous tick which is triggered by the sound of pre hoiking snorting...
I know that some travel heroes will be reading this and thinking "that's nothing, I did a 20 hour bus trip, with a hangover, while hosting an intestinal parasite, sat on a chicken cage, on a bus with no suspension or opening windows" well, good for you. Tell us about it on the message board. We probably have that to look forward to...
Finally, we arrived in Hanoi. We were a bit apprehensive as travellers we had spoken to in Laos said that the people in Hanoi / vietnam were aggressive - seeing western tourists as walking ATM machines. I actually really liked the city. Motorbikes are everywhere. They don't stop - to cross the road you have to walk slowly out in front of them (which seems very wrong at first) and they weave round you. When you reach the other side, you realise you're still not safe because the pavements are used as car parks, so you have to walk down the street. As for the people, yeah we got hassled but as long as you smiled and kept it friendly it was fine - certainly no worse than what we experienced in India.
So, what did we do in Hanoi??
Museum of Ethnology: - a fab place. It was a museum about all of the different tribes in Vietnam and border areas. Nice exhibits. Including a selection of traditional houses built out in the grounds. There were also examples of tombs. One of them had some rather interesting figures around the edge - apparantly symbolising rebirth and fertility. They made us laugh, but will have to ask mum to explain what they were doing when I get home.
The museum also had an exhibition on Hanoi during the period of economic restrictions. The economy was run by coupons- a bit like rationing after the second world war, only this didn't end until the Mid 1980s. It was really well done with lots of witness accounts through video or written exhibits. Interesting stories of keeping pigs and chickens in tiny appartments.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: we didn't go in and see him but we did walk around the grounds of his house. It must have been weird for him, living in a house with his mausoleum so close.... :-)
Shopping!: Lovely lovely things. Pretty bags and purses and jewellery and homeware galore - fab colours and patterns. Lacquerware tin tin pictures. Pretty vietnamese lady pictures!! Loved it.
Beer: You can buy beer for pennys. There are stalls on the side of streets - you perch on stalls on the pavement or in the gutter and watch the world go by. Nice. Spent a pleasant evening in one bar - we chatted to a swedish guy and Celia spoke to an honest guy from Bath about what goes on between western men and Thai ladies.
Experiments in Public Transport: The results?: The buses played classical music. You get wet while taking pedal rickshaw rides in the rain and feel really sorry for the chap driving. You can just about fit three people on a motorbike: you can hire them for taxis. We had a few exciting rides. We preferred the 'Karen Sandwich' formation - with the driver on the front (obviously) and celia on the back. we tried to look cool but our white knuckles may have given us away. Some bikes were smaller than others- and I squeezed many a driver between my thighs (though this never got us a reduction in the fare!). On one occassion, the driver broke too quickly, we all slid forward, he nearly fell off the seat and we donked the bike in front. No need to stop though. I can't help wondering at my fairly relaxed attitude to helmet-less, triple-person motorbike travelling compared to how worried I am when I fly.
Food!!: We enjoyed France's influence on Vietnam - cafes, bakeries and restaurants. Yum yum. Although Celia had a series of dissappointments in her desire for a quiche lorraine. The Lady was not amused. We went our for a particularly tasty meal (and early celebration for C's birthday). C made notes on what we ate. What stands out clearly for me is the starter... it was like a lesson in things to do with avocado and smoked salmon. Soooo tasty. And lots of ideas to impress all of those avocado farmers in Chile...
Halong Bay: we went on a trip to Halong Bay - there's lots of tours to choose from. We went for a 2 night trip - with one on a junk boat and the other on an island. We were hoping to have a social time on the trip. As it turned out, although we spent the first day with a family of four and a couple of brits, they had chosen the two night on the island option. So it was just the two of us for the first night on the junk boat (I was surprised by the lack of rubbish) in Halong Bay. How romantic!!
Halong bay is gorgeous - will try to get photos up soon. It has loads of limestone peaks sitting out of the water (same karst landscape as Vieng Xay in Laos but surrounded by water). It is clearly a big tourist destination and our boat was surrounded by many others when we anchored up for the night. I went for a swim around the boat but a slick of oil put the dampeners on C's dip. The bay is designated a world heritage site - I hope this means that they are managing it well and that the concentration of boats around us was a sign of them keeping other parts of the bay in pristine condition.
We had a kayaking session before heading to the island the next day. It was good to be at water level next to the islands.
It took us a couple of hours in a smaller boat to get to the island. Our home for the next night. After a choppy section into the bay area, we motored up to the beach and they dropped a gangplank into the surf. In the movies, the leading ladies would stand at the top of the plank admire the beach and saunter sexily down the walkway as the locals carried their luggage. As it was, I slipped down the last bit of gangplank and would have landed on my arse in the surf if it hadn't been for the guys ready to catch me at the bottom. Such a graceful entrance. (In my defence, it was very steep!)
The island was fab. Our accommodation was a bamboo hut with bean bags on the terrace outside. The food was gorgeous (as it had been on the boat) and there were more people to socialise and drink cocktails with. And these people had the pleasure of joining us in a karaoke session. A good time was had by all.
And that was our short experience of Vietnam. Hanoi is fab. Halong Bay is beautiful... and long may it stay so. The ladies needed to venture on as new countries and employment beckoned.....