In Hanoi, the only conceivable way of crossing the road is to keep moving slowly and constantly, and hope the solid wall of motorcyclists remembers to go around, and not over, you. Hanoi is a buzzy, slightly chaotic kind of place, but surprisingly friendly for a capital city. Outside the horrifically stressful old quarter, where shopkeepers and tuk-tuk drivers could easily hassle you into a whimpering wreck, the city is home to an enviable array of adorable, stylish cafes populated by adorable, stylish Vietnemese. We saw a lovely, creative exhibition of photos of the city by young Vietnamese snappers, and went to the water puppet theatre. In this traditional art form, puppeteers, hidden from view and standing waist-deep in water, control the puppets via wooden rods under the water. Tourists were falling over themselves to get tickets, which surprised me, but it was strangely moving - innocent, genuinely captivating.
From the capital, we headed to the coast, and off of it - onto Cat Ba island. Just south of a more popular UNESCO-protected bay, but sharing the same kind of landscape, we hoped to avoid the crowds. (Little did we know that Cat Ba is a fully fledged destination for Vietnamese holidaymakers, and we had arrived in the middle of the summer holidays, on a weekend.) The huge window in our hotel room overlooked a stunning bay filled with colourful but dilapidated fishing boats, and we took a private day trip on an also somewhat dilapidated sailing boat. The trip took us around the unique Lan Ha Bay, sailing between jagged, rocky islands whose unusual shapes were formed when they were still below sea level, many, many moons ago. The trip also involved kayaking through some little caves into secluded lagoons, where we saw loads of beautiful blue, green and brown jellyfish. Unfortunately, it also involved Shahar and I toppling into the sea from our kayak, thanks to a combination of a big wave and an overly ambitious tour guide. It was my first and probably last kayak experience. Back on the island, we took a white-knuckle ride on the back of two motorbike taxis (the only option) to a viewpoint that was formerly a French, then Japanese, then Vietnamese fort. From up there, we had a spectacular view of the huge craggy islands, some covered in greenery and some skirted by secluded white beaches, dotted all over the sea below our feet.
We then hotfooted it further down this rather spindly country to lovely Hoi An, lit up nightly by countless cheery lanterns that adorn every tree and shopfront. The old quarter of this riverside town is practically groaning under the weight of decorative Chinese temples and old, beautifully carved, dark wood merchants' houses - row upon row of them - that have nearly all been turned into chic restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. It's a very, very easy place to be a tourist but it still retains its charm thanks to the authentic, original buildings (and the buy-one-get-one-free mohitos). We met a lovely waiter called Dat who took us for a late-night drinking session, and we also spent a day under a big leafy umbrella on a nearby, and surprisingly sparsely populated, beach.
Our final Vietnamese stop was Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). The landlady of our hotel was an unstoppable, hard-nosed, funny woman in her 60s, dashing between her various businesses and forever complaining about how busy she was. One evening we returned to our hotel room to find she had painted most of the inside of the guesthouse, including the door to our room and the lock we had attached to the door. In this city we visited the War Remnants Museum, which contained a relentless assault of photos from the Vietnam war, including countless images of villagers seconds before their death at the hands of American soldiers, a display of pictures by photojournalists who died in the conflict, and a nightmarish exhibition of photos of contemporary victims of Agent Orange - showing the ongoing effects of chemical warfare that are still causing an overwhelming array of disabilities. It was more upsetting than informative.
The museum also contained a rather proud display of then-and-now photos, in a demonstration of the country's apparently miraculous recovery. It's true that we saw an incredibly modern, prosperous country on the tourist trail (and, I have to admit, we made little effort to leave it) - but there's undoubtedly a lot of poverty that we didn't see, and the country is ill with corruption at every level. (We heard the Vietnamese are used to bribing doctors in order to receive better treatment.) One very potent symbol of Vietnam's bid to present itself as a thriving nation is a gargantuan tower block in the centre of Saigon, entirely dwarfing its surroundings and offering amazing views across the sprawling city. In Ho Chi Minh City we also saw a gig in a bar where a local guy belted out Metallica in a suitably heroic voice, accompanied by three beauties in ridiculous, tiny, gold-sequined dresses, and we watched as people played shuttlecock in the park - kicking a shuttlecock to and fro in impressively gymnastic ways. Finally, we visited the former presidential palace, weirdly kept in a time warp from the moment the tanks crashed through the fancy gates in the 1970s. It had a dancefloor on the roof next to the helipad, covetable bakelite phones, and a gambling room complete with amazing, '60s, geometric furniture.
P.S. There's barely been a day in the past five months in which something amazing/wonderful/frustrating hasn't happened, and it's starting to take its toll. Not that I'm complaining, but Shahar and I are both starting to get a bit tired by now, and have bin coughing like hags the last few days. Most of my clothes have holes in, my hair is best kept hidden from public view at all times under a scarf or hat, and - despite my best efforts at slapping on the factor-50 sun cream - my skin is decidely stripey, in the traditional English red-on-white fashion.