Hello from Hanoi.
A while since I last wrote, yes i know. I must confess that I haven't been the keenest of bloggers since I departed on my travels, but this has (in part) been down to lack of available internet in Vietnam and slow connection speed. Facebook is technically banned here due to communist rule (you can get on in a few places if you try) and sometimes even hotmail is funny. I have been writing in my journal here and there though, so have recorded the most memorable moments of the past week.
I can't really remember where I left off to be honest. We were in Ho Chi Minh I think...? Let's go from there anyway...from Ho Chi Minh City we moved on to Hoi An by means of a sleeper train. These things are like Harry Potter - seriously! There are four bunk beds in each carriage, and it's all wooden interior like the Harry Potter films. I was put with three girls (alright for me, ahem): Beth, Susie and Sarah, who were all really good fun. We ended up watching the Bounty Hunter on Sarah's laptop whilst eating 'fake' oreos (called Cremeos...!). We were slightly heady with sugar afterwards, so ended up being a bit silly - with no alcohol in sight may I add! I slept pretty well which is good, as the first sleeper train I went on was awful due to my erratic bowel movements and constant nausea.
Anyway, we got to Hoi An about midday - a sleepy little village that is famous for its silk trade. There were so many tailors it was untrue! Lots of people got things made for them overnight (suits, dresses), but I bought a loose fitting white top that was ready made instead. There wasn't much to do there apart from shop and have cups of coffee. We did cycle to the beach which was really worth it actually, although I had the worst toilet visits of the trip in a little shack by the side of the cafe we ate at. Thankfully it wasn't a squat affair otherwise I would have been doomed...
So, to cut a long story short, Hoi An was good but a little quiet for my liking. We did see the full moon 'festival' though, with people lighting floating lanterns and setting them upon the river (I did have photos of this but have since lost my camera memory card, so will have to steal pics off people in the group...what can I say, S#%T happens.
From Hoi An we caught a private coach to Hue via the Hai van Pass. The scenery was beautiful (again, i did have pics of this but will have to steal off people's facebook pages when they put their photos up), so the four hour journey didn't seem quite so long. We climbed up the side of a forrested hill, lush and dense with vegetation, before stopping at the top for drinks and a toilet stop. When we got to Hue we had 15 mins to freshen up and then had an orientation walk with our tour leader, Mark. I was feeling pretty bad anyway that day, but about halfway round the walk I felt so weak that I thought I was going to faint, so Mark sat me in a cafe where he knew the owner quite well, and he made me the nicest pineapple shake which temporarily lessened my agony (oh, woe is me!). Mark came back to meet me after leaving the group to look round, then suggested we got a taxi to the hospital to sort me out, as I'd been feeling ill for 5 days without any sign of improvement. I went in and they gave me an ultrasound and a blood test, and after waiting for four hours they decided I had an enlarged colon, prescribed me some antibiotics and let me go home. Feeling MUCH better now, thank goodness, but at the time it wasn't a particularly enjoyable experience. I'm just so glad it happened while I was on the tour and not on my own: I would have definitely been looking for flights home if that had been the case! :(
The next morning I felt so much brighter, so went on a motorbike tour of the local sights, which included ancient tombs of some kings or other. It was such a good ride, and one tomb in particular was very peaceful and serene. We found a sensitivity plant that was growing like a weed - the ones that you touch and it recoils straight away. I was fascinated and kept trying to find more of them to prod, like a little kid. Who needs ancient tombs when you've got cool plants like that around? That's all I'm saying...
Our next stop after Hue was Halong Bay, via Hanoi. Halong itself didn't have much to offer, but the bay was incredible. It's full of these stone formations called karsts that rise out of the sea like tall cliffs covered with trees and bushes. Legend has it that a dragon carved them out as it swam the local waters, but I don't know the geographical explanation of how they were really formed. We took a boat through the many karsts that littered the vast open water, and on board we were given a 7 course seafood buffet, including fresh prawns, dressed and spiced crab, fried squid, spring rolls, some white fish which we couldn't identify, and I can't remember the rest. It was sooo good though. When we'd finished stuffing our faces we went in pairs on kayaks through a series of karsts and underneath one that had been eroded by the waves into a sort of lagoon. Then we got back into the boat and were taken to a massive cave that had been made festive with coloured lights and music - reminded me of the queue to a disneyworld ride or something. Very strange. Our guide was showing us formations in the rock that the vietnamese believed to be religious - dragons, turtles etc - when all we could see were things that looked rude!
On our return to Hanoi we were given the afternoon to ourselves, so most of us went for a thai meal (which was probably the nicest sit-down meal I've had so far). Then we did a bit of shopping and got ready for a water puppet show in the evening. It was only a short performance but it detailed the rural life of the vietnamese from its origins up to the present day, where agriculture is still a massive part of everyday life. I'm still not sure how it works, but the puppeteers appear to be half submerged in water, operating puppets from behind a screen so all you see is the wooden characters bobbing up and down to the live, traditional music that was played in the background. They used quite a lot of pyrotechnics which was impressive, and the intricacy of the puppets themselves was also quite surprising. We ventured out for dinner when the show was over, and went back quite early to sleep off all the hours of travelling.
Next day it was Sarah's birthday, a girl from Scarborough who I grew quite close to. She was turning 22 so wanted to celebrate in style. We planned a day of sightseeing some of the local sights - Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum being one of them. Basically, he was their last prime minister and they love him to death (literally). He is embalmed in his mausoleum which is open to the public 5 days a week but only for a couple of hours in the morning. The room is ICE cold, to help preserve his body I presume, and it was really eerie walking around a dead body that looked so full of life. Then we took a few photos of the One Pillar Pagoda, which is just next to the Mausoleum. Some of us wanted to go to the Temple of Literature but the general consensus was to go and get a drink/lunch because it was so hot and sticky, then have the afternoon free to wander round. Jen, a lovely canadian lady who was friends of Charlottles (they met on a tour of South America in 2008) was staying in Hanoi until 9pm the next evening, so we decided that we would spend the day together and see the Temple of Literature then.
Later that night we went for dinner at a sort of Western style cafe/coffee shop/bakery, that served typical food like quiche, sandwiches, panninis, jacket potatoes etc. I had a tasty greek salad with rye bread, and although the feta wasn't up to much in comparison to the Greek version, it wasn't bad at all. Mark, the tour leader, had ordered a giant chocolate cake for Sarah, so she cut that up and we devoured it - all but two pieces anyway (they were BIG pieces!) From there we headed to the local backpacker area for cocktails in a bar which was small but still quite funky, with disco lights and lots of popular tunes. We were planning to move on after an hour or so, but a heavy rain 'shower' (they are torrential over here) decided to manifest so we had to wait it out (a few more drinks then waiter!). When the rain had calmed down a bit we hopped into two taxis and made our way to a club that was supposed to be pretty good. Bucket Bar, which serves buckets of drinks, was a bit dingey but had more space to dance and, despite not being that busy, there was quite a good atmosphere. We had a REALLY good dance together. Jen and Charlotte - the oldest in the group - were certainly the dark horses of the group, drinking way more than me and dancing like maniacs! Very funny indeed.
I was definitely the most sober of the group, as I stopped with the alcohol and drank fruit juice/water to keep me hydrated; I didn't want to feel awful the next day, especially since the tour was leaving me in a city I still didn't really know that well. The group slowly got smaller, and the four of us that were left - me, Sarah, Jen and Charlotte - got a taxi back together. Unfortunately we got 'scammed' on the way back. Sometimes over here there are taxis where the meter will start off fine but suddenly take massive jumps in price. So, instead of costing us 80.000 dong to get back (around $4), it went up to over 200.000 (more than $10). There isn't a lot you can do in these situations except pay. One girl from the group had gone out and got grossly overcharged for the journey back to the hotel, but when she contested the price the driver got really angry and punched her in the face! Admittedly, she did run inside the hotel and tried to get out of paying altogether. But still, not a nice experience. Anyway, we payed up (begrudgingly) and were ok.
Most people were a little worse for wear come 6am, when everyone had to get up - we did get in around 3.30 so didn't have that much sleep...I could have stayed in bed but wanted to see them all off, and I felt fine so it wasn't that bad. I ate breakfast with the group members who were awake then said my goodbyes and watched them drive away to Laos. Was quite sad actually. It's amazing how close you get to people after having known them for only three weeks. It was a well mixed group, and I'll miss everyone in different ways. I will try and keep in contact with those I got closest to; it would be a shame to lose touch.
Ok, I think I'm rambling, will make this quick...Jen and I spent the day together after I checked into a hostel in the backpacker area. It was run by americans and australians, and they were so helpful. The vibe there was very chilled, and most people seemed to be younger. Jen and I walked to the Temple of Literature, which used to be a university where students studied philosophy and poetry - ahh...it was quite a way out of town but well worth the walk. We walked back to the hostel, had a lazy coffee, then found a place to eat as Jen was flying back that evening and needed to be at the hotel for around 8pm for her taxi to the airport. We dined in a thai restaurant that we had been to previously, and the food was excellent. I had thai yellow chicken curry with rice...delish! We got chatting about the whole experience of the trip, and were saying how sad it was to leave everyone, and we both got quite emotional. I didn't want her to leave as she was such a sweet and gentle lady, so easygoing and friendly. Plus I'd be on my own again in a crazy city I still hadn't quite got used to. So I walked her back to the hotel, then said goodbye and off she went. Sad times. Oh well, with the wonders of email it's so easy to keep in touch so I hope we will keep in contact, even if only by sending brief updates on the happenings of our home lives post-travel. Anyway, it was a pleasure to have met her, and the whole group in fact.
Later than night I got chatting to two lovely Canadian girls in my hostel, who invited me to a flower market with them at 4.30 in the morning! A little insane, but worth the effort. There were orchids and chrysanthemums, and roses all individually wrapped in newspaper to protect the budding blossoms. I bought some orchids for Lynne, my dad's cousin who I would be staying with when back in Ho Chi Minh City. I didn't take a pic of them but the girls I were with took one of me and the flowers, so hopefully I'll get one sent through email. They were such a lovely pair - friends from school if I remember correctly. They had been to Chiang Mai (where I'm going in two weeks' time) and they said it is a lovely place to visit. Apparently the scenery is spectacular, the food is very cheap, and there are plenty of yoga and meditation classes which is right up my street. They recommended a lady called Mamma Man (?) who wears tshirts with lady gaga plastered all over them. Sounds like a riot. Anyway, I was getting a bit bogged down thinking that the only people I was likely to meet on this trip were those who wanted to get drunk every night and have lots of promiscuous sex, which isn't me at all. These guys restored my faith. So, the next night, when I was sharing the dorm with 6 of the most b****y, snobby, pretentious group of girl friends I had to hold on and remember that not everyone I meet will be my cup of tea, and so I should just disregard them without a moment's hesitation. But the ones who come into view, however breifly, and offer something fulfilling or nourishing to me, as travellers and fellow human beings, should be appreciated wholeheartedly as small blessings that keep you going when the road gets tough. The same night that I said goodbye to Jen and the tour I phoned home and spoke to my mum, which upset me a little and made me long for home. I cried myself to sleep but tried to stay strong in the knowledge that this is an amazing thing for me to go through; if the whole thing was an easy ride there would be no point doing it. I miss my friends and family so much, and have realised (as if I didn't already know) how special they all are to me - you know who you are. My little posse of friends that I've had for so many years have been so good to me: I can rely on them when I need something, can tell them almost anything and know that they won't throw it back in my face. Sarah - you would have loved it out here, but there is always next year, or the year after...And my family have been so great in supporting me through some tough times, without any gripes or resentment. I love them to death. I wish they were all out here to experience this with me - what I wouldnt give for some hugs right now! But it just makes me more determined to see this through so I can come back at the end of it and show my love and appreciation for them. I've come away to find myself and have my boundaries expanded, and that's what's happening. I'm ok. I am safe. I can do this. Much love x