Our introduction to Vietnam was a man hanging off an intensely high billboard on a rickety bamboo ladder, three skinned dead dogs on the back of a scooter and driving on the right side of the road. GOOD MORNING VIETNAM.
This place is looser than I remember; I am seeing everything through new eyes. The streets are dirty, the names are dirty and I feel dirty. Power lines are intertwined and are any electricians’ nightmare, snakes of electricity waiting to bite unexpected by passers. Constructions are loose, with men working into the cool nights lugging concrete blocks on manual pulley mechanisms. Frogs are scattered on lily invested lakes and can be heard in a crocking melody in the hours of darkness. Turtle, Dog and snake are common on restaurant menus. We are staying with Annette in the most amazing house, a white castle, a massive change from our place in bali.
The first couple of days we did some sightseeing of Hanoi. We did a mission to the city to visit the Hoa Lo Prison, the notorious Hanoi Hilton. The French built it in 1896 but its remembered for the horrible antics during the Vietnam war. It was made for 450 inmates but records show in the 1930’s there were approximately 2000 prisoners inside. It’s a very airy place, French guillotines that ended many lives stand proud in the concrete walls, creaky doors welcome people to see cells where prisoners where sentenced to death and blood soaked clothing represented men who had fallen from the sky in their planes. The ambience is dark, a feeling I was glad to leave.
Before we entered we decided we needed a feed. Being in a new area of town we had no idea where to go and came across a two storey restaurant, full to the brim. We were taken to the second story by the waitress; the ground was cloaked in month old noodles, rice, fish skeletons and chop sticks. No health inspectors here. We were seated amongst dozens of Vietnamese men drinking beers like water, as if they had been in the desert for days without liquid. The entire menu was in Vietnamese so the waiter offered the only meals he knew in English, salad, chicken and rice. Oh what a meal, the rice was sticky, the salad was watercress in soup and the chicken was chicken limbs. A mountain of chicken feet, skin covered wings and bones. HAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHHA nutritious.
Saturday was a loose day. We went to the water park to find that we were the only westerners there. If you want to be famous, go to Vietnam because the amount of stares you get are countless. They were shocked to see a female in a bikini, most of the Vietnamese females are in full swim suits.
The slides were sweet, long black holes and double tube rides. Once lunch time hit it was time to feed our bellys and get ready for the All Blacks vs Australia.
The day went on, the wine flowed and we ended up at a casino in the city. We lost some money and gained free drinks and sushi. I don’t think I am cut out to be a gambler. We spent the rest of the night frolicking the Old Quarter (heart of Hanoi) and venturing to a blue room called the balcony bar, partying with the owner who was a kung fu champion (and claimed to be a cat.)
Sunday morning we woke with aching bodies and weary heads. We had a bus to catch to the coast and no sense of time, thank god Michaels Ipod woke him an hour early and we had time to collect our thoughts. The ride to Halong city was horrible, I was in a swirling vortex of hangoverness.
Arriving at the harbour we waited for our boat. They were old wooden ships, straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. We boarded our ship and sailed the clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. After the hellish trip of driving, it was so relaxing to be sitting eating lunch and gliding along the ocean. Halong Bay has a mysterious feel to it, you feel isolated from the world amongst the limestone islands.
After lunch we headed to the caves, a lost kingdom. We were taken to the entrance and climbed stairs on the cliff face until we reached an opening. The caves were lit up with colourful lights and dripped thick pockets of water. Amongst the hundreds of other tourists it was hard to imagine how back in the day these caves were isolated and untouched. I remember being here three years ago and having a complete different view of them. It was only us in the cave then and I remember it being a lot more mystical.
Afterward we went to a small floating village near the caves. I do not remember this being there at all. We all went for a kayak and suddenly there were hundreds of people scattered on the ocean disturbing the peace. I hate tours, I hate tourists. It shows how big tourism has enlarged in just three years. The natural beauty of the land cries for a saviour.
Spending a night on the boat was amazing. We had a small wooden room with lamps and a dress table. We got to jump off the top deck of the boat and attempt back flips, mine resulted in a slapped red back. It was so good to be in the ocean again, it was something I had been craving.
There was thunder storm in the night; it woke me up as lighting lit up our room in a flash. I thought someone was taking photos outside. It was incredible, the black blanket of ocean we were anchored on reflected the dance party that was happening in the sky. The contrast of the night was crazy. One second it was calm and quiet until a spark of light and a thud of thunder dominated the bay then the quietness would set in again.
Morning came and we were off to Cat Ba Island. We went aboard another boat which took us to an awaiting bus. Half an hour driving inland we found Cat Ba National Park. It’s a mountain wrapped in bush. Two hours to the top and back, one warning… don’t stand on the blue snakes. GOOD. Us being the hard core taranakians we are went up in jandels, bad life choice. The storm the night before had turned the track into to a mud slide, so we had the pleasure of walking up a mountain taking two steps up and one slide back. The natural radio for the forest were cicadas, that sounded more like chainsaws, all constructing a weapon to tell us to get out of their territory. We made it to the top with no snake sightings. At the very top there was a brown rusty platform that was near collapsing. It stands 5 storeys high and each step is planks of tarnished welded metal so you can see the earth beneath you, getting further and further away the higher you climb. I don’t mind heights but that was scary… the top felt like the wind was going to push us all over the mountain about 2km down.
The rest of our day in Cat ba we explored. It reminded me of kazakhstan off Borat… interesting. The streets are bare with dogs running around. The gym is in an alley and the weight bench is an old ironing board. The weights were slabs of concrete one end each of the bar. The harbour was beautiful, with many colourful people around trying to sell things and get you into their restaurant. We got some scooters and went to the main beach, which was invested with Asian tourists. So we went for a walk around the cliff and found a much more secluded beach. There was a 5 star resort on the shore but not many people. Sitting in the water it reminded me of “The Beach” (movie or book, which ever you prefer) Islands were close to each other and each look unscathed, no human damage. As soon as I turned to the shore the dream of being at “The Beach” disappeared, Michael was holding a high heel shoe which he found in the sand and Asians are practising to pose for photos. Hidden paradises, how many are left? We ventured back to the first beach to try find something to jump off. There was a rusty old construction in the middle of the swimming bay so we swam out to that. Jumping off the sharp contraption got old fast.
By the time dinner time came, we took advantage of not being with a tour group and went out for drinks, pool and a feed. We tried many restaurants to try satisfy our cravings. We were even taken on a boat to a floating restaurant. There was no menu, you just picked a fish out of a caged off area. Once we saw a little boy peeing into the sea near where our dinner was swimming we thought we would flag it. Pizza, burgers and beer it was, first real hunger for home.
Cat Ba’s mountainous landscape looks like the set for Jurassic park and I was waiting for T-rex to come out from one of the valleys on the bumpy ride home. The roads are rocky and go over cliff faces, the drivers zoom around like its peak traffic. The business sense here is different from the hard working Vietnamese or and Indonesians we had been with. They are asleep in the bars while you try order a drink and are so beyond relaxation it is as if they have fallen into a permanent state of boredom.
Our last couple of days in Vietnam we took advantage of having a house and just laxed out with good food, wine, music and poker. We did one mission into the city to go to our favourite place in Hanoi, PAPA JOE”S. Best café ever. There are a few scattered around the lakes and we went to one that was near Tay Ho (where our house is) Afterward we strolled down a street trying to find a taxi. We ended up losing ourselves in local streets, walking past people cleaning tables and dishes in the unhygienic lake. We saw a local market and decided to go for a walk through. It was horrendous. A local fruit, vegetable and produce market with numerous tarpaulins stringed together to act as a roof, dirty rainwater dripped down into thick puddles on the ground splashing on the food. Locals chopped up animal’s right on the main tables, vegetables were rotting and woman were asleep on their products they were selling. Though the only thing I can remember now was the smell, a mixture of drying meat, humidity and death. It was so strong you could taste it, it lived in my nose for an hour after we had left, it was insane.
We also visited Annette’s school and got to see where all the kids play. It’s such a sweet kindergarten, it was teachers only day so there weren’t any kids there but it was awesome meeting Annette’s co workers. I miss kindergarten.
On our last night in Hanoi we went out to a buffet restaurant, IT WAS MASSIVE. Platefuls of seafood, western food, Japanese, grilled sparrow and fried stomach were on offer. Afterward we watched a talent show which was randomly outside. This crazy dude rolled sticks of fire all over himself and then stuck them down his mouth. He blew fire like an angry dragon.
Xin Chao – hello
Cam on – Thank you (feels rude everytime you say it as its pronounce COME ON…like hurry up)
Lam on- please
The currency is called Vietnamese dong. Our maturity levels lowered as we found heaps of the names of things hilarious. “Might go to the casino and put my dong on the table.”
Shops and streets called ‘Hung Long’, ‘Hung Thinh’, ‘Hang Man’ and ‘Hang back’ kept us entertained for hours.
The majority of Vietnamese do not speak English, it is very limited.
The Vietnamese people have a strong French influence as the buildings have beautiful architecture and you are called ‘madam’.
Halong means “where the dragon descends into the sea.” The Vietnamese legend says that a dragon created the islands by its tail digging up islands as it ran.
A Bia Hoi is a Vietnamese pub. This is where we got our delicious chicken feet dish. There are hundreds around Hanoi and are always full with drunken locals. Though who wouldn’t want to get loose there when $10 USD can get you 100 beers.
Vietnamese love karaoke and techno. They blast techno in the morning (cheaper than a morning coffee) it wakes you up pretty fast.
All the buildings are tall and skinny. We noticed this in the city and thought they were built this way to cram more buildings in the area. When we got to Cat Ba Island the buildings were tall and skinny also though there was so much space around them as the population is small. Werid.
You have a constant sweat in Vietnam, it is unbelievably hot.
You learn to be very patient. Everything is always “wait one moment.” A Vietnam moment is about half an hour.