Hello from Vietnam!
We arrived in Hanoi airport and had no problem with passport control, even though our visa was only valid to start the following day. We drove into central Hanoi to the Hilton Opera where we were booked for one night. The hotel was quite a change from any of the places we had been staying until then. It is meant to be one of the most opulent hotels in Vietnam and is situated right next to the Opera building in the old quarter of Hanoi.
We arrived fairly late and while the women relaxed I went for a quick walk around the area. Right in front of the old Opera House is a small park. After steeling my nerves, I managed to cross the road and wandered around the edge of the park - where, on the adjacent sidewalks, locals squatted around makeshift bonfires. This made an interesting combination - an Opera House that would fit in well in Paris or Milan and a scene more typical of a country village.
A few things immediately struck us - one almost literally - about Hanoi. The traffic was remarkable. There were countless motor-bikes, many carrying large potted orange trees or other unwieldy objects on the rear passenger seat, in preparation for Tet - the Vietnamese New Year. I think the record was taken by a single guy on a small motor-bike with a 5 foot refrigerator balanced behind him - steadied by a rope he held in his spare hand.It was not unusual to see someone using a single hand to control a motor-bike, many people preferring to talk on their phone, text or keep a hand in a pocket out of the cold. Virtually everyone wore face masks - whether to protect from the cold or the traffic fumes or germs was never clear.
Cars, trucks, motor-bikes and bicycles used all of the available road surface, with no attention paid to lanes - bikes and cars happily driving directly against the traffic flow.Horns were blown constantly - though more as a habitual notice that "I am here" than out of any particular sense of aggression.The most interesting thing was crossing a road as a pedestrian. The way to do it was basically to walk out directly across the flow of traffic and not to flinch, letting the traffic flow at full speed around within inches.We learned that it helps to just look straight ahead - as if you see what is coming for you it is hard not to hesitate - which causes all sorts of problems. Marked cross-walks meant nothing. The amazing thing is that it works - though we did read that something like 39 people die every day on the roads around the time of Tet - though we never determined of this was just in Hanoi or all of Vietnam. (We did see a number of minor accidents while we were there.)
The other thing was the weather - it was chilly, grey and windy. Nothing too bad, probably about 10 degrees Celsius - but a big change from the past 5 weeks. The Vietnamese in Hanoi dressed as if it was minus 20 - with thick parkas and face masks.
The architecture in Hanoi was quite distinct -some French influence in older buildings, In general, a typical mid-range house was very narrow and covered an entire lot, maybe about 16' wide, and consisting of 3 or 4 levels - many built quite ornately.
The old quarter in Hanoi surrounded a lake, most of it consisting of narrow lanes squeezed between rows of 2 or 3 storey houses. It was very atmospheric - though as all of us except Krista were coming down with colds and as our energy levels were pretty low, I don't think we really appreciated our surroundings.
We only spent one night in Hanoi. The following day we crawled through the most incredible traffic jam to the train station and boarded a train for Da Nang - a 16 hour overnight journey. We had bought 6 tickets so that we had a whole sleeper compartment to ourselves. All carriages consisted of either sleeper berth compartments or open seating. All were of the same class and looked as if they had not been cleaned or repaired since they were built - probably in the 50's or 60's. It was a long night and quite an adventure.
Each carriage had either a squat or western style toilet. I think Jessica's strategy was the best one - avoid drinking or eating immediately before and during the trip - this minimised the need for toilet visits, which were definitely not something to look forward to. Not to get too graphic - but I still don't quite understand how anyone uses a squat toilet on a train that rocks incessantly, brakes suddenly and unexpectedly and has no hand-holds. Seemed like a recipe for a very unpleasant experience to me. The only food or drink was served from a cart that came by every few hours. The aroma of the cooked food was sort of interesting - but the look and consistency was scary and even Krista could not eat what she had bought. This being surprising as Kris developed a cast iron stomach from her time in remote parts of Ncaragua and Guyana.
We made it to Da Nang without any real mishap and then drove by hotel van about 30 miles to Hoi An. The city used to be a thriving sea-port a few hundred years ago - but silt in the river built up and for the past century or so this meant that cargo boats could no longer get into the port. The old quarter is nestled around the river and has lots of character. There were tourists - but also plenty of locals going about their daily lives. The old market - in some of the old streets bordering the river - was great. Covered by low tarps to protect from the rain and sun (the average Vietnamese seemed to be about 5'2" at most - so the tarps were very low), the market was packed with stalls and vendors selling some very strange things. There was a 500 year old covered bridge right next to the market, which helped increase the sense of history.
There were far more old Vietnamese visible than in Hanoi. It was hard to tell their age - but some were classically vizened and shrivelled and looked as if they had experienced a lot in their lifetimes.
There were many tailors' stores in Hoi An - most catering to tourists - and after venturing into one we all ended up having clothes made. We can't judge the long-term quality yet - but we seemed to get some good coats, suits, pants and shirts made at very low prices. They were so low we felt a bit awkward about bargaining and didn't try as hard as we typically would - having now learned a fair bit about the Asian art of negotiation.
Our backpacks are now considerably heavier - at least mine is, as I think I out-shopped everyone - a very unusual occurrence in the Verver family.
The weather warmed a little, but it was still generally cool in Hoi An and it was strange for us to have to find warm clothing.
We noticed many things building up for Tet - the Vietnamese New Year, which starts on February 3. Tet is meant to be like a combination of Christmas, New Year and American Thanksgiving all rolled into one. Apart from the markets for orange trees and large chrysanthemum plants, which seemed to be theTet equivalent of Christmas Trees, Tet is a big Vietnamese family affair. People travel from far afield to get home and spend several days together, remembering ancestors and trying to be good family members. (As one Vietnamese described it to us: "even the mothers-in-law try to be nice to their least favourite daughter-in-law").
A driver told us that the population of Ho Chi Min City drops from 9 million to 4 million for Tet, as huge numbers of city immigrants return to their place of birth.
After several nights in Hoi An we flew to Da Nang and then drove for a few hours to Mui Ne, on the South coast of Vietnam. It was nice to get back into warm weather and shorts after almost a week of long pants and fleece.
We stayed in a bungalow right on the ocean-front. (I am writing this on our verandah with waves crashing a few yards away). Up to this point in our trip we had only seen calm seas and gentle winds - I found something very satisfying about hearing again the constant roar of the surf.
It is dry and sunny and about 30+ degrees in Southern Vietnam at this time of year and the thermal effects create constant 16-18 winds during the day, that are ideal for wind-surfing and kite-boarding. Mui Ne is clearly a big venue for serious kite-surfers. During the day there were probably 100+ kite boarders criss-crossing the sea in front of us. A few are beginners taking lessons, but most are very good. Sue and I spent a few hours sitting at a bar just above the beach, watching kite-surfers streak in, perform a few high jumping tricks in the breaking surf in front of us and zoom off out again. If I was 30-40 years younger (and lived somewhere with these conditions) I could imagine really getting into kite-surfing. It was noticeable that the oldest kite-surfers here were probably in their early 30's. It does not look as anything like as potentially body damaging as skiing triple black diamond runs, but it clearly requires a combination of skill, strength and endurance - particularly while you are still working on the skill part.After a while I did notice that the really impressive kite-surfers had physiques similar to medal winning Olympic swimmers - so I guess I would never get beyond the beginner stage.
Today was the first day of Tet - and at 7:30am we were woken by the sounds of drumming and dragon dancing on the street in front of where we are staying. In my early morning state I was pretty sure this was all put on with the sole objective of really annoying the visitors - though I may have been just a bit over-sensitive……
Jessi came down with a cold a few days ago and is recovering well - but Sue and I are in the middle of a humdinger. It's not a lot of fun - and Sue's cough is driving her - and us - a little bit crazy. Hopefully the heat will accelerate our recovery.
We spent one day driving in a very old Jeep to the white and red sand dunes that are about 39 miles from Mui Ne. They are remarkable - particularly the white ones, which are large and beautifully shaped. We rented ATV's for a short while and zoomed around on them and tried sliding or running down the steeper dunes.
I enjoyed the atmosphere in Mui Ne and the long walks you could take in the early morning along the entire length of the beach, before the tide came in later in the day - as it did all the time we were there. The girls also enjoyed the night life - until 4:30am one morning - to my considerable concern when I realised at 2:00am that they were not back. It is hard at times to remember that they are adults - but it is harder still not to be concerned about what can happen to them in unfamilar places.
From Mui Ne we took the train South to Saigon and stayed in a very reasonably priced but pleasant hotel in a great location. It was the last day of Tet when we arrived and that evening much of the old centre of Saigon was closed to traffic - a very unusual occurrence. We walked through streets that were blocked with Vietnamese who had come to see the huge light and flower displays along the main boulevards and squares in the city centre.The roads outside the pedestrian area were chaos - and crossing the streets became a real adrenalin sport.
The next day we drove around more or less the same area in a taxi in the few hours we had before flying on to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Overall, Saigon had a friendly, more comfortable atmosphere than Hanoi. In part this could have been because of the warm Southern weather - but the people and buildings also seemed more hospitable and inviting. Saigon clearly had a far stronger economy than Hanoi, with a lot more signs of economic development and prosperity.
So that's it from Vietnam. Now on to Cambodia…………..
Vietnam Photos to be posted in a few days. Hope all is well in Vancouver, England or wherever you are....