We had read all sorts of things about Hanoi. We had read that favoured, popular hostels would be copied and taxi drivers employed to transport backpackers to these imposters, whereupon those weary travellers would be brow-beaten into booking trips in return for their room. We had heard that some of those incidents had become violent. We had heard that passports would be taken and not given back without such bookings being made. So it was, with that in mind, we landed in Hanoi with a sense of some trepidation. We had booked a hostel, reviewed and recommended by fellow travellers on Travelfish. We had contacted them and organised for them to pick us up at the airport and take us through Hanoi to the hostel, rather than relying on a local taxi. We were greeted by a fresh-faced young man with no english and whisked away in a gleaming, black Mercedes, seated on fresh, new leather seats and chilled by air-con. And here was our first surprise - Hanoi is an affluent place. The airport was dominated by Italian-suited businessmen collecting expensive luggage whilst gazing somewhat suspiciously at us, the Great Unwashed. I confess it was a shock to see Hanoi as such a well-heeled place. I don't know what I expected, but it was not this.
We had already secured visas in advance through the offices of my partner's work so quickly exited passport control and customs with only the cursory yet, still, sceptical glances of uniformed soldiers in too-large uniforms. As we sped along the motorway to central Hanoi, it put me in mind of a far more civilised and advanced place than I had given Vietnam credit for - and certainly that is my failing. I was grateful to be corrected. Yet, when one eventually arrives in central Hanoi, having negotiated the brightly-lit billboards and huge hypermarket affairs on the motorway in, the Vietnam I had expected revealed itself. Inescapably frenetic with yet more of those tiny motorbikes, more even than Cambodia (if such a thing were possible), we sped through impossibly narrow side-streets provoking locals in ubiquitous conical straw hats to leap out of the way for what appeared to me to be their very lives. Light from the interior of businesses lining every inch of available space spilled onto the street, misty and ephemeral, silhouetting spindly figures on the pavements beside us. Horns exploded, people shouted and music drifted from everywhere - Hanoi is an intense conurbation.
Finally, after watching the bustling frenzy hasten past us, blurred, we reached the Youth Hotel on Luong Van Can Street. As we disembarked and approached the reception desk, our passports were appropriated for copying (I insisted, politely, that I watch that being done). It was at that inopportune moment that a power cut ensued and the lady behind the desk advised me she would keep the passports until it came back on. I eyed her suspiciously but relented. This, may I be so bold as to suggest, is a major lesson of independent travel - other travellers are a great source of information and news, but their opinions are coloured by their own lives and experiences. They may be more cautious than you, or even racist. Be circumspect about whose advice you accept but be patient with those who supply it - you'll recognise that suggestion. Of course, within moments, as we sipped ice-cold Cokes, the power was restored and we repaired to our rooms.
The Youth Hotel was $15 per night and included free internet, good sized rooms and, because Hanoi was oddly chilly at night, blessed hot water! We luxuriated in a hot shower and handed our clothes in to be laundered before heading out to see what little we could of the local area prior to retiring to bed. We were not out long, but the drama of the journey into Hanoi was visited upon us tenfold at street level. So much was happening, so many people darting in and out of tiny street-side establishments, elderly Hanoi denizens chatting on street corners, eating and drinking, sucking on American cigarettes, that, on occasion, we simply had to stop and watch the melee. We stopped by a small bakery and picked up something to munch on before heading back to our room and grateful slumber.
The next day, we awoke early, breakfasted simply and began our peregrination. Hanoi is even more frantic in the daytime (road crossings are risky events) but the people are startling friendly. A simple smile is all it takes to have locals stopping and chatting in faltering, but competent, english. An elderly gentleman, ostensibly with all the time in the world, sat and spoke with us at length about Vietnam, how it had changed in his lifetime and how much he wished he could travel like us. For an hour we sat and chatted to him and Hanoi sped past us in a blur. It was hugely gratifying. He showed us the best place to have Pho Ba, the Vietnamese staple beef noodle soup, and what to put in it. It was one of those satisfying moments.
We had been advised that the Hanoi Backpackers on Ngo Huyen in Hoan Kiem (near to us) was the place to go to book a Halong Bay Junk trip. This we did. Hanoi Backpackers is a place I would not now ordinarily choose for an overnight stop - it is no doubt noteworthy for what it offers, that is to say complete immersion into the 'backpacker scene', and is therefore tremendously popular among younger backpackers looking for the sort of exploits you'll get involved in on Kiwi Experience Backpacker Buses. That experience I would have sought a decade ago and it is astonishing how perceptions and desires change over time. The staff, that said, are knowledgeable and helpful and it is a superlative place to find tours with large groups. They also offer smaller, less alcohol-infused trips and it was one of those we booked (rather than the "Rock Long, Rock Hard" trip, complete with glossy images of inebriated twenty-somethings flinging themselves into the Bay). It made me feel old.
After this sobering reminder of my age, we continued our amble round Hanoi, stopping at the compact Laos Airlines offices (which you will miss unless you have the exact street address, so unobtrusive is it) to book our onward flight in a propeller aircraft to Laos. If the return from the Halong Bay cruise is delayed, we miss our flight but there is no other so we book it and leave the offices, wondering if we've just wasted our money. Additionally, Laos Airlines do not have an enviable reputation and we were set to be boarding an aircraft not permitted in European airspace. It was going to be interesting.
We adore street level in cities. We try to use public transport below ground as little as possible - it's worth experiencing, but it really cannot substitute walking around and letting a city wash over you. As we walked through the bustling centre of Hanoi, we got the sense of the Vietnam we had dreamed of - a city steeped in history, keeping on finger gently placed on the past, but with every other fibre of its being firmly rooted in the future. A city buzzing with motorbikes and arousing the senses with exotic smells and tastes. We eventually found ourselves in the centre gazing at Huan Kiem Lake and the temple placed in the middle of it. We sat, next to three soldiers sitting proudly in their immaculate uniforms, chatting pleasantly among themselves, and simply stared at the haven ahead of us - a sanctuary of peace and quiet in a relentlessly busy city.
I was somewhat disappointed by the Dong Xuan market, around half a mile to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, apart of course my the vaguely amusing name. Much of the wares on sale are identical and it is, as might be expected, the usual tourist tat intertwined with genuine products that locals require. It is not bad for food and it is worth a short visit, and perhaps a t-shirt or two, but little more than that.
Perhaps the most incongruous monument of our visit to all of South East Asia was St Joseph cathedral. Turning a corner, buttressed as usual by Vietnamese people and Vietnamese buildings, you would be forgiven for giving St Joseph rather a startled second look and conceivably a comical eye-rub. A European church in every sense, it is singularly absurd that it is here, yet here it sits. We wandered in and looked round, disappointed really that it looked just like any other church, before being startled yet again when we walked out of the door and instead of a village cricket green and a local pub, replete with old man and dog, we found the old city of Hanoi.
We visited the ancient Confucian sanctuary, the Van Mieu Temple of Literature, which was the first University in Hanoi and, again, we fell into conversation with loquacious locals. It was an interesting place, with rather beautiful yet sometimes garishly painted architecture and intriguing stone turtles on which the names of laureates would once have been placed. A tranquil and pleasant place, it is justly famous in Hanoi but consequently, extremely busy. We darted round, nimbly dodging tourists with flailing cameras, before walking along Pho Dien Bien Phu to the Ho-Chi-Minh Mausoleum complex. I must say, this last I found to be rather dull but, in a gift shop, I became engrossed in a book about Agent Orange. Since we'd soon be visiting Laos and that horrific biological "weapon" impacted upon Laos almost as much as Vietnam, it piqued my interest. Used initially as a herbicide to destroy jungle so the enemy forces would have less ability to hide, as well as to destroy crops for food, there has been much controversy surrounding the effect on future generations, many of whom have suffered serious birth defects. People directly affected are reported to have increased incidence of cancer, digestive and respiratory disorders. While much of the Vietnamese research has not been peer-reviewed, the evidence seems persuasive as US Veterans associations also report ill-health due to exposure. As many as 150,000 Vietnamese children are estimated to have been born with birth defects, some horrific, as a result of Agent Orange but there is, to date, no consensus between the US and Vietnam as the causation of these defects. Oddly though, US veterans from the south had higher rates of throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer. Other than liver cancer, these are the same conditions that the US Veteran’s Administration has found to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange and are on the list of conditions eligible for compensation and treatment. No agreement as to the cause, though.
The evening saw us in a lovely small eatery called 69 Restaurant. We had been advised by our somewhat unreliable tome that it was a pick of the places to go for more traditional Vietnamese Food. It was fortuitously correct in this assessment so we ordered much on the menu that was alien to us, which we delight in, before repairing to the frenetic streets of night-time Hanoi for another stroll. Dodging the suicidal motorbikes and popping into each and every small side-street shop we could find to examine the wares, we eventually, somewhat tired, happened upon 'Le Pub', a raucous English sort of place, where we watched the life go by in a gorgeous Hanoi evening kept company by a few local beers and many inebriated backpackers.
The next day, we joined the throng of backpackers waiting for buses to whisk them to various tours across Northern Vietnam. After what seemed an age, our bus arrived and off we went. We were both intoxicated at the prospect of spending the next two days in the majestic and magical natural wonder that was Halong Bay. Sadly, the weather did not oblige and it was, of course, overcast much of the time. However, who cares about that? Not us! Along with several others, we boarded a small boat and headed out to or junk. We had not paid a great deal for this overnight trip, but we'd decided to spend a little bit more to get a nice trip. How nice it was to be was a real surprise. The Junk was a beautiful, elegant vessel and our rooms reminiscent of the Orient Express, resplendent in dark wood and slate stone. Each has it's own bathroom which, had we time, we'd have stripped and taken back home with us. We dumped our gear in our rooms and repaired to the deck as we moved off.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay is a 1500 square km area within the Gulf of Tonkin dominated by nearly 2,000 colossal limestone islets of various magnitudes, rising from the water like roughly chiselled stone sculptures robed in forested blankets. There are a number of communities who live in floating villages and have done for generations, never venturing onto the mainland. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, simply put, rather beautiful. Throughout the day, we kayaked through villages, stopping off for something to eat and drink before returning to our kayaks and making our way onwards. We swam in the amazing, pellucid azure waters and then ventured back to the junk before moving off to a set of caverns and grottoes to explore on a large stone obelisk in the Bay. Periodically, small boats laden with western confectionary would drift up to us, paddled by women in broad-rimmed hats, screeching up at us to purchase their wares.
Stopping off at these various grottoes and cave-systems was obviously something everyone visiting Halong Bay did as we were not the only group exploring these amazing caverns and the Vietnamese authorities, bless 'em, had done their best to jazz them up by creative and colourful lighting. They needn't have bothered - the caverns alone were stunning. We ambled along the wooden pathways constructed and enjoyed the ambience of this ancient labyrinth of caves.
We met, over dinner, other couples who seemed to share our desire for adventure - from Buenos Aires and Melbourne. As the only alcohol permitted on board was on offer from the Junk crew, we pooled some funds to see what we could all afford and then swapped anecdotes and tall tales while ordering drink after drink, before moving to the deck and watching the sun set on an amazing day. It is the way of these things that some you'll stay in touch with and others you won't. We have, from time to time, received emails from Buenos Aires and, when we do, we reply at length telling them what we have been doing. It is one of the joys of backpacking. The next day, we would leave Halong Bay, and Vietnam, as we would head for the airport and Laos. Perhaps the saddest thing for us is that we did not have more time in Vietnam. With only 4 weeks, there are sacrifices to be made and we would have taken a train down to Hué, Danang and Hoi An, and perhaps on to Ho-Chi-Minh City (although reports were rather negative of the capital of the South) had we the chance. You'll always leave a region wishing you'd done more and that's certainly one of the advantages of taking a gap year - there is clearly far more time to see so much more but I wonder whether I would have appreciated what I was seeing quite as much had I not the decade or so behind me that I do now.