As I’ve mentioned before, Swarana and I are not very good at backpacking. No more evident is that fact than in our laborious exploration of Vietnam.
Most people pick a route: north to south or south to north. We essentially did laps.
We had pals to meet, you see; friends were coming over from the US, the UK and South Korea, not to mention a mate who actually lives in Vietnam. And in our endeavour to see them all, we went to Hue twice, Hoi An twice, Saigon twice and Hanoi THREE TIMES.
This makes a mockery of chronological blog-mongering.
So, in an effort to retain some semblance of form in this account, I’ll be merging all three visits to Hanoi in one post, despite many of the events book-ending either side our 45 days in the country.
Thankfully, Hanoi is frikkin’ cool.
For a start, we flew from Luang Prabang in a plane with propellers. Cool – tick. Then at Hanoi airport, we were encouraged to bin any Nazi paraphernalia we might have picked up on our travels. Cool (and unnecessary) – tick.
Vietnam is a communist country, you see. They don’t like fascists, and that’s just fine by me.
The architecture in Hanoi is interesting, particularly in the Old Quarter. All the buildings seem to have a uniform width (something to do with land tax based on building frontage, like in Amsterdam) but floor heights are all out of sync, as are their number. It’s not uncommon to find a thin five-story building flanked by two-story buildings either side.
And each street follows the curious commercial principal of all trades sticking together. Initially, (we’re talking 12th century here) each road was home to a guild that sold a specific good (silk or silver, etc), but now, greater competition from neighbours is offset by the road’s notoriety for selling a specific item. Like bamboo ladders. If you need a bamboo ladder, you go to the bamboo ladder road. Easy.
A rumble in our bellies terminated that trail of thought. We needed food: a pho for two famished foreigners. It turned out the little kitchen on our road did the best chicken pho we found in Vietnam, so we ended up having both our first and final pho here, a month-and-a-half later upon our return.
Pho sho’, dawg
The reason it’s so good is the cut of the chicken: actual slices of breast, rather than skin and bone. By way of contrast, try a pho from Pho24 (please note: do not try a pho from Pho24) – the chicken is all gristle and giblets, while the beef is grey and chewy like a leather wallet (speaking of which, it costs about three times the price of a local kitchen).
For a really authentic beef noodle soup, there’s Pho Thin, by Hoan Kiem Lake. Down a little alley, you sit at tiny tables, crammed in with the locals amid a cacophony of slurping and sucking, and chow the thinnest slices of beef in Vietnam. Really rather good.
Of course, Vietnam is well known for its excellent street food. There are a few roads west of the Old Quarter that specialise in different street cuisine, one of which is a kind of hotpot. You pick a bunch of food on sticks – chicken, prawns, mushrooms etc – which get grilled and brought to your table where you leave them sizzling on a hot plate. We ate amazing succulent pieces of chicken sheltered at the roadside from pounding rain.
Another Hanoi speciality is bun chaa: grilled pork patties with cold noodles, spring rolls, herbs and a soup, which you mix together in your bowl for tasty noms. I tried one at the restaurant New Day, thankful the waitress showed me what to do with my food.
Be a Bia beer drinker
There are bars all over the Old Quarter, but the most popular – and cheapest – are the ones at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen, where hundreds of locals sit on the street on tiny plastic chairs drinking Bia Hoi, or “fresh beer”, which costs around 5,000 Vietnamese dong for a polystyrene mug of the stuff (about 15 pence).
Bia Hoi tastes like a hoppy Fosters, if I’m honest, so we were thankful Vietnam has a wealth of tasty lagers to choose from, generally costing 60 pence or thereabouts. Bia Hanoi is the local tipple, which is crisp but not particularly interesting; I predominantly plumped for Larue, which hails from Hue in central Vietnam, while Swarana’s favourite was the dry taste of Bia Saigon Export.
Mmmm… jazz… niiiice
After a few bottles, there’s no shortage of entertainment in the evenings: on a more sophisticated night we visited the Binh Ming jazz club (…we’d Binh Minh-ing to see some jazz…), where the music is free, but the booze quadruples in price when it’s being played. It’s not Ronnie Scott’s (what is?), but it’s better than decent.
There’s a salsa club down the backstreets near St Joseph’s Cathedral called La Bomba Latina, which is good craic. It’s not exactly heaving, but in between serving drinks the staff practiced their salsa in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, while Swarana and I threw each other about with all the grace of two new-born deer.
An interesting thing happened while we were there, though. Suddenly, the music was switched off, heralding the entrance of the military police, who had a look round, scowled at the patrons and spat words at the staff. We asked later what had happened: “They come some time, say music loud… we pay them, they go away. It like this every time.”
Cops and robbers
We witnessed this Mafioso-style corruption a number of times: one evening, sat at a table outside a small bar on Hang Boum (great name), the proprietor urgently urged us to withdraw into the building. No sooner had we stood, the military police swooped down the street confiscating any establishment’s furniture that had crept on to the pavement.
The bar owner lost a bunch of tables and chairs, despite his frenzied attempts to move it all inside before they could be taken. Similarly, we saw the cops take someone’s motorcycle, presumably because its owner had parked it for 30 seconds on the road as she dipped into a take-out joint to pick up some dinner. She was inconsolable, but off it was wheeled. Bye bye bike. You crossed the line.
To the left, to the left
Vietnam has a conflicting relationship with communism. At times it is fiercely proud of its socialism; at others it discards it for economic prudence; sometimes people rail at the inherent corruption; but often people just riff on the retro design. The latter can be found at the Cong Caphe coffee shop chain, where the baristas wear kitsch Commie uniforms and the socialist décor makes “rustic” feel like “regal”.
Conversely, it’s all taken rather seriously at the wonderfully bizarre Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, as you might expect.
Indeed, it is a mind-boggling homage to Communism, both in subject and substance. It’s not just the stoically imposing architecture, or the chilled corpse of their venerable leader surrounded by white-clad officers standing guard, but the peculiar bureaucracy of being told in which precise order we must visit the complex’s sights.
Heaven help you if you want to skip the stilt-house where Ho Chi Minh reputedly lived for a bit – where Vietnamese tourists gasp in wonder at the new-found knowledge their leader once owned a table, slept in a bed, or used to have a rather nice tea set.
Heaven help you if you just want to get straight to the hallucinatory Ho Chi Minh Museum, and skip all the other rubbish.
Holy Ho Chi
The museum is a very strange place indeed. Aside from the “socialist cult of personality” (as my friend Erica puts it), which proudly displays the man as universally revered, infallible and, at times, practically God-like in his various portraits and effigies, you are subsequently invited to enter THE INNER WORKINGS OF HIS BRAIN.
Past the haloed statue of Minh the Merciful, the place starts getting really peculiar. What is essentially a collection of correspondence between Ho and his comrades is spread around a hall of interconnecting rooms, each representing cultural influences during his life.
There’s a mystifying maze of stained windows, each depicting icons of the time, like Einstein, Chaplin, Churchill or the Wright brothers, amid a slew of less recognisable figures. None are named, nor reflected upon, and the maze spits you out back in the main hall with potentially less understanding than when you went in.
Similarly, a separate room endeavours to express Ho Chi Minh’s disgust of fascism through the works of Picasso. Most people walk around the massive weird face and just shrug… A look of “I don’t know what this means,” is etched on their faces, particularly the kids.
The thing I really don’t get, though, is how Communism – the socialist leveller, the champion of equality at all costs – always seems to elevate one person to God-like status, whether it be Lenin, Castro or Mao.
When you’re walking around Ho’s Mango Garden (and being shouted at by an armed officer for approaching a statue of the great man) or around his personal musing lake, it gets harder to glimpse that equality ideal. Or does everyone get their own lake?
Anyway, there’s loads of other stuff in Hanoi – a nice cathedral; perplexing water puppet shows by Hoan Kiem Lake; a history museum with an extremely cool 19th-century six-shooter rifle; and the beautiful Temple of Literature, where kids go for their graduation pictures.
But Ha Long Bay is the main attraction in this part of the country and most of your time in Hanoi will be spent figuring out how to get there without re-mortgaging your house.
You can go on the cheap – for sure – but you’ll be cooped up on an over-crowded, rat-infested boat, sleeping with cockroaches and eating their leftovers, and you’ll only get to see a tiny fraction of the huge Unesco World Heritage area. Still, if your budget is tight, what else can you do?
When the staff at the Symphony asked us what our budget was for the trip, we essentially said half what their associated cruise was going for. But they offered us our entire stay at the hotel for free, including an evening or two on our way back – seven nights in total. So we plumped for their mid-range cruise and never regretted it.
It’s about a three-hour bus ride out to Ha Long City, not counting the Vietnamese habit of stopping at a tourist-trap tat-factory on the way (to be fair, the wares there are of the highest quality, and the money supposedly goes to its handicapped workers, but still).
Ha Long time coming
I’ll skip to the chase: Ha Long Bay is stunning. You’re surrounded by jagged limestone mountains, long since bursting from the water’s surface, undercut by countless aeons of erosion creating a vision of hovering islets that wouldn’t look out of place in Avatar.
The mountains are riddled with caves, subterranean waterways and adjoining bridges of rock, under which you are invited to kayak. It’s glorious. If you’re lucky, you’ll see monkeys in the jungles above you. You’ll certainly see eagles swooping majestically overhead.
But it’s the second day’s kayaking that is the most rewarding. One night in the bay simply isn’t enough, not when with just a little extra time you can find yourself on a secluded beach with not a single soul in sight. Until, that is, a lady on a raft spots you from afar and rows her shop over shouting “HELLO! Buy some thing!”
Spending two nights on the bay also includes a visit to a pearl farm, which is actually a lot more interesting than you’d think. You get to watch the oyster surgeons artificially inseminate a tiny ball of ground oyster shell into its womb to grow. Later, you can watch as someone opens another one to cut out the oyster inside.
Back on the boat, in the evenings you can fish for squid by torch light, drink the beers you bought from the raft-shop lady, or sing karaoke with Japanese tourists (I don’t know who picked 12 Days Of Christmas; it is an awful, awful song).
It’s not exactly mad-cap in the evenings; you either choose cheap and cheerful, or dear and dreary. The boat was never full and the passengers it did have ranged from couples to families – but we got on well with a friendly, bearded Australian chap called Chris and his German girlfriend Bianca, who turned out were the only other people booked onto the second day in the bay.
Going deeper underground
On the last morning, before heading back to the port, we were taken to the Surprising Cave. The only surprise was that EVERYONE was taken to the cave. All at the same time. It was the only low point in an otherwise fantastic trip.
Trudging round single-file behind hundreds of other people does not an exciting adventure make – it was one of the most tick-the-box excursions I’ve ever experienced. If you’ve been to caves, skip this one and have a valuable lie-in.
(Aside: These days, all the boats in the bay are required to be painted white, thanks to dubious legislation from the local government. Rumour has it, the lead politician pressing for the change did so because he owns a white-paint factory. Brilliant.)
When we got back to Hanoi, we tried to arrange our trip down to Saigon, hopefully taking in some sights on the way, but Reunification Day approached – the 40th anniversary, no less, of the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong on 30th April 1975 – and the government had given everyone a week off. There were no buses or trains for three days.
The problem was, we’d be meeting mates on the mental streets of Saigon on the 4th of May. So we ended up seeing Hue for four hours and Hoi An for two nights before flying the rest of the way from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City.
We really are rubbish at backpacking.
Saying that, we’re at least better at backpacking than this guy is at being an electrician…
No Dana, only Zoom
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