To get here I experienced my second overnight bus. A sightlier easier affair than the first. The DJ took the night off and with a quiet bus it’s amazing how much sleep you can get! And sleep is what I needed because I had not booked anywhere to stay and everywhere seemed to be full. An hour after I arrived I found one for only $10 a night, but I had to wait for the room.
No worries Vietnamese coffee would keep me company.
I’m sorry Italy. Take a back seat Laos. Neither one, in fact I will say it, I don’t think I have ever had such good coffee. The Vietnamese get one thing right and that is how best to imbibe their caffeine. No need for sugar or milk, just a little ice if trying to escape the heat of the day (no, I am not an addict. I swear).
It must have been this perky, little drink that managed to make my legs walk into one of the hundreds of tailor shops that line the UNESCO streets of Hoi An. I swore to everyone I met I would not get a tailored anything. Thirty-five dollars poorer, I walked out fitted for a navy-blue silk dress. How can you beat it?
Well we, in the West can’t. Chatting with the girl while doing the measurements she revealed that she works seven days a week, 12 hour days, and only took a vacation for two days about five years ago. I felt guilty for ever thinking about complaining (because you know I never actually did) when the House of Assembly ran till 2 am and worked started again at 9 am.
After the fitting I decided to head to the beach, which I ‘needed’ after the poor excuse for a beach trip in Cambodia. It still was not quite Bermuda. The sand was slightly off-white and the water was definitely not turquoise but it did the job. That is until a dark storm cloud like nothing I have ever seen came rolling in. Either Armageddon or the rainy season was well on its way (the rainy season). Luckily after watching the bags for two swimming tourists they gave me a lift back to the town on their bikes. I did not want to venture out in the torrential downpour so dinner was sought at the same lethal coffee place across the road from the hostel.
In need of some exercise, the next morning I rented a bicycle for another marathon session. This time it was 20 km to the Marble Mountains. These well-defined landmarks are former islands that are pock marked by caves filled with Buddha statues and pagodas. Wobbling off my bike, washing my face with baby-wipes(these are god-sends with the kind of dirt and exhaust that can coat the skin while travelling), I found myself in front of towering stairs. Who needs a gym? The climb was worth it. Full of nooks and crannies to explore with an incredible view of the countryside from the top the Marble Mountains were rich in culture.
A quick Sprite on the mountain I had to descend to get back on the bike to return to Hoi An. I love doing sightseeing this way. While motorists might look at you like you’re crazy, the kids all smile and practice the one English word they know Hello!
Even with the youthful companions by the end I was seeing stars and couldn’t quite figure out where to leave my bike. A British guy watching me struggling across the street helped me out and I ended up having dinner and drinks with their group before crashing.
I was up the next morning to catch a lift to the town of Hue which was the imperial city of the Nguyen Dynasty and seat from which Vietnam was ruled between 1802 and 1945 (at least in name). It is for this reason the town houses an impressive Citadel and multiple pagodas and tombs dedicated to deceased emperors.
The city is lucky to have come out of the war alive. It was also the flash point for the 1968 Tet Offensive (a multiple surprise attack from the North Vietnamese on the South on the Tet Nguyen Det or January 31 – the most important holiday in Vietnam) during the Vietnamese war. And both North Vietnamese and American forces decimated the town’s population (one side claimed they were uncooperative the other trying to fish out communists).
Surprisingly with a history like that one would have expected a struggling town. Not at all. It’s beautiful lining the Perfume River and the Citadel, while crumbling inside, still maintains an impressive entrance and outer-walls.
I got in around 10 am and decided I hadn’t had enough beach and needed to head it to the one that is about 10 km from town. Sitting on the beach was so relaxing and I think I bought every pineapple and mango on the beach from the women working the sand. These women are incredible. Completely covered from head to foot in jeans, socks, and even their faces covered as they hike up and down the beach with bowls of fruit, gum, cigarettes and basically anything you might want. I felt like I had to support them.
A dinner of more spring rolls before hitting the sack was all I could manage because I was up the next day to see the imperial city and some of the Royal tombs around Hue. Again I rented a bicycle which was the best way I had been told to go see the area. The Royal Tombs are scattered in the hills around Hue and no map I could find properly explained where they were. A few fruitless attempts were made before I finally tried my hand at some Vietnamese. Luckily people were very helpful and I eventually found one of the more impressive tombs – the tomb of Tu Duc.
The ‘poet Emperor’ must have truly fancied himself because he managed to conjure an entire garden complex complete with a lake with the help of more than 3,000 people who were forced to create this opulent death retreat. They did a good job. It is beautiful and peaceful even with the tourist buses rolling up.
It was a long bike back….especially because I kept getting lost. After some lunch and rehydration I headed for the citadel. Because many of the buildings seem to be under construction it is not easy to navigate – I tried desperately to find the library to no avail. But it did offer plenty of photo ops.
I didn’t have long before my night bus so I jumped back on my bike, headed back to my hostel where they let me shower before I was back on a bus (I told you this was a whirl wind tour).
The next morning I awoke by being thrown off a bus in what the driver claimed to be Hanoi. If I hadn’t seen pictures of the chaotic traffic I never would have believed them and of course there were the ever-present hustlers trying to get us to their hostels. I caved. With backpack in front of him and me behind we somehow negotiated through the traffic. It was clean enough and the price was right (about $8) so I settled in for the night.
Chaos does not describe Hanoi. Utter mayhem? Maybe. Gets close. There are more motorbikes here than road space and just forget about trying to use a car. Mmmm exhaust fumes.
Now the capital of Vietnam (which is reclaimed from Hue in 1945), Hanoi was also not spared from the war. Instead massive bombings by the Americans managed to destroy a lot of the city and it even hosted one of the most famous POWs, John McCain. In what was called the Hanoi Hilton, McCain, the former presidential candidate, suffered five years of torture and isolation. This former prison was one of my first stops in Hanoi.
The Hoa Lo Prison is now overlooked by an actual hotel (slightly and morosely ironic). Nothing, at least that I could see, is said or documented about the POW’s that were held here. Instead it focuses on the Indochina war and the torture by the French.
Then of course I had to go to the Temple of Literature. This was founded in 1070 as a temple to Confucius and the country’s first university was founded here in 1076. It is now one of the most important historical and architectural sites in Hanoi. There are multiple courtyards leading onto one another and even an ATM in one of the last (love the old and new here in Vietnam). This could only be topped by visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Memorial….(note sarcasm). This monstrosity was built to honour a man who never even wanted to be honoured. He never lived in the presidential palace and chose to live in a small bungalow instead ( I guess trying to live the socialism that he instilled).
Right next to this concrete memorial is the tranquil one-pillared pagoda. All in all Hanoi is an easy city to walk around and after an afternoon of sightseeing and with an early start the next day for Halong Bay I returned dodging motorcycles and eager women selling fruit to sleep.
A two hour bus ride delivered me and the 9 others destined for a three day, two-night visit to the UNESCO site. Every tour seems to depart from the same 100 feet of dockside so the chaos along with the heat was almost unbearable. That is until I walked on the five-star junk (which is such a bad name for the beautiful wooden, air-conditioned boat that greeted us) where a cold drink and compress greeted me! I was so glad I had splurged on this trip (by splurge it was about $150 for all three days, three meals, one night on the boat and one on the private island) and after at least three overnight buses I figured I deserved it.
Halong Bay….what is there to say? I have never seen anything like it. Forested-green mountains jut out of the turquoise water while monkeys traipse through the expanse and caves offer luminous green escapes. After stuffing myself with crab, shrimp and every type of seafood they could throw at me for lunch it was time to work that off with kayaking!
That night we moored in a nearby cove and with nothing else to do after gorging ourselves on another seafood-stuffed dinner, we all sat on the upper deck watching for shooting stars well into the evening. The next day we traipsed into the Amazing Cave. Yes it is actually called that it is not my poor use of adjectives. Picture Crystal Caves and multiply it by twenty. Nearly 500 to 600 Viet Cong hid in this cave during the war, which should give you an idea how large this stalactite and stalagmite cave is.
From here we transferred to a faster sail boat destined for the private island. With six bungalows and one main house on the entire island there is no electricity all day and at night the stars absolutely glow. Glancing over at the concrete covered Cat Ba Island, where most backpacking tours end-up, I was pleased I had chosen to pay a little extra.
Lounging on the beach and reading, looking out at the natural beauty of Halong Bay was the perfect way to wind-up my tour of Vietnam before boarding my flight back to Bangkok.