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A journey through Vietnam, from tip to toe

So our journey to Vietnam began at Heathrow and after an overnight stay in Kuala Lumpur airport, porridge consumption through straws and dodgy squat toilets, we finally arrived in Hanoi. The heat and sheer humidity was the first thing we noticed with the manic bustle of the airport exacerbating the situation. The cramped, rickety bus we had chosen to take us to the city centre was even more humid on the inside, traffic was alive and crazy with motorbikes zooming through every crack between cars…road rules it seemed was just a massive game of chicken oh and apparently a green man doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe to cross! After an hour on the bus and a short walk we found our Hostel; Hanoi Backpackers, which was teeming with other backpackers helping us get over the initial culture shock.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Being only mid-morning we had pretty much the whole day to discover Hanoi. All of this exploring naturally led to inevitable road crossings and so following the example of the locals, and standing unsociably close to them, we took our lives in our hands stepping into the road and hoping the numerous mopeds and motorcycles would move around us. The most scenic area of Hanoi is in the Old Quarter, particularly around Hoan Kiem Lake, ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’. Our first visit was to Ngon Son Temple in the middle of the lake, which contains the embalmed remains of a giant tortoise said to inhabit the lake. The legend is that heaven gave the Emperor a magical sword to drive out the Chinese. One day a giant tortoise grabbed the sword but later restored it to its owner. Lunch break consisted of a refreshing fruit platter and fresh juice but later, upon consulting the travel guide it said it was best to avoid fresh juice and ice due to their tap water content…oops.

The streets around the Old Quarter were alive with street vendors of all kinds, hustling of everyday life and differing, (some not so pleasant) aromas. All of this however added to the fantastic atmosphere of the town. Memorial House, a restored traditional merchants dwelling was our next stop providing an insight into traditional merchant living, once housing five families simultaneously. We then walked to Bach Ma Temple, the oldest temple in Hanoi. It was extremely ornate with red and gold being the primary colour scheme, complete with an abundance of offerings of beer and biscuits…

The Temple of Literature was next on our list. Up to now, walking from sight to sight had proved very easy but this 3km walk was made longer by an accidental detour, but we did end up passing the military area, War Museum and lots of embassies, so at least we knew where to go in case of any trouble. The Temple of Literature was huge with five courtyard complexes highlighting 11th century architecture. It is a renowned centre for learning and was named the first university in Hanoi. Definitely worth a visit.

Walking past street food stalls all day wet our appetites for traditional Vietnamese food and so Quon An Ngon was our dinner destination. It seemed as popular with the locals as it was with tourists so we knew we were in for a treat at this semi-open air restaurant, which had street-style food stalls surrounding the benches and tables in the centre.

Our second day was our museum day. Our first stop was the Museum of Ethnology, full of objects and displays from Vietnamese culture as well as describing all the different ethnic groups around the country, which provided us a semi-orientation of the country. The National History Museum was next housing prehistoric to modern artefacts. In the evening we experienced a Vietnamese tradition originating from Hanoi, a Water Puppet Show. Despite not being able to understand the language, it was absolutely mesmerizing, complete with live traditional music and singing was live which added to the story the puppets were portraying. The walk back to the hostel at night was beautiful as the lake was lit-up by multicolor lights and the barmy evening had locals and tourists relaxing on the lake edges.

The next day was an early start with a four-hour bus journey to Halong Bay. After several hours of swerving every which way to conform to the traffic, passing many road collisions and long traffic jams I proclaimed that at least we hadn’t broken down…we then promptly broke down. However, the driver was keen to continue so lurching down the road ensued for about ten minutes before coming to a complete stand still in the middle of the road. However, after a quick tinker, we made the final kilometer with no problem.

Halong Bay

After only a short time on the boat we stopped off at a floating village to kayak around the village and into hidden bays only accessible through caves. The caves opened up into enclosed bays, which was really beautiful with the best was to describe it as majestic. After boarding the boat again, cruising around the bay for a bit longer and being shown some questionable figures in the rock formations, including chickens kissing and a human face that looked more like a chimp, we arrived at another stop. Time to venture inside the largest cave found in any of the islands that make up Halong Bay, Dong Thien Cung. It was huge, with two massive chambers full of stalactites and stalagmites. What made it really cool though was the colour lighting throughout all the different parts of the cave. Here we were also shown more figures that had been spotted in the rock and somehow related to legends surrounding the cave. This time they were more obvious including a ‘beautiful women’, two Buddha’s and massive breasts that, according to legend, the mother of Vietnam left for her ten sons when she left the country…

Hoi AnThe next two days involved travelling between Hanoi to Hoi An which included a stop off in Ninh Binh to explore Cuc Phuong National Park and a sixteen hour train journey to the beach town of Da Nang. The harbor town of Hoi An is small and picturesque, (it is a Unesco World Heritage Site) and the architecture is full of European influence as it was an important trading town. We found it a lot calmer than Hanoi, especially as after 5pm, mopeds and vehicles cannot come through the town centre as market stalls line the streets. For some reason sitting upstairs in restaurants is 10% cheaper despite this being great as you had a scenic view overlooking the town. Another plate of noodles!! Hoi An also seems to be the tailoring capital with apparently over 200 tailor shops, an ideal place for cheap made to measures. Being girls, we thought one dress each was quite restrained…first fitting tomorrow.

First activity of the day was a cooking class at Red Bridge Restaurant. First we were given a tour of the local food markets for about 45 minutes. Apparently the best time to go to the markets is in the morning as the produce is the freshest, the vegetables and fruit smelt great but walking along the freshly butchered/caught meat and fish stalls was not as pleasurable! Rudyard Kipling famously said, ‘the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it’ and boy were your nasal passages filled with aromas from this market!! Back at the cooking class we made vegetable and shrimp spring rolls, Vietnamese style shrimp pancakes, an eggplant tagine/vegetable curry dish and finally we attempted some food decoration. Our attempts at cucumber hand fans started well until they snapped in half and my tomato peel rose fell on the floor… The class ended early afternoon and waddling out of it extremely full, as naturally you eat what you make as well as have a complimentary lunch, the early afternoon was spent wandering around town looking at the markets, Japanese covered bridge and pagodas. Around 4pm we came across a spa and for such a cheap price, a couple of dollars, it would have been rude not to accept two treatments in one, a full body massage and a mineral mud-wrap. That evening, impressive, explosive lightening lit up the sky…literally something straight from a National Geographic program.

Puppet Theatre, Hoi AnThe next day our journey continued to Ho Chi Minh City. Adamant that one sixteen-hour train journey was enough; flying was now our travel mode of choice. Waiting in departures with only ten minutes until takeoff, with still a plane-less gate, needless to say we were delayed. Once upon the Viet Air flight though, the offensively ugly cabin crew uniform cheered us up, Google image it, you have to see it to believe it…

After a short yet turbulent flight we arrived. As we had bin-bagged our backpacks, the first thing we did was remove them for ease of carrying. This was clearly the wrong action to take as when we tried to leave the airport, security demanded checking our luggage tags against the luggage receipt…struggling with the language barrier we explained ours were in a bin and after a few panicked moments thinking we’d have to rummage around the bins they decided to let us off. Our next task was getting a taxi to the hostel, easy enough?

No. Confusion then followed in the taxi rank with our bags being taken off us and put into separate taxis but we finally managed to grapple our bags back and get them into one taxi, agree on a price and set off on what should have been twenty-minute journey. Despite at the airport the driver confidently declared he knew the way to the hostel, over an hour later, he apparently was now lost… Despite up to this point enjoying the longer than expected tour of the city things quickly escalated when the driver kept pulling over on random, busy streets trying to make us get out. Obviously we refused and so unexpectedly, the driver got out instead…about five minutes later he reappeared, (we presumed he needed a time out…his inability to speak English definitely didn’t help.) This happened several times before my travelling companion was dragged out of the car and I, naturally following was ordered back inside. [Travelling companions perspective] After being dragged by the arm, and across a rather busy road (without really waiting for the traffic to subside) she was taken down a rather dingy looking alleyway to search for the hostel. After ten minutes she returned to the taxi declaring the hostel had been located. [My perspective] The ordering back into the car was done in an angry, aggressive tone so I thought it best not to disobey. After seeing my fellow traveller and driver disappear out of sight I realized I was alone in a taxi, with the key still in the ignition on a busy road full of night walkers thus I probably wasn’t in the safest situation. I was left to wonder how long to leave it before taking action but thankfully they reappeared shortly. Due to this palaver the driver demanded more money than we had agreed on and after arguing our case, (the fact it wasn’t our fault he got lost) he employed a local man to translate for us. We continued to hold our ground until my purse suddenly had an angry hand inside and all the money pulled out, (thankfully it was only petty cash). Our bags, which the driver had been firmly guarding, were then flung at us and we hurried into the safety of the hostel. Upon telling the hostel staff of our ordeal we were told, ‘getting lost’ is a common scam and being young girls were ideal victims.

After de-stressing sleep, Reunification Palace was our first call. It was the central government building for South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and is still used today for some state occasions. We were lucky with our timing as we managed to latch onto an English tour explaining the uses and history of some of the rooms and basements. Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum which took most of the afternoon as there was a lot to see and read about. This was extremely moving, as exhibitions were comprised off graphic images of the war crimes and victims of the Vietnam War. The material would most likely not have been shown in England.

We wandered back through the city looking for a place for dinner, taking in the atmosphere, feeling nostalgic that this was our last evening in Vietnam. The trip had been exhilarating, cultural and beautiful, the locals, with only a few exceptions, had bent over backwards to help us and it was definitely a trip and experience to remember. Despite loving Vietnam, the option of rice or noodles for every meal had taken a toll and so apparently the ‘best restaurant in the country’ seemed like a perfect place for a pizza…

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