Tag - hanoi

Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled

Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
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I only had a few days in Vietnam and, as enamoured with Hanoi as I was, I wanted to catch a glimpse of rural Vietnam. So, leaving behind Hanoi’s cafes, lakes, tree-lined streets and deliciously smooth and hideously cheap draft beer I headed out west.
With a natural aversion to buses and not enough time for a trip on one of the painfully slow trains the only option seemed to be two wheels. Throwing common sense aside I opted for Russian over Japanese.

The Russian Minsk is more commonly known as the ‘mule of the mountains’ and favoured by the locals for its basic approach to transport and its ability to tackle the rugged highland terrain. Added to that it is cheap and there are spare parts readily available everywhere from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and beyond.

Feeling oddly proud of my US$10 a day museum piece I secured backpack to seat and kicked the decades old two-stroke into action. Navigating through the mayhem and chaos of Hanoi’s streets is an adventure in itself. Officially Vietnamese drive on the right but anywhere between, and including, the paths on either side will do. Street lights and road markings are purely decorative.

Once out of Hanoi the scenery is quick to change. Retail becomes heavy industry which in turn becomes agriculture. Houses become fewer, smaller and with greater distance between them. Eventually the flat rice fields around Hanoi start to incline towards the mountainous region of the west on route 6, where rice is grown in terraces.

The Minsk copes admirably with the hills and trundles along at a steady pace. With no electrics or battery on-board judging speed and fuel consumption is down to guesswork.

The road is generally single lane and of poor quality. Drivers are surprisingly polite even in the very rural areas and as you go further from Hanoi the bounds of what passes as a vehicle get stretched to the limit. Any motorised farm implement with wheels is quickly decked out with a seat and attached to a trailer. Instant tractor!

In Hanoi Minsks are thin on the ground but in the mountains their popularity is clear. Every well dressed Vietnamese owns one. Struggling up a steep mountain road I passed a farmer on a Minsk with a young buffalo trussed up like a chicken and strapped to a board, broadside across the back of the bike. Blue smoke belched from the exhaust just inches from the buffalo’s nose as the two-stroke screamed its way up the mountain.

High in the mountains at around 1000m the temperature dropped and I regretted heading out in only a t-shirt. Stopping to pull another shirt from my backpack I was invited to drink tea with a man sat outside his house. Soon we were joined by two others, one holding a baby. None of them could speak English and I can’t speak Vietnamese but we somehow managed to communicate with a few words from my Lonely Planet guide and sign language.

With an hour to spare before sunset I reached Mai Chau, a village-sized town set in a flat valley base of rice fields surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. Hidden off the main road down a long and bumpy lane Mai Chau leads me to Ban Lac, a small hamlet of traditional ‘hill tribe style’ stilted wooden houses.

The people of this region are said to ancient relatives of the Thais in Thailand and known as White Thai. The houses here are very similar to the traditional stilted houses found in the northern region of Thailand.

For about US$6 I got a room for the night, and dinner and breakfast. The room was devoid of windows or furniture and had an old, thin, fold-up mattress thrown down under a mosquito net as a bed. A ceiling fan hung from the rafters and one bulb gave just enough light to read by.

A delicious dinner was served alfresco beneath the house, overlooking the rice fields. Having managed to get the message across that I am vegetarian I was served home grown vegetables, tofu, rice and deep fried homemade crisps, all washed down with a few bottles of the excellent Halich beer.

After dinner I chatted with the lady of the house. Being a Thai speaker, well sort of, I was amazed to discover that distant as the White Thai are to modern Thais there are still some similarities in the language. We managed to have quite a conversation using common Thai words and English.

The view from my bed was a magnificent panorama of rice fields and the steep, rugged mountains beyond. I went to bed with the sounds of rice paddies in my head; lizards, frogs and crickets chirruping contentedly in the darkness. By 2am the local dogs burst into song as a response to several over zealous cockerels and at 5.45am I was roused from my slumber by the sound of cow bells down in the lane. The cool mountain air, dull dong of the cow bells and gentle plodding of the cattle on the dirt road gave the whole thing an air of the Alps.

After an icy cold shower and breakfast of crusty bread, cheese, jam and local coffee I walked through the network of lanes, dodging small herds of cattle ambling slowly in front of their herders. Thick cloud had descended and the mountains were completely shrouded, leaving only the valley floor visible.

The lanes were alive with the gentle hum of conversation and the tapping of hammers. In several locations new wooden houses were being erected. Craftsmen and women were busy shaping wooden beams and carving out ornate mouldings for doors and stairs. Women and children were weaving traditional hill tribe clothing and wicker baskets.

Later on the journey back to Hanoi was cold, wet and with poor visibility. Going over the mountains surrounding the valley in which I’d spent the night the traffic was reduced to nothing more than a crawl with visibility down to about two metres.

The Weekender

Hanoi by Foot

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
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Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam

Further north than Bangkok, Hanoi is refreshingly cool and is a perfect blend of colonial French and Asia at its exotic best. I’d heard horror stories about this ancient city but couldn’t find an awful lot wrong with it. My only complaint was that I’d not bothered to visit sooner.

The taxi from the airport to Hanoi centre took about 45 mins and cost US$10. The fare each way is pretty much standard so ignore any driver trying for a higher price. I checked into the Old Darling Hotel in the Old Quarter. I’d found the place on the internet and it sounded reasonable at US$15 a night for a room with en-suite, fan and air-con and a TV.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is something along the lines of a local Khao San Road, but bigger. It’s a network of narrow streets with guest houses, hotels, food outlets, cafes, art galleries and travel and tour companies. The French influence is strong. Caf? culture is alive and kicking, art galleries are two a penny and I saw at least half a dozen old Vietnamese decked out in waistcoats and berets.

The traffic is something else. There are traffic lights and directions painted on the roads but it’s not immediately clear why as no one seems to pay any attention to them. Motorbikes and mopeds rule the roads. Young Vietnamese girls glide through the streets on Vespas and their latest Japanese equivalent with a truly Parisian grace.

At intersections traffic moves in from all angles simultaneously. It seems impossible but it works. A friend who studied engineering once told me about some daft theory whereby if all the molecules of two solid objects were facing the same direction the objects could pass through one another. This is exactly as it seems to happen on the streets of Hanoi.

The best way to cross the road is slowly. Just position yourself on the pavement pointing in the direction you want to move and then slowly advance. Traffic will somehow move around you. It’s scary but it works. I’m convinced you could close your eyes and get across unscathed; but never did pluck up enough courage to test the theory. Try it back in Bangkok and you’ll get flattened.

The best place to observe Hanoi’s vehicular chaos from is the excellent Papa Joe’s caf?/restaurant on Cau Go, overlooking a ridiculously busy intersection and the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. From the balcony you can watch Hanoi bustle by whilst sipping on a fresh juice or coffee.

Daytime the streets are alive and teeming with people. Street markets provide the familiar aromas so common with many Asian cities. Street vendors weave their way between pedestrians, carrying baskets of goods slung from poles across their shoulders. Everywhere you look someone is selling something and calling for your attention.

The streets were alive at night with foreigners and locals alike. Restaurants were generally busy and early in the evening gangs of people gathered for a gossip and some beer at street stalls selling the famous Bia Hoi.

Apparently the Czechs taught their knowledge of brewing to the Vietnamese and now there are micro-breweries everywhere. This un-preserved draft beer is available all over Hanoi. It’s dirt cheap at something like 13 baht a glass (half litre) and is so smooth you’ll want to keep them coming all night. 100 baht will get you almost 8 beers! These street-side beer stops are a very multi-cultural affair with locals mixing happily with backpackers and tourists.

By nine at night the streets had changed. Office workers and the night’s early shift had dined, supped and moved on home, leaving party goers and less desirable types to come out to play. The only annoyance I encountered was the continual attention from motorbike taxi guys who are everywhere and seem to think that every foreigner is in need of a lift somewhere. Oh, and a street hooker and her pimp tried coercing me into a quick sex session which, I felt, would have left me severely out of pocket one way or another.

Out by six the next morning in time to watch the sun rising. Traders were getting into their stride, cafes and restaurants preparing for the early morning trade and motorbike taxis still hawking for business. On the wide path at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake ladies were practicing Tai Chi with red fans. It’s therapeutic just watching.

Apart from art galleries and cafes the Vietnamese also inherited a love of fresh bread from their old colonial masters. Every few yards there were women with baskets of freshly baked crusty baguettes for sale. The smell is very inviting and hard to resist.

East of the Old Quarter on Pho Bien Dien Phu is the Army Museum. It’s worth a look. It’s basically a celebration of the most recent Vietnamese victories over first the French, then the US and finally China. There is a collection of captured and shot-down US and French hardware including a helicopter, rocket launchers, and numerous pieces of aircraft shot down and piled together as a piece of art. There are also weapons used by the Vietnamese in their military victories.

As expected the picture painted of the noble Vietnamese soldier is nothing short of saintly whilst the opposition are always evil, cloven hoofed and horned monsters hell bent on torture and destruction. One thing for sure, the Vietnamese are clearly a force to be reckoned with whatever they are armed with.
 
 
A long walk south from the Temple of Literature is Lenin Park. This is a huge recreational area set around Bay Mau Lake. This is where locals come to exercise, dance, eat, listen to live music, watch traditional dancing and generally chill. The entrance is lined with stalls selling local produce, ready to eat food, and gifts.
 
On a large stage by the top of the lake local girls were demonstrating traditional dance, similar to Thai dancing. Another stage had a modern singer belting out local favourites at deafening volume. Many people are simply using the park for exercise, a past-time that seems to be taken quite seriously here.
 
Back up to Hoan Kiem Lake and it seemed that the Vietnamese who weren’t exercising in Lenin Park were here. Hundreds of locals were marching anti-clockwise around the lake in a grand display of communal fitness. Early evening has a very Chinese feel to it with families coming together for exercise and general interaction.
 
On the last morning I head out on foot again, after an excellent breakfast at the Paris Deli, for the Vietnam Revolutionary Museum and the Vietnam History Museum. Both are interesting and well worth the hike, despite the formers somewhat one-sided view of things.
 
This was my first visit to Vietnam and will certainly not be the last. The people are surprisingly welcoming and at the same time don’t smother you with attention (with the exception of book sellers and motorbike taxis).
 
The level of English is lower than Thailand but there is more chance of a stranger trying to strike a conversation even if they can’t speak a word of English. On several occasions I was invited to join people on the street for tea and a chat. No catch, no con and no payment, they just wanted buy me a tea, chat and try to learn a few words of English.
 
Hanoi can be a cheap destination. There are cheaper places than the hotel I stayed in and to be honest, it wasn’t really worth the money. Food is very affordable and even the classier restaurants aren’t prohibitively priced. As for beer, I doubt anywhere in this region can compete on that front.
 
With Air Asia offering return flights for around 5,000 THB all in it is no more expensive to get to than Singapore, Vientiane or KL.
 
There are many things to see in Hanoi alone even before venturing up country and I only touched on what the city has to offer. The leading tourist attraction is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. As much as I wanted to see it the queue was too much just to see another jaundiced communist leader stiff as a board in a glass case so Uncle Ho will have to wait until next time. 

Halong Bay: Vietnam’s Jewel on the Water

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Halong Bay: Vietnam's Jewel on the Water
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The legend of Halong Bay is a fine one. In the time of Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to Vietnam’s coast in order to protect its people. The dragons spat jewels and jade into the water, forming beautiful islands which densely filled the Gulf of Tonkin, forming a barrier against invaders. Today, the only foreigners occupying Halong Bay are curious travellers from around the world, who come in peaceful hordes to see Vietnam’s finest natural wonder.

Spanning 1500 square kilometres, the “Bay of the Descending Dragon” lies east of Hanoi and attracts tourists of all forms. Visitors can choose from a simple daytrip boat tour, a 5-day blitz of island exploration, or something in between. If you have time, we strongly encourage a 2 or 3 day tour of the bay to best witness its beauty. While the sky’s the limit in terms of cruise luxuries (and costs), this traveller took a comfortable all-inclusive (minus alcohol, naturally) 2-day trip for 30$USD.

Because tour options are varied, travellers should have no trouble choosing a package to suit their tastes. Couples can soak up the romance of a smaller cruise; nature-lovers can opt for expensive cave tours, and sporty travellers can hike, bike, kayak and swim, all in one trip. When booking a tour, we recommend that you ask the agent to write out everything included in the package; sights to be toured, kayaking and biking options, et cetera. Some tourists are stuck with boat crews cutting back on activities to save travel time.

Once off the mainland and upon a tourboat, options are plentiful. Between big, delicious meals prepared by the boat crew, tourists can relax on the sundeck, swim, kayak, and snap pictures aplenty of the scenic islands. The boats make stops for guided tours of Ha Long’s famous caves, full of stalactites and stalagmites and steeped in local folklore, explained by friendly guides. At night, tired tourists can put their feet up, taste some of Hanoi’s local wine or beer, and looc up at the stars while chatting with other passengers. Your boat crew may speak of a a post-dinner karaoke affair, though be warned that the music is mostly tinny Vietnamese pop. Feel free to decline a turn on the mic, or else dive in and chalk it up to a cultural experience.

After a peaceful sleep in your ship’s cabin, don’t be alarmed if you wake up to the chipper “good mornings” of vendors rowing up to your boat on rafts laden with cigarettes, Coke, biscuits and other western staples. Despite its idyllic appearance, Halong Bay remains an iconic point on the tourist trail, and local people from nearby towns and floating villages know the value of this economy.

The next morning, those on 2-day tours can enjoy more swimming and scenery before the journey home. Travellers on longer trips disembark on popular Cat Bat island for hiking and cycling through its jungle terrain. Depending on the tour, they might also take a kayaking tour through Ha Long’s caves. Whatever the itinerary, and whatever your tourist tastes may be, Halong Bay is a stunning, relaxing, must-see excursion for any traveller.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.