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Visiting Vietnam, part 2; Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halong & Sapa

Stunning scenery, adventure on the high seas and the highways for that matter...

sunny 35 °C

First a word on our means of transport in Vietnam. When we were in Ho Chi Minh we bought an open bus ticket which would take us all the way to Hue, hopping on and off where we liked. Up to Nha Trang the buses were fine, if a bit chaotic. The bus company we were travelling with was Tam Hahn (we bought the ticket through Vietsea travel) and they seemed okay. However, we organised to take the night bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An – this was with a different bus company, Asia Smile I think. We were picked up late and spent a good 2 hours faffing around picking people and parcels up everywhere. These night buses are also much different to the sheer luxury we experienced in South America. I like to call them coffin buses; there were so many people squeezed into them, you would need to be a gymnast to get out.

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Anyway, at about 1am we hit something in the road, hard – and then we stopped. Thankfully the only damage seemed to be the bus. We stayed dozing for another hour or two but by then the coffin bus had turned into an oven bus – it must have been 35 degrees in there – so we bailed out despite the bus staff objecting to it. We then proceeded to sit on the side of the road for the majority of the next 7 hours, watching the driver and his posse take the engine apart on the side of the road.

Another couple of tourists got sick of waiting and the complete lack of information (no English speakers here I'm afraid!), so they spoke to the 'Director' of the bus company by phone who assured them a bus would be there at 8am – it didn't arrive. He then assured them it would be there at 10am – when they questioned the reliability of this statement he hung up on them. It was time to leave. A couple of people managed to hitch a ride to the next town. A couple of other buses on the way to Hoi An stopped, let a couple of Westerners on and then shoved the rest of us out of the way to let the Vietnamese on. Eventually and rather bizarrely a taxi came by. Stu, 2 English girls and I managed to squeeze ourselves into a matchbox car with all our packs etc and he took us the 30 or so kilometres to the next town.

When we got to the next town we managed to find a minivan that was going the 5 hours to Hoi An – yipee. We rocked up to what appeared to be the bus station cafe – grabbed some bread rolls and drinks and piled into the van. It was then we discovered the ants on the rolls – boo. There were about 9 people including us in the van when we left the station; by the time we were on the high way there were 24 people, a baby and a motorbike in the van, plus luggage and boxes, always loads of boxes. It was crazy. And they didn't take us to Hoi An, they took us Danang – the big city nearby, so to add insult to injury we then had to take another bus which took an hour and a half to go 25km – yep you guessed it, picking up peoples and parcels all over the city...

24 hours to go 350km...I am buying a car when we go home.

Hoi An is beautiful. As tired as we were when we arrived we strolled down into the old town and had dinner by the river which gets lit-up every night with lovely lanterns. Hoi An is famous for its tailors. People go there to shop and hang about in the sun, it's quite close to the area known as China Beach – the main r'n'r destination for American soldiers during the war.

The first day we were there we spent pretty much the whole time trying to establish which tailor we should do our shopping at and then getting measured up. It was really good fun actually, particularly for me as I got to design exactly what I wanted. In the end we went with a Tailors called Wall St for most of our stuff. They did a great job, even with the cape I ordered which they had never actually made before. They were a little more expensive than Mr Xe who we probably would have gone with but for Kieuw at Wall St – her English was really good and we just felt it would mean less chance of confusion etc. I did have a dress made by Mr Xe and it was lovely. Both tailors insist on fittings until the garment is perfect but in reality you could have something made in 24hrs – we just dragged it out over a few days. We also had some shoes made, winter boots mainly – which I am very excited about wearing with my new winter clobber. The shop we went to was Everybody's Fashion. They're a little pushy but will make just about anything for you, just bring a pic. When one of the pairs of boots I ordered came back with an orange lapel instead of the red one I requested, he took it back and fixed it straight away – all made to measure too so great stuff. We packed it all up and sent it home by seamail so I'm hoping it will get there safe and sound, supposedly it will take 1 to 3 months; it cost us about $50 which is a steal really for 11kgs. Note to other travellers – some of the tailors will post your stuff for you and they're cheaper than the post office – but remember to get a tracking number from them.

After a hard days shopping we headed for nature and joined Gareth and Angela once again for a day trip on a boat. It was a scorching day so we spent much of it trying to find shade on the islands we visited. It was good fun, we did some snorkelling with some ancient masks and saw some nice fish and coral – the lunch we got was a feast too and very tasty. I don't know the names of the islands as there was a definate language barrier with our guide, but we had fun all the same.

That night we finished off the day with a few beers, a few cocktails, an epic search for a karaoke bar that took us half way across Hoi An and back followed by a walk through the deserted streets – oh, except for the cow we bumped into.

The next day we had our final fittings and took it pretty easy otherwise. Onward travel was organised (we did mention to the bus company about the disaster on the previous journey – their response was to crack up laughing – yea, we didn't think we'd get much satisfaction there) and we did a bit of bargaining at the local market to pick up some gifts to include in the parcel which was to be home bound.

One absolute must in Hoi An is the fresh beer, it's so good and so cheap about 5000 dong or about 20p for a glass. A lot of restaurants do it so treat yourself.

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The bus to Hue was fine I am glad to say – it was actually a sleeping bus too but we got a seat up the front on the ground which made a difference and it wasn't too overcrowded. Hue is really different again. We've been really pleasantly surprised at just how different each of the stops in Vietnam has been. Hue is pretty much a city but it's steeped in ancient history as it once was the Capital. We took a day tour there which was fantastic value at only $12 which our hotel, Hue Holiday Hotel organised. We were picked up early and first driven out to see some mausoleums of Kings. These are huge elaborate tombs which were built to house the body of a king. They're are situated alongside the river mostly and in really beautiful surroundings – the pics speak for themselves. It's worth mentioning that these mausoleums took years upon years to build and the people of Vietnam often had extortionate taxes imposed upon them to pay for them. Ironically, the last King went into exile in France once Vietnam become independent; his grandchildren, who are technically heirs to the throne have visited these mausoleums and have to pay in like all the other punters. I'm sure they're rolling in their tombs.

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From here we stopped off at a Vietnamese Martial Arts college – this place was mind blowing. I didn't even realise it was part of the tour. We spent about 40mins there being entertained by displays from the students. They were excellent, proper ninjas. There was one unfortunate incident where a girl let a blunt spear she was using slip from her hand – it flew across the room and landed on an audience members foot – but I think she was ok. We were treated to displays with different weapons and then one on one combat as well as 3 on one combat – one of the most amazing things was when one of the guys did some Kung Fu, smashing a load of tiles with his head – and they followed this up with a guy driving a spear into his throat without breaking the skin – it was sick. Really entertaining.

We stopped at a little place nearby where they make conical hats and incense (incense is everywhere here as they burn it on alters for their deceased at every corner). The reason I mention this place though is there are lots of little artists shops there too and the artwork is amazing. If we'd had a bit more time there and money I would have picked up some stuff. They weren't particularly expensive but carrying stuff around is a no-no for us so hopefully we'll make it back there sometime in the future.

We headed back to the city for some lunch and then went to the famous Citadel. This was an ancient city which had basically been destroyed through the different wars that have taken place. It's still a pretty cool thing to see, in one of the main buildings they have a video of what it looked like and indeed what they plan for it to look like once again in the future. It was so hot here, again we spent much of our time jumping from shade to shade. We then went to Thien Mu Pagoda, which was nice; there was lots of mini-monks running around there. They wear what looks like little grey pyjamas and have their heads shaven but for two tufts normally like pigtails at the back of their heads...we believe that once you become a full monk these get the chop. From there we hopped on a river boat to get back to the city. Don't do this if you are in a rush, they are insanely slow, but kinda cool looking with their dragons out front.

Our second and last day in Hue we pretty much got the rest of our major travel plans organised. Namely a few flights we need to take before we head home. With heavy heart we decided we wouldn't be lucky enough to add the potential stops of Hong Kong or Malaysia the bucks and the time just wouldn't stretch that far.

We were killing time before we caught our night flight so Stu had a massage and I had a manicure. Poor Stuart had a rather uncomfortable experience with oil and hair pulling but I'll let him tell you about that one another time. The flight from Hue to Hanoi was a dream – 1 hour in the air compared to 12 or more on a bus. Our driver was even there to meet us when we got in(courtesy of the hotel we were checked into) so all in all not a bad journey.

Hanoi is a snarling beast of a city and unfortunately I think our least favourite location in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is a much nicer city stop. The first day we arrived we hit the town trying to organise our trip to Halong Bay which we had hoped to do the following day. As it transpired a cyclone that had hit the Phillipines was causing bad weather in the bay and therefore the departure of boats was looking dodgy for the following few days. A quick change of plans and we were booked on an overnight train leaving that night for Sapa; where we had also hoped to go to do some trekking.

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The cabins on the train were fine, clean and once the air con kicked in fairly comfortable – however, we had 3 more people in our cabin rather than the standard 2 as per bed space. Two Vietnamese guys had decided to top and tail in the one bunk which meant one of them had his feet stuck up on the little table near my face for most of the night – rank. Although, more frustratingly, one guy decided to take a phonecall after we had all fallen asleep and proceed to yak for an hour. When he went to sleep his mate started snoring, like an elephant. Needless to say that wasn't the best nights sleep we've ever had. After hanging about at the train station for an hour in the morning we were finally on our way to Sapa – which takes about another hour up hill. We had a nice pancake breakfast once we arrived at our hotel; the hotel itself was pretty basic but okay if a little damp. We were delighted to hear we had free time 'til lunch so we went to sleep. Our trek that afternoon took us on about a 5km round trip to a nearby village with 2 American girls who couldn't manage to shake a local H'Mong woman who decided to follow them around. We were later to find out this is common practice but more on that in a while.

We got to see how they make their clothes and the items they sell to tourists, its all done painstakingly by hand. Pretty much everything is indigo as a base colour and you see many women walking around with what looks like navy gloves but its the dye that's seemed to have perma-dyed their skin. You'll see their rather interesting outfits, its their traditional gear which was suited to being in the jungle with all sorts of things that bite and stick. I particularly liked the velvet leg warmers but I think you need tiny calves to really pull them off.

We also saw Cat Cat waterfall that day, two beautiful things that made it extra nice were the huge butterflies that were all over the place and the rainbow that appeared when the sun came out – serene.

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We also saw where they grind up the rice that comes from the paddy fields that surround the villages and cling to the sides of the mountains in all directions. We also saw a forgery in operation where they make much sought after knives. I had never seen a forgery before, Stuart even had a go fanning the flames of the fire that heats the iron.

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That night we had a feast of a dinner at our hotel – similar to the feast of a lunch we had. Very tasty and aptly their Pumpkin soup was the best I've ever tasted. We took a wander around the market there too, there are some bargains to be had by the way of fake North Face gear and other locally produced souvenirs.

The following day and we set off on a longer hike of about 12km. The weather was okay and straight away we were pretty much on earthen tracks along with a Spanish couple, our guide and 3 H'Mong women I like to call the hangers-on. They were actually really nice. Sou, who I got talking to (after she presented me with a present of little horse made out of grass) told me about her family and how they live and work, it was really interesting. She wondered why Stuart and I aren't married which we get a bit out here, but she was a good sport and had a giggle with us. As will happen to everyone who meets these women there comes a point where they will say something like 'okay you buy something'....and you feel like you have to. They have, after all, walked all the way from their village in the morning into Sapa and then back all the way with you – for what? Well, for your Dong via purchases you make from them. We picked up some nice bits and pieces from them and it was pretty cool to know they had hand made them themselves.

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On our trek that day we saw some of the most beautiful countryside, I cannot emphasise enough how worth it a trip to Sapa is if you've been clinging to the coast in Vietnam. It's stunning, even when the heavens opened it was still pretty beautiful – well what we could see of it.

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We visited a number of villages that day, where we visited a Catholic Church surprisingly (about 6% of H'Mong are Catholic – a hangover from Colonial times) and we even got to witness some kids being taught music, it was lovely. We also met some gorgeous little kids who spend their days playing around the paddy fields and in the rivers. They also like to get treats from the tourists and no one could resist these kids, especially the pants-less (I believe as they can't afford nappies) little boys with the snotty noses – angels.

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One little girl walked with us for a good few kilometers with a basket of herbs on her back. She was dead cute too, we gave her some cookies that made her face light up. We also came upon a group of kids eating sugar cane. You need a big sharp knife to strip the sugar cane before you can eat it – check this little girl who seemed to have the monopoly of stripping the sugar cane.

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A wonderful day I have to say, bad weather and all. It did get slightly tedious when a group of teenage girls stated hassling us to buy more stuff for about the 10th time that day but they gave up eventually. You can't say something like 'I don't have any more money' because they know you do otherwise how could you come all the way from a rich country to be there? There's no easy way of saying no.

Back on the sleeper train that night and a much better nights sleep thanks to the standard two other people in the cabin. We rocked up to Hanoi at 5am, silly o'clock the next morning – we went back to our hotel and sat there until 9am when they told us there wasn't a room for us. :( However, the booked us into another place around the corner that was perfectly acceptable. That day we went out for a wander around the city. The one big problem with Hanoi is the layout. There are so many streets and back alleys you can't go 40ft without having to cross the crazy roads so every venture out is fraught. We were also trying to book our trip to Halong Bay and paid a visit to a few travel agents but it was a really difficult task as they all quote you way above the asking and you have to try and bargain them down. Eventually we had got a tip about a place called the Hanoi Tourist Information Service- it was actually just a kiosk on Le Thach near the lake. They sold us a 3day 2nt trip for $80 but had cheaper ones for $52 but apparently the food wasn't as ample and it was a smaller boat. It was a bargain considering we were being quoted anything from $120 to $260.

That night we had a few beers and a nice meal before heading to see some water puppetry. This is a real marmite kinda thing – I really liked it – because I found it cute I think other people just thought it was rubbish. Don't go expecting too much but the music is really excellent so well worth a gander.

We headed off to Halong early the next day, having checked the weather forecast things seemed to be looking better. It took us about 4 hours to get there and get on the boat, which was actually pretty nice, a classic Junk boat with a huge restaurant and sun deck up on top. We had a seafood lunch which was pretty tasty and then headed out amongst the other-worldy rock formations that make up Halong Bay.

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There are in fact 1,960 of these formations, many of which have never been explored or named for that matter. They cover 1,553 sq kms and really are a sight to behold. After about an hour we got to Sung Sot cave, also known as the Amazing Cave.

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This place was pretty cool if for its sheer scale alone, it's huge. Afterward it was time for kayaking – a 40min sprint around a few islands and back to the boat totally pooped. It was quite good fun and I'm pleased to say Stuart and I didn't fall out over directions again. We anchored in a quiet bay that evening and had a very long and deep chat with our guide Thouc that touched on everything from wildlife to war over to politics and back to ghost stories. Dinner was followed by a sort of sing song/salsa night. One guy in particular, an Argentinian native who had been living in France for the last 20 years was relentless in his pursuit of dance partners, I even gave him a whirl. I reckon salsa might be the way forward, we were sweating buckets after a few minutes. Stu and I slipped away once the Italian contingent started in on Italian power ballads...

The next morning we headed for Cat Ba Island where we were to spend the next day and night. Once we got to the island we were faced with an hour and a half up hill trek. Ok, we said we'll give it a go. However, about 5mins in it started pouring and I have NEVER seen anything like the mosquitoes in this place, they were like horses. Another 20mins of scrambling over very unsecured cobbles that had been placed on mashed up clay we came to a series of ladders, this was breaking point – potentially literally. Some of these old ladders had rotted and broken in parts. There was a backlog of people here too as only one person could go up or come down the ladder at any one time. As we stood soaked, covered in mud and being massacred by mozzies I thought of my little brothers invaluable advice, if it doesn't feel right, don't do it. We turned on our heels and took a good few of the group with us too who agreed a view of the island tree tops wasn't worth a broken ankle or malaria for that matter. We enjoyed seeing a number of people hop themselves on the way back down and we even saw a real-life stick insect – he was very cool and about 8 inches long.

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When we got to the bottom we saw an unusual stripey dog – see if you think the markings are real or fake!

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The minute we got to the bottom the rain stopped but we didn't have any regrets about turning back, it was insane. We spent about another 45mins on the bus to get to our hotel, and when we got there we were pleasantly surprised to see we had been well upgraded. A quick shower and a change and it was back out for lunch and a trip to Monkey Island. This is a cool little place where we just chilled for a couple of hours, we did in fact see some wild monkeys too. They are infamous for biting people so we stayed well back but they were cool little dudes, Momma and two inquisitive babies.

That night we returned to the same restaurant we had lunched in. It was pretty standard Vietnamese fair but filled us up nicely. Every couple of minutes while we were there we would get a fright because their was loads of groups of Vietnamese men and they would allow jump up and shout something three times before throwing back shots of rice alcohol. Think rowdy rugby team outing. Mad.

We slept well in our fancy hotel that night and hit the road early the next day to get back to the boat, the harbour and then Hanoi. Sadly and shockingly we saw a pretty horrific road accident on the way back. A woman was lying on the side of the road with a lot of blood around here, she had come off her bike. No-one was around her but there were people examining her bike. We heard that in Vietnam there's some legalities around helping people who've been in accidents and basically you're not supposed to in case something goes wrong. We wondered was this the case here. However I have to say it might have been too late for her anyway.

That night we were pretty pooped so had something to eat and chilled out. The next day we were flying to Laos and out of Vietnam after nearly 4 fantastic weeks. We got up early and went to see the Temple of Literature which is a really picturesque little place which used to be the main University in Vietnam, its well worth a look. We had hoped to go to see Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum but unfortunately it's only open in the morning and it was closed Monday and Friday – the only two mornings we were actually in Hanoi.

Vietnam will be a big recommendation from us to friends and family thinking of an adventurous holiday. 3 weeks here is ample time to educate yourself, see some really cool stuff, bask in the sun and buy some tailor made clobber. Chalk it down.

The next stop is our last stop on our new country list – Laos.

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Hoi An
Tahn Vahn 1 - 8/10 - a nice little hotel with ok brekkie and a swimming pool.
Bo Bo Cafe – 10/10 – this place doesn't look like much but the food is fabulous and the man that runs the place is lovely.
Lame Restaurant – 7/10 – despite the name this place is okay, but if its busy avoid like the plague.
76 Restaurant – 8/10 – yummy Vietnamese fair.
Above and Beyond – 7/10 – okay cocktails but closes around 11pm.
Wall Street Tailors – 9/10 – they did a great job, but are a little more pricey than some.
Mr Xe Tailors – 10/10 – did exactly what I wanted and Mr Xe himself fitted me twice.
Everybody's Fashion – 8/10 – a bit pushy but they'll make you anything.

Hue
Hue Holiday Hotel – 9/10 – helpful guys and good air-con, the city tour is really good.
Little Italy – 8/10 – pretty tasty but a massive menu that is nearly too much.
DMZ – 9/10 – same menu as Little Italy in a moody bar setting.
Shiva Shakti – 9/10 fabulous, big portions of curry.

Hanoi
Est Pumpkin Travel – 8/10 – not up for bargaining, the Sapa tour we booked with them was good but the hotel was a bit damp also why was there an extra person in our cabin the first night on the sleeper?
Little Hanoi Hotel – 8/10 - the staff here were so nice except for one woman who was pretty nasty.
Lucky Star Hotel – 8/10 – our room had no window but it was cheap, breakfast ain't really western friendly.
Tourist Information Office – 10/10 – these guys were great, although their opening hours are weird about 11.30am to 6 we think but not Sunday. They knock a nice bit of money off the brochure prices for tours.
Water Pupperty near Hoam Kiem lake – 7/10 a few drinks before this might help but worth a look.
Gecko Restaurant – 8/10 good western grub.
Hanoi Backpacker Hostel bar – 7/10 a lively spot, nice beer/bad pizza.
Ladybird Restaurant – 9/10 – very tasty.
Temple of Literature – 8/10 – a pretty little place to visit with a good gift shop.
Quan Bia Minh – 9/10 - nice beer and lovely food.

Sapa
Est Pumpkin Hotel – 8/10 – a really nice family run this place and the food was great, the rooms need more attention.

Halong Bay
Christina Deluxe with A.S.T travel – 9/10 – Thouc was a great guide and we did the standard tour with a nice upgrade in out hotel on Cat Ba.
Harbour Hotel – 8/10 – a nice hotel with stunning views, there was a giant cockroach in our room when we woke up though – think small baby size.
Neptunes Restaurant – 7/10 - tonnes of standard fair.

Posted by kelandstu 06:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged pagoda sapa terraces hanoi karaoke hue hoi_an danang citadel halong_bay temple_of_literature cat_ba tailors amazing_cave wall_st_tailors mr._xe_tailors h'mong est_pumpkin cat_cat_waterfall water_puppetry china_beach christina_deluxe_junk hue_mausoleums vietnamese_martial_arts

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