You may remember, gentle reader, that back in July I was telling you about our trip to Indochina, starting off with Laos. We’d had a very peaceful few days in beautiful Luang Prabang, a place I’d return to like a shot. So the hustle, bustle and distinct sense of danger that we felt in Hanoi came as something of a shock. We arrived in the evening and went straight to our hotel, the Sofitel Metropole. It’s a stunner. Very elegant and grand, with excellent service, a wonderful breakfast (including – I am advised – really tasty gluten free bread and cereal), beautiful public lounges and a happening bar – Le Club. There’s nothing oriental about this place at all – it’s very much a relic of the city’s French heritage. Our bedroom was a “standard” room and was a trifle small, but still very nice, and it took us ages to work out how to turn the lights off on the first night – but then we are getting on a bit. We had a wander round the area – just long enough to find somewhere suitable for dinner – and we decided on the Club Opera, just around the corner from the hotel. It had a very nice vibe and was quite friendly, but the food was surprisingly bland. I had the spring rolls followed by the Beef in Oyster Sauce. Given how much I was going to dislike quite a lot of the Vietnamese food to come, in retrospect I probably should have enjoyed it more.
The next day we met our guide Van and our driver Hoong, and drove out to the village of Dao Thuc to see a Water Puppet show. This is a fascinating tradition that sadly appears to be dying out. A group of villagers broke off from working in the fields to perform for us. The curtain is at the far end of a small lake in the outskirts of the village, and we sat on benches opposite to watch the show. A kind of wide, green vertical blind masks us from the puppeteers working behind. The puppets are made of water-resistant wood and are fixed to the ends of long rods which move about underwater thereby making the puppet appear to act on the water surface, which becomes the stage. I would imagine you would have to be extremely strong to operate some of these puppets. All in all, it’s a very charming experience. Our story involved farmers, water buffalo, ducks, maidens, and, naturally, a dragon; all played out to traditional (although recorded) music. After the show was over we went “backstage” to meet the “cast” – by then the puppeteers had all returned to the fields, but it was very interesting nevertheless to get up close and personal with the puppets themselves, many of which were extremely old and full of character.
Then we headed back into the city. We had thought there were a lot of bikes in Laos, but that was nothing in comparison with Vietnam. You cannot imagine the numbers of pushbikes, motorbikes, mopeds and all the other variations of two wheeled vehicles that litter the streets. It’s illegal to ride one without a safety helmet; but proper safety helmets are very expensive so the majority are flimsy, just-for-show helmets that wouldn’t save your life in an accident, but do avoid the more acute danger of coughing up a fine to the traffic police. We first visited the 900 year old Temple of Literature, a Confucian sanctuary and historical centre of learning. There are a beautiful temple and altar, immaculate gardens, and the famous tortoise stelae, which look like headstones but in fact bear the names of the scholars who passed the exams there from the 15th to 18th centuries. They’re all mounted on the backs of stone tortoises, and they’ve got quite cute faces. (The tortoises, that is. The scholars, we can only speculate.)
Driving around the centre of Hanoi, you can’t help notice the massive mosaic mural that was erected in 2010 as part of the millennial celebrations of the founding of the city. In parts it’s very lively and vibrant, and runs approximately 4 km though the city, giving you something additional to admire as your car jostles for position with all the bikes. We were en route to Koto (Know One Teach One) for lunch, another of these restaurants that provides training for underprivileged youth. It was an excellent choice, several storeys high, so you can easily find a comfortable table at which to relax. To drink, I thought I’d try a Hanoi beer (or Bia Ha Noi). It’s perfect for lunchtime as it basically tastes like shandy. The food was good though and the young people working there are really keen. Of course, many of the Vietnamese simply eat on the streets, pitching up their little stools and cooking stoves wherever they like, so there’s always a great feeling of al fresco about the place. For our sensitive Western tummies though, restaurants like Koto are A Very Good Idea.
After lunch we visited the Museum of Ethnology. This is a great way to discover more about Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic minority groups, and the museum houses a collection of clothes, textiles, musical instruments and many other items of daily life. Outside, in the grounds, are a number of typical buildings that would be used as houses or other meeting areas by different ethnic groups. Mainly thatched roofs were on display, many were on stilts, and one – which was meant to be a sign of good reproductive fortune – had several wooden carvings of men with erections decorating its picket fence. Whilst we were there a group of young people from Koto were also visiting – it looked like they were having a celebratory day out as they were all bedecked with badges and certificates, and were having a whale of a time.
Back at the hotel, and after our much needed nap, we had asked Van for advice on somewhere local to eat. He suggested Pho24, a chain restaurant specialising in Vietnamese noodle soups – he said they were good quality, good value and very authentic. So our little troop of five gallant tourists made our way there for our evening meal. “Pho” is pronounced “poo”, and it wasn’t hard to see why. It was, we all agreed, absolutely disgusting. Sloppy, cold, thin, cheap, and utterly grotty. All of us only ate tiny bits of our meals, whilst making grimacing looks and puking noises. My stomach was upset that night and never really regained its equilibrium until we got back to Blighty. So we all slunk off, leaving the remnants of the meal on the table, and decided to go back to “Le Bar” at the hotel, where I had a very unadventurous Metropole Pizza and Mrs Chrisparkle dared a grilled chicken breast and they were both like manna from heaven.
Too early for bed, and with the night time sights and sounds of Hanoi to explore, we went for one more walk around the town. Close to the hotel is Hoan Kiem Lake, which is the Vietnamese watery equivalent of Trafalgar Square, being a place where people come to congregate, especially at times of celebration. It was bounding with energy. There were groups doing Tai Chi, others learning ballroom dancing, yet more doing Tums and Bums exercises. Over toward the statue of Ly Thai To, the founding father of the original city, there were proper bunches of youth rollerblading and breakdancing to the tunes of Michael Jackson. You may be in the capital city of a Far Eastern communist country, but it reminded me forcibly of the precinct by Sheffield City Hall (but just a bit livelier).
The next day we were up reasonably bright and early to visit what is probably the most notable building in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Our previously happy, sunny, jolly guide Van suddenly became serious, concerned, anxious Van. He instructed us how we must behave with absolute dignity and dress with decorum. Not necessary really – we were hardly going to wear tutus and plant a false nose on HCM’s tomb. Anyway, when we got there, all plans were changed. The queue to pay one’s respects was enormous – much more enormous than usual apparently. We felt Van’s anxiety levels rise. He tried to sweet-talk some guards into letting us queue-jump as we only had the one half-day left in Hanoi, but they clearly weren’t impressed. If we’d joined the queue, which was approximately 2 km long, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything else that day – including getting to our next destination, Halong Bay, at a reasonable time. We all agreed we didn’t want to spend the day just slowly shuffling to see an old bloke embalmed. So instead, Van snuck us through to a good vantage point where we could see – at a distance – the queue slowly entering the mausoleum then slowly coming out again. We also got a good look at the One Pillar Pagoda, an attractive wooden pagoda originally constructed in the 11th century, standing in an elegant lotus pond.
We were just taking a leisurely stroll past the Mausoleum and some other grand looking government buildings, including the Presidential Palace, when we noticed a small group of people – about a dozen or so – walking towards us carrying a banner (the words naturally were all in Vietnamese) and accompanied by some police officers. We asked Van what it was all about. “It’s a protest” he said, extremely sotto voce, “they’re farmers and landowners who have had their property taken off them due to government corruption”. “Great!”, I said, somewhat insensitively, “let’s take some pictures!” “NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” bellowed Van, “DO NOT TAKE PICTURES!!!!!!!” panicking like a madman. “If the police see you take pictures they will rip the camera out of your hand and destroy it! We will all get into trouble and be questioned!” “Why would they do that?” we asked innocently. “Because you would be recording and showing an aspect of society that the government don’t want you to see and don’t want you to publicise”. It was too late. I’d already snapped my shot, but I didn’t tell Van that. He was already sweating buckets. Still, I’ll let you see the picture I took. By the way, because I don’t want to get him into any trouble, even several months after the event, I’ve changed Van’s name. Just in case they hold him responsible. Which he wasn’t.
After that awful Pho the night before, none of us were in the mood for lunch. Van took us to a place where we could have the usual run of Vietnamese meals – but none of us really wanted anything. Lunch for me was some cashew nuts, a Snickers bar and some ginger tea – more than enough. Then we had one of those “shopping” moments you always get on a tour – a visit to a lacquer emporium where they not only sell lacquered items but manufacture them too. We were hosted by a very jolly lady who enjoyed practising her English on us. She was so cute I bought six coasters off her for a stupid amount of money. Very happy with them though – a quality souvenir.
It was a much happier Van that took us back on to the coach for the 3.5 hour drive to Halong Bay. Once we were away from the Big Brother pressure of the whole Mausoleum area he was able to relax again; and as a result, so did we. “So,” Van sat back in the bus, looking at the view, “have you all seen the episode of Top Gear where they drive to Halong Bay?” Sigh; we come halfway round the world and still can’t escape from Jeremy Clarkson. “No,” we admitted. “Really??” Van seemed astounded. “Everyone who comes to Halong Bay now comes because they saw the episode of Top Gear where they drove to Halong Bay”. “Everyone except us” we quietly asserted. Frankly, we wouldn’t even go to Chipping Norton lest he appear. So, if you’re a Top Gear fan, remember, they’re going to love you in this part of Vietnam.
The journey to Halong Bay was relatively unremarkable; although we did note the lack of EU Health and Safety legislation in the highways maintenance. One poor man was struggling to do some road repair all by himself, on his haunches tending to a manhole in the middle of the carriageway, with no “Look Out Man at Work” sign, nervously dodging vehicles as they swept by him on either side. Hope he survived the experience. We stopped en route by some paddy fields and watched the people working hard, with all their old-fashioned tools and equipment. Right by the side of a modern road with top quality modern cars, they looked incongruous. The workers looked back, probably thinking the same about us.
We reached Halong Bay late in the afternoon, and it reminded me of a slightly gone to seed English seaside town out of season. There’s the grandly named “Royal Amusement Park” on a rather attractive promenade alongside a wide beach, but precious little that could be described as “amusing” apart from that. The beach was, though, very sandy and welcoming and we went for a little walk with our socks off – I know, how daring are we. We were staying at the Novotel, a good quality hotel with amazing views from the bedroom and a nice restaurant – although perhaps the whole place was a trifle soulless. However, we did enjoy a couple of really refreshing glasses of cold white wine by the pool when we got back from our little walk, and we got talking to the friendly manager who had just started working there two days previously. He was originally from Korea and had joined the Novotel from another hotel in Australia. I’m sure you wanted to know that.
After breakfast the next morning the five of us gathered together for our Halong Bay boat trip. It was all aboard at about 10.30am, and one of the “highlights” of the day was to be a fresh seafood lunch whilst cruising. If you say the words “fresh seafood” to Mrs C or me our stomachs start to twitch nervously and our gorges lightly rise. Nevertheless, we’re always game for a laugh, and were quite sure the quality of the seafood would be great. And so it was. But at 11am? Did we really have to have that lunch at 11am? Apparently yes, in order to see Halong Bay in the allotted half-day slot and then give us enough time to drive back to Hanoi later that afternoon for the next flight. As it was barely an hour and a half after breakfast we really did not fancy it – and it was a shame, as an awful lot of decent food went to waste. Elephant Clams, squid, prawns and everything in between. A seafood freak’s delight.
There’s no doubt that the islands of Halong Bay make an extraordinary sight. There are 1,969 islands in all, made from limestone or schist, which gives rise to a spectacular array of grottoes and caves. Unsurprisingly, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We chugged around, surveying all we could see from the top deck of our little boat. The view is mesmerising. I really enjoyed stopping off at one island to see the Thien Cung Grotto. This means “Celestial Palace” and it’s utterly beautiful, softly lit with hundreds of coloured lights that make the place a real fairyland. Amazingly, it was only discovered in the 1990s. Elsewhere, it was just fun to observe the fishermen at work and to sit back, relax and let the islands go by. It was a shame that it wasn’t a sunny day – it was quite overcast – but I believe that’s common in that neck of the woods. With a bit of imagination, you could certainly believe that you were at the furthest point away from everything in the world you know; incredibly remote, peaceful and uninhabited. Apart from the millions of tourists who come here every year. I blame Jeremy Clarkson.