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Last Days in Vietnam

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Our last few days in Vietnam involved pure luxury. We flew for the first time since Singapore (yes, that is correct, we traveled by bus all the way from Singapore to Hoi An!). Normally we wouldn’t indulge in such a treat, but the flight was actually not much more expensive than the train, and we really did need a break from the bus, so it just made sense.

Yay! I'm important!

Yay! I'm important!

Hanoi is a smoggy, dirty, chaotic city, but we didn’t take much note of it upon arrival. We actually got picked up at the airport by a driver from our hotel, complete with a “Welcome Scott Montgomerie” sign – only the third time in my life that I’ve had one of those! Perhaps all the cheddar we blew in Hoi An had gone to our heads and actually made us think we were rich…

We stayed at a place called Hanoi Guesthouse – it is rated as the #1 hotel on tripadvisor…and boy, it deserves it. They put us in a massive room (the family room) on our first night – we had a couch, two beds and a hair dryer! We had to move into a more reasonable room the second night, but it was still lovely. I cannot say enough good things about the wonderful staff who took care of us there – they are amazing. Please stay there if you ever get the chance!

Exploring Hanoi
We took off the next morning after agonizing whether to do a Halong Bay trip, a Sapa trip, both, or neither. One decision was made for us – we couldn’t do Sapa because April 30th is the biggest Vietnamese holiday, the day when the South was liberated from American Imperialism and was reunified with its communist sister of the North. This means that the Vietnamese get a giant holiday and many travel around, a very popular destination being Sapa. All buses, trains, and accommodations were booked, so that only left Halong Bay. In the end, we decided to do it. It was only $45 per person, which included all transportation, meals and sleeping on the boat. Peanuts compared to our very comparable Whitsunday Islands tour for $300.

We took off by foot to explore Hanoi – what a crazy city it is. All the sidewalks are blocked by either people sitting on small plastic chairs eating, parked motorbikes, or shops that have spilled out of their store. This means you have to walk on the road, and dodge the buses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and other pedestrians. Not for the faint of heart.

Turtle anyone?

Turtle anyone?

Our first stop was a restaurant near Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. We decided to eat before visiting Mr. Minh, but the pickings were slim. We ended up at this strange restaurant that served mostly seafood (of which Scott cannot eat after getting food poisoned on Ko Panyi), including whole turtle. The menu even included a photo of what eating a whole turtle would look like. Appetizing.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

After eating, we got to Ho Chi Minh’s resting place, and discovered that you can only visit his embalmed body in the morning. Apparently he tires easily. So instead, we visited his old palatial grounds which were quite modest and only really consisted of a few cars, a simple house, and an even simpler house on stilts that he lived in during his older age. The highlight of this tour were the loads of Chinese tourists, many of whom kept trying to not-so-covertly take our photos. They must come from areas who don’t often see white people, because apparently, we were quite the spectacle. On our way back, we visited another father of communism – Mr. Lenin. The Vietnamese have erected a very large statue of him close to Ho Chi Minh’s residence. I guess they are friends. The rest of our day in Hanoi passed uneventfully as we dodged a bit of a downpour (we are now getting into wet season here in Asia, so any future stories of rain CANNOT be blamed on the Montgomerie curse, unfortunately) and attempted to find a non-dog-meat place to eat for dinner. Eating Fido is a delicacy in Hanoi, of one we weren’t too fond of partaking…although I’m not sure we avoided it completely. Scott’s meal included a spring roll which tasted alarmingly similar to dog food and smelled like wet dog. We even found a small hair in it which resembled that of a dog. Needless to say, we didn’t eat the whole thing.

The fishing village

The fishing village

The Beautiful Halong Bay
After a four-hour bus ride out from Hanoi, we finally boarded our boat in Halong Bay. We had a good group of just 12 (the boat could hold 20, but it is low-season) and we all got along quite well. The harbour at Halong Bay reminded me of the Whitsunday Islands in the 1950s – the boats were absolutely darling, albeit somewhat dated.

Our boat was very nice: it was made of dark wood and it had three levels, with some bedrooms in the bottom, an eating area in the middle, and a beautiful patio/seating area up top. Our room was wicked and we even had our own bathroom! Sure blew our Whitsundays experience out of the water for us in terms of value for money paid. :) We enjoyed a fine lunch before chilling on the roof and taking in our beautiful surroundings. We stopped for a brief tour of some caves, which actually proved disappointing. The Vietnamese somehow figured we would be better entertained if they jazzed up the caves with some coloured lights, fake fountains and dolphin garbage cans every few meters. It looked like something straight out of Universal Studios. Our guide, a very funny little fellow named Kenny kept pointing out stalagmite formations that resembled things like cabbages, lions and horses – but I can’t even be certain if they are actually natural…or carved out by the Vietnamese to enhance our viewing pleasure.

Our boat

Our boat

Later in the afternoon, we stopped at a small fishing village (Scott’s tummy started turning at the bad memories of the fishing village we visited in Phang-Nga….) and saw a fish we had never seen before – a Vietnamese dog fish. As our guide Kenny put it “they don’t bark, but they might bite” – he repeated this many times, obviously thinking he was hilarious. We got into some kayaks and started paddling out. We had super authentic paddles made of wood, which made us REALLY tired REALLY fast since they were so heavy…but we had a wonderful time. It was amazing to be out on the water with such beautiful scenery at sunset. It was definitely a treat. The night finished off with dinner and a 1996 bottle of Bordeaux – which actually sounds better than it was – while our group chatted and enjoyed each other’s company. Very civilized.

The bus ride back to Hanoi was preceded by a lunch at a restaurant, some pearl shopping (I now know how to identify real pearls – just take a lighter to them – they won’t melt or anything!), and chatting with Minh, the local Vietnamese lady we met in our group who was on holiday. She is a computer programmer for a large bank in Saigon, and only works 9 months of the year. She seemed very well off, and had ridden her motorcycle all the way up the coast (which she would NOT recommend anyone do), before heading into China. She travels every year for three months and has been all over SE Asia, to France, and to Australia. I told Scott that I think we should move to Vietnam and have a life like hers! I’m glad she was on our bus though…unfortunately I had forgotten all about the bus ride and consumed two cups of coffee prior to the ride. Bad idea. She managed to talk the driver into pulling over onto the side of the road so I could take care of my problem. I’m pretty sure if I had tried to convey what was going on in English, I would have had an issue. The she-wee comes to the rescue again…although attempting to use it on the side of a Vietnamese highway with cars and buses honking constantly created some killer stage-fright for me and I ended up having to ride another hour in agony before our pit stop at a proper toilet. Ah well. Good times.

Last Days in Hanoi
When we returned to Hanoi Guesthouse, they informed us that they were full (even though we had pre-booked and paid), but told us they had saved a room in their more expensive partner hotel next door called Stars Hotel. This place was super lush and equally friendly – we even had a computer in our room! We were thrilled with the hotel and would also highly recommend this one as well.

We met up with Laura, Layla and Danny, a few folks from Scotland and England from our Halong Bay boat, for some dinner and a visit to the water puppet show. We ended up eating at Thai Express – a delicious restaurant that I am pretty sure originated in Singapore (and which was so good we returned another two times before leaving Hanoi). The water puppet show was thoroughly enjoyable – a live band played traditional Vietnamese music and we got to see 17 different short stories acted out on the water. It was amazing the ways they could get the puppets to move. If you do ever attend the show (which I highly recommend, especially because it is only $2!) – just be prepared for tiny seats. I am only 5′6 and was too big. I had my bum flush to the back, but my knees were wedged into the seat in front of me and any movement I made sent the tiny woman in front of me rocking.

The crowds in Hanoi on April 30th, the 35th anniversary of Vietnamese Reunification

The crowds in Hanoi on April 30th, the 35th anniversary of Vietnamese Reunification

As we were leaving the water puppet theatre, a bunch of fireworks started going off. The celebrations for April 30th were underway, and there were people and motorbikes EVERYWHERE. As soon as the fireworks stopped, people hopped onto their motorbikes and started going. It was chaos. We tried to get back to our hotel but ended up getting stuck in a sea of Hanoians…so we ducked into a restaurant for a juice and waited out the tide of little black heads and petrol fumes.

The next morning, we tried to pay old Ho Chi Minh a final visit – I really wanted to see his embalmed body in person. Because of the holiday, however, we were unsuccessful – every single Vietnamese person in the city was trying to visit him and the line-up wound several times around the block. People were trying to bud into the line on their motorbikes, which made some guards very mad and they started barricading areas off – not caring who or what they trampled, and my foot took the brunt of a gate being pulled closed. We decided to just leave and spend the day in our hotel. The city was chaotic, noisy and very stressful and we had pretty much seen all we had wanted to anyway.

Clay

Clay

On our last day in Hanoi, while randomly roaming the streets, we ran into an Aussie named Clay that we had met all the way back in Nha Trang at the train station. We had also seen him several times in Hoi An – he had incidentally ended up at the same hotel as us. It was crazy to run into him in Hanoi though – it’s a massive city of 8 million people and the tourist area alone is a giant maze of streets. We stopped and chatted, then went our separate ways. I was remorseful that we hadn’t exchanged contact information or gotten a picture of him since we had run into him so many times. Fifteen minutes later, who do we see, after we had gotten lost down a few random roads and had made a few wrong turns? Clay. I thought it was a sign to snap a pic and give him our email addresses, and we had a good giggle about how strange the universe can be.

We left for the airport to board our last plane until we start making our journey home. Most of the people we have run into have flown from Laos to Vietnam due to total insanity at the boarder and the crazy roads in Loas. The flight was pretty pricey, but we figured keeping our sanity was important to maintain…and a 26 hour bus ride probably wasn’t going to aid that much. Only an hour later and a tummy full of the cutest plane meal I have had, we arrived to little Laos. It was likely the smoothest airport landing I have ever experienced in a third world country – there was literally no one around! No one harassing us to drive us to our hotel…nothing. We had to walk out to the road and walk about 100 meters before anyone paid us any attention. A complete 180 change from Vietnam! Laos is very small with a population of only 7 million – it should prove to be interesting, having just come from a city with a bigger population than that!


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