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Hanoi and the long haul to Ha Long Bay

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island

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With the city of Hue logged into the memory banks we boarded our last night train of our Vietnam trip. So, you might have heard some horror stories about overnight trains in Vietnam, but the previous two overnighters were bearable, if not alright. So I reckon you need to try things a few times before you really form an opinion about things. Take my dislike for tomatoes, for instance. I have tried to eat them on several occasions, often not even on purpose and I still despise the red fruit that so many people love. Anyway, enough about fruit and let's relive that edifying train trip to Hanoi. This is the first train trip that Lou was feeling normal, so we had bought a few drinks and sandwiches for the trip. First up, the train was almost an hour late, not really an issue in this part of the world. We boarded the train and this took a while because in our carriage there was another tour group with massive bags and bicycles to boot. Eventually we found our cabin, opened the doors and there it was a 2 inch long cockroach scuttling along the floor heading under the bottom bunk. No problem. We settled in to our cosy room chatting to Gordon and Kaye while we ate our dinner and had a beer. Now this train was squalid, it reeked of what can only be described as a sewer. and the loos were faecal - it was on the seats and the putrid smells that came from within them. I have never understood how people manage to miss the bowl when they have to go. It's incredible to think how many public toilets have poo on the toilet seats. (keep an eye out in the future.) So as per normal we headed to the party cabin for a few more beers and some card games. At one stage I swatted a cockroach off Lou's back, it was gigantic, around 4cm long and she didn't even know it was there! It really is nice chilling, playing cards, drinking and chatting on the train. It takes your mind off the decayed train and helps the time whizz by. At around 11pm we called it a night.

After an interesting nights sleep, which was not too long, our guide knocked on our door at around 5am to wake us up. After gathering our belongings we climbed off the worst, fetid train ever, thank goodness for that. We chucked our luggage into the 2 taxis kindly provided by our tour operators and walked to our hotel in Hanoi. Check-in was only at 12pm, so we left our bags at the hotel and went for a pho ( Vietnamese beef noodle soup, which is a staple breakfast) which was by far the tastiest I have had so far in Vietnam. So after breakfast and coffee, our guide was going to give us a walking tour of Hanoi, his home town.

Reluctantly, without showering for many many hours we followed "Hitler"( the name I had given him because he was always telling us what to do.) We walked past the temple of literature-Van Mieu, Vietnams 1st university was founded here in 1076. We then went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It is here, against his wishes to be cremated, that his embalmed body lies. It was closed due to him being re-embalmed, so I got a picture of the building. We also went to the museum and one pillar pagoda. We then followed Adolf to the old quarter before we fled the scene in a taxi headed for our hotel. After a long, hot and disinfecting shower we had a long nap and relaxed for the rest of the day.
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The following morning, after a quick pho we boarded our bus and headed up the long road to Ha Long Bay. A 4 hour drive seemed to last days, but man it was worth it. Ha Long Bay is around 1500km2 with a 120km coastline. The name means descending dragon. It is another world heritage site. The bay consists of a cluster of almost 2000 monolithic limestone islands which rise out of the ocean like tombstones. Each island is topped with thick jungle and many are hollow with massive caves. After arriving at Ha Long City on the mainland we boarded a boat for a trip to Cat Ba island where we were due to spend the night. The boat took us to some caves which were spectacular, then we chugged around the bay anchoring at one stage for a dip. This must be one of the most magnificent places you could ever wish to swim, it really was surreal. After around 20 mins of swimming and tom foolery we reboarded the boat and completed our journey to the island. Just in time to watch the sun dissolve behind the hills.

The next morning at 6am the boys and I went fishing with a local guy. Now it was not much of boat, but it was almost sea worthy and still great fun. When leaving the harbour we stopped at a large fishing boat where our skipper grabbed a bucket of bait. Then we headed out. We eventually stopped next to a massive tombstone of a rock and we dropped anchor. Now the whole time(around 40mins) on board I hadn't seen any fishing rods,line,sinkers or hooks. I was really starting to think our 20 000 dong trip was going to be a waste of time, when our skipper pulled up a loose deck plank and grabbed a chopping board, knife and a bag full of sinkers and hooks. Relief. I was starting to feel better about my 10 US$ fishing trip. So he blissfully chopped up the fish into bait sized pieces while we eagerly waited to drop a line onto the reef below us to catch some big fish. So our non-English speaking captain finished preparing the bait and then lifted another deck board to grab the gear. To my utter amazement he pulled out 3 plastic 1/2 litre bottles with some line wrapped around them with a hook and sinker on each one. We had been done in and were only going to fish for small reef fish. None the less it was still fun pulling out some fish with hand lines in the amazing surroundings of Ha Long Bay. Our fishing trip was cut short by the now daily monsoon rains that plagued us everyday in Vietnam. We had caught some fish but nothing massive. The storm hit us by surprise and we sat out the worst of it before we headed back to land. Dripping wet we went back to our hotel for a shower. The rest of the day was spent exploring the islands beaches and sampling the delicious food. We also decided to get massages, but I will let Lou explain her feelings about that story.

Ken decided he was going to have a foot massage while I opted for a back massage as my back had been hurting quite a bit. The massage started downstairs in these massage chairs, with Ken in the chair next to me. I had a male and ken had what could only be described as an elderly lady, probably my masseuses grandmother. After around 5 minutes of this guy prodding around he discovered my back pain and suggested we go upstairs so he could do me properly. Recently our group had been discussing happy endings with massages in SE Asia and I was immediately weary about this guys motives on getting me upstairs away from prying eyes. I gingerly followed this guy upstairs and lay on the massage table. So with my nerves shot and imagination running amok, the guy continued with his massage. I was waiting for the inappropriate gestures or touch which never happened, until the guy climbed up on to the massage bed and straddled me. now I thought it was my time for this well documented happy ending and my heart almost stopped. There were tiny beads of sweat collecting on my forehead, my mouth was dry and my hands clammy as my adrenaline pumped. My mind was working in overdrive deciding weather to fight or flee. As the guy straddled me and got into a good position, he gleefully clicked my back and told me the massage was over. All the stress for nothing because he was really good and worked my lower back that was aching. In fact it was one of the best massages I have ever had, amazing.
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So with an exciting afternoon over we boarded the ferry to begin our long drive back to Hanoi. The ferry took about an hour and a half and we were treated to a glorious sunset to finish our trip to an amazing landscape called Ha Long Bay. The The 4 hour bus trip to Hanoi in the dark was interesting to say the least but I will leave stories about road travel for our next blog post. Our return to Hanoi signalled the end of our Vietnam leg of our trip with a new group starting the next day for the Loas adventure.
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Posted by louslabbert 16:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches art skylines people animals birds sky boats trains temples traffic food markets fishing fields street bus city vietnam sights hanoi thai ancient bbq vendors hue sounds halong_bay ho_chi_ming Comments (0)

Hoi An to Hue

...Vietnam continued....

So if anyone read the last post, our next journey was the overnight train from Nha Trang to Danang. Now this train was slightly worse then the previous train and no where near as clean. Unfortunately we were not given another complimentary upgrade. We had to walk to the next carriage to find a useable loo and there were a few cockroaches that were enjoying our cabin with us - not too many though, thank goodness!
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Claire, an Australian who was on the Intrepid trip with us had just turned ??...... um anyway it was her birthday so our guide had organised a lovely cake for her and we had a little party. At around midnight, I ( Ken ) went to my top bunk. All was going so well until around 3am when I woke up with a pain I don't ever recall having in my short life so far. It felt as if someone had put a branding iron into my guts, man oh man I knew I was in trouble. I sat bolt upright scrambled off the top bunk,careful not to wake anyone and found my flip flops (very necessary for where I was off to). Running the risk of dirtying my shorts and a dribble down my legs, I sort of walked to the closest toilet. Imagine walking quickly on your tiptoes with a book between your legs? That was me. Oddly enough the state of the toilet didn't bug me anymore. Needless to say, the rest of my night was spent wearing a track on the carpet between our cabin and the dodgy loo. Eventually at around 6h30 everyone started to wake up and I got pills from Lou.

Enough dirty stories, now back to our travels. Once off our train we bussed it to Hoi An. It was very interesting to see all the big resorts being built around Danang. Big golf estates and hotels. All the usual course designers. In a few years this place will be a 5* strip of beach resorts a bit like in Cancun, Mexico. When we got to the hotel we got our room straight away, which was great because Louise was still ill and meant she could climb into bed. Our guide took us on a walking tour of the town and we had lunch at 'Mermaids', the first restaurant in the town. I refrained from eating and had a black Lipton tea. Ok so Hoi An- A UNESCO world heritage site- is a magical old town and it is like stepping back in time or on to a film set, Its simply stunning. We spent the afternoon walking around ancient temples, historical houses and the markets. I managed to get Lou a birthday pressie and myself a hammock. There are hundreds of tailors and shoe shops here and it's quite unbelievable what they can make in a couple of hours.
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Still not feeling on top form, I wandered back to the hotel to check on Lou and have some rest. The evening consisted of me heading into town for a wander and a cuppa tea and Lou staying in bed. I hated the fact that she was sick because she would love this place. After a good night sleep I was up early and we went down to the beach via a few villages on bicycles. About half an hour of body surfing in the rain was a great way to wake up. Lou was feeling better, but not well enough to cycle. When I got back she was AWOL. I found her down the road from the hotel having breakfast with Gordon and Kaye. I must admit, I was so happy to see her up and looking better.The rest of the day was spent being tour guide to Lou and absorbing the charming little town, taking in the sights, sounds and smells together. Wonderful. It's a very overpowering place and easy to fall in love with. So it was full moon and a lantern festival awaited us that evening. On the festival night, streets are decorated with colorful traditional lanterns lighting the whole town while soulful folk and opera music and lyrical poetry chanting wafting from every corner. The centre of town is closed to traffic and all the lights aRE turned off. This is one of a few exotic festivals around the world which does not require a season to visit. It happens on the 14th day of the lunar month.
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Usually on this night, tourists leave their hotels and flood the street walking the peaceful street, lit by hundreds of colorful lanterns, listening to the music floating in the air and enjoying an enchanting moment back in ancient time. For us it wasn't as romantic and dreamy as portrayed. It was wet, overcrowded and the rain basically put a damper on a good night. We walked the street dodging people and dancing dragons until we were soaked through, then we called it a night.

When we woke up I wished Louise a HAPPY BIRTHDAY- The big 30, and I handed her present wrapped in newspaper. She wasn't expecting anything as we had said no pressies this year because of this trip. It was a carved box, with chopsticks inside. We went and had a birthday breakfast upstairs at a restaurant overlooking the river and then found a tailor to get a skirt made for her to wear on her birthday night. It didn't stop there, next was a cobbler to get custom sandals made to go with the skirt. I did say Lou would love this place! We hired some bikes and rode around and then went for coffee and cake at the Cargo Club. Lou spent the rest of the afternoon getting her nails done while I buggered off towards the beach to fish with the locals for about an hour. Caught nothing!
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Then began the rush. Get to the tailor for a fitting of the skirt at 17h00, too big so it needed adjusting. They promised to deliver it to our hotel by 18h30 after I paid for it in full. Racing against the light we headed back to return our bikes (which are only US$1/day) and to pick up Louise's new shoes. She also wanted to get her hair washed and straightened before we met everyone at 19h00 for a group dinner to celebrate the birthday. I showered and got dressed and waited and waited and waited............... Eventually Lou got back at 18h40, frantically did her make up, chucked on her new gear and we went off for dinner. Wow she looked good! Lou got given a lovely bunch of flowers and a cake by the group. It was a good day.
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The weather over the last few days had been really crap, but today, 1st October, was the worst, it was dumping down in Hoi An. This was not a problem as we were moving on to our next destination, Hue. The best part about Hue is the road that takes you there and not too much else. The road to Hue is a must do drive in Vietnam. The views are breathtaking. We stopped at China beach and watched fishermen pulling in their nets, then headed through the port town of Danang, across a lagoon and started climbing the pass. The drive is stunning and anyone who saw Top Gear Vietnam special will know what I mean. After 4 hours we arrived in Hue.
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"Hue- The intelectual,spiritual and cultural heart of Vietnam. Palaces and pagodas, tombs and temples, culture and cuisine, history and heartbreak- There's no shortage of poetic pairings to descrtibe Hue" One of our guide books.
"Just another dirty Vietnamese city, with lots of the unnecessary tourist traps" - Ken Erler, 2012

Our time in Hue was spent writing our Cambodia blog, chilling and checking out the Imperial Citadel - which is very fascinating. It was constructed on the Northern bank of the perfume river, started in 1804, as the royal residence for kings of Vietnam. During the Indochina and American wars many of the buildings were destroyed. But most have been or are in the process of being restored. We did spend a lovely time exploring this amazing place. Also worth a mention is the Mandarin Cafe. The owner is a Vietnam war veteran, also a photographer. The staff are welcoming and very friendly. The food is mouthwateringly great and time will pass you by as you immerse yourself in the albums of photographs the owner has taken over the years. He sells postcards of his work and also gives each customer a free one. Time spent here is time well spent.
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After 2 nights in Hue we headed to the train station for our last sleeper train to Hanoi........

Posted by louslabbert 22:27 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains temples fishing beach train river vietnam pagodas funny hanoi ancient hue hoi_an overnight mandarin_cafe Comments (1)

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