“No thank you”
“You need hotel? I know really nice hotel. Cheap cheap. Ten dollar”
“No, thanks. I have a reservation”
“…You need hotel? Ten dollar”
“I… no, really. It’s fine. Thanks. I have a reservation. Could you tell me which way the cathedral is?”
“That way”, he says, pointing down the road.
So after ten minutes of walking in the wrong direction, I finally figured out the correct way to go, arriving wet and cold in the dark. Bastard taxi drivers have it in for me wherever I go.
Coming from a sleepy village in Laos, Hanoi is a real shock to the system. Early march is a terrible time to visit north Vietnam as all it does in Hanoi is rain. You think you know relentless rain? You don’t. It’s rarely heavy but it never stops. Ever. Every single second is a drizzle that imparts a grey chill to the city that depresses many a visitor. For some reason I ended up staying ten days here.
Fortunately, there are many things about Hanoi that make up for its shortcomings. It’s exciting. Crossing the street gets your adrenaline pumping. Imagine standing next to a busy street teeming with scooters in a flow that simply doesn’t stop. And then stepping in to that flow of traffic, walking across the road and hoping, nay, praying that you make it across in one piece. To stop is to die. Your walking pace is what keeps you alive as the drivers predict your path and weave around you. Usually. Vietnamese food instantly took first place in my Ranking System™ ahead of every country’s cuisine I have thus far tasted. The variety is remarkable and the flavours are so fresh and bright that you’d swear the pig was slaughtered a half hour ago, and the leaves picked ten minutes after that. It’s not impossible that this is the case. Bun Cha, fresh pork from the grill served with heaps of mint, Thai basil, and whatever the restaurant has to hand; warming Pho that tastes of clean, if such as thing is possible; fresh spring rolls; banh xeo, impossibly tasty pancakes you roll yourself in translucent rice wraps and stuff with fresh herbs and leaves; the impossibly brilliant banh mi, an adaptation from the French baguettes, here made ethereally light with rice flour and stuffed with local pate, barbecued pork and coriander and whatever the local speciality is. The list is endless and will make you very hungry, and what is better is that you can have most things for under £2. Hanoi is also a great place to party, which I did relentlessly. This was aided greatly by the hostel I stayed in, Hanoi Backpackers. Normally I can’t abide party hostels, but this place did a great line in getting people together in the roof top bar. Every night I was drinking with new friends, and then immediately doing body shots off them as the rules of the giant bar Jenga set dictated.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the reason I lingered here was because I booked on to a tour (the Buffalo Run) that descended through the northern half of Vietnam in a way that not many people do. As the tour only went once a week, I had to wait around for it to leave. I could have gone on any number of trips to Sapa for example (highly recommended apparently), but only visited Ha Long Bay, as to visit Hanoi and not go there is like visiting Agra and not bothering with the Taj Mahal. That said, the weather was terrible and taking a two day trip to the bay was not particularly worthwhile. Sailing among the karst scenery during the summer must be paradise, but being wrapped up against the rain and feeling obliged to go kyaking felt very forced. Spending the second night on a deserted island in the cold was just too much. A volleyball net isn’t so entertaining in the rain. In addition, I have seen a great deal of karst scenery on my travels in Asia, and I’d be lying if I said I was totally blown away by Ha Long. The waters are sadly murky and there is a lot of plastic waste hanging about. Also, the floating villages are, while interesting, plain ugly and you certainly don’t see any floating sewage plants on those islands. Make of that what you will. Fancy a swim?
The tour started early and as my alarm clock went off, I immediately rued the drinking of rough Vietnamese wine the night before. We set off away from the grey traffic choked streets of Hanoi and on to our journey. Over six days, this encompassed a great deal. A primate centre and a night in the jungle with cheap local vodka and a camp fire that made every item of clothing I own smell of smoke. A visit to Paradise Cave in Phong Nha national park allows you to walk a kilometre in to a 30km cave and see incredible limestone stalactite formations. Visiting the expansive tunnels around the DMZ at Vinh Moc to get a feel for the brutal conditions that locals endured during the war, along with a demonstration of how unexploded ordinance is disposed of (hint: it involves a lot of TNT).
A stop in the pleasant town of Hue along with a beach visit to a bar that is alone on a vast stretch of sand atop crashing surf, and as if that wasn’t nice enough, they threw in free Oysters. There was other stuff, but the final stop was at the impossibly pretty town of Hoi An; a place most know from that Top Gear episode where they make each other stupid suits. I myself had two suits made along with some shorts, shirts and jeans. £250. Bargain. To get to Hoi An, one can take a road that was also featured in that episode and is a stunning journey, taking you past verdant rice paddies, wide rivers, sleepy towns and scenery that makes you pinch yourself to check if what you are seeing is real.
Below Hoi An the map of Vietnam stretches for quite some time before it becomes interesting. Many people stop in Nha Trang, a hot spot for Russian tourists and has been developed to look like the south coast of Spain in Cyrillic. I opted to skip it, and went in land to Da Lat, a small city that isn’t so well known but worth a stop to break up the journey south if nothing else. Most people go canyoning when they come here, which is basically a journey down a canyon where you abseil down waterfalls, slide down rocky rapids and wade through the water. Great fun. I also took a brief tour in a minivan around the local area that really should be done on the back of a motorbike, but the more you know. It involved some very touristy stops, but on the plus side I now know what crickets taste like (yummy, fried and sprinkled with salt) and also the taste of a silk worm chrysalis (mealy and not so pleasant).
The final stop in Vietnam for me was Ho Chi Minh, nee Saigon. For quite some time I had been warned off this city, with detractors citing the traffic, the people, the crime and other reasons not to visit. The further south I got though, the more people I met who had enjoyed it and recommended it, so I was rather excited to arrive. Our timing was poor and our night bus pulled in at 0530, blessedly close to the hostel we’d booked but with no staff on hand to check us in, we both squeezed on to the bench in the lobby for a bit more shut-eye. Who said travel wasn’t glamorous?
It’s a lie to say that Saigon is crammed with things to do. In fact it’s almost bereft, but you can make do for a couple of days very easily. The War Remnants museum is a good place to visit, as it is in walking distance from the backpacker district and is a sobering experience. There are a number of old US military aircraft and other such equipment, but be sure to explore this area before the inside of the museum as what you find in there will not inspire you to take selfies posed in front of a rusty artillery piece. The museum is laden with propaganda (par for the course in Vietnam) which is a shame as the exceedingly brutal photographic evidence which I won’t be sharing with you, really speaks for itself without the need for heavily biased commentary.
The food in Saigon is excellent with the best banh mi I’ve yet had in Vietnam found here (and the best curry in SE Asia), and you can spend many an evening sitting on the street (and I do mean on the street – no chairs here) sipping ice cold beers in the hot evening heat with what feels like every other backpacker in the city. Generally though, Saigon is a little pricey so once I spent my Dong (no laughing at the back please), it was onwards to the next country, and the final “new” country of this whole journey; to the land of the Khmer, Cambodia.