HANOI | VIETNAM
WE WERE ALIVE!
When I last lost consciousness (briefly) I was being tortured by a group of Cambodian bus drivers. But it goes to show the power of prayer. After praying to Jesus, Allah, Buddha, and Superman we had arrived in Hoi Chi Minh City, Vietnam in one piece, and still in control of our limbs.
I don’t remember anything about the border crossing. I think I may have blanked it out.Yet here we were. Vietnam. A country with a famously turbulent past and where you pay for things with your dong. But have no fear, thanks to the generous exchange rate your pocket will soon be full of dong. Giant fistfuls of dong.
We had arrived in central Hoi Chi Minh City (still called by it’s old name of Saigon) a few days late. As a result our train to Hanoi was set to depart the evening we arrived, affording us no time to really explore the old city. It doesn’t take long to assess the driving ability of the Vietnamese here in Saigon. As soon as we stepped out of our hostel after depositing our bags we ran into an accident in the alleyway, a collision between two mopeds. Walking down the street to get something to eat five minutes later we were treated to a second accident when a van driver clipped a motorcyclist. I thought asians were masters of the motorbike? It made us feel a little nervous.
The train we boarded was the famous Reunification Express, two nights later it would drop us in the capital of Hanoi in northern Vietnam. It’s quite a distance, but at 36 hours in length I’m not sure “express” is the right word for it. Dubious wordage aside it was great fun. The five of us slept in a six bed cabin. Each night we drank and played cards with the random, friendly Vietnamese guy who had the misfortune of sharing with us. The blank, terrified expression soon gave way to smiles as soon as they saw the beers and cards lined up. And the randomers were still better and more gracious than Jimmy at Scabby Queen. Who knew?
We arrived at Hanoi’s central train station in the morning with tensions running high from the night before. I slept through most of it but apparently there was a mix up between Ben and Jimmy’s bunks. The argument spilled over into breakfast. Words were exchanged, some words were invented and used creatively, and Ben wandered off to find some quiet time and ” a bit of luxury”. Once we had checked into out hostel and dumped our crap on the ground I turned on the TV and was pleasantly surprised to find myself watching Vietnamese How I Met Your Mother. It was the American show with Vietnamese subtitles. I found it funny that with such a history of animosity towards the states that these days the people here seem so pro-america. Unless the subtitles are saying something totally different……..
BARNEY: I just banged three scantily clad american girls last night! They were practically in various states of undress. It disgusts me how degradingly dressed these woman are!
TED: Why can’t I find a nice girl to marry? One which upholds traditional standards of beauty mixed with healthy conservatism?
ROBIN: Maybe you should move to the socialist paradise of the Republic of Vietnam Ted?
BARNEY : Bazinga! (Oops wrong show)
I liked Hanoi. The people are nice, the beer is cheap and the traffic is so mental that there is always something going on to keep you entertained. Ben had decided to spend a few days by himself (apparently in an abandoned North Korea-lit hotel), and so we met up at the appointed time to take our boat tour out to the magical Ha Long Bay.
One of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, Ha Long Bay is situated roughly five to six hours east of Hanoi. It’s name in old Sino-Vietnamese means “Bay of Descending Dragons” as, according to legend, the bay was formed by a dragon falling from the skies to defeat the invading Chinese. It’s made up of over 2000 karst limestone islands and islets. We would be taking a three day boat tour around the bay visiting the islands and caves while eating plenty of fish, kayaking and hopefully not killing each other. Intentionally or otherwise.
None of us are huge lovers of seafood, but my god the food here was so good. It was a bit off putting at first to be served with a whole fried fish, but after removing the eyes, I had no problems tucking in. And man it was good. It was all so, so good. Jimmy didn’t think so, choking on a piece of squid, we tossed him overboard.
Our first point of call was Sung Sot Cave, followed by our guide naming random rock formations after random things. “Sleepy Turtle!”, “Upside Down Moose!”, “Diabetic Starfish!” he yelled enthusiastically. I think I stopped listening when “Old Man Masturbating in a Wheelbarrow” was pointed out.
We spent an evening kayaking around the islands. With me in front and Ben “helping” in the back we were soon bumping and crashing our way through the bay. Once we learned how to actually move forward instead of our patented sideways-crab technique, we were soon masters of the sea. I done a great job of calming everyone’s nerves by telling stories about the legend of the tarasque. It’s a man eating sea monster that’s seen frequently in the bay. Sceptics point out that it could be lost whale sharks, or other large fish, but I always feel reality is more acceptable than excuses. Yup. The tarasque was out there, providing the necessary motivation to stay inside the kayaks. Reassured we all paddled onwards. Some inlets were beautifully isolated, huge jungle topped limestone cliffs, completely deserted but for the hum of cicadas.
That night was spent on the beautiful Cat Ba island having cycled around the National Park there, before hiking through the jungle. I’m always reminded that health and safety in Asia isn’t as comprehensive as back home, especially when you find yourself climbing up a cliff with no safety gear what so ever, placing your feet on sharp limestone spikes just waiting to impale you if you took a wrong step.
On the final day the sun really came out and treated us to a spectacular show as the light glistened on the karst outcrops, and the waters glowed in various shades of blue and green. We swam, dove and kayaked before being dragged kicking and screaming back to Hanoi and civilisation.
But it wasn’t all bad. We may not have had kayaks or Jimmy-slaying squid, but what we did discover was Bia Hoi. This is the greatest invention ever. Essentially Bia Hoi is an amateur pub, without the pub. Small plastic chairs are provided on the roadside and beer is served from a giant keg in a bucket of ice. A small clipboard is provided to keep tabs of your order. And the best part? The beer is only 5,000 dong. At the time this was around 10 / 15 cents, and it was delicious. How much of that was due to the chill of the glass in the humid heat, or the insane price I can’t say. Either way it’s probably the best way to blow your dong on a night out in Vietnam.
After visiting the war museum and having a good laugh at the USA constantly being referred to as the “colonial aggressors” and “empirical fascists” (and this was pre-Trump! – but admittedly pro- Nixon) it was time to find the train station that would take us into China. The northbound Chinese trains leave from a different station. The problem we encountered was that our taxi driver had no english what so ever. Nadda. Zip. I knew the station was Gia Lam, but Vietnamese is a very beginner unfriendly language. Each word can have up to seven different pronunciations and meanings and so we arrived at our destination – a cinema. After some frantic miming and chu-chu-ing that sounded like a Thomas the Tank Engine orgy we finally made it to the the train station with no time to spare.
And so it was another night train and a stupid-o-clock border crossing. But at least we had made it. Next destination : Nanning, China. Nothing could possibly go wrong now!
Next time: Something goes wrong. Our dong runs dry. I eat a chickens head and Ben talks to someone.