After a week or so in the quiet and more tranquil northern part of Vietnam, we found ourselves suddenly being thrust into the buzzing and very loud capital of Hanoi. What a contrast! We arrived at the train station rather early, 5.30am to be exact. We hung around for a while trying to get our bearings, as well as deciding what to do. We knew that looking for a place to stay this early would be a waste of time, so we decided to get ourselves to the Old Quarter, and hang around in a cafe over a slow breakfast. At least that way, by the time we started looking for a place to stay, some others might be checking out, thus giving us the opportunity to check in.
We tried to navigate our the Hanoi map in our Lonely Planet guide (sorry guys, I don’t know what your cartographers are on sometimes!), which in combination with asking questions that we didn’t understand the answers to, made it a rather difficult task to get into the centre of town. Having heard that Hanoi was Vietnam’s “scam capital” however, ripped-off Rita was not about to become my middle name! A few eyeball rolls, a few more sighs, and we were off! What an experience! Yes, there were more motorbikes and cycles than cars, and they were everywhere! Crossing the road! Ah yes – don’t look doubtful…just walk across. Believe me, somehow they get around you without creaming you! I was a bit sceptical of this at first, but we put it to the test, and it actually worked. Traffic lights. What are they? Oh, they are those three toned things that give the streets a bit of colour, right?
Thu Giang Guesthouse is owned by the affable Co (mum), Tao (dad), and their daughter Giang (after which the guesthouse is named). Ly and Hien work there, but they are so much more than workers. These people work as a family! These people care! These people look after you! These people are sincere, and above all these people are honest! Ca would even go and do our shopping for us as she could get cheaper prices, and sometimes she would not even accept payment! It is no secret that Vietnam’s “tourist” prices are decidedly higher than the Vietnamese ones, and that you must bargain for absolutely everything. In no time at all, I was hugging and kissing these people like they were my own! Nothing was too big, too small or too difficult, and Alex and I will remember their love and sincerity for as long as we live. Oh, and they even organised a new visa for us. What more can one ask for?
Hanoi has several museums and temples, and whilst we saw many of these temples, we picked only one museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the Vietnamese and its diverse tribal people. There are 54 officially recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam. It included an out door museum with some hill tribe houses constructed to scale. Another day was spent wandering around, but not going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Views on this man vary greatly, but this place is the holiest of holies for many Vietnamese, and also an important place of pilgrimage, combining the secular and the spiritual. It’s a huge area of greenery, containing parks, pagodas memorials and monuments. Unfortunately, we were unable to see His Highness, as he was in Russia having a facelift! On a serious note, the mausoleum is closed for about three months of every year, as Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse goes to Russia for maintenance!
A group of us also had a fun night out watching a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. As the name suggests, it’s a puppet show in a pool. The origins of the ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) have been widely debated, but it is thought to have originated in the Red River Delta, and when the rice paddies would flood, the villagers would entertain themselves with puppets. Our entertainment consisted of brightly painted wooden puppets gliding along the water (the puppeteers are hidden behind a screen and murky water). Some of the puppets are quite large and heavy, so there is considerable skill involved. The music and singing is provided by an on-site band and singers, using traditional Vietnamese instruments. The snippets presented include pastoral scenes and Vietnamese legends. We met some people who were a little ho-hum about it, but hey, it’s not meant to be a master performance of Aida! It’s a cultural window into Vietnam’s past! Taken from that angle, it could be one of the most fun “asides” you do in Vietnam.
We did a lot of hanging out with Andres from Spain, and Rama and Joyjoy from the USA. Fun and easy-going people they too were staying at Thu Giang Guesthouse. We also met, Corey from Australia here, as well as Wally from Ireland, David from the USA, Thierry from France and Celeste from Brazil! Truly an international contingent! Many a morning was spent lazing about, having one of Thu Giang’s famous coffees, whilst munching on fresh bread rolls and cheese. That got us to at least midday! Then at nighttime, there were our trips off to the beer shacks, serving beer hoi , literally on plastic chairs (that by Aussie standards wouldn’t seat anyone much older than a two year old!) on the curb outside, that would spill out onto the road. This is where Andres and I celebrated our “7oth” birthday! Sharing the same birthday, October 14th, I turned 3o and Andres 40. Oops, sorry, the other way around! Although not a beer drinker, these places are fun to hang out at and people watch. Amongst others we met in Hanoi, I also want to mention Jordan from Canada. Jordan, what a breath of fresh air to hear you voicing your sentiments with such voracity! Keep up that pace and don’t let people cut you down! The world needs people with an opinion, because it’s the voices that are heard that help shape the new world order!
It would be an early-ish start. We would be picked up from the guesthouse at 8.00am. The idea was to leave the big backpack in the guesthouse and bring only a smaller one with us with the essentials. It’s a good three hours or so to Halong City on the coast and north of Hanoi, which is where you actually pick up the tour from. When I saw the port, I almost passed out! It was full of boats of all different colours, styles and sizes and an international army of people. I wondered where we were all going to go? In no time at all, however, our group had made it onto a boat, and we were sailing out between the rock formations. There were a lot of boats out there, and we were so not alone! What can I say, the boat crew lacked personality and our tour guide was less than engaging, but it would take a lot to distract from the visual spectacular we were feasting our eyes on. Sitting on the top of the deck, I watched the formations roll by, and again, I felt so thankful to be alive and to be able to experience this. If “too many boats” was my biggest problem, what was actually my problem?
That afternoon we stopped to have a look inside a cave called Sung Sot Cave. It was also known as The Amazing Cave, our guide kept telling us repeatedly. Why was it called amazing? We would soon find out! It was quite a “domesticated” cave (as Andres described it), with walkways and all, and both the stalactites as well as stalagmites were impressive. It was a huge cave actually, and quite well illuminated, although we could possibly have done without the Las Vegas-style lighting, in hues of greens, reds and pinks. As we walked around and admired, we were finally steered towards the “amazing” part of the cave, a phallic-looking rock lit up in shades of red and pink. Now, THAT is amazing!
Later that afternoon, we went to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, where we would be spending the night in a hotel. Once we had left our stuff at the appropriate hotel and had some lunch, those of us who wanted to were taken on a two-hour trek with a local guide. Although not a long walk, the incline was rather steep and the views of the island and the surrounding sea were spectacular. The views, including the craggy and asperous peaks jutting out from the jungle-clad island, were intoxicating! The next day mainly constituted getting back to Hanoi. I know that we had been part of it, but I could not help but be flabbergasted by the constant stream of people waiting to get onto their boat, and thus their tour.
Dedication: I would like to dedicate this to everyone at Thu Giang Guesthouse. To Ha for being a brilliant “mum”. Thanks for your hugs, for being sincere and honest, for being so helpful, and for buying me tofu! To Tao (dad), for your smiles, friendliness and help. You showed us, Tao, that communication goes far beyond the spoken word. To Giang, for our wonderful, open conversations and of course your help. To Hien – you crazy, funny girl! Thanks for making me laugh and for always helping out. To Ly, my little Vietnamese sister. No task was too hard! You were patient and kind, and respectful, and for that, you will always occupy a special place in my heart. And finally to one of the “unsung heroes”, Lien. Lien, you spoke little English, but you always had a warm smile and touch. I know that we could not converse much, but I am sure that our hearts communicated. I want you to know how much I appreciated everything you did, from the coffees you made to cleaning our room. Thank you again to each and every on of you for showing us a magical part of Vietnam and its people! You are the jewels in Vietnam’s crown!
“The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.” – Gordon Parks.
(Photos: 1.- The stampeding motorbikes of Hanoi. 2.- The conical hats which are a Vietnamese institution. 3.- Hanoi’s old quarter. 4.- The….umm, Vietnamese flag! 5.- Incense and dragons, inside one of Hanoi’s many temples. 6.- Ombi & (Co) Ha. 7.- Hoan Kiem Lake by night. 8.- Vietnamese dong, the country’s currency. 9.- Water Puppet Show, Hanoi. 10.- Munching on some local food in one of Hanoi’s many, tiny alleyways. L to R: Celeste, Andres, Joyjoy, Rama, Thierry and moi! 11.- Halong Bay. 12.- Halong Bay and its many visitors. 13.- Kayaking in Halong Bay. 14.- View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island. 15.- Sisters are doing it for themselves! L to R: Mai, Ombi & Ly. 16.- Saying goodbye to my little sister, Ly. 17.- The gang at Thu Giang, with (Co) Ha and (Thu) Tao in the centre.)
Check out our interactive map on our Start Here page to see where we are now and where we’ve been? There are still so many countries that are still on our to-do list. What would you recommend? Where would you like to go?
You can also check out our Travel Resources page for some great advice, ideas, tips and travel hacks.