So with a bag full of Hanoi virgins we descend on Vietnam. When I say virgins I mean first timers to this great country, so Mary, Ollie, Amy, PC and Ryan all true virgins – bring it on Vietnam! And she did!
On the advice of our good friends Carl and Becky we stayed at the Sofitel Metropole, (old wing) a stunning French colonial building, erected in 1920, and retaining all its glory of older years.
Every single day of the week we were there there must have been 3 or so couples in wedding dress being photo’d outside the hotel. Clearly a very popular spot. They like standing next to the vintage citroen’s parked out the hotel entrance. Here’s a snap shot of one days attendance.
Just take a peek at these pictures at night time, magical place, Christmas grotto type experience. We just loved staying there and being part of the Christmas experience. Even with these guys being mostly buddhist they certainly put on a good representation for Christmas!
Cold, oh my God, we did NOT prepare for this. I checked the weather forecasts and it looked OK, so we packed a few leggings, jeans for the kids. A couple of long sleeve tops and a cardigan. For me and Mary a pair of jeans or two and a couple of long sleeves. So emergency shopping to buy some leggings and additional tops for the kids. We ended up wearing long sleeve over a t-shirt, and then t-short over the long sleeve so it looked like fresh clothes. Dear me. At least the pool was heated!
It absolutely felt like Christmas. You have this false sense in Singapore. Christmas trees everywhere, but hot and humid. Like we used to do in Australia when we had Christmas in July to enjoy cold weather, literally cooking turkey and trimmings, handing out presents, in July, ha ha! Just so it felt more like Christmas.
Itinerary was few days chill out Hanoi, stay in hotel and explore, and eat of course (see “if life was a recipe” blog). Weekend was a booked Ha Long Bay cruise, private boat just for us 6 – yes very indulgent, but worth every single Dong!
When we stepped off the plane it was lovely, like a UK summer day. Sunny, warm, not too hot and absolutely no humidity. We love this, we thought, us naive travelers!
We sat that first day awaiting the room to be readied, we were early for check in. When offered free drinks whilst we wait, of course we jumped at the chance, so to Bamboo Bar, poolside, for our first experience of the hotel. Warm, hospitable, friendly and kind of warm to start. But then after an hour or so it literally was like someone turning down the dial, or upping the air con. It got COLD.
I’ll let the picture paints a thousand words, and some video paints about a million do the talking. Traffic in Hanoi is “OH MY GOD!!!!” Bikes everywhere. This is the view from Legends (see food blog – whoops!), looking down at a major intersection just North of the Lake. Mayhem reigns. What you don’t see here is people going the wrong way around the roundabout just to the left of the black people carrier, or people again taking life in their hands to walk through this carnage.
In fact they even park their bikes IN the shops to keep them off the street. Check this one out. This is a shop just down the road from the hotel. See all the bikes parked up in the shop itself. I think this was a jeweler or sunglasses shop or something.
Hanoi is a place to walk through. From the hotel it’s a short walk round the turtle lake to then hit the old quarter. That’s where all the shops, hawkers, art galleries, street food is. It’s a people watching place.
The streets are like the old style medieval markets of Europe, all split in to the different wares. This for example is stainless steel street. Guys were making amazing things on the street, all by hand, using very rudimentary tools.
One day we went hunting Pho Bo, and stopped for a beer/refreshment at a really nice little bar/restaurant and just watched the world below. I have touched up some images here to show you what you see as a frequent thing in Hanoi streets. All sorts of foods and wares being sold from the traditional “yolk” I would say you called it in UK. Excuse the artsy photos, yes I photo shopped them to bit antiqued. But I do like them!
This is a classic
So being 6 foot plus and blonde our Coleman’s were targets for every street hawker in site. In fact Paul became best buddies with this guy over a 3 day period, as every time we tripped to the old quarter this guys started following trying to sell him wallets and lighters.
One time he was being pestered again and I noticed that Ryan had donned this ladies hat. She’s selling pineapple. I knew immediately that if I took this picture the expectation would be to buy pineapple from her. I took a quick shot and then ran away with my gang leaving Paul non the wiser arguing why he didn’t want pineapple. Sorry PC, too good an opportunity to miss. Classic!
Spotted this lovely lady out for a lunchtime walk. Perhaps someone should tell her she’s left her curlers in? Nah! She’s happy! Ha Ha!
Hoan Kiem Lake
I keep mentioning the lake. It’s called Hoan Kiem Lake, which has a temple in the middle. It means “lake of the returned/restored sword”. According to some legends Emporer Le Loi, gave back the sword “Heaven’s Will” to the Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui in the lake hence the name. He used this sword to defeat the Chinese in a revolt back in the Ming Dynasty. In the middle as you’ll see from these pictures is The Turtle Tower, Thap Rua. At night it’s all lit up and is very spectacular, even with the thousands of motorbikes and scooters, seemingly just doing a 360 continuous loop of the lake.
At the Northern end of the lake is Jade Island, which has a temple called Ngoc Son, or Temple of the Jade Mountain. Again linked to historic battles, honouring 13th Century military leader Tran Hung Dao who fought against the Yuan Dynasty. It’s beautiful and is connected to land by this bridge, a red wooden bridge called The Huc Bridge – morning sunlight! Very nice!
Ha Long Bay
I have only seen these lovely sunny shots of Ha Long Bay. But we’re there in Winter, giving it this spooky, misty look. Haunting almost. But so still and quiet, and absolutely breath-taking.
However getting there is certainly not peaceful and tranquil. Driving in Vietnam is not for the faint hearted, before you board the vehicle/tour bus they should have a warning sign or make a statement that pregnant mothers, those with bad backs, those with weak bladders or those scared of driving in to on coming traffic in the wrong lane at 60km an hour should refrain from boarding.
So a 4 hour journey took place shipping a multi-cultural van of 10 passengers through the Vietnamese countryside to Halong to join our boat for the trip around the bay. Amy was great playing with her iPod, listening to music and playing the occasional game. When the music got a little repetitive I asked that she don headsets, of course forgetting that she then could not hear herself. Yep, she was singing along at the top of her voice then for the journey, earning her the title of “Lady GaGa” from the other passengers.
What a mix we had with UK, Japanese, Filipina, Austrian, German, Chinese, and of course Vietnamese and this for a bus of 10 people! Quite amazing.
The 4 hours was for a journey of only 100 miles, due to such bad road and traffic conditions. Over/Under/Thru-taking were all taking place on our journey, some very near misses experienced on the way.
Country side driving in this area of Vietnam was interesting with beautiful countryside and farming land in a “land that time forgot” type style with oxen and humans working in harmony to plough the land, critical to the sustainability of that farmer’s family. In fact in 8 hours of driving I only saw one tractor, literally the rest was man and beast together. We were in burning season, with many little fires set all over the land, farmers burning the stubble left after the rice harvest to return nutrients to the soil for the next crop.
Driving over the Red River which apparently connects to China at some point, allowing goods from there to be shipped on down the river in to Halong and then out Globally through the South China Sea, potentially through Singapore.
Cows, bicycles, 10’s of 1,000’s of motorbikes, more cows, oxen, farmers, small towns, empty factories, tall modern moc-calonial houses alone in the middle of nowhere and nothing. The factories were immense, like the one for Canon which ran on for over half a mile, with many many bicycles parked at the front but not one soul in site.
Unfortunately every now and then blots on the landscape of industrial plants, bilging smoke and pollutants in to the air making a very hazy Hanoi. And the rivers running away discolored and foaming like a rabid dog, showing the advancement of their neighbors ploughing the fields, to poisoning them now in the modern day!
We even had a traffic jam at a bridge with a river way way below, when all of the sudden all the bikes started parking up along the bridge and passengers getting off or just generally leaning over to look over the bridge. I asked our guide Tao, what was going on, and he flippantly dropped into the conversation that this is a frequent suicide spot and people are likely looking at the body! Go figure!
On the boat we saw some absolutely amazing sights. In some respects not to dissimilar from Phuket and the Bay there, massive limestone outcrops, flat flat seas, fishing villages, fishing boats, sea eagles soaring, caves etc. awe inspiring and so calming away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi city. Quiet, very quiet.
This is a snap of a Paloma sister vessal. This one has 22 cabins, so about 50 guests. We decided however to have a private boat with just two cabins, the smaller boat below, all ours! Like royalty!
OK I got a bit artsy again with the photos. This is one of those “you had to be there” moments to appreciate this. It’s truly a third world thing. This is their livelihood. It’s just an incredible thing to see and watch, especially from a slowly navigating junk, weaving through the limestone outcrops.
Here is some footage from Ollie and I, tourist guide style to show the sites and the experience with you.
The obligatory trips to the “tourist shops” had to happen of course, the difference this time of course was that they were floating. And boy were we a captive audience as the only way to escape this was to swim to one of the limestone outcrops and wait it out! So off we went to fish farms, pearl beds, cave systems – all of which are very interesting but there is always the money ask at the end – like when you go to Disney and you finish a ride and walk through the souvenir shop. Yep same same here!
Here’s the pearl farm. Cultured pearls, so in effect “manufactured” not naturally occuring. They implant in to live oysters a grit lump. These oysters are 1 year old, and then 2 years later they take them from the oyster beds and should have an 80% hit rate of a pearl being produced.
We visited a rather beautiful but VERY small cave with some moc-archaeological dig sites and apparently one that led to to a finding of a prehistoric axe dated 10,000 years BC. Hmmmmm!!! Just the axe, nothing else, no pottery, bones, etc etc. Sorry doubting Thomas Kennett seeing a tourism pitch I feel here, although if I were a cave man then I’d move to this place, just look at the views from the mouth of the cave. OK no boats in those days but I think you’ll get the picture – right? Just hope there were no souvenir shops then for him to have to put up with!
Fishing village – fresh mussel beds, see the boxes of sand here that get fed to the mussels. Very clean and fast moving water keep the mussels extremely fresh in the nets.
We ate some of these on the boat, and goodness me they’re good. Sorry you need to review food blog to get more on that, including the recipe and style of cooking them.
Ollie and I jumped in a kayak, as did PC and Ryan. Mary and Amy went on a bamboo boat with Tao. Just paddling around the village, sometimes feeling a tad intrusive though, was lovely. You got a view of the peoples life, living on this floating armada, even with school house. PC and Ryan nearly came a cropper when they were rammed by a departing boat and the propeller scuffed their kayak. Have to say though extremely funny!
Here’s the girls on the bamboo boat. The guy stands and rows in a forwards motion, not backwards like the row boats we’re used too. And these guys are so good at this they can even do it sitting down and rowing with their feet, quite amazing to watch.
Can you spot the strange thing in this photo? Look closely. Yes it is a CONCRETE boat. Never have I seen anything like this, how does it float? According to Tao they literally are cast in concrete and tend to be used as a permanent mooring, but on the way out that morning we did indeed see some of these on the way. An “only in Vietnam”moment potentially.
Fish wars – I heard from Tao, our guide, that the government had to step in and create fishing zones, just like the cod war, where this village we visited can only fish area xyz, and the next village can only fish abc. Crazy! But still commercially savvy, as you visit the fish farm, see about a dozen fish in each pen and then as you’re about to depart the “tip” box gets placed strategically next to the kayak. Yep nothing for free, not even a quick glance at some fish.
One takeaway from this was domesticated dogs living on the floating homes. Interesting, dogs on house boats? Just for fun? Just for pets? No! They are guard dogs, go figure. They get trained to be on the look out for predator fish attacking the farm. That’s why the fish farm nets are not covered over so that the dog can see the fish. If one tries to get to the nets and eat the small fry, the dog goes crazy scaring it off with its barking. Now that is pretty neat! So much for the dog whisperer. Reminds me to a degree of the Chinese cormorant fishermen, using animals again to the benefit of the family.
We were ‘attacked’ on water in both our main boat and even when out kayaking and on the bamboo boats. Attack/stealth boats came at you from all sides from within the fishing village, like they’d been in waiting ready to pounce on the next unassuming prey. At one point I kind of succumbed to thinking hey maybe I get to try some yummy noodle soup from this lady, but no she tried to sell us ……. , wait for it ………, wait for it ………… a packet of Oreos! Can you believe it, Oreos, not a noodle in site. VERY disappointing!
We literally left the fishing village and the cave and chugged off to a safe harbour. Anchored up and then spent the night eating, drinking, squid jigging, chatting, laughing and swinging 360 degrees in the wind that came in that night. All I can say is magical, complete silence, the only things you see are stars, the other boats mored up, the lights of the quid fisherman out to sea and that’s it. Pitch dark, so peaceful and so calming.
Of course though some crazy Amy moments, as we sat on the sundeck on a cold night awaiting dinner. Whilst we sat there we played music on the iPad and yes, she performed very well. Crazy Amy, sexy dancing.
Ryan and I even had the opportunity to try some squid jigging. Small fibre-glass rod, squid jig on end, powerful light to attract the squid up to the surface and boing boing the rod to catch them. Did we. Did we hell. Not one. Not a bite. Not a thing. But in Ryan’s words “very calming”.
On the way home to port we’re sitting eating lunch and BBBBWWWWAARRARARARA, goes a huge horn from a tanker steering it’s way through marker boys, likely on it’s way from the Red River and China to the South China Sea and rest of world. A hug tanker, by why the horn continually. I went on deck leaving the others lunching and spotted the “why”. About 500 yards from us was a family fishing, a wonderful sight with the father pulling in nets, supported by the female members of his family. Tranquil and peaceful, see photo #1. The see photo #2 t see why the tanker was parping the horn, and just how close our peaceful fishing family came to it – scary for me taking these photos, but the family completely un-phased and continued pulling in the nets, clearly an every day occurrence for them.
One very funny moment that had the kids in stitches was when we docked back to Halong, we were still mid brunch, so still sitting at our dining table and having some wine. Ollie and Amy all of a sudden have a major silent spell (unusual) followed by giggling. There to our starboard was a man standing eye level to us on the end of his boat about 20 foot away having a massive piss, yes arching and all that right in our line of horizon. This at the very busy tourist port where all the boats drop off, amazing and yep it did make us all giggle somewhat! Definitely NO pictures of that!
We had a little time in Halong to wander so went to visit the local Buddhist temple, this was quite a small one and has recently been renovated through the generous donation of some of the locals, all of whose names appeared on a sign next to the temple with name, date and amount of donation – maybe speculating through donations = good reincarnation?
I think Amy got in touch with her Shinto (Japanese Buddhism) side, as she sat on the steps of the temple, quiet, still and just looking in in silence.
A very interesting anecdote I learnt re this temple, and I would assume to all, from Tao was; “Why are temples all built above floor level,?” ie have you noticed you never walk straight in at street level to a temple, church etc? Well his explanation for this I believe to be true is that as you walk up the stairs to the temple or church – as you take those first steps up the first thing you do is bow your head! It’s true, try it! So basically you are forced to show respect to the deity you are about to worship.
Finally I could of course not escape my beloved DHL. Everywhere and anywhere in the world I go, I see them. It’s almost like being stalked. The kids love it and will absolutely shout to me to advise when a van, bike, plane, or office of the red and yellow is near me – and literally that is Global. So here they are in all their Hanoi glory, strategically placed right next door to UPS ha ha! Location Location Location!