Hanoi and Halong
Having sadly left the wonders of Thailand behind, we’ve now arrived in Vietnam to resume cycling. Despite riding for a few days between Bangkok and Hua Hin, it feels like an eternity since we’ve been consistently on the bikes. Eight weeks of minor overindulgence without significant exercise have definitely taken their toll and I think I’m definitely going to feel it as we push south out of Hanoi. We’ve had an amazing time with people from all over the world coming to join us in Mexico and Thailand and we’re now champing at the bit to go and see some of Vietnam.
We actually arrived about a week ago and have been enjoying the incredible city of Hanoi as we acclimatise to Vietnamese life. We are staying in the old quarter which is a maze of streets laden with pushy vendors hawking their wares from beneath conical hats (I’ve been trying to find one that will fit over my helmet), pedestrians lazily dawdling through the ridiculous swarms of motorbikes and hordes of people eating and drinking bia hoi on every street corner. The city has an amazing vibrancy and atmosphere to it – while not as crazy and full on as I remember Saigon being, it has a certain aura that makes it seem a brilliant mix of grace and restrained frenzy.
We felt obliged to try some of the Hanoi nightlife and were rudely surprised to find that all the bars shut at 12am, complete with police patrols to enforce the curfew. Luckily there are a few lock-in places and a bit of persistent questioning can usually get someone to tell you who is open behind closed doors. All of the street food places have tiny little tables and stools – it always amuses me to see Andy crouched over while sipping his beer. I’ve been a big fan of Vietnamese food for a long time and so far have been pretty impressed once again. I find the really cheap food from the street stalls is normally excellent compared to the more expensive restaurants aimed at foreigners. One disappointment (I know everyone told me so!) has been the banh mi – so far only one out of three have been any good. I went looking on the first day for one and actually ended up basically eating three in quick succession from different stalls. None matched the lofty standards set by Kêu in Old Street back in London, but I will continue to search.
We’ve been to most of the major museums and it’s really interesting to see the effect that the ongoing fighting in the country has had. One example was the fine arts museum – a European equivalent normally is dominated by pieces depicting some kind of idyllic or religious scene. In Hanoi, many of the pieces were of either normal daily industrial work or related to military conflict in some way. Many of the exhibits relating to any aspect of the struggle for independence are fiercely patriotic, if not overtly biased. It is fascinating though to get more of an understanding of both the ancient history (of which I knew nothing) and the more recent history (of which I knew very little).
Hanoi certainly has it’s downsides – the main one being constantly aware that people will try to rip you off. I don’t really enjoy bargaining at all and find it draining when you see every xe ôm (motorbike taxi) driver’s eyes light up at the sight of a foreigner and then go through the same monotonous “No, I’m not paying you ten times the normal rate” discussion. We have been learning some basic Vietnamese and offering a price in the local language seems to reduce the problem somewhat. It’s definitely going to be interesting when we get outside of Hanoi and into the small towns where we will be more reliant on being able to talk to locals. We are armed with a phrasebook to help us but even with this it can be hard to make ourselves understood at times with our dreadful pronunciation.
When planning our route through Vietnam, we looked at two potential starting points – Hanoi or Halong City. We definitely wanted to see Halong Bay but decided it would be pretty cool to cycle out of the madness in Hanoi, so we decided to go for a tour from Hanoi to the northeast instead. We went for a three day tour of Bai Tu Long bay, which is just past Halong bay and was reputed to have less tourists and boats. This meant we had a five hour journey in the minivan to get there. This afforded us some insight into what lay ahead on the rural Vietnamese roads, which was far from encouraging. The roads between Halong and Hanoi are packed with tourist vans in each direction, all trying to overtake each other as many times as possible. Unfortunately, instead of waiting for an appropriate gap in the oncoming traffic, it is quite common for a driver to just veer in front of an opposing vehicle which is then forced to move onto the shoulder to avoid a collision. Given that we normally ride on the shoulder this gives us some concern but from reading the blogs of others who have done similar trips it seems to be fine as long as you can get away from the main north-south highway in the country.
The three day tour involved a few cool things like kayaking through the limestone karsts and exploring the various caves, cycling around Quan Lan island through the mud on old bikes with flat tires and no brakes and a few cultural visits to small villages to observe the local lifestyle around the islands. Given the recent typhoon Haiyan had landed in Vietnam here (although with much less force than the Philippines) there was a small amount of rebuilding going on but mostly things had survived.
Probably the highlight of the tour for us was on the first night in a very small village on Quan Lan island. Having had dinner with the family who were hosting us, we went out to explore the village by night. One of the first things we came to was a marquee set up outside a building which we presumed to be a bar. It was in fact a pre-celebration for a local wedding which was to follow the next day, complete with a karaoke machine! We sat down and had a few drinks before being cajoled by the locals (and the others from our tour group) into belting out a rendition of “The Final Countdown” by Europe. This went down a treat for some reason (I’m not sure if they were familiar with how it was supposed to go). From here we started to get to know quite a few people and had a great time. We reluctantly hit the stage to sing “Circle of Life”, which the machine apparently rated us at 95% accuracy, quite high compared to everyone else. Unfortunately this is the only one for which we don’t have a video ;). Buoyed by our success, our last foray into the performance arts for the evening was when I agreed to try singing a solo in Vietnamese. It was at this point that the support for our entertainment took a rapid decline, despite a few kindhearted souls pretending (quite transparently) to love it. Overall it was a great experience, particularly just sitting around and chatting with people and having such an authentic encounter which wasn’t part of the standard tour. The next morning as we were leaving we dropped in to say goodbye and got a very warm reception. You can see the video below but be warned – I would turn the volume right down if you do decide to watch it.
There were a few rocky instances on the tour as well – I have quite a few cuts and bruises on my leg from falling down a slippery staircase onto some rocks when coming out of a cave in Halong Bay, but I should still be OK to cycle. We spent the second night sleeping on board a junk which the crew apparently did not moor correctly to the anchor points in the bay. We awoke to a huge crashing noise at 4am as the boat careened directly into the cliffs. This was proceeded by a moment of panic as the crew who didn’t speak much English (our guide somehow managed to sleep through the whole incident) raced all over the boat with alarmed voices. Suddenly the generator started up and they let out a few blasts from the horn. Eventually the motor started and we moved back to the middle of the bay, thankfully without taking any water on board. Despite these hiccups, the tour was definitely worthwhile – the scenery around the bay is absolutely breathtaking. We were told it is one of the seven wonders of nature (although I’m always dubious about these lists).
Having now returned to Hanoi, we are getting ready to leave either tomorrow or the day after. We’ve done a bit of route planning and expect the route to look a little like this:
View Proposed Vietnam Route in a larger map
The first part is both easier and probably has less to see in terms of major tourist attractions. Along the coast we aren’t expecting too many hills until we get to Danang where we have to climb over the famed Hai Van pass. After we spend some time around Hue, Danang and Hoi An (where hopefully the flooding will have fully receded), we turn up into the mountains and come down through the central highlands before coming straight back out to Ho Chi Minh City.
This plan may change slightly depending on how quickly we get through the cycling and how much time we have approaching Ho Chi Minh City. We’ve unpacked the bikes today and they seem to have survived the flight thanks to a far more gratuitous use of bubble wrap this time around. We’re both just looking forward to getting started now!
These kids row better with their feet than I do with my hands: