karsts and karoke from Hanoi to Halong Bay

Ducks in HanoiThe overnight bus from Hoi An to Hanoi was something of a curiosity. From the front looking in you can see three narrow rows of wooden ended bunk beds, slightly slanted and very narrow and built for skinny people about 5ft tall, not the most comfortable way to travel. And of course the ubiquitous terrible Asian pop music that cranked up at 6am in the morning so loud that the bass was seriously distorted. The Vietnamese bus drivers are real sadists! By 8am we had caught a taxi and arrived at a beautiful old French colonial house just outisde the old part of Hanoi where my friend from uni, Kate was living. It was so nice to arrive in a house, she made us coffee in her huge kitchen before heading off for work and the two of us crashed out for the rest of the morning.

Bia Hoi corner, HanoiHanoi is a bustling, motorcycle-ridden fascination of charming houses, insane electrical wiring, suicidal traffic and a lovely central lake. Everywhere you go smiling women carrying balanced bowls of fruit blackmail you into buying delicious bags of pineapple after taking their photos. We spent our two days booking trips and place tickets and getting happily lost in the back streets. On one street we discovered what the death rattles of dying frogs sound like. A lady was squatting down on the side of the pavement with a bag of wriggling fat green frogs. She pulled each one out, held it forceably down on a wooden block and with one swipe of a machete took off it’s head as it emitted a final sad high pitched croak before consigning it to the growing pile of headless animals. Yum! In the afternoon we found a small junction in the centre of the old town with a tiny Bia Hoi cafe on each corner. You sit on the pavement on tiny plastic chairs and drink rather good and incredibly cheap local draught beer for about 10p a glass while you watch the world go past. In the evening Kate took us to a wonderful open air restaurant that serves all the varieties of street food in Vietnam. We had squid, pork balls noodle soup and swan which was rather good. Having seen the dark side of swans on many punting trips in Oxford I have to admit eating mine with a slightly savage relish, no Queen to protect the evil white beauties in Vietnam!Kids at Uncle Ho’s, Hanoi

I also went to visit Ho Chi Minh, affectionately known as Uncle Ho and one of the most beloved figures of Vietnam. His mausoleum is a huge grey columned square that attracts throngs of school children and Vietnamese every morning along with a sprinkling of western tourists. You cannot take cameras or bags inside and your every move is scrutinised by guards dressed all in white or pea green carrying intimidating bayonets. As the longline filters inside the building Uncle Ho is laid out in a glass coffin with an eery oranged light bathing his waxy face and hands. Around him sunken down in the floor stand four guards and behind is two huge marble backdrops displaying the twin signs of Vietnam and Communism. Very bizarre indeed.

Our Junk Crew, Halong BayOn Thursday morning we set out on a two day trip to Halong Bay and had a bus load of really chatty, really friendly travellers. Everyone was talking away before we even got into the minivan for the three hour trip and we also had a comedy three stooges (our guide, a trainee guide and another random suited Vietnamese guy) telling stories and cracking jokes the whole way.

Halong BayAt Halong Bay City we boarded a beautiful wooden junk and motored out towards the bay. The weather was grey and overcast which added an ethereal air of mystery, shrouding the huge limestone karsts as we approached the bay and obscuring the line of the horizon so that the small fishing boats appeared to by floating in a sea of grey. Cave, Halong BayThe bay is stunning, even in the clouds although not the best conditions for taking photographs. We visited an really beautiful but hugely touristy cave complete with a large penis shaped rocks thoughtfully lit with a red light (that provoked a good 15 minutes of taking comedy photos) before taking kayaks out into a hidden bay under an overhang. The water is a really incredible dark shade of turquoise green against the sharp grey black rocks and lush green vegetation of the karsts.

Halong Bay fishing boatThat night we moored up among the other tourist boats and as night fell all the lights surrounding the area looked like a floating village on the water. Our two boats got together and ended up having a huge Karoke and beer fest until midnight which was highly amusing although I think watching my brother perform Phil Collins is an experience I probably don’t want to live through twice. The next day we were all vegged out on the deck watching the scenery roll past as we made our way through the rest of the bay and past the symbol of Halong Bay, the fighting cock island at the gateway, before heading back to land.

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