We set off early for Halong Bay. The company we had originally booked with had suffered damage during the typhoon which meant we were put on a premium cruise with Glory Cruises. Great news- except people who travel premium aren’t usually 22! We were with a great bunch of people, mostly Europeans, my particular favourite being a crazy Finnish lady who wanted to try everything despite being 50+ much to the guides surprise everytime.
The conversation would go like this:
We are going to Kayak, anyone who doesn’t want to can take the bamboo raft
Okay, where are the kayaks?
Really? You going to Kayak?!
The bay is beautiful, the same limestone pinnacles which dominate the scenery around Yangsuo in China. They were mystical the first time round but just as beautiful second time around.
First we were served lunch, a lotus bean soup, 7 seafood and veg dishes followed by fruit. The food was amazing. After lunch we dismounted the ship for a floating fishing village. This village has 200 inhabitants all on fixed boats and from here we got on kayaks to go and explore the inlets and caves nearby. The mountains are even more fascinating up close, such weird shapes and textures. We circled the bay and caught sight of a lizard sunbathing on a rock.
Back on the ship we made Hanoi spring rolls, and then were served them on the deck with red wine and canapés, definitely the only backpackers on this tour!
At sunset we pulled up to a beach in a cove and got off the boat. You could climb up to the peak and get a beautiful 360 view if the bay around.
Back on the boat we had more amazing food and sat on the sun deck in the evening. Back in our room late at night we had the window open and we heard a voice of a lady calling. Outside on a raft was a lady stocked up with wine, beer, chocolate and goodies trying to sell to the tourist boats. I'm not ashamed to say we bought some Oreos, y'know, helping the locals!
We got up early to take part in Tai Chi on the sundeck. It was really funny, particularly when the boat started moving and people on the other boats around would watch and offer comment!
We had an early breakfast and headed for Surprising Cave. Literally the most surprising thing about this cave was how many tourists they could fit in one place. It was a beautiful cave, discovered by the French about 100 years ago. Now every tour seems to stop here and every tour guide uses a laser pen to point out every funny shaped jut of rock. Ooh look finger rock, this bit looks like a Buddha etc. Thats the biggest shame with Halong bay. It’s one of the “7 natural wonders of the world” but it’s sold too cheaply. Beautiful but overworked. When you imagine a site before you visit you almost have an image of discovering it, experiencing it, but this part of the world is so well travelled that it takes something away from this magical place.
As we left the cave, some of the women of the fishing village were cooking up and selling fish off their little boats.
We got back on our boat and had a very early lunch before heading back to the bay and returning to Hanoi. Our hotel greeted us with Tea (English tea!!) and were so kind. You pay £9 for a nice private room here, free breakfast and the staff cannot do enough for you. They booked our train tickets for us, then put us in a taxi for free and carried our bags right on to the cabin of the train. At home you always feel as though you get a better deal or your little extras by cutting out the middle man, but here they are so kind and generous it is the opposite.
We took the overnight train to Hue (pronounced Hwey to rhyme with play.). This sleeper was certainly the most basic we had been on so far, put it this way, the first one with bug friends.
As we arrived in Hue it began to rain… Heavily! We took a taxi to our hotel and then went out for breakfast. We got soaked.
A few hours later in new clothes we went out for lunch. We got even more soaked.
When Ricky went out to get dinner (alone) he was calf deep in water. The highlight of the day was seeing Ricky dressed as a human sized banana.
The thing you notice quickly here is how laid back the people are. Typhoon approaching and no one blinks. Calf high water and they are still riding their motorbikes through it. Ricky saw one bike nosedive down a pot hole and loose electric! If this was England the news would report it as the end of the world, half the city is underwater, but daily life continues. I guess it's also a reminder about the extremes of weather in this part of the world. The Philippines has already had 14 typhoons this year, and although South east Asia has great weather, it's used to far more extremes.
We were going to go to Hoi An today but the roads were too flooded so we bought ponchos and braved the weather. A week ago I wouldn’t have imagined saying this but the ponchos are pretty amazing despite being the least fashionable things ever! The water has just been running off our raincoats and soaking our legs so it makes such a difference. Mine has a clear square at the front for the moped headlight to shine through (all the locals wear them) however it does just look like I am advertising my crotch!
We walked to the imperial city, a similar complex to the Forbidden city in Beijing. We had to wade down some residential streets to get here. The city has an outer wall which has residents inside, then an inner wall which would have been where the emperor lived and invited foreign diplomats. The whole place was underwater! The moat was at the brim and inside the courtyards were full of water so it actually felt very much like discovering ruins. The imperial city suffered a lot of damage in the war and is in poor conditions in some places making the experience different to the forbidden city.
Like the FC there is the main diplomatic area and courtyards and then lots of houses, temples and areas around the site. It would be maze enough but it’s overgrown and waterlogged condition adds to this. Some of the rooms had been cut off by river which had burst its banks. On the way to one room Ricky shared the path with some goldfish!
We joined a tour from Hue to visit the DMZ- or the demilitarisation zone which lies about 100km north. This area is a 10km wide stretch around the river which divided Vietnam in two from the sea to the Laos border. Being a novice in all things Vietnam war, this is they told us…
The divide was temporarily put in after the Geneva agreement after the Indochina war. The communist government under Ho Chi Minh ruled the north and the Saigon government with French and USA influence ruled the south. When the temporary terms were up the north wanted unification of Vietnam wanted one government, however the USA fought to prevent the spread of communism into the south.
We first went to an excitingly named stop- Rock pile mountain. It was a mountain the Americans put a radio base on top, just next to the demilitarised zone to intercept communications and prevent the north entering the south.
We then went to see the Ho Chi Minh trails. This trail is one of many and now makes up the highway, however during the war it would have been a small path through the mountains which the soldiers of the north would have used to penetrate the south to send soldiers, food and weapons. The trails start far north, at this point they would have to find some way to cross the river, and then the trails continue as far as Saigon in the south.
The scenery we were driving through was stunning. It was mountainous and tropical green and felt like the most genuine thing we have seen since being in Vietnam. We pulled up in a little minority village where the people live in a wooden house on stilts, wood and livestock underneath. The little village was basic but very interesting and immediately the children came around us. Some were holding there hands out for money and when Joe in our group got out a note a little girl snatched it and was inside the house like a flash.
Next we went to the Khe Sanh American air base. This area had three main air bases, quite close to the dividing line which were attacked and taken in 1968 after heavy battling and bombing of this area. This was depicted very heavily as a turning point for victory in the Vietnam war as the north was bake to push into the south.
We had lunch back in Dong Ha city before heading to the coast to explore the war effects in the north. We visited the Vinh Moc tunnels which are right on the sea at the 17th Parallel in an area which was heavily bombed during the war, to the point that they had to move the entire village underground. A community of about 60 families lived underground in the network of 2km of tunnels for 6 years! There were three different levels, one at 12metres below ground, one at 15metres and one at 23m. The people generally lived on the second level as the Americans had bombs which could burrow 10metres!
The tunnels were in amazing condition, a network of family rooms, hospitals and common areas. There were 17 babies born in the maternity room underground. When we arrived at the site, a man who had lived down the tunnels was there to great us. He was very small and also couldn't talk but very friendly and wanted to meet all the tourists and show them where he lived from age 18!
This is the maternity room.
On the way back we stopped at a graveyard for communist soldiers. There were 2000 graves and all said ‘martyr’ but most had no name.
Back in Hue the roads had dried out and it looked like a different place!
With little on the agenda we decided to hire mopeds. The orientation from our hotel was how to turn the bike on and where the petrol station is, the off you go. Things to find out yourself, indicators, road rules and most importantly the horn. The roads are such beautiful chaos, this much is clear when you try to cross them, however it all makes sense when your on a bike as bikes rule the road! Generally which side of the road you choose is flexible and red lights are negotiable, just try and dodge everyone else and they will dodge you!
We made our way out of the city and were approached by a local woman who wanted to take us around for a little bit of money. Originally we weren’t keen but ended up following her as she took us to the Ming Mang Tomb of an 18th century emperor.
The tomb was a great succession of temples, palaces and pagodas, all set in perfect symmetry with a lake enveloping it on either side. At the back of the huge site was a large circular wall inside housing an underground palace.
After the tomb the woman offered to take us back to her house and she made us noodles with tomatoes (and a few ants but that seems the norm!). then we had mango and a cup of Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is very strong and they drink it with condensed milk. It is an acquired taste but it's growing on me. Her house was brick, more modern than some, but still very basic. It was set in beautiful land and they were growing mangoes and bananas and rearing chickens! She had four dogs which kept Ricky happy!
We took about 10km to get back to the city, following the Purfume River, a poetic name for a very brown river, in beautiful countryside. The great thing about Hue is its not necessarily on the tourist agenda as much as other places so after an overwhelming sense of being told what you should see, it was nice to discover a bit for ourselves.
Back in the city we biked around the outer part of the imperial city feeling like we were locals, then back to the hotel just before the rains started again.
Tonight we are getting the sleeper train, third class as they had sold out of second class. Judging by the standards of the last train it won't be a sight to behold but this time we are prepared with a bottle of red wine!
Next stop, Nha Trang, Central Vietnam.