Saturday, March 01, 2014

Go East: Part 3 - Hanoi and Halong Bay

(Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Tuesday 15th November

* The stewardess on our Vietnam Airways flight to Hanoi looks nervous ahead of take-off - never a good sign. We're allocated seats adjacent to the emergency exits for extra legroom, though it also means we've been adjudged fit enough to be able to open the door, just in case. Looking around, it's not much of a compliment - I'm in the prime of life compared to all the Aussie and American tour group members, who sport an assortment of bandaged limbs and necks encased in rolls of fat. Suffice to say that the in-flight lunch - some kind of ham sandwich - will have satisfied few appetites.

* On arrival we're bundled into an airport shuttle bus - $3 each rather than $30 for a taxi. A bit of a false economy, as it turns out - there are 18 of us squeezed into a 15-seater van, and my circulation is cut off at the knee for more than an hour. First impressions of Vietnam from the window can't help but be coloured by our experience of Cambodia: huge factories, more cars, raised freeways, a maximum of two people per scooter (wasteful!), more aggressive driving and generally a faster pace of life. This, I muse, is what Cambodia will be like in ten years' time - and I'm not sure that such development is necessarily a good thing.

* Typical - the first accommodation that I've arranged rather than Jen and there's a problem. We're shunted from the hotel we booked to its sister establishment, and then again over the road to a third place. It's a twin room rather than a double, it's shabby and it smells of smoke - but on the positive side there's a computer and free internet access. Could be worse, I suppose.

Wednesday 16th November

* It could indeed be worse, as we discover during the night. Water dripping from the air-conditioning unit overhead dampens the bottom of the duvet and the splashes on the laminate floor keep Jen awake. Finally she dozes off, only for us to get the wake-up call we requested for 6.30am at 7.10am. Time to make use of the free internet and fire off an angry email to the original hotel manager demanding compensation for when we get back from Halong Bay. Breakfast across the road consists mainly of bacon, but I'm not complaining on that front.

* The journey to Halong Bay takes place in the relative comfort of an air-conditioned minibus, and hotel manager Jonny calls Jen en route to offer apologies, a refund and the promise of an upgrade on our return. Things are looking up - or at least they are until there's a car crash ahead. There apparently being only one main road in and out of Halong Bay, near-gridlock ensues. We marvel at the impatience, competitiveness and brazen audacity of some of the drivers around us attempting to sneak ahead - and at the fact that road rage is conspicuous by its complete absence, everyone apparently respecting everyone else's right to be cheeky.

* We're held up for around an hour and a quarter, time which will have to be shaved off our excursion out into the bay by junk. At the dock it's organised chaos, and, like our hotel, the small boat is disappointingly shabby. Our companions for the voyage around some of the bay's iconic limestone karsts will be two middle-aged French couples and a pair of Swiss photography enthusiasts. A day of happy sailing ahead? Will all the woes of the previous 24 hours have been worth it?

* Lunch is served on deck, and it soon becomes apparent that, for someone unaccustomed to eating much seafood, this is going to be a journey of gastronomic discovery as well as geographical adventure. The feast begins with crabmeat soup; then a salad of onion, carrot and cucumber; then clams lathered with a sweet, piquant pineapple and pepper sauce; then a whole prawn, to pull apart with fingers; then some kind of seafood patty; then fish in delicious soy and ginger sauce with steamed veg. Clearly whatever happens over the next day, we won't be going hungry...

* We're rowed from the junk to an island, stepping onto the smooth, clean sand to be greeted by a dog and its tumbling, excitable puppies which belong to the man who lives here looking after the kayaks available for use. A guided tour of a cave network within the karst reveals spectacular rock formations including stalactites and stalagmites. After that, Jen and I enjoy a leisurely kayak around a few stacks, skipping fish skimming the surface of the water around us, and then take a dip in the lukewarm depths. This is pretty damned close to paradise. That earlier question of whether it was all worth it is answered with a resounding yes.

* Back on board, we sail on past karsts sticking up out of the water in the distance like the silhouettes of ghostly galleons. What's remarkable is the monochrome nature of the view in all directions - there are no sharp colour distinctions, only subtle changes of tone between foreground and background and to distinguish the karsts from the sea and sky.

* The down side of being on such a small boat is the awkwardness of being expected to eat together at one table with complete strangers - although maybe that's just a cultural condition peculiar to us reserved, suspicious Brits. Dinner features the onion, carrot and cucumber salad again, followed by spring rolls, prawns, fried chicken and fish, and mystery veg. As the centrepiece of the meal, we're each presented with a whole crab, and left to eye each other nervously when it's clear that no one has the faintest idea what to do with it. Controlled violence turns out to be the key, but amidst all the cracking and scraping out of unappetising-looking jellied brains in pursuit of small pieces of meat that taste of nothing except salt, I decide it's not a skill I'm bothered about developing. The chef - clearly a man with too much time on his hands - proudly presents doves carved out of turnip and carrot, and a large eagle fashioned out of a pumpkin, and the serving staff all gather on deck to applaud, so we follow suit, impressed but perhaps not as impressed as we feel we're expected to be.

* And the social awkwardness doesn't there. The after-dinner entertainment consists of our good-natured guide telling us awful "stories" (jokes), which one of the French translates and which no one finds funny. It's the most excruciating stand-up set you can imagine. His card tricks are an improvement, but a job on a cruise liner doesn't await.

* Retiring to our cabin early to escape the enforced bonhomie, we spot the chef through an open door at the back of the boat. He's fishing with a cane and line in the pool of light cast by the lamp overhead. We squeeze through to take a closer look, Jen is immediately offered the rod and within two minutes catches a small squid. The chef is duly impressed, and we contemplate sitting sharing a beer with him, but our stupidly stiff British concepts of guest-staff etiquette get the better of us and we shuffle off to our cabin.

Thursday 17th November

* We wake at 6.30am to the chug of engines, as our junk ups anchor and sets sail. Eating chicken noodle soup at the ungodly hour of 7.15am is a struggle, but I suppose it beats most British breakfast cereals.

* Our first port of call is a floating village, home to around 300 people who rarely visit the mainland but who have had to get used to being gawped at by passing tourists. They have a fish farm and a school, the latter funded by Australian money, as well as pets - an assortment of cats and dogs, all born and destined to die at sea.

* Decanted into rowing boats, we skirt around the stacks before next alighting at a pearl farm, where we learn that the process is essentially a kind of artificial insemination. The oysters are impregnated with "seed" from the mother of pearl, a laborious and delicate task in itself, before being left for three years in the hope that a pearl will form - though the chance of success is only 25%. 

* Back on the junk, we spend the leisurely cruise back to the harbour sunbathing, reading and taking a final few snaps of the surroundings. Lunch is a la carte (something the French contingent do understand) and surprisingly seafood-free, and the chicken and beef dishes are both delicious.

* The journey back to Hanoi is slow going due to the road and the speed limit. Other than attesting to the popularity of public urination, the window affords views of a landscape blighted by the pace of development, of vast construction sites apparently abandoned, of canvas residences semi-permanently erected beneath road bridges. In between the industrial zones there are still signs of the old country: fields in which conical hats move methodically along rows of crops, cows wandering freely along roads. We stop at an enormous gift shop which passes for a service station, forced to mingle with the tanned and flip-flopped gap year students set down by the party buses.

* Back in Hanoi, Jen and I decide you could make a killing selling cheap plastic children's furniture here - that's what everyone uses to eat and drink in the streets. A restaurant called Half Man Half Noodle suggests, somewhat improbably, a local proprietor with a pronounced fondness for cult '80s indie bands.

* Our new hotel boasts free internet, minibar, tea and coffee-making facilities and very friendly staff - a good thing, too, as there was plenty of making up to be done. Not sure about the shower, though, which requires you to stand on what seems like a large wooden chopping board set amidst white pebbles. There's also evidently a rooster living over the road, which sounds as though it's being strangled. I can't promise it won't have been by the time we leave.

* A drink in Mao followed by a meal in 69 Bar-Restaurant. It's recommended in the Lonely Planet guide so is quite Westernised, and the Hanoi hot and sour soup is a disappointment - but the bun cha Hanoi (marinated BBQ pork balls, spring rolls and noodles, with fresh herbs and chilli dressing) are excellent.

* The semi-legendary Bia Hoi Corner turns out to be just a small road junction, on every corner of which people are perched on tiny chairs drinking. The fact that some of the seating spills out into the path of the traffic and we keep having to move the furniture every time the police come past just adds to the fun. Despite "bia hoi" translating as "draft beer", there's none to be found here so instead we enjoy bottles of Larue. A hawker tries to sell us short on chewy doughnuts, but the fearsome bar owner is watching her customers' backs and chastises her into giving us a fair deal.

* Much as it pains me to say it, we decide to seek a more authentic experience away from the tourist throng, and on an alternative corner nearby find a makeshift bar whose patrons are all locals and which has a beer keg with a tap in a fridge. It soon becomes apparent that we're effectively buying a round for half the bar, but that hardly matters when it's so absurdly cheap. To say the ensuing conversation is stilted would be an understatement - there's a lot of pointing and excitable gesticulating at a map of the country, before the international lingua franca of football comes into play. "Manchester City!", one chap announces. "Newcastle", I respond, pointing to myself. "Ah, Alan Shearer!" comes the reply. For some reason I take this as my cue to try to initiate a discussion about Yohan Cabaye and the fact that his grandmother's nationality made him eligible for Vietnam, but the blank expressions all round indicate that this may have been a tad ambitious.

* One final bar for the night, and sadly it seems to involve exposure to the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers album. At least by this point we're nicely anaesthetised by alcohol.

Friday 18th November

* We breakfast late before setting out wandering around the Old Quarter streets, which are a hive of  activity: bubbling cauldrons at street cafes, birds in cages, racks of garishly coloured garments, noise and bustle everywhere. By contrast, Hoan Kiem Lake is relatively serene, despite the racetrack around it.

* After enjoying a good-cause drink at KOTO, we're stopped by a street hawker and offered the opportunity to pose for a photo carrying her baskets. The trade-off is to then feel obliged to pay an exorbitant price (relatively) for a bag of pineapple pieces. Taking pictures is clearly seen as a liberty that should come at a price - the barbers whose chairs are set up on the street have signs specifically refusing permission for photos to be taken unless palms are greased with $1.

* The Temple of Literature, built in 1070, is an oasis of tranquillity amidst the madness of the streets all around - or at least it would be, were it not for the tourists unfamiliar with the concept of cultural sensitivity who take it upon themselves to whack the enormous ceremonial drums. Meanwhile, new graduates of the Imperial Academy, the university to which the temple is home, pose for photos in their formal clothes.

* Next on the agenda are the One-Pillar Pagoda, the solid-looking modernist-classical Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (we wonder if his embalmed body is even there - it goes to Russia for a couple of months every year for "maintenance") and the Presidential Palace (a yellow monstrosity whose grounds look pleasantly shady and cool). Everything is just a bit too quiet, formal and ordered - so it's back to the manic energy of the Old Quarter.

* When we collect our laundry, Jen is on the verge of going back and accusing them of stealing pants, but on closer inspection everything is present and correct. Embarrassment narrowly averted for both parties.

* We have our pre-prandial drink in a bar overlooking a street barbeque but end up plumping for Little Hanoi, up a flight of stairs just off Bia Hoi Corner. Our initial misgivings - about its location, its featuring prominently in the Lonely Planet guide and the fact that it's full of Westerners - are soon proven to be unfounded in the most spectacular fashion. The caramel beef in particular is incredible, and the fresh spring rolls, morning glory with chilli, pork with five spices, and chicken with lemon and chilli are almost as perfect. Throw in three large beers and a total bill of just $9 and you've got the best meal of the holiday bar none.

* Drinks on the opposite side of Bia Hoi Corner tonight, where we're the only Westerners amidst a scrum of revellers, served bottles of Tiger by an intimidating triumvirate of tough-looking women. A disagreement between scooter-riders leads to one bloke lobbing his helmet in anger - an act of surprising aggression. As the drama unfolds before the boozed-up audience, we withdraw from the clamour and chaos for an early night ahead of an early start.

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