Hanoi downtime

I’d intended to stay in Cat Ba town for a couple more days, then head back to Hanoi for one more night before my flight to Vientiane. Cat Ba is supposedly a backpacker-oriented place with lots of adventure activities on offer such as kayaking, rock-climbing and trekking through the national park. But other travellers I’d met had said that it was a dirty, unattractive town and I shouldn’t bother to stay there. I seriously considered hanging out on the private island instead as it’s a very peaceful place, with its comfortably rustic beachfront bungalows, kayaks available and several walking trails behind the resort. But the price was an eye-popping US$70 a night – too much to contemplate in an area where fine hotel rooms with all mod cons and harbour views can be had for just $15-20. And the weather was still cold and grey, so even the kayaking wouldn’t have been much fun. The reports were right about Cat Ba town, too. As part of the tour we had half an hour to wander around it before some mountain biking, and it was decidedly uninviting. Judging by the number of hotels it must be pumping during high summer, but this time of year is definitely the off-season and there were few tourists about. The locals were taking advantage by building or renovating hotels and the roads and sidewalks were being upgraded; it was a like living in a giant construction site.

With a few extra days in Hanoi I’ve been quite content to just relax and enjoy the benefits of this large city while I can. Good western food (including some sensational gnocchi al pesto at an Italian restaurant, and roast New Zealand lamb with garlic potatoes at La), book and DVD shops to browse, a modern cinema where I saw Avatar in 3D today, cruisy bars and cafes for socialising, street food and wandering the lanes and alleys when I want another taste of Vietnam, and reliable internet connections to keep in touch with the world. All these things will be rare or non-existent once I leave Vientiane and won’t be common again until Phnom Penh or Bangkok, so I’ve made the most of the opportunities.

I’ve also had some time to reflect on my first month in Asia. One of the main reasons why I wanted to come here, and to Laos in particular, is that I want to experience first-hand what it’s like to live in a developing country. Not live as most locals do, of course: as a westerner I have far more money than they could ever dream of having, and staying even in basic guesthouses and eating modestly I would still be indulging a lifestyle far removed from their day-to-day existence. But we have to share the same infrastructure – roads, buses, electricity, water, shops, etc – and from this I can gain some understanding. I didn’t expect it to be easy all the time, and it’s not. But 80% of the world’s people live in circumstances that are at best challenging, and at worst appalling. I wanted to see this for myself and not just watch it on television or read about it in a book.

Even the term “developing country” has taken on new meaning. It’s certainly better than using outdated phrases such as “third world” (ie. really poor) and “second world” (not really poor, but not western either), or slightly improved versions such as LDC (“less developed country)”, though I admit to using those myself as easy shorthand classifiers at times. But “developing country” is more appropriate because these countries really are changing, and sometimes quite fast. A few days ago at a bookshop I was talking to the owner, an older Australian man with extensive knowledge of Asia who has lived here for nine years. He was describing the changes seen in Hanoi since he arrived, and said that when he came there were virtually no cars, about half the population got around on bicycles and the other half on scooters. Three to four years ago the bicycles had largely disappeared as most people could now afford scooters, then gradually cars started creeping in as well. Now cars are quite common here, and in his opinion they are one of the biggest causes of Hanoi’s infamous traffic congestion. “What’s really needed is an elevated mass transit system like they have in Bangkok”, he said, “so that people can get around without using scooters”. He says that such a system will come, and in fact the latest Lonely Planet notes that work on a metro system is due to begin soon. “Change is inevitable, and it changes the character of the city. The pinnacle they’re aiming for is to be like Singapore, but when you get to that level a city loses its soul. But you can’t stop progress, and nor should you as it makes peoples’ lives better. We just have to accept that things won’t always be the same here.”

I’ve experienced many different stages of development already, from tiny villages north of Phongsali where there is no electricity nor any shops, to modest Lao towns with an unpaved main street and just a handful of guesthouses and restaurants, to the electrifying buzz of Hanoi. It’s nice here but I’ve had enough of the bustle of Vietnam to be honest, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to the laid-back charm and gentle people of Laos. And I’ve worked out that I really do enjoy doing certain adventure-type activities, so I’ll be going out of my way to do more kayaking, mountain-biking and trekking when I get there 🙂

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Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay

Halong Bay is one of the iconic images of Vietnam, comprising almost two thousand jagged limestone islands topped with dense vegetation all rising sharply from the water. This spectacular setting has been a tourist attraction for hundreds of years, and today there are numerous options to visit Halong Bay ranging from a day trip on a public boat to multiday adventures including overnight stays on a boat or onshore hamlets. It’s at risk of becoming overrun, I fear, but at this time of year at least the hordes are few. It’s got to the point that some tours focus instead on neighbouring Lan Ha or Bai Tu Long bays, using their relative unpopularity as a selling point. I am not normally a fan of organised tours, preferring instead to find my own way around, but I recognise that for specific purposes they can be good. I followed the guidebook’s advice and checked out a specialist tour operator that offered slightly different tours and has a reputation for quality, and was pleased to find a 3-day/2-night package that took in both Halong and Lan Ha bays, with some desirable adventure activities too. Best of all it offered two nights accomodation in waterfront bungalows on a private island on the edge of Lan Ha Bay and the price was affordable, so I signed up. It was a good decision: every part of the tour from the activities to the connections to the bungalows were well-chosen and seamlessly integrated. It really made for a great couple of days, despite the cold and grey weather!

After a long minibus ride from Hanoi to Halong City we were quickly shuttled through the crowds to our boat for the cruise through Halong Bay and lunch. Like most of the boats on the bay this was a large wooden affair, but of high standard and large enough for forty people to have a sit-down meal. However there were only fourteen of us so there was plenty of space, and the set meal was surprisingly good including fresh prawns, spring rolls, stir-fried pork and veges, grilled fish and rice. We headed into the bay and got to know each other a little as the islands floated past, and after an hour we pulled into a secluded section for the kayaking. The kayaks are tended by another boat and drawn up to us, so there were no other groups around as we spent an hour paddling through a low cave-like tunnel to a hidden lake surrounded by high karst cliffs. The acoustics were sensational, you could hear the flap of a hand in the water from the other side of the lake and it was eerily quiet with not even a bird to be heard. After an hour we headed back to the boat, and I noted a couple of other vessels waiting their turn to use the kayaks. Continuing through Halong Bay and around the edge of Lan Ha bay to our island digs, we arrived just after dark to unpack and have a very welcome warming shower before dinner.

The bungalows were fantastic: best described as comfortably rustic, they are constructed entirely of bamboo and located quite literally on the edge of the water, with little more than a double bed and a bathroom inside and a balcony out front. But the beds are soft with electric blankets included (a godsend!), the bathrooms are modern and clean and the water gloriously hot. There’s a mosquito net over the bed to but no mozzies at this time of year, however our guide said we should use them anyway just in case rats come down from the mountain behind the resort. We were dubious and asked if he was joking, he chuckled heartily and then said “no” with a firm voice. Everyone used their mosquito nets that night. It turned out to be a very late one for some of us, and I went to sleep to the gentle sound of waves lapping on the beach below.

Of the fourteen people who arrived only nine of us were staying two nights, and we were all extremely glad of it. It would have been a shame to leave after just one evening, but the others were on different (shorter) tours and most were heading back to Hanoi that day. We had better things to do: after breakfast another boat took us through Lan Ha Bay for almost two hours to a wharf on the other side of Cat Ba Island, where we disembarked for an easy hour’s walk to a local village. Then the focus of the day: a hike up to the top of one of the highest hills on the island where you can see Halong Bay on one side, and turn your head and see Lan Ha on the other. It was a very tough scramble up a barely visible rocky path – impossible to do without a guide and often involving hands as well as feet. But worth the effort, even though the grey haze made it hard to see very far. Then down again for a simple but filling lunch at the village, then back to the boat for the return to the island. Lan Ha is in some ways prettier than Halong Bay, as the islands are much closer together and you really get immersed in the landscape. I sat on top of the boat and read when I’d had my fill of the view, but it was hard not to look around and just revel in the scenery.

Our final day promised more action, though happily it was not as strenous as the trek! Some of the nine who’d stayed two nights were going straight back to Halong City for a bus connection to Hanoi, and were facing an entire day of travelling by slow boat and road. The five of us doing the adventure tour instead stopped at Cat Ba town for a while to have a look around, then were driven to the Hospital Cave. Built with Chinese help during the 1960s, it comprises nearly two dozen concrete rooms built inside a large natural cave that served as a bombproof wartime hospital and refuge for leaders of the anti-American forces. It was interesting enough, but would have been much better if the rooms were furnished with examples of what each room was used for; bare concrete cells did not convey much at all. Afterwards we mounted bikes for an exhilarating 14-kilometre ride to the coast, with a couple of tough hills but also lots of fun downhills to hurtle down. Finally a good lunch at a pretty waterside restaurant, then a fast hydrofoil ride to Haiphong before transferring to a minibus for the trip back to Hanoi. Well organised at every step and good value for what was offered, I can heartily recommend Ocean Tours if you want to visit this part of Vietnam.

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Still in Hanoi

Today’s been one of the most productive days of the whole trip:

Got up early, had pho for breakfast at a smart joint nearby, then headed off for some serious walking around the southern part of town. Visited the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, the crazy market area of the French Quarter (long lanes less than a metre wide – and they still take their scooters down them in both directions), Lenin Park, and several rather drab lakes. Lunch at a restaurant-school that trains disadvantaged kids in various hospitality skills to a very high standard. Visiting a great English-language bookshop to stock up on reading matter while I can – I’ve learnt that outside the big cities finding books is near impossible, and you certainly need some to fill in the long hours! In case you’re interested the “to read” pile now contains:

The Floating Book by Michelle Lovric
Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman
One Foot in Laos by Dervla Murphy
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
Blind Willow, Sleeping Beauty by Haruki Murakami

(I’ve started immediately on the Larsson book, Stan!)

Then taxi back to the hotel to disgorge my goodies, to a specialist travel agent to book a tour, back to the hotel to book a flight to Vientiane for next week, then an indifferent but cheap massage, a fine Italian dinner, and now back to the room to blog and pack.

The tour I’ve booked starts tomorrow and offers touring and kayaking on Halong Bay, followed by two days of kayaking, swimming, trekking and mountain biking around Cat Ba Island. And staying two nights in a simple bungalow on a private island, so there’ll be plenty of relaxation too… it’s very rustic so I’ll be off the grid for a few days. Yes, life is indeed hard for some.

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Hanoi is electrifying, pulsing with manic energy all day and half the night. It’s just what I needed to pull me out of the funk I fell into last week. This city of almost four million people sprawls for miles, with rural villages on the outskirts, varying degrees of dense suburbs as you head towards the centre, at its heart the vibrant Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake districts. And while it’s a modern city in many ways, in 2010 Hanoi will celebrate its 1000th anniversary as a settlement…

It’s a brilliant city for simply walking around, following lanes and streets and shops and smells as much or as little as you like. Which is exactly what I did on my first full day here. The first thing you notice of course is the traffic: it seems like half the population was born with a scooter between their legs. The streets teem with them, zipping in every direction and parked on gutters and curbs everywhere. At first it seems chaotic, but there is a rhythm to how it works, and you need to learn it quickly if you’re going to cross a street. The trick is to walk firmly but not too quickly where you want to go. Don’t wait for a clear gap because there’ll never be one; if you walk at the right speed and pause when necessary the traffic will flow around you. It’s crazy but it works here!

Like the rest of south-east Asia much of daily life takes place on the street. And though tourism is a big industry Hanoi is still largely a town for locals, and throughout the centre you can see people sitting having food, drink or simply a chat or a rest at nearly all hours of the day. Shopping is highly segregrated, so much so that in the old town entire streets can be devoted to a single type of goods (such as silk, or baskets, medicines, etc). It’s not as strictly adhered to as it used to be, but I can attest that the street devoted to carpentry screams with the buzz of a thousand powersaws…

Apart from wandering around and taking some photos, the most interesting moment of the day was my first stab at Hanoi street food. The superb food blog stickyrice mentioned a particular bun cha joint a couple of months ago, I stumbled across his post about it last night and made note of the address just in case I was near it for lunch today. I was, and with some trepidation I ventured towards it. I say towards, not inside, because “it” is simply a couple of low tables with ridiculously small plastic stools (honestly, they’re only about 25 cm high) set up on the sidewalk. A man squats beside an open brazier, fanning the flame with great care as he grills cut meats held in flat wire frames, and a couple of women work behind him serving the dishes and sides, clearing plates and generally making the place run smoothly.

I didn’t know how it worked and don’t have a word of Vietnamese to speak, but the woman in charge pointed me to a toy stool so I sat. The great joy of places like this is that it only served a single dish: no need to worry about choosing from the menu if you’re a newbie like me, and the focus on just one product means they can get very, very good at it. Stickyrice was spot on: the meat was grilled to perfection, and served simply with a light broth and white rice noodles that you added along with chillies and chopped garlic to your bowl as you liked. Not a huge dish but enough to keep you going for a few hours, and it cost just A$1.25. A soft drink to go with cost only 35c. I’m taking the chance to eat some quality western food while it’s available, but I will certainly be trying more street food too over the next few days 🙂

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Bugger Sapa, I’m going to Hanoi

I abandoned a bus today, getting off it at the first opportunity. In a land where the highways are generally unsafe – where overtaking on blind corners is considered a right not a risk – I found this driver so certifiably insane that I could not stomach another minute of his madness.

The large town of Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam is very historic but not very attractive. It certainly wasn’t a great place to begin my brief taste of Vietnam, as I fear the bus station experience will be repeated at every vaguely touristed part of this country. The second the doors of the bus from Laos flung open a dozen men crowded the door, and like seagulls chasing a fallen packet of chips they were constantly cawing “motorbike!”, “hotel!”, “where you going?” and sometimes even grasping for my bag. I resolutely pushed through and out of the terminal, knowing that cheap but functional rooms could be had just across the road. After finding somewhere to stay I headed off again to find an internet cafe, a long journey which got me somewhat acquainted with the streets of this place. It wasn’t long before the second sour moment: many kids here call out “hello!” to you when walking past, and I always reply with a cheerful “hello!” and smile in reply. Usually there are smiles all round, perhaps a giggle, then that’s it and we all move on happily. But within minutes of my stroll a young boy calls out “hello”, I reply, then he says “money?” while holding out his hand. It’s unfair to judge a place on such few experiences, but they do put you on a cautious edge quite quickly. At any rate it’s a far cry from the laidback and innocent charm of most of Laos so far…

The military history sights are few and we actually passed some of them on the bus into town, so I was in no mood to hang around longer than one night. Getting up early this morning I went to the bus station and found that a local bus was going all the way to Sapa and beyond, leaving at 6am. Perfect I thought, so I went back to my room, gathered my things and boarded the bus. I was put on alert immediately by the driver’s (let’s call him Satan) pace: it was too fast for the conditions, and we had only just begun. What conditions? Still dark, very foggy, driving down narrow unlit country lanes teeming with dark bicycles and darker pedestrians. Of course you’re going to go as fast as you can in those circumstances.

It wasn’t long until we were out of town and heading up into the hills, where the Overtaking Test would soon tell me what Satan was really going to be like. You inevitably come across slower vehicles and a driver has to make a choice about when to overtake them. In this part of the world, I’ve noted, there is a strong tendency to overtake even if you can’t see very far ahead of you. When we came up behind two army jeeps just as we were approaching a bend, I wondered when Satan would choose to put the foot down. I was stunned to see from the corner of my eye another bus hurtling up from behind us to overtake, in other words it was pulling to the other side of the road to overtake three vehicles in one move, while entering a sharp left-hand bend which you couldn’t see around. Amazing, I thought… then choked when Satan pulled out behind that bus as it swept past and overtook the jeeps as well. Also into a hidden corner.

Don’t these guys have any imagination?? Don’t they wonder that, just possibly, there might be another vehicle coming around the bend towards them as they overtake while entering a blind corner? That’s exactly what did happen to us after just half an hour. Satan pulled out to the left to overtake two scooters that were travelling side-by-side (cars drive on the right here, so pulling to the left is crossing to the other side of the road) just as we were entering a left-hand corner. We were travelling fast and you couldn’t see more than ten metres around the bend. Suddenly a large blue truck appears, heading at speed into the corner and coming directly towards us. By some miracle both drivers manage to feather their brakes and swerve enough to avoid a collision, but it was very, very close. Did this moment cause Satan any pause, did he let up his hellish pace? Nope. We continued to carreen around bends, overtake at will, and hurtle through villages without even slowing down despite numerous kids and cyclists on both sides of the road. I resolved to get off as soon as possible, which unfortunately was not straight away because we were in remote hill country at the time. Another half hour, including a couple more near misses, until we finally hit the village of Muong Cha. As the bus stopped to pick up some more goods I gathered my bags and got off. Satan’s reign of terror was over. And his recklessness didn’t make much of a difference to our travel time: just two minutes after we stopped those two army jeeps puttered past.

I was fully prepared to wait until the next through bus passed by, and didn’t give a damn if I didn’t make it all the way to Sapa in one day. I’d rather get there in one piece, comfortably, than spend another seven hours on a razor’s edge just to save a measly $10. But as I was waiting I started to think “why am I going to Sapa anyway?”. Because it was nearby was the only real answer, but that ignored the fact that at this time of year it’s very cold and often shrouded in mist. The main reason to go there is to enjoy the view, and if you can’t do that then why bother? It also entailed more time on the road, a couple of nights in a relatively expensive tourist town, plus a long overnight train journey down to Hanoi. As I stood in the Muong Cha mist, so thick it felt like rain, I made a snap decision. A slow local bus back to Dien Bien Phu chugged past so I flagged it down and headed back to where I came from. There’s an airport there, I thought, I can hop on a plane and be in Hanoi for dinner. Bugger Sapa.

Unfortunately today’s flight was booked out, but I’ve got a seat tomorrow morning. Rather than spend another night at the dreary but cheap place I stayed last night, I wandered around checking out a few allegedly better places before heading a couple of kilometres out of town to the Him Lam resort hotel. Huge room, fast wifi, restaurant, bar and even a sauna/massage onsite (though it also features karaoke). If I have to spend another night in this place at least it’ll be comfortable. I’m trying not to let my experiences so far colour my opinion of Vietnam in general, but it’s hard. I definitely want to visit Hanoi and also Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, but I know that whenever I’ve had enough I can be back in Laos within two days. I think it’ll be sooner rather than later…

PS: just in case you think I’m being too cautious about the roads, the latest Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam (July 2009) makes several comments about bus travel here:

“Until recently, few foreign travellers used [buses] because of safety concerns” (p.502)

“Road safety is definitely not one of Vietnam’s strong points … High speed, head-on collisions between buses, trucks and other smaller vehicles (such as motorbikes and bicycles) have become a sickeningly familiar sight on the major highways” (p.505)

“Trains are considered safer than the country’s kamikaze bus fleet” (p.507)

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