Traditionally Vietnam has been one of the first pit stops for travellers on a shoestring budget galavanting round Asia and once you’ve been there its easy to see why. The food is fresh, rich in flavour and costs barely anything. There are an abundance of tour operators wanting your business which naturally keeps prices competitive and accessible. If you’re staying there for a prolonged period of time you could easily stretch out your budget staying in comparatively high quality hostels. Or if your stay is less than a week, you could treat yourself to a few nights in a luxury hotel and still remain within in budget, which is exactly what we did. After a nice restorative sleep, we swiftly set off for our overnight cruise in Halong Bay. We chose to go with Vega Travel who promises to avoid the tourist traps and also use these gorgeously restored fishing boats. The outside area on the boat was quite big, however the dining room was relatively small and only had a few tables of six, which effectively meant everyone had to sit together. I have to admit the introvert in me did recoil slightly to being forced to sit with strangers over mealtimes. However this turned out to be less of a hurdle as it was easy to bond over stories of traveling. One woman I met who was from the Philippines told me they have a similar region there to Halong Bay the main difference it is almost always sunny and the water is a clear crystal blue which with the clouds now dwarfing over us did seem quite tantalising.Despite the haze, Halong Bay still retained its ethereal beauty for me and it was a struggle to put my camera down a lot of the time. The other boats with their large ornate sails also made a charming addition to the overall scenery. My favourite part of the cruise was kayaking through a limestone tunnel grotto to a small lagoon where we could admire the local monkeys gracefully leaping through the trees on nearby islands.
The 3rd day we spent exploring the streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Crossing the road became a bit of an art form as there are very few formal pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, and if there are, the 3.5 million motorbikes which Hanoi is home to, tend to ignore it. Inconceivably though this system somehow works for Hanoi as the stream of motorbikes always keeps to a steady flow, which means as a pedestrian you have to stride out confidently maintaining the same pace and direction and the motorcyclists will obligingly work around you. So when we weren’t dodging round motorbikes or the many street vendors and we actually looked up, what we saw was characterful French Colonial architecture and a consistent run of narrow buildings. Buildings in Hanoi are taxed by width so homes or business tend to extend outwards. Another prominent aspect of the Old Quarter was that certain streets were dedicated to a specific business, for example one street was just a string of dingy but atmospheric bars, to more obscure ventures such as gravestone engraving (which from what I saw were much more elaborate than ones back home and could also include a picture of the departed). Finally, the one oasis to retreat to amongst the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter was the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake. Every morning at 5am the locals will descend and practise Tai Chi or yoga (tragically I never quite got up in time to witness this but is supposed to be quite a show).
The next day it was time to experience some of the Vietnamese countryside. I inadvertently paid for a private tour rather than a group tour, which again is testament to how little things cost here. This turned out to be worth every extra Vietnamese dong, as being one on one with the tour guide, Tom and I learnt some interesting aspects of Vietnamese life. For example, a family is considered very lucky if they have one or more sons as when they go on to marry, the happy couple will traditionally live with the son’s parents and the wife will assume responsibility for taking care of the household. Although this practice is now a lot less pervasive in the urban sprawls of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this is still widely followed in rural Vietnam. Pale skin for Vietnamese women is a sign of beauty so some will go to great lengths to avoid sun exposure while for men having a large belly is seen as a sign of wealth as obviously this infers that he can afford to eat well and often (this also why all depictions of the Great Buddha portray him as having a large belly). So on to the trip itself, our excursion with the rightfully praised Ocean Tours which covered a visit to Tam Coc, “Halong Bay on Land’ and to the Dinh and Le King Temples which worship the 1st and 2nd kings of Vietnam respectively. In the latter, there is also a statue of the first queen who got remarried the 2nd king who following the first king’s death. One thing which did amuse me was that once a year on the first king’s birthday, the statue of the queen would be carried over to his tomb so they can spend the day together.
The boat ride through Tam Coc was as expected very beautiful and remains relatively unspoilt. Going through some caves along the way also added a frisson of excitement as once in the middle you are plunged into complete darkness for a while with just the sound of water lapping at the boat to keep you company. I hadn’t really experienced any heckling during my time in Vietnam so it came as a bit of a surprise when after going through the caves, you are practically forced to buy snacks and drink for your boat rower – although that’s not to say they don’t deserve it.
Having traveled to 3 countries in 3 days in the past week, I was a bit exhausted at this point and so was looking forward to the zen like scenery of Japan, which was our next port of call.