As soon as I got off the train in Hanoi, Vietnam I felt like I came alive again! The last week in China I’d been getting quite down, but being in South East Asia snapped me out of it. I’ve been to SE Asia a couple of times before and loved it – I was excited to be back.
The first time I ever left Australia was when I was 21 and went to Phuket, Thailand. I really enjoyed it there and I think it was a great mix of cultural experiences, partying and lazing by the beach to ease me into the adventure of travel. I’ve also stopped in Bangkok for a night on the way home from Europe – but the biggest SE Asian adventure I’ve had before this was about 3 or 4 years ago. I flew into Saigon, Vietnam (aka Ho Chi Minh City) and travelled south through the Mekong Delta, staying in a small village there for a night and then travelling by boat up the Mekong, crossing into Cambodia and continuing up the river to Phnom Penh.
Anyway, back to the present…
On the train I’d been chatting with a group of 4 English uni students who’d spent 6 weeks teaching English in Beijing and were now travelling through Vietnam before heading home to continue with Uni. When we got off the train, we tried to get a taxi to town (it’s about 5 or 6km… Otherwise I would have walked like normal!) … We had the normal issue of the taxis all trying to charge us about 5 times as much as my hotel said we should pay – so we argued and haggled and walked off. After a few minutes we found somebody who agreed to pay closer to what we had expected to pay. They didn’t though take us all the way to the hotel! It was only about a 10min walk further, but we didn’t actually know where we were which didn’t help. So we walked aimlessly for a while and found the backpacker/hostel area and luckily I randomly found the place I’d booked!
It was still very early (the train got in about 5am), so I couldn’t actually check into my room – but I did leave my bag at the hotel and go to a cafe for some breakfast. The food was great, the coffee not what I expected – I didn’t realise here that if you want a hot coffee, you have to specify that! So, it was an ice coffee – still very nice though especially compared to most of the coffee I’d had over the last 5 or 6 weeks through Russia, Mongolia and China. And much cheaper too! The coffee here is made with condensed milk rather than normal milk, which makes it very sweet – took me some getting used to, but I started to really like it. This is not something I remember from when I was in Saigon, so either it’s my bad memory failing me, or the north of Vietnam has different coffee from the south.
I’d met a Hungarian girl on the train, who had followed me to my hotel and booked a room there and then came to breakfast with me. She seemed nice enough, but was a bit odd and hard to continue a conversation with. After breakfast, I was tired of the really odd conversation, and she was starting to freak me out a bit – and I really wanted to explore the city on my own but could tell she had no interest in leaving me. So, I did something a bit evil! While she was waiting for her change after paying for her meal, I said I was going to explore the city and I’d see her later – before she had a chance to reply I was out the door and up a busy side street! muhahaha
Hanoi feels so alive! So busy, buzzing and at times overwhelming! Crossing the road is an adventure, and a great way to pass the time is to find a cafe with the view of an intersection and watch the hundreds of motorbikes all criss-crossing each other, somehow never (well, rarely) actually hitting each other! The most entertaining part though is watching Western tourists try to cross the road! The trick is, once you start – don’t stop! Stay at a steady pace, so you’re predictable – then the motorbikes will go around you. If you suddenly stop or change speed, they’ll misjudge and will be more likely to hit you! This rule doesn’t work for cars and busses though – don’t be walking in front of them!!! haha
I walked around the Old Quarter for a while, absorbing the city as it started to wake up for the morning and come alive. I went to a cafe and had a coffee (a hot one this time!) and used their WiFi to Skype my mum for a while. I then went to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum – I walked the whole way, which took about 45 mins, even though hundreds of motorbike taxis kept hassling me (which NEVER ends. “motorbike?” from millions of people! Also, women selling donuts. Gets exhausting!)
Anyway, I walked the whole way there and found a queue that was literally 4 blocks long. Not “literally” like people use when they’re exaggerating – I mean REALLY was 4 blocks long. No way I was queuing that long for anything – so instead I walked around the part that the mausoleum is in for a while before wandering through the city again, slowly heading towards my hotel.
I went through a park with a large statue of Lenin, and then to a war museum and an old jail that was built by the French to imprison Vietnamese who were trying to fight for independence. Then it was used by the Vietnamese during the American War to house POWs. Generally, it was a pretty awful place where you would not want to be locked up!
So – I then had some very exciting news! I saw on Facebook that my friend Cathy who I worked with in Melbourne when I lived there, was on her way to Hanoi!!! Pure coincidence that we were there at the same time, but very exciting! We organised to meet up for dinner and drinks in Hanoi which was a lot of fun – it had been nearly 3 years since we’d seen each other, so spent a lot of time catching up. She was travelling with 2 friends, so it was nice to meet them and get to know them a bit over the few hours.
We went to dinner, and had some lovely Vietnamese food, and then went to a local street bar where we sat on small plastic stools in the street and drank beer for about $1 per beer. It was a very busy street, full of bars, restaurants etc – heaps of people and still motorbikes forcing their way through the crowd. The particular bar we sat at was a small place, which was actually the home of an older woman and her family – she sold beer (including her own brew for about $0.25 a glass… Not the best thing I’ve tasted – but the price was right!) For a bottle of something like Tiger, it went right up to the high price of about $1. Woah!
All in all, a great night – a very Hanoi experience at the bar, and socialising with an old friend and some new friends.
After 2 nights in Hanoi I went to Cat Ba Island – it’s the biggest island in the Halong Bay, which is a world famous bay with amazing scenery. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of Halong Bay, even if you don’t know the name – it’s one of the most famous sights in Vietnam. Anyway, I decided not to go to the famous place that’s expensive, full of tourists and people trying to rip you off. I went to Cat Ba Island instead, which has some beaches to relax and swim in, and some lovely restaurants etc.
Cat Ba was still very touristy, and much more expensive than Hanoi – but I’m glad I made the choice to go there instead of Halong City. You can still do tours out to see the bay and all the dramatic cliffs etc – but I decided not to. I was enjoying my own company and exploring the island myself – I had no interest in spending the money to go on an organised tour which I usually am not a fan of anyway.
One day on the island, I hired a motorbike and explored the island myself – it was great fun and all up very cheap, it cost $5 for the motorbike for the whole day, and $3 in petrol. I drove a circuit of the island, stopping at Hospital Cave – a large cave that was used as a hospital during the war(s), and the National Park to go on a hike for a couple of hours to an amazing view point of the mountains and jungle – hard work, but totally worth it! I also got to a boat dock where I was offered a 1 hour boat ride out to Halong Bay for $15, which I almost did – but decided against, and kept exploring the island myself on the motorbike.
That evening I went to the beach, and relaxed in the cool ocean for a while which was amazing. I’ve missed swimming in the ocean – I grew up at the beach in a small town a few hours south of Sydney and always feel relaxed and happy when I’m in a nice country beach. I had a few beers at the beachside bar, watching the sun go down before going for an early night.
The next day, I woke up and my left eye was sore and red and gross. eeww I figured I must have got some dirt or something in it while riding the motorbike and/or while swimming the day before. I wasn’t too worried, and figured it would get better by itself in a day or so (hahaha)
I spent the day walking around Cat Ba Town, exploring the back streets, markets etc and of course spending a few hours at the beach (and beach bar).
My eye was much worse when I woke up the next morning – painful and could hardly open it, and the right eye was starting as well. I went to a pharmacy and got antibiotic eye drops and antibiotic tablets – heaps of fun! Over the next few days it got worse, and the infection spread so I had a sore throat, felt sick and tired. And of course, my birthday in Luang Prabang, Laos and I didn’t feel up to doing anything. haha oh well, was an excuse to have a lazy few days! Anyway, it’s now about a week later, I’ve finished my antibiotics and I’m almost 100% better – my left eye is still a bit red and weepy now and then and gets tired faster than normal, but I’m sure that’ll be back to normal soon.
But I skip ahead!
I got a bus back to Hanoi… Oh, and about this – If you’re travelling between Hanoi and Cat Ba, I recommend you use Hoang Long – a bus company that does the entire end to end trip. Most others take you from Hanoi to the town you get the boat to Cat Ba Island, and then get another bus to Cat Ba Town – 3 separate journeys that you have to negotiate separately with different people and different companies. Hoang Long does the whole way with their own company’s busses and boats – you get on a bus and they drive you to their boat, then when you get off their boat on the island, another one of their busses is waiting to take you to Cat Ba Town… Everyone on the bus is doing the same trip, and the company ensures you all get there. They even noticed when some people went missing and we stopped until they managed to catch up (they went to the toilet when we got off the boat without realising the bus was leaving immediately. The bus leaves Luong Yen bus station, and you can buy your tickets there if you want, or do as I did and get your hotel to organise it for you the day before. This costs a bit more, as they add their commission, but I think it’s worth it – if you just show up to the bus station you run the risk of the bus being full, or going at a different time without changing their advertising. If you go to the bus station the day before to buy your ticket in advance, then you end up paying the extra in taxi fares anyway! The way back, it’s easy to buy the bus ticket the day before from the Hong Long office, as it’s right there in the centre of the Main Street where you’ll be anyway. It’s about 5 hours each way, including the 2 busses and the boat.
Once back in Hanoi, I went back to the same hotel I was in before but as it was only 1 night, I decided to get a dorm bed for $5 instead of a private room for $13… I regret this decision and will not do another dorm on this trip! SE Asia is cheap enough to get privates. At about 6am, a drunk American guy came back to the dorm and woke us up… Then the hotel guy came up because the guy had not paid his taxi driver and the driver was downstairs refusing to leave until he got paid! They had a disagreement, getting louder and louder until people started telling them off. The drunk guy didn’t make much sense and clearly had no idea what was going on. Gladly the hotel guy eventually gave up and left. Not sure how it all played out, as I left early the next morning while he was still fast asleep.
I had to go to Hanoi airport for my flight to Luang Prabang, Laos – there is a airport minibus to the airport which is run by Vietnam Airways, which leaves from just a few minutes walk from my hotel and costs $2 for the 45 min – 1 hour drive. You can get a taxi for about $15 apparently. I got the minibus, which was fine except that it doesn’t leave until full so I was sitting in the minibus for over half an hour before it left and was starting to get nervous that I wouldn’t get to the airport in time. In the end, it left and I got there in plenty of time – moral of the story is always leave plenty of time when going to the airport – especially when you’re in places as relaxed as SE Asia.