If an airport is a reflection of the destination city, then Hanoi is going to be a challenge. It is a throwback to the seventies with lino flooring, escalators that don’t work, yellowing walls and cardboard-constructed immigration booths manned by officials dressed in soviet-style uniforms. The capital’s airport had two baggage belts serving both domestic and international flights and luggage trolleys that crab sideways.
And it does reflect the destination in most aspects except that the city has a charm that its airport singularly lacks. Hanoi (literally meaning city surrounded by water) has a grand-old-dame atmosphere to it as if set in a time warp, a bit shabby and tattered around the edges but still graceful. Its communist master has not put a bulldozer though it like many of the region’s capitals so that the city evolves slowly at its own pace rather than in response to a grand plan.
I suspect that this is mostly because public spending appears to be almost nonexistent: the roads may be paved (mostly with concrete) but they are complete with bumps and dips that make a journey uncomfortable and the public trains are sufficiently poor quality that private operators run their own alternatives. Outside the city, the electricity is unreliable, being prone to come and go as if the grid is run by naughty schoolboys.
There were a number of other first impressions: the humidity being one. The temperature is not that high, (maybe low thirties) but the humidity makes for a very uncomfortable companion. Our first full day in Hanoi saw us wandering around the old city absorbing the sights, people and atmosphere but it was not long before I was perspiring profusely and feeling distinctly ill at ease. The words began to ring in my head: ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.’ In the following days, despite being determined to venture out only in the morning and evening, we failed miserably to learn our lesson. Copious amounts of water were consumed instead.
By all accounts, land here is expensive for the locals so when they manage to get their hands on a strip they construct buildings that are tall and narrow. Typically twenty metres wide but four or five floors high probably finishing only when the money runs dry or the extended family is thoroughly consumed within the structure. In the city, rows of these dwellings, like tall terraced town houses, look perfectly normal (although we have not come across this common type of building in other countries) but outside the city, we often encounter flat land punctuated by the odd narrow strip of a home that appears to be completely out of place.
The other aspect that is not simply Hanoi but Vietnam in general is the motorbikes. They are everywhere, flitting around in seemingly random fashion and as welcome to pedestrians as fleas and just as irritating. They don’t stop for anyone or anything. As a visitor, we soon learn that standing at a pedestrian crossing in the expectation that traffic will stop merely marks us out as newly arrived tourists (and marked as fresh meat for touts, hawkers and other irritants) and the only way to cross the road is to take our life in our hands and launch ourselves into the path of the swarm of traffic. There are few traffic signals in the city and any thoughts that this is a safer place to cross the road is soon dispelled: traffic is not halted in both directions, it is not confined by a line in the centre of the road and the more kamikaze-minded road users don’t feel the need to obey traffic signals and charge through lights without slowing. However, rather like an embarrassing rash, we kind of get used to it all.
Unable to beat them, we eventually, joined them, hiring ourselves a small motorbike and plunging into the torrent of traffic. Of course, we were warned not to do it but we are intrepid explorers seeking out new experiences and, anyway, what could go wrong? It was great fun. I did the driving, the weaving, the cursing, the angry fist and, most importantly, operated the horn. Debbie did the navigating, shouting instructions, using her arms as indicators and acting as the rear view mirror. As a team we worked perfectly. Like a well-oiled drunk we staggered among the most dangerous traffic and escaped without a scratch. Some might say it was a guardian angel that protected us but I prefer to believe in our own talent and skill.
Returning to the plight of the pedestrian, it’s not just crossing the road that provides a challenge. Try walking anywhere and the chances are that half the walk will have to be done in the road. The pavements being blocked by parked bikes and/or cars, or construction work, or people sitting around, or people eating, or goods on display, or hawkers/touts/scavengers and other scallywags. Even people riding bikes. Altogether, hiring a bike and taking to the road is probably only marginally more risky than walking.
For what is billed as a grand old city, Hanoi has remarkably few sights. In the ‘new’ city, it amounts to the museum (boring), the One Pillar Pagoda (designed to represent a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity, rising from a sea of sorrow), the Presidential Palace (boring) and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum where the embalmed corpse of Uncle Ho (as the people call him) lies in a glass sarcophagus and can be viewed year round except for the period of annual maintenance when the body is spirited off to Russia.
The ‘old’ city contrasts with the new in that the streets and buildings are narrow, the roads buzzing with bikes and the air rich in exotic scents and spices. At night, it is positively heaving with people eating, walking, talking either on foot or on motorized transport. In the early morning, as we discovered when marching back from an overnight train journey, it is full of people exercising: jogging, playing badminton or, mostly, formation dancing around the lake or down the pavements.
The lake, known as Ho Hoan Kiem (lake of the restored sword) is the liquid heart of the old quarter. Legend has it that, in the mid 15th century, heaven gave Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword that he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day, after the war was won, while out boating, he came across a giant golden tortoise that grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake, thus returning the sword to its divine owners. Any suggestion that he may have dropped it while mucking about will be referred to lawyers Sue, Grabbit and Run.
In fact, Hanoi is so devoid of interesting tourist sites that the multitudinous ‘travel agencies’, that account for probably one fifth of the old quarter shops, concentrate on sending their clients out of town. So we joined the exiting throng on a two night trip to Ha Long Bay off the east coast of Vietnam.
It’s the seascape equivalent of Yuangshuo in Guangxi Province in Southern China (where we were 2 weeks ago) and similar to Krabi in Thailand (but much more spectacular). It is geology gone wild, bizarre and beautiful with hundreds of limestone karsts (pinnacles) protruding from the green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The karsts look like the back of a dinosaur or a dragon, rising in a triangulated point from calm waters. Each protrusion is cloaked in green vegetation and pock marked with caves, grottoes and arches created over thousands of years by the eroding elements.
Appropriately, Ha Long means ‘where the dragon runs into the sea’ as legend has it that the islands of the bay were created by a marauding dragon as it ran from the mountains into the sea, creating havoc to the landscape as it went. It shows great imagination on the part of the early inhabitants who obviously knew a thing or two about marketing and the tourist trade. The work has been taken up by the modern day tourist guides who have named many of the shaped pinnacles and outcrops: ‘look!’ they cry, ‘there is two cocks fighting.’
‘Nope, can’t see that.’
‘You must use your imagination.’
“Whoever saw that must have been on the rice Wine.’
Our ‘cruise’ was on a junk named ‘Hanoi Opera’, one of the more elegant and well appointed of the countless junks bobbing about in the water. However, in horse power it was the same as all the others, pushing through the waters at glacial pace. The reason I put the word cruise in inverted commas is because it took the boat two hours to inch its way to the start of the karst seascape about 5 miles off the coast. Whereupon it ground to an exhausted halt, throwing out the anchor and serving luncheon whilst we listened to the operatic charms of top pop hits from decades past. To complete our musical enjoyment, they served lunch slowly, one plate at a time. In such a beautiful setting in which nature flaunted all its charm, it was rather bizarre to be forced to listen to ‘Itsy bitsy polka dot bikini’. But it could simply be me stuck in the decadent, dogmatic cultural misogynist traditions of a waning imperialist power.
In the afternoon, we were shipped off to a limestone cave that had several large chambers resplendent with dripping stalactites and dog-tooth stalagmites. We have seen lots of caves during our travels and this was not one of the better ones. The all powerful authorities had seen fit, for our own safety and enjoyment, to remove many of the natural formations to make way for a paved walkway. The resulting debris of millions of years of natural rock formation had been piled up in a corner.
We were also promised a two person kayak to explore the area for ourselves but this was cancelled because it was too popular. So we adjourned to the tranquility of the mother ship where we had the frustration of trying to learn how to make fiddly little spring rolls. This activity is plainly not suited to someone whose fingers struggle to work a keyboard let alone a chopping board and, in any case, it is a task best suited to a sous chef rather than an executive chef like myself.
The next morning, we were put on to a little boat that had a one cylinder diesel engine to make the two hour transfer to Cat Ba Island. It was the best bit of cruising so far as we slipped through the emerald green waters, between the great, towering pinnacles that rise perpendicular to the sea, in glorious early morning sunshine. We sat on the upper deck, sipping coca cola, enjoying the scenery, watching the activities of fishermen hauling their catch, while discussing just how safe and clean the green sea is for swimming. Apart from the noise of countless small craft that sounded like a pack of Harley Davidsons, it was a wonderful ride.
This day was Debbie’s birthday so I had booked us into a nice beach side hotel which had a massive 3-star rating (you know me, I don’t hold back when it comes to spoiling my wife) but before we were allowed to check in we had the option of climbing up to a look-out point on top of one of the island’s many hills. I did not expect Debbie to want to take on an hour’s exertion in this heat and humidity but, to my surprise, she was keen. So off we went, laden with our body weight in water and cameras at the ready. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves scrambling over wet rock and scaling iron ladders that had been successfully attacked by rust. Some of the steps were missing and much of the handrails had disappeared leaving wobbly lengths of metal waving in the air. We were accompanied on our trip by a Chinese girl who was dressed in a frou frou skirt, frilly top and trainers with built-in high heels. It was a triumph of fashion over practicality that exacted a high price in lost footholds, muddy smears and general dishevelment. I got the impression she was not enjoying herself.
When we reached the top, there was a look-out tower about 30-metres high, made from the same rusty metal as the ladders that we had negotiated on the ascent. When the wind blew the entire structure creaked and groaned and twanged liked an old pair of knees. It did not look particularly safe and our Chinese friend refused to set foot on it. However, we plucky Brits went up, treading with trepidation, hoping that my great weight was not going to lead to a catastrophic structural failure. I am sure that for a twenty-something, it would have been an adrenalin junky’s dream but, for a marginally middle-aged fart, it was nerve-wracking.
The top of the tower proved disappointing. The views covered 360 degrees but all we could see was more hills like the one we were on, covered in thick green vegetation. It was not a bad view of course but it was a poor reward for the effort and perspiration expended (by this time, all my clothes were drenched and the sweat was cascading off me like a human waterfall).
With all our water gone, we were grateful to get into the cool of our hotel room. Having stripped off, showered and lunched, we spent the afternoon on the beach, under an umbrella, drinking mocktails, reading. This was more like it. The only disruption to the sound of the South China Sea beating upon the shore was when Debbie spotted a snake swimming in the sea. It looked like the periscope of a small submarine with its head held out of the water parallel to the sea. It managed to beach itself just below us. It was about a metre and a half long and a white/brown colour. I wondered over to the bar and suggested that they might like to remove this unwanted guest who plainly had no money to pay for a stay at this august establishment. The ensuing commotion was so noisy that the snake decided to return to the sea and threw itself through the surf and back out to relative safety. It could shift through the water at an impressive rate. For some time, we could see it swimming about before we lost sight of it amongst the rollers. Suddenly, swimming was off our agenda.
So we went for a Vietnamese massage instead. I was given a small pair of swimmers to cover my modesty and left to lie on a masseuse’s table until the treatment began. In came a tiny girl who could not have been more than four and a half feet tall and would struggle to tip the scales at 40 kg. ‘Excellent,’ I thought, ‘I can have a snooze whilst my body is stroked.’ No chance of that. The girl climbed on the bed and attacked my body using both hands and feet in what felt like an assault marginally short of GBH (grievous bodily harm). Whenever a limb was being pulled from its socket or my back was being bent the wrong way, she would laugh at my lack of flexibility. At least that’s what I assumed was so amusing. However, when she had finished and I no longer had to worry what was coming next, I felt remarkably relaxed and supple. At US$12 for an hour’s ‘treatment’, it was excellent value for money. A perfect treat for Debbie’s birthday!
We returned to Hanoi in the morning after another trip around the islands of Ha Long Bay. It had been an interesting and fun couple of days and a relief from the oppressive heat of the city to which we had to return before moving once again.