With Summer making an appearance it is making me long for another chance to go travelling, I thought I would share some of my visions of Northern Vietnam and maybe inspire a bit of wanderlust amongst you.
Vietnam was the first pin drop on our tour of SE Asia, so we pretty much went in straight at the deep end, so if your thinking of going there be prepared to be fully immersed into Asian culture. Although there are definitely some Western influences, they generally tend to be kept to the South, but don’t be expecting a Starbucks with your noodles.
Our first stop and first culture shock. I had never experienced anything quite like it; a lot of mix matched buildings along side each other, every corner housing small (and I literally mean small – as in kids size tables) “restaurants” for locals – the kitchen being a couple of small pots that they would be heating up right there on the street from small gas cylinders or even just small bins with a fire in them. The roads themselves were chaotic, rules of the road don’t really apply here – or anywhere in Vietnam in general. As a pedestrian you just have to hold your nerve and cross the road and trust the swarming mopeds and the occasional car or van to avoid you. I can gladly say that just after a few days of this you just get used to it and therefore screaming and cursing is then kept to a minimum, well its either that or you just don’t cross a road.
Also good luck trying to stay walking along the pavements, they just tend to be ongoing parking bays for the hundred of bikes.
To go a bit history geek on you…
Obviously Vietnam has a lot of history and therefore has more than a few monuments of it’s many wars. The most recent and potentially the most well known is of course the “American War”. Travelling from North to South gives interestingly very different perspectives of the War.
To give a brief overview the north scarcely mentions the old southern government of Vietnam to whose aid the Americans came but only mentioned the brutality of the US. The South by comparison acknowledges the involvement of both the south Vietnamese and the Americans against the northern communists lead by Ho Chi Minh.
The whole country now therefore pay the up most respect to Ho Chi Minh after the communist’s victory, with statues and portraits of him in abundance and his face on the national bank notes. This love for their leader was particularly apparent in Hanoi where his preserved body is kept in a very grand and well protected mausoleum.
Hanoi was a busy city, but once you have done the main sites, I.e. The mausoleum, some war museums, the lake etc there is not an awful lot to do other than just wander around (particularly around the old quarter), eat the local cuisine and soak up the culture.
Halong bay (Cat Ba Island)
Halong bay is probably one of the most famous places in Vietnam, purely for its sheer beauty. Unfortunately for us the weather was not fab so we probably didn’t get to see it in its full splendor, but if you ask me a bit of fog around the many small islands dotted around the bay made it look pretty epic, additionally it didn’t really seem to make a difference to the beautiful turquoise waters.
Most people when exploring this beautiful bay choose to spend one night on a boat and then return to the mainland, we however opted to spend a few nights on Cat Ba, one of the largest islands in the bay. Cat Ba is a jungle filled mountainous island, blessed with astounding views of the surrounding bay. However the main/only town on this island has become somewhat of a tiny replica costa del sol, with its main redeeming quality of exceptionally fresh fish served at each restaurant. But if your looking for some authentic charm on the island you may have to wander outwards towards the market and surrounding villages.
To do the mandatory exploration of the Halong bay, we organised a private tour (through one of the restaurants – if your looking for a helpful tip)
We hopped aboard one of the many dinky little fishing boats, where the driver gave us a 5 hour tour of one of the most beautiful sites that I have ever seen. Although it was rather wet, it was incredible.
After taking us through a maze of the islands we stopped off in a small floating village, where a number of people and to our surprise even a few dogs lived. From the floating cafe which had filled us up with tea, and their speciality of weasel poo coffee…(Jonny drank this, not me…I don’t even drink regular coffee let alone poop coffee) we jumped into a kayak to go and explore some of the beautiful scenery ourselves.
View from the floating café
Hue was our next stop in Vietnam; t’was quite a journey from Cat Ba Island to this town of a crumbling citadel – one of which I would not care to repeat.
(So a word of caution to those planning on doing this route in the future – potentially go back to Hanoi and get a bus or train down from there. This was our first experience of a sleeper bus, having been on more since I can safely say I think we were extremely unlucky in our choice of bus. Cramped buses filled with tiny bunkbeds, some literally nearly on top of each other and some “mattresses” in the aisles. This I could deal with, yes it was cramped and rather stinky, yes people had to clamber over the beds to go to the toilet to avoid the people on the floor and yes it took 19 hours instead of the intended 12. This I could deal with. What made it much more difficult, was the rather unwell old woman who was more than a little incontinent. The toilet on this bus was typical a Vietnamese “squat hole” – this old woman could not clearly not squat. I don’t think I need to say too much more, other than remember to pack your nose plugs as well as ear plugs.)
Moving on to the much more appealing city of Hue. The city itself is famed for the decaying citadel, built way back in 1804, which although had clear fractures from US bombings was still a place of beauty. Within the walled streets of the citadel are an abundance of coffee shops and small market stalls surrounding the lakes and canals. Upon further exploration we found that there is another citadel within the citadel – named the Forbidden Purple City which served to be the home to the emperor in previous decades.
We wondered around the citadels until our feet ached and naturally had to stop of for tea.
And take in the view.
For further posts on Vietnam which will include my personal favourite, Hoi An, stay tuned.