Arrival in Hanoi

They played surreal, remixed, poor quality Vietnamese music videos on the bus having crossed the border. It didn't take me long to feel like sticking screwdrivers through my eardrums rather than listen any longer. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I didn't put my headphones in and listen to some Aqua or Britney Spears. I can only assume I was somehow brainwashed by the shockingly bad singing and psychedelic videos.

Arriving in Hanoi makes it all worthwhile though. Aside from being physically accosted by 'moto' and taxi drivers as soon as I stepped off the bus, I was happy to get here. As it turns out, I didn't actually have a clue where 'here' was, so I did end up taking a moto (a ride on the back of a motorbike for a small fare) to my hostel. That alone was an experience in itself, the place is massive and packed full of backpackers from all over using the bar, restaurant and computers there. I could barely hear the girl checking me in down in the reception area, quite a change from others I've been in where it's just me and a few other people!

I'm staying in the Old Quarter, and when you step out on the narrow streets you had better have your wits about you, or you'll easily get hit by a car or a motorbike. The pavements aren't actually pavements, they're simply used as motorbike parking. Pedestrians effectively walk in the gutter, bicycles and motorbikes are slightly further over and cars/vans/buses occupy the middle.

There will regularly be occasions where you have to stop walking as there's no more room left in the road when a car comes through, and the motorbikes divert around it directly into your path. For this reason I tend to prefer walking on the left hand side of the road so I can see the traffic coming at me and if necessary jump out of the way accordingly!

Hoan Kiem Lake is in the historical centre of Hanoi, and is generally a good place to start sightseeing and getting your bearings from. Turtle Tower stands in the middle of the lake, and further along you have the Temple of the Jade Mountain also on its own island:

It was while I was down at the lake having a well earned rest on a bench that I got chatting to a Chinese girl named Vicki. She was staying in Hanoi with a friend for a short while and had already been wandering around the city getting lost for a couple of days (her sense of direction is woeful) but still enjoying herself all the same! We ended up hanging out together for the next few days, going on tours and checking out the city.

We first went on a day trip to Hoa Lu, which used to be the capital of Vietnam before Hanoi. We visited temples which were built for emperors Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh, their sons, and Queen Duong Van Nga. This was all very nice, it's just a shame you couldn't walk ten metres without a local trying to sell you hats, drinks or fans.

After the temples we had lunch, which was a buffet style affair. I tried some fried, roasted and grilled goat. I wimped out the first time around, but got some on my next plateful. It actually wasn't all that bad, tasted like chicken (not really).

After lunch we took a short drive to the village of Tam Coc, where we boarded small rowing boats and took a trip along the river, passing under three limestone tunnels. Look closely and you'll see these villagers rowing with their FEET. I have no words to describe how awesome they are. They were proper cheeky buggers though, we had already been advised by the guide that a tip is appropriate, so we had ready 20,000 dong each (there were two ladies rowing our boat). Instead of waiting for us to turn round after the end of the ride, they forcefully prodded us in our backs and demanded "tip, tip!". We handed the two notes over, advising there was one for each lady, and one of them tried keeping both then asking for more! We politely refused.

The next day we visited Hoa Lo Prison, sarcastically referred to as the 'Hanoi Hilton' by US prisoners of war who were imprisoned there. Most of the prison was demolished, but what remains has been made into a museum, there are also some of the original cells. The museum made a point of emphasising how well treated the American POW's were during their stay at the facility, but apparently torture was commonplace. It was a very sobering place, with an eerie atmosphere to it, especially looking into the cells through the old spy holes in the door.

That night we went to a Korean restaurant where you cooked your own food at the table. I had never been to a place like this before, and it was a really fun experience (if a little hot!). The food tasted lovely, all thanks to pro chef Vicki:

It may sound a little odd visiting a Korean restaurant in Vietnam, but I'd never been and just fancied a change. I'd had no shortage of Vietnamese food by this stage, and it tastes amazing. My favourites are Pho, which is basically a noodle soup which you can have with chicken or beef, and Bun Cha which is skewered pork served with noodles and a tasty soup thing again which you put some of the noodles into, along with some of the pork, then some salad (don't ask me what, just green leaves!) and eat all together. Repeat the process. It tastes delicious! I don't have any pictures though. Mental note, start taking photos of my food.

We also visited the army museum, which I unfortunately didn't get any photos of. But they did have some nice old planes and tanks and things to wander around. They also had the wreckage of a bomber which was shot down during the war.

Vicki had to go back to Beijing the next day, where she's studying. She had already extended her stay longer than she'd originally intended anyway, so had no choice but to go back. I booked the next tour for myself for the following day, to Halong Bay.

This was a two day, one night tour, sleeping on the boat. You get picked up from Hanoi and driven to the harbour where you sail out to Bai Tu Long Bay - a quiet part of Halog Bay where only one or two companies are licensed to go. I deliberately chose this, as while it was slightly more expensive I thought it'd be worth the money.

You get to visit Thien Canh Son Cave, go kayaking for a few hours, swim from a white sandy beach for around an hour and the next day visit Vung Vieng floating fishing village before returning to Hanoi.

This has probably been my favourite thing so far. The boat was POSH, the kayaking was so much fun, the scenery was fantastic and lying out on the deck at night under the stars with nothing but silence and a nice cold beer was so relaxing.

The people were also very cool, there was only sixteen in total so it was easy to get chatting with everyone. I was sat on a table with three people from Melbourne (Des, Rhonda and their son, Phil), as I was on my own and so it made up a four. Des actually managed to pick up Irish in my voice, I couldn't quite believe it and I'm still not actually sure how this is possible. My Dad's side of the family is Irish, but I've lived in England all my life, how does that work?!

Just a bit nicer than my hostel dorm!
Our guide, Son...
Des, Rhonda and Phil...

I leave you with my tip of the trip so far. Don't leave your debit card in an ATM. They're useful to help you get cash, which in turn helps you to live. Luckily I bought a spare card which I'm getting money with, but I'm paying a charge, the one I lost was free.

In fairness, it's not my fault! The machines here are the opposite to the UK, cash first, THEN card. Stupid ATM. Phoned the bank to cancel the card and a replacement was ordered. My parents have received it back at home so now it's just working out the best way to get it sent out here! What a pain in the arse.