On the Rocks – Hanoi & Cat Ba

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Our entry to Vietnam did not appear, as the locals would say, auspicious. It’s not possible to enter the country without either a valid visa, or a letter authorising you to apply for a visa on entry. We dutifully acquired said letter, but overlooked that the Vietnamese authorities had left one letter out of Loz’s name. As a consequence, we were almost denied boarding of our flight to Hanoi, and went through a tense ten minutes as the desk agent consulted with his supervisor. Once on the ground and transferred to our hotel, Loz managed to lock us out of our bathroom in the middle of the night, and we had to call the hotel staff in with a screwdriver at 5am.

All that resolved, our start in Vietnam went rather well. We were staying in the Old Quarter of the city for two nights, which meant only one full day of action-packed sightseeing. Vietnam is like China in that a lot of life takes place on the street, and one of the star attractions in Hanoi is, of course, the street food. The pavements (where not crammed with scooters) are covered in plastic tables and tiny stools where you can sit down at a stall or a bia ho’i (draught beer) stand and join in. We did so, eating cheap, delicious pho at a bia ho’i joint on Pho Cam Chi, an alley lined with them. In general, though, the street food of northern Vietnam is tragically unsuited to the vegetarian; I plan to remedy this by taking a veggie street-food tour in Ho Chi Minh City. Above all, though, Hanoi is the city of the motorbike and scooter; they easily outnumber cars, especially in the Old Quarter. The essence of Vietnam has to be taking a ride on a xe om, motorbike taxi; they’re everywhere, and a very cheap way of nipping around town.

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We started our day by visiting Hoan Kien lake, and the Ngoc Son temple in the middle of it, where a giant preserved tortoise holds court over a Confucian/Taoist temple. The story goes that a large golden tortoise stole the precious sword given to King Le Thai To by the turtle god during the Minh wars. Afterwards, we wandered through the Temple of Literature, where what we initially thought might be a large wedding group turned out to be a graduation. The women were all wearing the traditional ao dai, which I love; a tunic almost like an Indian kurta, but with a high mandarin collar and a hem which reaches to mid-calf. We followed this with a trip to the Fine Arts Museum. Having visited so many museums between here and Moscow, it’s fascinating, now, to feel that we can trace the influences of India, Tibet, and China all mingling in the art. China is the strongest and most obvious cultural influence, but unmistakable traces from the former Hindu kingdom of Champa also linger. The modern art was fascinating; the shadows of the wars of the 20th century loomed heavily. The art seemed to me to have almost a sarcastic sense of humour at times – a painting of a tank rolling down a road was titled, “Spring sunshine in the year 1975” – but I wondered later if this was less sarcasm than a battle-weary stoicism. And everywhere is ‘Uncle Ho’; his likeness, his wise words. (Vietnamese pride is strong and everywhere; every junk, pleasure-boat and pier in Lan Ha bay flies the red-starred flag.) We rounded off the day with a visit to the Museum of Ethnology, a fascinating tour of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups, with their rich, elaborate textiles and often pick’n’mix approach to religion; Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements mixed with a healthy amount of animism.

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We were, and are, a little burnt out on bustling cities, though, so the next day we headed east into the Gulf of Tonkin for Cat Ba island. One of Vietnam’s deservedly famous attractions is the huge limestone karsts that dot the green water of Halong Bay; they have even allegedly featured in a Bond film. However, this has meant that the waters are also overcrowded, so we took the decision to head to Cat Ba, which is itself a craggy island mostly comprised of national park, to see equally beautiful but far less touristed Lan Ha Bay. We spent some time just relaxing and swimming, but also trekked through the national park, spending a morning scrambling over rough volcanic rock until we reached the village of Viet Hai, where we had lunch at the kind of tiny village restaurant where there is no menu, the owners simply bring you several plates of fresh food. We took a xe om to the harbour and sailed through the karsts, landing on a strip of pristine, isolated sand to swim. The next day, we extended our visit in order to kayak with a group through the karsts, paddling through low rocky arches into completely exposed lagoons, and examining the Dragon’s Throat, where water rushes through a limestone cave at high tide with a roaring sound. We met an Australian couple on our group who demonstrated our good luck in taking care to get a well-recommended bus/ferry ticket to the island; their bus driver had switched off the engine in an isolated spot and demanded more money to carry on, before bringing a snake onto the bus and using it to threaten the passengers. We’ve yet to be shaken down by anyone here, likely because we are decently informed as to the key scams, but it definitely pays to know who you’re travelling with.

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We took the same bus/ferry combo back to Hanoi for a final few hours before a night train south beckoned, and spent it touring the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ – Hoa Lo, the French-built prison in which first Vietnamese dissidents and later American pilots were kept. In general, the prison is unashamedly hammy, with ominous sound effects and deliberately weak bulbs, and with a thick veneer of propaganda laid over the descriptions. The Communist dissidents are presented as unwaveringly noble and cultured; stress is laid on the supposedly dignified and kind treatment given to the American pilots, with exhibits heavy on pictures of them eating Christmas dinner or playing ping-pong. Pride of place is given to the tattered flight suit and parachute belonging to John McCain when he was shot down over Hanoi. After that, it was to the station, for our overnight train to Hué.

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