It had to be that as a title didn’t it? Of course it did. Even if you’ve not seen the film (I haven’t) you’ve heard that phrase. And my first introduction to Vietnam getting off the bus in Dien Bien Phu and being hounded by taxi drivers. Now, this is normal for countries in Asia, so I’m used to it, but after two weeks in laid back Laos I’d forgotten how in your face it can be, and starts before you’ve even stepped off the steps or got your bag. Where you go? Taxi? I have taxi. You want taxi? Constantly. You get the idea. We knew we were going to be getting an overnight sleeper bus to Hanoi in a few hours so there was no need to panic or need to take any of these good men up on their offers. We just had to fight our way through the melee.
Sleeper bus tickets bartered down and paid for, we got on the bus to find it was an actual sleeper coach. All the night buses I’ve been on in lots of different countries have always either been just normal buses or buses with slightly more reclinable (is that a word? Not sure it is) seats with a blanket. This one had proper jazzy little beds, proper pillows and blankets. The ticket also got us food, a strange little stop at about 9pm in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere with platefuls of grub, our first intro to the world of Vietnamese cuisine. The bus also had disco lights and the way of being woken up at 5am, 10 minutes before getting to Hanoi, was to start the disco lights flashing and play burst-your-eardrums-loud techno music. Definitely the most interesting wake up call I’ve had for a while.
Arriving in Hanoi at 5am in the morning led to pretty much the same barrage from taxi drivers, in fact it was probably about x100. But, we were in no rush to get anywhere. We had an idea of where we needed to head to but, it was 5am, still really early. In the end, we found we could get a local bus to nearby where we wanted to go, for about 1/10th of the price of a taxi, so we hopped on the number 34 and watched early morning Hanoi go by. HA! Take that, pushy taxi drivers! Tourists-1, taxi drivers-0.
Hanoi is lovely. We stayed here for nearly 5 days and very much enjoyed the vibe of the city. It was noisy and busy, but with an unmistakeable energy. Filled to the brim with scooters and noisy horns, windy maze-like roads that even after 4 days we were still getting lost in. There’s a French quarter that’s distinctly, well, French, and an old quarter that’s pretty, well, old. We spent a couple of days walking* around the city and just soaking up the atmosphere. Enjoying the sunshine and the fact it wasn’t too humid. Actually just lovely temperatures to just stroll around. We went to find the bits of the B-52 bomber that fell in a lake and hasn’t been moved. It’s in a very unassuming place; a small lake in the middle of a residential area. No signs, no memorial, just a bit of a plane. But, it’s actually quite moving. Quite impactive, mainly because of the simplicity.
We went to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Nick couldn’t get in because he was wearing hot pants. Ok, so not actually hot pants, but shorts above his knees. So, I went in. I have to admit, I don’t really know much about Ho Chi Minh yet, but it was rather strange, trooping in with lots of Vietnamese locals, and seeing him there, lying, all lit up. I’ve not really seen a dead body before, so it was a bit of a first for me. Apparently, it had been closed for 2 months for new embalming, and had only opened that day. So I felt quite privileged.
We also went to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This is the sarcastic nickname that was given to Hoa Lo prison by American prisoners of war when they were held there in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s. It’s a museum now, and a lot of it has been built over, but there’s a lot of information on the French use in the early 1900’s. The bit that interested us about the American prisoners was just within two rooms; but it was very heavily propagandised, and had to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt. I found it surprising, after all this time that it is still rife. But, it’s only nearly 40 years, it’s not really that long at all I guess. The war is something I want to learn more about, and throughout my travels in Vietnam so far I’m seeing and learning different things. But, I’m also concious of the propaganda. So, I’ve added it to my list of things to learn more about with my own research. There’s a few documentaries I’ve been recommended which have gone onto my list of things to watch, and some books I want to read. After all my travels I will have enough things to keep me busy for months, and that’s before I get a job, haha. That’s one thing I’m loving about travelling. All the learning, education and the opening of my eyes to things that happened in our world that I had no idea about. It’s so easy to live in a bubble and be so completely blind and ignorant to the rest of the world. So, so easy.
One of the best things about Hanoi though is Bia Hoi. A wonderful invention. Cheap draft beer in little roadside bars, all over Hanoi. Couple this with boiled monkey nuts (which are a bit like little miniature minty potatoes) and a bit of sunshine and you have one of my favourite memories of Vietnam so far. One Tuesday afternoon, after a very busy morning walking lots of miles, Nick and I decided to treat ourselves to some beers and nuts. We found a spot in the sunshine, looking out onto a junction and settled down for the afternoon. I swear we didn’t move for about 5 hours, and spent about £3.00 each. For many beers, nuts and a lifetime of memories.
And, a never-to-forget moment from Hanoi was the pig on a scooter incident. Now, I’ve seen some scooter sights on this trip. Anything you can think of on a scooter, you’ll see it, and more. But the best one so far, yet to be surpassed, was a whole dead pig, trotters nearly trailing on the ground. There was the guy sat on top of the many bags of rice/sand/whatever it was, or the fridge, or the wardrobe, or the chickens in baskets, or the wheelbarrows. But none of them can beat the pig.
It was a bit of a wrench to leave Hanoi, as we’d got quite comfortable there. Our hotel was lovely, a bit of a treat, even though we weren’t paying over the odds for it (less than £3 each a night), but it had a hot shower, air conditioning, awesome beds and breakfast. We felt very posh. We had a lovely shop just round the corner where we could get everything we needed, a Bia Hoi corner just up the road and a great noodle place down the road. What else did we need? But, the time came to move on. This time to Ninh Binh, a small town about 2.5 hours south of Hanoi. We decided to get super cheap (hard seats) on the train. Wooden seats. The most authentic, I like to think. It was only a couple of hours, and what a lovely couple of hours. The carriage was filled with the most interesting characters, and the scenery flashing past us gave us a flavour of what real Vietnam was like out there.
Ninh Binh itself doesn’t really have a lot going on; it’s not a major tourist destination, just a working town. Which maybe is why we liked it. Not many people spoke English, and all the kids loved shouting hello and waving when we walked past. Not many westerners, a bit off the beaten track. I like this kind of travelling. Wandering round, seeing what’s going on. Watching people just living their lives – seeing how they interact, how they raise their families. We can learn a lot from other people. We hired bikes one day though and cycled out to a place called Tam Coc which is a bit of a tourist destination. It’s like a smaller, land locked version of Halong Bay (which we never went to). We hired a boat and got rowed out (by people rowing with their feet- that was a bit interesting to watch – it actually seemed quite efficient) between limestone karsts and into caves. A lovely, peaceful, serene experience, without hoards of tourists. Perfect. Follow it up with more biking in amazing scenery=a Bloody Good Day.
One thing I am noticing about Vietnam though, is how many people try to rip you off because you’re a tourist. For anything you buy in the shops, from water, to snacks, to food and so on. You really have to know what things costs (or should cost) and have your wits about you. Sometimes it feels like a right battle, just to go and buy some water. It gets a pain having to argue Every.Single.Time. A bit wearing.
However on the flip side, the people are one of the best things about Vietnam. Most of them are just wonderful. Happy, chatty, friendly, cheeky and smiley. One restaurant in Ninh Binh that we’d been into a few times gave us a free packet of biscuits as a ‘souvenir’ to take with us because they knew we were leaving that night. No real reason to, and totally unexpected (and rather nice biscuits too).
Vietnam, I am loving it here so far. You are lovely. And, if you could just have a 7/11 every now and then you’d be perfect.