Having left Phu Quoc we landed in Hanoi and our Vietnam experiences changed almost immediately. Up until now Vietnam has had much going for it….the place is cheap, the people are friendly and a hello will greet you everywhere you go, the architectural mix is fascinating and there is an overwhelming sense that people want to help and serve (in a tourism sense)…but it still wasn’t doing it for us.
Maybe it was the food but Vietnam wasn’t grabbing us. There were some minor sights to see in each place but nothing earth shattering…nice but just there… Then we got to Hanoi. This place also has a few touristy things to see, it is choking in smog, the food is still drowning in coriander and cucumber…but it has a whole different feel to everything that we had experienced in the south. The touts were there…but not pushy, the shops are cheap, the people remain friendly… everything’s the same but somehow it feels different.
Jill booked us into a hostel ($14 a night…breakfast included) in the middle of town near the Hoan Kiem lake and a short walk from ancient town (the main tourist area). We found a little corner restaurant in ancient town where, believe it or not, the beers were even cheaper. We are now paying 40c for a 500-600 ml beer. We did the tourist schlepp around and the sights were much the same as they were in Saigon…but this intangible feeling was there that made it somehow better. We went to the presidential palace, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Hoa Lo prison (the Hanoi Hilton) and all the other usual tourist haunts.
For some reason the majority of modern buildings in Vietnam have a frontage width of 4.5 meters. So you have this steady stream of tall thin buildings…side by side…but in no way connected. It is just the way it happens over here. They are impossibly narrow, long, generally about 4 storeys high and crammed in side by side. This means that each floor has a tiny staircase a corridor and rooms on one side…and that is it. I had an attempt at street side “Manpering” with a haircut and a shave with a cutthroat razor…India still wins.
After 4 days of generally just soaking up and loving the feel of Hanoi we headed off on a commute to possibly Vietnam’s most famous site…Ha Long Bay. Everyone has surely seen the pictures of this place and we were on our way. The scene of our next adventure would be Cat Ba Island. There is a Halong city but all reports we have had was that it is a tourist hellhole and that Cat Ba was the way to go…you got to see big chunks of the bay rather than the Gilligan’s Island tour that was offered from Halong City.
Alas we had a nightmare transit to get there. It was not far (about 150kms) from Hanoi and it didn’t take too long (about 6 hrs) but every leg of the trip was atrocious. We were in a cab at 6:30am to the bus station, for a 7:15 bus to Hai Phong, another bus to the water ferry, a ferry ride over to Cat Ba island, a bus to the heart of town and an uphill walk to our accommodation. I won’t go into the gory details but suffice to say that every minute of this journey was hellish. And having arrived we had still not seen any of the renowned Ha Long bay as even the boat ride took us through the container shipping channel and delivered us to the anus of the island. The last bus ride gave us a smoggy view of the karsts (lumps) we had come to see but our viewing would wait until another day.