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Clare’s Travel Diary

Friday, 23 May 2008

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

MapVietnam, I have decided, is a really gorgeous country, the variety of landscapes is exceptional and it really does seem to pack everything that you expect of SE Asia into this one country. We flew into Hanoi, the capital in the north from Vientiane with the very professional Vietnam Airlines and the difference between sleepy Laos and bustling Hanoi was instantly visible. We've been told that Saigon is the crazy motorbike city, but I currently don't believe its possible that there could be more on the road there than in Hanoi.

We stayed in the Old Quarter, which is lovely, all little roads lined with shops selling Lacquer ware, chopsticks, silk and other tourist fare - I of course partook. Mum, there's another parcel winging its way home as we speak! Life takes place on the street, so there are tons of food stands, fruit shake vendors, Bia Hoi (beer halls) and restaurants, but the chinese influence is strong, so it all looks a little bit different to Laos and Thailand. The influence is also seen in the menus which span Goat, Frog, Fish, Pork, Beef, Forest Deer, Snail, Squid, Chicken, Tofu, Eel and Duck - and thats just in the tourist restaurants... I dread to think what might be available in the local joints! It brings to mind the time that the Chinese restaurnt in B'ple offered Mrs Gotz a couple quid for her Chow-Chow dog!

We spent a few days sightseeing in Hanoi which included the Water Puppetry show... quite a strange sort of Punch and Judy style show but on water instead and accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music... I tried to admire the artistic intentions, I really did, but I spent most of it smirking! We also did the rounds on the museums which really did seem to range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Ridculous would be characterised by the Ho Chi Minh Museum which was housed in a massive, grey, imposing, concrete, soviet style building and seemed to consist of strangely allegorical displays which you were supposed to interpret. We struggled. I shall give you an example of a display: A massive white table and chairs at wierd angles with an enormous Pineapple, Banana and Apple on the table (would look at home in Tate Modern) against a backdrop of b&w photos of industrial images such as foundrys and shipyards. This, of course, symbolises the struggle of the Vietnamese youth to relate to the simple agricultural past in a fast changing and developing world. Obviously. We gave up on that one quite quickly. The sublime however was the Ethnology Museum. Vietnam is home to hundreds of minority tribes in the hilly and mountainous areas who all have customs, costumes, histories and cultures which are very distinct. This museum is great record of all the minorities and includes representations of types of houses etc and other apsects of life. It was a great warm up before we headed north to Sapa to go trekking in the region where many of these minorities live.

We took the train north in a torrential downpour and got completely soaked running from the station onto the platform, so things did not start well, but the train was a revelation! A really comfy bed, 4 person compartment with lockable door and everything clean and nice. We slept well after chatting to a lovely Dutch couple who live in NZ and are still travelling in their seventies! The walking from Sapa isn't very challenging but its one of the only places where the local people still wear their traditional dress as a matter of course (not just for the tourists), so you really feel that you are somewhere special. Of course you're still a walking ATM and everyone is still a salesperson, but we had some pretty good chats with some of the local girls and our Guide, a pint sized Black Hmong girl called Lan was really keen to teach us the ins and outs of rice production - there ain't much we don't know about that now!

After Sapa we zoomed straight off to the coast to Halong Bay and we can say it really does live up to the hype. The Limestone islands are amazing, the sea blue and the beaches deserted. Our little trip included a night on the Junk in the bay, visting some caves, cycling to a fishing village, sea-kayaking and a stay on the big island (Cat Ba) and though we were annoyed to have to sign up to another tour it seemed to be the only way to do all of those things in such a short space of time. We were dubious about how good it would be in a tour situation, but actually it was nice to have all the stress removed and we landed back on the mainland after 3 days on the boat relaxed, tanned and chilled. A really lovely experience and one I'm glad we did.

So we leave Hanoi tonight on the bus to go a few hours south to Ninh Binh which is meant to be a mini Halong Bay but in rice paddies instead of at sea... watch this space, photos hopefully coming soon!