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Overnight train – The Reunification Express

The penultimate night of the year was spent on the overnight train from Hanoi down to Hue. A 10 + hour journey. We boarded the train for a 10pm departure, unsure of what jollities lay ahead, apart from the fact that I was highly unlikely to get much sleep!

Split into couples in one 4 berth, the boys (with Hung) in another, 4 ladies in another and the remaining ladies (myself included) in the final with a random stranger that could be male or female – there was no knowing. The higher priced tickets (that we had) involved a ‘soft’ bed in a cabin with bedding, water and a wafer biscuit included. I was VERY thankful that we weren’t in a lower class where we could have literally had a board to sleep on – oooo the thought!!!

Thankfully we had a lovely lady join us in the cabin who was the tour leader for a group travelling with Intrepid travel doing a similar thing to all of us. She had her work cut out though, come the morning time there were several of her group who had been drinking all night & were to be found in their bunk lying in the foetal position!! Her comment to it was, oh well, they are Australian (as if that explained their behaviour!).

We suddenly realised that beers were needed to be purchased before the train moved and spotted a little shop on the platform and so Paul, Chris and I darted off to go and get a few each. Not that we were planning on getting plastered but more that it might help us sleep. I didn’t really fancy the idea of getting up umpteen times in the night to try the loo. Many a giggle was had as doors were ‘jammed’ shut and the general hilarity of the sleeping conditions got too much. There was no elegant way to get up and down from the bunks and I was glad that I was a demanding madam and requested bottom bunk owing to my insomnia/ often need to visit the loo in the early hours – TMI? Oh well!

The morning came and I guess I must have got some sleep – amusingly the Fitbit begged to differ and recorded precisely none despite repeated synching as a result of not quite believing it! The night had been entertaining all round, mainly so on the comments from Hung who said that he didn’t realise that it was actually possible for anyone to snore louder than the noise of the train 😂 and that he had 2 hippos in his cabin ALL night!!

A fun must-do experience for sure but I’m not sure I’d want to travel a country purely by sleeper train like this as I’d get LITERALLY no sleep – even according to FitBit! One of the group was saying how he thought it would be a lovely peaceful way to travel – and he too was sharing with the so say hippos. Each to their own I guess!! I’m quite happy that I turn 40 soon & REALLY don’t feel like I’ve missed out in life by only encountering this experience whilst 39!

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Halong Bay

I’d seen so many photos of the Bay over the years and it always looked simply stunning. Our 5 hour trip out in a Chinese style junk boat did not disappoint in the slightest. The weather was perhaps not amazing as it would have been lovely to have had a bright blue sky but I thanked my lucky stars that it was not actually raining. We could have had it way worse.

The bay is formed of a lot of limestone structures or mini islands I guess with trees and so on on the top but whilst cruising along I was confused that there did not seem to be as many birds as I had anticipated seeing and hearing. Not that I was here as a twitcher – they just were noticeably absent. The word Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’ and legend has is that this area was created by a giant dragon charged towards the coast with his tail gouging out the valleys and so on that now exist.

It was named a World Heritage site in 1994 with all of the mini islands, grottos or caves and beaches and is deemed to be the main tourist spot of Northern Vietnam. There are a number of grottos that are in the trusty Lonely Planet but I’m not sure that the one that we actually visited is in there.

It certainly puts the magic of Wookey Hole to shame I have to say. The natural formations inside the cave were simply unreal. The stalactites and stalagmites almost didn’t look natural in places and there were parts that looked like cauliflowers as well as draped blankets. Extraordinary sights to put it mildly.

We all talked about the idea of waking up on a boat out here on the ocean & what an amazing place it would be to have a night, of course we are restricted on this tour owing to the amount to do in such a short amount of time. I’m not sure that the comfort of the bed on the boat would really be all that appealing though thinking about it. And I’m also not entirely sure that I could cope with the seafood that would be breakfast!!

We ate off linen table cloths and the food seemed to just keep coming thankfully the peppers and the sea food/ shell fish allergies has been accommodated and we had been on the beers since 930 – oops – but we were on the boat pretty early in the morning and when in Rome right?!!

Next stop for us was back to Hanoi to recuperate (and as it worked out – have more beers) before boarding the overnight train to Hue.

Hanoi – Part 2

The last stop in the complex was the One Pillar Pagoda built to express the gratitude of Emperor Ly Thai Tong to his wife who had produced a son and heir for him. It’s built of wood and on a single stone pillar (unsurprisingly) and designed to resemble a lotus blossom – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow as it is surrounded by a small pool. Sadly it’s not the original as the French destroyed it before they left Hanoi in 1954. Now there is a Buddhist shrine at the top adorned with offerings.

After finishing up at the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum Complex we visited the Temple of Literature which is also known as Confucius Temple. Not so much a just a temple in itself but there were a variety of things to see. All beautifully calm and serene whilst the scooters manically circle around on the roads. There is a rare example inside of early Vietnamese architecture which houses the honoured amongst Vietnam’s finest scholars and writes with literary accomplishments. These are all carved into stone tablets which are held on the backs of turtles – one of the three most sacred animals in Vietnam along with storks and lions/dragons. There are a number of impressive gateways and one of them is a symbol of Vietnam and Hanoi and is found in one of the many notes (of money). There are lots of bonsai trees everywhere in pots and many of them seem to have stories in them with pagodas and little people in. Something tells me it’s the story of Confucius himself but I didn’t get clarity.

From here saw our last preplanned stop of the day before a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre which we had booked tickets for earlier in the day. The infamous Hanoi Hilton or as it’s real name – Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Nicknamed as such by American POW during the war as many were brought here. There were parts only that still remain which exhibits relate to the use of rooms up until the 50s and even included a French style guillotine which was used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries back in the day. One of the notable American Pilots kept here during the American War was John McCain (once nominated as a candidate for presidency in USA in more recent years) and there was a hugely thought provoking exhibition on memories after the war. There were the remains of the sewer tunnels that several of the Vietnamese prisoners managed to escape though at times. Tiny, tiny gaps. Fascinating & thought provoking but thankfully not such a hideous outing as the jail in Phnom Pen.

The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre was something that a few people in the group had been told not to miss. It wasn’t expensive and lasted an hour and sounded a bit different from the norm and so most of us went o watch. Originally created by the rice farmers on the Red River Delta about 1000 years ago. The puppets are made out of fig-tree timber and is always performed in ponds or lakes and so on with the puppeteers standing waist-high in water with the puppets on long sticks that create the story in front of a curtain at water level in front of the puppeteers. The musicians accompanying were all live and it was dark inside and pretty easy to fall asleep in given our jet lag and so on. One of the chaps I was sat next to did – only to wake up every time the section ended and there was clapping. I’m not sure it’s a not to be missed event but it was certainly something different.

The other restaurant that we tried was called Home – recommended to us by Hung. I wasn’t overly keen on one of the others that was recommended which was just one choice of a sort of fish hotpot. Traditional and like street food but I just felt I’d avoid fish whilst I had the option so I took 4 others off here – no idea what it was going to be like but it was utterly delicious I must say. By far the most expensive of meals that we would eat in this country but not really expensive for UK prices. Everyone’s (well mine didn’t) meal came on a bed of fire as it sat in a sort of Balti dish in front of you as you ate your way through it with the sticky rice accompanying it.

The other experience I wanted to try was the fresh beer. It took a while to try finding it but we got there in the end with help from a very helpful man who could see we were a little lost aimless looking around and trying to work out where the f*** we were from the guide book to the street signs. We weren’t that far off. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s own fraught beer or microbrew which is similar to a light bodied pilsner and was first introduced to the country by the Czech’s. It’s brewed without preservatives and is meant to be enjoyed immediately. We went to the local Bia Hoi junction and found a few establishments with small plastic chairs to sit on similar to those seen in a Reception classroom. It was served in recycled glasses which made it look almost green in colour initially. It wasn’t that bad but the others were adamant that it would give them dodgy tummies – none of us wanted this so we only partook in the one to say that we had done it!

It would have been funnier if the chairs had sides as well as Paul and Chris (quite possibly myself as well) would potentially have needed cutting out of them!

Hanoi – Part 1

A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!

Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)

Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.

Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.

Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.

The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!

We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.

Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.

North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).

Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.

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