The last segment of our Vietnamese trip would take us to Hanoi via Huế (pronounced Howay, like Howay the lads). It was used as an ancient capital for the Vietnamese emperors, so culture beckoned us forth.
When we arrived we wandered next door to an Indian. I ordered something hot, as usual, and the waiter tried to warn me a few times about this. I declared I could take spice so he asked the chef to up the anti for me. Not unbearable, but didn’t help the enjoyment, and wasn’t really what I wanted out of the situation. Looking for an aperitif we took to the side streets and found Pham Ngu Lao, one filled with pubs and restaurants – not too dissimilar to Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur – and settled in for some people watching.
The next morning we had to be up early for a bus tour of 3 Imperial tombs. We took in the lakeside palace and tomb at Minh Mang, learning about the emperor, his 250 concubines and lifestyle. The gardens were lush and pleasant, the throngs of tourists somewhat less so.
Tu Doc tomb followed, a grand palace again by a lake. Kelly inexplicably wandered up the steps to the palace while the rest of the tour group and I went to the actual tomb around the back. Stone elephants guarded the entrance to a relatively modest tomb.
Khai Dinh tomb with its grand steps and statue soldiers lined up in ranks was our final visit, also that of the final emperor of Vietnam. Black and white photos adorned the entrance before we entered his sparkling gem encrusted, golden resting place.
Before lunch we went to a Vietnamese kung foo show, witnessing battles with sticks, swords, and paper fans, before a man with the upmost trust in his fellow kungfooers thrust a spear into his neck and began forcing himself into it until it bent. He was unharmed and applauded for his efforts of course.
Our afternoon segment of the tour took in the Imperial palace, a large complex in the centre of Huế itself. A Vietnamese girl dressed in white on our tour insisted on having her photo taken at every opportunity. She was pretty, but one photo was enough we thought, unless she was beginning a modelling career and needed a portfolio detailing how she can pull the same look on command again and again. We finished the tour the Thien Mu pagoda where lots of people were turning up in brightly coloured garments, taking groups shots.
After a long day and a nice boat cruise back into town we descended upon Pham Ngu Lao for some late night drinking resuming our Saigon argument about politics before chatting to a local girl called Anh.
Our overnight bus to Hanoi was fine. It’s grey and wet and 6AM when we arrived so we jumped in the nearest taxi. It was clearly a dodgy meter, as not only did the price jump up dramatically every few feet, but the driver takes advantage of this by going the long way. Welcome to Hanoi – we will fleece you at every opportunity.
Once settled and rested some more we jumped into an Uber (for reliable pricing) to the Imperial Palace. It’s a pretty palace, complete with hundreds of little Bansai trees, a school, a house for concubines and D67; the military headquarters of the Viet Cong, unfortunately closed. Over the road by the Ministry of Defence building sat an architectural dig site, discovered while building the aforementioned MOD. Hundreds of artefacts have been unearthed in a area that stands the ancient and modern side-by-side.
Around the back of this we happened across Ho Chi Minh’s massive mausoleum. On any other day we could have entered and gazed upon the mummified man himself, but that day all we got was a closed door and a changing of the guards.
Wanting to see a downed American B52 bomber, a rickshaw driver presented us with the opportunity to escape the rain for 200 dong. The bomber itself is down a labyrinth of tight side streets, littered with shops selling fruit, vegetables, motorbike parts or whatever the community might need. Once through these windy passages we enter a housing area with square pool in the middle. In this rested parts of B52 bomber, shot down in 1968, and left when it landed.
Onwards with our rickshaw man to the B52 bomber museum, where albeit closed we could see rockets, missiles and the remains of the wings of that downed bomber. On which children were playing a rather dangerous game of tag. Some children were using a radar array as a kind of swing, rolling it back and forth.
Once back at our hotel the rickshaw driver took his opportunity to fleece us, by demanding that the agreed fee was 200 per person, not just the fee we discussed. Using the language barrier to his advantage this time. This is what Hanoi is about we learn, and why friends who came here first seem to dislike Vietnam.
That evening we had a very pleasant Hanoi experience, for we had dinner with a Vietnamese family.After getting fleeced by an uber driver, we arrived at the apartment block where Chou and Anh greeted us, along with their children Long and Anna. The meal is very good, and the hosts were chatty, and friendly. We talked about Vietnamese life; how children learn English from very a early age, that the Vietnamese like to travel all around Asia for their holidays, and how families try and live together in the same buildings. That became a salient point, as Chou explained how Government run industries have their employees live in the same area so they can help each other out. This means everything is run as a kind of mini commune.
As we got our taxi home, we then noticed how streets and shops seemed to have themes. Like a barber street, bike helmet street, or a street for moped parts. Areas band together in communes for support.
We left Hanoi for Halong Bay where we were told a new King Kong movie with Samuel L. Jackson was being filmed. Bamba had booked us onto a Party Boat, which sounded heavy going and tiring.
Snake – our tour guide – introduced himself and asked the bus of 17 to do the same. We had a nice mix of Brits, Swiss, Dutch, Americans, plus representatives from Ireland, Australia and Denmark.
Snake entertained us all with his facts about Vietnam, memorably discussing the eating of dog and cat or Cho and Meo to the locals. Apparently it’s rare but makes the eater lucky, and there is a place in Hanoi that specialises in Cho.
Once we reached Halong Bay harbour after a two hour drive I breathed a sign of relief at the huge boat in front of us. No cramming into a pint sized junk. Instead everybody had their own cabins and after tossing our bags in there we all say down for a tasty lunch, which wasn’t dog.
To see Halong bay that afternoon involved two-men kayaks. Which was knackering but as Kelly and I had trained well in Kaiteriteri we raced on, just behind two eighteen year old Brits who were too young to remember dial-up internet. The scenery is beautiful, the rocks in their hundreds littering our view.
Our new found enablers Jonny and Ashley, had sneaked vodka onto their kayak. I swigged it briefly unsure if he was joking. It wasn’t water, and powered by a Russian warmth we paddled forward through a tunnel with new found haste.
Back on the boat the guests and snake all jumped off the upper deck before we settled into a night of happy hour cocktails, more drinking games in the form of ring of fire, dance offs and for the first time since I was about 11; musical chairs. Which was hilarious. It was a messy night to say the least, but all the more surprising was how easily and quickly everybody got along. It was like we had known each other for years.
Everyone was quiet at breakfast. Jonny and Ashley were especially broken. Not helped by the boat crew playing Westlife songs leaving me with “Coast to coast” stuck in my head.
Respite came in the form of an icy bath. Snake took us to a rock, about 13 metres high, and gave us the opportunity to jump off it. The boys swam ashore and tried to find a way up, which required Jonny to be a ladder. Once up the top, it was a daunting height, but with the exuberance of youth Will jumped first. Then came up screaming in pain.
He had jumped arms flailing and leaning slightly back so landed on his spine. Having a bad back already (somehow at the age of 18), this didn’t help. That’s a tough act to follow Eric (his travel buddy) said, all of us contemplating an alternative route down, given the way up was an impossible return.
Screw it. I jumped and pencil like torpedoed into the water. Safe and sound I came up gasping for air and super-pumped. Kelly filmed it. Probably an embarrassing record. Everyone followed suit equally adrenaline pumped and talkative. It wouldn’t last.
By the time we reached our island accommodation for the night everyone was pooped. I tried to sleep in a hammock with a wonderful view but learnt that I can’t sleep in hammocks.
Nobody wanted to drink that evening, even though the hotel tried their hardest to push happy hour discounts. A few of us tried and before long we played a few fun and not so heavy beer games called Rage cage, beer pong, finger point thumb tricks, 3 cup flip trick and Irish snap. In the final Team Amandrew (me and Amanda) faced up against Eric and Will with the latter boys winning out.
Next day the long trek back to Hanoi took us through a beautiful floating village, before getting a 4 hour coach, and pizza.
I would leave Vietnam satisfied but wanting more. As I attempted to leave Vietnam, an over zealous guard wanted to keep me in Vietnam. Thumbing through every page in my passport a few times, looking me up and down for at least ten minutes. Sheepishly I asked after this time if there was a problem. No, he continued to play the game. Would I break? Would he break. What was the game?
Finally I left, and still I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam. But I was in ‘Nam man.