Our tour of Vietnam, meeting the group and travelling down to Hue
We packed up our things early that night in Bangkok and once again said goodbye to Rob and Charlotte. Maybe our paths would cross again in Vietnam or if not, certainly in the UK, but this time it was left open.
After a little over two hours sleep, we were up at 3am to catch our taxi to the Airport. After a F1 style journey, we arrived and completed all the formalities that have become second nature. It was then, Fi’s Bangkok belly resurfaced. I won’t go into too much detail, but it resulted in four immodium and became touch and go as to whether we should get on the flight. I had to make the call and we boarded to Hanoi. It wasn’t a nice position for Fi to be in and I felt helpless and so sorry for her.
We arrived in Vietnam’s Hanoi to another wall of humidity – nothing we weren’t used to by this point and thankfully the several immodium had kicked in, all a little late I must add. We met our taxi driver in arrivals and exchanged a few basic greetings. In general, the English in Vietnam is merely hello and goodbye. On the way out of the airport we were pulled over by the Police by a baton tapping the window. We didn’t have much idea what was going on and our driver panicked slightly, immediately calling someone on his mobile. He muttered a few things in Vietnamese to us and then proceeded outside to pay off the cops.
Trashed, hot and confused, we arrived at our hotel which we’d booked a night in advance as our tour was meeting there the following day. Getting a second wind and feeling the familiar tummy rumble, we went in search of food. The streets of Vietnam were even more hectic than we were used to but it wasn’t quite the baptism of fire most seem to experience. We’d become quite accustomed to the lack of rules on the road. We wondered up and down a few streets looking for somewhere safe-ish to eat, eventually finding a Café / Restaurant called Gecko. Most street restaurants are basic, with mini stools for tables and chairs outside. This had some tables inside, which were equally low – sore knees proceeded. We ate some pretty decent noodles and had a coffee which was extremely strong, Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee across the world after Brazil. We actually went back to Gecko for dinner that evening, where I had my cheapest beer of travelling so far – 50 cents in American dollars, so about 30 pence and that was a large bottle of Tiger! We met a nice Japanese guy too, who was asking us all sorts about Harry Potter and so on. So, we’d eased ourselves in gently to Vietnam in preparation for our tour.
The next morning we located breakfast in the hotel. I still can’t get my head around curry and noodles for breakfast, so made a beeline for the toaster. After posting a few blogs and getting some washing done, we went for a wonder down to the Hoan Kiem Lake and then to a temple over the bridge on it. We had some lunch in a Café situated on the fifth floor looking over the lake. The daily rain arrived and boy did it come down! We watched it quickly flood the streets and then after loitering in the Café for far too long, we made our way back to the hotel getting soaked in the process. Walking in the cool rain was refreshing!
Once dry, 6pm had arrived and it was time to introduce ourselves to our fifteen person tour. These situations are always a little nervy at first, but when going around the room talking about ‘why we were here’, ‘what we wanted from it’ and a litte about ourselves we couldn’t help but rabble on a little. As we have so much to tell!
The group were definitely an eclectic mix of various ages and our tour guide, Charles was pretty straight to the point – drilled in guiding these tours week in week out. There was a surprising amount of English totalling about eleven of the fifteen, with two American’s an Austrian and Maltese girl making up the final four.
We all chatted and got the brief low down. It was all hitting home that the next seventeen days were going to be the most volatile of our trip so far, so extra caution was needed. That night, by chance we ended up in Gecko again. We chatted into the night with Billy and Harry from the US (although Harry was a Brit) and Alesia, from a little place called Southampton – small effing world.
The next day we started the tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, I might post this in chunks otherwise these blog posts are going to run wild.
Day 1 – Hanoi to Ha Long Bay for an overnight boat trip
We had to be up, fed and watered by 8:30 am in order to jump on our bus to Ha Long Bay. It was a 4 hour trip and this was the start of a hectic tour schedule. Charles introduced us to our awesome tour guide for this part of the trip. His name was Duc, a very good English speaking local. He had an ever so slight London accent and stood at the front of the bus giving us all sorts of info and history about Vietnam. He stood for at least 2 hours. He was a character and very enthusiastic and passionate about what he does.
On our arrival, Duc guided us to our tender, which was the boat connecting us to our Junk Boat. This was the beginning of our cruise around Ha Long Bay, where we would eat, sleep and drink overnight.
We dropped off our bags into a cosy cabin and then all re-grouped for lunch. Seafood was on the menu and we were treated to 9 wonderful sea inspired courses. The beers were fairly cheap too, so we enjoyed a couple. As we dined, we were sailing through endless amounts of islands protruding from the water. This was an awe inspiring view. It was so tranquil as we passed through these sleeping giants, every now and again, cruising passed a little floating residency. Including floating shops, homes and banks. We continued for a good hour still surrounded before reaching the cave we were due take a tour through.
The cave was huge and had a number of misshapen rocks, one called morning glory ! I’ll let you imagine what it looked like. As we exited the caves and walked along the rickety boardwalk hugging the cliff face, we stumbled across a monkey eating fruit. This guy had the biggest pair of…we’d ever seen. So that completed the male genital references.
We made our way back onto the boat via a tender. Most of the group went Kayaking, something we would have loved to do, but the old budget wouldn’t allow. For free, me and the American dudes jumped straight in the water and went for a swim around, avoiding jelly fish when the need arose. This was one of those pinch yourself moments. As I swam around the boat, looking in all directions, I was surrounded by island after island in the warmest of water. Getting a little confident, Harry and I decided to swim to one of the islands and back, it was knackering and a lot further than it looked. Easily one of my personal travel highlights. Everyone one returned from Kayaking and jumped in to join us, where we all chatted and got to know each other a little more.
It wasn’t long before everyone was back and ready for dinner. We all sat on the sun deck to take in the sunset and then the lightening that followed. A very kind, friendly chap chap called Doug gave me a quick photography lesson whilst we all chatted. At dinner, we had another 9 courses of everything from squid to crab to beef – we hadn’t eaten this well in 6 months.
That evening, we all had a few drinks and messed about with card games that I never know any of the rules of. A huge storm came in, rocking the boat and sending it round in a circle. It became like a rotating bar! Some of the others played a loud game of spoons and were not overly popular with the boat crew later on that night!
Day 2 – Ha Long Bay to Hanoi then a sleeper train
That morning, we had another monster breakfast and by 7:30am, we were hiking up one of the islands to a lookout. There was something like 421 steps to the top and there must of been a mosquito waiting for me on each of them, as my legs were mauled, Alesia’s too. The view from the peak was stunning. We’ve been spoilt by so many amazing views in 6 months and this was up there with the best of them.
On our descent, sweating buckets, we all went for a morning swim just by the beach. We’d pretty much found paradise and despite it being overcast, it was still 36°c. We then re-boarded the boat via the tender and headed back to Ha Long Bay’s port. It had been an unforgettable experience and it was only day two.
We jumped back on our bus and travelled four hours back to Hanoi, where we needed to stock up for our fourteen hour sleeper train to Hue. Baguettes and Bagels at the ready, we started out journey to the train station.
We boarded the train and located our cabin. We were sharing with the Americans in a four bunk bed room. Small is an understatement, these things are made for little Asian people not six feet plus westerns. Did I mention the cockroaches? There were loads, clambering up the walls and running across the floor. We were all a little uncomfortable, so we dealt with it the only way you can, alcohol. Doug and Rich (a guy from London) joined us. Two bottles of vodka, 15 beers later and some international ring of fire later, we were all asleep! The journey went relatively quickly as a result. One of the highlights had to be Lou one of Doug’s friends, become Louisa. Seeing a guy in his forties wearing Ruth’s (from Sydney) dress was entertaining!
Day 3 – Hue by motorbike
We arrived in a stifling Hue on time. We’d made some bets on the train for when the train might arrive, all our pessimism had been way off and Harry won the bet.
After battling through a crowded train station, Emma (from England) vomiting, we jumped on the bus to our hotel. We were all a little hungover and dirty, so showering was a high priority.
All of us had booked onto a motorbike tour of Hue. We went out at around 10am and selected the driver that we’d be doubling up with. I got Yen, a smily chap. They all counted 1,2,3 then with perfect synchronisation shouted ‘Yee-ha’ and off we went. This was awesome, in convoy, we flew through the busy streets of Hue seemingly invincible in our pack. We really picked up some speed on the main roads and in a place with little road rules, it was exhilarating. We were all living the Top Gear Vietnam dream!
We pulled up at our first destination, The Imperial city of Hue, which was once a residence of a Vietnamese Emperor and his many wives. Inside there was a park where a baby elephant and his father were feeding. The father was being used for elephant rides, we didn’t want to partake but it was the first elephant Fi had ever seen and we got right up close as it walked past. They are simply beautiful animals and everytime I see one, I’m always in awe.
From the Imperial City, we rode onwards along large stretches of highways and smaller roads until we read the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. Our tour guide, Von chatted to us about it and explained some really interesting things about Buddism and Monks. We walked around the surrounding area, avoiding the relentless offers of drinks, food and market stuff.
We were off again, Yen, my driver, didn’t say much, but every now and again shouted ‘Buffalo’ or ‘Rice Paddies’ at which point I replied ‘Ah’ and ‘Wow’. We all stopped on the road side and met some little Vietnamese ladies that made incense sticks. This was a fascinating process to watch them roll long strips of clay around the sticks with such finesse. A few people had a go and could not imitate their skills. We bought a couple of packs to burn when we get home.
Off we raced to Perfume River, where we ascended through forests and passing old Vietnamese and American bunkers. The view from the top of the hill was stunning and you could see all the little boats interacting with one and other, doing there daily trading.
Our tummies were all grumbling and the Nunnery was calling. We all covered up and headed there for lunch. The Nuns all looked like Monks, adorning shaves heads. They served us a vegetarian feast, which made a change. Although poor Richard (From Norwich) wasn’t a fan of the local food so feasted on Banana’s. The rain then started to come down with fury as we ate. We gasped, knowing we had to travel the remaining half of the day on the back of a bike. Poncho’d up, we zipped off again but just a little slower. We made our way through the pouring rain and stopped at one of the Kings Tomb. It was raining so heavily as this point we glided around very quickly wishing to be under cover.
By this point we were all a little wet and tired, but we continued through back alleys and main roads ending up at a fascinating little workshop. It belonged to the one armed conical hat maker, who’s name I cannot remember. She’s quite the celebrity in Vietnam and oozes skill, achieving crafts that would be difficult for me to achieve with two arms. The inside of conical hats are so decorative, when held up to the light, you can make out silhouettes of various scenes relating to Vietnam. The style reminded me of the work of Rob Ryan, except his work was probably inspired by something similar to this. We bought a mini conical hat series as a bit of memorabilia for our first xmas tree.
Back in our pack on the bikes, we drove even further to the outskirts of Hue. We passed through rice paddies and all sorts of terrain, it was so much fun and probably another highlight of travelling. I’d recommend it to anyone. We stopped at a little village where we met a little old lady who would tell your fortune and saw Water Buffalo feeding by the river, with the keepers closely in tow.
Our bums were sore, but we raced on back battling through hundreds of bikes gracing the roads. We arrived back at the hotel safely and kindly thanked our guide Von and riders for a truly unforgettable experience. That evening we ate at a local restaurant in Hue getting to know a few more of the group, including Sarah (From Bristol) and Alesia. That evening we spent recovering as Fi was still feeling a little poorly and packed for our bus journey the next morning to Hoi An.
I will post Hoi An to Saigon in a few days to give you all a little time to digest what we’ve up to!
Tom & Fi xxx
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