Friday, 7 January 2011

Hanoi and Halong Bay

Even experience of Mongolia’s eratic driving and two months in China hadn’t prepared us for the unique chaos of Hanoi’s roads: a constant tide of motorbikes and scooters weaving in amongst each other, with no apparent traffic rules other than a seeming requirement to beep almost constantly. Crossing the road involves taking a leap of faith – stepping off the curb and just walking slowly and steadily and trusting that the bikes would flow round you. Motorbikes, which amazingly make up 98% of the traffic on the road, are used to carry anything and everything from a family of five to a large kitchen table, a new flat screen TV or even a live water buffalo. It’s got to the point where it looks odd seeing a bike with just one rider on it.

Kieran had been to Vietnam and Hanoi almost 10 years ago, and the city was largely as I remembered it, although with more traffic, but with fewer pushbikes and more motorbikes. Crash helmets have also arrived, required by law since 2007, before which over 30 people a day had been killed on the city roads. There are more western tourists too, and the cycle rickshaws which used to be commonly used as cheap taxis now seem reserved only for tourist use and are available for hire by the hour. But the feel and the atmosphere of the city have remained much as I remember them.

Despite the unnerving traffic we enjoyed our time in Hanoi and found it a fun and vibrant city: the pavements crowded with streetside cafes with tiny plastic chairs and tables selling fried dough, noodles, snails, and fresh beer (at only 13 pence a glass much the cheapest drinks we’ve had on this trip and a great way to start the evening); lively covered markets; and the busy old town with streets wholly devoted to selling one product or another, with one street selling just sunglasses, and another just shoes or fabrics, engraved headstones or motorbike parts.

We were met in Hanoi by Steve and Janet, Rachael’s parents who have joined us for the two week journey from Hanoi to Saigon. Together we spent a very enjoyable 4 days exploring the old town and the French quarter. Unlike in China, which seems to be intent on demolishing or hiding much of its history, Hanoi’s history is well preserved and documented. The French influence on the city is immediately apparent from the beautiful –if now dilapidated – colonial buildings, complete with balconies, verandas and wooden shutters. The city houses several interesting museums including the old French prison later used by the North Vietnamese to hold captured Americans including John McCain, which helped us learn more about the Vietnamese take on their struggles for independence over the last century against the French, Japanese and Americans. And then there’s Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where Ho (like Lenin) remains on public display against his last wishes.

From Hanoi we travelled to Halong Bay, a spectacular marine landscape of thousands of limestone islets that rise out of the calm turquoise sea, concealing wonderfully secluded lagoons and coves. We spent a day on board an old fashioned Chinese junk, sailing amongst the islands and going swimming off the boat before seeing the New Year in in style on board.

The next day we explored more of the Bay by kayak, visiting quiet beaches and shallow areas the larger boats couldn’t reach and also some of the many tiny fish and mussel farms that are dotted around the Bay and where whole families and communities live permanently, eking out a living from their floating bamboo platforms.

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