One of the challenges we continually face on this trip is keeping our bags under the 20kg imposed by the internal flights we take. We are both unapologetic shopaholics and it is taking remarkable willpower not to buy lots of gorgeous knick-knacks from the markets we visit that would look lovely in our home. Occasionally we do yield to temptation and buy some clothes, but this is more from necessity than retail addiction. We have an agreement that if we buy new clothes something has to be jettisoned from the wardrobe – one in one out! There is something quite disciplined and liberating about this approach. Slowly but surely the climate demands thinner tops & trews, so that we are leaving a trail of thick European clobber throughout S/E Asia.
Along with one-in-one out, we have another rule that is written in stone – there will be no elephant trousers! Under no circumstances will either of us allow this sartorial Armageddon. Sam showed signs of weakening when she bought what appeared to be a nice, light white dress in Laos. However, closer inspection revealed a small elephant print that just about stayed on the right side of acceptability.
Having said that, I will forgive Sam just about anything for coming up with the most wonderful birthday ‘gift’. As we can’t buy stuff I assumed I wouldn’t get a pressie (this was exactly the excuse I gave Sam on her birthday). However on my 55th (!) she revealed she had been in clandestine communications with my daughter Hannah who was making arrangements for a 2 week trip to meet us in Vietnam – what a marvellous surprise! We quickly researched a suitable beach location that we knew Hannah would enjoy and booked our flights back to Vietnam from Cambodia for a few days in crazy Hanoi, then down to the beach on DaNang together with a detour to Hoi An. Hannah visiting gave us the perfect excuse to revisit places we’d been to 8 years ago and hadn’t initially planned to go to see on this trip. We’re so glad we had the opportunity to revisit them.
In Hanoi we had our first really bad hotel experience. We booked a ’boutique’ hotel in the Old Quarter – where all hotels call themselves ’boutique’ as there isn’t the space to build anything bigger. On arrival our hearts started to sink when we checked into a bedroom that reminded us of the Crossroads Motel – it looked as though it hadn’t been updated since 1973. Happily Hannah’s room was much brighter. However, the deal-breaker was the uninterrupted building works taking place a few floors above our room. “Yes, we renovate the spa and gym on the 8th floor” the Receptionist proudly told Sam when she complained about the noise which had been going on non-stop, resulting in next to no sleep. When the receptionist read the signals that a sleep-deprived Sam is one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet and not to be messed with, she added nervously “I will ask them to stop”. Of course they didn’t, Vietnamese builders don’t stop when mild mannered receptionists asks them to keep it down. They carried on morning, noon & night, until we could stand no more and checked out early, much to the surprise of the hotel staff.
On our first trip out into Hanoi, Hannah was still suffering jet lag from her 12 hour flight. Combined with a temperature of 35+ degrees and crippling humidity she was taken a bit poorly at the temple on the lake in the centre of Hanoi. Fearing she might faint we stopped in the shade for a while. Unfortunately she felt a bit nauseous and it looked as though she might actually be sick into the lake, or worse still, on the sacred temple! While Sam made all the right sympathetic and comforting noises, my mind played out a scene of vomit, uproar at a cultural atrocity followed by imprisonment – all in the blink of an eye! Moments later when Hannah indicated a slight improvement we quickly shuffled her off the temple site with the unsympathetic advice … “you can throw up anywhere you like now”.
The suffocating heat in Hanoi then took its toll on me as we strolled through the night market. While Sam and Hannah checked out the stalls I sensed my body temperature rising and rising. In response I gulped down bottles of water. However rather than cool and hydrate me the water gushed out of every pore – like some great sweaty waterfall drenching my shirt and shorts. I squelched home reluctantly accepting that I probably wouldn’t get a second wear out of my undies on this occasion.
A trip to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ provided an interesting and disturbing insight into how the French treated Vietnamese prisoners during their occupation, including the guillotine used to execute revolutionary patriots. The prison was subsequently used by the North Vietnamese for captured US Airforce pilots, including Senator John McCain who passed away this week. He revisited the prison years later and met with his captors, all part of the reconciliation process that took place between the USA and Vietnam.
Our detour to Hanoi meant that we could hook up with another familiar face from home, Aiden, the son of our very good friends Anthony and Carolyn. Aiden has been in Vietnam for several months teaching English and he arranged to take us out for a good night in Hanoi, starting with a great little restaurant off the beaten track, shoes off, knees up, no table or chairs – a great menu and delicious food.
After that it was back into the Old Quarter and sampling Vietnam’s version of home brew – Bia Hoi. Dirt cheap (about 30p a glass) it’s a street drink that is rough, ready, strangely refreshing and possibly a risk to your health. We followed that with a session on a rooftop bar that ended at midnight when the authorities decree all bars must close. An end to the night? No chance, as Aiden skilfully guided us to a discrete lock-in.
The memory of this is understandably vague – we were hammered by then and having a wonderful time. Unfortunately one of the things I can recall is hearing Jumping Jack Flash come on the jukebox and immediately springing to my feet, insisting that “I do a great Mick Jagger.” For reasons that remain unclear I felt the impersonation would be enhanced if I donned the motorcycle crash helmet I found on a table. In full flow I jerked about Jagger-like, strutting up to the bar, lifting the visor on the helmet and shouting “well alright” to the bemused bar staff and customers before snapping the visor down, spinning 180 degrees and marching back down the bar clapping my hands together Mick stylee! What could possibly add to the embarrassment…………… discovering that your hysterical daughter has recorded the “performance” on her iPhone for posterity/blackmail! Sam recalls a local asking her if I was her husband. When she replied I was, he just looked at her sympathetically and said ‘I’m sorry!’
And so after a memorable Hanoi night we said our goodbyes and set off but not before Aiden asked that I message him to let him know we had got back to our hotel – you know you are getting old when your mates kids insist on being told that you have got home safely!!
The next afternoon we flew to DaNang, famed for being a key American base in the War, but now boasting a glorious 5km beach of soft sand, clean warm sea water and climbing temperatures.
On our first day it was a bit grey and overcast so we decided to head for the hills – Ba Na Hills to see a bizarre European theme park and the recently opened Golden Bridge, held up by the Hands of God. The only way up to Ba Na Hills is on a jaw dropping 5000 metre cable car journey that is worth the day trip by itself. We kept getting higher and higher with great views back to the coast and the adjacent Monkey and Marble Mountains.
Once you arrive you are greeted by the site of a mock French village, town square, hotels, restaurants, and a cathedral – all false (should that be faux?). We wandered into the “church” and Sam stepped up to the altar to inspect what appeared to be a giant bible but in fact was a large piece of polystyrene. In a plasterboard confessional box I assumed the role of priest and told Sam to say two Hail Mary’s and an Act of Contrition for her sins: “……sounds like a good deal” was her reply!
The Golden Bridge held up by two giant hands is remarkable. It doesn’t serve any purpose, such linking two hitherto unconnected points. Rather it seems to exist as a striking sight and feat of engineering, and of course it’s all very Instagram. Even the most cynical of visitors can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer scale and drama of those hands high in the hills, frequently draped in mist, cloud and marauding Koreans armed with selfi-sticks!
Some serious sunbathing took place over the few days including the chance to meet with more friends on An Bang beach near Hoi An. By chance our travels crossed with Chris, Karen and their children. Sam and I regularly fail miserably to visit Chris and Karen at the wonderful Purple Carrot in Hassocks, so it felt ironic that we should finally see each other on a beach thousands of miles from home. It was a lovely relaxing day catching up and even though we’ve only been away for two months it was great seeing family and friends.
We promised Hannah a trip to Hoi An, just 30 mins south of DaNang. It’s a beautiful town and world heritage site full of quaint independent shops and ancient homes. Hoi An miraculously escaped the ravages of War. Being south of DaNang it wasn’t carpet bombed by the good old US, and once the South Vietnamese Army collapsed, the Liberation Army swept through towns like Hoi An without much military exchange or damage.
As a result Hoi An retained its unique character which comes to life at night when lanterns adorn the streets and candles float gently down the river – it looks almost too good to be true and can rightly claims the title of Vietnam’s most picturesque town.
If that wasn’t enough for Hannah it also offers shopping heaven with pretty, independent shops sitting alongside a vibrant night market and rock bottom prices! We’ve noticed that fruit inspired clothing is really popular in Vietnam……
and when in Rome……
We returned to DaNang and enjoyed a boat cruise on the River Han underneath the many bridges the town is famous for, particularly the multi-coloured Dragon Bridge.
Like Nha Trang further down the coast DaNang has a bit of a reputation for being touristy and lacking charm, but when you have a beach that is so good and quiet it’s hard to find fault. DaNang enjoys the added benefit of its proximity to Hoi An, and a large airport that has great connections to cities throughout the region. Well worth checking out, especially if you are a beach bum.
All too soon we were returning to Hanoi and accompanying Hannah to the airport for her flight home. Her visit has felt like a holiday within our travels and we were thrilled to share time with her. It also marked a bit of a milestone in our travels as we left Vietnam a couple of days after Hannah, heading for Laos.
Vietnam is a wonderful manic country that is so full of vitality, lovely people and a fascinating history. There are a few corners of the country we still haven’t seen yet – the perfect excuse for a return visit…..and some more Bia Hoi!!
Travellers Top Tips
Short and sweet this one – we could not survive without our eye masks and ear plugs to block out the lights and sounds that seem to accompany most hotel rooms. It can make for some tricky conversations when one or especially both of us have our ear plugs in. They’ve given us hours of extra sleep, but even they couldn’t block out Hanoi builders!!
Next Week – Learning about Laos