“So are you travelling to Vietnam?” – the duty free assistant at London Heathrow airport did not seem too convinced by my boarding pass.
I nodded. Of course I was. After a 7-km walk in the dark to Paddington Station (for your information, no public transport operates in London on Christmas Day and the famous black cabs charge you double) and getting hopelessly stuck in traffic jams en-route, I finally made it to the airport. The rest of the journey was the easy part – an 11+5 hour flight to Hanoi via Seoul. The duty free chap was right. I was going to Vietnam!
How did the Vietnam idea come about? I have written previously about how much I enjoy travelling by rail. One fine day back in March 2010, I was searching the cyber depths for some rail travel ideas – when Vietnam shone right in.
Vietnam boasts a 2,600 km railway network covering the entire length of this stretched-out country. The principal North-South route connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (which I will stubbornly continue to call Saigon for the purpose of this post) accounts for 1,726 km. Thousands of kilometres of retro, aged rail network. Just what I like to hear, then!
My initial intention to cover the killer journey from Hanoi to Saigon in one go was soon abandoned. Why not take a couple of weeks then and explore the intermediate stops at length? The stops I settled at were Hoi An (via Danang) and Nha Trang. Finally, I included a small detour from Hanoi to Sa Pa, Vietnam’s trekking paradise in the north-eastern part of the country. Needless to say that getting there, too, was meant to be by rail.
That’s how the idea was born. Vietnam by rail in two weeks! I wish I had more time in tow, but my employer wouldn’t understand.
With time difference and all, I spent most of Boxing Day flying over Russia to Seoul. For the first time in history, I realised just how vast my mother’s homeland was. I mean, we flew all night. Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk: there just seemed to be no end to it. Respect!
I will not dwell too much on the Asiana flight. Just add that the service was immaculate, the food made me wish I could ask for more (doesn’t often happen to you on the plane, does it) and that South Korea underneath looked alluring and interesting (with or without snow). I am definitely coming back! This holiday though was reserved in full for Vietnam.
We landed around 10:30pm, I picked up my luggage without delay, became a millionaire at an ATM nearby (1 GBP = 30,000 VND, Vietnamese dong; 1 USD will buy you 20,000 of the same) and jumped into a taxi for central Hanoi. It took the taxi driver a few jump-outs of the car, a big map and endless apologetic looks to locate my hotel. Our repeated circling around the Old Town was useful though, as I was able to orientate myself around Hanoi even before getting out of the car.
Finally we reached Hanoi Elite Hotel. It had been weeks since it rebranded itself from Phoenix 2 – which was perhaps the reason it took the driver so long finding it. The receptionist rushed out to help me out of the car. Interestingly, he knew my name. They had been clearly expecting me.
As had my duly pre-booked train tickets and Ha Long Bay tour in just a few hours’ time. About two months before coming to Vietnam, I got the hotel to book all the train tickets for me. The advance planning freak as I am.
Day 1: Ha Long Bay
Strangely enough, the jetlag did not seem to have caught up with me the morning after. If it is at all possible. I got up at what must have been midnight UK time – not anyone’s most usual time to rise and shine, but rose and shone I did.
My first Vietnam experience of the trip was the pho bo – rice noodle soup with beef, a quintessential Vietnamese experience and a most popular breakfast dish in Northern Vietnam. The rest of the country does a legion of variations, but the ingredients throughout boil down to about the same. Literally.
Outside was glorious weather. December is winter time in Hanoi, and clouded up skies through smog-flavoured whitish mist are not uncommon. I was hoping at least my day trip to Ha Long Bay would feature some blue tones to reflect in the emerald water of the bay. It was too lucky to be true.
Ha Long Bay is without much competition the most popular day trip out of Hanoi. It is sometimes recommendable to take at least two days to avoid doubling the 3-hour one-way journey to Hai Phong (the departure port) in a single day and to beat the crowds to a Ha Long Bay sunrise the day after. I had only one day to spare and did not really have the time luxury though.
Ha Long Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long, literally “Descending Dragon Bay” in Vietnamese) is located northeast of Hanoi. The bay stretches from Yên Hưng district, past Hạ Long City (170km from Hanoi), Cẩm Phả town to Vân Đồn district, bordered on the south and southeast by the Gulf of Tonkin, on the north by China, and on the west and southwest by Cát Bà island. The Bay has a 120 km long coastline and about two thousand limestone karst islets, a major part of which form a UNESCO protected site.
The boats sailing the brilliant waters of the Bay are lovingly referred to as “junks”, which vary greatly in size, comfort and quality. Most tour companies also bundle a lunch into the price. Our junk was spacious and more than adequate for the USD 35 day trip fare. The seafood was literally cooked in front of our hungry eyes, as were the crispy French fries. Everything melted in my mouth – delicious without reserve. My first introduction to Vietnamese cuisine had been victorious.
The tour featured a staple visit to the Amazing Cave, as well as kayaking around the central islands. I enjoyed everything immensely – especially eavesdropping on a Kazakh family conversing in front of me in Russian – until eventually giving myself away with an immodest outburst of laughter. Ignoring good jokes has never been my strong side.
On the way back to Hanoi, I decided to make good use of idle travel time and listened to my Norwegian language audio files. Very topically, the featured story was about a certain Vietnamese family “settling in Norway”. “Vi kommer fra Saigon” (“We come from Saigon“) – was still echoing in my ears as the lights of Hanoi started looming ahead. My first day in Vietnam was a huge success.
(Full Flickr photo set for Ha Long Bay)
Day 2: Hanoi, Hanoi, Hanoi
Vietnamese language is a tonal one. That is to say, the tone of the voice can change the meaning of a word; words spelled practically the same way sometimes vary in meaning by tone alone. There are six distinct tones in Vietnamese language. Since I am such a linguist, I made sure to play out audio samples of all six before coming to Vietnam. Not that it brought me any further to understanding a language so entirely different from those I claim to be able to speak, of course.
In addition to being highly intonated, all words in Vietnamese language are also monosyllabic. The name of the country is in fact “Việt Nam”, and the two largest cities “Hà Nội” and “Sài Gòn”. I still remember the way our Ha Long Bay guide was pronouncing the former – the short, swallowed “Hà” and the longer, falling “Nội”. Two different words, two different tones.
Two different cities in one. Hanoi immediately impressed me with its dichotomy. A street vendor was neighbouring a Western-style cafe and a freshly renovated hotel. Crammed Old Town shared city borders with vast open spaces around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum – so perfect for marching. Street food challenged the nearby upmarket restaurants for value of money, if not the quality. It was a most fascinating symbiosis (here is a BBC piece on the growing divide between the rich and the poor in Vietnam).
I got up early and went off to explore the awakening Hanoi. The local population seemed to take their morning exercise very seriously, which I could not help associating with the communist legacy. It was still early, but all around the Hoan Kiem Lake the wide awake Vietnamese were already playing badminton (over nets creatively arranged where you’d least expect it), stretching, running – even dancing to a stereo lovingly positioned on the ground! What impressed me most was the concerted way in which every activity was performed. The Vietnamese were without doubt a very team-minded people.
Besides sports and riding their roaring motor bikes (can’t miss those anywhere in Vietnam), the locals were visibly into eating. Pots full of saliva-inducing brew began steaming early – and the first visitors did not linger to arrive. Pho bo was certainly the staple choice, contrasting somewhat with the obvious baguettes on sale from multiple street vendors around. I knew the French couldn’t just have pulled out of Vietnam without trace.
My second day in Northern Vietnam was turning out more typical for the time of the year – the skies were grey, the air somewhat chillier than expected (though decidedly above +10C degrees), and the visibility clearly lacking for proper photography. I decided to ignore the weather, headed to the Ngoc Son Temple on the Hoan Kiem Lake and then wandered into the maze of darkened streets marking the market area of Hanoi. Everything that could theoretically be on sale seemed to be on sale here – food, clothes, live roosters and electronic devices, you name it – but I was primarily into food. Great quantities of fresh produce were lying all around – I think I would have been even more impressed had it been somewhat cleaner in the streets; to say it wasn’t clean at all is to say nothing. Let’s leave the Vietnamese cleanliness standards for a later discussion though.
I checked out of my hotel, where the staff continued to pamper me beyond recognition. I was endlessly offered free coffee and soft drinks, my luggage was being carried around for me, transport arranged and smiles duly given. I felt like a queen – for a bargain price of USD 30, too! Difficult to believe that I will be dishing out more for a hostel in Norway next summer. Oh well.
My exploration of Hanoi continued in the western part of the city. Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was unfortunately closed for visitors, so I just sent the Great Leader a mental greeting and continued to the Western Lake.
Western Lake is an upmarket area of Hanoi surrounded by embassies and posh hotels. I didn’t quite get the idea though, as the lake turned out smelly beyond any imagination. I struggle to describe the exact content of the smell, but it was so strong I had to cross the busy tree-covered street to the other side – only to face the Truc Bach Lake, sadly not much of an improvement. The fishermen doing their job on the Western Lake quietly watched my exodus. What could they possibly be fishing for in that dump? I shudder to think about it.
There was still plenty of time before my train to Sa Pa, so I decided to visit the pottery village of Bat Trang. There were easier ways of reaching it, but anjči does not look for easy ways! Which meant that I headed to the suburban Long Bien bus “station” (really summarised by a few parking lots swarmed with people and their possessions) and caught bus 47 for mere 3,000 VDN – the equivalent of 10p.
To loud sounds of Vietnamese pop music, the bus took me and a handful of locals to a dirty crossroad, where we were told to get off and get on an identical (but full) bus instead. Huh?
The surroundings did not exactly look promising. Everywhere lay heaps of rubbish. I had never seen so much litter concentrated around a single city in my life. Was there no designated place for dumping trash in Hanoi? Or was it a national habit to litter everything and everywhere? As I travelled further in Vietnam, I became more and more of a believer in the latter theory – but let’s not run ahead of the train. Or bus, even.
The pottery market in the otherwise unassuming Bat Trang village was pure delight. The variety was impressive – blue and white Chinese-inspired ceramics were neighbouring decorative tea sets, massive kitsch images of animals and tiny figurines in traditional costumes. I spent about an hour wandering from stall to stall and eventually took home five little Vietnamese people (in clay, of course) and a miniature teapot.
My final adventure of the day came by spontaneously. As I was returning to Long Bien bus station in Hanoi, I spotted an exit to the Long Bien railway bridge. Unlike in Europe – where railway bridges are often inaccessible for pedestrians and road transport – this one was full of motorcycles and brisk walkers, making their way across the Red River on the narrow pavement area along the tracks. The motorcycle bit was admittedly not surprising in a city like Hanoi. Brisk walkers were more interesting. Heaven only knew what they were looking for on the other side of the bridge (2.5 km long). I decided to find out.
Long Bien Bridge has an interesting yet dramatic history. It was built in 1903 by French architects, heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and reconstructed since. Its rusty, patched up frame still bears distinct marks of the war though.
The discovery of the bridge soon turned into a sunset chase. The skies cleared up enough for the pale pink shadow of the setting sun to loom through, hanging mysteriously over Hanoi’s hazy skyline. I did not enter the bridge in search of a view, but it was indeed a great one.
(Full Flickr photo set for Hanoi)
Finally the sun hit the horizon, and I made my way to one of Hanoi’s train stations – to catch a train to Lao Cai northwest of Hanoi and near the border with China. Sa Pa was my next stop!
(Continued in Vietnam by rail II: Sa Pa)