Diary Notes from Hanoi, Vietnam, and Koh Tao, Thailand, August 2009

Hanoi

On my first day in Hanoi I felt quite isolated- was it the lack of sleep over the previous two nights, the being there on my own, or the insane hustle and bustle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, quite unlike anything I’d seen before? Probably a bit of all three. I arrive mid-afternoon, but was drained and depleted after far too little sleep in the run up to my departure from Seoul. Still, after a quick shower and change, I was out on the streets of the Old Quarter. I wandered to Hoan Kiem Lake, the centre of the area, and around the bustling streets. The Old Quarter is quite unlike anything I’d seen before- on the one hand it’s the “Asia we dreamed of from afar”, as the Lonely Planet puts in, and on the other it’s the Asia we dread. Enchanting, photogenic, vibrant and diverse, it is also polluted, crowded, hot and hard to navigate, with tons of mopeds and motorcycles clogging the roads, and street sellers dispelling any notion of pavement space. I enjoyed my first day there- I could see its charms- but I also knew too much would be too much too soon (certainly in a sleep deprived state). After wandering for a while I stopped to enjoy a mango smoothie in a bar overlooking the lake, then in the evening went out and tried my first authentic Vietnamese food- a bowl of Pho, which was packed full of basil, lime, bean sprouts and succulent chicken. Excellent first meal! After a Bia Ha Noi, I headed home for a recuperative nights rest.

Day two started early- I was up at 8am, but after a 10 hour sleep was ready to go. My first destination was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I set off, fully confident in finding my way there, but somehow ended up at the Temple of Literature instead. Hmm. Setting off again, I was soon completely lost in the backstreets of Hanoi, and had to go into a nicely air-conned bank for assistance. The kind lady called me a taxi, and after a 4km ride (how had I got so lost!?) I arrived at the mausoleum. My encounter with “Uncle Ho” was brief, and very similar to my encounter with Lenin 4 years previously in Moscow. Ho was in a very similar black and gold coffin to Lenin, and was flanked by 4 guards. In total there were 9 guards in the small, cold chamber where he was displayed. His small wizened body differed very little to my memories of Lenin, save for a different beard style- more wispy. After Ho I went to Ho’s Museum, and the One Pillar Pagoda. Both did what they said- except that the Museum was more surreal than informative, at times appearing like some strange Star Trek set. I was fighting the sweat at this time, and after a stop off for coffee, headed (back) to the Temple of Literature. There I met Anthony, a Brit, in the queue, and we chatted and wandered before going for lunch at the highly recommend KOTO. KOTO is an NGO training street kids to jobs in the tourism industry, built on the same principles as Jamie Oliver’s “15”. The food, drink and service were all amazing- we had chicken skewers with mint, and a green mango salad with sesame prawns. I’ll be going back when my friend Michelle arrives. After the excellent lunch we went to the War Museum. It was packed full of old photos, which included some great snaps of Ho Chi Minh meeting fellow communist dignitaries- laughing over tea and cigers with Mao Zedong, and another photo of Fidel Castro towering over the Vietnamese generals around him. It also included great rhetoric- one exhibit was entitled the “Air War of Terror”- more evocative and descriptive than inaccurate I’m sure, but amusing nonetheless.

On returning from the War Museum me and Anthony were accosted by pineapple sellers. Throwing their heavy scales on both of my shoulders, and putting the conical hat on me, they then insisted on taking some pictures of me before attempted to sell us pineapple at outrageous prices. We slowly extricated ourselves from the situation, with only minimal damage to our wallets. After a fair slice of war and pineapple, we headed to “Le Pub” for a beer break, before saying our goodbyes. I returned to the hotel to pack my stuff for the early start to Halong Bay the next day, and in the evening met a CouchSurfer, MaiAnh. Speeding around on the back of her moped added a whole new perspective to the Old Quarter. It was infinitely preferable to walking, but also more dangerous. We went to “Highway Four”, a sociable restaurant with low tables, and ordered all manner of Vietnamese delights- soup, fish spring rolls, and fruit wine that came in peach, apricot, passion fruit and mulberry flavours. After dinner, we rode around the central lake, before stopping for ice cream.

Halong Bay

The next day I was to embark upon my cruise of Halong Bay with Vega Tours. Starting early, I was mostly groggy for the 3 1/2 hour journey to Halong City. Once on board the ship, I got to know my fellow passengers and relax a bit more after initial uneasiness at being the only single traveller in the group. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t entirely on our side, but although it was at times rainy the activities were enjoyable and the scenery breathtaking. We sailed into the bay, then had a seafood lunch before exploring a huge cave, called the “Surprising Cave”. After, we moved to a new area and did some kayaking, before me and Dutch guy JW leapt off the top of our boat into the azure water. In the evening more delicious food- some delicately flavoured fishcakes with lemongrass, barbequed prawns, fries with heaps of chili and garlic, and a huge white fish, coked with garlic, chili and lime. The evening was spent playing cards with the nice Dutch couple JW and Juudith, and Spaniard Carlos, as well as our Vietnamese tour guide Trang (Tiger), a friendly, fun guy.

Back To Hanoi

Friday began at 7:30, but as I’d got to sleep around 11 the previous night I was pretty well rested. I sat upstairs and wrote my diary while others swam, and enjoyed the less frenetic pace compared to the previous day. After swimming, we picked up some more travellers who’d been on a 3-day trip, and made the slow journey back to Halong Bay City, then Hanoi.
In the evening I saved money by having that greatest of meals- a kebab, fairly cheap at 50p. I then met a second CouchSurfer, Trang. We had a fun evening, more zooming around the Old Quarter (this time at death defying speeds), then a quintessential Vietnamese experience- Beer Hoi. Perched on small stools, we gulped down the 3,000 dong (11p) beers while people watching. It was an interesting experience, but I did find we were incredibly close to the road, and it certainly wasn’t relaxing.

Saturday already! Wow. I woke up early, and soon met my South African friend Michelle outside our original hostel. I’d been moved twice- a bit of a pain in the arse, but shit happens I guess. We first wandered round the Old Quarter to the lake, and had a delicious Vietnamese coffee while catching up. Then we set off to our first sight of the day- Ho Lao Prison Museum. The prison was used by the French throughout the first half of the 20th century- indeed into the 1950s- and counts John McCain among its former inmates. It was a very interesting place. After “prisoning” we headed (back) to KOTO for lunch- slightly less great this time but nonetheless delish. The afternoon was spent wandering around the History Museum and the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, and after lazing around back at Ms hotel, we headed for dinner at “Restaurant 69”- slightly unimpressive, but good refuge from a torrential downpour.

Day of Travel

The day of travel was long and boring. After waking up at 6 I was to keep going until 12 midnight, at which point I would succumb to sleep on a night boat more akin to a converted diasaster relief area than any sort of night train I’d slept on in the past. I left Hanoi early, and after some breakfast Pho, caught the train to Bangkok’s Suratbidoobiani (or something like that) Airport. There I had a long wait before the AirAsia flight to Surat Thani, after which I waited 7 hours in that (to be brutally honest) crap town before the night boat. I did manage to catch the ManYoo-Blues game in a hotel lobby though, and meet some fellow travellers for a card game on the boat. I slept well, despite the location…

Koh Tao

…and then I woke up, on the island paradise of Koh Tao. My first day was spent beach hopping on my rented Kawasaki dirt bike, which had some kick! I whiled away the day- it was lovely, as was the weather.

Although I had limited time, I crammed in an SSI Open Water Diver course. Time spend on the beach was nice, but relaxing is overrated- even after a couple of hours rest the previous day I’d rented the dirt bike. This way I got the qualification and had fun with other travellers. After my first days training, I still had the evening to relax, ponder and reflect on many things.
The last dives, on the morning of the 20th, were definitely the best. It was an early start- 6.30am- but the water was crystal clear and there were loads of things to see- Angel fish, Clown fish (Nemo), Box fish, Trigger fish, as well as Manta Rays, eels, seahorses and jellyfish. It was a wonderful experience, truly like enterting another world. We dived on 3 dive sites- Mango Bay, Twins, and White Rock.

I got rather drunk on buckets of Samson rum with two English girls on my last night on Koh Tao, and thus started off the next day sleep deprived and with a cracking hangover. I slept for most of the boat journey to Chumphon, and the subsequent bus ride to Bangkok, which got in at 8.30 and meant I’d done 10 hours of travelling that day. Once safely ensconsed in my hotel, I had a final Chang beer, and read my book until sleep overcame me.

A Return (Of Sorts)

The next day was more travelling. After a better sleep, I caught my flight to Hanoi. I decided to catch the bus into the city this time, instead of getting a taxi, and what a good decision it proved. Fifty times cheaper at 5,000 dong compared to 250,000 dong, I spent the journey gazing out at rice fields from backroad streets instead of the busy highway. Gentle Vietnamese music played in the background, and I was the only foreigner on the bus. I used the time to reflect on how much more appealing Vietnam felt as a cultural destination compared to south Thailand. On the other hand, Thailand had the comfort, better food and knockout beaches. I felt I’d balanced my trip well, with two very different destinations in Hanoi & Koh Tao. As the bus winded down the lanes, rice fields stretching off on either side and women wearing conical hats labouring in the afternoon sun, I reflected on my trip- on the people I’d met, on the places I’d been and the things that I’d experienced. A return to Seoul and ensuing nostalgia and finality was to come, but in that moment on the bus I felt contentment and peace.

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