(Emily) We said goodbye to Estebel and the lovely hostel staff and travelled south from Hue to the small town of Hoi An by bus. Although our journey was only three hours, it was part of a service that ran all the way down from Hanoi to Saigon, so was set up for overnight travel; the bus comprised of two levels of narrow single reclining casket-like seats which encased your legs in little cubby holes and were split by two aisles along the length of the coach, meaning you either had a window ‘berth’ or one down the middle. All pretty comedy, although the thought of staying aboard for a longer duration when we went up to the capital in a few days wasn’t very appealing as James was too tall for it and his feet were jammed in the cubby hole! We drove through some spectacular scenery, cursing the fact that we weren’t on our bikes (who knows why foreign registered vehicles aren’t permitted – we’d assumed it was some anti-capitalist law to keep everyone ‘equal’ but it must be a pretty archaic and out of touch one as there was no shortage of flash cars and bikes in the big cities). It was a recurring theme the whole time we were in Vietnam that we wished we had our bikes – staring out of a bus window just doesn’t cut it!
We had high hopes for Hoi An – guidebooks and friends who’d been there had sung its praises – and we weren’t disappointed. We arrived after dark and were quite simply enchanted by the old town; achingly pretty with its coloured lanterns, colonial French buildings, hanging vines and peaceful waterway. We both agreed that it was, along with Positano on the Amalfi coast, one of the most romantic places we’d ever been. It was incredible to think that it had been spared the devastation that so many other Vietnamese towns and cities had suffered during the war. In addition to the high cuteness factor, Hoi An also offered up a great selection of cafes and restaurants that wouldn’t have looked out of place in France one hundred years ago and which came as a relief as, quite frankly, the food in Vietnam hadn’t really excited us so far. It also seemed to be the country’s tailoring capital. Every second shop boasted attractive displays of Asian style clothing in beautiful coloured silks and satins alongside the latest western fashions, offering express made-to-measure services. I hardly even dared to window shop – that could have spelled the beginning of the end – but I’ll say this: anyone out there who’s looking for a holiday destination that’s a break from the norm, likes their food and has some money to spare for a whole new wardrobe, you couldn’t go far wrong with Hoi An!
Even cloud and drizzle couldn’t dampen the town’s charm when we went for a stroll the following day; it was still warm enough for shorts and t-shirts and anyway, it gave us the excuse to hole up in a cafe for the afternoon and watch the world go by. Even less touched by modernity than Hue, it was not difficult to imagine times gone by as you saw women cycling by in traditional dress, or small wooden boats selling their catch along the promenade that ran beside the canal. Esteban and Isabel arrived in Hue the day after us (we’re pretty sure they brought the rain – they have a bad habit of doing that!) and it was great to spend some more time with them. We even had an afternoon speaking only French, instigated by Esteban who speaks it fluently, along with English and his native Spanish (James: What a git!). It was great fun and gave us even more respect for travellers who are constantly having to communicate in a second language (basically, if it’s a multi-cultural group, English is always the default option. We’re not proud of this; it may make life easier for us but ultimately, we end up feeling like one trick ponies!)
All too quickly, our time in Hoi An came to an end. We could’ve easily stayed longer but the date of our flight back to Bangkok was fixed and it would be silly not visit the capital, Hanoi, while we were here. It was going to be a long bus ride- taking us the three hours back to Hue and then a further twelve hours north to Hanoi – but we were lucky that, although the bus was pretty full when we got on, we managed to get two seats next to each other (most berths were singular as described above, but along the back was a row of adjoining lounger-style seats, obviously not as popular as for most people, it inevitably meant cuddling up to a stranger!) For us, however, it was perfect as it allowed us to watch movies on the laptop together (I saw Good Morning Vietnam for the first time – I thought I should watch some of the well known Vietnam war movies while we were in the country but wanted a more gentle introduction!) and then share the iPod when it was time to sleep. We heard a bit of a horror story from one of the girls on the coach; she’d been on a public bus up in the north of the country and someone had cut her hair while she was asleep, literally cut her whole ponytail off. Scary stuff, I really understood how violated she must have felt. She’d really had enough of Vietnam, saying she was fed up with being scammed and mistreated. We were really surprised as, although the Vietnamese people we’d come into contact with had not, in general, been as warm as in Thailand, we certainly hadn’t experienced any problems or sensed anything particularly sinister (Darren narrowly avoided being pick-pocketed in Saigon, but you get that in any major city). It just goes to show that experiences can vary wildly.
We pulled up in Hanoi at 8 in the morning and stepping off the bus, the first thing that hit us was that it was f***ing cold!!! We hadn’t been expecting quite such a temperature change but although we were practically level with Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the difference was staggering (don’t worry, I do realise that weather is influenced by more than lines of latitude…) After enjoying pretty much continual warmth and sunshine ever since leaving Italy, you can understand why this was a bit of a shock to the system! Combine this with a not so great hostel that straight away fleeced us with a poor exchange rate and it wasn’t long before the phrases ‘I miss Thailand’ and ‘I want the bikes back’ were being uttered with increasing regularity. It’s fair to say that Hanoi is a world away from ‘in your face’ Saigon. There are still bars, shops, flash cars and the other trappings of capitalism but the heavy overcoat of communism is still firmly round its shoulders. I guess it’s not surprising with such a long thin country, that one end should differ so vastly from the other, particularly given the history between the north and south. Hanoi is only a few hundred kilometres from the Chinese border and it shows- culturally it is very Chinese, and the whole city has a bit of a grey, ‘oppressed’ vibe going on (the weather obviously didn’t help). (James: It wasn’t hard to see why there was a bit of animosity in Saigon towards Hanoi, as the people in the north, culturally different – Hanoi is further away from Saigon than Vientiane, Bangkok or Phnom Penh – were perceived to have come south and dominated all the top jobs). People were generally dour and tight-lipped compared with the friendliness we’d encountered in the rest of the country, and certainly a far cry from the eternal smiles we’d become accustomed to in Thailand.
It has to be said, we didn’t get up to a whole lot in Hanoi, it was just too cold! All the tour operators offered trips to Halong Bay, famed for its limestone islets, but the weather really didn’t lend itself to time on a boat and talking to a few people at the hostel who’d just been, we were satisfied we’d made the right decision.(James: our decision was made easier by the fact that the only other place in the world where these geographical features occurs is off the coast of southern Thailand – precisely where we’d been sailing just days before!) We did have to get hold of a new Thai visa for James (they’d mistakenly only given him single entry when we got our previous visas in Laos, whereas I had the double entry that we’d asked for) so we got that sorted at the Thai embassy. Aside from that, the main attraction we visited was the Temple of Literature. Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and dedicated to the teachings of Confucius, it became the country’s first university just six years later. We generally spent our time going for long walks around the city then trying to warm up in cafes (James: the weather was so unusually cold for Hanoi that schools had been closed as no buildings, including cafes, have any heating! People were even making small fires on the floors of their cafes and shops!) and starting the mammoth task of getting the blog back up to date (it had fallen somewhat by the wayside whilst Darren had been with us…) We realise that our lukewarm appraisal of Vietnam isn’t entirely fair, more a result of missing the bikes and coming from Thailand which, in case you haven’t already noticed, we love. Perhaps if we’d had the bikes and the freedom to explore, we’d have got a lot more out of the country. It also didn’t help that we happened to have the roommates from hell at the hostel in Hanoi – lights on and off all through the night and then, one night, a not so covert sex marathon to contend with (we appreciate that noise is par for the course with dorm living but c’mon!…) Luckily for us, on our penultimate night an Irish guy who’d had enough of the weather and was heading south earlier than planned let us have his private room that he’d already paid for – thanks Donal!
Our flight back to Bangkok was out of Saigon so we got an internal flight with Jetstar the day before our return to Thailand – it cost only a fraction more than the 36 hour train journey so was well worth it. The tropical warmth of Saigon was like a tonic – god knows how we’re going to get used to English winters again… (James: we’re not!), although our return was marred by the taxi driver from the airport trying to scam us by driving rings round the city to bump up the fare – he hadn’t banked on us having a road map in our bag and being able to work out what was happening! Good thing the girl running our guesthouse restored our faith; she was lovely and even shared her lunch with us when she realised we didn’t have enough dong left to get anything to eat on our last morning. A nice experience to leave Vietnam with but I’m not going to lie, we were chomping at the bit to get back ‘home’ to Thailand…
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