Having been a bit shaken up by the Vietnamese police ordeal, we were keen to get back to Hanoi as soon as possible and push on with our own schedule. As good as the Ha Giang experience had been, we’d felt very restricted by staying in one place for a relatively long period of time, with little to stimulate or entertain us. By this point, we were getting a lot out of the nomadic way of life and we wanted to see more of Vietnam and make our own decisions about where to go and what to see. After another long journey back to Hanoi, squeezed into the bottom bunk on the sleeper bus, we were relieved to arrive back at the V4d house and be reunited with a few familiar faces. We were offered the opportunity to stay an extra couple of nights at V4D, but I had been dreaming about a bit of privacy and a plush hotel room and was determined to stick with our plan, despite cost.
‘Plush hotel room’ wasn’t exactly how I would describe Hanoi City Hostel, but it ticked most of the boxes we were interested in – bath, clean sheets, private room, hairdryer! (Ironically, we went to a very plush hotel room first, greeted with porter service and a glass of fresh juice, only to discover our directions had led us to the wrong street. They did look at our backpacks with a certain amount of suspicion!)
There are no other words to describe Hanoi other than chaotic, stressful and choked with traffic. Motorbikes teaming around, weaving in and out of other motorbikes and pedestrains. Crossing the road is a nightmare – you are left with no choice but to walk out ‘slowly and carefully’ and allow the traffic to weave around you. Desperate for a taste of something different, we pounded the streets and ended up walking around in circles until hitting upon a seemingly popular place with plastic chairs and tables on a street corner. We ordered an assortment of things, including nems, sausage and chicken, only to discover it was actually pretty expensive. We made up for this on the following night when we discovered a fab beef noodle stand on the corner of Hang Bo, moments away from the hostel. So good we went twice!
Determined not to be put off by the seering heat and humidty, we enlisted the services of a friendly ‘Hanoi Kid’ – a scheme set up by local university students to offer free tours of the city in exchange for the opportunity to practice their English. First item on the agenda was the Temple of Literature. Very interesting buildings, and history, and nice grounds to get away from the noise beyond the walls. Next we were shown to a little upstairs café, popular with the locals, to try something I’d be desperate to try – coffee with egg! A nice glass of iced coffee arrived with thick, fluffy egg white on the top, ready to be stirred through to make a creamy, sweet drink. Delicious!
The next day, we were up early for a daytrip to world famous UNESCO heritage site, Halong Bay. We had always planned to visit Halong Bay during our trip to Halong Bay, but had become a bit concerned that we might not do it justice in one day. After all, it was a 3.5 hour journey each way in a tiny minibus from Hanoi, so we debated for a while but finally decided it was a must do! When we finally arrived, we got onto a junk boat and immediately sat down to a seafood lunch of fish, spring rolls, omelette and cabbage at long tables with a few other older couples. There were definitely a few ‘trophy wives’ amongst the pack – tottering around the slippery deck in heels and wide brimmed sun hats, overtly posing for photographs. After a brief trip around the bay in the junk to admire the stunning karst limestone scenery and the floating villages, we were invited to get into kayaks to get a closer view. We felt rather sorry for one Russian girl, who was bundled into a kayak on her own and set on her way. She didn’t seem to make much progress in the time we were given. Next it was onto the caves, which were all lit up in different colours (and also home to some slightly incongruous penguin bins). Whilst it was certainly a whistlestop trip and a long amount of time to spend in the cramped minibus, we were glad we had decided to go for just the one day, and felt we’d still seen enough scenery to justify going. Our boat probably wasn’t the best, and we didn’t get much time on the kayaks, but we still managed to soak up the scenery.
After a final goodbye to our V4D friends in the form of a burger (hooray, Western food for the first time in ages!) and a 15,000 dong beer, we got ready to catch the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue. We had booked into a 6 berth coach, and I had agreed to go on the top bunk as a little cost saving measure. I soon found out why these beds are the cheapest option – it was very cramped and claustrophobic, but I turned the light out, stuck my headphones in and got to sleep as soon as possible. After initial reservations, the journey was actually pretty smooth. I was rocked to sleep by the motion of the train early on, and didn’t wake until our Vietnamese roommates cranked open the curtains at daybreak. Before we knew it, 12 hours had passed and we were well on our way to Hue.
Hue immediately appealed a long more than Hanoi. Lots more open space, and pleasant tree-lined riverfront with a view to the ancient Citadel on the other side of the water. Our taxi dropped us at the guesthouse we had pre- booked on the basis of a good write up in Lonely Planet – HueNino Hotel. We weren’t disappointed;l greeted with juice and starfruit and a cold towel in the entrance lobby, surrounded by all the positive write-ups from previous guests. This guesthouse is an absolute gem, run by a very friendly and attentive family who keep the place immaculate. We certainly felt it was worth every penny we paid. The room was also extremely nice, albeit with a ridiculously small bath that I couldn’t even fit into to!
The main reason for staying in Hue was to visit the ancient Citadel, but we were a bit taken aback by the cost of the entrance fee. We decided to pay up though, since we were there. Once inside the walls, we were fascninated by the palaces and ancient ruins, and derelict war-torn ground interspersed with amazing Chinese style buildings and pagodas. This setting made for one of my favourite photographs of the trip.
The gardens were extensive, and lovely and tranquil. We could have spent hours there, with a picnic, had it not been for the intense midday heat. We needed plenty of water, and had to visit the vendors twice. Later on, we followed the recommendation of the hostel and enjoyed some delicious chicken in sesame and pork with bbq sauce and pineapple at Golden Rice restaurant.
The following day, we decided to buck the trend by not visiting the cluster of tombs around the city. In all honesty, we were feeling rather cultured out, and costs were beginning to mound, so we set off on foot to explore a few undiscovered gems of Hue. Such as an amazing pagoda and collection of buildings hidden down a side road behind the railway station. Amazing mahogany buildings decorated with beautiful silk lanterns and big open rooms for prayer and quiet reflection. As we were wandering around, we came across groups of young adults. One English speaking volunteered explained that it was a social meeting for the parents of children with leukemia. We meandered back towards the main part of Hue, and stopped for an incredible Mango shake at Lac Thien, made by a mute, deaf man who signalled for us to ‘drink up, drink up’ so that he could top up our huge glasses with the rest of the smoothie. Can safely say it was the best Mango Shake of the trip – and that’s quite a testimonial considering how many I drank!