Hanoi to Halong bay
Map of eastern Vietnam

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Today, we headed for Hanoi in Vietnam, anything to get away from Bangkok and the Songkran festival.

Hanoi seemed to be crammed with old charming French architecture. The place itself seemed to be a very busy city, flooded with motorcyclists that seemed to rule the roads and the pavements too.

Motorbikes, motorbikes everywhere.

The crazy unremitting noise of horns being applied seemed endless, as scooters, motorcyclists and cars swarmed around pedestrians like a swarm of bees as they attempted to cross the road. A collection of spent fuel and burnt carbons filled the air, obviously, one would get used to it before it pickled your brain.

Have a drink on me.

We stayed at the Essence d’ Orient, which was very nice. After lunch, we walked through the crowded streets in and amongst the locals, tourists and motorcyclists. Crossing the roads became an art form. If you wanted to cross the road you simply just had to take that risk.

There was the lovely attractive Hoan Kiem Lake and Annie had made a mental note of where it was. This made up for some rather interesting leisurely walks. Hoan Kiem, in Vietnamese means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword.’ In the middle of the lake near the northern tip, was an island with the Turtle Tower. Legend has it that in the 15th Century, the emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God appeared and requested him to hand him back the magic sword that he’d borrowed earlier from a local God, the Dragon King and had never handed it back to him.  The story obviously goes on.

Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake

The lake was now grey, with the edges looking shimmeringly green as the trees around the periphery caught their reflections in the constant moving ripples.

We decided to walk around the western side of the lake, probably because it looked the most accessible and the most interesting. The park perimeter must have been around two kilometres in distance. It was a busy park, teaming with people, from those exercising to those just out for a leisurely stroll. I don’t think I’d ever seen a park so busy with people in it.

‘Annie keep hold of that handbag of yours, I’ve heard of people going around with sharp knives and cutting the straps of those. Don’t give them the opportunity.’ I said, slightly concerned about the crowds.

The Turtle Tower caught our imagination. A fine piece of French architecture probably dating back to the nineteenth century. I remember reading somewhere that the French placed a statue of Liberty on the top of it, which was destroyed when the Tran Trong Kim government took over from the French administration back in 1945.

We walked along the busy Pho La Thai To Road. I think Pho means road? Along this road, another major project that was going on was the construction of what looked like a twenty-first-century shopping centre. All along the front of the road was an artificial painted facade with elegant doorways and romantic balconies. In one part they had actually constructed a real balcony as if to make it look more authentic. One certainly had to look twice at it. Very cleverly done.

Can you spot the balcony?
The above picture at night

After dinner, we decided to go exploring the town by a rickshaw.

‘Come on Annie, let’s go, this could be fun, plus we only have a few days here and this might be our best opportunity in seeing the city.’

Annie was more than happy to go along with my wishes.

‘He doesn’t look very fit though does he?’ Annie remarked by comparison.

‘Don’t worry, if he collapses, I’ll take over.’

Annie and me in the Sans Souci rickshaw

We clambered onto the Sans Souci rickshaw in the hope of making the best of our tour. The first place he struggled to take us to was the Opera House, erected in 1911 in grand French-Colonial architecture style and designed by Charles Garnier. Like any building built in that period it looked stunningly beautiful, more so due to the fact that it was all lit up for the night.

The second place we went to was St Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-gothic structure, having majestic spires. It is located in and amongst the Old Quarter’s twisted narrow streets, on the site of a former pagoda. It is said that one will be bowled over by the stained glass windows and European decorations.

We arrived there at a quarter to eight in the evening. The cathedral-like all attraction was flooded with light revealing the wonders of this architecture.

St Joseph’s Cathedral

We spent almost forty-five minutes with him cycling around, dodging the confused traffic and escaping tragedy on a small scale. His cycling heroics were nearly as fascinating as the sights themselves, not that it frightened us, luckily the traffic within Hanoi went at a rather dreamily slow pace.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Today we were off on a two-day tour to Halong Bay which took us five hours to get to the sea.

Me being chattered up by a street vendor outside our hotel
This lady diddled me out of a lot of cash

Once on our cruiser, we were given our cabin numbers We immediately went to settle in. I reckoned that Annie and I had got the crème d’ la crème. We were right at the back of the boat sitting on the stern. So if there was going to be a party then we’d be the furthest away from all the noise.

Not quite the Titanic

Across the bay, we sailed with the ocean air permeating my nostrils. There in the midst of the sea where the large strange looking pinnacles of oddly shaped limestone peaks that had heads of vegetation growing on their tops. This breathtaking natural scenery slowly and mysteriously came into view through the haze like a wandering ghost that had haunted the place for aeons.

The cluster of small islands, small inlets and primitive caves shadowy came into view, displaying their treacherous crags and karst features. The fascinating view of what Mother Nature can produce over 500,000,000 million years, it was quite awesome. Sediment layering to plate tectonics was clearly visible as this landscape displays the changes that have taken place throughout the ages from mountain growth to marine degeneration, from mountain sinking and natural erosion. Not surprising that UNESCO declared this 1,553 km area has a World Heritage Site back in 1994.

Halong Bay with many other cruisers

In the evening, Annie, two Filipinos and I chattered while we listened to music. The rest of our group had gone downstairs to the disco. The two women were both teachers from Laos.

Me at Halong Bay
Annie and me, with Halong Bay behind us

Downstairs the disco started and with it so did the drinking marathon. Those that were down there sounded quite amusing as they attempted renditions of ABBA’s Mamamia, with the males doing most of the singing. Other songs included Black is Black by Belle Epoque, Queen’s, Bohemian Rhapsody and the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody, There were more but, I simply either didn’t know them, or I simply forgot them over our conversation.

We got ready for bed in our rather cramped quarters, which consisted of a double bed and cupboards on the walls, there was enough room to swing a cat around in. We also had the smallest of showers.

The ebb tide must have rocked me to sleep as the boat oscillated back and forth to the sound Queen’s Dancing Queen that came from the disco, but surprisingly it was now denuded of singers.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

It was half past five in the morning. We decided to get up and go onto the deck to watch the sunrise, but like yesterday it was cloudy, the sea looked murky grey and far away from being aqua blue as the tour operators try to proclaim.

‘Ha! typical, we’ve got wall-to-wall cloud again.’ I retorted.

‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it, we’ll just have to make the best out of it.’

The silent waters of Halong Bay

After breakfast, we went kayaking wearing our brightly coloured orange life jackets on, there we were let loose onto the open water.

‘Come on Annie, that’ll be fun.’

‘Do you know how to do this?’

‘I’ve done a bit of canoeing before, I’m sure the principles are the same.’

We got into the fibreglass shell and with a push, we were off.

Another group just about to take their own lives into their own hands.

It took a moment to fathom out how to steer the damn thing, but with practice and determination, we were able to manoeuvre it. Annie sat in the front while I sat behind. Our group were all scattered all over the place with their brightly coloured life jackets on, we were easily visible, just in case we confronted a Kraken like a sea monster.

‘We are going out too far. We won’t get back. We don’t have a lot of time left.’ Winged Annie.

‘Don’t worry, beyond the horizon is the edge of the world. That is where we’ll fall off, never to be seen again.’

‘I’m been serious! you’re OK you can swim, I’m not very good at it.’

‘What! at rowing or swimming.’ I said trying to make another joke out of the situation.

The Limestone scenery at Halong Bay

I went into a song. ‘I am sailing, I am sailing, home again, across the sea…’ I reckon I was better looking than Rod Stewart, but unfortunately a few pounds short of his financial clout. ‘You liked that, didn’t you?’

‘Should I?’ Annie said amusingly. This was starting to become her catchphrase.

We messed around rowing around in rather obscure and strange, erratic circles as we followed suit in what everybody else was doing.

Our sailing eventually came to an end and we headed back Hanoi to enjoy: Hanoi crispy beef spring rolls, stir fry chicken, mixed vegetables and chicken fried rice. We had Hanoi beer to drink too which was mighty refreshing in itself. The past two day’s had been fun.

Friday, April 15, 2016

It was around half past eight by the time we set off walking, we were attempting to reach Hanoi’s West Lake. With the aid of a map, we headed out. It took us around an hour to get there. Our first impressions of the lake were that it was dirty.

The red brick Tran Quoc Pagoda

The Chua Tran Quaoc caught our attention or at least the red brick Tran Quoc Pagoda did at eleven stories high. The Chinese temple site has a history of over 1,500 years and is considered as being one of the oldest in Hanoi.

From where we were standing for all we might have known it might have been part of a Lego theme park, in that it looked so colourful.

Later we came across a large statue of V. I. Lenin in a quiet park area.

A statue of V. I. Lenin

We had lunch at Ngon Villa, this looked quite a trendy place to dine. We went upstairs to find a room painted in dust blue, on display as if for decoration there were what looked like wrought iron candlesticks, and on the ceiling, there was a candelabra made out of the same material. On one of the walls was a handless clock, evidence that time played no purpose in this part of the world. Half-burnt candles were scattered around with a bookshelf with vases and jugs taking up space, which should have been reserved for books. The place itself looked cold and lifeless, but strangely comfortable.

‘What do you make of this place?’ I asked Annie as she glanced around.

‘It’s a little strange.’

‘Ere,’ I said interjecting.

‘Cold and mysterious.’

The strange candelabra
The handless clock, no time wasters here

Today’s menu was the Vietnamese style, which consisted of spring rolls and stir-fried rice. To drink we relaxed with a Halida beer, the pride of Vietnamese beers. To help improve the ambience of the place they played the music of Ella Fitzgerald, something that I was more than happy to listen to.

‘Will you take a photograph?’

‘Yes of course.’

I straightened my hair and then took her camera off of her.

‘Smile’ I said. Then turning the lens to face me and happily took two photographs of myself.

Me taking a picture of myself, Oh no!!!! NOT A SELFIE !!!!!!!!!!!!

‘There you asked me to take some photograph, so I have done, one has to use one’s own initiative if instructions aren’t given – ha ha ha.’

Annie took her camera back,

‘I’ll take them myself – thank you!’

I knew she saw the funny side to it all, but she just didn’t let on, but her demeanour said it all.

Friday afternoon seemed to be a lazy day, we just seemed to walk around the old quarter of Hanoi.

As the afternoon descended into the evening we ended up walking around the lake, we called in at a rather upmarket restaurant that was inside the park and next to the lake. There we had ice cream. It was nice to simply relax after we had walked what seemed like miles.

Later we decided to go for a stroll around the park as there wasn’t really much more for us to do in the time that we had left.

The street scene in Hanoi

The crowds swarmed, buzzing with a cacophony of conversation, which just added to was the noise of the traffic that sounded at times like it was racing both inside as well as around the park.

We had decided to walk in the opposite direction to what we normally did, not that we were expecting to see anything different, but the crowds of the park path seemed more intense than ever. Were they simply multiplying as we walked?

‘Keep hold of the bag of yours with all these crowds.’ I said concerned with the large uncomfortable amounts of boisterous teenagers around.

‘I’m holding it tight.’

‘No, I mean by the handles not the strap.’

The Turtle Tower all aglow

By now we were walking up the east side of the lake, the crowd here had spread out, more thanks to there being a larger open space. I looked behind to view the Turtle Tower, but it wasn’t the monument that caught my attention, but two youths that were about two metres immediately behind us, I sensed that they were following us.

‘Come, Annie, let’s go down here towards the lake.’

Our sudden reaction was obviously going to make them respond, which is what precisely what I wanted, but they seemed to suddenly melt back into the crowds.

‘What’s up?’ Annie asked being somewhat concerned.

‘Nothing – I mean, I thought we were being stalked. Come on everything is OK now.’

‘Do you want to go back.’

‘No, we’ll be OK.’

We continued as if nothing had happened taking in the atmosphere of the park.

‘I wonder how many parks in the world got as busy as this one at this time of day?’ I said rather intrigued by the volume. I pondered over my comment believing that most people, especially in the UK, would be dead scared of venturing into a park at this time of night.

Nearly bedtime, by the look of things

The jovial atmosphere was all around, I glanced around seeing locals having fun, but as soon as looked around I suddenly discovered that those two boys were at it again and this time they were closer. I decided to take an immediate gamble and decided to stop in my tracks and I turned around, not exactly to confront them, but more to see what they’d do next. They looked at each other and continued on their way. I watched them as they walked off, never once did they look behind.

‘What’s up?’ Annie asked surprised at my sudden stance.

‘Them two boys there have been following us. Probably up to no good.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yes, I’m fine. Let’s go up and continue on this path.’

The Hoan Kien Lake at night

The rest of our walk went to plan. We had no more stalkers and I think we both continued being relaxed about it all, but soon it was time to head back for the day.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Today, was the day of our Ninh Binh trip, this was the excursion that Annie had really been looking forward to. On our way, we passed rice fields that stretched for miles. Considering that there was a drought in most places the crops seemed to be doing well.

‘What’s that in the middle of the fields?’ Annie commented.


‘No. That structure looks like a burial site.’

We were later to find out that they bury their parents’ bodies in the fields and leave them for five years to decompose. Then they dig them up and wash and clean their bones down. The belief is that by having clean bones, they will be clear and be pure forever and it will help their crops to grow.

We eventually reached Ninh Binh, which was deep in the north of Vietnam on the Red River Delta. The area was known for its green valleys and karst knolls and mountains. Our guide could speak good English and he was more than willing to attempt to answer any of our questions regarding the area.

Cycling in Vietnam
Annie with a bike near a rice field

The first challenge of our tour was to go cycling. We picked up our bicycles from Phuoang Anh. Some of the bikes were in a poor state of repair with faulty brakes and flat tyres, but we seemed to pick the best ones, which had been hidden from view.

Once everyone was equipped we set off. The roads here were quiet, which seemed to fit quite nicely with the tranquillity of the place. The nearby river was awash with long rowing boats, just waiting to be towed away, but for the moment we off cycling.

Boats galore, come and take your pick.

Once we got going the scenery was fantastic, rice fields after rice fields with craggy looking mountainous knolls dotted all over the place, like giant monsters having all the same green coloured hair. They looked identical to the ones that we’d seen down in Halong Bay only two days ago.

Fabulous scenery with the rugged landscape

Our guide took us between ready for harvest paddies and across flowing streams. Our cycle was interesting. At one point we stopped, allowing the slower cyclists to catch up with us.

We were later to find out that they made snake wine here too. ‘Most of the snakes are put into a jar with wine. Then it is left for several months for the alcohol to break down the toxins.’ Our guide informed us before continuing. ‘Another way of doing it is to cut off the snake’s head and pour the spurting blood into a container and mix the same portion of wine with the snake blood and drink it.’

We cycled in a big circle before returning back. The second part of our journey started at Tam Coc Wharf. We boarded our long tail boats and from there our own personal oarsman or woman rowed us around a circuit. Some of the rowers wore their conical coolie hats; popular here in South East Asia.

The murky rivers of Vietnam

Strange as it sounds, but the oars person sat back in their chair and powered the oars with their feet – yes, bare feet at that. I could see the logic, owing to the fact that legs are generally stronger than arms, but this was certainly not the most orthodox way of doing this, but certainly effective.

Along with this man-made waterway we went, in places the trees had been shaped to look like open umbrellas, I presumed they’d used a form of topiary to achieve that.

Fancy trees at the side of the river

We eventually entered a cave and in doing so we were issued with a torch to illuminate the surroundings. As we went through this large cave you could see the formation slowly taking shape of stalagmites beginnings to form from the fault lines in the roof. They looked like serrated knife blades cutting through the rock.

A colony of bats

Our final excursion was to Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s old capital in the 10 and 11 century. The temple complex was Dinh Tien Hoang, which was still in the Ninh Binh province.

The attraction was more to do with looking around the ancient relics of a bygone era. We entered through the gateway to the Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang, although the archways looked more like it had been constructed in the last ten years or so.

Dinh Tien Hoang

Inside the wall of this ancient noble temple was the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital Festival in full swing – a regal ceremony. The ladies wore wonderfully coloured silk gowns in pinks, reds, greens, and gold with elaborate headdresses. On their feet, in most cases, they wore red slipper type shoes. I don’t think any of us really knew what was going on or what was being offered as part of the ceremony, but it was certainly eye-catching.

Hoa Lu Ancient Ceremony
Extremely colourful
It looked like some fancy elaborate costume drama

The day had been an interesting one, climatizing in ancient pageantry. We eventually found our way back to the bus and headed back to Hanoi.

End of the and the sun ready to set