13 October 2011

Holding on for dear life [Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam]

Sitting on the side of the road at 5am in the Old District of Hanoi (off the overnight bus from Sapa), a couple of travelers and I were approached by a man trying to sell tours to Halong Bay. I was open to the idea, as I had been told that it costs about the same and is less hassle than doing it solo. But he obviously didn't know his audience; trying to sell luxury tours to backpackers. In the end a friend of his sold Victoria (a German cool girl I met on the bus) and I a relatively cheap 2 day/1 night tour for US$42. So by 8am that morning we were on a bus heading north.

The cruise itself was poorly organised, with average food, and they screwed you for every last penny. Mainly the drinks; charging ridiculous amounts, and even more as a 'service fee' if you brought your own (think US$20 for a bottle of wine). But you get what you pay for I guess. What was really amazing was the crew we had - everyone just clicked. We only had one night together but it was awesome. Everyone staying up for a big night on the boat, shotting vodka and sharing travel stories.

Halong Bay itself is really beautiful. It is similar to Yangshuo, except the karst mountains rise up from out of the sea. The boat cruised between these huge rock formations, which was spectacular at sunset. We visited Dau Go Cave, which was quite cool with massive stalagmites/stalactites. And on the second day we were able to go kayaking in among some beautiful caves and lagoons. All in all, if you don't mind a shitty tour (which I don't), it was a perfect way to spend a couple of days.

Back in Hanoi; I had organised a CouchSurfing - Noll, a French girl studying architecture for a year in Vietnam. Her and her flatmates were amazing! So friendly and invited me along to whatever they had on. Noll was particularly awesome. She even picked me up from the bus, throwing me on the back of her scooter and swerving her way through the insane Hanoi traffic. I will say one thing, this girl has more courage than I do... I was holding on for dear life!

I have never seen so many scooters, and in Vietnam; road rules do not count for much. But it actually seems to work really well. The scooters flow like a river, following the path of least resistance between cars and around other obstacles, everyone totally blase to what is going on around them, but at the same time totally aware. Everyone extremely rude, yet very polite. The back of Nolls scooter was the perfect introduction to Hanoi. Watching the swarms of scooters buzz through the narrow streets, lined by people in conical hats selling fruits and vegetables. The city seems to have held on to its authentic feel even after the huge tourism boom.

I didn't see many 'sights' in Hanoi, I more just wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere. And I really loved it; the city just buzzes! It is much more authentic than Sapa, which in comparison has been totally overrun with tourism. The open markets in Hanoi are amazing, but they do sell turtles (for cooking) which made me sad. The main thing that I did not enjoy; it seems like everyone is out to rip you off. And I mean everyone. It is sad, but I felt myself becoming more and more cynical, questioning everyones motives. I don't mind bargaining, but often the sellers/taxi drivers/whoever will act totally insulted and sometimes even yell or get aggressive, even though you know you are offering a fair price. It seems that every single thing you try to buy, the seller will ask a totally outrageous price for. I got to a point where I said to them straight away; just give me a fair price or I will walk away, no second chances. And even that didn't work the majority of the time.

One quick observation about Hanoi - a lot of woman seem to wander around in their pajamas at all times of day... And they have nice silky ones with colorful patterns, or big cartoon characters on them. A little strange.

I purchased an 'open bus' ticket in Hanoi, which allows me to go from Hanoi to Saigon, making a few stops along the way. It seems like a very economical and easy way to travel; the buses picking you up and dropping you at your hotel etc. I'll update you on how good it really is in a few weeks time.

Next stop is Hue, where I will meet with Yona and Simon again. Fun times ahead!

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