Monday, January 08, 2007

Mission Accomplished

Insofar as my trip had any sort of destination, I have arrived at it - Hanoi. Technically, I arrived here on Friday, but that was at 4:30 in the morning, when I had no idea what to do with myself - I was at the railway station with no idea where the nearest suitable hotel was, or whether they'd even take in a lodger at such a time, which put me at the mercy of any driver or tout who might wander along. In search of a coffee, I sat at a sort of cafe and was presented with a bowl of pho - not ordered but very welcome. Wandering around the platform (the station itself was all locked up, dark and silent) I found a little booth selling tickets to, as it happens, Haiphong. Since one of my half made plans was to go there and catch a hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island, I was pleased to find there'd be a train out that way in an hour. I was on it, and two days later, was back in Hanoi to spend the last few days of the trip in one place for once.

Way back in Chiang Mai airport, I was talking with a Vietnamese couple who decided that I would like Vietnam: they were right. I have found the people very friendly, the towns interesting, the countryside gorgeous - all in all, mt week has generated a sense of complete well-being. Not to say that in other places, I haven't had the feeling of being really contented, but here it is for some reason more sustained.

I came in by bus from Phnom Penh: the border post was rather more elaborate than that at my entry point to Cambodia - a rather ornate concrete building, three lanes of traffic, a "duty free mega store" and several large hotels and casinos visible. It was all a bit much for the Japanese tourist on my bus - he wandered anxiously around for the entire 30 minutes or so it took to process us, clearly thinking he'd never see his luggage or passport again and not having much of an idea as to why either had been taken off him. He was at peace for maybe half a minute when I explained it was "customs, immigration" but after that was off again.

We had barely crossed the border before greater HCM City started to make its presence felt; it took around an hour just to navigate the last few kilometres of narrow streets. This was a surreal experience, as it was dark and the only other traffic were the thousands of people on motorcycles. Because it was dark, I couldn't actually see the motorbikes - it looked like the thousands of people were simply sittiong down yet somehow moving. This effect was particularly spectacular at roundabouts. That was Friday evening - I was in HCM City until New Years and then headed north. Despite the Vietnamese New Year being in February, a lot was being made of New Year's Eve, at least in the more touristed area of HCM where I was - a stage had been set up in the park, with entertainment provided every night since before Christmas. The main street through the backpacker area was closed off, and another stage set up, along with lots of tables from the various restaurants. Spending time there was a nice way for me to acknowledge the change of year - I got chatting to a local, who seemed a bit bemused by some of the acts on stage. When the breakdancers came on, he threw up his hands and said "those people are crazy!"

Old Ho Chi Minh is still referred to as Saigon - on the Saigon waterfront, there is a very well defined city centre - a few commercial buildings, several parks and markets but the buildings which really dominate this area are the hotels - the tallest buildings I have seen since Bangkok, if not Singapore. It would be very easy to spend quite a lot of time just relaxing in the old school hotel bars and enjoying the view, either at ground level or from the elevation of a hotel balcony. It would also be very easy to have a lot of money soaked up in the process! It was a bit beyond my budget to stay in this area, and the backpacker hotels I had approached were all full, so I found a very nice hotel in the fringe area between the two districts, run by a very charming older couple and was happy. The only specific thing I went out of my way to see was the art gallery - a three storey building around a courtyard which had been privately occupied by a businessman (when I read this, I could not imagine what he would have done with all that space). Unlike most galleries in the west which try to get lots of old Masters which leads to many portraits, pictures on religious themes or bowls of fruit, this gallery had paintings which mainly depicted Vietnam's recent history - with a couple of rooms devoted solely to its armed struggle.

I left on New Year's Day - a hard seat (i.e. wooden slats) train to Nha Trang - a beutiful coastal town about 8 hours up from HCM. Of course, I didn't know this when booking my tickets, had only chosen it because it was the last place the train stopped before dark, so was only there overnight (if you can call leaving at 5:30 overnight!). I'd have loved to stay there longer. Same with Hoi An - this was a major trading town set up by the Chinese, and still intact: another UNESCO World Heritage site, set on a canal. Very picturesque, particularly at night - in addition to the lights from the various open fronted restaurants and shops, severl shops were selling brightly coloured lampshades, all of which were illuminated. The buildings appeared to be immaculate; very nice to see them still in daily use rather than being turned into some sort of stagnat museum pieces.

But I was staying in Da Nang, which is not very picturesque, and had bought my ticket on the sleeper for Hanoi before I saw Hoi An, so couldn't spend more than an afternoon an eveing there.

As mentioned, once in Hanoi, it was almost immediately off to Hai Phong (another hard seat), where I fell victim to a minor hustle. A fellow claiming to work for the station told me that the last fast boat for the island was leaving within half an hour, I needed to "hurry, hurry sir, hurry". An accomplice at the station sold me a ticket at an inflated price, then he had me on his moto before I'd even drawn breath and, after a freaky trip conducted in great haste to the boat, demanded an extortionate fee for his services - I did get him to come down a bit, but was in a poor position as he had my boat ticket in his pocket. I know now there were other, albeit slower, boats so no real hurry was needed.

Cat Ba Island is towards the south of the cluster of 3000 limestone rock islands in Ha Long Bay - it is the largest and, I think, the only inhabited one. Its main town is about 30 hotels facing the boat harbour, loads of restauants, some minimarts and peral sellers. It was near deserted when I was there - only two of the restaurants had any customers when I walked past, and there were very few hotel lights showing. But it was very peaceful - lots of lights from the boats tied up in the harbour, as well as a couple of floating restaurants and the festive streetlights put up for Christmas. To get back to the mainland, I came by junk to Ha Long Bay - this plots a path through many of the 3000 islands - it is possible to take day trips into the islands and sleep overnight, but I was finding it quite cold and the various activities put in as extras for the trips didn't really appeal. The trip I did do gave me a nice look at the islands, which is all I was really interested in.

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