Thursday, 13 December 2012

A few days Up North

Hoan Kiem lake in the evening
Our first day in Hanoi was quiet as we were both feeling tired from traveling. We were staying in a great little guesthouse in the Old Quarter called Madame Moon; the rooms were clean, spacious, stylish and only $25 a night. In the morning we could go to their sister hotel a few doors down for a generous breakfast on the seventh floor dining room with a view over Hoan Kiem lake. There was also a useful travel agents in the hotel. After resting up a while I took Chris around the beautiful Old Quarter and for a walk around the lake. In the evening we saw a waterpuppets performance, which Chris described quite fairly as 'boring, but a cultural experience'.

The following day we joined a tour to visit the Perfume Pagoda, a temple within a vast cave in the Huong Tich Mountain around 60km southwest of Hanoi. We were picked up by bus in the early morning for the two-hour drive, during which time it became cold and grey and rain started spitting down. Luckily the rain held off for the boat journey to the foot of the mountain, which took an hour. After arriving, we had lunch and visited a small temple. Our guide explained that a major Buddhist festival is held across the various temples in this mountain every year, so between January and March four to five million people will pass through.

A cable car system set up by a local restaurant owner can take visitors to the top of the hill, but Chris and I decided to brave the slippery steps and walk up. It was a gentle snaking route lined on either side by stalls selling tourist tat, although most of these were empty and unoccupied as it is low season. Some offered caged squirrels caught on the mountain for visitors to pay to be set free.
At the top we descended a set of steps to enter the huge cave, which was strung with Buddhist flags and glowed serenely with candlelight. From deep within its belly came the eerie chanting of praying monks. The echo from the rocks gave the impression of a hundred voices, but when we climbed down into the cave we saw there were just three monks praying in the darkness before an elaborate glowing shrine. It was very beautiful and spooky.

We came down by cable car to begin the long journey back to Hanoi by boat and bus. It was a long day of traveling for a very short amount of time spent at the temple, but with the boat ride, walk and cable car trip it was a fun and interesting day out.

At the entrance to the Perfume Pagoda
Paying my respects (while looking stylish) at the altar inside
Taking the cable car back down
On Wednesday we headed out even earlier. We were going to see Halong Bay, the beautiful landscape of karst cliffs protruding from the sea that is counted as one of the wonders of the world. I didn't want to join a tour from Hanoi as they are very expensive and I worried that the only sort within our budget would be shoddy. Instead, we travelled to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, from where I hoped we could take a trip for a lesser cost and hopefully escape the tourist rat-pack. This meant getting up at 5am to catch a 6am train to Haiphong, and then taking a boat to the island.

When we arrived at Hanoi main station it seemed that the only seats available were the hard wooden benches in the rock-bottom class. Inside the carriage it was deathly cold as the morning air whipped through the gaps around the windows, and the wooden seats were unforgiving on the bottom. It was an uncomfortable two hours!

Throughout the journey we noticed an old woman sat across from us looking over and smiling. She began talking to us and commented that we looked like a lovely couple and reminded us of her youth and being in love. She told us that she loves England and dreams of going there; sometimes she goes on Google Maps and looks at pictures of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, she said. Then we got talking about South Vietnam. She had grown up there and was in Saigon in 1975. She told me in whispers that her daughter was imprisoned for three years for dissident activity, and was under house arrest for another three. People are still afraid to talk about such things in Vietnam, she told me. She was a really interesting woman, and reminded me of the things that the older generation of Vietnamese have lived through and keep buried behind smiling faces.

We gave our friend a ride in our taxi to the town centre, before continuing to the port, from where we took a hydrofoil to the island. Most of Cat Ba is covered in jungle, and we saw this from the bus that took us round the coastline from the port to the town, where there is a strip of hotel blocks. Chris had been feeling unwell and by this time was very tired and ill, so I put him to bed after checking into our hotel and went out to find painkillers and bananas.

We had a very limited amount of time to see Halong Bay but I didn't want to rush Chris so we took our time. As we were too late for the mainstream tours which departed at 8am, one of the hotel workers offered us the use of one of his family's boats for the day for a cost of around £50. We set off at about 2pm so we didn't have time to go far before it went dark, but I still think we got a good deal. We had a large motor boat to ourselves and could recline on the top deck on a cushion and admire the beautiful scenery.

We went around Lan Ha Bay, a small part of Halong Bay that has the same geological features but is less frequented by tourists. We took a kayak to explore a beautiful cove with striking red corals and eagles soaring overhead. We also stopped off at Monkey Island, where we climbed to the top of a rocky peak for views over the bay. We heard some monkeys but didn't see any; the real monkey-man was Chris, who climbed to the highest rock and straddled a steep ledge to take photos of himself- I was very nervous!
Relaxing on the boat

The beach on Monkey Island

The view from the top

We got back just in time before it went dark. On the way back to the dock we passed through a floating village where fish are farmed. Each farm had a little house where the family would sleep, and usually a dog to protect the property. I contemplated what an unusual life it must be for somebody who had grown up on a floating home, living a poor life farming fish beneath one of the world's most stunning natural sights.

In the evening we were invited by one of the hotel staff to eat fresh seafood at a floating restaurant in the bay. We walked right in to a tourist trap- the restaurant was soulless and the seafood was overpriced. We ordered from an opening in the floor where captured fish and crabs flapped about in the sea below. I was sure to be conservative and we ordered one small crab each, costing 400,000 dong (about £12). I only had limited knowledge of how to eat crab and Chris had no idea, so we struggled through. But the green mush of its internal organs or God knows what else was more than a bit off-putting. We didn't hang around long and asked to be taken back to shore. Next, the boat driver tried to rip us off for the 40 metre boat ride- I was not happy! We went to a cafe for a second tea and picked up some chocolate brownies from the town bakery to eat back at the room.

The following day was rainy so we didn't have much to do. We spent the day traveling back to Hanoi by boat and bus; in the evening we took the overnight train to Danang, where we are tonight.

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