Thursday, 23 September 2010

Hoi An & Halong Bay (Vietnam)

After another gruelling overnight bus trip, we arrived bright and early in Hoi An, a charming little town on the coast in central Vietnam where the streets of the old town are lined with tailors' shops who do 'made to measure' clothes in 24 hours, for bargain prices. All the shops are identical in design with dark wooden shop fronts and signs with their names in gold writing.

After checking into a hotel we went to get measured up and to pick out our fabrics. Two fittings and less than a day later our new clothes were ready, packaged up and in the post back to the UK. Now let's just hope they arrive safely!

The bars and restaurants on the riverfront and nearby main streets are lined with colourful Chinese silk lanterns. Classical music is piped through the old town and after dark lanterns were floated down the river. We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An during their full moon celebrations, where the local children parade and dance through the streets in Chinese dragon costumes to the sound of taiko drums.

The bars all serve 'fresh beer' for around the equivalent of 10 pence a glass (as cheap as drinking bottled water!) and restaurants are all small, family-run affairs. If you go to the toilet in a restaurant you can expect to see the family's toothbrushes and toiletries lined up in the bathroom.
Great pride is taken in preparing the food and we've had some fantastic meals, with little worry of getting ill, especially the local specialities. I'll certainly miss the cuisine here when we move on to our next country.

The beach in Hoi An is the best beach we've been to yet. 30km of golden sands stretch between Hoi An and Danang and standing on the shore, the beach is all you can see in either direction. The sea was like bath water, but still offered relief from the sweltering temperatures in the sun. So scorching was the sun that Kev even managed to burn whilst sitting in the shade!

From Hoi An we took the overnight train from nearby Danang to capital city, Hanoi. We spent 16 hours on a hard bed, but it felt much more civilised and comfortable than taking the sleeper bus again - and also made for a good opportunity to meet the locals. I awoke in the morning to find two Vietnamese people sat on the end of my bed, chatting.

Like the vehicles on the road, the train also drives with the 'hand on horn' approach so we were glad not to be sitting too close to the driver's cab. It's not uncommon to see people walking along the train tracks, where they run parallel to the side of the road as it's safer than walking along the roadside, so I guess that makes sense to sound the horn.

Breakfast on the train consisted of steamed rice, chicken, cucumber and a portion of watery soup with green leaves and herbs. A bit of an alternative to our usual fare but enjoyable nevertheless. Coffee in Vietnam is served strong and sweet with a dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass - quite an acquired taste when I'm so used to my cup of tea in the morning, but the strong coffee certainly does the trick!

By the time we arrived in Hanoi our time in Vietnam was really beginning to run low so we jumped straight on a tour to Halong Bay, foregoing any major sight-seeing in Hanoi itself.

Halong Bay was every bit as stunning as we had hoped for. We boarded a traditional Chinese junk boat in the morning and checked into our cabin and had lunch on deck. Being low season, there were only six of us on the tour, so we had time to fit in more to our itinerary and a had nice laid-back group.

Highlights were visiting Ti Top Island and climbing the 424 steps to the summit, affording us some stunning views out across the bay. We also had an opportunity to kayak to the 'Hidden Lagoon', whose entrance was through a low cave. Once inside we could see the limestone formations and dense jungle up close. You can imagine my delight when we saw a group of 8 or 9 monkeys - including some tiny babies - frolicking on the cliffs and swinging from the trees by the water's edge. I think this was a personal favourite moment of the trip so far!

We spent a night on the boat and were awoken at 1am by a spectacular thunder and lightening storm. The lightening was like nothing I have seen before, flickering incessantly like a broken strip light, lighting up the bay as the seas stirred up and the boat twirled around it's anchor. The thunderstorm continued on through the early hours of the morning and we all took to watching it - far more exciting than trying to sleep.

We spent a final night in Ha Noi where we sampled some of the street food and a couple of local beers before getting up early for our flight to Malaysia.

The taxi we got to the airport was terrifying! Not only was the fuel gauge flashing on empty for the entire 30km journey but the driver kept falling asleep at the wheel. His response to this was to pull into the slow lane with his indicator on. Unfortunately he spoke no English so didn't understand when we tried to tell him to pull over for a bit. We basically had to watch his eyes and shout at him if he looked like he was drifting off. It was such a relief when we finally arrived safely at the airport!

So our next stop is Kuala Lumpur for two nights then it's off to Borneo.

Speak to you again soon.

Sarah & Kev xx

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