Days 76 To Hanoi
Our driver from the tour yesterday cheerfully picks us up this morning to drop us back at the airport for our last flight of the trip (before the marathon one taking us home).
An hour or so over the South China Sea brings us into Hanoi. We have the usual masquerade of trying to find a taxi driver who won't rip us off (only a problem at airports). Typically, the approach used is to ignore Ruth and talk about football to me ("Wayne Rooney's good, huh?") aggrieving both of us in the same move. Finally finding the queue of city cabs, we get a lift to our hotel in Old Town. Hanoi is Vietnam's capital, though the population is much lower than Ho Chi Minh (somewhere near 8m people to Ho Chi Minh's 14m). The traffic is a whole new type of crazy; the streets of old town are barely wide enough to get a car down, so we're the subject of an orchestra of scooter-horns by the time we pull up to the hotel.
We have an early start tomorrow and have more nights in Hanoi afterwards, so aren't looking for much more than a mooch around today. We walk to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword - a sort of King Arthur and Excalibur bit of folklore, only with more magic turtles). The streets here are amazing: stalls crammed in wherever there's space, electricity pylons which must be an absolute swine to investigate when there's a power cut, and people drinking "fresh beer" (brewed that morning we are told) in bars on the road. We treat ourselves to another Vietnamese coffee at the top of the lake which, even after a few weeks, Ruth is not convinced by. It provides all the sugary, caffeiney goodness I was after though - I feel like Asterix after a slug of magic potion (before the inevitable come-down where I'm more like Eeyore after his tail's fallen off). Interestingly, there is also an "egg coffee" on offer here, which we opt to save for another day.
We walk south around the lake, and the buildings overlooking it begin to get a bit grander than the small colourful blocks of old town. Grand, palatial affairs towering up into the skyline. We stop at a ridiculous-looking hotel - the Metropole, which would look opulent along Piccadilly - and decide to take a break in (one of) its bars. We have our most expensive drink of the last three months sitting in the self-contained outdoor bar. It's very pleasant, but scandalously expensive given that the two coffees we just had on the lake-side cost barely a pound.
Outside, we watch a well-dressed man pissing into the road. We walk back up through town towards a Rough Guide pick, the Green Tangerine. Beyond a peaceful, foliage-tastic courtyard is a crumbling but charming colonial building.
Here we have a marvellous Vietnamese/French fusion of buttery, spicy goodness. We have had a meaty few days so I pick a vegetarian curry from the set menu. Ruth has rabbit. We enjoy a few hours here into the evening. They also have red wine which we have rarely come across (it's so hot and humid here, it's hardly the first choice of drink that comes to mind) but at a price so formidable they can keep it.
We amble back through the charmingly lit, Bao-Bun-cart smokiness of Old Town.
Day 77 Bai Tu Long Bay
We find ourselves on a minibus with some elderly Americans talking about Trump's imminent inauguration. Ruth and I are always careful not to talk politics with Americans we meet: you never know when the mild-mannered mother-of-three you've been talking to about snake-wine and hiking shoes turns out to be a second-amendment-enamoured despot with very single-minded opinions on Walls. The four in the minibus are considerably more laissez-faire. And apparently keen to discuss the hopes and dreams of the next 4 years. "Why do you think we're in Vietnam the day before the inauguration?"
We have a four hour journey to get to Hai Phong, the nearest village to the world-famous bays we are spending the next 20 hours on. The roads are dual-carriageway in part, the widest we've seen in the country, but lanes are not honoured in the conventional sense: we weave in and out of bikes and farm-vehicles as part of a terrifying automotive ballet.
Hai Phong is overcast and quite smoggy when we arrive: we drive past cooling towers pumping thick smoke into the low cloud. in the harbour, we are herded into a group of two-dozen odd people where we get ushered onto a traditional (looking, but not actually) junk boat called the Dragon Pearl, and are introduced to Kenny our guide. "Like Kenny G!" He mimes a trumpet amusingly. He gives us a brief run-down of our day here before letting us go to our rooms.
They are spacious, wooden and magical with a vast window looking out onto the limestone monoliths outside. We head back up to the deck for a seafood-rich lunch and an appropriate Halong beer as the engines fire up. We chat to a Dutch couple next to us about the place. They started their trip in Hanoi, and are doing our journey through Vietnam in reverse, so we swap tips.
We go out on deck and watch the world chug by. We're heading out to Bai Tu Long bay, north east of the better-known (and significantly busier) Halong Bay. Kenny attempted to explain how the remarkable limestone formations came to be, but a combination of language barriers and our ignorance hasn't made it much clearer. I picked up "15 million years of tectonic activity" which was enough to know that much more detail would be beyond me. What is plain to even my geographically-illiterate eyeballs is that they are absolutely spectacular. Tourist boats outnumber the local fishermen (some of whom live on floating villages amongst the rock, rarely going onto the mainland) by some number, but it still feels like we have the place to ourselves, as vast limestone towers hem us in on all sides.
We dock at a small rocky island and disband onto it. Kenny takes us into a cave, hollowed out by millions of years of marine activity and the last 50 years of tourists traipsing through. It's an eerie place, with alien-world walls and dramatic-looking stalactites looming down.
Outside, a dozen or so of us are squeezed into kayaks and hoofed out to sea. The last time Ruth and I got in a marine-vessel we had to power ourselves was back in San Carlos de Bariloche. The intervening weeks have not improved our rowing-coalition. Arguments are again rife ("Why would I be deliberately trying to turn us around in a circle?"). Ruth splashes me in the face constantly ("Whoops. Whoops. Whoops. Did that get you? Whoops").
Even with these provocations (and they are legion) it is one of the most wonderful experiences we've had. The sea is as still as I've ever seen it, and gliding around towering limestone giants with only the sound of Ruth's griping (but angelic) voice is a superb way to spend an afternoon. A passing Junk nearly spoils the party when its wake almost capsizes us ("Oh, so you can paddle when it's you about to get splashed?").
It's all over too soon, when Kenny paddles us back to the Dragon. We tie up the kayaks at the back, and leap into the sea for good measure. After showering off back in our room, we go on deck to watch the sun begin to set over the bay. What a place.
The boat pulls up in a secluded encirclement of islands for the night and cuts the engines. Bobbing gently, we enjoy an enormous dinner, some melon-carving wizardry from the chef, and Kenny performs some magic tricks (with Ruth reluctantly taking the Debbie McGee role). The crew put on some traditional music with instruments I have never seen the like of, before leaving us to it, applause echoing through the boat.
At sea level, squid-fishing in the dark (having been given rods and left there by the remaining crew) We chat to our sea-faring neighbours. We meet a pair who are cycling through Vietnam ("Is Ho Chi Minh less manic on the roads than Hanoi?", "er..."), and a pair of Americans who have used their two weeks' annual leave to travel through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia AND Vietnam. And we thought we were packing it in.
Day 79 Return to Hanoi
I'm up at sunrise with the engines, and head out on deck to get some photos while Ruth quietly snores away. There was an option of doing Tai Chi with Kenny this morning, but I'm happy with my level of balance, so have opted not to. After an early breakfast Pho, whose chillis kickstart the day in an energising manner, we start chugging back to Hai Phong. At the port, we copiously thank Kenny for his excellent company throughout, and depart back for Hanoi.
Our minibus takes us to a Water Puppet theatre, a very traditional form of village entertainment. We are fed excellently (again) with scented teas and cake, while we are invited to imagine how impressive the puppets might have been before the advent of television. It is of interest, and a novel way of conveying traditional parables but, heathen that I am, reckon some pyrotechnics would spice things up.
Half a day later, we are back in a different Hanoi hotel and checking into a room which reeks of cigarette smoke. After a very English display of disappointment ("Sorry to complain, but...") we are moved to one without any natural light. We ask a final time whether we could have one with the best of both worlds - non-carcinogenic air AND the ability to see each other without having every flickering bulb on, but apparently we've already used up our tourist credits. We are told "not without paying more". We do our laundry in the bath, in contravention of the rules.
In town, on a lookout for somewhere to eat, we find an open-air burger bar which instils an unexpected wave of nostalgia. Sitting in Vietnam's capital in a bustling cafe which may as well be in Farringdon, we chomp happily away listening to an English couple having a fight. "You don't tell me everything either. You put that photo on Facebook without even showing me first."