Our plans for Hoi An being thwarted by floods, meant the we took a hop flight from Saigon to Danang, and then onto Hanoi. One night in Danang proved it to be a great little city which if it wasn’t for the flooding, we would have otherwise missed out. Divided by the Han river, it boasts the famous 7 bridges including Dragon Bridge, and the unusual Han Bridge ☑ which is the first Swing Bridge built in Vietnam, instead of opening like Tower Bridge, it pivots from the centre to allow boats to pass either side.
The world leaders were having a conference week there and we often saw cavalcades of blacked out cars speeding down the streets. Trump was due in town…I had my eggs and tomatoes to hand in case we saw him.
Once in Hanoi, the city wouldn’t let us go. What with the floods, missed flights and lapsed visa issues, resulting in a small, but tense dispute with immigration, we ended up staying about 9 days in what’s turned out to be our spiritual home from home. It might be a holiday romance and all go to shit when we see each other again, but I think we’re in love with Hanoi, and truly believe it loves us back.
From the beauty of the dilapidated, Juliette balconied homes, to the crazy struggle to walk down a poorly laid pavement for more than a few yards without having to climb over parked scooters or street food vendors squatting on the path beside their little bbq’s. There is a warmth and familiarity to this city, with enough western influence to allow refuge from the Pho for breakfast and Pho for lunch, rice and noodle, noodle and rice options. In fact the Vietnamese food in Hanoi is some of the best we’ve had since we’ve been away.
One of Px’s favourites is Banh Xèo, where we sought out a particular local restaurant, Quán Bánh Xèo – Nem Cuốn ☑, to experience the true product. Made by a masked woman squatting under an extract system on the street, surrounded by about 8 pans of bubbling smoking oil and churning out Banh Xèo by the dozen. A wafer thin crispy fried pancake filled with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp, which you then wrap in a rice paper roll with added lettuce and betel leaves. Dipped in fish sauce, it’s a crispy delight that took us both to our happy place! Twice.
The obvious and most well known food Vietnamese product in the UK is probably Banh Mi. Now I love a sandwich, as we all know, and could potentially eat Banh Mi at least three times a day and maybe squeeze one in for a late night snack. With an obvious French influence of pate, sliced cold cuts, paired with coriander, chili, mayo, and then a whole load of variations on that, all crammed into the lightest butteriest bread roll. I could murder one right now. We made several visits to the popular Banh Mi 25 ☑, often packed with euro-hipster backpacker types, or “pale faces” as Px calls them, but serving up a damn fine sarnie.
Another classic Hanoi dish is Bun Bo Nam Bo, a beef noodle salad, and a visit to the eponymously named Bun Bo Nam Bo ☑ is a great example of this classic Northern Vietnam staple.
Using Hanoi as a base we now had time to make several over night excursions out of the city and venture into rural and costal areas. This first being Sapa, an alpine town a 5hr bus ride from Hanoi, and home to the indigenous H’mong people. Our coach took us up the long winding road though mountainous rice terraces and roadside homes and shops to the little town of Sapa, which is rapidly becoming such a tourist focus that a huge amount of new building is in progress.
It’s a tricky one this tourism business, and I’m not quite sure where I stand on it, especially in our current position as professional tourists. We have seen a great deal of social enterprise focused businesses in our travels, and it’s always great to see the local people benefitting from tourism. But with Sapa it looks like the corporate world is seizing an opportunity and taking it a step too far by building monolithic style hotels that will loom over the village of the H’mong people like big brother, and casting a shadow over the traditions and lifestyle of these people.
The H’mong people are predominantly rice farmers, dressed in their traditional hemp woven clothes that are dyed in indigo and stitched with coloured thread. The indigo dye stains their hands and their dark clothing identifies them amongst their people, leading to the name of Black H’Mong. They look very different from the features we associate as Vietnamese, with almost Peruvian shaped faces and clothing style. The women wear knee length culottes, bound lower legs and karate style jackets, all dyed in indigo with thick belts wrapped around them. Just give them a sword and they could be little Samurai.
There has been a social enterprise push specifically towards empowering the Black H’mong women by giving them work as tour guides, and opening up the opportunities to sell their handicrafts to the public. We had two guides, Jem who led us through her village that spans a river headed by a water fall, and Sa, who walked us up Dragon mountain with views over Sapa itself with its alpine style buildings, and large produce market. The H’mong village, made entirely from bamboo huts, and lined with shops selling their wares, was very beautiful, if a little Disney. My anti tourism kicks in when you see people photographing old ladies with faces like screwed up wrapping paper, weaving or dying fabric. They look amazing, and I take those photos too, but I don’t stick my camera two inches from their noses to do so, thats just rude.
I understand that tourism plays an important part in improving these people’s lives, without being patronising and I probably have much more of an issue with it than they do! But as coach after coach trundled into this tiny town my heart sank at the vision of it in a years time. I just hope it doesn’t turn into a people zoo, with the H’mong pacing their cages like unhappy tigers.
Before we left Sapa to head back to Hanoi, we challenged Px’s fear of heights by taking the cable car up Fansipan mountain☑ . At over 3000ft above sea level, this is the highest peak in SE Asia and the cable car is the longest three cable lift with the steepest climb. The 20 minute each way ride was the perfect combination of utterly terrifying coupled with totally stunning views to distract from the fear. We managed to get a car all to ourselves which meant we could squeal with nerves unselfconsciously. Hanging silently over the richly forested mountainside, we were so high that the autumnal, rust tinted trees looked like the sponge models you get to decorate kids’ train sets. Then up through the clouds suspended in nothingness with no reference to space, height or speed, for a few minutes we were nowhere.
The summit of the cable car brings you to a base from which you need to walk another 600 steps to reach the summit of Fansipan. The clouds hadn’t cleared so we puffed our way up the misty steps with far less oxygen in our lungs than was required. It’s a very strange feeling not being able to take in enough air. (Although Px did experience this again recently while diving but that’s another story). With multiple stops to gasp and puff, we made it to the top. With a brief magical moment when the sun broke through and unveiled a glimpse of the height of the peak, only to be shrouded once again, we took our wobbly legs back down again, and floated back down to earth on the cable car.
Ha’ Long Bay
Our second trip out of the city was a 3hr bus ride to Ha’Long Bay, where we were to spend one night on a “Junk”, a traditional wooden passenger boat with the red concertina sails. Followed by one night at a local village Yen Duc which was half way back to Hanoi.
The Junk was a 10 berth beauty, home to about 20 guests for one night. Picture Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile” and you’ll get a good idea of what these cabins look like. Mahogany lined walls, port hole windows, and crisp white bedsheets, all that was missing was Hercule Poirot and a suspect.
A “room with a view” is an understatement. Ha’Long bay is an archipelago of 2000 island rock formations that protrude like Jurassic beasts from the jade coloured waters and loom over the Junk as it weaves its way between them. It’s a familiar travellers image as Danny Boyle used parts of the bay to shoot ‘The Beach’. Although the weather wasn’t that great for us, even with the lack of sunshine, these moody rock creatures topped with green forested canopies, still created quite an atmosphere, producing an horizon of faded grey and blue silhouettes.
We were taken to several spots in the bay by our tour operator Indochina Junk ☑Another enterprise that gives back to the community and protects the ecology of the bay. Where other operators focus on other parts of the bay without using these ethics, the environment has been left over crowded and litter heavy. Indochina have bought exclusivity to a separate set of islands that they then protect, and employ local fishermen & women to assist in taking tourists around the bay.
For me this is the right kind of tourism, fully respectful of the environment and the locals, it’s subtle and in keeping with their lifestyles. We visited a floating fishing village, accessed by bamboo boats rowed by local women. This 20 minute trip from the Junk to the village was so peaceful, just the sound of the wooden oar hitting the water as we glided along past the rocks, with birds of prey soaring above. The village itself, was a series of tiny huts, with a bamboo platform often with a dog roped up and barking competitively with its neighbour. It was weird to see dogs in this water world scene with nowhere to run to. These huts were purely for fishing purposes, and the workers would stay for weeks at a time before returning to land.
Our other stop was to an island that housed a large cave, and a small white beach from which we took kayaks and paddled around the bay. Kayaking is not as easy as it looks and Px and I had a tendency for going in a circular direction most of the time. We hung back behind the group, keeping our elegant, but ineffectual, techniques to ourselves. One member of the team did capsize and a ‘kayak kerfuffle’ ensued in order to haul this chunky New Yorker back into his boat.
Unaccustomed as we are to any form of exercise, it was definitely beer o’clock and time for dinner. The Junk team fed us so well, it seemed we spent more time sitting at the dinner table than looking at the bay! But we weren’t complaining and the food was excellent. We spent a boozy evening with two other British couples and tucked away a couple of bottles of red before conking out in our film set boudoir. There’s something about Brits abroad, we stick together like beer based glue.
Yen Duc Village
Back on dry land, and we were on the road to Yen Duc. When Px told me we were to spend one night in a “home stay” village to experience “Vietnamese village life”, I have to admit I was picturing basic mosquito ridden accommodation with less than conventional toilet facilities. I couldn’t have been more wrong, once again Px pulled it out of that magic bag. Still under the care of Indochina Junk, the Yen Duc Village tour ☑ has been purpose built to show how the local people live and farm. The accommodation was far from mosquito ridden, it was a beautiful room built within an authentic Vietnamese house of carved wood and mahogany furnishings, and has been the best accommodation we’ve experienced so far. How could I have doubted Sir Px?
We had a private tour guide Nam, a villager himself and now employed by Indochina, who led us gently though his village on bicycles. It was a relaxing few hours, where we learnt how to catch fish with a basket and our hands. This finally gave me opportunity to give Px a slap round the face with a wet fish, which I found so much more amusing than he did.
Then spent a meditative half hour sitting on tiny stools, weaving the handles of straw brooms that are made by an 86yr old villager to sell in the market. Not something we’d ever expected to learn in our life, but we embraced it for a while until our old arthritic hands started to hurt and our octogenarian teacher scoffed at our weedy digits, and let us go, brooms in hand.
Nam taught us to make floating cakes, which he was very excited to tell us about, although they are just balls of coconut rice dough, boiled until they float. Dipped in melted sugar and sesame, they are tasty enough, but more than a couple and I would imagine an internal clogging situation might ensue.
Before leaving to return to Hanoi and then to catch our next major flight to Manila, we were treated to a Water Puppet show. A strong Vietnamese tradition, where the puppeteers stand waist high, in a pond, or a lake, behind a theatrical stage screen. They then operate puppets at water level from behind this screen. A strange and no doubt uncomfortable tradition, running with themes of local village life and farming.
We left Yen Duc and Ha’Long feeling so relaxed, we’d finally reached that point in the trip where we were settling into holiday mode. I think it was the broom making that really got us to that point!
On the journey back and only one hour away from Hanoi, we realised we’d made a scheduling error and had missed our flights to Manila…