Hanoi - Ha Long Bay
07.08.2007 - 11.08.2007
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So here are more adventures up to now...
On Monday night, we decided to check out the Vietnamese Jazz scene at Minh's Jazz Club in the old quarter. Minh himself (not to be confused with Ho Chi Minh, who's different) learned guitar at 13, then played in the army band before hearing Jazz during the Vietnam war.. and then it was his dream to set up a Jazz club, which seems to be the only one in Hanoi. It's got the classic Jazz club setup, and looks a little like some Chicago gangsters should be holed up in a corner, except in downtown Hanoi. The Jazz itself was actually not too bad, although a little out of time in places the sheer enjoyment of the musicians more than made up for it! We treated ourselves to a few Singapore slings and sat back feeling rather pleased with ourselves (we had found this fantastic beefsteak place down an alleyway earlier, that fed us steak frites, bread and beer for about 2 quid each, or something silly like that).
The next day we had decided on a slightly more active day of sightseeing, but the singapore slings made our start slightly later than we had expected. Lucy and Mark are now much better at crossing roads, although I still instinctively plant my feet to the ground so Lucy has to rescue me and tell me when to cross. It's like I'm 5 again! We stopped for a fantastic lunch, which again was remarkably cheap and yummy. We feasted on the very typical Vietnamese Pho, or noodle soup with beef, lots of vegetables, and served with chillies, bean sprouts, a variety of green things and lime to juice and throw in for good measure. All for 30,000 dong, or $2. Fab.
We started our sightseeing at the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university, which was built 200 years before either Oxford or Cambridge (whichever one came first!). Three levels of examinations were held, and were concerned with pre-Confuscian literature and poetry. The hardest exam, and the highest standard was held by the King, who would question the candidates himself. The names, grades and towns of origin of the graduates are recorded on large slabs of stone mounted on the back of stone turtles (which make our poxy little degree certificates look a little flimsy in comparison I must say). 82 of these 'stelae' survive, and show the details of 1032 successful candidates, and it's amazing to see them even today.
By now rather sweaty, we paused for a large bottle of water at the temple, when we were joined by a Vietnamese student about our age called Tony who wanted to practise his English. Even though he lives 10k outside Hanoi, he goes to tourist areas for 2 hours every day to practise his frankly excellent English. We chatted about our courses and things, and he brough out a little notebook where he had asked other westerners to write him messages, all neatly numbered and dated. In return, he wrote in my diary too. As we left to make our way to our next stop we marvelled at how dedicated he is, and how rubbish we British are at learning languages.
After that it rained. We stepped out of the temple, and the Vietnamese were scattering for shelter as the skies opened. Being British, we doggedly tried to pretend that it was just rain, and not anything to hide from, but within thirty seconds we were completely and utterly drenched from head to toe. Dashing across the road, we optimistically sought refuge under a tree by a government building guarded by a soldier in a sentry box. Behind a low fence near the wall of the building, three Vietnamese women were taking shelter under an umbrella stand, ignoring the soldier's agitated gestures to move on. Eventually, he dashed out into the rain, and closed the umbrella, forcing the women to move on. At this point, still getting soaked so did we. Passing a low tarpaulin some more locals beckoned us to join them, and with lots of jokey sign language we waited for the rain to pass.
When it did, we were pretty near our destination, the main parade ground and Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, heralded with what looked like it might be a christmas light strung high above the road. As we drew nearer, it turned out to be a hammer and sickle. Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is huge (bigger than Lenin's, according to Mark), and guarded by soldiers who angrily blow whistles if you cross the white line surrounding the perimeter. We watched a short changing of the guard ceremony, then gave up on getting our soggy selves anywhere else and caught a cab back to the hostel. It was then that we became aware of a public announcement system with speakers at each street corner crackling into life at rush hour. We asked our hotel manager what it was saying, and she hesitated before telling us 'um.. news, information, social stuff'... Very strange.
That night, we returned to our yummy atmospheric street stall, and the owner recognised us but still looked bewildered as to why we were there. Surely the first time we must have been lost, but to come back? Very strange.
The next day we headed off early (PA system was on again at 8am..) to Ha Long bay, (as featured in a bond movie, but I can't remember which one), which means 'descending dragon'. Dragons feature pretty heavily in Vietnamese mythology, along with unicorns, phoenixes and turtles, and in one of the caves we saw our guide pointed out these creatures in the rock formations, although I couldn't see it really. The bay consists of nearly 200 karst islands looming out of the sea, all covered in luscious foliage. We spent a night on a boat touring them, and had a rather amusing session kayaking and swimming (perfect water temperature, hurrah). After the madness of Hanoi, it was a welcome break, although I couldn't use my camera as my memory card is full from Hong Kong and Hanoi and for some reason the pictures won't upload onto computer, which is pretty sad because it's stunning. Lucy and Mark got some fantastic photos though, so I'll be able to use them instead.
On Thursday night we went back again to our lovely street stall, this time welcomed like old friends, complete with hilarious photos of us all (looking rather sweaty). Friday was occupied by pottering and museums and stuff, and we caught the world's most horrid bus down to Hue. I don't know why it was horrid, and we've all done some really heavy duty journies before, but it was one of the most horrid I've experienced all the same! Oh well, we're here, and arrived in Hue this morning.
Hue was originally the seat of power in Vietnam before the French interfered and things started to go crazy in the 20th century. You may also have heard of it during the Tet Offensive, where the Viet Cong holed up in the city and the ensuing bombardment pretty much levelled it. To say that this is a shame is something of an understatement. Some of the royal buildings remain, but the old citadel is nothing compared to what it used to be. We had a pleasant couple of hours pottering around and admiring the 'purple forbidden city', before more street food on a dusty street behind the city walls. After that, feeling quite wiped out, we thought we'd relax at the neighbouring pool hall, so we wandered in and got a table. Our fellow players looked pretty bemused - it was obviously not somewhere frequented by the likes of us - but their bemusement was nothing compared to ours when we were given three gloves and three balls.
"What should we do?!"
"I dunno, hit it in the pockets"
"There are no pockets!!"
By now having attracted the stares of every other customer, we decided to try and look like we knew what we were doing, so half heartedly knocked the balls around the pocketless table and writing random scores on our little whiteboard. I think it was pretty obvious that we had no idea what we were supposed to do! Eventually, after a long and embarassing 5 minutes somebody suggested we swallow our pride and quietly leave, paying 5000 dong (16p) on the way out. I can imagine the whole place erupted with laughter after we left, but we were pretty amused too so it worked out ok for everyone!
And that pretty much brings me up to date, so I'll scoot and write more when more happens.
Hope you're all well (please feel free to show other people and please leave comments or e-mail me!!)
Much love to all