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Aug 05

In the North of Vietnam

We stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, like most tourists. It’s a pretty full on place that really assaults the senses. The streets are narrow, and the metre-wide footpaths, spilling with squatting Vietnamese, merchandise and refuse are often unnavigable. The roads aren’t that much better, with a constant flow of traffic making it essential to concentrate when you’re walking about. Everyone talks about how crossing the roads is an art. There are no pedestrian crossings (even when they are marked). However, since the majority of traffic is composed of motorbikes which are fairly adept at weaving sideways, all a pedestrian has to do is walk slowly across the road and the bikes will swerve to avoid. You could almost do it blindfolded and not get hit. However, it’s the cars and the buses which pose the hazard – if they were to weave to dodge a pedestrian, they would instead end up taking out the herd of motorbikes passing alongside them. At first the experience is a bit of a novelty – it almost feels like there’s this invisible shield repelling the traffic away – but it starts to wear thin very quickly.

Like in many developing countries, the horn is used as a convenient method of signalling “I’m here!” rather than one of annoyance, which ensures a constant barrage of noise. Finally, even though the streets of the Old Quarter are narrow, the buildings are often three or more storeys high, giving the streets an even more cramped feeling. It also traps the air, which is more often than not filled with some very… peculiar, odours.

In the middle of the Old Quarter is a large lake, Hoan Kiem, where it is rumoured large turtles reside, according to traditional legend (read here). It’s only slightly less hectic around the lake, and the bright, opaque, green colour of it doesn’t lend it any large amount of attractiveness. However, by twilight it does get better. Fading light masks the algae in the water, the stifling humidity begins to cool, and the Vietnamese come out to exercise by the lakeside.

One day outside of the Old Quarter, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s masoleum complex. After he died, the revered Vietnamese leader, as with Mao, Lenin and Stalin, was preserved and placed in a glass box. The complex covers a large area, thankfully fenced off from traffic, containing the old Presidential Palace, a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh’s life, a few buildings where Uncle Ho used to live and of course, the masoleum itself. As with my visit to Beijing, photography was strictly forbidden. Through an intricate series of checkpoints and metal detectors, I was gradually stripped of bag, camera, and mobile phone (and not all at once) and given a few numbered tags in return. I had no other option but to surrender everything and hope that I would be seeing my gear on the other side.

The masoleum is chilly. Uncle Ho’s body is kept airconditioned, surrounded by four guards in full uniform staring straight ahead (and no doubt thankful that they weren’t on duty outside in the heat). The experience was similar to Mao’s masoleum. It’s deathly quiet inside as the procession of tourists and locals meander through the corridors and around the ghostly body of Ho Chi Minh.

On Thursday we took a 2-day tour to Ha Long Bay, with one night spent on board a boat. Although the bay was fairly crowded (we counted over twenty other ships moored around where we were for the night), and the water was polluted – the translucent shape floating through the water was a plastic bag as often as it was a jellyfish – it was a very welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the city. We took a kayak out and rowed under a one metre high tunnel and into a small body of water encircled by limestone cliffs. There, for the first time in days, it was perfectly silent. The caves in Ha Long Bay, with their stalactites and stalagmites are a world heritage area, but to be honest, they only reminded me of Jenolan caves.

The people we have met on the trip have been somewhat varied, but mostly European, with a disturbingly high proportion of lawyers… three British lawyers who would be starting work with A&O and Eversheds in September, a Kiwi barrister reading for his second Masters at Oxford, a Dutch law student who had no intention of practising and a retired couple from Melbourne who complained that their family had “too many bloody lawyers”.

The staff at all the guesthouses we have stayed at have been terrific. The Thu Giang guesthouse in Hanoi is family-run, but most of the day-to-day operations are handled by an amazingly resourceful 21-year old lady. Unfortunately on the first night, a storm meant that tours to Ha Long Bay had been cancelled and some guests were forced to stay an extra night. Consequently, Thu Giang was still full, and we were diverted to the Wing Cafe Guesthouse. Staying at the latter guesthouse was an ordeal. Something surely must have died in there because the bathroom was filled with this unearthly stench. Fortunately, we only had to put up with it for one night.

Today we arrived in Hué on a comfortable overnight train. Hué’s much more relaxed and I can’t say that I’m going to miss Hanoi.