HELLO VIETNAM, land of promised bahn mis, pointy hats and pretty lanterns. We are in Ho Cho Minh city and it is NUTS. The traffic is like nothing we've ever seen before. I would liken arriving into Ho Chi Minh to being thrown into a boiling bowl of pho. There are motorbikes everywhere (read: noodles), occassional cars (lumps of carrot), some random tourist cycling contraptions (odd white beansprouty things) all bubbling away, weaving amongst each other in a chaotic, hot, sweaty, noisy mess. There were a couple of near-misses but we developed a steady yet strong outstretched palm technique which enabled us to survive unscathed. Nat has university friends all over the world (handy) and we meet up with his friend Virginia for a Vietnamese feast and later to see her impressive Vietnamese pad, complete with rooftop swimming pool. We also catch up with my pal Josh and his brother at the War Remnants museum as well as sitting on the outskirts of the infamous Bui Vien street trying to hear each other (think SCREAMING music; each bar trying to out-sound its neighbour, a LOT of nos balloons floating around and sardine packs of pedestrians either dancing or valiantly attempting to walk through). Our time in Ho Chi Minh is brief, yet not so brief I can't get a dodgy £2 manicure on the side of the street. I'm very excited; at the age of 10 I fell in love with the idea of long manicured nails (even if my parents wanted to hold me back by confiscating nail glue *SIGH* I got around them by sellotaping fake nails onto the ends of my fingers. Resourceful? Desperate? You decide). White tips were all the rage circa 2006 but apparently not so much anymore (or at least in Vietnam). I do my 10-year old self proud and opt for a sleek French manicure - except my £2 nail professionals don't know what this is. I find a picture on Google images to show them. They giggle a LOT and pass around my phone with the picture so that the other nail salon sitting on stools next to them can laugh too. Unperturbed, I insist on it matching my toenails and finally, I am an un-sellotaped 2006 vision.
(1) Trying to enjoy my manicure, even though my left hand is in a bowl of water full of floating crumbs and one large long curly hair.
There are lots of cute puppies in Vietnam, but on the flip side there are also lots of cockroaches (this one, as I remember often and vividly) scuttled right over my open toes
Second stop in Vietnam is a place called Dalat. I don't like Dalat very much - too busy and a bit dreary - but I sure do like the bakery we find, and over the course of three days I consume probably 30 wafers (a conservative estimate). On our second day, because our hostel tells us we should, we hire a motorbike and explore the area - only half way through we realise that actually neither of us really want to be on this day trip but we just assumed the other did. A highlight of the day is Nat wanting to be as cool as the Vietnamese uniformed soldier who is hopping around the rocks at a waterfall, copying him, and falling in. Said uniformed solider then has to help fish Nat back out of the dirty waterfall. Several onlookers laugh with me (I took pictures, don't worry). From Dalat we take a sleeper bus to Hoi An and I really like it there. It's a very quaint place, kind of like the Vietnamese version of Cambridge, but with a penchant for lanterns and herbal tea side-stalls. Nat goes suits-berserk and we spend a lot of time discussing silk linings, fonts for monogrammed cuffs, suit patterns and thread count. From Hoi An we rent a motorbike and ride the Hai Van Pass (feeling very Top Gear) and spend a night in Hue, a small historical city where we get offered drugs by five different men (and there are five polite declines). From Hue we catch a sleeper bus to Ninh Binh. We are assured when we buy the ticket that the bus will arrive at a respectable 6.30 - 7.00 am. We arrive at 4 am. In the dark. In the rain. On the outskirts of the city. Luckily, there are 3 other unfortunate passengers alighting in Ninh Binh and two of them provide me with a day's worth of people watching. Do you ever just look at someone and know they BELONG in a certain historical period? Just me? Well, one of our Ninh Binh pals is a Portuguese man, Ricardo, who COULDN'T LOOK MORE 17th CENTURY PORTUGUESE IF HE TRIED. The curliest, most extravagant moustache I think I've ever seen. I'm bowled over and feel like I could touch the Renaissance. Second is Raphael, the sweetest, loveliest German who unfortunately looks like an SS soldier who’s walked straight off the pages of history. It is uncanny. His moustache is the German equivalent of Ricardo's: short, blunt, blonde, and very practical. Raphael also has the best German accented English I've ever heard, and I ask him a million questions just so he can keep talking like zis. We zip around Ninh Binh together on motorbikes and Ricardo’s fiery Portuguese temper gets us into a bit of a scrape with a local Vietnamese (can’t blame Ricardo, he’s got over 400 years worth of pent up anger there). At the end of the day Nat and I hop onto our second consecutive sleeper bus. Nat's cross with me because the playlist I make for our overnight journey consists mostly of musical numbers and The Pirates of the Caribbean film score.
Raphael discussing dumplingz
We arrive at 4am again, nap for a couple of hours in the bus station and then head out for one day in Sapa... and get caught in a torrential downpour. When it clears the bright green, undulating terraced landscape is covered in atmospheric mist and I burst into the Sound of Music refrain. We stay in the cheapest accommodation Sapa has to offer (of course) and our beds are so hard we can actually knock on them. I do, however, find a hair-dryer in the room and employ Nat as my chief toe-warmer. Hop onto another bus in the morning for the 6 hours to Ha Giang, which is the most uncomfortable journey I’ve ever had. My seat doesn’t even have a headrest and finishes half way up my back, there are LOTS of bumps in the road, and the whole journey I am worried I’ll be crushed by the avalanche of things (huge wooden chests and steel boxes) that have been piled in the back. I’ve never ached for the Megabus more.
After much debate (because we’re scaredy cats of the bribe-hungry police), Nat and I decide to ride the Ha Giang loop in the very north of Vietnam. The loop typically takes 4 days and involves beautiful winding roads on the sides of mountains, through rural villages and between gorges. We safety-up like we’re in the Princess Protection Programme and decide we can do it in 2 (utilising our talent for 6 am starts). The Ha Giang Loop is BREATHTAKING - so much so that due to rubber-necking the panoramic views, Nat drives us straight into a rock (for your information - I DID say we should stop). We hop off the bike, shout, hop back on and carry on our merry way. We drive to the official flagpole marking the northernmost point in Vietnam, and then try to find our way to the ACTUAL northernmost point in Vietnam (which has a little portico). We get lost, park, walk over a rocky hill, check the maps and realise we’ve accidentally walked into China! Take a photo of the Chinese signs and cars in the car park and then pop back into Vietnam, feeling pretty chuffed. On the evening of the second day, as we drive the last half hour back into Ha Giang town Nat is remarking how I must’ve seen a lot more than him - being on the back and able to look around - when I realise that I have barely turned my head at all for the last 48 hours. I clearly take my role as a back-seat driver very seriously.
We’ve actually booked to stay in the same hotel as our friend Elly and her new squeeze (have ALWAYS wanted to use that phrase, sorry Ells) Luke. They started the loop a good 4 days before us, and, much to our amusement and their shock, finish their sixth day later than we finish our second. We don’t have long to chat though, because Nat and I are off on another sleeper bus to Cat Ba.
^See - on the whole they’re really not too bad at all - most of the ones we went on were sold to us as “bwand bwand new” and they actually did look it. You get a deeply reclined seat, a blanket, a cubby hole for your feet and a curtain for the window. They’re normally stacked two up across three rows. The one recurring problem we found was that the timings we were told for arrivals, food stops and toilet stops were absolutely, unfailingly, totally inaccurate. We’re told on our Cat Ba bus that there’ll be a toilet stop two hours after departing. Two hours come and go and I am DESPERATE. I meander my way to the front, stepping over a few Vietnamese who have chosen to set up camp on the floor, and ask when the toilet stop will be. Abruptly, the driver pulls over from the busy road and brakes to a halt in front of an empty lit football pitch. He gestures to me that this is the toilet stop. There must be a loo somewhere by the pitch. I clamber out along with a Swedish woman and we look in vain for any signs of a nearby toilet. The driver is laughing and points at the football pitch again. SURELY NOT. Problem is, football pitches are BIG and we’re parked right by the middle of it. There are no signs for toilets anywhere. Still chuckling, the driver points again and then taps his watch. Unbelievable. Reluctantly, we trudge to the opposite side and try to do our business as respectably as one can when squatting on the sidelines of a floodlit sports pitch. Later, at 1am, we stop for our scheduled 10pm final toilet stop. Thankfully I’m all good, but a few tourists get off. After what really doesn’t seem like very long at all, the driver abruptly turns on the engine, shuts the doors, and we drive off far more speedily than a sleeper bus should go. Wondering if everyone made it back on-board, I look around but it’s dim and I can’t really make much out. Nahhhh, the driver definitely wouldn’t drive off without his passengers. Isn’t a key part of the job to perform reliable head counts? Twenty minutes later, I’m dozing off, when I notice the Spaniard two rows away wake up, look under his bunk, panic, and cry out a shrill Spanish exclamation (“¡Ay no! ¡Mierda!“). Fast forward ten minutes - it turns out we’ve left THREE passengers at the toilet stop. The driver decides the best course of action is to REVERSE back up the motorway to try and get back to them. Then, possibly realising that this is the STUPIDEST IDEA EVER - he insists that the 3 passengers at the toilet stop need to catch a taxi to meet us. They do eventually get back aboard. Quite the middle-of-the-night ordeal, I’m sure you’ll agree.
On our first day in Cat Ba, Nat and I hire a boat around the Ha Long Bay area with a very grumpy man and we climb Kong lookout. We sleep in a hostel dormitory with a friendly American who has a foul smelling scab. On the second day we are reunited with my favourite German, Raphael ,and we spend the day kayaking around Lan Ha Bay and picking up bits of litter that are floating in the water. That evening I buy a bucket hut with lots of bananas on it (a prized possession) and we say auf wiedersehen to Raffie.
Our final stop of this 213 day, 8 month adventure is Hanoi - a crazy, sticky, busy city where we defy the perils of Vietnamese traffic and survive crossing the roads against all odds. We eat a massive naan and meet up with Elly and Luke on our final afternoon; play competitive card games, have a heated debate about the CGI techniques of the Lion King and go for an enjoyable (but watery and rather bland) hot pot (EDIT: (Nat) “Chania you can’t say something’s enjoyable and then write that it’s watery and bland” To which my response is: “The PROCESS of hot-potting was enjoyable”).
Our last night is spent on the cold hard benches of Hanoi International Airport. From the sunny beaches of Australia, to the tippity tops of the mountains in New Zealand, to the sweaty, hectic shores of Asia - our trip is finally taking us back home. Goodbye Vietnam, so long, farewell - time to fly back to some beloved garlic bread and Prawn Cocktail flavoured crisps.