We decided to go to Vietnam on a whim. Visa rules have been relaxed in recent years, and British nationals can now visit for up to 15 days with no visa (despite what the guy in Chinese customs tried to tell us), or up to 30 days with an easy e-visa (which we weren’t organised enough to arrange). So we went for exactly 15 days, entering customs as soon as they raised the barrier on the 11th and leaving via sleeper train on the 26th.
After a night in a pretty grim hostel on the Chinese side of the border, we queued up with various people who obviously cross the border on a daily basis. As the barriers were raised, children and adults alike rushed through and up to the customs hall. With our massive backpacks we were not so nimble, which ended up being a good thing as it took us vastly longer to get through than anyone else. All the Chinese and Vietnamese people had ID cards which were quickly scanned and through they went, whereas our passports and visas were scrutinised for ages. They even took Jay’s passport away to an office for a nervewracking few minutes. But eventually we were through the Chinese side and able to walk across the bridge spanning the river Nanxi, which forms a border between Hekou in China and Lào Cai in Vietnam. On the Vietnamese side, we went through the same process again, with the added strangeness of having our passport stamped and then dated by hand; surely not the most robust security system! There is something remarkable about being able to simply walk across a border, especially one that has seen its fair share of tension. We reflected on our privilege in being able to do this, when so many people cannot.
Once in Lào Cai, we boarded a very comfortable bus for Hà Nội. Three long columns of reclined seats ran along the length of the bus, in bunkbed-style tiers. We were very excited! The seats were so comfy it was almost impossible to stay awake, but we managed to enjoy some of the stunning scenery.
The bus arrived into Hà Nội and headed for the south of the city, and we were herded off the coach and onto a minibus, and then again onto another minibus. Eventually it pulled up outside the office of the bus company on a main road 8km from the city centre. The driver immediately disappeared. We went into the office and had a truly frustrating interaction via google translate trying to work out if this was really where they had decided to leave us. The first guy we asked suggested we get a taxi, and when we pointed out that we’d bought tickets to the city centre, he walked away! We assumed he was going to pass on the issue to someone else, but he’d just disappeared on a break. It took an exhausting half an hour or so to get sufficient interest from the other staff to call the office who had sold us our ticket, and eventually they said they could take us to the city centre. We then piled onto another coach (this time praying that we weren’t causing a huge detour for the other paying customers), and we were dropped at another office from the same company, which no doubt a different one of the minibuses from earlier must have stopped at.
Hà Nội reminded us of Delhi for the sheer volume of noise, smog, traffic and crowds. The heat was overwhelming, especially coming from Kunming where we’d been rained on continuously for two days! Scooters zoomed everywhere with abandon, and we had to adapt very quickly to judging where they would go when crossing the road. We walked through the old town to our hostel and gratefully unpacked in our air conditioned room. It was our first experience with double dorm beds: the room had four double beds in two bunks (fairly packed in, with not a huge amount of walking space between). Although we were sharing a room with three other couples, it was nowhere near as noisy as a standard 8 bed dorm, and the beds were huge so it felt a lot more comfortable for hanging out in.
We were really excited about the food in Hà Nội, having checked and saved the details of lots of vegan and veggie restaurants. China was REALLY difficult for food, so we were looking forward to just having it easy for a while. Our first meal out was at a pretty nice vegan restaurant which was very close to the hostel. We slightly over-ordered, getting three mains and two desserts, but the whole thing came to about £10 and was delicious. We’d also decided that Vietnam would be a “holiday”, in contrast to “travelling” which we’d been doing until now. We made some justification to ourselves about travelling being active and holiday being rest, but in practice what it meant was that we drank alcohol pretty much every day for the two weeks we were there. Starting with cans of Strongbow over our nice dinner. So classy. Unfortunately Maeve discovered later that night that she’d been bitten all over her legs by a mosquito in the restaurant, and she had a pretty severe reaction to the bites.
The next two days consisted of lots of food, buying a tablet to replace the decrepit one we’d killed by way of coffee spillage, and tons of walking. We had wanted to hire scooters to explore outside the city, as literally everyone seems to do in Vietnam, but upon actually looking into it we discovered that it’s not legal on a UK license so our travel insurance would be invalid. During one discussion with a really lovely scooter rental owner, he reassured us that even if we had an accident we could buy our way out of any legal trouble (“you don’t even have to worry if you kill someone, if you can pay you don’t go to prison here” was one particularly terrifying phrase). We were more concerned about our own medical treatment if we got into an accident, which seems exceedingly likely given the traffic conditions here, so we opted to just get the bus to our next destination.
On our last night in Hà Nội we headed out to find all the streets were blocked to traffic and were absolutely packed with people, including families with small children. Every cafe and restaurant filled the space outside with tiny chairs and tables, leaving barely enough space to squeeze past single-file, and staff accosted us at every turn to stop and have a drink. It was full moon and there was a huge celebration throughout the city.
After dinner, we went on a hunt for the city’s only gay bar, “GC” (which stands for the Golden Cock. Yes really). Expecting something similar to Canal street on a Friday night, we were very surprised to go into a quiet dark bar with soft jazz playing in the background. The clientele appeared no different to any other restaurant or bar we’d been to, except for a small group of middle-aged European men sat near the window. We were immediately approached by a waiter to take our order, a truly pointless set up since we had to go up to the bar to pay for every drink anyway. We hoped the atmosphere would perk up, so were obviously disconcerted when a jazz trio set up and started playing swooning covers of Norah Jones. Around 9pm we were getting ready to call it quits when we got chatting to some people who assured us it would all change after 10, which thankfully it did, and thus commenced a very expensive night of cocktails and dancing. We even ended up in a lock-in at another bar; a fact we weren’t aware of until we decided to leave and saw the metal shutters were down. What a lovely fire hazard! We were let out to the street, much quieter now but still full of tables and chairs, and found the closest thing we could to a kebab-shop early hours feast: spring rolls and chips. Just as we were finishing, we looked up to see every table had disappeared, and the moment we stood up a discreet waiter whipped away our table and chairs. It was impressively efficient, especially at 4am!
The following day we took the bus to the island of Cát Bà, which ended up being a luxury minivan that dropped the two of us and one other guy at a ferry port, before the driver disappeared with no explanation. Thankfully the other passenger knew where to go and helped us negotiate the crossing, and onto another bus on the actual island. We arrived at sunset; the drive along the south coast was stunning, making it clear why the island is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
We had booked the most expensive dorm beds on the island (£8 each per night, which is A LOT in Vietnam!), in order that we could spend our “holiday” lounging by a pool. We took advantage of the cheap local beer at happy hour and generally did very little for several days.
Our one big adventure during our stay in the town of Cát Bà was a locally-run boat tour. This is the reason most people come here, to experience the karst marine landscape up close. We set off early and joined our small tour group of mostly Europeans. The trip started by passing through a traditional floating fishing village: wooden houses floated on makeshift pontoons, each with a fish farm attached that was at least the size of the building. Most had dogs prowling around, and we even saw a few cats. At the end of the tour we stopped at a floating cafe in the village, and our guide removed a few floorboards to show us a gargantuan grouper which was kept as a sort of talisman: it was 14 years old and thought to bring good luck and fruitful harvest. The owners had been offered life-changing sums of money for the enormous fish, but were fearful of losing the good luck associated with it. It was still pretty depressing, as the net hanging below the pontoon – although much more spacious than many tanks we’ve seen, relative to their occupants – restricted the fish to swimming in tiny circles.
Once through the fishing village the view suddenly expanded to the open sea, with karst landforms dotted throughout. It was unlike anything either of us had ever seen before. Towering pinnacles crested with green, jutting out from the almost glass-like surface of the quiet bay. Eagles and kites soared overhead and the breeze as we plowed forward was enough to keep the worst of the heat at bay. We’d been nervous about doing one of these trips in case it turned out to be a party boat of teenagers, but we were with a small group of tourists nearer our age, who were also interested in the nature of the bay, and being able to hear the birds and waves. It was so peaceful.
At different points the boat made anchor and we clambered into canoes to paddle through small rock arches into secluded coves. The water was around 27 degrees C, and although tropical, it was not clear but instead a milky colour from the limestone.
In one bay we all sat quietly, floating and listening to the sounds of the insects and birds from the lofty walls of greenery around us. In another, we swam while monkeys clambered in the trees overhead – the Cát Bà Languar, a rare and protected species. At other points where the boat made anchor, we jumped and dove from its roof into the deeper, calm waters. When a storm rolled in and the rain began to fall for a short while, it was a cool relief from the humid air and warm sea.
Cát Bà town, the main habitation on the island, was a lot like any other seaside town. All tourist shops along the main drag, and bars and restaurants at night, lit by gaudy neon and pumping out music. After a few days there we’d exhausted its offerings and so headed inland to the national park which enveloped a large section of the island. This thick, deep jungle cascaded from the hills, making passage impossible except via the one road, and a few hiking trails. We stayed at a small homestay with a local family in a small village, where at night the noises from the surrounding jungle were deafening and curious. There was a small pool in the garden, where we had a lot of fun with the small boy who lived there and liked nothing more than to throw himself face first into it the moment he came home from school.
One day we noticed a huge nest in the branches overhanging the pool.
What is that?
Bees? Are they dangerous?
Yes. If you get stung you must go to hospital.
Oh. What should we do to avoid the bees?
I don’t know. Don’t get stung.
Sage advice. It turned out that they weren’t bees, but lethal Asian Hornets with a sting so potent that three stings can kill most people, and just one induces fever and requires hospitalization. They never just sting once, but attack in a whole hive swarm. The folks there didn’t seem too bothered though, so we tried to ignore their enormous bulks buzzing overhead.
One morning we saw a snake over a metre long sliding past our window. Jay took a photo of it it show it to the owner of the homestay. He said it was a normal occurrence, but his excitement at the picture, requests that we send it to him, and his wife’s consternation all said otherwise.
We really enjoyed our time with the owners. The family were very warm, and although we had a language barrier, we always managed to understand each other in the end.
One day we borrowed bikes and cycled to Hospital Cave, an enormous cavern where, during the American War (as it is of course called in Vietnam), North Vietnamese and Chinese soldiers were hidden and cared for after injuries. It also served as a base of operations and housed a pool and cinema! In its now delapidated state, with moisture reclaiming the walls and corridors, it was hard to envisage it as a bustling hospital, but its seclusion made it a sanctuary for thousands of people.
On another day we cycled to the national visitor centre to hike the small trail to the reserve’s highest point, Ngu Lam Peak. Despite being less than 400m high, this stunning peak was certainly a challenge for us both. We set off early to try to avoid the worst of the heat at solar noon (we still haven’t worked out that walking through midday into the afternoon is a bad idea). There were clouds, and ominous rumblings but we hoped it would all be ok. We borrowed bikes from the homestay and headed off along the single road into the park. Then the skies absolutely opened. Even though the temperature had been well over 30 degrees before the rain started, we were soon shivering in the wet and wind, and when the lightning started, we cut our losses and took shelter on the porch of the entrance hut to another set of caves. The road became a torrent that cascaded down the footpath next to us and as time ticked on we were getting colder, and beginning to realise that it wasn’t stopping any time soon. Well, we reasoned, we were as soaked as it was possible to be already, and if we kept moving we’d stay warm, so we may as well continue. After half an hour of keeping our fingers crossed we gave up on blue sky and set off again into the incredible tropical storm, which saw people on motorbikes huddling under trees, and cars pulled up at the side of the road (although mostly because people on the island don’t seem to like to use headlights and windscreen wipers). We eventually made it to the visitor centre, bought our passes, and trudged inside the gates. We were already very bedraggled, but at least the weather would make the slog up to the peak easier than it would be in the usual high temperature and humidity.
It was a beautiful walk albeit slippery on the wet rocks. We climbed higher through the jungle passing lizards and enormous spiders. At one point progress halted while a giant and very poisonous centipede barred the way ahead. Eventually though we topped out into the cloud and it lifted enough to give us a fantastic view. We unfortunately couldn’t linger as the thunder was rolling around the nearby hills, and we had no desire to encounter it in person. After a few minutes of admiring the shrouded jungle-clad hills, we beat a hasty retreat. The route down took a different path, marked with signs warning it was steep and slippy. It was indeed both, but we made it with no mishaps.
At the bottom, the sun started to fight its way out of the brightnening clouds, and we decided to take a further trail into the thicker parts of the jungle. There was a village which could only be reached via the trail or a boat as it was situated just off the coast. We weren’t going to walk there as it was 15km away, and as the sun strengthened we were getting hotter, but we thought we’d take a look at how far we could get. It was a spectacular walk, blighted only by the largest spider either of us had ever seen, which even sent a shudder through Maeve! We met foot-long stick insects, mantids, and flocks (?) of yellow butterflies, which swirled together in shafts of sunlight before alighting on the forest floor in colourful, shimmering groups. We walked slowly back, taking in the magic of the forest post-storm, and the creatures that came out to greet us.
Before we left the island we moved to a different village for a few nights, where we were treated to beautiful views over the trees to the sea beyond. The wifi was great and it was the first time we had been able to skype our families when we were in daylight, so they could actually see where we were! The family who owned it were also lovely folks, including a boy, around 7 or 8, who worked behind the counter after school and at the weekend. Like other kids on the island he was being trained up at home in tourism. Previously, he would have been learning fishing and farming skills, as well as getting a more formal education in school. We wondered what his future would be like as sea levels rise and the main town and most of the villages submit to the sea; when the tourists don’t come any more.
Nearby we found a deserted holiday resort. Out of season it was all closed up, and the tiny bay was now a playground for the local kids, who were loving nothing more than jumping off boats moored in the warm blue waters.
On our last day we swam in crystal seas, hiked trails (and got chased back by dogs), and somehow ended up doing karaoke with some German students (all of whom were sober, unlike us). As the sun set over the town and we sipped our cocktails, we were sad to leave this beautiful island, and the lovely people we’d met there.
Back to Hà Nội
After the quiet of Cát Bà, it was an absolute shock to be back in the noise and smog of Hà Nội. But it was welcome. Although Cát Bà had been excellent, we hadn’t had much good food (all very bland and the same few dishes everywhere), so we were excited to get something more spicy in the city.
On our first night we sat on the tiny chairs outside one of the many roadside cafes, and watched the world go by. A man, obviously very high, stumbled past and tried to get into the cafe. The guy outside whose job it was to usher in business off the street rushed toward him. We watched, expecting with some resignation the usual approach whereby the doped guy would be angrily ushered away. However the staff member took him by the arm, gave him a seat nearby, and brought him water. He chatted a bit with him too, a small smile of warmth and humour showing as they conversed. It was one of the most simple and kind acts of generousity we’d seen in a long time, and we were glad to have spent time and money at the cafe contributing to the business.
Aside from our train leaving from Hà Nội, another reason for returning had been to go for a cocktail on Train Street: a section of railway which runs between the buildings in a narrow alley, where local people have set up cafes and bars on the tracks. When trains are due, the bar owners quickly shepherd the tourists back against the walls, and pack up the chairs and tables, bringing them all back out as soon as it has passed.
We arrived about 4 hours before the next train, and settled down to become quietly drunk on tiny chairs, and to take tourist photos posing on the rails. A bizarre ‘cocktail’ here consists of putting bottles of beer and cider upside-down in a mixer, so as you imbibe they empty and your drink gets stronger. We had a few of those, and in exchange for a tripadvisor review, managed to blag a couple of the bottle holders so we can recreate them at home! Unfortunately it was after several drinks that Jay was approached by some people making a documentary about Train Street. He desperately tried to appear sober while on camera, but had no idea whether he had succeeded, and we’ll probably never know as it was due to be screened on local Vietnamese TV.
When it was time for the train we were sharply told to get up and stand well back. Bar owners set to work, rushing to get everything cleared away in time. At the end of the street where the track crossed a large junction, railway staff in high-vis jackets pulled barriers across the roads and stood by stopping excited tourists and rushing locals from darting across. We had been expecting a relatively slow-moving, small local train, but this was definitely not the case. All of a sudden the train was there, a huge hulking lump of death speeding past the end of our noses, whipping up anything not tied down. And all of a sudden, it was gone. Over. The barriers were removed, traffic flowed and in the blink of an eye the tables and chairs were replaced, and we were sat finishing our drinks. It was a surreal and bizarre moment, topping our ever growing list of ‘Things you’d never see in Europe’. As it happened, we were lucky to have seen the train. A few weeks later the local authorities decided it was far too dangerous to allow this to continue as a tourist attraction, and banned bars and cafes from operating, effectively shutting down the street. There were literally hundreds of businesses operating there, and now we wonder what has happened to those families whose homes and lives abut those rails.
Reflections on Vietnam
It’s strange how travelling for a long time is exhausting. It’s not like going on holiday where you do loads of stuff and rest and then head home replenished. It’s tiring, negotiating new situations and challenges every day, and although its what we signed up for, it was lovely to get a break and have an actual holiday on Cát Bà. One regret we have is that we would have liked to have seen more of Vietnam, and engaged more with its history. While there, when we were having down time curled up in bed watching TV, we caught some documentaries on the American War and tried to learn a little about the conflict, but we didn’t engage with it in person in the way we would have liked to otherwise.
On a more superficial note, a few things we’ve enjoyed here have been coffee and food. It was almost impossible to get coffee in China and as soon as we crossed the border, we saw cafes everywhere! It’s been really interesting seeing the small changes between countries, especially when you cross a border where these differences are only a few hundred metres apart. In China we’d really struggled to find things to eat, but in Vietnam, even out of the cities, it was relatively easy (though often quite bland if you weren’t having meat or fish). Being able to eat easily was a total joy, and made life so much more relaxing. It was also such a relief to be able to spend time (even if only an evening), with other queers. Being read as a straight couple all the time is so frustrating (although also an incredible privilege in the safety it affords, especially in some of the parts of China we’d visited), and just being able to relax and openly be ourselves was wonderful, but more on that another time.
One of the other things that made it so great was that we came from China. Although we found China an incredible place to be, there were things happening there we were aware of which made our visit an uncomfortable one. It was disturbing being somewhere where people are vanishing at the hands of the government, and this seems to be happening with impunity. That low-grade but pervasive tension was lifted once we crossed into Vietnam, and we felt able to unwind a bit more than we had done for some time.
We loved Vietnam but we barely scratched the surface. We hope to come back and visit this incredible country again.
Some tasty things we ate in Vietnam: