Monday, 29 June 2009

Vietnam: Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay

FORWARD BY THE AUTHOR: After some considerable chastisement from numerous parties I have decided to resurrect the travel blog. The decline of the blog was caused by several factors, prepare yourself for some flimsy excuses; 1) Illness- Some of the past month I’ve been either to sick or too miserable to write. Contrary to popular belief travelling isn’t one long holiday, you get sick and down just exactly the same as you do back home, only when your on the other side of the world alone in a small insect infested room, it can be pretty depressing. 2) Fun factor - sometimes everything falls into place and you have a sustained period of weeks when your days are full of people and exciting activity and so you simply don’t find the time to write. 3) No electricity - I’ve spent a long time in some of the remotest parts of Asia, mountains in northern Laos and islands in northern Malaysia there is simply no way to use the internet. I’m back in civilisation and the blog is back online! Now…… Where was I?

I arrive in Hoi An. After four days of sitting on the back of a motorbike, much of it in the pouring rain I decide to treat myself to a hotel with a pool, large clean rooms and free WIFI. I’ve so far resisted the urge to “flash-pack”, the term used for middle aged ex investment bankers and such who want to travel the world with a backpack, but not stay in bug infested, vomit stained accommodation. They opt for 4 or 5 star hotels for the duration of the experience. I’ve stayed pretty true to the backpacker ethos and have not spent more than about £7 per night. I don’t have much trouble justifying it to myself.

Hoi An is a beautiful town located mid way along the east coast. Its warm charm is provided by an abundance of French colonial architecture set along the banks of the river.

It has an almost Parisian vibe with long terracotta coloured streets and numerous cafes for sitting back, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere. Its also hopelessly romantic, couples meander around arm in arm, watching the lanterns being lit at night time and floating away along the river. It is a Mecca for shoppers, specifically tailoring. There are 700 tailors in Hoi An making up over 75% of the real estate outside of cafes and restaurants. You can get a full suit hand made to fit for around $60. Most people buy 2 or 3 at a time and ship them back home. I have no idea what size I will be in a years time, I could be much thinner, or (more likely) much larger than I am now, so I opt just for a couple of short sleeve shirts at $10 a pop.

Here is the model ship shop where the Top Gear team purchased that enormous replica ship and strapped it onto the back of James Mays scooter.

Now, not being much of a shopper and not being in a couple I have to admit that Hoi An didn’t have too much to offer me. Plus it was raining every day so I couldn’t visit the nearby China beach immortalised by the surfing scene in the Apocalypse Now movie. I enjoyed the quaintness of it, but I have to say I was quite bored there. So I, wont spend much time writing about it in this blog. However please don’t let this put you off considering visiting it if your going to Vietnam, it is lovely and for many people it’s the highlight of their trip.

I spend just a couple of days in Hoi An before heading off for some excitement in Hanoi. Vietnams capital city.


Hanoi is by far the most affluent part of Vietnam I have seen. In stark contrast to the humble lifestyle of most of Vietnam, especially in the central highlands, many of Hanoi’s residents drive around in BMW 4x4’s and its the first time I’ve seen fat Vietnamese people. I saw several entire families waddling around, fat parents and fat kids roaming the streets in ill fitting Lacoste t-shirts gorging themselves on ice cream and fizzy drinks. Of course most locals are still living a very basic life but I found it strange to see so many adopting the ways of the westerner, a concept which seems to contradict the rest of the countries local residents who are vehemently proud of their separation from western culture.

Business is booming in Hanoi and its easy to see why. People here have learned to totally take advantage of the foreign tourist. A white person walking through the streets of Hanoi is a walking ATM machine. A wallet on legs that is just slightly open with some dollars exposed. The only purpose for which you speak to a westerner is to prize open the wallet and extract as much of its money as possible. The locals try their luck at every opportunity, they increase the prices of everything in order to maximise their profits. A pack of cigarettes for example will be twice the price as the rest of Vietnam, (at first). If you don’t know any better then you pay the inflated price. If you know your being ripped off then you walk away until they drop the price. This isn’t the usual haggling that occurs in markets over silk scarves and oil paintings, its just a blatant tourist tax that is attempted, born purely out of greed. People will try to charge you for directions. I was standing outside the post office but had missed the sign. I politely approached a local and asked him where the post office was. “One Dollar” he said with his hand outstretched. I looked up and realised I was standing right outside it. “The cheeky little bastard” I thought.

The behaviour of the locals aside, Hanoi is the most vibrant, interesting and attractive city I visited. Perfectly manicured streets with long wide boulevards are everywhere. The Old Quarter where I was staying was particularly pleasing on the eye. Set around Hoan Kiem lake the streets stretch out in all directions with pockets of activity to explore and enjoy. The lake itself is really lovely, its not often you see a large lake in the very centre of a city, and Hoan Kiem is clean and charming and has a small but beautiful pagoda in the centre. Walking around the lake on a hot sunny day taking in the ambience of the surrounding buildings was highly enjoyable.

I arrive at the Hanoi Backpackers hostel in the centre of the old quarter. It’s the first dorm based hostel I’ve stayed in on my trip and I’m both nervous and excited about it. Sharing a communal bedroom and bathroom with complete strangers is not an activity I would normally choose to undertake. But at $5 a night and with a bevy of young multinational backpackers milling around I decide its time to take the plunge. Within minutes of walking into my room which consists of 5 mixed sex, double bunk beds, two 19 year old English girls approach me. “Hey how are you, we’re off to Snake Village this afternoon would you like to come?” Snake Village is another stop on the Top Gear Vietnam tour and it’s the place where you get to eat an entire snake, killed in front of you and served up in an array of dishes. “You get to eat the heart and drink the stomach bile” says one of the girls enthusiastically. “No thank you” I say, I can’t think of anything worse, quite frankly I’d rather slam my penis in a door.
Later down at the common area there is an excitement in the air and around 15 or so young travellers are chatting about the impending visit to Snake Village. Two guys I’d met previously were also going. “Come on Jools it will be fun” they say, “Its supposed to be really good for you, makes you virile and they’ve been eating snake here for generations.” Gradually I begin to talk myself into it. The bus is leaving in 10 minutes and as I look around the group ranging from about 19 to 30yrs old, I figure it will be a good way to make friends and I eventually convince myself that it will be a memorable experience that I will never get the chance to do again. Reluctantly I purchase my ticket and board the bus.

Snake village is a farm on the outskirts of Hanoi. It’s a somewhat masochistic place, first you get to meet and befriend the snakes. They are wrapped around you and you can play with them and have photos taken. “Don’t get too friendly with him” the guide says to a girl who is stroking the snake around her neck lovingly. “You’ll be eating him in about 10 minutes!”. We are shown an assortment of snakes including Cobras which are brought out and displayed in front of the group. “You will be drinking Cobra whiskey with your meal” says the guide as he produces a series of bottles of rice whiskey with pickled Cobras inside.

We are taken over to a dining room which is a wooden shack on stilts over a pond. A collection of snakes are brought over along with a tray of shot glasses. The snake farmer then proceeds to take a live snake and locate its heart by feeling along its long smooth body.

Once the heart is located he slit’s the snake open and then slides his fingers inside to extract it. He plops it into a shot glass containing some snake blood and some rice wine. The heart is still beating for a few seconds once extracted, “Who first?” he says offering the glass around the group of nervous and startled participants. A young bolshy lad in his twenties who looks like trust fund traveller goes first, only he opts to actually chew the heart in his mouth instead of knocking it back like your supposed to. We all watch intently to see the expression on his face, obviously wanting to impress the girls he gives a look of indifferent nonchalance, “it was nothing” he says “like eating a bit of chicken“. Soon after two trays arrive, one containing 14 shot glasses of blood and hearts ands the other contained 15 shot glasses of green snake stomach bile. We all have a huge sip of whiskey for Dutch courage and take the plunge.

Heart first…. and there were no problems. We all knocked it back in one and didn’t even taste it apart from the taste of the rice wine in the glass. This isn’t so bad I thought. Then the stomach bile shot. I sniffed it tentatively and I immediately wanted to throw up, it was acrid, pungent and disgusting. I looked around the group who one by one drank the shot, I followed and knocked it back. It was foul. The whole groups faces were contorting in repulsion, some people were wretching, much to the amusement of the snake farmer. Except the trust fund traveller, “It was nothing” he says, “Can I have another one”?

The rest of the meal was far more palatable, spring rolls, spare ribs and all other kinds of dishes were prepared. Cooked in chilli and garlic and ginger it really wasn’t that bad at all and I actually quite enjoyed it.

Afterwards we all headed back to the hostel where they had organised a Mexican themed party on the roof terrace.

We all talked about the experience and I made lots of new friends. Margaritas and Tequila’s were flowing freely. Despite the disgusting parts, it really had been a massively enjoyable day and I was revelling in the hostel experience. Especially when I saw Mr cocky trust fund throwing up in the toilets, the exuberance had obviously gotten the better of him. I chuckled to myself smugly as I walked past him… “Another bile shot mate?”

Later that night when we got our appetites back we headed downstairs to the street for a kebab.

Check out the name of the Kebab stall!

The following day I headed for Hoa Lo Prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Built in the late 1800’s by the French it was originally used to house Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence from French occupation. More recently it was used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war were many of the American POW’s were kept after being shot down. Its most famous resident was senator John McCain who’s flight suit is still on display.

Again it’s a propaganda vehicle, this time not so Anti-American, more Pro-Vietnamese and it depicts the humane way in which American prisoners were kept and shows photos of them enjoying thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties. Although the fact that John McCain can no longer lift his arms above his head shows that the conditions were probably not quite as humane as they would have us believe. Compared to Cambodia’s S21 prison, it was pretty dull.

Later that night I meet an Alaskan traveller called Travis. I’ve never met an Alaskan before and found his stories about his home town fascinating. We decide to put on some smart(ish) clothes and go out into Hanoi for a nice meal and to visit a jazz club for something a little bit different.

We find a nice terraced restaurant with a great vantage point over Hanoi.

Travis was a great guy and gave me loads of advice about travelling in South America and we exchanged many stories. We went to see some live jazz which was pretty impressive, but the drinks were expensive so after a while we went to a local corner shop and bought some Vodka and mixer and sat along the river to continue chatting and drinking.

Travis had been growing a beard for the past few months and just before he arrived in Vietnam he cut it to leave an extended goatie reminiscent of the famous Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Min. “The women love it” Travis explained, “they all want to stroke it”. Some time later a lady in her late 50’s approached us on the river begging for money. She was obviously strung out on crack or whatever the Asian equivalent is, she was covered in facial sores and shaking as if she had Parkinson’s disease. What a resistible combination. When she saw Travis’s beard she lost all interest in begging and began coming onto him. “You wan boom boom?” she enquired stroking his beard “No charge” she said lovingly, “for you, boom boom for free!” I know I shouldn’t laugh at other people misfortune, but it really was hilarious to see a 50+ year old crack whore with Parkinson’s making her advances on Travis. It took us about 15 minutes to get rid of her. “Let’s go” says Travis, “I need to buy a razor!. (sharpish)”.


The place I was most looking forward to visiting in the whole of Vietnam was Halong Bay. As a UNESCO world heritage site its right up there with the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls as one of the worlds most beautiful natural wonders. Its situated about 3 hours north of Hanoi by bus and accessed via junks boat tours, consisting of 1 to 3 days. I really wanted to enjoy the scenery so I opt for the 3 day tour consisting of sailing through the karsts, kayaking and a night on Catbar Island, a small inhabited island in the centre of Halong Bay. There must be well over 100 different tour companies offering similar deals, but I was recommended one called the Kangaroo Café. An Australian outfit which has a flourishing reputation and supposedly the best quality food and boats in Halong Bay. At 8am I leave my new group of friends behind who are all preparing for their own Halong Bay tour with the Backpackers hostel, I kind of wish I was going with them, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Kangaroo Café. When I arrive at the café, disaster strikes. I look around the room of people who are on my tour and its full of couples in their 60’s or 70’s. No other single people at all. Obviously the good reputation has attracted a more wholesome affluent group of tourists. The exact opposite type of traveller to me. I manage to haggle my deposit money back from them and I hot foot it back to the hostel to see if I can join their tour which is leaving in a few minutes. I’m in luck. I get the last place, and as I breath a sigh of relief I look around the group whom I will be spending the next 3 days with. There is a small group of about 6 older people ranging from about 28 to 35. There is also a much larger group of around 25 or so 18-20 yr olds and its obvious the two groups are completely divided. I need to make a decision which group I’m going to integrate with, after a moments deliberation I decide that it will be more fun to hang out with the youngsters.

After a 3 hour drive we arrive at the port. Here is out boat which I have to say was lovely and perfectly appointed with clean rooms, a large sun terrace, dining room and a bar.

Sadly the weather was grey and cloudy, I was disappointed as I really wanted to take some great photos, but unfortunately this was wasn’t possible. Although the pictures wont do it justice, it really was an incredible area. The boat sailed for many hours right into the heart of Halong Bay’s limestone karsts which rise up out of the water in all directions for as far as the eye can see.

We cruise around the bay for hours and eventually anchor in a ridiculously picturesque spot.

After a tasty seafood dinner we all go up to the sun terrace for drinks and party games. Despite being considerably older than almost all of my group, they never made me feel like an outsider and included me in all the fun and games. Although I was getting some looks of utter disgust from the older group, I embraced the experience and had loads and loads of fun.

It reminded me a lot of when I was at collage, (many years ago), we played all kinds of games usually revolving around the “truth” or “dare” variety.

We all jumped into the ocean numerous times from the sundeck, it was hilarious. Some people opted to do it naked. Obviously I opted to preserve my dignity. I wondered what kind of experience I would have had if I’d been on the Kangaroo Café tour. Knitting and bible stories probably.

The following day involved some pretty hardcore kayaking. For three hours of paddling through the spectacular scenery, it was mesmerising beautiful but extremely tiring.

Eventually we reach a cave inside one of the limestone karsts. Stalagmites and stalactites were in vast abundance.

It really was such a naturally beautiful part of the world I just wish we’d had great weather as none of my photos have captured the sheer beauty of the place.

The following day we arrive at Catbar island. A small but busy little island right in the heart of Halong Bay. We trek up to a scenic viewing point overlooking the whole island, (camera had ran out of battery for this sadly). Later we arrive at our hotel which was surprisingly upmarket considering we were staying in backpacker accommodation. Here is the view from the roof terrace. The bar that the Top Gear crew drove/sailed to is the small pontoon right in the centre of this shot. Its now since been renamed “The Top Gear Bar”, and of course the greedy Vietnamese have capitalised on this by charging double the prices of any other bar for the privilege of drinking there.

I walk into the massage and spa room at the hotel. Families are enjoying the Jacuzzi and Sauna facilities. It was a respectable establishment. This only added to my shock and discomfort when the massage lady who was giving me a “Traditional Vietnamese Massage” ventured dangerously close to my nether regions and politely enquired.. “A happy ending sir?”

The next morning and we were back on the Junk boat for the journey back to Hanoi.

I spent a few more days in Hanoi after the trip and soaked up the sociable vibe at the hostel. Roaming the streets I was again struck by the same ridiculously lenient road safety laws.

I was just waiting for this to go horribly wrong. Annoyingly he shot off down the street without a hilarious stack.

At least this guy had the foresight to hold the glass door vertically, most locals attempting similar manoeuvres would have their cargo horizontally.

I took this shot purely because I don’t think I’ve actually ever seen a chicken crossing the road.

Later that evening we strolled the local streets and found some more interesting delicacies.

Chilled pig brain anyone?

At one point I asked a local Vietnamese lady who was about 80 if I could get a photo of me carrying her wares on the bamboo stick just to see how heavy it was. It weighed about 30 kilos and was bloody heavy. I was amazed that they are able to hold such weight all day when I was struggling for just a few seconds.

I’d had an incredible time in Hanoi, and it was probably the most sociable segment of my who trip so far. I swap dozens of contact details and arrange to meet several people again further along the SE Asia trail. Reluctantly I say goodbye to the new friends I’d made and head of towards the border to Laos.

Next edition of this blog coming very soon. I realise I’m a few countries behind but I’ve made enough journal notes to cover everything.

Next stop Laos. Quite probably the most scenically beautiful country I’ve visited. I will be diving into turquoise blue rock pools at Luang Prabang waterfalls, and inner-tubing down the Mekong river through a landscape so mesmerisingly spectacular, I thought I was hallucinating. Stay tuned…


  1. Worth the wait Jools, very funny. Happy ending sir? you gotta keep it up.

    all the best

  2. Defo worth the wait. Mate, pls don't leave it so long for the next one - we're here in the concrete jungle, baking in London's 32 degrees and your adventures are a welcome break.

    Keep safe and away from luv you lung time women who loves a goatee.

    Don't go changing,

  3. Oi Stop playing with yourself and give your audience an update!!

  4. WHAT A WASTE OF A BLOG........