You go on holiday and get caught in a blooming typhoon and then you read this.
After our time in beautiful Cat Ba and Nam Cat islands, we went back to Hanoi for a day before getting the sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue, a historical city halfway down Vietnam’s coast.
The train is a bit rough and bumpy, and unfortunately Mr Beet is ill and therefore has a pretty miserable night. We left Hanoi in beautiful sunshine, and arrive to torrential rain in Hue. Everyone is still travelling by bike and moped, and they all wear huge, brightly-coloured ponchos that cover them and the bike. It looks like the roads are full of superheroes. We get a taxi to our hotel, but they don’t have a record of our reservation. Col consults his emails and it turns out he’s accidentally made a booking for 26 October instead of September – doh!
It’s ok because there are plenty of hotels nearby and we check into another one. The guy at the hotel asks if we are married. I’ve been wearing my fake wedding ring, and I thought I might as well get in the habit of pretending to be married, so I just say yes.
“OK, I’ll give you some special things for your honeymoon.”
“No, no, no…not honeymoon, we’ve been married umm….a year!”
“Only a year – it is like a honeymoon!”
Thankfully, we get off relatively lightly on the honeymoon front, with just some flowers on the bed.
The rain was still pummelling down, and Mr Beet hasn’t had much sleep, so we move the flower and have a nap. But we soon notice a puddle on the floor – the window is leaking and there’s water running down the wall and under the bed. The hotel fixes it quickly and we get mopped up and dried out. But unfortunately the weather outside precludes much sightseeing, so apart from popping out for dinner, we don’t see much of Hue.
At bed-time, the storm steps up a gear. There are constant explosions of thunder and the lightning is so constant that even with the curtains drawn, it’s like trying to sleep surrounded by paparazzi. We have to resort to the ear plugs and eye masks that we’ve got for long bus journeys. The repaired window holds so we we remain dry.
The next morning it’s dry, so we wander round Hue’s main attraction which is its walled citadel, which contains the former royal palace called the Forbidden Purple City. This is very much the same thing as the Forbidden City in Beijing, except on a much smaller scale. A lot of the buildings were destroyed in the 1940s and only a few are maintained. The remainder are in various stages of decrepitude and the grounds are overgrown and, after last night’s storm, flooded. I find it a lot more charming than its prototype in Beijing because of this.
Some more photos of our short time in Hue on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
From Hanoi we took a taxi, then the bus, then another bus, then a boat, then another bus and miraculously ended up where we wanted to be, which is Cat Ba Island. It’s a beautiful sub-tropical island, with a national park containing endangered langur monkeys, sandy beaches and hundreds of limestone karsts jutting out in the surrounding sea – very picturesque. The island has only recently become touristy and the islanders have obviously now decided to put all their eggs into the tourism basket, as we saw plenty of development going on on the bus round the island. It’s still mainly a destination for domestic Vietnamese tourists, so its high season is June – August (I guess the school holidays are the same as the UK). So it’s relatively quiet at the moment and the other tourists are largely Westerners. With the beach, the strip of hotels and restaurants, and all the other Westerners; this feels more like “holiday” and less like “travelling”.
Very sharp rocks!
We opted to go kayaking in the afternoon. Some people on the trip were doing deep water solo climbing, which is where you climb up without ropes and then just jump into the sea when you’re high enough. The tourists climbed up a few metres above the water, but the Vietnamese guide went a bit higher (without ropes and barefoot).
On our kayaking trip we saw that there were little bungalows on some of the small islands. When we got back to Cat Ba we made enquiries and booked to stay in one of the bungalows on Nam Cat Island, which was absolutely idyllic and we spent our days as follows; breakfast, swim, hammock, kayak, lunch, hammock, nap, kayak, swim, dinner, drinks, bed. This is what Mr Beet wanted our trip to be like and he’s had to wait for 8 weeks of me dragging him around cities and up mountains before he finally got some hammock action, but it was worth the wait.
Getting to and from Nam Cat involved a first for me; riding on the back of a moped, which was not so bad. Fitting me and Mr Beet plus driver on a single moped on the way was a bit more precarious.
All our photos from Cat Ba and Nam Cat and on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
After 30 days in China, we had to move on as our visas expired, so we got our acts together to book a bus journey to Hanoi. We had to go through an agent, as it’s impossible (or at least, beyond our collective wits) to book onward tickets when you’re not actually in the city. The package worked out quite well, as they also organised a night’s accommodation to break our journey and a chain of people across China and Vietnam to collect the two tourists from each bus and deliver safely onto the next. These people were not chosen for their English language skills, but it was an easy job for them to recognise us as we were the only gringos on the bus, and we just merrily followed behind any Chinese person who waved us over, trotting along behind them like two loyal but rather slow labradors (as we were laden with backpacks, and these guys always seemed to have places to be and weren’t dawdling). This could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t. We were safely delivered to a hotel in Nanning (on the Chinese side of the border), which had a mattress made of concrete and this was the only option if you wanted something softer:
After a night in Nanning we were collected by another silent escort and delivered onto the bus to Hanoi. After our night on the bed of concrete, I slept most of the way. I had to wake up to walk through passport control at the border. The two countries took a rather different approach. On the chinese side, there was the orderly queue that I have come to expect at these sorts of places, on the Vietnamese side you just piled into a scrum to throw your passport onto a heap with everyone else’s, where the clerk is picking them to stamp in no real order and then flinging them back into the same scrum, to be distributed to the correct person by whoever happens to grab it first.
Hanoi turns out to be exactly my idea of what an Asian city would be like; shops spilling out onto the pavements so that you have to share the roads with thousands of motorbikes, people congregating on street corners to eat and drink, old men playing mahjong in shady spots, noise, smells, energy. I love it!
We only have a few days, and there’s not many sights for us to see as such(I didn’t want to see Mao’s body and I am similarly not disposed to see Ho Chi Minh’s) so we just spend our time wandering around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem lake, taking in Hanoi’s characteristic flavour. The French have left their mark here, leaving behind some now rather dilapidated architecture, tree-lined streets and a healthy appreciation of the baguette (the bread here is delicious, and the bread in China was abysmal, so it’s a treat).
Mr Beet starts off hating Hanoii. After Yangshuo, he is out of big-city modeand the traffic and the noise condensed into the narrow streets of the Old Quarter is the most intense we have encountered yet. But after a while he comes to terms with the rules off engagement for crossing the road (it’s true what everybody says, you just have to go for it and walk steadily with no sudden moves and the motorbikes will avoid you. It just takes a few goes before you come to have faith in this technique). He also feels much more positive after we have dinner. I’ve noticed on this trip that Mr Beet’s mood correlates closely with when he was last fed.
We give our wandering some structure by setting ourselves the task of finding some new reading material. The big book shop’s English language section consists only of Victorian novels and the Twilight series. We find a more eclectic selection in some second hand stalls. We also planned our days around trips to the luxurious ice cream parlour, which did ice cream in the shape of other food. Here’s sushi:
On our last night we go to see water puppets. It was quite fun, but if I were Vietnamese, I’d be somewhat baffled that all the tourists go and see what is essentially Punch and Judy on water as their taste of Vietnamese culture.
More photos of Hanoi on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
Mr Beet enjoyed the following Chinese beers:
Tsingtao – in many incarnations, as we went to the Tsingtao beer museum and the Tsingtao beer festival.
The river in question was the Li, and the messing about included some swimming
and some kayaking;
One evening, the Li River served as the setting for a show directed by Zhang Yimou, called Liu Sanjie. It’s based on an old Chinese story, something about a village girl who becomes a concubine then escapes by transforming into a lark (I didn’t really folow the narrative) but there were amazing costumes, fishing boats with torches, and they lit up the karsts to provide an amazing backdrop. It was really stunning – the director also directed the opening ceremony to the Beijing Olympics and I think that this show was a bit of a dry run for that job as it was the same kind of thing. Photos wouldn’t have done it justice so we didn’t bother – you’ll just have to come to Yangshuo one day and see for yourself. Or it’s probably on youtube.
All our Yangshuo photos (including more kayaking photos than you can shake a stick at) are on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
We’ve eaten very well in China; in Shanghai we had great dim sum, including these dumplings that are filled with broth so explode in your mouth. Apparently aficionados puncture them with a chopstick, then sip the broth, then eat the dumpling. Easier said than done, so I stuck with the shove-it-all-in technique.
In Beijing, we had traditional duck pancakes and barbecued meat on a stick (including, at Dayo’s recommendation, chicken cartilage on a stick. The best thing I can say about it is that it is actually edible if you persevere).
Also in Beijing, we went to a ridiculously lavish Sunday brunch. We’d seen lots of exhibitions about the dowager Empress Cixi, who would order 108 dishes to be prepared for every meal. This is the modern version. The boys quaffed champagne and I even tried caviar. Well you kind of have to if it’s there, don’t you? I didn’t really like it.
It was the mid-autumn festival while we were in China, and so we tried the traditional moon cakes.
In Guilin we ordered something described as beef with peppers. There was some beef in it, but as you can see, it was 90 per cent peas. I think the mischievous chef just wanted to put our chopstick skills to the test.