Halong Bay and back to Hanoi

by Helen Stone January. 17, 2012 3737 views

We woke early as the boat was due back in harbor at 8:30am, and had some breakfast and looked around as we motored back through Halong Bay. This was the view inside the boat, in the main area where we ate all our meals.

We got back in a bus and started the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi, where the whole trip had started 2 hours previously. This trip was mostly spent writing the blog or with people reading / listening to music or, in the case of Lisa our guide, trying to gain popularity by falling asleep on Manfred’s shoulder.

Paddy field workers, with Halong Bay in the background. The weather was again cloudy this morning, and Jay said we had been super lucky that it cleared up like it did for the afternoon when we were out on the boat.

The typical kinds of houses we saw in the towns and villages we past through on our way back to Hanoi. These take on these particular shapes as each new generation of a family will typically build one new storey on top of their parents house – so rather than having granny annexes, they effectively have child and child-in-law annexes going up.

The enemy factory – Helen was not happy when she saw this. What made her more happy was when we stopped at the sister shop of the art gallery we had gone through the day before. There we managed to take a bit more time and purchased a silk stitched picture of some boats on the water, in a typical Halong Bay style scene. Ed felt bad for trying to barter the price of the picture down only to be told that the picture had been stitched by a disabled person and the money would go to her, so we ended up paying a fair price for it.

Coming back into Hanoi, and we hit rush hour (which is even more mental than the already crazy and probably quite dangerous normal hour). We distracted ourselves from the incessant horn beeping and quite worrisome driving standards by looking at the more interesting forms of traffic, as pictured above.

Tet – the Lunar New Year – is getting close (January 23rd), and we have seen a huge number of motorbikes driving around with trees on the back. Most of these are kumquat trees, with small orange fruits on (very much like small clementines), but there are also a variety of other trees we have seen. The traditional colours for Tet are orange and yellow and red (for good luck, the flesh of Vietnam and the blood of Vietnam), and there are trees for each of these colours. The only constant is the motorbikes being used to transport all the trees, which at first made for quite a comical sight. Now we are used to seeing 6ft tall trees with loads of oranges winding their way through streets on the back of rickety little motorbikes.

We got back to our hotel and set off to explore some more of Hanoi. This was what a quiet street in Hanoi looked like.

On the boat and bus trips we had made plans to see the Hanoi Hilton (the POW camp where American Vietnam pilots had been kept, including John McCain), the Hanoi Catholic Cathedral, supposedly the best market in the city and various other temples and POIs, but a lot of these closed very early in the day. As a result we set off to find these places as soon as we got back to the hotel, and without lunch. This didn’t go down too well with Helen and Ginny (who shares Helen affliction of not being able to go more than 5 hours without feeding), so we stopped off at the only fast food joint we could find – a KFC – for some sustenance. This was the view of the roundabout from the second floor of the restaurant – the same roundabout we had been at two nights previously when took our walk through the market to the lake. And this is again low traffic, in comparison to the night time.

Some typical Vietnamese telephone / power wiring.

Our first stop – the Hanoi Catholic Cathedral, St. Josephs. Alright looking on the outside, we tried to get inside only to find that, like so many other places, it was shut over lunch and did not open for another 30 minutes. So we continued on to find our next POI.

Helen, who had been delegated to map read by Manfred, our man with a plan, leading us through the streets of Hanoi. This took all of her concentration and map reading skills (and motorbike avoiding skills), and so Ed was given camera duties for this stretch of the trip.

Outside the Hanoi Hilton, and the fact we were in a communist country became truly apparent for the first time, with some harsh instructions from the guard on the door, and a sign telling Ed not to frolick.

Most of the Hanoi Hilton complex has been torn down to make space for two very large towers (the Hanoi towers), but what does remain is quite interesting. It shows the various uses of the prison throughout it’s life, from when it was used by the French to detain various Vietnamese independence fighters and political prisoners (in super harsh conditions, on the whole), through to it’s use to detain Vietnamese POWs from 1965 to 1975 (who, according to the photos and placard enjoyed incredible luxury and comfort including pets, Xmas dinners and presents etc. though we expect there might have been a degree of posing for those photographs).

Part of the Hanoi Hilton now houses a monument to those who died in the Vietnam war, with the new Hanoi tower looming large behind.

Inside one of the display areas of the prison. This one was for the American pilots who had been detained in the prison during the Vietnam war, and the flight suit on the back wall was the one John McCain was shot down in. Bizarrely, this place was also used as one of the destinations for the Norwegian version of the TV show The Amazing Race, and so we all stood around and watched as the presenter did his stuff to camera, and then Manfred and Ginny (who watch the US version back in America) got in on the act holding the Amazing Race placard and being filmed (along with Ainsley) for the Norwegian version of the show. Ed showed off some of his Norwegian skills to the film crew, chatting about some good bars they all knew, and then we went back to exploring the prison complex.

POI number three was the Ambassadors Pagoda. This was very pretty on the outside…

…and very pretty on the inside, but as you can see there was a service of some sort going on and we didn’t want to disturb it. Helen was also getting a bit gassed out by the plumes of incense smoke from all the offerings people were making outside the temple, and so we headed back to the hotel.

Part of the entrance to the Ambassadors Pagoda. While we went back to the hotel, the others went to see the National Museum - we were more interested in the modern history rather than the ancient pots and pans on display at this museum, and so we didn’t bother going.

Making our way back through more Hanoi traffic. This intersection was so busy that, as the lights turned green, some of the motorcycles at the back of the queue (who couldn’t bother waiting) mounted the curb and rode down the pavement straight at us. Good thing people don’t try and take the same kind of short cut around the corners on Oxford Street.

Another example of a bike being used to transport anything and everything to anywhere. Jay said the best he had ever seen was one motorcycle carrying an entire, still alive, water buffalo.

Back to the hotel, a bit of blog writing and property finding (with Falcon Wharf rented out we’re starting to think about where we might want to live when we get back to the UK), and then everyone met back together again to go and see the water puppets in a nearby theatre. This show was an hour long and started with a 15 minute musical introduction, one piece of which was composed and performed by the guy in purple at the front of the stage. The music structure and techniques used interested Ed, but we don’t think many members of the audience will be buying the recording.

Some of the water puppets in action. The show comprised 11 different sections, each one of which told different folk stories from around Vietnam. For example, the final story told about the founding of Hanoi in the story of the ascending dragon. This contrasts with the Halong Bay story of the descending dragons, in which several dragons swooped down over the sea, spitting out jade and jewels which then formed into the various limestone peaks in the Bay. The puppets themselves were characters attached on the end of long sticks, which puppeteers then moved from behind curtain so that the characters moved around over the surface of the water (one or two of the characters also drowned frequently – we guess they were heavy puppets). We’re glad we saw the show as it is part of Vietnamese heritage, but, as Jay said, it is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience (he was waiting outside for us when we came out of the theatre, having been a bar during the performance).

Dinner was at a super restaurant called 96 – Jay had hoped to take us to it’s sister restaurant 69, but they were fully booked. The food was excellent (especially Ed’s wrap-it-yourself rice paper wraps, with pork and mint and basil and coriander and peanuts and cucumber and noodles and yum yum yum), and Helen had her first chocolate milkshake of the holiday. After this we went back to the hotel and had a good nights sleep (we had only had about 7 hours on the boat).

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