Hello Hanoi

We now readied ourselves for a journey of considerable distance, we were set to travel from Rach Gia in the south, all the way to Hanoi. Not for the faint hearted, this was set to be a total journey time of 42 hours!
We began our journey with a 5 hour night bus from Rach Gia to Ho Chi Minh, easy….Or so we thought. It transpired that the ‘night bus’ was actually a mini bus, and any thoughts of being able to sleep for this portion of the journey were well and truly out the window. Hurtling along at breakneck speed, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 5AM and headed for the train station to see whether we could get our onward travel sorted. There was still a massive amount of locals travelling because of the New Year, so we just had to head to the station and hope that we would be able to get tickets for same day travel. First up was trying to negotiate local buses at 5AM, not the easiest of things when you’re overtired and chaos is king. Despite our best efforts to persuade people that we wanted a bus to the train station, we ended up on a bus to the main backpackers area….Right direction, just not exactly where we wanted to be, the benefit being that we could revisit our favourite coffee shop for one last banana caramel shake-every cloud and all that!

Lack of sleep making us feel (and look no doubt) like zombies, we managed to get ourselves to the train station and onto the next train to Hanoi, second class sleeper with aircon-nearly perfect, apart from the fact that they only had upper berths available, so you end up lacking a table for the oh so important card games!. Still, we were booked on the train and now just a couple of hours waiting around before we settle in our carriage for the 36 hours journey! Not wanting to let the opportunity pass, Jo took the initiative and promptly fell asleep in the rail station café while we were waiting for the train-it would seem that just waiting to get on a form of transportation is now excuse enough to snooze!
Rousing Jo from her slumber, it was time to get on the train and we soon settled into our top bunks. In Vietnam the first class travel is a four berth cabin, so you’re always sharing with another couple of travellers.

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The train is certainly more locally used than by traveller in my opinion, whether that is down to the costs for a foreigner ticket, or from a bit of mis-information, I don’t know. We were constantly being told how difficult it was to buy train tickets, and to date we hadn’t struggled once-and in some instances the journey was cheaper than by bus. However, it was the crazy time around Tet, and so I’m not sure of the price comparisons at standard times. If you’re going to travel in Vietnam, try the train for a journey if you can budget for it-it’s great!
I would be lying if I told you that the time just breezed by on the train, it didn’t/doesn’t/never will. It’s a massive journey, and amusements that you find early on gradually turn into minor irritants. Things like negotiating the length of the train to get to the restaurant car, falling all over the other passengers and all-so-frequent food carts. First couple of times it’s a right giggle….By the time you’re walking the gauntlet for the 6th and 7th time, with minimal sleep, the novelty wears thin. For me there is a definite apprehension of not knowing my location, I strain to try and work out the names of stations that we pass through-most of the time unsuccessfully…A mild cabin fever sets in as I fix my gaze out of the window, yearning for the arrival of my destination, but fully aware that there is at least another 6 hours to go.

We arrived in Hanoi like drunks out of the holding cell, bleary eyed, disorientated and discombobulated. We fixed our gaze on the coffee shop opposite the train station, drawing us in with it’s bright lights and promise of caffeine…And cake!

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Sugar and caffeine levels replenished, we took the oh so familiar option of walking, trying to find our way through the city for the very first time. We tried to cheat using Google maps, but of course that didn’t work and we got lost-we were at the address, but our guesthouse was nowhere to be found….And as it turns out, not very close to where the address was at all!

Through many a broken English conversation and bumbling about we happened upon our guesthouse, dumped our bags and set out for our initial city reconnaissance mission for eateries. Standard fare of noodle soup to beat back the hunger, and not long before the yearning for a proper bed overcame us both, and we hightailed it for slumber.
Waking in the Old City and the Lonely Planet walking tour was our guide for the morning. Given our location, it made best sense to do it backwards and off we went, starting at the cathedral. As fortune would have it, on our route to the cathedral we found something of a holy grail, a funky little Bhan Mi joint serving the most delicious bread based meaty treats-superb fuel for the street stomping that lay ahead.

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The Old City in Hanoi is my favourite city of our travels so far. At first it’s pretty confusing, traffic laden and chaotic, but soon you see patterns in the city, the layout starts to materialise in your mind and it makes a little more sense. This happened extremely swiftly for me in Hanoi, and accelerated the affections I was starting to feel towards the place. We didn’t necessarily do a lot in Hanoi-just explored the city, took in the pace of the local life in the capital, found hidden markets in small dark alleyways.
In fact I doubt that we saw much of the city at all, just a portion of it-but up popped the question of whether or not I could see myself living there, and the answer is yes. Moreso than the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok for sure, and Phnom Penh can just be a little to much hard work and Vientiane is a little too sedate, Hanoi seems to strike a nice balance.

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The guesthouse had not lived up to reviews, and so after a couple of nights we decided to upgrade for a little luxury. All hail the Blue River II hotel-an air-conditioned, en suite, hot water, comfy bed extravaganza…Breakfast included, $10..Ace! From here we began to formulate our plan for the main reason for the trek up North-the word famous, postcard picture perfect Halong Bay. Up for the challenge of taking the local route, we made our decision to go and spend some time on the island of Cat Ba, located on the edge of the Halong Bay UNESCO World heritage site. The local journey was something of a giggle looking back, just a funny sequence of transport transfers:

1. Taxi to bus station
2. Bus destined for ferry location, drops us in middle of road
3. Bus appears as if by magic and picks us up in middle of road, takes us to another bus.
4. Now we’re headed to the ferry-seemingly driving through the worlds biggest unfinished port!
5. We’re herded on to back of boat where we sit on plastic stools, then the boat takes us to the island, down a tributary and to a seemingly hidden bus stop.
6. Final bus, this was it-take us to Cat Ba town.

In the middle of all of this, we have influenced another seemingly confused passenger to get off the last bus with us for the transfer to the ferry port, it then transpires that he should have stayed on the other bus and we are now looking back sympathetically at his panic stricken face….Yes, you could probably say that this was our fault. Fortunately proved to be no problem, the bus simply swings round another street, drop him off where he is instructed to sprint down the street towards several buses, and catch the correct one. I hope he made it, nice guy!

Up next for us, touring the postcards!

Tết take Tu…..

Somewhat later than planned, we finally managed to negotiate our exit from Ho Chi Minh and make our way to Rạch Giá in Kien Giang province near the Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. Here we would be meeting up with Tu, someone we had met in a backpackers hostel in Vientiane, and who had invited us to stay with his family for Vietnamese New Year.
Tu is one of the friendliest people you are ever likely to meet, and his invitation to his family home, and indeed his brother’s wedding, came within a few hours of knowing us. At first my Britishness set alarm bells ringing…. ‘Why would he invite us to his home?’, ‘what’s in it for him?’, ‘should I really trust this person who I hardly know?!’
I have to admit, these questions rattled round in the back of my mind quite frequently, we’re so used to being ‘on guard’ at home that it’s difficult to let go of your trust issues and just go with it-but that’s exactly what we did, and it turned out to be an incredible and fulfilling experience.

The bus from Ho Chi Minh was hot, cramped and longer than expected-but that’s par for the course and we suffered in good spirits, excited about what was in store for us.
We eventually arrived at around 8PM and set about trying to locate Tu, as it turns out he had been waiting with his friend at the bus station for the whole day, and was on hand to take us into Rach Gia for a catch up, some food, and to stay the evening in a guesthouse they had already found for us. We soon found out that Rạch Giá is the capital of Kien Giang province, and is something of a Vietnamese tourist destination, Tu’s family lived about an hour’s drive away from the centre.
Fed and watered, we were ushered back to the guesthouse and told to rest before setting off to see his family the next day.
Bright and early Tu and his friend arrived to pick us up and set out for breakfast followed by a coffee to get the day’s activities underway. It became apparent that our arrival had been talked up by Tu, and some of his friends, his sister, nephew and brother in law came to meet us. Mostly people weren’t able to speak English, and our Vietnamese is non-existent, so Tu acted as translator as they all were keen to talk and ask questions, and like Tu everyone made a huge effort with us.

Rach Gia morning glory!

Rach Gia morning glory!

Tu!

Tu!

Saying our goodbyes, off we went into the Vietnamese province that Tu called home-we had no idea of what was in store for the day ahead.
Driving out of the city of Rach Gia it became apparent that we were heading to a very different Vietnam to the one that we had experienced so far. Soon we were traveling along single track pathways alongside a myriad of waterways connecting various farms and their rice fields. Even though it was still early, it was already intensely hot and it wouldn’t be long before I started to feel the discomfort of sunburn on my legs! Jo didn’t seem to be suffering from the heat so much, in fact-she actually fell asleep on the back of her motorbike, head-butting the driver in the act! An extreme demonstration in her ability to sleep on pretty much any transportation method-something that would be repeated a number of times over the next couple of days!

Eventually we arrived at Tu’s family home set amongst fish lakes and rice fields-it was absolutely stunning. Our arrival was met with quite the fanfare, and as it turned out Tu’s uncles, neighbours and family friends had all come to meet us as well. It wasn’t long before we were all sat round eating lunch, drinking Vietnamese vodka and getting to know each other-it was absolutely amazing….Worth noting that when you drink vodka with the family, it is one shot glass that is passed around. The person who drinks then nominates a ‘drinking partner’ for that shot, and you drink and pass on. Needless to say, Jo and I were the subject of many drinking partner nominations, and soon were feeling the effects!
For the first time on our trip we felt Michael Palin’esque, managing to communicate with each other despite not being able to speak a common language. You couldn’t wish for better hosts, the food was fantastic, and the volume of laughter steadily increased as the vodka continued to be consumed-my hairy arms and white skin being a topic of some quite considerable hilarity! Before long Tu’s father was insisting that we return to stay with the family overnight, an offer that we simply could not refuse. We were delighted at the prospect of spending some more time at his home.

First 'family' lunch

First ‘family’ lunch

With our plans for a return visit confirmed, it was time to move onto Tu’s brother’s house, who had married the previous week and had invited us to his wedding despite never meeting us! Unfortunately we missed the ceremony, but it would seem that celebrations were ongoing as we were greeted with another gathering of people, food and drink. This time it was beer rather than vodka, and this time we got pulled into the Vietnamese tradition of downing drinks on demand….I think they were trying to get us drunk!

Lunch with Tu's brother and friends

Lunch with Tu’s brother and friends

It was at this point that we saw the first of what would be many ‘real life living’ methods.
The ability to catch, prepare and cook your food is something that we have lost in the UK. Having been molly coddled by supermarkets, buying our meat nicely prepared and wrapped, both Jo and I are somewhat lacking in these real life living methods. At Tu’s brothers house we enjoyed a lesson in fresh fish preparation. As we arrived one of the guys promptly went out to the waterway in front of the house and harvested the fishing net that was suspended there, returning with a bucket full of freshwater fish. From there the fish were taken to the back of the house, where they were cooked simply by impaling on a stick and covering with burning hay for an impromptu barbeque-I kid you not it, it was both ingenious and delicious! Second lunch of the day dealt with, and a fair few more beverages under the belt, and it was time to test the balance once more on the back of the motorbikes, and head back to Rạch Giá. It had been a great first day meeting all of Tu’s friends and family, they were all so friendly and eager for us to share in all that they had.

We got back to our guesthouse around six o clock and parted company with Tu for the evening, giving us some time to have a mooch around Rạch Giá. This in itself lead to quite a funny episode, given that Rạch Giá is a Vietnamese holiday destination, none of the menus in the restaurants have any English translation, and very few locals spoke any English whatsoever. This makes ordering dinner somewhat difficult, and so with the gung ho attitude of just picking something random on the menu, we ended up with an eel hot pot for dinner that eve! Just to explain a little further, a hot pot is a dish in Vietnam where you get served a large pan with stock in it, on a burner of some description, you are then provided with a number of ingredients which you then add to the stock to cook, and then you serve with noodles. On the whole it is a great way to eat-but cooking with eel for the first time wasn’t exactly the highlight of our culinary discovery….Still, we gave it a go and can safely say that we will not be ordering that again in a hurry! Little did we know that this was just going to be the tip of the iceberg when it came to new eating experiences…

Somewhat earlier than the expected 10AM start, Tu arrived at our hotel door at a sporting 8AM prompting us to spring into action, pack, wash, have breakfast and high tail it out of our guesthouse. We headed back out of town and into the province to spend the day with Tu’s family and friends, before spending the evening at his house. The journey was something of a shocker-the previous days’ hour and a half on the back of a scooter was about the limit in terms of comfort-this time we were in for an epic three hour adventure along the various watercourses of Kien Giang Province. Again seemingly not so much of a problem for Jo, who took the opportunity to snooze once again….Although seeing the shock on her face following one of her ‘micro snoozes’ and you realise that perhaps this wasn’t the most relaxing of experiences…More terrifying! Turns out that our first destination was a family friends house, Tu had only been there once before, and finding it was proving to be challenging. In the midst of all of this, we were hurtling over bridges, Jo got whisked off while Tu and I waited on the road so that her ‘driver’ could change clothes, and we acquired a gift hamper for the family-vodka included obviously-as is tradition at New Year in Vietnam.

Eventually we made it, pretty numb from the journey, but just in time to see the lunch being prepared. I’m not sure what type of bird it was, I think that it may have been similar to a stalk, but I can be certain of the fact that we had never eaten it before. Anyway, we had arrived just as two of these birds had been slaughtered, and I was promptly invited to assist with the plucking of the feathers-time to get a bit hands on. My contribution to the plucking over, and leaving the gutting of the bird to the experts, we were invited into the house to have a look at their ‘store room’, where to our amazement were another three of these ‘stalk-like’ birds, alive, just stood there…Not to mention the many chickens and chicks running around-this was fresh food at its most extreme! Back outside and the men had started digging around at a root in the garden, a large bright purple potato like root-which would be added to the stew that was starting to boil on the fire-literally getting all the ingredients from their surroundings, a brilliant lesson in how people live so efficiently here.

Preparation for lunch begins

Preparation for lunch begins

Before long the stew was ready, and an area was cleared for us all to sit down and eat together. A notable difference in attitude towards consumption of meat is that in Vietnam nothing is wasted-the whole bird is used and enjoyed immensely. Tu has quite the appetite for the things that we discard at home-as we found ourselves tucking into the neck of the bird! The meal was delicious, even if we had no idea what it was that we had eaten, and to top things off nicely we got invited to join them in a glass of a very special vodka.
Out came the following bottle, containing said special vodka. It would seem what was special about it, is that the bottle has a snake and a millipede fermenting in it, resulting in a pungent, thick, treacle like beverage…Which apparently is very good for you, so they say.

Special vodka

Special vodka

Feeling obligated to join in with the festivities, Jo and I had ourselves a glass and it was……Strong. Not the most pleasant drinks I’ve ever had, more of an elderflower and blackcurrant Pimms man myself, but it definitely got the heart pumping-much to the amusement of those around us.
It was time again to mount our trusty steeds and head off for Tu’s home once again-where further culinary exploration was sure to await us. Sure enough, upon arrival the wheels were in motion to start preparing the next meal-it’s a perpetual task it would seem. It wasn’t long before Tu was out on a boat herding the ducks so that we could catch the main provider for our evening meal-certainly these ducks would be classed as ‘Free Range’ in the UK.

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I don’t think that it is ever an easy task to catch a duck that is running for its life, but with little hilarity our fare was caught and in no time he was put to the sword for preparation. This time we were both given the unenviable task of plucking the feathers, and boy what a task that was-it took ages! I’m pretty sure it was something to do with our technique, but these things get better with practice and soon the duck was ready to be butchered.
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Again, no wastage here-everything was cleaned and separated and added to the pot. We continued to help with the prep of the vegetables harvested from the surrounding area, Tu’s mother and grandmother really encouraging us to learn more, and taking some delight in the gusto in which we were approaching our tasks. Before long a feast had been constructed from the single pot and open fire-something of an accomplishment in our eyes, but really just par for the course here.
While all of this was going on, various uncles and neighbours and other friends had arrived in readiness for the evening gathering.

As if we hadn’t had challenges enough on the food and drink stakes-as we settled down to dinner one of the first things that was put in our bowl was a balut…If, like me, you have no idea what balut is-quite simply it is a developing duck embryo. Yeah, that’s right…A partially formed duck chick boiled in the shell. The taste wasn’t bad at all, quite the opposite-the difficulty is the concept, it’s something very far removed from what we are used to back in good old Blighty! New culinary experiences coming thick and fast now-and Jo was presented with the ducks head to chow down on. It came as a bit of a surprise because at first Jo thought that she was getting passed a nice piece of thigh, but no, it was the head! As Jo proceeded to devour, I was passed the chicken feet to eat-a rather clumsy affair, and pretty tame in the scheme of things, but a new food trial all the same.
I must stress here that this is just a couple of the highlights from the more obscure items on the menu-the meal in its entirety was absolutely delicious, Tu and his family being absolutely faultless hosts.

The head of the household, Tu's grandmother

The head of the household, Tu’s grandmother

Jo with Tu's mother

Jo with Tu’s mother

The shot glass gets passed around the table

The shot glass gets passed around the table

A wonderful dinner is served

A wonderful dinner is served

Once again the vodka was brought out to round things off nicely, and before we knew it we were readying ourselves for slumber. As is the common theme, Tu’s family could not do enough for us and we found ourselves set up on his parents sleeping platform-it wasn’t long before we had passed out for the evening.

Morning came, and so did the realisation of how attractive mosquitos find Westerners…We had both been ravaged during the night, and my back resembled a bad case of chicken pox! It’s nigh on impossible to avoid getting bitten, but never before had I been bitten so often in one evening. Still, it was nothing to take the sheen off what was a truly fantastic experience, and the morning vista that greeted us helped to stow any feelings of discomfort well and truly to the back of our minds.

Sunrise in the province-magical

Sunrise in the province-magical

As dawn breaks

As dawn breaks

Once again the food preparation was underway, and we set about going to visit some of the neighbours with Tu’s grandmother. Again the experience made somewhat comical with the lack of English spoken, but the warmth with which we were greeted was quite wonderful. We took some time to do some more exploring of the surrounding area, and to marvel at the simplicity and practicality of the Vietnamese locals-demonstrated quite brilliantly with this bridge over one of the waterways.

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Panoramic view of the setting

Panoramic view of the setting

Another wonderful meal was presented to us for lunch, and far too quickly our time of departure had come upon us. The experience of staying with Tu’s family was absolutely magical, the warmth, friendliness, and inclusive nature of all that we met was quite something else. We have the chance for a return visit too….As soon as our friend Tu decides to become an honest man and get married! I know for sure that both Jo and I look forward to that day immensely, and hope that circumstance suits for us to return.

Tu's brother, brother-in-law and nephew

Tu’s brother, brother-in-law and nephew

Fond farewells to Tu's father and uncle

Fond farewells to Tu’s father and uncle

The magnificent setting of our Vietnamese adventure

The magnificent setting of our Vietnamese adventure

Back on the road for our return to Rach Gia

Back on the road for our return to Rach Gia