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.
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!
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.
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.
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!