Hanoi – again!

We walked down the road to have breakfast in a boulangerie which supports a local charity. The pastries were excellent and just right for a starting meal. We panicked a little as it got close to the time when our bus was meant to pick us up, so flagged down a taxi to take us to the office with our luggage. Actually, at first we thought the taxi was there to pick us up, but we rapidly realised he was just cruising and looking for a fare!

Fair do’s though, the driver was polite and helpful and despite a language barrier between us we got where we needed to go in good time to jump on the coach… and watch as it rounded the block to stop in front of our hotel and wait for us. Oh dear. So for those of you who book a Vietnam Airlines bus in Hué with pickup – it will come for you. If you’re patient.

We chatted to a French couple on the bus who had been visiting their daughter, a medical student based down in Hoi An. They were on the same flight as us and seemed remarkably unphased by the whole Vietnam thing. Hué airport isn’t huge, but here’s a hint – if you don’t like people smoking round you then go through the security check as soon as you have your boarding card. It’s not obvious from outside, but there’s a waiting lounge on the other end with seating, a TV, food and a no smoking policy. I wish I’d known this before I came close to vomiting on the guy next to us.

Our flight was called and we piled down stairs and were shoehorned onto the little shuttle bus. Which then – and I kid you not – did a U-turn then let us out at the plane doors. I do not exaggerate one bit. The bus travelled more distance doing the turn than we would have covered walking directly to the steps in a fraction of the time. The bus engine was running the whole time. Madness.

The actual flight was probably more ecological as it was fairly full and we got into Hanoi pretty much on time. I feel like I know this place backwards now, and we walked outside and straight onto one of the Vietnam Airline minibuses which took us into the Old Quarter for 30,000 Dong each. Apologies to the French couple as we got the last two seats on the bus, meaning they had to wait for the next one to fill up!

At the hostel I got my usual “What the hell are you doing back here?” from Mike and Max, as well as a welcoming beer and a hearty handshake. Luggage dumped, we made the most of happy hour (believe me… I really made the most of it) loading up on beer and cocktails before attacking the burger bar for dinner. This is three nights a week, and on the balcony bar of the main building.

Ah, main building. Yes. The Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel is now in three buildings along the same street, such is the popularity of the place. There’s the original place (now with a new bar on the ground floor), The Annexe and The Other Side across the street. 179 beds and almost always full to the brim. They even had two camp beds down in our dorm at one point to accommodate overflow.

We met a girl called Kat who was in much the same state I was 2 years ago – sat waiting for a new bank card to arrive after hers had been stolen. Also in the hostel was Hanno, a German guy on holiday from working on his thesis at the Primate Centre in Ninh Binh. As we settled down to eat, Mike announced a second happy hour in my honour as I’ve been at the hostel so often!

Along with a bunch of other people we headed out to the Bia Hoi, which was a lot quieter than I remember. I have a feeling the police have clamped down on the way the chairs used to spill onto the roadside. Bunch of killjoys. The beer’s also now 3000D, up 1000D from my last visit but still cheap enough!. Leah and Kat headed back to the hostel, but I stayed out with a couple of other guys for a few more beers in the Buddha Bar. Apparently it was around 4am when I got back to the hostel. All I know is I spent around eight quid and had a great night out!

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Hué’s Citadel

Quite a bit of walking in extreme heat today. Leah did well considering her inbuilt inability to handle it. I think she only actually collapsed once.

We left the hotel and walked over the Trang Tien Bridge onto the side of the Perfume River which hosts the Citadel. Hué is essentially divided in two, with the older part of the city still surrounded by walls on that side. There’s an enormous flagpole (the largest in Vietnam) which flies the national flag outside the main “inner citadel” gates further south. Apparently for a couple of months in 1968 the National Liberation Front flew their flag from it. It’s big, but not as big as the Jordanian flag you can see from Eiliat (the flagpole is in Aqaba). Given that it’s the world’s largest flagpole at 130m (426 feet), that’s not surprising. The one here in Hué is a “mere” 37m.

Over the bridge, we fended off the cyclo drivers who tried ton convince us it was a long way to the structure we could already see and walked further inland up to the moat. There we took a left and passed many small local fooderies and houses with the green water to our right. The old walls are crumbly-looking but solid and gates are placed every hundred metres or so.

At the Ngan Gate, we entered the Citadel area at a patch of what would be grassland in a cooler country. A quick left past there, again dodging cyclos, took up across a courtyard and to the Imperial Enclosure. This is effectively a “citadel within a citadel” – if Lonely Planet didn’t call it this, I’d have used the same words anyway. It’s the old royal residence which houses several temples and palaces, though much of it has been destroyed over the years, mainly by war. The good thing is that it’s currently being restored using traditional techniques with the aim of rebuilding the entire complex in its original form.

55,000 Dong will get you into this place and it’s worth a wander, even with the tourists milling around. Some of the structures are the originals, some repaired, some being built from scratch and some just don’t exist any more / yet. The main gates passed through on entry have five portals, each used for different ranks and there’s a royal balcony above that used to be used for presentations and so forth.

Inside, the first building that will strike you over the bridged ponds is the Thai Hoa Palace. This was a reception hall and is made mainly of carved wood in a traditional “two buildings jammed together” style. All very grand. There’s a CGI video on constant looping play in the rear room, behind the throne room which is worth watching. It details the areas being restored and what the whole complex looked like originally and how it can be expected to look when work is finished. It’s only five minutes or so and does give some good information.

Behind the Palace are the two Halls of the Mandarins, essentially preparation rooms for the royal receptions. They’re now used for more touristy things. Want a photo dressed as a Mandarin? Hire a costume and click away. Spend more money and you can get to sit on a throne or even be carried around by some “slaves”. Prices are displayed outside.

After this is a huge courtyard which was once the Forbidden Purple City which was reserved for the emperor alone. The Emperor’s reading Room is a gorgeous building, but you can’t go inside. Lovely to look at, though. Around the back of it is a large still pond where you can get some excellent photos of dragonflies if that’s your kind of thing. Well, I was pleased with the snaps I got. It’s not often they’ll pose for you and let you use the super-macro function of your camera.

Leah rested in the shade of a small pagoda while I snapped some pictures of a dragon on a phoenix up on a plinth, then we walked down the west side of the complex taking in the Dien Tho Residence (Queen Mother’s house), Phung Tien Temple and the wonderful To Mieu Temple Complex in the south west corner. This is one of the areas where restoration has been completed. If they can get the rest of the place up to this standard I’ll be very impressed.

Again, Leah wilted here and we sat for a few minutes wondering why nobody had thought of placing an ice cream stand right in front of is. Food and drink was definitely needed, so after a quick look from the royal balcony area, we walked back out the citadel gates and onto more public streets.

A small café on a corner caught our eye and we followed the waitress upstairs. The menu said that they were recommended by Lonely Planet, but they’re not in my edition. Well, changes to occur and the food was very good so if you want a snack then you can’t go wrong at the Lac Thuan at number 06 Dinh Tien Hoang. The view’s good as well, and you can watch life pass you by on the streets below.

Recharged, we took a walk back into the Citadel to see the two lakes. The first, Tinh Tiem, is split in two and has bridges going across. The bamboo one to the north was closed, but we spotted people on it – and found out they’d climbed round the outside of the bridge to get some peace and quiet! The other bridge takes you to a small island with a nice view over the vegetation-shrouded waters. Locals sat on the banks (or in one case on a small boat) and fished.

A little further up is Tang Tau Lake which has one island in the middle. Lonely Planet reckons this is some kind of Buddhist retreat, but when we walked up we saw a load of kids playing football outside and families cooking. It certainly appeared more residential than reverential. As we walked back into town, some well-groomed boys outside a hairdressers pointed and tried to wave us in. I removed my cap to show I had more hair on my face than on my head and they had a good laugh!

We freshened up at the hotel then looked for somewhere for dinner. Cathi 24 got a good write-up for muchines in Lonely Planet but we couldn’t find it where it’s supposed to be on the map. Down another street we found “Cathi”, which isn’t the same place but where we had a good couple of meals while a young kid on another table tried to burst our eardrums with a whistle. Around the time I was wondering if I could insert it somewhere on him which would make him whistle each time he farted, the family left. Thankfully.

On the road back, we popped into Bar Why Not? where I had a locally brewed beer (they have a couple in Hué), then a Johnny Walker. Then a local whisky/rice wine – which was pretty darn tasty. Certainly not as harsh as I’ve ever had and definitely something I’d consider trying again.

And that was the end of our one full day in Hué. A lot of walking, but it’s an easy city to get around. You don’t need to worry about cyclos and motos here.

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Hoi An to Hué

Yet another early rise to finish packing and grab some breakfast before our bus pulled up at 7:30. It was a fairly hefty not-quite-double-decker from the Sinh Cafe company who have a good reputation in Vietnam.

Instead of seats, each passenger gets a berth, either on the floor or up small ladders. There’s very little space to store baggage if the bus is full, so be prepared to put almost everything into the under-bus hold. The seats recline almost fully with legroom seemingly designed for someone around 5’6″ (1.67m) in height. Any taller and it can get a little crampy, especially in some of the berths which have little footwells. These will force your feet to the side unless you lie sideways for the journey, rather than on your back.

So if you’re first on the bus, I recommend getting right to the back of the bus (if you don’t mind being a little snuggly with your neighbour) or grab the one just further back than the loo as it has a tall footwell. Footwear isn’t allowed on board, and you get a little bag to keep your shoes in while you’re onboard. Overall, a pretty good way to travel.

The journey from Hoi An to Hu̩ took around 4 hours including a 30-minute toilet/food stop somewhere along the way. At the stopoff I met a young Vietnamese lad who was collecting foreign currency Рnotes in particular. As luck had it, I still had two Estonian notes in my wallet: a 2Kr and a 5Kr. I gave him the choic and he picked the 2Kr for his collection. The 5 Kr is mine, now!

As expected, our bus arrived in Hué to be greeted by a thronging crowd of:

“Come see my hotel!”

“No, mine.”

“Ours is in Lonely Planet – number 49!”

“Ours is near the lake, very quiet.”

“Lake is noisy, ours is better.”

I pointed at one young lady and said, “She was the first, so we will look there first. If we don’t like it, we will try the next person. That’s fair.” Only to hear one other person grumble “No, not fair.” Dissenter.

Anyway, as it happened we did like the first place. A nice room, spacious, fridge, aircon, tons of English channels on the telly, right by the bus dropoff and $10 a night between us. The only thing missing was a hot water tank, so the shower waslukewarm but given the temperatures outside, that was hardly an issue.

We did the usual scattering of luggage and then went for a quick walk. First stop was to organise a lift to the airport for Monday morning. The hotel had suggested a taxi at $11, claiming that the bus would be too early and would cost the same for two tickets as one taxi. Hum. Lonely Planet gives the address of the Vietnam Airlines office for the minibus stop, but has it wrong or the stop has moved.

For reference, the bus leaves from the Vietnam Airlines office at number 20 D Hanoi (20 Hanoi Street). It’s a very short walk from the office listed in the current Lonely Planet. Cost is 40,000d (roughly $2.40) per person and they’ll even pick you up from your hotel for free beforehand. Definitely worth the quick stroll to their office.

We then headed over to the other side of the Perfume River, along past some shops and into KFC for a late lunch / early dinner. Then some quick shopping in the nearby supermarket and a gawp at the traditional Dong Ba market by the riverside – the usual smattering of regional vegetation and dead animals. And as bustling and entertaining as any market I’ve seen in Vietnam. I paid over the odds for a large green thing that looks like some kind of huge orange inside that I’ve been wanting to try for some time (turns out it’s a pomello). It’ll do for breakfast in the morning.

And that was really it for the day. The wi-fi at the hotel’s fine, but I can’t access my own web pages at all – everything else is fine but I can’t get any of my three blogs to download, or the web page of the company that’s hosting them. I’ve had several other people check and they’ve had no problems. Most annoying! But no worries as I could still type stuff up for upload later (2 weeks later in the case of this post…)

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Plans for the next few days

Today we popped out to My Son and this afternoon we’ll do the Lonely Planet walk around town. More snaps, this time in daylight.

Tomorrow’s plan is to hire two mopeds and head up to China Beach and the Marble Mountains. Time and weather allowing, also possibly Da Nang.

Day after, early train to Hue where we’ll spend one night before getting the bus (or train) back down to Da Nang and hopping on a flight to Hanoi. This bit’s variable – may spend a night in Da Nang, may not.

We do have flights from Hanoi to Bangkok booked for the 1st of August, though. All these details (and changes) will be plotted on the calendar linked to the side of the main page.

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