Making lanterns must be one of the largest industries in Vietnam - they are used everywhere! Indoors, outdoors, day and night.
We recently spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam with friends. We were all four of the same mindset - explore, observe, chat to the locals and sample the food. We hadn’t planned one drinking beer but we didn’t have much choice - it was half the price of sparkling water!
After two long flights from Cape Town via Dubai to Hanoi, we arrived at our first hotel around 3pm local time. We had arranged a tour package in order to see as much as possible without stumbling around and it seemed the best way to get the correct information about where we were and what we were looking at.
And, what was a bonus all the way, including two internal flights, we were meeted and greeted at each airport and then collected from our hotel and dropped off to catch our next flight a few days later.
What was quite surprising was that although the majority of the drivers couldn’t speak or understand a word of English -
they gave a running report on what we were seeing as we drove along - in Vietnamese. One driver pointed out important landmarks and told us jokes at which he laughed hilariously … we nodded and laughed with him even though we had no idea what the fuck he was saying!
These guys were always on time
(almost to the minute).
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum with ceremonial guard
The gardens surrounding are immaculate and manicured. Run by a uniformed team of gardeners.
Another first - we travelled light, carry-on luggage only! (although I had a about 15kg of camera stuff on my shoulder as well).
It was a psychological and physical adjustment for the two girls. Walking shoes only. Lipstick, yes. Jewellery, no. A sort of wash and wear affair at each hotel - in one or two we did have to resort to the hotel laundry though.
Luckily, on the way to Hanoi (our entry point), we had only a short two hour layover in Dubai - not enough time to do any real shopping, and believe me, the airport is just kilometres of glitzy retail. Duty free ‘se voet’, they get you “in the mode” and you shop. There’s hot plastic burning
in your wallet! You don’t even put your card in the card machine, just flick it at the screen, boom the money’s gone!
Later, homeward-bound, we had over six hours to kill. We walked those retail kilometres to death.
Handbags, beach bags, designer, designer, designer, perfumes, quick stop at Starbucks to get the heartbeat racing again … refreshed. Shop again. “Dates, we’re in date land, must buy dates, dried, coated, caramelised, dates”.
Of course we did. We did. We bought dates in all shapes and sizes and flavours.
Prices are marked in dirhams and US$ - quick, “how many Rands is that?” Doesn’t matter we need one. Does it fit? Tight? And just look at the colours, the design, the feel …
but, there are some very interesting gadget shops selling very interesting stuff at very good prices.
This is a different kettle of fish. Gadget World. USB, Blue Tooth, Wi-Fi. Don’t really need it but I WANT ONE OF THOSE THINGS!
I’m a bit ahead of myself, we have just arrived at out hotel in Hanoi it’s 3pm and the tour operator is coming to brief us a 5. So we went wandering. The hotel was on the edge of the old city - great!
That’s what we want to see for starters.
We walked out of the hotel and into the path of thousands of speeding motorcycles, in the road, on the pavement from all directions and then, bear in mind, they drive on the opposite side of the road, traffic-coming from opposite what we’re used to but in Vietnam that doesn’t matter. Any side, any direction, simply hoot to tell the vehicle in front of you that you are there and that you are probably going to pass them (or not) on the side from which the sound of your hooter comes.
Trying to cross road with this coming at you without break!
Around the corner, was our first obstacle, four lanes of traffic to cross. I was pre-warned.
“To cross a road you must be assertive, raise your hand, wave and walk! If, once you’ve made your move, you hesitate, you’re doomed”.
So, with Maureen clinging tightly to my arm we went. “I can’t do this” she shouted. I pulled her along “Don’t hesitate”.
We’re in the middle of the road, motorcycles and cars moving all around us, no eye contact,
they hoot and miss you by centimetres. The pattern never changes, from city to city every time we had to cross a road it was hold tight - walk! “I can’t do this”.
There are very few traffic lights or pedestrian crossings and those that are there are mostly ignored. We are engulfed by this mass of constantly turning wheels, revving motors and noise.
In a taxi. Driver had to turn left across on-coming traffic. So he did. It was a four-lane intersection, two lanes coming towards us, our driver drove and everyone else simply moved around us. And strangely, one doesn’t see any accidents or trashed cars.
I believe there is a population of 7.5 million people in Hanoi and there are 5.5 million motorcycles. The motorcycle is very much the main mode of transport. The husband driving, the wife on the seat behind with a kid sandwiched between them and another between the handlebars and the driver.
If you own a dog he’ll be quite used to riding on the machine too - in front or on the back.
On our short walkabout to scout the area, we found ourselves at a railway crossing. - either side of the line were old, run-down houses and shops - all between two and four storeys high, the gap through which the train ran was just wide enough for it to pass through.
The narrow gap though which a train passes twice a day
A craftsman carves an intricate pattern on a wooden door
People walked along the track, kids played, dogs licked their balls and chickens did what chickens do.
We turned left along the track, lined with front doors to homes and shopfronts.
Origami specialist, coffee shop, hardware, lanterns, you name it. A bustling thoroughfare!
And a railroad runs through it.
We walked into a small coffeeshop, no seating inside but we later discovered this was the norm for street cafes, very low plastic stools with small tables that would be expected in a pre-school classroom.
This was our first face-to-face with a real Vietnamese (other than checking in at the hotel). As one of our tour guides said later if you have round eyes your are assumed to be an America and many locals don’t like Americans so you’re either going to receive a hostile AK47 greeting or a ‘we like US dollars’ reception. We got the US dollars one…
And luckily our host spoke a bit of English, (albeit very little). Eventually we communicated that Maureen would have a ginger herb tea and I would like to try a Vietnamese cold coffee. We took our seats alongside the railway line on these small plastic stools. Our drinks soon arrived accompanied by two miniature custard donut type delicacies which seem to be a Vietnamese speciality, probably a throw back to the French colonial era. The tea was perfect.
The coffee was “different”… served in a small glass, it had a strange taste and there were
two teaspoons of condensed milk lying at the bottom I could get used to this! I normally take my coffee unsweetened and black.
Now about the railway line.
Apparently there is a south-bound train at around seven am and a north-bound one at 7.30pm. Ten minutes before train time, everything is brought inside, the tables and chairs and dogs and chickens and children. Windows and doors are closed.
We returned at 7.30pm to watch.
There’s a guy in a sort of uniform - mainly an official-looking cap, whose job it is to pull a steel gate across the road to stop the traffic flow, problem is the traffic won’t stop, motorcycles just keep coming!
He gradually reduces the width of the gap until no-one can fit through. Took him about ten minutes to block access.
Then this monster train comes along. It’s a sleep-over trip to destination so they are very wide carriages. There is an allowance of about a metre on either side between the train and the buildings. The train disappears in about two minutes and everything opens again - back to normal.
We were now on the wrong side of the road and here came our next challenge … to cross the road at night! With heart in mouth we took the plunge and made the crossing. This was becoming fun, a challenge, adrenaline-pumping stuff. “I can’t do this.”
One thing I couldn’t believe in the organised chaos, there is no road rage, no middle fingers.
There is much noise polluting hooting but no anger, simply a warning of your intentions to other road users.
If you're looking for something pre-used, this is the place.
This is the kitchen of the restaurant where we ate supper on out first night in Vietnam.
It was packed so we thought “way to go” but after some thought, I reckon it was used by a clientele that couldn't afford to et anywhere else ...
Our first supper was at a pavement restaurant which we wouldn’t have touched back home. “if the locals eat there it must be genuine local cuisine” pretend you can’t smell drains and rotting refuse. We shared a bowl of noodles, a bowl of rice, some boiled vegetables and a few thin slices of beef (or cat), we’ll never know. Utensils are wooden chopsticks, rinsed in a bucket of water with the dirty dishes and re-used - probably not too well washed either.
Once again small plastic chairs and tables, no English - at all - we ordered from a page of very bad photographs. The food arrived and it was delicious. we ate with gusto. But the menu photos where probably taken somewhere else. There was NO resemblance.
At the table next us was a family eating chicken and rice, they ate with their fingers and when a bone was clean, it was thrown to the ground and followed by a bunch of serviettes.
Maureen not could believe or accept this and in her best school teacher voice, made known her disgust. They looked at one another, not understanding a word she said and simply had a good laugh - I think they got the meaning though but didn’t give a stuff.
Seemed to be the norm at this type to eatery. It was part of the waiter’s job to clean-up after.
Each resturant has a motorcycle attendant in a blue shirt. He writes a chalked number on the saddle and gives you a ticket. The bikes are parked all over the place. When you return, he finds your bike for you as they are constantly being moved as patrons come and go.
What the boys have discovered so far - beer is cheaper than sparkling water (obviously depending on point of purchase). A can of 333 or Tiger can cost R8 in a street grocery store but the same can will be R30 in an upmarket (and believe me,'upmarket' is relative) eatery. This leaves us with not much choice.
We drank a lot of beer.
The next morning we were collected by a 20 seater tour bus built for small people, to see one of the tour highlights, Halong Bay.
The sheer rock face of the islands in Holang Bay. A passenger boat can be seem=n in the bottom of the gap between the two mountains
A range of tall island mountains, in a calm sea. Ha Long Bay is an area of around 1,553 km2 and includes about 2,000 limestone islands.
The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islands. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The islands are covered in dense tropical vegetation - very few are inhabited. Most rise vertically from the sea and some tower hundreds of metres above the water.
There are over 4000 tourists a day visiting this Wold Heritage site.
So it was us and another 3996 people …
It was a cramped, bouncy four hour bus ride from Hanoi.
Our busload of new best friends, were transferred onto a barge, handed life jackets and transported to a much larger boat - with twelve double cabins - which was going to be our base for the next 24 hours.
An overnight passenger boat at Holang Bay
Travelling between the towering islands, including a visit to a recently discovered cave with tree enormous chambers covered in stalactites and stalagmites all dramatically lit (reminded me of the Cango Caves but wetter).
A promised seafood extravaganza for dinner and the next day a cruise-about to more places of interest awaited.
Passenger barges fighting to get a spot to drop off passengers to walk up to the large cave.
There are about 200 tourist barges vying to get ashore at the caves’ landing place so it gets quite chaotic. Each cruiser tows a barge, and passengers are off-loaded from the boat to the barge to go ashore.
On our return to the boat, we were informed that there was a Monsoon approaching and it would be too dangerous to stay out overnight. The seafood dinner was served for lunch while cruising.
A couple slightly more expensive beers down the hatch and then we were loaded from the boat to the barge and back on the bus for the four hour drive back to Hanoi.