Mum and Dad joined us in Hanoi 5 days ago in typical Sandilands fashion – Dad walked into our hotel and, after a welcome hug and a quick catch-up, announced that he was “over it [long haul travel]” and ” could he have a beer please”. I don’t blame him; travelling is tough. Still, he and Mum were absolute troopers and once they were settled into their room we took to the streets of Hanoi to show them around. Like us, they were overwhelmed by the traffic and the noise, but also loved the chaos and all the things to see and do. The afternoon went something like this – walk around Hoan Kiem lake, stop for a beer, walk around the Old Quarter, stop for beer and lunch, walk around the wet market, stop for more beers and people watching, walk around the Old Quarter some more, stop for Banh Mi and more beer, go to bed and pass out.
Dad also got his first lesson in the art of haggling and ended up in something of a love triangle with 2 local women both desperate to sell him a t.shirt. To his credit, he was intent on buying from the first woman who approached him, but the other lady dropped her lip like a toddler and tugged at the heart strings with a “why you no buy from me?!”. The 15 minutes that followed was better than any soap opera, as Dad tried to keep everybody happy without ending up with a wardrobe full of t.shirts guaranteed to shrink after the first wash. His negotiating strategy has improved dramatically over the last few days due, in some part, to his (apparent) resemblance to Baba Buddha. Street vendors have started referring to him as “Baba Buddha” and rubbing his stomach for good luck, which seems to have improved his bargaining leverage a little bit.
We only had the 1 night in Hanoi and were picked up bright and early the next day to head to Ha Long Bay. Our tour guide, Tommy, was such a hard case and spent the majority of the 4 hour drive to Ha Long City telling us about life in Vietnam, including why Vietnamese eat cats and dogs (to ward off bad luck/attract good luck) and various anecdotes about Vietnamese religion and superstition. Perhaps his most interesting story was about the fact that, in Vietnam, men believe it is good luck to have a wife with a lot of pubic hair. In particular, it is supposed to bring good luck to a husband’s business and commercial endeavours. Some men actually divorce their wives for failing to sufficiently embrace the 70s and grow an afro.
Our boat in Ha Long was really lovely and the food was unreal – every day we had a 10 course lunch and dinner of Vietnamese classics with a few Western fusion dishes thrown in. Both afternoons on the boat were spent kayaking to caves and then on to beaches for swimming. Unfortunately Mich managed to knock her sunglasses off her head and into the water within a minute of stepping into her kayak but, other than that, we got through the trip unscathed. Ha Long is such a beautiful area made up of hundreds of bays and 3000 limestone islands that jut out of the ocean. The only downside to the entire trip was seeing the amount of rubbish on the beaches and in the water left behind by tourists – it was absolutely everywhere!
Our second day on the boat kicked off early with a spot of Tai Chi on the poop deck (Dad and Campbell sat that one out), before we ventured to one of the 4 remaining floating fishing villages in the Ha Long area. It was an interesting insight into life in Ha Long, although the people in the village have actually abandoned fishing for a living, opting instead to row tourists about to see the village. We followed that with a quick spin to an oyster farm where we learned all about how they cultivate oysters and then had the mandatory walk through the jewellery factory in case we felt like shopping. In the evenings Tommy would attempt to keep us amused (so that he could eat his dinner) by giving us insanely difficult Vietnamese puzzles to work through. Effectively you got a wooden frame containing about 7 different shaped pieces. From there, Tommy would select a figure – a dragon or whatever – that you had to make using all of the pieces. It was stupidly hard (it was so hard we actually couldn’t even figure out how to put the puzzle pieces back into their box!) and we were always the first to give up and slope off to the top deck for a drink.
On Wednesday we flew to Da Nang en route to Hoi An. We only spent one night in Da Nang, but it turned out to be pretty awesome. We have managed to time our trip with the mid-Autumn children festival here in Vietnam. Every night there have been loads of little kids out and about all dressed up in their best gears, and local groups performing the traditional Lion Dance. We found ourselves in the middle of a massive performance when we popped out for dinner in Da Nang with at least half a dozen different groups doing the Lion Dance, and then the best of the best performing the same dance routine atop a variety of different pedestals. It was really awesome to watch, and we were well and truly immersed in the local culture – we had locals standing on our table, on our chairs, snuggled into our armpits etc etc. It was incredibly hot and sweaty, but an unplanned and unexpected highlight.
We left Da Nang on Thursday and arranged for a driver to take us to Hoi An via Ba Na Hills. Ba Na Hills is a cross between a very upmarket resort and a theme park. It sits atop a massive hill, meaning you reach it via a 5 km gondola ride over beautiful bush and waterfalls. Once you arrive at the top there are a variety of temples, pagodas, beautiful gardens, an amusement park and a village modelled on a French town. It was recommended by my Aunty and Uncle and was well worth the trip (thanks Phil and Leo!). We had a great time, especially at the arcade where we gave each other (and everybody else) whiplash on the bumper cars where we upped the ante on the aggression front, shot bad guys and rode mechanical horses in the 5D theatre, and pretended we weren’t bricking it on the vertical bungy.
We arrived in Hoi An last night and it is already shaping up to be a great 4 nights. We hit the night market where the mid-Autumn festival was still in full swing. The whole town was in carnival mode and the streets were heaving with people. We bought lanterns to send down the river for good luck and had a few laughs haggling for souvenirs at the night market, where Baba Buddha came out on top. We finished up the evening with an awesome meal at Streets – a restaurants that puts street kids through intensive culinary and hospitality training in the hope of providing them with a means to escape their life of poverty. The food was great and warm fuzzies were just the cherry on top. Hoi An is shaping up to be a shopping highlight for me and Mich, and the boys are already eyeing up the scooter hire to keep themselves amused – should be interesting!