The day finally arrived: Mum, Suzy and Dom came to Vietnam!
Of course, nothing went smoothly. Take our usual antics and mix them together with the trials and tribulations of being a Westerner in Vietnam… You get the idea.
Halong Bay. Again.
So, the silly eejits decided to pick a flight that landed in Hanoi at 6 am. The plus side of this was having a full uninterrupted day in Vietnam; great, as they were only here for the week. The downside was having to be up at 4:30 am after only two hours sleep. I asked a girl at work to arrange a taxi for me to spare myself from tiered pricing and translation difficulties. She assured me that the driver would speak English and would pick me up outside my house. The price was fixed, and we had a decent amount of time to catch our bus. Perfect.
At first it was a smooth journey, but as I should have suspected after living in Vietnam for 5 months, there were problems, to put it lightly. To cut a long story short, it turned out that the driver was not in a security taxi, which was necessary for an International Arrivals drop-off. At this point, it also became apparent that he didn’t speak any English, except for ‘airport’. This meant that by the time I should have been at arrivals, the taxi was idling in the middle of the road. For 10 minutes the driver sat clucking his tongue whilst I was wondering what the hell was going on. Thankfully, Hà, the girl from work, phoned me to check how things were going so I was able to use her as a translator. After ten minutes of swapping the phone between myself and the driver, he was somehow now allowed to drive me to Arrivals but had to drop me off. I would then have to go and find him again after I’d found my family. I was desperate to get moving by this point because I knew my family would be waiting and I had no way to contact them, (oh – and also because he had decided to stink the car out – rude.) I’m glad that I suspected more chaos and took my rucksack with me…
After frantically running around I spotted mum. I’d envisioned that we’d have some movie-like reunion but because of the current situation, I gave her, Dom and Suze the quickest hug and ‘hello’ and then had to get moving to try and find the bloody taxi. Then came more running; we searched everywhere high and low for half an hour but to no avail. We were due to be in the Old Quarter at 7:00 am to get the bus to Halong, so by 6:30 we had no choice to get another taxi. This meant spending another 400 000 VND on an expensive Taxi Group cab and feeling terribly guilty knowing that the unpaid driver would be waiting around for us, none the wiser. What a start to the trip. (For the record, I have since paid the taxi company, thanks to the efficient Hà).
Despite the rocky beginning, we caught our bus in the nick of time, and enjoyed a proper catch up and an introduction to the horror that is Vietnamese driving. It was a dull and cold day, so first impressions of Vietnam probably weren’t great. Things didn’t improve on witnessing a man and woman fighting in the street. The two were snatching a young boy from each other (presumably their son). When the woman ‘won’ they began clawing at each other’s faces whilst the child stood watching with tears streaming down his face. A woman who owned a nearby vendor joined in to help the woman and the boy get away on a bike. It didn’t slip our notice that the four men also sat under the canopy of this vendor simply watched the whole debacle, seemingly unaffected. It’s the first time I have witnessed violence whilst in Vietnam. Like anywhere, plenty of terrible incidents must go on behind closed doors, but I’ve not witnessed any drunken brawls or the like, so this was a nasty shock.
Impressions were only improved on arrival at Haiphong port, which was essentially a walkway over some filthy water. A seemingly pointless and abandoned tin shed lay in the water with an engraving that looked the nuclear symbol. For all we knew we could have been in Chernobyl. Mum couldn’t get over the way the men stacked our bags up on the back of a speed boat with no restraints. Her disbelief turned into complete hysteria once the speed boat had pulled up to our junk boat; never has a name been more apt. As we were only cruising for the day, the junk was very basic indeed. We had to hop between the two boats in the middle of the sea, and the state of the kitchen and the drying tea towels cracked the three of them up.
Our tour guide, Thuy, introduced herself and gave us the itinerary for the day. We would sail around Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay with a little stop for swimming and kayaking. For five hours. By this point Mum could no longer contain herself. She snorted into a fit of laughter and couldn’t stop, so instead pretended she was coughing and choking. We played along and slapped her on the back.
Now, when I previously went to Halong, swimming and kayaking was great fun. But this was during a sunny weekend with temperatures of about 30 degrees. As it was December, the winter was most definitely in full force. 18 degrees might sound mild, especially to the Brits among you, but the humidity levels and cloudiness make this area of the country feel very chilly.
We sat on top of the deck to take in the view. Whilst it wasn’t quite so spectacular in the drizzle, the water was green and the karsts still impressive. As you can imagine, jet lag was kicking in for the fam and the chill was getting to us, so we spent half the boat trip curled up asleep inside. Somehow Thuy seemed surprised at our lack of enthusiasm for swimming…Nevertheless, all was not lost. We had a decent meal and were indulged with a little tipple. The trip was supposed to be a ‘Cocktail Cruise’ (i.e. for backpackers) so Thuy mixed up some sort of concoction that we shared with the other passengers: an American girl, a Spanish guy and an older German couple.
The five hours eventually passed and the junk headed towards our destination, Cat Ong Island. We knew we were staying in a beach bungalow, but in the drizzle the accommodation looked rather comical. Mum was in hysterics again, and I was starting to feel a tad worried about how much Dom was enjoying the all-important 18th birthday – it will certainly be one to remember. However, on closer inspection, the bungalows were actually quite cool constructions made from local materials such as bamboo, shells and stones. The evening was chilly, but we were reasonably cosy and enjoyed some dinner and a game of ‘Uno’ with other travellers (just to live up to the ‘cocktail cruise’ standards). The jet lag and chill meant we were ready to hit the sack pretty early so we trudged back to our rooms and snuggled up together in one double bed to keep warm.
Saturday had presented us with some shocks (although there was no shortage of laughs), but, on Sunday, the morning view from our bed made up for any disappointment. We awoke to sunshine and a glimmering shore. The island was transformed by the weather: the beach and sea looked wonderful and even the bungalow looked more like an exotic construction rather than a trashy shack. In fact, it was a shame we couldn’t have spent more time soaking up the sun on the island. We had to press on with the tour so we had a quick breakfast before boarding another boat – this time a dinky hand-steered one – which took us over to Cat Ba Island for a little wander. We took another junk to see Halong in its sunny glory, even if it was still freezing, before getting on the bus for a VERY bumpy ride home. *cue Mother’s hysterics*
The sad part of this tale is that I had to go back to work on Monday *plays violin*. However, I did manage to bag a night in a hotel, which was fantastic. The staff of the Elegance Emerald were so hospitable, and, after serving us complimentary drinks, offered us a free upgrade to their penthouse suite for the night as it was Dom’s 18th. My house isn’t so bad, but I was not going to pass up on the opportunity to sleep in a soft bed, take a shower in sparkling white bathroom and enjoy the views of Hanoi. (Oh, and steal a book which I’m yet to give back). We took a trip round the night market on Hang Giay Street and enjoyed a fab Thai meal together, even if it did blow my mouth off, before collapsing into bed. I still had to get up at silly o’clock to be at work in time, but it was worth it.
The gang enjoyed their day at the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake, although they experienced their first scam. A lot of shoe shining and that malarkey goes on in the Old Quarter, and a young chap got to work on Dom’s trainers, without asking if his services were required, of course. I got a text in my break to say he had been charged 600 000 VND for the unwanted polish! (about £20 – should have been about £1! In fact, I’ve just had my school shoes done for about 30p.) I almost fell off my chair and started whinging at them for handing over so much, but of course it was their first day in Hanoi, and they didn’t have a Tiffany to do all the negotiations for them.
To be honest, one of the best things about my family being in Vietnam was seeing their reactions to everything, as I know I must have been the exactly the same back in August. The streets of Hanoi are not very wide and are usually cluttered with motorbikes, trees and pylons amongst other things, so walking together is almost impossible. Therefore, I’d go marching ahead over the roads and turn round find them still perched on the other side of the road trying to figure out when to go, even on a green light. I’ve also realised how I’ve gotten over some of our British sensibilities and my tendency to be a pushover, and can now be pretty blunt to stave off all of those annoying street sellers.Whether it will last back home remains to be seen, but it’s actually something I’m quite proud of.
Monday evening saw a mix of poor and affluent Hanoi. The contrast can make you uncomfortable, but it’s certainly a learning curve. The three took a trip over to my pad for a nose before I took them for some My Xao – fried noodles, at ‘Josh’s Place’. (By the way, that’s not the real name. My friend Josh introduced it to me and the name has stuck ever since). Whilst we were waiting for dinner I could see the others’ eyes flickering around and taking in the surroundings. It’s your local ‘fast food’stop, not a restaurant. It’s not clean by western standards, and the complimentary limes and chillies aren’t covered from the flies. There’s also a ladder that leads to a little loft section, presumably where the couple who own the place live. They don’t speak any English but they are always friendly and bring over a little baby – presumably their grand child – to say hello.
Following this we headed over to the Lotte tower. It’s one of the tallest, swankiest buildings in Hanoi and so a complete contrast to where I live. We took a trip up to the Observation Deck on the 65th floor to get a decent view of the city. We walked over the Skywalk box, made entirely out of glass, that juts out from the building. I just about managed to tiptoed onto it, even though the sight of the road miles below us made my stomach turn. On the next level up is the Top of Hanoi bar. Obviously the drinks are a little pricier, and it was chilly, but it was worth it. The veil of pollution was visible, but the view was magnificent nonetheless.
Because they’re so nice, my family took a taxi back to my house before returning to their hotel. It was about 10:40 pm. We’re supposed to have 11:00 pm curfew, apparently for our safety, but I suspect also because work seems to think we throw parties every night (Halloween was probably the only time we had a party that might have disrupted the neighbours). The lights were already off when I opened the front gate (we don’t have a front door) but I could see our security guard was in bed watching something on his phone. I quietly walked past him and straight towards the elevator without paying much attention. He had his headphones in, so didn’t notice us at first, although once he realised the other three weren’t residents he sat up in surprise. Mum responded by giving him a sweet ‘hello’ before carrying onto the lift. Once inside she fell about laughing. He’d been watching porn on his phone. Brilliant.
Thanks to my house mate offering to cover some of my lessons, I was able to get Tuesday afternoon off. I met the fam at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum before we made our way over to the Temple of Literature, Hanoi’s old university. Despite it being one of the highlights, and indeed a symbol of Hanoi, I hadn’t gotten round to visiting it. Obviously there’s not a lot there, but the architecture is pretty stunning. Once again, Mum and Suzy got the titters because the shop keepers were having their midday naps, not only in the gift shops, but sometimes whilst lying on top of their own products.
After, we decided to seek out the famous Zenith Cafe. It’s a veggie restaurant with decent ratings so of course we had to give it a try. We took a metre taxi outside the Temple of Literature which proved to be the daily spanner in the works. After reaching 35 000 VND the metre suddenly jumped up to 250 000 VND. I pointed at the metre and told the driver ‘dat qua‘ (too much). Obviously I couldn’t understand his response and we were almost at our destination so I let him carry on. Once he pulled over I threw a 50 000 note at him and legged it. Not sure what he shouted back at me but the cheeky fecker could go do one. It’s frustrating how these scams blight the reputation of the Vietnamese people (the tourist return rate is something like 5% compared to 50% in Thailand – you can see why the Tourism Department are desperately trying to come up with solutions). The sooner they crack down on scumbags like this, the better. On a positive note, at least I could prove to the others that I no longer say ‘Muuumm, can you do it? I’m too scared’.
We finished the day with a bit of TLC at a local spa and a chilled Mexican meal at Salt ‘n’ Lime, near West Lake. We took a short walk around some of the lake after dinner. The view was a little hazy as the smog levels were high, but the lights at night can be spectacular. Not a bad end to the day. It was a reasonably early bed time so we would be fresh for Ho Chi Minh City.