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Travel Story by Cathy Heffernan

  Boats, buses and motorbikes
Hanoi, Vietnam

Halong Bay

Back in Hanoi after 3 days out in Halong Bay, a truly remarkable UNESCO world heritage site about 4 hours away from Hanoi... 3,000 limestone islands rising out of the sea creating a 'Middle World'-type scene.

Met Trich on Monday and spent all day catching up in cafes and restaurants (it was still raining like there was no tomorrow) It was really great seeing her after nine months and hearing all about life in Saigon.

Tuesday - we got motorbike taxis to various museums and temples around town. The first thing you notice in Vietnam ios the motorbikes... Nothing prepares you for the constant stream of motorbikes on the streets. One thinks, 'just WHAT are the rules of the road?' cos it seems like complete anarchy. But the amazing thing is among all the chaos there is real order that actually works. When crossing the road, one just walks at a normal pace and motorbikes simply ride around them... It started raining when we were out on our motorbike taxis and all around me, people calmly pulled over to the side of the road in their thousands, pulled out their rain-ponchos and were off again. You see people carrying all kinds of things on their motorbikes... The other day, I saw a man crusing through busy city lanes with several baskets containing chickens and live geese with their feet tied onto the handlebars - rather than flapping about, they just sat there with resigned expressions on their faces, accepting their fates.

Out of the museums we saw in Hanoi, the most interesting one was Ho Chi Minh's Masoleum simply because it reminded me that Vietnam truly is a communist country. It's easy to forget cos the people are so friendly, nothing like Russians during communism. But there are stark reminders - such as the power of the police. A couple of policemen stopped our bus on Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay and refused to let the driver continue because of some small technicality. In Ireland, arguments and comments to the tone of 'powerhungry pigs' would have ensued. But the driver and tour guide were clearly anxious to meet their requirements (bar giving them small bribes).

Architecturally, Hanoi is fascinating. There's a very definite French-colonial influence - beautiful houses around the city, big boulevards and small leafy lanes in the Old Quarter... loads of restaurants serving fantastic food at oh-SO-cheap prices. We've eaten very well this past week. Have also had a rather interesting coffee... the Vietnamese have this 'speciality' coffee called Chon cafe which comes from a bean that has been fed to a weasel and collected from its, ahem, excrement. Despite its journey to the cup, it's rather delicious especially when drunk as an iced-coffee with condensed milk. Just think liquid chocolate. Have also tried the bia hoa - draft beer, drunk out on the street sitting on these tiny plastic stools. The bia hoa cost us 1500 dong or about 7 cents a glass!!! Is it any surprise that the four other tourists there were Irish?!?

3 days ago, we went out to Halong Bay where the sun was out in full blast. Got onto this 'junk' - a smaller version of those boats that sailed the Missipippi 100 years ago and sailed out to the islands. They are just amazing - so other-worldly. Just chilled out on the top deck of the boat passing by these islands. Ate Vietnamese food with plenty of fish, went kayaking, trekking, swimming. While the views were stunning, swimming was a little squeamish because the water was so polluted. Environmental awareness is nowhere near top of the agenda here and rubbish can be seen on the sides of the road and in the sea, a right shame. But people really are poor here and when you work your butt off for a dollar or two a day, you aren't going to care about 'saving the planet'.

Coming back to Hanoi from Halong Bay today, I had my first taste of Vietnamese problem-solving. A crash had occurred on the road further up and, well, there was absolutely NO sense that someone was in control, that each vehicle was getting its turn to pass the obstruction, that we would eventually reach the top of the queue and be on our way. So we sat on an inmobile bus for an hour, just watching what was happening. The two-lane road turned into a one-way street as people overtook the queue; it was like getting on the bus in Dublin during rush hour - everyone for themselves. At one stage we could see a vehicle sat in our lane but facing us...(!) Then someone rapped on the window just behind us - the Irish guys who'd got on the bus not far behind opened the window and were told that they hadn't paid for their beers - so much for their 'quick getaway'! When we eventually passed the crash (involving a lorry and a van), it was at least an hour after it had all happened. Despite this, there didn't seem to be any organised procedure to resolve the situation and move the lorry which was stretched out across half the road. Wouldn't be surprised if it's still there as we speak. Patience isn't just a virtue in this country, it's a necessity.

And in an hour, we are getting onto another bus headed for Hue... it'll about 12 hours so I just pray that there are no more car crashes along the way. The fact that the Lonely Planet strongly recommends getting the train for this journey doesn't bode well for us...(!)

Click on photo to enlarge

Approching Halong Bay

Date Submitted: 15 Dec 2008

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