From Nha Trang we took a bus North to Hoi An. It was a really pretty little town. Spared the American bombardment, it has really narrow streets and French colonial buildings.
Was great to be in a smaller town, without the motorbikes. We stayed in an overpriced place on the outskirts of town with a pool, that was useless as it never got above 15 degrees the whole time we were there. There was also a man who liked banging a hammer from 7 am onward, living right next to the hotel. One of the main draws to Hoi An are all the tailors. There are about a million of them. I decided to get a shirt made, and ended up getting 2. You could easily become addicted to getting clothes custom made. Especially at the prices they were charging. Jenny got a couple of pairs of trousers made. One pair that are 'fishermans' trousers, or 'hippy clown's' trousers as I would describe them. When Jenny was describing what she wanted the woman in the shop started dancing about, laughing and singing 'Ali Baba, Ali Baba' over again. I think that says it all. But she likes them, so fair play.
The other main tourist draw in Hoi An is the Japanese covered bridge, which is quite unusual, but essentially just a bridge with a roof.
There are also several pagodas at every turn which we went to.
From Hoi An we got another 'sleeper' bus the 17 hours to Hanoi. This was a bit of a sleepless nightmare. The 'beds' on this bus were even smaller than the last one, and I had to wedge my feet into a kind of tin box at the bottom. Was so cramped it felt like being in a coffin. To make matters worse, as we were driving along, one of the windows shattered. Presumably because somebody chucked a rock at it, because whatever the missile was hit the very top window right in front of me. Almost wet myself. We continued a very cold and windy hour or so before pulling over to fix it. This of course took forvever as a crowd gathered to hum and haw and shout instructions at each other. So they sellotaped a massive bit of card on and off we went. Miraculously it stayed in place all the way to Hanoi.
We both really liked Hanoi. It similar to Saigon in that it's so busy and there is so much going on around you, but it's prettier, with a few lakes dotted around, and a lot more trees.
It's also got remnants of the French era, and it's a maze of narrow streets. On our first day we just wandered around looking at stuff. We went to a little pagoda on an island on the lake which was pretty. The highlight was a stuffed turtle/tortoise thing in a glass case.
It's the strangest looking creature ever. Think it might have been a botched job on the taxidermists part, as it's so fat and it's bogeyed and got a weird twisted smile on its face. We were staying in the old Quarter of the town, right in the thick of the action which was good. We were also right round the corner from a little street bar that sold bia hoi, the local brew, for 9p a half pint which was extremely good.
On our second day we took a trip to Halong Bay, about 4 hours south of Hanoi. We went for a 2 day overnight cruise, which turned out to be really amazing.
The boat was a fair size and the cabins were simple, but pretty luxurious by our standards, especially the bathroom. Amazingly they managed to provide a hot, powerful shower, and toilet that didn't block every time you used it - something that many of the places on dry land throughout Asia, seem incapable of.
Unfortunately the toilet did have a tendancey to burp a lot, producing a revolting smell which was the one downer. The only other complaint was about the weather, which was shit.
The sun was out for the first hour or so aboard, so me and Jenny ran and stripped off and lay on the top deck, whilst everyone else sat about in their jumpers and trousers looking at us like we were mental. We cruised out of the bay and around the amazing karst limestone mini islands that dot the bay.
Really really spectacular. We visited two caves on our way. The first one was the magic cave, although I' not exactly why it's called that. It was quite small but we clambered through it and out the other side, scrambling up the mountain a bit.
The view was pretty incredible. We then went to see the suprising cave. Surprising because it's absolutley massive.
We walked about 500m into the massive gaping hole in the side of the cliff. There were loads of stalagmites/tites and weird formations that resembled various things. The best one was at the mouth of the cave. It looks like a guy's legs hanging over the edge.
Jenny got her wildlife fix in the cave in the shape of a penguin shaped bin. Not sure if it is indigenous or migratory?
The food was great throughout the trip. We spent all of our meals sharing with a couple of Spanish girls, who were pretty good value, although one of them was quite a big girl and certainly made sure she got her full helping, leaving us to fight for what was left, and the other didn't speak much English and was pretty mute. The guide was really informative and made quite a big effort which always helps as well.
On our second morning we got up at 7am to go kayaking. The Spanish girls weren't up for this particularly. I think the bigger girl would rather have extended breakfast into a brunch, but credit to her she did reluctantly go. It was really hard work,as we had to paddle over quite strong currents before getting to a couple of low caves that we could paddle under. The scenery was really spectacular, and it was really peaceful as well. By the time we were told to head back we were all pretty tired. Jenny and I got a bit competitive with the others and decided that we had to beat them back to the boat, (a la the amazing race) which we of course did, although the next couple of days we paid for it, walking about like penguins with our arms glued to our sides because of the stiffness. All in all the trip was really worth it, and Halong bay has to be up there with the most naturally beautiful places in the world, befitting it's nomination to be one of the 7 natural wonders.
When we returned to Hanoi we had another day sightseeing in the capital. We went to do the history bit, which Jenny was delighted about. We went to see Uncle Ho - Ho Chi Minh - in his mausoleum in the North of the city. This was quite a creepy experience.
His body is seeled in a glass case in a really dark room, like Lenin in Russia. He's very well preserved, and looks like he died just yesterday, or he's asleep. I kept thinking that his eyes were going to open. We had to go and see him twice it turned out, as we duffed up the conveyor belt queueing system that is opertated by the army there. They're so fickle about where you can and cannot walk. You have to walk on the pavement and along white lines, and if they catch you straying they point and shout at you. We got pointed at and shouted at quite a bit. I wanted to run all over the grass by the end of it. We then went to the Ho Chi Minh museum, or I went. Jenny sat and clapped a few flea bitten kittens outside while I went round the museam, which was probably for the best as it turned out to be just a series of photos of uncle ho meeting various dignitaries and a bizarre art exhibit. Was interesting though to learn about the man who effectively masterminded the defence of the nation against the most sophisticated army in the world, and went on to unify Vietnam. Pretty amazing character, and so the Vietnamese are rightly proud of him. There were as many Vietnamese as tourists going to view him which tells a story.
On our last day we did something that Jenny wanted to do, and took a trip to Jill Robinson's Moon Bear Sanctuary, a couple of hours North of the city. She is in the process of building the centre which will house rescued Moon bears. To be honest I wasn't looking forward to this, and had spent the preceeding days teasing Jenny that I'd ask Jill whether she was intending on releasing the bears back on the moon etc. It turned out to be quite interesting, and a lot better than Hanoi zoo, which was pretty grim.
Jill was real friendly and told us all about the project. The best part was the bears themselves. She's got 6 at the moment, and anopther 80 coming soon. They're really funny animals, especially the cubs. We sat and watched them watching us with they're beady little eyes, and showing off, and running at each other standing on two legs with their front paws in the air like little hairy men. Turned out to be a worthwhile visit that we both enjoyed.
From Hanoi we cheated a little and caught a flight to Laos. This was a necessity, given the bus option was allegedly going to take 24 hours, and has a very bad press suggesting that that can often stretch to 36 hours. So we opted for the 50 minute flight to Vientiane. We by-passed Vietiane, as it didn't seem to have a lot, if anything, to offer. So we caught a 4 hour bus North to Vang Vieng where we are now. I'm a lot happier, as it has been beautiful blue sky and glorious sunshine since we arrived. Also Beer Lao, the national tipple is going down a treat. We intend to stay here a few days relaxing in the sun (hopefuly). We're going to go tubing down the Nam Sang river tomorrow - which involves floating down the river on a tractor tyre inner tube stopping intermitently at the bars that litter the banks. Sounds great.