Gate at the Imperial City

Hue and beyond

Hue appealed as a city. A large river flows through the middle with walks on either side. It also helped that the sun was shining! After breakfast I headed for the waterfront where there were many hawkers selling boat trips. I declined and kept walking.

Dragon boats
Dragon boats
At the Imperial City
At the Imperial City

The Imperial City was on the opposite side of the river and this was my destination. It was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so is relatively young. Much of it was destroyed during the Indo-China wars but it has since been restored, although this is an ongoing project. It was magnificent. There were many tour buses outside but because the grounds are extensive it did not seem crowded. I strolled all around it for the next three hours admiring not only the temples but also the gardens.

Lunchtime 'food court'
Lunchtime ‘food court’

By the time I emerged I was hungry and thirsty. I walked away from the tourist area and looked for a local cafe. A lady selling noodles and barbecued pork beckoned me over. I sat at one of the ubiquitous plastic tables and I enjoyed my meal until I found out the price. Either Hue was much more expensive than the north or I was being exploited! I should have asked first.

I meandered back to town and decided on some respite from the heat in my room before my motorbike food tour that evening. Being too nervous to drive a one myself, particularly in the traffic of Vietnamese cities, I had decided I would combine two desires – to try the food and experience life as a motorcyclist rather than as a pedestrian. I had felt as though I had been taking my life in my hands each time I crossed the road so far.

Fan picked me up promptly, and we spent the evening zipping hither and thither, stopping at various cafes I would never had found on my own. We started with Banh Beo and Nam, both made from rice flour and filled with pork and shrimp but one was steamed and the other crispy. Next stop was Loc, a pancake made from tapioca flour filled with shrimp and pork again. Following that was Bank Khot, rice pancakes with prawn, eggs and ham, wrapped in rice paper and served with grated papaya and lettuce. We crossed the river to eat Thit bo mong pho mai and Thit ba chi nuong, these being barbecued prawn and beef with okra which we dipped in chilli and mayonnaise. By this time, I was full, but we still had noodle soup to go. This on its own would have been a meal for me! Whilst I had sampled several noodle soups by then none of them were served with a lump of jellied blood in it. It didn’t appeal! Our last stop was back across the river for dessert soup. I had noticed the stalls earlier and wondered what they were. There were 20 different flavours made from ingredients such as mung beans, soya beans and taro. Fan recommended banana and coconut, taro and one other. The stall holder topped the mixture with coconut milk, dried coconut and lumps of ice. Fan instructed me to mix it all up. There was no way of identifying the individual flavours after that! To my surprise, I ate it all but went to bed feeling very bloated.

Dessert soup
Dessert soup

The following day did not start well. I had booked another motorcycle sightseeing tour. They didn’t arrive. After contacting them, it appeared there was some confusion over my online booking so we arranged for the tour to start at 1pm when they had found a guide. All the guides were female university students and this was the reason I used that company.

Finding myself at an unexpected loose end, I had to think what to do. Back to the river, I went! I walked all the way along, past the railway station beyond the Imperial City, crossed a bridge further up and walked back along the other side. The walk was mostly in the shade which I appreciated. At one point, the noise from the cicadas was deafening and the racket from the traffic was inescapable.

My guide, On, arrived on time and we set off for the village of Tuy Chanh. It seemed a long way, past rice fields, but she assured me it was only 4kms. We admired the covered Tanh Toan Bridge which dated from the early 18th century and then went into the small agricultural museum. Fishing, cooking and farming implements were on display and an old lady demonstrated the winnowing and grinding of rice whilst croaking the songs she used to sing when doing it in her younger days. The operation was not sophisticated.

Old Bridge at Tuy Chanh
Old Bridge at Tuy Chanh

Back on the bike, we went across town to Lavin Decor. A young female entrepreneur had set up this business as a homestay and shop in which she employed deaf people to make beautiful paper flowers. We each had a cup of help-yourself herbal tea (not the tea bag variety!) and chatted to her for a while before setting off again to Vong Canh Hil.

Making paper flowers
Making paper flowers

This had a view of the river and is a popular spot for admiring the sunset. It was very peaceful away from the noise of the city. On didn’t like it. She was afraid of the silence and being alone. I loved it!

We passed artistic displays of incense sticks as we drove to Tu Hieu Pagoda where we arrived just as a monk was banging the drum for prayers. He began to chant and I would have liked to have listened for a while but we had to get to Kai Dinh’s Imperial tomb before it closed.

Here, I went in alone and climbed up all the steps to the temple at the top. There was an abundance of ornate ceramic decorations on the walls and elaborate painted ceilings. It was also closing, and the staff were keen to move people out.

We negotiated the rush hour traffic back to town. On had been anxious about driving in the dark but we were back in the city in plenty of time. My tour finished with dinner at a vegan restaurant near the hotel. I tried not to notice the rats that emerged from the drains and raced around the tables!

My room was blissfully quiet until the rowdy music started again in the nearby bar. Have I said I can’t cope with loud noise?

The next day was moving day once again. I was spending one night in Danang prior to flying on to Singapore and had booked a shuttle bus again as I wanted to travel over the Pass. I didn’t read the small print of the booking and found myself back at the village I had visited yesterday so I waited in the bus whilst the other passengers had a look. We had two more stops before the Pass. Firstly, at a service station with shop counters and an abundance of staff hovering and the next at a deserted resort on the beach. It was a beautiful setting where we could stretch our legs for about 15 minutes and look at the shops.

Deserted resort
Deserted resort
Entrance to my hotel's street
Entrance to my hotel’s street

The Pass itself was spectacular as we climbed higher and higher. The bus stopped along with hordes of others next to a hill where the remains of some American bunkers perched. I walked up, took some photos, ignored the traders and returned to the bus. It wasn’t long after that we were in Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. It was very modern. I had booked a hotel near the beach. The road was so new, there was still sand at the entrance and the bus driver dropped me off as near as possible for which I was grateful. The English of the reception staff wasn’t the best but, like everywhere I have stayed in Vietnam, they were exceptionally helpful.

I left my bag in my immaculate room and walked down to the beach. I had had grand ideas of exploring, but my energy was low and I spent the whole afternoon flat on the sand after a dip in the blissfully warm sea. It was wonderful and just what I needed. With hindsight, I realised I needed a rest day long before this as I had been getting irritable and weary.

That evening I hunted for a local cafe that didn’t have the menu in English. I picked something by looking at the pictures and had got no idea what it was. A lady (owner?) arrived and pointed to something else which she said I would like. Too late, I’d already ordered. It was chewy and gristly and I still have no idea what it was. The beer was good though and the rats once again provided my dining entertainment!

Danang beach
Danang beach
At the top of the steps at Hang Mua

A grumpy day in Ninh Binh

On the car ferry to Haiphong
On the car ferry to Haiphong

I booked a shuttle to go to Ninh Binh from Catba. It was supposed to pick me up from the hotel and, later than expected, a motorbike rider appeared to ferry me to the minivan, 50 metres down the road! I would have walked if I’d known. We drove through a populated area to the western part of the island to catch the ferry to Haiphong. Catba would have been the perfect place to hire a motorbike but I have never driven one. It is difficult to see the island without one and I now realised there was a lot more to investigate.

The bus drove onto the packed small car ferry. The trip was uneventful as we travelled a short distance across the strait past boats of various sizes and condition. I amused myself watching a group of Chinese ladies posing for photographs with a scarf and hat which they shared.

On the other side, we stuck to the toll roads and bypassed the city. We made one stop at a restaurant/shop where I hoped to buy a coffee. There was no sign of one and we all spent half an hour lounging listlessly waiting to leave again. It was a strange place.

Not the most inviting of places
Not the most inviting of places

The weather was miserable, and it was raining when they dropped me off at the bus stop in Ninh Binh. I walked to the hotel where the receptionist greeted me. The Vietnamese hotel staff, I found, were always helpful. As with all my other accommodation, I was shown the tour list before I’d even checked in. They were keen to make sales! I booked one for the next day that included Trang An,Hang Mua and Bai Dinh Pagoda.

Flower arrangements at the market
Flower arrangements at the market

In the afternoon, I wandered around the city. Like Hanoi it was noisy, uninspiring and busy. I found a beautiful flower market and a park that housed a small temple and a pond where swan shaped boats lined up waiting for people to ride them. There was a lot of improvement work underway around the park.

Swan boats at the park in Ninh Binh
Swan boats at the park in Ninh Binh

I wanted to try some local food in the evening but was wary. Ninh Binh’s specialties are goat and dog and, whilst I have eaten goat, I would baulk at dog. I walked around indecisively and opted for a busy cafe close to a food market. The plastic tables and chairs were those used for children at home but I was now accustomed to them. I chose what everyone else was eating which was a good decision!

I was ready early the next day. Departure time came and went and I was still waiting. The receptionist told me they were often late because other tourists weren’t ready at the right time. It was an excuse I had heard before. They must teach it in hotel reception school! She disappeared and returned a while later and bustled me into a taxi with a non English-speaking driver. I had no idea what was happening and was quite annoyed by this stage. We arrived at Hang Mua and I joined the small group. They had presumably forgotten to pick me up.

Hang Mua is a temple complex whose top is reached by ascending 500 steps. It was raining and misty so the views were not as spectacular as they might have been. There were too many people at the peak so I waited and looked whilst the others fought their way onto the dragon. I found the guide’s accent difficult to understand so did not gain much knowledge about any of the sights I visited that day.

Back at the bottom, our ‘seen better days’ minivan was waiting to take us to Bai Dinh Pagoda. We stopped en route and two of the group left and four Czechs joined us. The Pagoda complex was vast. Much of it had been built recently but there was also an old temple on the hill. Electric shuttles ferried us from the car park and we started our tour admiring the 500 Buddha statues lining the side of the temple. We climbed up to view the enormous bell in the bell tower and then our guide shepherded us off for lunch. We were on a strict timetable so didn’t have enough time to look everywhere.

Boats at Trang An
Boats at Trang An

On the way to the restaurant, we passed many stands displaying whole cooked goats. They were rigid but propped in such a way, it appeared they were still alive (almost!) and standing. It was an odd sight! All the stall holders beckoned to our vehicle to stop but our driver continued on until we arrived at a resort where a buffet lunch was waiting. We were late, so the food had been resting for a while. Here though, I tried goat kebabs and stir-fried goat. Whilst tasty, they would have benefited from slow cooking.

Our last stop was at Trang An. Ninh Binh is likened to Halong Bay but on land. Most people visit Tam Coc and I had read Trang An was more picturesque and less crowded. The information was wrong on the latter point. There were swarms of rowing boats on the river. There are three routes and our guide had told us the best one was Route 2. For the next two hours, a lady rowed us around loops and curves in the river. She must have been exhausted at the end of the day. We got off two or three times to look at temples and the set of the King Kong movie. At this last stop there was also a replica tribal village where people with faces painted red and wearing red clothing waited for someone to pay them to take their photo. All the way round the boats were bumper to bumper (if that is an expression you can use for boats) and it was noisy. At the start, one boat had a boom box and the occupants were doing karaoke which the Vietnamese love. It was incongruous in such a beautiful setting and unexpected. I felt as though I was in Disneyland. The visitors were all local Vietnamese having a fun Saturday afternoon out.

We were late arriving back and one of the group was getting anxious as she had an overnight train to catch. Her hostel had told her one time, and the guide said another so there were many phone calls whilst we waited for our mini bus. I was relieved to be back in my room. It wasn’t one of my better days.

The next day, I left early to catch the train to Hue. This was a 12 hour trip. I love trains and the journey passed quickly. I read, admired the scenery, enjoyed the coffee that came around and waved and smiled at a baby who came to sit next to me. She screamed the train down which was a little embarrassing!

It was dark when I arrived in Hue. I ran the gauntlet of the taxi drivers and walked to my hotel. It was in the central area and the streets were closed to traffic at the weekend. The noise from the bars and cafes and people in the streets was deafening. All I wanted was to get to my room and have a beer. But first the hotel owner had to explain the tours. After the previous day’s experience, I declined and retired. It was wonderful to be in the warm again. I had been cold for most of the previous week.

On the way to Catba

Not quite luxury cruising in Catba

I was not sorry to leave Hanoi. In fact, I couldn’t wait and have no desire to return. The next day, I walked to the cafe that was the meeting point for the shuttle van I had booked to Tuan Chan, the port near Halong. My fellow passengers were all joining cruise boats there, but I was getting the ferry to Catba Island. The ferry information online was ambiguous, and I wasn’t sure when the ferries ran so caught an early shuttle hoping the 11.30am boat was going.

Leaving Tuan Chau
Leaving Tuan Chau

The journey was smooth and luxurious (by my standards!). We passed many rice fields and, as we approached Tuan Chau, the scenery changed to mangroves, lumpy hills and fish farms. Tuan Chau is a developing town with many hotels and resorts being built. In fact, wherever I went in Vietnam, hotels were being built in every available space. The driver dropped the cruise passengers at their respective boats. He looked blank when I asked for the ferry so I got off at a large terminal where they directed me down the road to the right place. As I approached, the ticket lady shouted at me to hurry as the ferry was just leaving. What perfect timing!

Heading towards Catba
Heading towards Catba

It was a small car and passenger ferry that arrived at the north end of the island where a local bus met the ferry and transported passengers to Catba Town. The 45 minute journey was stunning and I’m sure, as good as any expensive cruise. We sailed past the iconic limestone karsts for which Halong Bay is renowned and through sounds boarded by hills. The sun had appeared which added to the experience.

The bus on the other side was elderly but fitted in not only tourists but the school children it picked up along the way. It was a tight squeeze! At one point, the schoolboys staged a singalong. I don’t think it was for the benefit of the visitors but it was very amusing.

On the bus to Catba town
On the bus to Catba town

The trip took about 30 minutes and I had a short walk to my hotel along the waterfront. As I had suspected Catba is a backpackers haven. There were major roadworks in the main street but this didn’t deter the street vendors setting up around them. Some guests had to walk across a gangplank to get to the entrance of their accommodation. Health and safety was of no concern in Vietnam!

The hotel was new and my large, cheap room on the 8th floor had a fantastic view over the harbour. After checking in, I spent the rest of the afternoon familiarising myself with the small town. There is a busy fishing port besides the tourist area so was an interesting combination. Later that evening, I walked up the road away from the centre and ate in a local cafe. I have now eaten enough noodle soup to last for some time!

I spent the next day on a boat trip booked through the hotel. We were a small group of assorted nationalities. The bus delivered us to the harbour where we boarded our small boat. Luxury this was not! It was soon clear that two crew members spoke no English and our ‘guide’s’ was not substantial. Most of us went onto the roof deck to look at the view as we cruised.

My cruise boat
My cruise boat
Stop for kayaking
Stop for kayaking

At the start there was little conversation but as the day progressed people became more chatty. The weather was dreary and cool. Our first stop was at a bay to kayak. A dock area housed the kayaks, there were some tanks with assorted fish in them (one weighing 80kg!) and a boat with a lady selling snacks. Other boats had also docked. The kayaks were double ones, so I shared mine with an Ukranian man who was also travelling solo. This was fortunate as I might still have been paddling without his strength, kayaking not being my forte although I enjoy it. We followed the line of kayaks and went round the inlet and through a cave with stalactites hanging from the roof. On our return trip, there was a distinct smell of marijuana, something which did not escape my companion’s attention as he traded online in marijuana products!

Back at the boat, the crew were undertaking repairs on the engine. We had lunch whilst we waited and then waited a bit more. In the meantime, we pottered on the dock and attached ourselves to a guide doing real tours. There was little information forthcoming from our crew! I also amused myself listening to an argument between a guide and an Indian tourist who had broken his paddle. The kayak owner wanted a substantial amount of money to replace it and the Indian wasn’t happy. The guide was negotiating.

Our crew fixed our engine eventually, and we set off again. Next on the schedule was a swim at a tiny beach. The boat dropped anchor a little way off it and we had to brace ourselves for the cold water. It was further than I thought. There was some hesitancy among the passengers as someone had spotted a jelly fish next to the boat!

Monkey Island was our final stop before heading back. There were so many boats and people here that the boats had to drop passengers and wait offshore. There were monkeys, some of them aggressive as they were accustomed to being fed. Some of us scrambled up a hill to admire the view (and because it was there!). There were too many people at the top so I didn’t go all the way up and the climb was more difficult than they had led us to believe. Back on the beach, we waited for our boat to return whilst keeping a wary eye on the monkeys. I didn’t trust them.

Back at the harbour, the minivan met us and returned us to town after an enjoyable day. I appreciated the small group and the novelty of a local tour rather than a luxury cruise.

That evening, I had a walk around the port and stood and watched a boat unload an enormous amount of jellyfish. One of the other observers mimed it was ‘chow’ for the Chinese market.

The following day I spent strolling around the town. I went out late and walked along the waterfront and around the headland where there was a beautiful cliff path to the next beach. Big hotels were being built on both the beaches I saw. I then hiked up to Canon Fort which sits high on the hill above Catba. At the viewpoint, there were empty tables, chairs and a small bar awaiting people who went to watch the sunset. The view today though was murky.

Back down below, I was starving so bought a fried potato ‘thing’ from a street stall. It wasn’t enough, so I made my way to the local market hoping to find something else there. The noise in the fish area was phenomenal with the ladies calling out to each other as they worked. They were shucking oysters, splitting tiny fish in two and shelling clams. The variety of fish being sold was huge. I bought a corn fritter which came highly recommended by the cook’s mother! So much for eating fish…..

For dinner, I had thought of going to a restaurant at the port but decided they were too expensive. I went back to the cafe of last night and ordered fish. It was off! I had shrimp noodles instead which wasn’t quite what I was craving.

Street mural

Good Morning Hanoi!

Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake

My visa was running out, and it was time to leave Laos. I departed on an early morning flight bound for Hanoi. It was a beautiful day in Luang Prabang but after an hour’s flight I landed in rain and murk in Hanoi. It was cold.

I had bought a letter of introduction but had to queue for my visa. It was slow because of the volume of tourists entering. Outside the terminal, I searched for the express bus stop. There were signs for the buses but not that one. I eventually discovered it across the road from the terminal entrance!

In the old quarter, I walked to the hostel I’d booked. I found the street but the lane in which it was located was not on Google maps so it took me some time to find. Motorbikes and scooters were everywhere. I trusted they would avoid me. It was too early to check in, so I left my bags, had an egg coffee which was very rich and a speciality of Hanoi, and went walking.

Traffic chaos!
Traffic chaos!
Motorised children's vehicles
Motorised children’s vehicles

It was Saturday so the streets around the Hoan Kiem lake were closed to traffic. Loud noise emanated from the traffic and music, and there were crowds of people. My senses struggled to adjust after the tranquility of Luang Prabang. I strolled along the lake to the other end where children were enjoying rides on miniature motorised vehicles in the empty street. My grandson would have loved it! My destination was the Vietnam Women’s Museum which displayed the diversity of women and their historic role in the family and society of the many ethnological groups around Vietnam. I spent two hours wandering around the floors of exhibits before returning to my hostel for a rest before that night’s street food tour.

Vietnam Women's Museum
Vietnam Women’s Museum
Street food
Street food

The guide met me at the hostel. A French couple were also on the tour. We visited half a dozen places, and I disgraced myself by eating too much (again!). I hadn’t had lunch and was starving. Our first stop was for a delicious dish of grated green papaya served with meat, basil and fish sauce. Of all the dishes we tried that evening, this was my favourite. Fried spring roll, Vietnamese baguette with pate, noodle soup, rice pancakes and a dessert of sticky rice and ice cream followed. The French couple were amusing, and it was an entertaining evening. When I tried to find the food stalls the next day, they were nowhere to be seen but Hanoi streets are a jungle and I was probably not in the right ones.

I took my time the next day. After breakfast, I set off for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I walked and walked. There was much to look at in the streets, especially the motor bikes. The number of people and variety of goods that could be transported on the back of a bike was incredible! I hadn’t looked at the map carefully enough and walked much further than necessary. There is only one entrance to the Mausoleum, and I emerged outside the enormous grounds as far from it as possible. The queue to visit stretched out of the complex and down the street. I decided I didn’t need to see the embalmed body of a dead person no matter how famous he was.

House at the Ethnology Museum
House at the Ethnology Museum

I walked on, this time aiming for the Ethnology Museum. The road I followed was long, noisy, and the pollution disgusting. I was not appreciating Hanoi. Feeling weary and sick from the traffic fumes, I reached the museum and spent some time inside looking at the exhibits from the different ethnic groups. In the gardens were examples of houses from each group. There was also a Water Puppet Theatre but if I stayed for a performance, I would not have been able to get to the Temple of Literature before it closed. Museums, like those in France, close on Mondays so I only had a day. Also in the grounds, was a modern building that had a well-presented exhibition of cultural artifacts from around the world.

Having had enough of walking in less than ideal conditions, I intended to catch a bus to the Temple of Literature. It went sailing past! I was at the wrong bus stop. I started walking again, but soon decided to cross the road and wait for a bus. Two ladies with some small children were also crossing, so I used them as a shield to traverse the busy street. (Small children sometimes have their uses!) That road was too much for me to manage on my own!

The Temple is dedicated to learning and Confucius in particular. There were several courtyards, leading to a High Temple. I wandered around, along with the crowds, until I decided I was hungry, exhausted and had had enough. I walked back to the hostel buying some sweet doughnuts from a vendor after some hard bargaining. Whilst I was searching for change, she removed some from the bag. I didn’t have the energy to argue. They were revolting and probably the cause of the ensuing stomach upset.

View from my balcony
View from my balcony

After a rest, I needed dinner. The cafe next door sold duck noodle soup and was famous in Hanoi. There was always a queue outside. However, it was also only open at lunchtime so I settled on noodle soup from another street stall. It was cheap but smelt strange. The day finished with a short walk by the lakefront where activity was in full swing.

The next day, I continued my meanderings around the city. From my hostel I headed to the Long Bien Bridge, passing an extensive market on the way. I hadn’t intended to cross the bridge, but this is what I did. It is long, spans two rivers and is used solely by two-wheeled vehicles and the train. The smog over the city was much in evidence. Between the rivers was a stretch of agricultural land although I wouldn’t have wanted to eat anything that grew there.

The pedestrian way had some gaps between the boards, and the railings looked unstable. There were some fruit vendors part way along. I went over on one side, did a loop around the houses and returned on the other.

Back in the city, I looked for the murals painted on the railway arches. They weren’t immediately evident, so I strolled instead to another large lake, stopping for coffee on the way. I thought I ordered an iced one, but they served a small brown one with a glass of brown water on the side. Vietnamese coffee was a puzzle!

View over the lake
View over the lake

I wandered around a small loop of the lake, sitting down for a rest in a quiet street. The murky water resembled boiling mud in places. On closer observation, I realised there were tons of catfish in the water. People fished there but I would not have wanted to try that fish!

I had another attempt at finding the murals, and this time was successful. They depicted historic scenes of old Hanoi and were close to a well-photographed spot where the train runs close to the houses twice a day. I wasn’t there at the right time though.

On the way back to my hostel, I bought a piece of banana loaf and enjoyed it with a cup of tea in my room whilst listening to the hammering and drilling from the building site next door. I forced myself out in the early evening to go to the Night Market and to find some dinner. The choice of cafes and restaurants is enormous, making decisions difficult. I boringly settled for another noodle soup. This one was far tastier than the previous night’s though and definitely smelt better! On the corner of my lane was a dessert stall which I had been told was also famous. I investigated. Next to me on my small plastic chair were two ladies who advised on what I should order. This famous dessert was fruit with jelly and yoghourt. It was a throwback to my childhood!