21st – 29th December
Getting to Hanoi
It seems that no matter how we try to enter this country, it’s always a difficult and unpleasant experience.
This time, flying in from Luang Prabang courtesy of a dubious Laos Airlines – Vietnam Airlines partnership, we’re lucky just to get a seat on our plane. Filling the two departure gates at Luang Prabang’s little airport are three planeloads of passengers, trying to get on two planes to Hanoi.
We watch our plane land, taxi and eject its incoming passengers. Aside from being an hour late, we haven’t realised there is a booking problem (apparently not uncommon here) – it’s only when the little Laotian gate clerk moves to open the door to allow passengers to walk towards the plane do we realise something is amiss.
An almighty scrum ensues. Luckily, well trained by India, we find ourselves near the front of it and find that we’re OK – our boarding pass seems to have one of the ‘right’ flight numbers on, although our seat numbers are hastily scrubbed out and replaced with new ones. Fortunately, the hours flight passes with no further drama.
Hanoi is about as miserable as it gets when we land – freezing cold and thick fog (well, 12C is pretty cold for this part of the world anyway). Just like coming into Heathrow after a winter holiday.
Except at Heathrow, you don’t have to wait 45 minutes for a visa on arrival, issued by yet another solitaire-addicted customs official, nor do you have to battle with incompetent and thieving taxi drivers… that take twice the normal time (one and a half hours), via the wrong Sofitel where we are meeting Nina’s parents. Then our recalcitrant taxi driver absolutely refuses to turn up the correct street to reach the hotel – three times!
We eventually walk the last 200 metres on foot, fed up and angry. What is it with this country?
But seeing Nina’s parents, and staying in the Metropole, make the whole charade worthwhile. We are loaded up with G&Ts within 5 minutes (no surprise there) and relaxing into the extraordinary opulence of French colonial style at its best.
We dine in ‘Le Club’ restaurant at the Metropole. After one of our finest meals anywhere (none of it remotely Vietnamese, though) it’s time for an early bed in preparation for an ambitious day trip to Halong Bay (and back – three and a half hours each way) in the morning.
Vietnam’s most beautiful scenery, certainly the country’s most popular tourist destination, possibly one the most beautiful bays in the world… doesn’t matter. When you arrive here in thick cloud, you might as well be in Hull.
Cursing our confounded luck in this accursed country, we board an olde worlde tourist ‘junk’ – pleasingly just the four of us and our rather feisty yet refreshingly honest guide. We can barely see the end of the pier, let alone any limestone karsts – and everything we can see is distinctly monochrome.
Happily though, it is Saint Veronica and not Saint Jude who looks benignly upon us today. As we head out through the murk, the sun miraculously burns through the cloud, revealing this remarkable limestone archipelago in all its glory.
It’s an amazing sight. We see perhaps 5% of the bay, perhaps one hundred of the nearly 2,000 white-cliffed, vegetation-studded karsts that punctuate the murky emerald waters. It’s possible to spend days sailing round here, but four hours gives us a pretty good feel as to what the rest of the bay would hold in store.
After an excellent lunch aboard our ‘junk’ we head for home. Any thoughts that we’re missing a great sunset opportunity soon dissipate as the cloud advances again – by the time we’re back on dry land we can barely make out the silhouettes of the giant edifices behind us.
On our own again
The next day, after casually wandering through the chaotic backstreets of old Hanoi (it’s a prettier, more culturally interesting city than Saigon, but still difficult to fall in love with) we say goodbye to Nina’s parents, for the last time. It’s very emotional, especially as it’s the day before Christmas Eve and it’s likely to be at least six months until we see them again.
After two days of such wonderful luxury in the Metropole, it’s rather a shock to the system to be eating in a cheap local restaurant. Even more of a shock is the boarding of the sleeper train to Lao Cai, from where we can take a bus to our next destination, Sapa.
The sleeper to Sapa
The sleeper train is divided into cramped four-berth compartments. Those travelling in luxury tend to book out entire compartments for peace and privacy; at $30 per person we chance it and spend the half hour before boarding praying to anyone who’ll listen, asking to share our cabin with nice, thin, un-dreadlocked people.
Thankfully, we luck in. We share our cabin with a sweet French couple who are on their honeymoon. They evidently showered that morning, don’t smell, aren’t obese and don’t snore (with less than 22 inches between berths, all of the above could prove to be serious issues).
Nevertheless, it doesn’t make for a great nights sleep. The train pulls in to a distinctly dark, misty and murky Lao Cai at 5am the next morning; we reckon that we’d have been lucky to grab an hour’s sleep between us.
We’d booked our Christmas long ago and it’s a relief to find that our destination isn’t a disappointment.
Sapa is an old French hill station, nestled deep in the Tonkinese Alps at a lofty 1,600m above sea level. It feels, perhaps unsurprisingly, just like a ski resort, except there is no snow, the surrounding countryside is covered by picturesque terraced rice paddies and the population largely consists of colourful hill-tribes wearing their distinctive ethnic clothing.
The Topas Ecolodge, where we are staying, is a peaceful, naturally constructed (very wholesome – all local marble, timber and thatch) resort consisting of 24 bungalows encircling a small hill some 20km from the centre of Sapa.
Although actually quite remote, it’s the perfect place for Christmas – there is a roaring log fire in the cosy bar, a good handful of other guests are very friendly Irish couples and charming European families, and the booze is flowing.
We make friends with one particular fun Irish couple, Bryan and Natalie, and make full use of the 4 – 6pm cocktail happy hour before the Christmas Eve gala dinner. By the end of the meal (and having winced through the amusing but utterly terrible local ‘ethnic’ dancing display put on as entertainment) we’re all fairly well sozzled. The Danish managers have made a vat of mulled wine – it doesn’t seem popular with the Europeans so we think it only right and proper to show willing and make a proper dent in the stuff. The local rice wine (for once) goes down a treat as well…
Christmas Day is a rather more relaxed affair. We manage to string out our present opening for a good eight minutes, before going back to bed for a pre-lunch snooze. After lunch, the traditional Christmas Day walk takes on a new angle – it’s the first time we’ve walked anywhere whilst being surrounded by 14 local, friendly but incredibly persistent Red Dao hill-tribe women doing their very best to sell us their ethnic and supposedly hand-made wares.
A proper pub
Christmas over, we spend a night in Sapa itself before catching a bus to Dien Bien Phu,as the start of a three day journey, requiring four long-distance buses, back to Luang Prabang.
Our time in Sapa gives us time to realise once and for all that for all their cultural integrity and threatened minority status, every item of clothing worn and sold by the local Red Dao, Black Hmong and other hill-tribes is all mass-produced over the border in China. So by all means buy the stuff to support them, but don’t think for a moment you’re getting some organic ethnic rarity.
The evening gives us time to meet the landlord of the local ‘Red Dragon’ pub – a proper English pub run by a proper English landlord, complete with khaki padded waistcoat and white beard. We spend a very happy evening drink the best beer Vietnam has to offer (Da Viêt), eating excellent home-made sausages and mash, and fish ‘n’ chips, and hearing what it’s like to live and work in Vietnam.
It’s quite hard, actually – there are no planning restrictions in Sapa and it is now home to over 160 hotels and a similar number of restaurants – mind-blowingly stupid given that the transport infrastructure (i.e. the train) means that only around 1,000 people can get here at one time. Most places are lucky to run at 10% occupancy – it’s no surprise our night’s accommodation here cost just $6…
The long road to Luang Prabang
Our first bus journey takes 10 hours, leaving Sapa at 7am and arriving in Dien Bien Phu at 5pm. It is a bumpy, highly uncomfortable journey, in a minibus designed for 12 people but typically holding in excess of 18. It is our first proper introduction to the ‘South East Asian Bus Paradox’: “The bus is always full but there is always space”. Never could truer words be uttered.
Dien Bien Phu holds little of interest except to history buffs, as it was the town in which the French forces were humiliatingly and easily overpowered by the Vietnamese in 1954, ending nearly a century of French colonialism.
There is, apparently, a small museum here, but we’re too tired to find it. The town consist of above a dozen streets, lined with identikit drab four storey concrete buildings, all built during the last 35 years. Pretty miserable stuff, and not a decent restaurant in sight.
Despite the fact it means another early start, we’re thankful that we’ll be leaving here, and Vietnam, on the 5.30am bus to Laos in the morning…