The Intricate Details

Day 24 – Hanoi to Bangkok – Friday March 25th 2011

At 6am we were collected by our pre-paid taxi. We had paid in advance to avoid any scams like last time. Despite this, he still tried to charge us when we arrived at the airport. When he saw that we weren’t going to pay, he quickly gave up, which only helped prove his guilt in our eyes. I wonder if there is a single decent taxi driver in Hanoi.

The flight to Bangkok was uneventful and we knew exactly how to get a meter taxi here. We were heading for Sinad Guesthouse, which is just a few minutes walk from Khao San Road (pronounced Ko Sarn Road). The taxi cost a respectable £7 between the four of us, and we were glad to be clear of the Hanoi taxi drivers.

Sinad was basic but cheap, but we will only be staying here one night to see the famous Khao San Road.

Khao San Road

The road is surprisingly small, with massive neon signs and banners all vying for your attention. I finally got my Chang t-shirt from a market stall for £3, saving 20p compared to the one in Chiang Mai.

In the evening we returned to KSR for dinner. I ended up having a few Changs and we sat at the various bars watching live acoustic bands all night. There was an old couple doing blues covers and a young duo singing acoustic covers of hits from bands like Coldplay and Rage Against The Machine.

The highlight of the night for me was a really good duo. One guy had an impressive snare drum box, which he sat on whilst accompanying the singer / guitarist. The singer / guitarist was a total genius. He had an attention to detail and played every single noodly detail from their massive repertoire of songs.

I was in my element watching them, and so was the bearded metalhead bloke, who was giving requests for songs, which they invariably played.

I had got through quite a few Changs when we left, and started explaining to Frank about how I loved the intricate details. I did love them.

Bumpy Bus & Young Local Helpers

Day 23 – Ninh Binh to Hanoi – Thursday March 24th 2011

Today was mine and Nic’s 7 year anniversary. We didn’t really celebrate it much. In fact, we spent most of the day travelling.

Our morning plans were rained off. Motorbikes or bicycles would be madness in this weather. We tried to book another car again, but they were fully booked due to the weather. Instead we got on a bus to get back to Hanoi.

The bus ride was gut crunchingly bumpy. It took about two hours to reach the bus station. Unsurprisingly Giap Bat bus station is nowhere near the centre of town, so we had to try and catch a local bus to the lake. We were so far from the centre of town that we were off the edge of our tourist map.

After much gesturing and map-pointing, Frank got the woman at the information desk to write down the bus number we needed, 08. We had just seen one drive off so had to wait for another. Loads of number 06 buses came and went.

A local teenage couple came over to help us, and one of them even went with us when our bus arrived. She even helped us buy tickets and then pointed out the lake when we got there. It took about 20 minutes.

Eventually back at David Guesthouse we booked and paid for a taxi at 6am tomorrow to take us to the airport. It cost $15 USD. Can’t wait to be back in Thailand!

Craving

I have just had a severe craving for Birds Eye Potato Waffles, Heinz Baked Beans and Ketchup. The Vietnamese food I have had seems to be much less tasty than Thai food.

Caves and National Park

Day 22 – Ninh Binh – Wednesday March 23rd 2011

Please, Take A Safety Belt
Please, Take A Safety Belt

Our drive to the national park took about an hour (In the car above).  It cost about a pound to get in to the park, which included a guide for the primate and elephant conservation areas. Elephants and primates were rescued and returned to nature wherever possible.

We were driven to cave where ancient human remains had been found. We got to just go in and explore. There were hardly any other tourists in the whole park.

We had lunch at the top of the park and then went for an unguided walk through the forest. The start of the walk was on a concrete pathway, but it soon gave way to dirt tracks. Along the route we saw a big old tree, some scenic views and another cave. Palace Cave.Luckily I had my head torch so we were able to go into the cave and have a look round. We were only a few hundred yards in when I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face.

Frank went off a little further into the cave, with only a tiny LED light, which stopped working halfway. This cave seemed to be sucking the light from our torches so we made a speedy exit.

Thinking about Vietnam

If we hadn’t left Hanoi, then I would have much positive to say about Vietnam, but Ninh Binh has shown me a different side. Maybe Hanoi is just another big busy city. Maybe we were silly and unlucky. We definitely didn’t have a great time there and can’t wait to get back to happy, easy Thailand. I can’t wait for another happy Sawasdee from a smiling Thai.

Tomorrow we will hire some bikes or mopeds to have a look round Tam Coc. I am thinking of trying a geared bike, as I’ve always wanted to learn to ride. The main problem is navigating the busy 1A road to get fuel before we leave. That will be fun.

Train to Ninh Binh

Day 21 – Hanoi to Ninh Binh – Tuesday March 22nd 2011

We had a free bread and jam breakfast whilst our Hotel owner booked us a taxi to the Railway Station. We packed our bags and then forced our way through the busy daytime streets to the main road. We found two waiting taxis, but only one had a driver so we chose that one. We are smart travellers.

We loaded our backpacks into the boot and all got in. The driver ignored us and left the ignition off. We showed him a picture of a train on he map, but he wouldn’t get going. For fear of him driving off with our stuff, we opened the boot and unloaded our stuff while Frank went round the corner to get the Hotel owner.

The driver and Hotelier shouted at each other for a few minutes. Then we got the thumbs up. This time, he started the car and we were off. It was only a short ride and cost about a quid.

At the railway station, we couldn’t help think that the title on the ticket desk was a bit misleading. She didn’t seem to want to sell us tickets. We eventually coaxed the tickets out of her, but had a few hours to kill before the train to Ninh Binh was due.

We wanted to lock our backpacks in the lockers, but were told by the attendant that we couldn’t use the lockers. We would have to leave our bags with her behind a desk. We didn’t like the sound of that, so took all our stuff back out to the busy street. We needed to find somewhere to chill out and waste some time. In this part of town this proved easier said than done.

The pavements were again full of motorbikes so we ended up walking along busy roads until we reached a small park and lake. Actually more of a muddy puddle. We sat in the windy park for a while, and then took shelter in a small restaurant. It was a locals only place, but we managed to order some food and drinks. The drinks were fine but the food was awful. The driest piece of chicken I had ever seen, on a bed of raw vegetables. Lovely.

We hadn’t quite wasted enough time yet, and as we wandered around, thought we had hit the jackpot when we saw a KFC! We went in, but it was closed. At lunchtime! Madness. We ended up at another bad restaurant where Nic had some food which was almost as bad as mine.

Train to Ninh Binh

The train was on time and busy. Some people had so much luggage that they must have been moving house. They had bags, boxes, TVs, books, lampshades and anything you could imagine.

We arrived at the tiny Ninh Binh station which had no maps or guides at all. We didn’t have a clue how to find our Hotel. Frank asked in a guesthouse next to the station, and the woman was kind enough to give us a photocopied hand-drawn map of the area. She even marked off our hotel for us.

It was a few minutes walk through town and we could see instantly that this was a much more relaxed place. Apart from the massive main road, the other roads were actually quite safe to walk down, without fear of being run over.

Friendly

On the way we had children coming up to us and saying hello and old people smiling as we walked past. Much nicer place.

The Ngoc Anh Hotel was exactly where our map said it would be. It was tidy and quite new. The rooms were pretty new and had decent bathrooms.

The staff here were really helpful and were happy to arrange trips too. We booked a trip for tomorrow. We get our own driver in a 4×4 to take us round the nearby national park. It cost $40 USD but between the four of us that’s pretty good going.

Leaving Ha Long

Day 20 – Halong Bay to Hanoi  – Monday March 21st 2011

We spent the day with the Swedes. We cruised back from Cat Ba island and then waited for our minibus. The bus took us to a strange skinny Chinese restaurant. When we got inside, the walls were wet, as if they hose the place down after meals.

The food was actually not bad. The spring rolls were good.

It took forever to get back to Hanoi. When we got back we used the computer to book two nights in Ninh Binh and shared scam stories with some people staying in our guesthouse. I actually can’t wait to leave here. The constant hassle is putting me on edge.

Halong Bay – The Inspiration For Avatar

Day 19 – Hanoi to Halong Bay – Sunday March 20th 2011

Halong Bay Avatar
Halong Bay Avatar

We were collected by minibus at about 9am and arrived at Halong Bay around lunchtime. Frank was on a different bus, as he was sleeping on the boat overnight. We were just day-boating and then sleeping on Cat Ba island.

The most striking thing about the harbour at Ha Long is the massive amount of building work happening there. The whole place is like a building site.

The harbour is rammed with old wooden boats, waiting to take people out to the rocky islets. As is often the case, we all paid different amounts for the same trip. We paid around £20, but some people in our group paid twice that amount.

The water was calm, but visibility was really poor due to fog. We could just about make out one rocky formation at a time, before we moved on to the next one. I think we missed out on the main effect of this place.

We stopped at a pontoon, along with about a hundred other boats, where we joined a line to walk through a cave. The cave was lit by coloured lights, and felt a bit too touristy. We pretty much ran through the cave to get out the other side.

Swedes

When we got going again, we got chatting to two Swedish sisters Helen and Marianne. They taught us the swedish words for body parts. This was probably my favourite. We also played a card game which asks questions and scores how Swedish you are. Nic did OK, but doesn’t watch Donald Duck on Christmas Eve so lost some serious points for that.

On Cat Ba island we found a bar and had a few beers with the Swedes. There was no heating in our hotel so I decided to drink enough that it didn’t matter. I had quite a few Bia Ha Noi’s which helped send me to sleep.

Eating From The Gutter

Day 18 – Hanoi – Saturday March 19th 2011

After a chilly night’s sleep I hadn’t managed to shake off my bad mood. We checked out of the Atlantic and headed for David Guesthouse. We walked past this guesthouse last night, and were pretty horrified by the scene. There was litter all over the street, massive rats, and a family huddled around a bin-fire.

Today, the scene was infinitely improved. There was a bustling street market, which explains the rats and litter. The room was actually OK, and very cheap.

First we booked trips to Halong Bay and then spent the day walking around Hanoi, which is not as easy as it sounds. It often involves playing chicken with the traffic. Walking round a new city is a great way to get a feel for a place, especially when you’re on a tight budget. It’s one of my favourite free activities.

Hanoi Hilton

We had lunch by the lake and then visited Hoa Lo prison (The Hanoi Hilton). This historical prison had been in use for years, most recently during the Vietnam War to house and torture prisoners of war.

Hoa Lo Prison Stairs
Hoa Lo Prison Stairs

Outside the prison we were targeted by another scam, but we were ready for this one. A woman jumps off the back of a scooter and says she is learning English. If you agree to help then they do various things to extort money from you, from running up huge bar bills (which they get a cut of), to muggings and other dodgy things. We just told her firmly NO, and then walked off. Luckily somebody had warned us of this scam.

Read my tips to avoid airport taxi scams here.

At 4:30pm we found the Ho Chi Minh Museum but it had just closed, so we went to find the St. Joseph Cathedral before heading back to our guesthouse.

We freshened up and then walked a few blocks looking for somewhere to eat. We ended up at a “cook your own” place. Perched on childs’ plastic chairs, we were given a plate of meat, onions and veg, and dishes with salt, pepper, chilli and lime. We had a solid fuel camping stove on the table so lobbed on some steak and onions and cooked our own dinner. It was really tasty, but I can’t help thinking we should have gone for the goat option.

French Bread

The best thing about Hanoi’s French heritage is arguably the bread. Most bread in asia is horrible sweet crumbly stuff, but the baguettes in Hanoi are perfect. Look on any street corner and you will see a woman selling an armful of bread rolls. We even saw a woman on the hard shoulder of the motorway, selling bread to passing motorbike riders.

After eating we walked back to the lake to see it at night. It was really busy, with free dance classes and groups of people playing foot-badminton. I had never even heard of foot-badminton, but it looks like it takes a lot of skill.

Mugged by a Hanoi Taxi Driver

Day 17 – Bangkok to Hanoi – Friday March 18th 2011

Mugged Vietnam Taxi

I somehow managed to sleep through most of the flight so felt pretty good when we landed in Hanoi. We asked at the information kiosk about a sleeper train to Hoi An, but they were fully booked. We had been banking on getting a train straight to Hoi An so we hadn’t really planned what to do in Hanoi. We were ushered into a taxi and driven towards the city centre.

Alarm Bells

We should have realised when the driver started playing music videos on a small screen that this wasn’t your usual government issue taxi.

He eventually pulled up in a side street, where a dodgy Hotel owner was waiting to try and sell us rooms. The taxi driver snatched 2 million Dong from Frank’s wallet and after a heated exchange we grabbed our stuff and started walking. Fast.

2 million Dong is only about £60 so we counted ourselves lucky and shared the cost between us. We later found out that it should have only been £10.

In that moment of madness we had ignored all our own advice and been taken advantage of. We all felt a bit stupid and quite vulnerable. We didn’t have a clue where we were or where we wanted to go.

Find a big landmark, head for that

We knew that Hanoi had a big lake in the middle so we tried to head for that. By some huge fluke we wandered straight by a Hosteling International Hostel. We took refuge in the lobby and were so happy when they gave us a room for the night for only £4 each.

The rain was still heavy but we decided to get out and have a walk round the old quarter. The noise of this place is like nowhere else. Cars and motorbikes use their horns at every opportunity. It isn’t very relaxing to walk around the streets, which are often 5 deep with parked mopeds. Walking along a busy road, whilst motorbikes crowd the pavement seems mad.

Recovery

After our walk I was totally shell shocked so went for a lie down. Nic and Frank went to look at tours to Halong Bay. They seem quite expensive at around $30-40 USD. Vietnam uses the US Dollar almost as a second currency, the problem is that you can only get it on the black market here. We decided to use local currency instead.

Before we got here we had heard news of a British guy drowning on an overnight Halong Bay trip, so we didn’t want to spend a night on the boat. Luckily there was the alternative option to stay on an Island instead.

We had a bad start in Vietnam so I went to bed hoping to wake up in a better mood. We have been away from home for 3 weeks and have yet to see a single beach yet. The islands of Thailand are calling me.

Avoiding Airport Taxi Scams

Foreign airports can be daunting, especially when you don’t speak the language. I have got some tips to make it as simple as possible, and avoid some common scams in the process.

  1. Research. Find out where to get the taxi from in advance. You don’t want to wander around looking vulnerable.
  2. If there are crowds of Taxis outside the airport shouting for business, they may not be official. Find the official taxi stand or office and get one from there. It may cost more, but it’s safe. We failed to follow this advice once and ended up paying six times the usual price. It could have easily been much worse.
  3. Know the price. Most hostels / hotels will tell you how much a taxi will cost from the airport. Allow for some variation for meter taxis and tolls, but it helps to have a guide price. For places without meter taxis get a price up front, but don’t pay until you get to your destination.
  4. If you book and pay for a taxi in advance from a hotel, make sure you get a receipt / voucher. In Vietnam a driver tried to demand more money even though we had paid in advance. Remember they have your luggage held hostage in the boot of their car.
  5. Don’t flash your cash about. Some countries are poor, so don’t show them your wallet full of cash. Most people are decent, but you never know. Keep some different notes in different pockets, then you can pull out just the amount you need, without waving loads of notes about.

Tired Taxi Waiting Day – Bangkok

Day 16 – Bangkok 2 – Thursday March 17th 2011

From Bangkok Railway Station we hailed a taxi to get us to our next hostel, the Bangkok Airport YHA. It backs on to the airport, but the taxi driver didn’t have a clue where it was, even with the address. I have found that the concept ‘near’ is very difficult to communicate to somebody when you don’t speak their language.

Me: “It’s Near The Airport”
Driver: “Aahh, you want to go Airport”
Me: “No, NEAR the airport… YHA…”
–Repeat x1000 (Exaggerated)

He eventually just headed towards the airport. I was following our location on a map, and ended up directing the driver to the place. We found King Kaew (Thaew) Road but there was still more confusion when we finally found Soi 58… All three of them. How can a place have three roads next to each other with the same name. (We later noticed later that there was Soi 58, Soi 58/1 and Soi 58n). I just found this note on the YHA website:

“** NOTE ** We are located at ‘KingKaew 58’ NOT KingKaew 58/1 and NOT KingKaew 58n
If you come from the Airport, KingKaew 58 comes after KingKaew 58/1 and 58n”

The taxi only cost a fiver for all that driving around so we can’t really complain too much. We booked another taxi for around 3am to get us to the airport, and then had a stroll around the local area to find food. I think we ended up at 7-11 for snacks.

Later we had dinner at the back of the YHA looking out over the airport. Again it was a low table with cushions to sit on. It’s a really nice way to eat.