In Which I Climb a Mountain in Flip Flops | Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay view Vietnam

To be completely honest, we planned our route through Vietnam using the route the Top Gear guys took in that Christmas special a few years ago. Ha Long Bay was one of their stops so it was one of ours too. We went with a group from our Hanoi hostel to stay on one of the bay’s islands for a night, because Ha Long is ages out from Hanoi and the occasional group trip is good for you, probably. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO site and, on Top Gear, looked sparkling and beautifully emerald. We went on a cloudy day, so it actually looked like this:

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam on a cloudy day

But we’re British, so it was just like being at home for the summer! Speaking of home, the dock we boarded the boat from reminded me so much of Southend on a bad day that I had to take a photo:

Dock Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Mud: check. Giant container ships on the horizon: check. Grey skies: check. There were a million little crabs trotting about on the mud, which made a nice change from the crap you normally see on Southend’s mudflats, ha.

So as part of the group trip we were required to partake in group activities. Number one: canoeing with a friend. Or, in my case, my wee brother who is actually a lot taller than me and way more into the sport of canoeing than I am. We nearly came to blows about my ability to paddle right after this photo was taken:

Canoeing Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Not as bad as Monopoly at Christmas, but close.

That night the island hostel had a beach bonfire. We tried a local type of dance with bamboo sticks that I have since found on YouTube because I don’t know how to explain it without overusing the word ‘ankle’…

The next day we took a walk up a hill. Or, to be more accurate, we climbed a mountain. Climb because it was made of rocks and mountain because there’s no international definition for what constitutes a mountain so although it may have been a large hill, I’m going to call it a mountain. Also, I did it in flip flops. This was because as we were leaving the hostel in Hanoi, someone mentioned there would be a hike of some sort. I had packed a tiny bag and left my proper shoes in a locker, because when we booked no one mentioned a hike. ‘Should I go back for my shoes?’ I thought. Everyone had shoes apart from Maxim and I. ‘Ah, live a little,’ I told myself. ‘You always over plan and over pack.’ So I left my shoes.

I am never living a little again. It was a fucking mountain.

Ha Long Bay island mountain

There were monkeys on the other side of the giant pile of rocks, which was nice, although they were basically trained to be nice to tourists which was gross. Also, when we were done saying ‘hey, a monkey’ we had to climb all the way back over the bloody mountain. I ripped the elephant pants I bought in Saigon. Always over pack, kids!

Monkey in a tree Ha Long Bay Vietnam

We had to leave our hostel the morning after we got back from Ha Long, because we’d forgotten to book another night, so we relocated to a slightly different part of the Old Quarter. I know I hate group activities, but I was sad to leave some of the people we’d been with on the trip. I don’t really do casual friends but I guess it’s hard not to bond with people over bamboo dancing and rock climbing. So if an American named Suzie (maybe Suzie?) who au paired in London before flying to Hanoi and lost her phone is reading this, hiiiii. Also: an English girl named Claire studying in Australia the English guy travelling with her wearing several ear piercings. We compared passport stamps. It was nice to meet you, and I never say that and mean it.

Oh, by the way, the bathroom of the hostel in Ha Long Bay had no window. This was the view while we cleaned our teeth:

Ha Long Bay view Vietnam

Emerald waters might be slightly overrated.

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Sleeper Bus Hell and Hanoi, Vietnam

the Perfume River, Vietnam, at sunset

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but for the latter part of the trip I took diazepam on every journey. This was because of the night bus journey from Hue to Hanoi. I should have known it would be shit – I mean, to an anxious traveller with an anxious bladder, all Vietnamese bus journeys are shit. I should have known it would the travelling equivalent of post-dodgy-curry diarrhoea when the bus was so late that hostel staff noticed…

Our driver was a smoker, which I don’t usually mind, except this one smoked while he drove and an air conditioning unit was right above my sleeper bunk, so all the smoke got regurgitated from his lungs and went shoooom up my nostrils. For nine hours minus a couple of toilet stops. Maxim could normally sleep on the buses, but the best I ever seemed to manage was a nap while I tried not to think about needing a wee. On this particular journey the air was so dry that my throat was like sandpaper, but you can never be sure when the driver will stop, so I sipped a bottle of water nervously until a local kid in the bunk next to me asked in broken English if he could have some because did I mention the smoke

As we neared Hanoi it transpired that Maxim was not sleeping but was in almost unbearable pain from also needing a wee. We pegged it out the bus and grabbed the nearest cab, which proceeded to take us on the scenic route around Hanoi. By the way, it was 2am. I tried not to think about all the times I’ve been the one with horrific bladder problems as I let the cabbie short change me and followed Maxim into our hostel, where the concierge was napping at his desk and several other travellers were collapsed on sofas because check in wasn’t until midday. I do remember a local lady, at around five, taking live fish from a bucket directly opposite the hostel and beheading and gutting them in the same way I make my morning coffee. I didn’t film it, because I don’t want anyone filming my morning coffee, but I suppose Game of Thrones isn’t that gross once you’ve heard live animals professionally decapitated.

I think we were in the Old Quarter of Hanoi – all narrow, windy streets a bit like London or York except with ten thousand more street food vendors selling pho. We didn’t actually stay in Hanoi that long, because our visas were running out – I would have loved to see the old prison, where John McCain was held, and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of prisons in South East Asia. If you’re ever in Hanoi, though, you must do the following:

  • Take a walking tour! We did from our hostel – Hanoi is too crowded to travel anywhere by anything larger than a bike or on foot and there is so much to see, it’s one of those places where you need eight pairs of eyes

Hanoi Old Quarter in Vietnam

  • If you like eggs and coffee, visit Giang Cafe. They invented egg coffee. I unfortunately could not partake but Maxim, who enjoys both coffee and eggs, reported that it tastes a bit like dessert

egg coffee in Giang Cafe, Hanoi, Vietnam

  • Go to the post office. Okay so this is probably me being weirdly charmed by post offices, but a post office is such a normal place, it’s perfect for seeing regular people do everyday things. A local girl helped her grandpa with his letters then helped him into a cab, which took me back to all the times we helped my grandmother in and out of cars on days out. Sometimes, when you spend every day doing something new, you need to go and do something normal.
  • Visit St Joseph’s Cathedral. I believe the site was once a temple, and the whole wrecking-sacred-buildings-to-replace-them-with-other-sacred-buildings thing makes me grind my teeth, but props to the architect because the building itself is spectacular. We mooched in and the smell hit me. I don’t do churches, god or any form of spiritual enlightenment as a matter of principle, but the church smelt like… home. Like England. I was suddenly back in church as a semi-cynical eight year old singing hymns with my mum. Don’t look at me like that, I’m allowed to like the smell of childhood.

We took a trip from Hanoi into Ha Long Bay, but that’s a blog for another day. Have you ever walked into somewhere and smelt childhood?

The Cu Chi Tunnels & Ruinification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
You’d think after South East Asian toilet facilities I wouldn’t be phased by a hole in the ground… but at least you’re not expected to live in the sewage system.

You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.

Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.

Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.

As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.

Entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
During the war, tunnel entrances were so well hidden that even Viet Cong couldn’t always find them.

Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!

Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.

I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.

We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:

The Ruinification Palace

From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.

SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.

My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.

I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.