My love for pho noodles and Creedence Clearwater Revival meant there was only one logical destination in which to spend my reading week. If you haven’t worked it out yet I suggest you brush up on your 1960s American rock and get the hell out of Kent to find a decent pho shop. All jokes aside, growing up in the anglophone West it is impossible not to be fascinated by the country that hosted one of the most catastrophic military campaigns in history, and which has prompted some of the greatest social, political and cultural change of modern times. The rise and spread of communism in Asia, and its conflict with the West has enjoyed a large portion of my academic focus over the past few years and I couldn’t wait to finally see a communist country in the flesh, and the other side of the Cold War coin. Before any readers become concerned that this piece may be too highbrow, let me assure you that the fact that Vietnam boasts some of the cheapest and loosest bars in the world is no lucky coincidence – and was fully integrated into our cultural itinerary. Our brief window of 6 days meant that not a second could be wasted, and from the moment we stepped off the plane it was DEFCON 1. I am still baffled by how much activity we squeezed into less than a week.
First stop was the capital city of Hanoi. ‘Good luck crossing the road!’ A friend quipped when I told him of my plans. He wasn’t wrong. The first thing you can’t help but notice when arriving in the city is the pure carnage on the roads. I’ve visited some pretty rogue states with some pretty liberal attitudes to road safety and etiquette, but Hanoi has shot to the top of the table. Traffic lights, lane markings, roundabouts, these are all just modern art instillations to the Hanoians. Every vehicles moves as if it’s being piloted remotely by a 10 year old GTA player that pulls the wings off ladybirds. You work out quickly that the only way to get where you want to go is to forget everything you ever learned from that little prick of a hedgehog, don’t stop, don’t hesitate, don’t think, don’t try to rationalise your surroundings. Left leg, right leg, your body will follow – they call it walking.
With only limited time to see the city, as soon as we arrived we embarked on an epic trek to takes the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Hanoi. The capital’s French imperial and Soviet-style communist histories leads to a unique contrast in architectural style. This is especially apparent in the citadel, where grand, Parisian-style embassy buildings stand side-by-side with brutalist state buildings, on which the only attempt at artistic flair is the hammer and sickle etched into the grey concrete. Both stunning in their own right. Government propaganda posters featuring heroic-looking farmers, factory workers and soldiers, that wouldn’t look out of place in 1930s Moscow are also a common theme. Despite the undertones of state power that pepper the city, the feeling is not of a place under tyrannical regime. The streets are packed with shops, bars and restaurants ranging from the very local to the great, Western chains.
Having only caught a snapshot of the city, I’ve done a first and browsed some other travel blogs about Hanoi, and am shocked that so many seem to be horror stories about it being dangerous, run-down and dishonest. This couldn’t be further from my experience. Yeah, if you’re used to going to a private villa in the Canaries, then it will be a pretty big culture shock. And if you go to a poor South-East Asian city and expect a relaxing, luxurious holiday where the locals kowtow to you like your daddy’s servants than you probably deserve to be miserable. In all of Vietnam we received next to no hassle, the trip went smoother than any I’ve been on, and the locals we encountered were some of the most hospitable I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Unfortunately the most vocal people tend to be the most sensitive, entitled and ignorant. Hopefully I only cover the latter.
A short digression now on the roasted bean. Shockingly, I’m not actually much of a coffee drinker. Even more shockingly, I don’t care much at all for this emerging era of vajazzled unicorn syrupy nonsense the tax-dodging chains are selling as coffee. If I did get the craving for caffeine on a lazy, silk-robe Sunday morning, I was a Jamaican Blue Mountain man. The original, the classic, the best…or so I thought. An early flight and a busy first day on the move called for a few stimulation stops. By this point the coffee was purely medicinal than for pleasure. But Christ on a bike do those boys know how to cultivate some coffee. This was like a shot of ambrosia – life giving, smooth and delicious beyond belief. It prompted the sort of euphoria one only feels when gliding scissors through wrapping paper…or mainlining heroin.
We covered a hell of a lot of ground on that first day, seeing most of the points of interest that Hanoi has to offer. In the evening we checked out our hostel’s bar and after a few jars of the local grog they announced that they were having a quiz. Of course, my eyes lit up like bloody Guy Fawkes Night. I hadn’t done a quiz in many a moon, and my brain was crying out for some stimulation. Luckily, my companions being two Frenchmen meant I basically took on the task single-handedly…carrying on that noble English tradition. The questions were a little more Tipping Point than University Challenge, and despite knowing every English monarch from 1066, every element in the periodic table and the complete works of William Shakespeare, I looked like a twat because I didn’t know what Kim Kardashian’s favourite brand of hummus is. On the plus side, my years as an obnoxious rugby lout finally bore fruit as I absolutely obliterated the opposition in the bonus round, which involved strawpedoing a big bottle of beer the fastest. After a stroll to the livelier part for a beer and a boogie we retired. Ha Long Bay was next and I could sense that something naughty was on the horizon.
Before my prophesy could be fulfilled, we had to make the treacherous journey to the coast. This involved a smorgasbord of taxis, buses and boats, a bit of a mission but a great way to soak up the Vietnam countryside and a few 333 beers. If, like me, you made the likes of Apocalypse Now, Forest Gump, We Were Soldiers and Full Metal Jacket part of your film collection early-doors, you’ll empathise with my satisfaction at finally seeing the landscape that characterised the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s. But, as our boat cruised through the stunningly misty Ha Long Bay and landed on Castaway Island, it was time to leave the past and future behind me. The next few days would be spent marooned, with nothing but sun, sea, scenery, water sports (of all varieties), unlimited booze, parties with a global demographic, and jazzy shirts to keep me occupied. It was hell.
Once back in Hanoi, our lust for adventure and South-East Asian agriculture took us North. We spent the day at a homestay in a rural village. After a traditional and hearty lunch we pulled on, tucked in and strapped up our farming gear and headed into the rice paddies for a shift. The sun shone and the views of the semi-submerged green fields and the distant mountains were stunning. As we clumsily slipped and squelched our way into the fields we were met by our boss for the afternoon. She was smelly, horny and cantankerous at the prospect of entertaining another crop of useless tourists. Nevertheless, as the day drew on and I exhibited my mettle amongst the crops, we really hit it off and ended up forming a special bond that can only exist between a young man and a half-tonne water buffalo. We ploughed, picked, planted and irrigated until we were red-faced and panting. Although our utility was questionable, I can honestly say that never again will I arrogantly shovel rice into my face without acknowledging the time and toil that goes into every grain. Plus, after a good few days of sheer caddishness, a bit of hard graft under God’s mighty sun did wonders to flush out the toxins and shame. When the day was done I was able to look at myself in the mirror and not grimace.
Shift and a light cycle round the village completed, we rushed back to Hanoi to catch our night train down to Da Nang. To most people, just the thought of being cooped up on a locomotive for 14 hours would be enough to make them feel bored and claustrophobic. But mes amis and I saw it as a perfect opportunity for some mischief, and the prospect of the journey had been hotly anticipated throughout our tour. There was one apprehension, we were three but were in a 4-person cabin. We prayed that the surplus bed would remain vacant and act as our bar, or at least be occupied by someone as eager for mischief as we were. In accordance with Murphy’s Law, we excitedly entered our cabin to find a middle-aged Vietnamese woman fast asleep where my cocktail station should have been. Our bonfire had been well and truly urinated on. Feeling deflated, I stalked my way through the carriages hoping to find some salvation from our anticlimactic sleeping compartment. By a stroke of luck, I stumbled across the dining cart. It was perfect! benches and tables, a well-stocked bar and a liberal attitude to noise and air pollution. Complete with liquid-heavy picnic, we set up camp adjacent to a group of about 7 Vietnamese blokes of various ages and before long our parties combined. They spoke next to no English, and our Vietnamese was non-existent, so naturally we chatted the night away on the topics of football, beer, cigarettes, work and travel plans. Despite our own stash, they kindly swamped us with beer and food. I couldn’t let their hospitality go unrequited, and enjoyed watching them firm the burn as I passed round the cheap vodka I’d smuggled aboard. Eventually, the man kicked us out and we were forced to retire to our corridor, then to bed. I passed out instantly and awoke the following morning to the sight of the picturesque Vietnamese coastline cruising past my window. My bunk was directly below the air conditioning vent so my throat felt like a junkie’s carpet, but no more than most Sunday mornings. This journey had still been a hundred times more pleasant than any plane, bus or British train journey I’d experienced.
Da Nang is a far more modern and spacious city than Hanoi. Lacking in the history and culture but a welcome change of pace. Also, after sleeping in bunk beds in huts and on trains for the past few days, you can imagine my elation when our $10 a night Airbnb turned out to be a private penthouse with gym, pool and massive terrace that overlooked the whole city. The perfect location for some R&R.
The first day we wandered and scouted out some good bars and restaurants. It was nice to be able to let my guard slightly as I dashed between pavements. The historic city of Hoi An is just a stone’s throw away from Da Nang and had been thoroughly recommended. With cabs costing as little as a pre-recession Freddo, we decided to spend the evening there. The harbour town dates back to the 15th Century and boasts UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Paper lanterns of every colour cast a warm light on the quaint streets that run alongside the river – complimenting the quirky architecture that hosts the bustling shops, bars and restaurants. We strolled the streets and night markets. The location had changed but the mission remained the same. Good food, strong drinks and jazzy shirts were the order of the evening. We found some of the best, strongest and jazziest of our trip – with minimal effort. Hoi An’s old town certainly has a unique personality and atmosphere worth absorbing, but an evening is enough to lap it.
Our need for speed took over the second day in Da Nang as we utilised our Airbnb’s moped rental service. After a few wobbly laps round the block, my training on Koh Samet a couple of months earlier came flooding back. Just as we were ready to leave I realised I was low on juice. We had a long old day ahead of us and I didn’t fancy breaking down on some Vietnamese motorway, miles from home. I pulled over to a couple of blokes having a drink outside a shop and asked/mimed for directions to a petrol station. Without hesitation one of them called inside to his missus, she swiftly emerged with a couple of unmarked, 2-litre bottles filled with what looked like cooking oil. My grandfather always told me not to accept fuel from strangers, Vietnamese or otherwise, but I was in no position to turn down the kind gesture. I clumsily yanked, twisted and snapped off my petrol camp and my friend from VP (Vietnamese Petroleum) topped me up. I had no idea of the going rate for fuel, and couldn’t work out whether it should be more or less expensive because it came out of a shed. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a rainbow of high-value notes, handed over a few arbitrarily, and my man seemed satisfied. In Vietnam the difference between getting a bargain and getting savagely ripped off is about £2.
Our destination was the Marble Mountains. Our route was less certain. After glancing at a map for 0.3 seconds I was adamant that the numerous and complex roads of Da Nang were etched into my brain and that navigation would be a doddle. But, as Rabbie Burns wrote…something about mice and men buggering up their plans. It’s pretty intimidating pulling into the swarm of bikes, cars and trucks that battle for space along the main roads. We took it easy to start with and pottered along the right-hand lane – about 6 inches from the curb. But it didn’t take long before my subconscious confirmed that I was actually the best driver in South-East Asia, and I started to open up a bit. Somehow the unpredictability and lawlessness of the road makes you a safer driver. On British roads we have warning signs, meticulous lanes, traffic lights, speed cameras, cruise control and Smooth FM. All the thinking is done for you, which makes it easy to become complacent, and next thing you know you’re wrapped around an oak tree choking on your own pelvis. Roads are so rogue in Vietnam that you know if you lose concentration for even a second you’ll end up looking like a bowl of pho. It keeps you on your toes and I was locked in at a level that I imagine is only otherwise felt by fighter pilots. Perhaps it was the concentration on staying alive, coupled with the sheer rush, that allowed me accidentally deviate from our planned route. Plus, we were in one of the most unique and beautiful countries on Earth, and I say, if there is a scenic route to be taken it must be taken! The fact of the matter is, we reached the Marble Mountains (partially guided by some 7 years olds and a soldier). This cluster of marble hills poking out from the concrete and metal of the city is a sight to behold. Within them is a complex networks of tunnels and caves, often utilised as Buddhist shrines and sanctuaries. Light beams through the vast cavern from gaps high above, illuminating the stone sculptures from the heavens. I felt like Gandalf, pioneering through the Mines of Moria, ready to vanquish the Balrog on the bridge at Khazad-dum. Just as the grey wizard was lost to the darkness laying dormant in the mines, a careless fumble in my fanny pack to find my phone allowed me to spill our room key into the abyss. The one and only time in my career that the security of the fanny pack was compromised. We scooted home via the beach and prepared for a night in the ‘nang.
Whilst enjoying a drink on the terrace and watching the city slip into something more comfortable we couldn’t help but be attracted to the strobing lights and pumping tunes spilling out of the top floor of one of the tallest buildings around. We deduced that it was the roof of the Da Nang Novotel and the perfect place to spend our final night in ‘nam. Despite sharing the place with what seemed like the entire US military, juiced to the gills and just begging for the Gulf of Tonkin 2.0, the place was pretty spectacular and probably the best place to get loose on the Han River – just remember to bring plenty of Dong.
What should have been the least problematic stage of our journey naturally became an absolute bloody nightmare. In all fairness, our complicated tour had (unexpectedly) run like clockwork since the moment we landed. So it was only right that we had a few spanners in the works before we were home and dry in Hong Kong. Whilst lazily brunching at an absolute gem of a restaurant that we’d discovered the night before, we received a Love Island-esque surprise text informing us that our flight had been delayed by an hour or so. This was the flight taking us back to Hanoi, where we were then to catch a flight back to Hong Kong. This update stirred us slightly, but we still had plenty of time between flights, we just had to be on our toes slightly. Naturally, once a flight is delayed once, it will be delayed again…and again. Thankfully we’d explained our situation when checking in, and the airline had the decency to come and find us in departures and tell us that our original flight would not be in Hanoi in time to make our Hong Kong flight. I must add at this point that our flight to Hong Kong was the only one that day, and missing it would mean a cosy night and a good chunk of the day stranded at Hanoi airport. So, after an exchange with an airline representative in which I managed to, quite impressively, not use any violent imagery, we were put on a flight with a different airline at no extra cost. Despite some mild relief, we would still be cutting it extremely fine, and as always this flight was unlikely to get away on time. We attempted to reduce time spent faffing at Hanoi by taking on our bags as hand luggage. But, in a brief moment of comedy respite, in transpired that all of us had packed knives for the trip – knives that we were not willing to part with. We settled instead for priority luggage tags.
The flight to Hanoi was tense. We occupied ourselves by planning a meticulous, minute-by-minute, military-grade ground plan. We were going to have about 10-15 minutes to get off this flight, pick up our bags, get to the international terminal (which is around 2km away), check our bags in, go through security and sprint to our gate. We devised that one person would run ahead, get to the other terminal as quickly as possible and alert the airline to our situation in the hope that they would not leave without us, while we picked up the bags. Our time spent marveling at Buddhist shrines must have bought us some good karma, as the plan worked better than we ever could have hoped. We got off the plane and rushed to baggage reclaim, where our bags were first out. We lugged them outside with SAS efficiency to jump on the shuttle bus to the other terminal. There was no sign of our point-man so we assumed he had already caught one . This was good news. Our spirits were momentary deflated as we were informed that the buses come every 15 minutes. But, before we had time to wallow, a bus pulled up. I then assumed that we would sit stationary whilst the bus filled up with sloths, which would certainly kill too much time. Thankfully, I had found a diamond in the rough, a rose through the concrete, an understanding bus driver. After frantically explaining our situation he commanded the doors shut and sped to the international terminal. Once there, we caught our check-in desk just as they were closing, and by some miracle were still able to check our bags in and get our boarding passes. Our knives would live to fight another day! We assumed that our companion had already made a dash for the gate, but as we were about to leave we noticed something emerging through the airport foyer. It was red of face, panting, and perspiring like Peter Andre on Countdown. As the beast drew nearer we came to realise that it was actually the haggard form of our companion. He had, in fact, sprinted 2km between the terminals, only to find us calmly sauntering through the airport. After basking in the hilarity for the appropriate 0.48 seconds, we hurried through security, arrived at our gate in time for boarding, and began our leisurely flight back to Honkers.
I’m glad that this little mishap can be added to my ever-expanding list of funny, airport-based anecdotes, rather than to my list of travel disasters. All love stories must have lows as well as highs, after all. And my love for Vietnam will never falter.