Dear fleet-fingered netziens, we are once again in the belly of the beast travelling south along the coast of Vietnam, consuming vast quantities of bottled water and supping from the teats of Bia Hà Nội bottles.

I last left you hopefully petrified by my story of our bus trip to Hà Nội. As a corollary I shall relate a brief discussion Tristan and I had on the bus:

Tristan – “What do you think he is trying to avoid, swerving like that?”

Julian – “Bats. Big f*cking bats.”

Hà Nội. I reveled in the heedless swerving, unnecessary tooting and damn near suicidal scooter calisthenics on the roads of Hà Nội (David L. of course being intimately familiar with said “driving”). Hà Nội is the capital of Vietnam and from where Ho Chin Minh directed the prosecution of the American War (as it is known here). We stayed in the so-called Old Quarter which is where the French colonialist swine filled in old canals to form a densely built area with high (4-6 stories), narrow (4m or less), deep (50m or more) buildings most not more than 100 years old. The sheer narrowness of the buildings is apparently due to the fact property taxes used to be levied on the width of the road frontage. Unfortunately most of the more modern buildings built in the last 10 years is of  questionable architectural merit, dominated by some weird quasi-Greco/Vietnamese mish-mash which emphasises Ionic columns, green and pink pastels and elaborate balconies.

We hit the main sights – the old quarter with its specialised streets (stationary, scooter repair, tea, clothes, food, brasswork, coffee beans, Buddhas, flowers and toys to name but a few), Ho Chi Minh Museum (chronicling his impressive life) and the Ho Hi Minh Mausoleum where they preserve his body (and nifty looking goatee) forever in a dimly lit glass walled sarcophagus guarded by intent looking white-clad soldiers who grab you if you tarry too long. We also visited the Ha Lo Prison where American aviators were interned during the American War including John McCain. Somewhat ironic as the depressing prison was also the center of the French oppression and executions during the 1930s and 40s.

One weird experience in Hà Nội was being woken up by a call at 3am in our hotel requesting something I could not understand because of the accent. Presuming (innocently) that it was the hotel receptionist asking something, I went to answer the resultant knock on the door and was somewhat surprised when a young Vietnamese man sauntered past me, until he saw Tristan asleep on the bed and must have realised he has made a mistake. Leaving, we heard words in the room next door, where a pleasant middle-aged Japanese man was staying. In the morning we were surprised to see on our bill an item for our ‘telephone call to Australia’ on it (~250,000 Dong, roughly NZ$25). So you see,even the hotels in Hà Nội are discreet!

Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island. Ha Long Bay is the large bay to the southeast of Hanoi (another UNESCO World Heritage site) which contains several hundred steep limestone islands where a fleet (apparently 580 of them) of tourist junks ply their trade amongst the islands. We opted not to go on an overnight tour and somewhat regretted this as it sounded fun – getting on the lash with tanning Danish lasses. Ah well. We visited the enormous and garishly lit up caves at Hang Dou Go before arriving at Cat Ba which is one of only two inhabited islands (the others being too rugged). Cat Ba ended up being really busy with Vietnamese tourists – summer holidays. We blatted around the island on scooters with a well-met Frenchman and puffed our way to the top of a peak in the National Park to take in the view atop a rusty, dodgy looking viewing platform 20 m above the hilltop. There are apparently man-eating Langur monkeys on the island but we didn’t see any. All in all, not somewhere to spend a heck of a lot of time, unfortunately we ended up there for 3 nights but on the plus found the first kiwi bar yet (The Flightless Bird, and no NZ beer. Shocking)!

Sa Pa. After the miss with the Ha Long Bay tour we opted for the first tour of our trip so far. An overnight train to Lai Cai town and bus to Sa Pa. Sa Pa is a frontier town in the far north-west of Vietnam and very close to the Chinese border. The overnight train was wicked – my first experience. When we arrived at the station in Hà Nội, they were christening our carriage as the first under new management (the tickets for many train carriages are wholesaled to tour operators rather than Vietnam Railways) so we were presented with lychees and complimentary bottled water before being photographed for presumably their promotional material! Sleeper trains are fun!

Sa Pa is nestled up high with daily mist snaking its way around the surrounding hills. It is overlooked by the highest peak in Southeast Asia, Fan Si Pan Mountain (3142m). The valley below Sa Pa is home to many minority tribes whose colourful clothes tend to attract tourists with cameras. We embarked on an overnight trek down past rice paddies and lowing water buffalo trailed by a friendly mob of local H’Mong women trying their damnedest to buy their trinkets and knick knackery. Walking with two Israeli girls, a Dutchman and a fellow Kiwi, we did not lack for conversation. The guesthouse was delightful and was on the floor above the house of our 21 year old guide and her husband and baby. She was a gem, spoke good English and desired to send her planned two kids to high school. She cooked up a veritable feast for two hours over a wood fire after which we ‘got on the rice wine’ and played cards. Awakening, we realised a pig had been slaughtered not to long ago and was now for sale in front of our guest house alongside the tofu the family also sold! Trotters and Coke bottles full of pig’s blood greeted the grossed-out Israelis! Breakfast of crepes and bananas was followed by a climb to the top of a waterfall and swim in the river. Returning to Sa Pa and our hotel we pottered around the touristy town and I resisted the urge to stuff my backpack with handicrafts.