Today [31/8] is our last day in Hanoi before we catch the over night bus from Hanoi to Vientiene in Laos. So what have we been up to since Hoi An. Quite a bit in fact.
Our final day in Hoi An was a relaxed affair. Tim and I decided to go for a shave, a decision based on curiosity, lazyness and a lack of shaving foam [on my part]. We popped in to teh local barbers around the corner from our hotel and sat down into the laid back chairs. It started off pretty much as you would expect. The woman shaving me painted my face with water and and then a liberal amount of foam [I was quite beardy by this point]. Out came the razor and off came the beard. No worries you might think. However when I glanced over to Tim is was a slightly different affair.
First off the man shaving Tim wasn't doing any shaving, instead he had a selection of rods and a miners lamp on his head and was peering into the dark waxy orafice of Tim's earhole. Strange I thought, but then had to turn away as my barberette attacked the other side of my face. The second time I glanced over to Tim he was having his forehead shaved. And then his nose. Odd, I'd never really thought of Tim as being one of those hairy foreheaded types, but it was amusing to watch nonetheless.
So there I was coming to the end of my shave, and a job well done, and with a little head massage in there as well, and then came out the miners lamp, the rods and an expression on my face of mild curiosity mixed with anxious fear. What happened next was a feeling of pain, ticklishness and that feeling you get when someone digs their knuckle into the small of your back... except this was in my ear. The woman was in fact poking a blade into my earhole and shaving the insides of my ear, next came a rod to give the inside a rub down, and then the tweezers to pull out any unsightly bits of earwax. This was closely followed by what I can only call a small feather duster being inserted in and given a good twizzle. I didnt know whether to laugh or to cry. By thios point Tim's barber had finished with Tim and pushed my lady baraber to oneside as if to say 'let the master do it', and as if to prove his point he set to work on my left ear, removing the contents, giving it a good wave in front of me and then wiping it on my forearm. Nice.
And that wasnt the end of it. Next up came the rods for the eyes. A couple of eye drops in each eye was followed by a rod being poked into the corner of the eye and then given a good twizzle and a wipe along the bottom lid. This time there was no laughing, only crying. Thankfully after that it was was all over, apart from the barber then tried to charge more for these extra services we didnt ask for - we settled half way.
The following morning was the start of hour 24 hour mega trip to Hanoi. We caught the sight seeing bus up to Hue which was really only sight seeing because we stopped at two cafes along the way instead of one. When we arrived in Hue we hooked up with a couple of American girls who were on our bus and we went for a few drinks. Its actually quite odd, but for the whole open tour bus up the coast of Vietnam we've pretty much seen the same people on the bus the whole way, its strange how everyone plans to stay the same amounts in each town and then move on. Saying this, neither Tim or I had actually gotten to know any of them. Well all this changed when we had 5 hours to kill in Hue before a 12 hour journey on the night bus to Hanoi. It was a unaminous decision to go for a hard drink. And so that was Hue for us, a little wander around the town and then some beers in 'The Belgian Bar' to see that the ride that evening was little easier to swallow.
Easier to swallow? That was optimism if ever there was. Somehow we'd manage to cop the old bus to Hanoi and one which had a TV on it. A TV you say? Some entertainment; a film perhaps? Oh no. This was loud full blast Vietnamese Kareoke DVD followed by some crappy drama and then some sort of music akin to the really awful euro-techno you find in places like Romania and Hungary including hits such as 'The Funky Chicken' which was effectively a lot of chicken noises over a punding base drum and then occasionally a woman saying 'The Funky Chicken'. Hardcore. Tim enjoyed it though... I saw him tapping his foot as I burried myself into the surrounds of my Zen on top volume to drown out the aural pain.
We arrived into Hanoi around 5am and it was dark and I had slept a great deal on the bus, so when faced with the usual commission based 'drop you off and have no alternative but to pick this hotel' scenario we just couldnt arsed to argue. We dumped our bags and went to bed. Hmmm bed.
Later that day we wandered around Hanoi and booked our tripe to Halong Bay. Hanoi is effectively one large shop. Everywhere you go in the old quarter there are shops, shops and more shops. Jewelry shops, Tat shops, brown paper shops, washing powder shops, towel shops, food shops, clothes shops, belt shops, tie shops; pretty much anything you can imagine. All a little stall flowing out onto the pavement with their wares. The next ingredient into the Hanoi cake is the traffic and the roads. There are of course a shed load of motorbikes everywhere going in all directions and ignoring all road rules. This is a city where you can even trust the green man to get you safely from one side of the road to the other. Whatsmore is that the roads are pretty narrow, a lot narrower than Saigon or anywhere else we have been [with the exception of Hoi An]. Then of course the pavement is practically useless because it is either being used as a convenient place to park the rows and rows of motorbikes or a place to sell your wares. So this means you have to walk on the roads. It all makes for a bit of a headache. As Tim put it greatly the city is really quite claustrophobic; theres a lot of stuff in it and not a great deal of space for it. Consequently you're concentrating all of the time trying to get from A to B whilst soaking up the atmosphere, and declining the services of moto and cylco drivers. Its all very tiring. So the first stop after booking our Halong Bay trip for us was a beer.
That evening we hooked up with our American busmates Remi and Lee and went for a bite to eat. Afterwards we decided to go for a few beers as it would be the only night that Remi and Lee had in Hanoi. After a bit of going around in circles we found a bar but afterwards wanted to move on. Nevertheless it seems that Hanoi is the city that DOES sleep [Longley, 2006] since by about 11:30 we were wandering alone in the dark with nothing open whatsoever. So we decided to head back to our hotel only to find that that had shut up shop also. Remi had to bang on the metal shutters to get the guy to open up - you'd have thought they'd have realised we were still out what with our keys at reception!
The next day after about 5 hours sleep [not helped by the power cut in the night which killed our fan and aircon] we were up and waiting outside for our pick up to Halong Bay. After some minor panicking and a 25 minute wait the minibus found us and took us to a large bus where me and Tim managed to get the crappy fold down seats for our 3 and a half hour journey to Halong Harbour.
When we arrived we got onto our boat [a jig i think its called - or a jug or something like that] and had some lunch. In all our two day and one night tour was okay. I dont think it helped that everyone on the boat was really really miserable. They were all dissapointed with the way it was being run and there were calls of dismay and disbelief as they were required to pay an extra 10'000 Dong for one of the activities [33p]. But to be fair it cost us $33 for two days - thats about 7.50 pounds a day including accom and meals [but not drinks] so what do you expect?
The scenery however was stunning. That morning we were a little worried because it had decided to bucket it down in Hanoi and so we thought our trip to the seaside was going to be a repeat of Sihanoukville. Nevertheless it wasnt, it was a little cloudy to start but to be honest that was a blessing - it meant we could enjoy the gentle breeze on the top deck of the boat without being worried of being burnt. The first day we visited some caves which were a little tacky to be fair as they were lit with several abnoxious shades of light. We did some kayaking and went to a fish farm, but the highlight was taking a little boat through a cave into a 'The Beach'-esque enclosed lagoon. That evening we had dinner and then went up top and watched the cracking lightening storm over Hanoi.
The following day we changed boats after breakfast and then pretty much the rest of the boat trip was taken up travelling back to port with a brief stop for a swim. When we got back to port we had lunch but were then told to wait as everyone else piled onto a couple of buses. Tim and I were a little disconcerted to say the least. AS it happens to we put in teh back of a minivan just to ourselves and driven back to Hanoi in record time. We were pretty sure something had to be up and were waiting for the con. But the geeza just took us home - ahhh comfort at last.
But thats where the comfort eneded. Last night was a stressful evening as we tried to book ourselves out of Hanoi and on the next available trip to Vientiene in Laos. First we were told at a number of places that we couldnt get on the bus since they were all full. We tried a couple more travel agencies suggested in the LPG, including Sinh Cafe. The latter said they could get us on the bus but that we wouldnt be able to get a visa on arrival at the Laos border but needed to get one in advance. This was a bit of a ball-ache considering we only had 24 hours to play with. Nonetheless he said he could get us a Laos visa for $42 by the time we left on the 7pm bus the next day. No worries we thought. We headed back to our hotel to get our passports but at the reception the lady said she could do our visas for $40, she offered to do our bus and we gave the Sing Cafe going rate of $14 but after ringing around she said all the buses were fully booked. Anyways we left her with ourpassport and went back to Sinh Cafe and booked our bus. However, as we were standing outside deciding what to do next teh guy calls us back in saying the bus is all full. Argh! Imagine if we'd just left and not hung about - we could have been well stuck in the mud! So we got a refund and tried another couple of places, each time they said they could until we insisted that they ring up and check and low and behold they were full.
This was becoming a real problem because we needed to out on the bus today [the 31st] because our visa expires tomorrow [the 1st] and if we were to leave tomorrow we wouldnt get to the Loas border until the second and the last thing I want is to not be able to get out of the country! Anyway, in the end we found an agency that could do us a bus trip for the slightly more expensive $20 and we made the guy double check that there was space -he was a little distracted as he was annoyingly playing chinese checkers online whilst sorting us out - not what I wanted to see whilst ina minor state of panic. After all that we needed to chill out, so in true Brit style we went for an Indian. Sorted.
So today is today [funny that eh?] and we will with any luck get our visas around 4:30pm today and then will leave for Vietiene on our nightmare 24 hour journey at 7pm tonight [if we have a seat]. We get to the border early tomorrow morning and then have to wait until it opens before going through and embarking on the second leg of the journey to arrive in Vientiene the Laos capital tomorrow evening.
Wish us luck. I'm not sure on the availablity of good fast internet in Laos - from what I hear its 20 years in the past which is why it takes twice as long to travel anywhere. Either way we dont intend to go far. From Vientiene we'll travel up to Vang Vieng for some tubing down the river for a couple of days and then spend most of our time in Luang Probang before heading back down to Vientiene and overnighting it back to Bangkok to be there with plenty of time for our flight [no pissing about anymore with last minute bus bookings].