Northern Vietnam (aka inebriated grandmas and clashing in a kayak)

Given the near midnight departure of our flight from Mumbai to Hanoi (via Bangkok), it was fair to say we just wanted a nightcap and to try to sleep through the journey. It seemed like the lady in front of us had a similar intent, it was just that her nightcap whisky was followed by another, then another and then a glass of port.

“Anxious flyer” I whispered to Giles.

Then, a little time later, I was woken from a doze by a right commotion. It appeared the anxiety had evolved from a thirst for spirits to a craving for nicotine, and a member of the crew had caught the woman lighting up a cigarette mid air. Needless to say that my sympathy vanished as we were delayed waiting for the Thai police to escort her off at Bangkok, and we speedily ran to make our connection to Hanoi.

But make it we did, and we arrived to our hostel in the middle of the Old Quarter, scrambling across the road to avoid dozens upon dozens of motorcycles speeding the streets with anything from ladders to toddlers balanced courageously behind.

We loved Hanoi. We loved the amazing food (who knew beef liver goes so well in a mango salad?). We loved the communal living you see all around, with people eating and drinking together in huge droves in the street and exercising and doing Tai Chi in green spaces. We loved the constant busy-ness. And we loved the friendly and smiling people.

Maybe the older Vietnamese man who cheerfully groped me was a little too friendly, but I’ll put that down to cultural misunderstanding.

After enjoying our time in Hanoi, we headed east to Cat Ba, where we would be boarding a boat to cruise for 3 days around the southern part of Halong Bay. The last time we went cruising was years ago, so this was something we were both looking forward to. Our cabin had a large balcony so we could sit back, chill and watch the spectacular scenery of limestone peaks go by. Whilst I would have been quite content spending the day doing nothing except ordering an occasional cocktail and watching the world go by, we were compelled to take an excursion to a nearby island for cycling and an afternoon of water sports. My enthusiasm did not increase as the day went on.

To start off, I was given a duff bike. So as Giles, in his normal competitive mood, rode off with the aim of getting as far ahead of me as possible, whilst I was aggressively pedalling but getting no where fast. After about 2km, the chain thing came off. Thankfully, Giles did eventually come to look for me and with the help of a friendly Australian, he got the chain thing back on. With the promise of rice wine tasting, I eventually made it to the village to learn the rice wines on offer were infused with local herbs (looked and smelt like Radox bubble bath), honey (actually had pieces and wings of bees in it) or dead snakes (not just dead, but “aged” for three years). Thanks for the offer, but none for me.

I was hoping that water sports might inspire Giles and I to take part in more couples’ activities, not only during our year off but when we get back home. However, if we have the misfortune of kayaking as a pair anytime in the future, it is almost certain that one of us would end up in the water at the hands of the other. As competitive as he his, my version of events is simply that kayaking isn’t Giles’ strength. I didn’t dare get in the water later as if I had been in trouble, I think he would have just sniggered and ignored me and waited for the insurance pay out.

After those beautiful days in Halong Bay, we headed further north and into the mountains of Sapa. The town of Sapa itself doesn’t do the region justice as there seemed to be building sites on every street corner and market stalls selling meats that even I wouldn’t eat (there was a reason I was trying to convince Giles we should adopt every puppy we saw wandering around). But our main reason for visiting here was to attempt some trekking between the small villages that dot the green landscape, so we organised for a local guide to show us the area.

It all started very well, and the scenery was stunning. For lunch, our guide, Kou, invited us to her house which was hosting a local wedding party. Even though it was 11.30am, it was clear when we arrived that party had been going on for some time. The food was a pork-lover’s delight, with crispy belly, liver salad and intestine stir fried with local vegetables. It truly was delicious. Kou explained that the village contributed to the wedding by providing a huge sow hence the variety of pork dishes. At this time, a group of elderly (and somewhat merrily swaying) ladies caught sight of Giles and myself (it wasn’t difficult) and proceeded to get us involved in the local drinking game of “how much rice wine can I get you two to down”. It seems that “only a little” doesn’t translate very well in the Hmong language.

Before things got too out of hand, Kou took us on our way for the rest of our trek. The rice wine must have given me some unfounded Bear Grylls confidence since twenty minutes later I was face down in the dirt with heavily grazed hands and knees and a bruised ego. Whilst the trek then ended slightly ahead of schedule, we had a mightily memorable day.

For the rest of Vietnam, I’ll probably just stick to cooking classes though. Easier to channel my inner Nigella than Bear Grylls.

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