It struck me as a little odd that, when Hanoi was the most popular destination of this train, it was timed to arrive there at the unsociable hour of 04:10. Even for Vietnam where everyone is early to bed and early to rise, this seemed like it wasn't the best time.
I certainly didn't want to have to pay for accommodation for the rest of this night after I reached my hostel, so I had expected to have to sit in their reception until six O'clock or so to wait for them to be able to check me in for the following night. In the event, I found a different way to kill time. I thought our train arrived from the opposite direction to that which it did which meant that I had my east and my west completely the wrong way around. The upshot of this was that I spent a full hour walking the streets at night with no idea why I couldn't find any of the street signs on my map. When I did realise, it took me a further half hour to walk all the way back across town to where I really wanted to be.
The hostel was a pretty good Australian establishment with free basic breakfast. Better still were the gorgeous banana pancakes that they would cook up for you for an extra one pound fifty. It was permanently jam-packed with travellers, so much so that they had been able to open two more buildings a few yards away to add to their capacity. South-East Asia is much more on the backpackers trail than China had been, or indeed anywhere else I have gone through yet. The downside of this is that many of them are here for an adventure holiday or a massive party. These people are much less interested in seeing the actual country or culture that they find themselves in the middle of, even though they will assure you that that is precisely what they do want to see.
I hung around the kitchen for several hours until other guests had checked out, freeing up a bed for me. To be honest, by the time I'd rested in bed for a couple of hours, I didn't do much with the rest of the day. When I had made some plans by night time, reception had closed so they couldn't tell me how to get to where I wanted to go to the next day.
Where I wanted to go to was The Perfume Pagoda, a site with some temples on a forested hillside 70km south of the city. I got up at half-six the next morning to be able to ask them when and where the buses were, but it turned out that they were at 5am. The other option was to pay for a guided tour, but I didn't really want to do that. Everything in Vietnam seems to be built around guided tours. Personally, I don't enjoy being herded around like a sheep and don't see what value the tour company is adding to the experience if I am willing to buy a ticket for a public bus etc myself.
Instead I went off to find a bookshop where I could buy a Lonely Planet. I had already bought a copy for Vietnam when I was in Laos, but it turned out to be one of the pirated photocopy versions. This made many of the maps unreadable and had many missing pages. Every shop I went to however proved no good until I finally pitched up at a second-hand bookshop run by an English guy. Not only did they have a book for me, they were even willing to take my photocopy version by way of part exchange.
The next day, I set my alarm for four O'clock and was dressed and out ten minutes later. I might have felt guilty for waking the other people in my dormitory with my alarm, but after the racket some of them had made when they came to bed drunk at 1am the night before, it wasn't really a priority for me. One guy needed a torch to be able to undo his own shoelaces - a torch he shone into my face throughout the whole exercise. The guy in the bunk above me spent twenty minutes stumbling around, banging around with the locker underneath my bed and generally doing the sort of little jobs you can't do in a shared room that late at night. When they were finally all done and all snoring loudly in bed, I had to get up to close the door they had left wide open. After that I went downstairs to try and find some quiet in the communal living room area
Anyway, this next morning I was hurriedly walking south towards a bus station. I got there just a few minutes before five, but they told me that I needed to got to a different bus station that was so small it wasn't on my map. I found this, as much by accident as skill, fifteen minutes later but by then the bus had gone. This was essentially all my own fault as I had known that it wasn't necessarily the right station and hadn't bothered to check it out the day before. I sat on the step outside their office for a few hours though and, when they opened at eight, was able to buy a ticket for the following day. I then went back to the hostel to do not much whilst many around me were dressing up for a long day and night of beer to celebrate the contrived nonsense that is St. Patricks Day. I also overheard the stoner from the bunk above me as he sat in the bar lecturing some other drunk with exaggerated seriousness about the dangers of buying drugs in foreign countries without showing due care.
Up again at four the next morning, I got to my bus on time. There don't seem to be major highways heading in any direction out of Hanoi, so we bobbed along for an hour and a half until arriving at a bus depot in some small town. Motorbike taxis and taxi vans swamped all of the buses that pulled up. I figured that I didn't need their services so I just worked out which direction they were heading in and followed the flow. It was only fifteen minutes walk.
So, by seven O'clock, I arrived at the river were four thousand rust-coloured iron rowing boats sat in the water. There were swarms of tourists but most or all of them were part of organised tour groups. I tried to join some of them in a boat and was actively invited by a few people in one group to join them, but the boat organisers always refused me. They did consistently try to sell me a seat in a boat to myself (plus one of the women who row all these things), but the price of this was 2-300,000d when I knew the standard price was much less.
Local authorities have apparently decided to clamp down on unfair pricing by setting the standard prices as 25,000d for a boat to the foot of the hill and 30,000 for entry. Unfortunately, the people who run the boats have arranged that only people with organised tour groups can get on a boat (unless I wanted my private charter). And, of course, there's no limit on what a private tour company can charge for their tour services.
I had spent a couple of very frustrating hours getting nowhere when a local lady came over to talk to me. Initially, I thought she was going to try to sell me something, as dozens of people passing by were, but she was actually incredibly helpful. She explained that foreigners were not allowed in the same boat at Vietnamese so my only chance was to wait until some tour groups of foreigners turned up and then try to join their boat. Furthermore, she volunteered to make the request to the Vietnamese tour guide on my behalf when this happened.
Sure enough, an hour later a pair of Swedes arrived and everyone was happy to have me aboard (figuratively and literally). I paid the bare minimum. I felt a bit guilty when I learnt that they had paid "considerably more" than that for their tour, but they insisted that they were just happy to be able to help someone.
Looking back now, I really cannot remember the name of the younger Swede, but I do recall that he had been living in Hanoi for a few months as a house-husband looking after his two children while his wife works at the Swedish embassy. The elder gentleman was Wilfred, his father, who was visiting the family for two weeks on what was actually his first trip outside of Europe.
Boat is the only way of reaching the base of the hills upon which the temples are situated. By tradition, all of the boats are rowed by women, even if we did see a handful of exceptions. There were many boats making the trip along the gentle river, although we were told that it was actually a lot busier in high season. Some of the other boats were local fishing vessels. Some of these were using simple whicker traps to catch the fish. Others used two long bamboo rods which had wires through their centre which were hooked up to a large battery of the size you might find in a car. The trick here is to insert the rods into the water near some fish and attempt to electrocute them. If this doesn't sound like a bad enough idea already, may I remind you that these boats are all made from plain iron.
Arriving at the far end we walked to the entrance and went inside. You can reach the top either by cable car or walking the steps. Naturally, I wanted to walk and, naturally, the Swedes included an old man so they wanted to ride. So, we went our separate ways and agreed to meet by the boat later.
The stepped walkway was entirely flanked by stalls selling snacks or souvenirs for the whole four kilometre distance. It was also covered on the top to protect from the rain. Therefore, there was little chance of seeing any kind of view at any point. On rare occasions, I did try to squeeze between two stalls to take a glimpse of the scenery. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese attitude towards litter was worse here than anywhere else I had seen. I can only assume that there is no litter collection from the stalls and so, for many years, they have simply been flinging their rubbish bags out from the back, leaving them to cover the slopes in a collage of rotting refuse and brightly-coloured plastic bags.
Reaching the top, having stopped at a couple of slightly underwhelming temples on the way, I arrived at a giant cave with altars in. Broadly it was impressive, although full of people. There was one place where the Vietnamese tourists flocked to hold small-denomination banknotes under the water dripping from the ceiling, and then stick them to a rock or altar. It seemed very apposite for me, in this most capitalist of societies, that money should form such a central part of the holy experience.
Having seen nothing on the way up, I decided to take the cable car back down, for no better reason than that it might provide a good view, which indeed it did. From the base, with an hour to kill, I followed signs away from the main path to anther temple. It was fifteen minutes walk up and down further steps but well worth the effort. Partly because some of it was inside an atmospheric cave on two levels, partly because I didn't see another tourist whilst I was there so it retained a little of its own charm. One of the women working there even gave me an orange which had been donated to the altar.
Back at the boat I ate a bread roll shaped like a crab, of which there were many on sale from the nearby stalls. The boat women, who were lying around waiting for their passengers to return, enjoyed my crab impression using the bread and my own grabbing hands, but there was no way of continuing the conversation beyond that so I lay down and waited for Wilfred & Son to return with their guide.
As we rode back, they allowed me to have a go rowing the boat. The style here is rather odd. Instead of facing backwards whilst pulling the oars through the water, they face the direction the boat is going and push the oars. It looked very awkward to us but I can't really use this as an excuse as I have rowed conventionally before and did no better.
As soon as I took over, the boat slowed to a near halt and began to veer randomly into the path of several other boats heading in the same direction. The professional oarswoman had to intervene several times to avert disaster. I stated afterwards that I hadn't gone anywhere, but the Swedes seemed to think that I had rowed a great distance, just all around in circles. Other boats were all shouting over "Hello", in a manner that suggested that it was the only word they knew from the sentence "Hello you great idiot who is making us laugh so much with your hopeless boat skills". After ten minutes, I slunk back to my seat and real progress recommenced.
Christopher, I think his name might have been Christopher!
Anyway, Christopher and I chatted on the way back about Vietnamese society. The harassment that all people, particularly westerners, receive from motorbike-taxi riders is very obvious for new visitors. He reckoned that, as an over-crowded country where people live on top of each other, there is no real concept of personal space or that you might be walking down the street, as he put it, "alone with your own thoughts, composing poetry". Therefore, it is not seen as so rude here to constantly interrupt someone to try to sell them a ride on your bike or a room in your hotel.
Also, it is an undeniably rude society. Taken on face value, this is a bad thing. But, to look at the flip side, it just means that things that are rude to us are not rude to them. Furthermore, money and the pursuit of it is not seen as anything to be ashamed of. He told me a story of how he asked the cook at his home to prepare an evening meal for some guests. When he asked if she would prefer to be paid extra for this work or to have the time off in lieu, she quickly asked for the money. "If it had been me, I might have asked for the money also" he told me, "But I would have tried to say a little excuse about why.". Possibly this story tells us as much about Europeans or Swedes as it does Vietnamese.
Back on the dock we gave our rower the tip that they apparently all expect and went our separate ways. I walked back to the bus yard an hour before the bus was due. Lying on a rickety bench trying to get some shut-eye, I attracted the attention of some children from the neighbouring school. They shouted English phrases at me and started to throw things while I dozed, to try to get my attention. One the one hand, this kind of disrespect would never have happened from children in China, Laos, Korea etc. On the other hand, before I start to get all high and mighty, if this had been the UK I would have been grateful that they didn't rob me, set fire to me or both.
Back at the hostel, this was thankfully the last night of the stoner in the bunk above. He still had time for some last-minute chaos though. When I came to bed he was already sound asleep but managed to lock the overhanging corner of my duvet inside his locker door. And, when he departed in the morning he left a two-litre bottle of water on its side on his mattress without securing the lid properly. The first I realised of this was when I awoke to a drip-drip-drip onto the pillow beside my head. His mattress itself was soaked through.
I've seen dozens of temples during my travels but the next day I went off to see another; The Temple of Literature. It was pretty nice actually in some scenicly laid-out grounds. Not a lot more to report than that really. It was around this time that I had dinner at a cheap 'Italian' restaurant. I ordered the lasagne and received some vegetables in a curry cream sauce topped with cheese. It was as revolting as it sounds. When I mentioned to the waitress that this wasn't lasagne, she said it had everything that lasagne should have: vegetables, sauce and cheese. I suggested that pasta was a key ingredient also, but she replied that "We don't put pasta in ours because of the curry spice". Logically fine, but it's not lasagne then, is it?
Late that night, as I sat in the hostel reception using the internet, an American walked in shouting profanities with furious anger to no one in particular. He kicked a few things around until the night duty guy tentatively asked him to stop. I'm not sure what had got him so worked up, but he then went and sat down to use the internet, getting up every now and again to scream the f-word a few more times whilst punching the wall as hard as he could. Fifteen minutes later, still angry, he went outside and punched the wrought-iron gate. Hilariously, he accidentally caught the bit of the latch the sticks out and hurt his hand badly, with blood gushing all over the floor that had to be mopped up. How I laughed as he was walked off to the nearest hospital for treatment. I overheard him at reception the next morning asking where the nearest police station was, so I'm guessing that he'd had something important stolen.
Hoa Lo is an infamous prison which was first used by the French in the late nineteenth century to hold Vietnamese who had been supporting the struggle for independence. It came to later notoriety when the north Vietnamese used it to hold American prisoners during the Vietman war, including John McCain. In both cases, conditions for prisoners was both cruel and desperate, with the Americans giving it the ironic nickname of the Hanoi Hilton. Nowadays, most of it has been knocked down to make way for a luxury hotel but a small section remains, serving as a museum of its past.
The era of French control is dealt with first. At the risk of believing everything I hear, I assume the stories of the treatment of the inmates are true. They do lay on the aura of heroic struggle just a little bit thickly, but wouldn't anyone? Next up is the period when US soldiers were held, whereupon you suddenly start learning a whole new version of history. Not only are the conditions made out to look more like a luxury hotel than the ghastly lock-up we know it as, they even say that the Americans gave it the Hanoi Hilton nickname because they seriously liked the place so much! A TV in one corner was showing a documentary on the subject. I didn't understand what was being said but when I read the subtitles stating that "Most Americans who were kept at Hoa Lo were so impressed by their treatment that they converted to Communism", I started to laugh out loud and had to leave the room when all the Vietnamese tourists turned and stared at me.
Elsewhere, there were heavy doses of coverage of the protests which took place in America at the time demanding an end to the conflict and a withdrawal of US troops. All of which is true, of course, except that here they tell people that it was because the protesters wanted to show their support for the Communist government.
In the evening, I had managed to bag a ticket for the Water Puppet theatre. In place of a stage was a pool which the audience looks down upon. Puppets appear through a curtain at the back, operated by poles under the water held by puppeteers standing behind the curtain. All of this is accompanied by traditional singing and music from a band seated by the side. I didn't really understand what was going on except one section which told a local myth of a king's sword being reclaimed by a giant turtle in the city lake, much like the Arthurian legends from England. It was all bright and colourful though and some of the puppetry was endearingly ingenious. The only bad point was the horde of tourist cameras held up and flashing away throughout and the guy sitting next to me who seemed to think we'd all come to listen to him chat to his family.
The next day I went to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Communist north during the Vietnam war. Unlike Stalin and certainly Mao, Ho's idealistic credentials were essentially genuine. His body is now preserved for public viewing. Lenin is preserved in the same way in Moscow but I hadn't gone when I was there because the queues were too long. Mao is preserved in Beijing, but this time I had declined to go as I felt that visiting would be to lend my implicit support to him. But visiting Uncle Ho didn't seem a problem to me on either count.
You have to get there fairly early as last admissions are at 10:15. I think this is because old corpses like this need to be kept very cold and long periods of display, let alone in the hot middle of the day, would lead to it decomposing. I went with Eva, a girl from my room at the hostel. We needed to use motorbike-taxis to get there in time. This concept stuck in my throat rather but we had no other choice and we picked a couple who weren't hassling us, which was OK by me. Their initial price was 20,000d each, which I knew to be at least twice the normal rate, but a fair opening bargaining position I guess. Before I could make a counter-offer though, Eva told them we would pay one US dollar each (about 17,500). A terrible price! But, she seemed rather pleased with her haggling success so what could I do?
Arriving, we bought tickets, checked our bags in at the cloakroom and joined the queue. It was very long but reasonably fast moving so it wasn't too much time until before we were ascending the stone steps and filing inside. Eva seemed quite excited; "An hour ago I didn't even know this place existed and now here I am!" she whispered.
The big question with these bodies on display is whether they are real or not. Having seen this one, my initial reaction is that it has to be real because no waxwork would ever look so unrealistic. I think that it has probably had so much work done to it over the years that there is as much additives as person in there.
Thereafter I went to the Jade Hill Temple, across the famous red bridge on Ho Hoan Kiem lake. Then, after eating, I found somewhere to watch Everton lose 2-1 at Portsmouth. After that I bade farewell to Hanoi's enchanting French architecture and headed out to Halong Bay the next morning. I couldn't find the bus station but a bus waved me down. The woman running it held up one finger and five fingers on her hands to indicate that the price was 60,000d. I misunderstood and asked if she was saying it was "fifteen thousand". She mis-heard me and thought I was asking to pay "fifty thousand", to which she agreed. So, without meaning to, I had negotiated myself a discount!