Vietnam (with a visit from the parents) - Mar/Apr 2017

15th March - Back in Vietnam

Back in Vietnam, back in Hanoi. I lived here 10 years ago for a few months and was last here 3 years or so ago. It doesn't seem to have changed much especially the weather. It's foggy, misty, a hint of rain in the air. Maybe 20 degrees and humidity into the 90s. Hope it clears up a bit and I get to see the sun again soon.

16th March - Temple of Literature

I like the Temple of Literature, even in the drizzle. You can feel the history as you enter through the first gate. It was constructed in 1070, first to honor Confucius and then the doctorates and high rank scholars of Vietnam.

There are a total of 82 stones on the turtles' backs with names and origins of 1307 doctors, corresponding to 82 examination courses from 1442 to 1779. The stelae (stones) were erected to honour the doctors to encourage subsequent students; the first stelae was erected in 1484. As well as the names the stelae contain works of literature in ancient Chinese which praise the merits of the King and cite the reasons for holding the Royal exams.

There are five courtyards at the temple, the first two with landscaped gardens, the third is home to a large pond known as the Well of Heavenly Clarity, the fourth courtyard is called the Sage Courtyard and features a statue of Confucius and a house of ceremonies, and the last courtyard is Thai Hoc in which stands a large drum and bell tower.

In the buildings there are many alters to the great and the good. Above is the Altar to Chu Văn An, rector of the imperial academy. Chu Văn An (1292–1370, born Chu An) was a Confucian, teacher, physician and high-ranking mandarin of the Trần Dynasty in Đại Việt.

When I visit the Temple of Literature I like to pop into KOTO for lunch. KOTO (Know One, Teach One) is a not-for-profit restaurant and vocational training program that is changing the lives of street and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam. It is on the tourist trail but worth a visit as it serves up some visually stunning and tasty food.

17th March - A wander as the sun shows its face

As the day went on today the sun started to poke through the clouds; its appearance was greatly welcomed. I'm in South East Asia I should not have to wear covered shoes! For lunch today I met up with Hang a lovely tour guide and now friend I first met on my first visit to Vietnam ten years ago. She asked what I wanted for lunch I said something local, surprise me. So we cut down a side street in the Old Quarter and squatted down on some tiny plastic chairs. The food was delicious. We had noodles with some fried fish and herbs which was good but the accompanying fish filled spring rolls were fantastic. The location of this street kitchen is saved in my MAPS.ME account and I will return.

Next up a walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake the real centre of everything in Hanoi. The lake is a calm oasis in the city or would be if it wasn't for the ever busy road that rings it and the constant beeping of motorbike horns.

There's always stuff going on around the lake whether it be old woman doing aerobics, guy surreptitiously fishing with just a line and a hook or couples getting their wedding photos done. If you've read my previous blogs from Vietnam you'll know that all around Hanoi at any historic sight there will be couples getting their photos done.

There are two images/symbols you see everywhere around Hanoi. The first is the hammer and sickle, more of that in later posts, but the other is Ho Chi Minh, Uncle Ho. He is totally revered in Vietnam as the man who brought independence to Vietnam. I like this huge image which was on the side of a building.

18th March - More wandering around Hanoi

Having said that Hoan Kiem is ringed by an ever busy main road today I wandered into the centre to find the lake truly was an oasis of peace and quiet. It turns out that for the last few months the road around the lake has been closed at weekends and what a difference it makes.

19th March - More wandering around Hanoi

My parents are coming to stay with me on Hanoi, arriving on Wednesday. That will be quite an adventure for them to say the least. Their first time out of Europe and they come to the chaos that is Hanoi. Anyway today I walked a 'city tour' route I plan to take them on when they are here. I wanted to pre-walk it to make sure I knew where the entrance gates to attractions were and find the optimal route minimising the walking. Good job I did as the citadel has changed and it took me some time to find the new entrance.

First up the Army Museum and the Flag Pole Tower. This is less than ten minutes from the apartment and probably my favorite museum in Hanoi. It also has a Highlands Coffee in the grounds which is good for a cooling drink. Yes the sun has come out and the weather is now lovely.

Next up the Ho Chi Minh area. Mausoleum, museum, presidential palace and Uncle Ho's stilt house. I didn't go into any of them as will save that for when I do the walking tour for real. Happened to be changing of the guard time when I walked past which added a bit of something extra to the scene.

This is one of many hammer and sickle around Hanoi and one of the more impressive. The USSR gave Vietnam huge amounts of money, weapons and other support during the war and I assume that most of these symbols went up in the 1970s and 1980s and no one wants to be the person to take them down. The USSR has long since disintegrated but it still lives long here.

Around Hanoi you see quite a few of these pop up barber shops. Chair check, mirror check, a mains supply to tap into for the electric razor check.

22nd March - Around the lake with Mum and Dad

Up very early to walk Mum and Dad from the taxi down the motorbike only side street to the apartment. Dispite Mum's worries about such a long flight all all went well, flying business class definitely helped. Vietnam Airways business class is far cheaper than most so Mum and Dad pushed the boat out for this once in a lifetime trip. After I made it clear to them it was 7am they crashed out for a couple of hours before we headed out.

When in Hanoi the first thing you do is stroll around Hoan Kiem lake. The temperature was lovely the sun thinking about poking its head out a great start to their holiday; much better than the two days of fog I had. But first we had to get to the tranquility of the lake. Time for Mum and Dad to learnt to cross Hanoi roads. There was a bit of nervousness at the start but pretty soon they got the hang of it. Just walk unless there's something really big coming along and keep a constant speed. Whatever you do don't stop.

The lake is always great to wander around. Past the little red bridge to Ngoc Soon Temple. Down the side of the lake past women in their most glamorous dresses having their photos taken, around the bottom end past the floor beds full of brightly coloured flowers. And most importantly back up the other side past ANZ so Mum and Dad can take out some money. After doing the circuit we stopped off for a coffee shop with a view before heading down to the Hanoi Hilton.

Maison Centrale, Hanoi Hilton or Hỏa Lò Prison the name may change but the purpose doesn't. As Wikipedia says "was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. During this later period it was sarcastically known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, though the gatehouse remains as a museum.

What is left of the prison (most of the plot is now covered by Hanoi Towers an up market office block) has been turned into museum. There are rooms with models showing how prisoners lived shackled an lined up 20 or 30 to a room. There are photos and lots of talk of the brave Vietnamese patriots never losing the will for independence and of the comrades plotting their grand plan whilst imprisoned together.

Of course they play up the brutality of the French but lets face they were French so you can believe it and how kind and generous the Vietnamese were to the Americans which is less easy to believe. From what I've read it started out quite harsh but in the final couple of years when the US had already started slowly pulling out of Vietnam conditions improved immensely and prisoners were used as part of the propaganda war.

But whatever the conditions for prisoners on all sides the guillotine still makes a chilling statement.

23rd March - Temple of Literature and Army Museum

Got up late and because most museums close for a couple of hours around lunchtime we had to re-jig our plans. So we headed to the Temple of Literature, that temple of peace and quiet (apart from the school teachers which their megaphones trying to herd their classes full of kids around).

For Mum and Dad its a nice introduction to old Vietnamese architecture and history. The court-yarded design, the neatly laid out gardens and the oriental style buildings. One thing I especially like about to Temple of Lit is that there are quite a few large boards explaining each part and the history as you go around. About the stalae, Confucius, the buildings and the drum and bell towers shown below.

Temple of Literature really is a nice place to spend an hour or so.

After stopping off for an iced drink to wait for the 1pm re-opening time we went into the Army Museum. This traces Vietnams turbulent past fighting off the Chinese many times, the Mongols and latterly the French and Americans. Lots of patriotic displays and lots of military hardware. Some made in Vietnam, much smuggled in from Russia and lots captured from the French and Americans.

The Museum tries to show the relatively simple armoury of the Vietnam people against the more sophisticated weaponry deployed by the French and the Americans. One 'National Monument' is Tank 843 - the tank that famously smashed through the gates of Saigon's Presidential Palace on 30 April 1975 marking the end of the Vietnam War and the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber set amidst other debris.

Inside there is lots to read about the various campaigns and generally how the Vietnamese won. Although the museum stops at 1975. It would be interesting to see how they portray the foray into Cambodia to force out the Kymer Rouge or the incursions into the north by the Chinese. But outside is the more visually impressive with lots of planes, tanks and guns spread around the grounds.

In the evening we went to Ngon Villa Restaurant and it was great. About £10 and you order whatever and as much as you want from the menu. The portions are reduced in size so you can try lots of things. Tonight I had Mum and Dad trying clams, oysters and frog's legs.

24th March - Sapa

After a couple of days in Hanoi is time to take the parents it into the countryside so we headed for Sapa. 7am pickup and a 5 hour or so drive down the new highway and we're checked into the hotel in time for lunch. Getting to Sapa used to involve an overnight train but no more.

We have a minibus and driver for for days and we met or local guide for the weekend once we got to the hotel. Her name is Phin and she is from one of the local hill tribes. She is lovely and her English is great especially at it is self taught from taking to tourists. Sapa is a town but is generally used to describe the whole region which is right up on the hills next to the Chinese border. From Loa Cai the city at the end of the highway and where the overnight train comes in it is a 29km drive up the mountains to 1600m. The hill sides are covered in rice terraces which are all planted, tended and harvested by hand.

From Sapa we drove down towards some of the surrounding villages stopping at a viewpoint before jumping out of the minibus and walking for a few hours through a couple of villages. There are obvious signs of tourism changing the area; hotels, homestays and some cafes but for most people life carries on as it always has. They grow rice and corn, keep pigs, chicken, ducks and a water buffalo and live off the land. Many local women still wear the traditional dress of their tribe or at least parts of it and work long hours bent over in the fields.

As soon as we got out of the minibus a group of local women claimed us and walked with us for well over an hour. They spoke some English and shadowed us as we walked along. After an hour or so we stopped for a drink and did the right thing I think (always hard to know if you're making thing better or worse by buying from them) and bought a few local handicrafts.

The scenery was great. Rice terraces everywhere' every spare piece of land is farmed. Because we are up in the hills the terraces aren't planted yet so they are currently just sitting there filling up with water. In a couple of months the proper rains will come they will fill right up and be filled with the beautiful green rice we saw on the way from Hanoi to Sapa.

We passed a few schools and stopped of at one and walked in as the children were playing in the playground. Imagine doing that at home. Some infants were doing traditional dances, some were playing shuttlecock keppy uppy with a shuttlecock like thing and others doing a reverse tug of East trying to push each other out of the circle by pushing a banjo pole the both held. Others were either cheering for one side or the other or climbing on quite a high climbing frame with solid concrete below. On the whole walk we saw so many things which would give the health and safety man palpitations.

In the evening we walked via a slightly extended route into Sapa centre. On the main there were young children in traditional dress dancing on a stage. On show for the tourists but they seemed to be having a great time. The main street was closed to cars and hill people were selling their wares. After a while their colourful bags and clothes get a bit samey. We stopped of and had a lovely dinner. All the of us ordered hot plates of one sort or another; they were filled with meat and it was delicious. We washed out down with five Tigers between us and it can to £17.50.

We walked back through the night market and looked at their wares. On some stalls there were just very small children serving and in other places the tiny children in their traditional clothes were being photographed by the paying tourists. It really is a toss up whether all of this is good or bad. In one way it feels like we are exploring and intruding on their life treating it like a circus but in other ways tourist being there are bringing money into the area and the money does seem to being shared out fairly well.

25th March - Can Cau Market

Second day in the Northern Vietnamese hills and we wake up to must and light drizzle. After breakfast we jump in the minibus to head three and a half hours east. Down to Loa Cai along the Chinese border for a while and then up into the hills again this time in the Bac Ha area.

As we come down from Saps the rain gets heavier and heavier and as we drove across to the bottom of the road up to Bac Ha it is a tropical downpour. The road becomes a river. This continues for quite some time but as we climb up into the hills it slowly clears and by the time we reach Can Cau market the sun stats to come out right on cue.

Can Cau is a real local market where the people come once a week to buy and sell everything they need. First up we walk through the fruit, veg and meat area. Corn, rice, sugar cane, papaya and lots of fatty meat, mostly pork. It's like meat used to be before it was decided fat was evil. I bet the meat from here is far tastier than we get back home.

Next we came to an open area on the edge of the market where the buffalo were being sold. Dozens of huge water buffalo standing around and buyers and sellers haggling over the price. Phin said the buffalo are bought by both Vietnamese and Chinese for meat and most of the meat ends up in China. Huge amounts of money were changing hands. 20,000,000, 30,000,000 VND or more for one. So price up to and over £1,000.

In an area above this pigs and chicken were being sold. Once sold they were bundle into reed baskets tied to the sides of motorbikes and off they were taken. One bike went away carrying 9 smallish pigs.

The was a large handicrafts area but there were very few tourists so I'm not sure how much they sell. The was some really nice stuff and obviously handmade. On the way back through we stopped off and tried some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. They put a little lime in it which really improved it cutting through the sweetness and it tasted good.

The real draw of the Sapa and Bac Ha areas as well as the hill tribes is the stunning scenery. Tree covered hills and rice terraces cascading down into the valleys. Every workable piece of land is being worked.

After lunch in Bac Ha we headed out to a real local village rather than the ones yesterday which were great but more aimed at tourists. There were chickens and ducks running around everywhere. The families kept pigs and had gardens with vegetables growing in them. We looked inside a couple of houses which were basic especially the kitchen but kept really clean and tidy.

The thing you notice about the people in the area and in Asia in generally is how smart and clean they look. Ten minutes out on the muddy roads and I'm covered in it yet their clothes always look so bright and pristine.

Both houses had huge lots of cooking sweet corn. Phin told us this is how they make corn wine. They boil the corn and then add yeast then distill it. We tried some and it tasted like rice wine, basically neat alcohol. Really good to see proper village life.

26th March - Bac Ha Market

We stayed the night in a home stay. It is the typical 'better class' backpacker home stay. Feels like it is family run and there are wooden barns converted into basic but comfortable rooms. Quite open to the outside air so the thick duvet came in handy. The owner was great and they made the stay a good one. Especially good were the dinner which included sesame chicken, a beef stew and papaya salad and for breakfast pancakes.

Today we went back into Bac Ha to see the famous Bac Ha market. The market takes over the centre of the town and people from all around come to buy and sell whatever they have and whatever they need. We walked through the area where everyone was having breakfast. Noodle soup with meat or offal. Huge cauldrons full of boiling soup into which they dip the noodle for a minute or so then cut up the meat on top and add bean spouts and herbs. Table after table of people hunching over their steaming bowls.

There was all kinds of fruit and veg. Some women were trending well stocked stalls other women were just sat on the floor underneath their umbrellas with just a few herbs to sell. The massive bamboo shoots were particularly impressive.

There was a row of women selling corn wine. There had rows of huge plastic containers and empty drinks bottles of all sizes to decant into. The was a handicraft market selling the same sorts of things as we've seen elsewhere and then area where locals buying their everyday items

There were three areas where livestock were being sold. First up at the top of the market were the water buffalo much the same scene as yesterday. Down below this pigs, chicken ducks and dogs were being sold; yes all to kill to eat. There is a particular breed of dog that is bred for meat on Vietnam and China. A little away from the rest of the market was an area where the horses were being sold. Again they were being sold for meat. In Vietnam they eat the horses and use the buffalo for ploughing and pulling carts. Makes sense as they are far better suited to the wet ground.

The buffalo are so docile you can walk around amongst them and they even move out of your way as you pass.

The dogs for sale.

Beside the horses were a few guys selling fighting cocks. They were showing them off by letting them fight a little before stepping in. One was particularly aggressive it won a 'play' fight with another bird then headed over towards the other birds to pick a fight with them. Owners quickly grabbed hold of their birds to keep them or of his way.

There was so much else we saw but that gives a pretty good flavour of how rough and ready and local the market really is. I haven't mentioned it but as you can see from the photos of was raining all morning which was a pity but better today than when we are walking around the villages.

Before leaving Bac Ha we went to the 'palace'. This is where the French installed Hmong King lived from the 1920's until the French were kicked out. The building had fell into disrepair but had now been partially restored and is being turned into a museum and tourist attraction. The building is impressive especially given its surroundings but the exhibits could do with a little more work.

As you can see it once was a grand building.

From Bac Ha we headed back to Loa Cai as we start our way back to Hanoi. The thing we really wanted to see here is the bridge into China. Everyday hundreds of people cross the bridge on day visas to buy and sell goods. Bikes piled high with stuff were being pushed across. On the Vietnamese side the main produce on offer were children's toys, grapes and some great roasted sweet chestnuts. We were stopped by many Chinese and I think locals to say hello and have their pictures taken with us. Turns out we are superstars in the area!

Soon it was time to head off for lunch, say goodbye to Phin and set off for Hanoi. Phin had been a star. Her English is great, lovely personality and so up beat and wanting to help make our tour as good as possible. Even Dad said that I should give her a good tip which really does show just how good she was.

27th March - Back in Hanoi

After a few days away a lie in and a lazy day today. Wandered into the centre of Hanoi looking in the handicraft shops and then promenade around the lake. Stopped off to buy some fresh pineapple to eat on the way and a vey pleasant late morning.

The one tourist stop today was Ngoc Son Temple; over little red bridge to the island in the lake. It is a pretty little temple with the usual alter, old Chinese looking man statues and boxes of cream crackers and cakes left as offerings. There isn't really much to take you to the island except it is iconic to Hanoi.

On the way back we stopped off at the cafe on the lakeside for a a cup of tea and some cake. Mum got more than she bargained for with her lemon pie, it came covered in a mountain of meringue.

28th March - Ho Chi Minh and West Lake

Time to tick off a few more tourist sights in Hanoi so up a bit earlier than previously to get in before the two hour government sponsored lunch break.

First up One Pillar Pagoda one of the things you think of when you think Hanoi. It isn't as impressive as you imagine it to be but still an interesting sight.

We then walked down past the massive queue for Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. We decided to skip shuffling past his embalmed body.

We did go into the grounds of the old Presidential Palace.

Where amongst other thing we saw Ho Chi Minh's stilt house that he lived in during the sixties. It has been preserved exactly as it was when he lived there. He lived in the traditional stilt house rather than the palace to show he was one of the people. But still being in the palace grounds he had it better than most.

School children lining up for a photo at the back of the mausoleum.

From the Presidential Palace area we walked down to the West Lake. The lake is big and we walked across along the road which splits off the southern corner past the the monument marking the shooting down of John McCain. From Wikipedia: 'On October 26, 1967, during the Vietnam War, US Navy aviator John McCain was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile on a mission against a Hanoi power plant and parachuted wounded into Trúc Bạch Lake, nearly drowning. He was dragged out of the water and beaten by city residents angry at having seen the area laid to waste by previous U.S. attacks. He was later taken away as a prisoner of war. A monument celebrating the downing of "Tchn Sney Ma Can" was erected at the western shore on Thanh Niên Road; McCain saw it on his first journey back to Vietnam in 1985.'

We then went into Tran Quoc Pagoda. This beautiful temple is the oldest in Hanoi originally constructed in the sixth century. A lovely peaceful place to spend some time and great to show Mum and Dad a great example of a Buddhist temple which is still in constant use.

29th March - Halong Bay

On the way we stopped off at the Legend Oyster Farm. A guide talked is through the tips of oysters which produce pearls and then through the process of implanting something to start to pearl off, how long they take to grow the pearls and then how they are removed and graded. Mum had told us not to let her near another jewellery so but hard to avoid this one. 20 minute later a purchase had been made; a nice silver necklace with a single coloured pearl.

One of the highlights of any trip to Hanoi is a day trip or overnighter in Halong Bay, although I think I'd been so many times now I'm getting a bit blasé about it. It's a 4 hour drive from Hanoi up to the harbour, a little hanging around and we take a smaller ferry boat out to our, well frankly 'cruise liner'. We were already on a better class boat but then got upgraded to this boat. It is huge by Halong Bay standards and was only a third occupied so we had plenty of space.

From port you sail out through the more and more limestone stacks which are interspersed with small islands. Unfortunately the weather isn't great and a misty fog is sitting in the bay but the views are still great.

We cruise through the bay for a few hours and have lunch which was good if a little eclectic. They are trying to provide a 5* cruise and the boat although showing its age a little is great with huge rooms and we even has jacuzzis in our bathrooms but as often happens in these countries they don't quite get it right. For instance amongst the 3 meals (+ breakfast) on the boat we got some chewy beef steaks in pepper sauce, some steamed prawns hang over the side of a pineapple with a candle inside (they turned down the lights for that one) and most strange of all an ostrich goulash. What they should've been providing in Halong Bay surrounded by loads of great sea food is local food done very well.

Then it was time for the afternoon activity a choice of kayaking or a tour around a fishing village. I can't see mum in a kayak so fishing village it was. Luckily mum didn't realise this would entail being routed around the bay in a sampan by a little old lady. Mum was a bit unsure early on but enjoyed a ride once we got going. It is lovely to be rowed around the bay. No engine noise just the gentle sleeping of the oars on the water.

We were rowed around for about an hour, it is great being in a small rowing boat as you get closer to the limestone stacks and you can appreciate how big they are. They tower above you and there is greenery clinging on to them wherever it can. The trip took us out to an archway in one of the stacks and we then came back past some fishing villages and got dropped off at a floating pearl shop before being ferried back to our ship.

In the evening another big multi-course meal including prawns, honey chicken and fish in 'passion sauce' which was very tasty. Afterwards we were encouraged to have a go at squid fishing. I'm not sure if anyone ever catches any or this is just a joke played on passengers but we didn't. Then it was time for an early night. It's hard work being on holiday.

30th March - Halong Bay

Up very early for breakfast and then off to an island at 7:45 to climb up to some caves. The limestone islands at full of caves but I had not been to these before. About a 100 steps up which gave a good view of the surrounding islands and then into the caves.

There was a small chamber which led on to a larger one. When we got there is was really busy which spoilt it a bit. But we were among the last group to come down so once the crowds had cleared it was very pleasant and allowed me time to get some nice photos.

You get a little under 24 hours on the boat so we had to get back to harbour for 11:45 for us to get off and the next load to get on, hence the reason for the early start. Soon we were on the minibus and heading back for Hanoi. As we did on the way up and as they have every time I've been to Halong Bay we stopped off at the Production Workshop for Disabled People. This is a way in which Vietnam gives jobs to disabled people and makes them a valued part of society. They make all kinds of very good quality handicrafts from needlework and paintings to huge stone carvings. Always a good stopping off point.

After getting back to Hanoi I logged on to do my full day's work and Mum and Dad had a lazy day taking in all they had seen.

31st March - Rainy Hanoi and the Water Puppets

Our first day of really mucky weather although it cleared up later, thankfully we didn't have a lot planned for today. Thunderstorms and heavy rain in the morning, but come 11am or so it was easing slightly so we headed out. Just down to the lake (and ANZ for more money) before stopping for tea and coffee in the cafe on the lake again.

By the time we'd finished the rain had pretty much stopped so time for a wander through the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is definitely changing with less and less local shops and and more and more bars, restaurants, hotels and travel agents opening. Glad I saw it 10 years ago. We stopped off at some galleries and i one found a couple fo great paintings which really captured the essence of the old Hanoi but were too big. The artist in the shop paints his own pictures so we ordered two which look like the ones we wanted but in a smaller size. I pick them up next week I hope they look as good as I expect.

In the evening we headed out to the water puppets but whilst we were waiting around by the lake Mum and Dad were approached by a couple of students who wanted to talk to them to practice their English. We had twenty minutes to waste so started talking to them. Within ten minutes we had ten or twelve of them around us. There all went to the same English club and were out to talk to tourists. Their English varied in standard but they were all so enthusiastic, one guy especially kept getting tongue tied but keep trying to carry on to the amusement of the others. I love going down to the lake when I have some free time, I'm usually approached for a chat and it is always fun. University students over here have to pass an English module no matter what subject they study so any practice they can get from talking to a native English speaker is invaluable.

Despite having spent maybe three months on Hanoi in total I had never been to the Water Puppet Show which is one of the top things to do in Hanoi so tonight I put that right. I had no idea what to expect. Turns out there is a live band/orchestra playing traditional music whilst the puppets act out short scenes in the water. The water is about two feet deep and the puppeteers stand behind the a curtain and control the puppets on stick which go out into the water. I thought it was all quite fun and definitely not something you would ever see anywhere else. Apparently the tradition started many, many years ago in the flooded paddy fields as a form of local entertainment.

Afterwards we walked back through the Old Quarter and we had to stop off at Bia Hoi corner although not much bia hoi on sale these days. We squat down on small chairs on the pavement and had a beer and some snacks, had to be done.

We then walked back via the weekend night market to have some more of the great BBQed meat we had last week and headed home.

1st April - Cúc Phương and Tràng An

Mum and Dad's last weekend in Hanoi and we head down to the Nihn Bihn area for a couple of days. The whole area is a sort of inland Halong Bay dominated by limestone cliffs. But first up Cuc Phuong National Park. Cuc Phuong was Vietnam's first national park and is the country's largest nature reserve. Our first stop was for the Cave of the Prehistoric Man. The Cave of Prehistoric man is the site of the one of the earliest discoveries of human habitation in Vietnam. dating back 7,500 years ago. To get to the cave you first walk through some lovely rain forest, so green and every possible bit of sunlight is claimed by one plant or another. From the end of the path is quite a steep set of stone steps (some more defined than others). On the way up Mum kept saying I'll never get back down again. At the entrance to the cave the floor is covered in sea shells so when people lived here this must've been near sea level.

The caves themselves were surprisingly good. We were the only ones up there and the first chamber is quite big but you can then walk through into further chambers which go back into the mountain. We were thankful for the torches on our phones. You can imagine a large number of people living here. It was then time to head back down. With a helping hand Mum made it down no problem at all, another experience to add to the list.

After lunch we stopped off at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. The below comes from their website

Of the 25 primate species found in Vietnam, 7 are critically endangered and 9 are endangered. Many of these rare primates are kept only at the EPRC. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center is a not for profit project dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, breeding, research and conservation of Vietnams endangered and critically endangered primate species. First established in 1993, through a collaboration between Frankfurt Zoological Society and Cuc Phuong National Park, the center is presently managed under the umbrella of the Vietnam Primate Conservation Program, jointly operated by Zoo Leipzig and Cuc Phuong National Park. More than 180 animals have been born at the center, some being the first of their species to be born in captivity, including the critically endangered Cat Ba langur, Delacours langur and the Grey shanked douc langur.

Today the center is home to around 180 primates representing 15 species. The primates are housed in more than 50 large enclosures including two fenced semi wild areas of primary forest, measuring 2 and 5 hectares in size. These enclosures serve to prepare animals for release into the wild and provide opportunities to study the behavior of animals in semi wild conditions.

We then left the national park to head towards Ninh Binh. Hoa Lư in this area was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries. All that remains now are two temples built to two of the kings who ruled here. Hang told us the story of the kings who reigned from here and explained why the temple to one is really lavish and ornate and the other more plain. The story sounded like a real old soap opera.

The main reason for coming to Ninh Binh is to take boat rides in amongst the rice fields and limestone karsts. My favorite of these is the boat ride at Trang An. Mum isn't too keen on being in the water and isn't too keen on going into caves so this trip is ideal for her ;-)

The boat trip last about ninety minutes with the little old lady paddling away behind us. We head up quite a wide river which gets narrower after a while. On either side of us are reeds and tall limestone cliffs. We then approach what looks like a dead end except for a small cave. When we get closer you can see it is just high enough to get through without ducking.

The caves can go on for about 120m but there is always light at the end of the tunnel. When you emerge from each tunnel the scenery of slightly different. There are about 30 valleys and 50 caves in the area and some of the areas of water feel like lakes except for the caves in and out.

The boat takes a loop which means you don't have to double back so we really did get ninety minutes of varying scenery. Mum admitted when we got off it really was a good ride and well worth doing.

Tonight we are staying in the Ninh Binh Valley Homestay. This is line of bamboo ensuite rooms stretching around a lagoon. It's a beautiful spot and being at the end of the valley really peaceful. The rooms are very comfortable and it would make a great place to stay for a few nights and chill out. Pity we only have time for the one night.

2nd April - Tam Cốc

Up early for breakfast and to enjoy the surroundings before we head to nearby Tam Coc for another boat ride before heading home. Tam Coc means literally "three caves" and consists of three natural caves — Hang Cả, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba — on the Ngô Đồng River. We were taken in small boats (only two to a boat today) along the river from the village of Van Lam, through rice fields and limestone karsts and through the caves, today is an out and back ride. We had one women and one man who looked like a real character.

The caves today were much bigger so definitely no ducking required. It was great that we go three before the day trippers from Hanoi arrived. On the way out it was quite peaceful but on the way back there were many boats heading past us on the outward leg.

The scenery is great and instead of reeds the sides of the river are rice paddies with their bright green colour shining in the sun which broke through the haze more and more as the ride went on.

This weekend we were 'guided' by my friend Hang. We first met ten and a half years ago when I first came to Vietnam and have stayed in touch ever since. Great to spend time with her and I hope guiding us was also a nice break for her from some of the problem groups she sometimes has. On this trip I become her photographer taking lots of pictures for her to keep.

The locals paddling the boat use their feet most of the time which is a real feat :-)

Hang snuggled up in her life jacket as she thought it was cold. I was in shorts and tee-shirt and thought the temperature was perfect.

One last cave and we headed back to the dock and Mum doesn't have to set foot in a boat again.

Having done so much yesterday and getting up early to beat the crowds today we headed back to Hanoi fairly early making it back in time for lunch. Hang ordered in food from her favorite bun cha shop which was delicious and surprisingly spicy and then we headed out to the Museum of Ethnology.

The museum was a nice way to spend the afternoon, quite peaceful and lovely to walk around on a warm afternoon. The museum itself covers the 54 different minority tribes still found in Vietnam many of which live up in the hills. 84% of Vietnamese are Viet but the rest come from tribes descended out of Chinese, Thai, Loa, Indonesian and various other peoples. The museum covers each of the 54 showing their dress, ceremonies and other things particular to each one.

The best part of the museum are the gardens around the back of the main building. Here they have recreated traditional houses in ethnic minorities. The houses have been built in the styles of the minority tribes and there are many videos showing how they actually built them. The most impressive is the Banhar communal house with its infeasibly high roof and creaking bamboo floor is amazing especially considering that in it and the other houses hardly a single nail has been used. Another interesting sight is the replica of a Giarai tomb surrounded by wooden carvings of fertility symbols particularly pregnant women and very well-endowed men.

3rd April - Women's Museum and KOTO

Mum and Dad's last day in Vietnam, so a bit of a lie in which was disturbed by very loud workmen in the flat above starting work at 8:30 and then out for a final wander. I decided to take them to the Women's Museum as I'd read good thing about it. Although the museum is about the women's role in Vietnamese life it basically covers life here in general because women (especially during and subsequently because of the wars) muck in a work pretty much as men do.

The different floors of the museum have different focuses. Women in Family, Women in History, Women’s Fashion (largely focusing on the hill tribes. There are areas on women's roles during the war where they were basically fighting alongside men, keeping supply lines open and working in the rice fields to keep the country fed. It's a very good museum and well worth a visit.

After a bit of a break it was time for one final meal and I'd saved a good one until last. KOTO (Know One Teach One) is a training centre in hospitality giving at-risk and disadvantaged youth the possibility to learn and thrive in their lives. Their purpose is to end the cycle of poverty by empowering and helping targeted youth to forge a better future for themselves and their communities.

The food is delicious and all of our dishes were cooked perfectly and really well presented. Great food, good price and all in a good cause.


And that was that. Back to the apartment to pack and at 9:30pm I walked Mum and Dad out and popped them into the taxi to the airport. It has been a great couple of weeks. I took a few days off work which allowed me to be a tourist and was great to show Mum and Dad so many things so they can see the sorts of things I do when I go off on my travels. Now I have to start working on them to get them to go somewhere again next year.

4th - 13th April - In and around Hanoi

After the parents left I had another week and a bit in Hanoi to recover :-) The weather got very hot up to 36 degrees with the forecast sites saying it felt like 49 degrees due to the high humidity. Mum and Dad were really lucky during their two weeks. So I did some walking, took some photos, had food of varying quality and heard a lot of horns being beeped. Back to the food. I see so many blogs that rave about Vietnamese food but I just don't see it. There is some very good, Ngon Villa for instance is fantastic but the average is quite low. In Bangkok or Thailand in general I can sit down at any food stall and be confident I'll get some great, tasty food. In Vietnam it might be good but often it will be bland and very ordinary.

I've enjoyed my time in Vietnam especially when the parent were here and I could be a tourist, but I am glad to leave. A month in Hanoi is more than enough. The motorbike horns (and riders) are driving me mad. The city really has a motorbike problem and nothing will change until they stop people parking wherever they want. Why take public transport when the bike really is door to door and who cares if you're blocking pavements or one lane of traffic as long as you don't have to walk at all. It sums up a general selfishness I see especially in Hanoi. Not quite as bad as China but the general attitude is very much in that direction. Part of the reason for spending this winter in South East Asia is to decide where I could spend extended periods in the future. Singapore possibly, but it would require a very good job offer. KL at a push but I thought it lacked excitement, Bangkok I really like. Hanoi ... no.

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