Vietnam might be the most gentle introduction to SE Asia. The food is good, generally not as spicy as its counterparts, and the French influence means if you’re on the street you don't have to launch straight into intestines, or scorpions on a stick – how about a nice pate-filled fresh baguette instead? The standard of hospitality is high, with accommodation a bit pricier than Thailand, but worth it (the going rate is around 10 dollars a night, although on Cat Ba island in Halong Bay we paid as little as 5). Flush toilets, hot water and even baths are common (wow, how do I do this again?)
The middle of the country is pretty flat from what we saw, with scenery not quite as interesting as Laos or Thailand, but in contrast Halong Bay and Sapa up north are absolutely incredible visually. Hoi An, which is around the middle and only a handful of kilometres from a long, beachy coast, is an indescribably, impossibly beautiful town by a river and we totally fell in love with the place. Terrific food (rice flour pancakes, barbecued pork, white lotus dumplings), unbelievably cheap "bia hoi" (fresh beer) at 25 cents a glass (also good, and even cheaper, in Hanoi old quarter), lovely people, great architecture and a very pleasant setting. Ambling around the old town at night is just divine, so pretty with red lanterns in the shops and streetlights reflecting off the water and the haunting sound of dan bau (the Viet whammy bar thingy, also known as a monochord zither). And if you are into art and clothes you are set for life.
Hanoi’s great too, but we met many people who were put off by the traffic. The cosmopolitan and convivial "bia corner" was more than enough of a draw for me and the streets of the old quarter are great to wander through, even if packed.
And the people. We are not sure whether we have just been lucky in Vietnam, or things have simply come together for us after 5 months in SE Asia; or the people actually are more friendly (or perhaps "engaging" is a better word) there than the other places we’ve been. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they have been LOVELY all over SE Asia. But you do notice that locals are a bit more reserved in Laos and (particularly rural) Thailand – perhaps due to a lesser grasp of English and, well, "face-saving" – and (I thought) occasionally curt in Thai towns and cities. We found Cambodia more interactive generally, with people in towns and cities much more likely to engage with you, albeit often in order to sell you something. But even more so in Vietnam, where we were positively blessed with gifts, home invites and just lovely interactions, all over the place. And it wasn't all about university students practising English. On Cat Ba we were invited onto a boat full of construction workers who were delighted to offer us tea and share a few laughs, even if we could not speak each other’s language.
It was interesting because a couple of travellers we had previously met had had "bad" experiences with locals in Vietnam, a Finnish guy who was refused something because he was thought to be American for example. We had quite the opposite kind of experience.
On Cam Kim island, Hoi An, having just had tea at a local’s newly built house, we unknowingly walked into a funeral because of the beautiful traditional music being played. An English teacher, a relative of the deceased (who had passed at 6 that morning) explained the situation and we felt terrible, but the attendants welcomed us and insisted we drink tea and rice wine with them. Now we know that the white scarves round the head mark the close relatives of the dead at a funeral. We paid our respects by saying a prayer with incense and giving a little money to the family and went on our way, still not completely comfortable with the imposition, but certainly having been made to feel very welcome.
In Halong, we stayed on Cat Ba island, which seems under-rated. The national park is stunning, and when you finish the 15km walk you take a boat through some amazing fjords, which are reminiscent of lochs in Scotland. This was better than the actual trip through Halong Bay, as there were hardly any other tour boats around, unlike the Bay itself where you can’t move for them. Cat Ba is quite a big island, so it is well worth taking a bike for a couple of days and exploring the cliff roads, beaches, valleys and caves. The seafront area of Cat Ba town can be a bit off-putting, with overblown skyscraper hotels and a huge "Welcome to Cat Ba" sign making a bow over the pier, but there are real local communities here, only a short walk away. And Cat Ba is the home of the entire population (60-70) of golden haired langur monkeys, which look pretty cute in pictures (we didn’t see any).
We finished up in Sapa, the mountainous region up north. How beautiful, with the clouds lying in the bottom of the valley and stepped terrace rice fields rising up the steep mountain sides. Pretty town, great food markets. Perhaps a little over-zealous hill-tribe street sellers, quite prepared to follow you all around town, all day long, but we'll let that pass. Bl**dy cold place when the sun's not out though! Fortunately our room had a fireplace, as well as the incredible view.
In Sapa, we took the opportunity to climb the highest mountain in Indochina, Fan Si Pan (3,143m). Proved to be nearly as much of a challenge as Mt Kenya, with very little sleep in a barn equipped with the obligatory banging door and absolutely howling winds outside. Dinner with the guides was great, with lots of the local tipple, corn wine, consumed for heating purposes (yes, I know that's a fallacy but it feels good at the time). Got up at 4am to do the summit, having literally just fallen asleep. Icy cold, thick cloud and no battery left in our torch (when you're that tired, you make bad decisions, like not bringing enough batteries). Some fairly serious scrambling over steep rocks, particularly in the dark, but our guide's phone torch was a help and far more reliable in the circumstances than our expensive army torch. But we did it. And even though we couldn't see an awful lot at the top because of the cloud, the scenery is beautiful. The starting point of the walk is managed parkland, with some lovely flowers. Then you quickly move into temperate forest with some sub-tropical elements (hark at me - ok, I looked that up). Then it opens up with less tree cover but still some nice flowerage, then you get a zone dominated by just one leafy green plant and then above that you just get masses of quite thin stemmed bamboo, right up to the top. Phew.
So, a tough rewarding finish to Vietnam. Actually, not quite - fortunately we were treated to a lovely dinner back in Hanoi by our friends Alex and Nigel, who were on their own tour of the country. Thanks guys, great to see you, needed that!