North of the Nam: “Where you from?”

Vietnam was the country I’d been most excited about travelling through. I was to spend six weeks travelling from north to south, starting in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City. With hindsight I can tell you that the country provided a lot of the best experiences of my trip, but definitely also served up my worst. Ultimately it was an incredible insight into an intriguing country and culture that tested me time and time again.

And the trip there was something of a baptism of fire. I am going to call it…

A journey crafted by satan himself

I was lying on the floor of a bus being alternately spooned and kicked by a barefoot Vietnamese farmer, who himself was squeezed against another Vietnamese farmer who was violently elbowing and shouting at him. For the first four hours of the bus ride this had perturbed me a lot, but the remaining 20 hours had subdued me into a sort of learned helplessness. I was in the midst of a 30 hour journey from Luang Prabang in Laos to Hanoi in the north of Vietnam: an experience which is now a strong contender for the worst 30 hours of my life. I subsisted on a small bottle of water and a tiny ambiguous fruit gifted to me by the nice lady in front. Toilet breaks were rare and confusing, many being in roadside bushes at night, and at the time dehydrating myself seemed like a sensible option. Every time I checked the clock, convinced an hour had gone by, it would be just five minutes later, and my reading attempts failed due to lack of the arm space required to turn the page. I fully believed it would never end. Questions to the shouty bus conductor – such as why we were nowhere near Hanoi six hours after the bus was meant to have arrived there – resulted in little more than a laughing fit from him, so I just shut up and decided to see where I’d end up. I still don’t really know where I ended up.

After 24 hours of this hell the conductor shouted at me in a way that seemed to mean “GET OFF THE BUS”, but we definitely weren’t in Hanoi, so I was understandably reluctant to, especially since he wasn’t kicking anyone else off. However when he unloaded my backpack from the luggage hold I decided I’d better do as I had – sort of – been told. “Get on next bus” he instructed me before hopping back on the Hellmobile and driving off, leaving me stranded on a dark, anonymous street at approximately midnight.

I knew I was in Vietnam thanks to the fact we had passed the very loud and confusing border crossing some hours earlier, but that was pretty much my only info, so I decided I’d better wait for this mysterious next bus, which trundled my way around 20 minutes later. Adding to my confusion was the fact that this bus was very much just a public bus, rather than a coach like I’d been on earlier, but the driver seemed to want me to get on so I did. “Hanoi?” I asked. He did a high-pitched giggle and a sort of vague nodding motion. I spent the next four hours watching the K-pop videos playing on the bus TV on loop, edging away from the cage of chickens squawking behind me and wondering if I would ever get to Hanoi.

Hanoi

We pulled into Hanoi around 4am, and the only taxis available seemed to be motorbike ones, which would have been even more of a deathtrap with all my luggage strapped to my back. I went to a nearby phone shop which was inexplicably open, and the nice man hailed me a taxi. My relief at being on the final leg of my journey was short-lived, however, when two policemen dressed in military gear pulled the sweltering taxi over, got in and yelled at the driver for a straight 40 mins. He eventually gave them some money and they left us. The driver then dropped me off in Hanoi’s old town, about a 15 minute walk from my hostel with all my bags (30kg total) and a dead phone, meaning my only navigational option was to ask people for directions at every corner.

When I arrived I bought a Diet Coke and some strange-flavoured crisps and sat on the hostel’s couch at around 6am eating them, staring into space and wondering what had actually just happened to me. I don’t want to be melodramatic (prepare for melodrama), but had someone asked me my name or nationality at that point, I’m not sure I would have known the answer. Ultimately whenever I think of the journey now, I experience intense waves of relief that it is no longer happening to me.

Luckily, pretty much the only thing that could revive me from this new, dark plane of existence I was inhabiting was winging her way to Hanoi to meet me. My very fabulous BFF Clarebear, who I had said a teary goodbye to four months earlier on the mean streets of Leeds.

After an intensive catchup in the hostel bar, which was seriously VERY full of people who had found themselves, we set out a plan for our time in the North of Nam. It would include three trips: a day excursion to the Perfume Pagoda, a couple of days relaxing in the UNESCO-verified beauty of Ha Long bay and a journey up north to Sapa for some trekking among its stunning mountains and rice fields.

We spent a few days wandering around Hanoi – a loud, manic city containing more motorbikes than I had ever thought existed. Car and bike horns are a really big deal in Hanoi, and the air is full of beeping 24/7. Once I even saw a lady pedestrian who had crafted a walking horn from an empty Loreal shampoo bottle. Clearly she was worth it. The streets in the Old Quarter are lined with little shops and restaurants with tiny purple chairs serving Pho on the streets, while in different parts of the city you’ll find luxury hotels and designer shops.

The Temple of Literature

In Hanoi we visited a magic turtle lake, a couple of pagodas, the beautiful temple of literature and a museum where we learned a bit about evolution because why the hell not? We also spent a few nights hanging out in the more touristy bars of the Old Quarter, and doing a bit of dancing in our hostel. Clare was a bit shocked by the city’s heat and intensity, but in my opinion it didn’t really come close to the stressfulness of Bangkok. While there were plenty of people shouting at you all the time, there were also really nice parks and lakes, and cafes and restaurants where you could relax in peace.

The famous one-pillar pagoda

The Perfume Pagoda: A study on not falling in the Mekong

Our first trip out of the city was our day excursion to the Perfume Pagoda – a part of the north famed for its beauty. All my trips in Thailand and Laos had gone relatively smoothly, and this was my first taste of how things in The Nam can be a bit…different.

After an hour on a bus, three of us were kicked off (story of my life) at a service station and told to wait for the driver’s “brother” who would be along to pick us up in just a few minutes. Forty minutes later we were approached by a man saying that while he was meant to pick us up there was no room in his van, and we’d have to wait for another bloke, who would be along in a matter of minutes. Half an hour later a 4×4 pulled up and we were told to climb in, despite the fact it already contained four passengers, the guide and a driver. Two very cramped hours later we arrived at the side of the murky Mekong River and we were told to get in the boat.

Note: I say boat. It was not a boat. Imagine an oil barrel crudely sawn in half floating down the river. It was one of those.

After being laughed at by the Asian people as we tried to get on the boat without falling in the river, we were off, sailing along among some truly beautiful scenery. Some people in the boat bought Bia Saigons from another boat, but Clare and I were focused on trying not to fall out.

Upon arrival we had some Vietnamese food – your only vegetarian option is noodles, veggies and tofu, a combination I would become way too familiar with over the next six weeks. We then caught a cable car up to the top of a mountain where there was a really cool cave to explore. There was a temple and a pagoda inside the cave, and lots of magic good luck rocks where locals were rubbing their money in the hope it would multiply. We wandered back down the mountain in the heat, via lots of apparently deserted villages and poor tied-up monkey, and explored another pagoda at the bottom.

And then it was back in our tin can and back to the hostel, where people were dancing to Outkast’s Hey Ya as if it was a religious experience.

Ha Long Bay

Soon enough it was time for our mid-range Ha Long Bay cruise that would see us spend one night sleeping on the boat amid the majesty of the greenery-covered mountains, and another in a beach bungalow on Monkey Island. While we could not afford the top-of-the-range options, we were keen to avoid the infamous Castaway Tour, which sounded like a floating Fresher’s Week made up only of rugby rahs. Tales of nudity, vomiting, sex and a nasty combination of the three had put us right off – after all, we weren’t in Leeds now!

So after waving goodbye to the naked, vomiting, toilet sex-loving people that populated our hostel, we embarked on yet another infuriating journey involving lots of bussing and waiting around before finally boarding our rickety vessel and tucking into yet another noodle/veggie/tofu meal. The people on our boat seemed really nice, and thankfully no-one suggested any sort of horrendous drinking game, which I suppose is what we’d paid the extra for really. And after our hostel experience, it was really nice that you could visit the bathroom without having to deal with any couples making love in there.

After a visit to a very impressive cave, where the guide spent most of his time pointing out rocks that looked like Micky Mouse and Marilyn Monroe, as well as kindly alerting us to any phallic-shaped ones we passed, we floated into Ha Long Bay at sundown, drinking Ha Long Beer, listening to chill out music, and it was very blissful. And then it was time to jump off the boat into Ha Long Bay – something I’d been gearing myself up to do given my much-hyped fear or fish.

“Are there many fish in there?” I asked one of the crew members as I hovered around the boat’s hull.

“Jellyfish? Yes many. It is a lucky day if all we do is meet them,” he replied ominously.

Despite this highly alarming answer, I had not come all the way to Ha Long Bay to be a big wimp, so I jumped off the boat into the turquoise waters and had a bit of a splash around. However I soon spotted a big yellow jelly lurking nearby and decided it was time to get out.

BUT HOW?

To my dismay the only way out seemed to be a small iron ladder back up the side of the boat. When you stepped on it it swung under the hull meaning you had to climb up it while almost entirely supporting your bodyweight. Had I not been terrified of the sea creatures beneath there is no way I would have made it to the top.

And then it was time for some free red wine and a sad on-board disco that everyone ignored to sit out on the deck and drink and chat.

When I woke the next morning and looked out the porthole I was once again absolutely blown away by the surroundings and decided to take one of the boat’s kayaks out for an 8am cruise around Ha Long Bay. Gliding along the tranquil water in the breathtaking surroundings while the early morning sun beat down is one of my favourite memories from my time in the north.

And then it was off to Monkey Island for an afternoon of relaxing on the beach – but not before we had a quick on-board cooking class that means my ‘List of Things I Can Cook’ now includes spring rolls, as well as pasta and beans on toast.

Monkey Island was pretty chill tbh. We were situated in a beach bungalow and whiled the afternoon away sunbathing and reading, and when we went in the sea Clare amusingly got chased by a jellyfish while I ran away. In the evening we went to the hotel bar where we bought a bottle of Dalat White – the main white wine of Vietnam, and one I would become very accustomed to over the next six weeks. It’s quite sweet, and not dry enough for my liking, but there is no room for wine snobbery in Asia and it certainly did the job.

The next day we returned to the hostel, and I am going to tell you the story of what happened that night so you could see what exactly we were dealing with.

After all the exertion of Ha Long Bay we decided to get a relatively early night and went to bed. The next thing I know, I was woken up by a torch flashing in my face. I opened my eyes to see one of my roommates – one with blonde dreads and a strong Brummie accent – stood in the middle of the room smoking a massive bong and repeatedly chanting “this is what the locals smoke, man”. I then became aware that my bed (I was on the bottom bunk) was a-rocking. I looked over at Clare, who was wide awake, and she nodded her head sadly, and pointed up at the top bunk on her bed. Yes, there were two couples who were indeed banging in beds above both of us, while that stoned guy stood in the middle of the room, taking hits off the bong and shining his torch around to watch the action. I have not been quite so horrified by a wakeup since bat-gate in Brazil’s Pantanal Wetlands.

Sapa: Losing my faith in humanity

No matter though, it was time for some tranquility. Some getting back to nature in the green hills of Sapa. Also known as the most infuriating two days in the history of the world.

There are – you are repeatedly told – 52 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. These range from people who came across from Thailand to hill tribes who have lived in the area for aeons. One minority group lives in the villages close to Sapa Town, and their clothing is truly fabulous, with lots of black velvet embroidered with bright colours. However, due to their heavy-handed sales techniques, Sapa was in some ways one of my worst travelling experiences.

Like in much of Asia, if you are foreign, retailers will see you as a giant, walking bag of money. However, in other areas, a strong “no thank you”, or many of those, will deter the salespeople. In Sapa this will get you followed around for the day by a string of women asking “Where you from?” As Clare is a delicate flower and had been taken ill after the sleeper bus up north, I did the first day of trekking solo – which makes you much more of a target, and I ended up having a rather terrifying day.

Our trekking guides were from the same community as the salespeople, and while they were lovely and very helpful, they also allowed their salespeople friends to come on the trek and aggressively sell at us while we were doing the walking. Seriously, cold callers could learn a thing or two from these people.

I was targeted by an older lady and a young girl of around 11. Their techniques involved lots of questions, the classic being “Where you from?” and “You married?” and flattery: “You 27???? No, you look 17!” This surprise at my age happened a lot in Vietnam, and I asked one of my guides about it later in my trip. After thinking for a while he ventured, AND I QUOTE: “I think they get confused because you have big eyes and big nose. Like a baby”. Like a baby, of course. So maybe this wasn’t quite as flattering as I originally thought.

Anyway, it’s harder to ignore people constantly trying to talk to you on a six-hour trek than it is when you’re passing them in the street, and before I knew it, the woman had grabbed my hand, slid a “free” bracelet on my wrist and held my little finger in a vice-like grip as she demanded I “pinky promise” to buy something from both her and her young friend later. They then disappeared, along with the rest of the salespeople, who had done similar things to others on the trek.

On the trek we went to visit Catcat Village and its waterfall, which was really nice and tranquil. We also stopped in at a flute recital nearby, and visited an “authentic” village house. I suspect it was not ALL that authentic as things like the herbs and the drum were labelled with big signs saying “AUTHENTIC HERBS” and “GENUINE DRUM”.

I returned to my hostel absolutely exhausted after walking down and then up a big mountain only to find my two friends from earlier sat outside waiting for me. How they knew where I was staying is anyone’s – very alarming – guess. “You go get money and buy from us now,” the older one demanded. You’re all going to go “Ohhhhhhh Caroline” when you hear this, but I agreed, as I really just wanted them to go away so I could leave my hostel in peace, as I had plans to meet my friend Jordan – who was also in Sapa – later in the day. I went and got 200,000 Dong, which is about £8 – and A LOT to pay for bracelets and bags etc – because I idiotically thought that would get me to leave them alone.

They then tried to charge me around 500,000 Dong for a tiny bag I did not want, and eventually the older lady gave me a small headband for 200,000 Dong. Annoyed, yet relieved, I was like “okay see ya” but then the young girl demanded I give her money too. She told me they were from different families and as they had spent all day following me around if I didn’t buy something off her too, her family would not be able to eat tonight. This was clearly a lie, but my pleas to the older woman to share her 200,000 Dong with the tenacious youngster were not working.

“I don’t have any more money,” I tried.

“You go borrow from your friend”

“I have no friend”

“You do, we saw you with blonde girl earlier”

“She has no money”

“You go to ATM. We go to ATM now”

“No” *runs away*

This guilt-ridden exchange had upset me quite a bit. I felt really bad about not buying off the girl, but also angry and I didn’t know how much of her story was complete BS. Irked, I got ready to go meet Jordan and left the hostel.

Of course the young girl was waiting for me outside with around ten of her friends, and they surrounded me, all ordering me to buy things from them, to the point where I could no longer walk. It got quite scary and I ended up giving the original girl another 200,000 Dong for one of the little bags I didn’t want (I know, I know “Ohhhhh Caroline”).

I spotted Jordan waiting up the hill and waved at him, which distracted them enough to let me get away from them. Unpeturbed, all ten of them followed us all the way to the cafe where we were meeting his travel buddy, and as we were sat outside, stood there heckling us and trying to get the others to buy things. The young girl I’d just bought the bag from – remember she tried to charge me 500,000 Dong for it originally – then pointed at me and said “She buy bag for 200,000 Dong, you can have it for 50,000 Dong hahahahahahahahahahahahaha”. My lunch companions looked at me all like “Ohhhhhhh Caroline”.

The next day I went on another trek – this time with Clare – which was actually lovely, and as we explored the incredible hills, rice fields and farms, Sapa redeemed itself somewhat for me. That said, when I visit Vietnam again, it’s not going to be on my itinerary. I’d like to find somewhere in the north with the same sort of trekking opportunities but hopefully slightly less terrifying.

North of the Nam: The Verdict

I think the reason it took me so long to write this blog is that I couldn’t even process a lot of my experiences in the north of Vietnam. I’d been told that the north of the country was the best bit to visit, and while it boasted incredible natural beauty, and Hanoi was one of my favourite cities on my trip, a lot of my experiences there left me stressed and even a bit sad.

I’d expected it to be a bit like Thailand, but in a lot of ways it couldn’t have been more different. Everything seemed a lot more difficult somehow: from getting around and sightseeing to eating, haggling and interacting with locals.

The north had proved to be something of a mixed bag to say the least, and as Clare jetted off back to the UK and I boarded an overnight train down the coast to Hue, I couldn’t help hoping that it would get easier and friendlier as I headed south. One thing I can tell you though, is that even now, a month after I jetted out of Ho Chi Minh, I can’t stop thinking and talking about Vietnam, so you’ve all got that to look forward to on my return…

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  1. Pingback: Never pinky promise a Sapa saleswoman - Carolinehasgoneto

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