Globe-trotting: Hanoi, Mai Chau and Hai Long Bay in Vietnam

Sam Brewster has set out on a globe-trotting journey this summer, visiting exotic destinations throughout Asia. He files his second travel log from Hanoi, Vietnam, with thoughts from his travels in Mai Chau and Hai Long Bay as well. Additional photography by Rob Harrison.


Vietnam : the word itself is loaded with connotations of war and political turmoil; never before have I felt so welcome yet completely foreign. Perhaps the feeling will ease as we move to the more friendly, more westernized South.

We originally decided to get a train from Hong Kong To Hanoi, but looking at the extortionate price of a Chinese visa was more than enough to convince anyone to take alternative means of transport. Looking at our expenses, we decided that flying was the most viable option.

When we arrived into the intense humidity, getting a comfy air conditioned coach to the Old Quarter was an easy decision. The coach muscles all other transport out of the way as it ploughs down the road, making the journey a great introduction to the mindset of the Vietnamese motorist.

Hanoi is buzzing. The streets are thick with swarms of motorbikes, carrying anything and everything from bamboo chairs to babies and livestock. It’s impossible to go far without encountering a glass cabinet of cigarettes, water and confectioneries, that is if they haven’t been thrust under your nose by a street vendor already.

Every successful road crossing is something to celebrate, you’ve just got to pray that the locals can weave around you. After settling into our hotel we headed off for our first evening out on the town. All over the Old Quarter people drink and eat while sat on the red and blue plastic foot stools that litter the pavements. These groupings are commonly known as Bia Hoi’s, where beer can be as low as 4000 VND (12p).

Soaking up the atmosphere for a couple of days is enough of the city life for me. Hanoi has weeks worth of rich culture to absorb for the less rushed traveler, but for us it’s time to get on the road and head for the countryside. The hill tribes of the White Thai in Mai Chau to the West provide an ample attraction, and at 150km, it is perfect for a day’s ride through the limestone hills on a motorbike. They’re suitable enough for the job, 125cc Honda’s, popular and universally understood in Vietnam.

Getting out of Hanoi is a huge adrenaline rush, weaving and tucking to avoid the mad rush hour traffic, becoming quickly accustomed to the lack of road regulations. Once on the open road, however, amongst the rice paddies and beaming midday sun, the journey becomes a symbiotic symphony of all modes of transport. Bicycles, bison drawn cart, motorbikes, buses, lorries, BMW X5s, the list baffles. It’s a beautiful thing; harmonic and lucid.

Having passed through a few major trading towns the roads begin to empty of the larger vehicles. This opens up the road, enabling motorbikes to command the snaking pass through the mountains. As the sun began to set we were lucky enough to encounter a local from Bac Lac village, just outside Mai Chau, who invites us into his stilted guest house. Before being allowed to eat we were served several shots of a local spirit, some form of strong rice wine, which on an empty stomach really helps us relax after the 6 hour ride.

The peace and quiet of the small mountain town was such a refreshment after the bustle of the cities. The mist hovering over the rice paddies commands a gentle quiet over the village, penetrated sporadically by the sheer limestone outcrops. This is the kind of traveling I now knew I wanted to experience.

After a couple of the most hospitable days yet, we headed back to Hanoi to book ourselves onto a tour to the world-renowned Hai Long Bay.

The relatively pleasant 3 hour bus ride out to the bay did little to show what a shambles of a tour we had booked ourselves onto. We began with a day an a night on a boat that was aptly referred to as a ‘junk’, touring the magnificent islands but allowing no real experience as the crew rushed us through the abbreviated itinerary.

Our second night was to be spent on Cat Ba Island, supposedly rife with interesting wildlife, but as we were unable to enter the nature reserve, this somewhat hindered the budding zoologist within. The beach however was good, although a little crowded having arrived in peak Vietnamese tourist time. For the evening we stayed at the Cat Ba Plaza, a hotel that seemed like it was still under construction despite being open for 7 years. In the morning as we checked out, we were still trying to understand why we had been charged for complimentary water.

After a brief altercation, and in the knowledge that western tourists would not be favoured over locals by the Cat Ba police, we attempted to get our passports back through diplomacy and a typically British stubborn sense of right and wrong. This effort was quickly thwarted as one of the kitchen staff emerged wielding a meat cleaver held high over his head, suddenly and coldly washing the sober realization of the situation over us. 40,000 VND (£1.30) was quickly paid, passports returned, and Cat Ba Island put firmly behind us.

Back in Hanoi, we decided that it was time to get to this friendly South Vietnam we had heard so much about, and got on a sleeper bus down to Hue.

Comments are closed.