TRAVEL: Ha Long way from home in Vietnam

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Just when you think a holiday cannot be any better, a cruise around the bay takes it up another notch, writes Caroline Hurry

FEARSOME BEAUTY: According to legend, the Ha Long Bay outcrops were made by a dragon, which fortunately does not often show itself. Pictures: CAROLINE HURRY

LIGHTNING split the sky and rain lashed the wings of the aircraft as we broke through the clouds. Hanoi stretched out below like a verdant patchwork quilt: rice paddies, fields of rye, mealies, and matchbox houses. As we dropped closer, I glimpsed a water buffalo harnessed to a hand plough.

I had come to Vietnam to stay with my husband in Halong Bay, 170km east of Hanoi. Due to work commitments, he couldn’t fetch me from the airport so he had sent a limousine from the Sofitel Metropole, one of Hanoi’s finest hotels, with prices to match. Their uniformed chauffeur called “Tongue” held up a placard with Mrs Munch written on it in large letters.

“Tongue” is not how he would spell his name, but then my name’s not Mrs Munch either. Whatever. Spelling is the last thing you need worry about in Vietnam. Staying alive is of far greater concern.

Train surfing in Soweto is probably safer than crossing the road in Hanoi. From the limo I saw scooters heaving with caged chickens, a live pig, bookcases, fridges, oversized cable spools and four or five passengers (none wearing helmets) all balanced precariously on the back, front, and handlebars.

Hanoi has the highest concentration of scooters in the world — 2-million in the city’s population of 4-million , according to Tongue, who ignored my squeals as motorbikes cut corners, avoiding collisions by a hair. Nobody paid any attention to road signs or pedestrian crossings.

Later, my husband told me to maintain a steady pace crossing the road. “They’ll see you as just another obstacle to avoid, but run and you’re toast.”

The Sofitel Metropole (built in 1901) provided a cool contrast to the high-octane adrenalin e rush of the dizzying street theatre. Former guests include Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Bush, Angelina Jolie and Graham Greene, who wrote The Quiet American in one of its suites . On a subsequent trip to Hanoi, we stayed at the Hilton Opera hotel at a third of the price of the Metropole. Facilities included an executive suite, free wireless internet, breakfast, unlimited free drinks, snacks and espressos. It pays to surf the net for accommodation bargains. Vietnam’s coat of communism is lightweight, lined with the silk of capitalism and free-market reform, although foreigners are forbidden to own property here.

We spent days exploring Hanoi’s rain-streaked streets, trying out the Saloon 17 nightclub where the music was so loud it literally blew our hair back.

Hanoi is a chaotic, sensual feast. Hawkers in conical hats laden with shoulder baskets ride past crumbling architecture. Colonial mansions line wide boulevards in the French quarter. People on tiny plastic chairs lunch along labyrinthine alleys as cooking smells assail the nostrils.

With its gorgeous women, Vietnam is a combine harvester for the hearts of men. Several of my husband’s European colleagues had local wives, a lack of linguistic communication apparently no barrier to love. Vietnamese is difficult to master, but my husband’s friend Thuy (pronounced Too-eey) taught me to say: “Bon cau bi nghet” pronounced “bonne-cow-bee- knee-yet”, which means “the lavatory does not flush”. Always a useful foreign phrase, I find.

Hanoi means “city in the bend of a river”. Halong means “where the dragon descends into the sea”. They can say a lot in a few words.

I spent another two weeks in Halong Bay chilling with Thuy, while my husband toiled away in a cement factory somewhere. Perhaps chilling is the wrong word. So humid is it in July and August it’s almost oppressive.

We would start the morning at a little street café with a steaming bowl of pho (pronounced fuh), a spicy broth ideal for hearty slurping followed by sweet, syrupy “Vietnamese café”, a lethal combination of thick black liquid, condensed milk and ice cubes. Like pho, it’s drunk all over Vietnam. Other street snacks included dried squid strung like laundry, and shrimps stir-fried with their shells on, to go with Tiger beers.

Afterwards Thuy and I would hit the stores. Dazzled by bargain headlights, I bought bags, lacquered boxes, paintings and exquisite fabrics. A nearby tailor made me dresses for a fraction of what you’d pay in SA.

After some rigorous retail therapy we would stop for lunch; veggies with garlic and seafood, then Thuy would drop me back at our apartment for my afternoon nap. In the evenings I would venture out with my husband for dinner. Eat, drink, sleep and shop. Could a holiday get any better?

Hell yes! A cruise around Tonkin Bay on The Emeraude took it up another notch.

The cruise included a visit to Sung Sot grotto, a limestone cavern with humo ngous stalactites and stalagmites, swimming and kayaking between monolithic limestone islands jutting up from its calm waters. The bay was home to some of Vietnam’s earliest cultures, including the Ha Long people, and a key defenc e point.

According to legend, the 3000 soaring stony outcrops were made by a dragon, said to inhabit the waters still. Fortunately we saw no sign of it while we swam and rowed in the calm emerald waters, although we did see a few flying fish.

Low tides revealed archways big enough for kayaks to pass into hidden lagoons once favoured by pirates and smugglers. Floating villages dotted the tiny shores of the islands and traditional junks with red or yellow sails shone like lanterns.

Halong Bay deserves its Unesco World Heritage listing, but sadly the escalating tourism in the region has generated unacceptable amounts of litter and pollution. Here, miles from anywhere, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and sweet wrappers floated in the water to be washed up on the Halong’s beaches. Sies!
Pollution aside, though, Vietnam rocks.

Vietnam’s coat of communism is lightweight, lined with the silk of capitalism and free market reform.

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