Uncle Ho Can’t Go, Lesbians and Threesomes

30 01 2011

After hearing so many horror stories about the “death” bus to Laos I decided to book a flight straight to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately the first available flight was not until the 2nd so I still had a few days to kill in Hanoi. I decided that the only thing I really wanted to do was visit Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. The Vietnamese pay the Russians a ridiculous sum of money each year to maintain their previous leader in pristine condition – this is at the expense of health or education budgets where the money might be better spent; especially for such a poor country. Ho Chi Minh had even specified in his will that he didn’t want this sort of deification.

Unfortunately it was only open early in the morning: I missed the window of opportunity the first day, the second day (after walking most of the way there) I discovered it was always shut on a Monday and after that it was shut for Tet (Vietnamese new year). Uncle Ho and I were not going to meet on this trip. The rest of my time I hung out on my laptop and tried to get my blog up-to-date.


The busy streets of Hanoi - with all the markets selling Tet decorations

On Sunday I hung out with Nick – he was Dutch but his English accent is so good I didn’t even realise he wasn’t British until I was chatting to some Dutch girls and he suddenly joined in speaking Dutch. The mystery was solved when I realised that he had grown up in the UK. In the evening I arranged to meet up with Greta. She was the last remaining person from the Sapa and Halong Bay trips – everyone else had moved on. We went and grabbed a bite to eat and then went for a few drinks in Hair of the Dog. I didn’t see any one else from the hostel that I knew and eventually we called it a night. After hearing so many horror stories about people getting mugged on motorbikes, I was worried about Greta getting back to her hostel so I made sure she got a taxi back – this worked out okay.

Despite the fact that everyone I’d known from my earlier trips had moved on, it was very easy to meet people in the hostel. I often chatted to three Australian girls who had come back from Halong Bay with us –Angela, Paige and Kate; and a Scottish guy who was eponymously named Scott. He was hanging out with Kiwi bogans quite a lot and before he left I suddenly noticed that he had a similarly shaved and yet long haircut. I spent most of my time, however, hanging out with Nick, Swiss Sarah and Brigitte, an American girl in my dorm who had come over to Hanoi with her brother to teach English. They were still looking for a job and staying in the hostel until they were sure that they could sort something out.

I wouldn’t normal publish deeply personal stuff in my blog but for the purposes of the next anecdote, it seems necessary. Basically I’d overheard Angela on the bus coming back from Halong Bay telling one of her friends how she lost her virginity: at the age of 15 she’d had a threesome with a 22 and a 27-year old guy (I believe this would be called statutory rape in most countries!). I’d not let on that I’d overheard the conversation but since it was such good gossip I happened to mention it to Nick. At one point we were outside chatting to them and I could sense that Nick was about to mention that he knew how she’d lost her virginity so I preempted him. “Oh my God! You overheard us?” Quite why this was a surprise when I was sitting one seat in front of them and their voices weren’t that hushed I’m not sure.

A bit later on in the evening Nick and I were sitting with Sarah and Brigitte chatting away and Nick mentioned ménage à trois (I have no idea what we were actually talking about – normal lad’s talk I expect). “What’s a ménage à trois?” Sarah asked. Brigitte also didn’t know and I spotted an opportunity for some mischief. We dared Sarah (who has a very innocent air about her anyway) to ask someone in the bar if they’d like a ménage à trois tonight. We dared her the cost of a beer. And then I saw Angela at the bar and said, “No. Wait! We’ll dare you two beers to ask Angela”. Sarah wasn’t going to ask “It must be something rude otherwise you wouldn’t be offering money.” In the end, I called Angela over and told her that Sarah wanted to ask her a question. The dare got even better when Angela was also ignorant of the expression and went up to the bartender to ask “What’s ménage à trois?” At this point, Nick and I were pissing ourselves laughing – even more so when Angela came back saying “Ha ha! Very funny!” We paid up and the two girls went up to the bar to spend the spoils. I’m not quite sure what it says about the American, Australian and Swiss education systems that they don’t know these basic phrases.

In the evening we ended up in Hair of the Dog once more a had a great time dancing away. The next day, I finally managed to get my camera fixed. The streets of Hanoi were strangely quiet – most of the locals had already left to go and visit their families out-of-town for Tet. I said goodbye to Sarah and Brigitte as they headed off on separate trips to Sapa and I didn’t see Nick all evening. I needed to get some new drinking buddies and struck up a conversation with some other people who had also returned from Halong Bay with us – Fiona, Shelly, Cam, Nik and (I think) Alex. They were playing a Laotian card game called Sabidee. You played in pairs and everyone was given four cards. The dealer then drew another four cards and threw them face-up on the table. The idea was to replace the cards in your hand with those on the table until you had either four of a kind or a straight of the same suit. There were supposed to be four cards on the table at all times but in the scramble to grab them this often didn’t seem to be the case. Every so often no one would want any of the cards that were remaining and these would be put aside and another four cards were drawn. Once you had a winning set of cards you had to signal your partner so that they could say Sabidee (Laotian for “Hello”). If the other team worked out what your signal was they could call you out on it and if they were correct you lost a point. Otherwise they lost a point for guessing your signal incorrectly. In addition the winning team got a point – the first team to 10 was the winner.

I watched the game for a while before Fiona dropped out and I had a go. Our secret signal was just to tap the other person’s foot – since most people expected a facial or hand gesture this completely fooled everyone and we were also able to throw up a smoke screen of fake gestures. It was a lot of fun!

Out in Temple Bar

When the bar shut we all headed off to Temple Bar where two of the girls shocked us (and a lot of the locals) by making out on the dance floor. I hadn’t had any inkling that it might happen. We stayed in Temple Bar quite a while and I got quite drunk before finally calling it a night and heading back to the hostel. The next day I was feeling quite rough and spent most of the day watching films in the lounge area. People had been watching Get Him To The Greek all week but it was the first time I’d actually seen it all the way through – I laughed my head off, it was perfect hangover fodder. I did see Nick briefly, although in my hungover state I wasn’t my chattiest ever – he’d taken a night off the previous night. Finally, it was time to say my farewells and I headed off to the airport for my flight to Laos – Luang Prabang beckoned.

Halong Bay After Some Delay

27 01 2011

Due to the late arrival of our train back into Hanoi we’d missed our trip to Halong Bay. It didn’t matter to me – I still had time to go on my visa and wouldn’t ordinarily have done both trips sequentially – but Michele had to get her flight in 2 day’s time. I rebooked for the next day and, after some deliberation, Michele did too. We then had a whole extra day in Hanoi so we decided to visit the Hoả Lò prison. This was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War – many American POW’s were imprisoned here – including some guy called John McCain.

The museum had no special resonance with me – the first section dealt with how the French had imprisoned political prisoners here in appalling conditions; the second with the American inmates and told how they were treated exceptionally well in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Since I’d not heard of the prison before and was unable to distinguish between the truth and communist propaganda (a lot of the words used were inflammatory and presumably were scribed by members of the Vietnamese politburo), I came away not knowing what to believe. Subsequent online research showed that the prison was notorious for torturing GI’s and thereby flouting the Geneva Convention; hardly the Summer Camp image that the Vietnamese were promoting.

The band at the water puppet show

Afterwards we decided to check out one of the water puppet shows that Hanoi is famous for. We had half an hour to wait until the first showing so, in typical fashion, we went for a quick beer at Le Pub (another chain of bars in Vietnam). The water puppet show was kitsch and bizarre but it was fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even just watching the band was a lot of fun – let alone watching the puppets (the controls hidden beneath a shallow pool of water) as they played with fire or were chased by dragons and buffaloes. I spent a lot of the performance cussing my camera which was steadfastly refusing to focus on anything. It’s never been great at night photography but I seriously needed to get it fixed.

Water puppets

After the show we decided to head back to Le Pub where we got chatting to an English couple, Ben and Krista. We had such a good laugh with them that we headed off out to dinner with them at the market. This was a Vietnamese hotpot where you cook all the noodles, vegetables and meat yourself in a boiling broth – there was a bit more chicken in the chicken than I was used to. The others all claimed they were going to eat the head but they all bottled out when it was actually cooked.

Chicken hotpot

We’d signed up for beer pong at our hostel as we went past but dinner took us longer than we expected so Ben and Krista headed home for bed and we were too late back to join in. As was becoming my normal itinerary I hung around the hostel until the bar closed and then ended up in Temple Bar for a few; but since it was an early start the next day I didn’t stay too long. We kept seeing some of the English lads from Sapa from time to time – their friend Mike had just arrived from England and they’d managed to lose him somewhere and kept scouring the bars in the area in the hope that they’d find him.

The next day I was up bright and early ready for the Halong Bay trip. This was a chance to see the fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands of impressive limestone karsts spear the sky – jewels spat from the jaws of protective dragons according to local legend. Since the boat trip was organised by the hostel and everyone was of a similar mindset it was also a chance for a booze cruise. It was extremely busy that day – two days beforehand it had been Australia day so any Aussies at the hostel had taken the previous day off to recover and joined today’s trip – and we filled two boats (there were more than 50 of us). These were linked together at the side and we set sail into the heart of Halong Bay. I always knew that the English lads from Sapa were going to be on the tour but it turned out that Greta and Sophia also came. Apart from Scottish Andrew, the whole Sapa crew was present which was awesome! And Andrew had been replaced by Mike, who the boys had finally found back at their hostel at 2am the previous night.


Halong Bay


It was cold on deck and I actually put a glove on my beer hand so that I could keep my hand warm. This turned out to be a useful reminder since Simon, our tour rep, informed everyone that no right-handed drinking was allowed – it was going to be that sort of trip! After a fantastic lunch it was time to go for a swim. I’m not a huge water baby and having seen people coming back onto the deck shivering away there was no way I was going to get in the water so I opted out. The boys and Michele all leapt off the side of the boat into the icy water below. The rest of us huddled in our coats and watched on.


The boys swimming in the bay


With the swim concluded it was time to go kayaking. I was quite happy to stay on deck drinking but I decided to compromise by drinking in the kayak. We kayaked around for a bit and then Simon led us to a cave where we parked up and went for a wander inside. It was fortunate that me and one of the other guys remembered to bring our flashlights – it was pitch black and potentially dangerous at some points. I would often wait by danger spots and guide the other people through behind me.


All the kayakers outside the cave


When we got back to the boat it was time for showers – unfortunately mine was bloody freezing so I didn’t stay under too long – and then it was time to resume the drinking properly. I chatted for a while to some Kiwi bogans – despite their weird partially shaved haircuts and the fact that they’d been drinking since the bus left Hanoi that morning they weren’t that bad – and once everyone else was assembled we played the drinking game 21 (one day I will put the rules up on my blog). This went fine until Greta decided that vodka would be better than beer – after that my memories of the evening become more sketchy. I do remember playing an absolutely massive game of Ring of Fire where one of the cards meant that you had to act like Stephen Hawkings (very PC I know). I managed to pick this card and since I was probably already losing full control of my limbs it didn’t actually take much in the way of acting ability. Eventually I decided to head off to bed whilst the party was still in full swing – I clearly wasn’t going to be able to drink much more that night!

Despite everyone saying to me the next morning “How the hell are you today?” I didn’t actually feel that bad. At one point some of the guys on the 3-day Halong Bay trip disembarked and headed off to Cat Ba island and the people who’d stayed on the island the previous night joined our boat. I played Shithead with two of the new arrivals, Veronica and Craig – at least they were playing with the normal rules which was more than the English lads were doing.

When we got back to the hostel Michele left for her flight back to Hong Kong and I was once again in search of new drinking buddies. I chatted to a Dutch guy, Nick, and his friend (whose name now eludes me) for a while but they were off to Snake Village for the evening. They tried to persuade me to come too but I had no real interest in a place where they skin live snakes in front of you and give you the opportunity to eat the beating heart from their chest so I passed up on that and stayed in the hostel. There I met up with an American girl, Nicky, and her Swiss dorm mate, Sarah. We drank at the hostel until closing and then Nicky and I went out to try to find where everyone else from the hostel was out. It turned out that everyone was in the Irish bar over the other side of town and our brief bar hops to Hair of the Dog and Temple Bar didn’t find much in the way of a party. Still, we had a good night before heading back to the hostel.

Hanoi – City of Thieves?

23 01 2011

Hanoi – the pearl of the orient or another dirty, traffic-choked Asian city? I never really could tell. I kept trying to like the city but after getting lost for the umpteenth time on the rabbit warren of twisting narrow streets (this was particularly true of the old quarter where my hostel was based) and stuck behind yet another motorbike that first blocked my way down the pavement-less streets and then inexplicably decided to park in the middle of the street; it was hard to maintain any feelings of equanimity.

Our introduction to the city hadn’t exactly been favourable either. We arrived at the bus station at 8am, not particularly well rested, and caught a taxi to our hostel. The taxi driver had a clearly rigged meter – it would clock over 3 times within 2 seconds – and we spent a whopping 170,000 dong just to get to the hostel. We decided just to pay it rather than get out in the middle of nowhere and hope that the next cabbie was honest. I later heard numerous stories of people getting mugged on motorbikes when they were drunk. One guy from our hostel (for some inexplicable drunken-logic reason) got on a motorbike at Temple Bar, a mere 2-minute walk away – the next thing he knew someone else jumped on the back, they drove to an alley in the middle of nowhere, and he was robbed. A similar, but worse story, came from one of the Aussie girls that I knew. She had been put on a bike by someone from the hostel (she assumed he knew the driver) and then the motorcyclist’s girlfriend jumped on too. This seemed okay until she started trying to grab her purse. Further along the way, another two motorbikes came along on either side and when they got near the other hostel where she was trying to go to she handed him the money quickly and jumped off. The girlfriend chose this moment to grab the purse again – causing all the contents to spill on the floor. They were then scrambling around on the floor fighting over the contents when the girls on the other bikes decided to join in. It was the girls not the guys who were particularly adept at groping her all over and she really wonders what would have happened if a Swedish couple who had been making out in the alley hadn’t come to the rescue after hearing all the commotion.

Another story I heard whilst there concerned “Jamie” – an English conman. He’d just been recruited by the hostel to be a tour operator for some of the Halong bay tours. He’d been travelling with 4 Swedish girls and some other blokes that they’d picked up along the way but pretty soon it was just going to him and the girls. Apparently his modus operandi was to befriend female backpackers and slowly defraud them of money before eventually stealing their stuff and running off into the night. Fortunately someone recognised him (apparently he’s wanted by quite a few police agencies) before he had time to do too much damage to the Swedes and he was immediately evicted from the hostel.

Apart from the dishonest taxi-driver, I had no real problems in Hanoi and I was there a long time – and often out late and mildly tipsy. After I’d completed my mission to buy some new boxer shorts to replace those lost in Hoi An – apparently in Asian sizes I’m an XL; maybe I’ve just put on weight – we spent most of the day playing pool on the excellent 5th floor lounge area of the hostel. The hostel – the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel Ma May – is one of the best I’ve visited (certainly in this region) and gets the coveted Barry Seal of Approval. Apart from that and booking trips to Sapa and Halong Bay we didn’t do a lot all day. Towards the end of the day we had a surprise visit from Dan – he was going to Sapa that evening but it was cool to catch up with him and a shame that our paths were unlikely to cross again.

It was Sunday – or Fun Day as it was branded at the hostel – and they were giving away free beer. I repeat: they were giving away FREE BEER. The poetry and juxtaposition of those wonderful words should never be under-rated. It was just bia hoi (a weak tasting fresh beer that they brew in Vietnam) and there were only two kegs of it but obviously I did my best to get my fair share. After dinner at a reasonably cheap and very tasty restaurant down the road, we met Tegan – a loud, sometimes abrasive Australian girl – and headed to Temple Bar after the hostel bar shut at 11pm. The bar was absolutely chock-a-block – a mix of tourists and locals – and we had a great time boogying away. We also ran into Chris and Vic again from Jean’s birthday celebrations in Hoi An.

Tegan dancing with the locals at Temple Bar

The next day was similarly uneventful – I had lots of time in Hanoi and didn’t feel the need to rush any tourist activities – and we just bided our time before the night train to Sapa. We did get a final visit from Audrey at the hostel – it was the last time I saw her; she’d be gone to Cambodia by the time I returned from Sapa. I’d met her almost a month beforehand: it seemed strange to think that I wouldn’t have her acerbic wit poking fun at me any more. At the tour’s appointed hour we waited at reception but nothing seemed to be happening – eventually Michele went up and enquired, it seemed like they’d forgotten us. They eventually bundled us into a taxi who dropped us off at the old Backpackers Hanoi hostel. That was the plan at least but his vague directions as to where it was when he dropped us on the main road were far from helpful. Fortunately the hostel was old enough to still be in the Lonely Planet so after a few enquiries for directions to match up with our poor map reading skills we finally found it.

There we were introduced to a big group of English lads that were on our tour – Connor, James, David and Alex, a Scottish guy, Andrew and an Aussie girl, Greta. The English boys were only 19 but as usual I seemed to fit in quite well with people nearly half my age. I’m never sure if that is a good or a bad thing! At the other hostel, they also seemed to have forgotten about us so we all ended up walking to the train station to pick up our actual tickets. It all seemed very chaotic. Greta, Michele and I were sharing a compartment together. The boys were all at the other end of the train and we didn’t see them again till the next day. Our 4-berth compartment was also being shared by another TWO Vietnamese – we assume the elderly woman was the man’s mother and they topped and tailed on their bunk.

We spent a lot of the early part of the trip watching the Inbetweeners – it was part of Greta’s essential introduction to English culture. The Vietnamese guy could see us laughing away crazily but it was clear that he couldn’t really understand it without the subtitles. At one point he  went off and came back with a beer for me. The girls thought this was a bit sexist that he only offered it to me – but I’m sure they were just jealous. Besides he could hardly have afforded another 2 beers as well. I gave him a few Yo‘s back for the gift and eventually returned from the buffet car with beers for the girls and another one for my new Vietnamese friend. It seemed it was too much for him – he didn’t finish the second one.

Finally it was time for bed and I was rocked to sleep by the movement of the train. I needed a good night’s sleep to be ready for the next day’s trekking.