Day one of my Vietnam and Thailand adventure didn't go quite to plan. Mainly because 4 days before I was due to leave, I managed to fall down my stairs and fracture my foot. No, I wasn't pissed, yes I was tipsy, no Stevie didn't finally snap and push me, yes, I AM serious that on a weekend when the snow didn't stop and roads and pavements were lethal, I managed to fall down my stairs. In my house. So, after a couple of tearful visits to Kings hospital, a frantic call to my amazing travel agent (www.bambootravel.com if you ever need one for this neck of the woods) and a lot of kindness from Stevie, I found myself sat in a wheelchair at gate 35 at Heathrow terminal 3 with what has been christened my "Wally boot"- a removable cast- about to board a flight to Hanoi via Bangkok. The flight was uneventful bar the two small children in front of me who screamed for 11 hours straight, and by the end of it my foot was in immense pain- the swelling from the flight combined with the fracture and the lack of sleep led to a very "sorry for myself" sob session on the next leg of the trip. But landing in Hanoi put paid to all of that- I was greeted with a wheelchair, ushered through the "Diplomats only" lane at passport control, my bags were gathered up and I was placed in the capable hands of my guide for the next 9 days, Vung and our driver, Kin. Yes Stevie, I HAVE managed to get their names right - first time! Because I asked them to write them down on meeting. Vung looked slightly perplexed at the state of his charge but got on with the job in hand, carrying my bags, hoisting me up into the people carrier that is to ferry us around for the rest of our trip. The 20km ride from the airport to my hotel "La Dolce Vita"- was...interesting. I had been made aware, thanks to my trusty Lonely Planet that Hanoi's streets were not easy to negotiate, the horn is used as driving punctuation, it's not for threatening, and it's not for gratitude, it seems to me that the Vietnamese use it as background music. Mopeds appear to be the favourite means of transport, but don't let that make you think it's calm. Or ordered. I saw up to 4 people on each one, with baskets strapped to the back that carried everything from live pigs to dead chickens- fencing panels, recycling, bananas, a fridge and for one seriously determined rider, what looked like a whole set of scaffolding poles.
Vung began his role as my guide by pointing out the interesting sights- including the residential housing in Hanoi- which tends to be very skinny and tall. The land is owned by the locals, but it's not cheap, so they buy small plots and build upwards. In addition to this, a lack of expendable income (and perhaps lack of access to "DIY SOS" on catch up TV), means that the Hanoi house owners only paint the front of their houses- sometimes with great care, attention and detail- but leave the rest as bare concrete, which results in an "unfinished" look to the whole city. These people NEED Kirsty and Phil. I passed makeshift barbers on the street, men with a chair and a razor, giving cheap haircuts and hair-raisingly close shaves to the local workers. I passed street sellers touting what looked like mini doughnuts. And I took particular interest in the Vietnamese schoolgirls (insert own Jimmy Saville joke here), resplendent in traditional dress, but with westernised jeans and heels poking out underneath. I guess all girls rebel in some way, and in Vietnam, this seems to be one of the preferred options. I arrived at my hotel, clean and well kept with smiley, welcoming staff, who showed me to my room, but not before three of them got together to poke at my leg/foot and laugh at the fact that I was travelling alone. The main question was "do you have no family or friends?". Yes I said, but none of them wanted to come with me. Cue much laughter and discussion in Vietnamese which I can only assume centred around the fact that I was a weirdo.
I had a two hour nap followed by a shower and then met Vung again in reception for a walk around the old quarter.
He took me to the lake that marks the centre of Hanoi, and apparently has a giant turtle in residence. It's mate has recently died and is preserved in a glass case in the temple situated on the island in the middle of said lake. I didn't really understand this part much, except that Vung was at pains to make me realise how special these turtles were and that they symbolise luck and something else that I didn't understand but could be peace??
From the temple, Vung took me to what appears to be a monument to the King, where the locals practice Tai Chi and other Asian arts/exercise each morning. I wondered if this is the right time to ask him to translate my Japanese symbol tattoo that I had done at the age of 18, and which supposedly means something to do with Tai Chi, but decided against it in case I didn't like the answer. He advised me that if I am up in time, I should make the effort to come down and watch, as it is both surreal and relaxing. I asked him what the best time to do this was, he says 5am. I laugh in his face and say "you've got to be shitting me". He stares at me in shock and then slowly a smile creeps across his face. I think we just made friends. We hopped back into Hanoi old quarter, where we took in the assault on the senses that is the street markets and Vung insisted that we stop for me to rest my leg. The thing is that I was so entranced by this city and wanted the opportunity to see as much as possible that I was ignoring the shooting pains through my foot. But he was right, so after a slightly heated discussion which ended with his demand that I "take it easy" and his reassurance that he is a "modern man" and therefore will take care of me, we stopped at a street cafe, where he had a coffee that looked like mud and I had a very pleasant freshly squeezed orange juice with only a dash of mud at the bottom. He then delivered me back to my hotel, where half an hour later he had arranged that I was picked up by some toothless dude on one of those incredibly touristy bikes. Yes I looked like a knob, but I couldn't walk anymore and it was the best way to see the city.And boy am I glad that I chose to do it- despite a few sideways "what a wanker" glances from the more seasoned Ex-pats, which once they saw my Wally Boot changed instantly to pity, it was a most enjoyable experience.At this time of day there weren't that many western tourists around- I discovered where they were all hiding later on in the evening- so I really did feel like I was seeing Hanoi in it's true form as much as i could. Toothless dude was pretty ancient and got tired after about half an hour and walked me the rest of the tour, but that was fine, I managed to get more pictures thanks to his calm pace. Most of the streets are named "hang" something, and each "something" after the "hang" bit is a different item for sale- there is a whole street for shoes, a whole street for locks and door handles (!), a whole street for vegetables etc. The food stalls were fascinating, with Vietnamese stallholders husking corn on the street, washing it in rainwater and then offering up to tourists and locals alike. Being a bit of a five-a-day Nazi, I was amazed at the various fruit and veg on sale- a lot of which I didn't even recognise- and everything looked so FRESH. I have two more days here later on in the week and have asked Vung to book me into a cookery course- they do them on street corners, cooking with local produce over a gas ring!It was fascinating seeing what was on offer, beef, duck, chicken, frogs....um, I might give the frogs a miss, but the duck looks worth a try.I laughed along with toothless dude when a Vietnamese lady screamed and jumped in front of our bike when she saw a dead rat. Until I saw said dead rat. It was bloody massive. I'm hoping not to run into one of them in a hurry.The noise was deafening, the colours vibrant with lanterns and posters filling every available space, and the locals keen to help but also keen to sell you anything that they have to offer- the constant smile and "no thanks" could get a bit grating after a few days I would think.And so came the end of my tour. Vung had told me to pay the toothless dude no more than 100,000 dong- about £3. I did, and then was promptly asked (even though he had feigned the ability to speak NO English on our hour long tour) for "extra for beer". I declined, but thought, what a jolly good idea and went in search of a bar.Now, I think this may be where I made a mistake. As I am travelling alone, I purposefully went looking for a bar where I might meet other travellers and make some friends, so I ended up at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, where I limped in on my crutches and ordered a vodka and orange (having asked the barman if he had any wine, only to be told that "yes we do, but it tastes like piss, so I wouldn't if I were you"). Anyway, I quite liked it, sat at the bar, composing this blog in my notebook and watching the young, travelling world go by. And that's what they were. Young. I was the oldest person in there by about 10 years- the girls were all blonde and bronzed, with strategically "messed up" hair and the guys were all just shaking off the last days of puberty spots and covering the evidence up with 5 days of fashionable stubble. Everyone was wearing Havianas and ankle bracelets made out of string. But I felt happy and safe, and that was important to a crippled woman travelling alone. Until one of the pretty blondes came up to me, knocked over my crutches, announced to her friend that she had just "bumped into the crippled woman" (note the use of woman here, not girl), and then proceeded to ask me to taste her drink as i was a sensible grown up and it didn't taste quite right. I did, and it didn't, so she got herself another one (triple vodka cranberry) and stumbled off to poke her tongue in the ear of a Justin Bieber lookalike.Time for dinner. Vung had recommended The LadyBird, a restaurant run by some friends a few minutes walk from the bar, so I went in and realised my mistake immediately- I was the only one in there. Well, apart from the teenage daughter and son of the owner who were both doing their homework at the bar. Too late, I had to order. One terrible glass of wine, a vegetable soup and a vegetable curry that tasted like it was out of a tin, later, and I paid my £4 (including generous tip) and left for what should have been a 5 minute hop back to La Dolce Vita. Except I got lost (surprised Bex???) so it took 45 minutes, but never mind, I got here.And so, here I am, sat in the hotel lobby, writing my first blog entry from Vietnam. So far, so good, but I can't WAIT to get into bed...I'm a night's sleep down and have a flight to Dien Bien Phu in the morning.So I bade you farewell and look forward to updating you tomorrow night.Over and outHopalongx