For specious reasons I’m deliberately being very English, no Robin Williams film quotes yet, I find myself wanting to avoid an international faux-pas involving being confused for an American in a country which went to war with America for several years. This concern is completely misplaced, the Vietnamese seem very happy to embrace all things Western, including a bit of American culture. They even refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon and there is CNN news playing on the TV in a hotel lobby, so it’s OK, the local North Vietnamese villagers are not going to take up arms against us in case we’re American sympathisers! I’m exaggerating of course but it’s amazing what a few erroneous comments from people who don’t actually know much can do to create mistaken preconceptions. The local people are not at all shy, they’re inquisitive and funny. Where people in Laos were a bit reticent and kept their distance from odd-looking men wearing strange protective plastic clothing, riding unfathomably large loud bikes, the Vietnamese don’t wait for an invitation, they look with their fingers. We are prodded and squeezed to test the protective elbow and shoulder pads, we are quizzed about our lineage and the bikes are thoroughly inspected by every passing man, woman and child. They test the accelerator twist grip, the brake levers, the suspension travel, the firmness of the tyres and the clickiness of the switches. They try to climb on to test the comparative height of the bike next to their scooter whilst (un)helpfully adding new waypoints to the Sat-nav! Every stop for food, drink and petrol turns into another game of trying to stop people from knocking the bike over without coming across as too grumpy or unkind. It’s fun to engage with local people again, we haven’t attracted this much attention since India, but it does mean that stopping for a quiet break becomes a logistical nightmare. At a rare service station on the highway between Sa Pa and Hanoi Lawrence and I had to tag team between eating beef-noodle soup in the crazy-busy cafe and fending off the unwanted attention from the bus-loads of locals who were trying to climb on our bikes with no concept of the outcome if they knock over a 300kg KTM!
First stop on the whistle-stop tour of North Vietnam is Cat Ba Island in Ha Long bay. We’re forced to stay an extra night in Ha Long town because the ferry timetable I found online was wrong and we missed the last boat to Cat Ba an hour ago. I’m slightly annoyed that we just nailed 300km at quite a considerable speed to try to make the final phantom ferry of the day but I’m slowly learning to keep my frustrations in check having been on the road at the mercy of the rules of “sod” for nearly 6 months. Staying in the main town is no bad thing; it’s a busy fishing port, tourist centre and full of interesting eateries. Cat Ba Island is one of about 2000 limestone islands which are dotted across Ha Long Bay. Some of them are tiny little islets and others have got whole towns perched on them. The vast majority are uninhabited (by humans) but covered in thick rain-forest type jungle. Apparently the islands were created by a family of Vietnamese dragons who were protecting the bay from Chinese invaders. The dragons dropped jade stones into the bay which grew into islands which created an impenetrable wall of defences, and you can see why this would work so well as the ferry has to weave between the rocks for an hour to get across the bay. Within minutes of leaving the ferry terminal you can’t see the mainland anymore, just a vast array of limestone rocks and islands growing out of the green water of the South China Sea. The bay is huge, several hundred km across and is a photographer's paradise. There's something about water that makes everything look good. The next day we take tourist boat trip around the bay, stopping to go snorkelling, kayaking and rock climbing around the islands. It’s been ages since I last engaged in such an unabashed tourist activity and it’s great. I’m touring Asia so why not be a tourist? And it’s the only way to see the stunning rock formations, coves, caves and colours of Ha Long Bay, unless you copy the Top Gear team’s idea from a few years ago when they came to Ha Long Bay and converted their bikes into a motorised pedalos … erm … no!
Food in Vietnam can be a hit and miss affair, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s a restaurant at all. Some restaurants have no prices (be wary, be very wary), some have no menu at all and only serve one thing (that can work, as long as you don’t mind what you get). And some have their menu swimming around in tanks and nets and you just point at what you want to eat, hoping that they kill and cook it first! So in true, old-school-teacher ranking, here’s what we’ve come across from good to bad, to inedible.
The fish and seafood eateries in Ha Long Bay are brilliant, especially the ones that are actually floating out on the water because they keep their food fresh by letting it swim around in the bay in its natural habitat. OK they’re kept in big nets and wooden tanks submerged in the sea to make it easier to catch what you want, but this has to be the freshest fish restaurant I’ve ever known. The huge meaty local fish (no idea what type it was) was plucked straight out of the sea, bashed over the head with a plank of wood and grilled in garlic, ginger and lemon for less than the price of a few frozen fish fingers. Finding food on the road can be a bit tricky, you pull into a small town hoping to find somewhere which serves lunch so ride slowly scanning for anywhere that looks like it’s got chairs, tables and people. Lawrence and I found just such an establishment at about 2pm full of locals who were busy drinking beer and munching on some shared table snacks. Food is a communal activity here, they just put a bowl of stuff on the table and you all share, great, let’s have some of that then (without the beer). What arrived was bar snacks - Vietnamese style: a plate of raw minced pork with chopped onions, some large leaves which were straight off the tree outside and some chilli sauce. You just get a small ball of raw pork, wrap it in a tree leaf, dip it in the chilli sauce and there’s your lunch! It wasn’t inedible and it didn’t cause food-poisoning but it was a long way from a pleasant, tasty culinary experience. In another town we found absolutely nowhere that serves food, although they do like to drink so there was a lot of dodgy bars serving cheap beer and raw pork. The only option was an American Diner themed ice cream parlour run by some teenagers who gave us some tasteless frozen pizza – not what I had in mind for an authentic travelling experience. But it beat the inedible offerings from a place which appeared to be busy and therefore well thought-off by the locals. Typical of Vietnam local restaurants it was essentially a metal-framed shed with some plastic furniture which is always too small and flimsy to be in any way comfortable, but then that’s our problem for being tall heavy Westerners, the locals seem to fit on the primary school sized stools with ease! There was a large poster on the wall with a lot of options for food, all in Vietnamese, all with no prices. We’ve learnt some basic words and they spoke a little bit of English so we agreed to have some noodles, chicken, and fresh vegetables. What we got didn’t break any trade description contract other than it was totally inedible. I have never known a chicken be so tough and chewy. This one had clearly had a hard life as a pack-horse before it became our lunch; no flavour, no taste, no meat, just gristle and bone and old skin. The green spinach-type leaves were cold and tasteless and the noodles were freeze-dried. And then the final insult was that we never checked the cost, so after giving up on trying to eat it we were stung nearly as much as the stunning fresh fish on a floating raft in Ha Long for a pile of gristle in a sweaty shed on a plastic chair in a one-horse town after the horse has died and his role has been taken on by a chicken who then died and became our lunch. OK, rant over, the good here is very good, and the bad is very bad, but then that’s the same anywhere, and that’s why I never go to KFC!