The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

To go somewhere you’ve never been

on January 26, 2014

So apparently this third week in January is when most New Year’s Resolutions fall by the wayside. For those in gainful employment it’s also that painful stretch of time where bank balances as well as the temperature has most likely dropped well below freezing point. It’s a time to give yourself something to look forward to and what better way than to think of where you’ll go on holiday this year.

There are plenty of holiday and travel programmes on the myriad of cable channels these days. Highlighting far flung places and extreme modes of holidaying which often don’t look much like a holiday at all and some form of endurance test. My Mum was always rather fond of watching Wish You Were Here and Holiday back in the 80s and 90s, though would never dream of really wanting to go to typical sun, sea and sand places. Once to Tenerife was enough.

I just don’t think my parents really get holidays, unless it’s to Hong Kong which isn’t really a holiday and more of a catch up with family, friends and food. I rather think it’s because they see it as a waste of hard earned money rather than a small reward for working hard. I’m definitely sure they don’t see any benefit to broadening your horizons and I honestly can say if there’s no rice on the menu, let alone a mainly cold cuts buffet, then you can forget about it entirely.

So good job Nana Moon and I went to Hanoi, Vietnam last month then. Paddy fields aplenty. To go away, even for just three and a half days, without Husband and #1, 2 and 3 was decadent to say the least and so it was only fair that we packed in as much as possible to make it brilliantly worthwhile. And it so was.

We booked budget airline flights and the ‘special offer’ hotel that was available on Agoda at the time of booking. Always fills me with a bit of nerves when you do things like that even if we try and convince ourselves that what exactly do we need except a bed to sleep in. So when we arrive at Hanoi Airport and our booked pick up is no where in view after half an hour of waiting, we start wondering whether the ‘special offer’ hotel was rather less than special. As it turned out, we were just waiting at a different exit to the driver which saved us from thinking the hotel was a complete sham before we had even got going.

However, this waiting time gave us a real chance to take in a first impression of Vietnam. The Arrivals hall was filled with people waiting to greet someone coming back from somewhere. Many were carrying huge, colourful floral arrangements. It reminded me of something I’ve mentioned before, when all my family would go the airport to see someone off or collect them from coming back from somewhere, usually Hong Kong. Except they didn’t greet you with a big bunch of flowers. The other thing I noticed is the conservative way everyone was dressed, such a contrast to other South East Asian countries I’ve been to but then I guess they’re also not under a Communist government.

For a few short days, Nana Moon and I were Vietnamese dong millionaires. So could you be for as little as £30. Our hotel room had a ‘city view’ of Hanoi Old Town, I’ll let you judge that for yourself from the photos below. What it did have was a clear glass view into the en suite toilet and shower room. I mean, I’m good friends with Nana Moon but not that good. Thankfully the venetian blinds were in working order.

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Do you remember me saying that Nana Moon and I had a discussion about what 20 degrees Celsius will feel like? She reckoned short sleeves weather like a British summer. Well, I’ll just say that I’m glad I dug out my comfy jeggings and fleecy pyjamas for the occasion and took a scarf along too. Even when we were having our dinner on the rooftop terrace bar getting a bit windswept, Nana Moon was still not ready to concede that perhaps it was a bit chilly. That was the other thing I noticed in Hanoi, that only the travelling youths were wearing shorts and flip flops. Perhaps they don’t have room for long trousers in their fit-everything-in-for-a-year rucksacks.

Hanoi may be a bit cool and misty in December but all the better for power touring around the City. It was so exhilarating to be able to jot down five or six places we wanted to go and see and actually be able to tick them off the list in one day! No having to stop for toilet breaks, naps or eat in places that would have food suitable for children. No bag filled with nappies, snacks and wet wipes. It felt liberating and oddly strange too to be responsible just for yourself.

Except things are different now as I do need to be extra responsible for myself as I’m responsible for so many others too. Which made crossing the roads in Hanoi one of the most terrifying experiences ever. I’m not even sure there’s much point in having traffic lights or pedestrian only pavements as clearly the rules that you and I abide by are strictly not adhered to in Vietnam. Scooters, cars and motorbikes seemed to be coming from all directions, often as many as eight or ten across. They weren’t particularly going very fast, there just seemed to be a lot of them. You could wait patiently all day for a gap in the traffic but it would never come. So you have to do what all pedestrians do and just saunter across the road. It looked so easy. So I gave it a go. Never, ever deviate your view from straight ahead. Do not look for traffic coming in either direction. To do so is your downfall as I learnt every time I crossed the road. What natural instinct wouldn’t cause you to want to squeal loudly and run when you see five or six motorbikes and a car or two coming straight for you? That apparently is the incorrect thing to do. So next time you cross a road in Vietnam, just step out and saunter quite casually across the way.

Hanoi is not a big place but it bustles with activity. From 6am people are setting up their shops selling all kinds of merchandise and boiling the stock for steaming hot bowls of beef pho (pronounced fur). If they didn’t have a shop, selling from bicycles piled high and wide with shoes, baskets and even ceramics will do.

Every street corner had a vendor selling street food items of corn, chestnuts and various deep fried fritters. Women balancing baskets of food on a pole across their shoulders wandered up and down the streets. Street cafes consisting of barely off the pavement stools and tables sat right next to busy main roads with the food being cooked over what looked like an improvised oil drum. Eating in this way was obviously the most popular and sociable thing to do.

I was really looking forward to trying a bowl of authentic beef pho having been introduced to the dish in Singapore. It’s a very simple meal of rice noodles and thinly sliced beef but the flavour is all in the stock. We looked up a place that was recommended by others and went in search of it. It was so inconspicuous sandwiched between two shops welding metal that we missed it the first time. To be honest, had it not been recommended, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have ventured in. That’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself now. I appear to have become terribly precious over a layer of grease and grime in an eating establishment. At least there was no one hocking up into a spittoon behind us as they once did in the dim sum restaurants of Hong Kong before the SARS outbreak. The beef pho was really yummy and for £2.40, even at inflated tourist rate, was well worth it.

The other thing you’re always warned about as a tourist is never drink non bottled water or have ice in your drinks. So it was with fascination and admiration when Nana Moon ordered a cold drink. With ice. The day before we were going on a trip to Halong Bay. Disappointingly nothing happened.

I live in Singapore where there are some beautiful and ornate temples all around. Yet I’ve been to a sum total of one in five years. But given three days in Hanoi and we had to visit nearly all that were listed in the guide book. Funny that.

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What is the heritage of Vietnam? I recognised lots of Chinese characters in the scripts of the temples. Some old French villas still stand and not far from them we came across a massive statue of Lenin in a small park surrounded by busy cross section of roads. There’s the remains of a B-52 sticking out of a fairly small pond surrounded by a labyrinth of alleys in a residential area. But the main star of course is Ho Chi Minh and off we went to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Presidential Palace.

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It’s always a bit nerve wracking visiting anywhere with a heavily armed military presence carrying bayonets. We actually had to get a clearance ticket to cross over a road inside the Memorial Park. Who isn’t familiar with the name Ho Chi Minh even if we don’t know a great deal about what he stood for and what he achieved. It’s been an incredible 45 years since his passing but there are queues of people lining up to pay their respects to his embalmed body and tour around the grounds of the Presidential Palace and view the rooms he lived and worked in, even the cars he was gifted from the former Soviet Union.

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Mention Vietnam and those who have been will highly recommend making a trip to Halong Bay. Even stay overnight on a boat. It was a bumpy three hour mini bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Along the way we were entertained by our guide Song who reassured us we would not be kidnapped and taken to China to be sold off as prostitutes, male and female alike. Should we have laughed at that? He obviously knew of most tourists thoughts on the perception of dog meat being available on some menus. He explained that it is widely believed the consumption of dog meat helps to wipe clean the ills of a bad month. I’ve come to conclude that in every country there is always something on the menu that is unpalatable to other cultures and personal taste.

From the marina at Halong, it’s a short boat ride to Halong Bay. On a clear, warmer day the views must be breathtaking. As it happens, a cold, windy, misty day made it atmospheric and calm. I’m not keen on water based activities, mostly because of my fear of water as a rubbish swimmer. I once beached myself on the sand in St Lucia thinking I was still in quite deep water being still a few meters from the shore. So I wasn’t keen on the idea of kayaking around the Bay before actually arriving there.

You didn’t have to kayak as there were mini boats available but that seemed a cop out. I was with Nana Moon after all and she makes me feel a bit more brave and besides I didn’t want to deny her this opportunity either. So with trepidation I got into the kayak and off we went. I found I was surprisingly good at it even if we did take a 20 meter detour to turn either left or right. It was quite amazing. Surrounded by these glorious limestone rocks and quietly paddling around taking it all in. My preference is usually climbing up high to the tops of mountains for something outstanding but this was something remarkable too. Can you imagine living all your life on a boat in these waters?

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If there’s one thing I know I wish I had done more of before turning forty, it would be the amount of travel I have experienced. Yet I think to travel more after forty would grant me a better appreciation of where we choose to go. Not necessarily to far flung places but all the places yet to be explored in the UK too. I have a nearly niece living on the Isle of Stornoway right now with ambitions of travelling to South Korea next year and I want her to realise those ambitions because opportunities to do so once the moment passes can be hard to come by again.

Although it was only three and a half days we spent in Hanoi, I felt Nana Moon and I made good use of the time to see as much as we could. There was no long leisurely lie in as I imagined being on holiday without #1, 2 and 3 would bring but what could be more invigorating than making the most of time to explore and appreciate a whole new place you’ve never been before.

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