First things first. It should be known that E-Visas are a load of rubbish when entering Vietnam. The Gov.UK website brightly states that one can apply for an E-Visa on an embedded link. This is categorically misleading information! Firstly, UK citizens don’t require a visa if going for less than two weeks, secondly, the visa is only $25 when applied in the embassy (online it’s twice as much). Anyhow, the rules are again completely different for holders of a Polish passport as it turns out. We, when in Phnom Penh, went all the way to the Vietnamese embassy to check if the E-Visa was valid, they said yes (we’d heard border crossing were problematic with them and VOA was not an option).
Clutching our E-Visas, we boarded a bus bound for Ho Chi Minh city. This “luxury” overnight bus was to take us about 10 hours from Phnom Penh. Each bunk was meant to house two passengers but the beds were really quite narrow and someone of Simon’s European proportions basically couldn’t share, particularly with someone of Alex’s proportion. The only empty bunks left were in the back on the ground. This meant sliding onto a shelf with about 6cm of space between your face and the ceiling. You could only lie flat on your back, turning meant getting stuck comically in the air conditioning fan, unable to ever get out of the bus. Slotted into position, we made our way to the border, feigning sleep as the bus leapt and jarred across every bump on the highway.
We made the border by 6am, tumbling out of the bus (after carefully shuffling sideways out of our storage shelves) we stamped out of Cambodia. Stuck in that no-man’s land between Cambodia and Vietnam we queued up to get our passports verified. There was immediate concern over the E-Visas, particularly Simon’s and much muttering between the bus driver and the immigration police. We explained that the embassy had OK’d the visa but the police officer shook his head. He walked off, passports in hand, to talk to someone else and left us waiting in the stuffy hall with our bags whilst all the other passengers re-inserted themselves on their bus shelves. At this point, we longed to be able to lie in our 34cm of shelf space and be on our way to Ho Chi Minh but apparently our fate was to wait.
The driver came running back looking pretty shifty.
“Do you have $20?”
$20 later, we were queuing for an entry stamp with some happy looking immigration police.
Soon we were in Ho Chi Minh, taking a taxi to meet an old colleague of Alex’s. Except this taxi had a dodgy meter and it leapt from 50,000 Dong to 400,000 within 2 minutes of driving. This driver had clearly tripped the meter to take advantage. We resolved to only take the taxis recommended by Alex’s friend from then on: Vina-Sun as they were an honest price. After a sumptuous lunch and many G&T’s (the upside of not riding motorbikes to lunch!) we caught a plane to Hanoi.
We walked around the city- luckily we were there over the weekend so the street markets were up and busy. Stalls offering meat on stick, Banh-Mi and fish balls on skewers. It was bustling and friendly with only the occasional scooter trying to edge its way through the pedestrian-only crowd to ruin the mood. Women carrying baskets across their shoulders tried to convince us to buy dooughnuts or fried potato sticks. Weaving our way down the road, we ended up on the nostalgically named Lake of the returned sword which was well lit up in the evening boasting a beautiful bridge across to Jade Island.
The atmosphere at night was really special with a buzzing street atmosphere. We wanted to try some Pho (which Alex discovered she’d been mispronouncing forever – the correct pronunciation is more similar to Fuh as Fo is a rude word). We stumbled across a tiny restaurant which had it and also offered frog’s legs.
Walking on, we crossed Long Bien bridge which was particularly frightening thanks to the occasional suicidal scooter pelting down the wrong way along the narrow roadway. The steel was coming apart in some areas which made for a risky walk, but it was intriguing to see the backs of people’s homes and how they lived along the bridge.
We enjoyed walking so much we did it again the next day and saw Ho Chi Minh’s memorial which was expertly guarded by soldiers in clean, white uniforms. Music was piped from speakers hidden in the bushes and the guarding soldiers swayed imperceptibly to the melody, clearly moved by the music.
Just around the corner is the One Pillar Pagoda, a charming small pagoda on, as described, a single thick pillar surrounded by water. In the grounds were all these miniature rock gardens with bonsais, a recreation of an ideal island garden. There were also offering pots filled full with incense sticks and bunches of flowers everywhere. It gave a very scented and beautiful setting for the pagoda.
A short walk later, we stumbled across an island with a tiny house and no boat but a lady selling a sweet which looked like caramel on a stick, covered in coconut flakes and then dipped in toasted sesame. Alex had to have one and declared it delicious.
We walked on to the inspiringly named temple of literature. A beautiful set of temple buildings within a garden courtyard. As in any reputable tourist attraction, there was the chance to buy souvenirs, blessing cards, lucky amulets and of course, fridge magnets.
We walked on past the West Lake towards the oldest Pagoda in Hanoi: Tran Quoc Pagoda. Which in itself is a challenge as all road crossings appear to be simply suggested suicide spots.
We walked past small street sellers, selling baby turtles (hoping they are destined for life as a pet) and more dubious meat on sticks. Declining yet more opportunities to buy souvenirs, we came upon the pagoda which is beautiful when reflected in the water. It is even more beautiful when seen close up with all its perfect small Buddhas meditating in each nook.
After a few days of walking and visiting Hanoi, we decided to take a boat tour of Ha Long Bay and see its iconic and evocative scenery. We were picked up by bus in Hanoi and driven in relative luxury to the bay, waiting to board a boat and take a refreshing new form of transport.