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Good night China, good morning Vietnam

July 2, 2013

I’m sitting in my hut, under a mosquito net, listening to the thunder roll rain fall on the corrugated iron roof. The weather may have taken a turn for the worst but the Tiger Balm I’ve applied to my back is scorching at least. I don’t know what I’ve done to it but it really frigging hurts, and the actual burn on my leg – a result of stepping off a moto-taxi the exhaust pipe side in Hanoi, is looking particularly gruesome. Aside from that, I’ve got a load of insect bites and have just walked five kilometres in flip-flops through the rain, including over boulders in the road where they had exploded it with dynamite. Still, I love Vietnam.

I’m at the Whisper of Nature bungalows on Cat Ba island. It’s all been rather DSC_0459strange – the bungalows are basically tacked onto the end of a small Vietnamese village, and it’s a ‘make your own entertainment’ kind of place, but it’s cool. Cat Ba island is in Hulong Bay and boasts some of the most impressive scenery in Vietnam. The bay has huge limestone krasts, floating housing of Vietnamese fishermen amongst them and emerald waters. Earlier I went kayaking – the only way to get to the beach for swimming. Just go that way and turn right” the guy said, pointing towards the infinite horizon between two huge krasts. ‘Erm, Okay’, I replied. I’ve never actually kayaked before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. I felt a bit like Leonardo Di Caprio and those French people in The Beach as I set off in the surprisingly empty waters. Remember that song by All Saints? That was going round and round in my head. The beach wasn’t quite as nice as that one they got to in the film though and the sea wasn’t quite as clear as Thailand, but it was pretty cool, just rocking up on the empty sand in my kayak, swimming and scavenging for cool shells.

Sleepy Hulong Bay is a total contrast to Hanoi. The Lonely Planet promised DSC_0350‘this is the Asia we dream of’ (though it also says that about Phnom Penh and Laos) and I guess it wasn’t far off. In the sweltering heat the streets are cluttered with street food stalls, child-size chairs and tables where people sit drinking Vietnamese coffee (made with condensed milk- I am totally addicted) or dirt cheap beer. The roads are predictably chaotic – motorbikes and mopeds coming at you from every direction, zebra crossings laughable pointless, people in those pointed hats carrying baskets of fruit and vegetables. I arrived there at five in the morning on the night train from Sapa and the city was already wide awake – a mob of taxi and motor-taxi drivers baying for custom outside the station. I arrived at the Little Hanoi Hostel with a few other sleepy DSC_0362travellers and was so grateful for the coffee and the lovely breakfast they provided. If you find yourself in Hanoi, I can’t recommend that place enough. Anyway, it was too early to check in so I ventured out into the city to go to see Ho Chi Minh… my second pickled dictator on this trip. The mausoleum is only open between 8am and 11am so you have to be keen. Plenty of Vietnamese were – there was already a huge queue. You get a bit closer to Uncle Ho than you do to Mao, you can even see his wispy beard but he looks just as waxen. I did a few other tourist things in Hanoi, but you can read about them in the guidebooks. My favourite thing was the streets of the Old Quarter, each one having a trend for certain items – the haberdashery street, the metal kitchen appliance street, the Buddhist paraphernalia street, and the street of shabby cafés, each one looking straight out of a film set, where you can sit and watch the that Asia you dream of happening over an iced, sweet coffee: the perfect Hanoi experience.

On my last day in the city I did a Vietnamese cooking class at the Countryside Restaurant. I’ll be blogging about that in detail over on my foodie brothers and sisters, the Intrepid Herbivores’ site, but I learnt to cook green papaya salad, vegetarian spring rolls and tofu with tomato sauce. I found I have a knack for rolling rice paper which I intend to put to good use when I return to the UK.

And what to say of my last week of so in China? I went to Yangshuo in the Li DSC_0312Valley – nice krast scenery but nowhere near as beautiful as here in Vietnam. The most memorable event there was walking into the market and seeing a skinned dog hung up over a cage of sleeping (?) ginger kittens. I spent three days in Kunming, waiting for my Vietnam visa and reading The Beach (much better than the film actually) and trying but failing to download Apocalypse Now (much better than any other film ever made, actually) on iTunes. I originally intended to explore Yunnan province more, but reading about South East Asia and knowing my passage to Vietnam would be secure in a few days, I was compelled to head closer to the boarder instead. Yuanyang is famous for it’s rice terraces so I stopped there for a few days, and this turned out to be my favourite place in China. I was the only tourist in the village of Xinjie, but that didn’t bother me as I set off on a hike around the minority villages where the women dress in heavy black clothes with dazzling embroidery. Walking through the maze of rice terraces to get from one village to the other was fun. I had to sneakily follow some school kids, but I think they must have seen my and thought it was very amusing, seeing this pale European tottering along the thin pathways between the flooded pools of rice.

I was the only tourist on the bus to the boarder too, a source of much curiosity to the other passengers and the woman who came on selling drinks who just whipped out her phone and took a photo of me. It felt like I was well and truly ‘off the beaten track’. Even the guards at the border at Hekou seemed to think it was very odd that an English person should be crossing there.

Then I was in Sapa, the mountain town up on the rice terraces of Vietnam (the DSC_0327terraces aren’t as pretty as the China one but the landscape is more dramatic), and firmly back on the beaten track with British accents audible everywhere. I decided to throw myself into the SE Asia backpack stereotype by going out, getting drunk on beer and cheap vodka and being too hungover to really appreciate the gorgeous countryside the next day.

Whilst all this was happening, thousands of miles away in France they were talking about my book, Vanity Game, on national TV along with the likes of John Le Carre’s latest. National TV! Trés super-cool!

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