Card games, dead bodies and goodbyes

We left Cat Ba Island around 7:30am and spent the entire 4 hour boat journey playing cards (Shithead, Trumps and Sevens) and laughing hysterically at Tasha’s explanations of the rules to her favourite Christmas day card game, Newmarket. The other members of our group were being very quiet by comparison, many of them asleep with the heads hanging out the window or resting on the table in front of them.

At Halong City, we walked into a restaurant where our lunch arrived, and kept on arriving . . . soup, stir fried squid and vegetables, chips, morning glory with garlic, meaty fish chunks in curry sauce, sweet and sour beef, noodles with pork and seafood, a whole barbequed fish in blackbean sauce, and rice! It was enough to feed 50 people, not 5!!!

Back in Hanoi, it was still raining. I applied for my visa extension (I really don’t understand how people can claim to have ‘done’ whole countries in the space of 2 or 3 weeks), Sam and I booked a 2 day/3 night trek to the northern highlands of Sapa, and I had an argument with the waiter in The Golden Drum, who had put chicken in the prawn and vegetable spring rolls I’d ordered. No amount of explaining could make him understand exactly what was wrong with the dish and why I couldn’t eat it.

I awoke the next morning having had a very strange and vivid dream about being very sick (a fever and lots of blackouts) and doctors finally diagnosed my illness as one caused by a ‘snow leech’ which had found its way inside my body and had been living there for months. At the time of the diagnosis I only had minutes left to live and I was given a bowl of mashed corn beef and carrots (and one other ingredient I can’t remember) and instructed to eat it as fast as I could. I’ve had a number of vivid dreams whilst I’ve been travelling but that has to be one of the more bizarre . . .

As the rain still hadn’t cleared up this morning, we caught a taxi over to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. We queried the price initially with a taxi driver who’d just pulled up outside our hotel, and were quoted an incredible $10, which we immediately refused to pay. After a great deal of bartering the final price offered to us was $5, which was more than we’d wanted to pay but which we were just about to agree on when the helpful lady at our hotel overheard and informed us that the journey should cost no more than 30,000VND (under $2). She subsequently called another taxi for us. It was a metered taxi and when we arrived at the Mausoleum, the meter had stopped at 22,000VND ($1.38). It just goes to show how much the locals try to rip us off. Anyone would normally think they’d scored a bargain, having managed to haggle 50% off the asking price. However, little would we have known that this still a hugely inflated price, over 3 times more than the real cost of the service.

We arrived at the Mausoleum to find hundreds of Vietnamese (and a small scattering of westerners) queuing up to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh, affectionately known as Uncle Ho. It has become a place of pilgrimage for many of the Vietamese, and also the destination for many school trip so it seems.
There were security guards all over the grounds, displaying their authority by repremanding you if you stepped out of line (which included laughing, talking too loudly or literally stepping out of [the orderly] line in which you had to queue to gain entrance to the Mausoleum). They wore crisp white uniforms and carried spear guns, and 3 of them marched passed us as we queued, looking like they’d just stepped out of Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Funny Walks.’
As we entered the Mausoleum, it was almost as if you could feel death in the air, the air conditioning was turned up so high. The lady behind me in the queue kept prodding me in the back as she lost her balance on numerous ocassions trying to look at Uncle Ho rather than where she was going!
His body, as it lay inside its glass coffin, a soft blue light upon his face, looked almost like a waxwork. His skin was tight and devoid of the wrinkles you’d normally expect a 79 year old man (dead or alive) to have. As I left the Mausoleum following my surreal whistle stop tour, I pondered over how strange it was that Hanoi’s primary tourist attraction was a dead body in a glass box.
When we arrived back in Hanoi’s old quarter, we ate lunch at Trong Khach Restaurant, just around the corner from our hotel. It’s got paper place mats with pictures on, some very friendly and accommodating staff, and some interesting items on the menu such as fried pumpkin leaf with garlic. I never used to eat much garlic until I left the U.K, but now I don’t enjoy my food unless its got huge chunks of the stuff chopped up in it. I also discovered that I’d lost the ability to use a knife and fork when we were preseented with them on our Halong Bay tour. It’s strange how easily you adapt to new processes and ideas. I’m sure I’m going to be visiting my local supermarket at home and trying to bater down the price of a cucumber!
Sam and I said goodbye to Emma, Tasha, and Neil this evening as they embarked upon their 22 hour bus journey to Savannaket, Laos. We made a great little group and they’ve certainly made my last couple of weeks in Vietnam a lot of fun. So 5 became 2 . . . Sam and I almost didn’t get on our train to Sapa, as the incompetant guy at our hotel failed to give us the correct tickets and then arranged for us to be taken to the train station 15 minutes after our train was due to leave! Fortunately alarm bells started ringing in my head just in time for him to correct his mistake.
Photo to follow.
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