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Saturday 31 Oct 2015
Hanoi, Vietnam

Meeting our new travel companions

After a much needed sleep for a couple of hours, we headed down to the welcome meeting, where we would meet our guide and travelling companions for the next two weeks.  We’d seen everyone’s names on the noticeboard and had a guess at who would be in couples or travelling solo. 

The first to arrive was a German couple in their mid-30s, Chris and Isabelle.  We introduced ourselves and I spoke to them in German.  I’m looking forward to practicing my German a little on this trip.  We ordered a round of Hanoi beers as the rest of the group arrived.  John and Annie were retired teachers from Chester, although John himself was from South Wales.  The next couple, John and Lisa, were from the Midlands, and the last person to arrive was Sara, a 26-yr-old from Devon.  The final member of the group hadn’t yet arrived at the hotel so we started without her. 

Our trip leader was a Vietnamese man named Nguyen Nguyen.  The Vietnamese language has six tones, indicated by numerous accents and squiggles on the letters.  Nguyen is one of the most common names in Vietnam and our leader had it twice, although with different pronunciations.  It sounds a little like ‘noo-wen’ but the tones indicate stresses in different places. He tried to teach us  but we struggled to imitate him properly, except to say that his first name dropped down at the end, while his surname had more of a wave – up down up.  Without the proper keyboard, I can’t even type it correctly here.

Nguyen comes from Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of Vietnam.  He’s worked for Intrepid for several years and knew the route well, which was reassuring from the start.  His English, while very good, took a bit of practice to listen to.  In Vietnamese, each word is just one syllable, so Nguyen had a habit of dropping the end of words or syllables and we had to get used to filling the blanks ourselves.  The welcome meeting was very thorough, but a bit too long for a group of people who’d travelled 24 hours to get there.  After 2 hours, most people were falling asleep or had lost track of what he was saying.  I translated a few sections for the Germans, who were definitely struggling to keep up with Nguyen’s English.  His suggestion of creating a tip kitty for the various drivers and local guides we would have during the trip was a good one, but introduced too late during the meeting, and so it caused a lot of confusion.

Eventually we finished the meeting and piled into a couple of taxis to head over to the Old Quarter for dinner.  I’d almost forgotten it was my birthday by that point as we’d been awake and travelling for so long.  When we reached the backpacker area of town, it was unmistakeably Hallowe’en.  The streets and bars were full of people in fancy dress and the windows were filled with pumpkins, ghosts and cobwebs.  I had no idea they celebrated Hallowe’en in Vietnam!  I suspect it was only in the backpacker areas, but it still put a smile on my face.

Nguyen had reserved a table upstairs in one of the restaurants, rather than sitting us outside with the bustle of activity all around.  In some ways, this was a good idea for a first group dinner – we could actually hear ourselves talk for a start – but it missed out the atmosphere that reminds me so much of my last visit.  The food was good, but as the only other people there appeared to be another Intrepid group, I felt we were a bit segregated and hope this wasn’t the way our whole trip would go.  John and Lisa went off to find a restaurant their friends had recommended instead.  The nice thing about Intrepid trips is that you’re not obliged to stay with the group the whole time and have some freedom to do your own thing, but equally there is a group of new people to get to know and share experiences with.

After dinner, most of us were ready to crash so got taxis back to the hotel.  We knew the Rugby World Cup Final was in progress, but hadn’t spotted anywhere that seemed to be showing it and didn't have the energy to walk around the Old Quarter looking for it.  The irony was not lost on me that the Rugby World Cup was being hosted in my home country, with the final being played on my birthday, and I had managed to book myself on a trip halfway aroung the world in country which doesn't play rugby.  Ailsa and I headed straight up to our room when we got back, without realising John and Annie had persuaded the hotel staff to find the rugby on the TV in the bar – if only I’d known, I could have watched the end of the match with them and seen the All Blacks make history by retaining the Webb Ellis trophy.  But instead, I was asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow…

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Scenic Vietnam 2015

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18 months after I came home from my travels, I finally dusted off the backpack and set out for Asia again. Vietnam was one of my favourite countries and remained high on the list of places to revisit. This time, I went back on the road with Intrepid

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