1st - 4th April: Hanoi

Accommodation:  Royal Palace Hotel II  -  £18 per night, double room

After a very easy start to the morning, slowly packing in readiness for Hanoi and giving the apartment a barely needed tidy, I headed to Hong Kong Station where, very conveniently, you can check in your baggage, how cool is that! After a peruse around the shopping mall and a spot of breakfast I was soon aboard the Airport Express for, thankfully, the last time. The airport is, at best functional, with a wide variety of restaurants & a few shops but little artistic or aesthetic merit. At least there was free wi-fi to while away the time.

Stormy Hong Kong weather had resulted in a delay and a subsequently turbulent, though otherwise eventless, flight which arrived in Hanoi an hour late. Unfortunately this and the time taken to go through the, pretty efficient, Visa On Arrival procedure meant that my very affable young driver, Nghia, had been waiting around for two hours. I’d arranged my visa through www.vietnamvoa.com before leaving England as they had good reviews and were the cheapest, $8 for the approval letter then $45 on arrival. With undiminished good nature Nghia  respectfully asked if I'd mind speaking to him during the hour-long journey as he was trying to improve his, already good, English. This is something I was to encounter often throughout my journey and been generally happy to do, it's not as though I didn't have the time after all, and it would also give me the chance to get a small insight into life in the country. All I asked in return was that he teach me how to cross the notorious Hanoi roads.

After a warm welcome at the grandly titled Royal Palace Hotel II, which is neither a palace nor particularly regal, I'd quickly dumped the bags and was exploring the streets armed with a map and very little idea, maybe a quick read of the Rough Guide I'd been carrying would've helped!?!? I wrongly expected there'd be bars near the night market, unbeknown to me I was one street out, doh! Initially I was unconcerned as it was nice to stretch the legs but after about an hour going in the same direction I was getting hot and very thirsty so decided to head back. Imagine my surprise at discovering I'd blindly walked past two bars within ten minutes of the hotel. My enquiry about a beer was greeted with a mardy-arsed "we close at 11!", as it was 10:20 I didn't see her problem but knew I'd be pushing it if I tried for a third after two swifties. Good thing as it happened as Coyen Restaurant down the road fed & watered me at 10:55, I even got service with a smile. This I repaid by eating there every night, great food it was to! First lesson was learnt, legally bars & restaurants in Vietnam close at 11pm.

No need for an alarm in Hanoi as the beeping of horns starts well before the dawn chorus, even in a relatively secluded room the constant drone of motorbike engines & horns is inescapable. Off I went again, map in hand, this time to find a Vietcombank ATM which, apparently, didn't charge for withdrawals. Fact is they all charge but the two cheapest I found to be Vietcombank & Agribank, which charged 1%. Task completed I'd decided to visit the Hao Lo Prison, the notorious 'Hanoi Hilton', to get a bit of insight into the various conflicts of which I was, hitherto, pretty ignorant. An hour or so spent wandering around served its purpose as a good introduction to events which have shaped the country

With cultural requirements met for the day it was time to find the infamous 'International Bia Hoi Corner', by now armed with directions from my Rough Guide. Task completed I took my, ridiculously small, seat on one of the corners and was soon quaffing the, surprisingly delicious & refreshing, Bia Hoi. I was soon chatting to a London couple and exchanging experiences of the journey so far & to come, standard procedure when 'travelling' I quickly learnt. They went and were soon replaced by Danes Oliver & Alexander and Filipino designer Jof Sering, this was to be the core group of the afternoon. Others came and went from Australia & more Brits, plenty of good conversation and loads of Bia. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to discover that the bar staff seemed only able to count to six resulting in a bill of £3 for 5 hours drinking, marvellous! Some much needed food at the excellent Coyen & it was an early night for me with a bit of TV to finish off a great day

After a good nights sleep, I set off mid-morning to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Museum and War Museum. The walk there takes you through an altogether more salubrious neighbourhood of grand embassies & houses set along tree-lined boulevards. Unfortunately by failing to read my guide yet again meant I was too late for the Mausoleum so I made do with continuing my education at the Museum, under the tutelage of a very pleasant young lady who was still very much in touch with the party message. From there it was to the War Museum to see lots of old military equipment, a common theme throughout Vietnam I was to discover. After a bit of brekkie at the very pleasant cafe there my thirst buds could hear the Bia Hoi calling so it was back to The Corner for a session not too dissimilar to the previous day with the same bill at the end of it, I could get used to this! A final visit to my favourite (only) restaurant in Hanoi saw out another enjoyable day, a 6am train the next morning demanded an early night, the Bia Hoi ensured I had no problem sleeping :}

Since returning home I have learnt of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, which is an Australian charity whose work ranges from rescuing children from trafficking to teaching them life skills. Even simple things like arranging a game of football means so much to these kids. I'd one day like to return to Hanoi to help out in some way but for the moment will support their unbelievable work with the occasional donation through Paypal. For me it's a small price to pay to bring a smile to a childs face, take a look at their website and get inspired!

http://www.bluedragon.org/    https://www.facebook.com/bluedragonvietnam