19.06.2014 - 26.06.2014
We were very excited to be moving onto Vietnam, a country we had heard so much about in terms of its natural beauty, history and culinary delights. We were also really looking forward to joining our friends Grant and Corinne for a long weekend in Hanoi and Halong Bay. Grant and Corinne also live and work in the Cayman Islands but are temporarily based in Hong Kong, so we took the opportunity to coordinate meeting up for a few days.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country's second largest city after Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). Like most Westerners, we had heard of and seen a movie or two about the American War in Vietnam but we also learned that Vietnam drew many of its influences from the Chinese, who occupied the country for over a thousand years. Later came the French and the period of colonialism that lasted for approximately 100 years until from 1954. The Americans were simply the last in a long line of invaders who sadly left the most serious ecological and human impact on Vietnamese people's lives. The war killed millions of innocent civilians, the massive U.S. bombing of both North and South Vietnam left the country in ruins and the U.S. Army’s use of herbicides such as Agent Orange not only destroyed Vietnam’s natural environment but also caused serious health problems that continue to be genetically transmitted from generation to generation. Despite their troubled and difficult past, we found the Vietnamese to be genuinely interested in foreigners and almost always greeted us with a smile.
We arrived the day before Grant and Corinne and used the extra time to explore the Old Quarter known for its history and architecture, try some of the street food we had heard so many great things about and take care of a few things (postage, banking etc.). We immediately felt at ease in this city of 6.5 million people and almost 4 million motorcycles. We had already spent 3 weeks in India so to us, the streets were very clean and organized in comparison, although I still had to hold Greg's hand/arm to cross the street. Stepping into oncoming traffic expecting the hundreds of motorcycles to simply adjust their trajectory did not (and does not!) come very naturally to me. The advice given to tourists is as follows:
Be relaxed and self-confident.
Walk slowly with purpose.
Never step back.
Not for the faint of heart! She's clearly not the slightest bit phased:
We visited Hoa Lo prison which was built and used by the French for political prisoners. Most of the prison was demolished but the Gatehouse remains as a museum:
Hoan Kiem Lake or "Lake of the returned sword":
Most people in Vietnam cannot afford to buy a car and as one guide explained, the average Vietnamese person gets his/her first scooter at age 16 (probably starts driving before the age of 10!) and it is not unusual for the mother or father to own two, depending on the need.
Another thing we noticed and loved about Vietnam is that street food is not only delicious, it is also very cheap! The average dish costs about $2-3 (or $10 if you are a famished tourist that doesn't ask for the price beforehand). Yes we got shafted by a cunning street vendor/businesswoman but not much harm done and another lesson to add to the growing list
Can anything else fit on this bicycle?? Probably.
Exhausted by our day's excursions and the heat, we went back to the hotel for a quick nap before our friends' arrival to make sure we were in good form for the weekend. We spent the evening catching up over a nice dinner and some local beers.
We noticed the massive crab in this seafood shop and had to go in for a closer look:
BMI machines are rolled around the streets in case one should feel the need to do a quick health check before that next beer or late night snack.
The results were not as expected
We had booked a 3-day tour of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its thousands of limestone karsts, and were picked up at 8am the next day for the 3-hour drive to the coast. Half way through, our guide informed us that a storm was brewing and that we might not be able to spend the night on the boat. The local authorities have been trying to tighten security in Halong Bay after a few tragic accidents in recent years, and if they deemed the storm serious enough, all boats would have to go back to port. We could proceed as planned to the floating fishing village and would find out later that afternoon whether or not we would be permitted to stay overnight. Fingers crossed, we boarded our junk boat, left the bags in our assigned cabins and enjoyed a nice lunch on the way to the floating village.
Our junk boat:
The views were amazing and we couldn't help but feel disappointed that the rest of the tour might be canceled.
When we returned to the boat, it was as feared but the captain said we still had a few hours to explore Halong Bay further before heading back to port for the 3 hour bus ride back to Hanoi.
We came up with Plan B, which consisted of a tour of Hanoi the following day and a day trip to Ninh Binh just a couple of hours south of Hanoi the day after.
First stop and considered a "must-see" in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where one can see the embalmed body of the former communist revolutionary leader lying in a glass case protected by a military honor guard. Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the Communist ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He was president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945 until his death in 1969.
In front of the Mausoleum:
The walk to the mausoleum was also "interesting" because the boys decided the direct route was too short. Not really, they followed a couple who, and I quote: "looked like they knew where they were going" and then, instead of asking for directions and following the correct itinerary (like the couple did!) they kept going because, surely, the map couldn't be wrong - what is it with men and asking for directions?! They think that if they keep going, somehow, miraculously, they will arrive at the chosen destination and their true genius will be uncovered. Instead we end up walking a few extra miles. Luckily for them, Corinne and I were too busy chatting to notice We passed many government buildings along the way that we couldn't stop to admire because the security officers would order us to keep going or flay their arms vigorously if, god forbid, we tried to take a picture. Another sign we probably should have gone a different way.
"....but on the map it shows that...":
The rest of the day was spent relaxing and enjoying Hanoi's delicious street food.
Preparing for our one-hour foot massages:
Our travel agent Lucy who asked if we were couples and then giggled as she said: "hot boyfriends - you must find me nice foreign boyfriend":
The cyclo food tour we booked with Lucy:
That evening, we walked through the unavoidable night market - every South East Asian city seems to have one! To be perfectly honest, we expected more from Hanoi's night market after having been to Thailand and Laos but still enjoyed mixing in with the crowd and experiencing the culture. We took a break to have a drink at the tiniest restaurant/bar because Grant felt bad using their toilet without buying something. So we sat there for half an hour listening to N'Sync, Britney Spears and other influential musicians of our time. The night was taking an unexpected turn and the fact we all seemed to know all the lyrics was somewhat disturbing, so we quickly finished our drinks and rejoined our fellow tourists at the market. At the end of our tour and not wanting to repeat our earlier faux pas, Corinne and I decided the KFC on the other side of a busy round-about would be the best place to find a toilet. The boys say that watching us cross the street was like watching the blind leading the blind. They exaggerate, of course, we were only slightly terrified!
We stopped on the side of the street to decide where to go next and happened to stand next to two Australian couples who had just been pick-pocketed at the market even though their pockets were zipped shut. That could easily have happened to us as we were not particularly vigilant and felt lucky we had come out unscathed. So it was only natural to celebrate our good fortune by spending the money on a few more drinks.
We headed for Ninh Binh the next day, a city known for the nearby karst scenery and ancient cities.The tour bus stopped in Hoa Lu Ancient Capital first.
As we got off the bus, Greg was approached by a lady selling "non la", the Vietnamese conical hat, and would not take no for an answer: "you buy from me, cheap cheap".
After lunch, we were taken to the main attraction, a two-hour excursion by small boat along the Ngo Dong River, beginning at the village of Van Lam and proceeding through a scenic landscape of rice fields and limestone karst mountains.
I think we were all taken by surprise when all the rowers changed their position shortly after setting off and started rowing with their feet. No joke.
Why the rest of the world hasn't caught on, I'm not sure but putting aside esthetic considerations, it seemed much more efficient than the traditional method!
We floated through three natural caves with ceilings about 1-2m above the water.
Back in Van Lam, we were each given a bicycle for the last part of the tour: a leisurely countryside ride.
Greg was determined to buy the "peak" motorcycle helmets we saw in Hanoi - the guide said it would be cheaper in Hanoi so we left without it. In hindsight, he should have bought it because we didn't take the time to look for one in Hanoi and they weren't quite the same further south.
We arrived back in Hanoi at 7pm, just in time for Greg and I to have a quick dinner and catch our 8pm ride to the train station.
We had a great weekend despite the last minute changes and were sad to say goodbye to Grant and Corinne. A big thank you to them for making it happen.
Our next destination had been a subject of debate for a few weeks. We had two options: a) visit the Sa Pa district which is located 380km north west of Hanoi, close to the border with China or b) tackle Ha Giang province about 280km north of Hanoi, considered more beautiful and less touristy than Sa Pa. After reading James and Natalie Drury's glowing review of Sa Pa and due to time constraints, we opted for Sa Pa and booked a 3 night / 2 day tour with our friend Lucy Lu as follows:
1. June 23 - overnight train to Sa Pa
2. June 24 - 12 km trek to minority village and overnight in homestay
3. June 25 - 6 km trek back to Sa Pa and overnight train to Hanoi
A young girl named Li, dressed in traditional costume and no taller than 4'10", met us at the hotel in Sa Pa where we were dropped off and informed us she would be our guide. She also mentioned we were the only ones on the tour and whilst we appreciated the private tour, we were also looking forward to meeting other travelers and sharing our stories. Our weekend with Grant and Corinne made us realize our trip had been fairly solitary to that point and how much we craved some interaction. So we chatted Li's ear off and asked a million questions about her life, the different tribes in the area and their culture. We found out that Li is only 18 years old, has two younger siblings and helps her parents supplement their income by guiding tourists on different treks through the beautiful sloping rice fields of Sa Pa. She is part of the Black H'mom hill tribe, one of five in the province and she really impressed us with her English which she said she learned by just speaking to tourists from an early age. A truly remarkable young woman.
We set off just after breakfast and were followed by two other women also dressed in traditional clothes and no taller than Li.
The Drury's mentioned them in their blog so we knew they would follow us to a certain point and then try to sell us some of their handmade crafts. We didn't mind and were happy to have them tag along. They actually helped me through some tricky muddy paths and I felt like a complete fool in my fancy trekking boots. These ladies were just cruising through in their plastic sandals as if it was the most natural thing.
Before I continue I just want to pause for a minute to thank James and Natalie for their amazing blog which we heavily relied on throughout our time in Vietnam. They also took the time to give us additional tips and recommendations whilst also trying to plan their own travels.
Back to Sa Pa. Greg often points out that I'm trigger happy with my camera (and I have to agree) but since I'm the one sorting all the pictures, I don't feel too guilty about it. My thought process is that I'm not a good photographer and taking pictures of the same thing over and over again just increases my chances of getting that one good shot. Well this place was on par with our African safaris in terms of picture quantity. The trek was just incredibly scenic and I couldn't stop clicking! The pictures really don't do it justice.
One of the local crops used for the hemp, not the high:
The weaved hemp is used to make the tribes' traditional clothing and the distinctive blue dye is made using plants, ash and other natural ingredients:
We arrived at Mrs. Phan Nam May's Homestay at around 3:30 pm. The family we stayed with is part of the Red Dzao hill tribe and Li knew them well.
Our cute and half-naked host:
A quick luggage inspection before letting us in:
We noticed a sign that read "Herbal Bath" so naturally, we inquired about it. It's essentially a soup. They boil water with a variety of medicinal plants and herbs and pour the mixture into a wooden barrel. Unsure if anyone larger than Li would fit in the barrel and discouraged by the additional charge, we decided not to ask for one and opted for a free cold shower instead. It turns out they misunderstood our inquiry for a request and we were told our baths were ready just after sundown. This was one of the few misunderstanding we were actually thrilled about because it was fantastic and Greg actually managed to squeeze in.
The evening got even better because they cooked up a storm for us. They were also quite generous with their homemade rice wine, or "happy water" as they like to call it.
One thing led to another and before we knew it, we were all trying to stick suction cups to our foreheads. They explained that they use them to treat all kinds of ailments including headaches and we finally understood why Li had a gigantic purple bruise on her forehead (we thought it was a birthmark). Greg's forehead is too small and the cup wouldn't stick but I wasn't so lucky. You'd think I'd want to avoid a round purple bruise on my forehead after seeing Li's but I am obviously not that bright because I still managed to leave it on for too long:
I blame the happy water for clouding my judgment.
Despite me looking like a complete idiot, we went to bed very happy to have had the opportunity to share a great night with a beautiful family.
It started raining soon after breakfast and we hoped it would stop by the time we would have to start trekking again. Unfortunately it didn't let up and we arrived in Sa Pa completely soaked.
Beep beep, coming through:
I didn't do a great job at securing a plastic bag over my day pack and the train tickets were also soaked. We began to panic when we noticed the hotel staff's reaction to the drying tickets on the table. They were worried the controller wouldn't accept them and we would have to pay for two more tickets. I couldn't believe they would be that strict! The corners were damaged but the dates and ticket numbers were still clearly visible. Greg was giving me the I-can't-believe-you-forgot-to-put-them-in-the-dry-bag look - you know the one- and we didn't relax until we were taken to a restaurant/travel agency near the train station where a lady was able to staple them onto vouchers and reassure us that it would be ok. Luckily for us (ie me), they passed the test and we were soon in our cabin sharing stories with a very nice Norwegian traveler.
The first thing we did when we arrived in Hanoi was to visit our favorite travel agent Lucy to book our onward transportation to Dong Hoi, near Phong Nha - Kebang National park where we wanted to spend a few days exploring the park's famous caves. Lucy was great as usual and booked us on an overnight bus scheduled to leave Hanoi at 7pm that same night. We spent our last day in Hanoi wandering around, eating some of the street food we loved and trying new things like Egg with Coffee which the Drury's highly recommended. You can’t miss the unique way coffee is brewed in Vietnam through a small coffee pot/filter that sits on top of a glass or cup and often served with condensed milk. But, the lesser known, “Egg with Coffee” can only be found on certain coffee shop menus.
Whipped egg yolk with sugar and condensed milk - absolutely delicious!
We are now in Krabi, on the west coast of Thailand and having an amazing time with our travel buddies James and Natalie whom we met in Bangkok on July 12th. They are fantastic people and we couldn't have wished for better travel companions. Like I said in my last post, their blog is great and much more up-to-date than ours so keep an eye out for their Bangkok post which should be coming soon (marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com).
Phong Nha update next.
Greg and Issy.