Hanoi is insane, or at east that’s the first impression after our last two weeks in small towns and back blocks of Laos. The roads are clogged with motorcycles and there are no road rules. Pedestrian crossings have no meaning. To cross a busy road you just start walking slowly, looking both ways. Motorbikes, rickshaws and cars will stream past with little regard for the right hand side of the road and with drivers often talking on cell phones or otherwise distracted. Horns toot incessantly and a thin smog hangs in the air. I took a motorbike taxi earlier today; $3NZ for 20 minutes of excitement. Actually, once you are in the traffic with a good driver you realise that speeds are quite low and it’s not as dangerous as it seems.
Prices in the city are also a little bit crazy. We ate an excellent Vietnamese meal, washed down with a beer in a pleasant restaurant last night and the bill came to $10NZ for two. Lunch in a classic street stall was $2 each for delicious Vietnamese “pancakes” with crispy pork. However espresso coffees in western cafes can be $7 each. There are definitely two prices for everything and as newly arrived falangis we stand out and and attract the higher prices.
We began he day with an early start walking around Hoan Kiem lake. The locals were out in force practicing Ti Che and playing badminton. The park was basically the gym of the people. Since then we have had a day of checking out options and operators. We are booked on an overnight sleeper to Sapa on the border with China, where we hope to explore the area on foot and cycle for 3 days. Then it’s another overnight sleeper back to Hanoi and a bus out to Halong Bay where we have arranged to charter a small sailing junk for 24 hours.
Our first impressions of Sapa were through somewhat jaded eyes. We had spent the night on the sleeper train from Hanoi and after an hour on a mini bus climbing 1200m we had arrived at Sapa about 7am to be greeted by incredibly persistent touts, most in traditional ethnic costumes and trying to flog local handicraft items at inflated prices.
However we found a nice hotel with great view across the valley to the 3100m Mt Fansipan (also spelled Phang Xi Pang and Phang Si Pan) and chilled out for a while before hiring a motorbike and heading out to explore the surrounding area. The Ta Phin caves were worth while and supposedly extend through the limestone for 36 kms. We explored the first 800m or so with dying torches and were eventually quite pleased that a Hmong woman had followed us into the cave as she was a useful guide. We even bought some of her handicrafts once we were back in the sunlight..
The local museum has an interesting exhibit of photos and conversations with Hmong youth and it is quickly apparent that they wear their traditional black clothing out of genuine preference and not just as tourist attractants.
Later in the afternoon we rode the motorbike out to some local waterfalls. In the morning we rode in tee shirts, but the wind had come up quite strongly and as the sun sank we donned coats and warmer layers. The waterfalls were a bit "same same" (a very popular local expression), but the ride along the road to the start of the walk to Mt Fansipan was interesting as the road was being rehewn out of the rock faces. At the main work sites, locals had set up numerous small fast food stalls selling half hatched eggs (eggs with partly developed embryos), rice and barbecued meat.
After an early night and a great sleep we woke with considerably more energy and enthusiasm and decided to tackle a trek away from the crowds and without a guide. The biggest challenge was lack of a good map, we had a 1-200,000 contour map and a hand drawn tourist map with no scale or contours. There are lots of tracks in the hills for collecting wood and otherwise harvesting the forest, most of which are not marked on the map. There are also no signposts on any trail junctions. So we had an interesting time exploring. At the head of a small stream we came across a saw pit that was still being used. At the top of a hill we found a charcoal pit. The charcoal is used by the numerous street food vendors in Sapa in small braziers and cookers.
The villagers we met on this trek were quite different from the street hawkers, being mostly quite shy. They were also involved in hard physical labour, particularly the sawyers who were dragging and carrying heavy beams back to their villages.
It was almost 5pm by the time we climbed back to the road, so we hailed some passing motorbikes and rode the last 5kms into town for a well earned beer.
February 18 2009
We arrived at Halong bay after 16 hours of hard travel from Sapa. First it was the overnight train, which while we had a comfortable sleeper, still saw us ejected into Hanoi at 4:30am. I managed to negotiate an almost fair price for the taxi ride into the centre of town and totally blew the savings by mixing up the 10,000 and 100,000 dong notes. What should have been a $NZ5 taxi ride costing $33 in the end.
From Hanoi it was four hours by several buses and a ferry to Cat Ba Island. The connection between buses in Hai Phoung was by Om Xe (motorbike taxi) and Frances had a terrifying ride with her driver regularly on the wrong side of the road playing chicken with approaching 4WDs. Arriving in Cat Ba town we transferred to more Om Xes and headed over the hill to a back harbour.
As we crested the ridge and entered this bay our tiredness was whipped away by the views that were more spectacular than any photos we had seen. Deposited at the wharf we walked out on a floating causeway to our junk, the "Autumn Perfume" - which looked like a real sailing junk in perfect condition. Setting sail immediately, we spent the next two hours shooting hundreds of pictures and videos as we tried to take in the karst country, floating villages and everyday livelihood on the water. We had been convinced to charter the junk for our exclusive use, so there were just the two of us, our four crew and translator/guide. We had a magnificent cabin and the entire fore deck to ourselves. There was just enough wind to fill the traditional red cotton sails and steady the boat.
Halong Bay is famous for its caves, which are equally famous for their crowds, but we decided that as this was a research trip we needed to visit at least one cave. There must have been 50 boats in the bay and we were shepherded through the caves like sheep and still regarded the experience as well worth while. The caverns are huge, the stalactites and stalagmites magnificent and the lighting subtle. Next time we will plan the visit for early morning to avoid the crowds.
After visiting the caves we motored slowly through the cliff lined channels to a private and sheltered bay where we anchored at dusk. A superb dinner followed soon after. This was muk, or Vietnamese steamboat, which is a bit like a seafood fondue, with fresh clams, squid, fish, lobster and king prawns being constantly added to the pot along with a great range of delicate spices. Definitely a culinary highlight. It was well after dark when we ate dinner and the crew had rigged up lights for a spot of squid fishing. The squid were caught on jigging lines and sometimes by just scooping them with a net and then popped directly into the steamboat.
In the morning we explored the bays by kayak before making our way back to Cat Ba. Next time we will definitely allow at least two nights for the area and visit some of the more outlying islands. Cat Ba is a much better base to explore the area from than Halong City and in our spare hour there we found a great place that hires good kayaks and Hobie cat catamarans.
Hanoi and home
An aging hydrofoil is supposed to make the 45km journey from Cat Ba to Hai Phong City in 45 minutes but it was a bit overloaded and took an hour. Another two and a half hours on the bus gave us time to take in a particularly violent and surreal Kung Fu movie and the surrounding paddy field scenery before we arrived back in the bustle of Hanoi. With 45 minutes to shower and complete all our souvenir shopping before our evening appointment it was a bit frantic. However dinner with our travel agent at a restaurant catering mostly to wealthier locals was another taste sensation and well worth the rushing to get there.
Our final image of Vietnam was the hour long taxi ride to the airport. Our driver was watching a video on the centre console as he drove through the morning mayhem they call rush hour. At first it was a cartoon and his eyes stayed mostly focused on the road, but then he swapped the CD for a music video that consisted mostly of a bikini fashion show. His eyes strayed more and more to the video, which was disconcerting as we shared the road with wobbling cyclists, limousines that demanded right-of-way, trucks and millions of motorcycles that weaved in and out of lanes constantly. At least the fare was fixed and pre-paid.
We are looking forward to coming back with a bit more time. Highlights this time included:
- Flight of the Gibbons zip lining in Thailand
- The villages in Northern Laos
- Luang Prabang (The clean equivalent of Kathmandu)
- Day trek from Sapa
- Halong Bay and Cat Ba
- On the return trip we are looking forward to:
- The Gibbon Experience - 3 days living in the canopy
- Climbing Mt Fansipan in a day
- Boating and trekking the lakes at Ba Be National Park
- Several days exploring Halong Bay by kayak and Hobie cat
- Tam Coc (Halong bay in the paddy fields) and Cuc Phuong National Park