Vietnam, p2

Written by on February 21, 2013 in Asia, General with 5 Comments

Jet-lagged after a long flight from Sydney and a quick overnight in a hotel near the Bangkok airport, I finally arrived in Hanoi, 15 days after leaving Vietnam. My guest house was in the old quarter, which was about an hour from the airport, although it felt like longer. I checked in, dropped my bags and headed straight out into the streets to “get lost on purpose”, something I like to do when I arrive in new cities. I hate having to pull out my guidebook and prefer to act like I know where I’m going, even if I have no clue. Tonight I didn’t even bring the book, or a map, which was fine for awhile when I was exploring, but in hindsight wasn’t the smartest move as my phone was dead and no one I asked seemed to know where the hell my guesthouse was. Lol. Hanoi isn’t as easy to figure out (without a map) as Ho Chi Minh City. Anyway, I eventually found my way back and grabbed a quick dinner at a cute place called Highway 4 before turning in for the night.

I woke up super-early, as I was still on Australia time, covered in fresh bug bites, which grew to be 2-3 inch welts throughout the course of the day. Yuck. They looked too big to be bed bug or mosquito bites, which means it must have been a spider. Double yuck. I HATE spiders. Especially when I know they’ve been crawling all over me when I was sleeping and just kept biting. Ugh. Bugs. Definitely not part of the joy of traveling! I don’t think I’ve seen one spider in my apartment in San Francisco in the 2 years I’ve lived there.

Covered in itchy, painful and swollen spider bites, I took a day trip down to visit the ancient citadel and temples in Hoa Lu.

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The second stop, which carried more interest for me, was at Tam Coc, a pretty place which had scenery similar to Halong Bay.

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The main difference was the large limestone rock formations come jutting out of rice paddies and what seems like a river, rather than on a bay. It was an overcast day, so not the greatest for pictures, but the sites were still impressive.

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Even more impressive, and a little sad, was that we were rowed (by her feet!) by a little old lady who must have been 80 years old! ¬†Mine had a better dentist than this lady, but I didn’t get as good a picture of her ūüėČ

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It looked so awkward, but must be a lot easier than rowing 2 hours with your arms. And in sure she does 3 or 4 trips a day.

The scenery was beautiful, taking us through a very rural setting where we’d see the farmers planting the rice in the paddies. We were also rowed through 3 caves, which were pretty cool.

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It was a long ride back to Hanoi, and after sorting out my trip to Halong Bay for the next day, I turned in early. Must have still been jet-lagged.

Halong Bay is the main reason I came back to Vietnam again, as its been on my travel wish list for several years. I am much more into seeing dramatic scenic places over pretty much anything else. Halong apparently means “dragon”, and the bay was named Halong Bay as it supposedly looks like dragons are in the water when you look out over the bay from above. I didn’t see that, but it was pretty magical.

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Long ass drive, but well worth it. It was a little hazy, but still beautiful.

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I had opted for the mid-range boat, and followed our guide to board the Halong Fantasea, which pretty muh looked like the other boats-old, white and rickety. I’m so glad I paid the extra $20 to have a room to myself-it was really cute and nicer than I’d expected. We finally left the dock around 1pm after having lunch on board and cruised through the bay for a couple hours before making a stop at the “surprise cave”, along with a few dozen other boats and hundreds of tourists. ¬†It was actually a quite impressive cave, and the surprise was a funny phalic shaped rock towards the end. ¬†Anyway, we cruised over to another bay and were given about 20 minutes to go kayaking and then the boat headed over to a little island with a beach where I opted to climb to the top of the island to take in the spectacular views from a better vantage point.

The mist had dissipated, leaving gorgeous clear skies, which helped highlight the blue sea and green islands. So beautiful!

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THIS is why I came back to northern Vietnam!

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We boarded the boat, which then cruised to another island and then dropped anchor, just before sunset…along with 25-30 other boats. So much for being isolated. I’m not sure why the boats all stick together…why not cruise another 10 minutes away for a little solitude?

The next morning I had to say goodbye to all my new friends who had chosen a different option and were going to stay on Cat Ba island for the night, while I was picked up in a smaller boat to go further into the bay for a day of kayaking. Amazing!

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After stops at a pearl farm and a floating fishing village, I was dropped off back at the Fantasea where I met a whole new crew of peeps who’d just come down from Hanoi and completed the same itinerary I’d done the day before. With a big mix of nationalities, we ended up bonding over several Bia Hois (cheap Vietnamese beer) and some karaoke with the crew after dinner, which was absolutely hilarious.

In the morning, we dropped off the half of the new group on Cat Ba island, and then I was re-united with my group from the first day, who re-joined the boat for the trip back to Hanoi. It was fun to see everyone again and compare notes on the option they chose vs mine. I stand behind my choice of staying on the boat for 2 nights as Cat Ba didn’t sound too exciting and I wouldn’t give up my extra time on the water without any other boats/tourists around. The drive back to Hanoi seemed to take forever and I was exhausted when I was dropped off and checked back into my guest house. Returned to highway 4, the yummy restaurant half a block away, for another helping of crispy sea bass, and crashed early as I had¬†set the alarm for a super-early 530a as I was meeting the few football fans I met on the boat at Hanoi Backpackers to watch the Superbowl.¬†I took advantage of the free coffee, but after the first couple turnovers, I switched to double red bull/vodkas! What a comeback! Well…the Niners almost did it! Oh well…I had fun, and met some other die hard fans in the bar and to be fair, the Ravens played a great game.

It was drizzling and gray when I stumbled out of the hostel after the disappointing finish around 10a, which provided the perfect excuse to pop into several shops and boutiques while doing a self-guided walking tour around town. North Face is manufactured in Vietnam, and there was no shortage of shops selling cheap, slightly defective jackets, hiking shoes or other apparel. Since I left my jacket in HK and was headed to Sapa tomorrow for a few days of trekking, now was the time to replace it.

I continued my tour around the Hoan Kiem Lake and all of a sudden heard a crowd scream a couple hundred meters away. I went to check out what happened and it turns out that Kookie, a famous Korean TV star on a show called the Running Man (anyone heard of it?), had just arrived to at least 10,000 teenage fans out front screaming and hoping to get a glimpse of him. ¬†Apparently he’s like the Korean version of Justin Bieber. Hilarious!

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Well…it was fun for awhile, but the crowd was blocking the entrance to the water puppet theater that I was hoping to get tickets to that afternoon and there was no telling how long they’d be there. I continued walking tour and decided I’ve had enough of Hanoi and changed my train ticket to Sapa to go tonight.

Went to the water puppet show and then met up with Mike and Anne ( the cool www.honeytrek.com couple who are also on a round the world trip) on “Bia Hoi corner” for a couple home-brewed beers for the equivalent of $0.25 each. The three of us had snacks and 2 beers each for a total of 50,000 dong. That’s about $2.50. Awesome!! ¬†We said bye for now, as we knew we’d see each other later on the overnight train up to Sapa, or at some point down the line in Laos.

I think I got super-lucky on the train as I had a sleeper car all to myself. ¬†Check out these digs! ¬†It looked so luxurious. ¬†The beds were super-hard and the ride bumpy, but at least I didn’t get stuck in a car with some creepy guy(s)!

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I arrived in Sapa on a gorgeous and crisp sunny morning and checked into a guesthouse with this killer view out of nearly every window.  Sapa is a small town of about 35,000 people that is perched on a hilltop and overlooks cascading rice fields in every direction.

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I knew I was going to like it here! ¬†At breakfast I met a cool British chick named Sarah who’d also just arrived. ¬†Her friend was having stomach problems, so we decided to head out “trekking” together. ¬†The trail to the Cat Cat village was right out our doorstep, so after a brief shopping trip to pick her up some fake North Face hiking shoes, we grabbed a couple waters and walked down a few kilometers to check out the village. ¬†We took a bit of a wrong turn and ended up cutting across someone’s rice fields and made friends with a few buffalo, before we found the trail ¬†and wound up at Cat Cat Falls.

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The hike back up was a bit more challenging as it had gotten quite hot that afternoon, which is not a complaint. ¬†I’d actually expected Sapa to be wet, rainy and foggy, so was happy for the sunshine and rewarded myself with a not-so-cold beer at a little restaurant near the top with amazing more views.

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The fields are brown and dry now, yet still beautiful, but I can only imagine what this place looks like when they are all various shades of green!

The next morning I joined a small group trek to 3 hill-tribe villages, for which we were accompanied by several women of varying ages from the Hmong tribe. ¬†They were super-friendly and spoke better English than most of the Vietnamese I’d encountered elsewhere on the trip, which was refreshing and made it easy to ask questions. ¬†They lead pretty simple lives and were very inquisitive about me. ¬†It’s not uncommon for them to be married in their mid-teens, and women my age may have 4 or more children.

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I’m not sure why they call this “trekking” as it wasn’t really a trek, but more like a long downhill walk. ¬†At some points we crossed through some rice fields, which was quite pretty, and actually made me feel better about forking over $$$ to take a “tour” where we’re just walking down the road (as we’d seen others get suckered into the previous day to Cat Cat Falls).

The oldest Hmong women that joined us stuck to me as I was the oldest in our group.  She was very sweet, although I knew there had to be a catch for all these ladies to walk 4-5 miles with us.

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Of course, just before we sat down for lunch, she pulled the bag off her back and started taking out some homemade bags, wallets and scarves that she was selling. ¬†I suppose it wouldn’t be Vietnam if they weren’t trying to sell you something. ¬†So, I got suckered into buying a cute little handbag and she quickly left us to the sweet little old ladies/vultures from the next village ūüėČ

I didn’t mind, though, as it was really nice to hear about their lifestyles and spend time with them, and they dropped us off at a lunch spot with another spectacular view.

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After lunch, we continued our “trek” down the valley through another village where they showed us how they die and weave materials used in their traditional outfits as well as the goods they sell at the market.

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The trekking tour was $14 well spent!  I did some fake North Face shopping afterwards and sauntered back to the hotel as I was beat!

I woke up to a foggy day and decided to linger over a few cups of coffee on the beautiful deck where I watched the mist sink and eventually dissipate down the valley while the sun came out for yet another glorious day. ¬†I ran into Sarah again, whose friends weren’t feeling so hot, so we decided to rent a motorbike together to go check out a couple waterfalls and another Hmong village.

This one is called the Silver Waterfall, which was about 12 kms up from Sapa.

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Nice!  But even nicer was the Love Waterfall.

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We never made it to the other village, but passed through some beautiful scenery trying to find it! ¬†We had fun on the motorbike, and I’m looking forward to more motorbike rentals/stories throughout SE Asia as it’s so freeing (although not quite as much so as my A5!), and nice to be away from any sort of organized tour!! And it only cost us $2 each, plus $1 for petrol (what the rest of the world outside the US calls gas).

Bright and early the next morning I boarded a very uncomfortable minibus for 10 hours to Dien Bien Phu, a non-descript town 32kms from the Laos border. I and about 7 other travelers were trying to get out of Vietnam before Tet. ¬†We were extremely bummed out when we were told upon arrival that there would be no onward buses to Laos for another 4 days. Ruh roh! ¬†There was no way in hell I was going to get stuck in this town for 4 days!!! ¬†I’d made friends with the other 7 tourists on the bus and we all banded together to try to find some solution, even if we had to pay a lot for a taxi and walk a long distance in between the two border checkpoints. We checked into a guesthouse and we jumped online and tried calling a few guesthouses with English speakers that may be able to help us. We were all starving, so found a restaurant to sit down and figure something out.

A few of us decided to go back to the taxi office to arrange taxis to the border and then we were going to wig it from there. Luckily we went back to the bus station as a Lao bus had pulled in and through sign language and hand gestures we learned it was leaving the next day at 7am. Hallelujah! I nearly hugged the woman that gave us the news. We went back to tell the others and celebrated with beer and possibly the worst meal I’ve had on my trip to date. Didn’t matter though…mission accomplished.

I think because it was so close to Tet, the bus wasn’t full, which made our journey much more comfortable. ¬†It was a bonus that the scenery was spectacular all the way up to the border. Crossing was easy, especially since we were with the bus. If we had winged it, like we were going to without the bus, we would have had a 6km walk in between the Vietnamese and Laos immigration offices, and there was no onward transportation of any kind on the Laos side, so we would have been stuck. Again, hallelujah!! ¬†Farewell Vietnam!

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  1. Incredible story there. What happened after? Take care!

  2. Hi there, I read your blogs on a regular basis. Your humoristic style is witty, keep it up!

  3. john p says:

    Debbie,I have been following your antics for months. I will be in Kosovo and Albania in April, Haiti In June, Latvia, Estonia , and Lithuania in Sept. and the Phillapines and Brunei in Nov. Still so lucky to hookup with you in Beirut in Sept. I feel like I haven’t been anywhere when I read your stories, but I am at 126 countries now. Hope to see you when you return to CA and Ruths Chris. Good Luck and great travels. John P

  4. DebAdmin says:

    Hi John! What do you mean you haven’t been anywhere?!? It will be years til I get to 126…although I think I’ll be around 90 after this trip ūüôā Look forward to comparing notes on Albania when I get back, and hearing your thoughts on the Baltics as they are “on the list” ūüôā

  5. Herb says:

    1. Debbie you are beautiful!
    2. Buying from the Hmong woman was the right thing to do
    3. when I look at the faces of the Hmong women or the ‘Kookie” fans I ask myself: what was the war for?
    Enjoy!

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