Goodbye Vietnam

Our landlord (mediated by the drivers) advised us to be at the bus stop for 4.45am … don’t bother. Tickets can be purchased ten minutes prior to departure of the 5.30am bus, which didn’t leave ‘til 6am anyway. It costs 100,000 dong ($5) and takes 6 hours to carry you out of Vietnam (on terrible mountain roads) to the border crossing ($35 for a UK VISA, a further $2 if you have no photo and a compulsory $1 for ‘checking’).

Our last experience of Vietnam was a lack of toilets, making us go in a bush far too close to an overly curious water buffalo. 

Dien Bien Phu

Off again, today with slightly bruised bums! The weather was confused, sunshine and heat, torrential rain back again; in one particularly bad spell we pulled over and were given shelter and Vietnamese tea by a friendly village family. For those of you who are not familiar with the joys of home-brewed Vietnamese tea it is a bitter liquid, green in colour, with a less than appealing aroma. It is served in tiny teacups, which are usually not clean (presumably for similar reasons as why an Englishman will never wash his teapot) but it is warm and rude to refuse so we accepted gladly.

When the storm appeared to be going nowhere we mustered up the energy to set off. I re-marshmellowed up (with the help of our host) and we drove back out into the storm.

Our guides produced catfish for lunch, it set us back 80, 000 dong each (~$4) which was a lot considering how neither of the girls eat fish. Thankfully dinner was a massive improvement! Jo and I discovered a love for mince pork sausage shaped meat wrapped in seaweed - the guides didn’t know an English name and it wasn’t on the menu.  Bon and my guy had their usual pipe which produced a huge amount of foul smelling smoke.

We had already thanked, paid and tipped the drivers (100,000 dong) but we hung out anyway. We ice skated up to Dien Bien Phu monument where we became fascinated by bamboo dragon flies that balance on the tip of your finger. They are aimed at young children, I bought five.

Lai Châu

Our three drivers Bon, Ding and an older man that we never quite caught the name of met us at 08.30 giving us time to walk around the famous Sunday market. The colours, noises and smells were fantastic. It was divided into sections of fruit, cooking, textiles, plastics, gadgets, meat and live animals (chickens with their heads sticking out of baskets, pigs tied by the ankle, puppies and buffalo). 

We bought gifts after some soft haggling, snacks in the form of greasy fried local dough and checked out of the hostel. My black motorbike seemed in charge of the group. We raced along watching mountains, padi fields, villages and trees whizz by, occasionally glimsping water buffalo wallowing in pools or school children dancing in unison. Many stranger sites too such as traditional village dress, elderly women hunched over sewing brightly coloured cloths or carrying the world in baskets anchored to their heads.

We soon realised the Vietnamese talent for fitting ANYTHING on the back of a motorbike from huge bamboo rods or big water bottles to some less than ideal treatment of animals - piglets crammed into crates, screaming as they bounced along and a live chicken strung upside down by it’s ankles in front of the drivers knees, it’s head painfully close to the ground. Not for the faint hearted.


All in all though the journey was spectacular, unrivalled scenery, shared meals with the drivers at hidden local spots and the chinese border! We passed back through Sapa and on to the Tram Ton Pass where we climbed the Silver Waterfall for 3000 dong (<1$). Here we had a mini barbeque with some locals. The rest of the journey was plain sailing.

We spent the evening in Lai Châu, a wierd place, I didn’t like it. The main road had six lanes and was empty, food wasn’t great and I had a pretty bad stomach so I didn’t venture as far as the old town in the North West. The new town had no charm and the guest house was dirty, cramped, had spiders, cockroaches and even a frog livign in the bathroom. Yet we were still charged 200 000 dong ($10). Compared to the normal standard it was a rip off .

Bac Ha

Jo and I headed to the bakery first thing and bought some lovely apple and coconut bread then I jogged up the hill to the post office to send letters home. Ellie checked us out of the Lotus and the three of us met at the bike shop where our drivers for the day ($20 each) strapped our hiking bags to their bikes. 

Off we went… up past the Lotus, bakery and post office, right past the square and church where we had met Shu and out of Sapa into the twisting mountain pass. 

My driver had a need for speed - which I had no problems with. He was from Sapa and knew Lao Cai well. We weaved around beautiful mountains avoiding potholes, other vehicles and animals. Each turn brought with it fantastic new views of mist slithering down rocks cliffs and woodland. Our drivers kept overtaking each other allowing Ellie, Jo and I to grin at each other as we drove past. 

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A storm hit, we stopped under some roadside trees and donned our waterproofs (I was transformed into a giant snowman as I draped my white Glastonbury poncho over both myself and my hiking bag - much to the amusement/embarrassment of the girls). Off again, the wind causing me to puff up and howling in my ears as I watched raindrops sail horizontally towards me. Great experience! Thankfully the rain ceased and we were able to dry off between Lao Cai and Bac Ha.

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The curse of the Vietnamese hand drawn map struck again, their complete disregard for scale and the direction roads bend meant finding the guesthouse took 20minutes (which having started 2 mins from it is fairly impressive).

The lady who owns the Quynh Trang Guest House is very old and sweet but doesn’t speak a word of English. We each spoke our language of choice to each other happily in a state of misunderstanding and somehow settled on 200 000 dong for 3 people per night. It was perfect for what it was - basic, clean but certainly not the Ritz. 
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There is a French Colonial palace in Bac Ha which we went to investigate, it wasn’t as grand as we had imagined but pleasant enough. We had lunch at an overpriced restaurant (Hoand Vu Hotel) which is also home to Mr Nghe, Bac Ha’s infamous tour operator (after some hard bargaining with Mr Nghe we reduced the price of our onward journey - a three day ride from Bac Ha to Dien Bien Phu- from $100 to $90) then wandered around town. 

Sapa

We were woken abruptly by harsh shouting in Vietnamese at 5.30 am as the porter opened our door. We pulled on our clothes an grabbed our things before stepping off the train into a dark and rainy Lao Cai. On arrival we were approached by a young man with an umbrella quoting 50 000 dong for a minibus to Sapa, the guide book states 30. We clubbed together with a German couple and knocked the price down to 40. They made us pay in advance, resulting in us being left on the bus waiting for them to fill all 14 seats! :(
Rule number one: Never ever hand over your money first.

After an hour or so we set off on a fast-paced, windy journey through the mountains. When we eventually pulled up we were greeted by Shu, a woman from the village Lai Chau wearing traditional clothes. She wanted us to stay with her and gave us bracelets despite us refusing. We soon saw lots of these women (often running after tourist buses), they were desperate for a tourist tenant in the low season but thankfully unlike the rumours we had heard most were kind and understood the word ‘no’. After checking around we settled into the Lotus Hotel - I was obsessed by the mosquito nets that pulled out on a runner!

As Sapa is the Vietnamese capital of textiles a shopping spree felt like the right thing to do; I accumulated scarves, a leather fish keyring, a magnifying glass, tiger balm, earrings and placemats for friends and family as well as a beautiful handcrafted silver bracelet from the local jeweler for myself. 

In the evening we cheated and had a cheeky Italian, it all feels less like Vietnam in the mountains and as we all had unsettled tummies it felt okay… even if this did break rule number two: Local people know how to cook local food safely so if in doubt do not buy western food as it is more likely to make you ill!!

Trains North

We had a lie in, breakfast, then a mild panic as I realised a job application deadline was on the 1st September. We checked out, the girls went out to lunch and I started the application. As the clock clicked onto 1pm I grabbed my rucksack and hurried to meet them for our 13.10 train to Hanoi.

We made it, I ate my take away vegetable fried noodle on the train (80 000) as we chugged along for ~2 hours to Hanoi. The train was pretty normal, save for the Hanoi announcement giving a history of the ‘great city’, dragons and all sorts - plus a bit of war propaganda. We bought train tickets at the second Hanoi station for Lao Cai (520 000 for a soft sleeper, well worth it as you get a comfy 4 bed lockable compartment!). Our train left at 19.40, we had to arrive an hour early so Ellie, Jo and I agreed to meet at 17:40 to grab dinner while I finished my application at the station cafe and they did a suncream and insect repellent run. I hit send on my application at 17:45 and moved to the lockers with our bags, the girls were an hour late, leaving me to worry. No dinner but we made our train and had plenty of snacks!

  The guy we shared with was a 25 year-old single doctor for Lao Cai, he had ninja skills at getting into bed, which Ellie tried and failed to replicate. It was a comfortable night, a little bumpy (bottles fell on my head).

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Mua Cave and Trang An Grottoes

We rented bikes for 30,000 dong and cycled to a temple on a peak above Mua Cave (20,000 dong). We left at 6am, the map wasn’t to scale and not really labelled so it ended up being 3kms further than it should be. By the time we arrived we were very hot - to the point of sweating through our shorts, tummy and bras!!

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  The flat front tyre on my bike didn’t help the situation. We were the only visitors, perhaps nobody else had had our ‘great idea’? At the base of the hill was a small island in a pond surrounded by trees, the canopy cast a cooling shadow but it was still humid in the gloom. Below the first steps is a cave containing a stone cat which at a glance looks alive.
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The ‘500’ steps certainly felt like less but took considerable effort in the heat. We took regular breaks and drank a lot, reaching the top in one of the sweatiest hot flushes of my life at 8am. Thankfully the view was spectacular! Another knackering cycle later we got back to the hotel and flopped under the air con.

In the afternoon we went to the Trang An Grottoes, a lake which is home to 17 caves. You board a boat for 4 people and are rowed by one of the women through ~8 of the caves. It’s amazing, you have to duck into the boat as you wind through the passages. It cost 100,000 dong pp (+tip).

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The same motorbike drivers that took us there were patiently waiting. Mine loved speed and told me stories in mumbled english which I ‘mmmm’ed and ‘ahhh’ed at. It cost 120,000 dong ($6) for the round trip.

We ate dinner at the same place and caught an early night.

Ninh Binh

The dawn sun woke us early - 6.30am, the perfect time for a swim! Lan Ha Bay was still and quiet, save for a few local fishing boats heading home after a morning catch. Soon all five of us had jumped in, we paddled and floated before being called back to the boat. Back at harbour a short minibus ride took us to Asia Outdoors where we said our goodbyes, grabbed our bags and trotted the 50m to Hoang Long bus company - Cat Ba Island to Ninh Binh set us back 270,000 dong. The coach to the dock, boat to the mainland and bus brought surprise company- Glen, Nav and Gemma! At Haiphong bus station we waved goodbye and were taken to a public bus. A sweaty 3 hours passed before arriving in Ninh Binh, having an emergency toilet stop, walking to the New Queen Mini Hotel and collapsing in our room. One double, one single bed, air con and en suite - $9. Cheaper than the Old Queen mini which was $10 and worse. The only downfall is the proximity to the train tracks, but you tune that out farely quickly and the beds shaking is barely noticeable. Dinner (Sweet and sour pork Trung Tuyet - free buiscuits and bananas, friendly staff and generous portions, I highly reccommend it!!) was followed by an early night.

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