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VIETNAM | Tuesday, 31 March 2009 | Views [981]

Hard working women are seen all over Vietnam

Hard working women are seen all over Vietnam

Young tuk-tuk driver gives assurances once more that he is going to take us directly to border, and the ride should not take more then 2.5 hours. Leaving Kampot at 11am we enjoy local villages, kids running towards us calling "Hello" and scenery of distant hills. Suddenly an hour in ride the tuk-tuk driver makes an unexpected turn into narrow dirt road going through vast rice fields, and without presence of any other traffic Iva starts to think about the worst - is he going to take us to some remote corner and with help of few accomplices to rob us? Or perhaps worse? Some 5km later he stops amongst few bamboo huts explaining that he is unable to drive any further due to very rough road conditions ahead. Instead few motorbike drivers standing around will finish last two kilometers for free. We pay him agrred fee and he is quickly gone. We soon realise that ten minutes earlier a group of two young couples from Finland arrived by the same means, they are astonished by  situation. There are only four 125ccm motorbikes available and six of us to be taken to the border, and with all our bags! We refuse an option all of us to be taken on four bikes and they eventually agree to call for two more. Further confussion arrises as they want to be paid USD5 for each moto because border is 10km distant, not two. "Ohh, tuk-tuk drivers always lie" they laugh. Very frustrated and uncertain we have no other option then to agree, being stuck in middle of nowhere in south Cambodia, we cannot walk 10km with 20kg hanging of our bodies. Situation looks very fishy as locals are not allowed to help although few sit nearby on their own motorbikes - we realise our drivers are all Vietnameese and this gang holds power here. Finaly we are on the move and by 3pm we arrive to the first town in Vietnam - Ha Tien. Very hot and humid afternoon, we gladly take shower and leave hotel searching for delicious Vietnameese coffee which is not as easy to find as we thought - the town is neither "tourist friendly" nor interesting. Ha Tien border crossing has been opened to foreigners for only last two years and not many backpackers have discovered it, yet it is an excellent entry point to south-west Vietnam, Phu Quoc island and Mekong delta. We meet our new Finish friends at dinner (in the one and only local restaurant here) and talk about trip to Phu Quoc island over few Saigon beers. As usual we choose D.I.Y. strategy (gee, how many times we burnt our fingers!?) and on Tuesday 10 March we board a 9am local slow boat. Very slow and very authentic. Some may say very "rustic", seems to be flating because it's made from timber. Being the only foreign tourists on boat we are invited to share top-deck floor with captain and few of his mates. Soon they start to play cards, and getting excited about game captain sometimes forgets to check the course, steering wheel with his right foot. I quietly assume responsibility and make sillent but noticable signs when we head too much towards solid land. As weird as this boat looks we enjoy their company, being offered to join card game, cigarets or fruit, we accept only fruit. Finally we land at 4pm in far northern tip of the island and without any decent map we have no idea how we are supposed to get to Duong Dong, long beach with accommodation. Absolutely nobody speaks any english, we even suspect locals have never seen tourists before. Every our question is repplied with a laughter and we do not understand such reactions. No wonder we are frustrated and confused.  Repeatadly saying "Duong Dong" over and over again, someone finaly shows signs of undestanding. Motorbike taxi pulls out two 100,000 dong notes (USD 12) indicating he would take us there but we think it is far too much. We paid such amount for whole boat trip! How far is it? Which way should we go? We do not have answers to our questions and instinctivelly we start walking out of the village hoping that some magic solution will materialise soon. As we walk on dirt road, a truck stops offering a lift to town for 150,000 dongs for both. Well, that is better then 200,000 and besides we have (once again!) no other option so we accept. Apparently it is 45km to Duong Dong centre and further 50,000 to Long Beach. Our total cost from Ha Tien to Long Beach amounts to 480,000 dongs (9 hours on move). Later tonight we learn that each Finish couple paid 430,000 for the same trip with speed boat (3 hours on move). When we came to the beach hungry and tired at 7pm they had already finished lunch, swimming, sunbaking and dinner. Morale of the story? Cheaper is not always the cheapest! Same same but different! Last 48 hours were realy exhaustive and nerve wrecking - Iva has cold sores all over her lips probably triggered by stress, but everything is fine now and we are determined to enjoy Phu Quoc. We will stay in nice resort bungallow some 300m from the beach (12 USD per night) for next four nights. Dinner on the beach is perfect gift for my special day as I am turning 55 today, and guess what? Young Finish quartet surprise me with candle, beer and Happy Birthday signing. Very nice, thanks guys! We enjoy their company many times again over next few days, including snorkling trip to nearby archipelago. Today is Friday the 13th, our last day on Phu Quoc. Hiring 110ccm motorbike we explore north-east side of this 100km accross island, passing through pretty rough terrain and shaky bamboo bridges. We can only imagine how difficult it may be here during wet season - parts of road are completely washed off leaving 10-20m deep mini-canyons. We are lucky to see few green peppercorn farms on the way, locals sun dry pepper on tarps and indeed little black balls have strong taste. Cashew nut trees are abundant, sun dried fish is not so pleasant. Completely covered with red dust we return bike around seven and after shower we end up in beach restaurant for farewell party with Finish quartet. At 6am two motorbike-taxis + minibus transfer us to speedboat which will take about 4 hours to reach Rach Gia on the mainland. Immediately we board 3 hours (squashed at back - very uncomfortable) minibus for Kan Tho, one of many town in Mekong delta. Tomorrow morning we would like to see floating markets and afternoon catch bus for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), or Saigon by old name. Four hour boatride to floating markets starts at 7am when very tiny old man picks us from the hotel and takes us to very tiny old boat. What, such small boats are allowed on such big river? Yes, and he is very skilled dodging wash waves from large ships passing by. Mainly fruit and veggie products are traded, handreds of hands transfer goods from boat to boat and whole place sounds like large beehive. We can even buy hot coffee from floating cafe shop. We return back to town via few quiet canals, suddenly the river buzz is replaced with tranquility of green nature. It is only two of us, palms and happy grin on captain's face. He stops in one of local gardens for exotic fruit tasting and little educational tour. Here we see cinamon, palm fruit, lyches and many other tasty fruits of which we forgot names as soon as we heard them. We say good buy to tiny man and after lunch we heading off to HCMC. Approaching HCMC we are stunned seeing millions of motorbikes sharring road with large vehicles in very chaotic way - overtaking, dodging others and constantly pushing horns, they fill up gaps between large vehicles and we are amazed there are no accidents. As soon as we step out of our bus at terminal, a swarm of taxi drivers try to score jobs but we refuse $20 offer as we spot local bus going to Pham Ngu Lao area for only $0.50. Bingo! At 9pm we are dropped off and we immediately like this area with many cafes, restaurants and guesthouses of all kinds. We stay in Saigon for only two nights, mainly to enjoy food and city's flavour - and it is plenty of it here.

Tuesday 17th March we are taking bus to beach town Mui Ne on east coast of Vietnam where we hope to soak up some sun. Pleasant views from four hour bus ride offer green rice fields stretching to infinity and just before Mui Ne farms with dragon fruit cactai become frequent. Resorty Mui Ne welcomes us with hot and windy weather. One can find accommodation here from $10 to $1000 per night, guess where we stayed? Spotlessly clean room with bar fridge, air-con, hot water shower and TV for $10 is not bad deal at all. Looking for a cafe shop we see many menues written in russian azbuka and we hear many tourist speak russian - what is going on here? Mui Ne must have become popular holiday destination for rich russians and that theory is later confirmed by few locals. At dinner we meet a Czech couple Radim and Katka, we share many life views and our chatting ends around midnight. Next day we all four of us hire two motorbikes going to explore sand dunes, beaches and lakes. On short strip of a dirt road I spend too much time sightseeing instead looking right in front of me which does not pay off well - front wheel hits small rock and we loose balance falling on right side with bike resting over our legs. Luckily no bones stick out and we walk off only with few bruises, scratches and one blister on my right foot caused by exhaust pipe. Motor bike seems to be ok so no major damage is done, bit shaky we finish our trip in mid afternoon with a nice caffee on the beach. One more dinner with new Czech friends and while they are leaving at midnight by bus we go to bed for last sleep in Mui Ne - tomorrow to inland Dalat.

Road to Dalat winds up to 1500m through nice hills covered with coffee, artichock and many other vegatable farms - agriculture in Vietnam seems to be in very good shape as many farms have two-storey modern family houses. Dalat town also indicates relative well being of locals and we do not see any homeless people. We are nicely surpriced when bus dropped us off at luxury looking hotel for $10 a night - we expected some sort of scam but it did not eventuate, including unlimited free internet. Walking around hilly Dalat is relaxing but somewhat puzzling as roads and narrow side lanes seem to have no direction. Original plan to hire motorbike here is out of question as our wounds and bones have not settled yet so we decide to take it easy. I bought antibiotic cream for my right foot, the blister raptured and does not show any signs of healing. Highlite from Dalat? Hand silk embroidery is beyond our beleif, we spend two hours in local galery admiring the artwork - we are invited to vitness patient and highly precise work of girls in their classroom upstairs. Trully unbeleivable stuuf!

The first day of spring we head off back to coast and our next fun place is Nha Trang. Long town beach is lined up with palms and few expensive restaurants (although very tasty the coffee was more expensive then in Sydney), however we keep our choices much wider by stroling streets away from the beachfront. Roof-top sitting at our $10/night hotel offers magnificent views of ocean dotted with many islands. Apparently this is one of the best snorkling/diving locations in Vietnam so we can not miss opportunity to visit few main islands. Sunday we spend day on a charter boat (many more locals then gringos) taking us to four different coral bays. After traditional vietnamese lunch prepared by the crew we are invited for happy hour drinks in water - participants get floating tube and receive unlimited quantity of (drinkable) local red wine. Captain called Happy Hour off when some local guys started to drift too far from the boat, and we continued our happy sailing. The highlite of this trip must be live 2-crew-band entertainment: drummer played drums (and I mean real plastic drums of various sizes) and guitarist/signer was realy good.

Tonight we leave Nha Trang on an overnight sleeper bus (only bunk beds, no seats) to arrive in Hoi An at 7am after not so sleepy night. Bus stops in front of a nice hotel but we think $15 is too much so I search few streets around for an alternative while Iva stays with bags. Half an hour later we check in a hotel which is just next door from where we stopped this morning. All the same same but different. This time I managed to bargain down to $12. What is this town famous for? Virtually hundreds of tailors and shoe maker shops, they measure and deliver in 24 hours! Girls beware! We see many travelers buying extra suitcase for custom made garments. We limit ourselves to one pair of sandals and Iva bought custom made long silk pants. One day we visit ruins My Son (bombed by US forces in the war), another day we just walk around munching on vietnamese meals - our favoured are Wontons at Mr.Hung's stall at markets. Absolutely delicious! We could easily stay here for many more days but time is runnig out and we need to move again. On Thursday 26 March afternoon we leave Hoi An to Hue where we immediately transfer to another sleeper bus going to Ha Noi overnight.

Arrival to rainy Ha Noi at 7am is somewhat mellow and we ask ourselves "Is Ha Long Bay going to be the same?", but we have few days up in our sleeves so hopefuly weather may clear up. Taxi from bus station takes us right to town centre and we are offered simple and cheap room (not so clean) in almost perfect position near lake. Coffee is a must, we realy like Vietnameese brew, and after breaky we start to explore lake side and maze of streets around. On the way we buy new camera Lumix TZ5 (we still have the old crapy Samsung though) as we always wanted this model. With its 10x zoom taking pictures of elusive local faces will be even easier, but it's not always me who chases exotic characters -group of gigling Vietnamese approached me to be part of their photos. It looks like we must be exotic to them as well. And what else do we see in Ha Noi? Of course, famous Ha Long Vay which is about two hours bus ride away. We also need to organise 30-days Mongolian visa, however tonight we receive a reply email from the embassy - opening days for visa applications are only Tue and Thursday and today is Friday! Missed by one day - not happy! That means we need to stay in Ha Noi until next Thursday to pick them up. Well, it is not so bad after all, we'll have plenty of time for fun and we may even visit uncle Ho's mausoleum and war museum.

Hearing many different stories about Ha Long Bay packages we decide for a middle range two-day/one night boat cruise (USD70 pp). Sunday morning we join other 10 travellers in a pick-up minibus and we are on the way! Can not wait to see this natural wander! Unfortunately weather has not cleared up and heavy grey overcast hangs over the bay. By midday we are transferred to beautiful and stylish sailing boat where we enjoy a wellcoming drink before we receive keys to our private cabins. Very luxurious room with en-suite is a nice surprise, meals served on a middle deck resturant are excelent and this trip looks very promising. Few hours sailing are needed to arrive at spectacullar cave Hang Sung Sot which we explore for about an hour. Afternoon ends with two hours cayaking to nearby islands and we are realy hungry by now. Multi course delicious dinner including seafood, salads and fruit provides ideal setting for a chat with our new companions. More sailing after breakfest, Iva gets foot massage and by midday we return back to Ha Long Bay town. After last meal together we all board minibus back to Ha Noi. Tuesday morning we take local bus (#53) from the lake and twenty minutes later we talk to Mongolian ambasador (well, he looked like an ambasador), fill up neccessary paperwork and pay USD30 each. Searching for good vietnamese food we come accross 'Little Hanoi' restaurant in a narrow lane, later we discover more 'Little Hanois' around the town but only two (No.9 and 14) serve outstanding food. War museum and Ho Chi Min's mausoleum provides small insight into history and national psyche of Vietnamese people, the rest of our spare time we just walk around streets and enjoy wibes and colours of this charismatic metropole, though very noisy. My foot does not look better, it appears to be infected and walking in full shoes causes some discomfort. Today 1st April (!) we saw glimps of sun but for only short time and afternoon it is raining again. As we need to kill more time we resort to 'Water Puppett Show' in local theatre - a traditional, cute almost childish show makes us laugh though. Thursday, our last day in Ha Noi we pack up bagpacks, buy sleeper-train tickets to Sapa and afternoon we need to pick up passports with visas. After last dinner at our favoured Little Hanoi restaurant, with bags on our backs we head off to train station where we board overnight train to our last destination in Vietnam. Crossing rail tracks we finaly locate our train on platform #9, and we hope that we'll sleep in one of those few luxury soft-sleeper 4-berth cabins which we paid for. To our dissappointment female train conductor points our direction to a shaby looking carriage with 6-berth hard-sleeper cabins. "Is she correct?" we are asking ourselves. "This is not possible, we have paid for soft beds, and only four people in each cabin". "No, that is what ticket shows" is her reply in a body language as she does not speak any english. Now we understand! The guy at the desk in 'Hanoi Centre One Hotel' pocketted difference between what we paid him for, and what he spent when he went to train station for our tickets. Big mistake - we should have bought tickets ourselves. Interestingly enough, it was the same guy who organised our Halong Bay trip with what we were very happy, but this time we were not coming back from Sapa and he knew that. That is why he took the opportunity to cheat us. Anyway, other then tossing on uncomfortable hard bed the trip was ok and four other chineese guys who shared the cabin with us did not snore or misbehave. We arrive to Lao Cai at 5am, from here minibus winds up to SaPa in high mountains. Much cooler morning (12C) then we are used to from the tropical coast and hot breakfest is quite handy while we wait for hotel rooms to become available.

Sapa village is located on slopes of beautiful mountain range in north west Vietnam. Local H'Mong tribes living in suurounds come every day to town, dressed in traditional colorful clothing and offering their handmade craft on streets or at markets. Many young mums having babies wrapped in blankets on their backs are very friendly and frequently ask lot of questions about us, they are very sweet and keep smiling even if we do not buy anything. My foot is not fit for any long hikes so we spend first day walking around village and taking pictures of valley with its rice field cascades, in times shrouded in mist and rolling clouds. Of course, there are ample opportunities to photograph natives from all possible angels and I actualy quite enjoy that. Next day after stormy night we walk up to a lookout hill within local national park, passing through many beautiful gardens and landscapes. It is unbeleivable that after sooo much rain during last night skies clear by ten and we have nice sunny day. 

Tomorrow we'll take one hour bus to the border with China and say good bye to Vietnam. About one month ago our entry to this country did not start at the best but today our views are different and we regard Vietnam as one of the most beautiful, colourful, charismatic and friendly countries in our world trip. Despite many previous negative warnings from other backpackers we did not experience any major troubles and positive feelings overweigh everything else. 




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