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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Hué to Hanoi

VIETNAM | Sunday, 27 April 2008 | Views [1533]

Mon 21st Apr - Breakfast at the Mandarin café where we had dinner last night, nice food and good value for money. On the SE6 train to Ninh Binh leaving at 08:20. Need to arrive at the station 30 mins before departure, although this isn't really necessary as the train won't be early (assumption here). Got a shared taxi to the station for $1. Plenty of snacks and drinks available before boarding the train. The trains are split into two groups and there is a well organised seating area with TV to watch. Announcements made in vietmanese only but it's easy to follow what to do. They let you onto the platform 10 mins before the train arrives and a station guard is around if you need help, which you don't as you stand by the clear signs for the coach number on your ticket. Train arrived at 08:25 and left at 08:32. In a soft seat carriage rather than a sleeper as cheaper and comfortable enough. Time to settle down with some entertainment for a while as the journey should take around 11hours. The train had LCD television running mainly vietnamese movies and sitcoms, but there was one english movie. Regular vendors pass by selling drinks and snacks plus a choice of hot food near to lunch and dinner times.

The trains that run up and down the country's Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City railway line are loosely referred to as the 'Reunification Express' although there are no specific trains called by that name. The 1726km long track was originally known as the Transindochinois and was built between 1899 and 1936 (when HCMC was known as Saigon). During successive wars (WWII and Franco-Viet Minh) much sabotage occurred with sections being bombed or stolen to use elsewhere. Attempts were made to repair it but further destruction in the 1960s war put a stop to this. After reunification of the north and south, the government re-established the connection between Hanoi and the renamed Ho Cho Minh City as a symbol of Vienamese unity. The reunification Express was re-born on 31st december 1976. Some figures....1334 bridges, 27 tunnels, 158 stations, 1370 switches. Average speed is 50km/h.

The route from Hué to Ninh Binh is the typical beautiful scenery. Wide areas of verdant rice paddies, complete with the omni-present workers in their cone hats. Another common sight are the burial grounds in amongst the paddies. Very ornamental designs and often grouped into families. One funny sight that I wasn't fast enough to photograph was a group of water buffalo bathing in a lilac water hyacinth pond with white egrets perched on their heads looking like lookout guards. Buffalo always have that nonchalant look on their faces. The expressions and setting was wonderful. Further on north towards Vinh and still following mile after mile of green paddy fields and stunning views. The burial grounds are more ornate up here.

Once the train reaches Vinh the scenery gets much more dramatic. Mountainous karst limestone peaks emerge from the green carpet of the paddie fields, to form an amazing landscape that isn't present elsewhere south of here. A taste of what is to come further north. Set against the spectre of numerous cone hats dotted around the bottlegreen fields and cattle being washed after a days work, this is one of those postcard images of Vietnam that once seen will never be forgotten.

The train arrived in Ninh Binh about 40 minutes later than planned, at 7:30pm. Ok for such a long journey. Straight out of the station and past the usual gauntlet of hotel touts although no pushy here. Had an idea of a couple of areas to check. Ended up in the Xuân Hoa hotel 2 for $12 a night.

Tue 22nd Apr - Hired bicycles for the day, the only way to see this area. Off highway #1 onto the road to 'Tam Côc', which is about 6km from the hotel. Just before reaching the town, there is a ticket booth on the right. You can't miss it as there was a guy waving us down as we approached and directed us. You need to buy a boat ticket (30,000 Dong) and entry to the area (40,000 dong) or 50,000 dong combined price. After about 100 metres you get to the Dinh Cac boat dock where a man in a booth by the boats takes your ticket and sorts you on to a row boat. It helps to have read the guidebook in advance as there are some scams ahead...beware, all will become clear!

Two passengers to a boat plus the oarsperson (usually an old lady) plus another assistant (will become clear). You then set off on a wonderful trip through some of the most stunning scenery that nature has to offer. This is Vietnam pulling out the stops to make you go...Wow!

The Ngo Dong river, flanked by green (you haven't seen the colour green until you've seen it here) rice paddies and, emerging like some improbable landscape, the karst peaks tower overhead in a way that is just awesome. Winding its way through three grottoes/tunnels, each time emerging to provide another spectacular view. There is no wonder why this place has been nicknamed the 'Halong bay of the paddy fields'. Another common sight is people semi-submerged in the water, with just their cone hats visible. They are foraging for snails. An inriguing sight is small clumps of pink stuck to grass stalks and onto anything emering from the water. These are the snail eggs.

When you get to the end of the third tunnel...here comes scam number 1. Mister and missy buy drink....mister and missy buy T-shirt  for souvenir....mammy tired....you buy drink for mammy. Mammy being of course the octagenarian paddling the boat....of course, the people who buy mammy a drink are treated to mammy immediately selling it back to the vendor for half price!

One of the fun things you see here is the boat people laying down and paddling the oars with their feet. A clever and cool way to do it.

So having told the assistant and mammy to give this up as a job if it makes them thirsty, they are a bit p'd off...here comes scam number 2. Part way back you get dropped off at a track that leads to the thai vi temple. As soon as you step foot on dry land, they are away. When you hail them back they insist they don't understand and their job has finished there. I think that if you don't buy anything from them they have a way of getting their own back! So, as expected, there are a bunch of moto drivers waiting to take you back to town....of course for a fee! Ignore them all, as its only 300 mts to the temple and about 1.5km easy walk from there to town.

Back at the boat dock to pick up the bicycles, which I had chained to a metal post ( I had seen some others being loaded onto the back of a motorbike before we left, so didn't want to take a risk), and off to Bich Dong pagoda. A fairly straight forward 3 or 4km ride with super scenery. As part of the main Tam Coc ticket you get entry here. Of course, when you arrive they insist that you need a new ticket. I am getting a bit fed up with scams by now...Spoiling the pleasure of this beautiful country as you have to be on your guard all the time for the next scam.

The temple is set into the rocks and an interesting place. Had lunch with a friendly bunch of locals before heading back to town.

Whilst on the boat we noticed a really amazing looking temple right on top of one of the karsts. Found out it was called 'Mua caves', so decided to head for it. Not difficult to get to and well worth it 10,000 dong entry fee and the best bit aren't caves but a steep climb to the top, rewarded on arrival with a truly awesome view of the surrounding countryside. Mile upon mile of green, punctuated by the karst eruptions. Stunning! On top there is a snaking dragon that jumps from one rugged rock to another and a pair of pagodas that stand atop nearby peaks like sentry's marking the entrance to this grand place.

Back to the bottom and returned to town the long way with a loop through Ban Long temple and some lovely villages. Quick stop at the bus station to check times for the next leg of the journey, then back to the hotel...tired after a long day in the saddle.

Went for an impromptu haircut later, that turned into a group effort. It started with a young lad getting the trimmer and with a lot of concentration, did what seemed a reasonable job. Then one of the girls, who I guessed was in charge jumped in and it got shorter and shorter before I could stop her. She ended up cutting off alot more than I had envisaged, so back to a really short cut again. Whilst there they offered to do my ears. This is a standard option in Vietnam, to have your ears cleaned out. Armed with headlight and a fist full of surgical instruments and the chair laid back like at the dentist, the young lad sat down and set to work. I was disgusted at the gunge that came out as they show each bit to emerge ...yuk! The fun bit is when he delved in for the final polish with a fluffy cleaner to twizzle in your ears...tickles a bit...well a lot actually. There was a lot of infantile giggling going on in the backround. The whole service, hair cut and de-wax for 40,000 dong... bargain!

Suitably smartened up, went to a restaurant I passed earlier to check it out. Turned out it served a wide range of food including duck, wild boar and bambi!

Wed 23rd Apr - Moving on to Haiphong today. About 6 buses a day. After a casual start aimed for the noon bus (50,000 dong). Left spot on noon. The weather here is noticeably cooler than the south, with some light rain this morning. Checked the weather forecast and it's going to rain heavier further north. Typical as want to do some trekking. The bus was a really nice one with leather seats and ran fairly empty.

Near to Nam Dinh the bus stopped to pick up a passenger, accompanied by an enormous solid wood table that took four guys on the round and two on the roof to get sorted. Imagine that happening in europe...no chance. Here, nothing is too much trouble. You want a set of furniture on the bus, sure....move over passengers! The other day a local came on with his bike and a mountain of fabric. How he got it on the bike I haven't a clue, but they manage the most improbable of loads. Our health and safety conscious world would have a fit. Here it just happens and nobody thinks anything of it.

Got to Haiphong at 15:10 and as usual got bombarded with the touts at the bottom of the bus steps. Fortunately, I knew we had to get to a different station to get the next bus to Halong city. Jumped on a moto and arrived at the boat station rather than the bus station....attempt number two and got the message through...got there just as the minibus was pulling away. The bus ticket collector paid the moto driver for us so we could get on the bus quicker. The bus soon filled up to well over capacity (32 on a 18 seater). About 90 mins to get to Halong city. Wanted to get off in the Bai Chay area of town, close to where the boats leave. Ended up the driver dropping us off quite a way from there, but didn't know that at the time. Thought it wise to go somewhere busy to find out how to get to the correct destination so walked to the first main road with hotels. You know those occasions when something happens by accident....the cloud with the silver lining scenario....well within a couple of minutes found an english speaking vietnamese guy, who happened to be the Regional Sales Manager for Beer and beverages International. He was holding one of his meetings with his local reps and invited us to join them and he would take us to a nice hotel later. We were treated to a few free draught Anchor beers and some free food and good chat before he took us to a nice little hotel near to the beachfront for $10 a night. On the way there we went along the waterfront passing the main dock. The sight of hundreds of junks with a backdrop of karst peaks emerging from the water is a superb sight, even though their sales were down. Can't wait until tomorrow.

Wanted to stay on a Junk tomorrow night, so asked around and was put in touch with a guy who made a reasonable offer, so that one was sorted. Get picked up at noon tomoro and back mid day the following day. All meals included, private cabin and transport to Hanoi afterwards.

Off to see what Bai Chay has to offer. It has more to it than I had been lead to expect. The water front is a mixture. In one direction the wide boulevard is lined with trees that were illuminated green. In the other, a massive market area selling super quality artefacts plus high quality resaurants. It even has a night club Club 18. A really nice touch is the presence of white horse-drawn carriages running up and down the front. Halong, like most of Vietnam is about to celebrate 'Carnaval 2008', which runs from 26th April thru to 1st May. The roundabout had  been decorated and some lighting had been put up.

Stopped for a drink in a backstreet café and was reminded of one of Vietnam's favourite pastimes.... Splitting seeds in their mouths and spitting out the kernels. Wherever you go, a sea of nut kernels. Restaurant and café floors are a mess with them.

Thu 24th apr - Picked up at 11:30 by taxi to get to the boat dock. Forewarned in the guidebook about it being a bit of a circus. Definitely right about that. The previous day's passengers being offloaded as the next lot arrive. Buses everywhere along with taxis and motos. In the centre of it all is the boat office crawling with bodies that only opens between 10am and noon. On arrival allocated to a guide, who then changed to another guide. We then had to wait for more of the group to arrive. As usual your tickets are then taken from you with no further proof of what you have booked. They then split us up into further groups and take your passport, which the captain takes into the office to get logged and he then keeps hold of them until we leave the boat tomorrow. Soon on to the boat. Ours was one of a fleet called 'Dream Voyager' named Biên mó. Glass of orange juice on the boat on arrival, shortly folllowed by lunch once everyone was on board. Nice meal of meat, fish, veg, rice, tofu and dragon fruit for dessert. No drinks included. Here comes the first catch...a sign says that you aren't allowed to consume your own drinks on board! If you do, they charge $10 a bottle of spirit and $3 for a beer! Drinks on board are as expected extortionate. $3 for a bottle of water that would cost 40 cents in the shops on land. $36 for a bottle of wine that would cost $5. $3 for a beer that would cost 60 cents. So basically, as with most of Vietnam, they try to rip you off in every direction. Of course they also put signs in the cabins to say that you cannot drink your own drinks in there....you get fined! You are allowed water only.

Up until recently I was warming to Vietnam, but it is wearing off a little. The country is beautiful and people are really friendly. The let down is the continual scams that happen everywhere. Even the tiny local shops will treble or quadruple the price of everything before you challenge them and you can trust nobody, as many will happily lie to you knowing you will soon be gone and cannot get back to them. Don't be put off by this though as it better to be forewarned and just deal with it as best you can.

The boat journey was super. It has been overcast today, but that doesn't detract from the beauty. In fact it makes it more mysterious. After a few hours we pulled up at the Hang sung sot caves. A bit of a circus again as hundreds of tourists offload from numerous junks and shuffle through the entrance and up the steps to the caves. Fortunately, you are rewarded with a superb cave. They have made it a spectacle with coloured lighting, but it does make the rock formations that more bit more dramatic. There is a set path through the caves that takes you back to the boat dock that offers some great views over the bay and boats. Back on the boat for a short while and stop off at the floating fishery and kayak dock.

Out on kayaks for 40 minutes or so on the tranquil waters to explore the alcoves and caves, of which there are many.

Back at the dock and a look around the fishery, where you could buy if you wished and have it cooked for a personal dinner, although dinner is provided anyway. Can choose from Giant squid, Octopus, langoustines and many fish. A race was held between the crew of the boats to kayak to a distant rock and back. The loser buys fish for the other's dinner. They then had an arm wrestling competition. The loser had to jump in water.

At the dock many boat people appear selling food and beer for 15,000 dong. Of course you have to drink it before getting back on boat or you get charged for bringing it on the boat!

Dinner was well presented with ornate vegetables, rice, fresh fish, chicken, pork and fruit. Nice background music. Sat with a couple from Bangkok who are cycling around Vietnam and spoke good english.

Later on when the boat had moored for the night....the scene was magic..everyone had feasted on a nice meal...the sky was dark....the boats had their lights on...twinkling reflections in the water... the scene was set for a lovely evening in this dramatic setting...then the bloody vietnamese karaoke started! First the raucous sounds from the adjacent boat sounding like someone being murdered. Our boat, not to be outdone retaliated with an even louder karaoke. Somehow the ambiance was a little less athmospheric!

Played poker with some guys from south africa, one was a shipping agent over here on a job swap for 2 years so could speak fluent vienamese. Made for a fun finish to the day.

Fri 24th Apr - Woken up at 6am by the engine starting. Soon followed by the music system blurting out vietnamese pop music. A hot shower to further the awakening followed by a good breakfast before setting off on the cruise back to Halong. Fairly misty again today with a slight breeze, making it feel much colder than we've been used to. You expect to see the junks with their renouned sails up, but only seen a few since setting off as the boats are motorised and most aren't even fitted with sails.

Got back to Halong city at about 11:20 and straight to a resaurant for a group meal. Everyone of the boats seem to go to the same place which is a couple of minutes walk across from the dock. Nice choice of food. The food on this tour has been really good, so no complaints there. Onto a comfortable minibus at 12:30 for the trip north to Hanoi.

It is here that I say goodbye to my travel companion Diana as I am meeting up with my lovely friend Victoria, the lady I was with in Cambodia. Victoria and I will travel together for a while around northern Vietnam. We met up the the Rose hotel in the old quarter. wonderful to be back together again. Evening meal at the Geckos restaurant, which I would highly recommend for quality of food.

 

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