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Motorcycles Diaries - The North

I think I say it all...

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Having taken the night to sleep on it we decided we would get the train North as we had planned. It meant spending the day in Ha Noi with our bags though and so we decided it wasn't realistic to be too active. First off we went to the train station to buy another couple of tickets, then to the Burmese Embassy to get our passports and then after a little bit of a search we found the cinema. First off we saw the new Harry Potter film, Adam fighting the urge to drop off through out and I had to admit that it was the film version of a filler track on an album. Next we saw Public Enemies which I enjoyed a little more than Adam, which may have been due to my deeper appreciation for Mr Depp.

It had been a rainy day, which made our double feature experience more justifiable. As we made it back outside we were treated to the best fork lightening I have ever witnessed and Adam managed to get some good snaps.
As we still had ages till the train we began to make the long walk to the station, grabbing a kebab on the way. When we were about half way there the heavens opened once more and we found a bit of shelter to wait it out. It persisted for quite some time and as we stood there my parents called, so I managed to have a brief conversation with them over the sound of the ground being consistently pummelled.

When it stopped we walked the rest of the way but still had some time to wait at the train station and all we wanted to do was be on our way. Finally it was time to go and we found our seats, being cheapskates we had decided against getting beds. To begin with it seemed it had been a good choice, we'd got seats with a bit of extra leg room and the carriage was fairly empty. Unfortunately just before the train left we were descended upon by a large group of men who all seemed to be part of some club or organisation. They filled the half of the carriage which was empty and despite it being gone 11pm they appeared to have no intention of going to sleep. Behind us the lights were turned off and people began to drop off, in front of us (as we were in the middle) the fun was just beginning as packs of cards were produced and the men chatted noisily. The air con wasn't working well so they opened the windows, even when it was fixed they kept them open until they were told to close them. Safe to say it was not a restful night.

Despite a distinct lack of sleep I was pleased when it was time to get off. We had arrived in a town called Lao Cai and we now had to get a bus to a placed called Sapa, the Northern Vietnam tourist hub, and here we hoped to rent a motorbike. Getting the bus involved the usual negotiation and then waiting as they try to fill it to the absolute max. The journey was quite pretty although it didn't really alert us to the kind of scenery we were going to get to see.

Sapa is quite a nice little place, it shares a certain damp quality that we have experienced in all mountain towns but it is a little more established than some. People flock here for the mountain air and to interact with the hill tribes who come out in force to make the most of the tourist trade. Most of those that visit Sapa are Zao and even though they follow you around you can help but find them endearing. The majority are women and they are all dressed traditionally in dark blue and have their incredibly long hair pulled up on top of their heads and encased in a hat/thick hair band.
It used to be that they held a 'love market' on a Sunday where the tribes men and women would come to try and find a partner, but now it more seems to an every day market. However we did arrive on a Sunday and there was a certain atmosphere and buzz to the place.

It was this fact that made finding a hotel a little tricky, everywhere seemed firstly fairly full and secondly expensive. We ended up finding a room which was ok and also had a bit of a view, we only planned to stay one night so it didn't matter too much. Renting a bike was a breeze in comparison to the troubles we'd had in Ha Noi. Next door to the hotel the man was very eager to get us on our way and gave us some advice on a route, the price seemed fair so we arranged to get the bike at 8am the next morning.

With that task complete we had some lunch, then some sleep to make up for the lack of it on the train and then in the evening had a proper mooch around the town. We had a bbq dinner, including lady fingers which are a thin, long, green vegetables and Adam wanted to try Chicken's feet. I had a bit of a taste but I couldn't quite get the image of a live chicken darting about on these pointy, clawed, talon like feet out of my head, plus there was the fact that it just didn't taste very nice. Apart from that though it was very good and the lady cooking was very sweet. We then had a bit of a wander around the market and soaked up the atmosphere for a while. Adam bought himself a new mack to replace the one that had been tumble-dried to death in Ho Chi Minh courtesy of a careless laundry service. After the long and drawn out haggling process we were both exhausted and headed to bed.

In the morning we had a quick but expensive breakfast (we were looking forward to finding some cheaper food on the road) and then we went to pick up the bike. The guy had told us it was a new bike, which had made us more inclined to go with him, Adam was definitely keen to make sure we got one with good brakes this time. It was a semi-automatic which meant it was a bit smaller but we were expecting to have to endure sore bums no matter what and it would be beneficial on the steep climbs.

We pulled away and straight away that sense of freedom rushed back, what happened over the next few days was completely up to us and we could go where we liked. Once out of the town we headed West and it didn't take long for us to blown away by the scenery. We have been in the mountains a few times on this trip but this beat all that we had seen. Maybe it was being on the motorbike, as you are able to view the complete panorama as well as take in so much more than when you are just walking, it was a bit of a sensory overload. I categorise the first day as Misty mountains, as the majority of it was spent circling the highest mountain in Vietnam, Mount Fansipan.
Its summit was shrouded in cloud but gazing up from below now and again there would be a break and you would get some indication of how large it loomed. The hills rose and fell all around us, offering up large valleys for us to stare down into. 3DSC00013.jpg

Waterfalls were a common feature, ranging from a trickle of water snaking it's way down the hill side to a significant torrent shooting to the ground below.
We stopped to have a look at a few when we got further away from the town as they were quieter. Soon enough we had left the tourists behind and we were out on our own and open to the surprised looks once more. Just the way we like it. We stopped for lunch in a small town and they were amused by our presence.

The man who'd rented us the bike had described a route that we could do but based on the miles we had covered so far it seemed a little conservative. He told us not to go one way because the road was a bit bad but it made the most logical sense as it provided the right sized loop, so off we set. We were heading for the town of Lai Chau which would take us the closest to China either of us had ever been. We had read that it could get quite chilly in the mountains but we were being treated to glorious weather which just made the colours of our surroundings even more amazing. The deep, rich green of the trees combined with the bright, vivid green of the grass and all set against a blue back drop. On days like this nothing beats mother nature.

We were dirty, sun burnt and sore by the time we reached Lai Chau, a very strange place indeed. From what we gathered from the guidebook and the surroundings I think the town is being rebuilt after the old one was flooded (on purpose) when a new dam was erected.
We drove around for a while trying to find somewhere to stay and a few places, despite advertising themselves as hotels turned us away and we ended up returning to the first one we'd seen which was firmly in the being built part of town. Still the room was nice enough and we were happy just to be off the bike for a little while.

In the evening we drove down to a man made lake which was really quite pretty and gave nature a bit of a run for it's money.
The sunset was really pretty, as the low lying cloud which hugged the mountains was tinged pink and orange. I am definitely a fan of misty mountain sunsets. The finale was strips of warm orange light which streaked across the darkening sky.
As we stood photographing it the locals looked on and I asked Adam if he thought they took something like this for granted and he said 'yes and you probably would too if you lived here.' That probably is true although I find it hard to believe.

We had dinner in a restaurant/banquet hall, it was completely deserted and in this town I wondered if it ever got full or whether these people are just waiting for the place to be full re-populated. The people were really friendly as we communicated via the guidebook list of handy words when ordering food. After that we went to bed all excited about what we would see tomorrow.

The next day was our one year anniversary and it was the perfect way to spend it. It was more tropical than the first, as the road dropped down to follow the river as it carved its way through the rock.
The trees and vegetation became more jungle like and the humidity raised a little. The weather continued to hold as the sun shone down brightly and it really was making the trip for us. Not having to bother with the ponchos as we had done in the South was a blessing. We saw a little boy riding on top of a water buffalo which is one of my favourite images from the trip so far, no matter how many times I see it.
It just seems to encompass the beautiful simplicity of life for these people and I find myself envying them. We then saw an elephant on the back of a lorry which I have to say I wasn't expecting, not sure where it was heading but I managed to snap a quick photo when the driver slowed down for us. I hope it was going somewhere nice.

As we drove along side the muddy waters of the river we saw lots of butterflies, some of which were really large. We stopped and Adam took on the role of David Attenborough/Bill Oddy as he remained perfectly still and with a bit of perseverance got some great photographs.
The whole flapping of butterflies makes me a little jittery so I thought it was best to leave him to it and quietly observed. Being able to stop like this in the middle of nowhere is what makes the bike the best thing we have done.

By midday we had made it to the town we had planned to spend the night in but there was really nothing there. We stopped for a drink and bought a few snacks but we would have to continue on. It meant about 90km more which would take roughly 3 hours. The road climbed back up a little and we were in amongst the rolling hills, all of it being farmed.
It reminded me a little strangely of the Windows XP Desktop background with the image of that rolling green hill. With the little villages of simply erected wooden buildings in these lush surroundings it made me think that this would have been a perfect Shire for the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings and the movies could easily have been filmed here.
Finally we reached a place where we could stay the night. We had a quick bite to eat, bought some fruit for desert and headed back to the room for another early night.

The next day on the bike started out with us passing a quite significant landslide
and then we or rather Adam had to navigate his way down and up a small track where I am guessing the road had completely fallen away.
I got off the bike to make things a little easier and followed behind, pushing him at one point when things got a bit steep and the ground didn't provide enough traction. Perhaps this is what the man had meant when he said the road was not very good.

Having covered a lot of ground the day before we took things quite slow and had an easy target in mind. The scenery became more reminiscent of a forest and we saw one tribes person on the back of a bike with a gun strapped to him.
Adam thought it looked home made and we presumed he was off to do some hunting. The mountains here were quite narrow in places and cut through the valleys like knives, I thought the tops of them looked like the islets at Halong Bay and wondered if maybe there was some connection.
We stopped to snap a few photographs of ourselves there as we hadn't really had much opportunity to get a picture with both of us in it.

We continued on and then suddenly Adam came to a halt, apparently he had spotted a grasshopper on the road and he wanted to go and have a look.
It seemed to be very subdued as it sat there motionless and very much in harms way. We took a few photos and then Adam got it up on a stick, it was actually quite cute when you looked at it up close.
After the human-insect encounter he popped on the grass and we were on our way once more.

By early afternoon we reached the town of Than Uyen and we decided to stay the night here. There were lots of hotels to choose from and we even saw another Western couple so we knew we were getting closer to Sapa once more. We picked a hotel because it seemed to have a nice view of the mountains and then we had a brief walk around the town. We got a lot of quizzical looks and some young people called us over to sit and have a cold drink with them. English is not that widely spoken in Vietnam, not like other places we have been too so the conversation was really limited and it was a shame because it would have been nice to have a proper chat.

After we returned to the hotel the heavens opened and it began to pour with rain. We stayed in the rest of the day and ate in the hotel in the evening. We didn't have too much ground to cover the next day but with there being little else to do we made it another early night.

The next day it was raining lightly and it was quite misty.
We decided better to be safe than sorry and we bought ourselves a couple of ponchos, we didn't want to be caught out if it started to pour. The bad weather didn't really matter because for the majority of the trip we were covering old ground, in some ways it made it more interesting. At times when we were climbing higher into the mountains the valley below was completely banished from view and it just looked like a white abyss stretching on into the distance.
Now we experienced the cold weather of the mountains and we were so thankful it hadn't been like this the last few days.

We made it back to Sapa by late morning and returned the bike. Reflecting on the trip Adam said that the road must be one of the best in the world for motorbike exploration, with it continually twisting and turning and a surprise around every corner. Back on two feet we walked round the market and ended up spending quite a bit of money. The local tribes girls pulled at my heart strings and they really are so sweet, one was my age and had three children. Such a different life.
We bought some handmade decorations they use for their clothes but we thought would look good on a Christmas tree. A few more purchases having been made, we knew it was time to leave. Our train back to Ha Noi was not until later that evening but we decided we'd go and wait at the station.
Only one more day in Vietnam and then it was off to Thailand. Time seemed to be passing by quickly these days.

Our last day in Vietnam was spent looking round the shops in Ha Noi. The value for money when it comes to bits and bobs for the house is amazing and looking back we may have gone a bit over board, still I think it was worth it.

We had really enjoyed our time here, and the differences between the North and the South seem to compliment each other. If I had to pick I'm not sure where I would suggest people visit, perhaps if you can only experience one, then go North. The scenery is breathtaking and you'll still find lovely people who will make your experience memorable.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 01:00 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A lesson learned...

amongst pretty islets

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We caught a local minibus to Halong Bay and I don't know whether it was the confined space but it wasn't a very pleasant ride. A lot of Asian men are rather more concerned with their nails than Western men and tend to grow one or more to a length Cruela DeVille would be proud of. This obviously requires some up keep and they are quite happy to carry this out on the bus, nail clippers and all. It turns mine and Adam's stomach a little which made the ride a little less enjoyable.

Thankfully it was a fairly short trip in comparison to others so soon enough we were in the small seaside town of Bai Chay and we were a little surprised. Being as Halong Bay is one of the places to go in Vietnam we had both been expecting to find a town which was completely geared to meet every whim and desire of the modern tourist and obviously that it would be filled with said tourists. This however was not the case. There were plenty of hotels, but the place itself was almost entirely devoid of foreigners. We saw one coach full that was leaving but aside from that there was really no one. The fact that it's low season may have had an impact but considering the number of travellers we'd encountered every where else it was surprising.

We checked a few hotels out, some of which were fairly grim. There was a girl on a motorbike who wanted to help us but we kindly declined. In the end we struck gold and found ourselves one of the cheapest rooms we'd had in Vietnam so far. It had massive glass doors which slid open so you could step out onto the balcony which provided a wonderful view of the islets of Halong Bay. They are quite a way off shore and the mist tends to cling to them but nonetheless it was the ideal spot.

Once we were settled in we had some lunch and then went for a walk along the sea front.
We had been presuming that people would be falling over themselves to get us in a boat but this wasn't the case at all and we were slowly beginning to realise that most people didn't just turn up here on their own. At our hotel in Ha Noi they had been trying to get us on to different tours and we always declined but clearly most people don't. Therefore it is all sorted and people just get driven here and get straight on a boat, maybe spend a night on it or are transferred to a hotel. Maybe doing it ourselves was not going to be very straight forward.

The girl on the motorbike appeared again and asked us if we wanted to go on a boat but we stuck to our guns and declined. We then walked for over an hour to get to the tourist port which Adam had spotted earlier. Unfortunately it seemed this was the one time when showing up and doing it yourself was more expensive than relying on a travel agent as the man quoted us a silly price. A little disheartened we got a couple of motorbikes to take us back to the hotel. When we arrived there was a boy waiting for us in reception and he wanted to sell us a boat trip. Seeing as our options were some what limited we listened to him as he described what we could do. Our one major consideration was we had to be back in Ha Noi by 4:30pm the following day because we needed to pick up our passports from the Burmese Embassy before it closed and then we were catching a train north at 10pm.

He gave quite a good sales pitch, some what helped by us having exhausted every other option. He told us we could go out on the boat for 3 and a half to 4 hours beginning at 7am and then at between 12 and 12:15 a tourist bus could come and pick us up from our hotel and go non stop to Ha Noi and have us back by 4pm at the latest. A tourist bus didn't really appeal but it actually worked out cheaper than the local bus when considering the need for taxis at both ends and it would be quicker which would help with the time factor. After he'd finished we got up and said we would think about it and he responded in a fairly exasperated tone 'yeah, yeah' which got our backs up a little because we were genuinely going to think about it.

We decided to go out in to the town to see if we could find some other travel agents and then compare prices. It was a fruitless search though, several hotels advertised being able to sell boat trips but when we went in to ask we were meet with blank looks and shakes of the head. As we wandered from place to place we were very conscious of the girl on the motorbike who appeared to be following us. She seemed to be every where we were, at the tourist port she had been there when we got the motorbikes back in to town, some where during the course of today we had acquired an extra shadow. We suspected that some how the boy and her were linked, as they seemed to be carrying the same folder containing pictures of the boat and so on, but we only really had the one option. As we had made the effort to come here we decided that we should spend the money and go on the boat, even if the idea of an organised tour and getting a tourist bus back went against every bone in our body. We should have listened to our bones.

We managed to get the price down a bit which softened the blow slightly and he wrote us out a comprehensive receipt detailing the times of the boat and the bus, so I was fairly happy when the money was handed over. That done we went out and got some dinner. Some people at a restaurant had waved at us when we'd walked passed earlier so when they did it again it was a good enough reason for us. They were incredibly friendly and did a little to help the North in that department, although really there was no way they could beat the South. The food was really good too and we devoured everything almost as soon as it was placed in front of us. They made us spring rolls from scratch and the guy who seemed to be in charge of the cooking clearly wanted to know what we thought but was too shy to ask directly. I'd catch him looking over, trying to gauge our reaction but as soon as I looked up and smiled or tried to signal we were really enjoying it he quickly looked away. The day ended on a positive and we went to bed hoping for good things to follow.

In the morning we were up at around 6am and went downstairs for breakfast. At around 6:30am the girl showed up on the motorbike and our suspicions were confirmed as she guided us down to the road and hailed a taxi to take us to the port. The boy had said see you tomorrow but clearly now the deal had been sealed he was leaving the leg work for her. I'm not sure if she didn't really know what she was doing or whether she was just quite highly strung but she seemed to be darting off here there and everywhere, telling us to stay like we were her pet dogs. We waited obediently and allowed ourselves to be shepherded around, it's kind of par for the course when you sign up for a tour. Although when Adam asked if we would get a taxi back to our hotel after the boat trip she seemed confused and then said no we had to walk. Not exactly the complete tour package.

When we climbed on to the boat we were pleased that it slowly filled up with what appeared to be local tourists. I can't really explain why but somehow it made it all feel a little less scripted. The trips are on junk boats and as we set off so did dozens of others, all of us heading for the same place. We were now part of an extensive, photo-snapping flotilla.

First stop was a cave and every one filed off and joined a queue of people who were slowly making their way up some steps to the cave opening. Inside it was quite impressive, the rock formations were interesting and there were plenty of stalactites and stalagmites to look at. Different coloured lights; red, blue, green and so on were being used to add a bit of drama and people seemed to be loving it.
Caves are kind of lost on me a little bit especially when I have to trudge through at snails pace because a large volume of people are trying to squeeze through a small space. I was quite happy when we made it back in to daylight.

We were pretty much the first ones back on the boat, and then we sat and we waited. We mused about what people could possibly be doing and reminded ourselves that this is why we don't go on tours. Finally everyone was back on the boat and we actually started to get in amongst the islets. I'm no geographer, I hated it at school, so I'm not even going to try and provide an explanation for why they are there. They are like the tops of mountains though, just the summits poking out of the water and I wondered how far down they go.

Most of them are covered in trees and other vegetation which from afar looks like a large coverings of moss. Not to say that it wasn't pretty, or that there wasn't a kind of majestic quality to them.
When you think of how long they have been there and all the people that have gazed upon them they command a respect, one that is reserved for nature and how it has endured. It's just a shame we had to be looking at them with a bunch of other people.
Next we had a whistle stop tour of a floating fish farm. Many fisherman live out in these water villages and they catch and farm fish. Some of them were absolutely massive, I've never seen fish so big but due to people taking so long at the cave we didn't get to gape at them for too long.
Back on the boat we were heading in the direction of the port and we began to realise that our trip was over. Having been promised 3 and a half to 4 hours, it seemed we would be getting more like 2 and a half to 3.

Looking on the bright side though it meant we could get an early lunch before getting the bus and we wouldn't be starving when we got back to Ha Noi. We ate at the same place as the night before, we really had to shovel it in though because we were conscious of the bus which was due around 12pm. With a little bit of indigestion we hurried back to the hotel to wait in reception for the tourist bus. The clocked ticked by and soon it was half past 12, we asked the lady running the hotel and she said it would be here soon. Then it was 1pm and now we were really getting anxious. The journey back to Ha Noi would take between 3 and 3 and half hours and we had to be at the Burmese Embassy by 4:30pm or we wouldn't be able to get our passports and then we wouldn't be able to get our train.

The lady rang someone but didn't really say anything and we were just left to wait. It started to pour down with rain, almost as if to signify that we should accept that the gods were not on our side. Finally at around 1:30pm the girl showed up again and we walked down in the rain expecting to get on a bus, but no we just had to wait in the rain while she once again appeared not know what was going on. We tried to say we wanted a number or a business card, as we wanted to speak to the boy, as by now we were both livid. Her grasp on the English language seemed to get washed away with the rain as she replied to us in Vietnamese when we told her that the late bus was now going to mean we missed our train.

In the end she hailed a bus down and we reluctantly climbed on. The Western tourists on there must have been a bit surprised when we got on, drenched and furious. A couple of them asked us what was wrong and we explained, they were vaguely sympathetic although maybe they should have been more so as from what we gathered from the lady at the hotel we were held up by them having their lunch. We were now resigned to missing our train, there was no way we would get back in to Ha Noi by 4:30pm. We just hoped we would get a refund on our ticket.

We arrived back in the capital at around 5pm and went back to the hotel we'd stayed at before. They had a room and as soon as we'd dumped our stuff we walked to the train station. We managed to get an 80% refund on our ticket which was better than nothing. Now things had been messed up we were unsure once more about what to do, if we were to get the train the following day it would mean another arguably wasted day in Ha Noi. We decided to take the night to think on it.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 06:34 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Please Ha Noi - Can I have a motorbike??


View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

We caught our first sleeper bus to Ha Noi, and we were quite excited about it. I like the combination of covering necessary miles while in the land of nod and we were both hopeful that we would be blissfully unaware for the majority of it. There was a tourist bus we could have taken directly from Hoi An but being us we caught the local bus back to Da Nang and then waited for three hours in the stuffy bus station until it was time to leave.
Unfortunately we weren't quite as happy as when we'd got on the previous long haul bus. Everything was a little tired but then again it served the same purpose. There were three rows of beds, one by each window and then a central one and there was an upper and a lower bunk. We couldn't see any numbers so we estimated where we should be and took two beds up top. Your legs lie flat and then you can adjust the back so you're anywhere between sitting up and almost lying flat.

I was by the window and it was nice to gaze out from this reclined and lofty position. We both settled down with our ipods and attempted to relax. We came to a large-ish town and a few Westerners got on, they didn't seem that pleased with the accommodation as they were resigned to the back where there is no aisle just five beds side by side, all a bit cosy. A little later on it was time for dinner and we all filed out. Now understanding the process we sat down for our food and an English boy asked me if it was free and I said, as I believed it was, 'yes.' They were a little hesitant but the bus driver motioned for them to sit down, so they did. It all got a little heated after the meal when they were asked to pay, they seemed to be suggesting it might be something to do with their skin tone as no one else had paid, but then neither had we. The logical explanation was that they had got a slightly different ticket, one bought through an agent probably rather than directly from the bus company and meals were not included. In the end they reluctantly handed over the money and back in our bunks the trip continued.

I didn't sleep very well, no better than I had in the chair and I don't think Adam did either really. The movement of the bus and the small proportions didn't help. We were awake earlier and much to our surprise we arrived in Ha Noi before we expected, at around 6am. Having figured out all the Hotels were in Old Ha Noi from a quick flick through the guidebook we climbed in a taxi. As we drove through a waking Ha Noi it immediately felt quite different to Ho Chi Minh, not quite as modern or cosmopolitan. It felt a little more rigid and formal. Thankfully our surroundings didn't distract us too much because the taxi driver was trying to rip us off. One second the metre read 70,000 and the next it jumped to 100,000 when it should have been going up in 5,000 increments every km. When I told him his metre was wrong he looked at me blankly and so I repeated myself a little louder and did a bit of pointing, at this point we stopped at traffic lights. Clearly he didn't want anyone to hear me complaining because he rolled up the windows, but still he acted as if he didn't understand. When he pulled over at our destination we informed him we would only pay what we thought was the correct fair and in the end he didn't put up much of a fight, he knew he had done wrong.

Old Hanoi is situated just north of the Hoan Kiem lake and is a cluster of narrow streets, with a continuous row of buildings on either side. At this time of day it was quiet, as people were only beginning to stir and so we wandered about quite freely. The hotels were open though, so we began to check them out. Most of the time we didn't even make it up to the room because right away the price put us off. One place we did go and have a look and it was a very spacious room with high ceilings and a balcony, it was also down a little alley way which we hoped would mean it was quiet. Just in case we were missing a bargain we checked out a couple of other places before deciding it was the best value for money we were going to get.

Now we had the room sorted we both fell asleep for a little while before venturing out. We walked back down to the lake, trying to get our bearings a bit.
The little streets can become a bit of a maze and most of them look the same as they are a collection of hotels, travel agents, cafes and shops selling souvenirs. We walked to the south end of the lake and went into a book shop to buy a map of the North-West. Having had the best time on the motorbike in the South we wanted a repeat experience. We then went about trying to rent a bike but it was not the easy experience it had been in Ho Chi Minh.

Asking for an automatic automatically ruled out a number of rental places as they simply didn't have them. It was annoying because it wasn't really that we needed it to be an automatic we just wanted a bigger bike because it would be a long trip. The next hurdle was the fact that we could not hand over our passports as insurance. While in Hanoi we planned to get our Burmese Visas which would mean giving our passports in for a few days and as we had done in the South we wanted to use this time for exploring. The final nail in the coffin was the price, it was double what we had paid before and would almost certainly blow our budget.

A little disillusioned we returned to the room and put our thinking caps on. As well as seeing the North we also wanted to go East to Halong Bay and so maybe we could do this while our passports were not in our possession. We didn't want to make a snap decision so in the meantime we continued to discover what Ha Noi had to offer. One of the things we had been looking forward to was the Dong Xuan market and so that is where we went next. The Ben Tre market in Ho Chi Minh had been really good and we had read an article that put this market at number 4 in the world. So our hopes were high, and then they were then dashed. There were three floors but two of them were of no use to us, full of material and clothes. The bottom floor had a few stalls selling some interesting handicrafts but it wasn't the wide array we had been hoping for. Still we managed to find a couple of items that took our fancy and we spent a bit of money before heading back out on to the streets.

There was a chance for a reprieve though because at the weekends there is a night market and a few of the main streets are cordoned off and stalls are set up. It was Sunday night so we just caught it and we were there just as things were getting started. Soon though the streets were full and it was incredibly humid which didn't make for the best conditions to scout out a hidden gem. Again the majority of the stalls sold clothes, perfume, and sunglasses, not the interesting lacquer wear that we were looking for. Adam managed to acquire some new underwear though, so it wasn't a complete loss.

The next morning we tried our luck at getting a motorbike again but were unsuccessful once more, in the end we changed tack and attempted to get a semi-automatic just for the day. Yet again once we mentioned no passport the shutters came down and there was a resounding 'No.' Even the hotel, with the insurance of a room full of our stuff would not break the rules. Without the use of our own bike to get around we had to get a taxi to the Burmese Embassy, and once again we felt the metre was a bit dodgy but there wasn't a lot we could do. The form we had to complete for our Visa was thorough, wanting to know our skin tone and eye colour amongst other things. Once completed we decided to walk back to Old Hanoi rather than pay any more extortionate cab fares.

We returned to the market once more with the vague hope that we'd missed something amazing, but funnily enough it was exactly the same. Still we managed to part with a bit more cash and it set the trend for the rest of the afternoon. Although the market was distinctly lacking in the kind of lacquer items we were looking for, there were plenty of shops selling it. I'm not sure how much distance we covered as we scoured the streets looking at all there was to offer, trying to find the best items and the best deals. By the end of it my knees were protesting and it was time to call it a day.

Later on, in search of food we ended up at the back of the market where there are some little outdoor restaurants set up. It was a bad choice. We were hounded a little as we looked at the menu and in the end felt almost obliged to sit down. When it came to the food we were torn between shrimps and goat, I was leaning towards shrimps but Adam wanted to try something new. I was not so convinced that goat was the best meat but in the end gave in, not wanting to be unadventurous. The woman who had basically dragged us to our seats then turned on a little gas cooker in the middle of the table and proceeded to fill it with a layer of oil. She then brought over a plate with slithers of thin white meat and some onions. The oil then started to spit and I got splattered quite liberally in the face and neck. Noticing this the woman decided to drag my stool back, the plastic legs buckled as they got caught on the uneven ground and I end up falling backwards. It was not going well. Upright once more I tried the meat which had turned almost translucent so that it looked and tasted like fat covered in oil. There was no accompaniment and she didn't cook all the onions. I was very ready to leave when she brought over some shrimps, clearly she had misunderstood and thought we wanted them as well. A bit of stunted argument ensued as neither party could fully understand one another but in the end we didn't eat the shrimps and only paid a small amount extra. I was definitely missing the good food and dining experiences we'd had in the South. That bad reputation was beginning to rear it's head.

The next day we finally came to a decision about how we were going to see the North and the East. The following day we would take a bus to Halong Bay and stay one night, then we would return to Ha Noi, pick up our passports and take the night train North to a place called Sapa where hopefully we would be able to rent a bike. With a plan having formed we walked to the train station to buy our tickets, a very painless experience in comparison to all the form filling that was required in India. To keep the cost down we opted for soft seats rather than getting a bed, we had seen a picture and they looked relatively comfortable.

With the main objective for the day complete we leisurely walked back from the station stopping in various shops along the way. We discovered an area we hadn't been to before and made a mental note of a couple of items which we would look at again when we returned to Ha Noi for one day before flying to Bangkok. The day passed by quickly and it was soon time for dinner again, I just hoped the experience would be a little more pleasurable.

We ended up going to another on street restaurant but this one was packed full of locals, always a good sign.
The tables were set out in rows and we found a spot right in corner. There wasn't too much to choose from so I opted for beef and Adam decided on fried frogs legs. It was much better than the night before, the atmosphere was really good as everyone dug in and there was excited conversation all around us. Weirdly enough all the locals seemed to be eating steak and chips, I think it must have been renowned for being good at this particular place. It wasn't exactly fine dining, one of the walls behind me was black with dirt and grime but it felt more like real life.

Having had a good feed we headed back the hotel and packed up our stuff in to one bag, we were going to be leaving one at the hotel which we would pick up the night before we left Vietnam for Thailand. That task completed we fell asleep, ready to move on again to see the islets of Halong Bay.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 05:22 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Tourist Toy Town

I prefer Lego...

View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

We were both pleasantly surprised when we climbed aboard the bus. It seemed really new and when we found our seats there was a neck pillow and a blanket waiting for us. It appeared this wasn't going to be as bad as we thought, the seats reclined quite a lot and so perhaps we wouldn't have a completely sleepless night. A conductor came round to check where we were going and then we were given little bottles of water and packets with wet wipes in them. It was definitely the best coach we had been on so far, and it got better.

We stopped at a service station and we loaded up on snacks as it was nearing dinner time and we weren't sure when it would stop again. I'd munched down a fair few pringles by the time we stopped at the next place where they were waiting for us. Everyone began to sit down at the tables and we were directed to do the same. Then they brought out the food; rice, vegetables, a couple of meat dishes, squid and soup. I was a bit too full to take advantage of what turned out to be a free meal, but Adam munched down his share. The value of the ticket now looked even better.

It wasn't a perfect nights sleep by any stretch of the imagination but it was good considering. Even Adam, who finds it near on impossible to sleep in a sitting position, managed to get a few hours of rest. We woke early the next morning and around 7am we pulled into another roadside restaurant for breakfast. The day before we had been given a free toothbrush and mini toothpaste so everyone tended to their oral hygiene before eating. Now we were no longer full of naughty snack food we were ready for our bowl of noodle soup and glass of ice coffee. Everyone seemed to leave a bit of theirs and we wondered if it was considered rude to finish your meal completely, as if it implied that you hadn't been given enough. To be on the safe side we both left a little at the bottom of the bowl.

Back on the bus it was only another couple of hours til we reached Da Nang and everyone disembarked. We still had a little way to go though because we were heading for the small town in the East of Vietnam called Hoi An. Before we got a bus there though we wanted to organise our bus to Ha Noi in a couple of days time. As usual there were a few people that were incredibly desperate to help us and these ones got a bit physical as they grabbed our arms and gave us a whack on the shoulder to get our attention. None of this did much to endear us to them though and I was reaching the end of my tether when Adam returned to say he'd found someone who spoke English. He'd managed to sneak off while I was being hassled and I followed him back to a women who said there was a sleeper bus which we could take and it turned out not to be too expensive. The only problem was we couldn't buy the tickets now, they could only be bought 24 hours (or less) before the bus departed. We would just have to hope there were some left on the day.

Now that we were a little clearer on that we went to look for the bus to Hoi An. Having been on the best coach, we now got on to the worst bus. It was a little like an American School Bus but one that was about 25 years old and had been severely mistreated. We got seats at the front and waited for it to move, which it after a while it did, just very slowly. Once we were out of Da Nang it picked up speed and I dozed off, only to be shaken awake by the grubby conductor boy who wanted his money. We discovered later that he'd charged us over a third more than he should. Soon enough though we were there and more people were waiting to rip us off.

Tourist buses take you down into the heart of old Hoi An but the local bus stop is a little distance away so we had to get two motorbikes to take us. It is often only when you make return trips, or have spent a little time in the place that you realise just how much you over paid. It is difficult to haggle when you have nothing to base your prices on and they hold all the cards because they're your only means to getting where you need to be. We drew the line though when they took us to specific hotels, obviously looking for their commission. Having asked to just go to the centre we paid them the agreed price and walked off to find some accommodation on our own.

There is a lot to choose from in Hoi An although plenty of it is full because it is literally teeming with tourists. We saw quite a few in Ho Chi Minh but it is different in a city because you're all spread out, here it was concentrated into a small town and to be honest it put us off straight away. This wasn't helped by the fact that Hoi An is an odd little place. It didn't feel like Vietnam at all but a cross between a small Mediterranean town and for those of you who know it, Dicken's Heath. For those of you that don't it is a town which was built from scratch and everything is new but they try to make it look as though it's been there for years, so all the buildings are built in different styles. It kind of feels like a toy town, a bit Stepford Wives. This was the feeling I got about Hoi An. The old town itself is really quite pretty, it has narrow tree lined streets, with small, stone buildings.
It is very quaint indeed, but the surrounding area has been, and is in the process of being extending with the single purpose of housing the increasing number of tourists.

We had found a room which was nice enough, a little on the small and expensive side but it had a balcony which was pleasant. We went out for a late lunch and then returned sleepy to the hotel after our night on the bus. In the end we decided to do our exploring in the morning, so we bunkered down for the night, had a few beers and went to sleep.

Renting bikes seemed to be the best way to see town so this is what we did. It is easy to get around as the traffic is light and most of the old town is restricted to feet and bikes.
We paid the inflated price and peddled our way down to what we presumed is a man made canal. On one side there is a row of buildings and it really did look like a purpose built holiday resort.
A very picturesque one, but the history of the place seemed to have been lost. There is however an ancient wooden, Japanese bridge, and so we went to have a look at that. It is very beautifully carved and when you walk across there is an inbuilt room with a shrine and heady smell of incense wafting out.
There is no denying that these little streets are picture perfect, especially with the sun beating down from a blue sky. If I was here on holiday I would probably be very pleased but it didn't really feel like travelling to us.

As we headed back to the room we planned to pack up and catch the bus to Ha Noi. Things changed a bit though when we ended up getting lost. It turned out that if we had kept going in one direction we would have found our way back, but everything looked so similar and there were no distinctive landmarks. After cycling up and down roads for a little while we stopped a white guy on a motorbike, he turned out to be a very friendly Australian and he pointed us in the right direction. By the time we made it back to where we rented the bikes I was really dehydrated, the combination of hot sun and a few beers the night before had left me feeling rough. We glugged down a can of Ice Tea and some water and then headed back to the room.

I wasn't feeling like catching a bus for another 15 hours or so and luckily we could afford to stay another day. We stayed out of the sun for the rest of the day, just venturing out for lunch and then dinner. Hoi An had had a bit of a negative effect on us, we both found the atmosphere of the place a little depressing and when we went to sleep we were both looking forward to reaching the capitol and finding the real Vietnam once more.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 05:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh - Part 2

Wet n Wild

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Arrangements had already been made for us to stay above the gallery again and they had looked after one of the backpacks for us while we were away. We joyfully reunited with yoghurt space, had a kebab from one of the street vendors and then headed to bed.

We decided to stay in Ho Chi Minh the next day to tie up some loose ends and plan our next move. Now that we'd experienced the freedom of the bike, we soon forgot about our sore bums and went back to rent one for the day. We steered clear of our old friend and went for a semi-automatic instead, it was smaller and maybe a little more agile for getting around the busy city. Our first priority was how we were going to head North and we decided that we might like to take a train, so we needed to find the train station. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful as we'd forgotten the map and the hand-drawn one in Adam's guidebook wasn't detailed enough, so after a bit of guess work we had to abort the mission. We did manage to navigate ourselves to the post office though, where I proceeded to burn my leg on the exhaust as I got off the bike. Adam then went in to see if his package had arrived while I doused my wound with cold water. He returned triumphant with parcel in hand, so that was one thing that could be ticked off the list and we were both pleased that his camera would be working again as it's far superior to mine.

We then popped round the corner to grab some lunch at a small restaurant we had been to before. You have to take your shoes off when you go in and then climb some very narrow, steep stairs to the upper level. Then you seat yourself at the low tables on round, flat cushions, it is very bright and airy up there and has a modern, Asian vibe.
Then we both consumed steak sandwiches and chips, not very Asian but very tasty! I ordered a glass of ice and continued to tend to the circular red patch on my inner calf, although I feared the damage had already been done.

After lunch we decided to make our way back to our room to get the map as we weren't having much luck without it. Needless to say we got ourselves a little bit lost on the way back but in the end saw some landmarks we recognised. When we were just one street away when the first drops of rain began to fall and they soon multiplied. We took refuge under the awning of a fruit stall and waited it out as we had also forgotten our rain gear. I was a little sick of mine any way as it had begun to rip and it had also gotten quite muddy. When the rain began to ease we decided to make a dash for it and didn't end up getting too wet.

We picked up the map, I grabbed my normal rain mack, Adam his poncho and we headed out the door once more. With the detailed street map to refer to, finding the train station was very straight forward and we were there in no time. When we found the right person to talk to we quickly established that train travel was an expensive business, well in the context of our budget. It would be a 20 hour trip to Da Nang and with two sleeper tickets, it was going to work out as double our daily allowance, we decided that we couldn't justify spending the money. So our only other option was taking the bus. There are plenty of tourist buses available which are called Cafe Tours (why?) and the tickets can be bought at one of the numerous travel agents in the tourist area. Going on them doesn't really appeal to either of us though because we'd rather do what the locals do as much as possible. So in the pursuit of authenticity we had to find our way to Ho Chi Minh bus station.

I located it on the map no problem and we set off once more. We took a wrong turn at a roundabout and headed over a bridge, and I said to Adam, 'those clouds look a bit ominous.' Sometimes it's not very fun being right! The clouds were dark, huge and heavy in the steely grey sky. Suddenly the atmosphere which was already thick with moisture broke and as if some had turned a tap on full the rain began to fall. We quickly pulled off the road and once again took refuge on the pavement by a shop front. There were some people gathered round, I think they were selling lottery tickets and they asked us where we were heading. We told them the bus station and they motioned back in the direction we had come from, and we nodded in agreement as we'd by now figured out where we had gone wrong. However there was no way we were leaving at the moment, so we all stood and watched the rain fall and the now poncho clad people that had decided to continue their journeys. I was surprised how many there were.

There was no let up, the supply of water appeared to be endless and the mighty force at which it fell remained the same. The narrow slip road we were on began to flood as the drains could not cope. This flushed out the cockroaches and we saw one rat in the grass getting an unwanted bath, and I now have a very good image to go along with the saying 'I look like a drowned rat.' I had visions of us being marooned here, which was really no where, we were out of the city beside some main road and so we made the decision to try and make our way back. It was stupid though because visibility was zero, the rain lashed into our faces and the roads were turning into rivers. We were forced to pull over once more and we ended up at a little garage. By now we were drenched, my skirt was clinging to my bare legs and I had to ring it out before I sat down on the little plastic chair I was offered.

As we sat there with the garage owner and another man who appeared to be waiting it out, we listened as thunder boomed out all around us and then the sky briefly lightened. After a little while things seemed to ease slightly and we thought it was a good time to move on again, as long as we took things slowly. The bike stuttered when Adam tried to start it but with a little bit of perseverance and help from the on hand mechanic we got it started again. Now that we had come this fair we headed for the bus station, it was closer than going back to the room at any rate. As we turned on to the right road we realised the full extent of situation, it was completely flooded. There was about a foot and a half of water to drive through and it was still falling from above. It was slow going as everyone did there best to keep moving, I suppose this has happened before and no one seemed too perturbed.

Thankfully it wasn't too far to the bus station and although we were dripping wet we had made it. Prices for bus tickets weren't cheap either, but it was less than the train and took the same amount of time so that was something to be pleased about. There was the option to get a sleeper bus but sticking to our tight budget meant going with the less comfortable option and we opted for a chair. Even if the thought of 20 hours in a seat wasn't very appealing. The ticket bought we were told to return at 1:30pm the next day and that the bus would leave at 2pm. Now all we had to do was get back to the safety of our room.

It was still raining when we made it outside and we gingerly made our way back to the spot where we'd left the bike. I looked at the map which was now soaked like us and tried to memorise the route back so I wouldn't have get it out again. Once I was pretty sure I knew which way we had to go Adam tried to start the bike. Nothing. Again and again we tried but still nothing. There were a few guys around us, some of who worked for the bus companies, but one boy in particular who just seemed to be keeping dry offered his services. He tried pumping the kick start, giving it some gas, tweaking nobs and wires but nothing seemed to work. A few of the workers tried as well but in the end they all looked at us apologetic and defeated. We were stuck.

I called up the bike rental place and the lady who spoke a bit of English understood when I explained it wouldn't start. I had to pass her over to a Vietnamese man to tell her where we were as my pronunciation wasn't up to scratch. When he returned the phone to me she didn't offer to come and save us like I was beginning to hope she would. Instead she asked us to get it fixed as we were too far away. Not what I wanted to hear but there wasn't a lot we could do so Adam began to push the bike.

There was no avoiding it now we had to wade out into the flooded roads. I was in flip flops and tried very hard not to think about what was in the water I was walking in. Adam on the other hand was in shoes and despite his best efforts not to get them wet, for fear they would never dry, he took the plunge and off we went. It wasn't too far to the nearest place but there was a bit of queue forming as people rolled in their flooded, lifeless bikes. We got seen to quite quickly by a man who turned up just after we arrived, clearly called in to help with the demand, our knight in plastic poncho! He wasn't quite has chivalrous though, as he gruffly directed Adam to steady the bike while he lifted the front to get any water out of the exhaust. This unfortunately didn't do the trick. He ended up removing a part from his own bike and trying it on ours, it spluttered to life and we were saved! He sent some other boy off to buy the part, fitted it and gave us the old one. When he spoke to me in very speedy, aggressive Vietnamese, I suppose telling me the price, I looked at him blankly and he seemed to think I was incredibly stupid. In the end though the money changed hands and we were once more free to sail the seven seas!

It took a while to get back, but slowly the roads began to improve and in the more modern end of town there was no flooding at all. I was immensely grateful for how well Adam handled it all in what were really difficult conditions at times. He followed suit as people drove up on to pavements to try and escape the worst of it and negotiated a lot of the roads which have been turned into narrow gulleys as maintenance work is carried out in the centre of them. Needless to say I was very pleased when we reached our destination and I slid off the bike. The women did look at us quite sympathetically as we tried to explain all that we had seen and experienced. I think we wanted to convey just how bad it was, especially considering it only looked like a bit of rain in this part of town. She knocked some money off for the part we'd bought when we showed her the old one, which was nice of her considering it wasn't really her fault.

The gallery people looked a little surprised when we returned and we tried to tell the tale again, they just laughed a bit. We were now in the dry though and happy to be so. Later that evening when the rain had stopped, we went out for dinner and managed to laugh about it. As Adam said, 'it was an experience!'

Then it was early to bed as tomorrow we had the 20 hour bus trip experience to look forward to...

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 04:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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