Including meet the revolutionaries, the world of Vietnamese conn people and an unexpected burst of violence.
Sleeper buses in China are interesting. They vary slightly, but essentially they are 3 rows of bunk beds (with a very cozy 5 in a bed section at the back) all facing the direction of travel. But passing through huge gorges, and then over mountain passes at breakneck speed when you are facing the way you are going (as opposed to on a train, where you are generally at a 90degree angle), on a top bunk and without much to hang on to can be an interesting experience. At one point I was literally hanging on for life to prevent being catapulted onto the floor or the next bunk, as we hurtled around sharp bends on a mountain pass. On two separate occasions, we passed lorries which had ended up on their sides, and at one point as I leant out of the window to spit (horrible habit, but it is China where everybody does, and on a bus, you don’t have many options to remove mozzies from your mouth), made the mistake of looking down to discover that the back wheel that I was above, was actually half over the edge and I was staring straight down into nothingness.
We rolled into Hekou, the border, at about, and made the proper acquaintance of Anne and Tania, two Danish (sorry, with the cartoon issue still causing trouble, Germans) who had been the only other foreigners on the bus. I went in search of a restaurant and we headed to breakfast for much needed coffee, notable for our ability to select from their extensive list of coffee’s one which would have made Irish coffee seem alcohol-free, and also for somehow ending up with enough food to feed most of Guanxi, and possibly Yunnan as well.
Hekou modern art
The border crossing to Lao Cai, across a bridge over the river was strangely easy. There was a moment of much exclamation and Chinese being thrown at the Danes which was a bit worrying until we finally realised that it was the fact that they had Vietnamese visa’s but didn’t actually need them (apparently, since 1 Jan, Finns and Danes can enter without. Don’t know why). And 20mins later, we were in Vietnam and being comprehensively ambushed by huge numbers of taxi, bus and motorcycle riders wanting to give us lifts, and assorted folks trying to sell stuff. We brushed them off, walked across the river (bridge, not Jesus), got some cash and bargained our way onto a bus to Sa Pa.
If I ever come back, it will be on my bicycle. The ride from Lao Cai to Sa Pa was fantastic. 35km long, of which the last 31 or so were up the side of a mountain, along a lovely twisty road which regularly advertised 1 in 10 gradients, and with great views down the valley. In good weather – and this was – it would be a brilliant climb. It was the perfect introduction to Vietnam.
The first impressions of Sa Pa were excellent. The sun was out, it was hot enough for my toes and legs to make their first lasting appearance since Japan, and the town is wonderfully situated in the mountains, with peaks and terraced hillsides all around, locals wearing traditional costumes, and lots of old French colonial architecture.
One of our chief Chinese irritants had proved not to have disappeared in Vietnam. On several occasions when we had entered a café or restaurant, we had noticed that the music being played was suddenly replaced by western music. This in itself would be tolerable to a point if they didn’t all seem to go directly to the Backstreet Boys. And in our first Vietnamese place, this was no different, except that the CD was just 2 songs long and on repeat.
We also had our first introduction on what would fast become a major irritant, in the astonishing number of people coming up and pestering you to buy things from them (in Sa Pa, this mostly took the form of older ladies selling blankets, and guys trying to sell motorbike tours), which are impossible to ignore, and not always easy to brush off. Some just do not understand the concept of “no”. Dinner included Wild Boar amongst others but was nothing to write home about, disapointingly due to the fact that Vietnamese food had been very highly touted.
Sa Pa is a great place, and one which I would highly recommend as a base for trekking etc, but you need to get lucky with the weather. We hadn't realised on our first day just how changeable the weather was, but day 2 saw a constant and ever changing bank of clouds running right through the town and obscuring any kind of view. There wasn’t any point walking to any of the local villages, hiring bikes to head out or going up a mountain, so after a day wandering at random and practicing haggling skills in the markets, we left the girls to persevere, and headed to Ha Noi. The trip down the mountain was fun, with visibility in places being about 30cm (no joke), and the driver relying entirely on memory, luck and occasional white pillars by the road sign to prevent us all rolling down the side of the mountain. On one occasion, all 5 Vietnamese in the bus looked at each other shrugging and laughing whilst trying work out where the hell the road was. We got conned with our Night train tickets as well, having been told that no hard sleeper was available, we paid the extra 20,000 for soft sleeper (including a meal amongst other stuff), to discover at the station that our reservation was for hard sleeper after all. B*stards. But not really feasible to return up the mountain to retrieve our 70ish pence each conn…
The ever changing cloud line in Sa Pa
We got conned arriving in Ha Noi as well, in what is fast becoming an unwelcome theme. Admittedly 04.20am arrivals aren’t ideal, but all Vietnamese night trains seem to arrive at silly hours of the morning, probably for market/employment reasons. We avoided the hordes of touts, and got a metered taxi to the hotel (where we got to watch Death wish 279? instead of trying to sleep). Which turned out to be a big mistake, as the metre flew round at speeds not seen since the taxi driver left the crashed motorcycles in a hurry in Kunming, and probably cost us close to 4 times the real cost.
Vietnam was stunningly depressing. The realisation that for the first time since, probably, Moscow, I’m properly back on the tourist trail hit me very hard. The sheer number of white people and tourists around, plus native English speakers is scary and depressing. No local language knowledge seems necessary, and you don’t have to play charades to undertake a simple transaction. And many of the menu’s are not even in Vietnamese, only English and French. It’s just sad, and a reminder to me how much I like the adventure and feeling of being somewhere a bit different and which you have to work at.
The fact that everybody without exception is always out to conn/scam you is also a bit wearisome. I am naturally very paranoid, and am always taking precautions and looking around normally, but here I’m having to be even more vigilant, and the 100% concentration required everywhere means you don’t ever really relax, which on a holiday or travel in particular, you really want/need to do.
I had really been looking forward to Vietnam, as it had appealed to me allot more than the rest of SEA, which appears to be utterly overrun by the tourist trail, and backpackers all “doing” SEA. Thailand in particular I had limited intention of visiting, reasoning that if I really want to see hoards of drunk, sexed up 18year old Brits living it up in their first taste of ‘travel’, I could just as easily go to Sydney. But only a couple of days in, I’m wondering if my ideas of Vietnam have been sorely misplaced. Kevin and Solene, my wonderful stalkers, lasted a month here - indeed only leaving the day we arrived - but hadn’t seemed impressed at all and were delighted to leave. Liz (her of the tea bag delivery in Tokyo) and her friend had left after only 3 days, whilst Dave and Casey (my hosts in Zushi/Kamakura in Japan) had also not been overly impressed and happy to leave, with the exception that they had loved the food.
I already miss China, and I miss it allot.
And with that, the first order of business on the first working day we were in Ha Noi was for all 3 of us to apply for new Chinese visa’s.
Ha Noi did grow on me though. The visa process meant we were there a week, and couldn't even do any of the trips and tours, such as out to Halong Bay as we had hoped) because we didn't have passports. But the old city in Ha Noi - once you have got used to the fact that there are scooters/motorcycles everywhere (on pavements, in shops, on bars, in hotel receptions, in bathrooms etc) – is actually very nice. A lovely array of higgledy piggeldy old French architecture and other ideas, a couple of picturesque lakes, some great street markets and little things which you come across which surprise you.
Went to a few temples (Ngoc Son is over crowded, but Tran Quoc, a bit out of the centre was stunning), and a couple of museums and galleries (at least one kind of Vietnamese art has me hooked – they take a piece of lacquered black wood, carve in out and then paint the bits that have been carved out to leave a proper painting, which looked amazing). All musuems in Ha Noi have an obvious propaganda twist to their exhibits, and whilst the Revolutionary Museum (worth a tour) is probably fair enough, you don't expect it so much in the Womens Museum. But it was no different. Pictures and exhibits showing the poor female peasants galantly fighting the evil American (and French) oppressors were much in evidence. Took in an evening show of Water Puppets (literally, puppetters in the water behind a screen, with puppets swimming in the pool in front of them, fireworks and all) and ran into - stupid celeb alert - the 2000? Danish winner of the Eurovision song contest...
Tran Quoc temple
The water puppet show
We went and paid our respects to Uncle Ho, former leader of the North Vietnamese and communuist founder Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho died in 1969, before his dream of reunification came true, and despite his explict request that he wanted to be cremated in a small family ceremony, is today lying peacefully in a mausoleum in the middle of Ha Noi, receiving guests by their thousand. As with Lenin in Moscow, it felt very strange, although in fairness, the queue for Uncle Ho went down much quicker, with only a short period of waiting. You also got to walk much closer to him than Lenin, although he does look significantly more fake and Madame Tussauds like - if less orange - than his Russian counterpart. Thus it was that i'd now seen 2 of the 3 great dictators in their death, with only Chairman Mao (I will rectify my failure to see him before) to go.
The Ho Chi Minh museum is probably my single favourite thing in Ha Noi. It was absolutely wonderful. It wasn't so much that it was a museum about him, it was more the fact that so much of it was entirely random and of no obvious connection to anything. It had a Picasso. It had giant sized tables with giant sized fruit on it. And a room made of cloth. It was just brilliant. Don't you dare miss it.
In Hanoi, everybody is out to conn you. And it justs get wearing. People are always trying to sell stuff to you, give you motorcycle or cyclo rides, overcharge you, add your bill up wrongly or worse. One (lovely) fish restaurant charging 70,000 each (we thought we would splash out) charged 70,000 per top up as well, which didn't go down well. At least 2 of the girsl had attempted bag snatchings or people feeling them up. I had 3 pickpocket attempts. Unfortunately for one Vietnamese guy, 2 happened within about 15minutes of the first one, and with me not in a great mood by them, I didn't bother to try and disentangle his hand from my pocket and just hit him. I really have no idea if he or I was the most surprised (probably me), but he left my bits where they were and we went our seperate ways.
We didn't bother with the snake wine at this juncture (large bottles of alcohol with cobras and assorted snakes (and sometimes, scorpions) inside the bottles, but i fell in love with one large bottle. 300usd was over the top for 5 litres, but i will be trying the stuff on my way south, for sure. And I got to see some of the olympics with Chevy (he of the mad beer fish night in Yangshuo). Not a great British showing, perhaps (both curling teams had collapsed after strong starts), but the Swedes were starting to look good, and with the Americans and Canuks both managing to crash out of the hockey early on were starting to dream of hockey gold. It might not sound a big deal, but to the Swedes - and with me being essentially an adopted Swede - it is. We have to be able to beat the Swiss, don't we?
Depressingly, somehow the girls had worked out when my birthday was. This is a closely guarded secret, and it is rare that anybody outside of my family knows the exact date or realises in time. It's the way I like it. But in this case, it worked out surprisingly well. Lets just say that if you had told me last year that i would be spending my 27th birthday in Vietnam, having a revolutionary picnic under a statue of Papa Lenin, the chances of my believing you would not have been high. It was also at this point that the now fast becoming infamous Chili Vodka was first perfected. Helene is a vodka person, and with vodka so cheap in this country, we had started carrying a bottle around. We had been experimenting with different mixes, but by accident had stumbled across a drink worthy of the gods. Half vodka, half apple juice (orange is nothing compared to apple) and with an assortment of whole and chopped chillis mixed in. It's divine. And if every third person you happen to meet in Vietnam is extoling it's virtue's, thank (or blame) Helene for bringing it to the masses.
Topped it off an evening jaunt trip to a famous jazz bar, although it turned out to be elevator jazz as opposed to anything more exotic, although It had started with the most ludicrous breakfast. I had tried to fulfil my bacon craving with a bacon and egg sandwich, only to be brough a roll and plate of scrambled eggs, and when i complained, to recieve the same again.
Gawd damned it, i just wanted some bacon!
And finally with passports back and visa's in hand, which annoyingly had meant we couldn't go on an overnight trip to Halong Bay (a stunning UNESCO site to the East of Haiphong, which Anna and Tania had visited and agreed it was lovely) which required passports, it was time to finally leave Ha Noi. We had been there too long and were itching to see some of the country. Paul gave in, and booked a flight to Nha Trang, further south, in what he hoped was to be the final hunt in our long search for the promised land. So we headed onto the bus for the overnight trip to Hue.
One of my favourite shops in a long while. the baby food and spirit store.
They haven't quite got the right idea here...