05.06.2010 - 14.06.2010 30 °C
We arrived in Hanoi in the morning, slightly dazed and overwhelmed by the city after spending so much time in relatively calm little towns and having just woken up after a bumpy night’s sleep! Because of this we decided to just stay where the taxi would drop us off for free – this ended up being the Hello Vietnam guesthouse north of the Old Town. The first room we got was fairly horrendous, air-con which didn’t work, a big gap in the door to the balcony and a shower that wouldn’t drain almost flooding the room! We asked to be moved and the second one was OK but the stay there was blighted by the overenthusiastic manager who was extremely persistent in trying to flog us a tour to Halong Bay. By the state of affairs at this particular guesthouse we decided his tour would probably be an absolute rip-off so we booked it with Explorer Tours for a discount as we once again met our friend Heidi who decided to come with us (however, the guy at Explorer tours later lied to us about there not being a night bus to Sapa WHICH THERE IS making us get the more expensive train – do your homework, folks.) With Heidi we did some sights of Hanoi; the lake, the Temple of Literature and the obligatory jug of Bia Hoi with the locals! After some food and a wander we once again decided to go for a Bia Hoi this time at Bia Hoi junction where we met a French gentleman and his son who lived in New Caledonia. We got an early night nonetheless as we had to get up early for our tour to Halong!
The minibus ride there was fairly painless and we were soon on the boat – the Party Cruiser! A party was not really to be had as it was quite empty – the three of us, a couple from Birmingham and Sweden respectively and a large family of Vietnamese. We had some lunch then set off to see the islands, stopping to see a big cave and to do some kayaking around. That night we had some more delicious food this time with some langoustines which Richard delighted in prodding, poking and holding up for photos. A few Singaporeans and a girl named Catherine from Edinburgh joined us that night on the boat as theirs was boring, apparently! As the beer was expensive on our boat we kept buying contraband beer from some floating saleswomen, having to keep it quiet as there was a ‘corkage’ fee of 20,000 dong (per bottle on the boat! We got away with it in the end which was pleasing. We had seen several large jellyfish in the day but this didn’t stop us jumping off the top deck at night when everyone had gone to bed just to be naughty. Our guide was less than amused although he’d let us swim around all day. He told us the next day the jellyfish were ‘very dangerous’!
The next day after a peaceful night’s sleep on the boat we moved to another boat which teamed us up with Caroline from Edinburgh again. We headed for Monkey Island (monkeys spotted: zero, Guybrush Threepwood: not spotted either) and then to Cat Ba island for some cycling around. It was good fun and our guide chatted to us quite frankly about eating dog but never, and I stress, NEVER eating a pet dog! (Though if you lose your pet dog you should try to steer away from dog-meat for a while because you never know who has stolen it and why!) He also showed us some snakes in rice wine which he told us is good for gentlemen of certain age who may have certain... circulatory issues. We cruised off to Cat Ba town on the other side of the island then checked in at our hotel. As this day was RICHARD’S BIRTHDAY we headed out for some local Bia Hoi then met up with Caroline for some drinks and some pool.
In the morning we had our trip back to Hanoi which was a fairly hungover one but best not to dwell on these things! We arrived at about 4 and hopped on a night train to Sapa at 8.30! Worth noting was a burger Richard ate before catching the train (See picture below for WORLDS SMALLEST BURGER). At the station we met a Scottish authoress named Deborah who had lived in Vietnam for about 10 years. She told us a few tricks of the trade, helped us find our carriage and was generally enthusiastic about the country which made us shut up about our hangovers and the stress of travelling and enjoy the ride! We shared our carriage with Heidi and a Vietnamese man who at first looked a bit wary of us but soon got chatting and told Richard he looked like Andy Murray, much to Joy and Heidi’s amusement. The train was definitely more luxury than the bus would have been and it was a good experience so we’re glad we did it in the end.
We arrived in Lao Cai at about 6.30am and got a minibus to the town of Sapa. We stayed at Luong Phong family guesthouse which gets 10/10 for friendliness and the view of the mountains! We booked our trek to Tai Phin village with Heidi and Mattius from Chile who we had met at breakfast and did little else that day but admire the view as we needed to recover from all the travelling.
The next day we headed off on our trek with our lovely guide, Mai Nhi – a Red Dzao lady who was absolutely hilarious. She liked to scare Joy by constantly shouting ‘SNAKE!’ then laughing her head off. We had a good trek over the hills looking over the rice paddies which took about 5 hours before we arrived at the homestay. We all had to have a nap because it was an unseasonably hot and sunny day and the walk nearly killed us all. We later got up and had tea with the homestay family who fed us copious amounts of rice wine and ‘medicine’ (wood soaked in rice wine - Whatever it was, we were all pretty happy so the medicine worked!) and delicious food. The lady we stayed with whose name escapes us was a medicine woman who had travelled all around Asia to hone her skills. After dinner Mai Nhi invited us to her house for some Karaoke and beer! Heidi gave us a stunning rendition of Bon Jovi’s ‘Bed of Roses’ whereas Mattius shone during ‘Guantanamera’. His crowning moment however was Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. Richard butchered ‘Dr Jones’ and ‘Hey Jude’ and Joy did a rousing rendition of ‘Beat It’ in a very English accent.
The next morning we awoke to pouring rain so the trek back to Sapa looked like it would be cancelled. After some banana pancakes and general recovery the rain had worn off so we went for a trek around the surrounding area for a couple of hours before getting a jeep back to Sapa. That night we couldn’t stay at the nice hotel we had previously so moved to the Princess Hotel just up the road. It was the start of the World Cup so we all met up with Ash from London who we had also met at breakfast on our first day in Sapa. We had a rather large night of it playing pool and chatting and watching the football, loving the Vietnamese enthusiasm for the game!
The next day we did very little except get kicked out of our hotel at 3pm because allegedly someone had booked the room! Even though ‘someone’ had booked the room, we could stay if we paid extra! It’s a long story but basically we weren’t amused as they insisted on charging us half a day fee even though we’d told them we’d be staying 2 nights! Charming. Fortunately they forgot to charge us for our laundry and there was no way we were pointing that out! At lunch we met a Black H’mong lady named Pai who we bought some jewellery off and got chatting. She told us she was married at 14 to a man much older than her and has a 9 year old daughter. She is 24 – the same age as Joy. We kept seeing her through the day and chatting and fell in love with her, a very amazing lady.
Next day we got the minibus to Dien Bien Phu – the last town before the border to Laos. It was an absolute trial – the roads were muddy from rain during the night not to mention the fact that about 200km is being moved further up the cliff and made wider as they are going to flood a large area for a hydroelectric dam. Due to this mess we kept stopping to fix the buckled wheel – seemingly with a foot long piece of wire each time – you have to love the Asian ingenuity. We didn’t question it and we got there safe and sound after a mere 10 hours! The trip was made better by meeting some Spanish men called Antonio and Unie who liked to clap and shout every time we got out of a sticky situation – calling the driver ‘El Torro’ and generally being amusing. We headed out to get some baguettes for the next day and eat some Pho from a street cafe before retiring to watch Ghana vs. Serbia – we’d missed the England game the previous night as it was on at 1.30am in the morning! Would have been annoying to stay up for a 0-0 game before a 10hr bus ride though so we think we made the right decision.
The next day we were up early for our 5.30am bus to Laos! It was a bit of a rickety old thing but it made it to the border without any real hiccups. As it hadn’t rained for a while we were spared too many near death experiences – also we’d learned not to look out the window at the 200ft drops. We reached the border crossing and after an hour or so of faffing we all managed to get our visas for entry to Laos!