Crossing the divide between North and South

Trip Start Mar 01, 2009
Trip End Dec 21, 2009

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Where I stayed
On a very uncomfortable bus

Flag of Vietnam  , Cao Bang,
Monday, October 19, 2009

Our journey to Hue (pronounced something like Weigh but with more of a back of the throat ‘wh’ at the beginning) was stunning. Instead of going through the newly built tunnel we decided to go over the mountains which was far more stunning than the interior of a mountain. If you’ve seen the Top Gear Vietnam episode (which is you haven’t you should) it’s more stunning than it looks on camera.

Was very appreciative that the travel sickness I use to suffer when put on windy roads for any length of time has long disappeared. There are definitely a few incidents when I went hill walking with school that are forever etched in my memory and Gisele’s for that matter. Combinations of windy roads, small buses and breakfasts of porridge bring back rather unpleasant memories. Luckily though those days are long gone and so didn’t struggle with the pass as poor Miriam did.

The views down over the sea were stunning and we stopped for some time at the top of the pass to take a look at the old bunkers and war relics. Also to watch as the lorries attempted to navigate around the hairpin bends coming up the pass. Why they don’t just use the tunnel I never did find out. And then we descended. Our very considerate driver decided to stop every time one of us pointed our camera out the window which was very sweet but a little unnecessary the majority of the time. However we did stop near the bottom to take in the view which was simply out of this world. It’s the perfect metaphor for Vietnam. You could see the coast, the mountains, development with the expansive bridge and then the all the little old fishing boats at the same time. It was beautiful and oh so hot.

When we eventually got to Hue and waited for the heat to subside we busied our selves as I mentioned in the last blog with watching Disney movies and just generally recovering from the stress of the last few tailor filled days. We headed out to a wee place called Café on Thu Wheels which had amazing food and it was all so cheap. A bit of a favourite with messages from travellers from all over the world scrawled all over the walls and ceiling. It definitely lived up to it’s reputation. Nathan confirmed this when ordering a second main course. We booked a tour to the DMZ (De Militarised Zone) for the following morning and set off on cyclos to explore the old citadel and find one ATM that decided to accept my card. Harder than expected. The old citadel from what we saw of it (which wasn’t very much as it was dark) was stunning. Enormous arches over bridges provided the impressive entrance over the moat and the bullet holes in the walls were a clear indication of quite how near we were to where the worst of the war had taken place.

A visit to the train station required us to change plans as none of the train times suited and there were only hard beds available on the sleeper train. We all came to the conclusion that 12 hours on a soft bed on a bus was more desirable than the same but on a plain wooden bed on the train. A decision we came to appreciate all the more when we later found out that that cheap section of the train (which wasn’t actually all that cheap anyway) with the hard beds was the pits with cockroaches and all sorts keeping the passengers company. Plus there’s always a reason for things like this happening. So we headed back to the hotel to pack as our short stay in Hue was soon to be over as we would meet the sleeper bus 2 hours up the road in a town we would be dropped off at after the DMZ tour. Hopefully!

The DMZ turned out to be fascinating. In the sense that there is simply an overwhelming amount of such recent history to digest and we saw where it all actually happened. Admittedly the majority of the day was spent on the bus (the sort that usually makes me cringe) but the crowd were good and as we were the only bus at any of the places we stopped it made it (slightly) less cringy. First stop was breakfast where it amused me greatly to see some obvious non backpackers struggle with the local restaurant and choice of noodles or plain old bread and butter. The eggs were obviously deemed too risky and soup too un-normal for this one poor lady who insisted on treating everything on the table with the utmost suspicion and inspecting her roll before eating it to the finest degree. Thank god for French baguettes!

Second stop was the Vinh Moc tunnels. Which were far more pleasant than the previous ones I had experienced in the South. These ones I could just about stand comfortably in or at least only have to duck my head to get through which became a source of envy from quite a few people especially the Ozzie - Craig who was walking behind me and repeatedly banging his head. These were tunnels that were actually lived in during the war rather than just used for shelter from bombings. So there were family rooms or nooks as they really were where entire families would live - so up to 6-7 people in a space smaller than an average space under a staircase. There were maternity nooks as they stayed down there for so long. Quite how one would get pregnant while living in a tunnel I don’t quite know but perhaps they were already pregnant. If only I’d thought to ask that one at the time. There were wells and kitchens and all sorts down in this underground village. It just showed quite how determined the Vietnamese really were. And stubborn. It wasn’t just the fight and refusal to give up their homes but to reduce an entire communities quality of life to bear survival underground shows the lengths and measures the people went to win. It’s no wonder such a small county has won every time someone has come in and tried to take over. Their sheer determination and personal strength won the war without a doubt.

We ended up at the old air strip at the end of the day where there was a small museum, a couple of helicopters, the remains of a crashed plane and other bits and pieces of interest including several shady characters selling dog tags which had apparently been found on the bodies. And subsequently in the ground with the help of metal detectors. Some looked real, some looked decidedly fake and the whole idea of it all rather turned my stomach. There were various medals too up for a good price. Nathan haggled a few down and didn’t seem bothered about having the property of a dead soldier from the Vietnamese war in his possession. It wasn’t really my thing. A souvenir as such that I could live without.

We got dumped out in the little town where we’d be subjected to both breakfast and lunch and had a mere 4 hours to wait for the bus to collect us. We got worried more than once that it simply wasn’t going to come to this tiny little courtyard out the back of a random house with loads of tables being set out but no one to eat. It was all a bit strange.

However just as we were beginning to get really worried as the bus was now 30 minutes late when a load of people with the look of having been subjected to the grim reality of a long bus journey appeared and we presumed we’d been rescued from having to spend the rest of our lives in this place where the only thing of any interest was a duck pond. After a well needed break (for the others on the bus) we all clambered on and the three of us (the only new additions) to discover a rather interesting predicament. The only beds left were on the back row. And there weren’t three together which was unfortunate. There were a cosy two on the bottom level which required a bit of snuggling up with some random Vietnamese including a kid and a very small baby who I was terrified was going to scream for the whole 12 hours to Hanoi. After much debate and contemplation it was decided Miriam and Nathan would take those two together and I was subjected to squashing in between two Vietnamese men who thought this was rather hilarious and wouldn’t stop laughing and had two English boys on the other side of me. So it was a definite Ciara sandwich. Never a better time to make some friends though and being in that situation and in such close quarters it was the only option. Luckily all social boundaries had long been broken down due to narrowness of our designated sleeping quarters and so it was a pretty much given that the anyone who had a common language was going to get to know each other pretty well. So given my lack of Vietnamese and the Vietnamese’s’ lack of English that somewhat narrowed down the choices and so began to get to know Vince and Richie a little better. Which was a little awkward due to the bed arrangement and lack of space to get comfortable but we ended up chatting for hours about all sorts. Vince had resigned himself to being stuck in the corner under the broken air conditioner unit which proved rather chilly. Sleep wasn’t really possible for a while and the Vietnamese guys on to my left insisted on playing loud music in their corner and occasionally when their phone went off, we’d all start laughing, realise we were all still awake and so sit up and continue random conversations. It was all very amusing. Eventually we must have fallen asleep as according to Miriam in the morning the bus stopped and everyone got off for a bit. I then woke up sometime later and was devastated to find out that despite being convinced it must be at least 5 or 6 am it was in fact only about 2. Sleep was hard to come by after that and was more of a broken snooze. And a rather uncomfortable one at that. It was impossible to find an ideal position especially as we were at the back of the bus and so every single little bump resulted in us being throw round the place.

We eventually got to my favourite bit of any long distance bus journey - sun rise. I’ve see some amazing sun rises from uncomfortable buses over the last year. One in Peru which I’ll never forget as the sun came up over a perfect volcano producing a blood red sky and an unforgettable image. This one wasn’t quite as spectacular but I enjoyed it none the less. It was all ruined a few moments later though when the two Vietnamese men insisted on lighting up cigarettes and smoking them in the back of the bus at 6am. Lovely. The boys were soon awake - Richie having had a similar nights sleep to me but Vince infuriatingly having had a very cosy night and sleeping through. Am always envious of anyone who can achieve that on a bus. I personally put it down to my sleeping bag. We all got a bit of a laugh when an attempt to wash grapes resulted in a poor unfortunate on a bike getting an unexpected shower as we passed them by and then suddenly we were in Hanoi. The big crazy city itself! Another bus journey survived, a new city a new day and unlimited possibilities!
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pipparush on

what are you complaining about >
That bus looks a lot more snug than flying to New Zealand ...... it looks a lot more cozy to be honest! Great great blog ..... could imagine being there ....

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