The Gringo Trail

Trip Start Nov 05, 2008
Trip End Jun 23, 2009

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Top 3 Nicknames given to me on my trip:

1) Osama
2) Abe Lincoln
3) Jesus

Backpacker's Trail: A route chosen by a backpacker to visit all of the mainstream, touristy places in a given country, probably following a guidebook such as Lonely Planet.

I blame my own laziness. Or maybe the convincing tour guide at Hanoi Backpackers. Its always tempting to book a tour when everything is laid out for you and you get what you pay for. The challenge of discovering a touristy place independently never gets old, but sometimes its more difficult. At this point, it was in my traveling nature to find a way on my own and not bother booking a tour. In this case, I was initially a little disappointed in myself that I gave in too easily and didn't try it on my own, but it ended up being the best tour of my trip. I went with the 3 night/2 day rock climbing, kayaking adventure tour suggested by May from the hostel that included an English guy, a few Dutch, the CU alum and the Duo from Down Under from the Snake Village. There were about 15 of us and we slept on the boat for the first night and then on Cat Ba Island for the second night.

During the boat ride, we took in the breathtaking views of the bay on a perfectly clear, sunny day. The huge, world-famous irregularly-shaped limestone rock formations went on for miles and were even more impressive than I had imagined. I had to take a few minutes just to realize what I was looking at. Once again, words can't possibly describe the scenery of Ha Long Bay, nor can the twenty pictures I took of the sunset that first evening.  After kayaking for a couple hours that day, we jumped off the boat and kicked off a late night of Aussie-influenced drinking games and sharing travel stories. The Duo from Down Under (We'll call 'em Aussie A and Aussie B) were always ready to party, except in the morning when they turned into hungover sloths looking for any place to nap. Not even a rough hangover could stop them from climbing to the top of the radio tower at the summit of Cat Ba National Park the next day and stripping down naked for a picture. Guess who was the privileged photographer for that one...Aussie A was practically American; he knew all about the NBA, music, TV shows, and could quote Richard Pryor stand-up routines word for word. Aussie B was the louder, more adventurous of the two and despite his hangover went rock climbing with us (That's him in the picture taking a nap, while the CU guy was giving advice).

The rock climbing on Cat Ba Island was definitely a highlight of the tour. We had to drive ourselves to the wall on motorbikes an there was no way I was going to let the hungover Aussie take the wheel. The climbs were not too challenging but they were long and versatile, including one with about 15 different ways to get to the top using the roots of a sideways facing tree as support. The Dutch guy, making his first climb ever, got over his legs shaking halfway up and the German guy, also making his first climb was a natural.

Cat Ba town's nightlife was almost non-existent, so we all caught up on some well-deserved sleep at a really nice hotel and returned to Hanoi the following morning. I wish I had had more time to explore Cat Ba Island as recommended by other travelers, but was content moving on. Many tourists visit Cat Ba but do not usually explore some of the more remote parts of the island. It was also possible to rock climb some of the limestone jutting out from the water, but the tide was not so maybe I'll leave that for another trip...

I left Hanoi on a bus headed for much smaller, but busy Nimh Binh to the south, not expecting one of the worst bus rides on my trip. For starters, this is the way buses in Vietnam work: There's a driver usually driving like a bat out of hell for no reason and another guy collecting money, negotiating ticket prices with local passengers for half an hour and then screaming out of the window at people standing on the side of the road to see if they want a ride. To add to the chaos, if a bus looks like it can only fit about 16 people, the Vietnamese will stuff that bus like a Thanksgiving turkey until no one can breath. The one good thing about my bus rides is that the Vietnamese actually realize that a westerner like myself can't fit in the same size seats as locals, so they at least give me a good enough seat.

On this particular packed bus, my seat was directly next to the ticket collector bellowing out of the window the whole time, then I witnessed 2 horribly fatal accidents involving a motorbike, a tour bus and a couple body bags. After a couple hours,  I knew we were close to the bus station, but as we got to the first major intersection, a few young kids on the street set up a makeshift roadblock and suddenly started banging on the bus window with sticks and tried to break into the bus. The bus driver must have done something to piss these kids off because they were trying pretty hard to break the windows and climb into the bus. I did my part by closing the window next me and hoped I would make it off the bus in one piece. Eventually, the cops came and broke up the gang of kids and told the bus continue to the station. I still have no idea why the kids were so angry and violent, but that was one bus ride I wouldn't mind forgetting about.

Now a day worth remembering: A few miles from the town center is Nimh Binh's "inland Ha Long Bay" which is loaded with similar spectacular limestone rock formations (karsts) that seem randomly placed all over a sea of green rice paddies. I found a great viewing place after climbing the steps of Bich Dong looking over meandering waterways filled with rowers where I was alone to enjoy the silence and beautiful scenery with no tourists. I brought a lunch and book with me and chilled there for a solid two hours to take advantage of the rare situation. Its days like this that truly makes me appreciate venturing slightly off "The Gringo Trail".

Next Stop: Hue
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