The rest of Vietnam... (original title isn't it?)

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 18, 2004

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Saturday, November 22, 2003

With the beeping of motorbikes now just in my head I can finally concentrate on what's important... beer. Oops, I mean this Travelogue! OK, OK... beer is important too. Our trip from Hoi An to Ninh Binh was tiring but otherwise easy.

From Hoi An you can catch a bus up to Hue for only USD 2. Our plan was to buy sleeper car train tickets and then explore the town the rest of the day. We didn't have alot of time and wanted to store our bags, but we must've had that "lost" look because an older Vietnamese man came to our rescue - Mr. Pho. He offered to store our bags in his store in return for buying some dinner there. He seemed trustworthy so we accepted. Our walk around Hue was brief and consisted of dinner before we promptly got lost. Of course, after standing around and guessing which way the train station was didn't work, I tried a more "avante garde" approach and asked for directions from a group of Vietnamese men sitting on the corner and drinking. In response I got directions, an offer for cigarettes, and another shot of "rice wine." Vietnemese Hospitality. The recurring offer of rice wine led me to ask Mr. Pho what the proper etiquette is for such situations. He said if you are a foriegner it is OK to have the drink and go, but if you are Vietnemese you are expected to sit and get drunk with them. He made it sound like had "dealt" with this problem often.

Since the sleeper cars were full on the train we ended up with "soft seat" which, in itself, is not bad. Of course, what do you think are the chances that a train car with 30 people in it will have no smokers? We arrived in Ninh Binh tired and smoke-ridden. Ninh Binh itself doesn't have much to offer; it's interest to travellers is it's proximity to some beautiful limestone karsts set amongst rice fields. Since tourism in Vietnam has been set up to stop at a few major destinations, it is difficult to shake that feeling of being herded around. To escape that feeling, Sarah and I decided to rent a motorbike to explore the area (don't worry mom and dad, I never made it over 20kph and there was hardly any traffic - my biggest worry was roadkilling some cattle). We made it safely to Tam Coc (unscathed) and opted for the row boat tour of the limestone karsts there. After a little more exploring we headed back to Ninh Binh and braced ourselves for the change from Viettnam's beautiful scenic rural areas to the huge metropolis Hanoi.

Actually, Hanoi turned out to be great, and much more manageable than Ho Chi Minh City. The weather was cool and the city was easy to get around. That night we treated ourselves to one of Vietnam's trademark cultural displays: the Water Puppet Theater. The show was great; puppets, operated by underwater controls that were controlled behind a screen, detailed the legends of Vietnam, all to some very interesting live music performed next to the stage. After a few days of Hanoi we knew we had to keep moving. Since Dalat was a disappointment as far as cool weather and mountainous scenery we theough we would give Sapa a try.

Ahhh... I can still feel the cool weather of Sapa. OK, I can't, but I can still imagine it. Sapa is in the northern extremes of Vietnem with an elevation high enough to cause even me to reach for a fleece. It is also where many of the local hill tribe population gather to sell their wares: clothing, blankets, opium. There's nothing more bizarre than being asked by a 4'10", 60 year old woman with no teeth if you want some opium.

Since we had such good luck with the motorbike in Ninh Binh, Sarah and I opted to do a little more exploring. We had a map, a guidebook that showed that the next nearest town had at least one guesthouse, and enough petrol to get us there and back no problem. Again, we managed to find another bike that seemed fighting for the title of "Lowest CC Engine in Vietnam." As we headed off we were both excited to again get off the the tourist path in Vietnam. Of course our excitement severely dwindled as we reached the half way mark and found that the road we needed to take was not so much a road as a rocky path. Back to the guide book; we found another town near by that again had at least one guest house. The scenery along the way included rural towns and markets, waterfalls and rice fields, water buffalo and rivers, all with a mountainous backdrop. We even saw the never-before-seen "running water buffalo." OK, there was someone urging him up the road to keep him running but still, that hugely round body with those dinosaur looking feet running along the road bordered on surreal.

Having made it to our destination and were relieved to get a room and shower (that road was dusty). That night we walked around and then out of the village. The stars were out that night, the ones I know and are familar with but also so many more I have never seen before, or if I have seen them it was so long ago I don't remember them. Even with that feeling of wonder, as we got ready for bed Sarah asked if I thought our rented motorbike would be OK. I said "Sure, look where we are. The bike is in gear, it'll be no problem."

Then next morning as we got up early to take our time to enjoy the ride back. As we were getting ready Sarah asked if I had checked on the bike. My response was cool and reasonable: "Either it's there or it's not, nothing we can do about it now." Her response upon checking: "It's not there." My stomach cooly and reasonably hit the floor. It wasn't there. As I ran to the front desk I made the international signal for "my motorbike is stolen" (a useful gesture to learn which includes revving pretend gas and making motorbike noises) to someone who worked there. He calmly took me around the back of the building and pointed to our rented bike. I can tell the story now but I can't laugh about it yet.

Our last night in Sapa was the the night of what used to be a "Love Market" in Sapa. It has, in recent years, degraded from this intercultural meeting of Vietnam's youth to a more touristed display of the local culture. Still, it was interesting. We walked around we spotted one man selling what were labelled "H'Mong Flutes." As he played one of the flutes I wondered if they were what they looked liked, which were fifes(to me). As we walked by a second time I gestured if I could play one. He nodded and then, after playing a song and seeing that I could play (as they were indeed fifes) he asked me to play. It was a fife-off in northern Vietnam! Some Vietnamese tourist somewhere has a video of me and the H'Mong Flute seller trading off on tunes. Having had my fun we again walked through town to see if there was anything else. I didn't buy a flute. I didn't want one - I have enough fifes and it was not worth the extra backpack space. There was another instrument that he had that used a brass reed that looked fifelike but sounded more like an Oboe. Not being able to resist I went back for to give it a try. Not only did I get to try it but the guy selling it taught me a traditional song on it. Again, a crowd gathered to cheer as I learned new parts and laughed with me as I messed up other parts. After all of that, yes, I did buy one. Those three days in Sapa could possibly be the best three days of the trip.

Back in Hanoi we had one thing left that we wanted to see before leaving beautiful Vietnam and that was Halong Bay. So after our "great escape" from the tourism route we actually booked a three day tour of Halong Bay. What can I say, Halong Bay has thousands of cliff faced islands, and the opportunity of sleeping on a Chinese Junk was too cool to pass up. It was even worth the risk that come with tours: being stuck with people you wouldn't want to admit to knowing otherwise. Again, our luck was with us because the people we ended up with were great fun. The night on the Junk was great as well. As nighttime fell, one of the crew showed us that the phosphorescence glowing in the water as he stirred it with a bamboo pole. After seeing that, it was only a few moments before many of us were swimming to get a closer look. Sparkling bits of water surrounded us as we swam. The rest of the tour involved a lot more great scenery along with learning the highlights of British TV over the last 20 years. I believe Captain Pogwash was a favorite among many.

Now, in Vientienne, the atmosphere is so relaxed that it actually seems odd that no horns are honking and no one's offering to sell us anything. Indeed the joke for Laos is that you have to wake up the cook at a restaurant to take your order and then after you've been served you have to wake him up again to pay him.
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