Vietnam – April 2015

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Black H’Mong Ladies in Sa Pa, Northern Vietnam

Despite spending the night in a freezing swamp on the overnight train from Ha Noi to Sa Pa; enduring a heat wave of 114F with no air conditioning in the ancient city of Hoi An; having our ears de-fluffed and polished by Mr. Hot Toc – a cross-eyed barber; and being marooned in a sea of 200 oncoming mopeds swarming like wasps around us in Ha Noi – Vietnam was the perfect country for the grand finale of our 4 month Asian adventure.

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

First off the plane in Da Nang with Visa Invitation Letters in hand, we spotted a long chaotic line chocked full of Australians filling in paperwork at an office window and 2 much more appealing, shorter lines heading directly to seated immigration officers. I waved our papers at an official looking uniformed member of staff and asked which line we should join.

Yippee – the short one! We were so pleased we had filled out all the papers online :-).

Shame we appeared to have picked the extra sloooooow line though – our overly officious officer was pawing over everybody’s papers with a nit comb. It was even more of a shame that once we had finally arrived at his desk it transpired that we hadn’t actually filled out all the papers we needed after all and we were sent to the back of the, by now, much more chaotic line of Aussies at the Visa desk. Perfect! To make matters worse, the documents we had diligently completed (downloaded directly from the government’s own immigration website, no less) were out of date (seriously people ?!)… sigh…

So, first off the plane… 2nd from last out of the immigration hall ;-).

Luckily, the hotel car was still waiting for us as the driver hadn’t given up and gone back to Hoi An. It wasn’t hard to spot the last lonely, dejected looking driver sitting on the kerb clutching a sign for “Mrs Jennifer and Mr Geoff” :-).

Relieved he hadn’t mislaid his guests and had to return empty-seated to the Vinh Hung Riverside resort, he enthusiastically took us on a guided tour which we didn’t want ;-).

30th April 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War – or the American War if you are Vietnamese. He pointed out the aircraft hangers left by the US troops after the war and a museum of captured wartime planes. He explained that friendly relations had been restored between the 2 countries and bygones were, generally speaking, bygones. As a pacifist, I still found the remnants of death and destruction on permanent display a little disquieting.

He then insisted that we stop at a stone carving store en route in the Marble Mountains. He wouldn’t take no for an answer despite my protestations so we wandered aimlessly for 5 minutes (whilst the owner’s daughter pointlessly tried to sell us a giant 10′ marble buddha statue) before finding him and dragging him unceremoniously from his cup of tea.

Hoi An, a trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries, is a beautiful UNESCO preserved World Heritage City in South Central Vietnam on the coast of the East Vietnam Sea. It is also known as “The City of Lanterns” for reasons which will become obvious. Our visit was carefully coordinated (by the highly efficient vacation planner 😉 ) to coincide with the April Full Moon Lantern Festival. Street lights are turned off in the Ancient City and the streets and bridges fill with tourists and locals who crowd onto the bridge across the Thu Bon River. They buy a colored paper lantern with a candle burning in the centre from one of the women or child vendors. The lanterns are then lowered via a long pole into the river to float downstream. By the end of the evening there are hundreds of floating lanterns drifting along decorating the river. Those even more romantically inclined can hire a wooden longboat which is paddled out into the river for them to lower their lanterns into the river by hand. It was really quite magical – even for a couple of old unromantic cynics like us ;-).

The name Hoi An translates as “peaceful place” … and it certainly is :-). It is a serene city decorated with colorful lanterns hanging from almost every rafter, lamppost and rooftop. It is filled with historical buildings refurbished into restaurants, cafes, shops and 2nd or 3rd generation tailors – dozens of them. It is so famous for it’s tailoring skills that I braved getting measured up for a couple of dresses and tops. And I do mean braved – April is one of the most climate amenable months to visit this part of Vietnam so I was anticipating a sunny, balmy 80F – perfect for strolling the streets for a few days.

However, there was an unseasonable heatwave and the average high for our 4 day visit was 97F with a heat index of 113F. Great if you are on a Caribbean beach but not so good if you are in a city with a preservation order prohibiting air conditioning units.

Being measured up, then returning for an initial fitting, and then following that up with at least 2 more subsequent fittings before the damn things were actually deemed fit to purchase, was purgatory in a building boiling in internal temperatures pushing 115F with nothing to alleviate the misery but a couple of small and ineffective ceiling fans wafting equally boiling air around you.

It is hard to squeeze into a tight silk dress when you are standing in a pool of sticky sweat and perspiration is literally dripping off the ends of your fingers ;-). Still, first world problems etc etc…

How anyone survives in the historic centre in summer I cannot imagine. Luckily our hotel was on the outskirts, a 3 minute walk away from the Ancient City, so at least we could return periodically to the hotel and stand under the AC unit for 1/2 an hour to recover.

But we weren’t there to stare at the four walls of the nicely air conditioned room so there was little choice but to venture out and drip slowly around the city admiring the beautiful buildings, temples, Assembly Halls and the typically energetic market place filled with the usual grim offerings… bowls of maggots, the worlds most repulsive smelling and equally appalling tasting spiky fruit – durian, unidentifiable dead furry animals (which could well have been dog as the Vietnamese have a taste for poor Fido 😦 ).

We should have known better than to stand still for more than 30 seconds in the market to catch our respective breaths. Whilst various hawkers around us tried to sell us produce we couldn’t possible have a need for, out of nowhere, a woman on a mission grabbed us from the melee and quite literally dragged Geoff by the hand to what looked like a moped storage space opposite the market. She was busily massaging his sweaty paw (poor woman) and babbling away in a combination of incomprehensible Vietnamese and English. Despite his polite protestations he was dragged into a garage, plonked down on a couple of horizontal planks with a grubby mattress and a flowery sheet (in a cacophony of glowing colors from the 1970’s) and before he could escape he had agreed to a hand and foot massage for 2 in her “spa” for $5 each. For that bargain price I re-negotiated for a shoulder massage which I immediately regretted. A miscellaneous friend was called in from the street, covered a pillow on the adjoining mattress with a dusty threadbare rag (which I suspect was once a towel), whipped off my top and bra, slapped me down on to the bed and proceeded to pummel away at my shoulders. As I lay there half naked staring straight out at the thronging activities of the market in 113F, an old sheet drawn across the garage entrance billowing in the breeze, I had to wonder how on earth I got there… still… she had a fan (!) so the price of the unanticipated massage was worth it for that alone ;-).

The Vietnamese are really, really, really good entrepreneurial salespeople. To give her her due whilst the spa facilities were spartan and far from hygienic they were both spectacularly good massages despite the constant flow of neighbors and friends wandering in for an impromptu chat. Geoff’s was so good he was completely oblivious to the influx of visitors pulling up a plastic stool for a gossip with the masseuses. He was also wholly unaware that half way through my massage, my masseuse had to rush out for an urgent errand so the services of another neighbor were solicited from the market stall next door to finish off. Not one to pass up the opportunity to make a few extra Dong, my number 2 masseuse tried to upgrade my “spa experience” with a pedicure I definitely didn’t want. Not to be put off by that refusal she whipped out a piece of cotton thread from her pocket, twisted it round her fingers and pinged it across my top lip ripping out apparently repulsive and unsightly hairs which I had no idea that I had.

Only in Vietnam ;-).

At the end of our spa treatment we were both given a big hug and the lady owner grinned widely, slapped my butt and said “Big bum, big bum – you come back tomorrow!!”… which was charming ;-).

Still, it can’t be denied that the massages were extremely good value which is more than could be said for the 2 bananas which we intended to buy for lunch from a couple of fruit vendors staggering about under the weight of their bamboo poles and fruit baskets. We didn’t have the correct change for the bananas so instead of giving us change in cash for the $10 equivalent note in Dong we had handed over (having run out of more appropriate denominations of cash in the process of buying other things we didn’t really need from various persistent vendors) the little group kept adding fruit we also didn’t really need until we gave up trying to extract change due to heat and haggling exhaustion. In the final analysis we became the proud owners of 2 tiny bananas, 3 ancient oranges and 2 pears for the princely sum of $10 US which is more expensive than Singapore. No wonder they smiled so enthusiastically for my impromptu photo shoot ;-).

Geoff had read that the Vietnamese are well-known for good cut-throat razor shaves – so he stopped shaving for a couple of days to make it worthwhile and we went in search of a barber. Stopping en route at the tourist information office, we were recommended a barber around the corner, Mr. Hot Toc. Odd recommendation, we thought, when we were greeted by a cross-eyed man with razor blade in hand ;-). Hopeful that he wouldn’t slit his throat by accident, Geoff took a chance and reclined warily in the grimy chair. All went well, no blood was spilt and we thought it was all over until the barber donned a headlamp, picked up some very long pointy instruments of torture and started to prod about in Geoff’s ear canal rather unexpectedly. In an entirely gruesome way it was all rather fascinating – but I will spare the reader the more revolting of the details. Hygiene wasn’t a consideration at all – nothing was sterilized, nor even wiped with a filthy rag. For reasons I cannot fathom even now (considering the paranoid levels of my cleanliness OCD), it all looked rather entertaining so I asked the barber if he could take a look at mine to see if I too harbored winged beasts and prehistoric petrified creatures. As he agreed, he dropped one of the said pointy instruments on the muck covered floor of his shop, picked it up and continued on without missing a beat with his enthralling search of Geoff’s ear canal. Delightful!

Too late to back out, I reclined with fear and foreboding and endured similar internal proddings and feather fluffings until my ears (which didn’t harbor anything even close to interesting compared to Geoff’s 😉 ) were spotless whilst repeating to myself over and over – “this is great OCD therapy… it won’t kill me… I will survive”…etc etc… followed by… a lot of internal screaming and “what on earth was I thinking… seriously… are you nuts girl?”… etc etc…

Our time in Hoi An, albeit hotter than the desert, was lovely, peaceful (until they opened the streets to the mopeds at 11am every morning) and very unchallenging with the exception of the irritating tailors who never really got round to finishing the job off properly until you had re-visited 5 times. As idyllic as it was, it wasn’t quite the adventurous side of Vietnam we were really hoping to see.

I was hoping a quick hopper flight from Da Nang to Ha Noi would put that right :-).

We arrived into Ha Noi in the rain but it was just as hot as Hoi An and considerably more humid. Another unexpected weather pattern it seemed. Still, at least we were in a nicely air conditioned cab as opposed to the thousands of pour souls struggling through the downpour on their mopeds wearing plastic bags which flapped wildly around their legs as the cars flew by narrowly missing getting caught up in their makeshift raincoats. When the rain stopped we girded our loins to tackle the narrow streets of the Old Quarter of Ha Noi which we had already spotted were absolutely manic.

Like Yangon, Myanmar, there are many beautiful colonial buildings (French in the case of Vietnam), mostly decrepit, decaying and embellished by mother nature with verdigris and ferns. The tree-lined avenues are teeming with mopeds and cars – none of which apply their brakes – ever. They glide around in a constant stream ignoring all red lights and pedestrians and apparently never colliding. Amazing, considering that many of the bikers are also simultaneously making calls on their cell phones or texting as they drive. It is an impressive feat of coordinated movement en masse.

Crossing the road involves stepping out into the unrelenting stream of mopeds, cars, and taxis all hooting their horns. The way to survival is to slow down or run according to the general flow as they glide around you in a coordinated symphony. Hesitancy will not end well ;-). As such, it is nothing unusual to be trapped – marooned – in the centre of the road with hundreds of mopeds bearing down upon you, swishing past from all sides whilst you try to navigate safely to the other side without getting mown down or losing a useful body part. The fact that we saw no accidents at all is a testament to the seemingly mild, non-aggressive nature of the driving population. Someone always backs down in the relentless game of traffic chicken. The roads are a giant moving noisy conveyor belt but no-one seems to fall from their dangerously overloaded bikes and the gutters are strangely free of the limbs and bodies of dead tourists.

I hear Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) is even worse. I cannot begin to imagine what kind of treacherous feat crossing the road would be in HCMC.

What is even more impressive is that many of the mopeds are actually deemed roadworthy at all considering that (like most of South East Asia) they are held together entirely with dust, rust and tape. Unsurprisingly, there is a thriving business of moped repair “shops” (any empty patch of pavement and a bag of tools appears to suffice to set up shop).

Again, like Yangon, the Old Quarter is characterized by streets dedicated to specific businesses… there is a gold street, a hat street, a shoe street, a button and haberdashery street, a bamboo street etc etc.

However, unlike Yangon it is also reasonably clean, free of the olfactory delights of open sewers and it is also famous for its street food. For my part, of course, street food remains something to avoid at all cost and even Geoff appeared to have learnt his lesson after the Yangon mahogany seed incident ;-).

We visited Ha Noi 3 times – backwards and forwards to Ha Long Bay and to Sa Pa and back. Initially, in the heat and humidity and utter chaos we weren’t immediately wowed – but Ha Noi is one of those cities which begins to grow on you with familiarity. Once you accept it’s manic chaos, it’s deafening constant horn blowing and having to dice with death crossing the roads it is really an amazing city full of beauty, life and wonderful decaying French colonial architecture.

Famous for its relaxed coffee shop culture – whether you drag up a miniature stool on the pavement with the locals (squashed in between miscellaneous vendors and mopeds) and pay 80 cents for a Vietnamese coffee, or whether you choose to recline in one of the more attractive cafes in a refurbished artsy building and pay $2.00 for a latte – they both have something highly appealing to offer when you finally run out of steam on the steamy streets… which is frequently :-).

You could sit in a street cafe for days on end watching the surrounding maelstrom and never get bored.

Over 2 80 cent thick black Vietnamese coffees with condensed milk one morning (calorie free 🙂 ) we tallied up the following loads zipping past us on individual mopeds – 6 mattresses (and by this I do mean 6 mattresses on 1 moped) ; a 5’ laminate kitchen work surface (with pre-cut sink hole); 2 25’ bamboo poles clutched with grim determination by the pillion passenger; a 6’ bay window (with glass); approximately 30 folded rugs; 2 5’ x 6” sheets of glass; an office computer desk; a 4’x 5’ oil painting and best of all… grandma riding pillion perched precariously behind the driver on a couple of boxes and wedged in between 2 4’x 3’ hessian sacks to her sides, one in front and one behind her.

Cyclists drift past loaded with fruit, women in conical hats shuffle past under the crippling weight of their bamboo poles carrying huge baskets of fruit. I know how heavy they are – one of these contraptions was unceremoniously dumped onto my shoulder by the grinning owner trying to sell a “photo op”.

As one old lady wobbled past us with 2 giant transparent plastic bags attached to each side of her pushbike Geoff spluttered into his coffee “Good God, look at the size of that woman’s prawn crackers!“. Whilst they weren’t prawn crackers (they were actually rice cakes), I did get his point – they were gigantic – at least 30” diameter each. Still, I suspect it is not a phrase I’ll hear more than once in my lifetime ;-).

Like Yangon, Ha Noi is all about street life, high energy business transactions, food vendors, boiling pots of water and frying pans on the sidewalks, rinsing vegetables in bowls in the gutters and lazy dogs waiting for scraps and strokes.

Unlike Yangon, however, are the dizzying number of mopeds – estimated to be some 4 million in Ha Noi alone… they fly at you at speed – usually from the wrong direction – slaloming across the road. There may well be rules of the road but no-one seems to know them.

Whatever bizarre sights you see on the streets the locals barely raise an eyebrow… whether it be a strange pale foreigner jogging down the centre of the road (more below!) or an elderly woman slowly pushing a long rack of clothes in the middle of the road completely surrounded by mopeds and cars driving in every possible direction. It is a captivating, vibrant city :-). We loved it… in the end…

Still, our first encounter was less than enthusiastic so we leapt onto our “luxury VIP minibus” with gleeful anticipation of our forthcoming tranquil cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay (the less touristy part of Ha Long Bay – another UNESCO World Heritage Site), 3 hours or so away. As often happens, we met a fun and interesting Australian family (the only other people on our luxury VIP minibus) who were heading to the same cruise ship – the Dragon Legend Indochina Junk. The 3 hour trip became a 4 hour trip due to the typical scheduled detour to a giant arts/craft/junk tourist trap somewhere en route where we availed ourselves of the bathroom facilities. We then sat around moaning with everyone else that we were wasting precious time and would rather be out on the water than pouring over trinkets which were more likely from a sweatshop in China than lovingly hand created by a local Vietnamese artisan.

We finally arrived in Ha Long Bay City (thank goodness we were only passing through briefly) and eventually made it onto the much anticipated cruise, listened to the speeches and absorbed the schedule of activities during which time Geoff simmered slowly on gas mark 3 and glowered at me periodically for bringing him on the single most touristy experience of his life ;-).

I’ll admit I was getting nervous too as these types of organized trips really aren’t for us but there is no alternative if you want to visit Ha Long Bay – so we struggled through the introductions and got to sit with the fun family again and shoot the breeze over lunch so it was nowhere near as painful as it might have been :-). We were handed our keys and approached the room with trepidation (particularly given the outrageously high price for 24 hours on the junk). But this was a once in a lifetime experience (so I kept reminding Geoff 😉 ). Thank goodness, it was really very nice… not as we had feared at all and it even came with a large soaking tub by a large picture window so we could wallow in bubbles and watch the limestone karsts and the other junks and fishing boats float by… which is exactly what we did :-).

With hindsight, cruises are unlikely to be for us… we did appreciate the benefits of watching the world go by from the luxury of our cabin but the ethos of group fun and entertainment and operating to a regimented schedule doesn’t suit us well. In addition, huge and lengthy meals were served , seemingly every hour or so, and because the junk was very small (only about 30 people onboard), the nice tour guide (even that concept is an anathema to us), Huang, would have noticed our absence and likely dragged us out of our cabin into the group activities ;-).

So we accepted the inevitable and joined in with the Aussies and had a very pleasant time kayaking around the karsts and wandering about the private island owned by the junk company.

Still, before we relented and joined in whole-heartedly, rebellious to the core, we managed to break free from the gaggle of kayaks when the tour guide wasn’t watching us and paddled like crazy in the opposite direction from the group snaking off around a karst headland. In the distance we could hear “Miss Jen… ees theese waaaay….” drifting across the bay but we paddled on furiously until we were thoroughly out of earshot. We had far more interesting plans than kayaking around a boring ol’ karst which we had already done to death in Thailand anyway.

We had spotted a floating fishing village on the other side of the bay and I wanted to go and photograph it :-).

As we approached in our kayak the toddlers on board waved and smiled as we paddled past and the fishermen, loafing about or mending nets, smiled and waved at the funny foreigners from the ship. It was far more authentic than anything the tour company could possibly have pre-arranged :-). Still, we could ignore the plaintiff cries of the tour guide no longer and re-joined the group before he had a coronary.

The cruise amongst the towering limestone karsts (all 1600 of them) was relaxing and peaceful and stress free but having returned from the kayaking we were instructed by Huang that we had precisely 1 hour and 16 minutes to relax, shower and do as we pleased (the most generous free time allotted so far!) before we had to be back on deck for dinner… 24 hours of being organized was definitely enough ;-).

The final nail in the coffin of organized tours for us was the scheduled stop at a Water Puppet Theatre on the return drive to Ha Noi. According to the literature (which I felt compelled to read) this is a tradition that dates from as far back as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. The puppets are made from wood, painted and lacquered. Water puppetry shows are performed by the puppeteers (hidden by a screen) in a waist-deep pool. They control each puppet with a large rod which supports the puppet under the water so that they appear to be moving over the water. The visuals are accompanied by fairly dreadful music and story-telling.

The tradition originates from when the rice fields would flood and the villagers would entertain each other with puppet plays.

For not the first time during our South East Asian explorations we turned to each other and thanked our lucky stars that we were born British in 1960’s England. It really could have been so much worse 😉 :-).

Both of us would have preferred to endure a dental extraction without anesthetic rather than sit through 40 minutes of Vietnamese puppet theatre but our protestations to the driver of the luxury minivan fell upon deaf ears… there was no changing the plan… so we sat po-faced throughout the entire performance as the locals and tourists with kids shrieked with laughter. As Geoff pointed out at the end of the interminable performance – it was clever – but intensely tedious ;-). Each to his own – perhaps we weren’t fully entering into the spirit of it! ;-).

Back to Ha Noi for another night and day of exploration, Vietnamese egg cream coffee, relentless hooting and moped chaos whilst we killed time waiting to head to the station for our overnight train trip to the northwestern mountain region of Sa Pa, close to the Chinese border.

The Ha Noi to Sa Pa overnight train journey was one we were hardly awaiting with eager anticipation. If there were any other reasonably safe and recommended way to get to this remote part of the country we would have taken it. Unfortunately, I was swayed by a number of online bloggers who I touched base with whilst I was planning the trip and I was warned off the road trip option, and Vietnamese drivers, in particular. There is a newly opened mountain road from Ha Noi but according to bloggers legend it is littered with the bones of deceased bus drivers and tourists. With hindsight, I suspect this was an exaggeration ;-).

Next time we head back to northern Vietnam (which we surely will do), we are taking the road even if it does actually kill us. I am never taking another Vietnamese overnight train… ever…

We were expecting extraordinary chaos with 100s of backpackers and travelers trying to exchange their certified agency ticket for an official train ticket an hour before departure when the station opened. Vietnam is so bureaucratic that you can’t make any transportation arrangements without an agent involved who, in the process, requires details of passports and visas together with written notarized documentary evidence of your mother-in-law’s inside leg measurement. Making travel arrangements here is onerous, tedious and frequently confusing.

Still, in the end it was just mildly chaotic at the station (which was a pleasant surprise) – being sent from pillar to post – from one group of locals with no sign of official capacity to another until we just had to hope that we had all of the correct papers to board the train.

So, we scuttled off in the rain in the direction of our “4 star” VIP 2 berth cabin on the Sapaly Express cluttered up with rucksacks, suitcases and other accumulated paraphernalia.

Our expectations had been quite low but what awaited us failed even to meet those expectations. Frankly, it was awful. I know I can be a little demanding with my accommodations at times but the VIP cabin “a deux” fell well short of the acceptable mark. Battered, ancient and creaky – at least the bed sheets and pillows were spotlessly clean – which is more than you could have said for the floor.

We had made the mistake of clambering on board before the conductor had arrived (mainly to get out of the rain and to deposit our bags) and in a matter of seconds Geoff had managed to break the chain on the top bunk so that it had to be left open with the chain clanking against the wall over my bed all night. Marvelous!

He wandered off to explore the “facilities” whilst I sat with a single tear rolling down my spoilt cheek as I watched dozens of backpackers and locals passing the sleeper carriage (for which we had paid the daylight robbery sum of $400 return) en route to their standard train seats (at a fraction of the price) where they would no doubt have utterly sleepless and even more miserable nights sitting upright for 8 hours.

He returned, pale from his explorations, having gone in search of the toilet. He sat down, took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said I would have to be a big brave girl (for once). The toilet he directed me to was an open sewer – a steel pan, indian squatting style, it’s floor already awash and the only concession to western standards of hygiene was a very soggy toilet roll :-(.

I wouldn’t be getting up in the dead of night to experience that horror again as visions of falling straight down the hole and trapping a leg in the sewer as the train rattled, jolted and clanked along the ancient tracks loomed large in my overactive imagination.

The conductor delivered a can of lager and an identifiable bottle of liquid (which might have been lemonade) with a large friendly smile saying “for VIP” and laughing uproariously. In addition to those finer touches we enjoyed the benefits of a plastic comb each, a toothbrush with no danger of being used as I had no intention of going anywhere near the sinks again, 2 bottles of water which I wouldn’t be imbibing as I didn’t want to get caught short in the dead of night and have to re-visit the open sewer again… and a pair of “slippery” each… which was all very civilized ;-).

I mopped up my single tear, we batoned down the hatches, shut out the horrors of the world outside, turned off the lights and hopped into our beds with the curtains open so that we could watch the train crawl through the streets of Ha Noi. It was compulsive watching as we passed within a few feet of people’s homes… by market stalls and food vendors… and then running alongside a main road clogged with locals on their slow-moving mopeds – conversely watching us like goldfish in a bowl… it was all quite surreal and quite exciting.

That was until a large drip of water landed on my head – I ignored it suspecting the air conditioning unit was above the bed… then another plopped onto my cheek and before I knew it there was a deluge of rainwater pouring in the window like Niagara Falls and bouncing off the bed. Geoff hurriedly went to locate the conductor which didn’t take long as the staff were all congregated on plastic chairs in the “room” next to ours puffing away on cigarettes (another lovely element to add to the overall luxury ambience of the train trip 😉 ). I grabbed some clothes but not quite quickly enough so I sat at one end of my bed wrapped up only in a duvet whilst 2 Vietnamese train staff clambered all over my palatial living quarters with their muddy boots trying unsuccessfully to stem the flow of water. To give them their due they did the best they could to plug up the damaged window frame and seal it with someone’s scarf (as per the photo) from the now copious flood of water pouring down the inside of the window and seeping through my mattress.

Geoff took to the bottle in an effort to pass out unnaturally by way of alcoholic stupor – no wineglasses to be seen anywhere on board – I have never seen him swig wine straight from the bottle before but needs must…

Ear-plugged and generally miserable we must have both passed out due to exhaustion (and in Geoff’s case, alcohol). The only reason we knew we must have had any sleep was because we both woke up at various times of the night with our heads banging against the wooden panelling from the violent jolting of the carriage and the broken chain clanking etc. etc… but all in, it probably didn’t amount to much more than 3 accumulated hours of slumber between us.

During the night the torrential rainwater continued to soak through the scarf and pour onto the mattress and my pillow so that by the morning 1/3 of the bed was totally soaked and I was lying on a swamp…

Just what I had in mind for a VIP “luxury” berth for 2!

We were woken up at 6.ooam with a cheery smile and offers of a cold coffee for $2 each which we declined. By this time I had little option but to re-visit the toilet from hell again only to discover that Geoff is no Sir Ranulph Fiennes after all. A door next to the open sewer was now swinging open and inside was a slightly less repulsive western toilet – replete with dry toilet roll… naturally, I was less than impressed with his exploratory skills ;-).

Next time we decide to head to the northern hills we WILL brave the road, we will send up a few words to St Christopher and take our chances with a Vietnamese driver on the winding mountain pass instead. It isn’t up for negotiation… ;-).

Arriving distinctly the worse for wear we located our driver and headed off for an hour long drive across the mountain pass to Sa Pa. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see any of the mountain pass whatsoever (which may have been a good thing, of course). Our driver entertained himself (and a guide he had picked up at Lao Cai station who had hitched a lift home to Sa Pa in our “luxury car service” ) by playing a game of chicken with another driver returning to Sa Pa with his equally innocent passengers. Whenever they reached a particularly hair-raising bend one would try to overtake the other and the inside driver would slam his brakes on or speed up to prevent the maneuver. They both seemed to find this highly amusing – by this stage I didn’t care if I lived or died anyway ;-). To make matters worse, the mist was so dense it was, in fact, an all-encompassing cloud which hung freezing and wringing wet over Sa Pa for the first 2 days of our 4 day visit :-(.

Rather unfortunately, when we had packed our bags 10 days or so earlier the forecast had indicated glorious blue skies and warm 70F weather. So I turned up in the cloud with a useless collection of shorts and string tops. We had also sacrificed our proper hiking shoes for running shoes as it would be less to carry. Oh dear!

Near hypothermic upon our arrival in Sa Pa we tried to buy a fleece for me (Geoff wasn’t quite as optimistic as I had been in the packing department so he was slightly better prepared for once). The town, basically a place which has expanded exponentially (from its original roots) around the tourist industry consists mainly of massage spas (I use the term loosely), a few cafes and restaurants, and store after store of fake hiking gear – The North Face in particular. Each store claimed to be the original authentic supplier of The North Face products but it was obvious that it was all freshly shipped over the border from China. At least we didn’t need running shoes as well… but if we had we could have scooped up a pair of “Nikes” for $20 instead of $120 ;-). Rather freeze to death than invest in something destined to fall apart before we left Vietnam, we retreated to the hotel room where there was another beautiful, shiny, new and huge soaking tub screaming out to to be filled with bubbles to warm our bones… even if we had to sit in it all day to defrost.

I rushed into the bathroom, teeth chattering, turned on the faucet and adjusted the temperature whereupon the large shiny chrome faucet was propelled 2’ into the air, clattered down into the bath tub and I was showered with steaming hot water along with the rest of the bathroom. I was rescued by Geoff who had the foresight to turn off the water flow (my brain had already shut down due to cold) and went to call reception.

So, for the second time in 12 hours I was wrapped up (this time in a bathrobe at least) whilst 2 hotel maintenance staff stomped all over the suite trying to reconstruct our previously luxurious bathroom so that we could warm up in the bath :-(.

I was just starting to wonder if Vietnam was beginning to wear a little thin or whether we were just exhausted with the various challenges of traveling in South East Asia for almost 4 months – and then the maintenance guys amazed me by repairing the faucet with reasonable efficiency and speed. Obviously they hadn’t needed a translator to interpret my mood – one glance at me would have been more than enough ;-).

The following day the cloud lifted far enough to see 3 feet ahead so we braved the cold and headed out and downhill to the nearby village of Cat Cat. We didn’t believe the concierge when he told us to just keep going downhill through the thick cloud and we would break free of some of the bad weather… but he was right… and we finally saw the terraced rice paddy fields for which the area is famous :-).

Like several of the indigenous villages in the area, there is a small entrance fee to visit and although it is a very touristy village with terrace to terrace art and craft shops, limestone carvers and indigenous clothing weavers it was worth the trip to see how villagers would have lived (the vats for producing indigo cloth which the villagers – the Black H’Mong – wear). Piglets were snuffling in the undergrowth, chickens, roosters and their offspring were swimming in the terraced rice paddy pools and grubby, half naked kids played on the pathways chasing ducks whilst their beautifully attired mothers with indigo stained fingers were plying their wares to the tourists.

We could have taken a motorcycle taxi ride for about $1.50 each back up from the base of the village rather than hike back uphill to Sa Pa but we rejected the various persistent offers in favor of exercise. Back-up bikes were strategically placed at various bends in the road uphill to catch anyone who had bitten off more than they could chew until even the entreprenerial youth of the village realized the die-hard hikers really were going to make it all the way back under their own steam ;-).

Still, we weren’t there to see the touristy villages – we wanted to hike in the lesser traveled indigenous villages so we hired a guide, Su May, for a couple of days from the Red Dao tribe to take us on a hike through the paddy fields, mountains and villages. The first day we hiked for 12 miles – not bad in a pair of mud clogged running shoes ;-). The sun finally came out and all was, as hoped, stunningly beautiful after the mists had cleared. We clambered over rocks and rice terraces, paddled through streams, slipped down muddy pathways, hiked through bamboo forests, passed through villages of tribes where women sat in groups embroidering clothes whilst gossiping with their friends, babies in laps and a family of pigs truffling about at their feet. We saw village wells and rain water powered rice grinding mechanisms. It is a very physically hard life and like much of rural South East Asia is an entirely alien world where life seems stuck in a time warp from 200 years ago.

We were surprised to learn that the endless hill and mountainsides covered from ground level to their peaks in terraces produce only enough rice to feed the families who own them for the year. I had assumed, with thousands of rice terraces as far as the eye could see, that Sa Pa was one of the rice bowls of Vietnam supplying the vast export industry of Vietnamese rice but the weather is harsh up in the northern mountains and the residents make only a subsistence living from their rice terraces. Anything more is made from the tourists buying local handicrafts and batik indigo-dyed clothing, scarves and multi-colored hats and bags – the usual tourist offerings.

The second day hike was a considerably more sedate 8 miles (albeit mainly uphill) during which we stopped for a drink in a lonely, wooden hillside shack which turned out to be the village sweetshop, cafe and social gathering centre. Our stop coincided with the arrival of a group of 6-8 year olds who had just finished school for the afternoon. Geoff, not known for his benevolence when it comes to gaggles of snot covered kids, bought lollypops for all 2000 of them. I was requisitioned to distribute them which was really a task well beyond my remit because I was pretty much trampled to the floor in the stampede ;-). Child crowd control is not my forte… it seems that children are like piranhas when it comes to free sweets. The tray was stripped bare in no more than 7 seconds and the shopkeeper had to round the kids up and shoo them out of the door before I came a cropper underfoot ;-).

Give me a cat to mother any day ;-).

We have never hired a guide to hike anywhere before – preferring to find our own way – but it would have been impossible to have weaved across the fields and through streams and obscure village paths without Su May. In any event, there are apparently no maps available showing anything useful like roads, paths or villages so there really isn’t much alternative but to “rent a local” if you actually want to make it home in time for dinner ;-). Thanks to Su May, they were probably two of the most interesting, spectacular and culturally enlightening hikes we have ever done :-). Even better – we only bumped into 3 other tourists all day following a similar route with their various tribal guides – and two of them were from Geoff’s hometown in England… small world…

Next time we will entrust the lovely Su May to take us on a 4 or 5 day home stay hike out into the villages and mountains further afield… if we (I) can ever face the trip back out to Sa Pa again ;-). If only they would build a nice, shiny, new airport there it would be so much more convenient to get to…. but then it would probably never be the same again…

In order to kill a bit of time and recover from our energetic explorations we decided to test out the local “spas” – with no great hopes, if I’m honest. They really haven’t quite got the concept of a recuperative spa massage right in much of South East Asia.

Our first attempt in Sa Pa – and probably our worst massage ever anywhere in the world – was at the Black Rose. It shouldn’t have been too challenging for them – 2 60 minute foot massages. We were the only customers there when we were guided to the large reclining armchair seats typical in this part of the world. Soon it was jam-packed full of backpackers who hadn’t seen running water in a week. The “spa” owner was making loud and frantic phone calls and various Sa Pa teenagers were arriving in droves on mopeds, pulling up a stool and getting stuck in to their clients various limbs. The arriving masseuses brought with them their screaming toddlers who darted about all over the place playing amongst the boiling herbal foot baths and hot stones which were to be applied to our weary legs. To make matters worse Geoff’s masseur took no less than 8 phone calls whilst half-heartedly dabbing at his muscles with his spare hand until he finally propped his grubby cell phone up on Geoff’s sweatshirt so that he could continue his important phone calls hands-free ;-).

I am surprised we risked another massage in the town at all but Geoff didn’t feel quite as rejuvenated as he would have liked so the following day we tested out a different recommendation. This time, we were led with trepidation through a curtain strung up on a piece of string across the “doorway” to a makeshift wooden cell behind the reception counter. I’ll admit it was a step up from the garage in Hoi An – but only just. A TV was blaring the dreadful warblings of a Vietnamese singing talent show at full volume. We were sharing a room with 2 massage beds which wasn’t designed with any flow of movement in mind so my masseuse had to physically clamber over me and my bed to move around the room.

Being a full body massage we whipped off our clothes and were handed a couple of frayed towels – not much larger than a face-cloth and frankly nowhere near enough to preserve any modesty whatsoever… perhaps it is fortuitous that we don’t have much modesty to preserve ;-). In addition the AC was set to “arctic”. As ethnic as the environment was, I was amazed to find my masseuse was really quite brilliant and I drifted out of the spa on a warm, fluffy cloud of air… Geoff wasn’t quite as lucky ;-).

The return train trip was only marginally less awful than the trip out to Sa Pa 4 days earlier. With the usual Vietnamese business enterprise we weren’t directly dropped at the station in Lao Cai as expected to exchange our voucher for a ticket. Suspiciously, we were deposited by our non-english speaking driver at a cafe in town, 2 and a half hours before departure time. Our bags were grabbed by a waitress and dumped in the corner of the cafe despite our protestations and confusion, our voucher was whipped from my sweaty paw and in exchange we were handed menus we didn’t need. Finally, we managed to extract an explanation which revolved entirely around the opportunity to eat and drink dinner (which turned out to be awful as expected) and, in exchange, the owner promised she would run up to the station (which could have been anywhere as we had no clue where in the city we had been turfed out of the cab), she would get our ticket for us and then return to walk us and another 4 groups of equally confused tourists to the station. The train departed at 8.20pm. Ticket collection was promised at 6.30pm, 7pm, 7.05, 7.15, and 7.25pm by which time we were getting fed up with the staff running around trying to fulfill emergency food orders by which time we had 45 minutes to get our tickets and board the train. Rather than maintain passive dignity for a moment longer and risk missing the train, Geoff expressed his distinct displeasure, grabbed our voucher from the counter and we followed a couple of Italians and their guide up to the station schlepping our heavy (niece and nephew gift-laden bags) across town to deal with the anticipated station chaos ourselves… sigh…

The opportunity to squeeze every last cent from departing tourists is never passed up in South East Asia ;-).

Luckily, it wasn’t raining this time on the long train journey back to Ha Noi so I didn’t have to lay my locks on a soggy pillow again but we did have to contend with rock solid 3” vinyl covered mattresses which were perfect for sweating onto all night.

Still, as Geoff kept reminding me, that was undoubtedly abject luxury compared to the standard seat carriages filled with poverty stricken backpackers so I should really be more grateful ;-). He was keen to point out that in addition, this trip, we had a photograph of a temple to brighten the place up and make it feel more homely… and… as if that weren’t luxury enough, there was also a bowl of plastic flowers on the table… even if they looked distinctly wilted ;-).

We jolted, bumped and bounced south all night again until the train pulled in to Ha Noi at 5.00am after another sleepless night. The outskirts were even busier at the crack of dawn in the darkness than the centre of the city is at midday. We trundled slowly past a huge all night market and food vendors were already doing a thriving business. Do they never sleep in this city?

On our final day in Ha Noi we had to concede that, despite its cluttered craziness (or maybe because of it), we did rather like it once the city felt more familiar. Our last morning in South East Asia was a slightly melancholy one.

Geoff went for a final run through the streets (an act of insanity in my view). When he returned to the hotel huffing and puffing some 40 minutes later, it transpired that the run had taken longer than anticipated because he had got caught up in the middle of a mechanized peloton of mopeds. When 3 whipped up his left side – he thought he’d dart over to the right but – impossible – there were 10 bikes on that side already and when he turned around there were the usual 200 behind – so with 50 in front he was literally stuck in the middle running along with them caught in their slipstream – drivers, passengers and small kids alike waving and smiling at the lunatic foreigner running down the centre of their road in rush hour ;-).

Final immortal words as we wandered back from breakfast at our favorite cafe (The Hanoi Social Club)… and tripping up for the last time on the treacherous, uneven, crater pocked pavement (narrowly missing toppling headfirst into a bubbling pot of Pho)… “Oh my God, what is that horrrrrrendous smell??!”

Durian or the South East Asian drains? Who knows… but we will kinda miss it 😉 !

Vietnam – what an extraordinary, dynamic finale to our Asian odyssey :-).

So… after 4 months, 10 countries (Geoff had a work day trip to Jakarta, Indonesia which I thankfully escaped), 2 job offers, 36 flights, 2 overnight train journeys, 1 cruise, 2 cars, 1 elephant ride, 1 motorcycle, tuk-tuks, kayaks, speed-boats, longtail boats, the Singapore MRT, the Tokyo subway and dozens of cab rides and hikes later we are exhausted, broke but infinitely wealthier… what an amazing ride :-).


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