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Sapa

More Motorbike Adventures

overcast 8 °C

Heidi was feeling quite sick again in the morning, so we slept in a bit. We finally got ourselves out of the room and headed downstairs around 11 am, where we bumped into the Slovenian couple and their American friend Robert. We explained to them that Heidi was still feeling sick, and the Slovenian said they had just the cure: a magical Slovenian home remedy syrup that is made from the sap of some kind of tree (they didn't seem to be so clear on the details of the ingredients) that is supposed to help with nausea. Robert was the guinea pig, as he took the first swig of this brownish-colored sludge. After the reaction he had to the syrup, you would think any reasonable person would take a pass at trying it, but because Heidi was feeling so nauseous, she decided to give it a go. Heidi later described the experience as "like drinking spoiled vodka that clung to every inch of your mouth". Glad I didn't feel sick. As an additional humorous note, we would later witness the Slovenian girl using the syrup as hand lotion.

After Heidi took the home remedy cure-all, she decided to stay in for the day and rest, although she encouraged me to go out and join the Slovenians and Robert in a little motorbike tour. I begrudgingly acquiesced to her encouragement. I met them downstairs and we headed out together to rent motorbikes. This time, due to the power in numbers, we were able to rent bikes for 64,000 dong each (around $4)--cheaper than the day before, but we negotiated to add fuel ourselves. Our destination was the Tram Tom Pass, which was just after the unimpressive Silver Waterfall that Heidi and I had visited the day before. Since I already knew my way in and our of town, I led the group. The weather was less than ideal, with light rains and the heaviest fog we had seen yet. This would cause me to nearly get into an accident as we headed through the center of town to the nearest petrol filling station. A Vietnamese couple turned in front of me; but, naturally, I deftly maneuvered the bike out of the way, in the process skidding sideways on the rain-slick road. I maintained balance, so no harm done, but I did give the couple a warning honk of the horn and glare to show my disdain. Robert would later comment that the scene was "awesome". Robert and the Slovenians fueled up, but then the troubles for Robert began. There was some kind of dispute about the amount of petrol pumped, as the Vietnamese woman manning the pump gave Robert a bit of petrol after another motorbike had fueled, without resetting the tank meter first. Robert felt that she wanted to charge him too much, as he didn't closely watch where the meter was when the fueling started. After a brief exchange of raised voices, and a tirade of mockingly imitating the Vietnamese language, Robert eventually paid the extra fifty cents. As the Slovenian girl would later note "many troubles always come to Robert". More of his troubles later...

We were finally on the road, and we made it out of town without any further incidents. We navigated along the narrow roads and eventually made it to the only road out to the pass. The weather at this point was horrible--it was extremely foggy, to the point that moisture was beading on our clothes--and this only added to the bitter cold that we were feeling from the 40 F degree weather. We had all bundled up quite a bit in anticipation of the cold ride, but our hands were still freezing. Visibility was also really low, which made the narrow roads a bit of a challenge, as we had to quickly move around approaching trucks that suddenly appeared out of the mist. We made it past the waterfall, and then made a pitstop, where we debated whether to continue through this misery, or cut our losses and head back to town. The book guaranteed that once we made it through the pass, the weather would be sunny and warm, but we were skeptical. A solo Russian traveler, also on motorbike, joined the debate. He decided to turn back, but we committed to pushing on.

After driving no more than five or six minutes through the pass, we noticed an immediate difference in the weather--we could see the sun poking out of the fog a few kilometers ahead, and the weather was already significantly warmer. After a few more kilometers, the fog disappeared and the temperature was actually really nice. The drive through Tram Ton Pass was beautiful, and we really enjoyed the ride and the views as we coasted down the narrow, steep slope of the winding road descended through the mountains. The slope was quite nice, so to save fuel I cut the motor on my motorbike and coasted down the mountain. Robert was in the lead, and he soon cruised out of sight. After another 15 minutes of so of driving, I spotted a downed motorbike on the inside of a steep curve of the road. No questions who this was--none other than Robert, buried under his fallen motorbike. He had taken the corner too fast and hit some loose gravel before flying off the road. I pulled to a stop and lifted the bike off of Robert and the Slovenians arrived soon after to help him move to a place to sit on the side of the road. That is where the real fun started. Robert started moaning, pulling grimacing faces, and complaining about the pain in his hip, leg, and ankle. We helped pull off his shoes and socks, and Robert eventually pulled off his pants to inspect his wounds. The Slovenians helped put some cream on some of his bruises, and we debated about turning back to the Fansipan trail head, where there was an outpost with some staff and (probably) some medical supplies. He had some bad bruising on his thigh, and had some general cuts and scrapes from the wipe out, and had a little chunk of skin hanging from his pinky finger, but no major swelling or signs of serious injury. Nonetheless, Robert sat on the side of the road for a good half an hour, continuing with a series of moans and groans and telling us about how much it hurt. I didn't take his pain too seriously and thought the whole scenario was quite amusing. He finally sucked it up and got to his feet. We took a look at his bike, but there was no major damage, just a bent footpeg that the Slovenian guy and I bent back with a broken piece of bamboo we found on the side of the road. The worst of it was that Robert had put a huge tear in the jacket he had borrowed from the guy he had rented the motorbike from. Oops, he will have to explain that one later.

A good 45 minutes after the spill, we were all back on the road, again enjoying the scenic descent into the valley below. We made it down into the valley, where we passed through some small villages interspersed with patches of rice fields, and we were all a bit amused to see the local version of a gas station there, which amounted to small water bottles filled with fuel, next to a hand-pump. In general, the whole area was quite undeveloped. We eventually made it to the small town of Tam Duong where we made a pit stop. We went to a small bia hoi joint, which serves beer, tea, and small eats. There Robert immediately took a seat and propped his sore ankle on a chair. The people there were extremely nice and accomodating, and also really curious to see what the foreigners were doing here (as it didn't seem like this area got a lot of tourist traffic). Everyone got a kick out of Robert when he began moaning again, and laughed hard when I used body language and sound effects to describe his crash. The middle-aged woman running the shop helped Robert, fetching him some ice and applying some cream to his scrapes and cut finger. She then made us some pho noodle soup (which was fantastic) and we relaxed in the warm sun, shedding a few layers while enjoying some cold local beer.

After resting a bit, we decided to head back to Sapa town, where Robert was determined to take a hot bath and put some gauze on his cuts. Once we made it through the pass, we found that although it had lessened a bit, there was still fog and it was still cold. We made it back to town without any problems and stopped again at the Baguette & Chocolat where the Slovenians had some dessert, and I bought a brownie to bring back to poor Heidi. Robert continued on, as he was in a hurry to get into the bathtub. It was only after he left that we realized he had forgotten his money pouch with us, and we chuckled a bit as we knew that he still had the torn jacket to explain. Nonetheless, we took our time, finished the desserts while chatting a bit, and eventually made it back to the hotel around 6:30, where the motorbike guys were waiting for us with a not-so-cordial "too late" greeting. Also, the owner of the ripped jacket was waiting there. Due to Robert's lack of money at the time he returned his motorbike, I agreed to wait downstairs while the Slovenians went up to get Robert and pay the 20,000 dong the guy demanded for his damaged jacket. After more than 10 minutes of waiting, I was sick of hanging out, so I let the motorbike guy follow me upstairs to Robert's room (which conveniently was right next to ours) where we roused Robert out of his already-poured hot bath to pay the money. Overall, no problem, as both Robert and the motorbike were satisfied with the 20,000 dong (about $1.25).

The day ended with bringing the brownie to Heidi with some Western-style take out food. We ate, made a fire in the room, went to bed early. Not a bad day.

Posted by heidigras 22:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cat Ba Island to Sapa

overcast 7 °C

We woke up at a decent time and decided to rent a motor bike for $5 for the morning, we were leaving the island at 1pm and wanted to get some exploring in yet. We had some pho for breakfast and headed to Hospital Cave, a cave that was used as a secret hospital during the war. It was pretty impressive, it had huge sealed doors on it and inside they had built several patient rooms, operating rooms, a pool and cinema area, it was all in great shape yet and was really an impressive sight. We explored some more of the island after that, Nate taught me how to drive the manual motorbike, which it turned out I am quite a natural at!
We headed back to town and had a disapointing lunch: undercooked hamburger on stale bread and calimari without sauce (it said it came with marinara, it came with nothing, we asked for marinara and they brought out mayo, tried to explain what marinara was and they finally brought out some weird chili sauce, agh language barriers!) We hoped on a local bus to take us to the hydrofoil that brought us to mainland. When the bus brought us to the dock we weren't sure what to do, nobody spoke English, so we kind of lingered and followed the crowd, only to find we had lingered too long and that there were no seats left so we had to ride on the deck with the motorbikes! We made it to Haiphong City without a hitch then realized that we were the only ones left of the bus, we had to communicate that we needed to get to Hanoi, the driver made some phone calls and finally drove us to another bus station where we hoped on another bus that took us Hanoi. The ride was quite annoying, 4 hours with really loud music videos and TV playing throughout the ride!
We arrived in Hanoi and were pleased to find that we knew where we were so we got off the bus at a good point, made our way to the travel agency that had arranged train tickets to Sapa for us. We stopped for some dinner then walked to the train station. There we discovered that we did not have tickets but only reservation cards, they let us on the train anyway, after some confusion (they finally gave up trying to tell us to get tickets when it was obvious that communication was not working). We had a sleeper car that we shared with a couple train workers who turned off the lights and went to sleep immediately, kind of lame. We had a couple beers and then turned in for the night. We both slept terribly as the train stopped frequently and the shocks on the train were ancient, making for a loud and bumpy ride!

We arrived in Lao Cai, a city about 30km from Sapa, at about 5am. We were assulted the minute we got off the train with people offering bus rides to Sapa. We went with one guy who tried to get us to get in the back of a bus that was already jam packed, we said we would find a different ride then he let us sit in the front, which was nice =)

We arrived in Sapa around 6am and wandered until someone approached us from a hotel. They showed us an awesome room overlooking the town and the mountains, the room had 2 full sized beds and a fireplace, all for only $6, we eagerly said yes and decided to take a nap, it was cool and foggy and thought we would see if the weather would clear up.

We got up around 10 to find the weather much the same, we had a great Vietnamese lunch and then rented a motorbike to do wome exploring. We bundeled up for the ride and hoped for the best! Luckily, about 2km out of town, the for disapeared and it was warm and sunny for the rest of the day. We went to see the Silver Waterfalls, which were kind of lame as it is dry season. We went to a Fangsipan Mountain lookout, this is the tallest mountain in Vietnam, it takes 3 days to hike, we decided against the hike!

We cruised back to Sapa to get a snack at a delicous bakery in town and then headed to Ta Phin village, a hilltribe just 10km out of the city, everyone here still wears traditional clothing and lives in little huts. We were approached by some young local girls who offered to give us a tour, but we wanted to get back before dark and decided to just head home.

When we got back, I was feeling quite sick and decided to just hang out in the room with a fire going in the fireplace. Nate joined a Women's Day party in the lobby of the hotel, the staff chatted him up and gave hime some locally brewed alcohol. He also taught a coulple Slovenians how to play Chinese Chess and had a nice converstaion with them and a Romanian before hitting the hay. All and all, it was a crazy couple days. The travel was quite an adventure, the sights were amazing and we flet really good about the whole experience, but we were beat and eager to start the next day of adventure!

Posted by heidigras 21:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cat Ba Island

overcast 11 °C

We were woken up at 6:30 on the boat in order to eat and then be transfered to another boat to go to the island as our boat was just heading back today. The breakfast was not good, fried eggs and bread (not even toast!). We decided that they start the meals out good to keep us happy and slowly they get down to eggs and bread, haha! We switched boats and heard from the tourists on the new boat that all of their meals had sucked and the service was terrible, which made us happy we had decided to spend a little more on our boat!

The ride to the island was about 2 hours and we arrived already at 9:30 AM. The rest of the boat that we were with had arranged a tour to the national park and had hotels and everything set up. We had been hoping that when we got to the island that we could go directly to the city, but since we were with the tour, we were stuck going to the national park first. They were only going to stay there for 2 hours and we had hoped to spend some more time there. We decided to take our bags with us to the mountain and leave the group and find our own way back to the city.

We found an old man to watch our packs and started hiking up the mountian. It had rained the night before and the ground was really muddy clay, the trail started with stairs but soon turned to a mess. We decided to take the steep way up and Heidi thought it was the most adventurous hike she had ever done. We ended up at a rickety lookout tower, rusty and missing floorboards, we climbed up anyway and got some amazing views of the Jurasic Park like island!

We headed back down and got some ice cream from the guy who watched our packs and then walked through a tiny village near the park HQ. We had some instant soup noodles at one of the huts and chit-chatted (kind of, the locals didn't speak English) with some local guys.

After feeling re-energized we headed to Trung Trang Cave (with our packs) and had a humourous tour led by a local. The cave was not touristy at all, few lights and you had to crouch to get through many areas. The guide was really good at locating spiders and bats for us to see, he also thought it was hilarious to turn the flashlight off while we were walking, leaving us in complete darkness. This is one situation where the tour may have been more fun than the sight itself!

After the cave, we decided to head back to town, which was 13km away. Luckily the guide had some friends who we paid to take us into town by motorbike, as we were riding we decided we were really glad we hadn't decided to walk, it would have taken hours to go through the mountains.

Of course, the motorbike guys new a guy in town who had a hotel so he took us there, we got a huge room that could have slept 4 for only $5, and it was right on the bay. We were pretty beat from getting up early and walking so much, we had a decent dinner and were sleeping by 10, ready for the next day!

Posted by heidigras 20:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Halong Bay

rain

We awoke bright and early, ready for our next adventure to Halong Bay. A van picked us up from our hotel at 8 AM; and, after stopping to pick up a couple more tourists destined for the bay, we were on our way. We made a typical pit stop an hour and a half into the trip at a souveneir shop, but we didn't have much interest in buying anything. We've made a no-buying policy for this trip, partly for the purpose of saving money, and partly because we don't want to make the same mistakes we made in India (Nate bought what seemed like a 100 lb. marble elephant a couple of days into the trip and had to lug it around for the next three and a half weeks).

We finally made it to the bay, and after waiting for about 20 minutes, we were aboard our junk and almost immediately served lunch, which was pretty decent. So far so good. However, we were quickly disappointed to see that the fog and rain that we had traveled through on the way had not lifted, and visibility of the bay was pretty low, making the tour fairly uninteretsting. After an hour or so, we were finally able to see some of the karst rock formations that the bay is so famous for. Altogether there are something like 2000 of these spread throughout the bay, making for a really cool landscape of steep, angular rocks jutting out from under the ocean surface.

Our first stop on the tour was to Hong Sung Sot, or "Amazing Cave" as it is known in English. This was really impressive--it was way bigger than we expected, and we were really happy to notice that the interior was lit up with soft yellow and white lights, and not the crazy tourist-crazy colored neon lights we were expecting.

After an hour tour of the cave, we again boarded the boat and next made a stop in the bay for some kayaking. The two of us shared a kayak, and we slowly learned to coordinate our paddling together, after a bit of bickering. It was a really nice trip around the rock pinnacles, and we finally found a really cool arch in the rocks that led to a secluded bay area. One of the Asian guys that was a member of our boat tour was also really excited about it, and shouted someting about Leonardo DiCaprio to us. Maybe he is a big fan of "The Beach".

After an hour of kayaking, we decided we were a bit tired, so we headed back to the main ship. Nate was offered to share a tobacco bong by the crew of the ship, and he naturally obliged them, noting that it gave him "a huge buzz". Vietnamese men can be seen everywhere with these bongs, often by local Bia Hoi stand that sell beer and coffee as well as fresh tobacco. We had dinner together and had nice conversation with a German couple, one of whom was a teacher, and the other a social worker.

The food was not quite as good as the day's lunch, but we ate to our fill nonetheless. We then retired to our cabin, where we drank some beer and vodka we had stashed away to avoid the $1 surcharge per bottle of beverage that was not purchase from the boat.

Everyone went to bed early, but we stayed up a bit later and took some night photos of the bay,as the lights from all of the other boats looked cool as they reflected off the water. Nate later suprised the crew, who were sleeping in the middle of the floor of the main dining cabin, by helping himself to some water from the bar that they were guarding.

After some rehydration, it was time to hit the hay, as we were warned that we would have to wake up at 7 AM the next morning to transfer us to another boat that would bring us to Cat Ba Island the next day. All in all, although the weather was a bit rainy and foggy, it was a pretty decent day.

Posted by heidigras 01:08 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi

semi-overcast

We made it out of bed at a decent time and walked down to a local shop where they had some delicious pho (noodle soup). A friendly local guy sitting next to us made some small talk and introduced Nate to some spicy peppers that he could add into his soup (which Nate loved, of course), and even gave us some fried bread to dip into the soup. The pho here is amazing, and when Nate asked about how it was made, the local man noted that this shop has their own secret recipe, which explains why it was so crowded with local people so early in the morning.

We spent a few hours after breakfast looking around for a reputable-looking travel agency to book tickets to Halong Bay. After browsing around a few of them, we quickly realized that all of the agencies have about the same packages, and many even had the same fliers, books, and pictures of the junks that tour the bay. In the end, we settled on what appeared to be a mid-range package, as we were told that there were a whole range of cheap package tours, but they all had crappy service and food. We also booked train tickets through them for our second destination, the hill station of Sapa, in Northwest Vietnam.

We then wandered around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a very small lake in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It was a really nice area; and, like in China, there were many people around the lake doing various kinds of exercises and calistenics. We went to Ngoc Son Temple, a small Buddhist temple, that is nestled amongst some trees on a small island in the center of the lake, but didn't note anything particularly interesting about it, other than a nice view from the small bridge leading to it.

Upon exiting the temple, we ran into a guy selling copied Lonely Planet guide books, and after a quick negotiation, we agreed to buy books for two of our next destinations, Laos and Cambodia. So far it's been much simpler and easy to bargain with people in Vietnam as compared to China. The bargaining process is shorter and more to the point, in contrast to the Chinese people who will spend half an hour arguing over two yuan.

Our next stop was to Hoa Lo Prison, which was first used by the French during the colonial period, and later used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. This is the famous prison where captured pilots, including John McCain, was kept during wartime. We discovered that the prison was closed for lunch, so we opted to go to a nearby cafe where we sat down for some Vietnamese coffee and an omelet. Good stuff. We toured the prison, but found that it really only covered its history during the French colonial period (and the atrocities that occurred there during this time), but skipped over its more recent and perhaps equally controversial history of its use during the Vietnam War. All that was a reminder of this period was a couple of photographs of John McCain taken during his revisiting of the prison in the 90s. I guess we weren't too surprised to see that the Vietnamese tend to skip over history that they aren't so proud of.

Our next stop was to Dong Xuan Market, which was a huge disappointment. We thought it might be a cool food market, but instead it turned out to be like the hundreds of crappy copy markets found in China. Lame. Although we were pleasantly surprised to find that NO ONE HASSLED US as we walked through the market. Wow, that is a cultural difference between Vietnam and China. In general, the touts here are much less persistent, which makes shopping and strolling through markets much more pleasant.

We finally found a cool food market, and browsed through all of the spices, vegetables, meats, flowers, fruits, and you-name-it, while picking up some snacks along the way. Nate bought some fresh spring rolls (for a whopping 1000 dong--five cents!!), which he thought were delicious, especially after dipping them into a slightly spicy fish sauce, which is clearly the most popular condiment here.

It was in the market that we naively stumbled upon the first tourist trap. A seemingly nice Vietnamese lady carrying fruit dropped a fruit carrying pole on Nate's shoulder and plopped her hat on his head, then offered to let us take a picture. After snapping a quick shot, she then demanded that we buy some fruit from her at a ridiculously inflated price. We negotiated a bit, but after some of her friends got involved, we still ended up paying way more than the local price for some pineapple and bananas. Guess we fell for that one.

After exiting the market, we continued to wander until we got lost. We finally ended up in the neighborhood of our hostel, where we bumped into the Swedish and Chilean guys we had met the day before on the bus to Hanoi. We sat down and shared a couple of beers with them and made some conversation before they took off to get their train.

The day ended with more spring rolls, a tuna fish sandwich (for Heidi, of course), salmon cooked with lemongrass for Nate, and of course some more local beer--we've found the beer here to be much, much better than the stuff of China.

Posted by heidigras 00:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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