Warning: mahoosive blog entry ahead. Make yourselves comfortable
Sailing. Exploring caves. Kayaking. Swimming in the sea. Feasting on awesome seafood. Cycling. Jungle hiking. Monkeys. Sweating. Moped riding. Mountain trekking. Falling over in mud. Buying things. Drinking rice wine. To say the past six days have been busy would be an understatement!
I’ve just done all of the above, plus more, during two different tours completed back-to-back. One in Halong bay, and one further north in the mountainous region of Sapa. I’ve seen some amazing sights, met some great people, and made some memories I’m sure to never forget.
There is a part of me that always sees sense in the plan to rest up well and get an early night before setting out early in the morning for a big adventure. However, there’s a bigger part of me that always finds a way to get trashed the evening before, paving the way for a hangover fuelled trip instead!
And so my Halong experience began when I was bundled into the back of a very cramped minibus, my head slightly pounding from the previous nights drinking session with newly met fellow Brits Dave and Anton. The ride to Halong city was to take a little over three hours, and during the ride our tour guide Nam gave us a little background info on Hanoi, the country of Vietnam itself, and the itinerary for the next three days – including such gems as “We go Monkey island. Maybe see monkey! Maybe not!”
After a couple of hours driving we pulled into a service-station for a break, and I was a little surprised to see Dave and Anton already stood outside. I shouldn’t have been really – by the end of the three days I’d bumped into them almost as many times as the people on my own boat!
We arrived not too long after in Halong city, which was a hive of noise and tourist activity. I was glad to get away on a boat and make way for our larger boat moored further out, which we would be spending the night on, and after our driver rammed into the boat next door twice, he managed to navigate us away from the pier and out into open waters.
Our transport-boat arrived with a further crash at our main boat, and we gracefully made our way on-board by the elaborate method of having to climb over the side wall and jump in. Which although wasn’t a problem for lanky me, it did make for an amusing sight when some of the shorter passengers gave it a go!
We just had time to throw our luggage in our rooms before lunch was served, during which the boat began sailing into the incredible sights that Halong bay had in store for us. I spent most of the ride sat on the top deck mesmorised by my surroundings. It was certainly worth the early start and the cramped minibus.
I hoped we’d sail past Ba Hang at some point – the floating fishing village made famous in Top Gear’s Vietnam special. However, it was after no time at all that I realised that it was nothing special like the programme made it out to be. I must have passed hundreds of similar constructions in my short trip alone. Fisherman’s camps are scattered all over Halong bay, from single huts, right up to enormous mini towns, and although seeing lots of them took nothing away from their appeal and interest, it did subtract a little from the mystique that Top Gear gave that one place.
After an hour or two of easy sailing we arrived at our first port-of-call: an enormous cave complex situated within one of the islands.
The first area Nam took us into was interesting, but small and cramped and not particularly mind-blowing. The caves got bigger as we went along though, and the final chamber was enormous and would impress just about anybody.
What struck me most about this chamber was the way it managed to mess with my sense of size and distance. The walls, floor and ceiling looked so alien, and so oddly scaled, that without having people in the distance as a reference point it was quite hard at times to judge the distance of things.
After exploring the caves we went back to our boat, for a quick sail to a nearby kayaking centre. Our skillful driver ploughed the boat painfully into the side of the dock, nearly throwing us all into the water, before waiting for us all to leave and driving the boat off again – managing in the process to hook onto a set of steps and drag them away from the dock with him. It took three people to remove them and put them back in place.
We were given just one hour to row around the area in our kayaks, which was fun but I wish we could have stayed longer. We rowed our way over to a fishing village nearby and just drifted past the huts, silently. Everything was so relaxed and peaceful, and although I’m sure their simple and somewhat primitive life would be alien to me, I couldn’t help but envy their tranquil life and surroundings just a little.
From there our skilful driver took us back to the main boat, where swimming in the sea commenced. Jumping off the side of the boat and floating around it was fun, but the water was absolutely filthy – a sign of too many boats moored in too small an area. A direct consequence of tourism in the area of course, and so it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to pass comment on the matter, but an observation none the less.
After another fine meal that evening we were invited to try our hand at Squid fishing – a pretty simple method using just a rod, line and hook, no bait or suchlike. The crew showed us their skills, and the respective collection of squid in a bucket caught that evening, but after 30 minutes or so of trying the only thing I managed to catch with my hook was the rope attached to the anchor, so I gave up and went back to admiring the view from the top deck.
The next morning we woke early, and after breakfast made our way to Cat Ba national park, where the plan was to cycle to a village deeper in the jungle. I was looking forward to having a go on a nice, sporty mountain bike, and so when my girly-framed, shopping-basket equipped beast of a cycle arrived I could only laugh.
The ride was great fun but hard work – even a seasoned cyclist (which I’m absolutely not) would have found it hard going in the immense heat. We arrived at the village drenched in sweat. The locals must have thought we were complete idiots: cycling, for fun, in the mad midday sun, to their remote settlement.
We stopped for some much needed liquid refreshment before Nam took us for a short trek through the nearby jungle. We passed a few spiderwebs containing some of the most repulsive, evil, yet strangely alluring arachnids I’ve ever seen. I admired from a distance but opted against getting close enough to take photos!
Further down the road one of the girls in our group stopped with a fright and pointed to something moving in the distance. It was long, thin, and stood bolt upright moving around – we were convinced it was a Cobra. We called Nam back to ask him what it was and he wandered off fearlessly to take a look. After a few minutes he shouted back that it wasn’t a snake, but a goat, and asked me to go help him. Not sure what to expect, I went over too.
Sure enough, there was a goat lying on its back amongst the trees – what we thought was a snake was actually one of the goats legs kicking around in the air. Somehow the poor wretched creature had taken a fall and in the process had wedged one of its legs, which was no doubt broken by now, up high between two branches. I helped Nam push the two branches apart and free the goats trapped hoof and it rolled over onto its side, obviously in some pain. There was little more we could do at the point but Nam went and told the villagers soon after. I’ve no doubt that they were more likely to kill the suffering creature and have it for dinner, rather than splint its leg and nurse it back to health, but such is the circle of life, I guess.
We moved on through the jungle, fortunately seeing no more “snakes” on the way but passing a few more unpleasant spiders. Nam took us up a rocky walkway to the entrance of a cave. The air was lovely and cool in the opening, but there was a strong ammoniac smell. “Bats”, Nam explained. The plan was to walk through the cave and out the other side. A few people in our group were completely against the idea, however, put off by the random squeaking and the outline of creatures darting through the air in the dark corners, so after a few photos we made our way back to the village, jumping past a tarantula on the pathway and being only too glad that it wasn’t the tarantula jumping on to us…
From the village we stopped for another quick rest before cycling back to our starting point and boarding our boat again. There, we had lunch – more fantastic seafood, and I made the tactical decision to sit at the same table as two Danish girls who didn’t like seafood. Meaning more fantastic seafood for me!
After lunch we sailed to nearby monkey island. We were told that “King monkey” normally sits at the top of a steep climb on the mountain itself. Given that there was no definite chance he would grant us an audience, given that I’d already seen monkeys in Thailand, and given that I was still a hot, exhausted wreck from the cycling, I opted for staying on the beach and swimming instead. As did most of us!
Finally that day we sailed to Cat Ba resort where we were to spend the night. My hotel was ridiculously nice, far too nice in fact, as I only had a few hours there and so couldn’t really enjoy the 2 swimming pools, fantastic beach-side location, massive games room, extensive spa, or pirate-themed bar.
I took a stroll around town that evening and bumped into Anton and Dave again – not a surprise at all by that time as I’d been seeing them repeatedly during the previous two days. After a few games of pool we went to a nearby bar, where they shared their idea to go trekking in Sapa after Halong bay, and said I was welcome to join them. A plan was made!
The next day I was picked up early from my hotel. We had a final meal on the boat before sailing back to Halong city, crashing into the dock once more for luck, and boarding the van for a cramped ride back to Hanoi.
I loved every minute of my Halong bay tour and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anybody thinking of going. Sure, the boat was a little cramped, the bar prices ridiculous, the water somewhat unpleasant to swim in (one girl even proclaimed disgustedly that she saw a ‘real’ poo floating around), and the pre-arranged tour process a bit limiting, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’ll confess to being a little saddened, however, by how tourism is affecting the area. A lot of the problem regarding waste and pollution could easily be controlled if visitors were just a little bit more thoughtful – is it really that hard to put an empty water bottle or cigarette packet in a bin, rather than tossing it in the sea? The rest of the problem really comes down to the authorities and tour companies – keeping the area clean and untainted is largely affected by how they run their operations, and I just hope they don’t completely forsake the preservation of the area in exchange for higher profits and lower running costs. Still, I’m sure the conflict between preserving an areas natural beauty, and allowing outsiders to travel to the area and actually admire that beauty, is one I’ll encounter many more times during my stay here.
I arrived back at Gecko Hotel, my adopted base in Hanoi, at around 4:30pm. I was there just a few hours before setting off to the train station to catch a 21:10 soft sleeper to Sapa. Enough time to shower, repack, meet up with Dave and Anton, eat some tasty duck at my favourite local restaurant on Ma May street, and grab a few beers at the local Bia Hoi! Whilst in the restaurant we got talking to an older couple from Australia whom we were to later meet again in Sapa – for a large country it’s surprising how often you see the same people as you travel around.
We arrived at the train station at around 8pm and made our way to our carriage. It was surprisingly comfortable, with air-con, decent mattresses, a TV, complimentary water, and a large assortment of switches and buttons on the wall. Being inquisitive fellows we pressed them all, including one which had a picture of a bell on it – we pressed that one a lot as it didn’t seem to do anything. A minute later a flustered Vietnamese lady appeared in the doorway asking somewhat irritated if we wanted cold beer. We replied with a “no” and a frown at her strange attitude, upon which she scowled at us even more and marched off. It wasn’t until later that we put 2 and 2 together and realised the bell button that we’d been repeatedly pressing was the one that you pressed when you wanted cold beer, hence the look of utter contempt on her face when she turned up and we turned her away again. My, how we chuckled!
Despite the odd inevitable rattling you’d expect from a train journey, we all slept pretty well, and upon 5am were rudely awakened by thunderous banging on the door by the train staff, accompanied by terrible screeching Vietnamese music on the PA. We shook ourselves awake and made our way outside, where we found a guy offering minibus seats to Sapa for 30,000 VND – about 1 GBP. We followed, and were crammed into a Transit van like sardines. It was going to be a painful ride but thankfully a short one. At least it would have been if the driver didn’t keep stopping on the way – collecting money from a friend, putting 50 pence worth of fuel in the tank at a petrol garage, stopping at another random house and going in, perhaps for a cup of tea with his mother…eventually we got to Sapa after some fantastic, but misty, views through the mountains.
We were accosted by the locals as soon as we arrived, offering to sell us hotel rooms, Tiger beer, and village gifts, amongst other things, but after shaking them off for a minute or two we got ourselves a coffee and a bowl of noodle soup and checked our guidebooks for a decent hotel that wouldn’t rip us off. We finished our soup and coffee and made our way to our chosen place to stay soon after, the whole time being followed by unbelievably pushy, but good natured girls from the village selling bags and other locally made souvenirs. We were to see a lot of them during our stay there!
After checking into our hotel, eating some great French-style bakery food, and buying some bits we’d need for the next days trek, we decided to hire some mopeds plus riders and take a little tour of the surrounding area.
It was great to get away from the town and the busyness of the area for a while and experience the roads from the back of a bike – no cramped minibuses!
We took in some great views along the road, and after cruising for a while we stopped off to take a couple of mini-hikes past some amazing waterfalls.
We headed back for a rest at the hotel before dinner that evening, knowing that renting the bikes out, as well as going to Sapa in general, were both definitely great ideas!
Later on we set out to find a local bar with a pool table, and found one within about 30 seconds of looking. We were accosted by the “Youbuysomething” locals as soon as we left the hotel but they trailed off when we entered the bar. After a few minutes however, two of them followed us in and started talking to us again, although to their credit they spent the evening just chatting, being friendly and playing pool with us, which was interesting given that the electricity in the town kept cutting out during the evening!
The two girls introduced themselves as Mai and Cho (probable spelling error there!) and we were shocked at their age – they only looked about 10 or 11 but were actually 13 and 15, if I remember right… Either way, their English was staggeringly good, and our slang, pronunciation slurs and alcohol-enhanced speech didn’t seem to affect their understanding of us at all.
We left the bar at around 10:30 and ate the quickest meal ever consumed in an Italian restaurant before going back to the hotel and preparing for an early start.
In the morning we had breakfast and got ready to start our 2-day trek. Being completely unprepared and travelling with sandals as my only footwear, I was loaned a pair of wellingtons by the hotel. I have to confess to feeling and looking like an utter idiot in big, clumsy, rubber boots, especially when everybody else seemed to come prepared in actual proper hiking boots or trainers. I was only too glad it was a functional outfit and not part of a fashion parade
We were introduced to Dze, our trekking guide for the next two days. Again, she looked no older than 17 or 18 but was 25 and already had three children.
As soon as we left the hotel three village women started walking behind us – they follow you all the way to the first stop on your trek in order for you to buy something from them. It was a little frustrating to be followed all that way purely as part of a sales pitch but I have to admire them for the tough life they live. It can’t be any fun making a two-hour trek in the hope that the person you’re following will buy a £3 head-dress or cushion-cover at the end of it. They’re also pretty helpful at times – the lady following me was there the whole time making sure I knew the right path to take so I wouldn’t fall flat on my arse, which almost happened many times. I was completely shown up by her trekking ability – there was me, cackhandedly thumping through the mud whilst she gracefully hopped from spot to spot, in sandals, with a baby strapped to her back looking on with complete disinterest! The baby had hiccups for most of the trek, the sound of which only made the whole experience even more surreal…
We started off by walking through some farmland just next to the town but it was before we even got to the end of here that the going got pretty tough. The road was steep, and ridiculously slippery at times. We passed a little girl stood next to a tree, holding a big bamboo stick. Dze, our guide, told me that the girl wanted to sell me her stick for 5000VND – the equivalent of around 15p. I was only too happy to support her business enterprise and get myself a much needed trekking aid in the process!
Soon after we left the local farming fields the air filled with a very distinctive aroma. Dze pointed down to a field of hemp, explaining how the villagers grew the plants here and used them to make a lot of their clothes and other goods to sell to travellers. She assured us that they didn’t use it for any “other” purposes and furthermore, that the police weren’t in the least bit interested about the free growing of the stuff.
Thankfully soon after the road became much easier to climb and navigate, and although still wet and a bit slippery, I was able to continue with little fear of flying down a mountain side. As we were walking Dze told us how the children in the villages all get to go to school nowadays, but that when she was growing up there weren’t any yet, and so she’d never learned to read or write. She also explained how there had only been electricity in her village for around a year, and that since before that time there was no means for her to have a phone, she used to walk down to our hotel every single morning, just to see whether or not they needed her that day!
We took in some fantastic views of the mountains and valleys before stopping off for some much needed lunch at the first of three villages we were to pass that day.
We all appeased our followers by buying something from their selection of goods here, and they happily took our money and left, no doubt to repeat the whole process again the next day. A tough life!
That afternoon we took in two more villages before reaching our homestay up in the mountains. I didn’t take many photos of the villages themselves out of respect for the people who lived there, it didn’t seem right to invade their privacy any more than we’d already done by walking through.
It was around 4:30pm when we reached our homestay for the night, having walked around 15km that day. By this point we were all covered in mud and pretty exhausted, so a rest and a few beers went down particularly well! We met a German couple and a Swiss lady travelling solo who were staying with us that night, and we all enjoyed a delicious, freshly prepared dinner made for us by Dze and the other trekking-guide also staying there. Later on some of the village children wandered over and starting running around us and playing. They were all completely fearless – one of the boys came climbing all over us, jumping from person to person and trying to put things in our beers, cheekily posing for photos the whole time. A little girl was swinging excitedly from a hammock strung up dangerously close to a stone table, which we had to move out of fear of the girl cracking her head open. She still managed to almost kick a dog flying into the air who was wandering around completely oblivious and unfazed by what was going on around it.
We finished off the evening with a few games of cards, Dze joining us and telling us the loser of each round had to take a shot of rice wine, which she probably later regretted as she ended up losing more hands than anybody else!
We set out after breakfast the next morning, Dze looking a little worse for wear after the night before but assuring us she felt fine. As soon as we left the homestay we found ourselves being followed again by another group of village women keen to sell us stuff.
The first part of the trek on this day was ridiculously tough. The road was steep, the consistent rain had made everything dangerously slippery, and at points there were virtually no places to get a decent footing in as we made our way on. I was put utterly to shame by my follower, a frail looking old lady no more than 4 feet tall, who hopped from spot to spot like a mountain goat as I retardedly stumbled and splattered through the unforgiving terrain. Some of the drops next to the road were eye-popping, and all I could do was focus on the road rather than give any thought as to how far down I’d land if I fell. My new friend stayed next to me the whole time, and I lose count of the number of times she stubbornly grabbed my arm and pulled me up the mountainside. There were moments when I was all too glad of the help but I can honestly say I’ve never felt so unmanly in all my life!
After stopping for lunch that day, and gratefully buying gifts from our followers before they went their own way, we decided to change from the ‘hard’ route we’d been taking so far, to the ‘easy’ one. Dze advised us that it wouldn’t be any fun taking the route we were on, and things would only get much harder. So we headed on, taking an actual paved walkway before reaching the main road, and following the route the cars and bikes also took to the next town.
We stopped in that town for one more, Dze-prepared delicious meal before climbing into a much appreciated 4×4 for a lift back to our original hotel, a good 25km of trekking distance behind us. From there we said a fond farewell to our guide, who despite taking people on treks all the time, seemed genuinely sad to be parting ways with us.
The hotel let us use one of the rooms for free, so we were able to shower off the masses of mud the trek had caked us in, and change into slightly cleaner clothes for the train back that night.
I think we were all sad to be leaving Sapa that day. It really is a fantastic place. Being an old French colony (the French first moved here to escape the sweltering heat of lowland Vietnam) there was a massive French influence on the architecture, and the food. There was a great bakery next to our hotel with some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted (and one of the ugliest dogs I’ve ever soon too!), and we went there for a final meal before making our way on another hideous minibus to the train station. This time our driver didn’t pause for tea with his mother, but did make three or four random stops in the town, park up for a chinwag with a guy in a motorbike workshop, and pull over randomly for about 5 minutes in order to have a staring-contest with somebody across the road…
I’m now back in Hanoi writing this and planning my next move. I’ve had some great experiences and have been in excellent company thanks to Dave and Anton, who left for England last night. If the past six days are anything to go by, the next six weeks or so are going to be better than I could have possibly imagined when I first set out.