We’ve covered a lot of ground since the last post. We left Hanoi and took an overnight train to the Hoang Lien mountains, formerly called the Tolkinese Alps by the French, located in the northwest of the country and bordering China. We stayed in the town of Sapa, a sprawling tourist town with massive building projects.
While in Sapa we did a couple of treks to Black Hmong tribal villages. They are small in stature so Cindy felt right at home, happy to be among people her height or even shorter. These people were primarily rice farmers but now made a living by guiding tours through their villages and touting their beautiful embroidery. They were not very skilled as touts but they were assertive and persistent as hell; so much so, I’d rank them number two behind the Egyptians. You could politely tell them ”no” but you had to tell them often. In the morning there were parades of tourists walking down the street surrounded by several HMoung woman.
There are many Hmong in the USA as they fought alongside the Americans against the communists during the war. I tried to engage in conversations around that but was rebuffed, either because they didn’t know or they didn’t want to talk about it.
Oddly, renting a geared-bicycle was almost twice the cost of renting a motorbike/scooter– $9 vs $5. I rented a bike one day to ride up the mountains to see the “Silver” waterfall. It was a nice waterfall but nothing too spectacular. I savored the ride up the gorge more than the destination.
After 3 days in Sapa we turned around to take the overnight train back to Hanoi where we would pick up our tour to Ha Long Bay, one of the expected highlights of Vietnam. We arranged a tour through our Hanoi hotel’s agent to take a bus to our boat where we would sleep one night, getting picked up in the morning and taken to Cat Ba Island. The (touted) expression goes, “If you haven’t seen Ha Long Bay, you haven’t seen Vietnam”. It was a spectacular scene: karsts rising out of the bay in various shapes and forms.
Of course, with such a reputation, even in low season it’s crowded with tour boats. And when we got to the featured cave, that was as packed with people as we’d seen in China. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like in high season.
Our guide, Too, was quite the mother-hen keeping our crowd moving along with each activity like kayaking and passing along gentle instructions to passengers who took the challenge of jumping off the second floor deck into the bay…don’t stick your arms out, make sure no one’s below when you jump, etc… Despite the overly cautious routine, I liked Too and gave him a guitar lesson. It was fun for me, too, watching his face light up with all the new things he never knew he could do. It should keep him busy for a long time.
Early the next morning we got picked up by a ferry-boat where we ate breakfast while getting transferred to another boat which would take us to Cat Ba Island. Just after we ate breakfast, our Cat Ba-bound boat picked up a few new passengers, two of which were Aussies, Chris and Nat, who were our Sapa to Hanoi train cabin mates! We had a great time chewing the fat with them once again.
The boat passengers were greeted at the dock by a bus which took most of us to the national park for a two-hour hike to the summit of the highest mountain. More fantastic scenery!
We settled into our hotel on Cat Ba Island for a couple of days. I was getting over a bit of a cold which Cindy was just picking up. I rented a motor-bike for a day and explored quite a bit of the island including a former hospital which had been built into a mountain. It was totally empty but quite the facility in its day caring for wounded soldiers who had been transported there by hand or bicycle. After touring it, I stopped in the cafe/restaurant across the street and sat down with a couple of locals and a french tourist for a chat. This was not an unusual occurrence. I found the Vietnamese people really friendly and often inviting to sitting down and talk. Sometimes somewhat difficult as the conversation can be a bit limited due to the language barrier, but always a rewarding human experience and always memorable.
In the afternoon I explored Cat Ba harbor where I helped a local woman with a cargo dolly who then got me to help her unload her charge of 6 50-lb blocks of ice. I got a kick out of it. Good thing I’m still in decent physical shape. Afterwards I took off for the “Cannon Fort” which was a hilltop battery of two large cannons used in the WWII era. Now a museum and park. This was also where the locals came to get their exercise by walking up the mountain, the men typically wearing white “wife-beater” t-shirts.
To get to Nihn Bihn (roughly pron. Ning Bing) we had to take a bus-boat-bus-bus combo. Not much to Nihn Bihn itself but some great sights surround it. They were spread out so once again, we rented a motor-bike; a bit more hairy this time as we had to travel on main roads dodging, weaving and negotiating the chaotic traffic. Like other SE Asian countries I’d been to, there is a propensity to drive (and bicycle) down the street the wrong way increasing the challenge a notch or two.
I needed to gas up and stopped a woman on a side-street for directions. Not only did she lead me to the gas station on her own motorbike, but she paid for my gas! Wow. That was totally unexpected. She didn’t speak but a word or two of english so I tried to show my appreciation as best I could with my Vietnamese thank you, “Cam Oon”!
Perhaps the most awesome scenery and viewpoints was at a place called Tam Coc. As planned, we went late in the day when it would be quiet. We boarded a row-boat rowed by a woman. Most of the rowers have a very interesting technique.
The prices for many things are really cheap. We paid $6.60 for a 1.5 hour ride.
The whole area around Ninh Binh was dominated by dramatic karsts, though, here rise from fresh water. I found them as fascinating and no less spectacular than Ha Long Bay.
The next day, we hiked above the scenes we’d been a day earlier.
And then we left Nihn Bihn for Hue……………
I’m writing this from a totally new perspective. I just got on a sleeper-bus which had three two-decker rows consisting of 6 seats each, though, the seat fully reclines which is a functional bed once fully extended–definitely made for the local (read: shorter) market since I’ve maxed out the unit at 5’10”. A Vietnamese soap is playing on the screen in front and the acting and direction is really bad. I’d heard about these buses and could have taken the (more expensive) train option but wanted to try it. It’s hard to argue with the price– $15 for an approximately 9-hour ride from Ninh Binh to Hue. Maybe I’ll even get a good night sleep.