Back in Hanoi for our last day in Vietnam, it was time to make the most of Vietnam’s delicious food. Brendan and I decided to try a street-side place that looked popular with the locals. We found a couple of spare plastic stools and as we squatted to sit the owner, a chubby older woman with greying hair and an efficient but not unfriendly look on her face, caught my eye and held up two fingers. I gave her a nod. I had just ordered two of something. Minutes later two bowls of steaming chicken noodle soup (pho) had arrived. Next, another bowl was offered and with a second nod we had a selection of fresh herbs to season our soup with. Any bones or used serviettes were simply dropped on the ground to be swept up later. At 30000 dong ($1.50) a bowl, it was a cheap but delicious lunch. I’ve just got to learn how to eat sitting so low without dropping noodles on my knees!
With muscles stiff from yesterdays riding it was time to do some stretches and get back on our bikes for day two of our Sapa ride. After the mostly downhill ride of yesterday, I was looking forward to more of the same. A rude shock awaited – today’s ride was to be mostly on unsurfaced rocky roads with a lot of uphills involved. Heavy rain during the night had also turned the road into something of a slip and slide with muddy quagmires fit for pigs, but impossible to ride through.
By the end of the day I was bruised, battered, exhausted and covered in mud. Again though, the spectacular scenery saved the day. Throughout the whole day’s cycling we didn’t see another tourist and the smiles and nods of encouragement of the locals spurred me on through their villages.
The overnight train from Hanoi pulled in to Lao Cai about three hours late this morning, after some engine trouble last night. After a hearty but greasy breakfast of bacon and eggs we set off on the mountain bikes that would be our transport for the next two days. At first, riding down the steep, winding roads with motorbikes zooming by and large patches of slippery buffalo dung to contend with was quite scary, but regular stops to take in the spectacular views helped. Terraced rice fields glittered in the morning light before being obscured by fast moving mist that left me time and again simply staring at white.
Off the main road, the path got rocky and very slippery. I had to get off and walk a few times or I wouldn’t have remained upright. A rest stop gave a chance to visit a Black Hmong family who make their living by growing indigo and using the dye to colour fabric.
Mist closed in after midday. Just as I’d really got into the swing of things with the riding enough to take in the view more, there wasn’t any to see. Still, it was very atmospheric and the kids we passed on the road made me giggle with their “hellogoodbye”s, pouring both words out in one breath as if they were one. It made me think of the Beatles song ‘Hello Goodbye’, which I now have stuck in my head.
Tonight we are staying with a Tay family in the village of Ban Ho. Their house is built on stilts and the wooden rooms are spacious with a lovely balcony running around two sides. As I write, the family is going about their daily chores. “Mum” is sorting corn. “Dad”, who is a skilled carpenter, is building a new table, and various other family members are preparing dinner in the kitchen downstairs. The smells wafting up are making my stomach grumble.
I woke with fingers crossed, hoping to finally have the blue skies that would transform the bay from mere beauty to magic. While there is now a glimpse of sun and a pale patch of blue, it seems that the clouds will continue to win the war. With flat, horrible light totally unconducive to photography, I instead spent the morning lazing on the deck of our junk, napping, and listening to the cheeky teasing and joking of our guide Ha as the rocky islands drifted by.
After the trip ended, Ha invited us out for drinks with her friends back in Hanoi. After meeting up at 9pm we found a street corner eatery with a few spare plastic stools. Squatted down on the low stools, we enjoyed a glass of “bia hoi”, a fresh, light-tasting beer made without any preservatives. At only 5000 dong (25 cents) a glass, it’s the best value drink in town. Then, time to hit the club. At the Dragonfly Bar lots of young hip Vietnamese types jammed themselves into a small room to dance to the pounding beats. The was very little space to actually dance and as people entered or left the room, those around them were sucked along in the same direction. We lost Ha in the crowd a few times as she is so short, but she feistily fought her way back to find us each time. With no age limits in bars in Vietnam, I also spotted a few very young looking Westerners enjoying the chance for a night out on town…or maybe I’m just getting to old…I’m certainly past my clubbing prime.
On a morning walk around the island we stopped in at a primary school. The kids were keen to practise their English, with all the usual questions being asked. Unfortunately they weren’t so good at understanding the answers. They thought that I was from the U.S. until the matter was cleared up with a bit of kangaroo mime which seems to be understood the world over.
After lunch we said goodbye to Bai Tu Long Bay and hello to Halong Bay. We stopped at an atmospheric floating village set amongst dramatic limestone islands. As we floated through on a small row boat the houses rocked gently on their pontoons. We rowed into the mouths of caves and came out into lakes surrounded on all sides by high rock walls that made for peaceful secret worlds of green water and gentle echoes – shattered by the ringing of our rower’s phone.
After anchoring for the night, we did our own bit of silence shattering with an onboard karaoke session. A mix of English, French and Vietnamese songs blasted out into the night.
Bai Tu Long Bay is to the north of Halong Bay. It isn’t as well known as its southerly cousin, though shares similar rock formations that on our visit were grey and gloomy to match the weather.
After motoring through the bay for a few hours, the boats engines dulled to a quiet hum as we passed between two of the islands rising in irregular formations from the water. The shallow water was a beautiful deep green and a choir of birdsong could be heard from the trees, certainly a change from the cacophony of horns in Hanoi.
On arrival at Cai Rong Island we jumped on mountain bikes and rode the 15kms to Mr Sau’s house, our stop for the night. The ride was lovely, taking us along roads draped in the perfume of jasmine that grew wild alongside. Children called out shy hellos as we passed and village dogs raised their heads from dozing to make sure nothing was amiss.
At dinner we all mucked in to chop up veggies and roll our own spring rolls under the close guidance of Mrs Sau. The introduction of “happy water” (home brew rice wine) helped us wash it all down and got the conversation flowing. It probably would have flowed late into the night, but with the generator konking out early, there was nothing to do but sleep in the pitch black that was left.
First on the agenda today was to get myself a hat. With more than two months ahead in South East Asia’s hot sun it was an essential item that I hadn’t the chance to buy in my busy last weeks in Japan. Time to stretch those long unused, out-of-practise bargaining muscles.
Hat bought – check. Bargain had – well, I saved a few dong, but hardly a bargain. Still, happy with my purchase, complete with phoney brand labels, Brendan and I decided to treat ourselves to a snack of deep fried doughnut type treats. The lovely lady selling them let us pose for a few photos in her hat before well and truly ripping us off, charging us about five times the normal price. I think it’s going to take me a few days to get back in the swing of things with the whole bargaining concept. I’m out of practise since I left China.
At dinner, a Vietnamese man approached and asked for help with the spelling of a text he was writing. Upon hearing he had two Australians in his midst he broke into a rendition of Dorothea McKellar’s most famous of poems, ‘My Australia”. It was so strange to hear, “I love a sunburnt country…” in such a foreign setting, but also quite heart warming.
Hanoi airport gave a quick introduction to Vietnam’s laidback approach to life…and bureaucracy. With visa pre-approval arranged during the planning stages of this trip, I had thought, well hoped, that the airport process would be quick. The visa office was packed full of visa officials – two were napping, one playing with his new mobile phone, while another wandered in and out occasionally to chat. Only one out of them all was actually working. He was probably the new guy. Eventually the group of frustrated foreigners that had been stirring helplessly for over an hour slowly began to dwindle and I was granted permission to enter Vietnam.
After settling into the hotel and taking a much needed nap, we gave Ethnic Travel a call to arrange our boat trip up to Bai Tu Long Bay. An agent was sent to the hotel to lead us through Hanoi’s maze of streets back to their office to finalise arrangements. Brendan and I followed hot on her high-heeled shoes as she darted up side-streets, dodged speeding scooters, and stepped confidently into the path of oncoming traffic. We arrived unscathed, though I wandered if we would survive the return journey without a local by our side.
By the time our plans had been sorted and dinner eaten, the initially disconcerting roars and beeps of Hanoi’s traffic had seemed to settle into some sort of comprehensible rhythm, though the beats we by no means slow.