Published: March 27th 2011February 6th 2011
'Our' stilted accommodation near Mai Chau.
Getting to Hanoi should have been easy. For a while it looked like it wouldn't be. Then it was, thus the first sentence doesn't really make sense. It does sound good though. A solid, punchy first line, don't you think?
We'd heard (and read) about the remote border region near Vieng Xai
and the rampant overcharging of helpless, option-less tourists. To avoid this, we took the soft option of booking a single bus all the way to Hanoi. We rose early in Sam Neua
and hauled ourselves and our stuff up the hill to the bus station (why put a bus station on top of a hill anyway?), only to be told that there was 'no bus today' - it hadn't arrived from Vietnam the day before thanks to the Tet
festival, which marks the Vietnamese new year. Unhappily for us, the festival lasts about 10 days so not only would transport be difficult or expensive, but Hanoi wouldn't be it's usual hectic self either.
We tuk tuk'd across to the other bus station to catch a truck to the border and jumped in with a load of locals for the 3 hour trip. By about 2 hours in
Or does it? Not much happening here.
we were the only ones left other than our new friend - a german traveler with a bizarre South-African accent made all the more exceptional by the fact that he'd never even been there. The back of the truck was cold, the roads bumpy and winding and it was a relief to arrive at the deserted border post. Having found an officer to 'let us in' to Vietnam, we walked into town to find some form of onward transport. Motorbike drivers were asking $20 per person for the trip to the nearest bus station - an hour away. The only truck in town was going the other way so we were left to hire a car for $35 (we maintain that we could have got $30, but our friend wasn't quite as stingy as us and ended negotiations by coughing up the extra dough). The car at least was warm and the drive through padis, hills and villages was pretty nice. We arrived in the town of (something remote) to find a bus headed for Thanh Hoa, which was sort of on our way. It was leaving in an hour so we recharged on noodle soup and beer before resuming
Water-pupeteers strut their stuff in Hanoi.
our journey. Humorously, the bus driver told us to put our bags on the backseat, then tried to charge us for the extra seats we were taking up. When we gestured to the perfectly adequate luggage compartment, he shook his head and pointed to a caged chicken - evidently this space was reserved for livestock. In the end, he agreed to leave our bags on the seats and we agreed not to pay.
We arrived in Thanh Hoa
that night and the bus guys were nice enough to drive us around to find a hotel. This found, we got some local com
(rice, in this case fried) down our necks and hit the sack with the prospect of more travel the following morning. An overcrowded and overheated bus ride got us to Hanoi where we spent quite some time finding lodging. K's bargaining skills came to the fore as we ended up in a swish air-conditioned hotel room with breakfast for $13/night. Down from $25! Sadly, Tet was in full swing and the city was a bit dead, which is understandable given that for many Vietnamese, it's the only real holiday they get - we'd be reaching for the
Resting our backs on the way to Mai Chau.
hammocks too! While milling around in search of some entertainment, we came across the Thanh Long Water Puppet Theatre.
The show was great, in an unrefined sort of way. The musicians were pretty nifty and we especially enjoyed the 'water buffalo fight scene' in which the silly little puppets splash around in mock battle. We'd read some pretty negative reviews of this show - including this example
- but for $2 it's hard to go wrong. We liked it.
We spent a full day following a sort of 'walking tour' of Hanoi's old quarter which was pretty good. Many of the streets are named after the stuff that is traditionally made and sold there, so you get a street full of bamboo ladder shops for example, and another of counterfeit banknote dealers (apparently they are burnt in some religious ceremonies - for some reason people tend not to use real ones) etc. It's pretty cool around there and you can easily spend a big chunk of day just 'being' there.
So we'd seen potential in Hanoi but hadn't fully experienced it's charms. We decided to get out of the city for a few days in the hope
Eerie village scene.
that things would return to normal in the meantime and we'd come back to find the bustling metropolis at it's best.
For some reason, we rented an ancient Russian motorcycle known as the Minsk, or more accurately - the Минск
. This is the 'tourist bike' of Vietnam, though having spent some hours on one we fail to see why! The trendiest examples are those painted all black with a big red star on the fuel tank, or a Che Guevara silhouette or something. Ours had the words Flamingo Travel
emblazoned across it in yellow so was marginally less stylish, but image isn't really the strong point of this machine anyway. The Minsk is buzzy and rattly. The Minsk blows smoke and lacks power. It often refuses to start and after a few hours in the saddle, one begins to wish that it hadn't. Parallels between this motorcycle and the Soviet loss of the space race
aren't hard to come by. Still, ducking and weaving through the Hanoi traffic on this ridiculous vehicle was a hell of an experience and one that we won't soon forget. Once on the open road (well, the Vietnamese equivalent of 'open') things got better
Lest we forget
Long-lost brother watches over our hosts from his perch above the family shrine.
and worse. The scenery was truly wonderful and there was a sense of adventure in the air. At the same time, the tragic lack of horsepower made itself known as we burbled our way up hills in ever-decreasing gears, at ever-decreasing speeds.
After a few hours we reached our destination and according to the sensation in our buttocks this was not a moment too soon. Mai Chau
is nice. Well actually, it's the surrounding villages that are nice, and there are two in particular that have been opened up to tourism as part of a 'grassroots community project' that puts some cash in the hands of the local people. The Thai-style stilted houses are both traditional and functional and we had one all to ourselves, as no other tourists turned up to stay. Our hosts held nothing back in the catering department and we were treated to a magnificent spread of various Asian dishes on which we grazed for some time.
The next day K received a lesson in weaving
from one our hosts. The complex patterns are made on huge, equally complex looms in a skill passed down through the generations and it's impressive to see the
Bowing to Vietnamese hospitality, and trying not to cough.
older women of the village whipping these things together like it's nothing. It's a little bit trickier for beginners but after a few minutes she had the hang of it and even contributed a few stitches to the lady's current object d'art - destined to be sold to another tourist as part of the villages main industry.
we set off around the place - a wide valley carpeted in rice padis and other agriculture, surrounded by green hills and dotted with small villages full of relaxed locals, some of whom invited us into their house for some local rice wine and a pull on their oversized tobacco pipe.
Sitting around in a circle including two old-timers and various younger family and friends, we tried to find a few common phrases and mostly just ended up laughing at our attempts. We were invited to pray at the family shrine adorned with much incense and a grainy old photograph of our host's brother, lost in the American war
, known better in the west under a different name. It turns out that we were sharing a drink with a couple of Viet Cong
veterans - the guys who'd given US troops
Ducking & weaving
Mostly weaving though.
such hell. We wonder what stories these guys could have told had we shared some language!? After a while, the women showed up and seemed to drive the men out of the house. They were all smiles and laughter as they proceeded to pitch us their own locally woven scarves - charlie had sprung us a trap!
We ended up buying one, which was a steal at something like $2. Waving to our new friends we continued on our way around the valley, finding cheery, beery locals wherever we went. Picking our way back across the rice fields as the sun dipped low in the sky, we experienced the glow of a day well spent and capped it off nicely with a cold Tiger beer.
We hustled it back to Hanoi the next day to meet the 11am deadline on the bike, and moved into our new digs - a swish-looking hostel run buy an Australian couple who'd visited Hanoi and liked it enough to set up shop semi-permanently. Throughout our travels we've come across quite a few of these intrepid individuals who are at times quite inspiring. This was our last night in Hanoi and the next evening
The market in Hue.
we were loaded onto a pair of scooters along with our bags - in B's case a guitar as well - and whisked to a random street corner where we waited to be crammed into a minibus, which drove around in circles for a bit before dropping us at the actual coach. Phew. It was an overnight 'sleeper bus' ride (although sleep isn't included in the ticket price) to the city of Hue
, about halfway down the country, just south of the old Demilitarized Zone
, which ironically was one of the most militarized areas in history. We'd heard nice things about Hue and were keen to see it ourselves, or at least for an end to the seemingly endless bus ride...
The end finally came at about 7am after a sleepless night on the road. We disembarked, managed to escape a pushy hotel owner and slung a few expletives in the direction of a persistent tout before being overcharged for a much needed coffee and wandering several blocks to the nearest actual hotel district (ie not the one hotel the bus company wants you to stay in) - a good start to any day!
As it happened, there
K in Hue (that rhymes, actually).
wasn't exactly a lot to 'do' in Hue other than tootle around on a bicycle. This was ok with us - we like to relax. Local markets, low traffic and a pretty low key tourist industry. It's a nice place, and a world away from the hustle of well-dressed Hoi-An
, our next destination.
There are more photos below