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March 14th 2009
Published: March 16th 2009
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Cat Ba - Hanoi - Nimh Binh - Hue 8th - 14th March 2009

The last seven days have been quite busy as we haven’t really stayed anywhere yet for more than two days at a time yet. The weather has been far from perfect, but we’ve enjoyed ourselves none the less and we’ve taken in some great sights.

Our second full day on Cat Ba wasn’t exactly what I’d call enthralling, but none the less we spent the day making our way around some other parts of the island we hadn’t yet seen and generally relaxing - taking it easy - enjoying the good things in life. Caroline had some practice riding the motorbike again and she’s getting more confident! Her problem seems to be hills and corners. That kind of rules out a lot of the roads.............. But it’s an improvement!

Having just come from China I must say again it really is such a joy to be eating pleasant food. I haven’t seen any pig’s noses, sheep’s bones, tails, foul smelling molluscs or skinned dogs for a good while now - surely for the best! Vietnamese food doesn’t seem to have a particularly distinct style, in fact in many ways it seems to be a fusion of many different styles and origins, but more importantly it has great variety and tastes good!

Having now been here a little longer I can see why a lot of people complain about the Vietnamese. I get the impression they view western tourists as walking dollar signs somewhat, and I suppose this could take its toll after a while - including on me. For example, if you are a foreigner travelling around China you’ll quickly find a bottle of Chinese beer is 3RMB - you know its 3 RMB and nobody ever tries to charge you different unless you’re in a restaurant or something. In Vietnam the price is as much as you are willing to pay. The other day we stopped in a small village to buy some water and the lady tried to charge us 55,000VND for a litre of water. Put that into context; a litre of petrol costs 10,000VND! I basically told her to get f*><:@d (in more polite words) and offered her 10,000VND. Bear in mind the normal price for this kind of water is 6,000/ 7,000VND but she just laughed at the amount of money like it was an insult and I must be joking. Why did she do that? If a Vietnamese person walked up 2 minutes after me she would have sold it for 6,000VND or less. If she wants less money - more fool her! I’d like to think no foreigner, no matter how stupid would pay so much for a bottle of water (~$3) so is she just racist or does she have some kind of prejudice against foreign people? I don’t care really, we just went to the shop next door and brought it for 10,000VND which the lady was very happy with.

Come the end of that day we’d decided to leave the island for Hanoi, and managed to find a single ticket that would get us from Cat Ba to Hanoi without having to purchase 3 individual ones (i.e. bus - ferry - bus). It probably worked out about 40,000VND more expensive to do it this way, but it was easier, quicker and saved us having to negotiate price 3 times.

On the road to Hanoi it struck me just how industrial Vietnam is. Along the 60km from Haiphong to Hanoi we passed endless factories, each of them displaying a foreign brand, or the fact they we’re a cooperation between a Vietnamese and whatever European or North American business. I can remember reading a book a while back about globalisation where the author argued passionately, using Vietnamese industrialisation and sweatshops as examples, of how globalisation can drive a country out of poverty. I have to admit looking at Vietnam, it looks significantly richer than either Thailand or Cambodia looking from the outside and the wealth here does seem relatively well spread - contrary to what the anti-globalisation mob speaks of.

Arriving in Hanoi we had our first day of sun! The city instantly endeared itself to both Caroline and I, probably because of the picturesque architecture and the fact the city possesses a good vibe about it. It’s chaotic, incredibly noisy and fumy, and the roads run with the roar of inexhaustible numbers of motorbikes. Having said that, it’s a very green city with lots of small parks, lakes and generally tree lined roads. You see people wearing western style suits and people dressed in a more traditional fashion walking along together, people harassing you to take a motorbike taxi or cyclo and people selling bread, fruit, sweets or books on the street. It’s really quite an interesting place to experience and actually a lot more charming than Phnom Penh, Bangkok or any other south Asian city I’ve visited for that matter!

Both Caroline and I were surprised by the sheer volume of tourists in Hanoi. They were out in force the day we arrived - so many it was almost impossible to avoid them on any street. It’s been a long time since either of us have seen so many foreigners together in the same place at the same time. As much as getting back to a western place at some stage in the next year or two will in some ways be relieving, it did remind me of some of the reasons I was happy to leave in the first place; specifically, western people are god damn fat! Living in Asia for more than a year now it’s so rare to see someone truly fat and yet I found myself surrounded by so many fat people again - a 4ft wide ass everywhere I look - not something I miss about back home! Another thing which really surprised us both is just how old many of the people travelling around Vietnam are. By far the majority of people we’ve encountered are middle aged, not including sizeable numbers of the customary middle aged men travelling solo who seem to be everywhere in Asia!

We didn’t do anything in particular in Hanoi except just soak up the vibe of the city and walk around it exploring what it’s like. We managed a trip to the museum of the Vietnamese Revolution; however it’s hardly worth mentioning as not enough of the artefact descriptions were translated into meaningful English. The common themes were obvious though: France is bad. America is bad. Japan is bad. China is sometimes good, sometimes bad. Russia is the redeemer. Ho Chi Minh is god. A fairly impartial museum really?! It did make me realise just how intertwined Chinese and Vietnamese history is though - something I’d never realised before. All over Vietnam there are various temples, all of which are in the Chinese style and have Chinese characters painted all over them. Though nowadays Vietnam writes using a slightly modified Roman alphabet, in the past Vietnamese writing was in Chinese language.

After wondering around Hanoi for a few days, the noise was a touch too reminiscent of China and we decided to leave for Ninh Binh - a small town about 100km south of Hanoi and supposedly surrounded by fantastic countryside. We caught a very slow train which we later discovered local people call ‘the market train’ because so many people travel carrying things to sell at the market and arrived in Ninh Binh two and a half hours later. The town itself is nothing special but it was nice to see how ordinary people live, and actually, they live quite well. This place was evidently somewhat poor but if I had to I could live there. Nice cosy alley ways and cul-de-sacs, leafy streets, a plethora of local cafes and quiet but ultimately, the best part being it had a nice feel about it. Contrast that to China - you couldn’t pay me to live in some of the poor countryside villages there. No trees, every building cold and covered in white tiles, muddy streets, never ending construction works, coal dust in the air - people seem to live a better life in Vietnam for sure.

The first day in Ninh Binh we decided to just explore the town itself and as expected there isn’t really much to say about it except the people seemed friendly, nobody tried to rip us off and nobody hassled us to buy anything. The following day we decided to hire a motorbike and explore the countryside around. It rained all day and although as we finished soaking wet and brown with mud, it was a fantastic day which we both ended with a smile on our faces.

First stop was Tam Coc where we arrived just after breakfast. According to our guide book it was similar to Halong Bay, except inland, not at sea. Given the fact we were only 15km away and the entrance cost was only 60,000VND which included a 2hour boat ride down the river, we decided we might as well visit. Going early was a distinct bonus as there weren’t any other tourists around and we pretty much had the place to ourselves for all two hours. It drizzled with rain the entire journey but this didn’t dampen our spirits as the place was quite simply beautiful in every aspect of the word. Rowed by a lady perhaps 50 years old who mumbled to herself the entire journey but had good character, we passed through the landscape of limestone karsts surrounded by water, flanked by water filled rice paddies and people working them the entire duration. There were no ugly distractions - just beauty and peace. In many ways the rainy weather added to the atmosphere and the mist looked pretty as it passed through the karsts. We had been warned about ‘the hustle’ in which the people who row the boats try and force various pieces of embroidery and things on you for ludicrous prices, but seeing as we had no interest in buying any of these things from the start and made that very clear, she pretty much left us alone. I would have to recommend this place to anyone visiting Vietnam.

After our boat ride we wondered off to a few uninteresting temples in the surrounds and then hit the road again to try and find Truong Yen/ Hoa Lu which we had been warned was notoriously difficult to find from the direction we’d chosen to travel to it from. We must have ridden around for at least two hours trying to find the place and eventually we found it, no thanks to the Vietnamese road signs or lack of! By this stage the weather was dire and we decided to stop for some food to see if the weather would improve. It didn’t so we didn’t even bother visiting the place and instead just rode quickly back to the hostel - the day was almost over anyway and it’d been a good one. The countryside we rode though was striking and had the weather been better we would without a doubt have stayed longer to get a better experience of it, but in the end we decided to leave Ninh Binh that evening on the night bus to Hue, even if it meant the forfeit of paying for a nights’ accommodation we hadn’t used.

We originally planned to travel around north central Vietnam for a while, the area between Ninh Binh and the DMZ (north south divide) - our rationale being that although there’s not much there, it’s the least touristy part of Vietnam and it would give us a better feel for what the country and its people are really like. Ultimately though we decided after living in wintery conditions for the last 3 months in China and with no better luck since crossing the border, the most important thing to us right now is warmth and so we decided to simply bus this entire part of the country out the way and head south to Hue.

Perhaps foolishly we decided to take a seat instead of the bed on the bus to save money (200,000VND seat, 300,000VND bed). Sadly though I forgot where we are. I was imagining buses like the long distance buses I’d caught in Turkey a few years ago, i.e. modern, plush, big and comfortable. We're in Asia. Buses made in Asia are made for Asian people, i.e. they are small - way too small for me anyway. Back home I’m a normal sized guy, but here in Asia I’m bigger than perhaps 95-99% of the people which is a problem for things like buses. The eleven hours across the night was punishment for my stupidity as I couldn't sleep for more than ten minutes at a time before I became so uncomfortable I had to wake up and move again. Lesson learnt!

We arrived in Hue at 8am and were promptly assaulted by a barrage of people jostling us to stay in their hotel. One of the guys seemed nice though so we went with him. The day turned out to be glorious, the first day or really hot sunshine in days. First though, after checking into our hotel, we decided to get some breakfast at a nearby café. The woman who owned the place was certainly a character! She asked us ‘where are you from?’, ‘the UK’ I answer. ‘Oh really, which part?’, ‘near London’ I say. ‘You are a cockney? Diamond geezer, luvvly jubbly, up the apples and pears, get on the blower, bumbaclaart’ comes the reply, along with a load of other contextually meaningless cockney rhyming slang somebody has obviously taught her in the past, and ends it all with an Ali G style finger slapping click. Seemingly some of my countrymen have disgraced themselves - teaching a foreigner this kind of stuff! I did almost fall off my chair with laughter though!

We ordered some breakfast, and five minutes later she asks us ‘so when is the wedding?’, ‘no wedding planned yet’ I reply. ‘Why is that? Are shooting blanks? Got rotten banana? Haha’ she responds showing me her little finger bent over in a suggestive manner. ‘You should drink snake wine, then you have strong banana - happy hour tonight, buy one get one free!’ - this time showing me a clenched fist instead of a little finger. Caroline is almost falling off her chair laughing again. Who teaches people in Vietnam phrases like ‘shooting blanks’!? Whenever I’ve been to very touristy places anywhere in the world, you always meet local people like this involved in tourism - crude and yet amusing because they’ve learnt such a strange version of English and don’t really understand the appropriateness of certain terms and phrases but use them with such candour. Still - a funny lady.

Seeing as the weather was perfect for a change we decided to hire a motorbike and ride to the nearest beach 15km away. Thuan An beach was hardly spectacular, even quite littered and the sea was pretty rough and murky but it’s the first time we’ve been to a beach where it’s warm enough to swim for perhaps more than eight months, so to say it was a high point thus far would be an understatement!

We arrived to find we had acquired a puncture within the last kilometre of getting there and so our first stop was to find someone who looked helpful for some advice. The beach, as described to us has no real infrastructure, only a selection of ramshackle huts which line the beach, each almost identical in appearance and each with an owner who sees any approaching vehicle and runs out arms waving to try an persuade you that their hut is the best place to park you bike, sunbathe and pay them rent to do so. After having a look at all of them, we chose a guy who seemed like he had a friendly face and explained the problem. He arranged for one of his workers to go with me about 1km down the road and have the tire repaired. To be honest I was expecting to be conned, but I knew I had no other real alternative so went along with it. The man had suggested it would cost 10,000VND ($0.60) to get repaired. Actually it cost 20,000VND and I saw the man who went with me put 10,000VND in his pocket for himself, but I don’t really care as I would have given him some money for helping me anyway - probably more than 10,000VND!

That day we both managed to get some serious sunbathing on the go, swim in the sea, sip on some mohitos and generally just enjoy the feeling of sand between our toes. I also managed to finish reading The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria. It’s heavy going, but written by a very thoughtful and incredibly intelligent guy - fascinating if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
Today we have done nothing but sit here in Hue and visit the Citadel where the former emperor of Vietnam lived which was interesting - it’s really just like a miniature Forbidden City, though in my opinion more charming and original that it’s Beijing master even if it’s scale is miniscule by comparison.

Tomorrow, in the light of yet more foreboding weather forecasts, we have decided to travel down to Hoi An about 3 hours further south. Not too sure what there is to do there yet, however I’ll let you know what we get up to. Please god, Christ, almighty prophet Mohammed, good Vishnu, Buddha and questionable Harry Krishna, allow us some better weather!!!

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