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Published: November 12th 2011
We left Sam Neua in Laos on a small local bus that was supposed to take us all the way to the Laos - Vietnam border, although after a couple of minutes I had my doubts that we would ever get there, as we were just running around town in circles for ages 😊.
Apparently the border crossing we chose was supposed to be the most remote and the more we read about it the more complicated it sounded, but Na Meo turned out to be just a normal, albeit a little less visited, border crossing. We shared our bus with a bunch of locals and Christina, a German girl that we visited the caves of Vieng Xai with and an Australian girl, Sam. But as for the tourists go, we were the only “representatives” the whole long way to Thanh Hoa, Vietnam.
After a good 3 hours we arrived to the Laos - Vietnamese border and before we knew it, we were in Vietnam, so much for how difficult it is to cross the border that far up North. Our bus was supposed to take us to a town called Than Hoa, and we were
trying to think of the best option to get ourselves into Hanoi - we soon realised that the night train would be the best and the cheapest option. The bus could drive us straight to Hanoi, but the price they quoted to us were so bogus, that we decided to be cheap and we left the bus, looking for a good deal – train as it turned out was it. We bought the tickets, using the phrase words dictionary in the back of our Lonely Planet and when that didn't work my contemporary art drawing of a train. We had about 4 hours to waste, it was high time to get some food, which is when it became interesting. We found a local eatery and after a lot of language barriers we thought we managed to order fried noodles with eggs. Imagine our surprise when we got 4 hard boiled eggs in front of us, with the chicken foetus (baby chick) still in the egg!!! OMG! So we tried to explain that was not what we had in mind and after yet another 10 minutes managed to order yet another bowl of noodle soup.
We returned to the train
station and were so happy when the train finally arrived - all looking forward to some sleep. When we got on the train we were in for another surprise - the soft seats we were so looking forward to were wooden benches. For the next 5 hours we tried to make ourselves comfortable enough to sleep but apart from dozing off for 5 minutes every now and then we weren't really successful. Being exhausted on a packed train, unable to sleep was bad enough, but there was this local woman sitting near us, who vomited throughout the whole journey to Hanoi. Bless.
We arrived to Hanoi at 5am and to avoid any hostels of charging us for that night, we crashed at the train station - 2 blissful hours of sleep after almost 24 hours since the start of this odysseys. At about 7am we were all ready for bed arriving to Hanoi Backpackers, where they would not let us into the dorm room until 9am. Arrrgh, no sleep again, really? Well at least we got free breakfast and really fast wi-fi, which almost made Jan forget he hasn't slept for a ages.
First impressions of Vietnam? Hmmm,
these might come in a strange order, but let's give it a go: the traffic is crazy, chaotic, working in a “survival of the fittest” kind of logic - needles to say as a pedestrian you are bottom of the food chain and crossing the street is either do or die 😊 I have also never seen so many motorbikes in one place in my life, I am telling you, it's crazy, and I swear the first thing they teach them and apparently about the only thing they even remember about traffic safety is how to use the darn horn! Everyone honks all the darn time, as if their lives depend on it, which now I think of it, they probably do. As I mentioned pedestrians are bottom of the food chain. So much so, that despite the fact that all the streets have pavements, they are used as parking lots for motorbike, as you are forced to pretty much walk in the middle of the trafficky road. The best part about it, when the motorbikes drive on the pavement to avoid the traffic jams and get to their final destination faster forcing you to step on the grass, YOU
are the one being yelled at, as “what is wrong with you, stepping on the grass???”. 😊 Erm, what else...Oh, all the eateries have the cutest and tiniest chairs and tables for you to sit at. Like it is not enough that compared to the Vietnamese you already feel like a giant, this is like a final nail into the coffin. Erm, oh, something positive: they are extremely nice, I swear, it is unbelievable, and the women are quite beautiful.
Also, everyone was “warning” us that the Vietnamese, when it comes to tourists, can be quite annoying and aggressive, but so far, all the local people we have encountered are so nice and so kind, it is unbelievable. Enough?
The first day in Hanoi we went strolling round a bit, I could not fall asleep, no matter how I tried,(while Jan had no such troubles, once he finally turned off the netbook) but we were in bed by 9pm that day 😊. The next day we decided to do some sort of a walking tour around town, including visiting Lenin Park (with a gigantic statue of, you guessed it, Lenin) and the Army museum, which is hard to miss
with all the weaponry outside in the courtyard. It displays Soviet, Chinese, US and French army equipment, escorted by two exhibitions on the war with the French and the Americans. It is a great thing to see if you are a weaponry freak (you can even go into the exhibited helicopters to see what they looked like from within), but for me it was just OK. I preferred the museum Jan and I visited the next day, the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which was built by the French in the late 19th century. The exhibition focuses on the life within the prison and the torture endured by the Vietnamese prisoners. Later the prison was used by the Vietnamese to imprison US soldiers (this is where you can see the difference as how the prison is represented - when under the French it was the closest thing to hell, but when under the Vietnamese, it was almost as being home with your family). I would highly recommend a short stop at the museum.
After that Jan and I went strolling round Hanoi again, getting lost in the labyrinth of streets in the old part of town, enjoying some good Vietnamese
food (which BTW is yummy) and then we were off to a night bus taking us to Ninh Binh.
Usually the first destinations people go to when coming to Hanoi are Sapa (known for its rice terraces) and/or Halong bay (known for its limestone peaks and karst system), but we decided to skip the two. Having seen the amazing rice terraces in Philippines
and hearing that Halong bay is super touristy, we went to Ning Binh - a miniature version of Halong bay, and it turned out it was a good choice.
Oh, so I don't forget -' the best, or at least the easiest and cheapest, way to travel around Vietnam is to buy a ticket for the “open bus”, which is pretty much a “hop on, hop off” kind of a bus. You decide on the destinations you want to go to, buy the ticket for all of the locations in advance and then literally hop on and off the bus as and when you please. Also these buses are really cosy if you are taking an overnight trip, as instead of seats they have 3 rows of bunk beads on the bus, that allow you to stretch and sleep
Polona supporting the troops
She even wore her camouflage colors for this special occasion
throughout the whole duration of your journey. Loads and loads of locals use these buses as well, so it is not just another thing invented to get money from the tourists.
The easiest way to explore Ninh Binh is to rent motorbike, which is what we did. We visited Tam Coc, known for its karst system and limestone peaks. Arriving there we were shocked by the number of people there, but we said “Ah, what the heck” and joined the hordes of tourists. You need to hire a boat (max. for 2 people), which is usually paddled by local ladies. They actually developed a special system for rowing: they paddle with their feet, which is quite interesting to see. The boat ride takes about 2 hours, leading you down the river, passing numerous limestone peaks, passing through 3 caves along the way. The views are amazing and you soon forget you are surrounded with other boats.
After Tam Coc, we headed to another location close to Ninh Binh, Hoa Lu. We had a bit of difficulties finding it and after giving up and deciding that leaving the town behind us and driving down the road surrounded by rice
paddies was good enough, we got to Hoa Lu. Hoa Lu used to be the capital of Vietnam in late 10th century. Most of the citadel has been destroyed, but the remnants speak of a wealthy culture and the architecture of the 2 bridges and pagoda is quite beautiful. Jan and I were also thinking of going to the wild life preservation park, Cuc Phuong National Park, but getting there ended up being a bit of a hassle, so it was time to move on. Budget tip:
: As so many other travellers we stayed at Hanoi's Backpackers Hostel. If you are travelling alone it might be the best option but maybe not so if travelling in company. The dorm beds cost 6$, while rooms are really expensive (above 20$). It is not hard to get a room for 10$ or so. If you do decide to stay there anyway it is worth going around a bit before buying a bus ticket, booking a tour. We quickly learned that the prices of transportation and tours are also quite high here. But not to make it sound all bad: the place is clean, the internet is really fast and the staff
is very friendly and helpful. Ohh, and there is free cofee and breakfast 😊. Note
: our Dedicated to Flynn the dread-lock
post has been updated with a link to the video (thank you Flynn for the upload and the link) of Annie eating a cockroach. Yuk!
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