We made a mistake when we decided to fly back to Hanoi a day before the eve of the Chinese New Year, Tet. We were told that a lot of things would be closed but most tourist related businesses and museums etc. would remain open and in truth, we couldn’t find a flight at any other time. When we arrived at our hotel, it turned out that everywhere closes over Tet – and by Tet, they mean Tet plus between 4 and 10 more days! None of this ‘one day of hangover and then back to work’ for the Vietnamese. Oh no. We just about managed to find a restaurant that was open but the place was clearly winding down.
Next morning, after a consultation session from our helpful hotel owner, Mrs. Moon, we came to the conclusion that being in Hanoi over the Tet period would have been pointless and boring and, with the weather grey and cold for the first time in the 10 weeks we’d been travelling, we decided to get a train up north to Sapa that evening.
We spent the day wandering aimlessly around a rapidly emptying town, trying to find things other than alcohol to occupy us, then grabbed some dinner and headed for the railway station. It meant we’d miss the apparently impressive fireworks at midnight but there was literally nothing else going on – Tet is a time for people to go home and visit their families for a while and ours are more than a short bus ride away, sadly.
The ride to Sapa is around 10 hours on an overnight train. The accommodation consists of sleeper cabins with four beds in each – we had the top and bottom bunk on one side and an English guy who lives in China took one of the others. We managed to frighten off the local guy who’d booked the final bed by chatting for hours in our cabin with Dan and the Australian couple we’d met on the platform.
At 5am the train rolled into Lao Cai, near the Chinese border where a minibus was waiting to take us up the mountain to Sapa, at 1500m. Within a mile or so, we were in the clouds and the bus climbed continually up for more than an hour, flinging around corners into the thick clouds making for an interesting and frightening trip. Arriving at our hotel around 6am, our room was ready for us, thankfully, and we slumped into bed til 10.
Sapa is a beautiful part of the world. Set high in the mountains, the people still have to grow their own body weight in rice every day (probably) so every hillside is covered in stunning rice terraces. After a rubbish lunch, we hired a moped and scooted off to see the local villages where minority groups like the Hmong and the Dao have lived for generations. Inevitably, these hill tribes have gradually abandoned their farming, subsistence living in favour of harassing the tourists to buy their apparently hand sewn clothing which, according to one person we met, came from China! The local women, wearing their traditional clothing would sprint, in gangs of around 9 or 10, after any bus load of tourists that appeared asking the usual questions of “where you from?”, “how old are you?”, “you buy something?” in quick succession. Luckily, the mobility earned by having a motorbike ensured our easy escape. It was a shame to actually want to avoid the local people but the level of harassment really was incessant.
Sadly, the clouds had ascended (yes, ascended) the next day and the view from our freezing cold bedroom (these people live high in the mountains and yet have nothing to provide heat other than an electric blanket!) had completely disappeared. Eventually, we plucked up the courage to leave the hotel but, after a fairly long trek, we returned home with Annika not feeling very well.
Unfortunately, she was not much better the next morning so she remained in bed whilst I ventured into the now wet as well as cloudy, gloom for a walk to the nearby Dao village of Cat Cat. After shrugging my way through a few rounds of the local sales patter and wandering through the village, I had a decision to make – turn right and head back into town, which was what all the tourists were doing – or turn left and walk on to the next village and see where I ended up. I had a rough idea that I could find my way round to the right and get back to the hotel via the main road so left it was. The road gradually bent round to the right, giving me hope that I would soon see the road but it never appeared. In fact, nothing appeared, the clouds so thick that visibility was very low. Every once in a while, someone would walk past and we exchange sin chao’s (“hello”) and I even tried to ask some locals which way to go but no-one speaks English up there so long sets of instructions fell on confused ears. Eventually I arrived at a pair of remote houses, barking and snarling dogs hinting that maybe I should go back – but a teenage boy managed to convince me to let him take me up to the waterfall, which I knew was next to the road, for a dollar. We set off over rice terraces and up and up and up. Endlessly and exhaustingly up. Through streams and forests we trudged (well, I trudged – my guide fairly skipped his way up in his plastic sandals, waiting for the fat old Westerner with the expensive walking boots to catch up every hundred yards or so!) for an hour until, to my great relief, we found the road and I hitched a ride on a motorbike back down to the town. Bit off more than I could chew there, I think.
An eventful, but un-bloggable minibus ride back to Lao Cai for the return train to Hanoi delivered us back into the miserable, closed city whose temperature was now down to around 18 degrees.
After another wasted day, the tourist attractions at least began to open up so we set off early to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum which, oddly, is only open until 11am. The experience was typically Vietnamese. We found the right place but were then instructed to go an incredibly long way around, despite the lack of any signs and the fact that we could just walk straight to it from where we were. Once we’d been abruptly told that we would need to collect our valuables by 11am or we would lose them, we joined the queue to see Uncle Ho. Various locals pushed in, armed guards instructed people to be quiet, pushed children to be in front of their parents, hands had to be removed from pockets – it was all very friendly and amiable. We filed into the building, up the stairs, saw the corpse laying in its coffin looking gaunt and, well, dead and then left, rushing to retrieve our bag before the deadline which was only minutes away.
Next, we visited what the guidebook describes as the ‘serenely calm’ Temple Of Literature – along with the rest of humanity it seemed, as hundreds upon hundreds of pushing, shoving, shouting, excitable Vietnamese elbowed their way around with us. Feeling like we’d been in a massive barging football crowd, we escaped and went for lunch, exhausted.
After a visit to an old prison which contained all sorts of ‘America Is Rubbish’ type propaganda, we decided to give up sightseeing for the day and returned to town for food and booze.
We simply had to get out of town the next morning so we headed off to the bus station to travel down to visit the ‘Halong Bay of the rice paddies’ at Tam Coc. We hired bikes from the hell hole that is Ninh Binh and cycled to the rice paddies, hiring a boat when we got there. Again, along with most of the other people on planet Earth, it seemed. Tam Coc is pretty beautiful, huge karsts sprouting out of the rice paddies as our rower woman pushed us (they row by pushing the oars, not pulling them – either using their hands or, in some cases, their feet!). We fought off the now customary “you buy something” requests and the rower’s request for a tip and cycled back to the town, down the insane main road to get the bus home. Arriving at the bus station, you are almost physically assaulted by hordes of motorbike riders offering lifts into town but we wanted to take a taxi, so we flagged one down and jumped in for the 7km ride. When we got there, we were told the fare was more than double what it had been that morning – mainly due to the fact that his meter showed that we’d apparently travelled 19km in 5 minutes through rush hour Hanoi traffic! By this point, we’d both had enough of the hawking and conning and Annika decided to argue the case, eventually thrusting a 100,000 VND into the driver’s hand and we left the car in a fury. Power taken back, we sunk a few beers and stuffed our faces, leaving our forlorn taxi driver to wonder how his idiot tourist marks could have figured out his cunning plan.
Our last 2 days in Vietnam have been spent in Halong Bay, on a junk sailing around even bigger and more dramatic karsts. Sadly, the predictions that the English style weather would abate and sun might rear its quite nice, warm head turned out to be slightly wrong and I write this sitting on the deck wearing my hoodie and coat, with both hoods up! It has been a good trip though with some decent food, some really nice people, some kayaking and some superb scenery. It’s just a shame that we couldn’t have ended with some good weather.
One more meal in Vietnam and then we fly to New Zealand, stopping in Hong Kong for 4 days on the way.