Vietnam

11 12 2012

As I wrote before, the boat ride to Vietnam wasn’t the most spectacular. Funny indeed was the appearance of the Cambodian border post on the Mekong. I guess it was once installed by smugglers and other dubious people that needed a simple and almost invisible landing place 🙂

Well hidden Cambodian border post near Chau Doc

Well hidden Cambodian border post near Chau Doc

Chau Doc was the first Vietnamese city Julia and I set foot in. But only to catch a bus as fast as possible to Ho Chi Minh City. As always, some scooter-rickshaw drivers were already waiting for us but I wanted to check the situation about distance and prices first. One of the drivers was following me to the market telling me that this is the wrong way, for bus station and ATM. Having to admit that he was the only guy capable of speaking more than 2 words English we finally agreed to their price and each of us swung on the back of a scooter. As I suspected, the drivers were bringing us to the most expensive bus company in town but as we had no time to search any further we lay down in our fancy sleeper cabins (which were clearly to small for me) for a over-day ride to HCMC. The people told us that the bus is so expensive because it is the fast bus… only 5h instead of… now guess… right: 6h for the slow… and now guess again how long it took to get to HCMC?? 9 hours!! With the FAST bus… the Vietnamese have a strange humor! We arrived so late we almost could have used the sleeper cabins for sleeping!

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon when the French ruled the area, is a very nice and typical asian metropolis. Like the Indians, the Vietnamese seem to like to announce them self via the horn in every thinkable situation and I could use my skills crossing a street through gapless flowing traffic. Julia and I had only very short time in HCMC so wen used it for shopping (Julia), a little bit of sightseeing (me) and eating (both!). The first morning I went to the War Remnants museum, were the Vietnam war is told in exhibits like posters, pictures, and real weapons, from the perspective of the Vietnamese. I knew that a lot of shit happend over there but one really don’t expect what to see and read there… It’s definitely a must-see in this city. The reunification palace reminded me a bit of the „Palast der Republik“ in east Berlin, only without the fancy coloured glass… maybe the same architect commrade?? 🙂

Some exhibits of the war remnants museum un HCMC.

Some exhibits of the war remnants museum un HCMC.

Eating in HCMC is fabulous! There are so many things to try and even more places to go. For lunch we went to eatery on Pasteur Street that consists of many little stalls offering a special dish. So one can wander around, see everything that is available and than have it in an restaurant-like ambience. For dinner we searched for a restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. But as it was so often with the LP, it seem to miss it’s target group more and more by several price categories and so the restaurant that was advertised as cheap turned out to be very posh and high priced. Luckily we were attracted by strange European music of the 1980’s and a occasional birthday song that came from the rooftop and we found a Vietnamese barbeque restaurant that was packed with locals in party mood 🙂

Delicious food in HCMC.

Delicious food in HCMC.

The afternoon and evening was reserved for shopping at the market… I was really proud when I haggled down the price of a t-shirt from 300.000 dong (15$) to 100.000 dong, only to see that a fixed-priced stall was selling it for 97.000! At least I was not ripped off and paid a normal price. One shopping speciality of HCMC (besides the millions of shirts) seem to be folded cards, some with really fine and complex motives cut from paper, and posters.

Having a rest the Vietnamese style :-)

Having a rest the Vietnamese style 🙂

Now it was time to relax in Mui Ne, a little town some 5 hours of bus driving from HCMC. Mui Ne is famous for it’s beaches and wind conditions, so we found numerous kite surfers on the long stretch of beach. The place seems to be also very famous amongst Russian tourists: there were a lot of them and this wasn’t a coincidence… even in the shops and on the menues everything was written at least in Vietnamese and then Russian, maybe followed by such minor languages like English!

Kite surfers at Mui Ne beach.

Kite surfers at Mui Ne beach.

After the first day of enjoying the sun it was time for another scooter tour and with only 7-9$ to rent one it is almost as cheap as it was in Goa! As always we started unprepared and so we missed the local attractions of the sand dunes and a lotus lake just by one or two more kilometers… 🙂 the sand dunes we have found instead weren’t spectecular but okay to roll down like a little kid… After that day we weren’t lucky with the weather anymore and headed north to our next destination: Hoi An.

Sand dunes near Mui Ne.

Sand dunes near Mui Ne.

The old city center of Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage site and offers a lot of cool cafes, art and preserved history. If you happen to be arbound town for some sightseeing then be aware, that you have to buy a combined ticket for 6 attractions or so. We thought that at the price of this ticket we would be free to see everything, but no: only 6 sights… and there are some which aren’t worth the word „sight“! The city is best explored by bike and many of the guest houses seem to offer them for free or for 1-2 dollars a day. A stroll around the city after sunset is lovely due to the numerous of little paper lanterns lighting up the city.

Street in the old quater of Hoi An.

Street in the old quater of Hoi An.

The best in Hoi An was, again, the food. We read about a food stall serving a Hoi An speciality. The name of the stall is „Bane Well“ and not to far from the market hidden in a little side street. At the time we thought about what to order from the very limited menue, the waiters came and put more an more dishes on our table… it turned out, that the menue described only the single dish that was served and by sitting down one ordered this dish automatically. It consisted of rice paper with fresh herbs, some salad, the most crunchy spring rolls I ever had, pieces of beef and chicken on a stick, and some shrimp omlettes. And everything had to fit in two pieces of rice paper quaters… the only choice was whether to take a spring roll or a omlette because both together clearly didn’t fit, no matter how hard one tries and pushes all together 🙂

Menue of Bale Well restaurant... you don't need to order, you simply get everything on it!

Menue of Bale Well restaurant… you don’t need to order, you simply get everything on it!

Afer two full days in Hoi An we went on another bus ride to Hué. With only 140km away one thinks of a nice little ride through lovely Vietnamese landscapes… I don’t know how they do it, but in the bus it feels like it’s going really fast… but then you end up sitting for 5 hours in the bus for such a short distance…

In Hué we only had like two half days and you really have to be fast to see the most important things in such a short time. So we wasted none of it and headed to see the forbidden city on the afternoon. The area is really impressive and it seems there are a million temples, pagodas, gates, … Again, the city is best explored by bike which cost around 1-2$. In the forbidden city itself no bikes are allowed!

One of many spectacular buildings in Hué's forbidden city.

One of many spectacular buildings in Hué’s forbidden city.

The second morning we rented bikes again to go to the tombs of Tu Duc. Be warned that this is a few kilometers from the city center in a hilly area 🙂 somehow we weren’t aware of that so we had a little excercise this morning 🙂 The tomb was, again, really impressive: an artifical lake, many ancient temples and buildings in a beautiful park… and this was just the summer residence of Tu Duc. If we had more time we surely would have tried to go to some other tombs as well!

Artificial lake at Tu Duc's tomb.

Artificial lake at Tu Duc’s tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc's tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc’s tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc's tomb.

Stone soldiers at Tu Duc’s tomb.

From Hué we flew to Hanoi to avoid another backbreaking overnight bus journey. Hanoi is the hub from where tours to the famous Ha Long Bay start. Because we heart stories about Ha Long Bay being overcrowded and not nice anymore we decided to go to Bai To Long Bay, just one more hour of driving after passing Ha Long Bay. It is very close to the Chinese border and from the look in the faces of the local people you can say that tourists are still an attraction over there. The journey from Hanoi until we actually sat on a boat took us more than 5 hours. Keep that in mind if you’re planning a 1-day (yes, these exist) or 2-days tour!

Our boat to explore Bai To Long bay.

Our boat to explore Bai To Long bay.

On the boat we had a delicious lunch and set off to cruise to a spot where we could swim and kajak. I think the scenery of the Bai To Long Bay doesn’t have to hide behind the famous Ha Long Bay, with spectacular rock formations peeking out of the water and so we enjoyed the boat ride until we reached our destination for the night, a small island with a bunch of guest houses and so called „home stays“. The island doesn’t provide to much sights so after 20 minutes of walking through the village we were ready for dinner. We were encouraged to help preparing it but it turned out that the only thing to do was rolling spring rolls, a task that even someone who usually avoids the kitchen could do without struggeling.

Our boat to explore Bai To Long bay.

Scenery of Bai To Long bay.

Scenery of Bai To Long bay.

Scenery of Bai To Long bay.

The next morning a bike ride around the island was on the schedule and combined with some time at a beach. I don’t know were they manage to get all these old, squeaky bikes with almost non-existent brakes from… maybe they produce them to order 🙂 After our little tour it was time to get back to the boat and back to Hanoi then. Eventhough it was only a short time the trip was really worth it. The next time I would book one more day so that there’s more time outside the bus and on the boat…

Our local island trasportation waiting for us at the landing place.

Our local island trasportation waiting for us at the landing place.

Before and after Bai To Long bay Julia and I explored the city of Hanoi. It’s not as big and busy as HCMC but it doesn’t lack of things to see, do, and, most important, to eat 🙂 Hanoi has a beautiful old city quater where the streets are still named after the guild thatsettled in this street and one can see all the little old shop houses. In some of them are little boutiques that sell souvenirs which are different from all the tourist stuff that is sold on every corner.

Hanoi street food: fried rice stuffed with something :-) delicious!

Hanoi street food: fried rice stuffed with something 🙂 delicious!

Another speciality of Hanoi are the little eateries that are hidden between all the shops. They sell everything from famous Hanoi dishes, like Bun Cha, a soup with some meat chunks where you add your noodles and herbs bit by bit as you eat is, and Bun Bo, a similar soup but ready made and with different flavour. Try Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi. It’s one of those typical eateries you would not enter in your own country, but it’s serving delicious food!

Bun Cha

Bun Cha

Save space for more customers at every price! :-)

Save space for more customers at every price! 🙂

Another lovely place was the Quoc Tu Giam park, housing on of the oldest universities of the country. We found this place only because we wanted to go to a special restaurant nearby, that is giving street kids of Hanoi the opportunity to learn a propper job. The food is a little more expensive but still reasonable and the food is fabulous!

Quoc Tu Giam park.

Quoc Tu Giam park.

After one more day in Hanoi, Julia had to go back to Germany and I went on the overnight sleeper train to Sapa, Vietnams most famous trekking area. Sapa seems to be attracting a lot of visitors, predominantely Vietnamese that want to enjoy the cool breeze of the mountains. And it was really freezing some times, so pack a few warm clothes if you plan to go there! It was spectacular to see how the weather changes from sunny to absolutely cloudy and grey and back to sunny again in less than 10 minutes. Many times you are literally walking through the clouds…

Vietnamese guys running down the hill, followed by tree trunks.

Vietnamese guys running down the hill, followed by tree trunks.

On my first day I trekked a little bit on my own and I chose a hidden route just at the beginning of Sapa on the road to Lao Cai. It was really hard to find, but the locals seem to be accustomed to tourists that look a little lost and eventhough they don’t speak a word English they just point to the right direction. This is really necessary because the path is nothing more than a slippery and muddy trail that looks more of dried stream than an actual trekking trail. After just a few meters I had to jump out of the way of 3 people dragging a whole tree trunk down the trail… they had to be really fast… at least as fast as the tree trunk was rumpling down behind them 🙂

Panorama of Sapa.

Panorama of Sapa.

On my way up the mountain I could enjoy spectacular views of the valley in which Sapa lies. Some small tribe villages were also on this trail and you could see in the puzzled faces of the locals that tourists don’t come often this way. The only downside of trekking in Sapa is, that on three different trekking maps, the routes in the same area differ from map to map… so you never actually know where you are! At one point I had to ask a local guy on a motorbike about my whereabouts… but even with him looking on the map, we couldn’t figure out exactly where I was…

"Tribes village" Cat Cat.

„Tribes village“ Cat Cat.

The next day I was hiking to some touristy tribes village called Cat Cat village. Unfortunately there is nothing much left from the village except hunderts of little merchandise stalls that were also blocking the views of the stunning rice paddies on the mountains. There’s also a waterfall but I think the hike isn’t worth it. Alsmost every meter is plastered with some stall trying to get your money… I wanted to take another trekking path to the Fansipan mountain, the highest peak in Vietnam. Because the maps, one I bought in a shop in Sapa and another one printed on the backside of the admission ticket of the Cat Cat village, weren so inconsistent that you couldn’t figure out which path on the one map was the equivalent on the other, I missed my intersection and hat to go back, where, according to the map on the ticket, was a shortcut to the path I wanted to go. The shape of the path fitted perfectly to the one drawn on the map. But when I was near some private house I knew something was wrong… After the chicken escaped from me in one direction, three very aggrasive dogs approached and attacked me! They surrounded me and I had serious trouble keeping my distance to all of them on the small slippery path I was on. At one point one of the dogs tried to bite me and I was lucky that I got away with only a little scratch and bruise. I finally found stick to keep the dogs at least 1 meter away from me and slowly escape backwards. Still, the dogs followed me for several hundret meters and I was so relieved when they finally stopped following me at some point. I never experienced such a dangerous and scary situation so far, not even in India with its millions of straying animals… When I finally got on the right trek I figured out that there was no possibility of another shortcut that I could possibly have missed! The idiots that published the map on the back of the admission ticket of the Cat Cat village are intentionally guiding you to some private property with aggressive dogs that guard the area! Just don’t go to this tourist trap of Cat Cat village!!

Kids playing on a rope bridge near Cat Cat village. No parents to bee seen...

Kids playing on a rope bridge near Cat Cat village. No parents to bee seen…

On the trail to the Fansipan the next suprise hit me after only 30 minutes. On neither of the maps was evident that you have to cross rivers… both maps showed clearly that the trail is situated between two rivers… one of the few accordances between both maps… so I was not happy to see that there was no other way than the one crossing a river. The first time everythin went well but when I came back to cross the river again I just chose the wrong stone to step on and found myself up to the knees in the water… Very nice with 1 1/2 hours to go back to the hotel and a temperature of around 10-15 degrees Celsius… This day really sucked!

Former Sapa market beauties :-)

Former Sapa market beauties 🙂

Obviously, the next day I wasn’t too keen for another day of trekking so I rented a scooter and explored some of the other sights, such as a so-called „cloud bridge“ and some tribes villages. It was really nice driving through this stunning scenery but all of the „sights“ were not worth going. The „cloud bridge“ is just another rope bridge like so many others in the area and it’s at such a low altitude that I’m sure there will hardly be any clouds around the brindge at any time of the year. In all of the villages I was surrounded by little kids trying to sell cheap stuff like wrist bands and phone covers. I really thought of buying some stuff I don’t need just to support them, but most of it was still welded so you could see it was some Chinese crap and not locally produced. At least I enjoyed the scenery while I was on my little scooter!

Beautiful rice paddy sceneries during my scooter tour.

Beautiful rice paddy sceneries during my scooter tour.

It was time to move on… Unfortunately I hadn’t spent my best days in Sapa, so I was excited about getting to Laos. The first hurdle was to get the Dien Bien Phu, close to the Laotian border. It’s only 250km from Sapa and should take about 5-6 hours. After 2-3 hours of driving the scenery gets fantastic. At some point, on a small road with the mountains climbing up the one side and a steep fall to a river on the other in a beatiful jungle setting, we had to wait for about one hour, because they were blasting some rocks to extend the road and had to clean up afterwards, kicking pieces of rocks as big as the excavator itself into the river. They seemed to be in a hurry because shortly after the blast before us, that forced us to stop, we could watch another blast some 100 meters behind us 🙂

After our 5-hours drive turned out to be 10 hours, we finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu. It’s not a nice city and almost nothing to do for tourists that to sleep one night to catch the bus to Laos early in the morning. If you are French or interested in the Indochine history you can probably spend a day there because Dien Bien Phu is the spot where the French lost a battle that marked the begiining of the end of the French control of the area.

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