I have been to Vietnam numerous times on official matters but only twice for pleasure. Made my second pleasure trip there during the Christmas period last year. It was actually a continuation where May & I left off from our first trip there where we covered Hanoi and the northern part of Vietnam. This time round, we did Central Vietnam.
It would only be appropriate to chronicle the adventures from our first trip before proceeding to the highlights of the latest trip.
Day 1 (17 Nov 06) We flew Air Asia for the first time. Checking in was prompt without any hassle. However, our joy was short lived as the flight was delayed. We finally embarked 30 minutes late. The plane was quite good especially where the AC was perfect. Found out then that it was a new plane on a new route. Wow, we were lucky.
The pick-up was perfect in Hanoi and the young driver proudly proclaimed himself to be a Schumacher. Drove like a madman and blows his horn at every opportunity. We finally arrived at the old quarters safely intact and a young girl named My greeted us and brought us through this narrow alley to our guest house, Thu Giang. We checked in and had a large sized room with AC, fan, one double bed, one single bed, cable TV attached bathroom with hot water. It is extremely good value for US$ 10.
We hit the streets as we were starving. Had a bowl of dry beef Pho (noodles) for dinner. Went back to the room early as the chaotic traffic in Hanoi made it rather pleasant to continue our walk after our meal especially since we were pretty tired from the flight.
Day 2 – (18 Nov 06) We were up early at 7.00 am. Just excited as we were on holiday. Walked to St Joseph’s Cathedral. It was a beautiful old French church. It had a school beside the church and the children came out to play at the side of the church during their break time. It was a wonderful sight of the children playing with such innocence!
Walked across the road for breakfast at the Mocha Café. It is a quaint place with nice high windows. Great place for people watching. The highlight of the décor was a humongous coffee grinder. Their clientele were mainly Caucasians. Tried their Vietnamese white coffee. Only one word to describe it – Strong.
We returned to St Joseph’s Cathedral and caught a local wedding. Met a German man from Munich. Aged probably early 60s. He had cycled with a group including a 78 year old man from Kunming, China to Lao Cai, Vietnam. From Lao Cai, they did the steep climb to Sapa and then to Hanoi. The distance they rode may only be 700 km but what’s amazing was that it was through a very mountainous terrain. My! That’s life. Those senior citizens put me to shame.
Continued our walking tour and visited a temple on the Hoan Kiem Lake. At the side of the lake across the street, stood a “Confucius” looking statue. Proved how close the Vietnamese culture was to the Chinese. Found out that this was the statue for “Ly Thai To” (924 – 1028) founded the Dai Viet kingdom on the Red River Delta and the capital was then known as “Thang Long” which is today’s Hanoi.
Continued walking round the lake. Enjoyed people watching and soaking in the sights and sounds. One of the most incredible sights in Vietnam is the abundance of motorcyles. They really are the motorcycle capital of the world.
Lunch time – It was Beef Noodles again. Managed to get a soup one this time.
We then proceeded to Hanoi Hilton. It was great timing since it was closed for lunch and reopened at 2.30 p.m. while we arrived there at 2.25 p.m. After a 5 minutes wait, we duly paid the 10,000 VN Dongs entrance fee and we were one of the first to go in. Hanoi Hilton was not a hotel. It was an infamous nick name given by the Americans for Hanoi’s main prison. It was also known as Maison Centralle. Amongst the exhibit was a very medieval looking guillotine and 4’ x 10’ cells. As we were the first to get in after lunch, it was really great to have the place to our selves. The prison is not sized down to above 10% of the original size. It now has a large tower “Hanoi Towers” built behind it.
Went back to our guesthouse and met Edwin Loh & Ryan Tan, two young Malaysians from Johor Baru. Business partners. Imports children clothing from Vietnam. Quite impressed with their enterprising spirits. Took the opportunity to rest for our late evening train. For dinner, we took a simple kebab dinner from a stall which was located 100 meters away from our guesthouse. Checked out and took a taxi to the train station.
We shared a cabin with Manuel & Elena from Alicante, Spain. Manuel speaks English, Spanish & French. Elena could manage some English. As we were chatting, Manuel quoted a phrase by a Spanish author which was very meaning for me.
Quote : “Nationalism is a disease cured only by travel”.
Asked us to visit Spain. To go to the North East (San Sebastian and Basque) country. And then for contrast go down South to Andalucia – La Coruna. Will make it a point to do just that one day.
Met a Washington DC synthetic man. Called him the “synthetic man” as he was boasting of taking only 3 change of clothing while he travel. All his clothing are made from synthetic materials. He assured us that they are not polyester. Super light, easily dried, crumple free. He could speak fluent Spanish which he learnt at school. Took 2 weeks off to travel in Vietnam. Traveling with his cousin, who has been traveling for the past 3 months.
Met a very talkative Belgium lady who has a brother in Sydney. She has traveled Bali, China, Hong Kong, Kenya, New York & Utah so far. Also met a Swedish lady but mere greetings. It was really interesting meeting people during your travels.
Day 3 (19 Nov 06) The talkative Belgium lady finally left our cabin to go to sleep at 1.30 am and you could see relief in the faces of the Spanish couple from Alicante.
Caught some sleep between 2 am to 5 am. It has been sometime since I last slept in a train. I was in top bunk and had a phobia flying off the bunk if the train goes off the tracks.
Was up by 5.00 a.m. and waited for the rest to stir. Everyone was awake by 6.00 a.m. Exchanged telephone numbers with Manuel. Train finally arrived in Lao Cai at 7.10 a.m.
Our driver picked us up in a van. Thought that it would be a jeep because CF told us of his experience of being picked up in an old Soviet made Jeep. Was a bit of an anti-climax. The driver went to pick up his son and we were off to Bac Ha.
All along the way is dotted with villages, farms, kids riding buffaloes, natives in their traditional clothes. The ride was dusty and bumpy. Arrived in Bac Ha after almost 2 hours of shakes. Had breakfast before proceeding to the market
The market was crowded and colourful. There were people, people and people everywhere. H’mong, Red Dzao, Dzay, Dao, Black Dao, Flower Hmong, Nung, Tu Di, Tay and Giay all pushing and shoving amongst the tourists as well. There was also a horse corral where they were selling horses just like in the old West.
Bought some souvenirs. Got carried away and calculated the exchange wrongly. Overpaid for the souvenirs. It was just too much Dongs to the Dollar. Consoled myself that I am supporting the local economy.
Had lunch at the same restaurant where we had breakfast as it was the largest and cleanest looking place. Almost all the patrons were Caucasians. Left Bac Ha at 12.00 pm.
Stopped at the Lao Cai border crossing.
Started the 33km climb to Sapa, situated at an altitude of 1,600 meters. The view was absolutely spectacular with a steep winding road snaking up the mountain and green rice terraces hugging the sides. It reminded me of the Boh plantation in Cameron but magnified by TEN folds.
Checked in quickly at Sapa Mountain View Hotel and immediately went out to catch the last of the day light. The view was magnificent. We paid US$ 17 for the room. It was a corner room facing the Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. The view alone is worth more than what we paid for the room. We had two double poster beds, attached bathroom with hot water and cable TV. Vietnam was really spoiling us for value for money accommodation.
We walked down to the lake side and it was a really pleasant town. Unlike like Cameron Highlands which could be choked with tourists.
This little town was really charming. The centre piece of the little town was an old church.
Checked a local joint called “Geeko” for drinks. Had pancake and some local moonshine which tasted like Wong Fei Hung’s brew. While we were enjoying our special brew and absorbing in the atmosphere, a persistent (tried selling us some beads) old tribal woman was knocked down by a speeding biker. She was motionless for a couple of minutes. We were utterly shocked. There was a crowd and the lady finally woke up. The crowd got her to her feet. They wanted to send her to the doctor but she refused to go.
After the initial excitement, returned to the hotel and took dinner. I had home-made cheese burger at the hotel. The room’s value for money but not the burger.
Booked ourselves for a 6 km (one way) hike the next day so we decided to call it an early night.