The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 2nd – Viet Hai

I wake up briefly at 6:00, thanks to my favourite propaganda speakers mentioned earlier. After listening to the monotonous ramblings of the faceless talker I fall asleep again until 9:30. We wake up to discover that we’re sharing our bungalow with spiders, mosquitoes and other flying and crawling insects. Who needs Cuc Phuong National Park when you can get bitten in the comfort of your own bungalow?

We climb out of the bungalow to have a late breakfast of home-cooked bread and omelette. For the next few hours we just sit outside our hut, reading and enjoying the fresh air. At 12:30 we’re served a lunch of fried shrimps with vegetables, chicken and eggs.

It’s rainy, but we decide that sitting and eating the whole day isn’t exciting enough (I know, what the hell is wrong with us?!). We want to explore the nearby area. Without taking the time to change into trekking-friendly gear we approach Zoam and ask whether there’s anything worth seeing around here. Zoam brings out two walking sticks and points to our shoes, asking whether we’d like to change into something less slippery. We say “no”, because we’re idiots.

Flip Flops: The Ultimate Survival Gear

And so, we embark on our hike dressed in flip-flops and shorts/skirt (guess which one I’m wearing?). Zoam walks us down a narrow path up to a fork where it splits into two. One path will take us to the centre of the village. The other path takes us on an uphill trek – one hour up, one hour down. We pick the trek, because we’re still idiots. Zoam shakes his head, says “good luck” and leaves. That’s…not very encouraging.

As we start out we pass two lone horses standing in a puddle, soaking in the rain. They don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves too much, but hey, maybe they’re masochistic adventure seekers just like us?

For a while the path just leads us through a light forest and a few shallow puddles. We’re quite optimistic about the trip until we suddenly hit a sharp uphill slope. The slope is made up of mainly mud and stones. Do you know what you get when you mix rain with mud? No, you don’t get humans. That requires clay and only God can pull that shit off. What you do get is a very slippery uphill slope.

Like this, minus the car

If you’ve been reading these diaries for a while you now know that Katka and I never change our minds once we’ve made a decision, no matter how wrong that decision has proven to be in retrospect.

Which is why, when faced with a slippery slope while wearing flip flops, we decide to continue our trek. We start climbing, using our walking sticks for support and grabbing tree roots to pull ourselves up.

It appears that the slope, while steep, doesn’t go on for too long. Quite soon we reach the top…only to find out that what we reached isn’t the top at all, but merely one of the many mid-slope plateaus. This “chasing the top” game continues for the next hour, with us reaching what we believe to be the top of the mountain only to discover that the mountain continues beyond that point.

…and that’s how we inadvertently climbed Mount Everest

On our journey we’re accompanied by all sorts of unidentified insects and plenty of long-legged spiders. Katka isn’t too fond of any of these. When I see an especially big spider with thick furry legs jumping quickly between two stones I avoid pointing him out to Katka. If there’s one thing harder than climbing slippery mountains in flip-flops it’s climbing slippery mountains in flip-flops, while carrying your fainted girlfriend on your back.

After an hour of climbing we reach the top of the mountain. The view from here is amazing – one can see all the way over the mountains and to where the karsts rising out of the sea begin. Unfortunately, visibility is severely limited by rain. Also, we’re being viciously attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. We finally decide we’ve had enough of adventures for the day and start heading back down.

The way down proves even trickier than the climb. Mud slides under us and our feet constantly slip out of our flip-flops. The rain intensifies and very soon muddy streams of water are running down under our feet. After a few near-falls and many more swears and curses we make our way back to the bottom of the mountain. We’re sweaty, soaking wet, bitten all over by mosquitoes, but happy to have made it.

At the end of the road we meet the two lonely horses still standing in their puddles. Well, they certainly lead an action-packed life! When we return to the bungalows Zoam looks almost surprised to see us back in one piece. How many tourists that he sent off into the mountains have never returned?

Hmmm, the village does look surprisingly people-free

We retreat to the bungalow to shower and relax until dinner time. For dinner we’re seated with a chatty older Dutch couple from Amsterdam. They’re on a 4 week journey from Saigon to Hanoi. We share our experiences of the country and compare the social systems in Holland and Denmark (because Katka and I, although from Czech Republic and Ukraine originally, are clearly experts on all things Danish).

After dinner we head out for an early sleep. Tomorrow morning we’re heading back to Cat Ba. This concludes our least hectic day of the Vietnam trip.

The journey continues right here. Remember to visit Katka’s Flickr for pictures from the trip.

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 30th – Cuc Phuong and Kenh Ga

We wake up at 7:00 and head down for breakfast at 7:50. We’re getting picked up at 8:30 so we should have plenty of time, right? Wrong!

As we enter the restaurant area it’s immediately clear that breakfast management is a complete disaster. There are around 30 tourists here and they all seem exasperated. Three hotel employees are running aimlessly between the tables. These three include the “chi-cken” guy and the “my home” lady from yesterday. They speak ten words of English between them, can’t remember who ordered what, and are acting panicky and helpless.

We go through the familiar process of trying to order fresh milk in Katka’s coffee. I attempt writing the request down on paper and pantomiming cow-milking process (don’t ask). I consider doing a tap dance during which I tap out the request in Morse code, but there’s a good chance that knowledge of Morse code is not in the standard skill-set of a hotel employee.

Plus I’m afraid of getting my limbs hilariously intertwined

Of course all attempts are fruitless and Katka never gets her coffee with regular milk. Half an hour later we haven’t gotten any food and our pick-up is only a few minutes away. When we inquire as to our order the staff ask about our room number again and seem even more confused than they were to begin with, if that’s possible. Other customers are now audibly complaining (and I believe one guy is actually performing an angry tap dance). I start to feel sorry for the staff as it’s very clear that they’re genuinely doing their best.

I’m not a hotel manager, but something tells me that when your employees do not speak English and can’t keep track of what was ordered there are easier ways to arrange for breakfast. How about a buffet with a few simple choices? Your staff doesn’t need to know any foreign languages, tourists can still get some degree of variety and pick out their own dishes – everybody is happy. Hell, you’d improve on today’s service if you simply gave every guest a muffin and told them to shut up and enjoy it.

By the time we’re picked up we’ve only split a small omelet between us, because most of our order doesn’t arrive. We pile into a Jeep with a Spanish couple from Barcelona. Our first destination of the day is the Cuc Phuong National Park.

A place where trees think they’re ropes…

The drive to Cuc Phuong is quite relaxing. Our driver speaks better English than all of the Queen Hotel staff combined and gives us a quick summary of the upcoming trip.

We soon arrive to Cuc Phuong. The park is huge. After passing its main gates we still drive for 20 minutes before our driver drops us off by a narrow stone path. This is the beginning of a 6km walking tour.

It’s raining, but the journey takes place under the cover of trees, so we’re well protected. After a bit of walking and taking pictures we notice a side path that leads to the first official landmark of the tour – the Palace Cave. We follow the side path, climb a few stone stairs and get to the cave itself. Since it’s raining the visibility is quite low and the cave entrance is slippery.

I step inside to explore the cave. Katka tells me to be careful. Just as she’s wrapping up the “careful” part of her sentence I slip, fall down on my ass and slide down into the cave. Classic Daniel. In addition, my fall disturbs a minor colony of wasp-like insects, one of which expresses its disapproval by stinging the thumb of my right hand.

If you ever see this guy, tell him he’s a douchebag!

I’m treated to an emergency disinfectant round by Katka. Once I’m patched up we proceed to the main destination of the trip – the Thousand Year Old Tree.

When we get to the tree we can see that it’s been ambushed by a group of Vietnamese younglings. They’ve climbed over the protective fence and are up on the tree. They’re taking pictures and yelling joyfully. The moral of the story is: you can stand proudly for a thousand years only to have a bunch of loud teenagers stomp on you eventually. We’ve all learned a valuable lesson here today. I’m not sure what it is.

“Those damn kids better get off my lawn!”

We make our way back as the rain intensifies. I’m soaked by the time we get back as I’m the only one not wearing any rain-gear, again. Our driver picks us up and drives us back to the park’s entrance, where we finally have our first proper meal of the day. After lunch we go on a quick tour of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. We’re accompanied by a local guide who tells us a bit about the different species they have. There are two primary species here – langur and gibbon.

Also: Red Whatchamacallit Long-Arm Dude

Our guide explains the process of caring for the primates, gradually letting them out into the wild and monitoring whether they can adapt. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 28th – Dong Hoi

A harmonious symphony of banging doors, people stamping on stairs and street noises wakes me up at 7:30. The sun is shining in my face so I’m having a hard time falling back to sleep. I walk over to draw the curtains to shut the sun out. As I pull on the curtains, the entire pole that holds them crashes down noisily, successfully waking Katka up as well. I was going to wake her with a kiss, but I guess this works even better.

We place the curtains back in their spot and head down for breakfast. There’s no menu this time, we both just get fried eggs with bread on the side. Katka makes another naive attempt to order coffee with regular milk. Her coffee arrives without any milk at all, for a change. In the end the owner tells us she doesn’t have any fresh milk (no surprise here), but she could run to the store to get some. We decline, so as not to bother her.

Our tickets to Ninh Binh have been ordered. The train will be leaving at 23:00. We check out, leave our bags at the reception and rent two bikes from the hotel owner. She seizes this opportunity to overcharge us yet again (we pay 40,000 dong per bike, while having had them for free in Hue and seen them for 20,000 in Hoi An). I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t ask for that fresh milk – who knows how much she’d want for it.

“That will be one human soul, thanks!”

We head straight for Nhat Le Beach. We decide to skip the tourist routine for today, primarily because there are a grand total of two landmarks in Dong Hoi. One of them (ruins of the Tam Toa Church) is right next to our hotel, so Katka takes some pictures on the way to the beach.

Nhat Le Beach is a public beach, but there isn’t a single person around at this time. We’re all alone in a vast sea of sand. Also, sea of sea. We leave our things under a fixed wooden umbrella and head for a swim in the unusually warm water.

During our swim we notice a guy walking around the beach and kicking sand with his feet. He does this for a good five minutes and seems very methodical about it. At some point he kneels down to the sand and pulls out…a can of beer. He wipes the sand off of it and walks away. Apparently he’s been using the sand as his personal refrigerator. It’s either that or he’s insanely good at spotting abandoned beer cans.

“Helloooo?! Anyone seen my beer?”

For the rest of the day we sunbathe, swim, and read in the shade when it gets too hot. We’re completely alone, except for one curious episode.

Around noon an older woman in a traditional Vietnamese conical hat appears on the horizon. She’s carrying with her a strange collection of assorted cardboard boxes and big plastic trash bags. She makes her way slowly towards our umbrella and sits down right next to Katka. The woman proceeds to construct a makeshift fort out of the cardboard boxes around herself.

Once she’s finished building her castle she turns around to us and starts gesticulating wildly. We figure out that this is most likely not a form of interpretive dance, so we try to understand what the woman wants. It turns out she’s asking for water, but unfortunately all we can do is point to our already empty bottles.

The woman suddenly begins to point at Katka’s bra and winks at me repeatedly. I shake my head to indicate that I have no clue what she wants. Her pantomime intensifies and is now accompanied by smacking noises and stranger, unidentified sounds. After ten minutes of complete communication breakdown the woman finally gives up, gathers her boxes and walks off into the distance.

Maybe it was Morse Code?

By 16:00 the beach starts to slowly fill up with people. We go for one more swim, dry ourselves off and set out in search of a post office (Katka wants to buy and send some postcards).

Dong Hoi is much more untouristed than the other cities we’ve been to so far. Nobody is trying to sell us overpriced fruit or give us motorbike rides. Also, this is the first place where we feel a bit like alien species. People tend to stop and stare, run after us yelling “hello” and occasionally ask for our pictures. I’m enjoying my new-found minor celebrity status, smiling and waving graciously at people. I get tempted to start handing out autographs, but resist the urge (barely).

Katka has become a daredevil in traffic. She’s clearly transformed compared to her first day in Hanoi, when she was hyper cautious about even walking out onto the hectic streets. Now she’s weaving in and out of traffic and biking across busy intersections on red light, while yelling “they’ll have to wait for us to cross, then!”. Vietnam has created a monster!

Artistic rendering of Katka in Dong Hoi

After almost an hour of circling around we fail to find a post office and give up on the idea altogether. We find a mini market and stock up on crackers and Yomost. I’ve already talked about the awesomeness of Yomost here and here, so I’ll spare you further raving. Just know that it tastes like heaven-flavoured ice-cream, but ten times better! We still have the uneaten instant noodles we’ve purchased in Hanoi some days earlier, so we should be all set.

Next order of business is to find a place to get proper dinner. We explore what’s left of the town and don’t find any real restaurants – a clear downside of the place being less touristy. After circling back to the town’s centre we end up on a street that has at least six Karaoke bars. Or, to put it another way, every cafe also doubles as a Karaoke bar. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 27th – Hoi An, My Son, Dong Hoi

7AM. Rise and shine. Or, rise, slither out of bed onto the floor and crawl to the bathroom. Then slide down for some food. The hotel’s breakfast buffet is quite varied. There’s a lot of fresh fruit, banana and mango pancakes, various western and Vietnamese dishes and, of course, Cà-Phê (with fresh milk, no less).

After breakfast we pack our bags and take them downstairs. Here we check out and leave the luggage at the reception to be picked up after our My Son trip. A mini bus picks us up, along with some other tourists, and we set off to My Son.

Our tour guide is an entertaining fellow and constantly tries to make jokes. He delivers a lot of unintentional comedy, because he chops his words and has a heavy accent. He also has a habit of repeating parts of, or even whole sentences. A few of his verbal gems include “the area belonged to the Cham people, the Champa-people” and “some of you are going bus-by-bus and some are bus-by-boat, bus-by-boat”. Here he’s referring to there being two groups of people: one group will be going back by boat, while the rest of us will be on the same mini-bus.

Bus-by-boat?

Upon arrival to My Son our guide grabs my helmet and puts it on (OK, this helmet is way more popular with people than it should be). He wears it while going up to the ticket booth and buying entrance tickets for all of us. He gives a brief salute to the whole bus and then hands the helmet back to me.

My Son is a rather small site and only very few buildings are still intact. Even these intact buildings are mostly damaged after years of erosion. The surrounding area is absolutely stunning, with lush forests and mountains stretching out as far as I can see (which is quite far, seeing how I’ve got 20/20 vision and it’s a clear and sunny day).

Our guide tells us that there are two main reasons why the Cham people have built the temple site exactly here:

1) There’s a big mountain nearby. “My Son” actually means “Beautiful Mountain” and is (surprise) named after that mountain.

2) There’s a stream that runs through the site, which the Cham crowd used for making “holy water” for their worship ceremonies.

Possible 3rd reason: “Dude, I’m, like, really tired. Can’t we just build it right here?”

The guide insists on making us listen to his rather clumsy explanations of the site’s remaining structures, before he finally lets us explore on our own. So that’s what we do, with all the cultural sensitivity that…

Yes, that’s exactly the purpose for which they were built

And with respect to the…

OK, that’s just not cool!

Anyways, we spend the next hour exploring the temple site and taking pictures.

Now I know what you’re thinking, but it’s actually just a phallic symbol

At 11:00 there’s supposed to be a half hour dance show. We’re still exploring the site when we hear the show start, so we make our way back to the small outside stage by the entrance. We arrive at 11:15 and catch a grand total of 10 seconds of the show (hey, that’s cheating!). The dancers pack up and leave and we head back to the minibus. The drive back is uneventful. Most of us doze off until we get to the hotel. Here Katka and I eat a quick lunch and await our cab to Da Nang.

We arrive to the train station in Da Nang well before departure time. Since our train is also 30 minutes delayed we spend over an hour in the by-now-familiar environment: a waiting room with way too many people and way too little air conditioning.

When the train finally arrives we climb into a shabby-looking seater carriage. Some of the seats in the carriage are tilted all the way back, with no visible way of getting them into an upright position. Both of our seats are “luckily” in that category. Well, still an upgrade from yesterday’s plastic chairs! We settle in for a 5-hour ride to Dong Hoi.

I fail to fall asleep due to a few constantly coughing passengers and a horde of children running around and screaming (or was it just one kid?). By the end of the trip I develop a headache and feel tired and grumpy. We buy two train dinners, each consisting of a lot of rice, a chicken leg and some salty cabbage.

Cabbage – the foundation of gourmet train dinners!

We arrive to Dong Hoi around 21:00 and take a cab to Nam Long Hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet. We’re greeted by a girl of around 12, manning the reception by herself. “You want a room?”, she asks in good English. When we answer affirmatively she makes a phone call (presumably to her mom, who runs the place).

After hanging up she tells us there’s a room for 15 dollars, including breakfast. This sounds pricey compared to what the book says and also considering that we’re here during the low season. However, I’m not about to engage in a price negotiation with a 12-year old (how will I ever live with myself if I lose?).

The girl walks us upstairs and chats with us in pretty fluent English. The room is by far the worst we’ve seen in Vietnam until now. The furniture has a worn out and cheap feel. There’s no phone or Internet, but there’s a colony of (hopefully friendly) ants living by a pipe in a tiny bathroom.

“Hi there, you new in town?”

There’s something that looks like a window. Upon closer inspection we discover it to be an opening in the wall that is shut tight by two non-transparent sliding bars. These make awful horror-movie-inspired screeching noise when we attempt to open them. Through the tiny opening that we manage to make we’re treated to a magnificent view of…the wall of the building across.

We’re here on a one-night stopover, so we don’t care. Katka heads downstairs to talk to the hotel owner about train tickets to Ninh Binh, breakfast and other practicalities. In the meantime I befriend a few ants and drag my grumpy and tired self to bed.

Continue the adventures right here.

For now, visit Katka’s Flickr for some great pictures from the Vietnam escapade.

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 23rd – Ta Va, Sapa, Lao Cai

Mercifully, a complete power outage ends the TV fun downstairs and the whole family finally goes to bed. However, proudly continuing the tradition of sleeping like crap, I manage to wake up a few times during the night. Once due to loud dog fights and once again due to a rooster with a distorted concept of time (seriously dude, 3AM is not a signal to wake up and sing your lungs out). Everyone is up around 8:00 for a quick breakfast and an even quicker goodbye to the host family. The man of the family shows up again to briefly shake everyone’s hand and that ends the extent of our interaction with the Red Dzao.

As we set out on the last hike of our three day Sapa tour, it becomes apparent that Katka and I have gradually become the charity cases of the group. Katka is still wearing Belgian girl’s scarf to protect her neck from going up in flames. The same Belgian girl lends me her rain-cover for backpacks, because the scary grey clouds around us seem to mean business! Her boyfriend lends me his socks, since after breakfast I discover that one of mine is mysteriously missing (a new Bermuda Triangle?). Finally, the British couple keeps offering Katka a T-shirt, because hers hasn’t managed to dry overnight and she only has her “Batman” poncho for cover.

At some point we actually consider asking for donations…

On the hike we’re accompanied yet again by a huge group of Black Hmong. We get to a fork in the road and our vodka-happy guide gives us a choice of going the “easy” or the “hard” way. As soon as he gives us the choice he immediately decides for us by basically saying that the “hard” way is a no-go due to the massive amounts of rainfall that came during the night. The “hard” way gets extremely muddy after rain and he makes it sound like we’d be practically swimming in mud to get anywhere. Unsurprisingly, everyone votes for the “easy” way and we continue.

While the “hard” way would have taken us up some steep slopes and probably resulted in the same slip-n-slide experience as yesterday, the “easy” way just follows the road. Along the way we come across some young kids riding buffaloes, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“Did someone call a cab?”

We reach a waterfall where everyone takes some obligatory pictures. While our group is busy taking photos of each other in different configurations, we notice a few other groups arriving from the direction of the “hard” way. They drop down from steep slopes like SWAT teams (minus the cool gear and athletic skills). They’re completely covered in mud and sweat, so we’re immediately happy for our choice of the “easy” way.

Close to the waterfall lies an old wooden suspension bridge. It’s exceptionally narrow and looks rather worn out. It leads to a dead end rock. It’s probably somewhat dangerous and completely pointless to cross the bridge. Naturally, we all take a trip there and back, one person at a time. We film each other performing this “feat”, secretly hoping that some minor-yet-hilarious incident would make one of us an instant YouTube sensation.

I must admit it’s quite an exhilarating experience to walk down a derelict wooden bridge hanging well above a rushing stream of water. For a brief moment I even imagine I’m Indiana Jones on a quest for skulls, grails, Chupa Chups lollipops and whatever else he usually hunts for. Then I’m told by the rest of the group to put down the whip and fedora and stop being a jackass, so I return to solid ground.

They’re just jealous of how awesome it makes me look…

After I’m finished with my crazy antics we leave the “bridge walking” area. Upon exit we are promptly charged a token fee for having used the bridge. I guess “risky wooden bridge crossing” is the Hmong version of a theme park ride.

We settle down for a quick lunch of noodle soup and bananas at a nearby cafe. We’re surrounded by kids and I hand out the rest of my candy and chewing gums to them. The Belgian scarf-woman has a bunch of balloons that she inflates and gives to the kids. The kids are mesmerized. After lunch we’re picked up and driven back to our Fansipan View Hotel. The road is narrow and slippery and there’s plenty of traffic, so the ride takes a while.

Back at the hotel we’re directed to a separate room with some showers, where we get to shower and repack. While waiting for our bus to Lao Cai we go online to pick out and book a hotel for ourselves in Hue. We settle on Ancient House Hotel, which, despite its hardly promising name, looks quite modern, comfortable and affordable. Unless its pictures are Photoshopped and reviews are doctored (you just can’t be paranoid enough these days).

At 16:30 we’re picked up by a mini-bus. We’re sharing it with the same Danish family that accompanied us on the first day. Only this time we’re also joined by five other people. The bus is overbooked and the only way everyone’s luggage can be squeezed in is by stuffing all of us into the car first and then piling our bags on to and around us. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)