The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 3rd – Viet Hai & Cat Ba

It’s 6:00 in the morning. Stop, propaganda time! The nearby propaganda speakers spit out a man’s monotonous words interspersed with high pitched patriotic songs. This continues until almost 7:00 at which point falling asleep is no longer an option. Why? You try sleeping after a musical indoctrination session.

Katka is apparently immune to patriotic brainwashing and sleeps until 8:00, at which point we head out to have breakfast. Afterwards we pack our stuff and settle the bill for our stay with Zoam. Turns out they have it pretty sweet here. We’re charged 120,000 dong per person per each meal excluding drinks, which is easily the most we’ve paid for a single meal in Vietnam.

We’re also charged for the motorbike ride to and from the shore, which is the only realistic way of getting to and from Viet Hai. Well, I guess that’s what happens when you have a local monopoly in the middle of an almost deserted island?

“Come on, buddy, where else are you gonna go?”

We’re driven back to the pier where we hop onto a small motor boat, just like the one that brought us here in the first place. This time around the sea is calmer and it’s a lot sunnier. Katka goes back to her paparazzi mode, snapping picture after picture.

After a bit over an hour we’re back to the pier in Cat Ba. Here we get two motorbike drivers to take us to the creatively named Duc Tuan Hotel, owned by Mr. Tuan (the same guy who really helped us out a few days ago). He offers us a room for 20 dollars on the 4th floor. That’s 10 dollars less than our ultra-basic Viet Hai bungalow and probably home to a lot fewer insects. We take it!

The room looks brand new, has two double beds, air-conditioning, TV and a fridge. Most importantly it offers a fantastic view over the water. Although let’s face it, more time will be spent staring into that damn TV.

“Reality is overrated, human! I am your only true friend!”

We head for the beach, on our way arranging with Mr. Tuan to book a 2 day boat trip to Halong Bay with a sleepover at sea. After a 15 minute walk we find ourselves on one of the smaller Cat Ba beaches which is currently completely empty. We pay 100,000 dong for two benches under an umbrella.

For the next few hours we do the old “swim-read-swim” routine. The weather’s fantastic without any clouds and zero rain (well, those two tend to go hand in hand).

There’s a small group of men whose job it is to fish out any garbage floating in the water. The problem is the inflow of garbage is more than they can handle. Residents of the floating villages seem to discard most of their household trash straight into the water. As soon as the workers get the water relatively clean the waves bring in more trash. This Sisyphusian* cycle continues throughout the day.

*yeah, it’s “sisyphean”, but I like to occasionally make up words that sound weird and funny, so suefy me!

Once the beach starts to slowly get more crowded we decide to find ourselves a tandem bike. There are many tourists and locals riding on these, so why not try it out for ourselves?

Like this, but twice as good!

We find a woman renting out tandem bikes. She sends her son to unlock a bike for us. All bikes are attached to a long metal wire with a lock at the end. In order for the son to reach our tandem bike he has to first pull out a bunch of kids bikes to make space. After that ordeal he pulls out a tandem bike with a flat tire. Then he takes out another one and “tests” it by spinning the wheel once. Satisfied with this thorough examination he hands the bike to us.

As soon as we start to pedal it becomes clear that the bike is living its own life and doesn’t much care about our furious pedalling. Having comically struggled with the bike for a few minutes we return to the guy and ask for another one. This one seems a bit better, but after a minute or two of riding we discover that it’s permanently stuck in the lowest gear. The seats are set too low and cannot be adjusted.

Resolved to goddamn try and enjoy our first tandem bike experience no matter what we stubbornly continue for another 10 minutes. After a tiring and embarrassing uphill ride we finally accept our fate – tandem-bike Gods aren’t smiling upon us today.

Tandem bike Gods?

We return the bike and head to the hotel for a shower and a short break (from all that tiring lounging around). Around dinner time we wander into one of the many floating restaurants found here. The restaurant doubles as home for the family who owns it. While waiting for our food the “waitress” disappears in the shower to wash her hair. There are a few kids running around. Finally, the family of at least ten sits down for a dinner of their own in a nearby room.

We enjoy a delicious meal on the terrace. From here we can see almost the entirety of Cat Ba city. It’s very clear that the city is divided into two distinct sections. One side of the main road is lined with hotels and…well, essentially nothing else. On the other side are scattered numerous by-the-sea cafes and floating restaurants.

Which can almost, but not really, be seen here

The next challenge is to find an ATM to replenish our liquid financial assets for barter facilitation. What? I mean cash, we need cash. This proves surprisingly difficult in a town built exclusively on tourism. The flashy ATM across the street isn’t open. The “ATM” by our hotel is an empty box in the wall. No other ATM in sight.

Giving up on ATM search we decide to find a place that serves alcohol. We haven’t had a proper drink in a while. We stop by Queen’s Cafe (no affiliation with any known royalty), but no booze is to be found here. We order two cold shakes and then continue our booze hunt. Finally we find a restaurant owned by a guy from New Zealand, called Flightless Bird (the restaurant, not the guy).

They have plenty of boozified (refer to “*” above) cocktails and we go absolutely crazy! By that I mean we order literally one cocktail each, after which we decide we’re too tired to continue. We finish up our drinks and make our way home, making a detour in another attempt to find an ATM. We find one inside a building that houses Saigon Bank and Harbour View Hotel.

This concludes our second lazy day in a row. Life’s good.

We’re getting close to the end of the trip. The next day is found here. Remember to visit Katka’s Flickr for some awesome pictures from the trip.

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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: August 1st – Hai Phong, Cat Ba, Viet Hai

At 6 in the morning I wake to discover that my thumb has gotten even worse. I can barely move it at all. The area around the thumb is swollen and hard to the touch. No obvious signs of a mutant insect trying to eat my hand from the inside, but you never know. After a while, tiredness wins over paranoia and I manage to fall asleep again until 8:30.

For some reason my hand doesn’t get miraculously cured within that time. Katka and I discuss options ranging from buying some anti-allergy pills to going to a hospital. We consult the Lonely Planet and immediately rule out all options. According to the book ingesting any pills sold over the counter is equivalent to suicide. It also advises strongly against Vietnamese public hospitals. Great.

Having received my daily doze of depression from the book I decide to wait and hope the hand gets better with time. We have a quick breakfast. Afterwards the tour guy drives me to the bus station on his scooter. Here I pick up two tickets to Hai Phong. We return to the hotel where I give him a generous tip for all his help during our three day stay in Ninh Binh.

Katka and I leave the hotel and walk to the bus station. Here we find the empty bus waiting for passengers. The doors of the luggage compartment are wide open. We are just about to put our bags inside when a guy materialises out of nowhere (or from inside the bus, I wasn’t paying attention). He shakes his head “no”, grabs our bags and brings them inside the bus instead. Odd, wouldn’t an empty luggage compartment be a good place for, you know, luggage?

“No sir, that’s not luggage, that’s a suitcase!”

There’s a large air conditioning unit at the top of the bus with “Air Conditioner” written on it. However, the unit seems to be just a hollowed out shell that used to contain something before. Our air conditioning will most likely consist of a few open windows. A few men outside the bus are tying small ropes together into thick braids. Hmmm, empty luggage compartment, ropes. Are we getting kidnapped? (Spoiler: we weren’t, because then I probably wouldn’t be writing these diaries).

We leave Ninh Binh shortly before 12:00. Aside from the two drivers and the “luggage” guy we are the only two people on the bus. On our way out of Ninh Binh we pick up a few more passengers at random spots along the road. There are no designated bus stops, people just hail the bus over as it makes its way through the city and hop on.

On the outskirts of Ninh Binh the bus suddenly stops. Both drivers and the luggage guy jump out. The luggage compartment doors swing open. We see the men carry big bags of what looks like wheat, dried grass and seeds inside. Well, that solves the mystery of the inaccessible luggage space. Granted, one of the less nail-biting mysteries in existence.

On the next episode of “What’s that empty space used for?”…

We start driving again, but the bus comes to another stop a few hundred metres down the road. We are now by a wood craftsman’s store. The luggage guy suddenly disappears into one of the open side windows and pulls himself up onto the roof. One of the drivers joins him. The second driver and the shop owner begin passing huge boards of carved wood (most likely parts of a bed and/or wardrobe) to the guys on the roof. The wooden boards fit neatly into the hollowed out air conditioning unit. Another mystery solved.

We leave the shop, but repeat the stop-and-load sequence a few more times at other nearby stores. The pile of wooden boards on the roof is now growing dangerously tall. This is where the braids we’ve seen the men make earlier come into play. They secure the furniture to the roof with a few braids and we set off again.

For the next three hours the following sequence plays out every few minutes:

The bus stops to pick up/drop off some passengers or cargo. Then the driver speeds off like a maniac, honking and swerving through the traffic, overtaking cars and threatening to kill us all in a giant collision. Then he comes to an abrupt halt to drop off or pick up more people and things. We are never on the move for more than five minutes at a time and the whole ride is built around cargo pick up/drop off spots.

Also, every time the bus backs up it plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. By the time the trip’s over the tune is stuck in my head and is driving me nuts.

I just can’t get you out of my head! Great, that reminds me of another song. It’s a vicious circle!

Close to the end of the journey the luggage man notices the by now so popular army helmet I bought in Hanoi. He takes out one of his own and shows me that it’s superior by knocking on it and pointing at a star at the front of it. Does that mean the cheap souvenir I bought off of a street vendor is not an actual army helmet? No way!

Finally we come to a stop at a huge parking area with several other buses. The luggage guy grabs our bags and takes them to the exit. He puts them on the ground and says “Hai Phong”. Guess we’re here.

As we step off the bus we’re surrounded by a group of loud and persistent drivers offering taxis and motorbikes to Ben Binh (the pier from which hydrofoils to Cat Ba depart). Since they’re too pushy and their prices are sky high we ignore their offers and walk out onto the main street by the bus station. Here we easily find a cab to take us to Ben Binh for a less insane price.

The driver drops us off between two tour company stands. Before we have a moment to catch our breath a woman from one of the stands runs up to us and unleashes a torrent of words in an attempt to hard-sell us a trip to Cat Ba. She claims that we have missed the early hydrofoils that go directly to Cat Ba Town. The last hydrofoil leaves at 16:00 (it is now 15:40) and can only take us to the western side of the island, from where we have to take a bus to Cat Ba Town.

She quotes a price of 300,000 dong per person, claiming that 150,000 are for the hydrofoil and 150,000 more are for the bus. We have paid 70,000 dong per person for the 3,5 hour trip from Ninh Binh and also know that trips all the way from Hanoi to Cat Ba cost less than 300,000 dong. Katka walks off to talk to the other tour agent. Immediately, the woman jumps up, yells something in Vietnamese to the other tour agent and leads Katka back. Subtle, and not at all suspicious.

“Look, I’m telling you the truth! Just ask anyone! But just don’t, you know, talk to anyone”

By now it’s obvious that she’s a scammer, but the other tour agent refuses to talk to us and the time is running out. We have a bungalow booked and paid for in Viet Hai and we’re at the risk of missing our last hydrofoil. We’re effectively held hostage by the woman (well, minus the constant threat of death). In the end we buy the ridiculously overpriced tickets and go to the hydrofoil. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part II)

You may recall that a few days ago I’d started the process of converting my Vietnam travel notes into blog posts. 85% of my 3 currently active subscribers were overjoyed and screamed “more please!”. Since in all the years of high school I’ve never truly learned to resist peer pressure – here goes the second instalment. It will pick up right where Part I left off, so if you haven’t read that part yet you may want to do it first. While my blog isn’t strictly a travel one, you’ll probably see these Vietnam posts pop up rather frequently over the next months – for better or worse, but mostly for better. Onwards…

Observation 4 – Rats

Granted, Vietnam is home to a lot more exotic and noteworthy animals than good old common rats. However, it’s the rats that live in shadows close to most bodies of water. They come out at night in swarms to hunt human prey…or just, you know, hang out and mind their own business.

The first time we started paying attention was one evening in Hue. Katka was taking some night shots of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge had been wired with more lights than a Christmas tree at Central Park, which made for a pretty mesmerizing sight. Somewhere between setting up the night program and trying to find a good angle Katka let out a muffled shriek and jumped a few good metres to the side (Olympic athletes – take notes!).

Because she wasn’t in the habit of performing this sequence of actions on a regular basis, I figured that something was wrong. Oh yeah, I’m excellent at spotting subtle behavioural patterns. Upon a more thorough inspection, i.e. walking closer to the water and squinting my eyes against the dark, I discovered dozens of rats running sporadically back and forth along the shore.

Since then we have noticed this being the norm anywhere around lakes and rivers during dark hours. Once while sitting in an outside cafe in Hoi An and then later again in Dong Hoi. Here we were in a somewhat fancy restaurant, which had its own artificial lake around the perimeter. Rats were sneaking near this lake and paid occasional visits to our table. They were basically co-existing peacefully with the restaurant staff, Ratatouille style!

“Hmmm, is it just me or are these eggs a tad undercooked? Anyways, what brings YOU to Vietnam?”

Observation 5 – Propaganda Speakers

Mostly in the Northern part of Vietnam you still find propaganda speakers scattered around. Some of them don’t seem to serve any function at all, other than looking like outdated relics that they are. But in certain places the speakers are very much alive.

On several occasions we were woken up at around six in the morning by monotonous chatter of some anonymous dude. I assume he was talking about the latest achievement of the Vietnamese government and encouraging people to work harder for the common good. However, I know very little Vietnamese. Now that I think of it, “arigato” might actually be Japanese, which means I know zero Vietnamese. So the “propaganda man” may actually have been telling jokes, in which case he may want to work on his delivery.

These speakers were even present in a tiny village of Viet Hai tucked away on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, reachable only by boat or a super-human trek. We had rented a basic bungalow there, in the hope of having some peace and quiet for a few days, but the joke-telling speaker guy had other plans in store for us. Each morning he launched into almost one-hour tirades and every 15 minutes his comedy routine was interrupted by a song, usually involving a high pitched female voice singing something vaguely patriotic.

“All day, all night, all day, all night, all day, all night…..WHAT THE *BEEP*?!”

And speaking of singing stuff…

Observation 6 – Karaoke

No Asian stereotype is complete without an image of a man/woman singing on stage at the top of their lungs in a crowded Karaoke bar. It’s as typical as the image of a Russian/Ukrainian wearing a fur coat, fur hat, felt boots and zig-zagging through the streets drunk with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka sticking out of the coat’s pocket. Now, this may be exactly how I look on some festive occasions, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all of us all of the time. What I’m saying is – beware of putting people into boxes or putting labels on them (Not literally of course. If you’re literally putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, I’m quite sure the police will catch you soon enough, you sick bastard).

However, it seems Vietnam is quite happily living up to this particular stereotype. We’ve seen a multitude of places with live Karaoke performances during our three-week long visit. Our hotel room in Hue was actually right next to a massive multi-floor Karaoke establishment. That specific night was “amateur night” of some sort (when is it not “amateur night” when it comes to Karaoke?) with many hours of performances from audience members. Performances ranged from “utterly tone-deaf” to “almost not horrible”, with the audience cheering for each and every one of them. I’m guessing the winner was whoever made others bleed from their ears the least.

Above: NOT a typical Vietnamese Karaoke singer

Although I must admit there’s something heartening about so many people coming together to celebrate out-of-tune singing (this also goes for Katy Perry’s live performances). I dare you to find a Karaoke bar with a depressing atmosphere and lack of energy in the air. It’s impossible! You have better chances of seeing a Justin Bieber concert that doesn’t end with bottles being thrown at his head.

In Dong Hoi, a city that is otherwise nondescript, there was a street with no less than five Karaoke bars right next to each other. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like overkill, even if you’re really into Karaoke. It would be like having a coffee shop on ever damn corner, it just doesn’t make…wait a minute…well played Starbucks, well played!

The final part of the general observations is now available here. Remember to check out Katka’s awesome pictures from this equally awesome trip! Also, remember to follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even subscribe via email, if you want to stay updated on all of the latest.