The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 4th – Ha Long Bay

We have breakfast downstairs at the restaurant shortly after 7AM – mango pancakes with honey, because honey is the root of all good things in life. You can quote me on that.

It appears Mr. Tuan managed to arrange for another couple to join us on an overnight boat sleepover at Ha Long Bay, so we’re all set. A mini-bus picks up our “day group” at the hotel. Very soon we run out of space as we’re joined by a Vietnamese couple, two Italian guys, two Spanish guys, four French girls, an English couple and a lone English girl. Our luggage is stacked up at the front seat. Everyone knows riding shotgun is how luggage rolls. At the main pier we are all transferred to a boat that takes us out to Ha Long Bay.

Soon we reach a small bay with a few floating houses scattered around. Our boat is parked and we’re all given kayaks to use for the next hour. We do a few circles around the area through the majestic view of karsts and the arguably less majestic piles of garbage discarded by floating-houses residents.

Aaah, the untouched beauty of floating trash

One hour later everyone returns to the boat and we continue our journey through Ha Long Bay, taking in the scenery and enjoying the perfect weather with clear blue skies. After some time our boat stops again in another small bay, without any floating houses around. The water is a lot clearer and there’s no garbage in sight. Everyone goes for a swim, jumping into the water from the boat’s upper deck.

One of the French girls is stung by a jellyfish, which immediately prompts a drawn out discussion about whether or not anyone should pee on her hand. After a surprisingly urine-free resolution to the discussion we’re served lunch in the lower deck of the boat.

After lunch the boat arrives to Dau Go Cave and everyone disembarks to go on a cave excursion. The cave is huge and the walk takes us through its many smaller chambers. We make our way slowly through the cave, stopping to take pictures. One of the open spaces within the cave is filled with penis-shaped stalagmites. People linger long enough to exhaust their library of dick jokes.

“Look everybody! The cave is happy to see us!”

After the cave the boat makes a short stop at Viet Hai to pick up around 10 tourists travelling back to Cat Ba. They pile up on the upper deck and our boat starts to feel seriously crowded. Three of the French girls are happily living up to the “French smoke a lot” stereotype, chain smoking on outside area of the lower deck. We reach a place called “Monkey Island”, where we’re dropped off and told to enjoy ourselves for 30 minutes, while our boat leaves with all of our belongings. Wait a second…isn’t this how many horror movies start?

The only real cover from the scorching sun on this small island is a nearby cafe on stilts. Everyone immediately makes a beeline for it. Cafe is crowded so we stand around waiting for some tables to clear up. Katka and myself are waved over by an American couple and we join their table. Their names are Dax and Mary and they have apparently kayaked here all the way from Cat Ba. Show offs! After a brief chat they take their two single-kayaks and start making their way back to Cat Ba.

Once our boat returns Katka and I are transferred over to another boat that we’ll be staying on overnight. Here we are joined by the English – Ian and Angela. After leaving our luggage on the lower deck where we’ll be sleeping, we all grab a few lounge chairs on the upper deck and settle to enjoy what’s left of the sun for today.

Ian and Angela have been travelling across South East Asia for almost half a year, after having quit their jobs to embark on this trip. Angela doesn’t appear to be particularly enthusiastic about their travels. She’s continuously telling us horror stories about their experiences with thieves, scams, bribes and so on from their time in Cambodia and Laos. I can’t help but wonder how Angela got convinced to quit her job for this adventure, when she’s clearly so negative about it. Who knows, maybe she likes being upset about stuff?

“WORST trip of my entire life! Let’s do it again!”

There are two showers downstairs, but only one of them has sufficient water pressure. We all take turns to shower. Angela gets into an argument about the shower situation with one of the Vietnamese guides accompanying us on this overnight stay. Well, I guess this story is also going into her black book! Katka and I share the tiny shower booth, amazingly avoiding elbowing each other to death.

Once we return to the upper deck we’re served a delicious dinner. It even includes some western food – namely French fries and fried chicken. After dinner Angela’s not feeling well so she goes downstairs to sleep. The rest of us stay up for a while. The boat is anchored in open sea. We can see a few distant lights from the floating houses and the sky is sprinkled with lots of stars. We start identifying the constellations we know: there’s the Big Dipper, and there’s the…aaahm…yeah well, that was fun.

Around nine in the evening one of the guides brings a mattress to the upper deck – he’ll be sleeping here tonight. We return to the lower deck and are soon asleep, despite the snores coming from the boat’s driver sleeping nearby.

The remaining diaries will soon come. For now, remember you can check out Katka’s pictures of the whole trip on her Flickr profile.

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.

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)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 31st – Tam Coc, Mua Cave, Hoa Lu, Trang An

At 2:30 in the morning I wake up to find Katka sitting on the bed with her legs up, hugging her knees. The light in the room is on. This is either a popular Czech night-time game yet unknown to me, or something is wrong…

Turns out it’s the latter, namely a giant cockroach that Katka saw in the bed. Katka’s ability to spot bed monsters is evolving. I organise a quick “search and eliminate” mission, but can’t find the infamous cockroach anywhere. After a while we manage to fall asleep, even with the knowledge that a cockroach may be lurking somewhere in our bed.

At 7:30 in the morning we go down for breakfast. Trying to keep things as simple as possible for the staff to avoid yesterday’s breakfast train wreck we order the same dish for both of us – two pineapple pancakes. There are almost no people in the restaurant, so our breakfast arrives fast and without errors this time.

Afterwards the tour guy calls up his driver and we set off on what promises to be a busy trip. We’ve got a whole four landmarks to cover today, which is twice as many as the two landmarks we saw yesterday, if my math is correct.

Mathematical equation

Incidentally, the above represents the exact calculations I’ve used to arrive at that number

The first stop is Tam Coc-Bich Dong (make your own dirty jokes here, you pervert). Here we’ll be going on a boat trip through a bunch of karst grottoes and caves set in rice paddies. If you don’t know how that looks, it’s basically the rice paddy version of Ha Long Bay. If you don’t know how Ha Long Bay looks, then I can’t do much more for you, I’m only one man.

We’ve read some horror stories (thanks, Lonely Planet) about tourists being ambushed after the last cave by merchants aggressively selling everything from food to T-shirts to jewellery. Apparently the rowers sometimes even refuse to take you back until you buy something. In order to avoid ending up in a force-sell situation we only take 50,000 dong with us to tip the rowers. The rest of the stuff stays in the car with our driver.

We get one boat and two rowers…which is twice as many as one rower. OK, I’ll stop. It’s quite cloudy, although luckily it’s not raining (so far). As the boat winds through the rice paddies we’re hit with a beautiful view of different karst formations, temples resting atop mountains and…ducks. Lots and lots of ducks.

No, seriously. Like, many freaking ducks.

We also notice mountain goats perched at the top of the karst. How they get to the top without teleportation is beyond me. Our rower switches to using his feet for rowing. Many other rowers we see are doing the same. We’ve read about this technique in the Lonely Planet, but it’s much more impressive to witness in person, especially since they make it look so easy.

It’s just like riding a bike. Except it’s a boat. And the oars don’t have a fixed range of motion. And you’re on water. OK, so it’s not at all like riding a bike.

We reach the first (and longest) cave and dip into the darkness. Our rowers are skilfully navigating the narrow passage through the cave. The ceiling hangs only a few centimetres above our heads and it’s quite a claustrophobic experience. Soon we reach the next strip of the river before entering another cave. Why hello there, flower selling ladies, fancy meeting you here.

Women selling flowers from their boat by a Tam Coc Cave, Vietnam

Nothing unusual here. Just some women selling flowers from their boat by a cave.

As we’re heading into the 3rd and last cave we brace ourselves for the imminent ambush of the mad merchants. The “ambush” takes the form of an elderly lady unenthusiastically making her way to us in her boat. She makes a feeble attempt to sell us some water, but gives up without an argument. So much for the horror stories.

We turn around and start making our way back through the same three caves. Close to the end of the journey the female rower suddenly takes out some pictures and shirts to try and sell us. You’re never truly safe from salesmen when you’re in Vietnam. But then again, are you anywhere? No, no you’re not, it was a rhetorical question. We politely decline the shirts and pictures and instead leave both our rowers with a generous tip at the end of the tour.

Next on the agenda – Mua Cave Pagoda. Our driver drops us off near the 500 stairs that lead up to the top of the mountain, where Mua Cave Pagoda rests. Just as we step out of the car we get caught in the heaviest rainfall we’ve experienced in Vietnam. Instead of doing the rational thing and returning back to the car, we stick to our usual stubborn approach and proceed to the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain we find a group of tourists huddled inside the Mua Cave itself, hiding from the rain. Ha, sissies! Or, sane people, depending on who you ask. After the first few dozen stairs we’re suddenly face to face with a mountain goat. He’s taking refuge from the rain, while simultaneously doing a great job of blending in with his environment, ninja style.

“Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just doing my best chameleon impression!”

The goat stands looking impassively at us, while Katka takes his (her?) picture. Then he quickly make his way up the stairs, while going “baaa” repeatedly. We hear other goats respond and begin to wonder whether he’s called up his posse to deal with the amateur paparazzi invading his privacy. When the anticipated attack by an enraged mountain goat gang doesn’t happen we continue climbing up the stairs.

After a while we get to the top of the mountain. By the end of the climb we’re completely soaked and discover that so is the Lonely Planet in my backpack. At the top lies a small covered alter to the Goddess of Mercy (Quan Âm). I say a silent prayer and ask her to have mercy on the poor book and help it dry painlessly.

We stay at the top for a while, enjoying a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. On one side we can see a multitude of boats making their way through the Tam Coc caves, just like we did earlier today. All around are rice paddies, pagodas and temples.

Once we’re relatively dry we make the journey back to our car, meeting no more goats or hiding tourists on the way. Hoa Lu, here we come! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

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 29th – Ninh Binh

At 4:30 in the morning we’re woken up by the family on the lower berth. And by “we” I mean the whole train. For some reason the family seems convinced that the lower berth is surrounded by an invisible sound-proof barrier, because they make no attempt at modulating their voices. They’re loudly talking to each other and their kid is banging various objects against the table repeatedly.

At some point the father has a conversation on his mobile phone. He yells into it, because he’s sure that the phone is, by itself, incapable of transmitting human voice. We’ve observed this phenomenon before and I’ve already covered it in an earlier post here.

The family continues their morning ritual of screaming into each other’s faces all the way until they leave the train at 8:00. When the family leaves they smile at the people in the cabin, wave to Katka and I and say “Goodbye” in English joyfully. They’re completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else in the cabin is on the verge of a homicidal rampage.

Even though one of the ninja passengers is clearly challenging them to a fight!

As soon as we get off the train in Ninb Binh we’re ambushed by a crowd of “hotel agents”. In all fairness, calling these guys “hotel agents” is like calling spammers “online offer specialists”. They proceed to ask us whether we’ve already booked a hotel. We have indeed booked a hotel, but this doesn’t stop any of the “agents” from showing us pictures of theirs and describing their benefits.

One of the agents actually claims to be a representative from the Queen Hotel, but only after we mention that we’ve booked it. He offers to “escort” us there. Seeing how the hotel is literally a one minute walk from the train station, we politely decline the offer and make our way there on our own.

The receptionist speaks very poor English. Through a combination of single words and impromptu sign language he requests to see our booking voucher. I have the voucher saved on my laptop. While I’m waiting for the laptop to start up, the receptionist finds my name on his computer. He points happily at the screen and then at me. I nod and give him the thumbs up. He repeats his request to see the voucher, even though he has just confirmed my reservation and he can also see that I’m loading up my laptop.

“Thanks for showing me the passport, now may I also ask for its digital copy?”

I finally show him the screenshot of the reservation and he tells us we can go up to our room. Since we’ve arrived a few hours before official check-in time I’m positively surprised. Wanting to communicate my delight and break the ice I say: “Great, so we can check in already?”. The receptionist arranges his face into a mask of total confusion. He squints his eyes and looks at me blankly, before saying: “Chiii…cken?”.

Really? You’re baffled by “check in”, which incidentally is the phrase written on a sign right next to you, stating check in times? I don’t mean to sound like a complete wise ass, but I’d expect the words “check in” to be pretty standard in the hotel industry. It’s not like I asked him which of Mozart’s symphonies the hotel’s orchestra have in their repertoire (the answer is “none, because Mozart isn’t good Karaoke material). Hearing the words “check in” should be a daily occurrence for a hotel receptionist. Just like hearing the words “more explosions” and “forget character development” should be to anyone working on a Michael Bay movie.

Struggling to keep a smile on my face I say: “We. Can. Get. Our. Room. Now?”. He stops to think for a second. Then, with a patronising expression he points to a young woman employee and says “follow her please”. Wow, he thinks I’m an idiot, purely because his working assumption right now is that I’ve been asking for chicken at a hotel reception. This hotel stay is going to be…interesting.

“Sorry sir, we don’t serve chicken here. Also, you’re a moron…sir”

The young lady takes us up to the 6th floor and lets us into our room. She smiles and, as she swings the door open, says: “Welcome to my home!”. I assume she meant to say “to your home”, seeing how we’re the ones who’ll be staying here for the next few nights. If it is in fact her home, then it really sucks that a non-stop stream of tourists occupies it all year round.

We shower, cover ourselves in layers of soothing lotion (seems we’ve overdone it with the whole beach thing yesterday) and nap until 14:30. After the nap we go down and arrange our trips for the following two days with the hotel’s tour agent. Then we set out to find a post office (something we haven’t succeeded in doing yesterday in Dong Hoi).

Ninh Binh is gloomy, grey, polluted and filled with cars and motorbikes. It has the same industrial vibe of Da Nang, but without Da Nang’s large size and financial attractiveness. However, Ninh Binh is an excellent staging area for small excursions to nearby tourist areas. After a rather long walk through the city we finally find a post office…but it turns out that they don’t sell postcards there.

A post card?! At a post office?! Don’t be ridiculous!

Katka resigns to her fate and decides to go with email postcards instead. On the way back we drop by a supermarket and get more crackers, wet wipes and Yomost (!!!). I’m afraid I have developed a minor addiction to this incredible drink and will display severe withdrawal symptoms upon return to Denmark.

Back at the hotel we visit the 9th floor where, according to the hotel brochure, a Sky Bar with a great view of the city is located. Well, there may indeed be plans to establish a bar here. However, currently the 9th floor offers four bare walls and some clothes drying on stretched out ropes.

We wrap up our unarguably most uneventful day in Vietnam with a visit to the hotel’s restaurant. Here we eat some “check in” and chase it down with a few refreshing yoghurt shakes. We’re asleep by 22:30.

The journey continues right here.

For now, remember to check out Katka’s pictures from the trip on her Flickr page.

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 26th – Da Nang & Hoi An

We get up at 8:00 and head for breakfast. Remember how I’ve talked about the mysteries of fresh milk in Vietnam? Well, this is our first experience with it.

We order our breakfast and coffee with milk (neither of us drink black coffee). To my delight and to Katka’s disappointment both of our coffees are brought with sweet condensed milk in them, Vietnam style. You see, as crazy as that may sound, Katka doesn’t like sugar in her tea or coffee. We’re all allowed our bizarre quirks, so nobody holds this against her.

In order to let Katka enjoy her weird sugarless coffee, I ask the polite young guy from yesterday (who is now also our waiter) to bring us another cup of coffee, this time without sugar. To make sure I get it right, I make my request in several variations – “no sugar”, “without sugar”, “just milk”, “regular milk”. He looks at me and probably wonders whether I’m playing a new thesaurus-game that’s unknown to him. In the end he nods, smiles, says “OK, OK” and leaves to fetch the coffee. He brings us two more cups of coffee, both with the same sweet milk in them.

This is not what I meant when I said "Please don't invite more people"!

Alright, time for a different strategy. An English-speaking lady at a table next to us tells me to ask for a cup of black coffee and “fresh milk” on the side. Apparently it has worked for her. Good suggestion, thanks random lady! I tell our waiter that we’d like a cup of plain black coffee and a glass of fresh milk on the side, please. He says “OK” even more times this time, smiles even wider and leaves. He returns with a tray that has two cups of black coffee on it and two cups of…wait for it…condensed sweet milk!

At this stage we have eight cups at our table and a very confused waiter trying to look like he’s totally in control of the situation. He can see this wasn’t what we were looking for, but he doesn’t seem to know what else he could do. Luckily, before he runs off to bring us 10 more cups of coffee, his mother passes by our table and comes to the rescue. She asks whether we want “fresh milk” to which we nod “yes” enthusiastically. At last, Katka gets not one, but two cups of fresh milk brought for her.

As we eat our breakfast the tour agent of the hotel drops by and informs us that the regular seats on the 11:00 train to Da Nang are all booked. He suggests we take the 19:00 train instead. Since that would make us lose a day, we ask whether it’s possible to still get “non-regular seats” (whatever the hell those are)  on the 11:00 train. The guy is so utterly shocked that he loses his ability to construct whole sentences, saying: “Extra seats, no air conditioning, terrible!”. It’s a 2,5 hour train ride to Da Nang, how horrible can it be? If locals can do it, so can we! (rhyming was entirely unintentional, but pretty wicked regardless). We ask him to go ahead and get the “extra seats”.

In the worst-case scenario we'll just imagine ourselves some seats

We finish packing, pick up the clean laundry and check out. The hotel calls a cab for us and we’re taken to the station. We are early, so we settle inside a small waiting room filled with people. The room has one air conditioning unit and a number of regular ceiling fans, struggling to keep everyone cool.

There are two TVs fixed up to the walls. One of them is playing some golfing movie with Kevin Costner (“Tin Cup“?). The other one is playing (on loop) the same 3 minute clip of Mr. Bean attempting to take a picture with a British Royal Guard. The fascinating thing about this is that every 30 seconds (exactly, I counted) the clip is interrupted by a commercial break that lasts 1 minute 20 seconds (exactly, I counted). Even more fascinating is the fact that I’m on vacation in Vietnam and the most entertaining thing I can find to do is to count the duration of TV commercial breaks. Although you’ve got to admit – that’s a pretty crazy commercial-to-content ratio!

The train is 30 minutes delayed and we all end up waiting on the platform. When the train arrives we make our way to coach number 6 (our tickets state 6P). We cannot locate our exact seats, so we turn to some locals for help. We are sent to carriage number 5, then back to number 6 again. Exasperated, we finally find a train conductor and show him our tickets. He nods, disappears inside his cabin, then returns carrying two tiny plastic chairs. He places these chairs directly in the train aisle, points at them and smiles. I guess now we know why they call them “extra seats”.

Still way better than those imaginary seats!

The coach is well air-conditioned and we’re sitting right by a window, which makes the plastic chairs quite bearable. Except for a small issue: every 10-15 minutes a cart has to be pushed through the train aisle. There are carts with food, soup, water and snacks. Each one of them makes a regular trip through the train. Every time a cart goes through we have to get up, grab all of our things, move our chairs out the way and jump either into an adjacent cabin or the toilet or the space between two carriages. Take a look:

[youtube.com/watch?v=RBaFHip9Jnw]
This fun game of not-very-musical-chairs occurs no less than ten times throughout the 2,5 hour trip to Da Nang. Our train conductor brings us two bottles of water and then gets intrigued by the Viet Cong helmet I bought in Hanoi. He takes off his blue cap, puts on the helmet, makes a posing “serious face” and gives me a thumbs up. Who knew that a cheap knock-off helmet I bought in Vietnam would catch the interest of a Vietnamese train conductor?

In between all of the interruptions we absorb the beautiful coastline whizzing by outside. It’s an especially sunny day and visibility is great. We can see distant cities disappear into the horizon as our train leaves them behind. Upon approach to Da Nang we discuss whether to take a cab or a bus to Hoi An.

When we arrive to Da Nang we’re ambushed by a swarm of taxi drivers, who offer drives to Hoi An. We see another backpacker in a similar predicament and I ask him whether he wants to share a cab to Hoi An with us. Turns out he does, because he has basic knowledge of math and knows that one-third of the cab fare is less than the full fare. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)