December 2017 - January 2018: I've flown to Siagon where I will begin the Vietnam legs of the trip, heading slowly north towards Hanoi and further before heading off to Lao.
A short hop flight which avoids the tedious bureaucracy of the land border and I was in the city formerly known as Saigon, as the locals still call it, but officially going by the name of Ho Chi Minh city, after the eponymous hero of the communist revolution. Vietnam occupies an almost legendary status in my imagination, and I was eager to begin exploring this perplexing land for myself.
I've heard a few horror stories about Vietnam, particularly regarding unscrupulous taxi drivers and con artists, but I get to my hostel without issue or severe loss of money. A large portion of this trip has been spent traveling in former communist countries, but this one is actually a fully fledged functioning communist country; or is it? The signs of rampant consumerism are conspicuous, maybe even more so than in Thailand. From the moment you arrive in Vietnam you are bombarded with billboards and the signs of multinational western corporations, but this embracing of the west is only skin deep. There is no meaningful opposition to the communist party. Private enterprise of many stripes is allowed, but trading laws are so oppressive that they can only reasonably do so by repeatedly breaking the law. Breaking these laws is tolerated, but all violations are recorded, the point being that the state can close down any business, or even arrest any citizen at will at any point they see fit. All social organisations, even innocuous looking sports clubs etc., if you were to follow the chain of hierarchy all such organizations, ultimately end in the party. Scratch the shiny coca-cola coloured skin of Vietnam and you will find an unrepenting socialist country, not that this is immediately apparent in Vietnam's most westward looking frantic fast paced modern city: named Ho Chi Minh in 1975, but to its 8 million residents still affectionately referred to as Saigon.
The first thing to note about Saigon is that there are a lot of motorbikes. This massive city, unlike Bangkok, has no skytrain or metro, nor a series of useful waterways with which to navigate the city by boat. Instead almost all transport is in motorised vehicles, most-commonly low powered motorbikes. The streets are crammed to bursting with an unrelenting flow of bikes, and they like to use their horns at every possible moment. Crossing the road, or indeed walking anywhere, is not an activity for the faint of heart, or indeed those suffering from any form of respiratory disease.
My hostel is on Bui Vien street: Saigon’s answer to Khao San road. It doesn't quite live up to its bangkok counterpart, but there are a lot of bars playing loud thumping identical music and selling alcohol by the bucket load. There are also an increasing number of locals here, who come to sip beer on small plastic stools, ubiquitous in Vietnam, and watch the madness unfold; but mostly this place caters to the same set of western tourists as does the likes of Khaosan road and the beach resorts of Thailand. It's a little sad that having travelled through so many countries and being so far away from home I am ultimately listening to the same shit music and drinking the same drinks with other white people; I have misjudged the choice of area in which to stay. The hostel backs onto the thumping noise and I have little choice but to explore the streets in order to escape. I get my first sample of Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, a thin watery broth with a little meat and herbs and noodles and a fair helping of greens, great sustenance for the weary traveller. After a few beers on the madness of Bui Vien I head to bed to endure the thumping bass emanating from the street below; I'm so travel hardened now that I am able to sleep through even this and awake fresh for a new day of travelling in Vietnam.
Walking the streets of Saigon is quite a strenuous, not to mention respiratorily unhealthy, experience; the thick stench of benzene chugging from the exhausts of motorbikes is never far from one’s nostrils. Still there is lots of interest to see; a beautiful french cathedral and old post office left over from the times when the French ruled over Indochina; a collections of impressive pilfered american helicopters, machine guns and tanks, including the mighty goliath of the chinook; a couple of very interesting museums about the evils of the American invaders, perhaps understandably, entirely without balance; markets selling all kinds of weird and wonderful meats; another market selling pilfered American military apparel, some of it real, some of it not; and most interestingly of all the many fascinating human beings hidden down every last nook and cranny of this heaving-to-the-seams metropolis. The people seem starkly different to the Cambodia and Thai cousins, more Chinese looking, with narrower eyes, but broader noses, often tiny, a little more suspicious and less effusive than their neighbours to the west, but sincere and friendly nonetheless.
But noisey dirty cities are not the reason to come to Vietnam, my next stop is Dalat, in the central highlands to escape the smog of Saigon and to explore the countryside more at my leisure.
Dalat is situated not too far from Saigon, at a high altitude. It's cool for South-East Asia, and the perfect place to escape the relentless tropical heat of the lowlands. With the cool air comes a different vegetation, rice gives way to strawberries, coffee and flowers. The 90 million people of this country are crammed into every last corner of this land, and Dalat is not quite the rural idyll I had in mind; it is still fairly crowded with people. There's a fair bit of tourism here, but most of it is aimed at the local market, rather than the international traveller.
The first day I hire a bike (of the motored variety) again, after catching the bug in Cambodia. Vietnamese traffic is truly psychotic, but the back roads here are not too busy. It's a very pleasant drive, but, compared to Cambodia, Vietnam is quite heavily populated and one gets the impression of never quite leaving urbanity. The socialist government has done much to trash the otherwise outstanding natural beauty of this place: pollution is rife and overdevelopment is everywhere. The tourist board also knows how to use photoshop and turn muddy brown waters into idyllic clear blues. The place is pretty, but it doesn't quite live up to my wildest dreams, too much pollution, too many people, not the untouched idyll that I had been encouraged to believe existed here. Still I have a lot of fun riding my bike around the curvey mountainous roads around Dalat, and once the town is well and truly left behind there are a number of stunning vistas over the heavily pined forested valleys of the central highlands.
I pass a number of fairly unappealing and busy tourist traps, either for the westerners, which revolve around showing people how crops are grown and processed, or for the locals, which revolve around providing selfie taking opportunities with kitsch artifacts in improbable locations, on to the main highlight of the region: the Pongour waterfall. The waterfall is a stunner, one of the most impressive that I have seen, amongst many in South-East Asia. It is in fact two waterfalls, each a set of steps over which the water seeps and cascades haphazardly. It is said that nature abhors a straight line, but here the rule enforcers have taken a day off, each level seems an impossibly regular square block of solid granite. The truly brave can scamper up the rock levels to the top of the thirty meter high falls.
On the way back I take a stunning back road back towards the town, finally finding an isolated bit of countryside in this crowded country to enjoy by myself. I reward my day's exploring with a fried eel and some sticky rice.
The next day I meet up with another English guy in the hostel, and together we take the bikes to the top of one of the nearby hills. It's a nice short ride, but the final stages we must tackle on foot. It's a long trek to the 2000 meter high hill top, and a thick mist descends all around us so we can see absolutely nothing of our surroundings. On the top of the hill there are a number of tourist trap sights, take your picture with a plastic zebra, or an American jeep, or, absurdly, a pink bicycle, all pictures cost one dollar, and there are queues of locals, eager to take the chance. Clearly the psychology of the Vietnamese tourists follows different rules. One of the infuriating things about Vietnam is that they must almost adorn a spot of natural beauty with some crap like this, nature cannot be left alone to simply be.
On our way back the mist seems to follow us back into the town; the dreary weather makes itself at home and follows me for the rest of my stay in Vietnam. We stop in a roadside cafe that has clearly not used to serving foreigners. The locals eating there are members a local ethnic tribe, of which there are 54 in Vietnam, despite it being only just past midday they are all already drunk and share with us some garlic dipped snails and fermented rice wine, which I politely sip, weary of the motorbike ride home.
My next stop will be Hoi An, which I will reach with a long sleeper bus, taking me almost halfway up the country. Coincidentally, it will also be Christmas day when I arrive.
I get a reasonable night's sleep on the bus, all things considered, and arrive in Hoi An. Hoi An was a major trading port of the Cham empire. In the 10th century onwards it was used as a major port for the spice trade; first by the Chinese, then the Japanese, later the Portuguese, and finally the French. Every civilisation that stopped here has left its mark, and the quaint old town is layered with the architecture and history of each group of traders who settled here. The town lost its importance when they moved the major port of central Vietnam north to the city of Da Nang. Then Hoi An languished in obscurity, until Vietnam was opened to tourism in the 1990s and Hoi An enjoyed a renaissance, catering to the historically curious traveller. Now this small city is restored to its picture perfect beauty; chinese lanterns strung picturesquely across the narrow, and mercifully motorbike free, alleyways. So I arrive on Christmas day, a young woman shouts at me across the street "Merry Christmas sir! Breakfast sir! Have a nice day!".
Hoi An is achingly pretty, compared with the concrete-fest that is much of Vietnam. Narrow traffic free streets beg to be walked around without a map or a plan, which is exactly what I do for most of the day. This perfect manicured beauty, however, comes at the cost of sharing it with many other tourists. The main sight in the town is the Japanese bridge, a small and pretty bridge spanning a canal, with merchant's shops on either side of the wooden structure. Much like in Venice this cramped and thriving hub of economic activity must cram shops into every available space. Aside from the obvious tourist traps there are many cute little traditional Vietnamese shops and restaurants, I take my time to stock up on a few supplies and gifts and treat myself to a shave in a shabby looking backstreet barbers. As night falls the town really shines; colourful chinese lanterns hang from every narrow alleyway, small boats light by candle ply the main waterway which bisects the town. It’s all staged for tourists, but it’s still pretty and atmospheric. I barely register that it is Christmas day here, it's a day like any other on this trip; but a pretty and relaxing one at that.
The next day the tail end of a typhoon that had battered the Philippines hits Vietnam and it begins to pour, at first quite violently, and then a more sedate, but persistent drizzle, that stays with me for a number of days. The town still looks pretty and I persevere with my exploring a little more. I had planned to rent a bike and go to one of the nearby beaches, but the rain makes that unappealing, so I continue exploring the town. Mostly I check out the markets and lesser explored side streets across the river. The streets are mostly empty, no-one really bothers to continue in this weather, and the soft pastel colours look pretty in the lonely damp of the afternoon. Finally I give in and spend a number of hours hopping from coffee shop, to shops, and then to a bar to play some pool with some other passing tourists.
I hop on another bus, this one a short hop to the old imperial capital of Hue, to spend only one night here. The bus is a sleeper bus, which feels a little weird given that it is 11am and the trip only lasts for four hours; I suppose they have to use their stock of busses with beds even during the day. The rain pounds the bus, and from my bottom bunk I can see very little. We speed through the large city of Da Nang and on to Hue. I get to the hostel and I'm already soaking wet from the short walk there; my thirst for exploring as saturated as my shoes. I drag myself out into the drizzle again and walk to a local restaurant from which I order a number of slimy dishes served in banana leaves. I love to try new food, but these wears are genuinely disgusting, I can't remember their name or even what they were called so I can't warn you against trying them. Towards the afternoon I take the last possible chance to enter the citadel. The citadel was the seat of the Nguyễn lords, who controlled Vietnam for a number of years until the end of the second world war, when the French moved the capital to Saigon. The citadel is a vast and impressive complex of buildings encircled by a moat, more reminiscent of China than anything else in the region. During the American war the invaders endeavoured to take Hue without destroying the imperial city, but as this particularly bloody and drawn out battle the Americans gave up on this noble aim and began to bombard the citadel where the Viet Cong were hiding. Consequently much of the grounds are in ruin, and restoration is slow and proceeding in fits and starts. Without a guide, however, I am at a complete loss much of the time as to what I am looking at. Impressive as it is I feel for the first time in this trip my wanderlust abetting and thinking of home again and the rain penetrates to my very core and I contemplate yet more ancient masonry in ignorance.
The next day, my shoes still a little wet, and my mood still a little less than rosy I hop on a plane to Hanoi, my appetite for 14 hour train rides slightly diminished.
I agreed to meet up with Jane, who I met in Bangkok, for new years. I timed my flight to arrive before hers, so I can wait for her in the airport and travel onto the city together. I spend a boring few hours in this surprisingly low key airport until she arrives and we head into the city in a taxi together. The sun is well and truly down by the time we check in and get ourselves together, but there is just time to explore the neighbourhood we are staying in and treat ourselves to a delicious Vietnamese hot-pot. The Saigonese look down on those from Hanoi, thinking them backward. My first impression of the capital is that it is much more traditional and old fashioned compared to the modern, and larger main city in the south. But what to the Vietnamese from the south seems like an embarrassing backwardness, to the westerner seems like a beautiful quaintness. Despite being a big city, life very much spills unselfconsciously onto the street wherever one looks. Restaurants abut the pavement and road, where passersby can dine on little plastic stools all facing the street, usually there is only one dish on offer, which a little old lady concocts squatting over a couple of gas cylinders. Young and old take to the streets to play impromptu raket or ball sports, oblivious to the honking of the passing motorbikes. Every square inch of available space is taken up with rickety old stalls selling and repairing everything imaginable. In common with Saigon everywhere is heaving with human life and the choking benzene fumes of the million motorcycles that plie the streets of Hanoi. This is not a city for those who are fond of personal space and clean air, it is however a charming and deeply fascinating village come metropolis for those who know where, and how, to look. Every big city in the world seems to merge into one, but Hanoi seems somehow to retain a certain indescribable otherness. We can't stay long however, as we have only four nights here and want to explore the north beyond this congested metropolis.
We wake a little late and find that the bus to the amusingly named Ninh Binh is full so we opt to hire a motorbike and head there under our own steam. It takes us a little while to hunt out a good shop where we can take a bike for multiple days and it's past midday by the time we get going. We share one bike so that we can share the driving. I'm on the first shift and must navigate my way out of the city, one of the most terrifying things I've had to do on this trip. The first section is down a set of narrow congested streets, not really wide enough for a single motorbike, but nonetheless streets in which pedestrians walk four abreast and two lanes of motorbikes vie and jostle for space. The roads open out into dual carriageways, but, despite there being two lanes clearly marked on the street, motorbikes line up 5, 6 or even more abreast. The mercifully few cars and lorries that use the roads sometimes use the fast lane of the opposite side of the road to overtake several bikes at once; one lapse of concentration could be fatal. The start of the trip is slow going, every 100 m or so we must stop shoulder to shoulder with 20 other bikes at red lights, barely enough room to set your foot down to steddy the bike. Neon numbers count down until the lights turn green, usually the 5 or 6 second mark is an invitation for the braver bikes to set off. We proceed like this for almost an hour; accelerate, jostle for space, inhale benzene, wait and accelerate again. Somehow we survive the seemingly endless suburbs of Hanoi. Although the city never really seems to give way to countryside the roads become less busy and the lights give out. We power home the last 60 km in the time it took us to do the first 30. Jane takes the last section on an empty highway and boasts that she is much quicker than me. We finally arrive in Ninh Binh, a bit exhausted and with sore heads from the stress and fumes of driving, but alive and with our bike in one piece and check into the hotel.
Ninh Binh was recommended to me by a friend as one of the most beautiful natural spots within striking distance of Hanoi, with beautiful narrow rivers meandering through caves and limestone karsts. The main activities of interest are boating along the said rivers and cruising through the countryside on a bike. Despite this natural beauty the town itself is a bit of a grey uninspiring dump without real attractions or much in the way of evening activities. It's too late to do much of interest now, so we have a quiet night and save our energy for the following days.
We take our bike through the countryside, as soon as we leave the boundaries of the town the appeal of this area begins to make itself clear. Great towering limestone karsts rise without warning from the otherwise flat unbroken paddy fields, towering either side of the road, heming one in ominously and dramatically. It is a place to experience feeling both free on the winding roads, and a sense of smallness from the giant rocks that tower over the road as you weave along the roads. We stop at a number of minor sights, a few temples being restored, and a bizarre, near abandoned, french cathedral. They are not so impressive in their own right, but the scenery gives them a dramatic context, and being the sole visitors to these places gives them an eerie feel. But our main object of the day is Tran An, where we can take a boat trip along the river. This place is slightly more popular with the tourists, although the majority of the tourists are Vietnamese, rather than international. We queue up for a ticket and hop on one of the wooden boats queueing up for our business. The boats are piloted almost exclusively by women, many of them quiet elderly but with a sinewy ropeynes to their muscles doubtless gained from many years of heavy rowing. Clearly this is deemed much too hard work for the men. The woman begins to row, weirdly facing forwards the motion that she makes to propel the boat seems a little awkward, but she steers the boat through a system of narrow caves and gullies, knowing exactly where to go in the water and exactly when to shout 'duck', as we pass under a particularly large stalactite. As the boat gains momentum she takes off her shoes and begins to power the boat with simian-like dexterity in her feet. She looks faintly ridiculous, but also effortlessly and immensely skillful, laying back and letting her thighs take the strain of propelling us through the water. The boat tour takes in yet more achingly beautiful scenery, composed of murky water, flat waterlogged paddy fields and sharp limestone cliffs. This being Vietnam there is also a little stop in an 'ethnic' village, where some local tribes people have been rounded up to stand in front of quaint houses that they clearly don't live in, wearing clothes that they clearly don't normally wear, then there is a stop at the film set of one of the king-kong movies which was apparently filmed here and finally a burnt out American chopper carefully positioned for dramatic effect. The boat trip itself is a stunning 2 hours well spent, despite these rather perplexing interludes.
The rest of the day we spend on our bike exploring the countryside and taking the long way home through the back streets. The rain begins to pound us again, mercifully holding off till we were off the boat. We soggily make our way back home to spend another fairly uninteresting evening in the greyness of Ninh-Binh.
The next day we head to another launching point for a boat trip, Tam Coc. Much more famous than the one we did yesterday as one of the viewpoints is one of the Vietnamese tourist board set pieces. A narrow river weaves through a field of yellow flowers, flanked either side by the immodestly proportioned limestone karsts. Either we are in the wrong season, or the tourist board has heavily doctored these images. The view is impressive, but doesn't quite live up to the other worldly beauty that the posters suggest. This boat ride is also much more of a tourist trap, with the prices a little higher, and at the middle point an aggressive sell by another lady in the boat who insists that we buy lunch for our driver, no doubt she simply gives the food back to the other lady and between them they split the money. A pretty trip, but we enjoyed our previous stop of Trang An much more. After our boat ride we take a back route back towards the town. This seldom used road is the archetypal vietnamese scene, with ladies in traditional hats working paddy fields full of water buffalo. Jagged limestone rocks seem to pierce the farmland from below. There is just time to climb to the top of one of the nearby hills with a Chinese looking temple and dragon statue at the top. The last bit requires a bit of free styling over the sharp limestone, which would not be allowed back home. The views are spectacular, and we look down onto the river that we were paddled through earlier this morning, the holistic view from here much better than the snapshot seen from down below. A beautiful serene moment before we hurtle our way back to Hanoi. It's nearly dark by the time we finally pull up to the rental place, and the streets are rammed with traffic. Its new years eve tonight, and despite the Vietnamese technically working to a different calendar it seems to be a big event.
The streets of Hanoi are rammed to the brink with locals and tourists. Many young Vietnamese are determined to enjoy themselves tonight in a series of events which would not have been allowed before the (somewhat) liberal reforms of the communist regime. Three different stages in the city with DJs and light shows have been set up, and parts of the old town around the lake are so full that moving freely is almost impossible. We stand with the crowds and listen to the Vietnamese DJs. Much of Southeast Asia seems to have embraced western music quite heavily, but here the DJ plays only modern Vietnamese music. A modern light show sits incongruously next to the ever present giant visage of Ho Chi Minh. The crowd seems weirdly subdued given the energy of the DJ, perhaps a little unsure of how to behave in this kind of situation. I feel that if this were happening in Thailand and Cambodia people would be going wild. Midnight comes and goes and there is a rather lackluster firework display and within 10 minutes the DJ is done and the crowd begins to disperse and people rush home. There is only so much the regime can tolerate it seems; its 2018 now, you've had your fun now get to bed. The roads are choked and it takes us a while to fight our way back to the hotel where we collapse exhausted into bed.
I take Jane back to the airport early in the morning, in time to see locals engaged in various acrobatic exercises along the lake of Hanoi in the clearing mist. We say our goodbyes and I head back into the city once again on a local bus and kill a few hours in a coffee shop before I can check into the hostel. The inevitable march of the hipster coffee sipper has reached even Vietnam; there are many trendy coffee shops dotted around the hipper neighbourhoods of the town. It's slightly too late to make the jump to my next destination so I kill another day in Hanoi, pleasantly enough it transpires. First I go to the affectionately named Hanoi Hilton, a prison built in the centre of Hanoi by the French to detain, torture and, judging by the large guillotine on display there, execute those who they deemed questioned their dominance of Indochina. The communists then co-opted the prison as a place to hold captured American pilots. The museum is full of unflinching descriptions of the excessive cruelties of the French. When it comes to the American prisoners it brushes over the details, saying that they were very well treated here and even enjoyed their stay. The final room has a series of pictures of rather nervous looking American soldiers posing with ping-pong bats. The exhibition even uses the fact that the Americans nicknamed the place the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as proof of their love of the prison. My next stop is the Ho Chi Minh square, another enormous communist square, one of many that I have seen on this trip. It is one of the few places in Hanoi where bikes are not allowed to drive, out of difference to the centerpiece of the square, the pickled corpse of Ho Chi Minh himself. Unfortunately, the mausoleum is closed for lunch, so I don't quite have time to see this modern day wonder; no pickled corpse today regrettably. I spend the rest of the day grazing on street food and buying a few supplies here and there in the many markets of Hanoi. Tomorrow I will take a bus to the extreme north of the country, Ha Giang.
I book a bus to Ha Giang near the Chinese border, advertised as a limousine. It's a luxury bus with only 13 leather reclining seats, on a single level and with the mandatory brightly coloured flashing LED lights inside. Unusually I'm the only foreigner on the bus. The bus pulls into town around 11pm and they kindly agree to drop me at my hostel. I wake up the owner and he shows me to my bed, bleary eyed and disheveled, and I go straight to sleep, having seen nothing so far.
The real reason for coming to this town is to complete a four day motorcycle loop through the extreme north of Vietnam, taking in remote mountain vistas and villages, skimming along side the Chinese border and through the homelands of the H'mong and White and Red Thai tribes that live in these hills. Five years ago this loop would have been the very cutting edge of travel adventure, but now the word is out and many people are here with the same idea. Over breakfast I get chatting with a man from Oman, Abu Habib, who has the same plan as me, and we agree to do the journey together. I hire a bike from the hostel, a small scooter, and for the first time I'm riding a semi-automatic; they have run out of the automatics, so I have to quickly adapt to the shifting gears with my feet. After a few laps around the quiet town I get the hang of it; we fill up with fuel and begin our journey. The day is grey and overcast. It is not quite raining but the air is heavy with an all pervasive moisture. The road, the sky, the river and, after a time, my own body, seem to merge into a moist continuous whole. There seems to be no dividing line between the heavy wet air, the clouds and the damp road. We ascend the first hill, slowly feeling our way into our bikes as they curve around the wet, heavily potholed roads and up the first path. I'm told the views are stunning, but I am none the wiser, as we ascend the first hill we enter a thick mist that restricts visibility to no more than 15 meters. Despite my many waterproof layers the moisture finds its way to my skin and I begin to shiver with cold. The first mountain pass takes most of the morning. Although I feel uncomfortable I am still enjoying the sense of adventure that the thick mist and the shody roads instill in me. Billboards adorn the road, kindly put there by the Vietnamese tourist board, showing us the sights we are about to see, or would be about to see if we could see anything at all. From time to time the mist tantalisingly clears and we catch a glimpse of the stunning vistas hidden behind the fog. Steep mountains sides adorned with terraced paddy fields; rugged limestone crags piercing through the moisture. As the afternoon wears on we head down into our first town: Tam Son, and stop for a bite to eat and a coffee; my Omani friend visibly shaking with the cold and trying to warm up. The edge taken off the cold we carry on our journey on the highway heading east, parallel to the Chinese border. The weather is slightly kinder and we begin to see a few more peaks at the landscape below us. The shoddy narrow road cuts impossibly along the side of a mountain, a certain death awaits the motorcyclist who vears off the edge. Stretching into the distance radiant green fields of crops and weeds, hugged tightly by thin wispy clumps of fog. We make it into the town where we will stay the night, Yinh Minh, and inhale plates of fried rice, our bodies drained of energy from the cold and damp and check into a hostel. A hot shower, layers and layers of blankets, and more food shared with the family that runs the this beautiful hostel and we begin to feel the life returning to our wet bones.
Day two begins and after a quick breakfast we are the first to leave the hostel and set off on the road heading east towards Meo Vac. The road at one point deals a glancing blow to the chinese border. The weather is mercifully a little warmer today so we set off in better spirits. The 'highway' is a single lane road, potholed and with the traction of a slippery eel; the going is slow. We wind up and down pass after pass, ascending into an impenetrable mist. I follow the backlight of my travel companion, as this is at times all I can see. Our efforts are more generously rewarded today compared with yesterday, as we catch more glimpses of this stunning alien landscape. Vietnam is composed of 54 ethnic groups, many of them with their own language and distinct look, and many of them live here in this mountainous region in the north. One has the feeling that every different valley one crosses into one is met by a different group of people. The clothing is different, the way of life is different, possibly they even speak a different language, again I play the role of fascinated, but ignorant, passive observer. As we snake our way up another wet mountain pass a group of young girls emerge from the mist; like a caravan of camels they walk silently in a line, each with an absurdly heavy bale of grass slung on their backs. The weight of their cargo is borne by a strap around their forehead as they angle their backs at 45 degrees down to counteract the weight of the heavy grass. Old ladies of this tribe are permanently stooped over at this angle, their spines unable to return to vertical after a lifetime of burden. Surely the capital to buy a few donkeys would improve the lives of these people immeasurably, but this is their way of life; how things have always been done.
The journey to the next village is only 70 km, so we take a sharp left and detour to a tower that sits astride the Viet-Sino border. The road deteriorates into a thick mud and the going is tough, a couple of times I hit my break going downhill and I feel the rear tire lock and slide out dangerously from underneath me, a couple of times I almost lose control and have to plant my feet on the ground to regain my balance. After a long slog we make it to the tower. The mist descends in a perfectly cruel timing as we climb the steps, we will not see China today and have to content ourselves with snapping some selfies next to the signpost by the tower. After a quick drink we begin the descent back to the main road, conditions are tough, and down hill is always more treacherous than up. I take a corner a little too wide and fast and disaster strikes, a couple of old men on a clapped out bike coming the other way and I'm veering towards them, I slam on the breaks and miss them, but my bike is sliding out of control. I plant my feet but the bike slides out from underneath me and I fall backwards onto my arse, the bike tumbles and the handlebar falls painfully onto my left foot. After some cursing and some a few minutes of exquisite agony I'm back on my feet again, limping but nothing is broken. The men check that I am OK and scold me in Vietnamese, but they help me to my feet and prop up my bike for me and check that it is still in working order, nothing is broken, neither bone nor metal, and after composing myself I continue on my journey, much more cautiously now. More winding roads and high mountain passes with thick fog. The roads are saturated and covered in a thin layer of slippery mud, a couple of times more I feel the back tire power-slide underneath me and almost lose control, coming down the steep mountain roads. Still we make it down to the town of Meo Vac without further incident, feeling elated and glad to be home in one piece.
The hostel, the only one in the town, has a great comunal feel to it, and we accumulate more and more people that are also attempting the same route as us; a couple of American brothers from California, a group of Australians, a guy from the Czech Republic, and of course the ubiquitous German. We share a few beers and I regale them with the tale of my now slightly swollen foot and head to bed.
The next day takes us along very minor roads, heading south-west to complete our circuit back to Ha Giang, where we must return our bikes. I brace myself to head out into the morning greyness, but the greyness is no-more, replaced by a brilliant warming January sun. This gives us no end of joy and we woolf down some coffee and scrambled eggs and head into the mountains with a smile on our faces. Today's riding is some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. This back road is seldom used, and we have the place almost to ourselves. As we pass through the little villages that dot the roadside, young children run alongside our bikes screaming hysterically and hold out their hands for us to high five them from our bikes. I feel like I have experienced three different countries in three days as the scenery here changes abruptly once again. The countryside is green like my home land, but still somehow alien. Today we can see the road ahead of us and how it snakes its way up a hill side and then clings perilously to the side of a sheer rock face. Terraced rice fields adorn the lower slopes of the hills, and as we climb the rice gives up and the mountainside is occupied with thick forest. Further up still the vegetation gives way and the mountain is a bare granite or limestone rock face. Every bend seems like a place to stop and stare and snap a picture, but we cannot stop everywhere, and we must keep our full focus on this treacherous road. For lunch we meet up with the others that we met in the hostel last night and ride the last section back to Ha Giang all together; six of us now in a chain of bikes snaking its way home. The final mountain pass is one of the most stunning; vertical limestone mountains adorn the side of the road, reminiscent of a diminutive Yosemite park. The final descent is a contender for the worst road in Vietnam; not a moniker to be rewarded lightly. We barely creep over 10 km per hour down a twelve degree descent littered with potholes the size of our wheels. A false move here could be fatal, and a few times I feel my bike losing control. I edge down the road as slowly as I can and reach the highway without major incident. The road improves, somewhat, but with it comes more traffic. We speed home as quickly as we dare and before we know it we are back at the hostel where it all began, safe, dry, warm and above all intensely contented. I spend the afternoon filling out my taxes; from the astonishing to the mundane, but still I couldn't be happier, and so to bed.
Hanoi 3 and Halong bay
I take a long bus back to Hanoi, the air conditioning is on full blast and it's an uncomfortably cold 7 hours. Shivering I arrive on the outskirts of Hanoi where I am accosted by several guys on motorbikes who vie for my business. I manage to talk one down to a none-insane price and speed off through rush hour Hanoi back to the hostel where I stayed before. I don't have much energy for anything other than a quick bite to eat and head to bed early.
The next day is my last in Vietnam before I fly to Lao and I have not yet seen Vietnam's most famous sight: Halong bay, so I book a cheap day tour to the bay, not ideal in that it involves 8 hours on a bus for only a four hour tour: but I suppose it is better than nothing. A little Vietnamese man meets me in the hostel and leads me to a minivan that is waiting in the middle of the road, oblivious to the cacophony of beeping behind it. The van drives around the old town picking up more and more tourists in a similar fashion. Soon the tiny minivan is rammed to the brim, every available seat taken, including ones that fold down in the middle of the central aisle. It's a desperately stuffy and cramped four hour drive, with the mandatory stop at a massive shop in the middle of nowhere selling tourist tat. The bus stops at one entrance and picks us up at the other, so that we are compelled to walk through the shop; thirty minutes of our precious time are consumed here before we are allowed to continue. I refuse to buy anything, partly out of principle, but also because I'm not a natural souvenir acumulator. The bus pulls up at the docks of Halong and we are shuttled onto a boat, where we eat an uninspiring dinner on the stationary boat; until we finally set off of our tour of Halong bay.
Halong bay is one of Vietnam's tourist set pieces, and it is easy to see why; limestone karsts rise from the dark moody waters for miles and miles into the sea before the open ocean really begins. But it is also one of the tourist boards most masterful uses of photoshop, the water is muddy brown from years of over pollution and the area is an ecological disaster manufactured by the communist government. My splitting headache and the heavy overcast sky slightly diminishes the experience; also, our time lacking, we cannot truly explore the bay in earnest. I'm glad I came, but this is nothing compared to my adventure in the north. The whole experience is a little too manufactured and has to be shared with hoards of other people.
Our boat stops and we are shown to a set of Kayaks where we can explore the smaller coves that our large boat cannot enter, here the scenery is truly impressive and a happy thirty minutes of bobbing on the water, craning my neck up to the tower cliffs above, are had, before I hurry back to the main boat. There is one more stop on a tour, which is a set of caves where we disembark the boat and walk through on foot. The series of caverns are vast open spaces, surprisingly tastefully lit; our tour guide points to a number of rocks that allegedly look like various animals or famous people, with a little stretch of the imagination. The imposing space has the feel of a natural cathedral.
Before I know it we’re back on the cramped and stuffy bus, with another pointless stop at a tourist-trap shop and then back to Hanoi, well after the light has faded and back to the hostel. Halong bay disappoints slightly, but maybe because I have not devoted the time that it deserves. I feel I have achieved no more than ticking another sight off the list, without having really enjoyed myself. But in any case Lao becons tomorrow.
In the morning, before my flight to Vientiane, there is just time to see one more sight, so I pick one of the museums of Hanoi almost at random: the museum of Vietnamese women. The museum is quite well done, not exactly feminist in outlook, as mostly it celebrates the domestic role of women, but does a good job of illuminating just how hard life is for some many of the women of Vietnam through a number of stories on video. We are shown a woman who lives in the mountains to the north of Hanoi and must spend 14 hours a day selling plastic containers 5 days a week, sleeping in a hostel for $0.35 a night she is able to bring back maybe $10 dollars for her injured husband and children. She doesn't seem miserable, but her life is hard and gives pause for thought as to the backstories of these women that one doubtlessly interacts with on the streets of Hanoi. Next time perhaps I won't batter hard for that final 10,000 dong... As I explore the museum I find some time to ponder my experience here in Vietnam.
Vietnam had almost mythical status in my imagination before I visited it, but I can't help but feel slightly disappointed with my experience here. Surely the appalling weather has something to do with it, but more than that there are altogether too many people. Every nook and cranny is filled with hordes of humans, and one never has the sensation of being away from it, the streets are crowded and the roads are clogged. Much of the natural beauty of the land has been ruined by the careless and corrupt over development of the state, every area of natural beauty must be milked for all it is worth. Even an unremarkable hill has a toll booth at the bottom, where tourists must pay to walk up to the summit, where there will be tacky tourist features, nature can never be left to simply be. The country has an air of the overbearing police state, not quite one of the Uzbekistans of this world, but the people do not have the same spirit of freedom that one finds in the neighbouring countries. For all this the Vietnamese people are warm and friendly and open to strangers; more than this it is one country that has managed to resist westernisation, and feels like nowhere else I have ever been. Perhaps more important than being nice, is simply to be affrontingly different, and that is the most the traveller can hope for. Anyway on to Lao.