Straight Vodka….Bangkok to Kathmandu & Beyond

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We spent our last few days in Bangkok researching about Nepal and wandering some neighborhoods we missed last time. We also switched hostels, from an interesting place on the water with a lot of character, but noisy toilets and questionable structural integrity to a place we had stayed before we went to Ayutthaya. We sacrificed windows and character for a/c and cleaner bathrooms.

We took the river ferry down to the skytrain and over to the commercial center full of shops and hotels. We didn’t have much success shopping for hats, but Riki found a smaller tripod so he can swap out his larger one when we meet up with my parents next week. The next day, we took the river ferry across to Wat Arun. The Thonburi neighborhood is one of the older ones and has lots of little side streets, as well as walkways along the water. And unlike Ayutthaya, the cats rule the streets here, not the dogs.

Good bread has been very hard to find and we have been craving it for awhile. Not far from the backpacker’s area in Bangkok, we found a great bakery with real bread run by ladyboys. And they have wifi. We went every day, even twice one day to eat fresh bread and research for Nepal.

On Wednesday we flew through Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu. We were unimpressed with Malaysia Airlines, mostly because of the service. They ran out of chicken meals and brought me a vegetarian meal, but an hour later. And they brought Riki a tall glass of vodka when he asked for a beer, without anything to mix with it. So that was weird.

We arrived very late in the evening in Nepal and luckily the power was on and we got our visas pretty quickly. Getting our bags was a trip, just as we had heard. It is very hectic around the baggage claim. People with carts crowd the belt and it’s almost impossible to get to the front. But as soon as Riki had sent me off to check another belt, our bags arrived. We made it to our hostel and spent the next day wandering around Thamel looking for a trekking guide and supplies.

And this is where it gets awesome. Very conveniently, we arrived in the midst of Dewali/Tehar/Dipwali (known by a variety of names here), which is a big four day festival. For this festival, everyone decorates their buildings with lights. When we flew in, we could see all the lights, on almost every building. Incredible for a place known for its power outages. They must have saved up their power for this festival because we had no problems with power outages during these days. They also make incredible rice/sand pieces to invite the goddess of wealth into their homes. We walked around for hours looking at these and watching little kids go around from house to house asking for money.

Very early the next morning, we took a bus to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. This 8 hour trip cost $7 and travelled along the highway, which was more high then way. It was barely two lanes (one each direction) and really bumpy. Sometimes we were very close to the edge. Other times, it was so bumpy we were actually bounced completely off our seats. Luckily they were soft and we didn’t hit any traffic jams. We have heard horror stories of people trapped on the highway for hours because of accidents. And it’s the only road.

We checked into a really nice family run place in Pokhara and spent the afternoon checking out the trekking agencies. That evening, still during the festival, the sidewalks were filled with people dancing. We stopped at numerous places to watch individuals and groups dance in front of the gathering crowds. Riki really enjoyed this and there are probably a hundred pictures from this night.

Because of the festival, the permit office was closed and we were not able to leave as early for our trek as we had hoped. This was fine by us, as we had plenty of time and wanted to see what the festival was all about. Saturday we did a short trek uphill for two hours to the World Peace Pagoda. We only got a little lost and ended up finding a troupe of monkeys. They were fascinating and we also probably have a hundred pictures of them. They were drinking from a small pond and had tiny babies with them. Eventually we made it to the top and had an excellent view of the city. The clouds even cleared a bit and we could see the Himalayas.

In August, there was a large landslide right under the pagoda and a few people died. The remnants are still very visible. We walked down a ton of steps (for practice for our trek) and found a boat at the bottom to take us back across the lake to Pokhara. That evening we found a ton more dancing on the sidewalks.

On Sunday, we returned to one of trekking agencies and arranged for a guided 5 day trek to Poon Hill for the next day. We spent the afternoon shopping for hats, gloves and provisions (including Snickers bars, which are big with trekkers).

 

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Nepal:IMG_0595-1.JPG

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Note the initials. They knew I was coming.

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Ancient Bricks & Elephants….Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya is an ancient capital, just a quick train ride north of Bangkok.  Quick trip that is if your train doesn’t catch on fire.  We smelled the smoke, but didn’t think anything of it because people burn random things all the time here.  That is, until we stopped and all the people from the car in front of ours came steaming into our car and the stench of smoke became too bad that they opened the doors and people started getting off.

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But it must not have been that bad, because after about 10 minutes we started going again, albeit slowly.

We arrived about an hour late to Ayutthaya and took the 5 baht (31 baht= $1) ferry across to the island.  The buildings along the water were raised, some very high.  A couple years ago this area had a terrible flood.  The worst flooding in 100 years.

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We walked to a hostel, a Thai style place with no a/c or working internet, but loads of character in a quiet area.  From there we rented bikes for just over a buck and headed for the ruins.  And ruins there were plenty.  Mostly piles of bricks with questionable structural integrity.  The first wat we visited however had a cool interior with an old Buddha mural inside.  The Burmese destroyed this area, so what is left is only the basics.

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A lot of the wats have been renovated over the years or are currently being renovated.

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It was incredibly hot and we opted to take a tuk-tuk the second half of the day to some of the further out sites.  I don’t have a picture of this, but our tuk-tuk was pimped out with led lights and very loud speakers in the back.  Another undocumented event happens more often than we’d like, but since we each only have a few shirts and shorts in similar colors, Riki and I often match.  This day, if it weren’t for my new hat, we would have been identical.

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 Look for the scale figures standing by the center hand. Huge, indoor Buddha.

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 Reclining Buddha

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Check out my Instagram too for more Buddha pics.

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Our final stop with the tuk-tuk was to see where they used to train elephants for work and war.  It was a bit depressing to see all the elephants chained up, but this little guy was free to roam, though rarely left his mom’s side.

The next day we rented bikes (@ a different place because the first ones we had were pretty awful) and rode to see some of the closer sites.  I broke my sunglasses and until I find a good pair, I’m using this nifty reversible hat for shade.

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Posing like the other Asian tourists.

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The hat photo bombs a lot of Riki’s pictures.
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Banksy?

We returned to Bangkok without any smoky trains and checked into a new place just north of the backpacking area.  I picked this place because it sounded like it had character.  It has loads, a great view, and not much else.  The place is sitting so close to the river that it is actually built over water.  Which means mosquitos.  The bathroom was quite dim, which was probably better, but the toilet gurgled all night and the bed was like a rock.  So this morning we moved back to the place we stayed earlier this week, which has no window, but is clean and has a/c.

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See the fish? (Center right)

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We are spending the next couple days reading up on Nepal and planning for that segment, which begins on Wednesday.

Wrapping up N. Vietnam….Back to BKK, Thailand

We spent a couple of days back in Hanoi.  The first day back happened to be the 60th anniversary of kicking the French out of the city.  We had seen the preparations for this for over a week.  There were lanterns all along the streets and lights up everywhere.  And there were flags.  Lots of flags.  And you know how much Riki likes flags?  I’m guessing there are 100 pictures of flags.  I will spare you most of them.  That evening, we wandered down to Hoan Kiem lake just in time for a parade (of course we found a parade).  There were dancing dragons, colorful ladies and lots of music.  We hung around the lake for a few hours and were joined by perhaps the entire population of Hanoi.  The fireworks, which Riki had read were going to be modest because they were being paid for by the city, were the best ones I’ve ever seen.  Lots of huge, loud ones and incredible shapes.

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The next day we checked out the National History Museum and Revolution Museum.  The Revolution Museum was a lot like Cuba’s in that there was not much explanation, but lots of artifacts.  For instance, the cup so and so drank from that time he ate at this place.  And the jacket he wore that other time he went to this other place.  See how much I learned?  We did some research after we went to fill in the blanks.  The History Museum had a lot of really cool old artifacts, metal pieces, old tools, etc.

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The following day we headed for Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house.  He refused to live in the palace and had a traditional house built out back for himself.  The people really like that.  On our way we got a bit lost, but found a lake and this guy giving haircuts along a main road.IMG_0522.JPG

We found a few places with balconies overlooking the hectic streets.  I think these were Riki’s favorites.IMG_0521.JPG

 Our last day in Hanoi we did some shopping (or just browsing really) and went to our new favorite restaurant to eat our new favorite dish, Highway 4 with carmelized coconut and pork.  Pricey for Hanoi, but our meal was still under $15.

We had a quick flight back to Bangkok on Air Asia.  Our flights were only $60 each way.  Definitely worth the trip to Northern Vietnam to catch the good weather.

Back in BKK, we strolled down this canal to the Golden Mount, a free view of the city, with lots of bells.

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I may look awkward, but these monks on mobile devices were too funny.

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Sometimes I get ahold of the camera and bad things happen.

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Flower pictures, as requested.

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We really like taking the ferries down the river.  They are fast, cheap and cleaner than the buses.

Next stop, Ayutthaya, the ancient capital.

 

Deep thoughts by Riki….Vietnam

What cops are probably saying @ roadblocks to motorbikes/scooters: “sorry guys, road is closed, use the sidewalk.”

I’ve heard the Vietnamese national anthem so often here that I probably know the hymn better than the Swiss one…

American Aussie @ Bia Hoi place: “Hanoi is Bangkok 20 years ago and Myanmar is like what Hanoi was 20 years ago.” Conversation was about why we should definitely go to Myanmar.

Hanoi has the best tasting coffee I have ever had, honestly, just the simple Vietnamese coffee with milk (which is condensed and you don’t know it’s in there until you start stirring your coffee, then voila…) and it’s only 20,000 VND (just under $1).

Observation while eating at street food stalls: Vietnam may be the communist country, but they don’t use toilet paper for napkins like they do in Bangkok (they don’t always, but this place we really like does)…

Yes, there is a lot of propaganda, but mostly on billboards in the countryside/along the highways (in Hanoi, most were for the 60th anniversary celebration of kicking out the French) and they are all very positive (pro worker, school teachers & pupils, peace, and “Uncle Ho” is on almost all of them), quite cool looking, and less ubiquitous than other adverts.

Their chickens (in the city) and pigs, buffalos, goats (in the countryside) just roam around everywhere – free range for sure… Just hanging out on the curb, most likely aware of the crazy traffic (cause if they weren’t, they would go on about it so nonchalantly).

Wedding and graduation pictures are huge here. Always very professional, great attire, and everywhere all the time.

Two young schoolgirls from the country side practiced their English with me at the temple of literature, we talked about Hanoi, New Orleans, and what they were studying. The students here do this all the time, they just go to the popular tourist destinations, approach foreigners, ask if they know English and if they can practice for a short conversation, it’s great and they must do it a lot, because their English is quite good.

Families just hang out on the sidewalks, in front of their houses (like the whole family, three generations), especially if they sell stuff out of their homes. It’s all very communal, but with all the motorbikes on the sidewalks, you usually just end up walking in the street.

It seems like when they advertise meat here (cooked and ready to eat):
– Chicken – no head
– Pig – head is there, just not attached
– Duck – whole thing, including the beak, just hanging from a hook in its neck

It’s amazing how inventive/ingenious the sidewalk kitchens (or motorcycle repair shops) can be with so little space, and so few materials.

The kids (especially in the countryside/outside the busiest parts of the cities) are sooo cute. They wave and say “hello” to every foreigner that happens to pass by (the babies are taught early by their moms, helping them wave and pointing out the foreigners), and if it’s only you, they say hello as often as they can until you are out of sight. Of course, the teenagers say it ironically and giggle with their friends.

The Vietnamese are none to pleased with the Chinese right now.  China built an oil rig in their waters (which China says is theirs cause….). There’s even an exhibit in the revolution museum about it, showing old maps and stuff (from China) to discredit their claim. (It’s all very political and there are some other territorial water disputes in the region, involving China…, you should read up on it).

The ladies working in the train station, and the airport too apparently, have these great white and blue dresses/outfits on (Julie could describe them better I’m sure) but they look great.

The haze, from the smoke, from the rice harvest… makes strobe lights and fireworks look amazing at night.

Sales pitch @ every market or outdoor seller (not sure who it works with) – “buy something from me” or “you buy something from me” sometimes proceeded by “where you from” or “thank you”. There was a lady at a restaurant (I think she owned it) in Sapa making fun of them, “you buy from me not from her…” Wasn’t very nice cause they didn’t speak much English and were only trying to earn some money, but it seams like there is a bit of a rivalry up there with the ethnic minorities, who sell mostly handmade things and still live quite simply, and the Viet who have moved up there more recently to make money off the tourists.

Bikes of burden, let me tell you…. Actually, you can see it in a couple of pictures, but it’s amazing what they can fit on these bikes (there’s already a photo book with them… And we thought we were so clever when we came up with the idea).

 

Karsts in the Haze….Tam Coc & Trang An, Vietnam

Wednesday we took a 6 am train to Ninh Binh.  Just 2 hours south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is a popular tourist destination for its karst formations.  The area is often called the Ha Long Bay of land.  We walked from the train station to our hotel and rented two one speed bikes for about $2.  The hotel gave us a map and we headed off toward Tam Coc to see the rocks by boat.  Once again, the map was pretty terrible, but we only got lost once.  On the way, we stopped at Hang Mua, a great viewpoint of the area.  We climbed 500 pretty steep and crumbling steps to reach a pagoda at the top.  The view was fabulous and we could see the boats far below.

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We descended the stairs, much faster than we ascended, and rode our bikes further south to Tam Coc.  We hired a boat, with a lady who rowed with her feet and took a 2 hour trip out into the limestone karsts.  We had heard some complaints that this is very touristy and you get hassled by your lady to buy her handicrafts and by other boats to buy drinks and snacks, but we had a pleasant experience.  It was the late afternoon and our driver must have been tired because we went slow and were only hassled a little at the turn around point by the other boats.  There were lots of ducks and we saw some kingfishers (?) and mountain goats, which is a local specialty.

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On the ride back, we encountered some interesting practices.  It appears that every evening, right before sunset, the excess part of the rice plant is piled up and burnt.  This makes an incredible amount of smoke and could probably be one of the reasons it’s so hazy here, just a thought.  We biked back to the hotel, arriving just before the sunset, luckily, since there are not many street lights and the road was pretty bumpy in parts.

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They use every available flat space to dry the rice.

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The next day, we rented bikes again and rode to Hua Lu, an ancient capital to the north, nestled in the karsts.  We climbed another 250 steps here for a view of a few temples and what is left of the city.

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Then we rode to Trang An, the less visited version of Tam Coc.  We were told this would be less touristy and cheaper, but in reality, we found it to be more touristy and only $4 cheaper for both of us.  And we had to share a boat with 3 very loud tourists.  So we liked Tam Coc better, though the caves in Trang An were pretty impressive, though very tight.  We had to duck on multiple occasions to get through.

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Trekking & Terraces….Northern Vietnam

***Pictures for this post are in the previous post***

After our extra long train ride (see previous post for ranting about transportation issues) we arrived in Bac Ha late Saturday evening.  This village is home to the largest ethnic minority market in the area, which we had come to see.  We got up early and went the few blocks across town to the market area.  People from all over come to this town on Sundays and tourists from Sa Pa come later in the morning.  The women show up in their bright traditional costume, some even walking or biking a few hours to sell their wares.  It was an amazing splash of color on a pretty cloudy morning.  The Flower H’mong women have the most incredible handmade skirts and shawls.  They also have wraps for their calves, like tall socks, but without the foot part.  We really enjoyed walking around the market, except for the animal section, which we skipped.  I wasn’t up for seeing adorable puppies in cages and squealing pigs in bags.  Every dog we passed, all I could think of was how he could be someone’s dinner.  But I overheard a guide tell a group of distraught teenagers, “Don’t worry.  They don’t eat the small ones.”  Since we are space limited, we didn’t do much shopping, but I did get a hand embroidered tote bag in the same fabric as the women’s outfits.

We checked out of the hotel and were lucky to catch a bus a minute later headed back down to Lao Cai.  It was an interesting ride, per usual, but we came out of it unscathed (except for maybe contracting a head cold from my seat mate).  After transferring in Lao Cai, we headed up into the mountains to Sa Pa.  There were lots of tour companies advertising Sa Pa guided treks.  We didn’t really feel like going with a group.  And Riki takes lots of photos so we kind of need to go at our own pace.  We did some research, bought a $1 map at the tourist center and hit the trail.  First stop was Cat Cat village, an easy 30 minutes down into the valley with a nice waterfall.  Having yet to find a good map while in Asia, our trail map was less than helpful.  We asked around though and were pointed down an unmarked path.  We were a bit apprehensive, but soon caught up to a small group headed the same way. Normally, guided groups are followed by local women who are chatty and full of information about their lives and villages.  We had heard these women will walk you to their village and then try to hustle you to buy their handicrafts.  Wanting to avoid this, we opted to trek without a guide and left the women at the beginning of the trail with a stiff “no shopping.”  The trail was pretty muddy and had some steep drop offs at points, but it was obviously well travelled.  It took about 2 hours to get to the next village, which was mostly flat rice paddies except for a lush forested area up a mountainside.  We thought we were going pretty slow, but apparently were making good time compared to the itineraries we had seen for guided treks.

Once we crossed to the other side of the valley, we encountered the steeper rice terraces.  The views were incredible even though most of the rice had already been harvested (check out the pictures in the other post).  There were lots of pigs, chickens, water buffaloes and ducks.  Lots of little huts.  All was going well until we took a lunch break in one of the terraces. Our theory up until that point was to follow the river and continue downstream when the trail spilt.  Well the trail split and one way went downstream and one way went uphill.  We went downstream, but ended up on a water buffalo trail in the middle of a rice terrace.  Then we were on a goat trail, crossing a creek and scrambling up 5′ muddy terraces.  The goats and water buffalo obviously had better footing than we did.  We finally could see the trail we should have been on, but there was no way to get there without getting incredibly wet.  We backtracked, hopped through a cabbage patch and found another goat trail that led back to the main trail.  40 minutes later, we were back on track.

We continued down river to Giang Tu Chai, where many guided tours go for lunch and souvenir shopping.  After 5 hours trekking, we were a bit burnt and pretty tired.  Did I mention we also had to be back to catch a shuttle back to the train?  Good thing we weren’t lost much longer.  We hopped on the back of a motorbike and for a couple bucks made it back up the mountain in time for our shuttle.

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Five minutes from China….Northern Vietnam

Tales of Transportation

***WARNING: This post is mostly two Americans complaining about the transportation issues we encountered.  At some point it became rather comical to see what would happen next.  Pictures will be in the next post, as will our trekking adventure in Sapa. So if you’re not a reader, come back later***

We spent Friday bumming around Hanoi until our evening train to the north.  We stopped by the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but he is in Russia for three months getting cleaned.  I suppose they have experience keeping Lenin looking fresh so that’s the best place for his “vacation,” as our receptionist put it.  October 10th is Hanoi’s 60th anniversary of getting rid of the French, so the whole city is geared up with flags and red banners.  We asked a shopkeeper what will happen that day and she didn’t seem too excited.  Just some speeches and parades maybe.  Everybody still works.  We were hoping for fireworks or something, but we’ll see.  We arrived at the Water Puppet Theater too late to get tickets for the immediate show but were given tickets to the next one.  In the meantime, we went back to our favorite spot for a couple of young beers and peanuts.  The water puppets were great.  They apparently tour the world.  They had elaborate costumes and while it was all in Vietnamese, we could follow the story lines.  Then we returned to our hotel to retrieve our bags and walked over to the train station.

And this is where plane karma becomes train karma.  Our 9:10 pm train left right on time and we settled into our hard sleeper cabin with some teachers from China and a Vietnamese guy.  We dozed off despite the incredible chill from the a/c and were quite glad we had brought our sleep sacks, as the cleanliness of the bedding was questionable.  We only saw two roaches though and they were tiny compared to the Palmetto bugs in New Orleans.  The train was pretty jerky and loud, but for a few hours all was quiet and I was able to sleep.  I woke up at 5:00 thinking I should probably start getting packed as we were due to arrive at 5:30.  Well 5:30 rolls around and were still going and most people are still asleep.  7:30 rolls around and were still going, albeit very slowly.  The Vietnamese guy gets up, goes out for a bit and when he returns, he gets back in his bunk and goes back to sleep.  Not a good sign.  The rest of us in the car, including some Spaniards, Americans and Germans have no idea what’s going on and no one to ask who speaks any English.  9:30 rolls around and someone figures out that we are going to arrive at 11:00.  But then the attendant comes around and gives everyone a free ramen noodle bowl (there is boiling water at one end of the car).  Not a good sign.  They wouldn’t feed us if we were arriving soon.  Then the Vietnamese guy in our cabin gets his stuff and leaves, presumably off the train because we never see him again (my theory is he caught a bus at one of the stations).  So over the next few hours we glean from the attendant that it will be another hour, and then another 30 minutes, and then another hour.  He had no idea.  To make a long story short, we arrived 8 hours late on a trip that should have only taken about 8 hours.  Later, we learned from a Dutch couple that we received a new engine in the middle of the night.  Riki’s take on this was that if we had arrived at 5:30 we would not have seen the beautiful sights along the way.  And beautiful they were.  I was less enthusiastic about the whole thing.

In order to be able to travel so long, we are on a budget (obviously).  This is no specific dollar amount, but involves taking the cheaper option most of the time.  One thing we will not be taking any more in Northern Vietnam are the public buses.  We have taken three buses in the last two days and have had enough, despite the cheap fare.  We picked up the public bus in Lao Cai, where the train let us off.  Our plan was to do some trekking in a neighboring town that afternoon and catch the big market the next morning, but by the time we arrived it was just about to get dark.  So we found a cheap hotel and some decent grub and called it a night.   Oh, and we tried the local corn whiskey, which was awful. Riki joked that he wanted to bring it back to the hotel to sanitize his toothbrush (which had hit the wall in the train toilet- our first squat toilets by the way – not pleasant, especially when moving).  He may not have been joking.

Let me touch on the public buses for a moment (or two). Our first bus, to Bac Ha, supposed to be an hour an half, took two and a half because we spent 40 minutes cruising around trying to fill up the bus.  And I’m not talking about with just people.  We had the seats full leaving the station, about 20 passengers, an engine of some sort, long poles and a puppy tied into a basket, while listening to an Asian version of Phantom of the Opera.  By the time we got on the main road, we had added 5 more people, countless boxes to the top and large, lumpy bags filled with who knows what.  Along the way, we added more people, more stuff to the top and stopped so a passenger could buy a roasted duck and the driver could take a quick smoke break.  And that was just the first bus, it gets better.  On our second bus, on the return trip, I sat in a row with 4 other people (only 4 seats) and Riki sat on a huge bag of yarn at my feet.  At one point we pulled over and the ticket taker pulled a small puppy out from under a seat and passed him out the door to somebody.  And then we continued on like that, adding people and stuff without people.  When we got off, Riki informed me that under my seat was a box of live chicks.  I had no idea.  Our most recent experience was the transfer from Lao Cai to Sapa, which should have been no more than an hour.  It took two.  We did the same obligatory jaunt around town picking up more people and stuff – 4 mattresses, bedding, two giant water purifiers, 15 large bags of flour and a sack of coconuts.  Needless to say, we were pretty weighed down.  And every time we stopped, the driver would splash water on the tire below where Riki was sitting.  Didn’t seem like a good thing, especially considering the burning rubber smell.  So we eventually crept up the mountain, and came very close to China.  And we still added people.  We got passed by everyone, except a truck full of bricks (and the people walking).  The best part: when the driver pops in the Korean lingerie DVD, complete with loud music and the older local ladies in their traditional outfits front and center of the screen.

We opted for the tourist bus on the way back down, which was almost the same price, didn’t stop to pick up any live animals and made it in less than an hour.  Settling into our train compartment, we hoped the train karma would be good.  In fact, it was worse on the way back.  Two families traveling with toddlers squeezed into our 6-person cabin.  After a bit of fussing the toddlers passed out and we dozed off.  About an hour later, one of the men starts snoring like nothing I’ve ever heard before.  He sounded like he was choking on his own tongue.  Despite our earplugs there was no way to sleep through this.  And his wife was apparently immune to the noise.  So we didn’t sleep that night.  But we weren’t delayed and made it back to Hanoi on time.

We dropped off our bags and wandered down to Lenin Park to wait for our room to be ready.  There are a bunch of lakes in Hanoi and this one is fenced off with a small entrance fee.  It is really peaceful compared to the hustle of the streets.

We napped that afternoon and planned our trip to Ninh Binh and Tam Coc.

Boats, Bays & Bikes with no brakes….Vietnam

We took an early flight from Bangkok to Hanoi, arriving at 8:30 am.  Happy to report no screaming children! We also met a woman who is traveling SE Asia and had the obligatory chat about where she has been and where she is going.  We exchanged stories and information.  Being in no rush, we decided to try the public bus (9,000 Dong, less than 50 cents) to the Old Quarter where we had made a reservation for one night at a hostel.  It took about an hour, but cost $14 less than the taxi.  Stepping off the bus, we experienced our first street crossing.  This is the complete opposite to anything you have ever experienced, I promise.  No one obeys traffic lights, not that there are many.  And there are tons of motorbikes.  So you just stare straight  ahead and walk slowly into the nearest gap in traffic.  I am not exaggerating.  Everyone does this and the motorbikes will swerve around you.  Its the cars and buses you have to avoid.  Surprisingly, this works.  The vehicles all go pretty slow and everyone gets where they are going.  Then we took a quick walk around town.  The old part of Hanoi has 36 streets that are named after what industry occurred there.  For instance, I think we are staying on wedding stationary street and right next to us is bamboo ladder street.  We are fortunate to be right near the intersection of beef soup street and chicken soup street, where we have been eating all our meals.

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The next day we had signed up for a tour to Halong Bay.  We are not really into traveling with a group, but for Halong Bay you kind of have to.  It involves a 4 hour bus ride to the harbor, transfer to a junk boat (the type of boat, not a description of the boat) and then a cruise around the massive stone peaks that this area is famous for. We went kayaking around a floating fishing village the first afternoon. We stayed on the boat the first night and had incredible fresh food and lots of it (besides the deep fried, hard boiled eggs).

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I got the back so Riki took take pictures without my paddle getting in the way.  So I think I did the paddling for the both of us.

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One of the kayaks fell overboard mid journey and had to be emptied.  It took this one guy, with 5 guys watching, quite awhile to empty it, one bucket at a time.

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Fighting chicken rocks…..or so they say.

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Our boat.  Highly recommend our tour company – Ethnic Travel.  We found them in Lonely Planet after reading many horror stories about terrible boats, food and unsatisfactory excursions.

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The next day we kayaked again to a large cave, where we got out and climbed through the rock to the other side.  The cave had a completely flat ceiling, which must have something to do with the layers of rock and how they formed over time.  I need to do some research on that.

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We meandered back to the harbor where we transferred an hour or so northeast to another town to get on a smaller boat for a cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay.  This area is a lot less touristy and the reason we choose this tour company.  Only a few companies go here.  It is a lot cleaner and a lot less crowded.  The harbor here has the typical tall, skinny buildings.  Similar to New Orleans, they are taxed on the width of the building, so many are very narrow and 5-6 stories tall.

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We went kayaking again at a pearl farm and then swimming in some clearer water.  Early evening we arrived on an island at the edge of the bay.  We took tuk-tuks to our homestay, where we found out that this island, Quan Lan, has no electrical grid and frequently experiences small blackouts, as it did just as we were being shown to our room.  The island generators operate from 6-10 pm, so after that, our homestay had to use their own generator.  But this meant no a/c.  And it was HOT.  The bed did not even come with a flat sheet, just pillows and a fitted sheet.  There was no need.  Don’t worry, we were given a fan.

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IMG_0367.JPGThe last day we woke up early to take an hour bike ride across the island.  We were all given bikes with questionable hardware and absolutely no rear brakes.  The front brakes existed, but were of little use.  Luckily it was mostly flat.

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 Then we stopped on a beach, where the sand was incredibly soft and white, but was littered with trash.  The island exports their beautiful sand for construction, but in a low-lying place where the tides differ by 4 meters, that may not be the best idea.

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We returned to the boat and cruised a different way back to the harbor, where we were driven back to Hanoi.  There were some interesting views along the way.  Lots of rice fields and small villages.  As well as this cow eating garbage.

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The drivers here are crazy.  They honk incessantly at each other, mostly to say “get over, here I come” and they pass constantly in the opposing lanes.  This means a lot of swerving and jerking about by all drivers, ours included. We were rather stressed looking out the front of the van so we kept our eyes off to the side.  When we reached Hanoi, it was rush hour and we were greeted with this mess as we crossed a bridge.

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And this guy on the phone.

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You can fit anything on a motorbike here.  Just today we saw: A washing machine – two kegs – two adults, two children – 200+ oranges (or similar looking green skinned fruit) – two men with one holding a motorbike perpendicularly.

Today has been our rest day. “Rest day?” you say. Yes.  All this traveling is exhausting and we have to take breaks.  We spent the morning planning our trip to Sapa and then went for a little walk.  Riki took this pictures of me for the electrical mess, until I pointed behind me to show him the guy napping on the bike.

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They have a cathedral here…St. Joseph’s, but we didn’t go in.

And the obligatory street art pictures.

 

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Tomorrow we go north to Sapa and Bac Ha for the Sunday market.  We are taking the night train both ways, which we booked all by ourselves at the train station.  Hopefully, we did it right.  It seems like most people we talk to go through an agency and pay a little more for convenience.

Format note: I apologize that the pictures are not in perfect order (not that you would know I guess) and for the different sizes.  Depending on how I upload the pictures, they come in as big or small and are not adjustable.  So zoom away.