A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

Crocodiles on mopeds and other tales from Hanoi

The crazy street life of Vietnam's second city


View North East Vietnam 2012 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last year's brief visit to Hanoi left a strong impression, even though Jen and I weren't able to make the most of our time there. Arriving straight from the Himalayas, we were tired and preoccupied by lists of errands. We arranged excursions to take us out of the city, thinking we would prefer the tranquillity of the coast and countryside to rubbing shoulders with millions of Vietnamese. It was probably the right decision at the time but it left me feeling short-changed by Hanoi. So we did the obvious thing - we went back.

Returning less than a year later felt like a homecoming rather than a holiday. Not only were we reunited with our cycling chums, David (Painted Roads tour leader), Phong (local guide) and Eddie (impossible to categorize), but we instantly fell in love with the city all over again. Hanoi casts its spell in unexpected ways. The guidebooks may try to talk up its tourist sites, but it's not the prospect of puppets, pagodas or pickled propagandists that excites me. Instead, it's the pulsating bustle of Hanoians going about their daily business in the enchanting Old Quarter. This is the beating heart of the city, an inside-out place where everything happens on the street. Ladies in shimmering blouses and stilettos revving their mopeds; pensive groups of men hunched over their cờ tướng boards on street corners; flower sellers weaving their bicycles between uniformed schoolchildren; street food vendors stirring, frying, serving and smiling. With so much life on show, we were keen to brush up on our street photography.

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side


Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

The Old Quarter was our base for the few days we spent in the city. Here, we watched Hanoi wake up, go to work, take coffee, exercise and go to sleep. A great many hours were spent at the street café opposite our hotel, sipping glasses of bia hơi and watching the city pass us by. At other times I would go off to explore, walking the streets morning, noon and night in search of the unexpected. Despite venturing no more than a mile from the hotel, my senses were thoroughly overwhelmed.

At first light, the street vendors begin to appear. Every morning, an estimated 10,000 of them - mostly women - converge on Hanoi from the surrounding rural provinces, as they have done for centuries. They bring fresh produce from their farms, but it’s not just fruit and vegetables they sell. I passed one lady whose bamboo baskets had been transformed into mobile ponds full of splashing turtles. Fresh ingredients are very important in Vietnamese cuisine, so the street vendors fulfil the same role as a Tesco Express would in the UK.

These women are amongst the poorest people in the city, earning around US$2 a day. Worse still, their earnings can be confiscated by the overzealous police, who increasingly enforce local laws which place restrictions or even outright bans on street selling. I have since discovered that the British government has recently provided funding for a project to improve the lives of Hanoi's street vendors.

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark


One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader

One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader


A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

Hanoi’s street cafés are a local institution enjoyed by city folk and foreigners alike. Space is at a premium in the Old Quarter, so the clientele sit on child-sized plastic chairs out in the street and conduct high-volume conversation over the noise of passing mopeds. Many cafés serve the aforementioned bia hơi, a weak home brew costing around 8,000 dong (25p) a glass. The quality can vary but at that price, who's complaining?

Others are purveyors of Vietnamese-branded coffee, a distinctive beverage filtered slowly into the cup and mixed with condensed milk. The connoisseur’s choice is cà phê Chồn or “weasel coffee”, the world’s most expensive variety. The coffee beans have passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (a weasel-like animal) which supposedly takes the bitter edge off the taste. A rather bizarre fact which begs the obvious question: who discovered it?

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi


A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

To the south of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city. I wrote a blog article last year which discussed the famous giant turtle which inhabits the lake, a creature so rare it seems destined to join the dodo on the path to extinction. There were no turtle sightings on this occasion, but our lakeside walks offered up a number of equally extraordinary visions.

Dragging ourselves down to Hoan Kiem at dawn, we found the paths and parks had been taken over by a small army of exercising Hanoians, all stretching, pumping and burning. Around the lake swarmed an anticlockwise wave of joggers and power-walkers, whilst in a public square nearby, impromptu classes were being held for aerobics, salsa, ballroom, tai chi and, my favourite of all, laughter yoga. Perhaps they were laughing at the committed fitness fanatic who was attempting to target all his major muscle groups whilst sat on a park bench.

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

In the evening, another swathe of the population descends on the lake’s leafy promenades. The exercisers are now a minority, but this only seems to encourage exhibitionist tendencies, judging from the shirtless men performing chin-ups on lampposts and five-minute headstands at the very edge of the water. Meanwhile, young lovers stroll hand in hand and wedding photographers fuss over their subjects as they contrive to maximise the romantic potential of the scene. Quite what the turtle makes of it all, I can only wonder.

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers


Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

The action has spread to the nearby square, where the painted lines of badminton courts are being put to good use. There are no racquets to be seen, however, for the game of choice is played with the feet. The Vietnamese call it đá cầu and have made it their national sport, but it originated as jianzi in China. The standard is (literally) very high, with some unbelievable agility on show as the players leap at the net to smash the shuttlecock down into the opponent’s forecourt with their feet.

Despite all the activity on show, the Vietnamese revert to type when it comes to road transport: everyone and everything travels by motorbike. In Bangkok airport’s duty free zone I came across a neat little book called Bikes of Burden, a photo journal from across Vietnam showing an amazing variety of cargo being transported on bikes, from furniture to scaffold frames, carpets to water tanks and livestock to ornamental goldfish. We kept an eye out for unusual bikes of burden ourselves and found the Hanoians more than lived up to expectations. My favourite was a giant cuddly crocodile toy about the same size as the rider. Sadly there’s no photo to prove this – I obviously wasn’t snappy enough.

Crocodile! Snappy! Ok, I’ll get my coat.

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike


A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food markets bikes vietnam hanoi photography Comments (3)

Snapshots from the back of beyond

The title says it all really. These are some of the most memorable moments from our travels to Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam in last few months. Enjoy...

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

As I cycled over the brow of the hill, and saw this lake, it took my breath away. Instead of enjoying the downhill, I stopped every 10 metres to take photo after photo as the scene unravelled. In the end I took this shot while eating my lunch with my cycling buddies under a tarpaulin in the scorching sunshine. While eating our bread and cheese (which had become cheese on toast), a storm was slowly approaching. Part of me wanted the deluge, but the photographer in me just wanted to freeze the moment...

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan was full of epic vistas. This was one of my favourites, and the road surface wasn't too bad at this point either!

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

When we went to sleep the night before, Son Kul Lake was enveloped in Scottish weather, just clearing with the sunset. It reminded me of the Western Isles. Fortunately the following morning dawned clear, so I set off up the hill behind our camp to capture some of the beautiful morning light.

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

If there's one thing that can be said of Kyrgyzstan, it's that it is unquestionably vast. This photo gives some sense of the scale of the place. It made me feel small.

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

The scenery of North East Vietnam is quite different to Kyrgyzstan. We often found ourselves dwarfed by the crops growing by the side of the road. This was a stunning valley, on a rare day when the atmosphere was beautifully clear, and around every corner was another bike stopping view.

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

On the same day, we rounded a corner by a forest clearing to find these children peeling nuts. Our guide, Phong didn't know why they were peeling nuts, and nor did the children, but they determinedly continued despite the obvious distraction of a group of westerners on mountain bikes. They deftly peeled the nuts with scary-looking knives, and oddly, the only injury sustained was a cut to my leg from a sharp stick poking out the ground, while I tried to capture this photo.

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Cycling across the Rocky Plateau from Yen Minh to Meo Vac, I was left speechless on numerous occasions. This was one such. We thought we'd seen it all that day. Then we rounded another corner to find this! Chris helpfully provided the splash of colour in the distance.

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

These girls were probably the eldest in a group of about 30 children who were curious to see what a group of cyclists were doing sitting on plastic chairs drinking tea at the side of the road. When they eventually plucked up the courage to come close, we entertained them by reading their school books. They're probably laughing at this point because David Walker (our tour leader) was entertaining a group of younger children with his impression of the Nieeeeeyep man (a Nepalese phenomenon). Most of the children appeared confused with a few breaking out into smiles. But then again, as I commented in my previous blog When the wanderlust strikes again..., we probably seemed quite strange...

Posted by jparsons 11:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #2: Big trouble in Indochina


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?

Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede


The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.

Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.

The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.

Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam


Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged wildlife cambodia vietnam laos indochina Comments (0)

Step away from the turkey...

...and feast your eyes on this!

In case you were wondering what Vietnam and Laos were like to travel through, here are some photos of the beautiful scenery. Enjoy.

Vietnam

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

The hills around Sapa

The hills around Sapa

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

Rice fields near Lai Chau

Rice fields near Lai Chau

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

A buffalo marks the route!

A buffalo marks the route!

Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The back up bus catches us up...

The back up bus catches us up...

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

December haymaking

December haymaking

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Locals at a fishing village

Locals at a fishing village

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Posted by jparsons 09:50 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes vietnam laos Comments (2)

Portraits of Vietnam

Children on their way to a wedding near Nghia Lo

Children on their way to a wedding near Nghia Lo


Red Hmong mother and child near Muong Lay, Dien Bien province

Red Hmong mother and child near Muong Lay, Dien Bien province


This Red Hmong lady was doing crossstich next to the road

This Red Hmong lady was doing crossstich next to the road


I arrived at our teastop in the Na River Valley to find it deserted, the rest of the group having eaten and left. This girl was studiously doing her homework, oblivious to the cameras!

I arrived at our teastop in the Na River Valley to find it deserted, the rest of the group having eaten and left. This girl was studiously doing her homework, oblivious to the cameras!


This Red Dzao lady was in traditional costume in the market in Sapa

This Red Dzao lady was in traditional costume in the market in Sapa


This young girl was outside her nursery school in her home village of Lao Chai. She was so photogenic I photgraphed her twice.

This young girl was outside her nursery school in her home village of Lao Chai. She was so photogenic I photgraphed her twice.


8Young_girl..ao_Chai.jpg
Wellies are awkward at the best of times, this little boy was struggling with his outside the nursery school gate in Lao Chai village, Sapa

Wellies are awkward at the best of times, this little boy was struggling with his outside the nursery school gate in Lao Chai village, Sapa


Children playing in their backyard in Lao Chai, Sapa

Children playing in their backyard in Lao Chai, Sapa


These Black Hmong ladies kindly guided us down to their village

These Black Hmong ladies kindly guided us down to their village


What happens when east meets west?

What happens when east meets west?


This lady was sewing handbags in her shop in a village near Tule. This was the same place we tried unripened peanuts with corriander dip.

This lady was sewing handbags in her shop in a village near Tule. This was the same place we tried unripened peanuts with corriander dip.


These girls with their lollipops near Tule walked with us for a good half an hour, before they finally overcame their shyness enough to stop and chat...

These girls with their lollipops near Tule walked with us for a good half an hour, before they finally overcame their shyness enough to stop and chat...


This mother and baby near Nghia Lo were drawn in to meet us by Phong with the offer of sweets. We got chatting..."how old are you?" she asks, "31" I reply, "no children?" she responds. A familiar refrain!

This mother and baby near Nghia Lo were drawn in to meet us by Phong with the offer of sweets. We got chatting..."how old are you?" she asks, "31" I reply, "no children?" she responds. A familiar refrain!


Mr Hoan's children relax at their family homestay near Ninh Binh

Mr Hoan's children relax at their family homestay near Ninh Binh


A new recruit for Redspokes?

A new recruit for Redspokes?

Posted by jparsons 23:02 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people vietnam Comments (0)

Sunburnt, squiffy and saddle-sore

A mountain biking adventure through Vietnam and Laos


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

The Red Spokes group on the road in Laos

The Red Spokes group on the road in Laos

Friday 9th December

I have just sat down at a PC after aching, yawning and noshing my way round Phnom Penh for most of the afternoon. (Phnom Penh vies for the title of most unpronouncable capital city with Antananarivo). Yes, I'm in Cambodia, and the title of this blog entry is a clue as to how we got here. We've been in the saddle for the past three weeks, cycling 1250km (hence the aches and yawns) through northern Vietnam and Laos with a Redspokes tour group. The tour finished yesterday in Vientiane, and we parted company with our cycling buddies this morning. It's been the undoubted highlight of our trip so far and it's going to be a struggle to do it justice in a blog. This won't be a blow-by-blow account, but a selection of the choiciest nuggets that spring to mind as I sit and digest my wagyu burger and creme brulee.

Let's start with David, our livewire tour leader, also known as "Walks". An interesting nickname for a cyclist, I'm sure you'd agree, but David had no choice in the matter. Nor does it refer to any reluctance on his part to cycle the hard miles, for David pedals as though he was born with a saddle glued to his arse. It would have been a more fitting moniker for Phong, our local guide in Vietnam. Phong's cycling habits were a useful guide to the terrain ahead. If he and his bike stayed in the support vehicles, we knew a big climb lay in wait. At the top of the climb, Phong's bike would be retrieved from the truck and he would emerge from the minibus in suspiciously clean cycling gear. This ritual marked the start of a long downhill ride.

David and Phong were a fantastic double act in Vietnam, and we punters were all very well cared for. In Laos, Daolit took over Phong's role. A former Buddhist monk, Daolit was a daydreamer and a ditherer, and David played up to this image by jokingly referring to him as Manuel to his Basil Fawlty. David and the local guides were ably supported by a team of support staff who drove the vehicles, cleaned and maintained the bikes, and kept us fed and hydrated during the rides. I was genuinely impressed with the dedication and attention to detail shown by all the Vietnamese and Lao staff.

The cycling was tough. I don't have an exact figure for the total ascent, but we were climbing between 500m and 2000m each day, and cycling about 80km on average (110km on the longest days). There were small hills, big hills and small hills which turned out to be big hills thanks to David's looseness with the term "undulations" and an occasional tendency to mix up his daily briefings.

We started in the damp and the drizzle in Vietnam and finished with an absolute scorcher on the final day into Vientiane, but on the whole the weather was very good. The sunshine showed off the beautiful landscapes of both countries to great effect, was strong enough to burn us through sunscreen and created problems for whichever of us was carrying the heavy SLR. I will let our photographs speak for themselves in some future blog entries, but I just hope they were worth all the extra legwork we both had to put in to re-catch the group each time we stopped for a snap!

Saturday 10 December

It's now our second day in Phnom Penh. (Writer's block set in last night.) According to the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide, yesterday we should have visited the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum and Khmer Rouge Killing Fields before rounding off the day with a sunset cruise on the Mekong. This morning we should be shopping in the Central and Russian Markets. We must be really crap travellers because we have done none of these things. Instead, we've had a lie in, made use of the hotel pool, handed some seriously sweaty cycling clothes to the laundry service, booked a full body massage and looked through some of our photos.

Back to the cycle tour. We started as a group of 16 in Hanoi, dominated by Brits but with a healthy smattering of other nationalities also represented: the USA, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Croatia and Ireland. With damp conditions, tummy troubles and big hill climbs striking at various points during the first week, the group dynamic took a while to establish, but on recaching Sapa for a well-earned rest day, reputations were being forged. JP's repertoire of one-liners kept us entertained, John and David sought out the kind of delicacies which are normally only seen entering the mouths of C-list celebs during a Bushtucker Trial, Ivan delighted in sharing his brilliant photos and Edwina showed a penchant for the odd bottle of plonk.

The social side of the trip was a welcome change for us after the relative solitude of Himalayan trekking, and things got more interesting after we crossed the border into Laos. At Dien Bien Phu, our final night in Vietnam, we said goodbye to three of our number who had only come for the Vietnam section of the ride. Over the border we swapped Bia Ha Noi for Beerlao and the nameless Vietnamese firewater for lao lao, a spirit made from fermented rice and sold in recycled mineral water bottles. Our daily consumption of these beverages increased substantially, as did the resulting silliness and squiffiness each night.

The day of the border crossing was an experience in itself. To save time, we were bussed up to the Vietnam border checkpost where getting the required exit stamp was a formality. Beyond this we met our luxury Lao transportation, a flatbed truck with wooden benches, a roof and open sides. The bumpy journey to the Lao immigration post was good fun, but things took a turn for the worst when we arrived. The border officials closed the office and went to eat their lunch. We thought this was a ruse to get us to spend our money in the nearby cafe, coincidentally owned by one of the officials. David has experienced problems at this border crossing before, and the usual solution is to offer a few greenbacks as a sweetener. But the guards would not accept a bribe and would not re-open the office. Pete, one of our group, wryly observed that corruption can sometimes be a very useful thing (if you've got money). It was only later on that the real reason for the delay became clear. A Singapoean cycling group had arrived at the border just before us, and amongst their number was a Swiss lady with a diplomatic passport. This freaked out the border guards to such an extent that they refused to accept our money in case we were connected to the Singaporeans. They eventually processed our visas after a two hour delay, and we did have to bribe them after all.

The plan had been to cycle from the border down to Muang Khua, the nearest village. But we had been so heavily delayed that we had to do the whole trip by bus. For some, this meant the relative luxury of the air-conditioned minibus which had accompanied us all the way from Hanoi. For the rest, the open-sided Lao truck awaited. What they hadn't counted on was the sudden deterioration in the road conditions. Great plumes of dust billowed up under the wheels of passing construction traffic, coating our brave adventurers with fine sediment which blackened their skin and clogged their hair. Being an asthmatic and a contact lens wearer, I had taken the wise precaution of travelling in the minibus. We pitied the truck travellers as we watched them disappear again and again into each cloud of dust - it looked like some grim form of torture that might have been dreamt up by the Vietnamese communists. But they were a resilient lot, and not only did the whole adventure prove to be a bonding experience, but they even seemed to get some bizarre masochistic enjoyment from it. Perhaps an enterprising Lao tour company could even start marketing this as the latest extreme sport for falangs?

One of the recurring jokes of the trip involved the facilities at the guesthouses. Now I don't want to disparage Red Spokes here, because in most cases they had to work with whatever was available. But in the more remote places, breakfast time became a chance to compare the range of wildlife which had been found in the bedrooms - cockroaches, lizards and mice to name some examples. Another facility which caused great aniticipation in the group was the inifinity pool, a luxury which Redspokes make sure is provided each night. The definition has been somewhat stretched and in most cases the pool would be more accurately described as an infinity bucket in the corner of the bathroom. On the penultimate day, David received news from Daolit that the hotel at Na Ngum did indeed have a pool. Strangely enough this is one joke which never seemed to wear thin, and sure enough we arrived to find a banner which announced "swimming pool will open soon". Imagine our surprise as we climbed the steps to our room to find a brand new, fully-functioning pool - and not just any old pool, but an infinity pool with a superb view over Lake Na Ngum. Even David could not quite believe this!

For the sake of brevity I've had to gloss over lots of highlights from the tour, but the one abiding memory I will carry with me is of laughing, smiling Lao children running excitedly out of their school gates to greet us, giving us high fives, shouting "Sabaidee!" from their houses and chasing us on their bikes. The sound of happy children is the sound of the Laos countryside, cheering us on the tough climbs and notable by its absence on the quiet stretches. What a terrific country in which to be a traveller, and what a terrific way in which to experience it. Thanks Redspokes!

Posted by Chris Parsons 21:45 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam laos cycling Comments (1)

Halong, and thanks for all the fish


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

I'm going to interrupt the sequence of trekking blogs to bring you right up to date, because right now I'm floating on the South China Sea and I never thought I'd be able to write "I'm blogging from a boat." We are in Halong Bay off the north coast of Vietnam enjoying a few days of cruising. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can appreciate why - an other-worldly landscape with thousands of sheer-sided limestone towers jutting up out of the water. ̣̣̣̣If you saw the Top Gear Vietnam episode, this is where Clarkson and co. ended up in their ocean-going converted motorbikes.

A Halong Bay sunset

A Halong Bay sunset

We arrived in Vietnam three days ago, after a few days in unappealing Darjeeling and a de-clutter in Calcutta. In between Darjeeling and Calcutta we trekked in Sikkim for two weeks. Sikkim is the finger of India that pokes up between Nepal and Bhutan, scratching the arse of Tibet. The Sikkim trek was a different experience entirely to trekking in Nepal - we have some more blogs on that to come. From Calcutta it was a jump and a hop via a very sodden looking Bangkok to get to Hanoi.

So far we are enjoying Vietnam immensely. I must confess this is a place I hadn't done much research on prior to the trip. We have no guidebook because our accommodation and tours were all booked from the UK, so every experience feels fresh, and most are a pleasant surprise. The contrast with India is striking. Driving from the airport to our Hanoi hotel, we noticed that though the roads are just as busy, traffic flows on smooth tarmac, horns are used sparingly and politely and there are no cows/beggars/rickshaws in the middle of the carriageway. Everyone drives mopeds, which weave in and out of lanes, their riders squinting out from behind their helmets and face masks, never looking in their rear view mirrors. It was also a refreshing change to drive along streets that weren't lined with stinking heaps of litter and human detritus. This is a much more civilised and prosperous place all round.

Halong Bay is a four-hour drive from Hanoi. We are based on the Oriental Sails, which is styled on a traditional junk boat, though so far the sails have not been used. The boat holds around 20 people, and it's definitely not a backpacker crowd. This is marketed as a luxury cruise - which was part of the appeal after two months of trekking - and the clientele is typically middle class and middle-aged. We have met some very interesting people as a result - well-travelled, educated, good storytellers. And lots and lots of Germans, for some reason. There are only six sun loungers on this boat, and I fully expected the Germans to be up on the sun deck at the crack of dawn placing their towels down, but these Germans are actually well-behaved, funny and generally all-round nice people.

We have been treated to wonderful food too - fresh fish, seafood, salads, fruit, succulent meat - and all brought to our table presented like works of art. Last night our spring rolls arrived skewered to a hollowed-out pineapple lantern.

Fish farming amongst the limestone outcrops

Fish farming amongst the limestone outcrops

The cruise has included some activities too. On the first day we visited the Amazing Cave, along with a queue of a thousand other tourists. We then went kayaking, trying to dodge passing boats. Yesterday was much more enjoyable, because we transferred on to a smaller boat and travelled around an hour from the main touristy spot to a much quieter part of the bay where the only signs of life were the locals fishing from their floating houses. In the morning we explored the area by kayak, and after lunch we transferred to a beach for some rock-climbing. The rock is all limestone which means it's nice and grippy, with lots of cracks and jug-like holds. It's also very good at cutting your knees, as I found out to my cost - but not before our instructor had done the same thing. We climbed three routes of increasing difficulty. Jen sailed up with no problem but I was pleased - and a little bit relieved - to get to the top of the last one, as it was the hardest thing I'd ever climbed.

We're now on our third and final day on board, heading back to the harbour at Halong City. We have a few more days in the Hanoi area before we start our next big adventure, a three-week mountain bike trip starting on Sunday. Oh, and apologies to the late Douglas Adams for the blog title.

Chris with our kayak at a deserted beach in Halong Bay

Chris with our kayak at a deserted beach in Halong Bay

Jen rock-climbing at Moody's Beach

Jen rock-climbing at Moody's Beach

Posted by Chris Parsons 17:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruise vietnam halong Comments (2)

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