Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 5, Vietnam

Holy Hanoi!

It was dark, when we arrived in Hanoi by train from China, at a very unholy time, 5 AM. IMG_3661

With a few, even less holy, thoughts sent in the direction of the master mind, that planned this international train connection, we collected our bags, and found there was very little we could do, except walking out of the train station … the time being to late too sleep, and too early to go to our couchsurfing hosts, or anything else … as we walked, and the dawn approached, the city started waking up, the first signs beings small stalls opening, and we had our first taste of the staple vietnamese breakfast, a  Pho soup with fresh herbs, a delicious novelty, and a treat compared to the chinese breakfast porridge.

With some food in the stomach, daylight to heighten the mood, having located an ATM, that made us into Dong millionaires, and a SIM card, we could relax, and have a look around.

What a difference, our eyes being used to chinese paradoxes !

The traffic is like a crazy real time computer game, where you have to move the pedestrian across a multi-directional flood of bicycles. It can’t be done, but somehow it happens, you arrive on the other side of the street.  The pace is busy, but nowhere as hectic, as in the chinese mega cities. More smiles around, people squat, talk, chat, smile.

The traces of french colonization of Indochina are sweet.

Bakeries, bread, cakes. Coffee.

I tasted the vietnamese cofee, kafe nou, brewed in a little aluminium pressurerizer on top of condensed milk, and my reaction was:

– Hallelujah!

The coffee is thick, kicking strong, sweetened with condensed milk. After two months in China, the coffee less country, the pleasure of sipping a kafe nau is beyond words.

IMG_3735

The desserts are also divine.

Creme brulee, an assortments of jellies made of frIMG_3678uit juice, mixed with tapioca, coconut milk and ice cubes. The price tag of such a treat is 20.000 VND, or 0,5 Euro.

I found, that I longed for somebody to adopt me, so I could quit traveling, and stay in this country.

Our hosts, Travis and Zuza, opened up their home, and we found the city of Hanoi to be friendly, comfortable, full of small hidden wonders.

Is it a surprise, that we ended up staying in much longer than planned? In the end I felt that we either have to go, or rent an appartment (the downstairs one was free) and move in.

Bye bye train, hello bicycle

We have travelled from the central train station in Warszawa, to Hanoi, about 12.000 km, all the way by train. We did a high five, and then decided to change the mode of transportation, feeling that we had seen to many trains from the inside. The decision was to buy bicycles. A quick look at the map, it should be feasible to go from Vietnam to Singapore. It would make sense to sell the bicycles again in Singapore, as there are only islands between its southern tip and Australia, our ultimate destination.

We visited a few bicycle shops, and thought that second hand touring bikes might be a good value. Something proven in battle might be better than a shiny new product of unknown quality. We made acquaintance with George, a mechanical whizz at from the famous Bicycle Collective, a specialist in touring bikes. Or, so we thought, at least.

IMG_3687

George, our pusher from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, equipped our new steel horses for the ride.

George, was set up with the task of equipping our new steel horses for the long ride. After we agreed on a budget, his mantra was:

– I guarantee you, this is good quality

and another favorite saying:

– This is the only place in town, where you don’t buy a chinese piece of shit!

In the beginning there was lots of love, but as we rode some kilometers, and the bikes kept breaking down, the good karma dwindled.

But, anyway, it was really time to move on, and instead of becoming Zuza and Travis’s new neighbours, we studied the map, packed and repacked to fit our backpacks on the bike racks, saddled up, and finally, after several delays, left Hanoi.

Country road

And off we went.

Biking out of Hanoi took the best part of a morning, and we decided, after getting lost around the lakes and tricky one way streets of Hanoi,  that a map, and a look at Google Maps in the morning, is not enough to navigate. A local grocery store solved the problem, and sold a phone card and a scratch code for 3G internet, for about 5 USD. The friendly lady understood enoug sign language to help set it up, and we could continue with our efforts to locate the countryside, now equipped with a GPS device.

Trip map

Click the link below, to see where we went on our 500 km bike trip in Vietnam :

It is a sweaty business to bicycle in Vietnam. After a while the ass grows numb, the dust is covering the sweat, leaving a sticky texture on the skin, it is hot, and what is supposed to be holiday fun, is in fact hard work. Our family of extreme b-type persons, late sleepers and night owls started getting up 6 AM, just to beat the heat.

IMG_3730

It is really hard work riding a bicycle trough vietnamese country side.

We managed to ride between 60 and 80 km a day, covering about 500 kilometers, until one of the bikes, that was having more and more serious problems, with a rattling backwheel, finally refused to move, the axis being broken.

We went to Mai Chau, and hit the Ho Chi Minh trails south from there.

Most places we stayed in “Ngha Nhi” – simple guest houses, no english spoken, no frills, sometimes clean. Once we were lucky, and found a hot spring spa resort next to the road, another time a homestay in a stilt house.

Hospitality extreme - we thought we booked a bed for the night, and were surprised by a dancing party on the thin bamboo floor.

Hospitality extreme – we thought we b

We had to fight with some hard core mountain passes to get there, we should have taken the darker shade on the map as a warning. What we looked for, was simply a bed for the night, and we were surprised, as a troup of girls arrived, and started a dancing party on the thin, thin bamboo floor of the stilt house. One of the dances involved jumping over banging bamboo sticks, and we were scared whether the floor would crack open under our merry jumps, but fortunately it didn’t.

This extremely hospitable family, have set up a home stay, and wanted to attract tourists to their off the beaten track village, using the platform of airbnb. I loved this combination, a surprising fusion of old traditions, simple life in a bamboo hut, and a modern platform, that brings sustainable tourism directly to a community.

Shortcut by train

After 8 days in the saddle, hot and exhausted, and having to deal with a bicycle, where the wheel was runing more sideways than forward, we decided to take a shortcut by train, and hopefully get to a place with better mechanics, than what we could find in the country side.

After a strategical discussion, we opted for 2 days of rest at a swimming pool, and decided to take the train from Vinh to Dong Hoi – to save some steam for our up coming caving trip.

The procedure was very simple and civilized

I have drawn on a piece of paper 3 people and 3 bicycles, and showed it to the lady in the ticket booth. She gave me a nice smile, and asked, in english, laughing at my surprised face:

– So, where do you want to go?

– Dong Hoi – I replied.

– First you need to buy tickets for people, and then you can post your bicycles in the goods carriage. – she explained

The posting happens in a second office, close to the gates that lead to the tracks. You are given a receit, pay a fee of a few dollars, and all the loading and unloading is handled by railway staff, while you can enjoy your ride, and watch the hills rolling by, happy not to be pedalling there.

A few hours later, as we unload from the train, we can smell the South Chinese Sea

Epic cave adventure

Having heard, thatthe worlds largest cave has been discovered in the Phong Nha CavesIMG_9427 area of Vietnam in 2011, only a few years ago, we booked a 3 day trek of the Tu Lan system, with Oxalis, our adventure operator, and I really mean adventure.

When the jeep cam to pick us up in the morning, it has been raining continuosly for 3 days, and continued to rain, as our hopeful group of 8 went trough the security briefing. Equipped with life wests, helmets and head lamps, we thought we were ready for some fun, unaware of the epic adventure ahead.

And it was truly epic.

Nobody died. We had lots of fun. I don’t remember if I have ever been that muddy in my life. After about half an hour of walking, we had to cross a river by swimming, with all clothes and gear on, and we continued the wet journey, from jungle trail, to cave, to river. Our guide kept saying:

– Careful, it’s slippery – when we were navigating the steep, steep jungle tracks, and he was absolutely right. Sometimes, there was a change of terrain, and we could hear as we were sliding, or stumbling down:

– Careful, it’s very smooth!

We were trying to crawl out of a cave, and I gasp, when I see the first of many gigantic spiders, situated on the roof of a tiny squeeze through tunnel

Our guide reassures us:

– Don’t worry. It’s friendly, it’s vietnamese.

It was at a famous cave with three whirlpools, that the adventure got an epic twist, as half of our group was swept away by the current, towards the gaping mouth of the cave. Luckily, we had a spanish guy, Jesus, with us, and he really lived up to his name, swimming to the rescue with a lifeline.

The nights were cosy, with campfire, jokes, friendly interaction with the vietnamese staff, a shared sense of bonding, of surviving this adventure together.

We return to our hotel, the Phong Nga Farm Stay, very wet, with a stinking bag filled with our stinking, muddy belongings, and stupid smiles on our faces.

DMZ and goodbye

The Phong Nha caves are just north of the DMZ, and sensible connections to Laos are just south of DMZ. So I figured it was time for indulging some pacifist propaganda into the teenagers. We crossed the DMZ together with Tam, our guide and American War veteran. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a complex of tunnels 15-21 meter undeground, designed to hide the population of a whole, heavily bombed village, made a great impression. Their motto “to be or not to be”, shed a new light on this thin worn quote, in order to survive the heavy bombing, the local people had to dig underground, and spend months and months in the tunnels.

This was our last day of our one month stay in Vietnam, we visited only the northern part, something has to be left for the next around the world trip.

From Dong Ha, we booked a bus ticket, and were suprised with an extremely comfortable direct bus to Pakse, Laos, where we continued the family adventure.

Family Gap Year adventures – Chapter 4, China

Alien, welcome to China

The train from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Bejing is a party on wheels, as many of our fellow passangers have made an early start on celebrating the end of the transsiberian journey, and as we roll along the vast, sandy reaches of the Gobi desert, wine is poured, and the spirits are merry.IMG_9044

The vast, empty landscape is replaced by high rise housing, and chinese signs, and we stop for a change of wheels, and visa formalities at the border.  My son Pawel was 12 when his passport photo was made, and being now 19,  has matured, and we sense problems as the serious faced chinese border guard asks my son:

– Look at me

Silent scrutiny, minutes pass, support is called on, and arrives running, I try very hard not to laugh of the officers concentrated faces, as he takes on the task of recognizing a child in a young mans face.

– Follow me!

We exchange looks in the train cupe, the fellow passenger from the upper berth volunteers:

– Can I go to Tibet instead of him, I mean, if he is detained?

After a longer scrutiny, by three officers staring back and forth at my son, and the picture, and in the end a decision is made

– Alien, welcome to China

They hand us an “Alien registration card”, which we dutifully fill out, and hand over. This sense of being an alien will follow us trough our whole stay in China.

An anthill called Beijing

We arrived in the anthil called Beijing by train from Mongolia, from one of our planets most sparsely populated places, in the comfort of your sleeper, in less than 24 hours.
The city is green. We are surprised. We have expected ugly, grey industry, but what we see is a green and modern city.
Broad roads, with lanes for bicycles, that whizz by soundlessly, electric.

We stay on 17th floor with our new chinese couchsurfing friends, Nic and Emily, that make the transition somewhat easy, and take on the tedious task of teaching us basic chinese. Words like tea,  茶:

– Cha – I try again.

– No, no. Cha. – Nic is patient.

I can’t hear the difference. Nic asks me to make my vovels longer.

– Chaaaaa ?

– No … Cha.

Chinese is not easy, being a tonal language, and our ears and throats not being used t. After about a week of trying, I manage to order my first cup of 茶.

The long march

We leave Beijing, and spend two weeks trekking in Tibet. On the train back from Tibet to mainland China, snowclad soaring peaks are replaced by gently rolling hills, and we arrive in Guillin,  a go-to town in the humid Guangxi province.

I am happy, because my family has a tradition of travelling together, and my mom has decided to join us for a part of our trip trough China, and we are looking forward to exploring the country side together.IMG_9255

We are met by Jun, our guide from the small agency Backroad of China, that has arranged a village to village trek for us. Jun is not happy to see our Meindl mountain boots, and suggest that we replace them by sandals or sneakers.

– But these are very good shoes. They are made for mountains! – I protest

– No, chinese mountains are different, these shoes are not good.

This will be a recurring point of discussion each night, but we manage to stand by our decision, and I am quite happy, as the chinese backroads turn out to be impossibly steep trails, made in tramped clay, smooth and slippery.  Apart from having her own opinions about mountain footwear, Jun is a fantastic guide, very caring, and has a personality that makes her the perfect companion:

– I like being chatty-chatty – she says.

– Me too – I admit.

The villagers we meet are amazing, smiling faces, hands lifted in greeting, children running out from their homes, yelling:

– Hello

We visit three different minorities during our eight days trek in the country side, and sleep in stilt houses, with local families, with varying conditions of beds and toilets, but unchanging hospitality and friendliness.

We walk among rice terraces, admiring how they are sculpted, flowing down into each vally along the geodesic curves of the surrounding hills, colored golden, ripe for harvest. Wily old men and women bent under the heavy load, happy faces carrying the rice home. The villages seem inhabited by young children and elder people, the young generation being away in metropol centers, having joined the powerful industry as migration workers.

– Your breakfast is ready.IMG_9281

The family mother has been up very early, to go to the rice field and collect fresh ingredients. The bowl is full of fried grasshoppers.

– Eat, eat.

– Drink, drink!
Dutifuly, we crunch the grass hoppers, and wash down with our oil tea, tea made from the fruit of tea trees, with salt, peanuts and popped rice.

A new day is waiting, we tie our boots, wave goodbye, and set off to the next little gem, hidden behind a pass, or in the next valley, nested among golden rice paddies.

After 10 days, we reach our final destination, and it is time for my mom to go back to Denmark.

In the car to the airport, my children admit:

– Holidays in China are like a long march, – with a reference to chairman Mao, and

– We need holidays from the holiday.

That’s right. When you travel for a year, you need holidays from the holiday.

We wave goodbye to my mom in the airport, sad that this part of the adventure is over, but excited about going to have holiday from holidays.

Yangshuo, a chinese village

No other places do the chinese seem more crazy, busing in huge crowds to experience this authentic rural village, that has become a sea full of people, fully equipped to serve as a 24/7 karaoke joint.

According to confirmed accounts, this has been a small village until a few years ago

Internal tourism brings buses, electric carts to whizz the passengers around, everyone seeking the quietness, fresh, sweet water of the country side, the meditative sight of rice pIMG_9293addies

About 5 kilometers away from the city center, the massive amount of hotels named “Village retreat”, “Quiet forest”, “Secret garden” is thinning, and we see that the country side is still beautiful, with curiously shaped carst peak, overgrown by lush vegetation, wrapped in mist.

Yangshuo is also a climbing hot spot, and the reason why we rent a room for 10 days. The teenagers can have a “holiday from the holiday” by the pool, I plan to rent climbing gear and try out this famous lime stone.

Egg, Winebottle and Swiss Cheese – this could be a foundue-recipe, but its not, these are names of crags,wonderful climbing, and somewhat random grading.

Climbers inn is the place, where people show up in the morning, nine’ish, looking for partners and sharing a ride to the crag in a mini bus. I team up with Jordi, a recently arrived spanish teacher, still somewhat shocked by China being China.

Four months on the road without climbing have set me back, and as I fight for the moves, the routes fight back.  I am having a fantastic time, meeting a wondeful mosaic of the tribe “climbing people”, and 10 days pass way to quickly.
Our last night, I buy drinks at the Rusten bolt, and feel a sense of belonging, saddened by having to leave the next day.

Panda keepers helper

We have signed up for a two week volunteer program at the Bifengxia Panda base, and expectations are pretty high as we ride the train from Guiling to Chengdu, excitement being fueled by amazing memories from the Great Baikal Lake vounteering program.

After having paid the uniform rental fee, uniform washing fee, and management fee, we are equipped with rubber gloves and jumper suits, assigned to a panda keeper and panda each, and learn from our panda keeper how to scoop up the panda poo.

The pandas are fed every day at 08300, 1100, 1330 and 1445, and besides cleaning the cages in the morning, there is really nothing meaningful for us to do in between the feedings. This gives the days a rather depressing, and boring rythm to the day, that is only brightened by the actual interaction with the pandas, that love the carrots and panda cakes. The animals love to sleep, and as we watch the lazy the day away, we do the same.

Things are not made better by our accomodation. It is a pretty run down hostel, a rather sorry place, with mold in the corners and I-couldn’t-care-less-about-you attitude among the staff, it’s only raison d’être being the steady stream of volunteers.

We try to escape this depresssing setup in our weekend, with a 3 day trip to Emei shan, and spend two days climbing a staircase of about 15.000 steps, in the steady rain, saddened by how the chinese national park has turned this magnificent mountain into a gigantic, concrete stair case. On Sunday morning, we get up early, and see that rain has been replaced by snow, and fog by busload after busload of chinese tourists, eager to visit the holy mountain by cable car, and both hikers and cable car hoards are met by the glow of the gigantic multi-dimensional statue of the future Buddha.

China weary

We have been travelling for two months in the Middle Kingdom, where the tiniest speckle on the map, turns out to be a loud, million-something size city. Most people are friendly and helpful, but others start saying “Mei you”/Don’t have, even before you have opened your mouth, seing a long-nose face. Being a partial analphabet, and fighting with the tricky tones, does not make it an easy country to travel trough. As our visa is running out, and the budgetted Yuan supply dwindles, chinese cities start to seem all alike, and our patience with loud crowds has been worn rather thin.

We are ready to move on, and I am full of excitement, and a sense of new adventure, when we board the night train to Hanoi.