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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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