Cat Ba climbing

With two days left of our Vietnam stay we decided to take a trip to Cat Ba island. For many people they take a tour on a modern junk boat, stay overnight and see one of the Worlds new 7 wonders branded Halong Bay area. The weather forecast was average and we have spent enough time sleeping on boats that it didn’t really appeal to us. So we arranged independent transport and got to Haiphong and caught the hydrofoil across to the island. The boat is fast, it takes about 50 minutes to cross and is ‘driven’ in a similar way to the taxis and coaches, i.e flat out and slightly scary. The boat itself has seen better days and I definitely wouldn’t want to be on it if it collided with one of the many large container ships in the harbour area. The good thing is it arrives right in front of the town jetty.

Cat Ba town is not pretty, lots of old hotels and buildings so on arrival it doesn’t look much. It was quiet being off season and we could have the pick of most of the hotels, we found a sea view room at the Song Chanh hotel for 7 USD for the night. It was pretty basic but clean and run by a family, the boss of which rode up and down the strip on a BMX bike looking for business.

We went for a long walk to see the 3 main local beaches Cat Co 1,2 and 3. All of which were deserted, two of them have resorts on them but you can still get to the beaches. From the town you can walk around the headland to the first beach and get good views of the beaches and fishing boats.

Our main reason for coming to Cat Ba was to do some rock climbing, so we met up at the 6pm meeting with the Slo Pony climbing company which is located in the immediate hotel/building when you get off the boat. Very relaxed and laid back to the point we were not sure what was going on, but in the end we got on a half day trip the next morning.

We have almost given up on taking trip advisor suggestions for restaurants, as at least 2 top ranked places recently visited have not been, the rankings can be so easily wrong with just a few reviews. So we just picked one of the street front vendors and sat down on the usual tiny plastic seats for some Pho, fried potatoes, onions and carrots. Possibly one of the best meals we have had in the month, and all for around 3 pounds including a couple of beers.

Slo Pony got going at 9am the next morning and 3 of us, along with a couple of instructors got on a boat and set off for one of the islands. Great views of the bay karsts on the way and we edged out through the working fishing harbour for 20-30 minutes. The climbing island looked very picturesque with great karst cliffs, if it was sunny it would have looked amazing. We were joined by a couple from Taiwan and that was it. All very relaxed, no time pressure, and both of the instructors were excellent. We did around 3-5 climbs each of varying difficulty. KT was very proud to have done one of the tougher ones which was quite an achievement. By the end we were all tired out, returned to the boat and had lunch. We then got taken back to a different port, grabbed a couple of xe oms (motorbike taxis) and got back to relax before our ferry left to start the process to get us back to Hanoi.

It was an excellent way to finish our month stay in Vietnam, an adrenaline packed morning with a good friendly bunch of people.

Cold again in Hanoi

Hanoi was chilly and drizzly, around 12 degrees so for the first time in a month we had to get the coats out again. We had booked a cheap hotel near the church in part of the old city, which worked out ok, although our taxi driver from the station clearly had a rigged meter, but its difficult to argue especially when they drop you in the middle of a mad street.

With only a few days left in Hanoi we wanted to see the sights, principally Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and a couple of museums. So we spent all day walking and looking around. The museum was average, and so out of date in terms of style that it was amusing. Needs a refresh please, those museum designers reading this.

We couldn’t get into the mausoleum due to the opening hours, so we went back at 8am the next day. Its a very formal affair, no cameras or phones allowed. You walk very stiffly with hands out of your pockets, and no hats. The special army guys watch your every move, and you follow the white line very carefully. You file round the room where he lays, but you cannot loiter as they move you along, and there he is, looking very embalmed . He is seen in such a reverential light that the lady behind was sobbing. An odd experience but worth the early start. Considering he liked living the simple life and wanted to be cremated we are not sure he would appreciate what has occurred.

We also dropped in at the womans museum which has an excellent floor dedicated to their role in the wars. It is in a surprisingly modern building and worth the visit.

Hanoi feels very different to Saigon, lots more cars and quite a few more top end vehicles like Bentleys and Range Rovers. There also is a more organised rubbish collection than most other cities, less shines and altars in shops and restaurants. The old city is more compact and has tightly meshed congested streets. It feels dirtier and more dusty than Saigon.

The lake in the middle looks nice, and many wedding couples go there to get their picture taken. Not a very personal moment as everyone watches.

Hanoi sleeper

We left Hoi An by train on the overnight to Hanoi. Unlike our previous train we booked sleeper seats, in the same design as the Chinese overnight train we took. Four berths to a compartment, we had the bottom two bunks, and a guy got on for a few hours and got off at an early one of 8 stops on the way, then we had it to ourselves.

The train itself was clean, no rats mice or insects to report, and because it started at Danang it was a little quieter. Total journey time was around 19 hours.

The great part about this train is the route it takes for the first few hours. It winds itself around the bottom of the Hai Van pass which we saw from the motorbike a few days ago. It takes the route all along the coast and there are many sections where it is a shear drop down to the sea. Darkness then came along, so we had our noodles, vegetables and rice we bought with us, having seen the train food go past on the trolley on the previous train we wouldn’t be touching it, so we had come prepared with dinner and breakfast.
Both of us slept well, and our only bugbear was the air con which could not be altered, and was noisy. Occasionally the train rattled and shook very violently which was a little disturbing but the best solution was to sleep, which we did.

It arrived in Hanoi at 11.10am winding its way through the streets and numerous crossings. The houses and shacks go right up to the side of the train, so you get glimpses of people’s rooms and life as you go by.

My Son

Our last stop on our bike tour took in China beach and the My Son ruins. China beach is another long lovely stretch of sand which just keeps on going. It’s remarkably undeveloped still, but is slowly being built up. Danang itself doesn’t have much going for it, but this beach on the east side is pretty good. There were red no swimming flags on it for most of it, and it wasn’t warm either.

Both of us were pretty sore from the previous days riding but we wanted to see the My son ruins so we rode for about 50k out into the country. They are sort of trailed as the Vietnamese version of Angkor, but unlike Angkor they are largely ruins. However the site still worth a visit, and because we were not going at coach tour times was very quiet. We expected Laura Croft to jump out at any time, but KT stepped in and reenacted some moves.

After a good walk around we rode on back to Hoi An and dropped the bike off. We had racked up around 550k in 4 days. Great fun, and both us and the bike returned in one piece.

Dust gets in your eyes

Our route for day 3 was fairly straightforward, follow the road QL49 which runs West out of Hue, then join up with the Ho Chi Ming highway which runs south down the middle of the country. Once through the hills turn east and ride to Danang and the sea. Planned as maybe a six hour ride, it turned into 10 hours.

QL49 was a great road but very bumpy, and consisted of huge climbs and descents, great scenery but very hot and dusty. The road was not finished of course, some parts were very tricky with our style of bike. The 70k to the junction to go north seemed to take forever, and when we reached it we dived into the first place with shade to recover with water and coffee. The cafe clearly had not had any western visitors in a while and looked at us and our bike fairly quizzically, that would not be the last similar look of the day.

Every guide you read on Vietnam suggests a bike is the best way to see the country off the beaten track, our day makes that a certainty. We joined the very quiet highway and tried to stop for fuel, but unfortunately they had run out so we had little choice but to continue with what we had. Surely there would be fuel down the road, but for 3 hours we wound ourselves through what has to be a bikers dream but with no places to stop. Good tarmac’d roads winding up and round the hills, following the contours of the valley. No traffic, we saw less than 20 scooters and 2 cars for the entire 5 or so hours on the highway. But at the back of our minds the nagging feeling what if we run out of fuel. Markers on the road counted down the k’s to the next village, 40,30,20 only to find it was actually for a bridge. The only visible help was opening the tank to see if there was fuel in it, which miraculously there was and it didn’t seem to go down too quickly. A small engine definitely helps on that regard. Just as we really needed to stop, as it was getting painful to sit as well as the fuel requirement, we came across a couple of shops, with the great sight of their basic pump which deals the petrol out based on a container line in litres.

Clearly no westerners ever stop here, and why would they? The entire village came along to see us, the lady who ran the shop did speak some English because she was a teacher in the school opposite. She proudly took me on a tour of the few classrooms there. It actually looked pretty good, but some the children had no shoes either in school or by the shop. She said, I think as we had some trouble communicating, that it was very poor there. It clearly was but then this was in the middle of the hills, in the middle of nowhere. The kids smiling and cheeky as usual had their photos taken, and they love seeing them in camera display afterwards. The naughtiest one actually tried to secretly tie some junk to the back of the bike!

A Vietnamese couple chatted to KT whilst we drank bottled sugary green tea, and gave us the slightly dispiriting news that we were a further 3 hours away from Danang. We set off again, at least safe in the knowledge that we had fuel. The road got better and better with large sweeping turns through the valleys and still no traffic. Only one small section was under construction and that didn’t trouble us. Eventually we reached the turning to Danang, stopped at another random shop where a very old lady served us more green tea and some sort of cake. After finding a proper fuel station we set off on a much less interesting road, and then battled through the Danang traffic.

We arrived totally covered in dirt and dust, with panda eyes because of the glasses and face masks we wear for the dust. We must have looked a state, but a shower in a very reasonable, new and clean hotel called the Indochine just off China Beach sorted us out, and we stepped out to find an Aussie bar round the corner serving ice cold beer. It was definitely needed after a mad mad trip.

Would we have done it had we known how long it would take? You would be nuts to do so, but either way it was a fantastically great day.

Slippery when wet

Hue used to be the capital of southern Vietnam back in 1744, but over the years has lost its importance in the running of the country. During the American war over 10,000 people died in Hue most of which were civilians. We took a lazy day away from the bike to walk around the Imperial enclosure, which is a sort of castle within the city walls. Originally made up of around 146 buildings only 30 or so exist, although they are rebuilding them slowly. They were destroyed partly by the French war,but largely by the US, who also dropped napalm on it. It was very calm, peaceful and because it’s so large its easy to get some time to yourself there. The buildings are in both Japanese and Chinese style and the entrance looks very similar to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. It also has the biggest flag pole and flag in Vietnam, oddly.

What we had noticed is that all the stone floors in the Palace were slippery, and it’s not been recently raining, and it was also 30 deg outside and sunny. Now when we booked our hotel one of the comments was their room smelled of damp. Ours didn’t and was actually quite a nice room for 12 pounds a night. But all the floors in the hotel, mainly granite, were damp or slippery. Our bathroom did not dry out at all and we were on the 3rd floor. Our clothes were slightly damp in the morning as well. Our hotel wasn’t the only place either, bars we went into also had the same problem. Clearly the water table is very high, or the buildings are low, either way they clearly have some issues around the river.

We awoke early to the sound of the dementors again, our pet name for the cockerels. This one seemed to sound like it was in the bathroom.

You can go your own way

On arrival in Hoi An we had looked into booking a motorbike tour for a few days, but having seen the pricing, were put off. So we took the plunge and got our own bike and planned our own mini tour. Our hotel had a recommended company and called them round. We had logged up some hours on a couple of scooters, and our ‘proper’ bike in Dalat, so we knew what we wanted. Big, manual and space to strap bags on the back. We ended up with a big Chinese made cruiser in excellent condition. The rental wasn’t cheap but in comparison to the prices for tours we had been quoted it saved hundreds of dollars. We got the bike from and Mr Vuong.

We packed 1 medium rucksack, strapped it on the back with rubber bands and took off. Our itinerary was pretty much thrown together with 2 key rules avoid the main roads and always follow the simple guide, we are in no hurry. You cannot go fast anyway, 70kph is fast on a bike here and faster would be suicidal. Most of the time you are riding at 40-60kph, or 25-40 mph. This is probably the reason why bikes have small engines, you can’t ride fast and nobody wants or can spend lots of money on fuel. Our monster had a 150cc engine, but with a full manual gearbox and what seemed to be a souped up exhaust it actually pulled along ok, which it needed to as we were going to do a lot of hills.

Our destination for the first day was Hue, around 130k north if you follow the direct route. The road you can take on a bike is via the Hai Van pass, which i think Top Gear rode in an episode. It’s the highest road pass in Vietnam and is stunning. The south side usually has the better weather, which was true. It was also pretty empty as all the busy traffic goes via the new tunnel, but motorbikes are not allowed through it. Along the side of the pass the train line meanders its way around which looks great. The top was partly cloudy, and the north side descent was cooler but the cloud cleared up as we went down. At the top there are the usual collection of vendors and less than good value cafes. We met a couple of easy riders at the top carrying a couple of inappropriately dressed english girls, and they tried to share their wisdom about where to go, which largely consisted of adding hundreds of k’s to our journey. They clearly have greater padded seats than we have experienced or have.

After the descent we continued up the coast, stopped at a roadside shop for some food, and then instead of going directly on we cut across to the local roads and made our way through some villages, large areas of private graves and Mausoleums , paddy fields and grazing water buffalo. Our bike is great on the sweeping roads but less so when the road gets bumpy. By the time we drew into Hue we were pretty sore, tired out and dirty.

We finished the day with a great shower and a fair amount of cold beer and margaritas . We drank at the Hue backpackers hostel which was pretty reasonable and lively, and decided to follow the number 1 choice on Trip Advisor for food, Nina’s cafe. Whilst ok, not sure it deserves its top billing as there are definitely better options.

Where everyone knows your name

We took the train up to Hoi An via Da Nang, number SE08. Pretty much our benchmark for most experiences is, “nothing can be as bad as India”. So in comparison this train was ok, the Cockroaches were tolerable however Paul did not mention the mice until we were well clear, despite the pleas that I could feel something around my feet. But, it took a couple of hours to realise why all the bags were hanging up and people had their feet off the floor. We get back on this train on Sunday to continue to Hanoi, a mere 17 hour journey, we can’t wait..

We arrived around midnight and took a taxi to Hoi An where the extremely kind hotel staff opened the restaurant for food despite the staff sleeping on the floor. The staff are very attentive and everyone knows your name which was slightly disconcerting at first but is a nice touch. Check out the swan display we had in our room upon arrival. There is nothing bad to say about our hotel, which might be a first and they have been brilliant at sorting out new train tickets and our cruiser motorbike for riding up to Hue.

Hoi An is a relaxing experience, very much a stop for middle class westerners, or maybe the Islington set. Just outside the main town there is a whole stretch of luxury resorts along the beach, and a lot of people get bussed in. We are staying in the middle so it’s a short walk to the old city. The old town is a UNESCO heritage site due to the efforts of a Pole who campaigned to have it preserved, which they duly have. The architecture is beautiful and most unusual it reminded us of China with a touch of French. We have managed to get a whole new wardrobe made courtesy of the numerous tailors which are everywhere, fingers crossed we won’t come back looking too Miami vice.

People seem to come for the day or just a night but we have used it as a base to explore the surrounding area. Lots of food options and bars have kept us occupied. We return to Hoi An on Saturday as we are off to Hue on a motorbike adventure.

Rainy days

Our next stop up the coast has been Quy Nhon. This is not on the usual tourist routes as the open route buses do not stop there, and whilst the Saigon-Hanoi train does stop its rarely visited. That in itself seemed like a perfect reason to go, and to break up the journey between Nha Trang and Hoi An.

We had to catch a local style bus from Nha Trang which took 5 hours. The entire journey was a game of chicken, with at points 3 or 4 trucks filling the width of the 2 lane road. Both of our drivers, they changed half way, were mad. Seems to be a running theme,taxi drivers and bus drivers all having death wishes. We think it might be a macho thing, there seems no other reason. There was another western couple and ourselves, we were all relieved to get there.

Quy Nhon has a great long beach, as good as Nha Trang, and thunderous waves crash into the sand. Our hotel was right on the beach and the noise was impressive. Out at sea a whole city of lights appears at dusk with the huge numbers of fishing boats on the horizon.

There are not many tourists here and you do get looked at a fair bit. Getting around you might as well ignore the LP as it is totally out of date. One of the entries only existed for 6 months back in 2008 according to Barbara who ran one of the places which is in the guide and does exist. We had some good local beer and some pasta at her place, along with her getting interrogated on lots of things by us, sorry Barbara.

We had two meals at a random place called Bon Thit Nuong in town mentioned in Trip Advisor. Great food and service although we needed a local to guide us on how to eat some of it. There was no menu, just meat or vegetables with cold noodles or rice. It was pretty basic and very cheap. A starter of sorts, two meals and 2 beers came to 1.50 pounds between us.

During the day we went for a long hike around the city to see the sights and ended up seeing three funerals. Normally this would be odd thing to do I admit, but here they are spectacles in themselves and you cant really avoid them. Much like us you get what you pay for and we saw three different ones of varying expense. The grandest was almost like an episode of Monkey, a man dressed as a pig fake fighting a painted masked man with a stick, playing out the theatre on the street with a supporting cast of 20 odd people, and a clearly very important group of Buddhist monks providing the key words. It went on for an hour on the street and in the house with fairly incessant music and drumming. Then a band strikes up which is quite Mardi Gras and they all get in trucks, vehicles and coaches and go off for the burial. The whole neighborhood turned out to watch and were encouraging us for the best vantage points. The best bit was at the end when another funeral procession then collided with the one we were watching and the street turned into complete chaos, even the locals were laughing.

We found out later that the bits we were seeing were actually the end of the process. Five days of music and other traditions happen prior to this stage, not always good if you are a neighbour. In our hotel later the party continued as a large group from the funeral were singing karaoke and consuming a few beers. Turns out the funeral was for somebody from Vietnam Bank, so I guess bankers are liked somewhere.

The only disappointment has been the weather as its been stormy and on off rain. Such a shame as the beach would have been stunning in the sun. Regardless of the weather we really liked the place, and its worth getting off the trail to see it.

A room with a view

Nha Trang had not been given much of a billing to us, people we have met have said the sea was dirty, the sex industry was rife and there was one good place to spend the day. So those thoughts, combined with it being Valentines day and our recent luck of places to stay, convinced us to relatively splash out. So we booked a room at the Sheraton,which was doing a 3 nights for 2 deal. When we arrived we got upgraded to a sea front executive suite which was stunning, combined with free drinks and food in the club lounge made it an excellent relaxing 3 nights.
The first benefit was that you can see the whole coastline from the hotel and it is a lovely long sandy beach, with gardens and palm trees, with the road behind it. Similarities with Miami or Venice beaches sprung to mind. However the sea looks murky, maybe dirty, and we did not swim in it and many people chose not to from what we could see.
There is a great selection of bars, resturants and travel shops further down which helped us both with food and our onwards bus and train tickets.
As for the sex industry, we didn’t see much to be fair. There certainly seemed to be a number of candidate couples to paraphrase Mrs Merton, ‘what did you see in the overweight rich eastern european’. Although there were a number of clubs and bars which might have fitted the bill, but we didn’t visit them.

There are a lot of Russians in Nha Trang, and a number of shops catered directly to them. Our hotel had a conference, which I think was Russian or Baltic car dealers, and pretty much all of them seemed to follow the dress code out of the film Fargo, including some quality 70’s footware.

We rented a motorbike, which was not the most manly bike I have ridden, and went further up the coast, and the quality beaches and views continued. They seem to have a master plan for development but they are playing the long game. The gardens, beaches and layout are all in place, just no hotels as yet.

Overall we liked the place, although it was probably biased somewhat from the hotel.