Posted by: londontosydneybybike | December 5, 2010

Pounding the Tourist Trail – Sapa, Hanoi and Halong Bay

Firstly an apology for not uploading any blog posts for a while – we didn’t really have time in Vietnam and then were surprised to find that we couldn’t access WordPress in Laos, so couldn’t upload any posts or photos there. We are now in Cambodia (where we can access WordPress) and will be spending this afternoon getting as up to date as we can!

From Lao Cai on the Chinese/Vietnamese border we decided to head up to the former French colonial hillstation town of Sapa, 38km away in the mountains. Because we were not continuing in that direction – our plan was to return to Lao Cai and then cycle on to Hanoi – and because it was uphill all the way, we left our bicycles in Lao Cai and took one of the frequent minibuses heading to Sapa. Sapa is a lovely small town in a beautiful location, with great views down the surrounding valleys. We had planned to spend just one day there before returning to cycle on, but we felt so relaxed we ended up staying another day. We spent the first day shopping for some souvenirs in the market and enjoying the great view from our hotel room window. Rather than staying in the Lonely Planet ‘recommended’ Mountain View hotel, which was charging upwards of $15 a room, we opted for the new hotel next door which has very similar rooms and views for half the price, and with free wi-fi courtesy of the Mountain View hotel’s unsecured network! Sapa is full of tourists which felt rather strange after so long in countries without many westerners, and which in our opinion rather detracted from the character of the town, which is full of western restaurants, amenities etc. Of course it is rather hypocritical to make that comment seeing as we are western tourists ourselves, and admittedly we did appreciate having a choice of food etc to eat for a change, but we soon found ourselves looking forward to getting back on the road on the way to Hanoi.

After a second day in Sapa – during which we hired a moped (a bargain at just $10 per day, including insurance) and explored the surrounding countryside (after Christine’s last experience of driving a moped in Vietnam on our last holiday here, when she fell off rather badly, we got just the one moped to share, with Pete driving!) – we had an early start to get the bus back down the road to Lao Cai. It took a little time to get a bus, as the buses leave when they are full, rather than on a regular timetable. Unfortunately not many people were wanting to go to Lao Cai at the same time as us so we had to wait for half an hour for enough passengers to turn up. We felt like going and rounding up passengers ourselves! Still, we got going eventually and were back in Lao Cai by 9.30am or so. Our plan for that day was to ride 100km or so to the town of Pho Rang en route to Hanoi, but things didn’t quite turn out like that. We have probably mentioned previously the problems Pete has been having with his foot for a while now – on and off since he inadvertantly dipped it in some nasty disinfectant chemicals while crossing the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (the border officials insisted we disinfect our bikes with this stuff). At the time he had a cut on one of his toes which got sore and subsequently got infected. He treated it at the time with antibiotics and it got a lot better, but it didn’t have time to properly heal before we got back on the bikes, and from time to time the infection has reappeared causing the toe to swell and get very sore. This had been the case since the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek where the toe got rubbed sore, and it had been getting steadily worse since then. We had hoped that a couple of days off in Sapa would help, but they hadn’t really, and after a bit of walking round Lao Cai to get back to our bikes the toe was really very sore and Pete could hardly walk. We concluded it was probably best not to get straight back on the bikes for a 3 day bike ride as riding also made it sore, and as we didn’t want to spend any longer hanging around Lao Cai (which is a bit of a seedy border town) we decided it would be best to take a bus to Hanoi, where we had a few days off scheduled in. Unfortunately the buses to Hanoi only run overnight, and so we had the day to kill. We spent the morning investigating the Vietnamese medical system to get Pete’s toe looked at. The staff in the small hospital we wandered into were very helpful and after X-raying his feet to check it was just an infection they cleaned and dressed the wound thoroughly, and prescribed him some more antibiotics. According to the prescribing information for these antibiotics (which we looked up online seeing as they didn’t give us the paper insert that usually comes with drugs), they are usually reserved as a ‘measure of last resort for severe or life-threatening bacterial infections’! They were also indicated specifically for the treatment of skin infections, which is no doubt why they were prescribed, but this didn’t stop Pete being convinced he was about to die! Thankfully the drugs did their job and after a few days not only was he still alive but his toe was much better too.

After spending the rest of the day relaxing with a few bia hois (draught beer served on the street), and almost having an argument with the bus-loaders who seemed insistent on leaving it to them to load our bikes, when we wanted to load them ourselves to make sure they were properly loaded, we got on the sleeper bus and settled down. Sleeper buses (which have beds rather than seats) were a novelty to both of us, and were as comfortable as you are ever going to get on a bus, but not that surprisingly neither of us slept well as the road surface wasn’t great and the bus driver seemed intent on making as many dramatic overtaking moves as he could manage, complete with beeping horn; a strategy for him to stay awake, we wondered?! Anyway the journey was over soon enough and we rolled into the outskirts of Hanoi around 4.30am. Not having a map or a clue how to get into town, we asked for directions and were pointed in the direction of the city centre. We were a good 10km out of town but it was actually a nice ride as the sun was just coming up and the roads were quite quiet. It was interesting to see many Vietnamese up and practicing Tai Chi or something similar, or playing badminton (which seems to be the national sport, with people playing it everywhere), despite the early hour and the fact that they no doubt have a long day of work ahead of them – this nation has an incredible amount of energy!

Courtesy of some surprisingly helpful bus maps and directions from people on the street, we soon found our way to the small lake that marks the edge of Hanoi old town, where most tourists base themselves. After looking at some absolute dives of hotels we found a really nice hotel for the same price (the Huong Lam at 85 Hang Bac, $15 for our own very clean and nice room). We have to conclude that in a backpacker town like Hanoi it positively pays to avoid anywhere with the word backpacker in the title, as it will likely be overpriced and not very good. Indeed, we heard that at Central Backpackers hostel they only change the sheets between guests if deemed necessary by a sniff test – nice! After a snooze we headed out for breakfast and to book a tour to Halong Bay. While it would have been really nice to cycle over to Halong city and organise a boat around the bay ourselves, we knew the ride over to Halong city was unlikely to be nice (the area is quite industrial), and we would have to do it twice as the road to Laos that we wanted to take goes from Hanoi. Plus we are a little tight on time now, if we are to get to southern Thailand by Christmas. Taking a tour is the cheapest and easiest option, so we opted to join the crowds and do just that. Tour booked, we spent the rest of the day doing some shopping and sightseeing. Pete wanted to buy some more sandals as his rub his feet a bit, but in a nation of people who are mostly under 5 foot, it was unsurprisingly difficult to find size 10 shoes. Still, we had good fun trying – the shopkeepers were generally quite amazed and amused by the size of his feet!

We also managed to buy some more cycling gloves for Christine – she managed to lose one of them somewhere in China, and now has not only one sore hand (from not having a padded glove) but one white hand versus one tanned one, which just looks silly. Late on in the afternoon we stopped to sit by the lake, and much to our bemusement found ourselves taking part in several wedding photo shoots. That particular spot is clearly favored by couples for photos on their wedding day, and several couples were there. Not wanting to intrude, we were watching from a polite distance, when one of the photographers spotted us and our bikes and decided to use our bikes as a prop for photos! Cue a nice Vietnamese couple posing by our bikes, even sitting on them (embarrassingly the bikes were rather dirty but thankfully they didn’t seem to get their wedding outfits dirty), for numerous photos. Quite odd but good fun.

Our Halong Bay tour left the next morning, and we had been told that we would be picked up at 8.30am, so we were rather surprised and unprepared when we were called at 8am to say the guide was waiting downstairs. Typical Vietnamese style, when you book they tell you what you want to hear not what the reality is (we had expressed concerns about an early pick up and been told we would be picked up last). We know this is always the case in a country like Vietnam and have got quite good at taking a deep breath and not getting annoyed at it, but still, it is annoying! Anyway off we went, and after the obligatory shopping stop we arrived at our boat in time for lunch. The boat was really rather nice, all made out of dark wood and with loads of space both in the well-appointed cabins and on deck. The rest of the group was mostly composed of Brits and Aussies so it was nice to chat to them while we cruised round the bay. We stopped – along with every other boat cruising round Halong Bay – at a huge cave that was interesting to walk around.

We then got taken kayaking, which was a bit of a joke. The pictures we had been shown when we booked the trip showed people kayaking through some cool looking caves, but in reality we were given half an hour to kayak around a small bay full of other boats that were either stationary or moving about. Not only was the water filthy from all the boats, which come there every day, we were constantly dodging big boats moving about – all in all completely pointless and not a lot of fun. Without exception we would rather not have bothered with the kayaking. Indeed by the time we had finished kayaking and cruised off to a nicer spot for the activity we were most looking forward to – swimming off the boat – the sun had gone down and it was getting chilly – it was nice but would have been a lot more enjoyable earlier on! Again it is a typical case of the tour companies thinking ‘western people like kayaking, so if we include kayaking on our trip they will book with us’, without any consideration to the fact that the kayaking they arrange is no fun at all. Because they are not relying on repeat business they have no need to provide what they claim when you book. This attitude – treating tourists like stupid sheep who will just pay money and accept whatever is provided without complaint – is endemic in Vietnam (and indeed in other parts of SE Asia) and really irritates us. We wonder how so many backpackers travel the whole way around the country doing tours like this – the Vietnamese have really got the hang of the tourist dollar and you can spend weeks here entirely in the company of other westerners, eating the same food as back at home, travelling on special ‘tourist buses’ and staying in touristy hotels – not the Vietnam that we love at all. Indeed in our mind you might as well go on a package holiday to Spain for all of the cultural experience you will get travelling around like that. We do appreciate it is easy to take these tours etc – as we did for Halong Bay – but really it is not that hard to get off the beaten track from time to time, and in our experience you have a much much better time, even doing things like taking the train that locals take rather than the special ‘tourist-only’ trains (yes they have them, and the tourists love them!). This is Christine’s third and Pete’s second trip to Vietnam and we never cease to be amazed at the capacity of some backpackers to submit to being carted around like sheep, just so they don’t have to think. It is just so much more rewarding getting away from the tourist trail a little – the people are so much friendlier, there is still plenty to see and do. In our view there is just no reason not to! Anyway we don’t want to sound like we are slating backpackers, everybody has their different view of things and as we said it is a nice and easy option to let everything be organised for you, so if that is what you want, that’s great.  And we would be lying if we said we didn’t appreciate the availability of western comforts  – but you appreciate them so much more when you don’t get them all the time. We just think it is a shame more people don’t take the initiative to do their own thing, although admittedly if they did that would make it less fun for those of us that do!

Anyway, back to our Halong Bay trip. We spent the evening and night aboard the boat which was nice, and the next morning we got off the boat onto Catba island, the largest and only inhabited island in the bay. Most of the island has been designated a national park, and is really quite beautiful. We had two options for the morning’s activity – either a trek up a hill to get a view of the island, or a 10km flat bike ride to visit hospital cave – a large cave that the Vietnamese used as a makeshift military hospital during the war. We opted for the latter as the former sounded rather hot and sweaty, and we figured we could easily manage a short bike ride! The bikes they gave us were hilariously old and knackered but it was good fun riding them. The cave was pretty impressive, it is multi-level with numerous rooms and facilities inside, including space for a small swimming pool and cinema! Still, no doubt the medical facilities were pretty basic and it can’t have been much fun to end up there as a patient. After our bike ride we were taken to a small island just off Catba, called Monkey island (you can probably guess why!). We had booked a beachfront cabin which was really rather nice, and we spent a happy afternoon lounging on the beach. We both went for short swims, but unfortunately the water in Halong bay doesn’t appear to be very clean at all – no doubt a consequence of so many boats plying the area on a daily basis – so we were not tempted to spend a long time in the water. Later on in the afternoon our guide led us on a scramble to the top of a hill on the island, where lots of monkeys hang out. They are very tame because they get fed by the guide, but still we had to be careful not to alarm them or they could bite. In particular you have to be careful not to look directly at them, and not to show your teeth, as this is taken as a sign of aggression. This is surprisingly difficult, and indeed several people including both the guide and Pete suffered attempted bites (thankfully the bites didn’t break the skin). Still, it was great to be able to get so close to the monkeys as they really are very cute and very interesting to watch. They are also quite playful (some would say cheeky!) – later on that day a monkey came down to the beach and stole someone’s towel, it was very funny watching the poor tourist’s attempts to retrieve his towel, which the monkey kept whisking out of reach. He eventually got it back, courtesy of a long stick that he used to swipe the towel away from the monkey.

The next morning we returned to the boat and had a pleasant cruise back to Halong city, where we got back on the bus back to Hanoi. Back in Hanoi we spent a little bit of time sorting out our stuff and washing our bikes, which were still filthy from our ride out of China, to the extent that the mud was interfering with some of the moving parts.  A busy street in Hanoi is not the best place to do this but the hotel staff were very helpful in making space and providing us with buckets of hot water, and it certainly attracted quite a lot of interest from the locals and tourists alike. From Hanoi we planned to take Highway 6 northwest towards the Laos border, which we intended to cross at the remote (but most direct) border post of Nameo. We were looking forward to getting off the beaten track for a few days, and knew we would be sad to leave Vietnam as our time here had been fun but short. Still, we were looking forward to Laos and the rest of SE Asia – the adventure continues!

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