Bitten by that persistent, perennial, and perpetual travel bug, we’re drawn like seagulls to a landfill; back to the captivating shores of Asia. Slowly but surely the plane digests the mega miles before the flight culminates in Hanoi, where we can think of nothing else but lowering our eyelids in a real bed!
In Vietnam we are always appalled at the rules of the road, or rather, the lack there of. Drive on the right side of the road means ‘eventually’ and one-way streets only ‘suggest’ that ‘most’ vehicles ‘should’ go in the same direction. Even walking across the street one feels about as safe as a goldfish in a piranha tank! After previous adventures in this country we’re kind of familiar with the drill, but friends accompanying us are first timers and aghast by the daunting task; leaving me to wonder if I’ll need to locate a defibrillator!
A young girl shuffles towards us with the typical bamboo pole and baskets, and noticing me glance at her load of pineapples immediately senses an opportunity. Unburdening her shoulder, she hoists her hefty load up onto mine, and stuffs her pointy conical hat down over my ears. I’m now done like dinner and end up paying about ten times more than I should for some of her fruit thanks to her outstanding sales aplomb.
Forewarned about the flap over the country’s freakin’ frightening foreign flu fiasco, we figure we’ll be forced to be finicky and forego our favorite fricasseed feathered friends to avoid fretting about any foul fowl; and instead forage for foods with four feet, fur, or fins. However, locals think the flu risk is minimal, so after a cautious first few days we’re no longer worrying about eating foods of the cluck or quack variety.
Sitting outside the hotel with dawn not yet broken, we await transport north to Ninh Binh. It’s too early to get breakfast anywhere, so leaving the others to wait for our driver I wander about trying to locate one of the street sellers with the crusty French baguettes. I return empty handed, but at that very moment an elderly lady shuffles past with a large bag of the crusty rolls balanced atop her head.
Of course she speaks as much English as I do Vietnamese, so I try charading my way to establish payment. She tells me an exorbitant price, which of course is absurd. But, having recently learned the Vietnamese phrase ‘Troi Oi, dac qua’ which supposedly translates to ‘Oh my God, so expensive’; I eagerly try it out.
‘Ms. Baguette’ immediately goes into uproarious hysterics she cannot seem to suppress. Holding her chest and pounding her thighs, her raucous and infectious outbursts swallow the street, and have us all joining in. Meanwhile, our guide named ‘Smiley’ shows up and introduces himself. His name is totally apropos, with a look-ma-no-cavities infectious grin that flaunts a set of perfectly polished ivories.
The dentally-challenged old woman eagerly prattles off to him in auctioneer speed Vietnamese what I said; or at least my mangled attempt. Again she begins guffawing so hard she nearly falls over; with the commotion of her unbridled merriment drawing a small crowd of curious hotel staff and others walking the street. Smiley casually informs us that I have done well, instead of paying ten times the price; the old haggle-master has negotiated it down to paying only 5 times the going rate!
Apparently I’ve just made the old dear’s day, which is great, because with her having such menial work, it’s a pleasure to bring some laughter into her life. One thing that travel has always taught us is to never underestimate the worth of mirth while roaming this earth. What a splendid start to our upcoming day!
We squeeze into the van and are soon ooo-ing and ahh-ing over the extraordinary countryside on our way to Ninh Binh. Along the way we make a stop to be rowed to the village of Kenh Ga. Stunning limestone peaks jut out of the emerald green rice paddies and provide a superb backdrop for villagers who uniquely row their shallow boats using only their feet.
So, ‘now here’ in the middle of ‘nowhere’, we leave our boat and are greeted by water buffalo, gazillions of geese, and some scruffy looking little munchkins. Off In the distance, hunched over locals are hard at work harvesting a living from the country’s most important crop. Hiking through rice these paddies, we stop and hand out lollypops to appreciative little kids. The cave we’ve come to see leaves expectations unmet but the views along the way and the reaction of the kids seeing their images on the digital camera are marvelous.
We arrive in the dramatic landscape of Tam Coc (three caves) and rent boats to travel along the meandering Ngo Dong River. Materializing out of the early morning mist, magnificent limestone spires made of ancient shells and coral surround us as we boat through the caves carved out of rock. Spread out before our eyes, the spectacular waterscape merges the surrounding rice paddies and river serenely into one.
Totally enraptured with the solitude, we bask in a soul-soothing tranquility and sense of calm that only Mother Nature can induce. The only sound bites to reach our ears are the dipping of the oars, and the cackle of brilliant blue and orange kingfishers piercing the early morning air, as the colourful assassins hunt the river. Nature does her best to take our breath away and our eyes are wide with the grandeur.
Up in the trees, we spot a handsome red and black bird known as a Bimbip; a bird Vietnamese love to stuff into a bottle of medicinal rice wine, feathers and all. I wonder about the odd dude who originally thought ‘I’ll just pickle this bird in a bottle of rice wine to fix my aching back’? Perhaps it was the same dude also creating the plonk containing snakes, geckos, or scorpions. Hmm; enuff pondering the imponderable!
Smiley is a great source of knowledge and a delight to be around. He recounts his early life in the country as a ‘buffalo boy’, and of the time hunting rats along the river when he stuck his hand into a hole and nearly perished from the poisonous bite of a cobra. The young man has come a long way from his life toiling in the fields, and we couldn’t be happier that he has done so well for himself.
Next on our agenda is trying to sleuth out a place not shown in any guide books, and even foreign to Smiley. I give him the one obscure reference I gleaned from the internet and he begins asking local farmers. After an abundance of negative head-shaking, we finally unearth the location to a special place called Hang Mua.
From the base of the karsts we traipse up 560 colorfully flagged stone steps, with the stifling humidity surrounding us like a warm wet towel. Trudging up to the summit, we’re soundlessly greeted by a stone statue of the Goddess of Mercy majestically surveilling the gorgeous valley stretching out below!
Not far away, a stone dragon about the size of a Winnebago clings to scalpel-sharp rocks, with a dizzying vertical drop that gives us pause while scrambling up for a photo. Tam Coc’s stunning jagged topography looks as if it has sprung from the pages of a fairy-tale, and is one awesome highlight to conclude our absolutely brilliant day. Oops, did I just say brilliant; because what I really meant was BRILLIANT!
Back on the stew of streets in Hanoi we quickly encounter an abundance of short people with shaky English, offering ‘velly good’ prices. However, determining the actual price of an item is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree! They ask ‘How much you pay?’ and no matter what the answer, their reply is ‘Oh no, I be broke’!
Tonight in a surprising role reversal, it is me, not Christine, who is on the shop for clothes. The merchants are tenacious negotiators, but I end up ordering two tailor-made suits that suit, and after much hilarity see-sawing our way to an agreeable sum, I leave the tailors in stitches; or sew it seams!
As experienced ‘Hashers’, Christine and I again connect with the Hanoi Hash Harriers. Today’s run is called the ‘Lusty Old Man Run’, so how could I possibly resist? At a restaurant called the Spotted Cow, we join the other runners and hop aboard a rented bus to head upcountry, beyond Hoa Lac to the village of Yen Binh.
Before even getting out of Hanoi we’re involved in an accident with another bus! There is outrageous screeching sound as the two metal monsters sideswipe each other. The other larger bus has its mirror smashed off, leaving a trail of busted glass on the road as it careens down the side of ours. Quite a delay ensues while the two distraught drivers, who appear to have the combined IQ of a turnip, shout mouthfuls of expletives and waggle fingers at each other, trying to sort out blame and payment before police arrive.
Finally we’re on our way, and about an hour later the bus exits the ever dangerous highway. The side road is wet mud and the bus fishtails down a hill narrowly missing two water buffalo reluctant to share the road, and a pedestrian who dives out of the way into a ditch. Loud applause erupts when the brakes hiss as it skids to a stop. Right now, we have no inkling as to how we will get back.
The atrocious attire of the run master leading the run soars to new heights of absurdity. He is carrying a bugle and wearing a toilet seat strapped to his back. Completing his dress code violation he is wearing a woman’s bra, and a rubber chicken is wrapped around his neck as an eccentric garland. Hey, if you’re going to be ‘Sofa King’ stupid, there’s no point in going half way right? Fortunately there are no ‘appropriate police’ in sight, and the group charges off into the rice paddies. Standing out like raisins in rice, we leave mouth-agape farmers and villagers totally befuddled by the burgeoning buffoonery.
I stop for a photo as runners carefully cross over a rickety bridge of woven bamboo. However, when it’s my turn to cross, I am suddenly blocked. A woman screeching like a cat trapped in a toilet has appeared. She is brandishing a machete and furiously flapping her arms like a wounded goose trying to achieve liftoff!
After some deliberation, I cautiously step past her hoping like hell she doesn’t go all Lizzie Borden on me! One of the expats tells me she’s concerned her bridge is going to collapse, but she will allow us to cross one at a time. With all safely across, we’re soon scampering through the fertile fields of rice again on the far side of the river, and when the run is done we gather at the Hash circle for some well-deserved wobbly-pops.
For dinner, a culinary pilgrimage leads us to Hanoi’s historic 135 year old Cha Ca La Vong restaurant. The little eatery serves only one dish called ‘Cha Ca’; a succulent fried fish masterpiece that became so famous the French renamed the street in its honor. A rickety flight of wooden stairs lead to a humble second-floor dining room stuffed with equally rickety chairs.
A tantalizing swell smell titillates our snout as chunks of seasoned grouper fish are brought to the table on red hot coals. A rich, oily stew is then spooned onto bowls of rice noodles, enlivened by the addition of shrimp sauce, fried peanuts, chives, and veggies. According to rumors, the secret ingredient contained in this delish fish dish is two drops of an essence extracted from the perfume gland of the ‘Ca Cuong Beetle’. We are all in agreement that better beetle perfume glands have never touched our taste buds!
Today, we bus 180 km east from Hanoi to the iconic World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, translating to ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’. In Halong City we transfer onto a junk called ‘Dragon’s Pearl’, designed after traditional Chinese junks of old. For the next few days we’re staying in an infinitesimal room sized for a lawn gnome, but we’ll make do with the spatial scarcity since our intentions are to spend most of our time outside drinking in the breath-halting scenery of the bay.
Sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin, we stop at Bo Hont, one of 775 limestone islands in the area. A small launch transports us ashore to hike up to the grand Sung Sot cave system that leaves us quite amazed by what can happen when you leave the water running for a few hundred years! Once back on the launch, we cruise though another cave into the clear blue waters of a completely hidden and sealed lagoon.
Timing is critical here as this is only possible at a low tide, meaning we must vacate before the tide rises or risk being trapped inside. Boating back to the mother ship, our launch is rammed by some asleep at the wheel bozo with his boat throttle wide open. As the boats collide, ours slides up on top of the other, almost sinking it, but fortunately there are no injuries. In the last few days we’ve had two transportation accidents, first with a bus and now a boat, so we are more than pleased that flying is not on the agenda for tomorrow!
With Dragon’s Pearl moored in a quiet bay for the night, we swap travel tales with table-mates over a five course dinner. During breakfast outside on the deck we drink in the quintessential Vietnamese scene of thousand year old limestone karsts knifing out of the water, while eagles float overhead like feathered kites before swooping down to kiss the sea in pursuit of a meal. The morning is bliss.
Then, all too quickly, it’s time to leave what is called the most beautiful bay on earth, and with the massive golden sails of the Dragon’s Pearl billowing, we sail back through the breathtaking azure seascape. Vietnam, known as the land of the ‘Ascending Dragon’, is rarely anything but exhilarating, and though it’s again time to leave the country, we know full well this is a country that will never truly leave us!
Mark Colegrave 2005