Bitten by that persistent, perennial, and perpetual travel bug, we find ourselves being drawn like seagulls to a landfill, back to the captivating shores of Asia. Our plane slowly digests the miles, our marathon day of travel culminates in Hanoi, and we can think of nothing else but lowering our eyelids in a real bed!
In Vietnam, we’re 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 streets 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, paying about ten times more than I should for some of her fruit. Oh well, it makes for a good giggle and photo.
Forewarned about the flap over the frigging frightening foreign flu fiasco, we figure we’ll be forced to be finicky, and forego our favorite fricasseed feathered friends to avoid fretting about foul fowl; and forage for a few foods with four feet, fur, or fins. However, people here seem to 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’re awaiting 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 find one of the street sellers with the crusty French baguettes. Unsuccessful, I return to rejoin the others, and 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 translates to ‘Oh my God, so expensive’; I eagerly try out this new line.
‘Ms. Baguette’ immediately goes into uproarious hysterics; holding her chest and pounding her thighs! Her raucous and infectious laughter swallows the street and gets us all going. Meanwhile, our pre-arranged guide named ‘Smiley’ shows up and introduces himself. His name is totally apropos, with a look-ma-no-cavities infectious grin flaunting 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 bends over double, guffawing so hard she nearly falls over, with the commotion of her unbridled merriment drawing a small crowd of curious hotel staff and others out walking the street. Smiley casually informs us that I have done well, instead of paying ten times the going rate; the old haggle-master has negotiated it down to paying only 5 times more than what I should have!
Apparently, I’ve just made the old woman’s day, which is great, because with her having such a tedious job, it was a pleasure to bring some laughter into her life. One thing travel has taught us is to never underestimate the worth of mirth while roaming this earth. What a splendid start to our upcoming day!
We pile into the van, soon ooo-ing and ahh-ing over the extraordinary countryside on the way to Ninh Binh. Along the way we stop and are rowed to the floating village of Kenh Ga, accessible only by boat. Stunning limestone peaks jutting out of emerald green rice paddies provide a superb backdrop for villagers uniquely rowing their boats using only their feet, while leaning back and watching the world go by.
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. In the distance, hunched over locals are hard at work pulling a living from the soil in the gorgeously green rice fields. Hiking through these paddies we stop and hand out lollypops to appreciative little kids. The cave we’ve come to another broken expectation, but the views along the way and the reaction of the kids seeing their images on the digital camera are a delight.
We arrive in the dramatic landscape of Tam Coc (3 caves), and rent boats to travel along the meandering Ngo Dong River. Materializing out of the early morning mist, magnificent limestone karsts made of ancient shells and coral surround us as we boat through the caves carved out of rock. Before us is an incomparably spectacular waterscape with the surrounding rice paddies and river merging serenely into one.
Totally enraptured with the solitude, we bask with rapt admiration of a soul-soothing tranquility and sense of calm that only Mother Nature can induce. Our only sound bites are the dipping of the oars and the cackle of brilliant blue and orange kingfishers hunting along the river. Our eyes are asparkle at the grandeur, as nature does her best to take our breath away.
Up in the trees, we spot a handsome red and black bird known as a Bimbip. Vietnamese love to stuff this bird into a bottle of medicinal rice wine, feathers and all. I wonder about the odd dude who originally thought ‘I’ll just stuff this bird into a bottle of rice wine to fix my back ache’? Perhaps it was the same dude deciding wines should also contain snakes, geckos, or scorpions. Hmm; enuff pondering the imponderable!
Smiley is a great source of knowledge and a delight to be around. He tells us of his early life in the country as a ‘buffalo boy’, and of the time while hunting rats along the river when he stuck his hand into a hole and nearly died from the poisonous bite of a cobra snake. He 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 to try and sleuth out a place not shown in any of the guide books; and even unknown to Smiley. I give him the one obscure reference I gleaned from the internet and he starts asking local farmers how to find it. Eventually we unearth the location and drive 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. After plodding up to the summit we’re soundlessly greeted by a stone statue of the Goddess of Mercy; silently surveilling the magnificent valley stretching out below!
Nearby, a stone dragon about the size of a Winnebago clings to scalpel-sharp rocks, with the dizzyingly vertical drop giving us pause as we scramble up to it for a photo. Tam Coc’s stunning jagged topography looks as if it has sprung from the pages of a fairy-tale, and is an 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 us ‘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, the reply is ‘Oh no, I be broke’!
Tonight in a totally role-reversalish moment while visiting a tailor shop, it’s me, not Christine, who is on the shop. 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 horrid 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 our bus. Quite the delay ensues while the two upset drivers, who appear to have the combined IQ of a turnip, shout a mouthful of expletives at each other while trying to sort out who pays who before the police arrive.
Finally we’re on our way and about an hour later, to our relief, 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 bus’s brakes hiss as it skids to a stop. I have no inkling as to how we will get back.
The run master leading the run is quite the sight, with a bugle in hand and a toilet seat strapped to his back! Completing his ensemble he’s wearing a woman’s bra and a rubber chicken draped around his neck. Hey, if you’re going to be stupid, there’s no point in going half way! With no ‘appropriate police’ in sight, we charge off through the rice paddies standing out like raisins in rice, and leaving mouth-agape farmers and villagers totally befuddled by the burgeoning buffoonery.
I stop for a photo as runners slowly make their way across a rickety bridge of woven bamboo. However, my crossing is suddenly blocked by a shrieking, machete-wielding woman, madly flapping her arms like she’s trying to achieve liftoff! She’s mad as a frog in a sock, but there is no chance I’m swimming across the river.
After some deliberation, I cautiously step past her hoping like hell she isn’t going to take a chop! One of the expats tells me she’s concerned that her bridge is going to collapse, but she will allow us to cross one at a time. Christine cautiously follows, and soon we’re loping through the rice fields again on the far side of the river. After our memorable run is done, we gather at the Hash circle for some well-deserved wobbly-pops.
For a well-earned dinner our culinary pilgrimage leads us to Hanoi’s historic 135 year old Cha Ca La Vong restaurant. The humbling 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 leads to an unremarkable second-floor dining room stuffed with equally rickety chairs.
A tantalizing aroma titillates the 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 vermicelli 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. Aaah yes; better beetle perfume glands have never reached our taste buds!
Today, we’re bussing 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 traditional Chinese junk called ‘Dragon Pearl’, which will be home for the next few days. Our infinitesimal room would be more appropriate for a lawn gnome, but we’ll make do with our spatial scarcity as we plan to spend the majority of our time outside on deck, drinking in the breath-halting scenery of the bay.
Sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin, we stop at Bo Hont, one of the two thousand islands calling this home. A small launch transports us ashore for a hike up to the grand Sung Sot cave system on the island; leaving us quite amazed by what can happen when you leave the water running for a few hundred years! 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 Dragons Pearl moored in a quiet bay for the night, we swap travel tales over a five course dinner with table-mates from around the world. Sitting outside at breakfast we drink in the quintessentially 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 of their own. 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 through the breathtaking azure seascape back to Halong City. Vietnam, known as the land of the ‘Ascending Dragon’, is rarely anything but exhilarating, and though we now leave its domain; we know the country will never truly leave us!
Mark Colegrave 2005