Monday, January 18, 2010

Vietnam, Sunday 13th – Monday 21st December 2009 - Vietnam – dimanche 13 décembre 2009 – lundi 21 décembre 2009.

Hanoi, 13th – 14th December

The three of us arrive in Hanoi late that afternoon.  The hotel we booked sends a taxi to pick us up at the airport and then drives us through Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  We’re in the middle of the most ridiculous traffic we’ve ever witnessed, where cars are a rarity, and motorbikes are like mosquitoes in the Amazon, and where the horn is second nature to any self respecting Vietnamese driver.

We start the evening with a drink besides Hanoi lake, are spirits are up, we’re happy to be here.  We dine at a restaurant named Little Hanoi, recommended by the Lonely Planet and by our hotel.  A great choice, the food is delicious and we’re particularly excited to taste our first real Vietnamese Nems (spring rolls).  Unfortunately though, that night we do not get a wink of sleep partly due to the competitive beeping horns and partly due to the karaoke cockerels that sing all night ... in the middle of the city centre.  It sounds mad, but in Asia, anything is possible.

The next day is spent trekking around the city after leaving our passports at the Indian embassy so they can prepare our visas.  Next task is to organise our trip to Halong Bay. Meanwhile, the sweet girl at the hotel reception feels sorry for us for having had no sleep and transfers to another hotel with which they are partnered with, Hanoi Lakeside Hotel, where we are treated to a more ‘modern’ room, with a lot less noise, for the same price.

See here for photos.

Ha Long Bay, 15th – 16th December

An early start, making our way towards the tour agency (Ocean Tours) from whom we bought the tickets to visit Ha Long Bay, a few minutes from the hotel.  A 3 hour bus ride, with an obligatory tourist stop, supposedly to use the toilets, but not really, at a crafts market where you can spend your millions on rubbish souvenirs.  We later learn that this is quite the norm in Vietnam, it’s all pre-organised.  We arrive at Ha Long town where we board a replica of a traditional junk (boat) a little before midday. 

Though, just before boarding, we know that we will be back one week later with Nico’s friends, Fifi and Lolo ... we attempt to book something there ourselves for the following week, to avoid going through an agency again (and effectively getting ripped off), but it is pretty much impossible, or at least very difficult, if you want to be assured of the quality of the trip.  Another thing that is very normal in Vietnam, it’s hard to organise anything yourself, you are almost forced to go through an agency!

Once on the boat, we lunch like royalty!  Nems, all sorts of seafood, rice, chicken, everything you want!  We look outside, it’s foggy, but this only adds to the feel of the place, romantic and mysterious ... as we’re cruising through the 1969 islands of Ha Long bay, Celine realises that in being here one of her life dreams has just come true ... a very sweet moment.  Around 3pm, the boat comes to a stop, throws out the anchor and we all disembark into kayaks to paddle around and through some incredible caves, we even see monkeys on one of the islands!  It was just delightful!

We board a different boat, and take to the sea for another 3 hours, until we arrive at a little island opposite Cat Ba island, where we sleep in pretty little bungalows.  The transfer from the big boat to the island is both hilarious and scary as hell!  It’s dark already, and we find ourselves about 50 metres from the shore line on a flat (ie no edges) boat, that looked like it was made of straw!  The water kept coming on to the boat, and we were thinking, with all our weight and the luggage, the boat is never going to make it!  But luckily, we did!  That evening we get drunk on cocktails and play pool with a funny german girl J

The next morning we have a rather hefty breakfast, before getting on another boat to Cat Ba island, for a quick visit of the town.  The market is interesting, but the rest of the town is frankly quite hideous, it’s a cheapo Las Vegas of Vietnam!  We then visit ‘Cave Hospital’, exactly as the name suggests, a hospital built into a massive cave, that was used by the Vietnamese soldiers during the war with the United States.  It was quite impressive; it’s amazing what the human race can come up with when it is faced with little choice.  This is followed by a 10km bike ride, up and down some ridiculous hills!  Renu admits defeat and gives up half way, going the rest in the van, whereas Celine and Nico are brave souls and make it to the end!  We lunch in a little restaurant that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere and then get on a boat that takes us to Hai Phong (dreadfully ugly!), then back on a bus for 4 hours to Hanoi.

See the photos here and here.

 Perfume Pagoda – 17th December

After a 1 ½ hour bus ride we find ourselves at a riverside we getting into a little canoe-like boat, rowed by a seemingly sweet Vietnamese lady.  This again, is apparently quite the norm in Vietnam, for two reasons.  Communism puts man and woman on an equal standpoint, meaning that there are same expectations from both.  Also, during the war, men were expected to be at war, while the woman ‘at home’ were doing all the other jobs that were expected in any society.  An hour after on the boat with some stunning scenery, we arrive at the foot of the Huong Tich Mountain, where above us is a complex of pagodas and Buddhist shines built into the mountains limestone cliffs.

Upon arrival, our guide suggests that we take the cable cart up, as otherwise it’s a two hour walk up to the ‘main’ pagoda, and will not be back in time for lunch.  So we pay for the ride, but once there, we meet a couple that tells us they did it in twenty five minutes…  The pagoda, built into a large cave, is quite incredible, and despite the hordes of tourists, you still have a certain felling of serenity once in there.  We decide to go back down by foot, it would have been picturesque if it wasn’t for the terribly littered surroundings…quite sad that something so lovely should be ruined by something so trivial.

We have lunch before getting back in the boat for the return trip.  Before this, our guides warns us not to give one cent for a tip until we arrive, and once we do so, to run as quickly as you can to the bus!  When we arrive, we understand why.  The lady that brings us there asks for a tip many times on the way, and apparently if you do this, they stop rowing in the middle of the journey, and refuse to move any further, claiming that it is not enough and ask for more!  What’s more is that once we arrived, we gave a generous tip, but they still pushed their luck and kept asking for more, tugging on our sleeves until we got to the bus!  Some verged on being antagonistic towards tourists for not giving more!

The drive back to Hanoi is long, Vietnam is playing in a football match in the South East Asia Games, the roads are crazy as the Vietnamese party hard in the streets.

See here for the photos.

Hanoi – 18th December

It’s a big day for Nico, his mate Laurent is due to arrive from Paris, and travel with us for 3 weeks!  We take a walk around Hanoi market and return back to the hotel to find him waiting for us.  Despite his long journey, there’s no rest for Lolo.  He has time for a shower, and then we’re straight out into town for lunch, at a place called Nem Nem, where they specialise in, well, Nems.  We spend the day trying to keep Lolo awake by trying to fix his visa for a longer stay and visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, where we see the respect the Vietnamese have for this great historical character that played such an instrumental role in liberating their country. 

That night we’re have a horrific overnight train ride to Lao Cai, final destination is north, to Sapa.  To our surprise (or not), we are not at all in the class of train that we were led to believe to have paid for.  It’s not so bad; we down a couple of beers, eat lots of chocolate and try to sleep as when our eyes find themselves closing naturally.  Of course, Laurent is the only one that gets any sleep that night, having been deprived of it for the last 24 hours.

Photos are here.

Sapa – 18th – 21st December

We arrive bloody early in Lao Cai, and get straight into a mini-bus for a one hour journey to Sapa.  It’s still dark.  Renu, fast asleep,  almost falls out of the bus as the hotel staff open the bus door on arrival.  Cold shower and breakfast, and before we know it our French speaking guide is ready and waiting for us to trek to Cat Cat village (derived from the French for waterfall ‘cascade’). 

So we make our way down, as our guide gives us a fair bit of information about the different ethnic groups in this mountainous region, bordering Laos and China.  It’s a shame as it’s hard to appreciate what would have been some lovely views, for the low clouds and light rain.  We caught a few glimpses and imagined how amazing it must be when the sun is shining.  We stop at a makeshift café facing the waterfall, where we have glutinous rice coked in bamboo, yummy, and some grilled pork brochettes with herbs.  On our walk, we saw exactly where this delicious meat came from, the little black pigs that are left to roam wherever they please around the village … that’s free range!  Of course we also try something else, the local apple ‘cider/vodka’ … it’s only 10.30 am, but it’s just the kick up the backside that we needed to continue our day!  Of course it’s so delicious that we leave with a bottle of the stuff J

We’re back at the freezing cold hotel, with a power cut, for lunch.  After a little nap, Nico continues to sleep, while Celine, Lolo and Renu go out to discover misty Sapa in the night.  Though it’s hard to see, there’s a really special atmosphere in the air, you feel almost like you’re in a film.  Back at the hotel we polish off the rest of the good apple stuff, have dinner, and then find ourselves in a cute, but cold, little bar, where we spend the night on the karaoke machine!  The few clients that are there leave soon after we start singing J  Nico and Lolo are also fascinated by the large jar on the counter that is filled with some kind of alcohol, and within it is soaking the hand of a bear, with the fingers cut off … nice.  WE have a great night, enjoying ourselves so much that the owner ends up having to bring in his friends so they could heavily hint to us that it was time to close!

The next day, the four of us leave the hotel around 9am with Duc, our guide, and followed by the ladies of the Hmong noir ethnic minority.  The ladies walk with us all the way as we trek through very muddy and slippery, mountainous terrain and rice fields.  The help all the way, holding our hands and steadying us to be sure we do not fall.  The views all the way are spectacular, that is if you are brave enough to lift your eyes from your walking boots.  We really believed that the presence of the Hmong noir people was totally spontaneous, but once we arrive at Lao Chai for lunch, we understand that no help comes for free.  These ladies follow groups of tourists every day on their excursions, and help them along the way, for in return you are to buy some souvenirs from them at exorbitant prices.  At this point it’s ok, we enjoyed their company, and yes, they did help us a lot, and more than anything, they were not too pushy (just heavily persuasive) about us buying something … so we each buy a little something.

The frustrating part is here: we had just about finished handing over the cash for our new useless souvenirs, and about to go for lunch, when already the next group of ladies, this time from Dzao rouge tribe, start to hassle us.  They keep telling us ‘I’m your new friend’, watching how much we spend and telling us that we will later spend the same amount with them!  So we finish lunch, and the Dzao rouge ladies are waiting impatiently for us.  This annoys Nico, we walk along some more muddy paths (but nothing compared to that morning) for about 45 minutes, and Nico systematically refuses their help, as he does not want to feel under any obligation to buy something. Not that it is needed anyway.  We arrive at the village where we are to spend the night at a family’s home.  Here we are hassled by all the ladies, being told that we have to buy from each lady, and that we should spend ‘x’ amount with each.  Renu makes it very clear to them how unhappy she is about their comportment.  Nico stays stubborn on how much he is prepared to spend, which upsets the ladies.  We hear Celine bargaining hard in the background, while Laurent is cornered by about twelve ladies, all insisting that he has to buy something!  It was exhausting, and we all felt quite pissed off after the event.  The four of us took a short walk through the rice fields to calm our nerves.

Back at the family’s house, Duc is replaced by another Vietnamese French speaking guide, Yen, who plays cards with us all evening.  The house is freezing, and as the little fire in the middle of the room dies out, we move on to drinking the local rice wine to keep us warm.  Dinner is delicious J

The next day we wake up to a breakfast fit for a king!  Fresh made pancakes with banana and honey J  We skip the shower, cause it’s freezing, and are back on the road again for the last half day of trekking.  Once again, we haven’t even tied the laces of our trekking boots, and already there is another group of ladies waiting to walk with us.  Nico asks Yen to explain to them that we would be happy for them to walk with us, however, we will not be buying anything this time, so it’s maybe best they find another group.  They follow anyway.  This one is even harder than the day before, clambering through mudslides, rocks and steep climbs make it a real challenge for all of us.  Nico once again refuses all help, and finds himself on his arse quite a few times.  As before, the landscape is marvelous, and must be something really special when the sun is out, shame that it was not out today.  Of course, when we arrive, we are pressured like never before to buy more souvenirs.  This time we stand our ground, and tell them that they had the opportunity to walk with someone else.  Renu finds it difficult to keep her cool.  We understand that tourism helps give these people better lives, but we were bitterly disappointed with that kind of pushy behavior, and what’s sad, have no desire to go back (even though it is stunningly beautiful) and have no reason to recommend going to anyone else.

We lunch with very tired legs, before a mini-bus takes us back to Sapa, where we have time to shower and have an early lunch before we go back to Lao Cai to catch our night train to Hanoi.  This time the train carriage is what we expected, and have a much more comfortable night J

See here for the photos.

 Hanoi – 13-14 décembre 2009.

Nous arrivons à Hanoi avec Celine en milieu d’après midi. Le taxi envoyé par l’hôtel nous attend et nous conduit dans le vieux quartier d’Hanoi au milieu d’un trafic chaotique et d’une symphonie de klaxons assourdissante.
Le soir nous allons diner au restaurant Little Hanoi, recommande par Lonely Planet et par l’hôtel. Bon choix. Nous ne dormirons pas bien cette nuit la a cause des coqs (en plein centre ville c’est rare mais en Asie tout est possible) et au petit matin par les klaxons qui prennent le relais. Le lendemain nous trainons dans Hanoi après avoir déposé nos passeport a l’ambassade indienne pour nos visas et ensuite nous organisons notre excursion a la baie d’Ha Long. Entre temps, nous nous transférons dans un autre hôtel (le Hanoi Lakeside Hotel, jumelé avec notre premier hôtel le Hanoi Guesthouse) ou on nous donne une chambre plus récente et surtout beaucoup mois bruyante pour le même prix.

Baie d’Ha Long – 15-16 décembre 2009.

Réveil tôt ce matin la, direction l’agence (Ocean Tours) qui nous a vendu les billets et qui se trouve a quelques minutes de l’hôtel. 3h de bus avec a mi chemin une pause dans un village d’artisans pour touristes (on apprendra qu’au Vietnam c’est normal et c’est tout le temps !!) et nous arrivons a Ha Long ou nous embarquons sur une réplique de jonque peu avant midi. Le temps est plutôt maussade et cela rend le paysage de la baie d’autant plus mystérieux. Le dejeuner sur le bateau est royal, nems, fruits de mer, poulet, riz… la totale. C’est un peu comme naviguer au milieu d’un rêve que de se retrouver la au milieu des 1969 iles de la baie.
Peu après, le bateau jette l’ancre et nous prenons des kayaks pour aller visiter quelques grottes avant de changer de bateau et reprendre la mer pendant 3 heures jusqu'à la petite ile ou nous dormirons dans des bungalows sur la plage en face de Cat Ba. Le soir nous prenons quelques verres et jouons au billard avec une allemande super sympa.
Le lendemain, petit dejeuner copieux et bateau jusqu'à Cat Ba pour visite rapide des deux marches de la ville (pas jolie du tout il faut le dire), visite d’un hôpital cache dans une grotte qu’utilisait l’armée vietnamienne pendant la guerre face aux Etats-Unis et ensuite ballade de 10km en velo jusqu’au petit resto ou nous déjeunons avant de reprendre un bateau jusqu'à Hai Phong. De la, retour en minibus a Hanoi ou nous arrivons en fin de journée.
Photos la et la.

Pagode des Parfums – 17 décembre 2009.

Nous arrivons à un petit embarcadère après 1h30 de bus. De la nous embarquons dans un petit bateau a rame pilote par une vietnamienne. Une heure après nous arrivons au début du chemin qui mène a la pagode cachée en bas d’une grotte. Le guide nous dit qu’il faut deux heures pour y monter et qu’il serait mieux que nous prenions la télécabine payante pour s’y rendre si on veut être revenu à temps pour dejeuner. Arrivés a la pagode nous rencontrons un couple qui nous dit avoir mis 25 minutes pour monter. On commence à comprendre qu’il ne faut jamais prendre les conseils de qui que se soit pour argent comptant, surtout ceux des guides, destinés à vous faire dépenser toujours plus. Nous décidons de redescendre a pied. La route est jonchée d’étals fermés et de poubelles. Décevant… Nous déjeunons, et remontons dans le bateau qui nous ramène au bus. Avant cela, le guide nous dit ne pas donner de pourboire a la rameuse avant d’être arrivés et surtout de filer directement au bus une fois le pourboire versé. Arrivés à l’embarcadère nous comprenons pourquoi. La rameuse nous file au train pour nous demander plus de tunes. Certaines sont limite agressives avec d’autres touristes.

Hanoi – 18 décembre 2009.

Grand jour pour Nico, Laurent arrive de Paris et va rester avec nous pendant 3 semaines. Nous partons faire un tour et a notre retour nous sommes ravis de voir qu’il est bien arrive. Nous filons dejeuner et marcher dans Hanoi pour ne pas qu’il s’endorme après son voyage de 12h. Ce soir la nous prenons un train de nuit pour nous rendre a Lao Cai. A notre grande surprise la classe du train ne correspond pas du tout avec ce pour quoi nous pensions avoir paye. Une autre spécialité des agences au Vietnam : vous glisser des petites quenelles des qu’elles le peuvent car il est quasi impossible d’organiser ses déplacements seuls. Ce n’est pas grave, on boit quelques bières, mange des Ferrero et joue au rami jusqu'à ce que le sommeil nous prennent tous.

Sapa – 18-22 décembre 2009.

A l’arrivée a Lao Cai, nous montons dans des minibus pour Sapa et arrives a l’hôtel, nous petit déjeunons et déjà notre guide francophone est la pour notre marche vers le village de Cat Cat (dérivé du mot « cascade » en français). Nous descendons donc vers Cat Cat et traversons quelques villages. Notre guide nous donne pas mal d’infos sur les différentes ethnies de cette région montagneuse proche du Laos et de la Chine et sur les deux jours de marche que nous entamerons le lendemain. Arrives a Cat Cat nous nous rassasions de riz gluant cuit dans du bambou, de brochettes de poulet aux herbes et d’un petit alcool de pomme local dont nous repartirons avec une bouteille. Après le dejeuner a l’hôtel, Nico fait la sieste pendant que Celine, Lolo et Renu vont faire un tour dans la brumeuse Sapa. Le soir, apéro a l’alcool de pomme, diner et après cela nous nous retrouvons dans un petit bar/karaoké d’où le peu de clients vont fuir des que nous commençons a chanter :-). Autre chose insolite, sur le comptoir Laurent et Nico sont intrigues par un gros bocal d’alcool ou trempe une patte d'ours dont les doigts ont été coupes… sympa…
Le lendemain, nous partons de l’hôtel vers 9h avec notre guide et suivi par des femmes Hmong noir qui vont nous accompagner sur des chemins boueux et glissants ainsi que dans des rizières. Nous pensions que leur présence était totalement spontanée mais une fois arrives a Lao Chai pour dejeuner nous comprenons que la raison pour laquelle elles suivent et aident (il faut le reconnaitre) les groupes en excursion est qu’elles attendent que nous leur achetions en retour quelques souvenirs a des prix exorbitants. Ce qui est frustrant c’est que déjà d’autres femmes sont la et nous harcèlent en nous disant « I’m your new friend » et regardent combien nous dépensons en souvenirs et nous demandent de dépenser autant avec elles… Nous repartons donc de Lao Chai suivis par un autre groupe mais cette fois il s’agit de femmes de tribus Dzao rouge dont Nicolas refuse systématiquement l’aide car il ne veut pas se sentir oblige d’acheter quoi que ce soit. Nous traversons encore des rizières et des chemins pentus et très boueux avant d’atteindre le village ou nous allons passe la nuit chez une famille. Encore une fois, nous sommes harcelés par les femmes qui nous ont suivi tous le long de la marche et Renu leur fait bien comprendre notre énervement pendant que Laurent est assailli de toute part par une dizaine d’entre elles qui ne veulent pas le lâcher. Notre guide est remplace par Yen, une vietnamienne qui parle aussi tres bien français et avec qui nous jouerons aux cartes une bonne partie de la soirée.
Le lendemain, nous avons droit à un petit dejeuner gargantuesque à base de crêpes et de bananes avant de se mettre en route pour une dernière demi-journée de marche. Nous n’avons même pas enfilé nos chaussures de marche que déjà un autre groupe de femmes nous attend. La, Nicolas demande a Yen de leur expliquer que si elle veulent nous suivre c’est avec plaisir mais que nous n’achèterons rien et qu’il vaut donc mieux qu’elles trouvent un autre groupe. La marche est tout aussi agréable bien que la pluie des jours précédents ait rendu les chemins quasi impraticables, les paysages doivent certainement être superbes quand il fait beau. Dommage pour nous. Nous arrivons donc à la fin de notre marche et une fois de plus nous retrouvons sollicites comme jamais par ces femmes pour acheter des souvenirs. Nous leur expliquons que nous les avions prévenues et que nous n’achèterons donc rien. Nous déjeunons et un minibus vient nous chercher pour nous ramener a Sapa ou nous avons le temps de nous doucher avant qu’un autre minibus ne nous ramène a la gare de Lao Cai pour notre train de nuit jusqu'à Hanoi.
Cette fois-ci la cabine du train et correspond a ce pour quoi nous avons paye et est plus confortable qu’a l’aller.

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