Sunday, August 21, 2005

On the Road

I've just finished a (for me) rather whirlwind series of hops, skips and jumps through various places. I wound up on Cat Ba island, just south of the famous Halong Bay, where internet is 3 times as expensive and works like crap, which precluded me from posting then. So I arrived in Hanoi yesterday afternoon, and I've steadily been trying to find all the crap that I wanted to buy for people before I go back. But as to how I got here...

Hue is a nice city, around 60 km north of Danang, which itself is about 30 km north of Hoi An. I wish I'd stayed in Hue longer, but it couldn't be helped. I stayed one night in a little hotel. Across the street was a place called "Cafe on The Wheels," unbeknownst to me a very popular hangout with the backpacker crowd and a good place to arrange a motorbike tour. My guide was quite friendly and drove me around to all the major sites, so I got to see the big things, but I didn't have the chance to enjoy Hue's main claim to fame, its cuisine. Ah well, there's always next year.

I'd tried to book an overnight train after my one night in Hue, but I wasn't able to get a sleeper car. Which meant I had to take an upright seat in a normal car overnight. This was my worst nightmare. I don't think I've ever spent a worse night, not since I got locked out of a hostel in Madrid and had to wander the streets until it opened in the morning. The guy sitting next to me was young Vietnamese soldier who spoke no english, but thought it'd be fun to try and jabber at me periodically and managed to buy the absolute loudest snack possible and eat it once the lights had gone out. I couldn't sleep squashed up against him and because the old lady behind me kicked my seat every time I tried to lean back, I spent about 3 hours trying to sleep sideways with that loud crunching sound in my ear.

Eventually I wandered back a couple cars and came across a couple of university students, neither of whom could speak English. We pantomimed at each other for a bit, then one lent me his foldout chair to set up in the corridor so I could get a couple hours of sleep. I was pretty exhausted by the time I got out at Ninh Binh, only to be assaulted by touts for hotels at the station exit. They wouldn't leave me alone, even following me when I sat down at a cafe to have some coffee and think. Eventually I gave up and rented a motorbike from one to head out to Tam Coc.

Tam Coc is similar to Halong Bay, except that instead of the dramatic rocks jutting up out of the water, they are surrounded by rice paddies and lakes. The drive out there was breathtaking, since the morning mist still hung around and obscured the tops of the karsks. At the park, you can take a boat ride past, between, and even under, via caves, the limestone. It was really amazing, breathtaking, until we got about 3km, at which point you turn around and come back. But before that, another boat will paddle up and then begins the hassling, in the midst of all this natural beauty, for you to buy something. Can of coke? How about some bananas or dragon fruit? It goes on and they're relentless. After little to no sleep and an aggravating morning, this didn't go down well with me. I ended up shelling out for a drink and told the guide to take me back. On the way back he tried to get me to buy embroidered crap, and when I flat out refused, he tried to drop me off 1km from the start and make me walk. All in all, not pleasant. Fortunately, there was a pretty Buddhist temple built in one of the mountains to take my mind off it.

Going through the caves behind the temple, or rather, the caves that house part of the temple, I came across this really strange guy. He refused to speak at all, just showing me particular formations that resembled an old man, and another that looked like an elephant. Then he led me up a small path I would've never found myself to a smaller shrine with a great view of the paddies and karsks from up high. He kept pointing at my Lonely Planet guide to show me that it was there that one of the photos was taken. Suddenly, he put his fingers to his lips and ran quietly and quickly into the brush, disappearing completely. Behind me some guy started yelling at me in Vietnamese. A cop or Party official was up there angrily gesturing for me to get down from there. I quickly followed his directions and went down, while he remained up there slowly looking around. I don't know who my mute guide was or what it was all about, but it was just another bizarre thing to happen to me that day.

Back at the hotel, I returned the motorbike and grabbed my stuff. The guy had told me he'd take me to Haiphong, but I guess what he really meant was that he'd take me to a street corner where I'd stand and hope a bus would come by and take me. A crazy local bus screeched to a halt and a guy jumped out, threw all my bags onboard and dragged me up. When I was halfway on, the bus took off and I had to pull myself up to avoid being trapped in the doors. He charged me about $2 to go the 90 km to Haiphong, and I sat down to enjoy the trip. The only memorable thing was watching a full-sized white horse eating garbage in a gutter in the middle of Haiphone city. Not soon afterwards, they stopped, threw my bags out and told me I was here and left. I had absolutely no idea where I was, if I was even in Haiphong, nor what to do now that I was here. I wanted to head to Cat Ba island, so I got some guy on a motorbike who'd been hassling me since I was crapped out the side of the bus, and he took me to the ferry station where I learned all the ferries had left for the day. A woman there told me she knew of a ferry leaving, but it was 3 km away. She charged me a quarter of a million dong (roughly $16) and told me that if I didn't like it I was welcome to pay $25 to stay a night in a hotel and then pay more for a ferry the next morning. Can't argue with that. So after handing over the money and not even getting a receipt, this kid (really, he couldnt've been more than 16) pulls up on a motorbike and she tells me to load all my bags up and get on. Now, vietnamese people tend to have trouble with numbers, especially, it seems, saying the difference between 3, 13 and 30. What she meant to say was that I would have to go 30km at high velocity precariously balanced on the back of a motorbike holding all of my bags (I picked up all my souvenirs in Hoi An). What she said was, "It very close, only 3 km. Thank y' for money. Bye-bye!" Next up, I'll write about Cat Ba.

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