In an effort to achieve a contract with
Copenhagen University, growing Indochina orchids, I have to learn a
lot about their requirements. The only real (and only) way to do this, it a field-trip to their origin. Vietnam offers the perfect
versatility of climates and 900-2000 species to observe. My plan is to
travel the country, visiting national parks, collectors and
nurseries along the way.
I only have three weeks for the planning, but I've been planning expeditions like this before, and in general, I find Asian countries real easy to explore. A real cheep flight with the Ukrainian Aerosvit, visa, insurance, Lonely Planet book, a couple of credit cards and I'm ready. Through the university, I get in contact with the leading specialists in Vietnamese orchids, and the internet offers some information as well. The significantly heavier luggage of 8,5 kilos contain mainly of computer, cameras and other electronically equipments, but also more clothing than usual. I am touring around on motorcycles, and it can get down to frost in the mountains, and rainy in the lowlands.
A few facts about the country
(Jump to the diary).
8/1 A bit over ten hours, and I'm in Ho Chi Minh City. Passport control, custom and immigration followed by a five minutes walk to the domestic airport. Check-in with the passport, security control and passport check, and I have to wait three hours for the last flight to Da Nang in the central Vietnam. Find an ATM and find out the hard way: 3.500.000 Dong is the maximum. Sounds like a lot, but I have to pay around 130.000 Dong in fee! €6,50 to withdraw €130! On top of that, I misses one digit, and get 350.000 dongs! Expensive money around here! Well, at least it is enough for yet another sandwich and coffee - half the price of what I paid in Kiev. One more flight, and things should be affordable!
I reach Da Nang around seven in the evening. Find another ATM, and this time, I get the full three and a half million. The plan was a bus for the smaller village next to the mighty Thu Bon river; Hoi An. I don't seem to be able to locate the bus station, and not surprisingly, the taxi drivers claim the last bus of the day left at five. For $20, they drive me to Hoi An. Continues asking, but not even the policemen I ask, can direct me to the bus station, which accordantly to Lonely Planet should be only 4-500 meters away.
It is pitch dark, but even though is is a lovely, dry night with 20C, I finally give in, and take a Dong-metered taxi. To my big surprise, it turns out to be even more expensive than the non-metered's offer on $20. And I did catch him trying to start on 170 KD, as the last tour ended at! Well, little over half a million Dongs to get to the hotel in Hoi An would be fine - if it were open!
The hotel next door charges me twice as much, but I get a nice triple room, and it even got hot water. Drop my bag, and head down to the Thu Bon river. A real picture-rich mix of tourist shops with cloths and shoos blend in to the original fruit stands, groceries, tailors, tiny restaurants and - well, hard to say in the dark.
I follows the river, passing nice restaurants, until I reach the end of the vendor area. Here, tiny restaurants with tiny tables and chairs - just 30 centimetres high - sell excellent fried noodles with pork, ox, chicken or veggies for 20KD - less than €1.
Along the river, old chaps sits in their even older wooden boats, offering tours across the river. Women are selling floating lamps to be launched on the river. A few ask me politely, if I'm interested in some supper, a boat ride or a lamp, but a single shake with my head, is enough to call them off. Nice!
It is truly an old town. One of the few that survived the last war. Most are French colonial style, overgrown with vegetation. I am looking forward for another view tomorrow - in the sun I hope. The river is high, flooding some parts of the road aliening it. Here are pretty clean and almost odourless. The marked is closed, and the four legged cleaning crew are working (rats). As with the stores, it is a mix of locals and tourist, mainly backpackers.
I get a couple of offers on mopeds - if you can call something going 90 Km/t that: $4 a day. The traffic seems a bit chaotic: You drive, if you think you can make it? Well, I have survived so fare, and it seems like the only way I can make it to all the national parks I want to go to - unless I rent a car with a driver!
Back at the hotel at ten. Diary writing, photo deleting, a bit of laundry. and reconstruction of the bag. At midnight, I call it a day - or rather two! It is 29 hours since I left home.
9/1. Wake up at seven, and no reason to delay it: It is time to say: Goooood morning Vietnam! I pack my things; the hotel have promised me a single room for the next couple of days. Out in the still rather sleepy city to find gear and breakfast. I walk pass some rice- and other swampy fields within the city. Here are quite some temples or assembly halls, but all seems rather new, and not real interesting.
I find a shop selling motorcycle helmets. Accordantly to my favourite TV-show: Top Gear, it should be difficult to find them in adult sizes. I succeeds, and negotiate the price to 200KD. The make up their loss by selling me a pair of sunglasses for 70KD. Quite a lot of the helmets are made for females: There are an opening in the back for a ponytail! Helmets are used a lot: Not only while driving, but also just walking or even working in a shop!
Find some breakfast at a local place: Glass noodles with sliced ox and species. A tour around the newer part of the city before heading down to the river. It still look idyllic in the morning sun. I passes a lot of old restored houses, mainly with tourist stuff. Temples and local shops mixed in-between, and plenty of green trees and plants.
It is low tide at the river, and fishermen are catching fish in it. I get to the marked once again. Now, it if filled with locals, selling and buying living fishes, vegetables, household stuff, cloths, plastic things and live chickens. I passes the covered Japanese bridge again, and find a temple inside.
At the river, only wooden boats are fund, but in all sizes. I take a lot of photos, but I know I'll forget to document the normal things after a few days. The sun have disappeared in mist, but that might be helpful in the covered market. When the scenery get too crowded for my liking, and I figure I have seen the most, I returns to the hotel.
My original plan was to go diving and exploring at Cham Island, but it is so much not the diving season, and from the pictures I have seen at the tour operators, the island is not that interesting. Too late to visit Back Ma National Park, but I might take a motorcycle for a test run. Opposite the hotel, they can be rented. I find what looks like a big moped, and end up paying 80KD for the day. Back in my new room and re-dress. Pickup the moped and go straight to the gasoline station. Five litres, 125KD - more than the rent!
I head south-west op in the foothills. Here My Son is found. It should be Vietnam's answer to Angkor Wat - although slightly more aged by time. It dates back to the 4. to 13. century. Another reason for me to go there, is the possibility for finding some central Vietnamese orchids. The traffic is rather easy, they drive in the right side - in general. You turn and shift lane without looking, but stops, if someone blow their horn. If you turn out from a side road, you can choose to go against traffic for several hundreds metres. I only see two motorcycle accidents today. One of the last days, I learn the moped speed limit is 40 km/h - that explain why I was overtaking the lot... I'm use to motorcycles, and drown with full throttle.
I passes newly planted rice fields, water buffalos, large rivers and villages. While I assent, the sun disappears, and I thinking on my raincoat at the hotel. It is only mid twenties, and I have to admit: I freezes a bit.
I reach My Son, and pay a rather steep fee: 60KD. I start walking the two kilometres up to the site. Could have driven, but I am looking for orchids. Closest I come, is a nice Fabaceae and a white orchid - sitting with the bulb free in a trashcan.
There are several species of the spore plant Selaginella, one crawling and one, large, erect one. I reaches the ruins, and YES: It are surely ruins. They are build of burned clay bricks, and once, their top was covered in massive gold. There are several groups, but all have more or less designated.
I head out some small paths, leading out in the surrounding rainforest, but although there are epiphytes, I find no orchids. While studying some ferns on a trunk, I disturbed a nest of tiny bees. One more tour around the ruins, hoping the sun could break through, but no luck.
While I walk back, I head into the forest several times, but the orchids - if there are any - keen eluding me. A large mug of Vietnamese, green tea and a bit of instance planning. I had no other plans around Hoi An, but the Marble Mountains half way to Da Nang might be interesting, and a good chance to see orchids in these hills next to the sea.
Back passes Hoi An on A1, and down to the river-way almost the right place. The hills are easy to find: In a completely open delta, those five "haystacks" hills with almost vertical walls stick up around 70-110 metres from the surrounding clay. I take a tour around the smaller ones, and passes through villages filled with stone masons. Real nice handiwork.
A fee gives access to the easy way: A lift to the top of the Marble Mountains. I chooses the harder stairway, hoping for orchids. Once again, I'm disappointed. Either I have no clue of where to find them, or - more likely - they have been removed years ago. Here are lots of interesting plants, but strangely enough, more than half are either Americans of Africans. Plumerias, Sansevierias, Agaves, Opuntias, Madagascar succulents and other familiar plants.
The area is filled with temples and pagodas. Numerous caves houses alters and Buddha statues, and several places, messes are halt. I'll do the tour, stairs up and down. I reaches the top, which reveals a fantastic view to the coast, the other hills and Da Nang. It is slightly misty, and the sun starts to decent - somewhere in the clouds. . .
A few more look into some of the larges caves, some with bats. It seems like my camera is quite good at these dark places - too good actually: They don't look dark, just slightly blurry. Might have a setting for that? I plan to get back before dark at half pass five, and must go without finding any orchids.
More traffic on the way back, but I feel quite confident now. Have to re-fuel once again, this time for 170KD. It turns out to be a hungry beast I'm riding! Then again, I have driven around 120 km today. Misses my GPS, but find the hotel after two look-ups in the map. Perfect timing: It is almost dark.
Returns a rather dirty moped at the shop and make a booking for tomorrow - I have, after all - just refilled it! Back at my room, I sit down to write down some of the day's impressions. Some maniac have taken 200 pictures with my camera! Most are dissent, but they have to be cut significantly down in number. Else; I will spend all night tagging them!
After two hours, I find supper more attractive, and head down to the river. Safety first, and I make a back-up before leaving. Strangely enough, there are something on the memory stick. Deletes a lot, but a few files resist. Then I notes it one of the other virtual drives I'm at! Looks like it is the Mac drive! If the diary ends here, it was...
Seems like it survived? Head down river, but find an alley between a fancy hotel and a fancy restaurant. Here, a tiny woman have a supper restaurant for the locals. She only serve rice with cold chicken slices and beans, but it taste great. It is accompanied by a glass of local green tea.
Back at the hotel, I bring my computer down to the internet cafe and hook op on the Wi-Fi. Uploads diary and try to make a temporary slideshow with the first photos. Thought I got all needed software on this new Mac, but a few files for the jAlbun and Advanced Find&Replace are missing, and I spend forever trying to get around them. It takes forever to up-load, and it keep failing. I still have some planning to do, but at midnight, I have to call it a day, once again.
10/1. I got a long drive ahead of me, and to save some time, I grab a bacon & eggs at the hotel. Almost as cheap as the local's fried rice! The motorcycle shop opens, and I get my moped. As no surprise, the gasoline I filled up yesterday have evaporated over night. After a chat about it, I get it back.
Straight out to A1, which although it is the main road from north to south, still cuts through villages. That gives a lot of crossing traffic! I have got the hang of their way of driving, and pretty soon, I'm the fastest moped around. Feel so much more safe among the cars, driving my way, instead of negotiating zigzagging, crossing and approaching mopeds, doing the legal 40km/h, in the inner lane.
Once again, I drive through rice fields which are getting re-planted right now. It started dripping as I left the shop, and it continues softly. I reach Hai Van Pass, which elevates to 496 metres. As I assent, the rain gains strength, and further up, the clouds are closing in. No way I can see the nearby peak of 1172 metres. I get a few shoots of the bay, before it vanishes. I unpack my glows and pull the collar up to my nose. I'm so glad I bought the light sunglasses! I sense the deep and steep gorges I crosses, cowered in dense but low vegetation.
As I am expected to, I take a picture of the view from the top. The souvenir pushers here are famous for their persistence, but the sit in their sheets, ignoring me! Don't blame them, it is pouring down. As on the other side, the road crosses numerous streams and creeks. The area seem totally untouched from humans, except the rather nice but winding road.
On the other side of the mountain range, the roads heads out to an island, and continues to the next. They are heavily populated, and traffic is intense. I re-fill the moped's gas tank, just to be sure. I ask, if they sell coffee, and I get a shoot of some cold liquid, tasting a bit like Khalua. A warm glass of local tea, and I'm fine. Turns out to be for free!
Another mountain range, and I leave the highway to be challenged a real slippery clay road. It starched for four kilometres, right into Back Ma National Park. I find the visitor centre, and jumps of the moped, an bit stiff after 110 kilometres and almost three hours.
It is rather large, but totally dark inside. I finally find a girl, but she only tells me: The park is closed! Have been that for a year now, and will only re-open next year. I am not aloud to enter the park by my self. Bummer! A few restaurants, looking as deserted, are next to the centre. I find a concrete path behind them, leading out to a tiny village. A sign show the path to a waterfall, and I follows it. After having negotiated with a water buffalo and her calf, I meet no one.
It leads right up to the foothills of mountains, the park is based on. This area receives the most rainfall in the entire country, but it stopped when I jumped (crawled) of the moped. As this is my last chance to find mid-Vietnam orchids, I head on. The path leads up the hills, and turn into what most of all looks like a dried out creek.
All plants seem natural for Vietnam, but I still fails to find any orchids. The pats starts to branch out, there are no markers, and either of them seems to have been used for quite a while. I find the disappointing waterfall, and after having tried several blind tracks, I give up. At least, I got my temperature up again.
Back at the centre after almost three hours, I grab a cup of coffee. It is served in a way I've never seen before. The tiny filter sits on a glass, sitting in a tiny bowl with hot water. Next to it is a pot with hot, green tea. Two tiny cups and a bowl with sugar finishes the serving. I observe it for several minutes, while it slowly drips through, but it is worth it. Real strong, and slightly perfumed, bit like the free one I got earlier. Turns out coffee usual is served with green tea in Vietnam.
It is rather tempting to continue to Hue, just 50 kilometres further up north, but I know it will be a long way home, in the just starting rain. Plan B is to return the moped, and travel on by bus to morrow. Going that way anyway. Back over the two passes, which now is even more covered in clouds and rain.
Refuel once more, just to be safe. Just two kilometres later, the engine dies. Felt like a fuel problem - did I get diesel? I am in one of the less populated areas I have been, but after having tried a few places, I find a guy with a toolbox and he is eager to use it. After havening tried several things, he ends up guessing at the floater in the carburettor, and he can't fix it.
I feel a bit helpless. These nice people don't speak a single word English, and my Vietnamese is worse! One of the chaps offers me a moped ride back to my hotel, and they will take the moped inside for the night. Sounds great in my rather cold ears, and I pay them 200KD.
At the motorcycle shop, they seems a bit shocked about me coming back without a moped. I only seen one bad accidence to day, and after the talk with my driver, they calm down. I don't have a bad conscience, and head back to the hotel for a hot shower. It is only five, and I might even get my cloth dry, if I washes the now. Or not: there are no water at the hotel now.
Having lost my adventitious spirit, I eat at the hotel: Fried rice with pineapple and ham for 30DK. Then I'm left with the diary and photos of the day: 81, rudely cut back to 30. Had a thought about how to upload slideshows, and it worked!
After to day's, 220 kilometre tour, looking like 1,3 cm on my map, I might reconsider the huge round tour in the north, looking like 15-20 centimetres! Each day is roughly 330 km, some in high mountains. I have set aside a week for it, but depending on the road condition, rain and amount of traffic, 300 km might be maximum for one day. Problem being: I can't figure how else to get around to those locations in that short time - for that amount of money.
Anyway; I have to go to Hue by bus to morrow. Due to my lack of adventureriosity, I book the bus right from the hotel. Sounds like it is five times as expensive as the public, but I just like that road to feel smooth one time!
Review of the day - the positive prospect: Didn't crass on moped, didn't get lost, benefited from bringing my rain-gear, most of my belongings are just mildly damp, I didn't get sunburned, didn't get mugged, got home to the hotel and my stuff were there, didn't take to many photos, did upload slideshow. Guess it could be much worse...
11. Anticipating the 7;30 pick-up from the hotel might be a bit late, I plan to eat breakfast while waiting. Pay my bill: A million and changes. It is a cloudy morning in Hoi An, with a mild drizzle. The mopeds two-smoke accumulates heavily in the streets, mixed with the incense. At some point, me and two other tourists are picked up by a guy on a moped. He leads us to a travel agency, where the waiting continues. I guess patience will be the keyword of the day?
Rain ponchos are, not that surprisingly, popular, but some get away with an umbrella on their mopeds. Some ponchos have a transparent area for the headlight. As so many other places, some well-keep and very friendly dogs strolls around. Once again, I get it confirmed: Friendly people; friendly dogs. The rain lightens in some periods, but it is still kind of chill. A quick tour in the street reveals one tailor shop after another. I sincerely hope I won't have the time for a tailor-made suit!
Mopeds are used for transporting goods. Their seems to be no limitation at all. 200 l gas container, 7 meter roof tin, 2 m3 of clothing, 3 passages, around 100 hens, two adult pigs. You name it, they transport it! The traditional pointy straw-hat is real common in the countryside, and even in the city, older people are warring them.
Finally, after having gathered around 12 other backpackers, and waited for three hours, the bus arrivals. It is a sleeping bus, with three rows of beds. The back-lean can be folded up, put then there are no room for the head. While it is down, there are no room for the feet. The windows are hardly transparent, moist inside and covered in raindrops on the outside. Good thing I already have seen the interesting part of this road! We go through the Hai Van tunnel - glad I did the pass yesterday!
We drive a couple of streets, and take an hour break at the office. Seems like the day I intended to spend in Hue, exploring city and surroundings might stretch for two days? I doze off while we, rather slowly and rather smooth, head up A1. A few, real short stops, and at around two, we reaches Hue. My body feel more misused then yesterday's moped ride!
While the others are expected by pick-ups form their booked hotels, I planed just to go finding one. A sympatric guy offers me a free ride to his hotel, which turns out to be number two on my short list. $10 a night, hot shower, aircon, fan, TV and Wi-FI included. Hard to turn that offer down, in the rain!
Although it is still raining a bit, I just throw my bag on the bed, and head out to the city. There are only a few sights within the city on my list, and they are close together. I cross the Sang Huong; Perfume River, and end up in the southern bus station. A local restaurant tempts, and I treat myself with nice noodle-beef-soup.
The rains stops, and I continues to the waste Imperial Enclosure. Within a massive wall, numerous temples and pagodas can be found. Each build bye or for an emperor. Reminds me of The Forbidden City in China, except for the differences in each section. Some are still under construction, while others more or less have ended destruction.
Next to the river, a massive thumb-like construction founds the Flag Tower: Vietnams highest flagpole. 37 metres don't seem that impressive. The Enclosure, on the other hand, seems worth a visit. 55KD, and I'm in the citadels. One temple after another, many bonsais outside them, and I even find the orchid nursery, I have heard of. Unfortunately, it seems like they lost their gardener some years ago. The plants are lock in behind a fence, and they look so mistreated. Well, it is all I have found so fare...
Here are around 20 temples, which either have been rebuild or actually survived the bombardment of the French and then the Americans. I can't help feeling it is real barbaric to bomb thumbs and temples! Here used to be 148 buildings. The six meter high wall stretches for 2500 metres, and even though it is aged, it still stands.
Here are not that many tourist, but around half of them are Danish. Bit strange: At the hotel this morning, two Danish girls sat next to me. Four or five others joined the bus - are there anyone back home? Meet a Vietnamese tourist, and he like to talk. Turns out he is an English teacher, and he would like to train his English with me. Considering how difficult I have understanding him, at least one of us need some practice!
I desperately try to make photos, but the real dark day make it so difficult. I get a couple good ones inside the temples. Well, you are not aloud to photo inside, but the doorstep make a good stand for my camera. While going through the photos in the evening, I'm surprised how good the turns out. Bit dark, but pretty sharp. Some areas reminds me of a Indiana Jones film-set.
When I got temples enough, I walk back to the business centre, where I stay. Try to catch the intensity of the traffic, but that is hard! Almost as hard as crossing the road! The trick is: Just start walking, and keep your speed. If you stop or start running, you had it!
It is half pas five, and it is almost dark. I figure, I'll have a supper before returning to the hotel. Could choose a cheap meal at the sidewalk, but decides to treat my selves with something better. One restaurant offers roasted chicken, but 80KD !!! Next to it, an alley have been painted and offers roasted pork chops with rice for half that amount. It is absolutely delicious! Treat my selves with a local coffee with, I think, Milo (here, it is called condensed milk). Best ever! Like Khalua with triple cream.
Just before I get back to the hotel, I start looking for a moped. First one demands $8, and that in not negotiable. Next one starts at $4, and I guess that will be it. I've been told by a trishaw driver, it will be heavy rain tomorrow, but what? I got the gear, and I'm not afraid of using it! Even bought my self one of these masks which are so popular around here. A stop at an ATM to withdraw yet another 3,5 million. Bad habit, but what can I do?
Been asking a bit around for the best way to get to Dong Hoi, and it seems like the back-breaking sleeping busses are the best bid. $15 for the whole stretch to Ha Noi, and I guess I can get of in Dong Hoi, then Ninh Binh. I recall being in Nim Bin in Australia - one never forgets that: Worse part of the 60'ties! Anyway; the bus supposed to leave five in the afternoon, and that suits me fine. That offers me plenty of time to explore the surrounding countryside by moped, and I might even make up for the lost half day. Turns out it is high season, and the price is $22. Then again, the local might be overbooked too, and they surely make way more stops, and it is an all-nighter already.
Only 110 pictures to work with this evening, and most are, after all, victims of the weather. 48 survives first cut, more have to go... Diary and photo along with the plan for to morrow done way too early for bed. Empty the pockets myself, and the out for a night stroll. It seems like, if you not into a tailor made suit, high heel shoes, marihuana, booze or young girls, it might be hard to find it. I just share a light drizzle which Buddha so cheerful provides. Passes the night marked by the river, the bar-area and more tailors then I've ever seen. End up buying a big bottle - of water.
12/1. Sounds like a nice day - until I unplug my earplugs. Then the rain almost dominate the distance noise from the city. Well, I'm a descendent of the Vikings, should a vie of drizzle stop me?! Breakfast on the other side of the alley, motorcycle next to it. Check out, but leave my gear in the reception.
Gas up at the marked; the gasoline is stored in water bottles in the back of a restaurant. No wonder I had a hard time finding it! Find the right way out of the city, but having a bit of a hurtle finding the right road to the Minh Mang thumb. The pouring rain soaks my map in the book, and make is more difficult!
Finally, I'm at the right, little road, passing low hills with pines. A few parked busses makes the spot. The Minh Mang emperor was the Vietnamese ruler under the French colonisation. He ruled between 1916 and 1925.
It is a massive, black concrete monument, but a closer look reveals quite some nice details. It is build up-hill, one yard after another in front of buildings. Not really the entrance of the usual 55KD and the 10 km drive in the rain worth, but who could say?
I try to explore the surroundings, but get yelled at, while walking up a dirt road. Find another, but the soaked nature is not that appealing after all. No orchids either. The whole area south of Hue is filled with thumbs, but I have only chosen to see two. The next is the Tu Duc complex. I take a few detours on the way, one of them leading to a Christian church in Vietnamese style; Thien An.
The rain keep pouring down when I reach Tu Duc. Another fee, but this time, it seems well spend. The complex is rather large. It was build by Tu Duc, the emperor between 1864 and 1867. It served both as a recreation area and later as a tomb for him. Here are long ponds, islands, temples and tombs of other emperors. Some in better condition than others.
While exploring the area, I see some nice temples, a few interesting moths and a huge tick, and even what could be a group of orchids - or not? As at the other temples, here are nice bonsais outside. I find a track leading around the complex, but not really anything interesting reveals it selves.
A bit early - only eleven - to head back to town, but I'm starting to feel soaked and cold, and I've seen tombs enough for one rainy day. A bit detours on the way back - guess the GPS-logger will look like an ant on coke?
Back in the city, I find a coconut cake and two, large and hot cups of coffee, but it don't change the fact: I am soaked! Somehow, my fleece is having wet sleeves, and it seems like the rain-pans have a giant leak in the upper part. I am offered a warm shower at the hotel, but I wouldn't know what to do with the wet cloths for the bus tour and tomorrow in the park. I try to dry it by body heat - in 100% humid and cold environment - that is. Turns out not even the drops on my helmet dries, and my shoes and socks can be wrenched! My guidebook; Lovely Planet is already disintegrating.
Back at the hotel, I have four hours to spend. Not really anything I want to see in the city, especially not in the rain! I hope it will be true: The rain is limited to the central part of the country. Up north, it should be dry, but unfortunately some colder:7-12 C. Not perfect for motorcycle driving, but by talking to other backpackers and locals, I'm sure I will experience so much more nature, driving by myself.
Backpackers here are a bit strange: They seems to prefer suitcases! Well, if you are driven by bus from hotel to hotel, you might be better of that way. Back side is: You hardly can't see anything from the sleeping busses, which seems to be the only mean of transport - unless you have like forever to use the local busses.
The 90 photos are cut back to 24, diary updated and a bit of detailed planning for the next days. Turns out the stretch to Dong Hoi is only four hours, but roughly the same stretch to Ha Noi is ten? Good thing is; I get to sleep in a proper bed tonight, and even get to dry my stuff?
It is once again Camel Travel I'm going with, but this time, it is only one hour late. It is pitch dark, and the windows wet outside and steamy inside. Not the way to see Vietnam! Never the less, we are around 44 people, mainly young locals, crammed together in each a short sleeping seat. After two hours, we do an eating brake. Some are doing real long tours on these busses, and it seem popular. I treat myself with a role of biscuits, and wait for departure.
A local girl tells me; everyone is going up north for the holidays. Then, in 14 days time, everybody will be heading south. Great: Just like me. That means raised prices, overbooked hotels, flights and busses. On top of that, the forecast for Ha Noi promises showers for the next week. Sa Pa being a bit better, but also way colder.
Even though I ask for the rest of my open ticket for Ha Noi three times, I end up being kicked off the bus, little pass ten, without any evidence of the $22 I paid. Well, except for the receipt I talked the hotel into giving me. The bus points me to their office. Turns out NOT to be their office, but just an open shop. The office is closed. Somehow, I get a bad feeling of being ripped off!
A short walk through the drizzle brings me to number one on my hotel list. I end up in a room for four, but $12 including breakfast at this time is fine by me! 15 minutes for the water heater to do its magic, and then I heat for bed.
13/1. After breakfast, I start the challenge of getting my ticket for Ninh Binh. It turns out no one speaks any English around here. After being send from one shop to another, I end up at the closed tourist office. The helpful girl at the hotel calls a bit around, and it turns out my ticked was not "open" after all. I could have stayed on the bus 10 hours more, but now, I have to buy a fresh ticket. Well, I hope the Phong Nha National Park is that worth!
Didn't see a motorcycle our-renter in the high street, and take up the girl at the hotel's offer, although it is twice the price I use to pay. I even get a map with a shortcut. It starts to drizzle just as I leave the hotel, and it picks up on the way. I passes through small villages and farmland. Some are rice fields, other more dry.
After 50 kilometres of light rain, mist, cold and misery in general, I reach the village Son Trach, which is the gateway to Phong Nha National Park and Cave. It turns out the park is closed, even the Mooc Ecu-Trail! Despite I have spend quite some time and energy planning this tour, thing are not really going my way!
Now I'm here, I might see the Phong Nha Cave, it is in the park, and I might succeed to sneak off into the wild? 220KD for the boat ride? Well, it turns out it is half an hour in a 12 meter boat, which I apparently have rented all by my self. Further more, the boat tour continues, now by manpower, into the cave. On the way to the cave, we passes real steep limestone mountains and small huts on the brink. In a sunny day, it would be beautiful - I think.
The cave itself is huge: The entire bottom is a river, 15-20 meters across, and except for the meter and a half entrance, here is 10-15 metres to the sealing. Some walls are carved out by the river, others are formed by the sediment of the water, dripping from the above. It should stretch at least 55 kilometres, but I'm only aloud two. Pretty good lightning, although the colouring is a bit tacky.
I try to take photos on the way, but in the darkness, and from a boat, they tend to be - jut a tiny bit -blurry. We passes another dragon boat, filled with local tourists. Besides from that, the well over 100 of these tourist boats I have seen along the shore of the river have been empty. A few fishermen works on the river, and some water buffalos walks on the brinks.
At a major branch of the cave, I get to go on shore. A dry cave reveals some real amassing formations, and I get a couple of less blurry photos. The other group catch up, and I return to my boat. Shortly before the entrance, I'm sat ashore again, and a walk reveals some more great sights.
The rain have stopped, and when I get back to the village, I got for a stroll. Lunch at rather touristed place - in high seasons that is. Now, I have 20 restaurants all for my self. The prices on the other hand is five time the usual. I follow a real muddy trail in the back, passing primitive shops with all kind of goods. I find a poncho in rather good quality for 80KD, and I guess I more or less will be living in it in the next month or so. A scarf, and I'm fit.
I find a huge, black beetle. It is alive, but just like me, it is unwilling to stretch out. The rain picks up again, and I decide to try my new poncho. It goes over the handlebars, and I'm a bit anxious it might flip up, while I drive. On the other hand; the locals get away with it. It is actually rather good, almost like sitting in a car - except from my nose sticking out.
Stop a few times on the way back, but the dark and misty weather does not call for neither great views or photos. I re-organises at the hotel, and start the search for yet another Ninh Binh ticket. The price have gone up once again, now 350KD, and it turns out, they are sold out! I only stopped in this city to see the national park - which was closed, and now I can't leave it? Boomer! Finally, I find another company, and get a ticket for a 19:00 bus.
There is a brake in the rain, and I drive down to the local marked. Real interesting with living fish, deal livestock, clothing and all kind of other goods. I find a drip-drip coffee-maker for 10KD, and I have to buy it! More dripping, and I head back to the hotel to get some diary done.
At six, I head up to the main road to find a restaurant to wait for the bus. Turns out this is NOT an restaurant area. Well, a bakery can do, although it turns out every cake they have, are made from the same dough. While I wait, I start decimating the 220 photos of the day. The cave ones are surprisingly sharp in general! Then I took way to many!
To my surprise, the bus arrivals just on time. It is almost empty, but the ticket man insist on being filled from the back. A bunch of pretty boozed-up young men are laying on the five beds in the back. The ticket guy keep shouting, very loud until the crawl into the black hole underneath. Fine with me. But when he start shouting at me, trying to get me to crawl into that hole along with them, he fails!
He reigns finally, and I get one of the upper five beds. We make quite a few stops in the beginning of the tour, and I get squeezed in between a man and a woman. In the plane to Dong An, I was seated next to a Vietnamese guy, whom I thought were SO rude. His elbows and feeds were pushing me all the time. He even placed an elbow on my chest, leaving it there with some pressure on.
Now it turns out; that is the Vietnamese style! They are sleeping like dogs. Pushing harder and harder, until they get room enough, and even before they fall asleep. I'm not considering myself that fuzzy, but this is a hard blow to my lebensraum! And it wakes me up every time I doze off. Does not help mush, when the female starts to get carsick.
14/1. At two, we make a toilet/restaurant break, and at five, I'm sure they forgot to kick me of in Ninh Binh. Wouldn't really surprise me... Then I'm ask to get my belongings together, and I'm kicked out on a black, rainy road. A guy on a moped offers to drive me to a fairly cheap hotel for one dollar. Not really an offer I feel like turning down!
He drives bye the train station to give me a feeling of, where we are. It turns out to be a nice place for 160KD, and I go right to bed.
I'm not sure wherever this is Friday, but is for sure was the thirteen. I sure hope my luck changes to the better, heading further up north. That will be revealed in part 2: The Cold North.