Would you let this man into your country?
...when his official paperwork looks like this?
No? Well the Vietnamese immigration officials at the Nam Xoi border thought the same. After a big hoo-hah involving several immigration officials and at least one game of "Heads he stays, Tails he goes...", their boss, Colonel Scary:
threatening the Gillette treatment, eventually let us both in, beard intact!
We made the overland crossing to Hanoi. It took about 10 hrs but the most memorable thing about that trip was that the driver had his hand on the horn the whole journey. That and there was a few chickens and caged birds who shared the journey. Not too much sleep to be had.
A leisurley peddlewaggon around this vibrant, frantic city was enough to see most of the sights.
A few fellow travellers made the brief stay all the more enjoyable.
About 5 hours North-East of Hanoi is the city of Halong, which is home to the magical Bay of the same name. We spent 3 days on a luxury cruise around the bay featured in James Bonds' "Die Another Day". It's home to thousands of dramatic limestone karst pillars jutting out of the sea. We sailed on one of the famous junk ships which were fantastic to stay on. We were blessed with some fine weather also.
One of the main features of the bay are the limestone caves which were quite interesting to visit, however we found the presence of about a dozen fire extinguishers dotted around this cave more interesting. What was going to catch on fire? There was not one combustible item (other than humans) in this stone cave surrounded by water! Maybe we were just caved out of it from previous caves.
The bay itself is incredible when viewed from a height.
Another one of the activities was a spot of kayaking, battling the harsh rapids of the Bay!
A beautiful sunset met us on the first evening when we stayed on the boat.
When the boat had anchored about 30 meters from Cat Ba Island, with no encouragment needed we led the charge in flinging ourselves from the top of the boat from some 25 feet to land in almost clear warm waters. Once we re-surfaced, the rest of the passengers figured it was safe enough and followed suit.
Fab food was provided on this trip. Surprisingly it totally lived up to expectations set by the tour guide. Beautifully cooked fresh fish and vegetables. It was some of the best food we ate in Vietnam. Really a luxury experience compared to our normal street side gastronomy of noodle soup!
We spent the second day on Cat Ba Island where we went on a hike in the national park. It was really enjoyable and not too exerting (ahem)! Check out Ruth's puce face below.
See thats where we came from!
We spent the rest of the time chilling out at Cat Ba's famous beaches. As it was the weekend and we were told a Vietnamese national holiday the seaside was choc-a-bloc with Vietnamese families enjoying the weather. It was a real party atmosphere and a refreshing break from spending all your time with Western tourists.
Overall our posh Halong Bay cruise gets a big thumbs up!
From Halong Bay we made our way South to Ninh Binh, where we stayed for a few days and decided to do a homestay which was around 300km way off the beaten track. Our guides Ha and Thon were to be our drivers for 2 days. Ult was driven on style on a 1960s old style Soviet Minsk motorbike while Ruth got the equivalent of a Honda 50 to bounce all over Northern Vietnam on.
It was a fantasic couple of days where we spent with a family of Hmong (asian mountain) people for the night. After a full day on the bike we eventually arrived at the bottom of the village where we hiked to the top of this hill where we were to sleep. On the way, we passed a young lady catching butterflies for the evenings starter, butterfly soup, (Yum)! This trip was only in operation for around 6 months and you really got a sense that the place was relativley untouched by tourism. Children were waving at us the whole way on the bikes and running along beside us as we made our way up.
After a blistering hot walk to the top of the hill, as promised, we were rewarded with a dip in the crystal clear waterfall. Ruth was looking forward to this part for most of the day and was prepared to cool down her Irish skin in the biggest puddle she could find. It was worth the wait!
One of our guides Thon
Ha was Ruths personal chauffeur
Around this village was beautiful paddy fields which would be ready to be harvested in around a month or so.
We were cooked a beautiful dinner over the over the open fire by our hosts.
Then came the entertainment where all the local bar flies came to this hut to meet the new foreigners, sing a few songs and try to play drinking games with us. The local poison was a home brewed rice wine. We were strenuously warned to take it easy on this fire water as us whities didnt really know how to drink like they did.
Well.... they met their match! Maybe they hadn't met Irish before.
All these local fellows were very drunk in no time and we were just looking at each other sober as judges. Watching as they began to argue in Vietnamese about this and that. Then someone had a fantastic brainwave to go hunting for freshwater crabs in the gullys of the rice paddies with torches. It was fantastic, I'd like to say we caught some but the locals put us to shame.
A midnight feast of the freshest crabs in the world eaten shells and all!
On the way back from this trip we popped into a temple where there was a very strange local ceremony going on. It was explained to us that women from very weathy families do a tradition every year where they are dressed in several costumes by local ladies. They hire a band dance around and hand out money and goodies like sweets and luxury foods to the local poor people. They were delighted to see us and we even got some 'lucky money' (about €0.005) from the wealthy lady. It seems that its a way of the weathy giving alms to the poor but the poor have to watch this bizzare performance to get the benefit.
The journey south continues...