Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island and South

The stereotypical image of Vietnam exists everywhere

Ha Long Bay - Nature vs. Tourism

Ha Long Bay's floating communities

...and their treatment of their environment.

Cat Ba Island, in Ha Long Bay, from the National Park

Georgie strolling to the beautiful beach

Assaf, Michael, Julita, Me and George. The bay and the Tonkin Gulf in the background

Only the Vietnamese can make riding these things look cool

Look closely and you'll see this family's living room and bedroom in this 'restaurant'. The child was later plonked naked on one of the tables. Life is certainly not lived behind closed doors in this part of the world.

Seafood and beer to follow sun and beach

The view from our $10 hotel room - watching the colour of the sky change at night was astounding

We've ridden past birds, dogs and pigs being transported by bike - not for the feint-hearted, but incredibly impressive nonetheless.

Tam Coc, the Ha Long Bay of the Rice Paddies - a nice 2 hour boat ride after a tough 68 mile bike ride

These ladies had a very impressive foot rowing technique

While I was taking this photo Georgie was trying to convince our rower/driver that we really didn't want to but any tablecloths thankyouverymuch, row on.

Week one back on the road down, along with 177 miles, in spite of the fact that where we sit now is only 56 miles from where we started. Georgie’s addition has made this feel like more of a holiday than a punishment, which it can feel like at times, so I happily rode 3 times the distance to take in Ha Long Bay (it is a World Heritage Site after all) and Cat Ba island. The chilling on the beach part is my forte, but the riding out of my way to get there isn’t.

Riding out of Hanoi was as hectic as expected but surprisingly manageable once you understand the concept: ride wherever the hell you want, just keep going in a straight line. Georgie did incredibly well considering it was her big Day 1 and she was an extra 3 feet long towing the trailer behind her. We navigated out of this small and friendly city having had a great introduction to Vietnam, and immediately hit the paddy field and bamboo hats that thoughts of the country conjure up. Ha Long bay was 2 days away at our gentle, introductory pace (gentle, that is, for me – Georgie was eager to carry on past the hotel at 42 miles but I wanted to get off my bike ASAP; the 7 weeks off (the longest I’ve been off a bike in the past 4 years) now seems like less of a wise move and my body is rebelling).

On arrival in Ha Long City, or in reality Bai Chay, which to the Lonely Planet writers is the same place but for us is a tiring 5 mile bridge crossing doubleback, we decided to do things independently rather than going for an organised 3 day trip, so the following day we kept everyone waiting whilst loading our 2 bikes and 8 bags and trailer onto the boat before cruising off into the bay for 4 hours, on the way to Cat Ba island. The scenery was expectedly spectacular and the notorious trash filling the water was less apparent, though clearly respect for the water isn’t on everyone’s minds (see image above).

The Vietnamese/tourist relationship can be strained at times. They’re enterprising people filling niches and servicing needs, but when there is money to be made their knack for telling you what you want to hear is second to none (giving truth to the ‘same same… but different’ SE Asian mantra). When booking the boat to the island, and handing over money, the distance from port to town was 15km, flat, along the highway. Upon arriving at the island, when buses were being booked, it had miraculously become 45km, and hilly. It turns out the latter was the closest to the truth. Following an hour or so of dirty tricks (locals telling the local, 15,000 dong/50p bus not to stop so we’d be forced to take the 700,000 dong/23 pound private one) and hardcore, righteous bartering courtesy of our newly made Israeli friend Assaf (no stereotypes please), 6 of us and 2 bikes piled in at a knock-down but still rip-off price of 2 pounds and 50p each. The road was long, mostly uphill, and certainly not a highway. If I ever meet that liar again I will be sure to let him know what a scoundrel he is.

This series of stresses behind us our new group of 6 had a great few days on Cat Ba island, sharing a hotel, hanging out on the beach together, eating together – to Assaf, Mick, Julita and Pavel, thanks for your company and I hope you all enjoy the rest of your trips.

I spent yet another day on a motorbike, this time a 125cc Yamaha scooter, the staple vehicle of Vietnam, riding through the stunning scenery of the National Park. Not the manliest of beasts, especially when twinned with a glittery fake Nike peaked helmet, but the feeling of cruising effortlessly at 25mph and zooming up hills was intoxicating. Next trip…

Fighting the feeling to stay on the island and spend another 7 weeks sitting on the beach, thanks as well to Georgie’s encouragement and eagerness to get more miles under her bum bag, we departed on the hydrofoil back to the mainland. Another 2 days of riding in ever increasing heat and intense sun has landed us up in Ninh Binh, a base to see Tam Coc – the Ha Long Bay of the Rice Paddies – and rest. This we did today, after a very tough afternoon of riding yesterday. Thinking I’d got yet another bout of food poisoning from the eggs/rice/fried insect/ice at lunch I felt increasingly ill and Georgie was leaving me in her wake. It seems bizarre but after spending weeks in the heat and the deserts through Turkey, Iran and India, the sun got the better of me in humid Vietnam and I had what I guess was heatstroke, to go nicely with my British tourist sunburn. Whether it’s the humidity or the nearing the equator I don’t know, but 42 degrees here is far more intense than the 42 degrees I’ve ridden in anywhere else.

This morning we spent 2 hours being rowed along a quiet river between limestone cliffs and through caves, a lovely way to counteract the previous day’s punishment.

Now Highway 1 is upon us and we follow it from here all the way down the coast to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as someone unfortunately renamed it. Our only concern in this very safe, easy country in which to travel is how long we can stomach the noodles and put up with the ridiculous worse-than-India beeping.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Third Evolution

'Junction' is a word to be feared

Georgie in the rain at the Confucian Temple of Literature

From West to East, Churches turn into Mosques which turn into Temples

Ho Chi Minh's best bud, Lenin

How pavement badminton hasn't caught on in the UK I'll never know...

Life by the tracks in Central Hanoi

Scooters. So many scooters. Everywhere.

The green light stampede - Do Not Run!

Life is lived on the pavement. Walking is made harder.

So here we are. The moment that kept me riding onwards during some miserable days in Eastern Europe has arrived. Georgie is here! Taking her place as Riding East's second addition and beginning the 3rd distinct stage of the trip for me (Stage 1 being the two months riding solo from home to Istanbul; Stage 2, the three months riding across the Middle East with Adam), she'll be documenting things in her own way here. After more than 7 months apart things picked up pretty much where they left off as I met her at the airport - it felt like we'd only been apart for a week or 2. For those that know us, that also includes stresses and arguments - it'll take a few weeks to work each other out and develop the right tactics for dealing with life on the road, but with us that's half the fun.

Thanks to Georgie's arrival and expectedly high level of enthusiasm I've been a tourist in Hanoi after 2 weeks of avoiding it. Many miles have been walked and, being a pretty compact city, most of what's there to see has been seen - Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, though he's currently in Russia being cleaned; his Presidential palace adorned with photos of Marx and Lenin; the Confucian Temple of Literature, a university dating from the 11th century; a bunch of rockets and a Mig used to shoot down Americans in the '70s; the French Quarter; the Old Quarter where the real (though tourism-corrupted) Hanoi is, and Hoan Kiem lake and its temple complete with giant tortoise. Today was the day to apply for visas, so far just the Cambodian one at a bargain price of $20, and get back on the bike to test it our after 7 weeks off - my body finally felt at home for the first time since dismounting in Delhi on the 22nd July!

Tomorrow is Day 1 and our departure on the way to Ha Long Bay on the Tonkin Gulf coast. Both of us will need to ease in to the riding gently so the 100 miles or so will take 2 or 3 days which will give us a chance to asses what riding in Vietnam is like in terms of food, water, roads and accommodation, the situation with which is so different in every country.
I think we're both looking forward to it - stay tuned to see how it goes!