Woes and Wonders — Waiting it out in Hue


I’ve been waiting for a day brimming with positive Vietnam stories to update the blog, that day where traveller serendipity has kicked in and obliterated some of the not-so-good days. I’m beginning to think that this just may not be possible for us in Vietnam so I’ve settled for a reasonably good day, except for my orange roots.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

On the woeful side, my derailer packed it in at Cuc Phuong Park. We had seen the primate rescue and rehabilitation centre which was wonderful and had a short but nice visit with some turtles at the turtle conservation center but we only experienced about 8 km of park road through the jungle when my chain broke and took my derailer with it. We might have delayed going back to Ninh Binh to get a part so we could do some hiking and see the rest of the park but by that time we had been scammed by the park shop owner, paying 18.00 for a bottle of water, a bag of peanut brittle, a small container of nuts and six wedges of La Vache qui rit cheese – local price would have been about 4.00. Adding to our woes, the food was truly terrible at the Mac Lake Restaurant and then someone tried to make Ian pay 1.00 for parking his bike…Enough of Vietnam we said. Let’s get back to Ninh Binh, get the part and get on the road to Laos.

Back in Ninh Binh we searched for a derailer with the help of our hotel owner. No luck but we appreciated his efforts. Ian found a shop in Saigon that spoke English but they didn’t have the part. Ian fixed the chain on my bike so I could ride it – I just can’t change gears except for the back sprockets. We enjoyed a nice afternoon cycling slowly around Ninh Binh, part of our excursion to buy train tickets to Hue.

Our 11 hour daylight train trip to Hue, with bikes following on the night train, was not spectacular but certainly pleasant. It is the hands-down winner compared to any bus I’ve seen – night buses are really popular here with the tourists (or I suspect with tour operators who strongly promote them – from the outside looking in they look cramped especially as tickets are sold to locals who sit in the aisles when seats fill up. This might be ok for a few hours but 9 hours on an overnight bus under those circumstances is not my idea of a good time.)

Daytime train trips can be long but at least you can get up and walk around and enjoy the views. The views between Ninh Binh and Hue were great on some parts of the journey, through karst mountains and past rice fields in every stage of growth and harvest. We were alarmed by the TVs hanging from the ceiling when we first boarded but I have to give RailTV credit – there were some decent documentaries and music shows mixed in with the odd Tom and Jerry cartoons. It was interesting watching the commercials and music videos. I would say communist propaganda has been absolutely replaced with western-style propaganda for buying lots of consumer goods – whacks of commercials for everything from shampoo to bank services with smiling happy models living in western-style houses with all the modern conveniences – most of which is still out of reach for many Vietnamese.

We got to our hotel in Hue without incident or scams and just laughed at the brazen copyright infringement. We are staying at the Google Hotel – logo, colours and font all prominently displayed in neon over the font door. Ironically the internet connection here sucks and the ISP that serves the hotel is victim to government censor on Facebook. However, staff is helpful and friendly, the beer is free (yes free) and our room is pleasant. 25.00 a night, breakfast included.

Our friend Dave was kind enough to go pick up a derailer from the Bike Doctor in Vancouver. He has it on standby – meanwhile we are heading to DaNang on Sunday (a two hour train ride) to pick up one sent up from Saigon. Hopefully it works. Otherwise we are looking at getting Dave to send it by Canada Post (7 days) and then who knows how long in Vietnamese customs. Plan C may be to get a bus to Thailand and just get one there, significantly rearranging our itinerary. Time will tell.

Our first morning in Hue we picked up our bikes from the train station, grumpily paying another 4.00 charge we weren’t told about (we had already paid to ship the bikes when we were in Ninh Binh and not told about any other fee and so did not know if it was legitimate). However, we enjoyed cycling along the river and then off to a FedEx office to see what we might have to arrange to get my bike part from Canada. We really liked what we saw of Hue along the way.

As we sat waiting for the FedEx office to open after lunch (they have siesta hours here) a man named Lee came up to us. He was well dressed and spoke good English. He told us he was waiting for his daughter to arrive from Saigon; his whole family was gathering for some kind of party. He asked where we were from (everyone asks) and when we told him he said he had a cousin in Victoria. This is typically the opener for a sales line but it didn’t come. He chatted to us for five more minutes about Victoria and Hue and then invited us for lunch. Ian and I hesitated.

It was me who said yes. On other trips saying yes has often led us to new people, places and good adventures. We both have had a rough time here I thought, perhaps this is the beginning of something more positive. Lee asked the woman who owned the drink stall where Ian and I were sitting where we could find a lunch spot close by (Lee told us he was also from out-of-town) and we jumped on our bikes and followed Lee to a small outdoor restaurant. He ordered for us, checked that we were good with 50,000 dong each price for lunch (about 2.50) and we said yes. We enjoyed an hour together talking more about Victoria, Hue, and Vietnamese history.

When it came time to leave, Lee offered to pay. We said no of course and he insisted. We said no again and he said, ok well how about I pay for lunch and if you want to do something for me you can buy a bottle of wine for the temple tonight (he had explained he was meeting his family at a temple for their party). We said sure. So he paid for lunch, and then we followed him to a small store. I watched the bikes while Ian bought the wine. As Ian paid I asked to take Lee’s photograph. He demurred saying no because he was going to the temple that night. I thought that was weird but shrugged it off given I don’t know local customs.

It wasn’t until we’d ridden away from him and stopped that Ian told me the wine cost 900,000 dong (45.00). We were both a bit stunned for a bit; it took a few minutes of trying to give Lee the benefit of the doubt before we realized it was an elaborate scam. It took me a few hours to get really angry and a whole day to get over it. I searched google for scams in Hue and found he had been written up by a British tourist; he had gone by the name Lee and story was pretty similar except of course Lee had relatives in Britain.

Being robbed or pickpocketed (which has happened to me in Canada, Thailand and Mexico) is less of a violation that this kind of scam. This man didn’t just take our money: he took advantage of our generosity, our desire to be respectful and our trust.

I’ve posted a very crude drawing of Lee based on my rudimentary drawing skills. He has salt and pepper hair, and very high and prominent round cheekbones. He’s in his fifties. He’s lean. He’s a bit long in the tooth and one of his front teeth has a fair amount of decay on it. He is well-dressed, well spoken and charming. He was hanging around the Gold Hotel on Ba Trieu Street.

Although I’m over it now there is collateral damage – we generally don’t like or trust most of the Vietnamese people who work in the tourist industry. They seem to look at us and see us simply as dollar signs. I’ve been to 28 other countries in the world and I’ve never been scammed like this (although, ironically twice in Vancouver by well-spoken drug addicts). There is also collateral damage to the Vietnamese tourist operators — its unlikely we will come back to Vietnam and we certainly won’t be recommending it.

Comparable experiences in Thailand after 12 visits there over 24 years? On one of my first trips there I was walking on the street and saw a temple in a construction lot. There were people buying offerings and milling about. I went into see what was happening. A well-dressed local woman came up to me and explained it was a temple for a new building that was about to be built. She bought me a coconut and showed me how to make an offering. She shook my hand. That was it. She wouldn’t let me pay for the coconut and didn’t want anything from me. There was another woman in Thailand, a banana hawker, on the side of the road. Ian and I stopped our bikes to buy bananas. She wouldn’t take any money; she wanted to give us a gift. There was Mr. Charin who owned the guesthouse in Kampang Phet. He asked us if we would like to spend a day with him in the country. We said yes. We drove off for a great drive through the countryside, entertained by Mr. Charin’s stories and eating stall food he bought for us. He refused to let us treat him to anything and we paid for nothing the entire day.

Yep. Some cultures promote giving and generosity and ethics. Some don’t. Lonely Planet says the government here might partly be to blame as they used to charge one price for foreigners and one for locals with difference as much as 10 times. This may have set an expectation with the tourist operators.

But there have been some wonders – the old imperial city and the citadel complex are worth a visit or three. It was the afternoon we spent there wandering about old temples and royal residences built in the early 1800s that got us over our anger. In fact, Hue is my favourite city here I think, possibly beating out Hanoi which we got to like after the first few days of adjusting to noise and traffic.

We also had a terrific dinner at the Imperial Hotel last night, a five-star, with a reasonably priced Asian set menu that was very generous in terms of servings and great value at 40.00 for two of us. It gave us an opportunity to try some Vietnamese specialties (rice pancakes, pho with all the fixings and no fear of the raw veggies and herbs that come with it) and we had a great view of the city from the bar on the top floor.

Oh yeah. The orange roots. Neither wonderful nor completely woeful (but only because I have a sense of humour) is my latest Vietnam hair experience. The slightest hint of grey was starting to show at my root lines and given we are in rural territory after this week for some time I thought I would deal with it here. There is a salon in the hotel. The woman who runs it picked a colour I thought might be too light but I figured she knew what she was doing. Wrong :-0 I now have an orange stripe covering all my grey. When it grows out in a month I will be black orange and grey. Too bad Halloween is over. We should be in Thailand in a month where there are Tescos and Boots in the bigger cities so I will hopefully find a home kit and fix it myself.

Off to buy our train tickets to DaNang.











So Long HaLong Bay and the Streets of Haiphong


Tuan Chua Ferry Terminal Ha Long Bay to Haiphong 70 km
Haiphong to Thai Binh 69 km
Thai Binh to Ninh Binh 60 km

We hit the road earlier than expected from HaLong Bay, cycling away in a bit of a huff I’m afraid. We did manage to get one afternoon boat tour in and got some close ups of those spectacular limestone rock formations (there is something like 2000 of them) but I am afraid we let the tourist circus get to us.

We weren’t overly impressed with the boat tour. 25.00 each for a couple of hours in an afternoon and we didn’t spend as much time cruising as we would have liked. Too much time was spent parked at a dock and then being herded through a fabulous cave filled with too many people. We decided to try and base ourselves at Cat Ba Island to see if we could do better. We spoke to the tourist office in Bai Chay thinking we would avoid all the scamming middle men who set you up with the boats and we were told there is a ferry that runs three times a day to Cat Ba Island.
Great we said, we’ll do that.

We rode the 14 kms out to the terminal only to learn that the office had given us the wrong ferry times (lucky we were early) and neglected to tell us that the ferry only runs if there are a minimum of twenty passengers. So we hung around as our numbers grew to 15. Problem. So we talked amongst ourselves and decided we would kick in extra money (the fare was 2.00 each) to make up the 20 passengers. Unfortunately this wasn’t acceptable – no reason given. We then tried to negotiate with a boat owner. He couldn’t take us but was calling a friend and asked us for 70.00 to take us there. Some dockside Mafioso came up and began interfering with our negotiation telling us we had to take the ferry. We wheeled away in disgust, deciding to cycle to Haiphong about 60 kms away where we knew there was another ferry service. It felt darn good being able to just wheel away. These guys are used to captive tourists who are dependent on taxis and buses arranged for them at whatever price works for the scamming middle man. Once in Haiphong we decided to just give the whole thing a pass.

What we did see of HaLong Bay is truly beautiful. It is too bad it has been badly developed. We do get that we will have to have some patience here in Vietnam. We are very independent travellers and don’t like packaged tours. At this point though, I would have to say that there isn’t a lot of options for non-packaged tours when it comes to HaLong Bay.We’ve also heard stories from other travellers now who did book their tours in Hanoi and were disappointed. Ironically, this is an area where government intervention would be a good thing. Funny how few rules there seem to be in this communist country or perhaps there is just a lack of knowledge on how to develop the area sustainably (both economically and environmentally). But ultimately Vietnam tourist operators have a hard lesson in free enterprise coming to them — people will not come back if they are scammed. What is happening in HaLong Bay now is not certainly not sustainable.

The ride to Haiphong was flat and through some nice rural areas, all along highway 10 which we found easily. Away from the tourist traps the people are fabulous and happy to see us. We get the school kid chorus of hellos pretty much incessantly and lots of shop owners who sell us tea and cold drinks and try hard to communicate with us despite the language barrier. Ian high fives the boys as they ride by and they love that. The girls ride by, say hello and giggle. I am often cycling behind Ian and laugh as motorcyles ride up along side him to ask him where he’s from, trying to chat without any other English while negotiating some busy roads where the traffic is constantly honking.

We enjoyed Haiphong, Vietnam’s third-largest city and a prosperous port town. It was bombed by the Americans and the French but there are still some large colonial buildings left including an opera house and the building which houses the museum which was unfortunately closed for renovation. Our hotel was in a small tourist area where there were lots of cafes and restaurants. The center of town has a canal that is bordered on all sides by a large sidewalk made of marble tiles. This is a car and bike free zone – a great blessing for the locals. In fact Ian and I didn’t know the no bike rule and were immediately given shit by an old woman as we wheeled along. Gotta love old women. They tell cyclists to get off the damn sidewalk in cities all over the world :-0 We didn’t need to speak Vietnamese to understand her. We spent a day wandering through the town’s market, along the river and hanging with the locals on the marble sidewalk.

The exit out of Haiphong was as chaotic as Hanoi but mercifully short and we didn’t get lost. Yay. It was busy along highway 10 yesterday but we enjoyed it nevertheless. The ride to Ninh Binh from Thai Binh today was busier, a taste of highway 1 and this has reconfirmed our decision to cycle the Ho Chi Minh trail and just travel short sections of highway 1 as necessary when we want to visit a town on the coast.

We will take day off here in Ninh Binh to arrange tours in the national park (Cuc Phuong). Although it was busier today I still enjoyed seeing the towns and villages along the way and interacting with the locals.

Vietnam Road Warrior Stories – Map and Menu Mishaps


Hanoi to Pha Lai 87 km (we got lost)
Pha Lai to Hong Gai 93 km (we got lost again)
Hong Gai to Bai Chay) 12 km (where we meant to end up)

We are finally back on our bikes. Carefully researching our route out of Hanoi saved us some stress as we managed to get out of the worst of the traffic without getting lost — and by the time we did get lost the first time we were in a suburb where it was less stressful. After that, we enjoyed about a 25 to 30 km cycle to Bac Ninh, paralleling Highway 1 rather than riding it. We found the shoulders very wide, the drivers very used to negotiating around small vehicles, and traffic moving at slower speeds than it does on highways in North America. It is anarchy as people ignore most traffic rules — motorcycles ride the wrong way down the street sometimes and people turning from a side street onto a main street don’t look to see what’s coming – its up to drivers on the main road to keep an eye on side street intersections. However, anyone who can ride the Pacific Coast Route in California can ride in Vietnam, at least as far as dealing with the traffic is concerned. The downside is pollution and noise. I bought a mask to filter out the worst of the dirt – these are worn by many of the motorcycle drivers and are so common they are a fashion accessory (you can get matching helmets).

We got ourselves completely lost getting out of Bac Ninh where we were supposed to pick up highway 18. We ended up on highway 38 and quite a few kilometres on our way before we realized we were headed the wrong way. With a lot of trouble because we don’t speak Vietnamese and no one speaks English, we asked for directions and managed to get on a dyke road that parallels the river and which eventually took us to highway 18. Except for a little trepidation about being truly lost in what felt like the middle of nowhere, the ride was pleasant as it was a narrow concrete rural road with very little traffic. We saw more cows and pigs on the road than we did people (and very nice fat little pink pigs and healthy looking brown cows they were). There were small villages off the dyke road all the way to Pha Lai where we eventually got to highway 18. I wish I had stopped to take photos now as there was some interesting architecture in the villages — some take on French colonial in a very rough style. Some of the buildings had small turrets – strangely European. The one village we did stop in to buy water was very third world. Reminded me of some small villages in some of the remoter parts of Mexico I have visited – narrow lanes and crumbling brick buildings, very few commercial buildings if any.

The first night on the road we ended up in Pha Lai, a small town whose claim to fame is a coal-driven power plant. They don’t get many western tourists. We learned that Nha Nghi means hotel and paid 20.00 for a room that wasn’t worth that but after 93 km we weren’t going to argue. The room was big, had an Asian-style shower but western toilet, big windows that opened onto the street and air conditioner and a fan. The bed was like a rock (many of them are – a little too much for Ian’s liking) but I don’t mind that. I was more suspicious of linen though and was glad I had my sleeping sheet from our camping days. After Ian’s bad night sleep we were sorry we hadn’t thought to pull out his air mattress which we are also still hauling around. The only other issue with the room was that it had Asian plumbing (bad) and water leaked out under the bathroom wall into the bedroom and unfortunately onto our road Atlas of Vietnam. We salvaged some of it but this is a bit of a problem now as I am guessing it will be hard to come by another one outside of Hanoi.

Our first menu mishap happened in Pha Lai. We were proud of ourselves for using the Vietnamese phrasebook to find a restaurant. All good. We were the only people there – still ok . There was a menu with no English but it had dishes by meat category, and showed pictures of the meat categories by animal (including dog and cat.) We chose the chicken. Safe we thought. Then we flipped the menu page and saw a picture of what I thought was a plate of vegetables. We ordered. The owner looked at us quizzically on our second choice but we persisted, pointing again. She shrugged. We munched our way through some greens but also some relatively small bones with white meat and figured perhaps it was some kind of bird until we saw a piece of spine that could only belong to an animal. We hope it was rat and not dog. Probably the right size for rat….Argh. So I am now very motivated to learn the food words…as this will be what we get on the road for the most part. Vietnam is not very developed outside the tourist areas. However, we certainly know the word for pho and this is always the fallback. It is also what everyone here eats for breakfast everyday and what we also ate the next morning when we were leaving Pha Lai.

We cycled another long day to get to Ha Long Bay where we misread the map and took ourselves over a large span bridge that crosses the bay. The whole area is called Ha Long City but it is composed of two parts: Bau Cai and Hong Gai. We ended up spending the night in Hong Gai, which wasn’t a bad experience – very nice three star hotel for 30.00, completely westernized, which I think is used by higher-level bureaucrats. There was a nice looking night market out in front of our building but we opted for a more western choice for dinner as we were still getting over our rat experience.

We are now in Bau Cai (back over the bridge) in a tourist area. We’ve found decent (though somewhat Asian plumbing) digs for 15.00 a night and we are resting up for another day and then getting a boat tour and transport to Cat Ba Island that will take us through the limestone karst formations the bay is famous for.

Overall I like being on the road again on the bikes. It is kind of rough travel and it takes some getting used to. We both think we will feel about Thailand the way we did after cycling in Cambodia – after Cambodia Thailand felt like an oasis of western comforts. Vietnam is much more together than Cambodia but it is still very much a developing country. Wages are low for many people – the average school teacher makes 168 US a month here. There are just not the amenities here yet that there are in Thailand (like supermarkets, corner stores, department stores etc.) For the most part people are happy to see us on the road and give us the thumbs up. We certainly got some double takes and chuckles on the rural road when we were lost ☺

The claustrobphobia has diminished quite a bit with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories working to reduce the sinus issues. It wasn’t the small spaces making it difficult to breathe – I was struggling to breathe period. I should have looked after that a long time ago but it is hard to get antibiotics from my doctor unless there is some kind of positive on a throat swab…but given I am getting better there must have been some kind of infection for some time.

For anyone cycling out of Hanoi to HaLong Bay

North end of Hoan Kiem Lake take Hang Dao (the night market street). It is one way in the right direction. The street changes names part way (Hong Giay). You will pass the market building and go under the railway. You’ll come to an intersection with a grey concrete turret building (don’t know what it is). Turn right on Hong Dau. At the first T intersection (perhaps more of a three way intersection) head across the street and up onto the ramp onto the railroad bridge. There is a bicycle sign on the ramp. Cross the bridge and go under the railroad bridge (on Ngoc Thuy). Continue south until you get to the next main bridge (it is not far maybe 500 metres to one km) then turn left on Nguyen Van Cu. This is a main drag that takes you out of town to Bac Ninh. The road changes names a number of times and you will pass through a few towns including Tu Son. You pick up highway 18 to HaLong from Bac Ninh.





Side Trip to Sapa


We took a very laid-back side trip to Sapa, spending two lazy days walking around town and then an 8 km round trip walk out of town along the road to Lao Cai. (Lao Cai is the train terminus for train from Hanoi and then it is mini bus for a switch-backed 34 km ride to Sapa). The town of Sapa is in the mountains north of Hanoi close to the Chinese border. It was built by the French for colonial R and R but the area around it has been populated by various hill tribe people for eons (the Hmong and others). If we had been looking for a trekking experience we would have chosen to be there for a week although most of the trips booked from Hanoi offer jam-packed one to three day itineraries. I would not have wanted to have foregone our time just wandering around on our own in lieu of more trekking time.

We enjoyed the mountain scenery including the clouds that roll in and change the vista every few minutes. The hillsides are mostly terraced and cultivated by the tribal people. The town itself has retained a French colonial feel and we noticed that new construction is following the same design – a good decision given the other model is communist block ugly. I also loved the urban gardens that were everywhere in Sapa (and on the train on the way up I noticed that people had planted herb gardens between train tracks in some villages). Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of herbs and greens (which I love) and so people grow the stuff everywhere. We could learn from them…I got some ideas on growing mustard greens on Ian’s boat (to his chagrin) in styrofoam containers based on a little sidewalk garden across from our hotel in Sapa.

The folks managing our guesthouse in Hanoi (Madam Moon) arranged the trip for us, including getting the train and their sister hotel (Fanzipan View) booked in Sapa. Everything worked like clockwork and the hotel in Sapa was really nice with very attentive staff. I am glad though that we didn’t give into pressure to book the night train both ways as we enjoyed the ride up in the daytime in coach seats where we got to see the country side. I am also glad we didn’t visit a hill tribe on a trek as our experience of the hill tribe people in town was an endless and irritating sales pitch for handicrafts I didn’t want to buy and from what I heard, visits to the villages, although interesting, are more of the same and worse.

Our train back was for the most part fine although I think the quality of the trains varies between trains so even booking a night train with the same company can be hit and miss. There are a few superior cabins which are shared by two people but these are hard to book as there are so few so most tourists opt for a four person cabin. The bunks were big enough for short people (like me but not Ian) and the bedding was clean and fortunately our car was air conditioned as apparently not all of them are. The windows didn’t open on our train – I guess because of possible problems with air conditioning, but I would have foregone the air conditioning to have the windows open. My Argentinian roommate said they had a cabin on the way up without air con and where windows did not open – worst situation possible.

This is especially true for me this trip as I am still experiencing some problems with claustrophobia, an ongoing issue since we arrived in Vietnam. I was a bit worried about the night train ahead of time and so prepared myself with the Vietnamese version of Nightol (over the counter sleep aid) figuring that if the train did make me uncomfortable at least I would eventually sleep and not suffer for 9 or 10 hours. This turned out to be a good strategy as my room mate shut and locked the door of our compartment and then couldn’t get it open. (She and I had taken bottom bunks, her husband and Ian top). I got up and tried and couldn’t open it either…not a good situation to calm me down. To my credit I managed to get back on my bunk without saying too much and eventually said to the guys that we needed some help. Her husband came down and figured it out and once I opened and closed it a few times I managed to mostly forget about it. It still took three hours to get to sleep after that…even with the Nightol.

That experience and a couple of others made me decide to talk to a doctor as although the claustrophobia is relatively mild it is not fun. I’ve also had a minor sinus issue since being sick in the spring which has made it hard to breathe sometimes and that combined with humidity and generally smaller physical spaces than what I am used to in North America (and other parts of Asia) is what I think has created the claustrophobia problem.

My intention was to go to a clinic in Hanoi and talk to an English-speaking doctor but our hotel concierge in Hanoi talked me into a house call, telling me the doctor was very good and English speaking. He turned out to be very nice but his spoken English was negligible and when I realized he didn’t know what claustrophobia was I had to turn my computer on and resort to Google English to Vietnamese translations. The whole consultation then turned into a conversation where we took turns googling drugs and symptoms on my Mac…with me having to coach him on the Mac user interface which I don’t think he’d used before. It was kind of the comical side of a not so funny situation. In the end, he prescribed (and then went and picked up from the pharmacy) a bunch of drugs for the sinus inflammation (antibiotics and anti inflammatories and vitamins and antihistamines) and then something called Dogmatil which is an anti-psychotic for schizophrenia in high doses and a mild anti-anxiety remedy at low doses.

After he left (I paid him 50 US for consultation and then 50 for drugs) I told Ian I wasn’t planning on taking the Dogmatil as it was meant to be taken over a period of time to reduce anxiety rather than very situational claustrophobia (I just wanted valium or a derivative for emergencies basically but he wouldn’t prescribe that as he said it was too strong.) He phoned back in the evening asking for a second consultation and I was suspicious that it was a money grab; however, given he was a doctor I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and agreed. It turned out he had talked to his colleagues and wasn’t sure about the Dogmatil and came back with an even stronger anti-depressant called Zoloft. After a lot more googling and charades and broken English, we agreed I would take the Dogmatil daily for awhile and then use the Zoloft if I needed it for a particularly stressful claustrophobia inducing situation (although I have no intention of taking the Dogmatil but it was just easier to agree given the language problems).

In the end I admired his conscientiousness in talking to his colleagues and his concern (I believe he very sincerely wanted to help) but after more research realize he gave me a second drug that is not meant to be taken situationally and is actually quite dangerous for some people and really inappropriate for my situation. So a hundred more dollars later I will rely on Nightol to help me sleep on any long distance vehicles where I feel closed in and practice some of the cognitive therapy techniques I have now researched on the Internet. Meanwhile, my travel bag includes a whole pharmacy of drugs I will probably never use.

We are enjoying a new hotel in Hanoi that is quite luxurious (all that was available in our little hood where we wanted to stay.) We are paying 45.00 bucks a night! A fortune in Hanoi…but our bikes are on our balcony and we have a very nice tub and a lovely little room. This was the cost of the cheapest motel of our California trip…in fact the horrible motel where we stayed in shitty Crescent City was 45.00 a night. I love Asia :-0

We walked our cycling route out of the old quarter of Hanoi yesterday so we know exactly what we are doing on the bikes once we get on them. We were supposed to leave today but there were thunderstorms and torrential rain at 7 am just as we planned to leave. So we changed plans…so nice not to have a strict agenda…and I’m enjoying another day in Hanoi being a bit lazy. Weather looks better tomorrow so we’ll be off…the panniers are packed and we’re ready to go.

Heading for the Hills — We’ll miss Hanoi


Just as Hanoi has become familiar enough to be home – we laugh at the traffic now instead of cursing it — we are leaving. Our first trip out is by train tomorrow morning. We will spend a couple of days in Sapa, a hill town in the north and then come back by overnight train on Thursday. This gives us Friday to load up the bikes and head out of town to Halong Bay very early Saturday morning.

I’m not crazy about the idea of cycling to Halong Bay given what we’ve seen of traffic here but it is a relatively short ride (two days) and if we really hate it we’ll organize a minibus out of there to a starting point on the Ho Chi Minh trail which by all accounts is our best route south. Otherwise we will wend our way back southwest on different highways, bypassing Hanoi, and then find our starting point on the trail (highways, 8 and 15).

The jet lag has worked in our favour in Hanoi as we have been out a number or times in the early morning, discovering that this is in fact the time to cycle out of here when the time comes, and also that the city can be quite lovely without all those motorcycles.. Yesterday morning we were up at 6 and in a café by Hoan Kiem Lake at 6:30. We watched the expats jogging on the road, locals doing tai chi in the park that borders the entire circumference of the lake, and close to the Ngoc Son Temple, a number of elderly women doing aerobics of a sort to Vietnamese pop music.

The temple sits on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake and dates back to the 15th century. Its central figure is an emperor who beat back the Chinese at some earlier point in history. The island houses the temple and altar as well as a platform with a pagoda style roof and some very lovely bonsai in large clay pots placed amongst benches with views of the temple, the lake and Hanoi. At 7 am on a Sunday the temple was quiet and the only throng of tourists to disrupt our peace was a delegation flanking a foreign dignitary (he spoke English but we didn’t recognize him) in the temple. Ian and I were sitting on a bench as he came by and other than his security detail placing themselves discreetly between him and Ian and I, they were not much of a disruption.

Our timing wasn’t as stellar for the Temple of Literature which we took in on Saturday. This is a beautiful historical site that was Vietnam’s original university and which honours Confucius and other scholars through Vietnamese history. As luck would have it, hundreds of young Hanoi students were celebrating their graduation while we were there and the temple complex which would normally be a quiet haven was run over with them photographing each other. However, they were excited and happy and the girls were dressed in the traditional ao dai so we went with the flow and snapped pictures of them and the temple. It was nice to see a temple dedicated to learning and to see a group of people celebrating their academic efforts – maintaining a link to over 1000 years of Vietnam’s history that is not war related.

We spent Friday afternoon walking along the lake to a neighborhood where we could find a bookstore that sells maps. As we tried to decide between a road atlas and a large detailed fold out map of Hanoi we met a local motorcycle guide who convinced us to avoid Highway 1 along the coast and take the Ho Chi Minh trail south to DaNong. (Our current plan then is to then cut across Vietnam to Laos on Highway 9, entering Laos at Savanahket).

We left the bookstore to tour the surrounding neighborhood which includes the French Opera House and a number of other colonial buildings that house French restaurants. The Opera House was even better than I remembered it from my trip in 97. It is operating as an opera house and has been restored and maintained – it is really beautiful.

Across the street is the Hanoi Stock Exchange and kitty corner to that, a large Gucci boutique. I had to stop for a moment at the intersection and think about what that meant.

With all the American election talk and the Romney supporters fear of Obama the socialist, I had to ask myself if I really understand what the terms capitalism and communism mean in 2012. I found myself looking at the Hanoi Stock Exchange sign, and marveling at the irony of a stock exchange in a communist country. Capitalism is evolving. There is no such thing as capitalism unfettered by government — government is a necessary evil. And once we get over that, we need to understand that we need a government that is concerned about the middle class as that is where the stability and innovation a modern country needs to prosper comes from. Before he was a politician Mitt ran a business that made its money shutting down American companies using ethically questionable consulting practices (using leveraged buyouts that ultimately put the debt back onto the company being purchased and in some cases bankrupting the purchased company resulting in thousands of lost jobs while Mitt made billions). He also represents a lunatic not so fringe minority of Americans that cling to the past, and fundamentalist religious beliefs that threaten to spill over into a secular and diverse society, taking away hard-earned rights from ethnic minorities, women and gays. Sigh. Let’s hope that racism and the ridiculous fear of socialism don’t lead Americans to vote for the wrong guy.

One last and much lighter note – it was time for a cut and colour and so I took a deep breath and marched into a salon and did my best to use sign language to make a deal. So I have my new Vietnam look, the product of my lack of ability to speak Vietnamese. My hair is now a deep brunette and has been thinned in such a way that I expect it to look like an absolute bush within 4 weeks. Ahh. Will see what they can do about it in Laos.

Hanging out in Hanoi


We are moving around Hanoi a little more slowly than our usual pace, both of us taking a little longer than normal to get over the jetlag.

I’m glad we booked 7 nights in Hanoi so we can get our Asia legs before we start cycling again, although it is very familiar for both of us given the time we have spent in busy Asian cities. In some ways the lack of culture shock was actually a disappointment when we first arrived – after temperatures in the high 20s in San Francisco and a week in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the temperature here (about the same) and the noise of a busy Hanoi neighborhood felt quite familiar. This is by comparison to the last time we landed in Asia when we were ecstatic to feel warm air after a month of rain in Vancouver.

Our guesthouse, (Madam Moon’s) is typical of the architecture here in Hanoi – it is a six-story building that is maybe 20 feet wide. These narrow buildings are the result of tax rates which are calculated by the width of a store front so many businesses have their stores in the front and live upstairs or in rooms behind the front one. This makes the neighborhood kind of claustrophobic and the first night here I really struggled with being on the top floor, and found myself up most of the night trying not to think about the narrow stairway that we had to navigate to get down to the ground level. The claustrophobia was exacerbated by a minor sinus infection I am now finally motivated to do something about and I am sure also by jet lag. Fortunately the first floor room was available our second night and we moved so I am now just dealing with sinus and jet lag. When booking here it is a good idea to check about what floor the room is on and whether it has a window (at all) or a window facing the street (as opposed to another building which might be 1 foot away).

Madam Moon’s is in the old quarter of Hanoi which dates back to the 13th century. It is a warren of narrow streets that were once organized by trade guilds (back in their early history) and are still organized by what vendors sell to a large degree. On our walks in the last few days we have seen a street dedicated to selling temple paraphernalia, a street full of mannequins, and a street with stores selling paint products for construction purposes. It takes a day or so to get used to the noise (traffic navigates by honking horns) and the visual chaos of third world wiring and stores and cafes that spill out on to the street blocking sidewalks (as do parked motorcycles and street vendors)…but once acclimatized the visual stimulation is fantastic. I could spend days here just looking at the buildings themselves, finding the old French colonial architecture amongst the new construction and finding the temples that are hidden amongst the storefronts.

I vaguely remember the neighborhood from my trip here in the mid-90s. Things have changed – the women all wear western clothes now instead of the ao dai (pants and long tunic) and people are more prosperous – things are generally more westernized.

There are even more motorcycles than there were then and that is probably the biggest challenge we have now both as pedestrians and cyclists. Yesterday we walked about 5 kms and so have become adept once again at learning to wade out into the traffic. There are some crosswalks and lights but for the most part traffic, most of it being motorcycles, just moves around you. The drivers expect you to walk out into the traffic (rather than waiting for the traffic to stop) and to keep going regardless of what’s coming. It is daunting but a day or two here and you get the hang of it. We are still researching our route out of town by bike…so far we think it might be about 10 kms and we will likely leave early morning to avoid the worst of the traffic. Once on the highway we will have shoulders most, if not all of the way to HaLong Bay, 150 or 160 kms away on the coast (of the South China Sea)

But that is still more than a week away. In the meantime we are enjoying wandering the chaos and getting our bearings. We are close to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake which houses two temples on islands, one of which is accessible by land over a bridge. Today’s plan is to get to the temple and a bookstore where we know they sell maps, to visit a tailor to get a couple of shirts made for me, and to take in the night market which takes place on the weekends here in the old quarter.

We are feeling great relief to be back to Aisan prices…even in relatively expensive Hanoi we are paying 25.00 a night for our guesthouse (has flat screen tv, internet, a fridge, a western style bathroom, French doors that open to the street, a wardrobe, a table and two chairs) and typically we’re paying 12 to 15 dollars for dinner including beer (for the two of us). This gets even cheaper once we begin eating street vendor food.

Off to breakfast – included with the room ☺