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Asia/SE Asia

So Long HaLong Bay and the Streets of Haiphong

[slideshow]

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.

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