Saigon and the Mekong Delta

For many travellers, an arrival in Saigon is somewhat overwhelming.  Often it’s the first experience of the chaos of a large Asian metropolis, and for many people it’s the most ‘different’ place they’ve been, if that makes any sense.

Our initial experiences of Saigon were somewhat more subdued.  Whatever microscopic evil he’d managed to get into his guts in Hoi An had made Chris’s train journey down not a lot of fun, and once we’d arrived and settled in, the, err, indisposition, meant that he still wasn’t often venturing great distances from the hotel, err, facilities.  I wandered around a little more, but even after Chris recovered a bit, we didn’t spend much time exploring the city, beyond making our way to the typical sites such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace (née Presidential Palace).

Me in front of a replica of Tank 843, the tank which rammed through the gates of the Presidential Palace (now the Revolutionary Palace), signifying the North's taking of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City)

Me in front of a replica of Tank 843, the tank which rammed through the gates of the Presidential Palace (now the Revolutionary Palace), signifying the North’s taking of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City)

Of those, the War Remnants Museum is worth a specific mention.  In addition to housing a collection of military hardware that the North proudly acquired when the Americans abandoned Vietnam and all their toys therein, it also features a large and confronting display of the effects of the US’s use of chemical warfare during the war.  Specifically, it’s a graphic documentation of the short- and long-term effects of Agent Orange and its relatives.  There are pictures of deformed infants, children, and adults.  There are letters from survivors.  There are comprehensive descriptions and statistics detailing the tragic stories that began in the 1970s and haven’t yet ended, and won’t for generations.  There’s a surprisingly meticulous display dedicated to the journalists who died covering the war on the ground, too – especially those who covered the aftermath of various US atrocities.

My criticism of most of Vietnam’s museums is that they’re too ridiculously one-sided – to the point of fictitious – and propagandist.  This museum doesn’t suffer from that.  Perhaps it’s just not necessary.  Perhaps it’s that for this particular topic there just isn’t more than one side to look at:  there’s a reason that mass bombing campaigns featuring highly toxic chemicals on civilian populations are an unequivocal and egregious violation of international law and general norms of human conduct.  Regardless, it’s a transfixingly gripping museum, and I saw more than one person inside having difficulty coming to grips with the subject matter.

But despite our appreciation of that museum, our main goal for Ho Chi Minh City actually had nothing to do with anything in the city itself at all.  This was our last stop in Vietnam, and it was time for one last scooter adventure:  the Mekong Delta.

By this stage, having already enjoyed several weeks in Vietnam, we were fast realising that our two months in South-East Asia were going to whip by very quickly.  So we didn’t have nearly as long to explore the Mekong Delta as we wanted.  We would have liked to embark on a three or four day tour, exploring farther in than the typical tourist itinerary allows.  But that would have required sacrifices in our future itinerary that we just weren’t sure we could make.  So we only had a day.  Better make the most of it…

Again, we started early in the morning, planning a big day ahead.  We’d arranged scooter hire from our hotel – but unfortunately, in that respect, the day didn’t start well.  When we turned up in the morning to collect the bikes, there was actually only one of them there, plus another mystery bike on offer – one that appeared fifteen minutes later, described as the hotel owner’s personal scooter (as though it was very generous of his employee to arrange for us to be able to use it, despite our having confirmed with said employee the night before that there would be two hire bikes available).   It looked like it might have come from a display at the War Remnants Museum, and more problematically, it had no working front brake.  (“But the back brake is fine!  It’ll be no problem!”  “Umm, no.  Goodbye.”)  So, having wasted half an hour on that, we took another thirty minutes to find a more reasonable scooter place, and set off an hour behind schedule already.  Still, we set off on pretty decent bikes, so all was not lost.

You’d think that by now we would have learned to estimate how long we’d take to make our way around Vietnamese roads, but apparently you’d be mistaken.  We had a rough route planned in our minds (and on our smartphones), but when we got to the first stop, at My Tho, we realised that perhaps our estimates had been a little optimistic.  We abandoned our plans of getting in as far as Can Tho, and took a simpler, shorter route, focussing more on riding down whatever road looked interesting at the time than on trying to make it to any particular destination.  After all, the back roads are always more fun (and generally prettier) anyway.

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

I can’t really tell you exactly where we went, because we weren’t necessarily paying desperately close attention to where we were on the map.  We’d have Google tell us where we were, then we’d pick a vague direction to head off in on a whim – whatever looked like it might be a nice road to ride down, towards some small local village, or some random ferry crossing or bridge that might afford us some decent views of the Mekong Delta.  We were in experimentation mode, basically, and just enjoying ourselves.

A river channel in the Mekong Delta

A river channel in the Mekong Delta

We passed flooded rice paddies being tended by hunched over workers in pointy conical hats;  we crossed bridge after bridge over the various spreading tendrils of the Mekong River;  we saw small local markets;  we took a ferry crossing over a larger part of the river;  we stopped for Vietnamese coffee whenever the opportunity presented itself and we felt like a break.  We shared in the amusement of locals as they grinned and pointed at the silly foreign devils (especially at the ferry crossing), presumably wondering what the hell we could be doing out here.  It was a somewhat whimsical day, in all.

Flooded rice paddies in the Mekong Delta

Flooded rice paddies in the Mekong Delta

And then, in no time at all, as we were still enjoying our largely aimless exploration, it was time to head for home:  we made a more conservative stab at estimating the return time.  So we looped around and headed back, right towards those inviting grey-black clouds.

And then it poured.  For a good forty minutes or hour, or thereabouts.  Of course, we weren’t really in a position to slow down much – let alone to wait out the rain.  We had to have the bikes back by 7pm, because the shop closed at 7.30 and wouldn’t reopen in the morning until after we were already on a bus to Cambodia.  So we persisted, soaked to the bone, and giggling all the way.  We loved it.

And we made it, too.  We handed back the bikes at 7.10pm, faces beaming with stupid, satisfied “see, I told you I’d make it” grins.  It hadn’t been the lengthy Mekong trip we’d originally hoped for, but it had been fun, and an appropriate send-off for Vietnam.  We rested up for a long bus trip tomorrow – into and right across Cambodia.  We’d be off to Siem Reap for our next historical sight-seeing extravaganza:  the incredible historic Khmer city of Angkor.  We were too tired to be properly excited, but there was definitely a nugget of anticipation there.  And rightly so, because it was going to be amazing.

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Hoi An and the Hai Van Pass

After our explorations in and around Hue, and our 600km or so round trip out to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, we felt that what we really needed at this point was a bit more time on some scooters.  Fortunately, Top Gear (yes, the BBC car show) could help us out.  In their Vietnam special, they’d made a point of extolling the virtues of making your way along a bit of road called the Hai Van Pass, between Hue and Hoi An.  We were in Hue.  Our next destination was Hoi An.

The place we’d hired scooters from the previous day, the Why Not? Hotel, had another scooter-related service which we happily took advantage of.  We dropped our bags with them and picked up the same scooters we’d ridden the day before.  (Strangely, they had less fuel in them than when we dropped them off:  when you hire scooters in Vietnam, you can be certain that they’ve siphoned all the fuel out but a few vapours – enough to get you to the nearest petrol station, no more.)  The arrangement is that you ride your scooters to your nominated accommodation in Hoi An, and later that afternoon, a couple of local employees will bus across with your bags, which they’ll deliver to you in return for the scooters, which they’ll then ride back to Hue.  All for a price which was so ridiculously low that I can’t even remember.  Around $30 each, I think.

And so we set off, anticipating another lovely day of trouble-free riding…

… except that where I said, above, that they leave you with just enough fuel to get you to the nearest petrol station, well, we must have missed the nearest one.  So I sputtered to a stop, this time genuinely out of fuel, not five minutes ride from our beginning.  Pushing my empty scooter along the side of the road, I was the recipient of many a bemused expression, and many an offer of assistance – especially from the hoardes of street sellers who would be quite happy to sell me petrol in a 1L plastic water bottle (this is how many of the locals purchase fuel – but not a recommended purchase point, given that god knows what fuel/water/whatever concoction is actually in those bottles).  Eventually, as I was slowly making my way to where I had managed to divine (from hand signals and a smattering of the locals’ valiant attempts at something resembling a language that I as an ignorant foreigner might speak) the nearest petrol station would be, one enterprising helper rode up beside me on his own scooter, gestured that I should sit on mine, and proceeded to push me along to the petrol station, riding his scooter with his right leg outstretched to push mine forward via the exhaust.  Not a procedure that your driving instructor would recommend, I imagine, but it got me safely, and entertainingly, to the petrol station.  Handing the gentleman all of the equivalent of about $US1 for his trouble seemed to produce a happy, satisfied reaction, and so everyone ended up well-pleased with the endeavour.

So, take two.  We set off, anticipating another lovely day of trouble-free riding…

The scenery en route from Hue to Hoi An

The scenery en route from Hue to Hoi An

Top Gear was right:  the ride was incredibly scenic.  It’s a coast road, winding around the side of some particularly verdant hills.  And it’s all the more pleasant for the fact that there’s a tunnel under the hills now, so that the only traffic going via the pass is there for the scenery:  you’re not contending with mad locals on their commutes as you lap up the views.

So with little traffic, a decent-quality road (for a change), and fantastic views, our only real worry was avoiding the cows and goats that occasionally graced the asphalt.

A cow goes for a stroll along the road as we approach the Hai Van Pass

A cow goes for a stroll along the road as we approach the Hai Van Pass

And indeed we did enjoy our lovely day of trouble-free riding:  and for once, we appreciated reaching our destination well before dark for a nice lazy evening in Hoi An.

There’s not a lot to write about our time in Hoi An.  It’s a particularly touristy city – although in a pleasant kind of way.  It’s enjoyed a rise to fame in the last few decades thanks to a booming tailoring industry:  Hoi An is the place to come in Vietnam to get your suits, shirts, dresses, etc., tailor made.

Far be it from me to forsake an opportunity to experience the local specialty, so I ended up having three shirts custom made.  (Six months of sweaty travel in shirts that were already years old meant that I could probably do with some upgrades anyway.)  We didn’t have much time before setting off for Saigon, though, so they had to be done in less than 24h.  Thankfully that wasn’t a problem – that’s their typical turnaround time.  So having picked out some fabric on Saturday afternoon, I was back Sunday morning, braving the torrential rain, to pick up my three new shirts and part with the second half of the $US50 price tag (total, for the three).  A good deal, too:  I’m finishing this post many many months after Vietnam, and still I’m travelling with those same three shirts as my everyday wear:  they don’t look terrible, they’re easy to handwash in the shower, they dry quickly, and they’re still not falling apart.  I’m suitably impressed:  I’ve swum in them (for sun protection), worn them out to fancy restaurants, and worn them with boardies and thongs (flip-flops) for a stroll along the bogan beaches of the Thai tourist isles.  Versatile and comfortable:  a genuinely good investment.

Other than the tailoring, we had not much interest in Hoi An’s other tourist attractions.  The Japanese covered bridge didn’t really impress, and we didn’t feel a particular urge to experience the various old temples scattered around town.  Pretty much the only other thing was the beach – and we didn’t make it out there, partly because we didn’t get around to it, and partly because half the time it was pouring with rain.

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An, seen from across the river

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An, seen from across the river. In fairness, not the most fascinating tourist attraction I’ve ever come across.

What we did do, though, was catch up with other travellers, in some of Hoi An’s many fantastic bars and unassuming restaurants.  Quite by chance we ran into a charming American couple we’d first met in Cat Ba, and we thoroughly enjoyed catching up with them and getting their recommendations of the local tailors.  And we knew that Kiwi Steve (whom we’d met in Nepal) was coming through – we’d already established that he was doing our Vietnam trip roughly in reverse, so this was us crossing half way – so we caught up with him too.  He’d come up from Saigon on the back of a motorbike, on an Easy Rider personal guided tour.  (Which, by the way, he very very enthusiastically recommended, in case anyone’s wondering if it’s worthwhile.)  Obviously we had to made fun of him for not having taken charge of the bike himself, and we had to recommend that he rectify that particular deficiency by doing the reverse of the trip we’d just enjoyed, over the Hai Van Pass.  And so we made those recommendations over a few beers, once Steve had made his own circuit of the local tailors.  After those beers, we did some more catching up, and traded other accumulated travel advice, over some more beers.  And after that, some more beers.  And some cramped pool-playing, and then some more beers.

Trying to play pool with somewhat limited room in a bar in Hoi An

Trying to play pool with somewhat limited room (and similarly limited sobriety?) in a bar in Hoi An

All up, the evening involved an awful lot of beer consumption.  Not a lot more pool playing, because the pub at our final stop closes the pool table halfway through the evening so that it can be covered with boards and transformed into an impromptu raised dance floor.  But still, a fun night was had by all – a group of somewhat drunken tourists enjoying being tourists in a very tourist town.  I’ll spare you the gory details.  The pouring rain will have washed away any trace of misbehaviour by morning anyway, I’m sure.  Won’t it, Steve.

Eventually we all made it back to our hotel:  Chris and I had to rest up for a long train trip to Saigon the next day, and Steve had to mull his tailoring options and plan a trip over the Hai Van Pass.

Once we’d parted ways, there were resultant issues for both groups afterwards, unfortunately:  Chris had managed to get a stomach bug that plagued him for the (long!) train trip to Ho Chi Minh City, and Steve enjoyed everything about the Hai Van Pass trip we so strongly recommended to him – except the bit where he came off his bike, done in by a smattering of gravel on a hairpin corner.

A hairpin on the road leading up to the Hai Van Pass – possibly the scene of Kiwi Steve’s misfortune?

A hairpin on the road leading up to the Hai Van Pass – possibly the scene of Kiwi Steve’s misfortune?

But those were minor blemishes.  (Albeit it in Steve’s case ones that required a bit of ongoing medical attention.)  Our time in Hoi An was done, and we’d had a blast – and I had the nicely fitted shirts to prove it.

The hilarity of traffic in Vietnam

Speed signs in Vietnam

Speed signs in Vietnam. Good luck figuring that out as you scoot past at 70-odd kilometres an hour, riding on the verge, avoiding both potholes and other traffic! Personally, my favourite part of this particular sign is that a motorbike is apparently allowed to go 10km/h faster without a rider than with.

A light-hearted interlude from our regularly scheduled programming:  some of the more entertaining aspects of traffic in Vietnam…

  • Use of the indicator is optional in Vietnam.  When used, the indicator may indicate an intention to turn, or it may simply indicate that your headlights aren’t working and that this is your only source of light after sunset.  Quite possibly it might also indicate that the driver has attempted to employ the horn and missed, much as in Australia drivers of unfamiliar imported cars will frequently employ the indicators as their primary defence against the first few splashes of rain falling on the windscreen.
  • Alternatives to the indicator (for indicating an intention to turn) include:  the horn, the driver flapping his arm on the side he intends to turn towards, the passenger flapping his arm on the side he thinks the driver most probably intends to turn towards, or the sudden appearance of an unexplained gap in traffic on the side to which the driver intends to turn (as the remainder of traffic on the somehow divines his intentions in a manner with which I am entirely unfamiliar).
  • Contrary to one’s initial assumptions about the dangers of crossing the road in a large Vietnamese city, traffic is actually expected to avoid pedestrians.  Pedestrians, for their part, are expected to leap-of-faith it off the kerb and proceed in a straight line at constant speed.  Pedestrians who follow that basic instruction will be thrilled to observe a Moses-like parting of the scooters as they bear down towards you, as everyone coolly and calmly rides around you.  (It’s actually a kind of mesmerising effect as the giant oncoming mass of metal opens up and engulfs you as you walk serenely through its midst to the other side.)  Pedestrians who don’t will quickly find themselves standing in the middle of large circle of very confused and disapproving, but stationary, riders.
  • When riding in Vietnam, it is not advisable to take the typical Western driving approach of assuming that everyone else will follow the rules and stay in straight line except in an emergency.  Instead, everyone is expected to react to accommodate everyone else:  you are not driving in a “but I’m in the right, he’s not allowed to do that” sort of environment…  (Actually, there’s the kernel of quite an interesting discussion here.  In Vietnam, traffic works on a much more communal and cooperative basis, with everyone having to work together with everyone else in a very ad hoc fashion;  in the West, we tend to behave in a very isolated fashion – I follow the rules and I expect everybody else to too, and other than that, I don’t have to think about what other people are doing:  it’s a very rights-based approach.  Cue tedious dissertation on socialist versus capitalist/individualist worldviews.  Similarly, there are a lot of interesting parallels between scooter traffic in Vietnam and birds flying in formation:  no individual entity need take account of the whole, but simply by having each pay attention to those immediately around it, the overall flock dynamic appears as an emergent property of the system as a whole.)  Anyhow, drive in Vietnam like you drive in Australia and chances are you’ll quickly come to appreciate that communal aspect as everyone else gangs up on you to get you off the damn road.
  • Also somewhat in contrast to your typical Western driving expectations, accidents and near misses will happen.  (Although actually we only saw two real accidents in our time in Vietnam, which, given the state of the roads, scooters, and drivers, is a testament to how surprisingly well the system works.)  Unlike in many countries, life continues on quickly and normally.  You will cause much more confusion and consternation by fussing about a near-death experience than said near-death experience caused anyone but you when it happened.
  • Both in order to avoid near-death experiences, and for a variety of other reasons, the horn is there to be used.  Its use might indicate any or all of the following:
    • “I’m behind you, just as a friendly heads up, please proceed as normal.”
    • “I’m coming past.  Now would be a bad time to swerve out into the other lane to pull a manoeuvre of your own.”
    • “I’m turning onto the road, and this button with a picture of a trumpet on it means I can concentrate on my turning technique rather than looking at the lane I’m merging into.  You probably want to make way.”
    • “You may have noticed I’m driving on the wrong side of the road.  How about that?”
    • “I’m about to do something really incredibly stupid, check this out.”  (Aka the ‘hold my beer’ manoeuvre.)
    • “Oh, I’ve spotted a Westerner!  Quick, I must attempt to attract his attention!”
  • Writing text messages while piloting a scooter is acceptable, even passé, as is riding with one hand so that the other hand can be carrying something heavy and inconvenient.  Hell, no one else in the vicinity seemed to bat an eyelid when I gaped at a mother driving her scooter with her right hand on the throttle and her left cradling her baby.
Everyday transportation of goods, on a scooter

I’m cheating, because this picture is actually from Cambodia, but we saw similar in Vietnam. Underneath that massive pile of pillows and cushions somewhere is a scooter.

  • The scooter is an all-purpose transportation device, functioning as the equivalent of the family sedan, as the local version of a ute or truck, etc.  Things I’ve seen carried on a scooter:
    • a family of four
    • piglets tied down lying on their backs on a bed of straw in a cage
    • a family of five
    • another motorbike, sans rear wheel
    • a glass door
    • two five-metre (or so) steel cables, dragging on the ground behind the rear wheel as though the bike was a giant squid or a character in some recent Predator versus Terminator versus Transformers movie
    • six large (maybe ten litre?) plastic containers, full of petrol
    • a ten-metre (I kid you not) solid cast iron girder
    • a fully-packaged, brand new full-size refrigerator
The chaos of night-time traffic at one of Saigon's main intersections

The chaos of night-time traffic at one of Saigon’s main intersections

Hue, part 2 – kinda near Hue (-ish)

Before going to Hue, we’d planned to visit Phong Nha Cavern and Paradise Cave.  They’re not really near anywhere particularly useful – they’re basically between Ninh Binh and Hue, near Dong Hoi (which is apparently about as uninteresting as industrial hubs can get) – but they’re recently discovered and some of the biggest caves in the world.  (Until a couple of years ago, Phong Nha Cavern was believed to be the biggest cave in the world.)  Both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor seemed pretty exuberant about them.  So they sounded worth checking out.

From all I can tell, the best way to go have a gander is to go stay at Phong Nha Farmstay, which also gets excellent reviews.  Unfortunately, the time we were passing through happened to coincide with the one week a year that the farmstay’s hardworking owners take a well-deserved break.  So that option was out.

So we got out our trusty Google Maps and our metaphorical rulers, and decided, well, fuck it.  Hue was kind of close.  –ish.  And we hadn’t had a real scooter adventure yet…

We planned out our route and hired us some more scooters (from a different place than yesterday, given last night’s breakdown) without really telling them exactly where we were planning on going.  Well, we told them the truth:  we were going to the Vinh Moc Tunnels.  We just omitted to mention that that was about the halfway point of our outward journey.  It’s not like they’d be able to tell when we gave the scooters back:  the odometers are always deliberately disconnected anyway, so that overly inquisitive customers can’t tell how old and crappy the scooter is.

And so, around 8am, we set off to have us an adventure…

Standing/crouching in an entrance to the Vinh Moc Tunnels

Standing/crouching in an entrance to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where local villagers lived underground for years during the Vietnam War

Our first stop, after a good couple of hours of arse-vibration on what were thankfully relatively decently-behaving scooters, was, as we’d promised the scooters’ owners, the Vinh Moc Tunnels.

Inside the Vinh Moc Tunnels (north of Hue), where local villagers lived underground for years during the Vietnam War

Inside the Vinh Moc Tunnels (north of Hue), where local villagers lived underground for years during the Vietnam War

The Vinh Moc Tunnels are in Vietnam’s old demilitarised zone:  they’re a set of interconnected tunnels which housed an entire village for a good two and a half years during the Vietnam War, as the villagers fought a guerrilla war against the South and the Americans.  Apparently the American plan was to bomb the crap out of them and expect the villagers to flee.  This cunning strategy appears to have overlooked the possibility that the strategists had themselves been expending quite a bit of effort to ensure that there was nowhere for them to flee to, and so, much to American surprise, the villagers bunkered down and made themselves a particularly successful nuisance, all the while going about their normal lives as best they could, underground.

A creepy mannequin family, inside the Vinh Moc Tunnels

A creepy mannequin family, inside the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where local villagers lived underground for years during the Vietnam War. Apparently here we’re making the point that babies were born underground – hence the “maternity room”.

From Vinh Moc, our trusty friend Google Maps directed us up the Ho Chi Minh Highway for a few hours to get to Dong Hoi (which we were immediately glad not to have bothered staying in), and thence to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.  It was an uneventful ride, though long, and we were glad to make it to Phong Nha Cavern.

The entrance to Phong Nha Cavern – until recently, believed to be the largest cave in the world

The entrance to Phong Nha Cavern – until recently, believed to be the largest cave in the world

The entrance to the Cavern is a river, and while there’s solid ground once inside, the only way in is via an organised boat trip – and you can’t actually go very far in anyway.  Knowing that in advance, we were happy to make do with a look at the entrance before we proceeded around the (extended) corner to Paradise Cave, which, though smaller, is a much more interesting visit.

Getting around that corner presented a little bit of intrigue, as we had to pass through a boomgate which seemed to form some sort of military checkpoint, where we attempted to explain that we were making our way to Paradise Cave by repeating “Paradise Cave?”, pointing to the location on Google Maps, and gesticulating down the road.  Eventually, either through sudden understanding or, more likely, boredom, the nice man in the army uniform let us through, and we proceeded on our way, enjoying the beautiful scenery of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Me enjoying my time on a scooter in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Me enjoying my time on a scooter in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

The Park is a hilly forested panorama of beautiful greenery, far removed from the traffic and noise of the Ho Chi Minh Highway.  The roads through it are surprisingly good, and we had a fantastic time just riding around on our way to and from Paradise Cave.

It was around this point that we figured that we were probably farthest from Hue – the halfway-mark, I suppose.  (At 3pm or so.  Which was obviously interesting, in terms of calculating our likely ETA back to our hotel.)  And so it was at this point that my scooter stalled.  Just like yesterday.  Fortunately this time some enthusiastic holding flat of the throttle and starter motor button fixed that problem after a couple of minutes, and our heart rates returned to normal and we could continue on, laughing at the sheer stupidity of where we were and what we were up to, towards the grand finale – the Paradise Cave.

Tropical jungle – and a fantastic road for a scooter ride – in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Tropical jungle – and a fantastic road for a scooter ride – in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

And the cave didn’t let us down either…

Relishing the opportunity to stretch our legs, we walked from the carpark to the base of the hill and climbed the 500-odd stairs to the cave entrance.  We paused there, intrigued by the possibility of ice cream from the café at the top of said stairs.  Of course, we should have known better:  by now, it was past 3pm, and they don’t sell ice cream after three.

Inside Paradise Cave

Inside Paradise Cave

Putting aside our puzzlement, we proceeded into the cave, which was as stunning as we’d been promised.  The full cave is many tens of kilometres long, but you visit the first 1.1km.  The scene is tastefully lit, and there are wooden boardwalks to take you as far as tourists are allowed to go.  As far as holes in rock go, it was enormous and spectacular – and well worth the day’s ride, especially given that for most of the time we were there, we had the whole cave to ourselves, to enjoy its majestic magnitude in silence and awe.

Inside Paradise Cave

Inside Paradise Cave

We spent nearly a full hour inside the cave, lapping up every moment, and emerging shortly before 5pm.  Which is an interesting time to have picked, given that we were still 300km from home and given that sunset was due not too long after six.

I’m afraid I don’t have any more photos from that day.  We didn’t stop a lot on the way back.  In fact, we didn’t stop at all.  We’d have liked to come back via Khe Sanh – not because it’s supposed to be particularly fascinating, but just because it’s in the song – but we didn’t have time for that.  Nor for anything else.  We’d learned by this stage that to assume anything above an average of about 55km an hour on scooters was to indulge a flight of fancy, and so we knew that we had a good five or six hours of riding ahead, almost all of it in the dark.  Oh, and it rained a bit, too.  Shortly after sunset, with a good four hours left, it started to pour, much to our amusement.  We powered on through (albeit at a slower, more weather-appropriate pace) and breathed unbelievably heavy sighs of relief when the rain went away after not much more than fifteen minutes.

Finally, a while after 10pm, we returned our scooters to their home, handing over the keys to some inquisitive-looking reception staff.  We’re not sure of the exact numbers, but we’re pretty sure we covered over 600km, in more than fourteen hours total, of which at least eleven were spent on vibrating scooter seats.

We wandered off, slightly bow-legged, to find ourselves some food – ideally food we could consume standing up, please – and a nice comfortable bed.  It had been a big, thoroughly fantastic day.  We felt we deserved some rest.

Hue, part 1 – the Citadel and tombs of the emperors

(Apologies for missing a post on my unofficial post-every-three-days-until-I-can-catch-up-to-my-present-location schedule:  I’m in Bolivia at the moment, and the internet is, well, less than ubiquitous.  Also, travelling and blogging is hard, dammit!  I know, I know, cry me a river, etc.)

After a busy day followed by an overnight train from Ninh Binh, we were happy to have a quiet day to ourselves to get some laundry done and rest up before exploring Hue.  Especially because we had two fairly epic days ahead of us…

(Note to the culture police.  Normally, I’m pretty good at making sure I spell things good and proper, using the correct bunch of letters and letteroids in the appropriate local language, etc.  Although I’ll admit I was pretty lazy with Hanoi, which I should have written Hà Nội.  On that note, Hue is actually spelt Huế.  Yup, that’s an interesting set of squiggles you’ve got there over the e.  If I remember rightly, the caret/circumflex makes it the short e sound – in Vietnamese, ê is a different letter than e – and the acute accent/diacritic is a tonal indicator.  Unfortunately, that shit’s kinda tricky to type, and I get bored of copying and pasting from the ever-reliable Wikipedia.  So we’re going to go with just naked ‘Hue’ – and similar bastardisations of other intricate Vietnamese names – accepting that my cruddy Vietnamese spelling will be perfectly on par with my cruddy Vietnamese pronunciation.)

The walls, moat and flagpole of the ancient imperial city at Hue

The walls, moat and flagpole of the ancient imperial city at Hue

The main tourist feature of Hue itself is the old citadel.  Hue was, for a long time, the capital of imperial Vietnam – right up until 1945, in fact, when (French colonial) imperial Vietnam became the (Frenchies-be-damned) Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with its capital in Hanoi.  And so Hue is the proud owner of a grand old walled Imperial Citadel, home of the Nguyen emperors and their courts.  I suppose it’s kind of like Vietnam’s version of Beijing’s Forbidden City, only a little more falling down, and a little more overgrown.

Green open spaces among the ruined buildings in the ancient Imperial Citadel in Hue

Green open spaces among the ruined buildings in the ancient Imperial Citadel in Hue

The falling-down-ness is somewhat charming, actually, and not so severe that it ruins the history of the place.  And of course it’s understandable, too, given that the citadel was at times a key focal point of the Vietnam War, in particular during the brutal Tet Offensive.

So it’s a bit of an understatement to claim that the site is imbued with history, and our time there was a morning well spent wandering through it, being transported back in time to a richer, and perhaps more splendid, Vietnam.

Ngo Mon Gate (the Noon Gate), in the ancient Imperial Citadel of Hue

Ngo Mon Gate (the Noon Gate), in the ancient Imperial Citadel of Hue. This gate is where the last emperor of Vietnam abdicated in favour of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary government.

As the olden day home of the emperors, Hue is the centrepoint for their final resting places, as well.  And so after walking around the Imperial Citadel, we returned to our hotel to pick up a pair of scooters to explore the Tombs of the Emperors, situated outside the city in a variety of seemingly random locations.

By the lake at the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, near Hue

By the lake at the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, near Hue

We visited three of the many tombs – picking the ones that seemed both convenient and interesting, and carefully planning out a route that would let us see what we wanted to see in the time we had that afternoon, before anything closed, and well before we’d run any danger of having to ride back in the dark (a possibility we most certainly did not relish, given Vietnamese traffic and general road quality).

We walked around the final home of Emperor Tu Duc, a large complex around a lake, and one which served as his resting place during his lifetime as well as in death.  We marvelled at the monuments to a handful of his 104 queens, wives and courtesans (really?!  at what point is 103 not enough?), and we appreciated the serenity of his lakeside summer house.

From there, we rode to the hillside monument to Emperor Khai Dinh, climbing up to his burial chamber, passing the stone mandarins (no, not the fruit) and elephants which line the entrance courtyard on the way up to the main temple.

Statues of attendant mandarins, at the Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh

Statues of attendant mandarins, at the Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh

And finally, we scooted out to the slightly more remote Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang – again a large complex, with several temples to progress through before you make it out back to the fenced-off hill in which the Emperor now reposes.

It was a nice conclusion to a day of elegant architecture and quiet, reflective surrounds.

At the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, near Hue

At the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, near Hue

And thus, with that selection of tombs successfully visited, and with darkness due to fall in the not-too-distant future, it was time to return home.  The Minh Mang tomb is a bit of a distance from Hue itself, but we had Google Maps to guide us, so it shouldn’t be a problem following the main road along the river back towards town.

And it wouldn’t have been.  Except that at what so far as we can tell is the exact point at which we were farthest (as the crow flies) from our hotel, my scooter took objection to the bumpy road surface (let’s just say that as far as main roads go, it wasn’t exactly paved) and gurgled to a stop.  And refused to start again.

There was plenty of fuel in it – we hadn’t been that stupid.  But the sounds it was making were definitely “I’ve got no fuel” noises.  I walked the bike up the road a bit until we came to a petrol station under construction.  They helpfully directed us farther along the road, where we came to a little hut that also sold fuel.  With no Vietnamese whatsoever, I hand-motioned that we needed a screwdriver to get the side cover off so Chris could investigate further (not much of a mechanic, myself), to no avail.  We managed to get the damn thing off anyway (using the hotel key, if I remember rightly), only to find that there wasn’t anything obviously wrong.

With little other choice available to us, we left the bike by the side of the road, and committed the cardinal sin – two guys on the same scooter – to get back to the hotel.  Having first emailed the hotel a Google Maps link to the exact location of their scooter, and rung to explain that we were on our way back and had had to leave the enfeebled transport behind.  (Hooray for cheap local SIM cards!)

We got back to the hotel, at which point I was handed the keys to a working scooter and asked to lead the hotel owner and his mechanic friend back to the site.  It seemed that reading maps wasn’t their strong point, so my clever email was not enough, and my personal guidance was required.  Eventually we got there, at which point the mechanic fixed the bike by jumping up and down on the kickstarter for a good five minutes to eventually start it, and then holding the throttle open for another few minutes to clear out the dirty fuel line that everyone had by then assumed was the most likely cause of the problem.  And so, job done, we rode back.  In the dark.  Through Vietnamese traffic.  Enjoying Vietnamese road quality.

The headlights on the now-fixed scooter didn’t work, so I politely declined to ride that one, but the mechanic happily hopped on and “solved” that particular problem by riding with his right-hand indicator permanently flashing.  Obviously he rode out front of our threesome, since he liked riding the fastest, and knew the way back the best.

Anyway, I made it back with no further problems – just a little later than originally anticipated, and with slightly more experience riding in difficult Vietnamese conditions than I had expected to have accrued by this point in our travels.  We found ourselves some quick and easy food, and, given our plans for tomorrow, we agreed we should probably find an alternate scooter supplier first thing in the morning…

Ninh Binh

Our journey to Ninh Binh from Cat Ba involved a form of travel that was definitely new to me:  a sleeper bus.  We saw them a few times in Vietnam, but this was the only time we travelled on one.  Picture a normal coach, but instead of having normal seats, there are three columns of bunk beds running lengthwise down the bus.  Interesting.  It wasn’t that bad, but a little problematic for me specifically:  I’m a little bit taller than the Vietnamese design specifications anticipated, so sleeping was not a likely outcome.  Instead, I found myself spending the ride sitting cross-legged on an upper bunk in the middle of the bus, knees sticking out over each aisle, head just safely stooped beneath the roof.

We were only on the bus (which was actually going all the way to Saigon – about a 24h journey, if I remember rightly) for three hours, though, so that wasn’t an issue.  I whiled away the time chatting to the ever-smiling Swiss girl across the aisle from me, no doubt boring her to tears behind her charmingly friendly façade.  I think she agreed with my conclusion, though, that this was an entertaining form of transport, albeit not one to enjoy spending long periods of time on…

Once deposited in Ninh Binh, we had no trouble recognising the truth to what we’d read in guide books and online:  there’s really nothing interesting to the town at all.  We found our excellent hotel, and enjoyed a sleep in real beds that weren’t in the process of driving anywhere.

And then the next day, it was time for our first big scooter adventure.  We’d already done a circuit of Cat Ba Island on scooters, true, but that was just for the sake of riding around to have a look about, and not so much as a definite means of transportation anywhere specific.  Ninh Binh, though, we were in because there’s some cool stuff nearby.  –ish.  And scootering ourselves around sounded like a better way to get there than being chauffeured around on a tour.

Boats on the Ngô Đồng River, waiting to row tourists out to Tam Cốc

Boats on the Ngô Đồng River, waiting to row tourists out to Tam Cốc

Our first destination for the day was the Ngô Đồng River, to see Tam Cốc (an attraction whose name literally means ‘three caves’).  Having parked our scooters and handed over ten or twenty thousand of our dongs to a nearby parking attendant (this is necessary throughout Vietnam – otherwise chances are pretty good that someone, quite possibly said parking attendant, will come and steal, say, a mirror, from the scooter and then, on your return, attempt to sell it back to you, claiming that they retrieved it from someone else whom they saw steal it with their very own eyes and whom they subsequently athletically and heroically chased down out of sheer outrage at the thievery), we bought our tickets and approached the boats, seeking one without a box full of trinkets and souvenirs that the boat’s rower would inevitably spend much of the trip trying to offload onto us.  This took some time, but we got one, and proceeded up river.

When offered paddles, we accepted, and totally didn’t spend the first five or ten minutes seeing how quickly we could overtake the few other boats on the water.  (We’d arrived early, before the massive tourist rush, so there weren’t actually all that many others to overtake.)  We drew a few amused looks from other boats for the fact that we paddled the whole time, rather than downing tools in favour of our boatmaster after the requisite two minutes of the novelty wearing off.  But then, like the other tourists, we were casting a fair few interested looks around ourselves, watching in amusement at the way the professionals up the back of the boat would normally lay back lazily and row with their feet.

Tam Cốc is misleadingly named:  the attraction is not particularly the caves (which are actually natural tunnels that you row through), but the general scenery of the area, which is sometimes described as an inland version of Halong Bay.  The limestone karsts here are just like we saw at Cat Ba, only surrounded by rice paddies, not sea.

On our boat, rowing amidst the limestone karsts

On a rowboat on the Ngo Dong River, rowing through Tam Coc (‘three caves’), out amongst limestone karst towers and rice paddies, near Ninh Binh, in north Vietnam

Such is the landscape all around Ninh Binh, as we could appreciate from the apex of our second destination for the day.  Having tipped our rower (you can produce surprisingly large grins on faces in rural Vietnam with surprisingly small amounts of money, it turns out – the local currency equivalent of not much more than one US dollar produced a healthy beam from ear to ear as we thanked our guide for not trying to sell us tat throughout our ride) and retrieved our unmolested scooters, we proceeded to our second destination, the Bích Động pagoda complex.  There are three pagodas in the complex, one at ground level, and two further up inside and on one of the limestone karsts.  As we ascended, we did little more than glance at the pagodas, in all honesty:  they’re lovely, and it’s certainly impressive that they date from 1428, but, no doubt owing to my utter lack of appreciate for the finer points of culture, we were there for the view.

The view across the rice paddies and among the limestone karst towers from the top of one of those towers, above Bích Động Pagoda

The view across the rice paddies and among the limestone karst towers from the top of one of those towers, above Bích Động Pagoda

It was a spectacular view, which we had plenty of time to appreciate as we waited for copious amounts of sweat to dry off after having clambered up over the sharp edges of the limestone karst tower atop the pagodas.

It was a view that we saw again from our third destination, above Hang Mua (Mua Cave – I say “above” the cave because the cave itself has no redeeming features whatsoever, and the place is only interesting for the climb up the hill).  Thankfully, in the meantime we’d spent some time riding around aimlessly on our scooters, following some of the roads we’d traced out from above the pagoda, appreciating the scooter equivalent of air conditioning as we surveyed the area and blasted ourselves through the air to dry off.  So after the climb to the top of the hill above Hang Mua, we could be content in the knowledge that it was completely fresh sweat that we were now dripping onto the ground.  But again, the view made the effort and the ridiculously frequent necessity for rehydration worthwhile.  From here, we could see the rice paddies stretching right out to the edges of Ninh Binh town, in a stunning panorama that in many ways sums up this part of Vietnam.  In a nice touch, we could also see back to the Ngô Đồng River and Tam Cốc, where we’d started the day’s exploration of the area.

The view across the flooded rice paddies and limestone karst towers towards Ninh Binh, as seen from the top of the climb above Hang Mua

The view across the flooded rice paddies and limestone karst towers towards Ninh Binh, as seen from the top of the climb above Hang Mua

Also at the top of the karst above Hang Mua, a giant dragon statue

Also at the top of the karst above Hang Mua, a giant dragon statue

Our final stop for the day was Hoa Lu – an ancient citadel which I gather was of quite some import in Vietnamese history.  Again, though, uncultured scenery whore that I am, we proceeded to ignore the ancient temples and climb the nearest karsts for the view.  But not until we were soaked.  A momentary downpour just after we arrived had us seeking shelter by squatting under a low rocky overhang:  we felt very Vietnamese.  Once that passed, and once we’d thoroughly explored going completely the wrong way to find the track we were looking to climb up, we enjoyed another ascent up a now-quite-wet-and-slippery collection of rocky crags, and another view from on high – albeit that this one was slightly less photogenic, unfortunately, due to the foreboding clouds which promised good things for our ride back home.

And speaking of our ride back home, we returned uneventfully to our hotel (did I mention they were excellent, by the way?), and took full advantage of the fact that they had kindly offered to give us a late checkout.  “Late” as in 9pm, when our train left.  So we returned to our room and showered, before wandering around town multiple times looking for something to eat before settling on a streetside stall which looked more promising than the rest.  Our ordering procedure basically consisted of sitting there and looking confused until our server arrived at our table and half-asked, half-announced “chicken soup”.  And so we heartily enjoyed the chicken soup.  Not full, however, I returned and engaged my back-up ordering procedure:  pointing indelicately to another customer’s meal and holding up two fingers to ask for two of whatever the hell that is, please.  Thus satisfied (our second dish was a delicious incarnation of some sort of pork wanton and noodle broth;  we opted to have it without the optional fried chicken feet accompaniment on this occasion), we returned to our hotel to take advantage of their promised transfer to the train station.  Which is how we found ourselves each fully backpacked-up and loaded onto the back of a scooter driven by our friendly hotel staff around the block to meet our railbound accommodation for the night, as we made our way down to Hue for our next adventure.

On holiday from our travels, in Cat Ba

It seems to me that there are basically two types of tourism for Westerners in south-east Asia (I’m deliberately choosing to ignore the seedier other kind).  First, there’s the “I’m off on vacation and I’ve decided that to make it exotic (and/or cheap), I’m going to south-east Asia – bring on the beaches, bars and bumming around”.  That is, the holiday which is designed as exactly that – a holiday – and which happens to be in south-east Asia because why not.  Second, there’s  travelling through the area to see what south-east Asia has that’s different from the rest of the world.  (Actually, this is a distinction that I’ve started to be more aware of the more I roam around:  I tend to think of it as the difference between “going on holiday” and “travelling”, for want of better terminology.)

I’m not going to make any value judgements about the distinction.  (Not here, anyway.  Get a few drinks into me within spitting distance of somewhere like Phuket and I might change my tune.  “Yeah, sure, I’ve done south-east Asia.  First I went to Bali, then I went to Ko Phangan for the Full Moon Party, then I went to Nha Trang – you name a trumped-up tourist destination that’s been decked out to make partying Westerners feel at home, and I’ve done it, man!”)  But while I’m not going to claim that we were on a god-given mission to discover the real beating cultural heart of the angst-ridden downtrodden peoples of the region, direct or indirect victims of colonial oppression all, my point is that we were in south-east Asia for the experience of experiencing south-east Asia.

(And actually, I really have nothing against people spending their hard-earned time off having a blast in a party spot that’s made to float their boat.  I just hope they realise that if they’re interested for next time, there’s a lot else to see in the area too.)

All of which is introduction to the fact that we skipped Halong Bay – one of Vietnam’s biggest attractions for Western (and, more recently, Chinese) tourists looking for a waterfront paradise.  But we didn’t skip it for any reasons related to any of the above:  quite the opposite.  We (well, mostly Chris) did some research (read the little sidebar in Lonely Planet Vietnam) and decided to go to its better-behaved little sibling instead:  Cat Ba.

Lan Ha Bay with a sampling of its famed hundreds of limestone karst islands, seen from the Cannon Fort lookout on Cat Ba Island

Lan Ha Bay with a sampling of its famed hundreds of limestone karst islands, seen from the Cannon Fort lookout on Cat Ba Island

Halong Bay, it seems generally agreed, is a bit of a bitch these days.  It’s beautiful, yes, but it’s full to overflowing of ruthless scams and hassle and misfortune waiting to befall the unwary – and, by all accounts, even the wary – tourist.  Cat Ba is right next door, with the same scenery – thus far slightly more unspoiled – and with much fewer potential problems to plague the holidayer.  And, as a slightly less developed locale (albeit that it’s catching up fast), it’s a Western holiday spot, yes, but without quite the glitzy tourist horror that we were later to encounter in, say, Patong, in Thailand.

So, we rolled up, and had us a holiday.

Cat Ba Island is an island in Lan Ha Bay, which is just adjacent to Halong Bay and shares the same basic scenery and geographical features.  The bay is full of limestone karst islands – literally thousands of small- to medium-sized lumps of rock jutting out of the water, surrounding floating fishing villages and tourist cruises alike.  The view is stunning.  Just putting about on the water on a tour boat is mesmerising, before you even pull up on a deserted beach on an uninhabited island to explore for an hour or so.  And kayaking through the karsts is incredible.

A double-sided beach (or does that just make it a sand isthmus?) among the limestone karst islands in Lan Ha Bay

A double-sided beach (or does that just make it a sand isthmus?) among the limestone karst islands in Lan Ha Bay

And on top of that, we spent a morning out in the bay deep water soloing, too:  rock-climbing on the side of one of the karsts, unassisted (no ropes or harnesses or any other gear), just jumping (or falling) straight into the water below when done.  I was terrible at it.  It was fantastic.

Doing a particularly poor job of deep-water soloing on one of the limestone karst islands in Lan Ha Bay

Doing a particularly poor job of deep-water soloing on one of the limestone karst islands in Lan Ha Bay

And on top of all that, Cat Ba was my first time riding a scooter, as we hooned, err, rode sensibly, around the island’s greenery exploring our first taste of south-east Asian tropical jungle, mixed liberally with a hearty dose of mangroves and mudflats.  Well, it was my first time driving a scooter, anyway – I figure sitting on the back doesn’t really count.  This was an important capability to develop, since scootering was to be our transportation mode of choice for the next couple of months.

Our time in Cat Ba was not without its cultural moments – exploring the Hospital Cave, a large Viet Cong bunker during the war, was fascinating, and don’t think for a second that I passed up a single opportunity to get some more local food into my gut.  The Cannon Fort, housing French-made canons to defend the island from the French, was also intriguing (as well as being a great viewpoint for the bay).  Oh, and we passed a couple of what I can only presume were very culturally valuable karaoke bars on a couple of evenings.  At least, I assume the value they had was cultural, since it certainly wasn’t musical.

And of course (how could I forget) we got a particularly lucky and rare look at a family of the only sixty-odd remaining Cat Ba langurs in the world, as we motored past their protected habitat on one of the nearby islands.  Much to the chagrin of Jim, the marketing guy at our hotel, who’s been in Cat Ba for a year now and still hasn’t spotted any.

But cultural moments aside, basically, we had a holiday.  And it was awesome.

The sun begins to set behind the limestone karst islands of Lan Ha Bay, and behind the fishing fleet of the main port of Cat Ba Island

The sun begins to set behind the limestone karst islands of Lan Ha Bay, and behind the fishing fleet of the main port of Cat Ba Island