Monday, February 25, 2008

The ever-present soundtrack that is Vietnam! - part 1

My Lonely Planet guide book to Vietnam suggested to bring 'ear-plugs to the ever-present soundtrack that is Vietnam' :) and it's very true...
From early morning on (at night it does actually go quiet) until the wee hours, the streets of any town in Vietnam are LOUD! Whereas Abu Dhabi drivers have their horns hooked to the robot, over here, the honk is connected to everything; the steering wheel, the indicator, the gas pedal and the brake! Honking is a way of life here, and it's also a means to survive! But it's definitely not a complaint, it's part of the whole experience, and I loved it!

My trip to Vietnam was wonderful. I really had a great time. I traveled mostly through the north of the country, saw the coast, the beaches, the mountains, small towns, big cities. Used all kinds of mode of transport, trains, small tourist buses, large (sleeper) tourist buses, local buses, 'xe oms' (motorbikes, you get pestered 100+ times a day by guys who want to ride you to where ever you're going 'MOTORBIKE, one hour, cheap, cheap!', they would shout), scooters (I drove one through Hue traffic!), rickshaw's and cabs. All modes of transport were very memorable in their own sense. And all these different modes meant I got to see a lot of different sides of the country, cities, towns, rice paddies, mountains, you name it.

The kind of trips I usually like to make are independent, I like to travel to places where I either can blend in (U.S. for instance) or where I am one of the few tourists and can leave the beaten tourist trail (China). But unfortunately this was not really possible in Vietnam, I tried, believe me, but since especially the middle of the country is very narrow, the tracks one can go on are limited. So after arriving in Hanoi and spending a few days there (I love cosmopolitan and/or Asian cities), I went on an organized trip to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to beautiful karsts, giants rocks (or small islands) that stick out of the water, quite impressive. There were hundreds of tour operators to offer this trip, and even my guide book said that you couldn't possibly do it any cheaper if you do it yourself, so I went ahead and booked a trip. We left Hanoi around 8 am with a bus and drove to Halong Bay. Arriving there, I realised how huge this whole enterprise really is. There were at least 100 junks (that's what the boats are called!) moored waiting to take on passengers. Our boat took a maximum of 16 people divided over 8 cabins, but our group consisted of only 13 people (I had a cabin to myself!). This sort of was the catch, you have this beautiful nature reserve, but it's filled with boats with tourists, and unfortunately the waters were pretty poluted.

After coming back to Hanoi, I connected to the night train to Sapa. Sapa is a mountain town home to a weekly market where indigeonous mountain people meet. From here one can take single- or multiple-day tours (hiking, motorcycle, biking, etc) through the many different mountain tribes including doing homestays. I opted for a 2-day hike and doing one homestay. Our guide was a girl from one these mountain tribes, quite a smart, quick-witted girl, not shy at all, as one sometimes gets to think most Asians are. The hike was not too strenuous, but took the greater part of the day. I had two Dutchies in my group (such coincidence!), and another group with two Australians joined us at our homestay house. Good fun!
The 2nd day was much easier, we only walked half an hour or so around the little village to see some sights, then the bus picked us up and dropped us in Sapa. From there back to Hanoi. Next destination: go south!

Ok, this was part 1 for now, more to follow! I'll leave you with a well worth piece of advice found in the Lonely Planet:

'Pedestrian survival rules in Vietnam
Foreigners frequently make the make the mistake of thinking that the best way to cross a busy street in Vietnam is to rum quickly across it. This does not always work in practice, which can make have you wind up like a bug on a windshield. Most Vietnamese cross the street slowly -very slowly- giving the motorbike drivers sufficient time to judge their position so they can pass on either side. They won't stop of even slow down, but they will try to avoid hitting you. Just don't make any sudden moves.'
I can full heartily agree with this! It really works :)

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