Our last full day in Hanoi was spent with us finally being able to get up for breakfast. The Jet lag was subsiding at last. We spoke to Mr Chin, our landlord, if he had any ideas how to get to Ha Long bay on the coast. Of course he could sell us a package that would suit us for a two night three day stay, one night spent on a junk in the middle of the bay and one night in a hotel on Cat Ba island. This sounded good but we deliberated even at the bargain price of $55 each.
We wanted to see the Temple of Literature, a short walk away. Being quite good at negotiating the traffic, we coolly strolled to the temple which was very beautiful. Confucius himself taught there, it is said. It was truly an oasis amongst the craziness of the city and for the first time, it was quiet.
Walking from there, we made our way to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. It is a very impressive building, fronted by a huge stretch of land, kind of a Red Square for Hanoi. The Mausoleum was closed as was the Ho Chi Minh museum so we found a nice Veggie restaurant. We booked the trip to Ha Long which meant we were up the next day very early for the 3 hour bus journey to Ha Long City. The bus was full of young travellers of course. We got chatty with an Aussie couple and some Dutch Girls. The bus made a stop half way along at a 'service station' which just sold lots of tat for inflated prices. An hour later we arrived at Ha long city port where many junks waited to ferry many tourists across. We boarded our junk with much confusion around as three or four boats squeezed themselves to have a good position at the small jetty. Of course there were crashes. One boat wrenched a large piece of wood from another and our boat managed to break anothers window. The captains just exchanged a few words and we were off, or not...as we ran aground on a sandbank, not once, but three times. Slightly disconcerting when our boat started listing in open water. Engines at max, we were setting sail.
Lunch over, we lounged on the top deck taking in the scenery which became increasingly breathtaking.
Ha Long city is not anything of interest, but the rocks that emerged from the bay are a spectacle. Two hours cruising and we stop and go ashore to look at a large rock with huge caves. This was followed by Kayaking on the still waters as the sun set before us. After dinner, we had a beer on deck and enjoyed the romantic setting, stars above and the rocks and the sea around us.
Next day we arrived at Cat Ba Island and had to say goodbye to our nice guide, the new one was like a drill sergeant from the military. After a short trekking tour up a mountain in the national park with a very nice but crazy guide called monkey, we finally got to Cat Ba city and were bitterly disappointed... a sea ressort right out from the 70's communism, horrible architecture, horrible hotel.
We're running around to find a nice beach, didn't succeed... decision to leave next day. Early start in the morning, boat back to Halong city, bus to Hanoi, two accidents on the way, were watching act of self justice as passing through a small town, one viet was beaten up by several others with bamboo sticks and after a short break our bus reversed into another reversing bus... In the evening we arrived at Hanoi and we were determined to leave it instantly. So we got a cab and tried to tell the driver the address of the bus station we wanted to go, unfortunately he didn't understand us... but with the help of a friendly hotel porter we finally got there. But the not very friendly ladies at the ticket offices weren't willing to sell any tickets to us nor giving information... Standing there without a clue what to do we got surrounded by various suspicious looking guys offering to take us to Thanh Hoa, being far away from the centre, we decided to go with one of them... fare seemed ok, but when he closed the curtains, removed the destination sign from the window and turned off the light we were slightly alarmed... But we found out these guys were competing with the official bus companies and these actions were just precautions not be discovered by the police.
3 hours later with cramping fingers from holding on during our dangerous bus drive, we reached our destination late at night.
Found the only (crappy) hotel in the whole town, no one was speaking English and we were obviously the first Westerners for a long time, since people stopped and starred at us on the road. Early morning again, after several banks finally found one that took our cards, we headed for the train station, had a quick interesting tasting coffee(Weasel coffee??*) stirred up the local market a bit by our appearance and were on our way to Vinh.
Relaxing train journey, passing lots of rice paddies and hard working people. Vinh another example of a noisy dirty town, couldn't find a bank changing our travellers cheques (American Express), ironically Vietcom the only that accepted them. At this bus station same scenario as in Hanoi, but found a guy, this time with an office, to sell us our tickets to Laos (Phonsavan) and he also offered his hotel for the night as the bus was to leave at 6 a.m.
Luckily we have our full body sleeping bags we didn't have to touch any part of the bed sheets... After a delayed start because of engine problems we were on our way to the Lao border, just stopped a few times to load more stuff and people in, on top or under the bus, including two live chickens in a bag next to the engine.
At the border we got stamped out by the Vietnamese, strolled shortly through no mans land and filled out the entry forms for our Laos visas. John was joking that he and the Americans that were on our bus as well might have to pay more, because we read in our guide that sometimes they choose the price according to your nationality; in the end he was right, they had to pay 5 dollars more than me (S)... After 13 hours we arrived in the dark in Phonsavan, both with a heavy cough because of the dust we breathed in all those hours on the bus, our backpacks looked like they got dragged behind the bus all the way from Vietnam.
In this lovely little town all the guesthouses were full but we found a nice hotel and enjoyed a night under washed clean linen. Having booked a bus the night before we were again early on our way to Luang Prabang. We were handed little rubbish bags in the beginning of the ride, praising their sense for cleanliness but soon found out their real purpose... After about an hour on these windy bumpy roads, quite a few Lao people around us started puking and it was relentless in the whole seven hours journey. Apart from that it was a pleasant drive up and down green mountains through lovely little villages, little children in their traditional clothes waving at us...
In Luang Prabang we took a tuk tuk to the centre and found a fantastic guest house on the peninsula between the Mekong river and the Nam Khan. Surrounded by numerous Buddhist temples, orange dressed monks all over we enjoy the peace and the beautiful scenery and we decided to stay here for at least five nights.
* Weasel coffee is said to prepared like the following: Beans are fed to a special sort of weasel, are "fermented" in their stomachs, are collected after 'weasel toilet' and are brewed into thick gloopy coffee known as chon.
sorry still no photos... uploading photos is so difficult, but we will figure it out soon!