North East Vietnam
Trip Start Jul 20, 2007
43Trip End Ongoing
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We headed down the coast from Hong Kong and ended up stranded in Zhanjiang, which is a polluted shit-hole that deservedly looked like it had never had any other foreign visitors. We bought an onward ticket to the Vietnamese border but when we turned up for the 7am bus it had been cancelled. As always in China, about 10 leering men gathered around as a woman tried to explain the situation, offering no additional insight but filling our lungs with smoke. Rather than stay another night we had to take a further 3buses to make the 250km to the border. This was painful. Why do all Chinese bus drivers insist on playing Chinese opera music at deafening volume throughout the entire journey? I can just imagine their AGM: "we have a large surplus this year, fancy hiring some cleaners, perhaps get some toilets on these buses" - "Nah, upgrade the speaker system, lets get some Funktion1's in there, that'll keep everyone happy, especially those Westerners who try to sleep on our buses."
We arrived at another strange border. Firstly, about 25 women wouldn't stop staring at us and I noticed two were actually stroking my arm air - I quickly revealed my chest rug which seemed to scare most of them off including one who started shouting 'monkey.' We exited China and walked onto 'freedom' bridge (i have no idea of its real name but it feels like freedom knowing you will never return to China) where scores of women were sat around with huge bags of cargo. Vietnamese customs is a small building 10m long on the other side of the river and the women took turns in trying to sprint past the 3 officials and throw their contraband over the border. We were welcome distractions and 3 locals simultaneously ran the gauntlet while our passports were checked - only one was successful, the other 2 had their goods confiscated.
We carried on to Halong city and booked 2nights in a hotel. Big mistake. Halong city resembled a off peak Spanish holiday resort specifically designed for chavs. Empty bars playing 'Now! Thats what i call complete and utter unoriginal Chavtastic Eurodance 45' (mixed by DJ Allegator and featuring Scooters new single 'put your hands in the air woop woop'), a polluted beach and loads of persistent fake jewelery sellers. This is not in fitting with Halong Bay itself - nearly 4000 majestic Karst limestone rocks rising vertically up to 100m from the ocean. We spent a day/night on a boat around the area in complete awe of its natural beauty - banners around the harbour asked visitors to vote for Halng Bay as one of the worlds 7 new natural wonders and we would happily vote but for the extra truckloads of ungrateful tourists that would arrive. One of these woppers, a mid 20's American with a Thai bride (who laughed at all of his crap jokes but couldn't speak English), was on our boat. When our delicious meals were served he would make remarks like 'ah, rice, haven't seen you in a while' and 'ooh fish, what a suprise' and then refuse to anything but the soggy chips on offer. What exactly were you expecting on a boat off the Vietnamese coast? While enjoying the next morning on the top deck surrounded by such definitive beauty, this guy moped around downstairs complaining about a lack of hot water.
Our other encounter with a Vietnamese city was also a memorable experience. We arrived expecting a seaside town and ended up in the middle of the countries third biggest city in a hotel disguised as a prison on the main road. You know when some talentless radio DJ fills 3minutes of their drive-time slot by getting all the listeners to honk their horns simultaneously. Now imagine if every single driver was listening to this radio station (probably called Lifesapping FM or Killing you slowly on long wave) and the whole street was awash with ugly and completely unnecessary noise. Now imagine this noise continuing for 24hours a day. This is the soundtrack of a Vietnamese city - except its even worse because they mostly all drive motorbikes with pathetic whining yaps. Yap, yap, hoooonnnnnnnnnkkkkkk, yap, yap, yapyapyapyapyap yHHOapOOOOyapNNNyaKKKp - Forget Guantanamo bay, this was real torture - i have never been happier to get out of bed at 6am, knowing we were leaving.
People had told us Vietnam was hard place to meet the locals. This is not the case and was likely said by people like the afore mentioned American who sit around expecting some local granny to initiate an hour long conversation about life before, during and after the war. I was invited to play football with some youths and was amazed at how good they were, although given they watch Premiership football I think they were equally amazed at how bad the barefooted Englishman was. At nearly everywhere we pass by motorbike we are greeted by children shouting 'hello' and the high amount of people that can speak good English enables us to communicate far more with people than in China or Japan.
However, the issue of money usually has to be overcome the first time you meet someone as most people will try and extort every last 'dong' from your pocket. For example, in Ninh Binh we ate every meal at the same amazing small cafe. By the second meal they were offering free Vietnamese language lessons, by the forth we were exchanging emails and receiving gifts, and when we left they stocked us up on fruit for our onward journey. Ninh Binh is like Halong bay just without water - making it not quite as impressive - but situated next to a charming quiet town. We spent a couple of days cruising around the scenic empty roads on a motorbike and getting completely sun burnt.
Likewise, the small island of Catba is equally as impressive for its scenery - completely covered in thick jungle we spent 2days trekking through. There is the occasional opening with a few scattered houses but most people live in a 'floating town' in the open sea. It was incredible to see how simply these people lived in small huts balanced on barrels and plastic bottles. Most made their money through fishing but others overcharged people like us for using their kayaks. A couple had also turned their house into a fish restaurant. Although a painful 20minutes of haggling was required this was the first time I had ever chosen which fish to be killed and then presented 30minutes later with a clove of garlic in its gob.
I'm going to cut this babble short because this Internet cafe stinks and the guy next to me is looking at online cartoon porn, which scares me somewhat. We're off towards the North West of Vietnam, meticulously making sure we only use back roads and avoid all cities.