Friday, August 19, 2011

Flashback 02: Into North Vietnam

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 – Part 4

I am currently in Vietnam. Yup, Nam baby! It was rather a mammoth journey from Lijiang and the Snow Mountain Rock Festival, but we have made it to the small old French hill station of Sapa for some serious R&R. A place of calm, fresh air and serious views.
From Lijiang we took a series of buses South to Dali, pass the famed lake and then across to Kunming. It was bucketing down most of the way, which bought some added entertainment. Our journey in a mini-bus was rudely interrupted by a huge slam and a small skid. A landslide slurry of rocks and mud had cascaded down the hillside and ripped a sizable chunk out of the side of the vehicle. Nice.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Kunming a nice city. China seems to have a knack of producing monstrously polluted and ugly cities, but Kunming had a welcoming feel about it. Unfortunately I caught a nasty bug there and, after a night of high fever and mild delusion (I was convinced Felix was the devil incarnate guzzling the last of the orangeade), we decided to push on and jumped on a rickety bus to the Sino-Vietnamese border. A mistake. Throughout the entirety of the 14 hour bumpy bus ride I had a fever and a severe migraine. I could barely even bring myself to look out the window. Eyes forced shut by the pain, occasionally interrupted by some rude official demanding our papers.

Still feeling ropey, what I did not need was an eventful border crossing. Sods law. At the Chinese border control the officials let the others through, took my passport, looked at me, scrutinised my passport, looked at me some more and then walked off with my documents to a room behind. No word. I waited, with a touch of anxiety. What had I done? Who had I discussed the tortures of the one child policy with? How many times had I suggested that China was not really communist and autocracy was not necessarily the best form of government? Eventually, after many minutes, the guy came back, scrutinised me a bit more and let me through.

Across the ironically named "Friendship Bridge" between these historic enemies and the Vietnamese guards were hardly more pleasant. Yes, they gave us each a copy of this tacky tourist brochure, but then ensued to point AK47's at us for not reading them with due attention. I have some sympathy for the guys. The transition from alert border guards to tourist reps is not an easy one.

Thankful to be through, we hitched a ride in the back of a 1960's Soviet and jeep took the windy, precipitous yet stunning road to Sapa.
Now awakening from days of feeling awful, the extra intrigue of a new country leaves me in as excited state about my travels as I have been. It is so beautiful and the local hill tribe people are so nice (despite the offering of opium). In particular, the children are great fun, falling all over the place and finding us foreigners very amusing. We have been on gentle walks, perused the markets and even bought a pillow cushion.

The most striking thing about the place is that it is in the shadow of Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain, and the view is really quite spectacular (see photo above).

We are moving on in about an hour to Hanoi via a 12 odd hour sleeper train journey. I do not know if it is my long running desire to visit Vietnam, the friendliness of the people I have met so far or maybe that we have escaped the all controlling Beijing, but I am so much more excited about this country. I really am buzzing about seeing Hanoi and heading down this long, thin land.


My first hour or so in Hanoi will, I am sure, stay with me as long as any of my memories of this part of the world. Jumping off the most uncomfortable train ride of my life – steaming hot and squeezed on a top bunk, prevented from sleeping by a lethally sharp fan blade rocking and propelling not 4 inches from my head – we arrived just before the crack of dawn in a dazed, dreamlike state. We wandered away from the hustle and bustle of the train station and through the abandoned streets. As the first light permeated the smog, we walked along the tree-lined boulevards in search of somewhere to stay. It was like no place I have ever visited. A strange hybrid of a pretty French town and a polluted Asian megacity. Eventually, we found ourselves at the central lake. There, by the water were old ladies and gentlemen carrying out their daily ritual of Tai Chi. As the city awoke and noise, smells and sights bubbled up from slumber, these people represented such calm tranquillity. We threw down the backpacks, sat on them and watched. Surreal and beautiful.
After a couple of days enjoying the sights of the city, Felix, Rachel (a friendly wicker witch we met in China) and I headed off to Halong Bay. This involved a four hour journey out east from Hanoi, before jumping on an over night boat cruise around the world heritage listed sticky outy limestone islands which break out into the South China sea from the mainland. A stunning place. The same geological phenomenon as we saw a few weeks back in Yangshuo (China), though instead of scenic paddies below, there are emerald green waters.
We toured around some caves (adorned with plastic penguin bins), swam and played drinking cards with some guys who crawled over from another boat. The highlights were though undoubtedly just sitting watching the islands roll by and, at night, diving off the high top of the boat in a tropical rainstorm into waters frothing with bright phosperesence. Then again there was also lying on the deck watching wide-eyed as the sky was lit up by fork lightening vividly extenuating the shape of the islets. A crazy, fun time. The only mild downer was an un-engaging, pissed off crew.

The way back was uneventful except for a stop off at a shop selling snake wine. Barely tempting. The locals put live snakes in alcoholic liquid, allow them to drown, let the liquid fester, and then serve it everywhere. Nasty stuff, though it is apparently an aphrodisiac.
We are now back in Hanoi waiting around for our Cambodian visa. Good times. Just enjoying the buzz, fusion and confusion of Hanoi. I really like this city with its millions of motor bikes, baguettes for breakfast and noodles for lunch. When the visa is in hand we are heading off to the centre of the country, Hue and the DMZ. You know I am almost getting used to these double digit hour uncomfortable journeys.
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