There is a special episode of Top Gear where the hosts buy old motorcycles in Vietnam (cars are too expensive here) and ride north up the country. One of the two most spectacular places along the way is the 150km coastal/mountain road from Hoi An to Hue. I was determined to do this ourselves. Everything came together the afternoon beforehand, as it usually does for me, and we even had a free guide, Thonh, for some of the ride. He is a member of the famed Easy Riders group that show people around the country on the backs of nice cruiser bikes.
– Sunscreen is a good idea (my chest is charred);
– Driving behind a chicken truck is a bad idea (feathers were blinding us, and the ammonia was suffocating us);
– Riding on the shoulder is a good idea (oncoming semi trucks would pass each other on the two-lane highway, forcing all opposing traffic onto the shoulder); and
– Navigating the chaotic sea of motorbikes in Vietnamese cities is even more challenging than it looks. Drivers here have my respect.
When we arrived in the food capital of the country, Hue, we sat down for a quick dinner before our night train departed. Next to us, 3 Americans from Alaska were slurping milkshakes and in good spirits, and we watched to see what food they were having. First the plain steamed rice came out. They didn’t waste any time, putting a bit of sauce on the rice and digging in as they awaited their mains. But when they finished their steamed rice, paid and left, we could only scratch our heads and wonder aloud, “Who comes to the food capital of Vietnam and orders plain rice?”
We were warned that the warm southern hospitality of the locals doesn’t stretch all the way to the north. In Hanoi we went to a famous flashy restaurant popular with locals. Despite the 40 staff members outnumbering the patrons, we received horrible service. Maybe the only positive from the American War was that they taught the south good service.
We arrived in the port city Hai Phong to get out to Cat Ba island, our jumping off point to the spectacular UNESCO protected archipelago of Ha Long Bay. We were accosted by an aggressive woman who followed us around asking for 3x the going price to bring us to the ferry terminal. She then intimidated the dozen cab drivers we tried to bargain with into not accepting any offers, or using their meter. One guy told us straight-faced he had no meter, and even stuck to his guns when I reached into his window and pointed at his obviously functioning meter. We eventually found a great cabbie outside the station who charged us the right price (we tipped him for it). But at the ferry terminal we encountered another witch, who refused to smile (I asked for one), and put us on a slow-boat at an inflated price. At least it left on time!
On the island, we experienced a striking example of the East Asian concept of “face” (or reputation) when trying to arrange our tour to the archipelago. The Brits we met had found a tour operator with a good vibe, and we went to find out some more details before booking. The operator mentioned the captain of the ship was a family member and we were to meet him on the dock the next morning. To make sure we found him, I asked for the Captain’s name. Our operator hesitated, stuttered and stammered, and became red-faced, as he was caught in a lie. We knew the Captain was not his family, since everyone here claims their coworkers are family. We didn’t care! But he obviously did: He told us that in 15 years he’d never been asked so many questions and he no longer wanted to do business with us (worth $225!). He
stood up, shook our hands, and walked off. He’d lost face, and we were left sitting there, staring at each other in stunned silence, not sure whether to laugh.
Life in Ha Long Bay
We found another operator and chartered a boat for a two day tour of the striking, UNESCO-protected archipelago of Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Here, hundreds of limestone spires and mountains rise vertically from the ocean, some hundreds of metres. Our craft was a small diesel houseboat with two smiling locals as our Captain and First Mate (cook & guide). During our two days we witnessed the unique, simple life of the locals.
They live on man-made floating islands in the bay, constructed from styrofoam blocks lashed together with bamboo and rope, tethered to opposing limestone cliff faces so they don’t drift away. The many islands protect them from open seas, and if global warming raises sea levels, their homes will rise too! They all farm fish in netted areas within the ocean, and grow clams and mussels in baskets of sand hung from the bamboo skeleton of their island. Each of the countless farms support one family in a tin shack built in the middle of the artificial island. We moored up to one of these islands for the night.
Right before bed while spitting toothpaste into the water, we discovered the strong bio-luminescence of the organisms in the water. This is a beautiful phenomenon, not unique to Vietnam characterised by the water glowing green (like glowsticks) for an instant when you disturb it. It’s mesmerising. I put my feet in the water and kicked up a glowing froth. Chris jumped in and swam, his arms tracing green wings around him like an angel, his feet creating a comet tail behind him. The effect is too dim to capture on film, but it’s okay, because I’ll never forget it.
During the day we explored caves on foot, hiked up an island peak, and kayaked in between, underneath, and even inside some of the islands: Our guide told us to paddle into a low, dark cave. We entered, dodged between stalactites, and continued into the blackness. As the light from the entrance faded, I nearly knocked my head a few times on the steadily dropping ceiling, now barely above my head. The Brits turned back, convinced it was a dead end. Then we noticed what seemed like light ahead of us. I was overcome with laughter as we went towards the light and emerged inside the island, to a lake half a kilometre wide, completely encircled by a crown-like limestone island.
This trip has been unusually smooth: None of the cons, arrests, bribes, getting lost, or falling violently ill, that usually enrich my trip. So I was excited when on our return trip to terra firma, in choppy sea, our engine broke down. Although I’d love you to
Just sit right back and hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from a tropic port,
Aboard a tiny ship….
Another boat just towed us back.
P.S. When I had enough light to take photos. Or click the thumbnail at the top.
P.P.S. No more propositions of marriage. These northerners aren’t nearly as friendly! Though one drunk guy tried to kiss me, before I fought him off, and he jumped on his motorcycle with three friends. They made it ten metres before crashing to the pavement in a ball of sparks.