After a long day's travel from Laos, my arrival in Hué was rather dismal. Feeling tired from the toil from a full day of traveling, I arrived in an unfamiliar place late at night but still have not found a place to stay. I was very hungry. The only food I had for the entire day was the small breakfast of Laos pork bun in the morning. Moreover I did not have any local currency in my pocket. A cyclo driver has picked me up. Helplessly, I let him circle the streets to find me an hotel. I was not very pleased with the gloomy guesthouse I ended up in.
Just as you can fall into despair easily, you can also pull yourself out fast. I found a post office that was still open at night. I managed to change money from there and finally have cash to pay my driver. Then I found a better hotel myself on a more cheerful street and have switched there. There were many food stalls on the street where I had a chow. After a good night's rest, the next morning I asked the hotel host to teach me some basic Vietnamese. My spirit has all came back. I rented a bicycle next door and was ready to explore.
Hué was the imperial capital of Vietnam for a century and half until the World War II. Therefore it is endowed with many historical sights. The center piece is the citadel of the Forbidden Purple City. Unfortunately most buildings in the Forbidden Purple City were already destroyed in wars. I have paid US$5 entrance fee and found there were little more than souvenir shops inside. I should have just taken a picture in front of its front gate, which is perhaps the best preserved structure anyway.
There are a number of emperor's tombs outside of Hué, each costs $5 entrance fee. I have since gotten smarter. I have visited only the Tomb of Thieu Tri, which was admission free but not much different from other tombs. It turned out to be a dull and crumbling site.
Cycling in Hué was fun. I went out on the first day despite the rain. The second day was even better with wonderful weather. Riding a bike means conversations can start in unexpected place. Several times I have some locals spontaneously came to ride alongside, enthusiastically practicing their basic English with me. I was lost on my way to the Tomb of Thieu Tri. Despite the language barrier, people tried their best to give me directions. At the end they even pedaled with me for 20 minutes to bring me there. Having your own bicycle also greatly reduces the endless hassles from cyclo and motorbike drivers. They were all over the streets yelling at tourists and trying everything to get them on board. (Some still tried me no matter what).
I have enjoyed the Vietnamese food very much. They were cheap and tasty. One of my favorite is the Vietnamese French sandwich. I bought one intended to be saved as next day's breakfast before I have boarded an overnight train. But a warm sandwich in my hand was just too tempting. I ate half of my breakfast right away even before I got on board.
The train from Hué to Hanoi took 16 hours. As a foreigner I was charged a premium price on train tickets. This amount to 3 to 4 times the price of a comparable trip in Thailand. I booked the more affordable 'soft seat' ticket. It turned out 'soft' does not stand for upholstered as I expected. The seat was actually a plastic mesh mounted on wooden frame. It was an uncomfortable 16 hours. My neck was hurt afterward.
Hanoi's tourist center is in the old quarter of the city by the Hoan Kiem lake. The busy streets are always jammed with people, cyclos and motorbikes. I arrived by cyclo to my hotel. It was a narrow old townhouse. The dormitory was a long room with 5 beds and a bathroom with a small balcony overlooking the street. A dormitory bed costs only $3 a day. The business was so new that it was not even listed in my guidebook. Nevertheless people found their way here. Right at my arrival, I ran into the British guy whom we walked from Laos to Vietnam together. I have also found Matsumi, the Japanese girl whom I first met in Nong Khai in Thailand. We would later traveled to Sapa together.
Unlike the tree lined boulevard where the president's palace and foreign embassies are located, the old town where I was staying is bustling and chaotic. Hawkers and peddlers were everywhere, especially targeting tourists. Cyclos drivers rode by and called at you to get on their cyclos. Crossing the street with a continuous stream of traffic was made more precarious by these unpredictable cyclos. Peace was hard to come by on the street on Hanoi.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. The late leader Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum can be found in the northwest of the city. Outside are the National Assembly Hall and a square. The layout is reminiscence of China's Tiananmen Square but in a smaller scale. Somehow the sights of Vietnam always evoke China to me. The Forbidden Purple City and the tombs all feel familiar. The uncomfortable train and the two tier ticket pricing were what I have experienced in China. When I saw people brushing their teeth in front of their house on the street in the morning, it reminded me of the same scenery when I visited Guangzhou while I was very young. I felt like going back in a time machine and found a vision of China 10, 20 year ago.
The Ho Chi Minh's museum was a delightful surprise. At the first glance it shows uninteresting historical pictures of the communist party, a collection of outdated house ware like electric fans, hot water bottles and copper wire cables boasted as 'technology' achievement. Just as I am about to dismiss the museum as an outdated institution, I was unprepared to find the avant-garde art on the upper floors. There were modern sculptures, artistic photographies and molten glasses sculptures next to the narration of the struggle and glory of Ho Chi Minh. It was Uncle Ho with a modern art treatment. Voilà, Ho Chi Minh museum!
Halong Bay is in the east of Hanoi. It is a natural wonder with over 3000 small limestone islands of different size and shape scattering in the sea. I find it one of the most magnificent sights of Vietnam.
I have joined a 3 days tour to Halong Bay. Here in Hanoi, many tourist cafés are often doubled as tour companies. There offered various tours at very attractive price. My trip included bus transportations to and from the coast, 3 days and 2 nights on the boat with all meals and park admission, all for only US$38. We had 2 young tour guides on the trip. They were studying English degree in colleges and were working with the tour company part time.
There were many other boats departing from the harbor at the same time. Fortunately Halong Bay is so big that we have soon spread out and hardly see others again. We have reached an island and anchored nearby. The water was clear and slightly warm. We wasted no time and dived and swam in the beautiful bay. Indeed people loved the sea so much that whenever the boat anchored somewhere, people started to bomb dived into water from the top deck right away.
At night, we anchored by a bay. Great food was served on board. Despite the cabins with beds are available, most people preferred to sleep on the top deck for the fresh air and the starry sky. It got so crowded that I can only find space in the middle deck and slept with other Vietnamese crews. In the midnight a rain spoiled the fun. They all have to rush back.
On the second day, we sailed to the Catba Island National Park. There we split up into two groups as planned. The larger group went directly to the beach. A smaller group with meself and a few others went hiking in the park. Our guide tried very hard to persuade us that the park is not worth going and that we should all go to the beach. We ignored his advice and found it very scenic and very interesting.
After Catba Island, we also explored a cave and climbed a hill on another small island. They are not so interesting compare to what we have seen before. One time there were two boats stopping on the same island. We had 40 people in all packed on a tiny hill top.
The trip was full of Francophone couples and unfortunately we did not get to mingle too much. I met 2 British guys though. They were quite impressed in the $3 bargain hotel I have stayed in Hanoi. So I bought two new customers back to the hotel after the trip.
Sapa is a charming hill town near the China border. Situated on a mountain range, it has the view of the highest peak in Vietnam. Below are some beautiful valleys where many Hmong minorities live and farm. The few days in Sapa has left me one of the fondest memories.
Matsumi, the Japanese girl I first met in Thailand, and I make this trip together. We took an overnight train to the border and continued from there by bus. The train was practically crawling in the first few kilometers out of Hanoi. Even old women on bicycles have passed us! The soft seat coach was just as uncomfortable as the one from Hué, except this time it took only 10 hours.
We arrived in Sapa in a cold and rainy day. After all these time in tropical countries, this was my first taste of cold weather. Since there was not much to do, a couple of us in the hotel spent the day drinking local wine and playing cards. Fortunately the bad weather only lasted one day. Otherwise, we have joked we would have intoxicated by cheap wine.
The weather was perfect the rest of the days. We went trekking almost daily, first with Matsumi and a friend and later by myself. We went down to the valleys to see a waterfall and the wooden suspension bridges. The golden rice fields looked so beautiful under sunshine. The other days I went for much longer treks by myself. I went to some villages, climbed over a mountain and visited a distant waterfall. There wasn't any map to guide me. Instead I used mostly my instinct and sometimes a high vantage point to find my path.
Saturday and Sunday is the market day in Sapa. Many Hmong minorities from around came into town to trade. Most of them were either young girls or old women. They were rather gentle and shy. Tourists also flocked into town and were charmed by the ethnic cloths and handicrafts for sale.
On Monday the town became much quieter. The minorities have left. The tourists have left. Even Matsumi has left. Nevertheless I have decided to stay in this peaceful town. Eventually I have extended the trip to six days. Still I have found company. I ran into a Japanese friend again. He love Sapa even more and has booked 10 days straight. We have shared an excellent home cooked dinner at his cozy guesthouse.
Also in the dinner with us was a British girl. She was traveling in the opposite direction of mine, coming from China into Vietnam. I have traded my Southeast Asia guidebook for her China guidebook. Since Vietnam was the last Southeast Asia country in my trip, it makes sense to trade it for something that was going to be more useful for me. But we both felt lost because the books meant something to us. Mine has been a faithful guide with me for two months. Hers has accompanied her across China and Tibet. Nevertheless, I hoped it will be useful for her trip. (China turned out to be one of the best part of my trip, in a large part thanks to her guidebook.)
* * *
Perhaps because it was my last days in Vietnam, I was getting sentimental. I have a thought came into mind. Isn't traveling means a series of farewell? You visited a place for a short time. Then you keep saying goodbye to people, to places, and even to objects (like my guidebook) the entire time. All that remain are perhaps some memories.
Next morning the bus departed from Sapa at 6:00am. It descended slowly down the mountains into the border town of Lao Cai. Since it was still early in the morning and the train for Kunming did not depart until the afternoon, I lingered in the Vietnam side. I have my last chance to savor my favorite Vietnamese French sandwich and beef noodles. When it was about time, I walked across the bridge and I was in China.