I’ve promised to try and get the next post out as quickly as possible and I think I actually didn’t do too bad 🙂 (I’ve had even less time for a spell check than usually, don’t eat me alive for it.)
I’ve gone through a few rather eventful weeks during the journey up until now. Let me start from Hoi An, where I stopped last time…
As I mentioned, we have had some nice and relaxed time in Hoi An. This is where our little group really became complete, with Jaap being its latest addition, making us an even six.
We’ve decided to continue together to Hue. The road from Hoi An to Hue contains the famous Hai Van pass, a mountain pass known for its many curves, twists and also spectacular views. It’s a place where a lot of travelers, even those who don’t dare to traverse the whole country on a motorbike, decide to hire one and go for it. And that’s what we did. With five of us driving and Rachel sitting on the back of Jaap’s bike, we set out for our 120km drive.
Along the way, there were some minor casualties, including Harriet’s ripped pants, my broken sunglasses (turns out I can’t multitask when driving a bike) and Sean’s flat tire. But we’ve had a really great time 🙂 I certainly found my love for driving a bike in Asia and I’m going to miss it back home.
Hue to Phon Nha
We did not really plan to stay in Hue for too long. We spent one day here, during which we visited an abandoned water park (slightly creepy) and walked around the town a little. In the evening, we took a short bus to Phong Nha, known for the numerous caves in the area. When we arrived to our hostel in the evening, we were kindly told that our reservation was for the next day, not today. Matt got a slap in the face for that one 😛
All of us were quite tired and our hostel was too secluded to go look for something else, so my first reaction was asking whether we could just sleep on the floor. We were standing in a pretty large hallway at that moment. Luckily, the hostel staff didn’t mind, they even provided us with some bamboo mats (which didn’t really help, but it’s the idea that counts) and we got a free night out of it. Silver lining 🙂
The first of goodbyes
Unfortunately, Phong Nha is where some of our paths split up. Matt and Sean had a little bit more time in Vietnam than the rest of the group and they decided to go for a two day tour in one of the biggest caves in the world. We knew this moment was about to come, but it happened a bit unexpectedly. We all felt sad to say goodbye, we’ve been such a good group until then. There were a few tears… Luckily, we still managed to meet up later in Hanoi! 🙂
For the next day, the remaining four of us (Rachel, Jaap, Harriet & me) have signed up for a day of trekking & adventure caving. We ended up in a rather large group with a lot of fun people. The trek itself was enjoyable but also quite tiring and very, very sweaty. The humidity did not help at all.
The first cave was basically all water, and so we had to swim into it, with only torchlights on our heads. At some point we all turned them off and just floated for a little while in complete darkness, it was quite amazing to find out how quickly one gets disoriented in there. After this “refreshing swim” (as always, I was the one that was really cold, I came out with blue fingernails…) we continued to trek to the second cave, where we got our lunch.
The lunch consisted of some really good self-made fresh spring rolls. I’m a huge fan of those, they’re much better than the deep fried ones. After stuffing ourselves, we continued to the second cave. I’m generally not extremely excited about caves, but adventure caving is something I’d seriously recommend to everyone. There was no path for us to walk on, the cave did not have a hundred installed lights. It felt really untouched and we had to climb over piles of rocks and get ourselves through water with just a small torchlight on our head. I really enjoyed it very much.
The only downside was my hippie pants did not make it. I ripped them halfway through and I could hear it getting worse and worse with every bigger step I took. I was quite glad underneath I wore my bikini 🙂 When we got out of the cave, there was basically a tear from one of my knees all the way to the other one and so I ended up wearing Jaap’s spare pair of shorts over the pants. It’s a shame I didn’t think to take any proper picture, it really looked quite hilarious, even the tour guides laughed.
After the second cave, we trekked back to our van and got a nice cold beer on the side of the road. It was hands down the best beer I ever tasted.
The next morning, we went for a swim in the river in front of our hostel. Later on, we rented some bikes again and drove around Phong Nha a little. Originally, we planned to visit another nearby cave, but the bike me and Rachel drove broke down quite early on and by the time we got someone to come over and give us a different one, it was way too late to try and go to a cave. We ended up just driving through the beautiful countryside instead.
After Phong Nha we headed to Hanoi. Our intention was to stay one night and then take a night bus to the rice fields of Sapa, do a three day trek there, come back and head on to recover on a relaxing overnight boat trip in the beautiful Halong Bay. We booked the tours and all was set.
We had a very laid back day, in which we honestly didn’t do much apart from drinking a lot of coffee, eating pho (amazing Vietnamese noodle soup) and talking to some local university students, who were trying to improve their English. It was the perfect day before starting our trek. However, we heard news of heavy rains in Sapa and roads being closed… After getting to our booking agency, we were told that the bus we intended to take cannot get to Sapa. We could possibly take a train (which was significantly more expensive) and then hope for the best… which did not sound too appealing. We tried to switch our Halong Bay and Sapa tours, but it turned the Halong Bay tours were already full.
Generally, all of this would not have been such a problem, we would just wait one more day and re-book the tours differently. Except we couldn’t do that. Harriet’s visa was expiring very soon and we had to go right now if we all wanted to do it together. And we had about an hour to make a decision before it would be too late for the train… We split into two groups and somewhat frantically tried to find an alternative solution of combining the three day trek and a two day boat trip for a reasonable price. After half an hour, we met up in the original booking agency. Both groups have managed to find an acceptable option, and on top of that the booking agency told us they found us a different tour to Halong Bay, which would solve all our trouble. And although it cost us some stressful moments, things worked out quite alright in the end.
With our new plan, we got to Halong Bay. We were a little scared we were going to a completely crazy teenage booze cruise (because that’s how the brochure at the booking agency looked), but we figured we’ll make it work with the four of us. It turned out to not be like that at all. Everyone there was very relaxed, there was even one lady with two kids.
Halong Bay is full of marvelous limestone formations rising from the waters. Although it’s quite a touristy destination, I think we got quite lucky with our tour and we managed to avoid the busiest parts.
On the first day, we kayaked around the beautiful rock formations. Rachel and me most definitely won the price for being the worst team in the history of kayaking, we were so out of sync it wasn’t even funny. Well, at least not for us. After dinner, we spent the evening drinking a few bees and having a highly intellectual conversation, which in no way included some very inappropriate topics 😛
The following day, we got to see a cave in the area (after Phong Nha, we were naturally somewhat unimpressed), sailed back and headed to Hanoi again. There we had a few hours to grab some food and then went off to Sapa, by yet another night bus.
Trekking in Sapa
Sapa has been a destination I’ve been looking forward to the most in the whole Vietnam. I was very excited about three days of trekking here!
We were part of a rather big group of about 15 people. We had our guide and a few local women and children with us too. The trek started off on a concrete road, but very quickly got onto a rather steep hill. The remains of the recent rains did not dry up yet and we ended up walking on some very muddy and slippery terrain. It was quite hilarious though, almost all of us slipped at some point and the locals were very dramatic about it, which of course became a running joke.
My favorite part was when Jaap slipped and his knee landed in cow shit 😀 (Sorry, Jaap <3 ) We also decided the person who falls the most has to buy everyone beer, and two days in a row it ended up being Jaap 😛 In all fairness though, his shoes were rather terrible, he actually did an impressive job. And while the rest of us struggled in proper shoes, the locals walked around us in flip flops like it’s nothing out of the ordinary. They even tried to help us, the key word being “tried”, because it’s not like anyone is going to lean on a child or an elderly woman. Despite their best intentions, they made it even more difficult for the few people that were too polite to say no thank you.
The terrain got a little better later on though and the trek became quite easy, apart from the hot burning sun, which greatly contributed to general exhaustion. I drank about 5-6 liters of water per day in there.
The scenery in Sapa was simply magnificent. We were surrounded by rice fields and hills from all sides. It was green as far as the eye could see. We also passed a waterfall, lots of tiny villages and water buffaloes.
During both nights we stayed in a homestay and had very tasty local food for dinner. Both evenings we swam in a nearby river to cool off. And we even found a pretty good waffle place owned by a Dutch guy in the middle of a tiny village we were staying in 😀 It was naturally full of tourists, but it’s not like you can say no to waffles after trekking 🙂
Despite some minor annoyances, such as the persistent children trying to sell us some bracelets (“Two for five, five for ten!”) and some measly lunches (our whole group seemed to be eating about twice as much as everyone else around us), the trek was a big success and we all enjoyed it very much. I felt a little sad when we had to take a bus back to Hanoi, I would have definitely stayed longer have I had the time for it.
In Hanoi, we were fortunate enough to meet up with Matt and Sean again. We were all happy about that, but at the same time it was sad, because we knew we are only meeting for a day and we also had to say goodbye to Harriet in a few hours. I’m happy to know the six of us surely made the best out of the time we had together though. I had a blast! 🙂
The remaining few of us, Rachel, Jaap and me, headed for our last stop, Ninh Binh. We’ve heard people referring to it as “Halong Bay on land” and I have to admit rightfully so. We spent two fun days here. On the first we took a tour on a tiny little boat and enjoyed the beautiful landscape and sailing through tiny little caves, until we got caught in the worst rain. We couldn’t even be mad about that, it was quite funny. The second day, we rented bikes and drove around the countryside, visiting places such as Tam Coc and Bich Dong pagoda (I promise I’m not making these names up, look them up!)
And then there were none
We have had our last “one more” beer and the next day, all three of us went our separate ways. It was very strange for me to say the last goodbye to everyone, but mostly to Rachel. We’ve been together for such a long time by then… Made a hell of a team too 🙂
I was almost a little nervous about how I’m going to get back into the solo traveling, but it turned out to be kind of like riding a bicycle. The moment I was on my plane to HCMC, I was already deep in thoughts about how to get to my next destination and what do I still need to do before entering Cambodia. I’ve taken a bus from HCMC to Phnom Penh and stayed there for 2 days.
The grim history of Khmer Rouge
My visit of Phnom Penh was a little lazy, but also very intense. I did not feel like cramming as much as possible into my two days and instead I decided to take my time with visiting the two most noteworthy sites in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, better known as the S-21 genocide museum and killing fields. I was really glad I did, because neither one of them is a place to simply rush through.
I want to say so much about both of them, yet I feel like nothing I can say does justice to really seeing it. I can’t believe the horrors that Cambodia went through so recently, only 40 years ago. They resulted in one fourth of the population dying by being worked to death, starvation or torture and heartless murder by the Khmer Rouge.
Tuol Sleng, the former prison and torture center, now turned to a museum, was very, very educational. The still visible blood stains on the floors and graphic pictures of the victims, the walls of photographs of people who were tortured here, were all very soul crushing.
Going to the killing fields afterwards and seeing the places of mass graves where bones and clothes still to this day wash up onto the surface, where so many have been “smashed” (in Angkar terms) felt pretty surreal. The giant stupa full of skulls, which has been raised in remembrance of the victims, seemed like something out of a movie rather than cruel reality.
I’d encourage anyone to read up about this a little. It’s very shocking, but I can’t believe that genocide of this magnitude is not even mentioned in any of our history classes. One would think that it’s significant enough to make it into at least one lesson.
I know I’m ending this post on quite a sad note, but that’s where I just finished and I my feelings about it are still pretty fresh. I’m currently in a bus to Siem Reap. As far as I know, I’m not planning to go visit any genocide centers in there, so next time I promise to not get you all depressed again.
Thanks for reading! Take care everyone.