Ha Long Bay, Mai Chau and Hanoi

1/6/2011

We woke up after a restful sleep (much better sleeping in a hotel than in a boat!) and headed off to the jetty shortly after, to get the boat back to Ha Long City. Getting up was a massive challenge!! My calves were sooooo tight after yesterdays hike! I felt like an old nanna hobbling around.

The boat ride was again very peaceful, the haze was a bit thinner and we also travelled through an area of the bay that had a greater density of islands, so the scenery was a bit more colour-rich.

At one point in our journey we stopped at the biggest floating village in Ha Long. Here mum and I, and four others, rented a little row boat complete with a woman to row for us. She took us on a little tour of the area, and rowed through tunnels into other small bays (I don’t know if bay is the right word… The tunnel was the only way in/out and once in here it was vaguely circular with water at the bottom and sheer cliffs around). It was amazing!!

After our brief excursion we had lunch aboard the boat as it made its way into Ha Long City. At Ha Long city we caught a bus back to Hanoi. The 3 hour bus trip was terrible, it was a bit bigger than a normal minivan, no air conditioning, and we were crammed in 4 per row, and about 6 rows, plus luggage piled up on the front seats. I now know what sardine in a hot tin feels like!

Once we were finally checked into our hostel in hanoi,it was time for some exploring! So for a few hours we wandered around the streets checked out the local shops. I bought a cute dress for $35..pretty sure I paid too much for it, but that’s ok. We also sat down at a local food stall on the side of the street and had some food and a few beers. A big meal to feed 2 people came to a grand total of $5!!

Mum found wandering the streets terrifying at times. Most of the time scooters are parked on the footpath so you have to walk on the road, and the traffic is pretty crazy: bicycles, scooters and cars swerving like mad people down the road! Walking down the street is a challenge in itself, but crossing the road is even harder!! without any pedestrian crossings and no traffic lights for the cars it is a free-for-all. You just have to eye off your destination, walk at a steady pace and hope for the best!

2/6/2011

After brekky our guide for the Mai Chau tour, Hung, picked us up & we headed off down the highway. Excitingly for us, the tour consisted of the two of our,our guide, Hung and our driver. The distance to Mau Chau is 155km, with an expected travel time of 4 hours!!! When you hit a max speed of 65km/h down the highway, no wonder it takes so bloody long!

Once we were out of Hanoi (which in itself takes forever), the drive was through gorgeous countryside. Along the way Hung was more than happy to explain things we came across. For example in the middle of the field it is quite common to see a grave with a big headstone. In Vietnam, they believe in reincarnation, when someone dies they are buried in a wooden coffin on the family land. After three years (when just a skeleton remains) they are dug up, dressed in new clothes and put in a new concrete or steel coffin and buried again. The idea is that you are given new clothes and a new house for your new life.

Getting closer to Mai Chau the landscape was very mountainous, planted into the hillsides were tiers of green tea plants and the valleys were full of rice paddies. In the middle of some rice paddies in a valley lay a village of stilted houses, this was a village called Lac (1) in Mai Chau. We ‘checked in’ (dumped our bags in a room) and had some lunch. It was ridiculously hot, so we had a quick wander round the village before returning to our stilt house to sit in the shade by the fan.

In our short wander we checked out some more of the houses around the village. Virtually each house has a little shop of handmade goods in the ‘downstairs’. At one particular house we were looking at some silk tapestries, and had a look at the tapestry that was partially complete on a loom, it was gold silk. The lady that was making these particular tapestries showed us out the back of her place, that she had a dozen or so trays full of silk worms munching on mulberry leaves. When she is short on leaves she carries a big wicker basket on her head and collects more mulberry leaves from the trees in the mountains. Mum and I were surprised at just how much these villagers do for themselves. Obviously they try to make extra income by selling their products to tourists, but I think they are so self-sufficient that the tourists disappearing would not negatively impact them at all.

Once the day had cooled down a little we headed off on a bike ride around some of the neighbouring villages. We started by riding through the rice paddies belonging to the local farmers (on the little path of course). While it looks like one big rice field, each small plot is separated by a small raised section of land. Beyond the rice paddies we past crops of corn, peanuts and squash. We followed the path up and over a bridge, where we paused to watch the water buffalo cool down in the river, and continued on to the next village, Lac (2).

This village didn’t have any crops as they were separate from the houses and we had already passed them. The village itself was quite dry and dusty and was just full of houses. Here we popped in to visit a friend of Hung, her name was Xiaun (I think). She invited us in for some Vietnamese green tree and was most delighted to have us visit her home, she was also thrilled to show off the photos and postcards she had stuck all over the walls, that she had received from previous visitors. For a living she was a farmer, but also made tapestries, and we ended up buying a few scarf/shawl type things in a range of gorgeous colours. I think they are made of silk, but a coarser grade than we usually identify with silk (it depends on how it is spun as to how coarse or fine it is).

After our visit with Xiaun, we cycled to another village, Van. This one was a little higher in the hills and had a completely different feel to it. The houses were built on a slope, each house had its own crop/fish pond and animals at their house, not separate like in Lac. It was a lot more moist here, and with more trees, it had a real rainforest feel about it. Both villages were gorgeous, but completely different.

After all his cycling we were dripping with sweat, exhausted and hungry, so we headed back for dinner. Also staying at the same house was a big school group, and we were invited by them to go along to ‘dancing and party’. A little hesitant about this idea, going along turned out to be the right choice!

It was the first day of the lunar month, and this is cause for small celebration in the Lac village. Many people from Lac (1) and Lac (2) walked in the dark to a field adjacent to Lac (2). Here a big bonfire was lit, and the local White Thai (the White Thai are the minority group that live in Mai Chau) sang traditional songs and did some traditional dancing. Apart from the very rude and very noisy kids, it was a fantastic experience! To conclude the evening, everyone was invited to drink from a communal jar of traditional rice wine. It was very sweet, and didn’t have the burning sensation of the ‘fire water’ in China.

3/6/2011

With the village lights on all night and loud silly kids in the next room, we got very little sleep. From 5am I didn’t have any hope of sleeping any more. So at around 6am I got up and wandered through the village. It was so relaxing to dawdle around while the farmers were already out working in their fields, and any tourists were still in bed. Also the villagers were still setting up for the day, so weren’t hassling me about buying things.

By about 7:30 we had had breakfast and were packed up and ready to go. We popped in to Van village for another quick look around, before starting the massively long drive to the province of Ninh Binh.

With all the rough back roads, huge potholes and herds of cows I think that we had an average speed of 40km/h. We arrived at the old capital city of Vietnam, Hoa Lu, after about 4.5 hours of driving. Here Hung explained about the first king of Vietnam, and the his successors. It was pretty interesting, but with all the driving and the heat I didn’t really absorb much information. The temples there were very pretty, but there was not a whole lot left as it was not looked after for a long period of time, and the only bit theres now have undergone heavy duty restoration.

By his time we were very hungry so we were provided lunch at a local restaurant. In the Ninh Binh province goat is a speciality..so guess what one of the dishes was that we had for lunch??? You got it, Goat! As everyone knows I am not the biggest meat lover, but I did my part and ate goat. I tasted fine, the way it was marinated and cooked just tasted like chicken. So I ate it and my taste-buds told my head that it was ok, but I can tell you I was having serious mental issues coping with the concept.

The last our item was to be taken for a boat ride down a river between the rice paddies in an area full of limestone mountains. It is kind of like Ha Long Bay with sheer mountains popping up in the middle of nowhere, but rather than being in the sea, it is on land. So we spent a very peaceful 1.5hours being rowed along a river, through caves surrounded by rice green rice paddies and amazing limestone cliffs.

By now the Mai Chau tour module was complete, so we hopped back in the car or the remaining 3hour drive back to Hanoi. After 7.5 hours driving in one day we were pretty over it!

We were also both VERY excited to have a shower!! The ones in the village weren’t all that flash. On the topic of showers..so far they always seem to be cold, or you have to hold the shower head with one hand and wash yourself with the other. I am looking forward to using a shower where the shower head stays attached to the wall, and where I have the option of warm water. Lucky the weather is so hot that a cold shower isn’t too big a problem!

Just another quick comment before I forget, in Mau Chau we saw a girl with VERY long hair. Some girls grow their hair very very long, then when they cut it they sell it. This then gets used for things like hair extensions. Just another creative way to make an income- obviously with the time it takes to grow hair, you certainly can’t rely on it as a steady income!

4/6/2011

Today was a more chilled day, we planned to see a few sights but mostly just wander the streets.

We started by heading off to Hoan Kiem Lake. Its a big lake in the centre of Hanoi. At the top end of the lake we firstly bought tickets for the evening water puppet show, then headed across a beautiful red bridge to a little island to visit the Ngoc Son temple. The little island had many different trees, ranging from big to bonsai. The temple itself was nice, but nothing amazing, the scenery just outside the temple was the highlight.

We headed back over the bridge and proceeded to walk around the lake. Aside from the sweltering heat of a 38 degree day, it was a rather relaxing stroll. We saw an old Vietnamese man with his white hair in a bun on his head and wispy white beard, playing some traditional sounding music on a wooden flute type instrument. It was such a classic shot! Further around the lake we bought some sugar cane juice, you buy it in a plastic bag with a straw sticking out the top, and then we again paused for another musician, this was a slightly less old Vietnamese man playing the violin. After strolling for a while we stopped at a cafe for a breather. We sat in the shade overlooking the lake, mum sipping Papaya Juice and me tucking into a strawberry sundae.

After our little break we headed off again, we wandered some of the main shopping streets and checked out a market, we did make a few purchases along the way. By about 1pm we were pretty knackered and hungry so we stopped at a food stall in some random back street to eat Banh Tom with the locals. This was some kind of deep fried fritter, made of taro and whole small prawns, it was served with some kind of spicy soup that you dip the fritters into. I was fairly weirded out by eating who prawns, heads, legs, shells etc, but they tasted pretty good.

With some food in our bellies we headed off to check out Quan Chuong Gate and Bach Ma temple. They were both very beautiful. There was no information about the gate, but I am guessing it used to be the entrance to the city.

By 2pm we headed back to the hostel for a cold drink and a nap, so we would be fresh for another wander in the evening.

After catching up on some blog writing and a cool down we headed back outdoors. We went straight to the Thanh Long Water Puppet Theatre to see the show we bookd earlier in the day. Inside the theatre was a nicely set up stage, to the left was a band and at the front was a temple type structure, and in front of that a pond (about waist deep if you are standing in it). The band played fantastic traditional music, and the puppets played out the story of the old city being moved from Hou Lu to Hanoi, and the story of the king who saw a golden dragon rising up from Hanoi and this was the good omen to  move the capital to this location. The show wasn’t spectacular, but it was very interesting and I have certainly never seen anything like it.

After the show we stopped at some random food stall for dinner, and it was pretty gross (but for $2 it didn’t matter that we didn’t like it). After that I was a bit sick of all the random food, so we went to restaurant that had a menu in english as well as Vietnamese. Here we ordered a delicious banquet for two: Pho Bo (traditional beef noodle soup), ‘Ha Long Bay’ crab spring rolls and chicken with cashews and pineapple. Yummo!!!

After lettng the food settle we headed to the night market. It was so crazy busy that after 2 blocks we spat it and headed back. We stopped at a few nice shops on the walk back to the hostel and got some silk sleeping bag liners for a bargan of $4 each!!!

To get a feel for the traffic, I filmed us crossing the road..this is the back street in the old quarter where our hostel is. In the film you can see the hjostel across the road is our detination.
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