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The Adventurer’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 04 Mar 2007

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

MapIt's been awhile for an update, but all is going pretty well for the most part. There isn't much to report about Kunming, except that I just basically chilled out for my time there and took in the atmosphere of the city. Nice place, and the people are really friendly and laid back. Ran into a girl who I met on my first day in Beijing--it turns out we ended up staying in the same hostel, and in the same dorm room--total coincidence! Also met up with a Dutch fellow, so we kind of hung out together.

Some lasting impressions of China--it's a good place to travel, so diverse, such cultural differences within China as you move from east to west to south, and you get a mix of all kinds of scenery from polluted cities to plateau to desert to mountains to tropical, and I heard there are some nice beaches in the south eastern parts. I loved the people in the west and southwest the most. This is where you can really get to know the people, if you give it a chance. I find it amazing at how fast everything is developing in the midst of pollution and poverty, and it's easy to see the distinction between rich and poor here. I am finding that prices are on the increase as tourism is on the rise, so if you're planning a visit to China, do it now before the Olympics!!

My final day in Kunming was very relaxing--I felt re-energized for Vietnam. I had heard stories about the dreaded sleeper buses, so adventurous me had to try it at least once before leaving China. Allow me to explain. My trip started with me getting ripped off--I won't get into the details as it was a moment of weakness for me and gets my blood curdling just thinking about it. It wasn't much money but it was the principle of the thing. Anyway, one thing I've learned about buses is that you never leave on time and you never arrive on time at your destination. This proved true as we left an hour and a half later than planned--9:00pm rather than 7:30. The bus itself is big but there are three columns of sleeper beds--one to the left, one in the middle and one to the right. I was squashed into the one on the side (at least I had a window sleeper!). You know, sometimes you just want to stretch out your legs when you're laying down--not possible here. It would be legs curled all the way with barely an inch between you and the bar to one side and the window to the other. We were supposed to arrive at Hekou, just before the Viatnamese border by 7 am. Our bus ended up having some mechanical issues as we would drive for about 2 minutes and then stall for about 5, sometimes 10 minutes. This began to happen halfway through, and was continuous all the way to Hekou. We arrived at 1:30 pm. The dreaded sleeper bus certainly lives up to its reputation. However, I was in no rush, so it wasn't so bad--and if the bananas on the trees had been ripe enough I would have went and picked a whole stack of them fresh!

I had met 2 Danish guys, a Portugese guy and his Chinese girlfriend as I was getting on the bus who were also heading to Vietnam. I was planning on going straight to Hanoi, but these folks were going to Sapa, so I thought, what the hey? I'll check it out. We crossed the border without any issues. The weather was very pleasant and I was glad to be entering the tropics, officially. We crossed the border and into the town of Lao Cai we went, exchanging some money at the bank for some Vietnamese dong. $1 US is 16,000 dong. I keep forgetting that I'm using US dollars when I convert, so I've been spending a little more than I expected--oh well. Then we hiked over a bridge, our eyes wandering at the scenery along the way, to the bus station. We managed to catch a bus going up to Sapa. It was a beautiful drive going high up into the mountains shrouded in green flora and fauna, with little fields that looked like steps going down the mountain (you'll see the pics)--I don't know the name of this kind of thing, I'm sure there is one...

We arrived in the town of Sapa, and had quite the welcoming party. The Danes and I decided to split the cost of a room. Hordes of hotel employees came up to us, followed us around, stating their hotel prices, competing with each other over who would be the lucky choice. This was actually not at all annoying, and I had quite a kick out of it. We sat down at a restaraunt (hadn't eaten in 24 hours) and slowly ate our food while some hotel employees waited outside for us to finish. We got bombarded once we were outside and the auction was on--I have 100,000 dong room available! I have 80,000--3 beds, 75,000, 60,000, 50,000. They did their best to win us over and I'm having a great kick out of this. Everyone had their prices to between 50,000 and 75,000, and kept shouting them out, and then this guy comes along and says I have one for 200,000! We're just quadrupled the price, why the heck would we pick you? We chose a place called the Cat Cat hotel, but when we arrived, the other employee working there said no way, not 50,000. So the negotiations began again. We ended up paying 100,000, which was still a steal because we had the best view in Sapa, with 3 cozy beds, a clean bathroom with plenty of hot water, and a fireplace, oh, and an extra special guest made his debut--hello Mr. cockroach, ugly looking thing. He spent the night under an aluminum can.

The view from the hotel was amazing, majestic, mystical with the sun going down and the clouds and fog forming over the mountaintops. We had the highest mountain in Vietnam right in front of us--Fanxipan. If anyone ever goes here--DO this hike! I didn't have the chance and I so regret it. I stayed 2 nights and we spent our days wandering the streets, with a short hike down through a minority village. Met up with an English chap who joined us in our galavanting. Absolutely breathtaking place! Of course, you were always getting approached by the minority women, dressed in their traditional clothing with all kinds of hand-made crafts. At night, we had our first offer of mary-wauna, opium, hash, and everything else under the sun by little old women (???). We politely declined.

I do have to say though that the main town of Sapa itself is a tourist trap, and there are lots of retired, older people here, mostly Europeans--lots of British. We stopped at an authentic British pub and we felt like backpacker peasants inside. Nonetheless, it's an awesome place to go and a must see for anyone who goes to Vietnam.

I parted ways with the Danes and the English guy for Hanoi yesterday and arrived today. It was a smooth trip as I took a bus back to Lao Cai, and then hopped on the train. Took a hard sleeper--not as nice as China's, but still ok. I slept until 4 am and they woke us up telling us we'd be in Hanoi soon, and we arrived at 4:30 am. So here I was in Hanoi when it's dark, no idea what part of the city I'm in. An Australian couple helped me out though and we all jumped on a motorbike and drove to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This is where all the hotels are. Of course, everything was closed, so I found a very small cafe that was open and had coffee there until the hotels began to open. It was only about a 2 hour wait.

I tried a few hotels, attempting to bargain with them all, and they didn't seem to be in much of a bargaining mood--the walk away method didn't even work. I was tired and my bag was getting heavy, so I finally settled for one for 160,000 dong and went to sleep for a bit--not a bad hotel, but musty and a bit old. I didn't care, just wanted to sleep. I woke up and immediately went to check things out. Did some shopping and bought myself some beach gear (I've lost weight and my shorts are almost ready to fall off!-not that I'm complaining). What a great city! Again, very touristy, even for low season, and lots of Europeans, but I just loved the vibe here. You have to just go with the flow of everything or you're not going to have a good time, and that's exactly what I did. The crowds didn't at all bother me, the weather was perfect, the food was good, the people friendly, the sound of "moto-mot!" from the motorcylce taxis every 2 minutes really eager to take you to your destination.

And I have levelled up in the world of Frogger, you know, the video game where the frog tries to cross the road in between all the traffic. I'd say I'd reached the highest level. Here's the deal. You have hundreds of motorcylces mixed with the odd car, bus, truck, or taxi coming at you at a constant, and fast, pace. The only way to cross the street is basically walk right into it all! You literally have to allow them to swerve around you, and if you try to dodge them, you're in trouble. After I retrieved my heart off the ground after it leapt out, I felt amazed at how this actually works!

Famous Vietnamese foods and beer: Pho noodle, and Hanoi or Halida beer. Tasty, very tasty.