Vietnam1 - not a love at first sight

 After a chaotic bus ride which started at 12 in Siem Reap and ends about 16 sleepless hours later in Saigon Vietnam and I have a somewhat messed-up start. At the border crossing on the Vietnamese side we all have to leave the bus with all our luggage (additional to the normal baggage we have our motorcycle jackets and helmets to carry) and now stand absolutely worn out, tired and sweaty at passport control in a seemingly endless queue. Once the passports are stamped and we are being compared with our pictures we have to send each piece of luggage including helmets and jackets through an x-ray machine - I just hope that I will not have to unpack my backpack at customs as all the electronic equipment like the computer and all the cables are in it . But I'm lucky, it seems that they are used to electronics in the luggage here. The journey continues and curiously I look at the landscape as it goes on. At first glance  I note that people at least appear to be better off in this country. The houses are mostly stone built and even painted at least on the narrow front side which can be seen from the road . The biggest surprise is that for the first time in a very long time we could read the writing here as normal roman lettering is being used – if we were able to understand the language.

The bus stops in the center of Saigon and we get off and are immediately ambushed by taxi drivers who offer their services to all of us and take one that advertises that it has a taxi meter After just a few minutes drive, I start wondering however because it seems to run quite fast. Our goal is the main station where we want to catch the train to Hanoi – preferably even today. There seems to be rush hour traffic and the city is completely clogged with mopeds and scooters scurrying in all directions. When we arrive at the train station the taxi meter is at about 500,000 Dong  which is over 25 USD.  This does seem extremely overpriced after just having paid $ 20 per person for 16 hours on the bus and we find it strange that the taxi driver disappears rather quickly after we have paid him the whole affair smells suspiciously like rip-off - but what can we do about it now ?

We are not standing here long with our luggage when a young man homes in on us who begs in a relatively intrusive way - he says he's hungry, so I dig in my pocket for something to eat - but that he does not want it - only dollars! Well it’s not his lucky day. After  the experience with the taxi driver, about 30 hours of sleep deprivation and the confusion resulting of the whole situation that prevails here he has extremely bad cards and eventually we just leave him without a word.. Kevin remains with the luggage while Johan and I are trying to organize tickets for the train at 7pm, which is not really easy because we have some understanding and language difficulties here. After we have been passed around to different ticket counters  we finally end up with a young lady who is able to print tickets for 3 people, to convert Dong into dollars and then even gives us a reduction of 20 percent for Kevin's ticket because he is 60 – it’s just a shame that the next train is fully booked and we now have to take the 6 clock train in the morning. This means however, that we need to find a room for the night as close as possible to the station, so we can get there fast in the morning with our pile of luggage for the early train. This time we are lucky, we find a hotel directly opposite that costs 240000 Dong per room and it is big enough for all 3 of us . I want to pay it here and now so we won’t have to do it in the morning  thus avoiding the problem of losing valuable time then but they don’t want to take dollars and now we have to throw ourselves in the horrible hustle and bustle to find an ATM or currency exchange. For the first time in my life I think that I have an idea of how an autistic person must feel. I am completely overwhelmed - at every corner somebody wants to sell something to us and crossing the street feels like a deadly mission. There is a lot of honking everywhere and humming and buzzing and after a short time I feel like my skull is about to burst. We dodge obsticles and squeeze through the crowd until we finally find an ATM and are now armed with 2 million Dong find something to eat, a beer and then finally can enjoy the heavenly tranquility of our room. I pay for the hotel with a 500,000 Dong note and get back 200000 . After pointing out that this is too little I immediately get the rest, but I'm still pissed - why must they do that? I am so sick of having to always check and be on my toes and besides, I am currently sleep deprived and feel like a bear with a toothache . The next morning Kev is shaking me awake at 4 o’clock because he has the feeling that he must have not heard the three alarm clocks that we have set - well thank you for that!
At least we are more than on time at the station and find our compartment quite quickly - there are 4 beds per compartment and it seems as if we have it to ourselves at first. We make ourselves comfortable and watch the landscape flying by the window. Periodically, someone comes along with a cart full of food and beverages and you can also order meals at reasonable prices. Every time the train stops a flood of sellers comes who want to talk us into buying something and after I pay one of them with a wrong note and never get my change I 'm almost through with this country. People seem much more reserved than we are accustomed to from Cambodia and when they smile, they either try to trick you or to sell you something (you can tell  that me and Vietnam are not seeing eye to eye at this point?! ) The journey, however, is very pleasant. Whatever one may think of Vietnamese, they are a very industrious and cleanly people. Already before dawn we see them working on the numerous fields and any suitable piece of ground is used for growing something (once we see even a garden between two rail tracks) . Even in the congested Saigon the obvious lack of garbage has already surprised me – and it’s no different here.

The further north we get the fuller the train becomes and our free bed is eventually occupied. Once I come back from the toilet to find two Vietnamese women sitting on my bunk - I squeeze on with them as they try to explain to me that they have a ticket and they want me to climb up on the vacant bunk but I'm not willing to negotiate here - I have had to pay more for the privilege of sleeping down and did this for a good reason so I show them my ticket and point determinative on my bed  which then makes them leave the compartment and swap places with a young man who then takes the free upper bunk. The journey takes 33 hours and I use it to catch up on sleep, and also to finally work on the blog, so I 'm a little more rested and also in a better mood when we arrive in Hanoi after this long haul.

When we leave the train we are attacked again by a swarm of taxi drivers , but this time we are forewarned. Johan has identified using his navigation system to find a hotel nearby and we don’t fall for the game with the taxi meter again. Instead we haggle for a set price let them take  us to the desired address while Johan checks the taken route on his GPS. When we arrive I pay with a 50000 Dong bill and the taxi guy has already a 10000 bill in his hand which he quickly switches with the money I gave him. He now tries to convince me that I have not given him enough money. After a lengthy discussion where I persist on being sure about what I gave him he finally has to understand that we will not be cheated and eventually he drives off - but we are now somewhat stranded -there has obviously once been a hotel but that no longer exists  so I stick with the pile of luggage while the men go off to find a hotel and after a while they are successful. The room is quite expensive and we want to leave it asap so we start early the next morning and set out to find Mr. Viet who deals in used motorcycles. Using Johans Navi and a taxi we find him and after a few test drives Kevin and me are proud owners of an ancient original Indonesian Honda Win forgery which we baptize as Minna. Mr. Viet supplies us with a rack and a map of Vietnam as well as 2 luggage elastics. At this place we also meet Tessa and Alex -  two young backpackers who are also at Mr. Viet’s looking for a Honda Win to travel around Vietnam and apart from Johan we all find what we want here. Johan has set his heart on a Honda Wave  but the ones that are here are all too expensive. In the modern era of smartphones this is not a problem and so he finds another motorcycle dealer with whom he arranges to meet in front of our hotel. Kev and I follow taxi back to the hotel on our Minna. Unfortunately  we do not get very far - we have already run out of petrol. Super and that in the traffic here . Now Johan has to take the taxi to the petrol station while we try to get us and the bike off the road while the traffic washes around us piping wildly. We fear already that Johan might miss his appointment  but everything ends well – without causing more chaos in Hanoi we make it back to the hotel and at the end of the day Johan has also his dream of a Honda Wave ( also original Chinese fake ) fulfilled. Now we jump into Vietnamese nightlife to celebrate with Tessa and Alex, who are stopping in a hostel not so far from us  the beginning of our Vietnam adventure. Unlike Saigon this city sleeps after 12 o’clock at night ( the midnight curfew seems be really complied with by all ) but before it there is raging traffic and I always die a thousand deaths if I have to cross a road . The trick is to just start moving and not to stop under any circumstances - then the tide of scooters just seems to flow around you but my legs just do not want to move . Again and again the others have to wait for me on the opposite side of the street because I am nailed to the side of the road  and dare not move. After a few beers that is somewhat better and when we go back to our hotel slightly tipsy I 'm almost disappointed that hardly anyone is on the road anymore. Before us the pavements are being washed everywhere and the city goes to sleep.

Tomorrow we want to get out of town. It's Christmas Eve and we want to spend Christmas at sea. Although the Catholic Church has a strong presence in this country and can be seen churches everywhere there is not much Christmas spirit to be felt (if you don’t count the gangnam style Asian version of jingle bells we get “treated” to by the local TV).
The next morning we are not quite as fit and it takes a while until we get going We have not taken too much luggage so the bikes are packed quickly, but Johan has no place for his navigation system so I have to hold it and try from the back seat to read the thing and find the right way through the bustle and maneuver us out of town. I must admit in all honesty that I have no idea and feel slightly overwhelmed - we are swimming in the stream of Vietnamese Bikes (or better - we are washed with it ) and the bloody Garmin keeps constantly going out and I'm frantically trying to get back to the last screen to try and find out where we need to go. Suddenly the thing is completely switched off  - I must have pressed something again. We stop in front of a hardware shop and Johan buys some cable ties and double sided tape – he manages to fit the Garmin to his bike again and now he can go ahead and lead us. I certainly have more time to look at the traffic now and get just a little panicky - I cannot even describe how happy I am when we are finally on the highway that leads out of the city and the traffic thins a bit. Until the ferry to Cat ba it is only 85 Km but it drags because the small mopeds are not particularly fast. The roads are good however - almost like in Thailand - and so Kev and Johan keep swerving right and left past everything in local fashion and we make good time. Suddenly Johan stops - he's already the first puncture - how good that this happened right in front of a workshop! Within 10 minutes the tire is off the rim, the hole found and patched , re-mounted and inflated - wow!
Kevin has hurt his back on the road and can hardly move so we decide to make the best of a bad situation and to spend Christmas quietly. We are on vacation from Adventures in Cat Ba - quite a small town on an island with the same name, which is the largest island in Halong Bay. It consist to 90% of hotels with and without a fish restaurant From Halong Bay don’t see anything apart from our harbor here but we can feel it - any place with World Heritage status , where we were so far everything is rather expensive. We had hoped to treat ourselves to some beautiful fresh fish for Christmas but as a dinner costs $ 10 and more ( for Asia this is very expensive)  our backpackers hostel with $ 5 per night is much cheaper than a meal. Fortunately it is not yet high season therefore everything is still quite empty and quiet - I suppose when the bear rocks at high season this becomes quite packed . It is, however, also very cold - ok we have now been traveling for 3 months in 30 to 35 degrees but especially at night we freeze all sorts of bits off here. It is around 9 degrees, there is no heating and the windows are not tight and then we also have only a very thin summer quilt - luckily we have 2 beds in the room and I have taken the cover of the free bed on top of our own and if it gets really bad I put the motorcycle jacket on top of that. Is it typical - in Mongolia we had the coldest and wettest summer in decades and here the coldest winter in a long time .
So we curl up in our room, feast on treats that we bought in a small shop opposite us and watch movies on an English movie channel. Tomb Raider is on and we enjoy naming all the different temples we have recently visited that are featured in this movie and dream of the warm temperatures we had there From time to time we stroll along the promenade , enjoy a delicious Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk and treat ourselves to a few back massages in the hope that Kevin will soon be able to move again
On  Boxing day we get to make our Christmas phone calls with the family. While normal Skype works but not with the slow internet here we can use it for landline calls - it costs one euro an hour - for once a bargain. We enjoy really long chats with everyone and I have to admit that  – even though I don’t want to miss even a minute of our adventure - I sorely miss home, family and friends .
Johan is having the next problems with his scooter - the fork seals are leaking and all the oil have splurted out - after 2 attempts in a workshop they seem to have fixed it . Motorcycle repair shops are on every corner here and funnily enough, the first Vietnamese word that we learn is Xe May ( motorcycle workshop )
For our last day in the year 2013, we have made some special plans - we are investing $ 20 per person for a full day boat trip through Halong Bay.
In the morning we meet up with Tessa and Alex, who we met in Hanoi at the motorcycle shop and now met again for a cup of Vietnamese, strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk (normally I hate sweet coffee - I'll probably come back from this trip a completely changed person) and then the boat sets off. On the boat, everywhere is already full, we had been told it was a 15 man group – I think I have to be squinting - and since no seat is free, we climb to the upper deck and squat on the floor. Although it appears to be sunny everything is still covered in dense morning mist . Hopefully it does not stay like this all day eventually we would indeed like to see a little bit from the World Heritage Site Halong Bay. Fortunately, the weather has relented and the mist thins out during the morning and so we get the best views of the thousands of rocks and small islands that rise from the ocean here . Too bad that so much rubbish is floating around in the sea and also in some places so much oil and diesel that you can smell it Well -  nothing is perfect in life.
Everywhere you see small Vietnamese rowing boats on their way – people are fishing and there are also numerous fish farms dotted about in the many bays - there's a lot to take pictures of and everyone on the boat is in wonder and very quiet.
At noon we land on a small island and climb through a cave system. I 'm afraid that I do not get through some of the narrow passages but I can proudly say that I can keep up with all the slender young people! We explore the small island with a crystal clear pond in the middle and caves - I loved this type of exploring as a child and still do . Back on the boat we have lunch : various Vietnamese fish dishes with a kind of fish that none of us knows and squid - very tasty. In addition, the best spring rolls I ever had.
The majority of the group is eating at the table under deck, but there is not room for everyone so we have to eat al fresco on the floor of the upper deck with a group of Spanish women and I dare say that we enjoy it a lot more than the sardines below. If you have a shared a meal sitting cross-legged on the floor you can’t avoid  getting friendly and so we get on  just fine with the ladies from Spain, Tessa from Holland and Alex from Puerto Rico (or was it Costa Rica? Can never distinguish the two)
Next stop is at one of the houseboats where we can all climb into kayaks to explore some caves and coves that have been shaped by the sea and I surprise myself - I get in without problems and don’t fall once - Kev and I are a good team, it’s all huge fun, although we get soaking wet paddling and we surprise ourselves with our skil. After this little venture we cruise quite a while along the many bays until we anchor again so we can go swimming here - but for most of us (certainly for me) it’s too cold to jump into the water from the boat - but Kevin risks sudden cardiac death and joins in (afterwards he will surely be complaining about his back again) . After the wet pleasure without the snorkeling which I would personally have liked to try, we cruise back. Tessa has a bottle of vodka which is going round and we have a few cans of beer in the backpack and so we enjoy a little tipple on the return trip and arrive back for sunset - what a beautiful last day for 2013.
Once in the harbor everyone wants to warm up and shower in the hotel, but we agree to meet later with the international group to celebrate the end of the year together.
We arrange to all meet at the promenade and go eat something and then have a few drinks in one of the bars that is however  crowded and noisy . Shortly before 12, we are then invited by the Spanish to begin the New Year in their special way: normally you have to eat a bunch of grapes to the 12 strokes of midnight stuffing one grape into your mouth to every strike of the bell (which is a pretty hectic affair )  but we have no grapes - only bananas . So we go to the hotel by one of the Spaniards together snip 6 bananas in pieces until we have enough for 8 people and then the Spaniards search a recording of  the12 bells on their smartphones to which we then cram the banana pieces into our mouths. Although we are a quarter of an hour late , but the Spanish think this does not matter – they say that the Spanish are always a little late anyway (I personally would never have said that ) – but it does  not really matter - at home it’s not yet midnight either!
Everyone then wants to go back to the bar , but Kevin and me now start to notice our age - we are pretty exhausted with aching bones, we are slightly tipsy and don’t really fancy the noisy throng again . So we say goodbye here and happy and satisfied we fall into bed.
The second January is our last day on Cat Ba . We still want have a look around the island a bit and also find the ferry to Halong. In the morning at breakfast we meet the nice Spanish couple who we have already met in the bus from Siem Reap to Saigon. They also want to leave here tomorrow morning so we arrange to meet for dinner. We then grab our little mopeds and do a lap around the island. First we drive to the ferry terminal which somehow looks quite dry overall. Normally 3 ferries go from here to Halong per day but we learn that at this time of the year the noon ferry does not go - because of the low tide. So we are left with either the ferry at 9 clock in the morning or the 4 pm one. However, since we do not want to stay in Halong which we would have to do if we take 4 o’clock ferry  we choose to take the early one – meaning that tomorrow morning we have to shape ourselves and get out of bed . There are not too many roads and so we circumnavigate the island pretty quickly and head back to town . Just as we arrive Alex pushes his bike around the corner - we learn that he has problems with his chain which permanently jumps off the sprocket and that he and Tessa therefore will not leave here until morning either. We send Alex to the workshop  in which Johan was already with his bike and invite him and Tessa for dinner as well .
We all meet up in the bar which is right next to our Guesthouse and then hoof it to one of the cheaper restaurants. To order is as always a mission and almost everyone gets something else to what he believes to have asked for. We find out that Alex and Tessa leave tomorrow in the same direction  so we decide that we might just as well ride together. After a restless night (I have always slept badly , if I knew that I must not oversleep) we torture ourselves by 7 out of bed, grab the last little things and lash everything on the bikes. We have even enough time for a cup of coffee on the way and then we meet the two Spaniards as they climb into their bus to Hanoi so we can say our good byes. The ferry arrives a little late and I have trouble to buy tickets for 3 people and 2 bikes - I end up with five tickets  while the others have only one ticket for themselves and the bike - along with Johan I bring 2 tickets back and get them refunded without hesitation – which shows only that they are well used to the stupid tourists here .
The trip takes an hour and we get the pleasure of seeing the beautiful bay with its thousands of rocks and small islets, all bathed in morning mist again. Too bad that the many different shades of gray do not come out so nice in the pictures. Once on the other side, we need a few attempts before we got our bearings in the right direction. Tessa finds the traffic a bit scary and I do already regret after 20 km, that I have not bought my own bike in Hanoi , I have hardly any space , the seat is completely knackered and so I slide back and forth every few minutes  because  already my backside hurts - it feels as if I have a cramp in the bum. That is going to be fun , after all I still have to hold out a minimum of 3000 km on this thing !
After about 45 km the first pee break is needed and I am as happy as a lark to get off the hard seat and give my tortured backside a rest. We go on and after a few minutes Alex stops because something is not right with his motorcycle - we decide we might as well as soon as possible stop at a repair shop and gas station for lunch and on the top of the next hill it looks like there is something like a truck stop - with a heavenly scented restaurant next door. It turns out that there is neither a gas station nor a workshop, but we are hungry and since Johan has now run out of petrol one of the locals jumps on his scooter and fetches him petrol while we try to order something to eat. This is the usual ordeal and so we suggest in the end simply to have the same thing as the people at the next table  but we are just not able to figure out what it will cost – oh well !?
On the next table a group of Vietnamese seems to be celebrating something - they come across permanently and are quite merry. On the next table sits a young European who then also comes over to us - he 's been on the road with his bike for 27 months and has cycled all the way from London - he has my respect . Robb (which is the name of the young man is happy as a child finally to be able to speak English again and we entertain each other with travel stories. He wants to travel in the opposite direction to us, but overall, also wants to end up in  Australia so we exchange e- mail addresses - you never know , maybe our paths will cross again.
After the admittedly delicious but also pricey dinner, which does not fit in anyone’s budget we want to drive off but now we have to drink with the Vietnamese. Everyone gets a glass of liquor pressed into his hand and after that we have to have a photo session with Robb and his bicycle and as soon as we are back on the road Alex’s rear wheel starts to block . With some difficulty we make it to the next workshop where the wheel bearings are replaced within minutes. The repair including the two new bearings costs 5 dollars. We are quickly surrounded by children and local people and although we do not understand a word they say everyone is having fun. Kevin with his beard is good for general amusement - here it is rare to see someone with a beard and so this is quite a sensation.
In general, the people here in the north of the country and away from the tourist areas are much more friendly and helpful than we have experienced so far. Here we are greeted friendly everywhere and everyone who speaks to us welcomes us and wishes us a good time in their country.
After the repair we manage just 10 km when Alex's motorcycle plays up again. Johan and Tessa are gone, we keep with Alex. The rear wheel wobbles mightily, the chain has come off and the brake drum smokes. Alex is devastated and now plays with the idea to go back to Hanoi and return the bike. I stay with him and help push while Kevin tries to find the two others.
After a while all come back to us with a Belgian couple in tow with a proper motorcycle
The two are already 2 ½ years on the road and entered with their vehicle over Laos - no problems! I could bite myself - I miss our Liza like crazy and Vietnam can be as beautiful as it wants - I cannot wait until we are back in Cambodia and again have our own motorcycle. While Alex pushes on to the next place ( it's all downhill from here) we have a chat with the Belgians who also want to go to Cat Ba and are on the way towards Australia - maybe we'll meet them again  too .
In the next village we find Alex again - he waits in a workshop for someone to have a look at his bike. It seems as if there are 3 bearings in his wheel - the third bearing drops out in bits  as they take the wheel out - after further repair - this time for $ 3 all in all for a new bearing  and axle the problem now seems finally resolved.
We have now taken so much time that we decide to look for us in the next bigger town for a place to stay and continue the journey on the next morning refreshed and rearing to go.
Today we have managed a whole 128 km - what the heck - we're finally on an adventure - not on a holiday.