Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Waking up at five am and four bus rides and one boat ride later, we finally arrived on Cat Ba island. The second we stepped out of the bus, we got bombarded by men offering hotel rooms with crazy cheap rates. We ended up following a guy who had photos of the rooms as well, and after having checked out our hotel room we agreed on 9 dollars a night for a three person room with an amazing view. Quite a bargain I must say! After a quick lunch we decided to rent scooters for the rest of the day, to cruise around Cat Ba island. Never having driven a scooter before, I was quite hesitant at first. Stevie and Thea convinced me to rent one myself rather than sitting on the back of one of theirs, and I am so glad I did! No one crashed, everyone lived, and it was an amazing experience driving around on the empty roads of the island. We really got to see its beauty, we found an amazing lake with a small pier which we walked over - terrified of a plank breaking - but the view was just gorgeous.

There were two things we absolutely wanted to do in Ha Long Bay. The first was going on a boat trip to see the limestone karsts and isles, and secondly, go kayaking. When we woke up Saturday morning it was raining cats and dogs, however with our positive minds we were still very determined to go out to sea. On our own small private boat with driver we headed out to sail through the bay, still in the pouring rain. Freezing and getting soaked by the rain, hiding under a blanket, shivering and dreading to leave the blanket to go kayaking... But us being the optimists that we are, got into our bikinis, took a seat in the kayak and started paddling around. Our luck really did follow us from Sa Pa to Ha Long Bay, first having the perfect weather in Sa Pa and then the weather gods were kind enough to let us kayak with a little sunshine. The view was just amazing, kayaking around the karsts and finding a tiny hidden bay, mesmerizing. 
We stayed the night in a bungalow in a small village called Viet Hai, on the other side of the island. With nothing much to do or see on this part of the island, and being exhausted from a long and tiring day we thought it might be best to call it a day and hit the hay.

On our last day we went for a morning hike through a jungle/forest, filled with spiders and crabs (and I think we were trespassing at some points). We then took a boat back to Cat Ba Town, however the non-English speaking boat driver dropped us of at Ben Beo harbour. No one at the harbour spoke a word of English, but one of the xe-om drivers assumed we needed to go to Cat Ba town. We agreed on 20.000 dong per bike. Squashed with three on a motorbike we made our way to Cat Ba town, where the driver then charged us 20.000 dong per person. Always so trustworthy, those xe-om drivers(!).With two hours left on Cat Ba island we decided to check out the supposedly beautiful white sandy beaches: Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3. We stumbled across Cat Co 1, which was a trashed tiny beach and we gave up after that one. 
After a quick lunch at a restaurant where we bumped into another volunteer from the house in Hanoi, we got onto our first bus of many, to get back to Hanoi after an amazing weekend out. 

View from our hotel room - 10th floor

Stevie and Thea

Private boat


Floating fishing village

Our hotel for the second night!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Leaving the house at half past seven in the morning to catch the bus to Ninh Binh. After about a 2.5 hour drive we got out of the bus to explore our first part of the tour. I usually don't go with guided tours, but in Vietnam it is a little easier to go with a guide. We visited two temples, which were both beautiful, but a bit disappointing. There were so many tourists there, what prevented me from really enjoying the serenity and peaceful feeling - the way a temple should be. We got back into the bus and headed to the lake. A small boat which was rowed by a woman, using her feet only, took us through caves and stunning mountains. Ninh Binh is often referred to as "Ha Long bay on land". The view was absolutely breathtaking, but we could hardy see the river as it was packed with boats with tourists. Okay, I might be good at exaggerating, but it was definitely a shame. Oh what a hypocrite I am. Hating tourists when I am one myself. But follow my advice and don't go on a Sunday! The place was gorgeous, just too touristic. Half way through we stopped for a few minutes, and other boats were awaiting us, wanting to sell us stuff. Also the lady who was rowing our boat asked if we wanted to buy something of her.

The last part of our tour was the bike tour. On old mountain bikes, which felt like they could fall apart any second, we cycled on small bumpy roads with water on both sides of the tiny road, being scared to death to fall. Luckily everything went smoothly and I survived :). We cycled through rice terraces with mountains in the background and it was the most stunning view. However I wasn't able to take a lot of photos, as I was too focused on controlling my bike. After handing our modern bikes back to the rental shop, it was time to head back to Hanoi.

New ride

That smartphone in his hand though...

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Arrived in Hanoi on Wednesday 24th of September - my home for the past six weeks - and Friday night already hopped on a night train to Sa Pa. Ten hours in a bumpy train, waking up at every single station, surrounded by 5 strangers snoring next to me. Sounds horrific, but I loved it. I just lay there on my hard bed (shelf would be more accurate), listening to my favorite song on repeat and smiling at the ceiling. We arrived at Lao Cai train station, took a bus to Sa Pa, had a lovely breakfast and started our five hour hike.

Surrounded by the most beautiful mountains covered with rice terraces and guided by a group of locals dressed in traditional clothing, we started our trek. The whole week the weather forecast had said it would rain and thunder, but the weather gods had been kind and the weather was perfect. No hiking in the burning sun nor was it raining, thank god! We made many stops along the way: our guide explaining things about the region, for example how their clothes are made from marijuana, our guide explaining something I still don't fully understand (something about her not being able to walk together with the group as we pass some kind of border where we had to buy a ticket... (was this guided tour legal?)) and us stopping to take photos, being typical tourists. The paths we walked on weren't always the easiest paths. The little girls who accompanied us walked them, barefoot, without a problem. But we clumsy westerners had our struggles. Every time we encountered a small obstacle, the girl would take my hand and make sure I didn't fall. She certainly did save me from falling a couple of times...! The unfortunate thing is though, that at the end of the tour, they force you to buy bracelets and other souvenirs from them. And you feel bad if you don't, as the girl had helped you so much. After having bought a bag and a couple of bracelets, they still did not give up. Sitting at our lunch table in the restaurant, we were still surrounded by the young girls chanting their song which they rehearsed as they don't actually speak English (something along the lines of "will you buy something from me please, very cheap, please buy").

We stayed the night in a homestay in a hill tribe village. It wasn't exactly a typical homestay though, as there were only tourists who stayed there. The beds, however, were typical Vietnamese beds: a hard mattress and an itchy blanket. Oh, and there was a mosquito net. However the greedy and drunk-on-'happy water' Frenchman sleeping next to me didn't feel like sharing.

The next day we hiked another three hours to a waterfall. Hiking up and down hills and through tiny jungles with muddy pathways - again being saved by the young girls, a thousand times. Exhausted and in need of a shower, we got back to Sa Pa where we still had some free time to explore the local market, stunning streets and caf├ęs, before catching our train back to Hanoi.

Ethnic village

Marijuana plant

Suddenly the little girls handed these magnificent creations to us. I had not even noticed them making it, they made it that fast. Skilled little girls!

Julie, Saskia, Thea, Flick, me