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GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!

Hanoi and Bac Ha

semi-overcast 16 °C

Day 2 - Hannoi (Vietnam) to Bac Ha

If you have ever been to Thailand and think that's bad then you’re in for a shock in Hanoi in Vietnam. It seems everyone and I mean pretty much EVERYONE is corrupt or trying to scam money out of you in one way or another. I mean it's something you have to accept if you come here and either pay the price or haggle for pennies and let it really get to you. So we spent the day shopping around for the cheapest way to replace a few items. To make today's blog a bit different I'm gonna just show you everything that our hard earned money went on today, so here goes. (oh and for those of you are wondering why we had to buy a new camera yesterday when the other one seemed ok at the airport, it’s resurrection was short lived and eventually it stopped working completely!)

Hotel room in 'The World Hotel' for last night - $13
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1x Fake Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam - $4
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1x New scarf for Jayne - $5
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Dinner of Hanoi spring rolls, Chicken in a clay pot curry and Chicken with cashew nute - $8
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Beers from an old lady in a cupboard - $2
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New North Face Gortex Jacket for Me - $40
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New North Face Gortex Jacket for Jayne - $35
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New Fleece for Jayne - $15
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Bread roll with egg in from street hawker - $1
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4x Apples for trip $2
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Water for train Trip - $0.33
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Taxi to Train Station
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4 berth Soft Sleeper train to Bac Ha from Hanoi $75! (see next part of Blog to explain price!)
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Jayne - I know Chris said just pictures but I have to elaborate on our evening train journey....
A trip into the Northern mountains in Vietnam had been on our list since the start of our adventures so while in Hanoi, we did some research and it became clear the only safe route (the bus ride was dangerous in the day time but suicidal at night) was the 9 hour overnight train from Hanoi to Lac (sp). The sleeper trains have various carriages available at many different prices, but we were told that the only option left was the 4 berth luxury sleeper at a relatively pricey sum of $35 (US) each. Suspicious that this was a scam to get us into more pricey seats but keen to get on our way we booked our tickets and jumped into a taxi to the train station. We were told to head to gate 1 - ensuring we didn't give our tickets to anyone until we got there. This sounded easy enough, but it wasn't. After 20 mins being ushered backwards and forwards between gate 1 which was deserted and gates 4 &5 which everyone seemed to be hanging around, we eventually realised that everyone else had little printed tickets in their hands and we only had a written receipt. As we ran back outside again, we saw a lady behind a tour booth frantically waving tickets at us and sure enough she handed 2 tickets over to us. Great - all we had to do was find our luxury cabin and we were on our way!! Or so we thought. We did successfully get past the angry security woman on gate 4, only to nearly loose the tickets to an old man who made a grab for them shortly after. Then we scaled the entire length of the wrong train looking for carriage 13 and only finding the right train with the correct carriage about 5 mins before it was due to depart. Phew, what a relief! Although it wasn't the correct carriage at all - we had been scamed and given the wrong bloody tickets at the station. We did have a soft sleeper, although it was filthy, no air con, the door didn't shut properly, there was no food carriage and it looked nothing like the pictures. The local man (who is actually a tourist guide) we shared with was disgusted with it and also told us the trains are very dangerous, we must keep the door locked at all times, not to let anyone in and keep our valuables tucked away. Hoooo Huuum Chris looked like he was going to cry and then decided he was going to stay awake all night and keep watch through the big gaps at the side of the door.
Maybe it was because I went to sleep with my Muay Thai shorts on (I really didn't want them to get stolen as I love them, and also I thought it might make me look forboding) but we didn't get gassed, or robbed - hoorah.
(Chris – The carriage was bloody awful and I didn’t trust the guy who claimed to be a local guide who led on his bed in all his clothes as if he was ready to bolt at any minute, so I had to stay awake. The journey was terrible with lots of strange noises and even stranger smells wafting down the corridors. I needed a pee at one point but was too scared to go as it meant leaving the door unlocked with Jayne and all our belongings unprotected so hung on until morning. It truly was the most horrendous 8 hours and I am SO not looking forward to repeating the same journey back in a few days. )

Getting to Bac Ha

The train squeaked to a halt at 6am and we were immediately accosted by men with mobile phones wanting us to get in their minibus/taxi - we hadn't even finished packing our bags and they were in the carriage with us! This continued through the train, across the platform and through the car park. We must have had around 20 guys trying to usher us into their vehicles! We were swatting them away but like angry mosquitoes they kept coming back! Wouldn't have minded if there had been a sensible offer but they all wanted 400,000 Dong to take us and we knew it should be around 50,000 Dong for the local bus. However, no matter who we asked nobody would tell us where the bus station was. I mean absolutely nobody, not even the local food stall women. It was as if they were scared that they would get in a lot of trouble with the scammers if they were seen to be helping us. During all of this, we had bumped into a Londoner who was quite hairy (read - rough) and looked like he had spent the best part of the last 40 years travelling. He was also trying to find the bus station but was getting increasingly angry with the swarm of locals and his every other sentence was "F*** OFF YOU LYING BUNCH OF NORTH VIETNAMESE BASTARDS". He was a card, so we decided we might hang around him to see if his tactics paid off. We eventually had some luck when a local guide saw our plight and told us to go into the back of a cafe and sit down and wait. 5 minutes later he wondered in and like some kind of spy in a film, sat with his back to us and whispered that the bus station was only 300m down the road! He also told us we weren't really allowed to know this as we were tourists and supposed to be paying way over the odds. He also said if he was seen to be helping he would be in a lot of trouble. With our new found resolve to 'beat the system' we headed off in the direction he had given us. Apart from a couple of guys at the bus station entrance who tried again to get us in their mini bus (this was greeted by a loud OHHH YOU'RE REALLY F***ING FUNNY -now F*** OFF by our new friend), we did actually successfully get on a local bus - much to the surprise of the driver, and everyone at the station and on the bus (I don’t think they ever see locals get that far!).
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They still made us pay 60,000 Dong though when the price on the board said 50,000!

It was a fab journey with the locals, through beautiful mountains and stopping at local houses to pick up and drop of various parcels of eggs, flowers, food, steel bars (!!??) etc along the way. We also came across our first big landslide, luckily they had cleared a path with diggers so the driver managed to bump us across the mud and rocks millimetres from a cliff edge!
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By the end of it, there was a woman and her small child sat on our rucksacks piled at the front of the bus and another car sick local girl throwing up out of the window - it was hilarious, we loved it!! We also saw our first Flower Hmong women who dress in the most amazing bright colours
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We knew we had arrived at the town when the bus stopped and practically everyone got out and headed into a market area covered by tents. Jumping off the bus we said goodbye to our very vocal friend and wondered into a few hotels looking for a good deal. We chose the Sunday Hotel in the end as the room was big, tidy and at £6 a night, quite a bargain. Dropping off the big bags we showered and headed into the market. It was crazy fun with lots of flower Hmong in their bright dresses scurrying around everywhere chewing on raw sugar cane with babies attached to their backs by more brightly coloured cloth.
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We were starving but the food looked like entrail soup served with pigs tails so decided against that, especially when we saw some of the ingredients!
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There was also a live animal section of the market where locals could buy new dogs, chickens and even water buffalo.
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It was all good crazy fun and not too hassley either so that made a pleasant change. We were also brave enough to buy some bananas and a doughy cake item which was actually very tasty before leaving the market and heading to a restaurant to eat.
At the restaurant the manager asked if we wanted to book any treks while we were here and as that is pretty much the main reason we came, we sat and listened to his spiel. It seemed like a good deal but intent on not paying over the odds we looked around town for other places offering treks and settled on a very friendly lady a bit further out of town. We went for a 2 day hike option with a home stay where we would be staying with a local family in a hmong village followed by a 1 day motorbike tour of some other villages. The total price all in was $66 each which seemed like an absolute bargain. Happy with our choice we headed back to our hotel to grab some much needed zzzz’s before the busy trekking days ahead. The hotel room whilst spaceious had unfortunately no heating and this led to a very cold and damp night. Even a toilet roll left on the side was absolutely soaked by morning with the damp and we had to sleep in almost everything we owned to keep warm!

HIKING IN BAC HA – DAY 1

We woke up feeling a bit sorry for ourselves but excited to see what the next few days would hold so we checked out of our hotel and grabbed some pastry's at the local bakery before heading of to meet our guide. We were lucky enough to have 2 guides, a local Flower Hmong girl called Mo wearing her beautiful bright coloured traditional clothes and local lad called Tao. We were also being joined by a french couple called Rommy and Elody.
We walked through the town and soon turned down a dirt track and joined the locals and their donkeys/buffalos/pigs/chickens for the long trek through the local villages and deep into the mountains.
Tao spoke good English and imparted his local knowledge of the workers and wildlife on us as we walked further and further from the main town. The views became amazing with paddy fields a plenty
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and rows of woman working in their pointy conical hats, some with babies on their backs (the toddlers are deposited on a blanket at the edge of the field where everyone can keep an eye on them). They certainly are working mums!!
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The track became a muddy narrow path which climbed higher and higher with the views of rice fields and distant mountains becoming more and more stunning. This was the real Vietnam – what we came here for. It was pretty hot aswell by then and we stopped several times to take more layers off. We begain to pass the local Flower Hmong women working in their fields, most where hacking away at the old grass to clear their fields ready to plant new rice or corn crops. The men where leading their buffalo up and down the fields rotivating the soil.
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After 3 hours, Mo pointed down the valley to her house, where we would be having lunch. Twenty minutes later, a very angry dog and a very friendly husband greeted us. Her house is a typical village house - very basic and made of wood slats and with a bare, rough concrete floor.
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It consisted of one very large room containing beds in 2 in the corners and a small seating area next to a collection of colourful photos and a tiny b&w TV. They share the house with her husbands parents (the flower Hmong women always go to live with the husband in his family house). A red cloth hung above the front door means the children from the house are all married.
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The guides fixed us a lovely (if not very traditional) picnic of rolls, ham, egg, biscuits and not forgetting the corn wine.
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This was our first taste of the dreaded stuff, which actually wasn't all that horrendous (if sweetcorn flavoured vodka is your thing). The locals all brew it by the gallon as it's very cheap to produce - a young child offered to fill up my 2.5 litre water bottle with the stuff for about 15p at the market the previous day (we had declined the offer thinking there was a high chance of waking up blind the next day!)
After lunch, we set of again first passing the rest of the people from Mo's village all working in the fields then through more tiny villages and saw local schools and amazing views
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until eventually crossing a little rickety bridge took us to the home stay. The Tay people lead a similar life to the Flower Hmong except they no longer wear their traditional outfits. The house was similar to Mo's except they also have sleeping quarters upstairs (the Hmong only sleep downstairs). The family consisted of mum and dad, one of their daughters and grandma - a 4 foot, wisened 90 year old woman who was more bendy and sprightly than any of us!
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The format of the visit was the same as we were immediatley sat down and offered tea (a sort of mild, pleasant, green tea served from a teapot into tiny porcelin cups).
They cooked a fantastic meal as we watched and then laid it all out on a table, it was soo much food including 4 month old smoked pork.
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The Thai people have special Tet celebrations once a year and luckily it was that day. They all took us after some corn wine to the local town meeting place where we danced to much amusement of the locals to drums and Moroccan sounding flutes.
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This lasted 2 hours then back to the house. I shared some toys with the kids and some 18 yr old whiskey with the man of the house. He didn’t believe it was 18 yrs old and brought out some wine that is made with actual bees in it and roots from trees, as grandmother shook her head in the background and told us not to drink too much. We got absolutely wasted until early hours with the guide and the man of the house until grandmother showed us where to sleep, gestured and grunted that everyone have a separate bed, no sleeping together here then. The place was very comfy and warm though, in fact better than our hotel the night before! The only annoying thing was their Cockerel that insisted on waking me up at 3am and then crowing at the top of its voice for the next 4 hours! Surprisingly I woke up without a head ache though, must get some more of that corn wine....

Day 2

Tao cooked us up a hearty breakfast of noodles and egg then headed we off on a 6 hour hike while French couple took a shorter route back (they had a bus to catch). Joining us today was a local school teacher who wants to learn about becoming a guide and was also interested in talking to English people as we are a bit of a rarity out here! The walk was steep, much tougher than the day before and much more beautiful and rewarding. There were some absolutely stunning views of the countryside as we chatted with the school teacher who was very keen to learn all about us and English people in general. She even asked us to sing a wildlife song, the only one that came to mind was 'Old Macdonald Had a Farm', but she seemed to find it quite amusing. It seems you can just pop into any house and say hello to the locals so we did. One of them even gesturing that Jayne try to operate his heavy corn grinder, which she failed at miserably much to his amusement. So he showed her how it was done.

After a long hard walk Tao stopped us in the middle of a clay road where we sat for a picnic lunch. It was the most bizare place I have ever had lunch and some of the locals wondering past chuckled when they saw 2 mad English people and a guide having a picnic in the middle of the road!
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After our strangely amusing picnic it was a shortish walk back to the guides house and we enjoyed a much warmer room for the night, including a supper of choco pies before bed.
It was a fantastic couple of days, one of the highlights of our trip so far, I'll let some of the pictures speak for themselves below.

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Motorbike Trek in Bac HA

7am we strode off to the local bakery for a strange breakfast roll that had some sort of shredded salty beef in it before the bike trip was to start. The bike we were given was about a 10 year old Yamaha 100cc step through moped with 4 gears and looked like it had already had a hard life. After seeing some of the roads yesterday we knew we were in for a bumpy ride, but Jayne bravely hoped on the back and we headed off following our guide through the town. The roads were covered in slimey mud and the weather was very cold (about 7 degrees) and raining so it made for an interesting first few minutes while I got used to the bike. We stopped for fuel on the outside of town and I managed to fashion a glove for my throttle hand out of a spare T-shirt I’d brought. I was just getting used to the condition of the roads when the guide turned off and headed up a cobbled muddy slope that looked like it should never be a road! The bike bucked around underneath us and the wheels slipped on the stones protruding from the mud, it was all I could do to keep the bike from slipping out from under us.
This continued for…. Well pretty much all day! Once every now and then we would have a piece of flat concrete or a sandy/clay road which was much better but 90% of the time it was proper off roading…on a moped!

For the first few hours the tracks climbed upwards permanently until we entered the clouds. It was very cold and VERY foggy, sometimes visibility down to just a few meters.
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It was a shame because every now and then you caught a glimpse of the beautiful scenery hiding in the mist and on a clear day it must be stunning. At around 1pm, cold and exhausted from the effort to keep the bike rubber side down the guide stopped us at a local village. It was shrouded in mist and with just a few small children playing with an old umbrella and a couple of animals it looked really eerie.
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The house he had hoped we could stop for lunch was padlocked up and everyone was out working so after a short pee break, we carried on into the mist.
Jayne got scared a few times (quite rightly so!) when there were very steep sections of very rutted and cobbled ‘road’ with a sheer drop on one side and demanded to hop off. She found it hard just to walk down without slipping over and couldn’t believe that the little bikes were going up and down without being dropped. The people we met along the way always smiled when they saw we were foreigners and waved hello. Every now and then you would be in the middle of absolutely nowhere and groups of small children would appear, seemingly on their way to somewhere. They were always amazed to see us and all shouted ‘hello’ and ran to greet us. We would take photos of them and then show them on the camera and they would all laugh and point at their pictures, I guess they never see pictures of themselves when they live in the villages. They were all incredibly cute and will surely be a lasting memory of this trip.
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Eventually the fog started to clear as we got to the other side of the mountain and the view was amazing. We stopped for a few photo opportunities
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and then headed down into another village as the guide told us he was looking for a house with a fire and a table! Now this is not as easy to find as you would think so he continued on until he came across his friend’s house who welcomed us with a big smile and made us green tea and a much appreciated warm fire.
Our guide laid out our picnic lunch and his friend offered us a special sticky rice treat he had cooked in the fire. They are made for the TET celebrations and consist of rice, beans, charcoal and something else I couldn’t understand and are rather tasty! Our guides friend also got out a bottle of special Bac Ha corn wine (of course!) and insisted we down 5 or 6 shots before I called time. Tao (our guide) insisted it was ok as we were only a few kilometers from Bac Ha town and it was a big road so corn wine shouldn’t be a problem! We made it back safe and sound and arranged to meet Tao for a few drinks later that evening before going to bed for a lay down to rest our weary bodies.

We met Tao at the local restaurant expecting to have a few beers there, how wrong we were! He said he would take us one at a time on his moped to a local bar for some drinks. Ok we thought, some of the best times we have had so far are with the locals so on I hopped on and off we shot. It was about 1-2km on the bike before he stopped at what looked like someone’s front room with a large roller door open and asked me to wait there. A guy popped his head out of what looked like a cupboard and said something to me in Vietnamese to which I replied with one of my only phrases I know - ‘Xin Chow’ (Hello). He looked a bit bewildered and disappeared again. Now I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous at this point. I mean here I am, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on my own in a dark road sat on a stool outside a ’bar’ wondering what the hell to do next! The sound of the returning moped was music to my ears as Tao pulled up with Jayne on the back. The man in the cupboard re-appeared and Tao said something to him which made him appear with a key. He ushered us around to the back of the building where there was a long dingy corridor with PVC doors at regular intervals. Now I’m getting a little more nervous, where the hell are we going, and for what! We got to the end of the corridor and he gestured we go in. There were sofas in a U shape facing a wall with a TV on it. The decoration was a bit weird and Tao stuck his head in and said ‘Please wait here’ before disappearing again. So we sat there. On our own. Wondering what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. The door opened and the man re-appeared with a remote and two microphones. Oh no, our worst fears had come true… it was a Karaoke bar!!
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Tao came back with a couple of friends and they started prodding at the remote until it came up in English. Then one of his friends proceeded to sing ‘Nothings gonna change my love for you’ in a very strange but not to bad on the ear Vietnamese/English accent. The microphone was passed to me and I belted out my best version of ‘Champagne Supernova’, much to the delight of our new friends. The night continued with us all taking turns to murder various tracks and drink beer and eat sunflower seeds.
One of his friends asked if we wanted dance music and we said sure, why not. So off he went and returned with the man from the cupboard again, this time armed with a CD. He put it in the sound system and we were stunned to hear some pretty cool Hard House belting out of the very decent sound system! They all got up and started dancing, pulling us up with them. The night got more crazy as we all danced around to the funky beats, busting out our best moves and they flicked the light switches on and off to make it like a disco. Almost as quickly as it had begun it was over, Tao gesturing we leave and all three of us get on his moped. Luckily just before he took off a girl offered Jayne a ride on the back of hers so we avoided the 3 on 1! Back at the hotel the doors had been locked so Tao phoned the owner and they come down to let us in – looking none to impressed!
Sat in the room we stared at each other and asked what the hell had just happened. We have had the most amazing 3 days in Bac Ha. The place is largely untouched by tourists and better for it. The views are stunning and the locals amazingly colorful and friendly. We have fallen in love with the place, but sadly must move on and return to Hanoi for the next part of our trip. (I am so looking forward to the night train back….NOT!!)

Last Day in Bac Ha

Woke up suprisingly without a hangover and caught up with the blog this morning. We took a last look around the town before getting the local bus back to Lau Cai @ 2pm. Suprisingly this is the latest bus you can catch from Bac Ha but the sleeper trains don't start until 7:30pm so you are left wondering around paying over the odds for everything while you wait for your train. Determined to not get ripped off with the train tickets again we turned down the offer of booking through a tour operator and opted to buy ours direct from the station. The basic vietnam train (which is the one we came here on) was priced correctly at 515,000 Dong at the station ticket office. Feeling a bit adventurous we opted to try our luck at getting a tourist class train again as visions of the other train still haunted me. I bargained a little off the price and she gave us tickets on the SP2 train leaving at 8:15pm. Feeling we had hopefully done it right this time we trotted off to a local bar for some fried rice. It had internet access so we checked our train tickets against what they should look like. It appeared we may have been had again as the company we had booked with had no carriages on that service! Jayne went back to the ticket office and with a little pursuasion replaced our tickets on an earlier service which should have the carriage class we wanted. Maybe we had beat the system... 2 hours until we find out...
The hours were whiled away chatting to a couple of nice travellers from New York who had come from China and were doing Vietnam. I also managed to barter for a couple of cans of beer to take on the train and then it was time to go to the station. it was exciting but daunting as we eagerly awaited them to let us through to see if we had a nice carriage this time. Jayne started running along the length of the train to hopefully have enough time to go back and argue if it wasn't what we expected. SUCCESS !! It was actually just like the pictures and what we had expected. It was reasonably clean, the air con worked and the door had a lock and a chain. As we waited for the train to leave a young Vietnamese couple entered the cabin too. They seemed quite friendly and we had a good chat about some places to maybe visit before bedding down for the night. This time I think I might get a few hours kip, although my laptop and iphone will be under my pillow!!

Posted by Chris_Jayne_RTW 08:13 Archived in Vietnam

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