Monday, July 21, 2008


BANGKOK: Every long story, adventure or activity needs to be broken up a bit. The battered copy of War and Peace I just finished had quite a few breaks throughout its long plot. Football has its halftime. The tour de France has a rest day. All the old cinematic epics were given an intermission. And so, like a long epic, the last few weeks have been the halftime in our journey.

Indochina is now kaput. Over. Finished. We hitched a ride on an Air Asia flight and flew into Thailand. After 3 months in the 3 countries (8 weeks in Vietnam alone) it was great to head off again to somewhere slightly different.

By the end, to be honest, we were a tad over Vietnam. There are only so many times of getting ripped off which you can shrug off. My tolerance is around zero. In our last week doing the final tourist loop southeast from Hanoi, we were bound to get shafted. And we did on a few occasions.

We had tried to see the World Heritage Halong Bay economically and via a different route than most people would take, but instead we were sold a "day tour" which didn't last till noon let alone a full day, and didn't include lunch. But shit happens. You grin and bear it. Notch it up on the "experience to try avoid again" board.

The last days in Vietnam did have good moments. In fact some were among the best. Hiking across Cat Ba island was one tour that was really worth it. Most of the island is National Park and very rugged. Flying across the island it would look like those scenes at the start of Jurassic Park; walking 14 or so kilometres across it we saw how Jurassic it was first hand.

It was one of few times in Indochina where we actually saw quite a bit of wildlife. Besides numerous large spiders blocking the path we saw four different snakes, one eating a lizard whilst hanging from a tree. Everywhere else in Vietnam it almost seemed to me that anything wild was already or about to be eaten; a market wander can always be a bit disturbing.

Hang in there
Tree snake dining on lizard

The hike finished in one of the most beautiful places I have been. We first walked and then later cruised through fjord-like scenery where those jungle clad mountains decended into the sea. It reminded me of Norway or New Zealand, and you just can't get enough of a view like that; it made up for (although we didn't know it at the time) the lack of a real cruise around Halong Bay.

Staying on Cat Ba island was also an another experience - to see Vietnamese tourists in the wild. Instead of mountain climbs, they seek beaches to play on. The tiny strips of sand that were available on the rocky island were full to overflowing with locals tackling the surf - no more than waist deep; perhaps because they couldn't swim? Rubber tubes around the waist were certainly popular.

Unfortunately, because the island is so popular during the “summer months” - or at this time of year – the accomodation was more expensive than what we were used to. And on weekends the price automatically doubled. We turned up on a Wednesday (via a dodgy, overcrowded ferry – another story), which was fine until we decided to stay until the Saturday. Friday night we found out it was impossible to get anything for a reasonale price.

Luckily we had made friends with the operator of our hotel, James, who offered to put us in his own house for a price we more used to. This turned out to be an interesting insight into how normal Vietnamese actually live. We hung out in his local neighbourhood for the afternoon, meeting the local kids. And then at night we got to listen to the gentle sounds of the neighbourhood, before sweating in their hotbox room at the top of the homemade house. It was an experience we won't forget for a while.

Another touristy spot on our list was Ninh Binh. It was easily accessible from Hanoi, located on the train line south. Ninh Binh is host to the popular – again with locals and foreigners alike – Tam Coc. It is billed as “Halong Bay on the rice fields”.

Tam Coc certainly has the karst hill landscape interspersed with rice paddies and canals. But it is also now completely set up as a tourist experience that it is almost comical. You you pay an entrance fee to the area and then pay for a little boat for a two hour trip rowed by an elderly lady.

So far so good, but it turns out the boat just travels up the river-canal hybrid for an hour passing through caves. You are bomarbed at the end by drink sellers on little boats who make you by a drink for your rower, and then the boat heads back exactly the same way and your madam tries to sell handicrafts (i.e. embroidered tablecloth anyone?) and at the end asks for a tip. No deviation from the theme please. At least the scenery was spectacular.

Surronding Ninh Binh and Tam Coc were some other spectacular sights, though more mundane I guess for the Vietnamese. This time of year is hay harvesting season and riding through the back villages away from Tam Coc it was almost as if we had been transported back in time to middle ages Europe.

Hay drying streets
Hay drying village streets

Hay was drying on every available patch of road and roof, and to go through the villages you just rode over a hay bed road. After our touristy experience it was great to see locals doing local things. Hopefully that is how I will remember Vietnam, the local side of life. Not the defined tourist trail.

So now we have been in Thailand for almost two weeks and we certainly haven't been far from the tourist trail. But as I have stated it has been a break from our journey and Thailand is an easy place to take a break. We have ventured out of Bangkok - firstly to Kanchanaburi to see the bridge over the river Kwai and the Death Railway. This was something I wanted to see last time I was here two years ago, but didn't. Secondly we ventured up to Ayuthaya for a few days rest out of the smog. I did visit there last time but was happy to go back with Rob.

And so now the next stage of our journey begins. Intermission is over and we are flying to India. A one way ticket to Kolkata and a 6 month visa in our passport. The journey proceeds into new grounds for me. I cannot wait to immerse myself in the experience of India.

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