Still in Vietnam

So - I'm still in Vietnam. I've been without a decent Internet connection for more than a week now I think, so that's why I haven't posted anything to the blog. But here goes. This will probably be quite a long blog since it's a long time since I wrote and lots have happened. But I will take it from the beginning I suppose (I'm glad I wrote diaries for hand though - otherwise I wouldn't remeber it all i guess)...

From Hanoi me, Anita and the three Israeli girls took the train to Sapa (really it was to Lao Cai which is more than one hour of driving at small mountain roads). Me and Anita bought the tickets at the train station, which gave us a very good price, less than $5 for a hard seat. If it wasn't for the cold and the fact that the window wouldn't close completely these seats would have been fine, but with one window partially open all the time it turned out to be a freezing experience.

When we arrived in Sapa it was really cold (7 degrees or so - which is very cold when you're used to 25-35 and don't have cloth for the cold) and raining, so we ended up staying at Buffalo Bell by the fireplace the whole day - playing cards and drinking hot chocolate! The second day in Sapa we did some trekking in small local tribe villages. We saw Cat Cat, Ban Ho, Te Yan and Lao Chai. It was really nice to see the villages of some of the different tribe peoples and even more interesting to see their beautiful and colorful traditional dresses that they wear (and not just for the tourists as it turns out). The views were fantastic, this is by far the most astounding mountain area I've ever been to (and I've been traveling in mountain areas in Sweden, Norway, Spain, Greece, France, Slovakia and others as well). The mountains were huge, the valleys were deep and it was full of lovely rice paddies, small local hill tribe villages with small wooden houses (each tribe has their own way of building their houses) and great waterfalls. The only shame was that it was a bit hazy - so the few photos I took doesn't really convey the beauty of the magnificent mountains...

The third day in Sapa we went to see the Bac Ha market, where we saw loads of locals dressed up for the market - which gave us lots of good photo opportunities. On the bus back me and Anita decided to give the border crossing at Nay Trang a try, so we needed to get to Lai Chau (not to be confused with Lao Cai or Lai Chai - it's important to get it right we understood after a while). Nay Trang is not officially open to foreigners, or at least it wasn't when my guidebook was printed - but we thought we might give it a try anyway. So we asked around for how to get to Lai Chau, but the general opinion seemed to be that there was a bus leaving at 5 am the next morning. All of a sudden there was a bus standing in the street and they told us to take that one to get to Lai Chau. Very confusing and we had to make up our minds really quick. It turned out to be a very nice trip across the mountain range (going up to an altitude of almost 3000 meter and then back down again), giving us great views and a chance to see some locals. The first half of the trip took us up, up and up - all the time giving us good views of the mountains and the sunset. The second half was pitch black and winding down - clear sky and lots of stars though. We talked a bit to one girl from a local village wearing her beautiful traditional dress (and I'm so happy I bought that Vietnamese phrasebook).

When we arrived in Lai Chau and checked in to our guesthouse, we realized that after paying the room we only had 10.000 VND left - i.e. 5 SEK. So we went to look for an ATM and when we found it, it turned out to be broken. After asking around with the help of my phrasebook (no-one speaks English - at all) it turns out that this is the only ATM, that no hotels accept VISA or will exchange money and that the bank opens at 7 am. No dinner that day then. In the morning Anita went to the bank where she found out that, no, we couldn't use the VISA there, and yes, they could make an exception and exchange some dollars to dong. The problem was that we didn't have any dollars, we only had euros and travellers cheques which was NOT possible. So we were stuck in a city where no-one speaks English, the ATM and VISA doesn't work and we had no money. Doh!

Luckily Anita meets the only non-Vietnamese person in Lai Chau except for us - a man from New Zeeland working in Thailand who has an office in Lai Chau. He takes her by jeep to his office and after checking the exchange rates for euro at the internet he exchanges 50 euro for 1.100.000 dong - a good exchange rate for us and a chance to get some money. So we have money again, which was good! Back to the hotel, pack up and go to the road where we sit by the road side and wait for the local bus to Dien Bien Phu to pass. When the bus passes you just wave to it, throw your backpacks at the roof and get in. After having a harsch conversation/haggling with the driver about the price we end up paying only slightly more than the locals and alomst half of the first price he gave us. We also refused to pay for extra-heavy luggage, given the fact that the locals often brought rice, building material, huge bags and really heavy stuff. This bus ride turned out to be even more interesting, since it was six hours in daylight. The mountain views weren't as spectacular, but we followed some nice valleys, saw green rice paddies and a bunch of nice small villages where the locals were doing their daily routines and wearing their traditional dresses.

We had a nice lunch together with two guys from the army, they were on their way home we think (the communication is a bit hard). The bus ride was extraordinary, really an experience. The fact that it was slow, bumpy, that they played semi-loud Vietnamese music and having a couple of locals throwing up in plastic bags or in the bus only added to the experience.

When we arrived in Dien Bien Phu we were first aiming to get to the border in the evening. This turns out to be top tight since we have to go to the banks etc, for US$. Instead we take a guesthouse and arrange a pickup at 7 am with two motodrivers for bank and border crossing.

Before we go to sleep we want to explore the town and perhaps find a bar - so off we go. For some reason we end up in a private party that turns out to be a wedding. It looked like a bar from the outside, but when we went in everybody was laughing and pointing at us. But they wouldn't allow us to leave, instead we're invited for some tea, candy, cookies and of course a lot of rice wine. Everybody seems to think we're the great attraction at the moment and we get to talk to the two English speaking daughters of the family. They explain the tradition of their weddings and after a while the bride comes to the party as well, after being at the house of her parents, where the bride and the groom goes so he can ask for their permission. She then returns to her party, while he stays with her parents and drink some more rice wine. A bit confusing, but they were all very nice and friendly and we had a great time. After roughly an hour we decide to leave them to their partying, but first we exchange e-mail addresses and they give us some tea and candy as gifts for the road. Truly an odd but wonderful experience.

The following day (6/2 I think) we go to the bank and after one hour in four/five different places we get our US$ which we will need in Laos (the problem is that no-one accepts VISA, only Mastercard). From the bank we take two motos through the misty and freezing valley, with lovely rice paddies once again.

It turns out that when a border crossing in Vietnam is only for locals - it is only for locals and you can't even bribe your way through. After some haggling with the motodrivers we go back to Dien Bien Phu (lovely views of the emerald-green valley with clouds/mist in the valley and a clear sky) and get the bus to Son La. The distance is only 320 km or so, but the bus ride takes 6,5 hours - quite indicative of the type of road traveled. The road meanders through mountains and wonderful valleys. We follow a small river for a while which gives us insights in local villages and nice views of hanging bridges and other photo-genique stuff (too bad we couldn't stop the bus to take photos). The landscape is really different different from the mountains so far, with more dust and sand. The road is the worst road I've ever traveled for a longer time. It felt as though it was a road construction stretched out for 6 hours. (Note to dad: the road was about the same quality as the road construction-road in Greece - with sand, dust, stones, potholes and no room to meet other cars or buses). This doesn't stop the bus from going at break-neck speed (when it's not uphill that is - the motor isn't very strong) and bouncing up and down. I'm glad that I never feel road-sick - cause in this bus I would have. Asian people doesn't seem to be as lucky - they all seem to get sick. In this bus ride I think I counted to seven people (approximately 50%) throwing up in the bus or in plastic bags. The last old man they had to lead out of the bus and leave him in a town, he was too bad to continue traveling. And to take away the bad look and some of the smell they just throw lots of sand over the puke which actually helps - and then the bus ride continues... At the middle of the bus ride a local girl gets on the bus together with like a ton of wood. I'm not kidding - they filled the whole back of the back of the bus with wood for a fireplace or something - I guess she was selling it in the town or so. Since the wood now occupied like 8 seats and the whole aisle the bus got kind of crowded, with people sitting three on two seats, sitting on small plastic chairs or on the backpacks of other travellers. This seems to be the standard though - no-one really seemed to think it was strange.

I think I've been in Asia for too long - cause I don't seem to bother about stuff like that. Bouncy bus ride, dust everywhere (there was at least three windows and the door that wouldn't close), hard seat, people throwing up and 7 hours on a bus. I think my senses are somewhat disconnected from me at the moment - stuff like bad smells, cold or other discomforts are only temporary - so why bother about them?

Son La was a quite boring place - just a city (although i reflected about the fact that at the time we hadn't seen any Westerners for more than 4 days). The only good thing was that we found a pool place with real pool tables (i.e. American pool tables that I'm used to instead of the small bar pool tables you find everywhere in Asia). Had a great time playing pool with the locals (and they actually knew a few words of English - and together with the International language of sports/pool we could understand each other well). They were very proud of the fact the Ho Chi Minh himself (the great Vietnamese hero), uncle Ho, had been in their place and playing pool.

From Son La we took an early bus at 5 am to Nam Xoi (or so we thought), but due to some misunderstandings we ended up along the road, 7 km from Mai Chau. This is apparently as close to Nam Xoi and the Laos border crossing at Na Maew that you can get with public transport. Which is not very close at all - it is more than 5 hours by motobike to the border. Anyway, we take a moto to Mai Chau and stop in one of the local villages. Since this is kinda close to Hanoi it's somewhat touristic, but I've only seen three Westerners so far - so it's not that bad... We get a guesthouse/tribe white-stilt house where we decide to spend the day while trying to figure out how to get to the border. We had a great day in Mai Chau (feels good not to be traveling for once - we have spent the last days on buses mostly) - exploring the village by bike and going through the rice paddies on small paths. Since I'm feeling a bit sick - a cold that didn't really break out - I decided to stay here one more night before I go to Laos by moto. Anita on the other hand thinks it's a bit too expensive, so she will try to hitchhike to the border, and if that doesn't work she will get a border today. So at the moment I'm by myself - left to explore the village even more. I've heard there is a cave somewhere here and after that I'll go to some more villages, more rice paddies and then back to the stilt-house in the local village.

Tomorrow it's a moto to Laos and then I really hope I'll get to Laos. I've been in Vietnam almost a month now. I really love it, but I want to see other stuff now. The visa is running out in a couple of days as well, so I better cross the border before then... :) I'll try to post some pictures the next time I find a fast computer - this one is soooo slow. Keep writing comments and e-mails - I love to hear what's happening in Sweden and what you think about everything that's happening in my travels!

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