Myles Harrington

The Tour Must Go On

In Vietnam on September 20, 2010 at 10:20 am

After two days on my own in Hanoi, Shubes returned to Asia from her recent jaunt to Oz and Fiji. In total I had a very enjoyable four days in Vietnam’s capital but was itching to discover some of the other gems of the North. We realised we have quite a long time to cover the traditional tourist trail down the 16000km of coast to Saigon so we could visit a few places off the route. If the Top Gear lads can do it in eight days I’m sure we can do it justice in three weeks.

Chatting to other backpackers around town they all highly recommended the hill station town of Sapa and the UNESCO heritage site of Halong Bay. Lonely Planet said it was cheaper to do both of these with a package tour so we shopped around and got a three-day two night tour arranged for Halong Bay. At only $45 US it seemed very reasonable for an all-inclusive deal and hit our budget accordingly. Since I’ve been away I’ve only done one overnight tour and that was quite relaxing so I was looking forward to the cruise. The trip had a packed itinerary including kayaking, a cave visit, sleeping on a traditional junk boat and trekking in a national park on Cat Ba island.

The boat restricted fruit sellers of Halong Bay

We woke up with twenty minutes to get packed, shower, pay the bill and to get the travel agency on the morning of the tour. It was a big mistake to create the Bia Hoi ‘Pissed For a Pound Challenge’ the night before. Bia hoi is probably the world’s cheapest beer at about 14p a pint. That means for £1 you can get seven beers. Seven beers later we headed on to another pub where you can get a free drink if you stand on one leg for three minutes, of course we did that a few times until they banned us.

Pissed for a pound

We stood on one leg for nine minutes in total. We wanted to do more

The boat ride was amazing, cruising through the jagged rocks in the historic bay on a smooth boat. The caves were spectacular but it was a bit over done for tourists and over run too. The food was the only disappointment on the trip; it was just bland. That’s one thing that has disappointed me so far from Vietnam. From my experiences at the Vietnamese restaurants near Old Street I was looking forward to the fresh heat of the dishes but even getting chili sauce here is a bit of a mission.

The boat was a heap of junk

We were pushed around on the tour from place to place and beckoned by the tour guide’s shouts of “quick quick quick”. We were stressed and knackered by the second day of commands so we decided to skip the trek for a nap on a national park bench. After our experiences of being bossed about by the guide who would make an excellent sheep herder, we vowed not to be seduced by a cheap price on a tour to Sapa. Luckily for us the cheapest we found was $60 US which was about how much we could do it for independently and at a much more relaxing pace with a few bia hoi challenges thrown in for good measure.

The hills of Sapa at sunrise

The reason most of the tours to Sapa are more expensive than the Halong Bay ones are because they like to bundle all of the tourists on to the brand new night train that has extortionate prices (roughly $40 US return apparently). We chose the unrecommended night bus option and soon realised why we shouldn’t have. There was obviously no toilet on the coach because that would just be sensible. Shubes was desperate for a wee and I was quickly getting to the same situation. I kept hassling the conductor for a pee stop but he wasn’t interested. On my third nag I managed to get the stop time from him – 11.30, that was a whole hour and a half from our point of no return. There was only one thing we could do. Luckily they had provided us with lots of plastic bags when we boarded. Big ones for our shoes (they don’t like to ruin their carpets) and lots of smaller ones to be sick in. Lots of hiding behind blankets and ducking down later and we were relieved of our pains. That’s when the bags started to leak heavily from the over head baggage hold. Whoops. We triple bagged them and dumped them out of the window and mopped up the mess with sanitary towels. Amazingly no one even noticed, if there was an award for stealth pissing in a public place we’d definitely be in the running.

Sapa was awesome (In the traditional sense of the word) breathtaking scenery, friendly people and even cheaper bia hoi. We were lucky enough to be around on a Sunday so we could attend the most colourful market in the whole of North Vietnam, Bac Ha market which was a good three hour minibus ride from Sapa. It’s funny how here a three hour ride is considered a day trip here but back in the UK three hour journeys are only reserved for special occasions or holidays and then are completed hesitantly. Once again we were back with a guide for the $10 trip to Bac Ha. At the market you could buy anything a Vietnamese person could want including Buffalo, horses, pigs, the latest tribal gear and deadly strong rice wine decanted into empty water bottles. It was quite a sight and I got a great deal on a buffalo, 12,000,000 dong, the guide was impressed.

The young girls of the H'mong tribe are gorgeous

They'll start at 20,000,000 for a good beast but you can get them down eventually

5k remaining: £1550.90

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  1. […] tour was much more to my liking than the Halong Bay trip we did at the beginning of our month in ‘Nam. This was speed tourism at its best. The guide […]

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