Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 21 – A brief layover in Seoul

From now on my favorite airport is Incheon International, even though it is heckafar from Seoul. But I need to backtrack a little for you to understand why this is so.

I arrived at Incheon at 5:30 am, in a sub-freezing temperature, with the happy prospect of an 11 hour layover before catching my San Francisco flight. That is a long time to just stay in the airport, so the day before I had searched in the internet ways to get from the airport to the city (I had homed in on the one day pass to use the metro and buses). Just before the immigration check, however, I saw a sign offering free tours for in transit passengers. Hmm, promising.

Lo and behold, as I left Customs I inquired in the Service Desk and was directed to the proper counter, where a nice lady booked me for the free 5-hour trip starting at 8 am. The tour itself is free, but I had to pay a measly US$ 13 for the entrance ticket to the Gyeongbok Palace and for lunch. I had about one and a half hours to kill, so I went to McDonald’s to buy a cup of coffee for an outrageous US$ 3 (I suspect that I got the foreigner surcharge, because as close as I could tell the sign said 1,800 won for a large cup, which would have been equivalent to US$ 1.80).

The tour bus took nearly an hour and a half to bring us to Gyeongbok Palace, in downtown Seoul. This was the palace of the emperors of the third dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, which in my humble opinion were very Chinese in their aspirations and built Gyeongbok as a small replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Pretty, yes, but without the thousands of courtiers it has the feeling of an empty series of warehouses.

From there we went a very short distance to visit the Jogyesa Temple, which is the main Buddhist temple in the city. The Koreans are pretty hard core Buddhists, and there were quite a number of folks inside kneeling and praying with true fervor. The temple is dominated by three very large golden images of the sitting Buda. From what I understood from our guide the three represented different facets of Buda, with one being Buda The Healer, and the central one Buda in meditation (I forget what the third image represented).

Our last stop was Insadong Street, for lunch and shopping. Insadong has many branching allies coming into it, in which one can find art galleries, antique shops, craft shops, and restaurants. Lunch was some thinly sliced beef in a hearty broth, steamed rice, and assorted veggies to mix with the rice and beef. Pretty good, but I am afraid I wolfed it down to go out into the street and window shop.

The tour guide was a nice middle age woman, who looked over us as a gallina looks over her pollitos. She was terribly afraid that one of us would get lost or left behind, and was really pushing us because some people had a 3 pm flight to catch (curse them, for I suspect we were shortchanged on a drive along the Cheonggyechon stream that runs across the city, and along Hongdae district where all the students hang out at night.

On the way back I asked our guide who paid for this free tour for passengers on transit, and she told me “the government since July 2013”. Before that the tour would have cost US$ 50 to US$70. I suspect it is the Ministry of Tourism, who uses this way to lure passersby to get a taste of the city, knowing that a taste may result on a longer trip at a later time. Clever of them to do that. I wish other cities were as enlightened.

Admittedly this has been too short a glimpse to form an opinion of Korea. They seem to be as meticulously clean and orderly as the Japanese, but I detect a dash of Singapore in the way everything is forbidden (in Singapore, of course, they have draconian fines for things like chewing gum or jay walking). A bit to rigid for my taste. Yet, there is no doubt that they are a prosperous country. Things are expensive here (gasoline is something like US$ 7 per gallon), but you see nice looking Kia’s and Hyundai’s everywhere (but, alas, no scooters), and everyone has a Samsung cell phone.

On the way back in the bus they had a promo film showing the jolly ol’ time two girlfriends had shopping in Seoul, and a great time had by two boys doing a bicycle trek. I think the possibility of visiting Korea on a bicycle is worth considering. According to the film you can carry your bicycle in trains, and I bet they have something like the one month pass for the train. But it cannot be done in winter, because it gets really cold, or summer because it is too warm. Maybe late spring early summer would be the best time. Or perhaps fall.

The real reason Incheon is now my favorite airport is not only because of the free tour. It is because of the free showers! Once you have cleared security and immigration you come into an enormous duty-free area, with anything your heart may desire in terms of brand names. If you take the elevator one floor up, however, you come to an oasis of peace where there comfortable recliners, a free internet center, little tables where you can plug your electronics (only one cluster, however, and inconsiderate people use those chairs to doze rather than letting the connections free for people like me, who would like to plug a computer), a massage and nail parlor, and a place where you can take a shower for free. I had been walking the day before in Hanoi, had spent 5 hours in the hotel, and had done 5 hours of tourism in Seoul. I was pretty ripe, and itchy, and uncomfortable, so the prospect of a shower was most welcome. I walked into a small lobby, where a gracious hostess handed me towels, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, and then came into a very nicely appointed bathroom where I basked in luxury. I had a clean change of clothes handy, so now I feel like starting the trip all over again!

All good things must come to an end, however, and I need to get back to California. It will not be long before the next adventure, but for now


Vietnam 2014 – Day 20 – The last day in Hanoi

I am back at being a lowly pedestrian L Still, the last day also has 10 hours of daylight, so I might as well do the best I can. My first stop was the Temple of Literature, a vast complex where the first university of Vietnam was established, in 1072 AD, shortly after Vietnam became independent from the Chinese empire. Still strongly influenced by the Chinese system of scholarship and bureaucracy, the university was devoted to the study of the main works of Confucius and other cornerstone writers of his time. The intent was to have a place where scholars could prepare for the national examinations, and having passed those further prepare for examination by the king himself. Those few who passed were elevated to mandarin rank, and were the main bureaucrats of the kingdom.

The temple has several courtyards. One of the courtyards is rimmed by a hundred or so stele, through which the university kept the records of the nearly 2,000 students who successfully passed the examinations over a period of 150 years (the pass rate was definitely low at that time). The back courtyard is where the students lived and studied. Its main building is an imposing two-story building, where the first rector is now enshrined as the tutelary god of the university.

From there I wandered toward the Museum of History, which is housed by a beautiful large building of the French colonial period. The collection is impressive, and tells the story of Vietnam from the prehistory (sites dating as far back as 10,000 years ago), to the Chinese domination period, the independence of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the Diet Viet kingdom (ca. 1070 AD), the independent period under the rule of a local dynasty, and the French colonial invasion ca. 1880.

A separate building tells the History of the Revolution, which is not as impressive but gives a bird’s eye view of the unrest under the French colonial rule, the formation of the International Communist Party (ICP), the initial protests under the sponsorship of the ICP against the French (ca. 1925), the Japanese invasion during World War II and the resistance movement in Vietnam (1944 to 1945), and the attempts at “recolonization” by the French with eventual help from the US. US involvement started in 1950, with the usual appearance of military advisors, escalated in 1964 with the arrival of the first US troops, and ended with the retreat of the US in 1973.

Much credit goes to Ho Chi Minh, who after fighting the Japanese was elected president around 1945, and remained the leader of the country until the mid 60’s until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see his country at peace, but his fighting spirit is well remembered by the Vietnamese who love him deeply (he was a bit of a marketing expert, and never missed a photo op while he traveled throughout the country maintaining the revolution active.

Having exhausted myself in museums I killed a couple of hours people watching and window shopping as I ambled through the narrow streets of the old city center. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary a few years ago, so the trace of the city center is really, really old. I had but a handful of dongs in my pocket, and I was intent on using them to the last dong, so I bought myself a hat, ate some delicious street food, and will have to drink a couple of beers as I wait for my taxi to the airport.

It has been a fabulous trip, and I am a little sad that it is time to go home. But I will return because I love the country and its people. Next time I will fly to Saigon, and will once again rent a motorcycle. There is no better way to see this fabulous land!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 19 – Hanoi, my final exam

After 2,000 km in the motorcycle I figured I could call myself an advanced beginner. Little did I know that Vietnam had decided to promote me to advanced level, and that today I had to present my final exam. I had but 100 km to go from Hai Phong to Hanoi, but in that short distance I was presented with every complication the examination board had to through at me. The setting was a major highway, with thundering cargo trucks and every vehicle imaginable on the road (a sign clearly stated that carts and tractors were not allowed, but such a sign is like a red cloth waved in front of an angry bull. Let’s begin with a light drizzle, just enough to blur visibility and make the highway really slippery. Then we will throw in a few weaving bicycles, slow moving carts and tractors. Then we will introduce all sorts of vehicles doing u-turns right on front of you. Finally, let’s add the ubiquitous scooter going against the direction of traffic. Honestly, it felt like I was in a videogame, where everything that can go wrong will. But I did it! I swerved around all obstacles, cut in front of an 18-wheeler to avoid hitting a little old lady, dropped my speed to zero to avoid an oncoming car, and then accelerated to 100 km per hour in under 30 seconds to avoid the incoming rush of across-the-highway traffic.

Once I got to Hanoi proper I crossed the river using a railroad bridge, jumped a red light, wove myself through a prong of scooters that resembled angry piranhas, and even went against the flow of traffic on a major thoroughfare! By the time I got to my hotel I had left a path of scared Vietnamese on my path, who will probably will need a few million dong of therapy before they can forget crossing paths with El Diablo.

Emboldened by my success I crossed the city (again!) To go to the excellent Museum of Ethnology of the peoples of Vietnam. The country has 46 different cultural groups, who speak languages from five different groups, which makes for a pretty mix. Amazingly all of them get along just fine (though the Viet, with 86% of the total population, are clearly top dogs). The museum is pretty far from city center, but it has very fine grounds. The main museum has displays on each of the 46 ethnic groups, with fine displays on costumes, handcrafts, and living styles. A separate building host the Museum of Southeast Asia, which has beautiful art pieces from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The best part, in my humble opinion, are the grounds, which are an oasis of peace in the middle of crazy Hanoi. On them the museum has placed its collection of homes from the different cultural groups. The museum actually went and bought traditional homes, dismantled them, and then brought crews of the original builders to put them together again. They also had a water theater, where the stage is a pond, and the “actors” are puppets that are manipulated from a covered water temple. The result is at the same time funny and impressive. I need to tell my cousin Jaime, the family puppeteer, about this.

Getting back from the museum to downtown was postdoctoral level stuff, since it was around 5 pm and the whole population of Hanoi was on the move. But I did it without mishap, so from now on I will describe myself as a very experienced motorcyclist. I returned the motorbike without a hitch by 6 pm, and Hop, the friendly proprietor of the rental shop (ADV Ride or, invited me to join him and his friends on a beer. They were a delightful group of young Vietnamese, later joined by their three French friends, and all of them made me feel very, very welcome.

So welcome, indeed, that after a couple of beers they decided to go to a Bia Hoi (a brewers) restaurant and they dragged me along. What a delightful way to spend Saturday evening, and my last evening in Hanoi. The beer was good, and the dinner was a real feast, with lettuce wraps filled with cold meats and veggies (and dipped in soy sauce and wasabe), a pork shank baked in cream, breaded frog, and all sorts of side dishes. The only thing missing was slow-roasted dog, because they only serve it on Sundays. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 18 – Back to Hai Phong

Alas, this beautiful trip is coming to an end. I enjoyed a slow trip across the Cat Ba island (20 km), the short ferry trip, then across Cat Hai island (another 20 km), and the longer ferry crossing to the mainland. Then it was dog eats dog through the port and into the city of Hai Phong. I knew I wanted a hotel along the big canal, and after snubbing a couple of more modest hotels ended in a middle class hotel by about noon.
After gladly leaving behind my parked motorcycle I took a wonderful walk along the canal, enjoying the window shopping. Eventually I came to the market and started weaving through its narrow passages. It was all you could ever dream about an Oriental market, with shops offering everything from flowers to motorcycle parts, dried fish to shining fruit (they even have durions for sale!), and New Year necessities, such as gilded globe lanterns and horse-shaped piñatas (which I presume tell us that the coming New Year, about a week from today, will be the Year of the Horse.
I have solved the mystery of people carrying trees in their scooters. It seems that for the New Year celebration people like to have a decorated tree in the house. Most of the ones that are bare branches are actually flowering trees, which just about now are starting to bloom. On top of the natural flowers they will get gilded ornaments and ribbons, just as we do with our own Christmas trees. On another variant, small potted orange trees are trimmed to have the pointed shape of a Christmas trees, and the small oranges are selectively picked so only a few remain, just like gold ornaments.
In a corner stall I stopped at a small eatery, where I enjoyed a pig’s foot (cold and dipped in a delicious sauce) and a noodle soup with deep-fried pork skins. Very yummy.
Finally, after a very long walk I came back to the hotel for a break. I have a great TV with about 100 cable channels, so I holed down planning to see a movie and enjoy a well deserved rest. In reality I used the time to prepare my first lectures for the Spring semester, which starts three days from now.
At around 7 pm I went out again, to take a look at the lights, the crowds, and the dancing fountains in the park that is immediately in front of the hotel. The crowds had diminished somehow, but there were plenty of people on the go, doing whatever it is that city folk do after sunset. I worked an appetite walking around, and started stalking the street stalls looking for a bite to eat. I settled on a torta or sub of pork gyros style (pretty good except that the lady put some sort of thin ketchup on it that was totally unnecessary), followed by a Vietnamese churro. Yeap, I could certainly get used to living in beautiful Vietnam!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 17 – The Cat Ba National Park

I spent the morning walking under the canopy of Cat Ba National Park. The park only has a limited paths, all asphalted or with stone stair steps, which were inherited from old village paths when the area was declared a national park. At the very start of the walk I realized I had not brought a hat. No problem. I sighted a discarded sack of concrete and with the help of my trusty pocket knife I soon fixed for myself a mason hat (the type that looks like a pointed boat, which my dad used to make for us when we were camping as little kids). With that and a stick I tackled the mountain, eventually making a grand total of about 15 km.
There were a couple of high points from where I could take a look at the landscape, but most of the walk was through pretty tight equatorial jungle. My thoughts soon wandered into wondering if I would be able to survive in such a jungle. A knife would be the first tool needed, for which the best I could come up with would be the serrated edge of a limestone. One would also need to find water, which in limestone terrain is easier said than done. The trick, I believe, would be to get to a low point and dig a hole. You would also need some sort of vessel to collect water, for which the pliable bark of some trees I saw would be a good way to start (I have seen this done, so it would be a matter of trying to recall the details). Alternatively I could try to find some clay and try my hand at some pottery making. What about fire? There were some thin vines that could be used to make a fire bow, and from there it should be possible to start a fire (note to self: make the test once I get home). Shelter could easily be arranged with the abundance of broad-leaf plants around me, and the vines could be used to tie a roof together.
Food would be the largest challenge. I couldn’t see any fruits, and being winter there were no berries on sight (and after the Hunger Games I wouldn’t trust any berries anyway). A spear and an atlatl would be easy to craft, but I didn’t see any likely targets. If I could catch something big, like a deer or a pig, then the stomach would make a useful water container, and the gut would provide the string for a bow. Realistically, my best bet would be to go after birds, so it would be useful to know how to make a snare (note to self: try this at home first). Ah, all this beautiful theory, but I suspect life as a Robinson would be anything but easy.
Back to my trusty motorcycle I completed the exploration of the island, which had plenty of scenic surprises in store to hold my interest. I came back to the town of Cat Ba around 4 pm, in time to have an excellent meal (giant clams cooked in butter and garlic, and a delicious veggie spring roll), and to snap a few pictures of the spectacular sunset. All in all a very satisfying day.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 16 – Cat Ba Bay

Today was a day of wondrous beauty. I spent half the day on a boat, drifting between the majestic landscape of Cat Ba and Ha Long Bays. The limestone pinnacles, the coves, the channels metamorphosed from minute to minute, as the boat quietly glided through the misty mountains. I stood on the prow mesmerized by the symphony of lapping waves and the myriad of islands that form this archipelago, taking picture after picture in the knowledge that they could hardly capture the magic of the moment.

The boat was doing messenger service, delivering passengers from one miniature port to the other. On the way we passed several pearl banks and fish farms, and from time to time encountered small floating villages, where people live year round. There may not be much room to move around, but children and dogs play like in any other town, running nimbly along the narrow planks that join one fish farming plot with the other.

At our farthest reach we picked up a family from Finland, including mom, dad, two teenager daughters, and two American teenagers (I presume the latter were staying with the family and were brought along in the family vacation). Together we made a stop at a small inlet, where we rented bicycles and biked to a small farming town about a kilometer inland. When we came back to the boat we were served a delicious lunch that included fried chicken, fish in a tomato sauce, a veggie stir fry, tofu in tomato soup, spring rolls, steamed rice, and a nice plate of steamed clams. The girls were all together at a table and had their own serving of the goodies, while mom, dad and myself were on another table. The Fins were not very adventurous eaters, and were flummoxed by the clams. “What is this?”, they asked, and then added “we don’t have this in Finland”. And then some small devil whispered in my ear and, making a face of mild disgust I said “Those are clams, and you really need to develop a taste for them. Sometimes they taste like mud but, please, by all means give them a try.” That did it. Each reluctantly took a piece, tasted it, and had no more. So I had the big nice plate of clams all for myself!
After lunch we headed back, and once again I got lost on the beauty of the trip. The only place I can compare it with is the Magallanes Archipelago, along the southern coast of Chile, but that is a barren, glaciated landscape, whereas Cat Ba is a lusciously green karstic paradise. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited (and this is not my first time to the rodeo)..

Back at the hotel I was in a bit of a daze, but it was only 1 pm and there was no point in wasting a perfectly good afternoon. So I got my motorcycle and went cruising through town, only to discover that they have a whole little bay devoted to tourists. Hotel after hotel, and restaurant after restaurant are to be found, all facing a beautiful waterfront boulevard and the glorious landscape behind. Toward one end of the bay there are a couple of all-included resorts, and toward the other end is the regular town, with its eclectic market.

The one thing missing were the typical souvenir stores, where you can buy a hat or a t-shirt. Finally, on my second pass I saw a small street-side display with some necklaces and conch shells. I wanted to get a present for my Honey so I stopped to look. Little did I know I had stopped at the gates of Hades, and that there was a pack of harpies waiting for my naïve approach. The first one was all smiles, and claimed I was her first costumer so she needed to make a sell for good luck. It was hard bargaining, but given that I was in Pearl Island I ended making a purchase. No sooner had I concluded the deal when the second witch popped by my side, asking for me to look at her own display, and giving me all over the sob story. The precise same tactics used by those devilish Girl Scouts! To make a long story short, I was handed from one smiling sorceress to the next, and I ended with enough baubles to outfit a full harem. Darn, but they were good!
The problem of being on an island is that there are only so many places you can go. Ah, but with a motorcycle every narrow road is an invitation to adventure, so one thing led to the other and pretty soon I was speeding along a twisty cliff-hanging road, or plunging into a canyon and then emerging on the other side of the island. I thoroughly enjoyed the rush of speed and zooming around the curves in practically deserted roads. I can see why motorcycling is an addictive activity!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 15 – Ha Long Bay to Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island

Before leaving Ha Long Bay I made a stop to visit their new museum. It is a beautiful black glass building, but the collection is a bit of a mish mash of Paleolithic tools, Chinese pottery from several periods, a spotty display about coal mining in the district during the French occupation (including canes used by the company bosses to punish the miners, and a collection of rusted weapons used to repel the American invasion. The most significant piece of knowledge I acquired is that Vietnam has some coal resources.
The 80 km or so to Hai Phong was a mix of crossing over beautiful, modern bridges, a highway in construction, heavy truck traffic, and very poor air quality (dust plus diesel particulates).
Hai Phong is a big city, and I had to cross it to go down the Hai Phong peninsula in my quest for Cat Ba Island. A bit crazy traffic-wise, but actually quite handsome. One canal in particular reminded me a bit of Amsterdam. I was navigating by feeling and did quite well. Eventually I made it to the airport, which was the right direction, but from there it was all guesswork. I had guessed there would be a ferry to Cat Hai Island, and from there another to Cat Ba Island, so from there I asked about a boat to Cat Hai. Fortunately the guard at the airport understood what I had asked, and I thought he was telling me that I had to go back the airport boulevard to the second roundabout and then make a right. I did, and then got to a T intersection. I turned right again and the road became more and more empty as it moved through large container yards, sand and gravel pits, and far apart business parks. Then, to the left on a small street, I saw a sign to Ben Pha, and this stirred a memory of Day 7 and the fact that Ben Pha had led to a ferry. There I a go and … bingo! … there it was, a rusted old ferry waiting to take me across to Cat Hai.
As we approached Cat Hai Island I became a bit disappointed. The island is flat as it can be, without much to recommend it. Sure, the little town was as quaint as any other little town in Vietnam, but I had come a long way to see it and wanted something more for my money. Forging ahead I got to the second ferry. It was a hazy afternoon, and I couldn’t get a very good look at Cat Ba Island, but as the ferry got closer out of the mist a gorgeous landscape of karstic pinnacles came into view.
The 20 km from the ferry to the small town of Cat Ba were absolutely fabulous and, given that I was in a far away island, the traffic had dropped to nearly nil. I did enjoy the ride through a fabulous landscape that made me think of the mountain roads of Gran Canaria. I made it to the port of Cat Ba around 5 pm, and once again scored with a great hotel. Inexpensive (US$ 10 per night) and I my room faces the beautiful bay. I think I will park myself here for two days, spend a third night at Hai Phong, and on the fourth day I will make a bee line to Ha Noi to conclude this trip.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 14 – Ha Long Bay

I have spent the day enjoying the landscape of Ha Long Bay, and in a futile search of some sort of tourist center where I could buy a passage on a tour boat.
Ha Long Bay is unique in that it is a submerged karstic landscape, now evident as an archipelago of over a thousand pinnacles or “islands” raising like ghosts from the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Imagine the sea were to advance on the Pearl River, between Guilin and Yuangsho in China, and you will have a pale idea of the surreal landscape that characterizes this bay.
Legend has it that the bay is the abode of a dragon (think Smaug in The Hobbit) that over the years has carved the multitude of channels that separate the pinnacles. Alternatively, the legend may have arisen from the fact that the rounded humps of the pinnacles resemble the Chinese paintings of dragons. Some even claim that the dragon has been sighted in historic time, making Ha Long our second chance to catch sight of a Mesozoic sea reptile (I looked and looked but to no avail).
After driving north as far as I could go I took a break and went into the city. For breakfast I had the most delicious Vietnamese burrito, filled with a tasty mix of shrimp, mushrooms, and other delicacies. I also asked for, and found, a regular bookstore where I bought a map of Vietnam and a map of Hanoi, so I am back to normal.
I also visited a type of Feria del Hogar or County Fair, with all sorts of stands featuring products and merchandise from all over Vietnam. I also made a stop at a supermarket, where I did a careful inspection of every aisle, to get a feeling of the stuff that the modern Vietnamese families fill their pretty houses with. I liked a grill/soup pot combination, but discarded the idea of buying one as being too bulky (but of course I could go native and load my scooter the way only a Vietnamese can).
I kept driving south, finding pretty spots along the coast but without having any adventures. Actually, I got to be the witness to two motorcycles bumping together and spilling over the road. No big deal, but comes to show that silly foreigners are not the only ones that lose it in the general traffic scramble.
Dinner consisted on cucumber salad, coleslaw salad with some exotic herbs, vegetable stir fry, salted duck with lemon grass, fried fish, and a couple of beers. And all for about US$ 10! I certainly could get used to living in this country. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 13 – Back from Mong Cai, lunch at Tien Yen, and the long road to Ha Long

I luxuriated in the early morning with a hot water soak in my precious bathtub, reflecting that three days of basking in luxury have seriously handicapped my ability to sleep just anywhere.
The way back to Tien Yen was already known and as it often happens it seemed a lot shorter the second time round. The only thing new was that I stopped at a shop to have the oil changed and the air pressure in the tires checked out. I was setting myself for the short wait when the three older mechanics called me to the back of the shop to have a tiny cup of tea (a friendly custom that I have found throughout Vietnam). We made small talk the best way we could, considerably amused by my largely useless phrase book (this phrase book has attracted considerable attention in different circles, and often times the little book is kidnapped as one of my hosts peruses its pages completely mesmerized).
At about this point I realized that I had left behind my most important asset: my wrinkled and soggy road map! From there on I have been on the look for a new map, just to realize that in a week I have not seen a single newspaper, book, or magazine. Gas stations do not carry maps (did I already tell you that gas is 25,000 dong per liter, and that my tank has a capacity of little more than two liters?), so I am at a lost on where to find a new map. Ha Long is fairly touristic, so I hope I can get a new one there.
Back at Tien Yen I stopped for lunch at the same place I had stopped on the way in, and had another fabulous meal: A stir fry with clams and bamboo shoots, and a second stir fry of some unknown marine invertebrate with delicious veggies.
I had another 80 km to go before Ha Long, and the last 40 km were pure hell. I felt I had gone back to Hanoi, with its crazy traffic and its diesel fumes. I have figured out the hard way that the only consistent traffic rule followed by cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrian alike: It is your responsibility not to hit anyone else. Outside of that, anything goes, so pedestrians cross the street without looking, cars and motorcycles make unexpected u-turns right in front of you, bicycles weave merrily across the traffic lanes, motorcycles jump in front of you or even come against traffic! Now, admittedly I am a rookie driver, but I have taken to heart something I learned in my motorcycle training course: Anticipate, rather than react. That means that you should be aware of your surroundings, and anticipate where problems might occur so you are ready to take evasive action. It is a great piece of advice, and I am sure it has saved me at least a dozen times every day; it is exhausting, however, and with 10 km still to go I was tight as a knot.
Finally I came to what I though should be Ha Long (they don’t think it necessary to use signs such as “Welcome to Ha Long”), but the shoreline was nowhere to be seen. Instead I was in the midst of a busy commercial boulevard, and almost started hyperventilating when I saw a sign that if I kept going straight I would get to Hanoi. So I turned left, and in a few blocks I came to a waterfront promenade that was as different from the crazy street as day is from night. Yes, this is why Ha Long Bay is described as being one of the most beautiful bays in the world!
My stress having dropped by many notches I cruised the boulevard looking or a suitable place to spend the night. I did find a comfy hotel, but have definitely stepped down from my life of luxury. My window has a generous glimpse of the bay, however, so I will settle for location over bombastic splendor. By the time I was settled the sun was already on the horizon, so I went for a quick walk to take some pictures and find a place to eat. I found a very nice restaurant with terrace sitting looking unto the bay. I thought I had ordered fish, but instead I got a half bamboo with thin-sliced beef marinated in the most delicious mix of spices. Then nothing for a good 15 minutes. OK, I thought I had ordered rice and vegetables, but maybe the 12-year old girl who took the order had not understood (actually, I am pretty sure all the waitresses are young women, bur they are so thin and petite that they could well be girls). Then came a plate with cucumbers and jicama; very yummy. Then nothing, so after a judicious pause of about 20 minutes I asked for the check. Dramatic pause as my waitress went to prepare the check. Then she comes with a whole roasted chicken (suitably dismembered)! And I don’t even like chicken! So I had her put it in a couple of boxes and brought it home with me. Now I know what I am having for lunch for the next two days.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 12 – Lang Son to Tien Yen to Mong Cai

Nothing extraordinary to report. The 80 km stretch from Lang Son to Tien Yen was once again fun motorbike riding, but the scenery was not as spectacular as yesterday’s, and the road was a lot rougher. A fun road to practice sudden stops and starts, or how to keep your cool when you run unto rough pavement, and practically devoid of traffic.

I made Tien Yen, close to the coast, around 1 pm, so I figured it was safe to stop for lunch at a new-looking restaurant. The staff welcomed me with open arms and escorted me to the kitchen to make my selections. Oh, the variety of delicious-looking seafood . . . I settled for a nice fish soup and a calamari stir fry that were out of this world, and only the fear of appearing to be a glutton held from going back for a second round.

The second half of the trip, 80 km to Mong Cai, was not as fun. Clearly it is one of the big arteries between Vietnam and China, so there was a steady flow of 18-wheelers. Fortunately the highway is wide enough, but on at least one occasion I found myself squeezed against the shoulder as one truck was passing the other.

Mong Cai is at the northeastern corner of the country, and is a large and prosperous city at the border with China. I was expecting a strong Chinese influence but was disappointed. Tomorrow I will do some more exploration and may actually go all the way to the border itself. Once again I lucked out and found a Louis XV chateau to spend the night (being a  tourist is a hard thing, but someone has to do it). Fortunately the plumbing is very much up to date, and I even got a bathtub J J J

Friday, January 17, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 11 – The road between Thai Nguyen and Lang Son

The temperature dropped significantly overnight, so when I stepped out into the open I felt the bite of the chill. Fortunately my motorcycling jacket is very warm, and the gloves I bought in Hanoi keep my fingers reasonably warm (many ladies here use mittens that are permanently attached to the handles of the bike, so they have full finger mobility when it comes to operate the turn signals or the always present beep-beep horn).
Somebody should write a Motorcycle Guide to Vietnam. The first thing you would learn from the guide is that scootering around like the rest of the natives is the only safe and comfortable way to see the country. I have seen the long distance buses here, and they look pretty crowded. Also, the way the bus drivers swerve over the uneven terrain makes me suspect that many passengers end with mer maladie. The motorcyclist, in contrast, can take his or her time, enjoys the breeze, gets to look at colorful markets and magnificent scenery, stops to eat wherever is convenient, and literally merges with the country.
On that book the road between Thai Nguyen and Lang Son would deserve a five star rating. It is an excellent road and has very little traffic of cars, buses, or heavy trucks, so you get to commune with your fellow motorcycle riders and with the stunning scenery. Yet, it is a mountain road with plenty of gentle curves where you can practice your technique, yet with grades that are gentle and pose no great challenge to smaller motorbikes.
The first part of the road reminded me of the road between Monterrey and Saltillo, with the majestic Cerro de la M and La Huasteca, but in a tropical setting. Instead of yuccas you find banana trees, and instead of struggling corn fields and chaparral you see vast rice paddies and green everywhere. Once you get out of the initial valley the road goes through smaller karstic hills, very similar to what one sees in the Sierra Madre Oriental around La Huasteca Veracruzana.
For lunch I stopped, at exactly midday, in a small outfit that had a roasted duck on the counter. So I ordered myself a quarter duck lunch, a spring roll of sorts, and a beer. The boss lady must not have liked me because the duck was cold (albeit delicious), and my spring roll and beer never materialized. I had the usual complement of steamed rice and vegetable soup (chayote squash to be precise), so I was quite satisfied, but this is the first time where I could not make myself understood. Maybe it was the timing. At noon sharp the men take their lunch, so the boss lady may not have had the time to address the individual requests of a foreigner. Yes, I was quite surprised, but only men come to take lunch. There were plenty of women on the market place, but they must take their lunch at a different time or place. I will have to make further observations to support my theories.
The delicious ride was about 150 km long, but then I joined Highway 1, which is really busy. Fortunately they have a generous shoulder for scooters, and I only had to follow the Highway for about 10 km before entering Lang Son, which is another delightful city with European and Asian flavor. The main road is busy, but again nothing like Hanoi, and the small streets are quite and charming. I lucked out with finding a gorgeous hotel in its own grounds, reminiscent of a small chateau.
So far all the rooms I have stayed in have been really comfortable (the beds mostly being “firm”), with their own bathroom, TV, and even small servi-bars. Prices of sodas and bottled water are very reasonable. Prices have been escalating as I have moved closer to bigger cities, the range so far being 150,000 to 300,000 dongs. It looks like a lot, but once you convert them this would be equivalent to US$ 7.50 to US$ 15. Definitely a bargain!
I have had no problem getting money from the ATMs that are present in every city and major town. The only thing is that I can only pull 2,000,000 dongs at a time. I do feel like a millionaire, and the pleasurable sensation only costs me US$ 100 a pop!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 10 – Tay Thien, San Duong, and Thai Nguyen

It was a pretty chilly night, but my main complaint is that some hotels have a mattress that is only one inch thick, so for all practical purposes means you are sleeping on a wooden board. Of course “complaint” is a relative term, because I actually slept like a baby. Nonetheless it took me some time to get going, together with a couple of cups of coffee. But I got going, and by 8 am I was descending from my lofty village back into the lowlands.
I headed north from there, with the idea of going all around the mountain massif. Fortunately I am a nosey traveler, and when I saw a gilded portal in the distance I headed for it and discovered it was the entrance to the Tay Thien recreating area, still in the Tam Dao National Park. Tay Thien is a long, deep canyon whose headwaters are at the highest point of the range. The valley is as wild and scenic as any of the great river canyons of the Sierra Nevada, but is also some sort of sacred valley where many temples and a mosque are located. The Vietnamese took a page from the Chinese National Parks, so a very modern teleferic takes you from the valley to the high mountain peaks. The view is absolutely fantastic, and all for a measly US$ 9, round trip.
Once I got to the top I confirmed my feeling that I took this trip a couple of years too early. The Vietnamese are busy reconstructing their bomb-ravaged land, and everywhere you see evidence of brand new boulevards, hotels, and residential developments being constructed. The same is true of Tay Thien, where al the temples are being reconstructed, regilded, and made ready to receive thousands upon thousands of tourists. Alas, once again I was the only one there to take advantage of all these preparations and brand new infrastructure.
Back on the road I continued north, in what turned to be a perfectly good local road with almost no traffic, and the lofty metamorphic block gave way to a limestone terrain with a well developed karstic geomorphology. I enjoyed myself enormously feeling like a motorcycle ace as I pushed my speed to 100 km/hr (well, that is what it felt lie to me, and since the speedometer of my motorcycle doesn’t work there are no ugly facts to convince me otherwise).
After a good run of about 50 km I joined Highway 37 at San Duong and the traffic started to deteriorate. Passenger buses are a bit of a nuisance, but the real offenders are the 12-wheelers, which are heavily loaded, slow, and feel the need to swerve over the whole width of the two lanes, so you have to be very nimble to pass them with about 2 inches to spare. Add to that the construction that is taking place all over the country and you can imagine how frazzled we scooter riders can be.
I finally made it to my destination for the day, the hub town of Thai Nguyen. I thought the name could mean Thai People town, and was looking forward to the possibility of finding a nice Thai restaurant. On first blush it looks like a regular highway town, with all commercial activity limited to the sides of the highway. Fortunately I have become very adept to identifying possible hotels (a multi-story restaurant with a hotel counter on back) on the fly, so I was confident I would find a place for the night. And I did. Out of the corner of the eye I spotted a likely place, even if it didn’t conform to the general model. I made a u-turn (scary on the face of the swarm of scooters coming my way), and drove into the atrium of a maison de la Belle Epoque, where the grand old house has been converted into a comfortable hotel. The back “patio” is a vast garden where no less than three restaurants offer al fresco dining. I sat in one of the tiny tables and tried to order something different than the usual fare of Pho soup (noodle soup with thin slices of meat, bean sprouts, and basil leaves). The young waitress did her best to understand what I wanted, but despite my best efforts all she kept repeating the mantra “noodles, noodles”. Oh well, I like Pho soup well enough, so I nodded amiably and hoped for the best. And the best did come: a tasty stir fry with noodles and fried egg, with a generous cover of stir fry veggies and beef. Heavenly!
After dinner I went for a walk, enjoying the back streets and their feeling of well being and bonhomie. Yes, Vietnam is a poor agricultural country, but it is developing an urban middle class that at least locally is doing quite well. My steps also took me to the university, where lots of young men and women were walking back and forth from one class to the other. It was good to see that the new generation is getting prepared for the challenges ahead.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 9 – The Tam Dao National Park

Meandering through the country I have come a long way from the beaten path. I have not seen another non-Asian tourist for nearly a week, and my arrival to any town causes sensation among mothers, who make a point of calling their children’s attention to me, either to show them that Santa Claus really exists, or to bring home the notion of the dreaded Boogie Man. It is not a bad feeling, since everyone goes out of his or her way to welcome me.
Today this feeling was stronger than ever, as I headed toward the Tam Dao Mountains, a steep block of metamorphic rocks that juts up from the flatlands of the delta to an elevation of several thousand feet. My brave little motorcycle (a Honda Future, semi-automatic, and only 125 cc) labored up the steep mountain path, which reminded me of the climb to Paso de Cortés in Mexico, or the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. Not a soul was in sight.
Finally I made it close to the top, in the midst of magnificent trees and luxurious undergrowth, when the small town of Tam Dao came into view. I was not ready for the sight that met my eyes. In a development worthy of Zermatt or Chamonix I saw a beautiful mountain town dominated by tall and elegant hotels. Some clearly belong to the time of French Indochina, but many more were of quite recent construction, and all of them welcomed the tourist with open arms. The only problem is that I was the only tourist in the whole town!
There were several dozen restaurants waiting for my pleasure, and had I been in the mood I could have shopped for a room for hours on end (as it is I tend to make up my mind immediately, so in less than 15 minutes I had secured a comfortable room with a balcony). I then went for a long walk through the town, never completely casting off the eerie feeling that I was walking the set of a Hitchcock movie. I think that this is a very popular destination for domestic tourism during the summer, when the lowlands become very hot. For winter, however, it is too cold for the average Vietnamese family (but not cold enough to get snow).
Unfortunately there is not a lot to do, because the forest undergrowth is too dense, and I could not found any open paths to go into the mountain. I had to be content with walking the town, and with climbing a lot of steps to a rather handsome temple complex with beautiful marble statues. The rest of the afternoon I spent sitting in my balcony, reading a book and enjoying the view. But I could just not shake the creepy feeling that I was the only actor in an empty movie set.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 8 – Sun, sun at last!

The morning is glorious! Gone are the fog and the overcast, the drizzle and the icy wind. I am a happy man.

The ride today was superb. The countryside gleamed under the sun, and a balmy breeze kept me just on the right side of cool. I was enjoying taking my small motorbike through its paces, and at the same time reflected on the love affair between the Vietnamese and the scooter. The scooter here is what the minivan is to the US. An all purpose, all terrain vehicle for the family, for the farmer, for the pretty young thing, or for the executive. Everything gets transported by motorbike. Start with your average family, where the little boy stands between his dad’s legs, while mom and big sister ride on the back carrying the picnic basket. Then there is the local butcher, who carries two slaughtered pigs and a crate of chickens, and the mason, who is bringing two sacks of cement and a load of bricks to the construction site. One of the most interesting views are the scores of people who are carrying trees; yes, trees. I am not quite sure why, but I passed dozens and dozens of people hauling leafless trees, maybe with the intention of selling them to urbanites for landscaping purposes. The list goes on and on: Big rolls of cyclonic fence, 16-foot bamboo poles, a half cord of wood, four bicycles, a 50-inch plasma TV, and even a motorcycle! Truly, there is no end to the inventiveness of the Vietnamese when it comes to loading a scooter.

I topped a wonderful morning with a delicious lunch of fried fish, a type of roll, veggie stir fry and the ever present mountain of steamed rice. Speaking of rice, I had been passing through valleys where rice paddies seem to extend forever, so I have been able to study them in great detail. The walls of the terraces are built out of the same muck they turn to plant the rice in. The fact that these terraced fields are now all over the place is a testimony to several lifetimes of hard work.

After lunch I moved into a different ecosystem, where the main crop is tea. Tea is grown in rows of small hedges that are kept perfectly trim by the harvesters, who lovingly clip all the new growth. It gives the land an aspect of perfect care.

Unfortunately my road eventually reached the lowlands, and right away I started feeling the magnetic pull of the capital. This make navigation even more complicated, because instead of signs to the next bigger town now all the signs now give the direction and distance to Hanoi. I was resisting this magnetic pull, so I kept taking the exact opposite direction. Eventually I made it to the neighborhood of Viet Tri. My first instinct was to avoid it, because the approach was less than pretty, but then I came to a big boulevard and decided to take a look.

It is quite the handsome city. Parts of it could easily be imagined to be a suburb of Paris, with wide boulevards, tall maisons, small lakes, and all sorts of shops. Traffic is light, so it doesn’t have the crazy feeling of Hanoi, and every open space is used for small vegetable gardens. I could definitely live here. It also has the first superstore I have seen so far. It looks a lot like Carrefour or a super Walmart, with both department store an supermarket sections. I went in to buy a couple of necessities, and then enjoyed myself seeing groups of two or three come out loaded with bags and cardboard boxes, that were then inventively loaded on the scooter for the ultimate trip back home. I cannot wait to go shopping with my scooter back home. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Vietnam 2014 - Day 7 - Moc Chau, Gia Phu, and Phu Yen

Here I was, thinking that nothing could be worse than yesterday’s ride, only to find out that things could indeed get worse. To the discomfort of riding in the rain and in fog I had to add a chilling wind and the feeling that I really didn’t know where I was heading. I kept asking, of course, but I got more baffled looks than answers the deeper I got into the mountain.

Thoroughly wet and chilled I came to the realization that I had to drop in elevation, and regretfully modified my route. My map showed I had to reach the town of Moc Chau, 64 km away from my starting point at Mai Chou, but by the time I was in the area it became clear that the map maker had taken certain geographical liberties. There were so many unmarked intersections that it would have been a miracle if I could reach my destination. Three times I took a branch of an intersection only to backtrack after a couple of kilometers because “it didn’t feel right”. After another 40 km I decided I was hopelessly lost, so the thing to do was to get somewhere, anywhere, find a place to stay, and with a lot more time interrogate the locals as to the best way to proceed.

Since one place was as good as another, I got on a road that promised one would reach Beh Pha in only 47 kilometers. The distance was given kilometer by kilometer, so I figure that this Beh Pha must be a pretty important place. Even more significantly, the road was slowly coming down, so after a while the fog cleared and rain broke into a drizzle. The landscape that opened to my eyes was breathtaking (and a little scary to tell the truth). The road ran perched along the precipitous side of a tall mountain range, and the valley floor was a long, long way down. The road itself was narrow and pretty rough, but thank God it was asphalted through much of its length. . I really got into “the ride”, gliding around the turns, flying on the straight portions of the road, and taking in the details of the people and small towns I went through. On and on I went, ticking down the kilometers to Beh Pha as I went up and down my majestic mountain road. It reminded me of driving in the mountains of Oaxaca, in Mexico).

With about 15 km to go the road started going down toward the hó Song Da, one of two enormous reservoirs in northern Vietnam. Cool, I thought, Beh Pha might be a touristy town along the reservoir shore, and I could sure use a little bit of luxury after the cold and miserable ride. 10 km to go, and then 5 km, and nowhere did I see the signs of approaching a major tourist destination. Imagine my surprise when at the end of the final kilometer I found . . . nothing! The road ended at the water line and that was that.

Fighting my rising panic (and the thought that I would have to backtrack the last 47 km) I studied the place with a little more care and convinced myself that this was simply a ferry crossing. I had to wait for a while, and during this time a few more people arrived, but eventually the tiny and ancient ferry boat pulled in, we loaded, and shortly thereafter were disgorged on the other side of the lake. It was then that I got the best of news: A tiny sign promised that in another 27 km I would reach Gia Phu, which had been my original destination all along!
I made it to Gia Phu, but had to push another 10 km to Phu Yen, where I found a gorgeous grand hotel, where I am now decompressing and writing this blog. I am now in the heart of H’Mong country, where the folk people are more Chinese than Vietnamese, no English is spoken, and all the menus are in H’Mong rather than in Vietnamese. I was thus reduced to mimicry to get my dinner, which, although delicious, was a lot plainer than I would have liked. That is what happens when your education does not include basic fluency in H’Mong.

Vietnam 2014 – Day 6 – Up the hill and ….

It is overcast but not raining, so in my book it is a great day for motorcycling. Besides, I am retracing some of the ground I have already covered, so I am going over known ground … or at least I was going over known ground until I decided to take a shortcut. But that’s OK. Thanks to some clever navigation I miraculously managed to get back to the road to Cuc Phuong, and from there easily managed to get on the main road to the mountains.
“Road” is a euphemism for the foulest mud track I have found in my travels through five continents. But my trusty motorbike held true, and  I slowly picked my way up the mountains under a nagging drizzle. I have finally figured out that the provincial roads are regularly maintained, but as soon as the Route National goes through a town the whole thing goes to pieces, as road maintenance becomes the responsibility of the town.
Slowly I made my way up the mountains, until about noon, when I figured it was time to have lunch. I was fortunate enough to stop at a popular eatery where I was fed a scrumptious lunch of tofu, pork belly, cheese head, cabbage, and veggie soup. A veritable feast that I enjoyed to the last morsel. Coming out of the eatery I saw it was staring to drizzle, so I crossed the road and bought me a poncho (smartest thing I have ever done).
Slowly my pleasant motorcycle trip devolved into a nightmare. Mind you, the transition was so slow I was not quite sure when or how it happened: One moment I am picking my way through muddy potholes, then my poor motorcycle is slowly grinding its way up the steep slopes, then the drizzle turns into a wet fog, then the visor of my helmet becomes blurry, then my own glasses are but a haze while big trucks growl their way up the cliff-hugging asphalted path. The fog becomes thicker, and I wonder what crazy idea made me think it would be fun to risk life and limb up this wet, slippery slope. My butt is hurting, I cannot see past my nose, and my spaceship is struggling to make it to the top of the pass.
But I made it to the top of the pass! Again, it was not a clear cut moment. Rather, the fog started to let off, the road became less muddy, my engine stopped complaining, and all of a sudden I was less miserable. Mind you, my butt was still stiff and complaining, but now the world was less threatening and I knew I was going to make it. In fact, By the time I reached Mai Chou, at about 3 pm, the afternoon had settled into a fluffy clouds-and-sun mosaic, as if everything was just OK with the world.
Mai Chou is a pretty intermontane small town, but its beautiful surroundings have attracted enough attraction to develop a small tourist industry. I had the chance of a home stay (which I would have taken in a second had I not been so bushed), but I felt the need for a shower and a real bed so bad that I let it go for the sake of a non-descript regular hotel. Even the best hunter lets some game go!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 5 – Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh, and Tam Cóc

I was all set to go to the northwest, toward the mountains, when I was lured by the prospect of visiting Hoa Lu. This site is of significance because it is here that emperor Dinh established his capital ca. 950 AD, after having shaken the yoke of Chinese subjugation. He is also credited for giving the name of Vietnam to the new nation (until then an unruly province of the Chinese empire). The castle is at best modest, and time has not treated it kindly, but it is located amidst another massif of limestone, in a valley of remarkable beauty.

The whole area is a local tourism Mecca, and there are plenty of opportunities to spend your dongs in pleasant boat trips and visits to temples in grottos or caves. I did both, for the sake of duty, but from now on will be very selective on the type of tourist traps I visit. The boat trip was fun because with me were six young Vietnamese (4 girls and 2 guys) who were fun and uninhibited. They all wanted to take their picture with me, and unofficially adopted me as their grandfather. The guide sang a song, and then one of the guys sang a song (clearly a devotee of karaoke), and then I sang a song, so we had plenty of laughs as we were being rowed around. One of the girls even patted me on the belly, the way you would pat the belly of Buda, which caused yet another round of merriment.

From there I headed to the tourist area of Tam Cóc, but for a moment a panicked as I entered the industrial city of Ninh Binh. No fun riding when there are all sorts of trucks around you. But I was told to keep going (I ask for directions all the time, but my map is not very good, and my pronunciation of the place names is atrocious, so it is a bit of a miracle that I remain on course), and eventually came to the right intersection and entered the region of Tam Cóc. It is indeed beautiful, with its vast extensions of rice paddies magnificently framed by steep limestone buttes. I found that going slow in the motorbike gives me plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, at the same time that in an hour I can cover more ground than the bicycle bound tourists. I can get used to this type of tourism.
For V$ 250,000 (US$ 12) I secured a very nice room in downtown Tam Cóc, and treated myself to an afternoon stroll through the charming village. I had scouted the restaurants, and had set my eyes on a V$ 100,000 menu that included goat grilled with lemon grass, but by the time I came back from my walk I had eaten so much street food I didn’t feel hungry at all. My browsing included a kebab of grilled pork, a deep-fried plantain tostada, a king of spring roll, and a juicy pear. Let it not be said I do not keep to a balanced diet!

Vietnam 2014 – Day 4 – Cuc Phuong National Park

I have spent a delightful day at Cuc Phuong National Park, a small mountain massif of limestone that has been uplifted to create a ghostly karstic landscape, not unlike that seen near Guilin in China (but without a river running through it). It was a pleasant combination of motocross riding, zooming through narrow asphalted paths, and quite a bit of walking.

The park is as good an example of an equatorial jungle as anyone can hope for, with gigantic ferns, massive trees, monkeys, and a host of other birds and animals I couldn’t see through the mist. I took a long walk down the valley, but, alas, couldn’t see much because of the dense foliage.

I did get to explore a cave, with the help of a tiny flashlight I had procured earlier in the day. It is called the Cave of the Prehistoric Man, on account of many artifacts and three burials excavated a few years ago. The human occupation dates back to 5,500 BC, so it is easy to be transported in imagination to The Clan of the Cave Bear, and imagine that some of the deep galleries may have been places of magic, whereas the atrium might had been the abode of several families of Paleolithic people.

I came back to the hotel and found my host busy shoveling dirt inside the foundation for the new two rooms. It turns out that he is doing all the work by himself! To judge by the quality of the foundation walls, and the quality of my own room, he is clearly a good mason and handyman. After I told him how my day had gone (his English is very good, by the way, even though he tells me he learned it at school many years ago) he offered to take me to a big cave nearby, an offer I gladly accepted.

We ended riding about 15 km to another enclave of ghostly limestone buttes, but to get there we had to cross a vast plain. Under normal conditions it would probably be a swamp in the floodplain of the nearest river, but the industrious Vietnamese have converted in a series of wetlands, separated by levees, where they cultivate rice. The levees are no mean structures, but well built embankments 10 to 20 ft high, faced with neatly laid stone slabs, and with solid steel sluice gates that control the level of water on each subsection. On top there is a well paved road that is lively with hordes of motorcycle riders engaged on transporting the oddest items (in addition to one or two passengers). Since I was a passenger myself, I felt I had now shared on the spirit of vibrant Vietnam.

Down in the wetlands there was a hum of activity. A couple of the farmers have replaced the traditional water buffalo with some type of mucking machine that allows them to turn the mud before planting, but for the two I saw of those I also saw hundreds of water buffaloes trudging happily along. I also saw large flocks of ducks, apparently domesticated enough that they just hang out on their designate fields, seeing the world go by (interestingly, the white ducks and the black ducks don’t mingle at all, instead forming different flocks).

The cave was pretty nice, and the guide did a fine job at showing us the different forms that his feverish imagination could see in the different shadows, stalactites, and stalagmites (cave guides are the same all the world over), but the real bonus of the trip was fabulous landscape that I could command from the top of the hill. Truly, there is something unique and magic about karstic landscapes.