Saturday, January 11, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 3 – On the road again …

I slept extremely well last night, my body finally catching up with the change of schedule, so it was not until 8 am that I got on my motorbike. By that time the city was on full swing, and it was with some reservations that I wove my way through crowded streets to head south out of the city. The odometer and speedometer on the bike do not work, so I had no real idea of whether I was going fast or slow, and what distance I was traversing. At the end it became clear that I was not going very fast, and it took me nearly 7 hours to cover a little over 100 km as the crow flies (this included some stops, so the overall average of 15 km per hour is a little misleading). Then again there was the fact that I was not traveling on a straight line, but rather weaving my way out of the city along a levee road.

I got to see a lot of rice paddies and water buffaloes, however, and saw much incongruous French architecture in the little towns I was crossing. The French tax property by the street width, so this encourages skinny, deep houses with four or five floors. The same seems to be true in Vietnam, probably on account of the colonial occupation by the French in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The day turned out to be pretty chilly, so I got to wear my heavy motorcycle jacket very comfortably (heat, on the other side is my nemesis, because the jacket makes me sweat profusely). I was enjoying myself greatly until I stopped to ask for directions and found out that I had covered less than 10% of the distance I intended to cover today. Sadly I left my levee road to cut across the landscape and reach Highway 1. Once I got there I found out that it is a regular modern highway where motorcycles are not allowed. Rats! Fortunately there is the old Route National 1, which in very French fashion cuts through all the little towns as it meanders on its way south. Motorbikes have taken over this route, so I had plenty of company.

My ultimate destination for the day was the city of Ninh Binh, which is the hub of a number of touristic attractions. But as the day wore on, and I came to grips with the slowness of my travel, it became clear that my best bet was to head directly to one of the attractions, in the hope of finding a small hotel there. So I turned my nose toward the Cuc Phuong National Park, and hoped for the best. I do not want to travel at night, so I set my goal on arriving somewhere by 3 pm, and then park myself for some rest and relaxation.

The best did come my way, and around 3:30 pm I found a brand new hotel 3 km before the entrance to the park. It is true that there is nothing to do here in the middle of nowhere, but the friendly proprietor offered to cook me dinner at his house nearby, and to have breakfast ready for me at 7 am, so what else could I ask for? The proprietor is a young man that has invested on building this hotel hoping to capture some of the tourist traffic to the park. So far he has four comfortable guest rooms, and is building two more in the back. I am clearly the only guest right now, but it is not the real touristy season and he has hopes that come summer all his rooms will be taken. If you ever come this way, it is the Cuc Phuong Hotel (US$ 6 per night), just past the Cuc Phuong Resort (US$ 60 per night).

Many thanks to the foresight of my beloved Annie, who as a travel gift gave me a little hot coil. These devices were very popular 40 years ago, to heat a single cup of water, but I had not seen one in as many years. I think Annie found it at REI and I think they are absolutely marvelous if you want to have a cup of coffee or tea as you unwind. Faby completed the gift by giving me a handful of individual packages of coffee (the ones with cream and sugar included are the best), so I enjoyed a wonderful cup of java as the afternoon turned into dusk (it is overcast, so I cannot say there was much of a sunset).

I finished the day with a tasty stir fry cooked by my host at his house. It was a simple meal of fried cabbage (fresh from the garden) with thin slices of pork, served with the ubiquitous bowl of steamed rice, but to a weary traveler tasted heavenly. A bottle of the local beer, Bia Han Oi, made a refreshing complement to the tasty meal.

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