This is my fourth visit to Vietnam. Here I was always amazed by the scenery, the culture and the diversity that this country has to offer. It is only the people who I sometimes found to be stressful, because the Vietnamese are perfect businessmen and always wanted to rip you off. Let’s see how it will be this time.
In any case, from the beginning, everything was somewhat more complicated than in Laos. No wonder the Chinese have long had a strong influence in the north of the country and socialism in Vietnam was very marked – hammer and sickle, yellow star and red background. In addition, there were still propaganda signs like in former East Germany. Instead of Mao, you can see the face of the gaunt Uncle Ho everywhere.
While I had to wait only a minute for my exit stamp in Laos, it took the border guards in Vietnam all of 3 hours before I was allowed to enter the country. I was surrounded by nothing but busybodies, all officials who had nothing to do. I was comforted again and again every 10 minutes but no one wanted to tell me what the problem was. My passport went from one hand to the next and each person leafed through it, fingering and wrinkling my passport.
After further pressure they explained to me that the passport number had more digits and letters at one point in the passport than in other places, namely at the lower end, which is always that way in a German passport, but no one had ever complained about it before. After I finally knew what the problem was, I quickly came up with an explanation that, surprisingly, satisfied their concern.
Barely across the border, I immediately noticed a radical difference between the people in Laos, who were in a “sleeping beauty” slumber and the thriving country of Vietnam – crowds, traffic, honking, people, mopeds and chaos. Suddenly, there was a lot happening on the streets again and I was very glad about the change.
Changing money in a Chinese bank took about 45 minutes. A dozen copies of my passport were made and dozens of bank employees were allowed time to look through all the papers and check off the list.
In Laos, on the other hand, it took less than a minute to exchange dollars. Here in Vietnam, it took about 20 minutes, because here, they also photocopy the passport and it was very important that everything possible had to be filled out, and I had to sign 3 times. On top of that, the dollar bills were inspected by several people to determine whether they were indeed real money. Under no circumstances could they be kinked, torn, or have any other defects.
More than once, the people told me that they wouldn’t accept even old Dong bills. There are no coins, and the banknotes are made of plastic, just like the Australian dollar bill.
Normally, it is much easier to get money from the vending machine, but I still had some dollars left and wanted to get rid of them first.
Dien Bien Phu, the first town after the border, was a hectic city but nothing special. For $5 I found a great hotel room with a bathtub. That made me happy, because I had not had a bath since I was in Europe. The owners were so welcoming that they invited me to supper and were deliciously amused about how hungry I was.
I was lucky and met a Frenchman, with whom I explored the town.
Unfortunately, he continued on the next day. Normally, that would make no difference to me, but the next day was Christmas Eve and it terrified me to have to spend the evening alone. I tried with all my might to somehow push the thought away.
But on the morning of Christmas Eve, everything collapsed on top of me. For the first time, I was homesick. If it had been possible, I would have surely gotten into the next plane and flown home. Luckily the day passed, but somehow, my journey had been different for a few weeks now.
Meanwhile, I believed that it wasn’t because of the country I was travelling in, but rather it was because of me that I could no longer be so enthusiastic about everything.
Was I travel-weary? Was it because of my homesickness? Had I lost my perspective because I didn’t really want to face the final goal of Australia? What was suddenly wrong with me and my curiosity?
Was I tired of all the impressions? Or was it only because I felt totally lonely? I had somehow lost the joy and tried for weeks to find it again.
It felt a little bit like getting up in the morning, grabbing my bag and going to work. Everything had become a routine and I noticed that the charm was beginning fade. I would also have liked just once to stay longer in a place somewhere. But first of all, I couldn’t find a place that really appealed to me so much that I wanted to spend several weeks there and, secondly, the much larger problem was, as always, the visa.
Actually, that’s the downside of cycle tours. If you’re motorized, if there’s nothing else to do and you have to leave the country quickly, you can easily travel as far as 1000 km in one day.
On a pushbike it takes at least 10 days, usually much longer, especially in the mountains, where I’m constantly on the road. So, I’m always under pressure to keep going, and in the long run that’s not so good. Sure, I could take the bus now and then, but I would only do that if there were no other options. In any case, I look forward to get to countries soon where the visa is no longer a problem. In the meantime, it’s beginning to bug me.
But I didn’t allow myself to be defeated and held to my plan to continue on in the hope of finding the joy of the most brilliant journey of my life again.
From Dien Bien Phu, I continued northward. It felt like the bike didn’t want to continue any further.
It was really hard to ride. But I managed somehow to inspire myself to see the countryside and especially to enjoy the colourful dressed hill tribes.
But the distance I was able to travel per day was a joke compared to what I was able to cycle in the beginning. Even if the number of kilometers doesn’t really matter, I had to go forward because, as always, the 30 days allowed in my visa were passing so quickly, especially since I had arrived 5 days late at the border and had already lost time because of that.
This time, my other gear cable broke and was so stupidly demolished that it took me quite a while to get the mangled wire out of the guide. Unfortunately, I could no longer manage to get the chain to jump onto the large sprocket. No matter how tight I tightened the screw, the cable kept slipping out again and again. After trying everything, I continued further, since the area consisted only of mountains anyway, it wasn’t all that tragic, because I didn’t need the large sprocket anyway.
I came to one stretch of road that consisted only of building sites. Because of all the traffic, I was permanently doused in dust and looked like a pig by the end of the day. I found a little place to stay where I could wash my clothes. It was amazing how much dirt came out of my clothes.
In the meantime, it had become very wet and cold. Often, the fog would hang in the mountains until noon and everything was only shades of gray. Sometimes, it also rained.
I cycled on a moderately busy street when I saw a moped rider standing on the side of the road. At first, I thought he was just peeing, but then I noticed that he was “amusing himself by abusing himself ” and just at the moment I drove past him he turned toward me. He grinned revealing his “pride and joy” quite demonstratively.
Somehow I found it funny, but I moved on as quickly as possible. He passed me a few more times, possibly waiting and hiding somewhere until I passed him again. But nothing more happened.
That same evening, I arrived in a small town and was looking for a place to sleep when a man approached me and wanted to help. He could speak a few words of English and thus took me to the bus station where I could stay in a cheap place. The guy was strange and, as always, I had a nose for what he had in mind. And that’s the way it was, because he simply didn’t want to leave and then invited himself into my room. After a while, finally I was able to get rid off him.
I hadn’t really expected that of the Vietnamese. And I hadn’t seen anyone make a move like that since I had been in Kyrgyzstan.
But the incidents were an absolute exception. It seemed like a Vietnamese “slip-up” day.
What was delightful about that evening was that I was invited to join the people in the neighboring room for dinner. It’s always nice when I don’t have to be alone, even if we can’t communicate.
I went through some beautiful areas. There were rice fields at every turn, but also steep densely-forested mountain slopes, all with many many meters of altitude to overcome.
Shortly before Sapa, a well-known tourist town in the far north of Vietnam, I again faced a never-ending climb to a pass. But, by the end of the day I managed to make it to the top. At the summit at 1900 meters, it was dark, foggy, wet and cold.
I remembered visiting Sapa in 1997 when there was only one place to stay. You would no longer recognize the place. There was Karaoke on every corner, one hotel after another, souvenir shops and none of the original atmosphere anymore. Also, there were unfriendly, business-minded people everywhere. Repulsive, arrogant acting Vietnamese.
There, everything was about making money and nothing else.
New Year’s Eve approached and I hoped to find a few tourists in the village who might celebrate with me, but other than a couple of young Israelis who weren’t interested in me, unfortunately I found no one.
So I spent the evening in a small Hotel. The room was so humid that all night long water dripped on the floor together with the paint from the ceiling.
It was freezing cold and I was glad to have my super luxury electric blanket in bed with me.
Vietnam is significantly cheaper than Laos. For a few dollars you can get a place to sleep that is
usually really OK. No bed linen is changed, cigarette butts lie on the floor, and the garbage is not taken
out to make it more comfortable for the next guest, but in comparison to Laos, it is quite princely
if you use the prices as a measure.
But as always in Vietnam, my discussions were about paying the bill. One evening, I stayed
with a family in a small private room. They wanted 70,000 Dong, a little less than 3 Euros.
I had paid them already at check-in, but a few hours later, a lady of the family suddenly
came up with the idea that she might still require a little more from me and said it costs
200,000 Dong, and if I didn’t pay, I would have to leave. For something like that, however,
I can only respond with a tired smile and I never let myself become intimidated, because
these people can sometimes get uncomfortable when it comes to money.
On another day, the same thing happened. 50,000 Dong were agreed to. The price was also
large on a sign, but the next day, the owner suddenly wanted to have more and whined to me
how poor he was and how rich I am – blah, blah, blah – always the same scam. Unfortunately,
I only had a 100,000 Dong bill. He pocketed the bill, but gave me no change. Whereupon
I made it clear to him that he was not going to do that with me. I pulled him back the bill from
his pocket and pushed my bike out of the house, with the motto that whoever wants to
cheat me, gets nothing.
Then he came up with the idea that he had no change, but when he realized he was chipping
into granite, he suddenly pulled a huge wad of cash out of his other pocket and gave me
50,000 Dong back while grinding his teeth.
I once had a dispute with a woman at the noodle soup stand. As always, I ordered it with
no meat and, because of that, the food is generally a little bit cheaper. We agreed on
7,000 dong for the soup, but when it was time to pay, she suddenly wanted to have
13,000 Dong. The woman was so upset that she even hit me really hard on my shoulder,
because I didn’t want to give her more. When I returned the blow she just looked at me
totally confused and, after a few men interfered, in the end, saw that I really had no meat
and the price of 7,000 was justified.
Vietnamese cheat, in fact, very often. In the markets I always watch the locals carefully to
know how much money is the right amount to offer. I have to say that I had to bargain
for everything, because they almost always try to ask me for twice the normal price.
Sometimes they are so eager to sell me something that umpteen women would gather
around me to get me to come to their market stand.
As always, I got soup for breakfast. At lunchtime and evenings, rice with broth was served along with whatever I had chosen for myself. I often ate tofu with tomatoes, which is really very juicy and tasty here. Of course, there are also plenty of green vegetables, like spinach.
The spring rolls are extremely tasty and the variety of food is gigantic. The markets are full of fruits and vegetables and it is a lot of fun to try different things all the time. Pineapples and bananas are often to be found along the roadside.
And you even get the pineapples peeled very nicely for you on the spot.
From Sapa I went further on to Bac Ha…..more to read – next time.