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Central Vietnam 4 December 2008

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, Travelling.
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Originally posted on 4 December 2008 (edited)

I took an overnight train on Tuesday to Vinh to meet up with my partner who was away on a business trip.

Vinh is the capital of Nghe An province, and was an important transport hub between Hanoi and the fighting in the south.  In consequence, the city was pretty much completely flattened during the Vietnam War (or American War, if you want to use the Vietnamese lingo), and was rebuilt with the help of the Soviets afterwards.  It is thus a lot of concrete and not the nicest architecture.  Additionally, it is only in recent years that the city council has started trying to ‘green’ the city by planting trees, so it is quite a grey and depressing city.  We were also unlucky with the weather, because it was raining and cold most of the time.  I only stayed there for a few hours, which I think was probably enough anyway.

Wednesday morning we drove on to Ha Tinh.  Ha Tinh is the capital of Ha Tinh province, and here we went to see a temple dedicated to a general from a long time ago.  On the way to the temple, the car was driving along a road next to the beach, but the wind had created sand drifts, and the car got stuck on one of them.  The locals had to dig us out for us to be able to go to the temple via a different route.  The village we passed through on our way to the temple was so poor that none of the houses there have toilets.  They all go and do their business behind a sand dune when the need arises, which creates serious health hazards, as the human waste seeps into the waterways.  It is amazing to see the country outside of the cities, because it is so easy to forget in Hanoi how poor most of the rest of Vietnam is, still.

At the temple, the head priest(?) performed a ceremony for us, so that we could ask for happiness and other things.  Part of the ceremony is asking the general questions, and by throwing two special coins up and onto a plate, you receive the answer.  Heads- heads or Tail-tail is no, Heads-tail is yes.  My partner and I will apparently be very successful.  (Phew!)

But also Ha Tinh was an important location during the Vietnam War.  Near Ha Tinh there is a strategic cross road, where the roads to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Lao meet.  This road was bombed almost daily during the war, and many people spent a lot of time at the intersection rebuilding it every day.  It was an incredible effort that they managed to keep the communication lines open during the war through the hard work of the citizens.

The citizens knew that when the bombers came, they would bomb the cross roads. They also knew that once they had dropped the bombs, they would not come back until the next day.  However, one day in 1968, ten young girls who were there rebuilding the road were killed because the bombers returned unexpectedly for a second time.  Now, there is a shrine at the bomb site where the locals (and other Vietnamese from all around) come to pray to the ten virgins, so we went to show our respects and to learn some more about the history of the region.

The next day, we continued to Quang Binh.  Quang Binh is a very poor province in central Vietnam which borders Lao in the west and the Chinese ocean in the East.  Quang Binh is actually quite a nice resort town, with beautiful beaches.  Unfortunately, it was painfully cold and windy when we were there, so we ended up just watching it from a distance.  But although Quang Binh is nice, it leaves service to be desired.

In the morning, my partner and I went to the café in our hotel, and (stupidly) asked for lattes.  Not knowing what they were, we explained coffee with milk.
“Sure,” she said.
“Oh, and do you have snacks?”
“Sure,” she said.
Not being able to ascertain from her what kind of snacks they might have, we suggest a few things which make her shake her head. Finally we say:
“Peanuts?”
“Sure,” she said.
So she brings out two cups of black coffee with sugar.  We ask for milk, and she points to the sugar.  Eventually, we manage to explain that we wish for milk, and she brings out sachets of milk powder.  Fair enough, we think.  Maybe milk is hard to come by in Quang Binh.  Flexibility is key.

So when she brings out a plate of pistachios, and us having been in Vietnam for a while, this didn’t faze us too much, we drank our black coffees with milk powder and ate our pistachio-peanuts.

However, that night, I should have known better from the earlier experience at the café, but I don’t learn from my mistakes.

“Room service?”
(In Vietnamese, to others): “Can anyone speak English?”
Bit of skirmish and panic at the other end, I am hung up on.  I wait a minute, then call again.  A lady answers this time.

“Hello? Can I order some room service?”
“Yes, what would you like?”
“Can I have the pizza (insert full Vietnamese name, as on the menu here), please?”
*giggle* “Yes. And to drink?”
(In Vietnamese): “Do you have lemon juice?”
“Yes.”
“One lemon juice please.”

So she calls me back after a little while and says

“There is problem with your food!”
“Ok, what is the problem?”
“No…” (Panicky attempt to ask someone what something is in English) “No HAM”.
(In Vietnamese): “Do you have a different type of pizza?”
“Yes.” (Hangs up)

Next thing I know, I have one lemon juice with bits of an insect floating in it (looks like it has gone through the food processor), and… a giant plate of sausage.  Disgusting sausage, too.  I am not sure where this went wrong…

Ah, the joys of room service.

That night we caught a sleeper train to Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is a town that has very little to offer, but it has some amazing sights nearby and beautiful surrounding country side.  In Ninh Binh, we met up with my partner’s school friend and her boyfriend.  It was really lovely to see them, and we spent three days scootering around the country side. I was ecstatic that my first experience driving a scooter was had outside of Hanoi, where traffic is a bit daunting.  The first day we rented two scooters and went twosies toward a temple in the country.  It was beautiful landscape, and we really enjoyed having to slow down for buffalo herds on the roads.  Traffic was not too bad, either.  That night ended with (beautiful) karaoke and cheap plum liquor while out, and word games until late back at the hotel.  Yay bananagrams!

The next day, we rented two more bikes to drive out to Cuc Phuong National Park and stay there overnight.  We strapped our backpacks to the motorbikes, and set out on the adventure.  It was a beautiful drive up there, and with us stopping and looking around in Van Long village and other places, it took us quite a bit of time to get there.  I was the only one who had an ‘accident’, and this was while standing still (how embarrassing).  I was sitting on the bike, but must have gassed a little, and couldn’t figure out why the bike was moving forward (albeit very slowly) straight for someone whose bike was standing perpendicular to mine in front of me.  Next thing I know, my bike has fallen over, with my leg stuck between the exhaust pipe and the bike.  Nothing but my pride and shin was hurt, though.

At Cuc Phuong National park, we stayed in the park at a guest house, and through a friend of a friend, we managed to make an appointment at the Carnivores and Pangolin Conservation Program rescue centre.  This was especially cool because our friend had just finished her studies as a veterinarian, and because the centre is not normally open for visitors.  Since most of the animals there were nocturnal, we only went there after dark, but we were introduced to civits and pangolins, the latter of which look like walking pine cones.  All in all, it was an amazing experience.

The next morning we drove into the National Park on our motorbikes, which was about 20 kilometres of beautiful forest.  We stopped at the aptly named Big Tree for photos, and loved starting to feel comfortable with the motorbikes.  We also stopped off at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, which houses monkeys and apes that are just too cute!  Some of them even had young, which was adorable.

Driving back we went by the old citadel of Hoa Lu, which used to be the capital of Vietnam before Hanoi was.  We climbed to the top of one of the mountains to see the view, and ate ice creams when we made it back down.

Back at the hotel in Ninh Binh, though, we realised that we had not been clear enough in our need for them to book us a minibus back to Hanoi, and finding out that all the minibuses were taken and the trains were full was not nice at all.  After trying to flag down public buses for a while, but finding all of them full, we ended up negotiating a fare back to Hanoi with a taxi driver.  It was expensive, but at least we made it back home.

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