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Only in Vietnam #14 14 March 2011

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An toan la tren het (or Safety first) is a slogan you see all over Vietnam. On building sites especially. But it is sometimes a “going through the motions” of occupational health and safety, and I frequently see extremely dangerous practices.

This weekend, though, I was standing with my heart in my throat as I watched the building behind us demolishing the verandas. Two men were using jack hammers to drill the veranda they were standing on…

I am not sure if they will demolish the rest of the building or just the little verandas that have been built onto the house, but I am just waiting for a major accident to happen!

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Ha Giang – lovelier, the second time around 8 March 2011

Posted by uggclogs in only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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I have, of course, completely stolen the above headline from my partner, who pointed out that it was indeed lovelier, the second time around. Which hard to believe, if you saw our reports on our original trip.

We were a group of six travellers this time, keen for adventure and the country side. We took an overnight sleeper bus to Ha Giang, which was actually not too bad, but sleeper buses designed for Vietnamese (where men are on average 22 cm shorter than me) is never going to be extremely comfortable.

Arriving in Ha Giang at 3 am, we had called ahead to a hotel and booked rooms, so we could sleep the rest of the morning in beds before getting started on the day.

Friday morning, we rented bikes, organised the appropriate licences required to travel in the region (as the Vietnamese like to know who is loitering in the border area with China) and set off into the mountains.

Unfortunately, it was raining and rather cold, and we soon also hit the mist which covered the mountains, so we were soon chilled to the bone. But riding through it was still beautiful and spectacular, with villages and mountains poking through the misty landscape. The roads were twisting and winding along the mountain passes, through valleys and onto mountain passes, with gigantic trucks and buses coming around corners in the mist.

On the first day we did not get very far, we stopped off at Tam Son for lunch (about 45 km), and then on to Yen Minh (another 44 km) for the night. I found the landscapes we passed through (when we could see further than 20 metres ahead) fascinating, and they varied almost per valley. Sometimes, they were dry and wintry, other times green and lush, almost spring like. We’d pass through pine forest or leafy tropical forests with palm trees and birds screeching above.

On Saturday, we set off for Pho Bang (about 19 km), a traditional Chinese style village near the border of China, where we were received with smiles and waves. The local school also had just had a break, and we had a sticky beak into the class room when it resumed as the toddlers were reciting Vietnamese proverbs. They were so adorable! The landscape was yet again amazing, and you could practically see China from where we stood.

In Pho Bang, we stopped for a coffee, and watched the locals set up for a wedding. Everyone brought the tables and chairs from their houses, and there was a giant tarpaulin stretched right across the road for the revellers. The karaoke system was already installed before they had finished setting up the tent, so it looked like they were gearing up for a big party. The groom had gone early that morning to fetch his bride, so we did not get to congratulate them, and we needed to push on.

I was pleased to come across a game of Mah-Jong, too, clearly indicating that China and Chinese customs were not far away!

As we reached the turn off for the northernmost point of Vietnam, the group split up, with some going to Lung Cu (the northernmost point where there is a giant flag tower) and the others going to Sa Phin, where there is a restored mansion that used to belong to the Mong King which looked amazing. But just as I pulled up outside of the castle, I changed my mind and drove after the guys who went north.

It was a lovely drive, with amazing views, and apart from the fact that one of the guys had a small accident with his bike and came off it (slightly scraping his knee) and subsequently also had a flat tire, it was a beautiful side trip. I thought we would swing by the castle on the way home, however, due to the time lost to the accident and the tire, we chose a different route (which cut the distance to Dong Van in half) which I now thoroughly regret. I would have loved to see the Royal House! I thought I would get to do both, and I think if I had known that I would have to do either the flag tower or the royal house, I would have chosen the latter, especially as the mist shrouded the surrounding countryside, and we could hear the flag before we could see it as we were climbing the stairs.

On Sunday, we got up early to see the Dong Van market, which was still misty and smokey, but warmer than before. By the time we had explored the stalls and had some local pho, the sun came peaking through, and when we stepped on the bikes, it was almost warm!

We stopped off in Meo Vac for their markets as well, where we got to see all the beautiful ethnic minority people buying and selling their goods. It was intriguing to ride along the roads, where driving out of Dong Van all the minority peoples were walking towards you, heading to the town you had just left, and then, further on, they were all walking in the same direction as you, heading towards the town you were going to.

We also fit in the markets at Lung Phin, which are held every 6 days, and, luckily, we had worked out that they would also be on that Sunday. The locals were intrigued by our presence, and looked as much at us as we did at them. We soon headed back in the direction of Yen Minh, hoping to get there in good time.

Along the way on the last day, the mist had lifted, and we could truly see the landscapes that the north of Vietnam is famous for. All the peach blossoms were also out, and at one point, I came upon a mountain road where the clouds literally tumbled over the edge. You could see the movement of the clouds, rolling over the road, and I sat there, with my engine turned off, listening to the quiet and watching the marvellous picture nature was offering.

As we were all nicely warmed up, and driving through the mountains at ease, we managed to get to Yen Minh by lunch time! We had done 70 km in one morning! So we decided to get back to Tam Son, and then see if we wanted to keep going. In Tam Son, we were all doing so well, that we rode the entire rest of the journey back to Ha Giang (total of 170 km in one day!) to find some dinner there.

It was an exhausting day, but well worth the effort, because that meant that we did not need to leave early again the next morning to make it to the bus station.

Some of us went to a village near Ha Giang on Monday morning to have a look around, and were again pleased with what we found, riding along little paths, watching the locals go about their daily lives with their buffaloes.

When we arrived at the bus station, however, we were told the bus would not leave at 10am, as expected, but at 1pm. After trying to find a solution, everyone went to sit down, thinking we had a big wait ahead of us. I was a bit slow, and the guy in charge of the bus asked me whether we could wait until 1. I said no, we need to go now.

“Ok.” he says.

I just stand there, not knowing what he means.

“Hurry up, get on the bus. We will leave now.” He tells me.

He calls the driver over who is having a cigarette and a coffee. “You need to leave immediately!”

So somehow, we got to go at 10am after all! We made it back to Hanoi tired, and happy, utterly pleased with the trip we had made. To anyone who wants to explore Vietnam by motorbike: do!

Only in Vietnam #13 16 February 2011

Posted by uggclogs in only in Vietnam, Vietnam.
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As I have mentioned before, this might not be strictly something that could only happen in Vietnam. But since I have not ridden a motorbike elsewhere, it still fits in this category for me.

Late last week, I was riding along behind a Vietnamese man on his motorbike. We were not far apart, my front wheel was about the same height as his back wheel, but I certainly was not in his field of vision. Riding in Vietnam is like skiing: you keep an eye on everything and everyone in front of you, everyone behind you keeps an eye on you. Many bikes don’t even have mirrors, and if they do, they are sometimes adjusted so the rider can see their own face (look ma, I look cool!) rather than anything behind them. No lie!

So, riding along beside/ behind this man, I was of course aware of him, but he was not aware of me.

That’s when it happened.

Out of nowhere, this man sneezes over his left shoulder. And yes, I ride straight through the mist of sneeze.

I think to myself – that’s it. I have managed to avoid the flu (with great stealth and some sneaking around) so far this year. But now I’ve got it.

Sure enough – I was sick on Saturday. And Sunday. And Monday and Tuesday. I am finally back at work now, on Wednesday. But man, was I knocked on my backside with this flu.

Only in Vietnam #12 27 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Life, only in Vietnam, Traffic, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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I try not to go on about the cold weather in Hanoi too much. I mean, yes it is cold. But if you are here, you know that. If you are not, you probably don’t care.

But today, driving through the city centre amongst the Tet traffic and cumquat trees (still bobbing away on the back of motorbikes, but this year all wrapped up to protect the little fruit, luckily in see-through plastic, so still all good) I was overtaken by a young thing on a motorbike who clearly was not dealing well with the cold.

Normally, you see a lot of people with their right hand on the gas and their left hand in their pocket when it is cold.

This guy took it to a whole new level: He was zooming along, to about 50-60 km an hour, then he would let go of his handle bars completely, pocket both hands, and glide along through traffic until he had lost enough speed to do this all over again. Mind you, he kept it pretty straight, but that took traffic safety to a whole new level for me.

Never mind that he wasn’t wearing gloves, surely you would value your life over cold hands?

At least he was wearing a helmet, I suppose.