Day 22 75 miles
I woke to a cockerel having a heart attack and went to meet Set for an early breakfast so that he could get in a good days work and i could get an early start on the road. We enjoyed a pleasant meal of a thick omelette cooked to perfection with hidden parcels of tomatoes, fried onions and peppers offering up a new taste with every mouthful, before making potential plans to meet up again when i get closer to Laos’ capitol. We issued a quick goodbye and had that slightly awkward moment where two people having ended the formalities of a farewell are still moving in the same direction, conversation becomes naturally stilted and one ends up feigning that the friend next to you is in fact a stranger, Set relieved the situation by dismissing me, telling me i had many miles to cover and to get going, relieved ( for nothing vexes an Englishman more than an awkward social situation ) i was back on the road.
Being on a high plateau i was cycling literally on top of the world, with dramatic, if not disappointingly hazy views of mountains all round like distant sails appearing on a misty sea. I would pass through a hamlet every mile or so, and a village every five, where the children yell out ‘hellos’ and run to the side of the road to get a better view, mothers turn their infants to my direction and move their forearms to make them wave too, the men offer warm smiles as long as i initiate the first one and where there’re older people they typically look upon me with mistrust. My progress remained steady and the threatening Cumulus ahead for now at least was behaving, although like a mischievous child i felt sure as soon as i took my eye’s off him he’d be up to no good.
After passing over a bridge i pulled up and tried to take a photo of a goat that had taken up station in an abandoned guards hut. The Billy was looking out the window with a look of absolute indifference at the stunning vista he was beholding, much like a perpetually dissatisfied piano teacher surveys her student. I don’t suppose the goat will ever be considered the connoisseur of the animal kingdom. Anyway, on stopping to try and get the photo, which would have been quite amusing i imagine, the goat woke from his reverie, gave me a panicked look, bleated and scarpered. Foiled, I stepped back to the bike and it was then that i happened upon the Tarantula, dead i might add, that was lying, legs akimbo in the road. It wasn’t the only one either! Because i’d stopped by the road, and because i have a funny bike and because i’m white I’d attracted the attention of two Laotians passing on their moped’s. They, like so many Asians who don’t know that its rude to stare, were leaning on their handle bars just gazing at me. The sinister aspect of a situation like this ( can you imagine stopping anywhere in Britain to have two bikers pull over and just silently watch?) is often dissipated by offering a friendly smile which is invariably returned. Having a captive audience is awkward however. I feel daft if i just want to look at the landscape or my map when being closely observed myself. Anyway, on this occasion they were especially interested in me because i was especially interested in the tarantula, which i gingerly nudged with a pirouetted foot. I asked, pointlessly of course, if it was poisonous and received a shuddered shake of the head in response. Probably telling me not to touch, although if that was due to arachnophobia, or from the spider having venom enough to knock down a Cart Horse i’ll never know.
A couple of hours later i arrived at the border. I knew i was there a good mile before as hundreds of illegal logger’s trucks appeared upon the next hill parked bumper to bumper looking like a giant iron millipede snaking all the whole way to the crossing. They look like they have to wait a very long time, as some were drying their washing on their windscreen and others had made a make shift tent from material strung between two trucks to drink tea and smoke beneath. On slowing down to be a bit nosey I was invited to join one of these little gatherings and was presented with cup after cup, more thimblefuls i suppose, of tea. They were a friendly bunch and didn’t seem at all perturbed about having to spend hour after hour waiting under the noisy flap and slap of canvas in the wind. I was only halfway home though so had to press on lest i find myself preparing to spend another night with the loggers.
Once more it was a painless crossing, the main guard who was given my passport to examine didn’t bother rising from his supine position on his ’80’s sun lounger, instead he spent a long time scrutinising my passport examining it minutely like one would a family heirloom that has just been pronounced a forgery, yet neglecting to give me so much as a glance. I could have been a black, one-eyed, red-bearded midget weighing 300 lbs for all he knew. Much the same with the Vietnam side although they appeared more professional and thought it prudent to at least check my face against my photo and to even have a rummage through one of my bags. Then on my release, and on breasting the hill the entire landscape like a ‘quick change’ act transformed appearance completely, how does it know?! and i was on the most beautifully scenic and lush road i’ve ever ridden. It was of course, the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The Ho Chi Minh trail, HCMT for short, was a road made to connect the north of Vietnam to the south during the war. The Vietnamese denied it existed, the Americans denied bombing it, a bit awkward that one due to the hundreds of thousands of Tonnes of American shrapnel that can be easily lifted from the Jungle, glaringly obvious inconsistencies never seem to get in the way of the US when it comes to spinning a good yarn though so it’s a story they stuck with. The VC however thought it prudent to not only deny the road existed but to at least try and hide it. Hundreds of miles of jungle road isn’t the easiest thing to conceal though, you’ve got to cut down a lot of trees to allow enough room for trucks, which is especially hard to camouflage when people are searching from the air, so the VC used to tie the tops of the tree canopy together to shield the ant like stream of people, trucks and weapons being moved below. Rivers were another challenge altogether, they criss cross the landscape like cracks on an oil painting, bridges are therefore necessary but how do you hide one of those? They could hardly pull the canopy over the river, so instead the cunning VC made bridges that sat just below the water line. They were virtually impossible to spot from the air but supplied a very easy fording experience for trucks and troops. I saw one on the trail and a second i photographed although this one was a good meter out of the water so i’m not convinced it’s an original. This is the dry season though so come the monsoon it could well be covered.
To get to a hotel i had to really push hard and arrived in town just after dark where the rain fell in time with the sun. On this final stretch i did see something i considered a little uncanny, every mile for three miles i passed an old man walking in the opposite direction who was clearly missing an eye and all three of them were missing the same one, their left, it struck me as odd anyway. I’d cycled 75 miles, crossed a border and climbed at least 2 mountains. A very enjoyable days cycling and certainly the most scenic.
Day 23 6 miles
After all that hard work yesterday i had two breakfasts before getting going especially as i only had 40 miles to cover and so could afford to take a later start. But within the first two miles a noise and a rattle that i’d been experiencing yesterday yet couldn’t identify, showed itself in the form of loose rear gears. I pulled up to a mechanic and, as kind and as willing as he was, there was little either of us could do without another tool, that, surprise surprise i don’t have.
The rear wheel was off and i was covered in oil and grit when i looked up to see a bus trundling towards us. Thinking fast i hailed it like a cab, and shouted to the driver who was leaning out of the window, attracting the attention of half the passengers who wanted to see what this eccentric foreigner, brandishing a hammer and yelling at the bus was getting at. “To Hue, are you going to Hue?” i asked. Smiles and nods. “Can i bring my bike, my bike?” More nods and smiles. Panicked at this sudden change of fortune i tried to reassemble the bike but machines in any rushed situation seem to delight in being deliberately obtuse and so after 30 seconds of hapless ineptitude i gave up and loaded on 4 bags and a disassembled bike. As we pulled away i tried to stop the bus as i hadn’t put the back wheel on board! Fortunately one of the kindly strangers who’d helped me on with the bike had taken the wheel and had it safely tucked away at the back. I sat down and felt terribly guilty and conspicuous as everyone including a new mother with child had to clamber over and around my bike when getting on or off. I kept offering help as any gentleman would, in this case taking bags and offering my hand to help guide people, although after the fussing with the bike my hands had taken on the appearance of a coal miners after a day in the pits so they weren’t always readily received. It was disappointing to be taking a bus over such beautiful terrain which would have been a pleasure to cycle, but better that than being stranded 20 miles in, on top of a drizzly mountain and having to walk my bike home.
On arrival in Hue i was the centre of attention again and wasn’t in the mood for people ringing the bell, trying the breaks and squeezing the tires. There’s a process i’ve noticed to people looking at the bike. They idle up and circle her cautiously like you would a large animal then on deciding she looks domesticated they hit the saddle as you might a horse’s rump or they go straight for the bell as you would a dog’s ear. Somehow it takes them a number of attempts to get it to work which beggars belief, but when they’ve mastered this little feat they keep it up triumphantly ring after ring, which alerts other passersby that hadn’t at that point noticed me to wander over and join in with the festivities. Before long their hands wander up to the handle bars where other wonders await exploration, the brakes receive “oooooh’s” and “aaaaah’s” as if a large firework had just shone overhead as they try them again and again…… repeatedly. Following this if it’s an older man he’ll flick the frame with his fore finger which always get an approving nod, goodness knows what he can ascertain from that little test and then as a kind of finale having gathered momentum in confidence they pick the bike up which is where i step in and say, something to the effect of “shoo!” Today a crowd of five had gathered and i couldn’t be doing with the whole rigmarole that had already begun ( one had just discovered the bell ) so i rode on 100 meters and carried on with what i was doing there. Even then i had to be quick, it brings to mind as it did then of the slow-moving zombies from Shaun of the Dead that start advancing as soon as you stop even for an instant and that you can only keep at bay by moving very fast or brandishing a cricket bat.
On getting everything loaded back on i chose one gear ( my second favourite ) and gingerly rode out but found a bike shop almost immediately. He had good bikes, good parts, and, not a clue what to do so he sent me down the street to a shop that had bad bikes bad parts, but a bit more of an idea. Again they were very heavy-handed with the bike loosening the quick release enough to thwack the wheel off instead of taking one more turn and releasing it gently. A brick hammer was again produced. The staff looked aghast that i was such a nancy as to insist on a lighter approach. Eventually with the help of a girl from the back of the shop who thankfully spoke excellent english they did tighten up the gears a little after she told them through me, how to do it “but without the violence”, though they weren’t tightened to the extent they should be or by using conventional tools, instead metal offcuts found around the floor that could be forced in place of the specialised part were used as a surrogate. With a healthy tap of the hammer and a strong turn with a pair of pliers it was a bit more secure and the rattle had lessened significantly.
Well i was in Hue now which was a start as this city is home to a world heritage site, many hotels and numerous restaurants, so i could get a good night’s rest, see some sites and eat western food. I checked in to one of the only hotels that had a pool, for that very reason, and had a wander and a think. What i thought was this:
“I need to get my bike sorted. I don’t like it making noises it shouldn’t or any subtle shake or rattle as they annoy me beyond sensible reason. I need the bike serviced before i can trust her back to Laos.” And so, a little rashly perhaps, i booked a train ticket for me and Elly ( She’s been named ) to go all the way to Hanoi. Then Elly could have some TLC in a mechanics beauty parlour, duly satisfied at this point i hope as Elly is the epitome of “high maintenance”, we would cycle to Ha Long Bay then work our way back to Laos and eventually back to Vietnam, forming a giant figure of 8. I booked us in for the night train the following day, allowing me to cheat my way right to the top of Vietnam. You see anyone can do a cycle tour if you can ride to and from bus and train stations.
I took a stroll of the evening to find an Italian restaurant and passed the street market where a woman selling a kind of Vietnamese donut was elaborately picking her nose with complete concentration, before spotting me and removing her finger that was up to the knuckle, to offer me her hand-made food. I laughed out loud before politely declining, you just can’t teach that kind of salesmanship, she’ll be appearing on the apprentice before you know it.
The concierge advised me that all the time necessary for the historical site was around two hours, so i took a very slow start that included a hearty breakfast and a swim in the pool before eventually ambling to the palace to have a poke around. He was right, there wasn’t much to see really. It looks old but is actually from the 19th century which gives the place more a feeling of needless neglect than antiquity. It was there that i took a photo and in so doing met a young Israeli man. I was down a little alley when i shot the photograph where someone else had just passed ( it was actually the way to the loos). Peter the Israeli asked what all the fuss was down here and when i allowed that this was simply the path to the commode He made a small head movement, a “humph” sound and a comment to the effect that it was probably the most diverting thing in here. He was by and large the most cynical misanthrope i’ve ever met. To the point of being offensive at first but very entertaining later, and a welcome break from the “I’m so like über spiritual and at one with the universe so lets like, you know, get wasted ” happy go lucky, hippie backpackers that are ubiquitous throughout SE Asia.
Nothing impressed him. Everything was dross, dull or disingenuous. Including me and my pathetic attempt at photography taking all the normal touristic crap and pretending it’s art, i certainly don’t disagree, but it’s novel to have that kind of face to face criticism. Every culture was awful, the Vietnamese were so lazy, the Russians perpetually drunk on low-grade Vodka. On asking, after a 15 minute tirade if there was anyone he did admire, he thought for a time and answered “The Germans”. It was wonderful! Every way we turned sparked some miserable observation which in turn led to memories of ineptitude of some poor soul or other he’d swept aside with disdain. Being completely dissatisfied with this “monumental pile of horse sh*t attempting to be a world heritage site” we wandered out in a futile search for some lunch. We picked a place that had tiny chairs which made way for some droll observations before we were told to move next door as they didn’t serve food. On arrival and being presented with a menu i asked the waitress for another but oddly the proprietor had neglected to consider the possibility of two customers at the same time and so had created just the one. Peter In his low Israelite accent ordered a beef sandwich which they didn’t have and so ordered bread with beef, surprisingly another option. They didn’t which was less surprising. Having uncovered the menu’s empty promises He handed it to me, passing the book so to speak and i ordered a pancake. But no, they were out of those! out of flour and eggs and milk? A drink then, a large sign and a full-page of the menu advertised a local beer, “two please”, but they were out of those too! My friend was well into it at this point having lots to disappoint him and was having great fun talking English to the waitress proposing to her and such. I took a back seat to enjoy the spectacle which was perhaps a little cruel but rather entertaining, and decided that although this wasn’t someone to have around if you suffer from bipolar he was certainly good for an occasional laugh.
Having eventually had a beer but no lunch we parted tracks and i went back to the hotel to get a snack before cycling down to the train station for a 4o’Clock rendezvous for them to pack and load my bike for the 9pm departure. Having done this through charades and elaborate gestures, i had the best part of 5 hours to kill so took a moto taxi to the bars a few miles away to get a drink, some food and while away the hours. I found a bar that had writing all over the walls, a giant map of Vietnam on the ceiling with peaked mountains and an oversized upside-down model US airforce helicopter with a fan for the rotter blades sitting above the pool table. It was there that i played pool with Brian a tall broad Irishman who i mistook initially for Australian due to his cocktail of accents. He has as a matter of fact been working in Oz for the last couple of years and is now making his way back home via Vietnam and then Germany as it was time to meet the parents. His German girlfriend Libby, spoke English with an Irish accent which was very funny. We were a few games in when two members of the family who owned and ran the bar, placed a large Buddah on the floor to act as a new shrine, they lit incense sticks and made signs of obeisance. Thinking quite rightly that the large chalk scoreboard directly behind Buddah didn’t create the right tone, one of the bar staff took it down. The family continued their worship. Unlike me what the barman didn’t notice was, perhaps the reason for the scoreboard being placed there in the first place. You remember me saying how there was writing and graffiti covering the walls? Well here was a giant 3 foot picture of a veiny penis in the throes of rapture. If you moved back slightly the family members obscured the Buddah entirely which left you with an entirely different perspective. The family continued their genuflections which left Brian, Libby and myself sniggering away. The bar worker who’d taken the scoreboard down looked quizzically at us, to which as a response we as one pointed to the picture behind. Comprehension is a wonderful thing to behold, and it wasn’t many minutes before he was altering the image making the tip into a smiling cartoon sun. We merrily joined in turning the testicles in to grinning faces and he was much the happier for it.
It was now time for me to catch the train. I got on board and was rather disappointed, i like trains and was quite looking forward to a sleeper carriage, a little curtained enclosure where i could fall to sleep to the gentle rock of train on tracks and wake up refreshed and ready to take in the capital. Instead i was met with bright lights, a very drunk man and a mattress as yielding as an American border guard. The drunk had with him a bottle of vodka which he’d almost finished and from which he heartily insisted i sample, he laughed maniacally at the most mundane things, me putting my backpack on my bed for instance initiated festoons of high-pitched chortles. He became louder and more loquacious, and then very hands on. I asked him to shut up enough times and to stop patting me on my shoulder, which he would do before throwing his head back in gales of laughter. In the end he was getting out of hand so i left the compartment. The conductor saw this and led me back inside before giving the drunk a good talking to. The conductor then sent one of the lads working there in the compartment too and when the drunk man left to go for a tinkle, he locked the door. The Drunk came back and rattled on the door not unlike a slow dimwitted but determined zombie he was making the groaning noises and everything. I had that feeling you get when you’re hiding in a game of hide and seek and now found the whole situation rather entertaining. It was a very poor nights sleep however as a woman joined the carriage a couple of hours later and kept opening the door to the bright corridor beyond every time i fell to sleep, which didn’t last long as the door to the very bright corridor had just been opened which woke me up and made me get up and close the door. The journey lasted 16 hours, it was meant to be 12.
After a fitful nights sleep with countless interruptions the cabin was left to me alone. I dropped down to the bottom bunk so i could watch the grey morning unfold out the window. Being rather bored i tried to take a few photos and found to my dismay that my camera had broken. The dial that chooses the shutter speed has given up the ghost and was fliting between whatever setting it deemed best, often bulb which is next to useless for any photo taken in daylight hours. It would be the equivalent of a car deciding what gear you need by the role of a dice, not completely unusable but hardly useful as a getaway vehicle.
It was past 12 by the time i finally arrived, where i had to lug all my bags about in the mid-day heat and went to try and get my bike. Here’s where the Vietnamese often fall down. They regularly bemoan how poor they are and how they can’t get ahead in life. But many are very very lazy. Here i was told to wait an hour as it was lunch. There’s at least 20 people working on the goods department so you would imagine a split lunch would be possible and let’s not forget, this isn’t a post office in Provence but the main train station for a capital city of millions.
I went to try and find some food as i’d not eaten anything decent since yesterday evening and on exiting the station found two cyclists. They are a couple from France who have ridden all the way from Turkey and have been on the road for many months. They were trying to get a train to Hue and were having trouble getting things sorted. They were a lovely couple and i was let in on a secret they was pregnant! well more specifically she was. They were going to continue riding for another few months taking it easier as you can imagine before returning home about 5 months in when getting travel insurance becomes more of a hassle and air travel has it’s dangers.
On returning to the station i was told again to wait an hour as they are on lunch. A couple of the staff were smoking from a large bong. Fine ( not fine but i was attempting to keep myself calm in the face of INEPTITUDE ) On returning for the third attempt i looked around and counted 16 members of staff. One solitary man was working and looked like he had a better position then the rest, one was smoking, and 14 of the 16, 88% of the workforce were sleeping on the parcels and goods that are waiting to be collected from the station. They can be a very frustrating people. On finally getting someone to help with the bike i had to pay for them to take the box apart. I watched glumly as two of the staff found a large parcel with a small tear, which they soon made larger and pilfered some of the items inside which they then had the audacity to try to sell to me! They were shameless, and it was with a very dim view of the Vietnamese people in general that i set off from the station into the life and hubbub of Hanoi.
I rode out to the old district to find accommodation and stopped on a corner where i was duly told to move on by three women street sellers as somehow, i was apparently, putting off business, as i pulled off one of the women chucked water on the bike and the back two bags. I stopped at this and glared then had a bit of a go at her for being such a monumental pill. Apparently i looked hostile enough for at that moment her son popped out of the shop behind and apologised on his mother’s behalf claiming it was an accident. If i’d had a cloak i would have offered my opinion of the woman’s mental state and thrown it dramatically over my shoulder before kicking up dust and riding off into the distance. I didn’t however so all i could do was begrudgingly accept the apology before wobbly setting off in too higher gear sporting a blushed neck.
Finally and obliquely i came across a really lovely hotel, with the friendliest and most helpful staff i’ve encountered so far and settled in for a very pleasant stay. I took a walk of the remainder of the afternoon, found out about a good couple of bike shops and had a look for a replacement camera.
An uneventful rest of the evening, apart from maybe when i went into a few galleries, one in particular which was very upmarket, and so one in which i pretended like i had far too much money and was deferentially treated to a wonderful tour of the gallery.
Before breakfasting i sent off a quick email to Fuji explaining the problem with my camera, and included that i was in Vietnam. And then looked up the Hanoi Zoo as that’s what i really wanted to see today.
After breakfasting, very well by the way, the waiter encouraging me to “try everything” i took my bike to get serviced and was pleased to find myself in a fantastic bike shop, spinning on the spot with all sorts of alluring vintage beauties lining the walls and drawing my eye. I actually enquired about buying one of the bikes a new but retro looking, belt driven, hub geared wonder, that had post modern aluminium mud guards, a bike i was likely to spend more time preening over than riding, but having it shipped home looked to be about as easy as finding a paraplegic gymnast so i gave it up for lost. ( for now )
Anyway they took the bike in to be serviced and i went off on another errand, namely replacing my camera. I refuse flat-out to visit Ha Long Bay without a decent camera in tow so it’s fortunate, if you can call it that, that my camera broke on the way to the capital.
I did a little research to see what the best compact camera would be and sighed to see that my broken one invariably comes out on top, but there is a Canon that has good reviews and i eventually plumped for that. Part of the research was to see how much i could sell it for as soon as i get home as i’ve no need for it outside of this trip. Cameras are cheaper to buy back home than here as well so whatever i bought would turn out a loss. I viewed it more as renting a camera for a few weeks than buying one. The day at this point was already speeding away so i plumped for the canon and bought if from the shop that gleefully tells you ‘No refunds’.
On exiting i was accosted by one of the many moto taxis and actually took him up on the offer. “To the Zoo!” i cried and off we set in what turned out to be the exactly wrong direction. On getting on a main road his speed dropped and he started making phone calls, eventually stopping by the side of the road stepping off the bike, up to a cafe and sitting down. It turned out he hadn’t a clue what a zoo was let alone where it was but was happy to barter a price and ride off anyway. As always there’s plenty of people about trying to help and so a group soon gathered where i tried to explain where it was i wanted to go. Between us we batted the word zoo around, a bit like word of the day on children’s television, before i wrote it down and eventually made crude drawings of an elephant a giraffe and a lion.
“Ah” he said comprehension dawning, “you want to ride an elephant” They all nodded
“No no,” i said hastily, “i want to go to the Zoo” wondering in this split second if they thought i also wanted to ride a giraffe and a lion too.
More puzzling, rubbing of chins and the inevitable lighting of cigarettes this was clearly going to take some time. But eventually after making to walk off twice they worked out what a zoo was. “Ah Bangkok zoo” they said , honestly i’ve no idea how i said it any differently but there it was success. Well a small success as next was the question of where it was. Picture me closing my eyes in exasperation at this point, and then in annoyance as the driver then asked for twice the money to get me there, never mind that i’d said zoo from the start and he’d readily agreed, bartered even to a very generous offer on my part or the fact that we were now further away from the zoo only because he’d ridden in the wrong direction. I walked off at this point to find a proper taxi, my driver devastated at my dissatisfaction or more the impact this would have on his wallet, insisted on riding the wrong way up the street into oncoming traffic imploring me to hop on the bike, lowering the price by degrees until it came down to the original agreement. Well i still didn’t get on as he hadn’t the foggiest where to go and i got in a taxi instead which is air-conditioned, with a meter that works out much cheaper than the moto. ( the only reason you take a moto is because they are quicker, ) On the drive over to the zoo we went over railway tracks that go through a street just a couple of feet from people’s front doors like the ones you see in India so i stopped the taxi and paid so that i could get a couple of photos. It was at this point that the new camera refused to focus when the zoom was engaged. Reasonably incensed at this point i stormed off in a huff back to the camera shop before finding another one en route with a very helpful man who had the same camera brand new for $70 less. More internal fuming on my part, but he did at least get the focusing working.
I finally made it to the zoo, which turned out to be the worst zoo i’ve ever been to In my life. The cages are tiny and the animals looked ill, there was a whole cage of monkeys that looked like they had mange. Blaringly loud music and fair ground rides were positioned right next to the animal enclosures where people were feeding the monkeys and bears, crisps and donuts. I wondered where the staff were and found one when he told me off as, due to not being able to get by a family feeding the animals full fat fast food, i’d stepped on the grass. A heinous crime! I nipped to the toilet and there were used bloody syringes dotting the urinals. On rounding to the tiger enclosure there was a horrible couple who’d let their two dogs into the zoo, put them through the first fence where they were barking and darting about deliberately antagonizing the pacing tiger. What a pair of cruel and ignorant arseholes. I videoed them along with the parents and children throwing cakes to the bears and crisps to the monkeys as well as other aspects of the zoo ( which was sponsored by Coca Cola ) and intend to put it on YouTube, it won’t make a blind bit of difference i’m sure but i want to show the world how cruel and uneducated the people are here when it comes to care for any sentient being lower than themselves. It reminded me of two young teens i’d seen in Cambodia who were fishing with a net, one of them cast it but only caught a small fish so threw it at his friend where it bounced off him and landed on the dry mud where they left it suffocating before wandering off to fish upstream. Disgusted I put it back in the water. I’m not a vegetarian but i certainly don’t condone the needless cruelty i’ve seen so many times here.
Well during the taking of video and photos my new camera’s lens became stuck and, yes this camera with less than 2 hours of use had broken too. My first and i now imagine last experience of owning a Canon. With Canon you evidently can’t! ( oh Ben the wit ) I made it back to the camera shop and fortunately the woman who’d sold it me, took pity and said that she didn’t believe i’d dropped it and would replace it. This wasn’t my ideal firstly because it wasn’t that good and second because i could get it for $70 less down the road, and was thrilled when she didn’t have a replacement. But she could offer me one of the many other cameras she had on display. I explained that it was this one and only this one, the one she definitely didn’t have in stock that i wanted, only that one, none other and unfortunately i would have to ask for a refund. After a little cajoling she acquiesced to call her boss, who said yes initially, but then to my horror rang back to say he might have another one in stock, he would check. Thinking fast i turned up my phones volume and set my ringtone off, where i pretended to answer and had an imaginary one way conversation with an annoyed friend i was meant to have been with 10 minutes previous. I made a song and dance of looking at the big clock behind and apologising loudly, saying into my lifeless phone that i was about to get a refund and i would be there in 15. The woman serving heard enough of this conversation and the one i had five minutes with the same phantom friend to believe that i didn’t have time to wait for her boss to check the stock and so she’d have to give me a refund instead. As she was counting out the notes the shop phone rang where her assistant picked up and i’m positive was told that there was in fact another Canon in stock. She came over to tell the Lady who was only half way through counting out the 12 million dong and was fortunately positioned so that her assistant didn’t appear in her periphery, it was then that i gave the assistant the most withering stare i could muster which miraculously stopped her dead in her tracks where she stayed still like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, cowered into submission for the remaining 10 seconds of counting 10 million 11 million 12 million before i’d grabbed the money, issued a hasty fare well and darted out the shop not looking back or slowing down till i’d turned the corner.
That night i collected my bike and went out to find a street nearby that is famous for having many home-brewed beers all the way along that can be bought for around 40p a glass. On getting there, or very nearby i’m still not sure if i was on the right street, i was handed a flier and without breaking step carried on walking a moving target being harder to offer a sales pitch to, but upon looking at the flier it turned out it was for the opening night of a new bar called ‘Subway’ that offered free beer for the next couple of hours so i backtracked and poked my head in. I didn’t emerge for some time and when i did it was with 3 new friends, Canadians who i’d gotten to having a laugh with over loud music and free beer all night! On the wander home i was offered, like i have been so many times before, weed and whores by a man on a motorbike, but on this occasion as opposed to my usual polite refusal i turned on him, no doubt from a combination of growing disdain of people in general from the days events and confidence from a couple of jars, and dressed him down, telling him loudly and flat-out that i did not wish to have his drugs or a prostitute. Sufficiently quelled he offered an apology which i guiltily excepted. And so to bed.
27 12 miles
On waking i planned on having a hasty breakfast, nipping to the camera shop with the helpful chap from the day before and then setting off for the city of Hai Phong which would be my stepping stone before the last hop to Cat Ba island, the largest Island in Ha Long Bay. But on glancing at my laptop i found a reply from Fuji. They apologised for the inconvenience of my broken camera and informed me that i could take it to one of two Fuji offices in Vietnam, one in Saigon and the other conveniently, about a mile and a half away from my hotel. This new development along with the Hotel offering me a further night at a discounted rate meant that i opted for another day in Hanoi. I cycled down to the Fuji Office which sits on the 7th floor of an imposing building that acts as a bank. I was apparently the first foreigner to ever come to the office and although helpful it took a long time to get things moving. The lady in charge bewilderingly appears to know very little about cameras and was trying to convince me that the reason the shutter dial wasn’t working was because i had the focus on manual, to use the car analogy again this would be like convincing someone their gears erratic behaviour was due to the indicators being left on. On making my way past this obstacle and waiting with my book for a while longer it was suggested that the camera be sent to Saigon to be fixed for free as it was within warranty and whence i could pick it up on my return. This i readily agreed to and cheekily asked if it was possible to get a curtesy camera for the period in between. Surprisingly they said this was fine but that i would have to return later to pick it up at around 4 o’Clock.
In the interim i decided i’d head for one of Hanoi’s many lakes to take a ride around, it’s a big old lake for a city at 16 miles in circumference and offers a very welcome break for the senses which, for me anyhow, become over stimulated with the chaos and noise synonymous with a big city. Unfortunately the headset of the bike hadn’t been secured properly from the service and was rocking when i braked so i ended up stopping to ask if a security guard had an alan key i could use. Serendipity came into play here as by chance i’d chosen to ask for assistance at a restaurant that’s just appeared very highly in the much sought after accolade of Asia’s top 50 restaurants. The really rather attractive Vietnamese manageress ( who turned out to be half Vietnamese half Chinese ) came out to see what was happening, not in an officious manner but out of curiosity and offered me a seat. I ordered a drink and in turn offered her a seat which was where we could be found for the next couple of hours talking about the Vietnamese and their work ethic, her past relationship troubles and doppelgängers of all things. Time was slipping away as it has a habit to and i was forced to leave to go and collect my replacement camera. I’d been lamenting the availability or lack thereof of quality wine and cheese in Vietnam so Vu invited me out to a good restaurant she knows to get a bottle of plonk and a cheese board. My bill at Vu’s restaurant was wavered and i set off in the direction i’d come.
The camera i was promised was unfortunately unattainable and the replacement that i took is very much a point and shoot with very little potential for dexterity. Subsequently i was still on the look out for another so ventured out to find the shop from yesterday, but try as i might i couldn’t find that camera shop or the train tracks it was near to. It turns out that the route my cab driver had taken yesterday was circuitous at best, perhaps due to traffic conditions or maybe to drum up the bill, in either case it meant that finding the tracks and therefore the camera shop by following the logical route from where i picked the cab up to the zoo didn’t work ,so after a fruitless search in completely the wrong part of town i grabbed another cab to get back to the lake for my dinner date.
We dined on a roof terrace overlooking the lake with a fantastic view of Hanoi I had my personal guide next to me so that i could make sense of it all. Vu is very shortsighted however so i had to describe half the buildings before she could explain what they were.
We had good wine, A Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was my choice before moving on to a Red of Vu’s which practically applauded our choice of sumptuous cheeses where our Italian chef had gone the extra mile and had ventured from his kitchen to walk us through the correct culinary procedure so we could truly appreciate his masterpiece. The Feta should be doused in Olive Oil, The Stilton was to be accompanied by crunchy walnuts, the Brie of course married with his zingy chutney which he explained with an infectious enthusiasm that can only be had by a man in love with his work “Voila, bon appetite” . I’d prequeled these with a little taste of heaven in the form of a superb gnocchi that was utterly sublime and made my eyes close in the fresh night air. Perhaps it was this very air that had made us both so sleepy as it was only a little past 10 when we parted company, both in need of an early night. I was finally to be back on my bike tomorrow and was very much looking forward to it.
I set off via a camera shop where i finally acquired a like new Nikon DSLR to see me through till i get back to Saigon. It now means that my original camera that was very capable, small and light has been replaced by two cameras neither as capable and both much heavier and bulkier. Perfect for traveling light.
The road to Haiphong is very busy with trucks busses cars and motorbikes all blaring their horns it seems by royal decree, i donned my earphones to get some semblance of peace and some good riding under my belt. There’s not much to see along the way, as there’re always buildings of some sort lining the road so it feels of little consequence when passing through a town or village. The train line and the road stick together for about the length of Hanoi to Hai Phong which for me anyway offered the only excitement over the entire 66 miles i don’t know why but trains are fascinating! What did strike me was that i would occasionally go by a woman selling ears of corn for instance, and then every 25 meters for a quatre of a mile there would be another woman dressed almost identically selling the exact same product. 10 miles later they’d be 8 or 10 women selling bread. Good for the customer i imagine but awful for the sellers. Everyone would point at their product as if i might be confused as to why they were standing there, and every time i said thank you but no. It must be a hard existence.
Because it’s a main highway the road was in good condition and very flat so i got to Hai Phong in good time, had checked into a hotel and was wandering back to a bridge i’d crossed where i wanted to get a picture in the imminent dusk when a French lad spotted me and trotted out to say hello. He’d been in Hai Phong for a few days visiting his best friend who is himself Vietnamese and apparently a white face was hard to find. Hai Phong is in fact the third largest city in Vietnam but offers little in the way to tourists, it’s got no natural beauty as such and although it is very close to Ha Long Bay, Hanoi’s only 60 miles further so there’s little need to stop off, you just spend an extra hour or so on the bus and get there in one journey. I rather like it though as to me it was reminiscent of Hanoi but with considerably fewer people clogging it up. I’m going off piste again, Lemine is the name of the Frenchman, and he asked if he could join me for the night. He seemed to be on quite a tight budget which potentially raised a problem as there was already a restaurant/bar i was headed for that had it’s own microbrewery, i mentioned that this was where i was going and he was welcome to come along but i was unsure of prices. If he was on a tight budget it didn’t really show and we had a pleasant evening which started with me ordering two litres of home-brewed beer which did nothing to me but apparently almost had Lemine on his back. We had fun and games with the food order Lemine, all for trying “the exotics” had eaten dog the day before and wasn’t far off trying cat until he realised the one the restaurant was reffering to had been rubbing round his legs for the past half hour which put him off somewhat. Tonight he ordered Cobra which on its arrival an hour later had been converted to a fish, not quite as daring but very tasty all the same.
I’d spotted a music bar earlier on and had told them about Lucy’s music. I recommended we go there for an aperitif but on the way Lemine with hawks eyes for white faces had spotted a couple in a restaurant and darted in. We were graciously invited to sit down and it was there i met the charming couple Richard and Brenda. They hail from Holland, where Richard worked in shipping and it was there that he was offered a job in Hai Phong the huge shipping town of Vietnam. They both have a zest for life which is all too often missing from people these days and it was a pleasure to talk to them, we moved not long after to a grand old bar where we started on whiskeys, Lemine becoming considerably more expressive and considerably less understood, especially when it came to a discussion of God and Religion where he seemed to gesticulate more than vocalise his views which were clearly heartfelt if not a little baffling. We paired off a little at this point abandoning Brenda to Lemine’s sign language which left Richard and I to have a good and intellectual discussion of life the universe and gyrocopters which he has rigged with go pro’s and is doing more and more videography with. The time had really slipped away tonight and what we’d all imagined to be a 10 finish 11 to bed had already crept to 2am with none of us noticing.
Richard and Brenda invited me to stay if i come back through Hai Phong which i just might do so we exchanged numbers and went our separate ways.