Nothin’ Wrong in the Viet-Cong (Aug 16th-21st)

With a couple of bottles of Vodka, to crunk it up to party train status, we boarded the locomotive at 4am in the morning. Michelle and I had hardly any sleep that night, since we were searching for fruit was three Vietnamese girls we befriended far after every store and stand closed down. We did complete our mission however, and the fruits were money since the food on the train was worse than the mush served in a POW camp.

Each room on the train had six beds, three per side, bunked up. Even though the mattresses were less than an inch thick, they were surprisingly comfortable. I fell asleep fast, and when I awoke I gazed out the window at the beautiful Vietnamese countryside. Green mountains framed the landscape, occasionally giving way to hidden beaches of golden sand. Time elapsed faster than expected, and before I knew it, I was watching the day turn to night right before my eyes.

Night time…..sounds like a good enough reason to party to me! We began by playing a card/drinking game that eventually led us to the food cart. There we made more Vietnamese pals who were more than happy to help share some of the Vodka. Get this though! Shane, who was sitting near the window, was talking on a girl’s cell phone to someone who spoke no English (it was a joke). Anyway, I soon yelled “Shane…Look Out!!” just as this one guy slid open the window and reached in to snatch the phone from Shane’s hand. Mighty Shane P. did not relinquish the mobile, while the thief failed then flailed from the train. Mission unsuccessful for the un-so-smooth criminal, but exciting for us all. In retrospect, it was a little unnerving seeing what lengths some people will go to make a buck.

Afterwards, Shane P. and I ran up and down the halls of the train for no apparent reason, then called it a night as we fell asleep to the constant, steady rocking.

The next morning I awoke at around 9 with only about an hour left in the voyage. When the train finally did stop, we crawled out and found a taxi to take us to the bus station. The plan was to go to Halong Bay from Hanoi by bus, but before we knew it the taxi car was brining us there himself. Two hours later, we arrived and boarded a ferry immediately for Cat Ba Island. Another 3 hours past that, floating over nasty brownish water, we could see Cat Ba in the distance. Halong bay was beautiful, with giant rock islands shooting from the sea, but not nearly as picturesque as Palau. The water was much dirtier and the air was more polluted from near by Hanoi. Cat Ba is the largest island in the bay and has a little town situated right on the sea.

We got off the boat and found a hotel. We reserved two rooms for five bucks a piece and then ordered some fish from the nearby restaurant, the Bamboo Hut. Once again, the seafood was not worth comparing to my former island nation, but relatively delicious I’m sure for South East Asia. We used the slowest internet connection on the island, then Shane P. and Ruthless went to sleep while Michelle and I searched the streets for some Tokay Geckos. We gave up early due to sheer exhaustion from all the traveling, but mark my words; by the end of this trip I’ll have captured one of these little devils!!

In the peak of monsoon season, we awoke to a gorgeous day on Cat Ba. We all went out for breakfast while deciding on the days activities. Shane P. and Ruthless wanted to relax on a beach while Michelle and I thought it’d be a blast to explore the island by motorbike. We rented 2 crotch rockets, then split ways with the Yahoos for an adventure all of its own.

After riding for hours across the western side of the huge island, we headed east towards Cat Ba National Park. This island is drop dead stunning. The green mountains shoot out of the land like randomly assorted gum drops. To capture the nicest view, we decided to try and ascend the tallest ‘gum drop’ we could find! When the rock was within our grasp, we parked our bikes down a little dirt trail, then blazed to the start of the steep slope. One foot above the other, literally, we faced climbing vertical cliffs, jumping across deep, unforgiving ravines, and crawling under dense, thick, spiny bamboo. The entire terrain was covered in razor sharp limestone (that, I can compare to Palau), and lose rocks were all too common. Finally, about 2.5 hours later, I reached the summit! When I peaked over a cliff side to see where Michelle was, I freaked out one of the rarest animals in the World, the Cat Ba Langur! It looked somewhat like a Lemur as it bounced through the trees after seeing such an enormously sweaty primate (Me!). All this was in a matter of milliseconds, so I wasn’t able to snap a photo. Oh well, I was one of the very few who had ever caught a glimpse of the illusive creature.

Michelle soon crawled up and we enjoyed the peak with lots of pictures. The beautiful island was even more gorgeous from high above all. The difficult climb was well worth this reward, however, feeling rushed by the idea of being stuck on the side of a cliff in the dark, we were pushed to leave such a breathtaking locale. Plus, I was thirstier then ever (and I mean ever!).

The way down was much harder than the way up, not so much in level of difficulty but rather in finding the most optimal direction possible. See, the direction up was simply finding the easiest route going upwards. Going down, we not only needed to descend, but also in the area of where we thought our motorbikes should be. Michelle started taking one route down, which was easier to traverse, however was not heading in the right direction. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded, but I wanted to get down fast for I could feel dehydration approaching, something I’ve never really experienced. After finally deciding as a group to go ahead and aim straight down for the bikes, we soon found ourselves facing three major drops before flat land. One required leaping to a tree to climb down, while the other two were a mixture of rock holds and vines. Unbelievably, fortunately, and most of all… ‘surprisingly’, when we survived the descent, we ended up right near our path we chose to first climb up the mountain. A few minutes later we were back at our bikes…….barely!

I tried to get on the bike and immediately my leg cramped up. I couldn’t hold it in the riding position without the muscles knotting up like hairs in a dread lock. After trying a few times, I finally got to the point where the eagerness to get the hell out of there surpassed any dismay I was encountering. A short ride away, we stopped at the local convenient store for two big bottles of water that I pretty much finished on my own. We assessed each others bodies and admired several scrapes, cuts, and bruises from the day’s expedition! I don’t know what threw me into such a spell of dehydration, but whatever it was, I’ll try and avoid for my next adventure! We hopped back on our bikes and literally rode off into the sunset!

Back in town, we met up with the Yahoo’s for dinner. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity for food gave us time to talk about the day’s events with each other. It sounded like Shane and Ruthless did exactly what they wanted to do, relax on a beautiful beach……wonderful! We ate up, then used the internet for a bit. We considered the idea of exploring a near by cave with some flashlights, but everyone was so beat, the only thing we wanted to find was the direction to our rooms. While watching a movie in our fully equipped, TV included room (always a treat on our budget), we fell asleep after yet another fairy-tail day!

After breakfast with Shane and Ruthless, we planned to separate for a bit. Michelle and I really wanted to see Laos (pronounced Lao it turns out), while the Yahoos wanted to relax a little more on Cat Ba before flying to Ko Phang Ngan (a small island in the gulf of Thailand) where we would eventually reunite for the “Full Moon Party”! We bought tickets for the ferry, said our good-byes, then scooted off onto the boat aimed back for the port city of Haiphong.

From Haiphong, we jumped on a bus immediately for Hanoi, and upon arriving back in the capital we searched high and low for bus times heading anywhere in Lao’s direction. Bien Dien Phu, where a mighty battle between the French and Vietnamese took place, became our destination city to the north. It was now around 5pm, and the next bus planned to leave at 3am. Perfect! This allowed us plenty of time to explore the city. We took motorbikes to an area called the ‘Old Quarter’ that had several guesthouses and restaurants. We dropped off our bags for a few hundred ‘Dong’ (16,000 =1$) then walked around enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds.

Hanoi was a beautiful city (third world still of course), and we found a delicious little restaurant where we perched on a balcony overlooking a quiet street. We were able to unwind a bit before strolling around a central lake which was well catered to pedestrian traffic. Around 10pm we stopped for a cocktail at the cutest little café and split some raspberry ice-cream. After two more hours of urban exploration, our eyelids started to get heavy so we returned for our backpacks, then motorbike taxied to the bus station. It was about 1am when we fell asleep on the filthy floor of the dirty terminal, but even laying on a bed of rats wouldn’t have kept us awake. We were out immediately!

At 3am I awoke (Thank goodness, because Michelle tried to sabotage the group (us) by shutting off her watch alarm to get some more sleep), and found the mini bus getting ready to go. I woke up Michelle and we piled inside. Very speedily, every seat of this vehicle became full and apparently the driver did not want to ‘waste’ fuel on air-conditioning. The ’13 HOUR’ ride definitely felt like 13 freakin hours, and I guess this was worse then sleeping on a bed of rats because we couldn’t’ sleep a wink! Bittersweetly, we did get to see some amazing beauty passing through the countryside (Mountains and Rice Paddies), but nothing was sweeter than when we finally arrived. At last, at 4pm we gladly slithered from our imprinted seats. I felt more free than the Vietnamese did after winning the battle fought right in this very city! We instantly found out times for the next day’s bus departures into Lao (5:30am) then hurried into a guest house to unwind. We were exhausted, but wanted to grab a bite to eat before calling it a day. We walked around taking in the town’s sights and met two female white South Africans (probably late 20s) traveling along with an English Woman (early 40s) who gave us directions to a near by restaurant. They were heading to the exact same place (both tomorrow to Lao and tonight, the restaurant), so we joined them for dinner!

After dinner, we parted ways from our new friends for the evening and headed back to the guest house. Bien Dien Phu was a nice town, but didn’t have any particular draw to attract non-french foreigners (there were hardly any of any nationality). It was a simple, basic Vietnamese village. The whole way back to our room we debated if we should withdraw more money from the ATM (that they had suprisingly) before going into Lao. Against better judgment, we decided to wing it with what we had (which wasn’t very much, but definitely very stupid)!! Imagine, going into the least developed South East Asian country with basically only credit and debit cards…..Ha, you won’t have to imagine too hard…just get ready to read the next blog entry!!! See you in Lao!

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