ietnam At Leisure


February 17 - May 15, 2001

Sapa Rice Paddies

We made two trips to Vietnam. The first, in early 2000, was not even three weeks. It was kept that short so that Gerry could start a consulting job with the ZTE telecoms company in Shenzhen, China. The second, picked up almost a year later to the day, a month after that consulting work ended.

We entered Vietnam in 2001 with a sense of satisfaction that we were back after almost exactly a year's break. Now, finally, we could see all of those things that we had not had time for on our last trip. We came by land, crossing from southern China at Friendship pass. The first problem though was to get through passport confusion, which turned out to be somewhat difficult for Jan.

Once over the bureaucratic hurdles we had to find a taxi to Lang Son, the nearest town to the border. It was nice to find that our Chinese had not instantly become useless, as Jan used it to negotiate the fare of 35 yuan for a taxi.

To our surprise, we ended up spending three months in Vietnam. The first month was eaten up in Hanoi caring for another one of Jan's colds; visiting with Gerry's Aunt Zelda who came on a package tour; and revisiting the beach resort of Nha Trang which we had enjoyed so much the previous year; and finally getting down to Ho Chi Minh City, better known to almost everybody as Saigon.

In Saigon we visited with Aunt Zelda again, now at the end of her tour. We renewed our visa for the first time, allowing us to stay a second month and took a delightful four-day tour of the Mekong Delta area. On our return, we reverted to renting bicycles instead of motorbikes and spent a very nice day riding around Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown, visiting the myriad Chinese temples there. We were thrilled to see familiar sites such as ceramic ridge tile sculptures like those we saw in Guangzhou and Foshan.

The second month was spent largely in the Central Highlands. Our first stop was to the French resort of Dalat where we stayed an exceptionally long two weeks. We both loved the climate, which was cool, fresh, and sunny. Our hotel was cheap and comfortable and we just kept finding more things to do. Gerry finally took the plunge and rented a motorbike and after an initial, painful, mishap got good enough to dare to take Jan out as a passenger.

We left Dalat by local bus, a first for us in Vietnam, and rode north to Buon Ma Thuot. It was touch and go at first as to whether we would be allowed to take the bus. There had been some demonstrations and tourist access had been stopped completely for a short while. However, we were not stopped and spent three pleasant days on a second rented motorbike visiting a dam, a waterfall, and a national park.

From Buon Ma Thuot we took another bus further north to Pleiku and then Kun Tom. The authorities in Kun Tom were not very welcoming and after only a day we decided to head for the coast. We spent a night en route in Pleiku and then caught another local bus to Danang.

In Danang we managed not only to extend our Vietnamese visa for the second time, but also to get a 30-day visa for Laos, our destination after Vietnam. While in the main part of town we also went back to the Danang Museum to admire its Cham remains for a second time. But then it was time to head for the beach where we spent five days doing as little as possible.

Now, with our new visa in hand, we could complete our circuit with a second trip to Hue, north of Danang, where we revisited Tu Duc's mausoleum on bicycle instead of by boat. Putting in the effort ourselves to get us there made it all the more worthwhile and afterwards we cycled on to another mausoleum that is not on the standard tourist route.

From Hue we decided to take our first train journey and took an overnight train back to Hanoi. The highlight of the journey was the limestone hills that we caught a glimpse of just before sunset. The whole region is dotted with these formations, the most famous of which of course are Guilin (China), Halong Bay (Vietnam), Krabbe (Thailand), and as were soon to learn, Vang Vieng (Laos).

Back in Hanoi, we were interested in finding a way to visit the northwest of the country and specifically Dien Bien Phu, the site of the famous, or infamous if you prefer, French defeat by Vietminh forces in 1954. The road in that part of the country are so bad that a 4-wheel drive vehicle is typically needed. Unfortunately, we couldn't find anyone to rent us a vehicle at a price we felt we wanted to pay so we gave up and instead bought tickets on a day train to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa, most famous and most visited of the towns in the northwest.

On arrival in Lao Cai, we decided to head for Bac Ha rather than Sapa and there we found our vehicle and driver and embarked on a most wonderful 10-day odyssey that took us 1200 km through some of the most remote and beautiful parts of Vietnam.

When we got back to Hanoi for the last time after our mountain adventure, we felt quite sad to think that we would not be coming here again. We were on our fifth visit to the town, had always stayed in the same Trang An Hotel in the old part of town near the lake of Hoan Kiem, and would be sad to say goodbye for the last time. But say goodbye we did, eventually climbing on board a minibus one Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m. for the 20-hour ride to Vientiane, capital of Laos.

Updated July 20, 2003