|Vietnam has been an interesting experience so far. The way I can describe it is like this... a bombardment of the senses! Our story begins on our flight to Hanoi (northern Vietnam). On the plane we met 3 people from Israel with whom we actually traveled with for about 5 days. The trip started out with a bang as we arrived on the day of Vietnam's New Year Celebrations. The formal name is 'Lunar New Year' (also known as 'TET') and this is the most important annual festival in Vietnam! This holiday lasts 3 days. So, we joined right in with the festivities on the first night and the saw the fireworks at midnight. During the day the streets were busy, busy (as the photos will show) and the pace was 'fast'! People were selling lots of 'just about anything' - things that make foreigners take a second look - for example, raw meat (beef, chicken, pork, etc.) right on the street corner. There were motorbikes, bicycles, chickens, people and cars (cars being less of the norm here in Hanoi) crowding the streets making it difficult to move. Having said all of this, it made for an eventful beginning to the trip!
Our second day in Vietnam was slightly less hectic than the first. Luckily we got to sleep in and then we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before stopping at a few different travel agencies (you really need to shop around for the best deals) to book a 3day/2 night boat tour for the next day. Our trip went to 'Halong Bay' and 'Cat Ba National Park'. The scenery on the trip was beautiful but the group of us ran into some 'customer service issues' on the boat with our guide (not an uncommon thing here in communist Vietnam!) We worked through these issues and enjoyed the rest of the trip. One morning we went on a hike through the mountains then had a free afternoon to explore 'Cat Ba'. We decided to rent a motorbike and headed into the hills stopping at a couple of the villages along the way. We actually participated in some volleyball with the locals in one of the villages and created quite a crowd on the side of the road! They couldn't believe the size of Steve and the fact that he could reach the top of the net to block!!!! Steve and I really enjoy the days when we can explore on our own and have experiences like these with the local people. On this tour we also had the chance to kayak and swim...well Steve took a quick dip as the water was too cool for my liking!
The past couple of days we have been in a place called Ninh Binh (about 2 hours south of Hanoi). Here we rented a motorbike for 2 days to see the countryside. On our tour around the area we passed many rice fields with lots of people working hard in the mud (though we are still unsure of this whole rice-growing process!) We took a trip to a National Park where we visited a Primate Rescue Centre. We saw various species of primates that are found in Vietnam. We then traveled through the National Park on our motorbike passing through some dense forest and then stopped for a walk through the woods. The return trip was about 140 km but since the roads are of bad quality and the traffic is crazy it made for a long day. We passed through many villiages along the way and everybody we passed where friendly and eager to say 'hello'.
Today we took a local bus back to Hanoi. This was an experience in itself that started with having to buy a ticket. There is not a word in Vietnam for 'lining up' in an orderly fashion. The only way to get the ticket was to push through a mob of people. Once we finally got the ticket we boarded a bus along with a swarms of other people. Again there was absolutely no system for finding a seat except to push. Since Steve and I had our heavy backpacks we where well equipped to push our way onto the bus. Luckly we sort of found a place to sit at the back of the bus on a bench. At first we thought that we won the lottery until about twenty other people sat on the same bench. I ended up sitting on Steve's lap for the two hour journey. Steve had a guy sitting beside him who slept for most of the journey by resting is head on Steve's shoulder (that was a funny sight!) Not surprisingly, the ticket was very cheap although I am not sure that Steve and I will routinely be using public transport.
Tonight we are taking an overnight train (about 11 hours north) to a place called Sapa. You will have to tune in for the next update in about a weeks time. Until then, we hope everybody is enjoying the mild winter in Canada. Also, we found out from another Canadian traveller that Canada elected the sleezy Stephen Harper as prime minister - what is this world coming to!