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On the Loose in Northern Vietnam

Monday - 11 Feb 2002
Northern Vietnam - Vietnam

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is on the east coast of Vietnam, about 150km from Hanoi. We took a bus through highways (I use this term loosely) and byways, stopping at the obligatory tourist traps along the way. We signed on for a three day trip--the middle day we were planning to do a "long trek" in the national park on Cat Ba Island.

Our boat was waiting for us, and we set out for Cat Ba--what a phenomenal trip! There are thousands of small islands that rise out of the bay, many of which are still unexplored. These are mainly limestone formations, cliffs and craggy rocks everywhere. We thought that we would be safe from hawkers so far away from the mainland, but where there's a will there's a way--about 15 minutes into our trip, a small boat with a man and two small children on it pulled alongside, and they threw a rope around one of our pillars. The children then hawked us unrelentingly, trying to sell us coral of all things! They finally untied themselves and went home empty handed.

We stopped at a small island to explore a cave--well, let's just say that we weren't exactly venturing into the unknown. The wooded pathways were well-lit, and the impressive formations were bathed in blue, green, and red lights. We're still wondering how this adds to the "natural beauty".

A slight communication gap: another traveler that we met told us to look out for the "barrels of dolphins", which we thought was quite cruel, keeping the poor little things in barrels for tourists to gawk at. Our mistake--she was referring to the garbage cans painted like dolphins!

Upon reaching Cat Ba, we boarded a "local bus" to get to our hotel. [Local bus is a euphemism for terribly overcrowded heap of junk with doors that don't close.] We bounced along, until Gary shouts with alarm "Where did the ROAD go?" we dropped into a bus-eating pit. Apparently the locals decided that they wanted a quarry right where the main road was, so they ripped up the road and started mining. High comedy!! The bus made it through, however, and we joined the road soon thereafter.

Unfortunately, the road that we were on was the only one on the island--there was no road to the National Park, where we were to hike the next day. We took pity on our bodies and decided to head back to the mainland with the rest of the crew the next day. A good thing, too--it was pea-soup foggy when we woke up, so we wouldn't have seen much anyway!!

The trip back on the boat was a little eerie--we couldn't see a thing, and then all of a sudden an island would appear right off the bow! Gary offered the GPS to the captain to get us back to shore safely, but they managed just fine with their compass :o) We would love to revisit Halong Bay in the summer, when the views are said to be even more spectacular, and it would be warm enough to swim!

Perfume Pagoda

Perfume Pagoda is a mountainous site about 60km south of Hanoi.  It is not one Pagoda (Buddhist Temple), but a number of them all carved it out in cave along a mountain trail.  The site is one of Vietnam's most holy sites.  We got lucky and visited the site at the right time.  Our guide informed us that after Tet is a 3 month holy period in which 5000 Vietnamese a day visit the site...which would spoil the serenity of the place.

To get to the mountain is a interesting process.  We drove by bus for about 2 hours to a small village. At the village we boarded a small rowboat.  The boat was about 10 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep.  In the middle were two 1-foot high benches—two to a bench!  At the back of the boat was a local woman (somewhere between 20-60 years old, it is so hard to guess the age of a person in SE Asia), who was to row us the 2 hour trip up a very beautiful river to the beginning of the Perfume Pagoda trail.  Despite the fact that she weighed no more than 120 lbs she rowed our western fat asses at an impressive clip.  Even more impressive than then speed at which she rowed was the consistancy--2 hours upstream with not so much as a break in stride.  We had to look back at her to remember that there was was no motor attached.  Simply amazing.  We asked our guide if she did this every day, but the guide stated that actually she only does it once a month.  The village women rotate rowing duties so that they each get a piece of the tourist pie.  [The money they get for a trip is very good by village standards and this was a way of sharing the wealth.]  Also, as we learned at the end of the return trip that they expect a tip (and rightfully so).  Interestingly, a good number of other villagers turn out to watch the tourists return and help the driver negotiate/brow beat the rider for a good tip. 

The scenery on the trip on the river was amazing.  The mountain cliffs rise straight out of the rice paddies and into the mist.  We arrived at the base of the Perfume Pagoda trail, quite happy to be able to stand upright after 2 hours in an Asian squat.  [Western knees and back just don't have the flexibility that the Asians have.]  The two-hour trail was lined with activity.  Every inch along the way people were building Bamboo stands and huts for the 5000 people a day horde that was to come in the following weeks.  We were still able to see the view into the main valleys along the way, but by the end of Tet 100% of the trail would be lined with stands-a real shame.

We made our way up the trail dodging guys carring (no joke) 20 and 30 feet long bamboo logs on their shoulders up the trail (along with everything else need to build a semi-permanent hawker stand on the side of a mountain).  It was quite the sight! 

The main Pagoda is about two hour up the mountain, in a large cave that has a spectacular stairway down into it.  The cave has been inhabited by at least one monk every day for hundreds of years.  The monks live at the base of the mountain and walk to the cave every day.  The cave also has an interesting local ritual tied to it.  Each year, the head shaman of the village brings a pig into the cave the night before the festival a sacrifice to the tiger god that lives there.  If the pig is gone in the morning, it means the tiger god is satisfiedm which brings a year of good luck to the village.  According to our guide, the current mayor of the local village hates the tradition, because he has to climb the mountaion in the dark of night, pig tucked under his arm, and then shoo the pig away to ensure the villagers do not go crazy in the morning.  And I thought local counsel meetings  were a pain in North America!

We stopped at a number of other interesting and spectatular caves/temples, and then returned to our boat and driver that were patiently waiting for us at the bottom of the trail.  We were rowed back, we paid our tip and took the bus back to Hanoi.  A truly enjoyable day.

Oh ya.  You may be asking--”why do they call it Perfume Pagoda?”  Accourding to our guide it is because during the 3 month festival at the site, so much incense is burned that the entire area is smells like perfume.   For you Catholics in the crowd, the Buddhists burn only good smelling incense :o)

Trekking in Mai Chau

As yet another attempt to escape the craziness of Tet, we decided to take an overnight trip to Mai Chau Village, about 135 km west of Hanoi. If nothing else, we thought we would be assured of a good night's sleep.

Another couple joined us in the minivan, and we set out with our guide and driver for the four-hour trip. We hurtled through villages, scattering locals in their pre-Tet buying frenzies, and careened across narrow (I mean NARROW!) mountain passes. Our driver was apparently trying to break the record for a, the fastest trip to the village, and b, the most tourists dead from fright!

Mai Chau is a small town nestled in the mountains, with one main street running though the middle of it. The locals live on stilt houses on either end of town, and on dirt trails off of the main street. We stayed in a small village outside of town, comprised of about 10 stilt houses and (you won't believe it!) a karaoke have to be kidding!

We stayed in one of the local houses, which had one very large room (apparently they're accustomed to large groups of tourists) for us to sleep in, and a smaller room in the back for the homeowners to sleep and cook in. The obligatory buffalo, chickens, and pigs roamed the yard outside.

We took a local long tail boat down a river to go hiking for the afternoon. The trail took us through many small villages, with locals peering out from their doors and windows to catch a glimpse of us. Overwhelmingly, we heard laughter---apparently they thought Gary was quite a sight—the goatee and bald head isn't a common sight for them!

Dinner back at the house was delicious—we're not quite sure what we ate, but the cat was still roaming around so we figured we were safe :o) We settled down for a good night's sleep...and the karaoke started (do they wait for us to lie down or WHAT???!) Mind you, there is no electricity that we can see, but they must have a dedicated line for the noisemaking machine from Hell. They crooned and warbled until almost 2 AM, and then shut off the machine so the roosters could have their fun. So much for stealing away for some peace and quiet!

After another hike in the morning, we went by the market on the main street to enjoy the pre-Tet madness. The villagers were in full swing, buying, selling, and trading just about everything you could imagine...and even some things that are beyond imagination. Our favorite was the “bloodsickle”: large vats of congealed pig blood, mixed with peanut oil, intestines, and spices. Now if that doesn't rival a good scoop of Ben and Jerry's, I don't know what does!!

Our ride back to Hanoi was just as hair-raising as our trip to the village, made all the more interesting by the addition of rain. Fortunately, we were tired enough to catch a few winks on our way back to the relative peace and quiet of Hanoi :o)

Hanoi, oh Hanoi
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