Day 44 – Monkeys and Turtles and Butterflies, Oh my!

Coc Phuong National Park: Primate Research Center

We got up bright and early to explore Ninh Binh before heading south to Vinh. Also up early was an extremely loud cat, which wished us goodbye from her perch high above.

This morning we were heading to Coc Phuong National Park, home of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. The ride there treated us to some much nicer views of the Ninh Binh region than we’d had the day before. Much like Halong, dramatic limestone cliffs rise up all around, but here they rise from rice-covered river plains rather than sea.


Access to the primate rescue center is only available via a guided tour. We’d heard conflicting reports about the quality of these tours, with most people saying that the guides were very knowledgeable (they all have other jobs at the park), but also very short on time. When we arrived we were surprised to see fairly large groups of locals turning up, mostly family groups with young children.

We were ready for a crowded, hectic tour, but as it turned out there were separate Vietnamese and English tours. As we were the only English speakers, we had one guide all to ourselves, while the other guides wrangled groups of 20 or more.

First up was the primate centre, but we were told that after that we’d get to see a turtle centre which was a nice bonus.

Each of the enclosures, including this large free-range one, has signs indicating which primates live there.

The one on the bottom has a baby! All the babies start out brown, and gain the black colouring when they mature.
Big floof, small floof

Seven-colour Langurs.

As predicted, our guide was a little harried, but he seemed happy to be taking a small group rather than one of the large ones. As we made our way around the sanctuary, he studiously avoided running into the larger groups. He explained that large groups, and particularly local Vietnamese, were often too loud around the animals and disturbed them. We’d see the monkeys behaving more naturally if we were quiet and kept to quieter areas.

Most of the primates here have been seized from the illegal wildlife trade, and this particular sanctuary aims to release almost all its occupants back into the wild. To that end, they have an awesome, tiered system of enclosures. New rescues begin in quarantine, before moving on to larger cages shared with others of the same species, where they’ll stay until they’re healthy. Then, if they’re to be released back into a similar climate to the local area, the move into a much larger enclosure where they can learn to fend for themselves, gathering their own food from the trees with supplementary feeding kept to a minimum.

While our guide didn’t actively herd us, he was clearly in a bit of a hurry. When we reached the turtle centre across the road, he apologised and said he needed to return to the entrance to take the next group of visitors. It seems they were allowing about 30 minutes per tour, so it’s little wonder they have to rush people.

Turtle Sanctuary

The Turtle sanctuary (I don’t know what it was actually called) contained a few interesting surprises. One of them was what we believe was baby leeches spawning in a little overflow pond. They were all suspended in some kind of goo, and all wriggling slightly.

IMG_8689 copyIMG_8689IMG_8690

Inkeddownload (1)_LI

We did not pat the leeches, but we did poke them with a leaf.

There were also some local turtles which were tame enough to hand-feed. For 10,000 VND you could get a small bag of turtle treats. The turtles would patiently hold their mouths open, waiting for you to drop it in.


The white, fluttering puddle

As we wandered back from the Turtle center to the entrance of the park, we spotted what looked like a small, fluttering puddle of white leaves in a field.

Closer inspection revealed it was actually hundreds of white butterflies!

We still have no idea what they were doing or why. Unless someone has an idea, perhaps it will have to remain a happy mystery.

The ride onward to Vinh, where we’d be staying for the night, was relatively uneventful. For South East Asian standards at least. I got to once again feel like a giant while stopping for a drink:

Lauren unlocked a new motorcycling achievement:

Be booped by a car and a motorcycle at the same time.

And a group of three locals at a petrol station chatted with us via google translate for half an hour, before taking photos to prove they did indeed talk with a white man with a giant red beard:

The Avatar Hotel

For whatever reason, we decided to ‘treat’ ourselves to a real hotel. Through Agoda, it cost only a couple of dollars more than a guesthouse, but came with a few freebies like breakfast, and was less likely to be awful.

We plotted a GPS course to the “Avatar Hotel”, and upon arriving found nothing even remotely like a hotel at the location shown. After 15 minutes of riding around the streets, we eventually located the Avatar on a completely different street, around half a kilometer away.

The first person to greet us was the world’s most insistent parking lot security guard.  He repeatedly showed us that we should park our bikes in the Hotel parking lot, around 100m from the entrance, and became visibly distressed when we instead parked right outside the entrance to start the process of de-gearing ourselves and the bikes. All attempts to explain that we’d put the bikes in the garage as soon as we’d checked in were met with confusion, or strong agreement that yes, we should put our bikes in the garage. Now please.

We left the concerned man with the bikes and went to check in. Despite speaking quite good English, the lady at reception seemed baffled by the idea that we’d made an online booking. She didn’t appear to know what Agoda was, and had no record of us on her computer. Nonetheless she did eventually agree to match the price from the app, and found a room for us.

When I reappeared 30 minutes later to put the bikes into the parking lot, the security man was so relieved he offered me a puff of his tobacco… at least I think it was tobacco. I politely declined.

Miaow Pizza

We took at 20 minute stroll through Vinh to find Miaow Pizza, a “Western Themed” pizza place which was one of the few restaurants we could find any information about in town. As we walked it became pretty obvious that not many western tourists stay in Vinh. Or at least, not many western tourists walk about on the streets in Vinh.

We were watched with equal parts interest and amusement, but got lots of smiles and waves. On our way home, we’d find out that a taxi to cover the same distance only cost 20,000 VND, less than $1. Perhaps that’s why white people don’t walk.

Miaow was a lovely little restaurant, filled entirely with locals. Great food, and a lovely atmosphere.

We spent 330,000 VND (about $15). Expensive for Vietnam, but certainly a lot less than pizza, drinks, beer and coffee in a Wellington restaurant.

Day 43 – Halong to Ninh Binh

Today’s plan was a leisurely ride to the town of Ninh Binh, around 4 hours from Halong. Once again, we’d be taking the slow route, because the beautiful fast roads discriminate against motorcycles.

Ninh Binh is said to be the ‘Halong Bay of the Land’. With scenes like this, it’s easy to see why.

Image result for ninh binh vietnam
I didn’t take this photo. In fact, we never even found the place in this photo. There’s a slight possibility it doesn’t actually exist.

Unfortunately, either through lack of planning or lack of cooperative weather, we were doomed to be left a little underwhelmed by the area. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After a late breakfast at the little Italian restaurant that had somehow become our favourite, we struck out and almost immediately encountered an unfamiliar situation: Rain. It never became particularly heavy, but it was enough make us pause and double check that all the dry bags were tightly closed, and anything not waterproof was safely stowed. Once again, I thanked my past self for selecting a waterproof phone.

We also got to observe the surprising way that Vietnamese traffic responds to rain: It doesn’t. Despite slippery roads and reduced visibility, everything continued exactly as it would if the sun had been shining. Perhaps when you live in a country with a monsoon season, light rain like this barely even registers as rain.

We even got to witness something new: Motorcycle fish delivery. While we were having lunch, a man turned up on a bike with a large metal boxon the back. Without a word of discussion, he took off the lid, scooped 4 or 5 live fish out of the container (with his hands), plopped them into a big metal dish outside the restaurant, put the lid back on, and left.

Despite the late start, we made good time throughout the afternoon.Around 6pm we arrived at the outskirts of a city which looked absolutely nothing like any of the photos. At some point Ninh Binh seemed to have rather outgrown its quaint rural roots and become a sizable city.

Finding our hostel proved to be a little more of a challenge than usual. The GPS took us down several tiny ‘streets’, each finishing in a dead end and a number of surprised locals wondering why we were in their driveway. Eventually we found that the entrance was in fact right off a major road, but that the actual hostel was set so far back from the street, that we literally had to drive through the hallway of another building to get to it.

Brendan rides through a building
Brendan rides through a building to get to our hostel.
The little courtyard of the hotel, full of ornamental shrubs.  In the morning, the world’s loudest cat would appear in the window on the right wall.


The inner courtyard had a large number of pretty ornamental shrubs, which seem to be very popular all through north-central Vietnam.

We pledged to explore Ninh Binh a little more thoroughly the next day.

Day 42c – Halong Bay and Halong Park

Note – this post got stupidly long, so I’ve split it up. I didn’t want you to miss out on some of this stuff. 

You can read Day 42a – Halong Bay here.

Here’s Day 42b – Halong Bay.

You’re here –  Day 42c – Halong Bay and Halong Park.

Halong Park

We told you earlier that when we first heard about Halong Park, we thought it was a playground or a big grassy park with trees. You know, a park. The second I found out it was an amusement park, I immediately began convincing Brendan it was absolutely necessary we went.


Halong Park!


Thankfully, Brendan is a pretty easy-going traveller and he’s quite used to my crazy demands like being fed on a semi-regular basis, touching every animal I see and going to random theme parks we find. Thankfully that last one doesn’t happen too often.

But when it does, you better know we’re going.

As Brendan mentioned earlier, the park itself wasn’t completely open. We weren’t really sure exactly what was open, but there was a huge two storey gondala stretching across the bay and a giant Sun Wheel, so that was enough for me to buy a ticket.


These slides weren’t open yet – Halong Park


We hopped into the gondala that takes you across the bay. It was all very fancy and automated sounding, with fun facts that told us that the gondala could take 3 bus loads of people and it’s the tallest gondala in the world.

Once we started rising from the main building, we could see how extensive the carpark area was. It was like the parking lot at Disneyland, only completely empty.


This carpark was HUGE – Halong Park


The trip across the bay took 7 minutes so that gondala car goes pretty fast!

View from the Gondala – Halong Park
View from the Gondala – Halong Park

Samurai Slide

We immediately headed to the Samurai Slide because it closed earliest and we wanted to get our riding in early. The Samurai Slide was a ride where you hopped into a seat that sat directly onto rails, called a sledbob. All you had were brakes and a seatbelt. To engage the brakes, you simply needed to let go of the handles, kind of like on the luge.


Sledbob – Halong Park


The first run on the Samurai Slide we went alone in our sleds. I ignored the woman’s instructions and took some (bad) photos on the way.


The slide pulls you up at this point – Halong Park
The Samurai Slide track – Halong Park


It was pretty fun, so we went immediately back in the queue. The line had maybe 20 people in front of us, but it took us 15-20 minutes to get to the front of the line.

The second time on the ride, we went on together. We figured our combined weight would make us faster. Brendan was in charge of the brakes, so naturally didn’t use them at all.

It was a pretty fun ride, and I’d definitely go on it again.


We were a bit concerned about the long lines though – before the park was even really open, we waited 20 minutes and the queue was almost empty. We didn’t really see much scope to speed things up because if one person goes super slow on the ride, it will hold everyone else behind them up too.

This will result in everyone having a bit of a rubbish time and super long lines for everyone.


One of the random cute displays – Halong Park


We did notice there are two Samurai Slides with completely different tracks and queuing areas. One way of making things a bit quicker for everyone would be to have a ‘fast’ and a ‘slow’ track, but I’m not sure how you’d sort people. A single queuing area could help too, but there’s not a lot you can do if you can only have 8 or so people on the ride at one time, and each ride takes anywhere from 3-10 minutes.

The gondala was another issue – it can hold 230 people at a time, but takes at least 15 min to load, get across the bay then unload at the other end. When the entire park is open it seems difficult to see how they’ll be able to move enough people through the park.

The Sun Wheel


In case you forget its name – Halong Park


The Sun Wheel was pretty great. It moves so slowly that from the other side of the bay you can barely see it moving. From the top, you have an excellent view of the bay and town.


The Sun Wheel – Halong Park


We went on twice, and the second time, Facetimed my parents to show them the sights. Facetime is such an awesome resource and in a place like South East Asia where mobile data is cheap and everywhere, it’s no problem to just wander around a theme park for an hour showing people 1000km away what you’re up to.


Each cart holds 6 people – Halong Park



View from the top – Halong Park



After we said goodbye to my parents, we headed to the arcade. It’s a two storey arcade full of all the fun arcade games you used to play as a kid.


We had the arcade basically to ourself – Halong Park


I was thrilled to see they had the basketball game, where you basically throw a basketball through a moving hoop to earn points. I used to play it in the arcade as a kid occasionally and I forgot how much I loved it.

We spent about 2 hours and spent about US$15 playing at the arcade. I won an awesome stuffed toy shark!


The Gondala Hardware – Halong Park


All in all, Halong Park was great. While I’m a bit sad that it wasn’t finished when we visited, I’d totally go again. One of the areas that wasn’t finished was a water park!


The Entrance Way – Halong Park


Day 42b – Halong Bay

Note – this post got stupidly long, so I’ve split it up. I didn’t want you to miss out on some of this stuff. 

You can read Day 42a – Halong Bay here.

You’re here – Day 42b – Halong Bay.

Here’s Day 42c – Halong Bay and Halong Park.

The Bamboo Boat

The night before when we had ordered our day cruise tickets, we were told about the bamboo boat. After a couple of confusing explanations involving baffling descriptions of mountain monkeys, we were none the wiser. However, we duly handed over our tickets and put on our sexy lifejackets.


All set for the Bamboo Boat


We were ushered outside and suddenly two men in green boats (which were not, for the record, bamboo) came slowly rowing towards us. One guy from our boat jumped overboard onto the little green boat and held on to the side of the big boat while we all inelegantly clambered on board.


Climbing onto the Bamboo Boat was a bit of a challenge



We then slowly paddled towards a hole in the rock.


I was still pretty dubious about these monkeys, even when we popped out the other side of the rocks and saw this amazing little cove that would have been amazing and secretive if it wasn’t full of tiny green boats with yelling tourists.


Coming through the hole in the rock – Bamboo Boat



The Cove! – Bamboo Boat
The Cove – Bamboo Boat


After a few minutes, we finally saw a couple of monkeys hanging out in the trees. They were macaques that definitely did not look like they belonged. Another boat came in and started throwing fruit at the monkeys which was cute, but also a bit sad.


Monkey! – Bamboo Boat


There were also huge crows flying around the island. They really fit into the foggy, gloomy sky aesthetic.

Turns out, the monkeys were actually planted on the island just so tourists like us can see them. I felt a bit sad for them because it’s not really a great place for them and it’s certainly not good for their health or the environment for people to be chucking fruit at them all day.

Confusion reins

We got back on our big boat and went right back to being a bit confused. From what we could gather, we were going to be dropped on an island where we could swim, lay on the beach or climb 1400 stairs to the top of the island where there’s a lookout. It wasn’t entirely clear what time our boat would be coming back for us, but we decided given it was the last activity of the day, any boat would probably take us back if we somehow managed to mess up and miss our boat.

Spoiler alert:

We didn’t.

We did, however, climb up to the lookout to take some photos.


This was a very intense warning sign. I love the picture – Halong Bay


Despite this scary sign, the walk wasn’t too terrible. There were quite a few places to stop to rest, and beautiful views when you did stop.


Halong Bay
Halong Bay


The view from the top was AMAZING. We hung out there for about 45 minutes just taking photos and chatting. We ended up having time up there almost alone which was so great considering we could barely move when we first arrived at the top.


Halong Bay
Halong Bay
Halong Bay
Halong Bay
A photo to prove that we were actually at Halong Bay, or are excellent with Photoshop.
Halong Bay


For me, this was the highlight of our trip to Halong Bay. I couldn’t have asked for better weather – for me, this place suits the moody grey vibe we got, and I really loved it.

On the way back down, I counted the stairs. There were only 532. That’s still objectively a hell of a lot of stairs, but definitely not the 1400 Mr Boat Man told us.


We hopped back on our boat and cruised the rest of the way back to port. We spent most of the boat ride back talking to two Danish women who were travelling together. They were planning to travel for another 6 months or so and were planning on coming to New Zealand at the end of the year. Almost every traveller we met had either been to NZ and raved about it, or it was on their bucket list. New Zealand, we do alright.

We asked the bus to drop us off at Halong Park. Once we figured out it was a theme park, I was sold. We decided to spend the evening there. But that’s for the next post.

Day 42a – Halong Bay

Note – this post got stupidly long, so I’ve split it up. I didn’t want you to miss out on some of this stuff. 

You’re here – Day 42a – Halong Bay here.

Here’s Day 42b – Halong Bay.

Here’s Day 42c – Halong Bay and Halong Park.

Bright and early

We got up bright and early to meet our tour group. I was devastated to order an iced chocolate and instead got a coffee and ice at 7.30 in the morning.

After waiting the usual 20 minutes (because everything in South East Asia is at least 20 minutes late), we hopped on a bus. This was our first experience catching a bus in SEA, and we were a bit apprehensive about it. At least, I was. I’m less sure about Brendan.

My concerns were immediately realised when we wandered to the back of the bus and sat trying to ignore (or at least not laugh too loudly) about the horrible fart and stale BO stench of the bus. See, this is why motorcycles are great. You can fart all you want, and no one will ever have to smell it.

Gross. Moving on.

We arrived at the dock we had tried to get a boat from last night and were shepherded into some seats to wait while a kind man told us about 17 times NOT to lose our tickets because if we did we’d have to pay again and all our ancestors would be disappointed in us and we’d never ever live down the shame. Or something along those lines. Meanwhile, Brendan and I were sitting there exchanging glances that definitely meant ‘this is why we travel by ourselves, this is hell’.

The boat!

It took almost an hour to finally be allowed onto the boat, whereupon we received another lecture about not losing our tickets, and also about not littering off the side of the boat. I was very glad to hear this.

Not long after we headed out into the bay, a woman sitting out our table attempted to order a coffee. She was exceptionally rude to the staff and while usually, I might not blog about this, the fact that it’s not over a month later and quite regularly, Brendan or I will turn to each other and say ‘Remember that South African lady with the coffee? Wasn’t she a bitch?’, I feel like it’s worth writing down.

This woman is quite well travelled – she had been to Halong Bay before and had travelled around Vietnam before. Apparently, however, she had somehow missed the memo on Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is slow drip coffee that’s rich and glorious. It comes in a glass and is usually about 60-100lm of coffee. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s over ice, and sometimes that even coincides with what you asked for. If you get it with milk, you’re getting condensed milk. Refrigeration is everywhere in the cities, but it can be harder to find out of cities, and keeping milk at safe temperatures is a challenge – besides, it doesn’t keep long. So condensed milk is the way to go.

If you’ve ever had a Vietnamese coffee (and you’re not this South African woman), you’ll identify that it’s not actual milk immediately – because your coffee usually comes unstirred with a centimetre or so of condensed milk sitting on the bottom.

This lady, though – she had zero idea. And scolded the poor staff ‘ SUGAR. SWEET. SUGAR?’ The poor woman understood her, but the question didn’t really make sense. It didn’t have sugar – it had milk. Condensed milk. But it was sweet, so it’s a bit of a confusing thing to answer when English is only something you’ve learned to make tourists like our lives a bit easier.

After our lovely South African friend scolded our friendly staff member some more then eventually declined to purchase a coffee in a huff, Brendan and I decided to head to the top deck and drink our own delicious coffees in peace.

Despite there being hundreds of boats out on the bay, it was quiet and quite peaceful. They have some sort of rule about what sort of boats are allowed in the area to keep the noise down, and it’s great. The day was overcast and it was slightly spitting, which I’m sure for some people was a huge disappointment, but as a New Zealander, that’s basically my preferred way to see amazing sights.

The boat behaviour was a bit like how cars and bikes work on the road. In general, if you’re big, you have right of way. We saw a boat u-turn right in front of another boat, which as might have been expected, caused a low-speed collision.

After a small amount of yelling, both boats when on their way unharmed.

We sat and chatted on the deck with some other travellers (including South African lady, who was actually super lovely to us). It’s funny, whenever you’re travelling, and you find other people, the topic you most quickly get on to discussing is travelling. I suppose it’s an immediate thing you have in common with people.

I love discussing travelling styles with people, and thankfully, because of our mode of transport we tend to find people who travel in similar ways to us, so we spend a lot of time rolling our eyes about the bus-travel folk (If you’re a bus-travel person – you do you, but you’re missing out!).

We also had an extremely intense conversation about what the global community should do about North Koreans. One day, in the not too distant future, they’re going to be saying ‘You guys knew we were starving, you knew they had death camps. Why didn’t you help?’

Unfortunately, we didn’t come up with a solution otherwise this would be a very different blog post.

Our first stop

Our first stop of the day was a cave.

Dozens of boats lined up to quickly let their passengers off and head back out to the bay so the next 10 boats could unload.

We followed the crowd up the walkway into the cave, where we were crammed in a little by huge tour groups, including a man who had a green laser pointer and was super excited to use it.

Brendan and I had formed a strategy to avoid pushy tourists by this point – let them push, and just do things at our pace. It’s the perfect strategy when you’re travelling on your own transport because you basically get to see whatever you want alone while everyone else rushes through.
One of these days though, we’re going to do it while on a group event like this and be left behind.

The cave itself was quite well lit and had nice pathways through the cave so the stalactites and stalagmites weren’t damaged by the hundreds of people thundering through each day. Unfortunately, many people ignored the signs and went right up and touched everything, which was quite sad to see.

My advice – if you want to see this cool cave, maybe don’t wait too long.

We hopped back on our boat (they kept telling us to remember it by its name. I ignored them and looked for this badass dragon) and they took us into a neighbouring bay to have lunch.

The lunch was lots of seafood which I suppose is quite fitting, but there were delicious marinated tofu squares, a cucumber salad and fresh fruit, so I was happy. Brendan said the fish was great.

After lunch – the Bamboo boat. But that’s for the next post!

Day 41 – Halong’s doorstep

The goal for the day was to reach Cat Ba Island in the famous Halong Bay. If you’re unfamiliar with Halong, just look at these photos (not taken by me). You’ll get the idea.

halong 1halong bay 2

It’s a gorgeous bay containing hundreds of islands, and it was one of my most anticipated locations of the whole trip.

We left at a reasonable hour, bellies full of under-toasted toast and over-oiled egg, and made our way east out of the city.

Almost immediately, we encountered a beautiful, fast, new highway. It ran almost the entire way to Halong, and would deliver us to our destination in just 3 short hours. Unfortunately, the reason it was so fast and beautiful was that bikes weren’t allowed on it. We sadly followed the tiny road alongside it for a while, before branching off to the much longer route designated for the displacement-challenged.

Sidebar: Oh how quickly we’ve become jaded by Vietnam’s comparatively brilliant roads. Less than a week ago we’d been making our way to the Lao/Viet border on a route more pothole than seal. Now a sealed road was entirely unaccaptable because the stupid fancy car road doesn’t have deal with tractors. Well who cares I never wanted to ride on your road anyway so there. 

The remainder of the ride went smoothly, despite the occasional tractor, and we arrived on Ngoc Chau (where the Cat Ba ferry leaves from) a little after 3 pm. After a lengthy investigation, we discovered that the last ferry of the day had left at 3 pm. The websites we’d consulted earlier apparently didn’t think anyone visited at this time of year, as the timetables they’d posted were for the high season, which ended 2 months ago.

Not that we couldn’t blame them for that assumption: Halong felt utterly deserted. Large, impressive hotels lined the streets, and for every one that was open, there was another under construction. In classic South-east Asian fashion, all the construction projects appeared to have been started at once. The sheer number of half-complete structures boggles the mind, and even those with workers on-site could barely muster a skeleton crew.

Conspicuously absent was anyone to stay in all these hotels. We can only assume that Halong gets much busier in the high season.

After trying and failing to find another way to Cat Ba island, we gave up and decided we’d catch the first ferry in the morning. We found a hotel in what seemed to be a new subdivision (i.e. a few new buildings, mostly hotels restaurants and a 4 story massage place) surrounded by a mixture of construction and empty fields).


The view from our hotel.



Vietnam appears to have rules about needing a certain number of fire extinguishers for a building of a certain size. It doesn’t appear to have rules about where these are placed, so most buildings have a whole ton on the ground floor, and nowhere else.


We were greeted by the most ambitiously helpful hotel owner/manager we’d encountered so far. She spoke enough English to communicate with us about the basics, but not enough to communicate at the level she seemed to desire. With a little back and forth, I managed to explain what our plan was for tomorrow, and be informed that it was entirely wrong. What we should be doing, she insisted, was a cruise around the bay, then a walk up a particular hill to view the bay, and then going to Halong Park. She was very excited about the last part, because the park was new, having only opened in this year. I wasn’t sure what could be so fantastic about a park, but I took her word for it that it must be pretty impressive.


The deserted streets of Halong at night during the low season.


Having checked in and dumped our stuff, we went out in search of dinner. Google maps suggested there was an Italian place closer to the actual city of Halong, so we took the bikes. Dinner was average and charged thoroughly tourist prices, but it did have a booking agent for boat tours right beside it, which was still open at 9:30 pm. In the end we paid US$35 each for an 8-hour tour of the bay, which was much less than the few hundred we’d been considering for an overnight tour.

The overnight tours are very popular, but seem to exclusively leave from Hanoi rather than Halong. The boat part of the journey starts and ends at midday to give guests time to take the 3 hour bus ride between Hanoi and Halong. This makes us even more baffled about who was going to stay in all these hotels.

While in town, we discovered the mystery of Halong Park. It isn’t a Park in the sense that I had been imagining, it is, in fact, an enormous amusement park. It also wasn’t “open” in the sense you’d usually expect from an amusement park. The majority of it was still closed off to the public, but some portions of the park had opened, and admittance was being offered at a discount. We decided that after our boat ride tomorrow, we would indeed visit Halong Park, if only so that the hotel lady wouldn’t be disappointed with us.

Day 40 – exploring Hanoi

I was pretty excited to get up and head to our included breakfast – eggs and toast. I don’t really eat eggs, but I was thrilled to see real toast instead of baguettes. There was also New Zealand butter!

While we were eating, we spoke to a guy who is a long term traveller living in Hanoi. He teaches English a few hours a week and uses the money he earns from that to survive on. He’s unqualified, doesn’t speak Vietnamese and earns US$20 an hour teaching English in Hanoi. Given the average incomes in Vietnam, that’s pretty astounding.

We asked for advice about the Womens’ Museum – trip advisor was generally positive, but there were a bunch of bad reviews saying there wasn’t a lot of information. I basically had my heart set on going, so immediately dismissed this guy when he said he didn’t think it was worth the trip, but it was alright.

The criticisms basically fell into 4 categories:

  • Women shit is boring anyway, and learning about women is a boring waste of time
  • There’s not enough information, you won’t learn anything
  • There was too much focus on women’s beauty and fashion, and was a bit vapid
  • There was very limited focus on a woman’s role in Vietnam today

We got a taxi there, and man, am I glad we went.

If you went and didn’t get the audio tour, I absolutely can see how you wouldn’t get a lot out of it. The audio tour was very detailed and interesting. It included many interviews with Vietnamese women, and interviews with the collection’s curators explaining things they learned while collecting items and information for the museum.

The first floor was split into two, covering courting and marriage, then childbearing and raising.

There was an interesting range of different types of wedding traditions from the different cultures and tribes in Vietnam, as well as videos of people’s weddings and interviews with them explaining their traditions. Most tribes in Vietnam are patrilineal – that is, when she marries, her husband’s family offer “payment” by way of dowry, and the wife moves to live with her husband’s family after marriage.

Some, however, are matrilineal – that is, the wife’s family offers payment to the husband’s family, and he moves into the wife’s family’s household after marriage. They had an interesting snippet of one of these societies where they explained the engagement ritual – young women propose to men they’re interested in (usually they’re already dating). My favourite part was if he declined, she wasn’t allowed to ask again for 7 days, and eventually, he’d almost always agree to marry her. And yes, I’m totally aware this is a double standard, and if a dude did this, I’d find it creepy. So let’s acknowledge that.

The second side was about child rearing – pregnancy, birth and raising kids. Vietnam has a pretty high infant mortality rate, and most babies aren’t born in hospitals here. There are lots of traditional things different tribes do as a result of this, including elaborate naming ceremonies, keeping baby and mum warm (I’m writing this in 39° heat and the idea of that is laughable), and keeping spirits out of the house. Some tribes have hats for babies that look like flowers from above, so the bad spirits won’t know there’s a baby around. Woven and embroidered baby carriers are intricate and represent both the mother’s skill and her family and tribal connections.

The next floor was devoted to women in the war. It told the stories of amazing rebellion fighters, industrious women in prison who made extraordinary efforts to keep their own, and other’s spirits up, the way women shared information and some of the heroic efforts of wartime doctors and women who worked tirelessly to keep troops fed, in good clothes and in good spirits.

Women played a huge role in disseminating classified information during the war. They came up with elaborate and ingenious ways to avoid being caught.

My two favourite methods – one woman made brooms, and hid messages inside the brooms. She was able to get into all sorts of places because she was only a brooms salesperson. To avoid the pesky situation of someone trying to buy one of her brooms with secret messages inside, she made really shitty brooms. They were so bad, no one would actually ever buy them. The second was a woman who pretended to be mentally ill. She wore a tattered, patched shirt and hid messages in secret pockets and sewn under patches. Because of the stigma against mentally ill people, she was avoided and no one bothered her.

There was another section on the same floor which explained the role of women in farming and fishing. It was around here where Brendan and I started looking at each other wondering “if women organise their weddings, make clothes for their whole families, raise babies, cook, clean, fish and farm….what exactly do men do?”

The last floor was an interesting look at women’s fashion in different tribes. These were a little familiar to us – we recognised some similarities between these designs and some of the ones we saw in Laos. The intricate designs show not only traditional dress from each group, but individual skill and heritage. Generally, it’s the women from each group who wear clothing that elaborately showcases where they come from.

Personally, I think people who dismiss this as “boring women’s stuff” or consider it a bit vapid are kind of missing the point. Artistic skill is important, and it seems quite wrong to dismiss this as somehow less important than the other things women do.

I really would have liked to see an exhibit on how women’s roles have changed – has city life made a difference? How has technology and education made a difference to how women fit in society here?

One of the big takeaways that both Brendan and I had is that we wanted to learn more about what role men play in society – probably in a different museum though!

After we had finished at the museum, we headed to the Ethnology Museum.

A bicycle with 400 fishing traps on it

It was a great experience, and the exhibits were detailed and arranged so you could see what different groups of Vietnamese tribes practice. There were great videos and interviews.

Our favourite part was seeing different types of buildings and houses different groups build. Lots of them were actually relocated after being donated.

These sculptures were on the outside of a burial building. I love how they carved her looking completely unimpressed.

That evening I went and had an amazing massage.

Brendan and I met up afterwards, and we walked home together. We arrived back after midnight and were very confused to see our hostel had been replaced with a roller garage door. We had to push a button and be let in by the guard!

Day 39 – Hanoi

The first act of the day was decisive: After a couple of thousand kilometres, we agreed that our seats were no longer being improved by the addition of bits of mattress, and discarded them.

The mattress seat comfier, back when it was beautiful and new, not hard, squashed, and dirty.

The woman was a little confused when I tried to ask where to put them, at first thinking I wanted to wash them. Eventually, I mimed throwing them off the bank at the back of the property, to which she appeared to reply “Oh, sure go ahead.”

I opted to leave the mattress bits with her rather than litter, but I’m pretty sure the moment I left they were flung into the jungle.
Our ride was uneventful until we stopped for lunch. At this point, we still hadn’t really figured out Vietnamese local restaurants. Signs saying “COM” (literally “rice”, but generally just indicates a place that serves food) are everywhere, but none of these places have menus, and we hadn’t yet learned the many types of COM denoted by the various signs.

Lacking other options, I chose a place reading “COM PHO”, because I at least knew what Pho was (a rice noodle soup). We admonished ourselves for not doing a bit more research on the names of common Vietnamese food ahead of time, but figured we’d work it out.

This place was, I would realise later, a very standard rural Com Pho restaurant. It was almost entirely deserted at this time of day, with only a couple of teenagers sitting around outside, and two women who looked surprised and more than a little worried to see two white people pull up at their restaurant. The huge number of tables and chairs seemed to imply that this place got much busier at other times of the day.

Out front, very much in the open and actually more outside than inside, was a simple kitchen and a glass cabinet containing various ingredients, mostly meats. Lauren would later call this “The Fly Cabinet”, for reasons that are probably obvious considering it wasn’t sealed or refrigerated.

Through fragments of English, Vietnamese, and use of Google translate, I asked for two Pho: one with meat (for me who was being brave), and one without meat (for Lauren, who was being sensible). They then pointed to various ingredients in the fly cabinet and asked if I wanted them in each soup, which was challenging as I didn’t know what most of them were.

In the end, Lauren’s vegetarian Pho ended up with a liberal helping of some kind of pork sausage, which apparently didn’t count as meat.

We also asked for some Coke (the only drink reliably recognised when we ask for it). After Cambodia and Laos which reliably have a cooler or fridge full of cold drinks prominently displayed, it was strange that this was apparently an odd request. In the end, one lady went across the road to get them for us. They were delivered warm, but with a tray containing several huge pieces of ice. Rather than try to break up the suspicious ice and add it to our glasses, we decided to just put the cans on top of the ice and drink them mostly warm.

While I was busily eating both bowls of Pho (Lauren decided she wasn’t touching hers), Lauren saw a dog taking a nice long drink out of the washing up water the ladies were using for the dishes. She decided not to tell me until later.

I would spend the next few days worried about food poisoning, but the Pho was actually really tasty. And around NZ$4 for both bowls, including the drinks.

As we were finishing up a man arrived with a cotton bud sticking out of his ear. I thought perhaps he hadn’t noticed it, but shortly after he removed it briefly, and then put it back in. No one appeared to think this was strange.

A couple of hours later we started seeing the outskirts of Hanoi. This was easily the biggest city we’d been in since leaving Ho Chi Minh with the bikes. The traffic was intense, but surprisingly manageable. It was also a little different than in Ho Chi Minh. Crossing the road is a good example, in Hanoi you’re expected to watch carefully, time your moves, and give way to traffic. In Ho Chi Minh you cross slowly and consistently, and traffic moves around you. You don’t stop moving, (ever, for anything)the traffic relies on you being consistent.

After a couple of false starts we managed to find a hostel which was not only surprisingly cheap ($10/night), but also had a nice room and bathroom, and included breakfast. We were suspicious, but it seemed legit. I guess there’s a lot of competition for customers.

The one downside to this hostel was that there wasn’t anywhere to park the bikes for the night, meaning I had to ride them to a motorcycle park a few minutes away.

Then we went to find lunch, and Lauren was so excited to have cheese, bread, and meat that wasn’t from a fly cabinet, that she ate too much pizza and felt terribly sick.

With food taken care of, we went to explore Hanoi’s famous market streets. All throughout the old quarter are different streets dedicated to different products. We found a street that almost exclusively sold fans, and the street our hostel was on seemed to specialise in party and decorative products, meaning the footpath was constantly covered in a fine dusting of glitter.

A temple in Hanoi’s old quarter
A tree with offerings displayed on it

During our wander, we discovered a little pocket of western restaurants near a lake, and the sight of a Dunkin’ Donuts in the middle of Hanoi was sufficiently strange that that became dinner.

When we returned to our hostel, we made the odd discovery that we had a little balcony… kind of. We were on the ground floor, and behind a curtain was a door that leads to a tiny outdoor space, barely large enough to fit a bicycle in, surrounded on all sides by buildings. This door was the only way into the space, but had a lock on it nonetheless.

The weird space, this is looking UP.

We hypothesised that perhaps this space was once part of a tiny alleyway between buildings, but subsequent expansions had eventually boxed it in. Now it was used mostly for air conditioning units to hang out of, so they couldn’t really get rid of it.

Day 38 – Vietnam

We got up much later than our Danish friends who had to go meet a bus at 8am. We ended up leaving Vieng Xai at about 11 after heading to the Honda store for an oil change. This one was expensive – and we had forgotten the night before and spent the last of our kip on beer, so had to make an expensive trip to an ATM to pay for our new oil. 

The trip to the border was 64km, and we were expecting a usual Laotian road – maybe even a good one considering it was to the border. 

Lol we were so so wrong. The road was definitely not pigs-wallowing-in-the-road level, but it also definitely isn’t what anyone could considered sealed. Brendan did an accidental wheelie on the road (we no longer slow down for gravel, we don’t have all day).

All said though, it was a pretty quick and fun trip to the border, and nice to finally be faster than some of those crazy tour busses. 

We arrived at the Laos side of the border very abruptly. The map said it was another 5km away but suddenly we were pulling up at the border. We decided to take the “we have zero money other than these 2000kip” approach when leaving Laos – there’s officially no charge for leaving, but that didn’t stop it costing us $24 to leave Cambodia. I figured it’s pretty simple to say “we’ve got no money”, but it turned out we didn’t have to! It cost us 0 dollars to leave.

While we were filling out our departure cards and getting our stamps, a bus of Chinese people arrived. They were very friendly, but also very, very line-cutty. As I understand, in China, cutting line is just expected, and it’s not considered rude. I really just can’t get over it though and am always the first to say very shittily “no, don’t push” and push my way back in. 

We rode on to the Vietnamese side of the border, expecting a much more organized situation. As we pulled up, we saw our Danish friends just getting on their bike and leaving. I wish we went to talk to them, I’m so curious about how they could leave 3 hours before us and only end up 10 minutes ahead! We were pointed into a room displaying prominent signs saying “departure”. We were quite worried but eventually communicated we were arriving, already had visas and were also bringing Vietnamese bikes. 

5 minutes later we walked out having parted with exactly no money. It was a Christmas miracle. 

Border dog. We were told “happy dog, friendly dog, family friendly dog”

We had to get our bags searched before we could ride on through. We weren’t exactly sure what they were looking for, but whatever it is they didn’t find it. I’m glad we hid our huge cocaine stash well (I shouldn’t need to add this is a joke, and you should laugh here because it’s funny. We didn’t actually have cocaine).

While they searched, one of the guards gave us a little Vietnamese lesson. He didn’t speak English, but he did speak a little Lao, so would say things in Lao then say them a few times in Vietnamese. It was a very interesting way to learn a few phrases and I wish I could remember more of them!

After the border, we were treated to a beautifully maintained Vietnamese winding road, with a river and terraced rice paddies on one side and a mountain on the other. 

We found lunch a few kilometers down the road. It was in a restaurant in someone’s house (this is super common) and while the woman didn’t speak English, with the help of google translate we were able to get delicious vege noodles, and noodles with chicken feet for Brendan (I feel like I have to say here that he asked for chicken not chicken feet specifically, but I guess they got us on a technicality). There was a very loud cat who hung around at lunchtime.

We stayed in a town called Canh Nang primarily because it had a Viettel store, and partly because it was getting dark. On the way into the parking area of the Viettel store, I pulled an accidental wheelie. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 2 in one day!

There are baby goats all over the place and they’re bouncy and cute and I want one

I stayed at Viettel getting our Vietnamese SIM cards registered and topped up so we could have internet access while Brendan sussed out a place to stay. There was a hotel nearby. The Viettel worker was very patient getting our phones set up and worked out exactly what I wanted and stayed late helping us out. She was amazing.

Once we got all our gear off the bikes, we headed out to find dinner. Of course, the town we were in wasn’t at all a tourist town, so we ended up in a small restaurant which served banh xeo – like egg omlettes filled with veges and usually seafood. You wrap bits in rice paper with veges and it’s delicious. We carefully communicated no meat, no fish for mine, and the lovely woman kept bringing them until we couldn’t eat any more. 

There was also the cutest little girl there who was probably about 3 or 4. She was shy, but wanted to say hi and share her food with us which was super cute. 

Day 37 – Laotian Propaganda Caves

Our final sightseeing destination for Laos were the Vieng Xai caves, 132km away. Google estimated this was 3 and a half hours of riding, and we were inclined to agree it was at least that. We needed to arrive by 1 pm to take the official tour, so we skipped breakfast (as easy call since there was nothing in Nam Nuen Lauren really wanted to eat). Instead, we decided to get lunch once we arrived in Sam Nuea (also spelt Xam Nuea), the largest city in this part of Laos.

It became quickly apparent that our average speed was not going to improve on yesterday. The road was incredibly twisty, and patches of bad seal or roadworks were frequent. Nonetheless, we found ourselves talking about how glad we were that we’d come this way, as this was some of the most entertaining riding we’d encountered so far. The mountainous scenery was as beautiful as always.

However, by the time we rolled into Sam Nuea we were, unfortunately, running fairly close to the wire. We only had time for a quick fuel stop before pushing on towards Vieng Xai, arriving around 12:55. We then rushed around town trying to find the ticket office or wherever the tours left from. There was no signage, but Google maps eventually led us to approximately the correct area, and we spied a likely looking “visitors centre”.

As it turned out, we needn’t have rushed as the tour commenced on Lao time. Someone arrived to sell tickets at around 1:15 and the tour guide left closer to 2 pm.

We were joined by a talkative Dutch couple, and a very quiet German man wearing elephant pants, around 50 too many bracelets, and some impressive dreadlocks. All arrived on decrepit Honda Wins, as is traditional. Just how decrepit we’d find out later.

We received a very professionally produced audio tour, and the guide’s job was mostly to take us to the different caves (they are scattered throughout the area, not one large complex) and let us know which numbers on the guide to listen to at which points.

Everyone took their motorcycles which made getting between caves pretty quick. We were still wearing our gear, but this area of Laos is blessedly a little cooler, so we didn’t suffer too badly. The Dutch couple had open face helmets, but didn’t wear them. Mr Elephant Pants didn’t own a helmet.

Lauren enjoys her propagan- err, I mean her audio guide.

The caves themselves range from fairly small and pokey, to colossal complexes spanning multiple caverns. The furnishings, rooms, and equipment somewhat detract from the natural beauty of the cave systems, but hint at what made this area famous.

There was an airtight bomb shelter for gas attacks in each of the larger cave complexes.
Crank the handle (quite hard) to draw fresh air in.

This area formed the power base for the Pathet Lao, a communist resistance and revolutionary force that initially fought against French rule (albeit under a different name). In the 1950s Vietnam essentially invaded Laos, and the Pathet Lao allied with them, eventually establishing a foothold in the northern and eastern provinces of Laos.

Then the Vietnam war broke out, and the combination of being a communist organisation and having the bad luck of being along the Ho Chi Minh trail, led to the USA secretly dropping enough bombs on Laos to earn it the title of the most bombed nation in history. So the Pathet Lao started resisting the Americans as well, mostly by shooting down planes and collaborating with the Vietnamese.

Near the end of the Vietnam war, another Vietnamese invasion pushed the French/royalist presence back further. Once the US bombs stopped falling, a short peace was negotiated, but the Vietnamese never left (as required by the treaty), and eventually the Pathet Lao began making moves on the remaining Royalist strongholds. This combined with the recent fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia to communist regimes led the royalists to decide to cede the capital. The Pathet Lao marched without resistance into Vientiane, and the People’s Republic of Laos was established.

For around 10 years before the eventual victory, members of the Pathet Lao lived, worked, and sheltered from American bombs within the caves at Vieng Xai. It’s certainly a testament to the durability of the movement.

However, the audio guide, while very well produced and fairly informative, ran into a few problems when trying to discuss the Pathet Lao in an unbiased fashion. I felt like I was listening to propaganda rather than historical commentary, so quickly began to mistrust what I was heading. In particular:

  • The original leaders are spoken of with extreme reverence. If these men had any character flaws, this was certainly not the place to hear about them.
  • Sometimes the comments flew in the face of what we were seeing. Much was made of how egalitarian the leaders were, eating with the people and respected be peasant and soldier alike. Nonetheless, the leaders quarters, and those of their families, were substantially more luxurious than those of the common soldiers.
  • Hugely problematic issues were glossed over or spoken of in glowing terms. The banner of communist revolution was said to make all equal, it no longer mattered which tribe you came from only that you were a revolutionary. In reality, the degree of cultural and historical erasure that occurred in the name of the nation taking precedence was extremely harmful to all but the most dominant culture.
  • Towards the end of the tour, it became much less historical fact, and much more a description of the tenacity and prowess of the Pathet Lao and its moral justification for becoming the government of Laos.

While it did speak highly of the Vietnamese (a very stark contrast to Cambodia), the tour certainly didn’t mention that it was largely the Viet Cong who conquered and held Laos, installing the Pathet Lao leadership once they were done. The tendency towards exaggeration meant it was harder to accept the incredible lengths the Pathet Lao actually did go to in service of their ideals, and the often extreme hardship they and the people of the area suffered.

A genuinely interesting experience, but one I wished I’d done a little research on beforehand.

A glimpse of the gorgeous surrounding terrain.

(This photo and the one above) two views from an elevated position in one of the larger caves.
Llama for scale
Big meeting hall cave. It’s larger than it looks!

Once the tour was done, we hung around and had a little chat with our fellow tourists. German man seemed to have perked up, and told us he’d been travelling and working overseas off and on for 5 years now! We were very jealous.

He also complained a little about the difficulty of fitting in as a white skinned person, for example even when working locally, earning the local currency, he would still routinely pay more than locals. He found it difficult to actually “experience” a country. This is actually a point Lauren and I have discussed a few times. We tend to think that as a white person you have a whole lot of privileges in life, and passing as a local in Southeast Asia simply isn’t one of them. You stand out here, assumptions are made about you, and you’re interacted with in a different way. A great many of those assumptions and interactions are to your benefit, and you can’t really just shed that privilege for a little while to experience the “real” version of a country. Having all that and demanding to fit in like a local, just seems a little… privileged.

The Danish couple we actually ended up going to dinner with (after failing to find the only Indian restaurant in town, we eventually spotted them and had a great evening chatting about travel, life, and motorcycles. In particular, we learned a lot about their Honda Win, which they’d owned for around 2 weeks and had purchased for around US$250 (German man had only paid $180 for his).

In that period it had broken down several times, but apparently had also been cheap to fix. The last breakdown, however, had been a little more spectacular, and in addition to blowing an enormous amount of smoke, it now couldn’t go up hills, even with only one person, without almost immediately overheating. Previously, it had only overheated when carrying two people up a hill. German man had confirmed earlier that his Win also needed frequent rests while travelling up hills, so perhaps this is just standard. The last two days the wife had hitchhiked

The real treat came when they described their carry rack which they’d had welded to the bike for their two backpacks. In principle, this was a fabulous idea. The rack allowed them to carry the packs like large panniers, with the weight low and out of the way. However, the first weld job had failed, possibly due to a rush job, and possibly due to a slightly cavalier attitude towards potholes (“the Wins don’t really have anything to break, so I just go straight through them now”).

In response to the break, the man had submitted his own plan for attaching the rack much more securely. It had even, he informed us, improved the ride quality when carrying two people, because now the frame took the beating rather than him.

We were baffled as to what he meant until he showed us the rack, which was indeed securely welded to both the rear rack, and the swingarm.

Not the actual Honda Win. This Win is probably fine enough, for a Win.

If you don’t see the issue with connecting these two things together with a steel rack, let me draw your attention to the problem.

With the rack attached, this particular Win now had a rear suspension that couldn’t move. We’re still uncertain about this improved the ride.

The next day, the wife was taking a bus to the border while the husband would nurse the Win over the remaining hills to the wonderful land of Vietnam where pistons grow on trees and all problems can be fixed for US$5 in parts and labour. We wish them luck.

Around 9 pm we decided we’d better find a place to sleep for the night. So we followed our new friends back to their guesthouse to ask about a room. We found the entire place deserted, aside from two small boys sitting on the street nearby playing games on their phones. They spoke no English, but we tried using Google to ask where they mother or father was, to which we were just told that they weren’t here. That much was obvious.

Eventually, after looking around some more for any adults who might be hiding, we asked the kids how we could get a room for the night. They pointed at the row of units and went back to their games. So, because why not, we decided to just go over and take one. It turned out to unlocked, so we just dumped our stuff and settled in.

The owner did show up later on his motorbike, quite tipsy, and appeared slightly surprised but not worried. He told us to pay the cleaning lady in the morning.