North Vietnam paddy fields

Vietnam mixed feelings

If I were to try to describe in a sentence our short time in Vietnam holidays so far, I might have a stab with: "amazement at the scenery, frustration with the people". It's been an eye-opening 6 days anyway. We are still in the capital, Hanoi, where we arrived last Friday - although we haven't actually spent a lot of the time in between here. To have been here all that time would have had me being carried away by the men in white coats; this is the craziest city I've ever been to. It goes without saying I'll come onto that later...

The exit from Laos into Vietnam went quite smoothly. I easily bartered a tuk-tuk down to 25,000kip for the 6km ride to the airport; then once there, successfully managed to balance our bags on the scale so they weighed 40kg (the limit), which was a feat as K's bag alone weighs 24kg; then paid the $10 departure tax each. Through to the lounge, it turned out that this was one of the nicest airports I've been to - the toilets wouldn't have been out of place in a 5* hotel, the seats were very comfortable and we watched BBC World on a flatscreen TV to help while away the 1 1/2 hours

On the news, I was particularly interested by the report on the escalating violence in Nepal - I was planning on going there if I go to New Zealand, but now it looks out of the question. Back to the drawing board...I've been looking into overland tours to Africa but they are very pricey...South America might be an option but flights from NZ have to be booked well, well in advance. Back to the present, we still had 4,000kip left over so I thought I'd look into getting a bottle of water for the flight. In Vientiane town, the price for a litre was 1,000kip - in the airport, they were charging 11 times that price for half the volume! I actually laughed when the woman told me the price, and much to my surprise she joined in! So I have a few kip notes to keep as souvenirs - worth little enough now, God knows how much they will be valued at in a few years, maybe when I return...? For this my 22nd flight, I was very impressed with the Fokker aircraft, a very smart little plane with loads of legroom. The flight also left 10 minutes early, which is a first, and it was full, so we were lucky to have got tickets. I wouldn't have been surprised if there'd been problems with the seating - at check-in, instead of an electronic system, they were ticking passengers off a list and crossing off seats on a plan of the aircraft! A couple other quirky things to mention: the box that the snack (a minging hot dog) and water they provided came in had written on it "Have a good appetite"; and the stewardesses' uniform was interesting - white blouse, white trousers, and a bright red cloak/longcoat over the top, with slits all the way down from the waist!

Once past the very friendly(!) immigration officer, I got some money out from the first ATM we'd seen in nearly 2 weeks. The exchange rate is as ridiculous as in Laos (US$1=15,000d roughly) but at least they have more sensible denominations - notes go up to 100,000d. Like Laos, no coins in circulation. The 'd' by the way stands for 'dong' - which amused 2 girls in our minibus into town so much that it took them about 5 attempts to ask how much the ride cost! The answer was $4 for 2 people, or 58,000d - this stunned me first of all as the man wasn't trying to use to his advantage the fact that new arrivals are unlikely to know the exchange rate. It stunned me even more that he then 'decided' to give the girls 10,000d too much change - and then us the same! I shouldn't have got my hopes up that this generosity may continue - the Vietnamese have turned out to be as conniving (would it be harsh to say 'deceitful' and 'untruthful'?) as the Indonesians. As we were to discover soon enough. After telling them twice where we wanted to stay (including address), after dropping everyone else, we were let out at the wrong place. The man, who spoke perfect English, tried to claim he'd heard 'Prince Hotel' when we said 'Spirit of Hanoi' - very similar(!). We refused to get out and they carried on driving - we were to prove unvictorious though as just 2 minutes down the road, we were told to get out and walk. They claimed the one-way system meant it would take 15 minutes to get there, and they needed to get back to the airport. Without our books, we would never have known where we were going - the directions he gave were vague and proved to be inaccurate! Walking to the (correct) guesthouse, we had our first experience of crossing the road in Hanoi. You will never see so much traffic, or more specifically motorbikes, in your life. There are quite literally no breaks in the traffic, so the only crossing technique at your disposal is to walk at a slow, steady rate and let them pass around you. K was here 5 years ago and has hardly recognised the place, principally because the streets were filled with pushbikes rather than their motorised equivalents (although it could be because she was on Larium then too and just doesn't remember!). The noise on the streets is incredible, obviously from the motors but also from the incessant beeping - they beep for no reason whatsoever, it's so annoying and pointless. This is no place to be with a headache! And none of them wear helmets of course - we even saw an accident on that first evening when someone came off their bike. The other main gripe I have with these bikes is that there is nowhere to park them other than on the pavements - so pedestrians, such as us, have to walk on the edge of the road and risk being hit by the bikes weaving in and out of the traffic. It's nearly happened on more than one occasion. We experienced a bit more Vietnamese cunning when we were told at the 'Spirit of Hanoi' that they only had air-conditioned rooms left, for $8. We tried bartering and suddenly there was a room with a fan available, for $6, which we took. I was already getting a bad feeling about the people here! The room was a heat trap, so much so that when you went outside it actually felt cooler - can't remember the last time that has been the case. So you felt refreshed for a couple of minutes until your body realised it was still damn hot and humid outside, even late into the evening - which by now it was - 9pm. We ventured out to find some dinner but this proved to be a bit more difficult than we'd anticipated, as all the restaurants had closed. We had to resort then to street food - none of what was on offer looked at all appetising, but by (eventually) getting it across to them that we didn't want to take the risk of having meat, we guaranteed that the dish delivered to us would be as bland as bland can be. Noodles in hot water, no flavouring - good job I wasn't for once hungry! Mind you, when we came to pay, it only came to 6,000d for both of us, so it was a case of you get what you pay for! The situation wasn't helped by the fact that prior to eating, I had stood briefly against a hot exhaust pipe on a parked motorbike and burnt my leg - consequently I was in a foul mood. I should say at this point that Vietnamese food has improved since, but not by much - it's been pretty awful. On the way back, we were looking for water but kept being quoted 5,000d for a small bottle, which is 7 times more than Laos and Thailand. Eventually we were starting to think that was the going rate, until one kind lady asked us 5,000d for a large bottle - K must have been in a feisty mood as she handed her 4,000d and walked off - we got about 3 footsteps down the road before we heard her screaming after us! Definitely ready for bed by now, especially with an early start planned on Saturday, we were halted on our way back to the hotel by 2 crazy Irish blokes shouting our names from a balcony 5 storeys up! Denis and Rob of course. Damn there's no escaping them ;) We'd expected them to have moved on by that point up to Sa Pa, as Rich and Lisa had - in fact they were planning on getting the overnight train on Saturday night, as were we, so we agreed to try to get on the same tour as them. Had a Tiger beer (my only one in Vietnam so far, amazing since we have been with those 2 for almost a week now!) and a catch-up, overlooking the chaos in the main square below us, and went back to our sauna of a room at midnight.

We had to fit in all of our Hanoi sightseeing into one day so we were up at 6.30am - I hadn't slept very well the previous night so it was a real struggle getting out of bed, felt like getting up to go to work! That will be a shock when the day comes... Our first stop would be Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, where "Uncle Ho's" embalmed body has been on display since he died in 1969 - ironic really that he expressed in his will that he wanted to be cremated! Every year, the mausoleum closes for 2 months while he undergoes 'maintenance'! I cannot believe that a week ago I had never heard of the man and I knew nothing of Vietnam's fascinating history, other than of course the fact there was a war with the US. That is, by the way, referred to here as the 'American War' rather than the 'Vietnam War' - to refer to it as the latter would be quite confusing as they've had their fair share of conflict with different countries (and each other) over the past century! It was a shame in a way that this was the first thing we were doing in Vietnam, as I'm sure it would have meant more if I'd been more clued up. Still very worthwhile though, if slightly bizarre. We wanted to get there when it opened at 7.30 (it is only open for 3 hours each day!) to avoid the queues - the locals flock here in their thousands, especially at weekends, to pay their tributes. Unfortunately I delayed us a little first of all by leading us out of the hotel in completely the wrong direction, then we couldn't find a 'cyclo' anywhere to take us there (it is 2km out of town and wee knew we would be pushed for time that day) - slightly annoying as they had constantly been in our faces the previous evening asking us if we wanted a lift. They obviously don't like early starts. We reluctantly then had to accept a motorbike ride there (negotiated down to 15,000d) - I am not ashamed to admit I was a little worried on both our rides that day, I don't really relish the idea of being treated in a Vietnamese hospital! Once we got safely to the Mausoleum, a little late but we had still managed to avoid the crowds, we had to put trousers on look respectable. The next episode demonstrating how conniving the Vietnamese can be - we were told that we had to store our bags with them (for free) but that we needed to pay them 4,000d each to go in; this, despite having read that it was no entrance fee and there being no signs up suggesting there was one. We were consequently given leaflets but no tickets and told to queue up - we read later that entrance is free and leaflets are 4,000d! Within about 5 minutes we had entered the Mausoleum, walked at a very brisk pace around the glass cabinet containing Ho's body, and exited again. K commented as we left (she had already been 5 years ago) that he had aged well! As we followed the masses through some gates and towards the Presidential Palace, we were stopped and asked to pay 5,000d more - 'special price for tourist'. Having got the feeling already that we'd been made to pay when we shouldn't have, we decided to duck out of the loop at that point and get our bags back. We weren't even sure what the fee was for, and how many more there would be along the way - as it turned out, everything else was all in the same complex, so to go to see the One Pillar Pagoda, as we'd wanted to do, we would have had to hand in our bags, go through the security check and then the Mausoleum again - by now, the queues were quite long so we decided against it. We were constantly getting hassle from motorbike 'taxi' riders wanting to take us places - they just don't take no for an answer. One man/woman (I couldn't tell which!) even had the nerve to ask us 15,000d to go all of 200m down the road; anyone would think walking was a crime, the way they look at you when you say you're going on foot! We found a great way eventually of silencing them - whenever they waved at you and said hello, we would do the same back but in a very OTT fashion, as if greeting an old friend. It really does dumbfound them as they are used to people walking straight past and ignoring them!

The rest of the day, to me, felt stressful - because of the heat and humidity, but mainly because of the presence and the noise of the motorbikes. One place set, right in the middle of the madness, somehow managed to block the noise out and give the impression you were almost somewhere out in the countryside. The beautiful, 11th century Temple of Literature (5,000d) is Vietnam's historical centre of learning and principal Confucian sanctuary - I have to admit I didn't know who Confucius was either! We negotiated price of 12,000d for a motorbike back (after all the attention you get from drivers when they try to get your business, they don't smile or even look at you when you get out/off!), then at 10.30am had a very late breakfast (pancakes not as good as Laos and Vietnam), and checked out of our hotel. We carried our bags to Rob and Denis' hotel, where we spent 1.5 million dong each on tours - there were so many notes it took 2 withdrawals to get it all out of the ATM! We booked on to the same trips as the others - a $65 4 night, 3 day trek in Sa Pa, North Vietnam (leaving that Saturday night); a $16 2 day,1 night trip to Halong Bay, from Hanoi; and a $20 open bus ticket taking us all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City in the South. We left our bags there and went for a walk around The Old Quarter. Hanoi is the only city in Vietnam to retain an ancient, merchants' quarter. Its street names date back 5 centuries to when the area was divided among 36 artisans' guilds. I found it fascinating how a lot of streets are still dedicated to the original craft or its modern equivalent - we were searching for snack/drink shops for about 24 hours before we found a street lined with them! Came in handy for Oreo and Ritz purchases for the journey up to Sa Pa anyway. We took a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, the soul of the city. We crossed over a little red bridge to get to the Den Ngoc Son temple (3,000d) on an island on the lake; then moved around to have a look at the Tortoise Tower, the symbol of Hanoi, on another island. After a breather at Fanny's ice cream shop, we made our way to St Joseph's Cathedral - a disappointment from the outside, we weren't able to judge the inside as it was locked. Last tourist stop for the day was the Army Museum (10,000d), which we just about managed to walk to and from, despite it being a bit out of town. It was a strange place - we were there for a couple of hours but I don't think we learned a lot. There was very little information on offer; they instead preferred to fill the rooms with photos and war memorabilia, and label them briefly with propagandist messages. A typical example might be "This was the jacket worn by the heroic martyr (Vietnamese soldier's name) as he died killing 38 of the evil American enemy". You were always conscious that all you were observing was of course a very grave subject, but the unashamedly biased way they described it at times was quite comedic! On the way back to town, I managed to get the photos I wanted, to help me best remember Hanoi. I took several of the streets filled with bikes, one of which had me standing amongst them all in the middle of the road; one of a cyclo 'driver' smiling and waving at us trying to get our attention; and one of a woman wearing a traditional conical hat, carrying bananas in 2 pods connected by a wooden pole, balanced over her shoulder. Having consumed a disappointingly small serving of steak and chips in a recommended restaurant, we had a couple of hours to kill before we left on the night train - so at the hotel we had time to pack our bags (we only took a small one - tough choices to be made but it was nice not carrying the big one around for a few days), shower, watch some football and use the internet. We were told we would be picked up from the hotel at 8.30pm - our train left at 9.30, and we were told we had to be at the station half an hour before. The other two were on a train half an hour later so weren't to be picked up until we were a little worried when it got to 8.55 and we were still sitting in reception! The taxi showed up at 9 to take all of us and we thought they had forgotten we were on an earlier train. We tried to show then our tickets to make them aware of our departure time but they fobbed us off with ''it will be okay' before we could ever tell them anything! With the traffic being so bad, with Denis taking about 5 minutes to get into the taxi, and with the driver going the wrong way at one stage, I really thought we were going to miss it. As it happened, we were on board with 5 minutes to spare - everything here is described perfectly by 2 words: ''organised chaos". Someone had ridden alongside the taxi from the hotel all the way to the station, paid the driver, taken us through the ticket checks and all the way to our compartment! We had 'hard' sleeper beds, as we had booked too late to get a 'soft' sleeper - this wasn't a problem though as we were so tired we slept almost all the way there. We had 'soft' on the way back and to be honest there wasn't much difference, apart from the fact you have only 4 in a compartment rather than 6. K had a bottom bunk, whilst I had a top one about 8ft above her, with someone in between! It was an effort getting up there, even for me. It was a 7 1/2 hour journey, leaving at dead-on 9.30pm and arriving in the dark at 5am. Incidentally, 3km away from the Chinese border at this point - I will go there one day!

We had no idea what was happening, once at the station. We had been told that after this train ride, we would be doing everything the same as D and R, so we waited for their train to come in. We didn't even know which tour company the hotel in Hanoi had booked us with, and all we had was a receipt saying "2× Sa Pa trek - $130"! We had told a minibus driver who had approached us that we were on a tour and shown him our bit of paper - he told us to wait on his bus. We both decided to go to the toilet whilst waiting - after queuing for a while, we got to the front and we were asked to pay a fee by a woman who had appeared out of nowhere. As none of the locals in front of us had paid, and there was no sign up, we ignored her and carried on in - she was still shouting as we went about our business! 40 minutes after we arrived, still no sign of the others, or of our bus moving any time soon, I started to have a wander around. I had worked out by process of elimination that we were on 'Ocean Tours' so started banding the name around to see what response I got. One man seemed adamant that he was our man and that he'd been waiting for us. I took him back to where our bags were to show him our receipt - at this point, the first minibus driver changed his story and acted dumb: "ohh, you're on a tour!", looking at the receipt like he'd never seen it before. He was obviously completely independent and was hoping he would delay us so much we would miss our real bus, and then charge us for the ride. We still weren't completely convinced we were with 'Ocean Tours' so we wanted to make sure this second bus was our bus, but they worrying told us ''don't worry, we check name later". Luckily and surprisingly, when we got to the other end in Sa Pa, it turned out we were in the right place - the 'Royal Hotel'. The journey there took one hour and gave us a taster for the scenery we would see over the next few days - rice terraces steeped into the mountainside - if you read my log from Indonesia, you may well remember my fascination with them! I think everyone was eager to get there and put their heads down on a proper bed - it was a little frustrating then to go past three well-spaced-out ''Welcome to Sa Pa" signs, and then go past a sign saying "Sa Pa 4km"! My first impressions of the hotel weren't great, although from the outside it did look (and indeed it was) quite plush. First of all, a hotel representative came on the bus to tick people off and completely ignored us. I even resorted to tapping on his list, pointing out our names, but he continued to act like we were invisible. Eventually, he did 'see' me and tick us off, but it happened to be when we were getting off the bus and I held up about 10 people queuing behind us! When we got into reception the same guy pointed everyone through to the restaurant to get breakfast - without telling us we needed to get a coupon from reception first. The whole organisation of the place was a mess, definitely a case of ''too many cooks spoil the broth" - there was always someone different at reception and they would never know what was going on. We had been told in Hanoi: we would be doing a short trek the first day; staying in the hotel the first night; leaving on a 2-day trek on the second day; and staying in a tribal homestay the second night. However at the hotel they were telling us we would be doing it the other way around, with the homestay night first and then the hotel. I couldn't quite work this out as it would have meant us walking 12km that very day. Not only were we exhausted and needing a lie-down, but the other two hadn't even arrived yet - it was a good job we didn't wait for them at the station, as it turned out their train arrived 90 minutes after ours and then their minibus didn't leave for over an hour. They didn't get to the hotel then until 10.30am - by the time we'd have got sorted, organised a guide etc, it would have been about midday before we left - and the 12km walk is supposed to leave at 9am! In short, it didn't make sense. After breakfast, I asked the woman who happened to be behind reception that particular second(!) if we could possibly change back to the original plan. She told us we could, but to discuss it with our friends first. Obviously we weren't to know it would be another 2 hours before they arrived so we carried on waiting. Then someone came through to us, saw K asleep on the sofa, and asked (although it sounded more like a suggestion) ''you stay in hotel tonight?". We both sighed loudly and nodded in an almost resigned fashion, as though we had failed in our attempt to stay awake! Our hotel room was beautiful, definitely more upmarket than we have become used to. Apart from its comfort qualities, it was most notable for its lack of fan or air conditioning - it didn't need any - the air temperature at 1000m in this part of the world is just right. What a pleasant change! After a power nap, we had showers and then a filling 3-course meal. Despite this improvement in the hotel's performance, we still had no idea what was going on that afternoon. If I hadn't vaguely remembered reading something about a walk from looking briefly at our itinerary in Hanoi, we wouldn't have known there was one. And that's exactly what happened to R and D - we worked out eventually (having been told several different stores by the various receptionists) that we would have to meet in the lobby at 1pm if we wanted to go on the trek. We didn't have the opportunity however to pass this information on to the boys, as they had been told the wrong room for us and hence left a note under someone else's door! They were also told that that day was a free day, so they went out oblivious to the fact there was a trek on offer - and didn't return before 1.30pm (nearly everything leaves half an hour late here) for us to tell them. They were a little mystified when we got back and told them where we'd been and where they should have been! Shambles. Is an information board too much to ask for? After all, they run the same trips over and over again - they must know what's going on really. The comments book by the way was well worth a read!

The walk was very enjoyable and was actually led by Long, the man who had greeted us on the bus earlier with his list. He proved to be not such a bad bloke after all, very keen and did quite a good job considering he was called in at the last moment and was wearing a shirt and smart trousers and shoes! The girl whom he replaced was 'tired' - by the way, when I say girl, I mean it - she looked no more than 14! Without R and D, there were 7 of us in our group. We were stuck at the back with an Australian guy who I swear was trying to bore us to death with a cost analysis of 'soft' and 'hard' sleepers, as he attempted to work out which was best value for money. I admit I was barely listening by the end but he didn't help himself any by constantly changing his mind over which is best. Yawn :) I think I managed to insert sufficient ''uh-huh", "yeah", and ''I knows'' to make him think I was interested. K meanwhile, in her sandals, was struggling to stay on her feet - she hasn't brought anything suitable for walking in. Luckily for her, the next 48 hours were dry and she just about got away with it. It was surprisingly warm when the sun was out. We walked through the rice paddy fields, past some buffaloes bathing in mud, through some cornfields (the plants towered above us as we pushed our way through - felt like Leonardo di Caprio on 'The Beach') to the Cat-Cat village inhabited by H'mong people. They all wore the same indigo costume, hands dyed the same colour! I'd say it was a little less touristy than the villages we visited in Northern Thailand but there were still a fair few white faces there and the residents were still intent on getting some money out of you and sell you their products. One old woman (with very long ears!) was particularly pursuant of me, and despite my protestations that I didn't have any cash, she placed the 'tea cosy' hat on my head that she was trying to persuade me to buy. The only way to get these people to leave you alone, as we discovered over the next few days, is to get your camera out! As soon as K tried to commit this image to film, the old woman hid behind me! Eventually we got her to give us a toothless grin and pose for a photo with me. We 'aahed' at the little children pottering around for a while, then walked on to a waterfall, back across the river on a very wobbly suspension bridge (the railings were very low in the middle, meaning it was very dangerous walking side-by-side), and back to Sa Pa via the road and a steady incline. Whilst eating dinner, now reunited with R and D, we were approached by 2 girls who had been on our walk that day - one English, one Kiwi. They were trying to persuade us (they needed 6 people in total) to do a different route to the one everyone does and get away from the beaten track - at an extra cost of $10 each. They left us to discuss it and we soon decided against it for the following reasons: we had already met our guide and arranged a starting time - we didn't want to do him out of a job; the extra cost was supposed to be for transport but we weren't going even nearly far enough to warrant paying $60; we'd already paid good money for a trek; they told us the scenery was better but, again, we weren't going far enough away that it could be much different. After we'd finished our drinks, I was volunteered to (or rather, left to!) tell the girls the bad news. The English girl wouldn't even look at me - as if she knew what I was going to say...obviously she had guessed. She tried to make me feel really guilty when she had absolutely no right to - she looked so disconsolate anyone looking in might think I was telling her someone has died! She declared, still not looking at me, that she was going to do her darnedest to do the trek they wanted to. They didn't manage it (almost to my amusement) and every time we saw her en route she had a sour look on her face. At the end, we had to fill in customer surveys - whereas we had been using superlative after superlative, her answer for everything was a moody ''fine". For the record though, the Kiwi girl seemed nice enough! That Sunday evening looked like being an excellent one as, despite the appalling reception on our TV, I watched Arsenal go 3-1 down at home to Middlesbrough in their attempt to equal the longest unbeaten run in English footballing history. Scoring 4 goals in 10 minutes in response just shouldn't be allowed!

We left with Sam, our guide, at 9am Monday on our 12km, mainly downhill, 7-hour stroll through the countryside - we took it slow! We had a lot of rest stops and took plenty of photos of the gorgeous surroundings, but the main reason that we took so long was D! He is fit enough (although the locals have on more than one occasion seen his belly and asked when the baby is due!) but just likes to take his time with almost everything he does. I think it drives R mad but he doesn't say anything. It was great just having the 4 of us and Sam, although we did actually spend most of the first day walking with another group. Our first stop was by the riverside, after our descent down the valley. This was where we encountered our first flock of village girls sent out by their mothers to sell us a variety of bracelets, blankets, cushion covers and hats. We would hear the lines ''You buy (from) me...OK?" and "Only 2000 (dong)" over and over again for the next 24 hours - even in our sleep! You have to find something to say in response to stop you going insane - one of my attempts on this occasion was offering them ever-increasing amounts, which I knew they wouldn't understand; quite amusing to hear them still reply to my offer of 1 million dong with "Only 2000". I know, I'm cruel. Another trait of anyone trying to sell something in this country is to follow you as you walk away, and say repeatedly "OK?" as though they are even remotely close to clinching a deal! These girls were no different and so my second tactic was just to repeat them each time they said it. They would carry on for a while, then start to grin with me and eventually give up. Mind you, they would be back within a minute to ask you again! One moment that made me laugh in particular was when a Spanish guy in the other group stumbled, making a village girl in front of him giggle uncontrollably. This lasted for a few seconds as he picked himself up and started walking again - then the girl in an instant changed her facial expression to one of great seriousness and, in the very same breath as her last laugh, asked "You buy me?". Another girl later ran alongside me for ages trying to get me to look at her produce - I lengthened my stride and walked ever faster to see how long she could keep up - a good couple of minutes I'd say. I managed to resist the temptation of buying anything (in truth, I didn't particularly like any of it) until the end of the second day when I bought a friendship bracelet. I've never worn a bracelet before - apart from those wristband things you used to wear at theme parks...had a childhood flashback or two! We had a decent enough picnic for lunch at a nice viewpoint. Behind us, watching us the whole way through, were some villagers from the ?? Tribe. For once, they weren't really trying to sell us anything and when we offered them food they declined. I wasn't quite sure why they were there (although I'm sure they were entertained by Denis throwing food into the air and catching it in his mouth!) - until at the end when our two guides put all our leftovers aside and said something in their tribal language. Evidently it was along the lines of "all yours" as a mass scramble ensued - they've obviously been taught not to beg, which is very important to preserving their culture.

After lunch, the skies produced its only rain of the two days, which unfortunately coincided with a slip in concentration levels on my part. I was in a world of my own as we were walking along the side of a paddy field - I'm not sure where I meant to actually put my foot but it seemed to land nowhere in particular and ended with me slipping and falling backwards into the flooded field. Result - a very wet and muddy Steve. Luckily because of the soft landing, the only injury was to my pride. My lovely girlfriend behind decided not to ask how I was, and instead to carry on straight past me - she explained later she was just trying not to laugh but I reckon she was just ashamed! Mind you, she can hardly talk, she did the whole trek in Diesel shoes! Thanks though to R for checking on me and to Sam for carrying my stuff as I stopped for an unscheduled wash in the stream. Apart from those few minutes, it was hot, dry and sunny. It was sweaty work...I worked out along the way incidentally what eyebrows are for - to keep sweat out of your eyes. Very clever! They didn't come in very handy though when we, in our infinite wisdom, decided to play football in a school playground in the full heat of the day. We won convincingly but I guess were twice the size of them! At one point, D miss-controlled the ball and someone shouted hilariously "David Batty" at him - we were all amazed anyone had heard of him, let alone were able to link this lack of skill with his. I have to mention though that D and R remember a slightly different version of this story, where it was me who miss-controlled the ball and not D - but I am still absolutely certain they are making it up. Not that I cared as I had my own little fan club on the side! Whilst we were playing, K was surrounded and questioned to death by some local girls - they had learnt my name and were shouting it incessantly as we played. It was strange, they couldn't remember anyone else's name, even K's. They reckoned I was handsome and that K should marry me - hehe, still got it ;) We were thankful that our homestay place was only a 20-minute walk after that. When we got there, we all huddled around the fan fighting for the cool air, like you might gather around an open fire in winter! The homestay is supposed to be a chance to gain an insight into how the tribes live - well, we did I guess but it's a damned sight more civilised than we'd expected. We were very shocked to find they had a flush toilet, shower, TV and DVD player! We even had an open bar - beer and soft drinks at the reasonable (considering we were in the middle of nowhere) rate of 10,000d an item. Mo, the landlord and our host for the night, was obviously doing well out of the tourism business. And by talking to others the next day, it appeared ours wasn't an exception from the norm. We headed down for a refreshingly cool dip in the river, shortly after arriving. K and R didn't go in, but myself and D swam to the other side with Sam to join him in taking a mud bath! He explained the soil was good for the skin, not sure how or why but it was good enough for us! Soon we were all caked in mud and washing it off in the water. Fortunately it wasn't until we swam back and got out that I spotted a water snake, poking its head out of the river looking at us! Sam assured us though it wasn't dangerous. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and catching up on diary. All the time, until it got dark and they had to go home, there were women and children standing for hours outside the gate to our house hoping we would buy something. We had a few laughs though, especially at R. Whenever he speaks to a local and isn't understood, instead of politely saying "never mind, don't worry" after maybe the second attempt like most people, he will keep on persevering. It actually becomes quite agonising to listen to, in a funny kind of way - I constantly find myself wanting to tell him to "leave it" almost as though he's getting himself into trouble! One of his attempts sticks in the mind - Sam looked very confused and obviously didn't understand when R told him "I am looking forward to the meal". So R said it again but still no luck. Normally you might repeat yourself once, speaking more slowly, then look for a different way of saying it the same thin So he tried again "I am (huge pause as he wracks his brain for alternatives) ...(still we wait with baited breath)...looking forward to the meal". Just by putting a different intonation on random words, he thought for some reason Sam would magically understand, but still he was lost and by now wondering why the hell we were all in hysterics! R has also got, just for the record, the loudest voice I've ever heard. I should just say hello to R actually as I know he'll be reading this - did I go easy on you, like you asked?! Once R had finished talking, we sat down for a feast that Sam had spent 2 1/2 hours cooking for us. We had been wondering what was taking him so long, but when he'd finished filling the table up with food, we realised exactly why. The handmade spring rolls and chips were excellent, as too were the meat and vegetarian stir-fry dishes. He got a bit slack though when it came to apple each! There wasn't a lot of integration with the locals as they were crammed inside watching TV(!), although we spent a lot of time watching the kids running around the front yard. The youngest, a toddler who had obviously only just learnt to walk, won most of our attention, especially for his tufty haircut reminiscent of that sported by Ronaldo in the World Cup 2 years ago. Imagine our disappointment then when later in the evening, 'Ronaldo' came running out of the house in pink pyjamas - he...she was a girl! One of the kids also came running out of the house with a huge bug attached to a piece of string - the string was always elevated, as the bug was trying to fly away, so it looked like he was flying out a kite. God knows how they got it on there in the first place! After a very random and lengthy argument about whether Westlife are ambassadors to Ireland, (or more to the point, 'what is the definition of an ambassador?'), we decided it time to retire to bed! The argument actually was triggered by the house opposite blasting out one Backstreet Boys song after another. Sam, who it seems partial to a bit of cheesy, boy band music, migrated from singing that to Westlife. He was singing the whole of the next day as well. It was kind of surreal trying to get to sleep to the sounds of: the ghetto blaster across the road; the TV downstairs; and the drinking games going on next door between backpackers and their hosts! That said, it was one of the best night's sleep (nearly 11 hours - 10pm-8.30am) I've had in ages, the mattress was perfect!

It was a shame though to be woken up on Tuesday by several cockerels and some more bad music blaring out from across the way. Sam had got up early to make us pancakes for breakfast - I had (half) joked with him the night before that I am the King of pancake eating and would like 5, maybe 10, of them in the morning. I didn't think he'd take me seriously, but they just kept coming! I got worried when the other 3 stopped after a couple each and Sam declined having any. Everyone else was packed and ready to go as I tucked into my fifth one! I felt justified in stopping at 5 as I'd specified 5-10 but felt awful when I realised that all leftovers went to the kids. There I was stuffing my face and all the time they were probably wishing me to stop! After some group photos in front of the house, and settling our drinks bills, we set on our way. Only 4km that day but it felt like more as there were a lot more ups and downs to tackle. There were a couple of very random stops in local houses along the way. Sam would walk us in, sit us down and then...say or do nothing. We felt a bit rude asking 'why are we here?' so we just sat there for a few minutes until he told us it was time to go! We went in one in particular because, as Sam explained, "it is lucky house, it has 3 stars on the outside" - I was a little dubious about this explanation as when we walked through the open doors, we saw there was a star on each of them that we couldn't see before - totalling 5! Mind you, he did point out later that it must have worked, after I left my coat in one place later in the day and had it returned to me by a local who had chased after us! The highlight of the day was descending a path that ran down the side of a waterfall and visiting a village at the bottom belonging to the ?? tribe. They had a different uniform to the one we'd been seeing consistently until that point, most notably they were wearing what looked like Santa hats! They also had in the village what looked like a wheelbarrow that you might see in The Flintstones - cue cheesy group photo. We walked along the river from there to a bridge that looked very much out of place, in that it resembled a mini Golden Gate Bridge! We didn't cross it though, Sam then led us up a steep hill (saying ''I think it good for your health" to another random house. We never knew when Sam was joking and when he was serious - he told us in this house that we were eating lunch there, having already told us we would be eating somewhere else. We were a little confused for 5 minutes as to what was going on - every time we asked, he would just chuckle! So we just carried out sitting there... He was a great guide, a very friendly guy, but this unfathomable sense of humour and his sometimes-confused English proved to be obstacles occasionally. We ended up going straight back down the hill anyway, without getting any lunch at that particular point; and then instead of taking the flat, scenic route back along the river, Sam inexplicably took us up and down a great big hill whose views were obscured by trees! No doubt for our health again. Lunch was a tasty noodle soup and constituted really the end of our trek. All that followed was a final 10-minute climb up the valley, to the road to get our jeep for the 16km ride back to Sa Pa. A bit of drama then ensued. A very irate Australian couple seemed to be wanting to get in our jeep with us, even though there was really only room for us 5. The bloke started asking Sam how we were all going to fit in, to which he quite rightly replied quite politely ''we've booked this jeep, it's ours - I'm sorry, this isn't my problem, why are you asking me?". The response then from the Aussie then look us all aback, so much so I think even heard a couple of dramatic gasps! "Well stiff shit, how does that sound?". It was obviously well out-of order to be giving Sam a hard time for something that was nothing to do with him and that he knew nothing about. I did feel very sorry for him. My normal reaction might have been to have a go back at this guy but what he'd just said was so ridiculous that on this occasion I was a) too shocked and b) too amused! I surprised myself by trying to calmly resolve the situation and work out why they didn't have a guide or a jeep. K was angry instead though (she ended up in a very uncomfortable position for the journey, as we agreed to squeeze them in in the end) and proudly claimed to give the bloke 'evils' every time he looked around. The journey itself turned out to be just as interesting. Firstly, we were on a road with a loose gravel surface, riding on the edge of a mountain. Any slight miscalculation by the driver and we would be plunging over the edge. And I trusted neither him nor the vehicle. The jeep seemed to have a natural tendency to direct itself over to the left - the side the drop was on! And the driver was a hotheaded character. A number of times we got stuck in jams in front of what looked like landslides but were actually roadworks - the diggers that were shifting stone would every few minutes clear a path for us to get through. He got a tad impatient every time we were forced to wait and gave us death stares whenever we dared to open the doors to let some air in! He of course liked to use his horn for no reason at all, which is only to be expected in this country.

We got back to the hotel at 3pm, took a shower, and then went through with Sam on a map exactly where we had been and which tribes we'd met. After a couple of days away from civilisation, obviously a catch-up was due on the Internet - good (and surprising) to see we're doing well at the Olympics. The farce that we'd endured when we arrived was repeated when we left. We were told the bus to the station left at 4.30pm, but at 5.10 we found ourselves still outside our hotel. We were then asked for our tickets, but since we hadn't been given any, someone from the hotel had to come onto the bus and write us one. Mind you, even this was unclear, as all we were handed was a dinner coupon with '' 4 pax" scribbled on (where does that abbreviation come from by the way?). We'd already been to reception to get a dinner coupon for us all, but maybe they'd forgotten - who knows? Again no one seemed to know what was going on. The scenery on the way back wasn't as absorbing as I'd found it on the may way, probably because what we'd seen since had been even better. We were occupied instead by the question ''why are the houses painted extravagantly on their front but not on the side?"...which was then followed by a series of brainteasers like "why is it colder at the top of a mountain when you are closer to the sun?" and "can a fish drown?". The 40-minute delay meant that things were a bit frantic at the other end - our train left at 7pm (although much to the frustration and then amusement of the others, I just couldn't get it out of my head that it was at 7.30), for which we were supposed to present ourselves half an hour early. We only arrived at the restaurant at 6.10pm (by the way, no-one had told us in Sa Pa where our vouchers were valid so we had to guess) and so we rushed in to get our orders taken first. This served no purpose whatsoever as we ultimately were served last - at 6.40pm, by which time almost everyone else had finished their meals and were on their way to the station! The reason being we were the only ones who had vouchers (although everyone had paid for that meal already as part of the package - testament again to the organisation of the whole programme) and therefore the only ones not handing over cash to the restaurant. Probably because I'd been the one asking if we would be served shortly, I was served last out of everyone and initially without fork, spoon or chopsticks! I don't think I have ever eaten quite so disgustingly - I almost literally threw it down my throat. At 6.50pm, we were at last ready to leave...when D announced very casually ''I'll just go to the toilet and then we'll wander over". None of us said what we were thinking! :) When he got back, we hurried out, across the road and through the station discover we were only 3 again and that D was already somehow way behind and out of sight! I think maybe he had an excuse this time though - he was probably a little embarrassed that he and R had inadvertently put on identical T-shirts and wanted to keep his distance as much as possible! Much mocking was done obviously; we met a guy in the restaurant, Celvin, who seriously thought they had to be gay! Once he caught up, he and R were let through the ticket check but the woman told us to wait to one side! Very frustrating, especially as we had exactly the same tickets as them. We argued until eventually she seemed to give up caring and waved us through. And so we got on the train just 5 minutes before it left - as usual, everything worked out okay but you're never sure how! As I mentioned before, the 'soft' sleepers weren't overly different to the 'hard' but it was nice to have a room just for the 4 of us - more space and the security of not having to keep your bag close to you all night. The free cake and bottle of water might have been bonuses if the former hadn't tasted so vile and there were only 3 of the latter. We tried asking the drinks sellers that came to our door for the other water due to us, but they just disappeared almost in a huff that we didn't want to buy anything from them! We got so fed up with them bothering us that we closed our door, only for one cheeky $#@&#$€ to open it up without even knocking. I closed it again in his face and made sure to lock it this time. Before trying to get off to sleep, we played a few games of cards (shithead of course) and then I wrote some diary. Sleep wasn't very forthcoming though when we did try, due to the train continually jolting to a stop and then D sneezing and moving around all the way through the night. It was okay temperature-wise for me on the top bunk, but D across from me (obviously coming down with something) was too cold and the 2 below were too hot!

We arrived in at 4.30am yesterday and just for a change(!), we didn't know what was going on! We were half an hour early so we waited very hopefully for a taxi to collect us as part of the tour. 45 minutes later we decided one wasn't coming and dug deep into our pockets to pay 30,000d for one ourselves. It wouldn't have been far to walk, and we had time to kill anyway before leaving on our next tour at 7 that morning - this time to Halong Bay. Arriving at 5.30am then, once we had accomplished waking up the night watchman by banging on the hotel doors, we had 1 1/2 hours just to unpack and repack our bags again. And kill time. I went shopping for our by now traditional snacks of baguette, 'Laughing Cow' cheese, Oreos and Ritz biscuits (much to the disgust of K, I only came back with Oreos and bread!); whilst D eventually won a long battle to communicate to the night watchman (the women we dealt with before weren't in until later) that he wanted to extend his Halong Bay trip from 2 to 3 days. We at this point started to learn a couple of things. First, if you are told you will be picked up at X o'clock, you will actually be collected has-'an hour later. Second, whichever tour company you think you're on a trip with, the chances are you probably aren't - not if you didn't book directly with them. It all comes down to the 'organised chaos' theory again - things will seem messed up but it all works out eventually, i.e. they know exactly what you are doing, they just like to ensure you have absolutely no idea! So: our taxi arrived at 7.30am (to take us to where the bus was leaving from...just around the corner!); and we weren't going with 'Sinh Cafe' as we'd been made to believe, instead looking after us would be 'Vietnam Open Tour'. We were supposed to be travelling also with 'Sinh Cafe' all the way down the coast, but after this happened I began to doubt it. Maybe I'm psychic(!) because when we got our tickets this evening, it turned out we are with a company called 'Ha Phuong/Hahn Cafe'. Having said this though, I was fairly impressed with 'Vietnam Open Tour'. When I heard the microphone 'click' on the bus as though someone had pressed the wrong button and turned it on by accident. We were gob smacked then (after the disorganisation of Sa Pa) to receive a full run-down on what we would be doing over the next 36 hours. I have to admit I wasn't very optimistic when we'd first got on and noticed the other passengers on the bus appeared all to be locals. We thought we'd been completely duped and were on a public bus service rather than the tourist bus we'd paid for. I warn you this will sound so naive but it's a common mistake - because they were Asian, I/we assumed them to be Vietnamese but in fact they were mostly Japanese. Not the first time I've made that mistake and it won't be the last either. The journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay took about 3 1/2 hours, including a stop at crafts shop that would be repeated today on the way back. We had a relatively early lunch at 11.30 - the heat outside was so intense that we were glad to be sitting in front of a huge air conditioning unit - although it got so cold that K ended up having to cover herself up if you know what I mean ;) Vietnamese food continued to disappoint I'm sorry to say; I think if I inform you they seem to like spinach in great quantities, you'll begin to understand! The Cornetto from over the road though was delicious :) When walking out of the restaurant, I'd felt a bit of a fool (after nearly losing my coat the day before in similar fashion) when I realised I'd left my camera under my chair. Luckily, D alongside me was on hand to make me feel better - he'd left his bag under his! Another classic moment then outside as we waited to be taken to the harbour. R was rabbiting on to me about something or other; next thing I knew D, the other side of me, was wetting himself. He had turned around and seen R talking apparently completely to himself as I had completely switched off! Without even realising, I then returned to Planet Earth again and carried on listening, nodding my head and making noises in all the right places! It must have been true though, as when questioned on what R had been talking about I had no idea. Handed our tickets, we then made our way to the harbour and were escorted to the boat - which was lucky because all of the vessels looked identical. Dark brown, with a dining room downstairs and an open deck upstairs. We all left at exactly the same time as well, travelling at the same slow speed, taking the same route around the islands. Ha Long Bay, just to give it an identity, contains 1,600 bizarrely-shaped limestone outcrops jutting out of the water, in between which lie many hidden bays, channels and caves. First stop was an island that is home to 2 giant caves teeming with stalactites and stalagmites - Hang Dau Go and Hang Thien Cung - the latter of which, despite its tacky neon lights, was the most beautiful I have ever seen. Dau Go had its own tacky element - bins are rare enough in Asia anyway but ones dressed up as penguins are unheard of...every 20m they were as well! It was a lot warmer inside than you might expect so another ice cream was necessitated before getting back on the boat. Maybe water would have seen a more sensible option but the woman was using her monopoly status on the island to full effect and demanding 3 times the normal price! We spent the rest of the journey glancing up occasionally to admire the scenery - the bulk of our attention was demanded by some fiercely competed games of Shithead! We were the only ones left on the boat when there was an opportunity to pay a little extra and go on a small boat trip to another cave!

When it cooled down in the late afternoon, we made it up on to the deck to sunbathe and, for most people, to have a few beers. It was funny, within about 5 minutes I think R and D between them had struck up a conversation with everyone up there! Just before we docked at Cat Ba island for the night, most of us ignored the giant jellyfish below and jumped in from the top - swallowing as we did so a mouthful of very hot, salty water. More a bath than a refreshing dip. We got off the boat at 6pm, and for a while the relatively good organisation so far was lost - no one seemed to know what was going on. Most other people had paid $5 extra to stay on a boat for the night, but the million dollar question they were all asking was - which boat?! It turned out strangely that they were all split into small groups and stayed on separate ones. Depending I guess on who you booked with and how much you paid - but that might be too logical ;) We'd decided against the boat option having spent the previous night on a train. Also, although a night on a boat always sounds romantic, it rarely works out that way. And so it proved - R and D reported the next day that the standard of the accommodation was very poor, and they even turned the fans off in their rooms halfway through the night! And this was no average night, in fact it's the hottest I can remember. Even with the fan blowing on us all night, we were hot and it didn't get cooler as the hours passed. Our hotel (2 minutes bus ride away from the port) was of a fairly decent standard, the room complete with TV, en suite and pleasant view over the port and the Blackpool-esque illuminations along the waterfront. Two complaints though - the easy one first...there were a few ants in the room, some of which made their way onto the bed. Okay now for the big the room was fitted with an air conditioning unit and it was, I mentioned, rather warm, we asked if they could turn it on for us. To do this, the bloke on reception had to flick a switch outside the room and flick another one inside. And what a great difference it made(!) - it was about as effective as someone waving a feather around in front of an open fridge door. Anyway, about 2 hours later when we were in bed, we had a knock at the door. Then another. Ignore it, we thought, and whoever it is will go away. Then to our amazement we heard the jangling of keys and the door open! It was the man from reception - he must have known we were in bed as he'd given us our key when we'd last come in, and our lights were out. My temper already boiling, he explained that our guide had told him we wasn't supposed to have aircon and he had to turn it off. Issues with this: he could have turned it off from outside and so didn't need to come in at all; he should have checked whether we should have it before giving it to us; we had no idea what we'd paid for - we just handed over $16 and weren't given any details of the package when we asked; in summary, I can think of fewer examples of worse customer service than to barge into someone's room when you know they are trying to sleep and remove from them something you gave to them! It was after this incident that we recalled that earlier in the evening, just after we'd arrived, the same man had tried to get in our room without knocking - seemed quite innocuous at the time but no so much so in hindsight. Apart from the hotel, the restaurant wasn't the best, serving up dishes very similar to those at lunchtime. By the way, just how are you supposed to tidily dissect a whole fish into pieces small enough to fit into your mouth? And not get 5 bits of bone in each mouthful?! Mind you, I am very grateful to the owners for looking after my camera for the half an hour in between me leaving it there and me realising! Yes, the second time that day :) Breakfast in the morning was basic - and why they decided it best to deliver the jam 5 minutes after we'd finished off our bread, I'm not quite sure! Both meals in there did provide some amusement at the expense of a right-up-his-own-arse Frenchman. He turned up for dinner and declared to our guide that the restaurant wasn't good enough for him and that he wanted a separate table to the rest of us. So he frog-marched (no pun intended...for once!) his wife off somewhere else better - although everywhere I saw looked the same to me. Then this morning, he came along, took one look at our bread rolls and disappeared off again.

Today was a gentle day really. After breakfast we caught the bus to the port and were reunited with R. D, who was off doing kayaking and trekking for his extended version of the tour, was 'replaced' by Lewin, a Geordie bloke who looked just like Jack out of the 80's BBC comedy 'Bread'! We cruised around the bay a bit more, taking in the scenery (apart from R who slept in as uncomfortable a position as usual, head almost on lap!) and arrived back on shore just 3 hours later at midday. We had lunch at the same place as yesterday, in fact had exactly the same food. We were joined at our table by a Japanese girl who was the second person to be astounded by the fact we were each taking up to a year off work to travel. The first, a Vietnamese woman living in Paris, claimed I was the first person she'd ever met doing such a thing! The burning question posed by both of them was "how will you get a job when you get back?" - they started to worry me! I forgot to mention that on the boat, a right-up-his-own-arse Italian had made a huge scene by repeatedly and loudly accusing one of the locals of being a thief - just because he touched his bag. According to Lewin, all the local had done was move it so he could sit down. Well it must have been a day for it because on the bus back to Hanoi, a bald, right-up-his-own-arse Englishman wound me up a treat! To set the scene... He was sitting in the front seat of the minibus and had no door of his own to get out through, so to get out he had to climb back through to exit via the same door as the rest of us. The problem for him was that there were lots of bags in between that he had to climb around. When we stopped at the craft workshop for a break, I was just getting something out of my bag, in the pile, when before I'd even seen him I heard his voice "Are you going to move that thing out of the way? I can't fly you know". Idiot. Half an hour later, when it was time to get back on, I'd just about given him the benefit of the doubt and decided he must have been trying to be funny, when from behind me...."oh it's you again, I've got a queue behind me and it's very hot outside". To top it off, just coming into Hanoi, we witnessed a motorbike accident. If you saw it on 'You've Been Framed' you would probably laugh - the driver wasn't looking where he was going obviously and went straight into the back of a car. But not if you witness it first-hand. He probably wasn't seriously injured but that's not the point - the English guy turned around (to me, of all people) laughing his head off, as if to say "did you see that?". I think we must have returned him very serious stares as he tried to explain to K later what was so funny. And the Frenchman that I started with ended the show nicely. When we were dropped off the middle of town we got off the bus and all started walking with our bags to wherever we were going - he however made a huge fuss over not being dropped off where he specified. Surely a man who can afford to shun free meals because they are not good enough for him, can find the equivalent of €0.50 for a cyclo - the alternative of dropping everyone off individually might mean you don't arrive at your hotel for another half hour anyway! Back by 3pm, this afternoon we bought lots of snacks in case we get hungry on the journey down to Hue tonight; rearranged our bags (now we aren't coming back to Hanoi again, we will have to remember to take our big bags with us!); and used the fastest and cheapest Internet so far - 50d a minute. I was actually really impressed with our meal tonight, at 'Little Hanoi'. So much so that I even told the waiter it was the best food I've had so far in Vietnam, but by the look on his face I think he thought I was taking the p#ss! Now, back in the hotel, we await collection for our journey down to Hue. My distrust of Vietnamese people has not been dissipated any in the past half hour, as the hotel has continually fobbed us off. Firstly, we asked why we hadn't been with Sinh Cafe for the Halong Bay trip, when that's who we thought we'd booked with - the answer, that they and Vietnam Open Tour are the sane company. This I am almost certain is not true. This is when we discovered we are not with Sinh Cafe either for the bus all the way down the coast. Then R mentioned that his night on the boat had been very uncomfortable, to which she mumbled very unconvincingly that it was because we had booked a 'big group' package. We weren't actually given a choice or even told the size of the group when we booked; our group wasn't that big; we hadn't paid any less than most people seemed to have; and to have your fan turned off halfway through the night, especially when you've paid $5 extra, really is inexplicable. All the while we were talking to her as well, she was preoccupied with other people in the lobby who hadn't already booked and paid for all their tours, trying to get money out of them!

Source: Travel Pod.