Friday, 20 May 2011

Son La to Haiphong, Endless Rain, 15 - 18 March 2011

My alarm bleeped annoyingly emphasising the lack of sleep I had during the night despite going to bed at 9pm. My bus to Son La was scheduled to leave at the ungodly hour of 5am! I got out of bed and made my way cautiously across the room making sure I didn't bump into anything as I went to flick the light switch on. Despite my index finger firmly relocating the switch into the on position, the light bulb remained lifeless. I checked the TV but that too was lifeless meaning that their was a power outage again. Dien Bien Phu has power outages everyday for the majority of the day for some reason. This was not great news when I wanted to make sure I hadn't left anything behind.

With my bag on my back, I made my way to the bus station and it was quite an interesting walk as the streets were pitch black but the locals were out in force selling meat, fruit and vegetables on the side of the street on their bicycles with dimly lit torches. I was astonished by the amount of people out and trading so early. As soon as I crossed the river the lights seemed to be on. I got to the bus station that always seemed to be buzzing with life and after asking and thrusting the ticket in his face, the man at the gate showed me which bus was mine. I got on board and dumped my bag on the back seat and found a seat for myself, which wasn't difficult as there was only one man on the bus at the time. Shortly after sitting, a Belgium couple got on and sat on the two seats opposite me. I spoke to them for a while as we were waiting for the bus to move but as the bus moved off, Karen and Paul drifted off to sleep. I tried to sleep but couldn't as the bus journey was more like a rollercoaster ride, hugging the corners of the mountains, sharp breaking whilst fog surrounded us and forcing blindness upon the driver who slowed a little bit and just avoided on coming vehicles who were blowing their horns or flashing their lights frantically. Vietnamese don't slow down to avoid collisions, they just hit their horns thinking that things will magically disappear from their way, a technique that may work with people or buffalos but definitely not brick walls.

The journey was somewhat spacious, we stopped to pick up a hand full of people along the way but we all had several seats to ourselves to stretch out on. We stopped randomly in the hills by two wooden houses and the driver and his aide got out and walked into one of the houses, next thing we see is a water buffalo being butchered, gutted, sliced diced and boxed up in front of us beside the bus. The two young boys, who were oddly smartly dressed for cutting up dead animals, picked up the box they had just put the chopped up buffalo in and made there way to the bus. Initially they were about to put the box inside with us but I think they gathered we weren't happy about that and placed it in the small luggage compartment at the back of the bus which was directly under the back seat. The smell of the dead buffalo filled the air of the bus instantaneously, we all opened our window which let in the damp, cold breeze from outside helping to subdue the stench. Thankfully we didn't hang around too long and the bus driver soon moved off. Buses in Vietnam are multi purpose, they carry passengers (sometimes too many) and courier goods from one town to the next for a small fee. People just give them a call on their mobiles and they go and collect all types of things along the way.

The bus stopped again shortly after picking up the buffalo, it was 7.30am and it was time for breakfast. I had already snacked on some bread I had bought in DBP and Karen and Paul generously gave me their last Dairylee segment to go with it so I was not hungry. Despite this, we quickly jumped off the bus as being stationary meant the smell of the buffalo crept into the bus again and became too much to bear. We headed into the road side restaurant which resembled a shack made from a mixture of bamboo, metal sheets and odd pieces of wood, and took a seat. We asked for a pot of tea which finally arrived after several translation attempts. There was a group of 3 men sitting beside us who had finished their breakfast of Pho and had begun on the rice wine. They saw us and immediately offered us a shot. It was only 7.30am and they had started drinking the hard stuff already and seeing as it is incredibly rude to turn down an offer, we were subjected to downing several shots of the incredibly potent liquid, it might have been because it was early but it had a slight taste of petrol to it, not that I know what petrol tastes like of course. With our bodies warmed by the tea and rice wine, we left out new friends and the restaurant owner who refused to take our money and headed back onto the death bus for a further few hours to Son La.

We arrived in Son La bus station a little after 9am and rain was pouring from the sky above. We quickly gathered our bags and headed inside the bus station where Karen and Paul bought their onward ticket to Ninh Binh for the following day. I had a look at my possible destinations and decided that I needed to think about where I wanted to go next a little further. As the bus passed a sign to the guesthouse I had looked at staying a few miles back, it meant I would have to look for another one, perhaps closer to the bus station. I ended up staying at the VIP Guesthouse very close to the station with Karen and Paul as my next door neighbours. The room was nice, cramped, with an en-suite and a TV. I quickly settled into my room and had a knock on the door. It was Karen and Paul saying that they were heading out and wondered if I would join them. A few moment later, we were walking down the road towards the centre of town. The rain was slowly yet steadily spitting from the clouds and I suddenly regretted not bring my water proof with me. We approached a taxi driver outside the bus station, asked him how much to the centre of town and of course he responded with a ridiculous price. We tried to haggle but he was not having any of it so we tried the next taxi driver but they were obviously working as a team because he said exactly the same price and refused to put it on the meter. They thought they had us trapped as it was raining and the centre of town was 5km away. Motorcycle, xe oms as they're called were pestering us but they were going to charge even more to get even wetter. We stubbornly said no and walked of towards the town centre. It only took a minute for one of the taxi drivers to come to their senses and pull up beside us. He lowered his price to a reasonable level and so we jumped in. The driver also had the meter running and once we got to our destination it read just a little lower than the price we agreed on. It was barely anything to quarrel over, so we paid up and got out.

The heavens opened up a little further which forced the three of us to take refuge in a restaurant until it stopped. The only problem was, it didn't really stop raining at all, so we sat in the restaurant talking, eating and drinking for a couple of hours and once the clock struck 12, we began on the beer. Only a couple but it was enough to take our minds of the abysmal weather outside for a while. The rain was too much and Son La had too little to offer in the way of sights to see so we headed back to the guesthouse. Karen and Paul are kind of professional walkers, they annually take part in a charity event that sees people walk 100km in a day, so the 5km walk back to our guesthouse wasn't an issue for them. I on the other hand was drenched as I didn't have any waterproof on. Just my jeans and a shirt. OUCH, a pain shot horizontally through the centre of my back and a thick liquid started dripping down my legs. Pavements in Vietnam are the most dangerous thing on the road, most of them are just for motorcycles to park on, some have holes that plummet into the sewer below and all of them are slippery in the rain. I had just stepped of the curb to avoid a parked motorcycle when I slipped and landed in a drainage hole. I was covered in mud and things I don't really want to know. I quickly got myself up and although laughing about it externally, I was fuming and cursing Vietnamese pavements inside my head.

Karen and Paul left the following morning and I was alone again, it was also raining again. Son La is the second time I became a little depressed on my journey as it was raining, there was little to do and I hadn't been essentially on my own for a couple of weeks since leaving Hanoi. Although I did meet Andy and Emma, and Karen and Paul, for some reason I strived for more companions. I think the problem with Vietnam is the lack of hostels and staying in guesthouses just doesn't give you the opportunity to meet anybody new. Perhaps it was just the rain and the fact I was shut up in my room because of it. I headed out to the town centre in the rain, perhaps to go to the prison which was supposedly worth seeing, I planned to walk there and get a taxi back with the fresh Dong I would withraw from the cash machine. Didn't work out like that. First of all I couldn't find the prison so I went for something to eat, then I couldn't find a cash machine that would take my card so had to walk home as I didn't have enough money for a taxi and to pay for my hotel room. Having said that, I didn't even have enough money to pay for my hotel room!

I made the long trek back to the guesthouse which seemed even further and endless on the way back in the dark. I got to the guesthouse and approached the manager and showed him all the money I had left. I think I had a deficit of 10,000, which is nothing but still not enough to pay the agreed price. The manager, who spoke little English, smiled and indicated that it was fine and shoved a handful of Doublemint chewing gum in my hand as a present. What a nice man. This was to be my last night as I was leaving early again the next morning on the bus to my next destination.

It had been raining for the past week almost non stop and the day I got the bus to Haiphong, on the coast below Ha Long City, was no different. It was freezing as the bus conductor had his window open constantly all the way across to the other side of the country. The journey became a little tighter as we went along as people were constantly being picked up and squeezed on with their bags of god knows what. When I arrived in Haiphong, it was still raining and I still had no money so I had to walk to the nearest cash machine before I could get a taxi to the hotel I wanted to stay in. I planned to stay in Haiphong for one night only as it is the gateway to Ha Long Bay and I was going to get the ferry across to Cat Ba Island the following morning. The hotel I wanted to stay in was unexpectedly too expensive so I ended up in another hotel which was slightly cheaper yet still expensive. It was one of the worst hotels I have stayed in, the noise was unbearable all night and I couldn't wait to get onto the Island.

The following day it was still overcast yet the constant rain had made way to intermittent downpours. I left the hotel after a horrible nights sleep and headed to the ticket booking office to get my ticket to Cat Ba Island. The lady in the tour office was extremely friendly and as I had an hour to wait until my bus picked me up, I sat there with her as she went through my phrasebook teaching me Vietnamese and took turn in asking each other questions. The bus finally arrived that took me to the boat and out of Haiphong.

Next time, Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay.

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