Day 17 – Thanh Hoa to Nimh Binh – 125KM

2 05 2012

The hotel in Thanh Hoa held some interesting surprises for Toan and me. The first such surprise was in a shape of a bedraggled backpacker trudging past the hotel in the evening. She had the kind of “rabbit in the headlight’ look, and looked completely lost. Thanh Hoa didn’t seem to have it’s share of backpackers or foreigners, so she was out of place. We stopped and asked her if she spoke English, and replied “Yesss I speak Engleesh” in a very thick French accent. So this is how we met up with Sylvie, who joined us for the last two days of our adventure. Sylvie explained that she had just arrived in Thanh Hoa from Lao and had been hitch hiking and backpacking across the world for the last five months. An impressive achievement. Toan kindly managed to negotiate a cheap hotel room for her too. He’s a good guy !

The next surprise was a hotel maid standing over Toan and I at 7am demanding to be paid. Before you get any nefarious thoughts into your mind, it was for my laundry and not a ‘happy ending’ or ‘take a relax’ in sight ! For the rather extortionate price of 130000 Dong she had personally taken care of my smalls. However she was not leaving until she had been paid and at 7am my mind was not on paying for bloody laundry !

Breakfast was again based upon a combination of beef, noodles and soup. I actually don’t eat much red meat and was beginning to tire of beef soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Afterwards we set about accomodating our new passenger. Sylvie’s luggage weighed more than her, so I tried to put her bag onto the back of Rat Bike. Rat Bike was not keen on the additional weight and fell over onto it’s side, breaking an indicator lens and cracking the bikini fairing. Not a good start to the day, but at least I wasn’t on the bike when it went over. Toan to the rescue again and he secured the luggage, and we were off with Sylvie on the back of Rat Bike.

Thanh Hoa was quite a busy city with National Highway 1 passing through it. Consequently the traffic was very busy, and it was quite a challenge to keep up with Toan especially with Sylvie and her dead body on the bike. In fact I narrowly escaped a brush with the Highway Police (CSGT) as I accidentally ran a red light. I saw the cop as I sailed through, his face meeting mine and his arm raising the whistle to his lips. He then saw my face and thought of the hassle involved in stopping me and decided not to. Dan 1 CSGT 0 !

National Highway 1 was a dangerous, dusty and crowded road. It is the main road from Sai Gon to Ha Noi and there were trucks, coaches, cars and the unavoidable bikes vying for the same spots where the sand or gravel were flat. Rat Bike was groaning under the weight, it’s tired old shock absorbers creaking with the strain.

We soon reached the Bao Vet temple. Bao Vet was a warrior princess who protected Vietnam from the Mongolian invaders several times hundreds of years ago. She would fight whilst riding an elephant. The Mongolian’s sent one of their finest warriors to capture Bao Vet. Trapped and faced with inevitable capture, she took her own life on a mountain just above the temple. Her legend has provided inspiration for generations and she is considered in effect a Saint. The visit was free and it was a nice and quiet temple.

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We continued on Highway 1 towards Tam Coc. Tam Coc is a a river that runs through caves and provides a unique and very surreal experience. However be aware, it is a huge tourist trap and vendors will try their best to extort money from you. Don’t let that detract from the experience though as it’s breath taking.

Joining the throngs of people waiting at the river side, we were soon ushered into a small steel row boat, skippered by an equally small and manic looking old woman wearing a conical hat. The boats were everywhere, but it did provide a nice photo opportunity.

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We set off with the woman rowing the boat with her legs. Think of a frog kick method with oars attached to your feet.

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The scenery is some of the most stunning that I have ever seen. To be almost silently drifting along, hearing the cicadas in the trees and the water lapping around the boat was simply amazing. One of the highlights of the trip, and in future times of stress I will close my eyes and think of that moment. If it wasn’t for the other tourists around, it would be heaven. However it was nice drifting along and nattering with Sylvie talking about life, the universe and everything. Apparently the answer to life is 42 ?

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The batty skipper wanted to take some pictures in order to increase her likelyhood of  receiving a tip. More on this later !

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The river began to take us into a cave with a very low ceiling. I am glad that I am ‘vertically challenged’, otherwise I would be sporting a new headless look. At the end of the  second cave system we were greeted by a flotilla of tourists and vendors selling drinks and fresh fruits. I snagged two bags of mango, then for some reason got my picture taken by numerous Vietnamese people ?

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As we drifted back towards the start point, the batty skipper began the hard sell. I had wondered what the steel box behind me contained, I presumed that it was safety equipment. How wrong I was ! It contained all manner of tourist tat, embroidered bags, t-shirts, tea towels. The batty skipper who was now becoming rather irritating kept pushing this junk in my face. I could feel an impending sense of humour failure‘. Eventually she got the message and packed it all back away for the next unsuspecting tourist. As we neared the starting point, she began to say repeatedly “Monsiuer Tip”. By repeatedly I am not exaggerating either. Over and over like a stuck bloody record. The boat was secured and I thrust $3 in her hand. The cheeky f–ker then asked for more !!! Discussing our experience with Toan he was disgusted with how she had behaved. He wanted to report her to the Police, but we didn’t know her name or the boat number.

Hitting the road again we made our way through Nimh Binh. The road is so dramatic. Imagine ridng through Ha Long Bay on land. The road snaked through the huge limestone formations, allowing Sylvie to enjoy being on the bike for the first time that day.

We eventually reaching the large temple complex just outside. We paused for a late lunch, having some excellent pork and goat. Nothing can prepare you for the hundreds of vendors outside the temple. Amazingly all selling exactly the same things. Not sure about you, but I am sure that I don’t think when visiting a temple “I must buy some Power Ranger figures” or “So that’s where they sell the tacky plastic singing birds“. Apparently they have every whim catered for !

The temple was thronging with tourists. I would have expected that at 5pm they would begin to diminish a little, but apparently not. The late hour did provide some excellent shadows through the temples columns.

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The sides of the temple were lined with statues of Buddhist monks, presumably now passed on. The knees and fingers of the statues were worn smooth from people touching them for good luck. The luck hadn’t worked for the numerous beggars who lined the corridors who simply said “Money” to us !

Continuing up the hill towards the main temple, I noticed a golden glow emanating from the interior. I recall Toan telling me that the temple housed one of the largest statues of The Buddha in the world. He was not wrong, and The Buddha was looking extremely resplendent and enlightened today.

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It was a beautiful sight indeed. Nervously approaching the big man himself, I offered some Dong to him and prayed again. Hoping that he would grant me a safe journey and empower me with some of his wisdom. I sure need it at times !

Dusk was approaching as we left the temple. With thoughts of the dangers of riding at night at the forefront of our mind, we rode back to Nimh Binh. Despite the light falling it was still as dramatic as before. Nimh Binh was a little difficult to negotiate, so cue us riding around in circles looking for the pitiful excuse for a hotel. Unfortunately we found it, and it wasn’t that great. Again re-enforcing my view that hotels in the north are much worse than the south, and you pay significantly more for that privilege !

Nothing significant to report on things carried on bikes. I think I am becoming immune to it !

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