Sunday, May 31, 2009

ON WAY TO HA NOI, VINH & NINH BINH, DAY 33, 34 &35

1. With advice of Thuan, we decided to break the 900 km from Hue to Hanoi into 3 parts with overnight stops at Vinh and Ninh Binh. On way to Vinh, Thuan wanted to show us the ground of the battlefield that his father participated, and at Ninh Binh, we set aside half a day to visit the inland Ha Long Bay of Tam Coc. With this, we should arrive in Ha Noi on the evening of 31 May to have a 4 day stay in Ha Noi before departing for the border on 4 June morning.

2. Located along the frontline, the Quang Tri Citadel (located 60 km North of Hue, short distance from Highway 1) was the ground of some of the bloodiest battles between the Viet Cong and the US/South Vietnam forces in 1972, in the period overlapping the Paris Peace Talks; and thus becoming an important "chess" piece for both sides. Strongly defended by South Vietnamese and US forces, Quang Tri Citadel was taken by the Viet Cong forces in May 72. In the subsequent mths, it was the target of intense air bombings and counter-attacks, but the Viet Cong forces held on. Thuan's father, who is well and alive and lives in Ha Noi, participated in this battle as a lieutenant. He bought a book which gave a detailed account of the battles for his father.

3. To celebrate this victory, the government erected a memorial and a museum on the battleground. In one picture, you see the whats left of the old gate of the Citadel. Although it was a very hot day, there was a good crowd at the site and the museum.







4. Along the way, further North, we stopped at the Hien Luong River which separated North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the 17th parallel. Monuments on both sides (one below belonged to the North Vietnam) were still there. The authorities had also left the speakers alone, possibly used by both sides for propaganda messages during the war. Sunny and I took a picture at the gate on the North Vietnamese side, our first steps into North Vietnam.

5. At the stall where we stopped for a quick lunch, this friendly little kid was not shy to come and seat at our table. A cheeky little one, he had a tissue stuck in his nose.

5. At Vinh, we stayed at Phuong Dong Hotel, for US$36 a night. Possibly the highest building in Vinh, it had an excellent view of the city. Took this picture at breakfast time, before we left Vinh for Ninh Binh. Looked like a charming town, but we did not have the chance to explore. Possibly, our only memory of Vinh in the coming years was likely to be the bad experience we had with a small little eating outlet opposite the hotel where we were overcharged for the a very frugal dinner the previous night. The stall keepers looked decent people, and because they could not speak English and we could not speak Vietnamese, we pointed our fingers at different items (hard a tough chicken, cold soup, plates of bamboo shoots and omelette), and ordered our dinner without asking for the price. When we asked for the bill, they wrote on a piece of paper 200 000 dongs. We were stunned, as Sunny and I guessed the cost of dinner would amount to 100 000 and 70 000 dongs respectively. Compared to our meals in Hue and Ninh Binh, in better restaurants, we were clearly overcharged. Not able to speak Vietnamese and not wanting to create scene, we paid up grudgingly. We were still griping over it the last 2 days, telling ourselves that we should have asked for the price when we ordered the food.

6. At Ninh Binh, we checked into a Thanh Binh Hotel in the backpacker area for US$20 a night, a basic and clean hotel, with internet and breakfast. The 68 years old Mr Uy owned the hotel, a very warm and friendly gentlemen. He had a stone table in front of the hotel where he would often sit and had tea with his family and hotel guests. Regularly, we were invited to have tea with him. Speaking little English, he repeatedly told us that Singapore was expensive. Apparently, his sister, based on the advice of doctor here, went to Singapore for kidney treatment accompanied by 2 family members and spent some US$40 000. His sister had since passed away.

7. At Tam Coc (which means 3 caves), 5 km from Ninh Binh, we had the best experience of our trip so far. The scenery was stunning, with mountains that looked like those in Quilin in Guangxi Province in China. Lonely Planet called it the Ha Long Bay of the Padi Field. A shallow Ngo Dong River, with crystal clear water, meandered through the plains at the foothills of the mountains. The river probably some 10-20 m wide flowed through 3 limestone caves (thats how the name Tam Coc came about) with ceilings so low that we had to bend low to avoid it. On both sides of the river were padi fields. As it was harvesting time, farmers were cutting the stalks of padi and putting into the shallow bottom boats. We could see boats piled up with these padi stalks been moved from place to place along the river. There were small buddhist temples scattered on both sides of the river. Here you see farmer Lim.

8. We paid 60 000 dongs (less than US$4) per person and this came with a boat ride along the Ngo Dong River. About an hour journey through the 3 caves and back. At the boat quay where tourist boarded the shallow bottom boats, the same boats that transport the padi stalks, farmers spread the rice grains for drying. People (and cars!!) went over them as if they did not know they were there. Our boat was operated by a mother and daughter partnership; mother 80 years old, and daughter 52 years old. She had 2 sons, aged 25 and 20. For a age, her mother looked fit and trim and rowed the boat with ease. Like other rowers, from time to time, she would switch to rowing the boat with her legs; something I had never seen before. See the video to see how she did video
it. Quite amazing. Thuan later told us the this way of rowing with the legs was now not permitted, as the government considered it not elegant.

9. Although its low season, many locals were there with a fair number of foreign tourists; clearly a popular tourist attraction. There were restaurants nearby catering to tourists. This was one place where you could see very much the way they were a thousand years ago. The padi fields were probably still farmed very much the same way, less the machine which they now used to separate the grains from the stalks. The shallow bottom boats were probably the same boats used. The same shallow bottom boats now carried tourists. Water was very clear, no sign of pollution. Didn't see motor boat there, and I hope they will never introduce motor boats there. They will turn the place topsy turvy. With tourism, the farmers now have additional jobs to do, especially when they are not farming, a mean to supplement their income. Towards the end of the journey, Sunny and I, after some effective marketing and persuasion by the daughter (soft Singaporeans !!), bought US$30 worth of embroidered table cloths and bags. Must say that we parted with our money willingly, as it was terrific morning. We really enjoyed it.

10. After lunch at Tam Coc, we had 90 km to travel to Ha Noi. The last 40 km to Ha Noi was easy and enjoyable driving; highway as good as the North-South Highway in Malaysia. At 4 pm, we reached the home of Koh Teng Lam, Sunny's friend who lived in Ha Noi. We would stay here for 4 nights before we depart for the border on 4 June morning. As usual, we had our beer soon after we arrived.
Teng Lam hosted us to a sumptuous and delicious dinner at Quan Ngon Restaurant; something like our Kopitiam's hawker stalls. Very crowded, we had to wait for our seats.

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