Re: Spring 2013 - Page 54

As the bus ascended mountains the following day the weather closed in. With a steep drop to the jungle below, the narrow flooded road was most definitely not for the faint hearted. On more than a few occasions hysterical laughter broke out on board the bus. Eventually we arrived, 20 miles into the still heart of the jungle. We stayed in a small concrete block used mainly by travellers and Vietnamese university students exploring the rainforest. With four to a room, electricity available three hours out of 24, no air conditioning and humidity so high every item of clothing was permanently damp, this could not be described as luxury travel! Into our first trek I soon came to realise why it is called a “rain” forest. The heat, humidity and oppressive environment took their toll on some of our number who, only slightly tongue in cheek, renamed the country “Destroyer of Men”. On our way back to Hanoi, we visited the 10th Century ancient capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu, and then the country’s largest Christian church, Phat Dien, influenced by the French colonial days but retaining many of the traditional Vietnamese architectural traits. We then boarded the night train to Sapa. This remote, mountainous region, some 50 miles from the Chinese border resembles the French Alps with the addition of rice terraces. In conflict I travelled as part of a group of independent travellers from the UK and other European countries. There was a wide mix of ages and with the encouragement of our excellent Vietnamese guide, Tom, we got on famously in no time at all. We spent the first few days exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the heart of the historic city, with its narrow streets, markets, shops, bars and cafes. Yet to pander to western tastes, there is no Pizza Express, no Burger King, but street food to die for. The first few days were spent extending our knowledge of Vietnamese culture. This included basic language classes, an introduction to Buddhism and meditation and even Vietnamese cookery after we bartered for ingredients at the local street markets. Day five and we left the relative comfort of the hotel to travel to Tam Coc, an outstanding area of limestone islets and outcrops surrounded by inland waterways and paddy fields. This part of rural Vietnam is barely touched by the tourist dollar. For less than £5 our whole group was rowed through waterways, limestone caves and on past paddy fields where locals toiled in the heat of the midday sun. It’s the only place I have been where boatmen use nothing but their feet to operate the oars. With ancient temples and pagodas scattered across the countryside, we spent a few days travelling by bicycle down isolated tracks to villages and farmland, stopping briefly to rest or, when energy levels allowed, to climb a mountain and enjoy stunning views. Day ten and the next leg of the tour to the rainforest of the Cuc Phuong National Park proved to be more challenging than I had imagined. After stopping briefly at Bai Dnih, the largest pagoda in south-east Asia, we spent the night on an island set in the middle of the river which snakes towards Cuc Phuong. In what was described as the “house on stilts” we were each handed a wafer thin mattress and mosquito net. Accompanied by a single electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling, these were our only comforts for the night. with China since the late 1970s, it only opened up to the outside world in the mid 1990s when the border town of Lao Cai began once again to welcome visitors. The rail network is basic, with trains and carriage ́ݕٕȀ啅́ͱѵЁͥչ́ݥѠ䁅ѡѥɕ́Ѽѱɽȁ՝ɥ٥1 $݅́ѕѡհȁѡȁȁѡչх̸ ͕ѡɕɥѡȁѥMɕ͕́ͭ٥́ѡ͹ܸձȁչЁݥѠ̰()ѡѽݸѡɽչɕ́ձѕ䁱ɥ́ݡЁ́ե́ȁ٥ͥѥѽɥ̸ɥ́ѥե͡ѡȁѥѥٔɅѥɕ̸]ɕѡɽ՝م̰ѡɥѕɅ̰͡ѡɽ՝ɕ́ɕɥͱ䁍ɽ͕ѡѽ݅ѕə̸Q݅́ͥ䁑ѥձɱݥѠѡɕͽȰЁ͕ٕٔݡɔѡȁ́ѡЁѡݔݕɔѕхݡݡͥɽ٥ЁՍɕи(+p()$Ѽэ͔ѡչéͽհɔ5́MхɉՍ́ɥٔ(((+p((((0