Crossing from China into Vietnam we soon became aware of a few key cultural differences. The Vietnamese drive more risky, speeding past us with little room to spare – needless to say at times quite unnerving! It also struck us that many were unfriendly, short, rude, even aggressive at times and making us feel welcome was not high on the priority list. We never experienced this in China! This side of the Vietnamese would come and haunt us at a later stage. I will get back to this…
In North Vietnam our first destination was Halong Bay and the beautiful Cat Ba Island. After a few days of hard riding in sweltering heat, at times interrupted by some serious torrential downpours, this tourist destination, known for its breathtaking landscapes, was a welcome break. We even treated ourselves to a two-day boot tour including some kayaking. The scenery, with over 3000 limestone islets peering out of the sea, made this one of our definite highlights so far. Although it was rather sad to see the amount of plastic that was dumped in the bay. Conservation and recycling processes are still foreign to Vietnamese thinking.
From here we made our way down to Hanoi, the City of Lakes, the capital of Vietnam. The night we arrived a huge storm hit, luckily just as we made it to our host and were safely undercover. Over 1000 trees were uprooted and 3 people even lost their lives.
In Hanoi our two-week stay was action packed with activities for our Buy No Rhino project. Some of these included a talk to students about the rhino-poaching crisis, a fun ride organized for us with the US ambassador, and meetings with different conservation organisations such as Traffic and ENV.
Through a tipoff we heard of a small village just outside Hanoi where rhino horn and ivory was being sold. We had to see this for ourselves! Once there we were extremely shocked about the sheer volume of stock available in various street stalls. The trade is actually illegal, and here they were selling products openly without any scruple. Rhino horn products included small trinkets carved out of the horn, powder used for medicinal purposes as well as rhino horn bangles, worn as a status symbol or for its healing powers. 1g fetches as much as $83, therefore a bangle weighing 25g costs $2075.
Next on our itinerary was getting across to Laos. This is where life became rather interesting. As we arrived at the border Vicky realized that she did not have her passport on her! By law booking into a guesthouse or hotel you have to present your passport so that they can log it with the officials (the joys of a police state). When we were in Hanoi the hostel owner, who was one of these rather unpleasant Vietnamese (as eluded too earlier), took Vicky’s passport. In the morning when we left we totally forgot to ask for it and he never gave it back.
Now we were stuck at the border post! One of the officers was very helpful and organized his brother to pick the passport up in Hanoi and send it with his mom (who was coincidentally on her way to visit him). We spent the night at this dingy, tiny, ONLY place available at the border, fervently awaiting the passport the next morning. However stories changed: the mom was leaving later, the bus was delayed, blabla, so it carried on. Vicky was a rack of nerves and we were at the mercy of these people not knowing if they sincerely wanted to help us or rather make a buck out of us. Night two passed and finally late that afternoon the bus with the passport actually made it to the border. What a relief!
Elated we crossed into Laos. The next few days we were hit with what this country is famous for, its mountains. We tackled one steep hill climb after the other, for hours at a time riding uphill, then making our way down the other side at warp speed only to be presented by the next serpentine pass.
What kept our spirits high and the legs pedaling was the fact that we had booked the Gibbon Experience in the Northwest of Laos, and had a deadline to make it there on time. This is a 3-day tour, zip lining through the jungle and sleeping in canopy-level tree top huts. The trip was absolutely unbelievable and we can really recommend this!
On the 2nd day we saw some Gibbons (a small, acrobatic primate) from a distance. And we were lucky enough to be awakened by their singing on our 3rd day. Most Gibbon species are nowadays endangered, primarily due to the loss of their forest habitats. We loved supporting this amazing conversation project.