Viet-nom nom nom

We are definitely not losing weight on our trip.

Eating in Vietnam is a smorgasbord of choices. The streets are literally lined with restaurants, and the sidewalks have even more people with pop up stalls and plasticDSC02288 chairs. You cannot walk 10 feet without a different aroma wafting towards your nose and your mouth starting to salivate in anticipation.

Let me introduce you to some of our favourite dishes.

It’s morning and breakfast is on your mind. The Vietnamese don’t eat the typical bacon and egg breakfast (no shock there) that can be enjoyed at home. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find something like that. The most common breakfast here is Pho (pronounced fuuh). It’s a common occurrence to see some lady dishing out on the sidewalk, having lugged her big pot of broth and a pile of chickens from home. Pho consists of a broth, filled with rice noodles, fresh green onions and herbs, and topped with chicken. Tables have garlic, chili peppers, hot sauce and fish sauce for your palate’s exact desire. It’s the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup.

Soup for breakfast not your thing? Well, Banh Mi is not exactly a western breakfast either, but it’s a little closer. A french style baguette filled with savoury meats and veggies. Most commonly this is grilled pork, pate, cucumbers and carrots with a sweet and salty sauce.

Coffee is the universal breakfast drink. Dairy is scarce here so they drink their coffee with sweetened condensed milk. The Northern Vietnam specialty coffee is Egg Coffee. Don’t let the name turn you off, it’s so good that I can’t believe Starbucks hasn’t made this a worldwide phenomenon. Alayna doesn’t drink coffee. She downed two of these suckers in under 15 minutes. She was bouncing off walls until 1 AM, but doesn’t regret it for a second. Egg yolks are beaten with sugar and coffee, mixed with a little condensed milk and then the soft, delicious foam tops a shot of espresso. Add a little cocoa to the top and it’s like a foamy, creamy, delicious, tiramisu-esque coffee.  They love their sweet coffee, and coconut coffee is also a favourite. A cold espresso shot mixed with coconut milk, something sweet, topped with blended ice and roasted coconut.

Now that breakfast is done with, your options are endless for lunch and dinner. The styles and flavours are similar but interesting. Some meat, some fish sauce, fresh herbs (mint, coriander, thai basil),  pickled veggies (carrots and papaya) and rice noodles. The meat is hot and the rest is cold. Mix it all up and enjoy!

Bún Bò Nam Bộ is a “beef noodle salad” topped with roasted peanuts and fried shallots.

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Bun Cha (talked about on previous post)DSC01402

Chả Cá is a lightly battered fish dish that is grilled right at your table. Seasoned with fresh dill, green onions, and turmeric. DSC02004

Spring rolls are very popular here, in all types of forms. Make your own spring rolls with Bánh xèo.  You roll up a crispy, deep fried pancake filled with meats and beans sprouts into a rice paper that you’ve added some fresh lettuce and herbs to.

Now for dessert! The Vietnamese seem to have it backwards, all DSC02392of their good sweets are in coffee at breakfast. The typical dessert involves coconut milk, tapioca, beans, and/or sweet potatoes. Doesn’t sound that appealing, does it?  Chè is “Vietnamese sweet soup”, available with different fillings. We got Chè Ba Mau (three coloured dessert) and the best way I can describe is like runny, cold rice pudding, minus the rice and replace it with tasteless gummy worms. Needless to say, we did not get it again.

Luckily the fruit here is delicious and plentiful. Women on bikes carry large platters of fresh fruit, dice it expertly for you on the street, and sprinkle it with salt and chili powder.DSC02293

 

Silk, Wool and Happiness

Clothes make the man. We all know this; there’s no escaping it. Very well then society, let’s play your game. I raise you a bespoke suit and a custom made silk jumper..

 

Joking aside, this is something that you need to do if you visit Hanoi. The city is filled with tailors and seamstresses. Walk into a shop and in under 24 hours you can have a bespoke suit. The quality will suffer, you scoff! Perhaps, but there’s a shop right beside the one you’re in that will take two weeks and the quality will be top notch. The Vietnamese have been making clothes for a long time now and excel in the trade. Many Western brands are produced in Vietnam which means you can buy name brands at a fraction of the cost that you would pay in the West. It also means they have a talented workforce that’s looking to make money. The entrepreneurs among them start their own businesses and tourists luck out on the whole deal. Rip your pants? Tear your shirt? Stretch your blouse? No biggie, it can be repaired on the spot and while you’re waiting you can pick up some fitted clothing.

We both wanted to get some handmade clothing and after some research found a few stores that we felt comfortable with. You’re measured first and then you decide the fabric and style of the final product. Found some beautiful fabric in a market somewhere and dreamt of turning it into a gorgeous dress? Look no further.

Things move quickly at these shops. Sit back and watch the artisan do their work. The final product will speak for itself and you’re one of many in a long line of happy customers. There will be a few return visits, mainly to confirm the exact measurements and look of the clothing.

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Finally, the day comes to pick it up. It’s exciting, for you at least. The shop keeper could care less – they know they do good work, hurry up and get out. It’s a nice experience and one that many people have never been through. Clothing is so cheap and mass produced these days. Wearing properly fitted clothing is a real treat.

 

Damn, we look good.

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The Little Engine That Could

Boasting a whopping 110CC engine with 2 brakes, mirrors and an electric starter, it has taken the East by storm. It’s the right amount of everything; the perfect balance of durability and utility. It’s sleek and simple; it’s fast enough; it’s plenty powerful; it’s nearly indestructible. It will be the most reliable thing you’ve ever owned. Maintenance requires a patch of sidewalk and some hand tools. Give it a pinch of petrol and it will move you up a mountain. Let me introduce you to your new favourite machine: The Honda Cub

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There are many variations of the modern motorcycle: moped, noped, scooter, motorbike, e-bike, etc. Most of these arose after WW2 and were off shoots of the first instance of moped. The “motor pedal” was a hybrid of a gasoline and human pedaled engine. It was cheap and effective and quickly secured a place for itself in the transportation market. Following that came a plethora of other styles: ranging from the Italian Vespa to the American mobility scooter. Then the Japanese birthed a creation that forever changed the way people in cities around the world commute. In the decades to follow it become the most produced motor vehicle in human history, hitting the 100 million mark in 2017.

It may not be pretty but it’s so damn dependable that you’ll have no choice but to love it as your own. Granted, there are many styles of bikes that make up the roads of Hanoi but the overwhelming majority are Honda’s and most of those are Cubs. These things are like a mix between the North American family Dodge Caravan and the workhorse Ford F-150. They pull, haul, tug, smash, bounce, carry, deliver and offer a comfy lounging spot; they are an integral part of the Vietnam’s economy. Their prevalence in many poor cities is as a replacement for a non exist mass transit system. Locals keep piling things on these beasts and they keep purring away absolutely content in their purpose. They now litter the streets like bicycles in Amsterdam.

As mentioned in a previous post, it’s not uncommon to see a family of four or five (often with the a dog as well) scooting around. The children aboard seem relaxed (sometimes snoozing) as the driver weaves around all the obstacles one could imagine. Many people in Hanoi don’t know how to drive an automobile but have been zipping around on a Honda Cub since they were six. Seriously, when we were on our motorbike tour in the North we saw six year olds driving the roads with their younger sibling, naked expect for a soother, hanging on the back; their feet a foot shy of the rear pegs.

From the Westerner’s perspective, it’s easy to look at the Cub as a rinky-dink toy. Motorcycle riders would laugh at the measly 110CC engine as many bikes in the West are five or six times that capacity. Don’t let any of these preconceptions take away from what the Cub and its kind are: a marvel of engineering and the backbone of many transportation systems around the world. Our lawn mower engines cut our grass; their lawn mower engines move their whole country.

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Check out this funny video on how tough the Honda Cub truly is:

(Skip to 2:30 if you’re not interested in the intro)

The Descending Dragon

Along the North Eastern coast of Vietnam lays one of the most visited tourism spots in South East Asia, and a UNESCO world heritage site: Ha Long Bay. This area is filled with thousands of limestone karsts (island mountains) carved from 20 million years of wet climate and is a heritage site primarily for it’s geomorphical features. Do tourists care about that? Not really. It’s pretty and it’s got beaches.

To avoid the hoards of tourists, (both Vietnamese and International) that come to see and vacation in Ha Long Bay, we decided to try and go to the lesser known (but geologically the same) Lan Ha Bay, which is situated on Cat Ba Island.  We thought we’d take a nice beach vacation to relax and recharge after being on the road for a month.

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Of course, “relaxation” with Alayna is more like running in a hamster wheel chasing a bit of cheese. On the first day here, we booked a full day excursion on a boat to go and see these islands; it was complete with private beach swimming, fishing villages and cave kayaking.

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Part of the reason for doing this on the first day was because the weather forecast was not in our favour, and it was the only day not forecasted to rain or thunderstorm. So we went, aannnnnddd it rained.

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We were on a fairly large boat with a top observation deck along with about 30 other people, cruising our way through the islands.  We went past floating fishing villages sheltered by the large islands. People live there year round, and they appear to be very simple homes with large netted fish containers surrounding them. Spotlights are shined into the ocean at night to attract schools of fish. A fishing net is then hoisted up from the ocean catching everything that’s been fooled by the light. These fish are generally small and are fed to the large fish that are farmed. It can take up to a year before a farmer’s fish are large enough to sell.

Most of the fish farms have dogs to scare away the ravens who come to try and steal a snack.  We stopped at one and walked on the narrow planks between the fish enclosures, all the while thinking, “there is no way this can withstand 30 people’s weight – we’re all going to fall in”. Thankfully, the old wood held, despite the boat driver crashing into it while docking.

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Tourism is fast becoming the main industry in this part of Vietnam. Ha Long bay has already forced out all of the people previously living in that bay and zoned it only for tourism. Lan Ha bay has yet to follow suit, but it’s hard to say how much longer these people are going to be able to stay in their homes.  As tourists ourselves we are aware of the impact that we can have on native people’s lives in the areas we’re visiting.  On the other hand, tourism injects so much money into local communities and countries that it’s a huge positive. It’s a fine balancing act that Vietnam will have to struggle with as tourism continues to build.

We went to a private beach, jumped off the boat and swam inland. It was a little chilly for swimming but when else are you going to swim at a private beach in Ha Long bay? In we went and it wasn’t too bad! That is until we got stung by a jelly fish. Mark got a little wee bit on his foot, but Alayna got it full blown on her arm. The guide rubbed some kumquat juice on it to minimize the stinging “Don’t worry, not dangerous one” and Alayna’s arm flared up with a pretty decent reaction. The main stinging subsided in about an hour and by night time it was just minimal. By the next day the sting was gone completely.

The islands themselves were pretty, mainly because there are so many of them. Were we blown away? Not really. Maybe we’ve been spoiled from the beauty of the mountains on our Ha Giang trip.  We thought that Tobermory or Lionshead back home have superior beauty.  Or maybe we’re just getting homesick…

After a few dreary days, the rain subsided. Seizing the moment, we scooted around the island on a rented motorbike. DSC02175We checked out some caves, which were impressive, and then hired a private water taxi to take us to Monkey Island. Pulling in to Monkey Island looks like a beach invasion from a war film: junks half beached and bouncing while pudgy tourists tumble off in confusion into a foot of seawater. Smashing your head off of the swaying boat is the least of your worries as a troop of monkeys eagerly await your arrival. They’re hopped up on Coca Cola that they’ve stolen from tourists and the day is young. Herds of fresh tourists with loads of stuff (cameras, hats, purses, food, etc) get dumped on the island and nothing could make a monkey more gleeful. They steal, bite, defecate, surprise attack, and then steal some more. They’re extremely agile and intelligent and very greedy; it makes for a nice combination.

If the hospitality of your island hosts doesn’t turn you off, then there is a rock climb/hike that surely will. A small opening in the forest leads to a treacherous trail. The rocks are indented with a pattern that leaves great hand grips. It’s really more of a rock climb than a hike. Gripping on for dear life, you do begin feeling like the monkey on this island. Sandals and flip flops can be seen at the bottom of the crevices that line the route. Meanwhile, as you glance far down to the beach, you can see the monkey troops ravaging the fresh tourists as they get dumped from boats. The things we do for a good photo..

Next on the agenda was to be dropped off at a private beach. This region of Vietnam is littered with them. The beaches are beautiful and isolated because of the rocky landscape of the islands. So there we were, lounging on our own private beach and soaking up the last of the afternoon sun. After a nice swim in the ocean we headed back to our hotel and all worked out quite nicely.

We’re quickly approaching our last days in Vietnam. The game plan is to rest and recharge because a more hectic city lays on the horizon. It’s heat is punishing and food delicious. Any sin desired can be found on every street corner. It’s a chaotic city that will chew you up and sit you out if you’re not careful. Bangkok, we’re coming for you.

Goooood Morning Vietnam!

Hanoi is a completely different place at 6 am.

The streets are quiet and have hardly any traffic. Locals are eating their breakfast, mainly Pho, quietly on the sidewalk while hundreds of others are out exercising. The air is cool and the city is beginning to wake.

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Cyclists are now the main vehicles on the roads, and the park is lined with people doing Tai Chi, badminton, Zumba, waltzing and exercise classes. It can’t be stressed how different this is from home. This is their social and exercise time. The elderly partake more than the young and for good reason. In the West, loneliness is a major issue with terrible side effects. Next time you see that Asian person in the park doing Tai Chi and think it’s odd, understand they think it’s equally as strange to live isolated from your peers. Why were we up this early? Laughing yoga.

Laughing yoga involves producing prolonged voluntary laughter. There isn’t much of any yoga involved; it’s more marketed as a breathing exercise with psychological benefits. It’s a relatively big thing in Hanoi, with groups meeting every morning at 6 am.

Of course, this sounds fantastic to me, and I drag Mark out of bed at 5:45 am and take him down to the park in an attempt to find this giggling group. We head to where the internet says it takes place. There’s no laughing but there are many friendly elderly people who grab us and pull us into their dance exercise. They give us high fives and hugs after finishing a song. People are very friendly here for 6 am.

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We give up the dancing after a few songs and start to walk around the lake. I hear some cackling. Is it just some friends who told a joke or is it the elusive yoga crew? We walk closer and the laughter continues. A group of 15 people or so is in a tight circle hooting and hollering. We discretely stand nearby as we try assess the situation. One lady charges towards us, grabs our hands, and pulls us into the group. Are they laughing because two awkward tourists just got marched into their group, or is this part of the yoga? We laugh awkwardly and smile – the default when one doesn’t know what’s going on in these countries.

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Soon a lady with a microphone starts counting, and deep breathing ensues. Next come the hyena cackles. We join in. There’s some chanting, some waving, some dancing, and some back pounding. We all turn facing the same way in a circle, and the person behind starts pounding on your back, massaging and tickling. Mark received the brunt of the punishment from a 5 foot tall, elderly lady with painted eyebrows and ferocious fists. Her laughing intensified as she full out smacked him in the back. Her friends seemed to be encouraging her to hit harder. Let me tell you, it’s doesn’t seem physically possible for 100lb lady to produce such force. We’re going to have bruises tomorrow. 40835726602_1616d3bd3a_b

We get asked to take a picture with the group and get corralled into a lineup. They do a song and wave with us again standing awkwardly not knowing what’s happening. We get one as well and they give us a box of cookies.

So we still don’t know if this was the laughter yoga, or if we joined a cult. Who knows and who care. They gave us cookies and our cheeks are sore from laughing.

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Ha Giang Part 3: Meo Vac to Ha Giang

2 motorbikes, 6 days, 350 km driven, endless mountains climbed, 2 exhausted backpackers.

Beautiful as it was, we were ready to hand back in our bikes and have a little R&R in Hanoi. DSC01896

From Meo Vac, we rode to Du Gia, which was in itself a spectacular ride, with mountains jutting out at very steep angles, different from what we had seen before. Du Gia is lower in altitude than what we had been at, so it was starting to get warmer ( around 23 degrees probably) instead of the 15-20 degrees that we had been used to for most of the loop. This is where we had our waterfall adventure (read previous post for more on that) and spent the night on a mattress on the floor of another homestay.

 

 

Homestays are pretty much the only option on the loop. Essentially people have parts of their homes converted into dorm style rooms, or private rooms. They offer “family dinner” where all the guests can eat together and the food was the same everywhere we went: spring rolls, some sort of fatty meat, a leafy green thing, eggs, some potato, maybe tofu or beans, and a big bowl of rice.  All very, very oily.

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The other thing that they have in common, at least the ones we stayed at, was someone blasting karaoke. Either in the house, or next door. Every – single – one. (except our mud hut). Nothing lowers your spirits more than trying to sleep while some off pitch Vietnamese man tries to do his best Mariah Carey impression. Ear plugs do nothing. On our last night it was right below us,  and it shook the floor and the walls. There was no avoiding it. So we joined in and sang a duet trying to read the Vietnamese words as they scrolled across the screen. Our off key voices joining in preventing travelers from sleeping.

And then there are the termites. If the karaoke doesn’t keep you up, then the gnawing of little bugs eating away at the wooden structure you’re sleeping on will. One day those karaoke reverberations are going to shake the termite ridden structure just enough and it will collapse. Try not to think of that when you’re going to sleep in it. 155023864

The Vietnamese also seem to have a liking for rock hard beds. You’re basically sleeping on styrofoam. You can stand on it and you don’t even sink in the slightest.

The ride back from Du Gia to Ha Giang was a rough one. Most people will back track and not complete the loop fully, but we were gung ho to do so. It was a mistake. A very rough and dusty road filled with big dump trucks was how we ended the loop. 70 km took us 6 hours and we arrived back in Ha Giang looking like dusty, exhausted, ghosts.

 

Overall, the loop was filled with amazing experiences, beautiful views and tons of excitement and stories. We want to give a realistic idea of what we’re doing, and that means including some stories of the more difficult things we experience.

As I write this though, we are treating ourselves to a nice hotel in Hanoi, with a real bed that you can sink into, and a bathroom not filled with spiders and other people’s hair. It’s the simple things in life.

 

The Road Not Taken

“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Well Robert Frost, we should have listened to you. And we probably would have, had we seen the path…

We arrived in Du Gia, a small town nestled in a valley surrounded by high peaks, in early afternoon. After finding a homestay, they asked if we wanted to see the waterfall. “Sure!” we said, and one of the locals hopped on his motorbike and showed us the way, bumping along dirt/rock paths at the high speed that only locals can do. We tried our best to keep up. He showed us to a waterfall,  which was quite nice; crystal clear waters, nice little swimming area, and mimed to us to climb up the hill. “Big!” he said, indicating that there was a bigger waterfall, should we only just climb up the hill.

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So after a short time at the easily reached waterfall we decided to see this “big” waterfall. So we hiked up the hill. Not just any hill, a zig-zag of probably 30 degree incline for about 500 m. No waterfall in sight. It must be further. So we continued on this bulldozed path higher and higher into the mountains.

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Soon the bulldozed path turns to more of a mud and dirt path, but it continues, and thus so do we, climbing higher and higher.  You may be thinking “didn’t they realize they were getting further away from the water?”. Yes. Yes we did, but with these mountains you never know whats around the corner and it could be the biggest waterfall ever.

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So around more corners we went, “maybe it’s around the next one…”. We passed a few houses/farms high in the hills, and the children would come and wave. We now carry candy with us for these moments. So after the first bunch of kids (notice the toddler with the baby carrier on her back) we continued on for the elusive waterfall. We didn’t hike all this way not to find it.

About 1.5 km later we came to another bunch of kids. This one had an older boy, maybe 10 years old. We tried our best to say “waterfall” in Vietnamese- he couldn’t read the translation- and eventually he got it. He said, follow him, and away we went, further and further away from our motorbikes at the first waterfall. We’re now at least 5 km in and at the top of a mountain. Eventually he leads us to a small stream with a measly waterfall and motions that we can keep climbing.

We’ve now hiked for about 1.5 hours to try and find this thing, and the path is quite treacherous and looks to get even more so. We cut our losses and give the kids jelly beans for their accompaniment. We eat some ourselves for nourishment to start the journey back down the mountain.

We are almost back to the start when about half way up the initial hill we notice a small path off the main one that we hadn’t seen before. It goes right beside the river. We walk maybe 100m and there it is. The “big” waterfall. Literally upstream maybe 200m from where we were initially.

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This is the path we missed, and the path we took.

We jumped in to wash of fthe mud and sweat from our trek through the mountains, chalking the whole thing up to a good workout and a good story.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both”

Well, we did travel both, but lesson learned- keep your eyes peeled for where they diverge in the first place.

 

Down by the River

Imagine yourself walking on a thin, precarious path that hugs to the side of a steep cliff. There are loose rocks beneath your feet and segments of the trail that lay ahead have completely eroded. Your clothing is damp with sweat because of the strenuous climb. You glance around looking for something solid to grab to in case you slip but nothing substantial is near; you’re surrounded by grass and measly shrubs. Further ahead, just before the trail disappears around a bend, a small Vietnamese man in flip flops is eagerly waiting for you and waving for you to follow. Far below, at the base of the cliff, is a river and a massive hydroelectric dam. You begin thinking: “there’s no way this is legal”. You also think: “I need to start reevaluating my life choices”…

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Let rewind to the beginning of this saga. Our homestay owner suggested we do a boat cruise (yes, boat cruise means something different to us too) along the gorgeous river that runs beside Meo Vac. There was some broken explanation about the dam and having to navigate around it. We didn’t pry much and decided to go on the exotic excursion. We motorbiked down to our meeting point which was beside the dam. There were two other couples: one French and the other German. A stout Vietnamese man emerged from a trail that snaked along the bank beside the dam. He didn’t speak a word of English but gestured for us to follow him. We began scaling the path which was rough but manageable. The trail significantly deteriorated. All of the pudgy, tall tourists (including us) started glancing at each other for reassurance that this wasn’t a stupid decision.

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After a very dangerous trek we finally reached a small beach area. Pulled ashore was an old metal boat and beside it a squatting, middle aged, Vietnamese man. We all thought the same thing: “Boat cruise may be an overstatement”. The man seems to be in charge and distributed life jackets (safety first, of course). We herd onto the boat and begin our “boat cruise”. We’re instructed DSC01836not to move otherwise we could capsize. The boat ride is phenomenally beautiful. Think Grand Canyon but with more vegetation. After some time we are dropped at a tributary to the main river which has waterfalls and rapids. All the tourists explore, play and take pictures.

 

When it seems time to return home we are informed about a very rural village that we are going to trek to. No one objects and we follow our stout guide up on another trail. After another intense climb we enter a rural village. It felt like stepping back in time. A proper village with chickens, pigs, shacks, puppies, bees, mud huts, bamboo roofs, and a dilapidated state that can’t be faked. The children were too timid to even come to us.

Nearly 3 hours after departing everyone is itching to start making our way back. The guide seems to be stalling the visit and is having conversations on his tiny Nokia phone. At one point everyone was standing around just starring at him with a “what next?” feeling. Eventually, we made our way back to the river boat and floated down to the dam. As we approached the beach where we had set off from we noticed a group of people waiting for us. Once they were clear enough to distinguish we realized we were in trouble. A military style boat accompanied them and they were dressed in the classic Soviet – era attire (dark green and tan uniforms with large military hats and star emblems). A heated Vietnamese conversation ensued while we shuffled off the boat. Our driver looked indignant while our guide seemed sheepish. Now the covert attitude that our guide had relayed all seemed to make sense. There was tension in the air as we all stood on the river bank and listened to the tone of the conversion. Suddenly a phone call was made to someone who seemed important because as the phone was hung up we were allowed to leave. We scrambled our way back across the illegal route we had taken with one of the visitors falling face first into mud. At the motorbikes we were informed of the details: yes, we were engaging in illegal activity but someone knew a government official who gave us a free pass. Whew, what a “boat cruise”.