Hanoi to Haiphong (14 sep 15)
I hadn't printed out the correct visa forms from Vietnam. United wouldn't let me on the plane, but the lady at the desk asked me to forward an email from my phone, so she could print out the form I had been sent from vietnam-evisa.org. Unfortunately, my phone battery gave out just as I was about to send it, and by the time I'd recharged it using my computer, it was too late to get on the plane. I came back 24 hours later. United got everything right except getting me a ticket on Asiana from Seoul to Hanoi. That meant buying a phone card at Seoul airport to call United in the USA, and asking the very helpful ladies in the information kiosk to write down exactly, in perfect English, how to use it. Fortunately, a competent United person answered quickly, and I got my ticket to Hanoi.
I was so exhausted by all this I slept like a log on the four-hour flight, and instead of reconstructing my bike in Hanoi airport, I took the soft option of allowing the staff there to book me a taxi and a hotel - total cost $50. It was a nice hotel, but I transferred to a cheaper one at $10 per night for the next two nights - I figure I don't notice my surroundings when I'm sleeping.
I put my bike together and found the lake where Jane Fonda shot down John McCain (see picture). Two 18-year old girls approached me, wanting to talk to me to improve their English. It's probably a good thing my camera crashed again while trying to take a photo of me and the two teenagers with our arms around each other, as no-one would believe the encounter was innocent.
I also had a look at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and various bars and restaurants in Hanoi old town.
After the third night in Hanoi, I sallied forth in search of Hạ Long bay and Cát Bà island. This involved crossing the Long Bien bridge, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, and continuously bombed and rebuilt during the American War.
Then I turned south. I missed the turning for Hai Phong and Hạ Long, and ended up crossing the Red River again on another bridge. Some helpful people in a hotel sent me back across the bridge, and I found the road to Hai Phong port, whose name I remember from the war.
The road is very noisy, but I've gotten the hang of riding a touring bike in Vietnamese traffic. There are thousands of motorbikes going almost as slowly as me, so all I have to do is follow them as they fearlessly launch themselves into the path of cars and trucks to cross roads against red lights. It was very tiring because of the heat, dust, noise and humidity, and I remembered the key to bike touring is to take it easy the first few days. So I stopped in the San Mai hotel in Hải Dương, about halfway along the 100 Km road to Hai Phong. That is where I am now as I type this. I'll go out for a beer and a meal then hit the sack early.
There's nothing like an unpretentious industrial town in a developing country. I can clearly see that an increasing part of the population is not living in abject poverty. Capitalism works slowly, especially when motivated movements put obstacles in its way, but eventually, it batters down all Chinese walls.
Right next door to the hotel is a cafe with cheap wholesome food and draught beer from a keg. Three construction workers showed up, and insisted on sharing their pitcher of beer and peanuts with me. I tried to buy another pitcher, but they had to leave. I had seaweed, green beans, tofu and shrimp with rice and some kind of green vegetable soup. The guy filled up an old 1-liter water bottle with beer for me to take away - cheap and pragmatic.
The remaining 50Km to Hai Phong was uneventful except for occasional showers. When I got there, I asked various people how to find the ferry at Bến tàu khách Bến Bính for Cát Bà island. The port is a maze, but because I'd written it down exactly with all the accents, I found it. A lady selling maps was so helpful, I bought one of her maps. I got on the boat, and now I'm on the island. I immediately ran into a Polish rock climber who led me to a hotel on the waterfront. It's very good value for $7. Tomorrow I'll look into rock climbing.