From Ba Be to Long San and on to the Chinese Sea

From Ba Be we drove, again on endless winding roads to Long San, one of the biggest trading towns with China. It went through a big boom but the Vietnamese economical crisis hit Long San as well and things have quieted down considerably. The area is still in good shape as it is the home of a lot of natural resources and coal mining is also a big thing.

On the way to Long San we drove through an area where all the roadsides in the villages were lined with freshly harvested aniseed, drying in the sun. For kilometres the whole air around these villages was scented with that special delicate fragrance.

Here is a single one. It’s a vital ingredient in any Vietnamese noodle soup (and many Chinese). This type of aniseed is very expensive and farmers make good money with it. They mainly export it to China.Here some more old fashioned rice flailing:

The trip ended uneventful, with the same old beautful scenery repeating itself times and again. Time for a change, hehe!

I stayed at a typical Vietnamese hotel. The windows of the rooms all go out to the corridor (!) which made me feel like peeping Tom trying to get glances inside on the way to my own room.

My room was the only different one, as it had a balcony and windows that faced the lake in the centre of town:

Not bad! In the evening I had a few beers with some local drunkards and we communicated with gestures and smiles. One guy stood out as he could say: “I live Vietnam” :)

In the morning I decided to skip noodle soup breakfast (as I now believe that part of my digestion problems comes from this massive eating: breakfast, lunch, dinner – when my system is used to have only dinner since many years). I wandered around at 6:30 am to find a coffee instead.

Which I did, served with the omnipresent, obligatory and free glass of green tea.

This method produces an incredibly thick but not bitter coffee. The downside is that it drips through the filter so awfully slow that by the time it’s ready it’s cold. I suppose that’s the way the Vietnamese like it. But it was not what I had in mind when I ordered it. I just wanted a “quick fix”. I should have known but my brain was still in standby.

Then I went to the market with my guide to finally get a replacement wristband for my watch (which I have been carrying in my pocket since after it dissolved in the Vietnamese heat and from my sweat two days after my arrival) . I had bought the last one at my Armenian jeweller in Sofia for a whopping 13 Leva a year ago. Genuine leather, of course :) In Hanoi they tried to fleece me and I declined. So now was my chance. We did find a shop and I happily bought an overpriced genuine Spanish genuine leather wristband for 100.000 Dong = 7.50 Leva. Probably made in the same Chinese factory as my one from Sofia.

Slipping through the market I simply had to look at all the spices and herbs. There were so many things I wanted to buy! The aromatic Vietnamese dried mushrooms that add a special flavour to any Asian dish. Or the unique cinnamon they have here and that has so little in common with what we know and use as cinnamon…and so on. But I will be travelling a lot still, so, where to store, keep and how to transport all that stuff?

I made a little compromise. I bought some coriander seeds for planting in Bansko. I have tried to grow cilantro quite a few times there but never succeeded. And I need it so desperately for my Thai cooking and also for my various soups. Life is just not the same without it. They wanted to sell the seeds only kg-wise. Goodness. I said, the most I will take is 1/2 kg (which is enough to plant about 2000 square meters with it). We agreed on a (heavily inflated) price at 100.000 Dong (7.50 Leva) and shortly thereafter the shop owner’s husband came with his motorbike to deliver the seeds. I figure I can carry an additional 500g of weight for the rest of my journey. But I should buy some kind of container to protect my precious little babies from being squeezed and ground into powder. Hehe, one always should have priorities right :) The only other thing on my shopping list is dried shrimps. But that can wait.

The Asians call people like me the “lotus-eaters” (not in the Greek sense!) and so, on my way out of the market, I was rather tempted to buy some lotus buds from the lady selling them on the side walk. But they don’t keep and now I have no use for them…

Then we set off on our route to Ha Long. Where we arrived, again(!), in full daylight. And for the first time I got a glimpse of the South Chinese sea.

Tomorrow I will embark on a boat to see one of the seven wonders of the world with my own eyes (this, in the past, usually turned out a catastrophe and an utter disappointment). We will see.

Today concludes my trip to the North of Vietnam. I will try to draw a short résumé of this a little later after finishing with the descriptive part of today’s happenings.

After arriving at Ha Long my guys/well paid slaves tried to set me up in a place they considered right for me. By now they have a good idea of what I am looking for. The magic word is always “WiFi”. My driver joked that the reason I am so desperate on having an internet connection is that I always want to chat with my girl friend :)

Anyway, after some erring (no WiFi available) they found me the probably best spot in all of Ha Long: outside the tourist centre in a quiet street; fairly new; WiFi; room with a balcony facing trees and the quiet street; 5 minute walking distance to the Vietnamese centre of town (where no tourists ever head). Not luxurious and not cheap (20$ – which probably paid for the room of the guide and driver too) but clean. And the owners, a most lovely Vietnamese couple, ready to do anything imaginable to please me (they obviously never had a foreign guest before ;-) ) The whole combination just  radiates positiveness and it opened my heart. Lucky and privileged me.

Sadly, no one in the hotel speaks even one(!) word of English (adding to its charm and authenticity, of course). which for the millionth time drove home  to me the importance of languages and communication. The real “king” is the one who can communicate with everybody.

Shortly before darkness set in I ventured out on a walk to suck in local life. I went to the local centre and, despite the fact that Ha Long is chock-full of foreigners I did not see a single long-nose. In fact, I even found I liquor shop (after only three tries) that sold Bacardi – and only 10% more expensive than in Hanoi (still cheaper than in Bulgaria and much cheaper than in the rest of Europe). I bought a bottle and some cokes and carried on.

After all the rice and rice noodles of the last three weeks I am more than ready for some sea food  – and just that! No silly side-dishes, no rice. Just bring on the crabs, shrimps, cotton-fishes and what you have! My system craves for it!  My initial plan was to invite my guide and the driver for a sea food dinner. Not completely out of altruistic motions, but also to make sure that we would find not only a good place but also one where I would not get ripped off. Because this is the national sport here. To rip off rich foreigners (and all people, not local, are considered rich).

But my guide went “oh” and “ah” and excused himself that he had friends in Ha Long and they would be dining with them. But there are plenty of restaurants with sea food and I should not have any problem finding what I wanted. Haha.

So, on my walk I discovered only two places. And they did have fresh stuff. Everything live and in different basins, fed by oxygen. And the restaurants were empty and staff acted as touts. And there were no prices. One of the two did have a menu in English – again, no prices. And as much as I love seafood I am a weary old badger, a Bansko farmer who does not part with his money easily. I don’t mind if it is expensive (OK, I do mind, but when I am in the mood I am ready to spend without limits (remember, Maria, when we were in that Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York and after I had a full, happy meal and learned that they accepted credit cards I ordered and ate every bloody item on their menu?)).

But I HATE to be taken for a ride.I never do that to other people and I don’t want to be subjected to it. Matter of principles. It gives me stomach cramps. So, in the end, I decided to forego the seafood and I settled on a liquid diet in the form of “Bia Hoi”, the fresh beer, near my hotel. Some guys at the next tables had loads of snacks coming to them all the time but as there was no menu and I could not communicate I had to settle on a bag of peanuts…:(

Four of those light beers gave me the strength to carry the heavy bag with the Bacardi bottle and the cokes back to my hotel.

On the way back I saw to my surprise they have some kind of garbage collection in Ha Long:

The thing I liked most, however, was the fact that some local dudes had blocked off the little street just before my hotel, put their net across it and played volleyball:

I hung my plastic bag with the drinks on a tree branch and watched the match, cheering both sides when they scored. And the players were not teenagers. They were family men in their thirties. I thoroughly enjoyed that! There is life here! It reminded me a little of my time living in New York in 1979. When I was advised never, ever to enter Harlem – which I did nonetheless (at the beginning, OK, with my first (white) NY girl friend, a weed smoking street worker, working with the niggers). In Harlem “our” law did not apply either. I think, Natasha, you will remember this (I don’t expect you to have spent a lot of time in Harlem, though :) ) But there I encountered similar genuine things.

Back at my hotel there was, as expected, no glass in my room. The coke was near boiling point by then. So, I tried to communicate to the owner that I needed a glass (in perfect Vietnamese: coc) I even showed him my bottle of Bacardi and made the necessary gestures (pouring a bottle into something) and sounds (raising the imaginary glass to my lips, going: “gluck, gluck, gluck”). The sweetheart’s face lightened up and he gestured me to retire to my room. Shortly later he came with two(!) Vietnamese rakia glasses, holding about 20 ml each :( When I pleaded him for bigger glasses he panicked and went to my guide’s room (who had returned from his dinner – or maybe not even left for it) – and we finally managed. I even extracted a tray of ice cubes from his family fridge!.

That’s where we are now. The ice all gone the coke still boiling, the thirst unquenched, 500ml of Bacardi left – and only 9 pm! No chance to get any ice, also no coke in a nearby shop as everything is closed and “normal” people are in bed. Warm coke with Bacardi then? Well, I never had that in my life – but there is always a first time…


This blog becomes quite lengthy (which wears down on readers and they loose interest, I know). The most successful publications are those with short, sensational articles. But my trip is not a “sensation”. Nothing that uncountable other people visiting Vietnam have not gone through. But everyone experiences things in his own personal way. Dependent on background, education, intelligence, character and what have you. So, this blog is an ego-blog as well. And I better shut up now not to loose you all (all? 5, 6, 7 followers :) ) And maybe to start a new chapter…



Ein Gedanke zu “From Ba Be to Long San and on to the Chinese Sea

  1. as a matter of fact i spent some time in harlem (wanted to go columbia university but took the wrong subway). poverty, darkness and dirt! heartbreaking! but people were nice, an old lady came and ask me if she schould call a taxi for me. i have seen the same also in newark as a student nurse on the maternoty award. again heartbreaking. i think things are better now in harlem and newark. keep writing! natascha

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