3. Journey into the unknow – Cao Bang

08.05. – 09.05.2016

After a lovely few days in Hanoi it was time to start the adventure – heading to the far north-east to Cao Bang. I doubt there can be a bigger contrast between the tourist hotspot Hanoi and the capital of the remote Cao Bang province. I was excited.

After my idea of getting a bike in Hanoi was crushed I returned to my initial plan – taking the train from Hanoi to Thai Nguyen, and then the bus to Cao Bang. This way I was able to enjoy one of the few train journeys I haven’t done yet in Vietnam. Bags packed, farewell said to the lovely staff of the Hanoi Guesthouse, and I was in a taxi to get to the local train station Ga Long Bien, on the north-east of the Old Quarter. The taxi driver clearly had no idea where the entrance was, so I had to climb a little hill to the station, but I walked confidently inside, knowing where I was heading – nothing could stop me. Getting to the only open counter the conversation went like that:

Me: “Xin Chao, one ticket please to Thai Nguyen.”
Girl at the counter, looking a bit surprised: “Ok, when do you want to go?”
Me, now it was my turn to be surprised: “Well, for the train that leaves in 30 minute”
Girl at the counter, her eyebrows raised: “There is no train in the morning. You can go to Haiphong now. But train to Thai Nguyen leaves in the afternoon.”
Me: Silence.
The only noise in my head was the shattering of thousands of cups and glasses after a shelf collapsed – my plan was in pieces.
Me again, with eyes wide open, a last attempt to save the situation: “Are you sure?” Ok, it was more half begging
Girl at the counter: “Yes. Do you want a ticket for the train in the afternoon?”
Me, still shocked, holding back my manly tears: “No thank you.”

Well, at that moment I learned two valuable lesson. First, never believe everything a website selling train tickets is saying. And secondly, buy the bl..dy tickets the day before instead of drinking beer!!!

Well, travelling independent you have to re-plan quickly if needed. So first action, calling the Hanoi Guesthouse, asking from which bus station buses for Cao Bang leave. I assume they thought they would have heard the last of me and my quick questions when I went through the door – they were clearly wrong. Helpful as usual I was advised to go to Mỹ Đình. OK – I had a name but no clue where that station was. Walking down to the main road I saw a Vietnamese couple getting off a taxi, still looking happy. So with no Mailinh Taxi in sight I did clearly the right thing to do – I jumped head first into the taxi to make sure the hopefully-honest-taxi-driver-who-didn’t-overcharge-the-locals wouldn’t leave without me. Here came the second issue – he didn’t know where I wanted to go. So another call to the guesthouse, and the poor girl at reception had to speak to me again (at least she knew who I was !!!) and told the driver where to go. So off we went. Usually I am very relaxed when taking a taxi. But this was not a recommended one. So a few questions came up in my head: Will he kidnap me? Is the metre working properly? Why didn’t I eat anything – I am hungry!!! I was giving the metre the stare like a crazy man – seeing the price going up and up and up. Did it just go faster? – Well, soon I realised it worked just fine, so I was breathing again. My Dinh buis station was further away than I thought, and it took over 30 minutes and the price of 200.000 Dong to get there. Well, I must have upset the driver somehow, as he dropped me off the opposite side of the station, and had to cross a busy road and squeeze between two barriers. Cheers mate.

But I made it. Even though I clearly came out of a taxi, other driver approached me asking if I need a taxi. Sure – I like travelling between places by taxi all day long. I got the suspicion that they do not even care who they ask…as long they can ask someone. It reminded me a bit of the beginning of the movie Shaun of the Dead. Anyhow, I got inside, and even found the counter for tickets to Cao Bang, so I was surely ok now, right? WRONG. Instead of getting a ticket I was told to take a seat till 10am. No ticket for me. I used the 20 minutes wisely to get some items from the shop inside the station.Water, some sweets and a bad  Banh Mi trung op let (baguette with egg). I didn’t even know that there are bad Banh Mi available in Vietnam. I was shocked.

Back on my seat it turned after 10am, and I expected something would happen. But no. So headed back to the counter, and suddenly I got a ticket for the 10:30 bus. I have no idea why she couldn’t sell me a ticket earlier. The price for the 240km journey was only 160.000 Dong. It turned out it was just a minibus, and as expected I was the only foreigner in a  nearly empty bus. Great – two seats for me and my bag.

The journey to Cao Bang went thankfully without any excitement. The driver drove not too fast, and limited the amount of reckless overtaking manoeuvres to a minimum – though he still liked to be on this phone while driving. The beginning of the journey up to Thai Nguyen (at least I made it there in the end – but as the bus stopped at a store I am not sure how easily I could got a bus from here to Cao Bang) was on a rather flat road, and only after Thai Nguyen the ascent into the mountains started. The scenery became more and more impressive, and it was nice to just look out of the window and appreciating the beauty of the north. The road was mainly in good condition, and traffic was not heavy, though we passed quite a few lorries. I am not sure I would have enjoyed riding a motorbike at some section of this route.

We had two stops on the way. One little shorter in Thai Nguyen where other passenger got something wrapped in banana leave. I took the courage and bought one as well. I got the impression that everyone in that place was looking at me when I unwrapped it – which was greeted by some laughter seeing my face. What was it? It was some kind of rice jelly, with pork mince inside. It tasted much better than it looked, and it was actually tasty.

The other stop was in the middle of nowhere in the mountains – with only the shop being there. Nothing else. A nice place to stretch my legs.

The only surprise of the journey was when suddenly every window of the bus was opened and the A/C switched off. Even in this altitude it was hot, and the open windows didn’t help cooling down. I am still not sure why they did it, and was not happy. But as soon we finished some ascent the A/C was switched back on, so my guess it had something to do with protecting the engine from overheating during that specific stretch.

6 hours after leaving Hanoi I arrived in Cao Bang, the largest town in that area, but it has nothing like a big place – in comparison to Hanoi. But coming back from the surrounding area it suddenly looks like a big wide world. Overall it is not a bad place – with the river running through the town and the lovely waterfront it has a nice vibe. The bus station is on the east side of the river, with several food places along the road. Turning right form the station and turning right again at the round about leads you to the main bridge over the river, that brings you to the “tourist” area of Cao Bang. Here you find most hotels and food places in town. It only take a few minutes from the station to the other side of the river. However, not knowing where to go I spoke to one of the Xe Om drivers, showing him the name of a hotel I read some decent review about – Minh Hoang Hotel. The driver knew where it was an a price of 50.000 Dong was agreed. I knew it was probably too much, but I couldn’t be bothered walking. After a few minutes I arrived safely at the Minh Hoang Hotel, which is located next to river on Pho Thau Road.

After freshen up it was time trying to get a motorbike sorted for my anticipated trip. What better place to check for a bike than the hotel I am staying. Well – they had bikes you can rent, with only one problem. They wanted to keep my passport for the duration of the rental period. This was a big no, and even telling that I wouldn’t even be allowed to stay anywhere else without my passport, they said no. I was really surprised about that – the first Vietnamese happy not to earn money. The hotel next door was also unable to provide a bike. So I started to walk along the main road QL4A, where you can find some of the larger hotels, a market, several cafes and even a motorbike shop. Checked with a few hotels, and the answer was always the same – no bike. I started to become a little worried, and hope resurrected when I saw two American girls turning up with their bike. I thought maybe they got their bike here – but I was once again disappointed – they got the bikes in Ha Giang. Hope faded, but then I saw the fantastic sign “Motorbike Rental” next to a shop on Vuom Cam Road, the extension of the main road after the roundabout. The shop was on the left side after passing the big market to your right, crossing the street. The girl in the shop made a quick call and after 15 minute the owner of the place turned up with  a bike. Thankfully another girl who could speak a bit English joined us as well. It would have been much more difficult without her I guess. The next hour I was shown several automatic and semi-automatic bikes. I probably tried four different bikes, always mentioned some issues I found. A quick call was made and another bike was brought, while I was able speaking with the girl, who was clearly happy to practise her English. This way I got some more information about the area, where to eat etc. So for that conversation alone it was a worthwhile stop here. However, in the end we found a bike that was not too bad. The only issue was the price. For a bike that probably had its best time behind, the price was 250.000 Dong per day, plus a whooping 10.000.000 Dong deposit, and I guess  it was maximum worth 4.000.000 Dong. Well – at that moment I had not a lot of choice, and I told the guy I will come back in the morning after a last thought about his offer. As you can tell I was not too happy – I was surprised about the lack of available bikes. I actually considered going into one of the motorbike shops to buy a bike there!!!

Hard work done I went to a street food stall located next to the bank at the main roundabout near the bridge. It was nice to sit outside as the weather had cooled down a bit, watching people and enjoying a nice pho. The lack of Western tourists stood out, as I only saw four foreigners that day. It gave the town a different atmosphere. More laid back – you never got any hassle. Except of locals looking at you surprised, some of them waiving, other laughing when a Xin Chao was exchanged. Along the main road you find little stalls selling various food and cafes to have a ca fe su da. A great way to relax a bit.

I returned to my hotel via the lovely riverside street, which was still busy with locals  eating and drinking. Not suspecting anything I was suddenly sitting in a plastic chair joining the owner of a little food places and three guests, having a beer in front of me. None of them could speak English, but with sign language, some words I learned (it is always helpful to know the Vietnamese word for Germany) and laughing we communicated well. A second beer followed, and to my horror a 500ml bottle appeared  with four little glasses. Rice wine. My sworn enemy from my Mekong Delta trip in 2015. But I knew I had to face it sooner than later, and I decided I had to beat my fear of it. Yes, I drunk alcohol to conquer my fear. I am sure that is a thing!!!  After a few shots and the third beer and more laughter that attracted the attention of guests of the other stalls I thought it was time to leave to ensure I would be able to ride a bike the next morning. But for me it was a good indicator what I might experience in that region. After the bike issue my mood was much much better (maybe it was just the alcohol).

After a good night sleep I got up earlish to get ready. First I asked at reception again about the option to get a bike – with the same outcome. I still cannot believe they let go a chance of earning money. Even the offer of a deposit didn’t convince them. After stopping at two more hotels with the same outcome I resigned and thought I have no choice. So I headed to the bank to get a few Dong exchanged for the deposit. The woman at the counter was a bit surprised when I put €550 in front of her, and I think I caused some hassle for everyone, as it took 20 minutes for them to get enough Dong ready. Maybe they looked into every corner to see if they find more Dong there. Apparently they found every single note as they actually returned €40. I hope they had some left for the other customer – I wouldn’t like to be chased by an angry mob coming after me with pitchforks and torches. I looked around, and it was still peaceful. Though I must admit, it was strange running around with so much Dong.

Before I went back to the shop for the bike I looked at the Khách Sạn Bằng Giang hotel straight next to the bridge. It looked a bit fancy, and I thought maybe they can help. So I headed there, and the receptionist smiled, and she said yes. Well – first I thought she said no, only the second time my brain realised what she said. HOORAY! And no need to leave my passport. Double HOORAY!! And only 5.000.000 Dong deposit. Triple HOORAY!!! Price day was 300.000 Dong for 11 days. Back to double HOORAY!! Payable after I return. Double and a half HOORAY!

A quick call, and after 15 minute the semi-automatic bike arrived at the hotel. It looked well, still having two mirrors, tyres were in good condition, breaks were working, and most important – the horn was loud enough to get everyone’s attention. So the bike was 50.000 Dong more expensive, but I got it from a well established hotel, and it was in much better condition. And I even got a helmet (which I guess has fallen to the ground a few times) and straps for my bag. And I got the number of the receptionist in case I need help. So after all the worry I was ready for my road trip. Bags stored on the bike (kind of), the road was finally  calling, and I said good-bye to Cao Bang for now.

Overall the journey didn’t go according the plan. I didn’t manage to add a new train journey to my list, but the bus journey was ok. I am not sure what I can say about Cao Bang. It is a nice looking place with a nice laid back atmosphere, with very friendly locals. But it is not the easiest place for Western tourists looking for bikes. The northeast region is probably one of the least visited areas in Vietnam, but still I thought it would be much easier. I was wrong, and I was actually tempted to get a bus to Ha Giang. I am just glad I checked one more hotel, and the bike I got was good, I never had any problems with it during the next 1 1/2 weeks. I wouldn’t visit Cao Bang for the town itself, but it has a nice laidback atmosphere. And it is by far the best base to explore the northeast.

Recommendation

  • Do not rely on the information of the  website http://www.baolau.vn/ for trains to the north.
  • When taking the bus try to get the one leaving My Dinh at 10:30, run by Xe Hoa An. This company travels each way once a day (departing Cao Bang at 07:30am). Their journey was 2 hours shorter than the bus I took for the return journey, as they did not take detours to smaller villages. I preferred their driver as well.
  • Crossing the river from the station you will find plenty of hotels
  • There are plenty of food places. I thought the street stalls are offering very good pho
  • If you need a bike go to Khách Sạn Bằng Giang hotel. If one of the receptionists cannot help, ask for Ana who helped me getting a bike

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