10.12.2012 - 14.12.2012
Leaving Hanoi, the train announcements included a helpful reminder that corpses are not allowed on the train; also that mad or diseased persons are not permitted to travel. An informative though quite lengthy lecture on the contribution of the railway workers to the communist revolution follows, and finally we're off.
The railway lines through Hanoi have only a few trains passing through each day, and the rest of the time are used for driving along, cooking, eating, selling things, eating and hanging out, the same as any other Vietnamese thoroughfare. These activities are only slightly disrupted when trains come through. It was extremely disconcerting to see people sitting on their little plastic stools eating, quite oblivious, only inches away from the train as we trundled by, and stalls with piles of fruit almost within arm's length.
We spent the remainder of our time in Vietnam in a pleasant little town on the way to the Laos border called Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing). We knew we would like it from the first day when we went for a bike ride and enountered a herd of goats bleating in a tunnel. Goat-reverb joy! We also encountered an unexpected and quite beautiful temple carved into the base of a mountain. The scenery is breathtaking - more limestone pinnacles disappearing into more ethereal mists. Elsewhere eerie, treeless, bleak landscapes of misty flatlands. Like Norfolk, but with more water buffalo.
The main reason for taking this route was to see the Cuc Phuong National Park, again much more beautiful than the name suggests - and to visit to the Endangered Primates Rescue Centre.
North Vietnam is home to all sorts of wonderful monkeys, which are captured by Chinese traffickers, assisted by impoverished rural Vietnamese, and driven over the border to China and sold as pets, or for food. The rescue centre rehabilitates animals seized from traffickers, some of which are now very rare, and prepares them for release back into the wild. They do a truly excellent job - check out their website.
An added bonus was a quick swing by the Turtle Conservation Centre, Cuc Phuong's other big conservation effort. Turtles are also captured in large numbers to be sold to China as luxury food, and the centre does great work in illustrating the wonder of these under-appreciated creatures. Interesting turtle fact - turtle eggs that are incubated at 26 degrees or less will produce males, while warmer temperatures produce females. Who knew! I have nothing but admiration for people that devote their lives to helping unglamourous species like this.
From here we left Vietnam, after a mercifully brief stay in a border town which can only be described as an abject shithole, and moved on to neighbouring Laos.
Next: we arrive in Laos - and it's gorgeous.