We set out on a 7-day private tour of Vietnam's northeast in a Russian 4x4 jeep, departing from Hanoi. This jeep had all the amenities and creature comforts of a child's go-cart, and our confidence soared when we learned that it could be completely dismantled with a single wrench and screwdriver. From the looks of it, this had happened many times -- our guide pointed out its original Russian parts, its cheaper Chinese imitation parts, and its even cheaper Vietnamese imitations of Chinese imitations. During the trip, we learned first-hand that our driver was quite adept at taking apart the jeep -- he took apart the gear box on the first night (!), and a small cooling fan (i.e., the car's multi-directional, air-conditioning system) from one area of the dash to another. We traveled through remote towns on some very rough roads (almost as bad as Madagascar). Overall, however, we were surprised at how much infrastructure was present in even the smallest towns (unlike Cambodia): all had electricity, water & sewage, telephone, and paved streets!
The scenery in this region was stunning -- hundreds of giant limestone boulder-mountains rise out of flat rice paddies. As we reached the coast, these boulders continued into a bay called Halong Bay, at which point we ditched the jeep for a large boat.
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