A Travellerspoint blog

Where are we right now?!

sunny 28 °C

Currently in Hoi An, Central Vietnam. A small town with a renown reputation for tailoring, food, markets and some great beaches.

Plan to head south towards Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) tomorrow (30 Jan).

Facts, Stats and Other Interesting info to follow in this entry / page shortly

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Posted by Waldos on Tour 04:42 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Braving the sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue

semi-overcast 24 °C
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Time to turn heading south. The long trip back from Ha Long Bay was exhausting and before embarking on setting off for the train station collected our stored luggage and popped into the good old Italian joint for a little healthy home comfort. The tired weary travellers had in some way envisaged a comfortable first class "Euro Star" type sleeper train journey down south, but obviously that wasn't to be, and with a moderate dose of reality kicking in - I mean what the hell did we think an Asia sleeper train would be like (thanks to Clauds' mantra), we pushed on and made the best of it. Needless to say, it would be tough to describe the experience in words. I would never believe it, but it really felt like there were potholes in the lines, the journey was very bumpy, and when we woke up to a guy cotching his lungs out the window and another guy walking into the cabin with my slops after going to the crapper, all within a never ending pungent smell of broiled anything, must have been duck of something of that nature (from the food trolley), I knew we were pushing the limits of our travel patience.

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To add to this, we were woken up around 4:30am by a female hitler type Vietnamese train guard banging on our cabin door, shouting and pointing rudely at us. Unfortunately we didn't understand a word and neither did she, but we somehow 'reached an agreement' when we were next to man handled off the train at our stop - Dong Ho, about 450km south of Hanoi in central Vietnam. In the misty dark we made away across the railway lines to lobby like area where all these big eyed locals looked at us in a very astonished and intriguing way. This is as a communist setting as you would expect, loads of military official looking train staff and guards and police, loads of government posters and a big municipal building littered with official flags.

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We had, on the guidance of our travel agent lady in Hanoi booked a ticket to Dong Ho, as this is an offbeat remote territory, completely away from the mainstream tourist route. The attraction or pull to this location was exactly that, and the fact there was a beautiful national park in mountains nearby added that there are very new cave excursions to a recently discovered cave system which is now regarded to be the largest in the world. Unfortunately, we booked this on a wim, were absolutely knackered after all the travelling and because this was so remote and away from tourist route, a bit off beat and probably not the best thing to tackle in our state decided to entertain a change of plan. Added to this we weren't the best prepared in terms of research and gear, so decided to catch the next train onto Hue, about 150km south of Dong Ho, a journey of about 3 hrs. So as nice as the region sounds, it's unfortunately going to have to wait for another time.

The landscape covered on this train journey was particularly interesting as this included the DMZ region (demilitarised zone), the setting for a large proportion of the Vietnam / American war just 40 years ago. The first thing to notice is the terrain. I could not imagine, maybe bar combat in Antarctica, a more challenging environment. It is basically 600km of marshland jungle, littered with beautiful rice paddies and huge mountains, with regular big rivers every 5 to 10 km, rivers well wider than a 100m. All this in extreme humidity and heat and the added malaria threat amongst who knows what. I can see why the Americans favoured an air approach.

After plus 16 hours on a train and in transit from Hanoi, we glad to hop off at Hue. The first thing we did was find a lovely little French bakery and enjoy a delicious baguette to gather our strength to find a bed for the night.

Posted by Waldos on Tour 04:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cruising Halong Bay by Junk

semi-overcast 23 °C
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After an early rise we were collected by our shuttle / transfer mini bus for Ha Long Bay, which is 170km east of Hanoi towards the Chinese border. It takes around 4hrs to get there, in part because of the absolutely ridiculous traffic and the stuff on the roads. Honestly the Vietnamese traffic is incredible, thousands, no rather millions of scooters and mopeds and what have you with everything on them, from donkeys, to cages of chickens, piles of concrete, basically anything. The driving etiquette is beyond me, there is none, is just a free for all, driving on the right hand side of the road is about the only vague guideline (one that is very often not adhered to)! That, along with sitting on a hooter the entire time.Makes for a very interesting at first, but long, bumpy and noisy ride.

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Very interesting taking in the scenery and daily life on route to Ha Long Bay. People are very industrious and its easy to see how there has been an economic revival in Vietnam. GDP growth rate is 3 times that of SA at just over 6% pa. Loads of industry. They look hard working, focused and enterprising in so many ways. No one sits around, they are all busy selling things, manufacturing, building and gearing up for the commodities and textiles export market.

The port / dockside is quite developed, with loads of tour companies and boats. Ha Long Bay is a flooded marine karst landscape made up of in excess of 1,600 islands and is a UNESCO world heritage site, an absolute must for any visit to Vietnam. It's a bit of a tourist trap but its worth it. The scenery is incredible. Massive cliffs and islands popping out the sea everywhere. We were very lucky with the weather as its winter time in the north and can be foggy for weeks. The temperature can get a little cold at night but the water is warm and the days are mild at the moment.

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We were hosted on a fantastic Vietnamese junk boat along with 2 other French couples. We were wined and dined, with a very seafood orientated cuisine, so Cath's eye's lit up and mine not so. Fortunately they managed to cater for everyone - they even gave us a spring-role wrapping class 'master class' which was quite fun.

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The quarters / rooms were very nice, and it was a fantastic experience to wake up and look out at the windows at the massive mountains and cliffs right next to us.

We anchored in a quiet remote lagoon sheltered by huge mountain islands jutting out the sea and went kayaking for a few hours. Absolutely brilliant! Unfortunately the bung / plug on our kayak fell out somewhere along the way and we started sinking and eventually capsized and were stranded cliff side on one of the mountain islands. Fortunately our guide came looking for us and managed to take Cath and drag the kayak to another beach, where I swam to, a bit cut up as all the rocks and cliffs are home to thousands of oyster clams that are razor sharp. Needless to say we were happy campers once we were back on the boat, showered with beer in hand.

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The next day we stopped off to visit one of the few small floating fishing villages which was really interesting. It's fascinating to see how these people live in the middle of nowhere in what looks very similar to a floating Wendy House. The village consists of about 25 houses, each with a little porch as well as a school. All floating with Elephant clam farms underneath and a boat attached for fishing. Full families including kids and grandparents live in these little huts all year long and every day they row their catch 14km to the main land to sell in the market. We thought we had a tough commute to work!

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At one point we passed this little family who lived in this boat. As we rode past the family (grandpa included) popped their heads out to greet us. They even had a watch dog in there who gave us a bark as we drifted past. They must have been cooking dinner too as there was a vent with smoke coming out - how they all fitted in there I don't know!

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It's was a brilliant experience, good value for money. The packages included everything except drinks where they take "rip the tourist" to another level, at least when you look at what you normally pay in bars and restaurants, but I guess from an international perspective, it's competitive, and you get to have a brewski looking at awesome setting, so well worth it!

On route back we stopped off to take in a few caves then it was a farewell to our guide and a long insane trip back to Hanoi.

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Posted by Waldos on Tour 04:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Buzzing Hanoi

22 °C
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What a change in weather arriving on Hanoi. Felt like a typical SA winters day with temperature in late to mid teens. The traffic was a major adjustment. Hundreds of scooters everywhere. You just wouldn't believe how they drive in the traffic, but they seem to make it work. It became very clear quite earlier in our ride from the airport that this would be a different experience. It took two hours in bumper to bumper traffic and we were relieved when the driver eventually dropped us off at the end of our street. The walk to the hotel was like running the gauntlet. . . smelly street food sellers with broiled ducks heads, piles of whole cooked birds and 1 x dog on a spit! Thank goodness, Cath pulled one out the bag with our hotel booking. Great hotel, in perfect location and the breakfast menu looked pretty normal - no duck/dog/pigeon!

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Stepping out of our hotel once more it became clear street food could become more of an issue here. Up until now, we have had good experiences, but hygiene over here wasn't the same and the Vietnamese have a more diverse cuisine including broiled dog and frog amongst others, both of which we saw, and almost hurled. Can't believe it until you see it. So obvious with the shape and paws, absolutely disgusting. Also you can imagine that they probably use the same oil to fry everything, so probably best to be a bit more selective in Hanoi especially. We later heard, after chatting to an expat at a restuarant, that dog is more of a high end item, and that you wouldn't ordinarily find it in a dish or stir fry unless you specifically requested it and then off course you would pay a little more for it.

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Hanoi is a big industrious capital city of Vietnam with a population of over 4 million people. Its the heart of the communist regime. Hard to believe that the country was gripped by war 40 years ago. Again, similar to Laos, the French influence in the city layout and architecture is very clear.

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The old city is very interesting. Loads of different small streets and market places, with every street a speciality area (eg. Food area, coffee area, Chinese merchandise area, electrical equipment, tape and string, tailors, carpets, clothing etc. you name it), good to walk around and price items and barter. On the clothing and equipment front there are obviously loads of knocks off, but looks like you can get a really good quality 85 litre north face backpack for around £10, and a ski jacket for around £20, probably knock offs but really good quality, good seams and zips etc, and I struggle to tell the difference. Electrical stuff no cheaper than back in the UK.

Hanoi merchants used to be taxed on the meterage of their shop frontage so the shops in the old quarter are typically very narrow (2m) and go back about 20m. It's so interesting peering inside, usually the shop is packed full of stock and has room for about 1 or maybe 2 people a a push. Beyond the shop floor you can see a series of rooms where the family live. It's fascinating to see the amount of people who live from the takings of one tiny little shop!

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We visited the old Hanoi prison used by the French colonists and the NVM army to house some American airmen shot down over Hanoi during the war. They referred to it as Hanoi Hilton. As expected, quite intriguing to see the crafted angle and interpretation of the facts and annotations in the museum on the part of the government involvement and the treatment of the US prisoners. "Here is a picture of the American Imperialist prisoners playing their daily volleyball game in the prison square. Here is a picture of the American Imperialists receiving medical check ups from lead Vietnamese medical team etc. " and on the other side, here is the cruel treatment by the French during colonial times, civilians chained up, isolated, tortured etc." such a parody, so strange, got to see if for what it is. Similarly, the national war museum is littered with propaganda and relics from the war.

Food was a bit of a touchy point in Hanoi, and after a lot of research and walking around we found a brilliant little Italian restaurant near the Cathedral, which we used to settle our stomachs at the end of a few days galavanting around. I think we will probably be a little more adventurous when we get out of Hanoi, especially after all the sights in the market and on the street.

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Finding a trip to Halong Bay was as we expected a huge feat! Every second building is a travel agent and they all try their smoke and mirror tactics to sell you the ideal package! We eventually settled on a smaller junk called Annam which promised to take us off the main tourist drag so after doing a bit of online research we decided to give it a go.

Posted by Waldos on Tour 09:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Luang Prabang

26 °C
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Arriving in Luang Parabang after a long day drifting down the Mekong on the slow boat was such a surreal experience.

This small town oozes character and grandeur and the moment we stepped off the boat we felt at home in its tranquil setting.

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We headed to our hotel and after unpacking and settling in we took a walk down to the night market that takes over the Main Street after dark and is filled with beautiful traditional crafts and interesting relics to buy. It wasn't long after this that we realised we would definitely need more time to explore this idyllic town. We made the decision here and then to extend our stay by a couple of days. After strolling through the night market for a few hours and mentally buying a suitcase full of lovely things we found ourself in a little side street crammed with makeshift restaurants and tables filled with delicious veggi dishes and barbecued chicken, fish and water buffalo skewerd on pieces of bamboo. We grabbed a Beer Lao and a plate and filled it tothe brim with all the different dishes and sat at a communal (Cubata style table ) - we ate like kings for 32 000 Kip (£1.50 each)!

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A good day spent in Luang Prabang would be to hire a sit up and beg bicycle, a pack of cards and explore the town street by street stopping off for a fruit shake or strong Lao coffee along the way - so on day two this is exactly what we did. We visited all the main sites of Luang Prabang including the ancient Wat Xiang Thong as well as the Phou Si Hill which is set in the centre of the town has magnificent 360 degree views over the valley. By sunset we were buzzing not only from all the wonderful sights we had seen but from too much Laos coffee as well!

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The next day we decided to try and beat the crowds heading to the Kouang Si Waterfall and hired a scooter to make the 35km journey on our own. We headed out and within minutes found ourselves wizzing through the rural farmland. We felt as though we had stepped into the Transkei with little subsistence farms along the way and local children running along side as we drive through the 'built up' areas. We got to the waterfall in good time and spent an hour walking through the forest area to the beautiful turquoise pools and the onto the impressive waterfall at the end. The fuel is so cheap here - it cost us about £3 to fill the tank and took us the whole afternoon of driving through the country side to use it all up. The countryside was magnificent, we puttered along through the mountain passes dodging some of the largest potholes we've seen!
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We soon realised that we were quickly running out of clean clothes so set off yo find a laundromat so we could replenish our wardrobe. We found a lovely lady in an alleyway who ran a small operation and promised to have our fresh washing with us by the next morning. Brilliant! Only once we had dropped it off with her did we start to notice the piles of washing lying in every alleyway n drying racks and coat hangers - it looked like chaos and we started to think that we wouldn't see our clothes again. Luckily the next morning our washing was ready and waiting for us but who knows where and how it was done??

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I took the opportunity to do another cooking class as its a great introduction to the culture and you meet loads of great people too. Greg had decided that he he would give this one a skip so I headed off for an evening on my own to learn a few Laos dishes. It was a lovely evening and I was really surprised at how different the cuisine is to Thai food but still delicious! We made amazing chilli pastes and dips as well as a pork salad with banana flower! Greg on the other hand had a lovely time 'blomming' by the river side.

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On our final day in Luang Prabang we crossed the Mekong to a little hillside settlement with lovely views across the river. We climbed up to the old Wat and spent some time relaxing in the breeze. After a few drinks back in LP we decided to go for a traditional Laos massage - we had earned it after a day sitting on top if a hill! We opted to go for a full body massage at one of the little places on the river front a they were really reasonable at about £2.50 for an hour. The massage started off pretty normally with the masseuse working the lines down the back of your legs and then . . . just as you start feeling comfortable and relaxed she climbs on top of you and starts bending your body in the weirdest stretches using other parts of your body at leverage. It was a very strange feeling but at the end of it you feel so invigorated and we had the best nights sleep so it definitely did the trick!

We spent 6 lovely days in Luang Parabang, even though we extended our visit we still left wanting more! It's a fantastic place and well worth a visit. From here we caught a plane to Hanoi to start our adventure in Vietnam.

Posted by Waldos on Tour 08:59 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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