Hanoi and Halong Bay

Flying into Hanoi we were greeted with lots of cloud and so we’re feeling a bit chilly here for the first time in a month. To be fair it’s still 21 degrees but after the relentless heat and humidity it feels fresh.  The locals must feel it worse as they’re buzzing about in heavy winter coats whilst we are still in shorts and short-sleeves!

Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place. Greatly revered as the saviour and the father of the nation.

Hanoi is magical and the old quarter is a maze of small streets crammed with little shops, bars, restaurants and, of course, motorbikes. Exploring (and getting a bit lost) is really enjoyable and each street is named after what is sold on the street. We’re staying on shoe street (more of that in a sec), we’ve seen paint street, electric appliance street (not sure that’s the exact translation) and Christmas Street. We did take a look at the shoes – especially when Converse were less than £6 but being Vietnam the largest size available is 8 1/2 so unfortunately only one of us ended up happy!

‘wired’ technology is very much the thing here!

So with the weather on the gloomy side we set off for Halong Bay a 4 hour drive away. We’ve been looking forward to this part for a while as we’ve heard so many great things about it so we were a bit disappointed that it was cold (relatively) and cloudy. On the bus on the way down we could only see the motorbike in front, the fog was that bad! Eventually we got to the bay and boarded our boat, the Dragon Pearl… 2. We shared the boat with 16 other people and set off. The bay is absolutely beautiful (despite the weather) with thousands of limestone islands majestically emerging from the water. The legend is that a dragon landed here and their flailing tail cut out the rocks to create the bay.

That afternoon we landed on one of the rocks to see the caves and try a bit of kayaking which was brilliant fun. Had a shower back on board (which was surprisingly good) and went for a fabulous 5 course dinner. Lots of lovely seafood as you can imagine. The night tipped into the slightly surreal (and a bit cheesy) when we were presented with several food carvings of a dragon, an eagle and a faithful representation of the Dragon Pearl II and encouraged to clap enthusiastically as the crew came and introduced themselves. It is amazing what you can do with a pumpkin…

 

mites or tites?

Pumpkin art!

Legendary carving – to be fair it is impressive given the number of courses the chef had to prepare and the size of the kitchen!

We shared a table with David and Niamh from Dublin who are doing some travelling before they arrive to live in Sydney for a while. We had a fun evening with them and, after a spot of squid fishing (or fisting as our host pronounced it – oh er!) we literally drunk the bar dry – well of local beer anyway!

Kayaking – Apparently they won (….no one was racing!)

Visited a floating village the next day where the local women rowed us around on traditional bamboo boats (bless the poor woman who got us heavyweights – we did tip her well!)

Floating village and Oyster farm. There’s even a floating pearl shop…in Vietnam an opportunity to sell is never squandered!

mind yer head!

4 hours back to Hanoi, one last dinner and then bye to Vietnam after a brilliant couple of weeks. Next stop Hong Kong…

Hué

So another quick (3 hour) rail journey up the coast to the city of Hué. Views from the train were stunning as it hugged the coast but unfortunately overcast when we pulled in – no where near the UK weather we’re seeing on the news – hope everyone is okay.

View from the train (Danang to Hue). Shame about the grubby windows.

Hué used to be the capital of Vietnam and there are a lot of historical building to see here. The citadel is a massive space in the middle of the town and it is being restored at the moment – another victim of the war.

Flag Tower – Hue old Town

We also took a dragon boat to see some of the other sites on the banks of the river. The dragon boat is below and the family who run it also live on it so we were joined on our trip by their 11 month old baby girl – talk about flexible working! The only drawback was that we were on the boat for several hours and therefore a captive audience when the owner set out her shop on the floor of the boat with silk shirts, pictures etc. Guilted into buying one shirt (it’s pretty hideous btw) we had to draw the line when the deep blue, sun and stars kimono came out!

Our Dragon boat driver. Does a lovely line in silk kimonos too.

2 hour boat journey to the tombs lined on the banks of the river

 

The old Citadel – Hue

Hungry fish at feeding time!

The mausoleum for one the old Kings was an interesting place and relaxing boat a great way to get around. Having managed to get a few souvenirs we decided it was time to send our first parcel home so off the the post office. The clerk then produced 3 forms to complete with a very detailed list of contents of the parcel, how much each item was plus the names and addresses of sender and recipient three times! The parcel was 4kg but to be fair most of that was the packaging they used – an old beer box wrapped in about 10 metres of sticky tape, wrapped in brown paper and then tied with those plastic cords. If anything inside survives it will be a small miracle and in any case it will be 2-3 months before it gets there as it’s going overland.

The nightlife here is pretty lively and there are good food options and lots of bars offering drinks promotions. Octopussy and DMZ are the places to be. Surprisingly for the first time really we’re hassled on the way home from the bars by old men on cyclos (rickhaw style transport with one single seat at the front of the pushbike) offering us ‘lady massage’ and more descriptively ‘lady boom, boom – one hour’. Er, don’t think so…

and the beer today is Huda…fair to middling this one

So, given the the train option was 17 hours overnight (hence no view for most of it) and they’re not great we opted for a 55 minute flight up to Hanoi. Think we’ve ‘done’ the Vietnamese train thing…

 

 

 

Hoi An

The beach was definitely the way to go for a bit of a chill out. Good job really as we took a 14 hour train up the coast to a place called Danang before heading a further 45 minutes to the town of Hoi An.

The train journey wasn’t too bad despite hearing some horror stories about the journey involving filth, food poisoning and cockroaches. Obviously it’s not 5 star travelling and the seats are definitely designed for small bendy Vietnamese people (especially when the seats are in full recline!) So, it’s not comfortable but there’s always plenty going on including the commotion each time we stop at a station and an tsunami of Vietnamese traders board to sell their wares.

It always gets a little fraught just before the train is due to set off again. The train staff shout at the sellers as they rush to conclude their transactions. On one station a particularly keen vendor launched herself through the window and gets stuck. There was genuine suspense as half the carriage tried desperately to push her back out before the train started moving again…and there’s no doubt it will start, small salesperson attached or not!

Wouldn’t be so bad if the fold down tray worked. Alas, it doesn’t…and everything falls off.

Not so bad…


So, Hoi An – a lovely little place that used to be the heart of the trade route and as a result it has a lot of influences from the big trading countries of time gone by. Each having left their influence in the architecture and culture which makes the place a bit of a time bubble. It is very tourist focussed which initially feels a bit weird after Saigon and Phnom Penh as it means that practically everyone there makes their living from tourists so we have become experts at batting off the hawkers – there is a shakey-hand thing you can do that seems to do the trick nicely!

 

Seriously think we should get jobs as UNESCO inspectors as everywhere we visit seems to be one of their sites -Hoi An and My Son (pronounced ‘mee-sun’).  A quick google confirms they do have quite a lot – 962! So that’s probably why. To be fair they are all very beautiful or have some other historical significance. My Son was particularly interesting as it’s a complex of ancient temples, older even than Angkor Wat in Cambodia, unfortunately bombed to bits by the Americans as some of the Viet Cong were based there during the war.

Most of the original brickwork is still intact and in good condition versus the 30 year old renovated bricks which are crumbling and covered in moss. Despite numerous attempts to recreate the ancients’ building techniques – it remains a mystery…

Thu Bon River, Hoi An

Ancient temples at My Son in the shadow of Cat’s Tooth Mountain (above)

Our ‘My Son’ guide or is Gangnam Style’s Psy moonlighting?

The preferred mode of transport here (as most of Vietnam) is the motorbike and they are everywhere. We’re having a bit of a contest to see who can spot the most unusual motorbike cargo/the most people on a motorbike.  Family of 5 is the record so far on one. Alas by the time the camera was whipped out they had sped by. We’ll try to get quicker to capture this incredible sight (always the little baby right at the front gripping the handlebars for dear life!)

The food here is superb and cheap. We have some basic (but lovely) Vietnamese food along the banks of the lantern-lit river: 2 starters, 2 mains, bottle of wine, large bottle of water – under a tenner! You can eat a lot more cheaply than that too…Our pockets are going to sorely miss Vietnam as Australia is shaping up to be by far the most expensive bit of the trip. We can stay in Vietnam in a very comfortable hotel for 4 nights, including breakfast for less than 1 night in the IBIS in Brisbane!

‘Little Hanoi’ Bar and Restaurant…yummy and cheap.

Today’s beer is…Larue

 

Why did the chicken cross the road? It’s Vietnam – must be a death wish!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Hue next – a couple of hours train journey up the coast…

Let’s go to the beach, beach…

Bit out of our daily budget but we thought we’d splurge a little….

There’s not much to do here but lay on the beach, watch nice sunsets, and chill out. Kind of nice for a few days. Only thing of any small note here is that we were mistaken for Russians – bizarre…Oh how we laughed!

Off to Hoi An in the morning on a 14 hour train journey…

 

 

 

Saigon

If only all buses could be this good (there’s even suspension!)

The bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is still known locally) is a much better experience. We were able to get the marvellous Mekong Express. Couldn’t be more different to the previous bus trip. The 6 hour trip flew by and the border crossing was very interesting. The Cambodian side of the border is like a mini Vegas – giant casino hotels and not much else. Must be something to do with the Vietnamese gambling laws.

 

 

 

Bit of a palaver to cross the border. We got off the bus on the Cambodian side and were stamped out of the country, boarded the bus, drove on about 100m, got off the bus – this time with our backpacks. We then queued to be stamped in and took our bags to the airport style scanner which looked like a hangover from the communist era.  The man on the other side of the scanner was sprawled across his seat in a deep slumber – UKBA, watch and learn (unfortunately photography was prohibited or it would have been a corker!)

 

We arrived in Saigon, off the bus and into the arms of some particularly assertive hawkers but we grabbed our packs and stomped off in search of our lodgings. In, out and straight for a beer which today is…..Saigon Green, very refreshing it is too.

So, the rule here is that the smaller the chairs, the cheaper the beer. We start off here – big chairs and even a table – bottle of beer is about £1.20 (quite pricey for SE Asia). By the end of the night we ended up on tiny plastic chairs on the edge of the road. Bottle of beer is 30p – happy days! Here we met James and SJ who have been here 3 weeks, they’re planning to teach English for the next year. Stumbled back several beers later.

Bui Vien Street. Small chairs, small price…very simple.

Next day we explored Ho Chi Minh City. Starting with the War Remnants Museum we saw another troubling part of the region’s history with American planes, tanks and artillery as well as the horrific torture used during this time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reunification Palace – the tanks rolled in here in 1975 and this place was frozen in time.

Tiger cages, where some Vietnamese prisoners were held. Barbed wire lined – horrific.

On the way back from pounding the streets we came across the new Saigon Sky Tower so went up to the viewing deck for the stunning Saigon sunset.

Sunset over Saigon. View from the 52nd Floor of the Sky Tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t have great expectations of Saigon, it was more of a transit stop on our way up the coast but we loved it, vibrant, cool and like other SE Asian cities – seemingly on the up after recent troubles. Crossing the road though remains a big challenge. The only way to do it is to forget all Western road safety practices, hold your nerve and just walk out into the street.  Hopefully most vehicles will just ride round you (they’re coming at you from all directions). Great if you’re an adrenaline junkie, tough if you’re an uninitiated Westerner and suicide if you’re a little on the infirm side!

This pic really doesn’t do it justice. The Green Cross Code does not apply here… Oh, and neither do road markings!

We’ve covered a lot of ground of the last 2 weeks so we leave Saigon to slow down for a few days on the beach near Mui Ne.

Cambodia

After a 2 hour flight to Siem Reap the home of the mighty Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure on Earth and the centre of Cambodian spiritual life. We get to where we’re staying pretty quickly. Our driver points out all the new 5 star hotels along the route. We turn onto dirt roads – clearly we’re not staying in one of those! The hotel is fine though and relative luxury compared to some we’ve stayed at.

Siem Reap is really just the gateway to Angkor Wat so there’s not much more to do here other than visit the incredible ancient temples. The town is dead by day but goes a bit potty at night. Pub Street (yes really) is er…the place to be.

Classy!

 

Cambodian BBQ – DIY, yummy

The favoured mode of transport here too is the legendary tuk tuk. The difference here is that they go as fast as they can with complete disregard for any kind of road signs/markings/pedestrians/other (often larger) road users. This proved especially interesting on the ‘road’ to our guest house as there were deep potholes filled with rocks and various bits of rubble – fun on a three-wheeler…

Fast moving tuk-tuk…..ie. too fast!

Also, glad we didn’t exchange any currency as US dollars are the thing to have and as luck would have  it all of the souvenirs available at the temples were $1.

Ever seen a 2$ bill???

So on to the main event – the temples. We took the advice of others and hired a guide, a tuk-tuk and a driver for the day and headed off into the vast grounds to see the temples. One of which was Angkor Thom – most famous as the setting for Tomb Raider – and that’s as far near as we’ll ever get to Brangelina. Finally we arrived at Angkor Wat. Outside there’s a huge moat it’s 100m wide and stretches as far as the eye can see and the temple is breath-taking.

Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, serene, tranquil, spiritual…..

…everyone else thought so too!

 

…needs to get its roots done.

So, after 2 days of temple sight-seeing we head down to Phnom Penh …problem is all the seats on the good bus company are sold out and there’s not enough to do in Siem Reap so we don’t have much choice but to get the ‘alternative’ bus. Cambodian roads are pretty bad and the driving is worse so we’re not much looking forward to it.

However the bus company does offer free transfer from where we’re staying to the bus so that’s a good sign. Or it would be if it wasn’t 30 mins late or a rust bucket on wheels! We get to the bus…..not looking great, we drive about 1km and then switch to another (slightly ropier if that’s possible). Our third bus of the morning and it’s only 9.00am.

Anyway, bumpy, dangerous and dirty but we get to Phnom Penh finally to be greeted by rain.

The ‘VIP’ bus…

Check out the cracked windscreen

And the over-used emergency exit!

Our hotel in Phnom Penh is a gem (still less then £30 a night!) – The 240 Hotel if you’re ever in the area – and we chilled out before having a small explore. Given the rain we sought a bit of shelter in a hotel bar but clearly chose the wrong one with one group paying $5 to take a photo with the children selling stuff on the streets and another making an indecent proposal to the waitress. We were out of that one pretty quickly.

The 240 Hotel

Phnom Penh is a city on the up but you can’t come here and neglect the history. We took a ride to Choeung Ek which is one of the killing fields from the Pol Pot era. This is a former Chinese cemetery where the Khmer Rouge killed many thousands of their victims during their four-year reign of terror. It is horrific and the narration pulls no punches when it describes what happened. This was followed by the equally barbaric Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) where thousands of people were tortured. It is important these places exist to commemorate the people who died but also as a warning that we cannot repeat these histories.

Buddhist stupa packed full of over 8,000 human skulls

Barbed wire at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – A school converted into Cambodia’s most important prison in 1975. More than 14,000 people were tortured here before being slain at the Killing Fields

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally we took a stop off a the Royal Palace. Access was limited as the King has recently died but we did see the Silver Pagoda that has 5,000 silver floor tiles each weighing 1kg and a gold Buddha statue with diamonds. The palace was beautiful and the antidote needed to a dark day closely followed up with a beer overlooking the Tonle Sap (the river) at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club – a Phnom Penh institution)

Part of the Royal Palace

And so ends the brief Cambodian part of our trip with a spectacular thunder storm in the night before heading for the bus to Ho Chi Minh City. Despite its history Phnom Penh is full of friendly, happy people, despite its recent history and definitely worth a visit.

 

 

Luang Prabang

So to the gorgeous UNESCO world heritage site of Luang Prabang. A very beautiful place where the meander of the Nam Khan River meets the mighty Mekong. We spent a few days chilling out, exploring the palace of the former royal family that is now a museum.

361 steps up but worth the view over Luang Prabang

 

Wat interior in the Royal Palace Grounds

Nam Kahn River

This is a beautiful part of the world where life seems to slow and you can meander the streets, enjoy the night market, have fantastic Lao food – the Laap is lovely if a little messy where you take a handful of sticky rice and meat (minced buffalo is the best)

Spent time with elephants…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hotel is a little out of the centre of town so we run the daily tuk tuk gauntlet which is really fun and the breeze is welcome. The owner is a lovely 20 year old who just crosses the line into intense a bit. How was breakfast?/did you sleep?/ is wifi okay?/was your trip okay? What time did you get in last night?/Do you like my hotel? Really friendly and lovely but as I said a little on the obsessive side and also whose mood depends entirely on traveller reviews! To be fair Tripadvisor is king pretty much everywhere with well rated places displaying certificates as badges of honour and a great rating can add a significant amount to the room rate but it is a fascinating move on in travel as is how widespread wifi is – even in a remote village along the Mekong! Anyway here’s a couple of photos of us relaxing in Lao Lao Garden

We have met some very nice people – two Australian couples – 2 nurses and Lilian and Murray (who live in a tin cabin in the forest in Western Australia), Louise and Chris from Deal, Louisa and Mark who are out for 5 months and who we might meet again in Vietnam and Gene and Heather from San Francisco who are on a 4 month trip that also covers Africa and hopefully we’ll see again in S America (their blog is here trek-the-globe.tumblr.com)

 

Changing our plans a bit now as we’re not going to do Vietnam justice if we don’t get a move on so we’re flying from Luang Prabang to….


Cambodia and Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. Even though we’re flying from Laos to Cambodia the flight’s operated by Vietnam airways. It’s less than 500 miles but the flight takes 2 hours on this prop plane. Not complaining though as the bus takes 36 hours!

 

Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos

Here’s a pic from the cookery course. Clearly expect some exotic and flavoursome dinner cooking when we get back… or maybe not as we’re struggling to remember our lessons now let alone in 6 months time! We’ll be able to order a mean takeaway though!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Chiang Mai we took a bus to Chiang Khong before we crossed the border to Laos. On the way we stopped in Chiang Rai and saw The White Temple (below) which is still under construction and is due to be finished in 2070! It is a really unusual temple as you can see from the pictures and inside there are pictures of batman and other superheroes!

So off to our last night in Thailand – Boom House. Oh and boom it should go. Not so much hotel as hovel but when in Chiang Khong…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day we broke for the border and boarded our boat across the Mekong to clear passport control. Having braved one river crossing we started on a 2 day slowboat down the Mekong river which was an experience! It’s starts off with a bit of a low-level scamming: “You can’t use any other currency than US dollars for your Laos visa but don’t worry, we can exchange in Boom House…very good rate (yeah right!)”, “you can’t get food or drink on the boat so buy here….we have all at Boom House”, “No ATM in Pak Beng (where we spend the night)”, “Slowboats very hard seats…..buy cushions at Boom House – very good price….” They’ll even take your passport photo for your Laos visa for a….you guessed it – very good price.

Heading the operation at Boom house is a lovely little old Thai lady. This matriach has the fiendish mind of professor Moriarty, the commercial acumen of Donald Trump and the appearance of an exotic Miss Marple….it’s genius really. She presides over the whole show not speaking any English (don’t you believe it) smiling and laughing and making a bomb….or should I say a Boom!

Visa processing was hectic and hot beyond belief – the mixture of different nationalities frantically trying to be reunited with their passports was fascinating to watch (well once we had ours back that is obviously)

Was all good fun though and finally we get on the boat. A bit cramped but at least we’re on  and moving. Oh, and they do sell food and drink on the boat, and there’s padded seats –  not enough mind and they’ve all been ripped out of cars but we don’t really need the cushions we’ve just bought. Most importantly there’s a seemingly never ending supply of beautiful Beer Laos which is really quite lovely and makes the whole trip pass much more smoothly. Everyone’s dead friendly and we meet some new chums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything slows down and the scenery along the way is simply breathtaking as the Mekong meanders through the mountains of Northern Laos (which is why incidentally it takes longer by road)

We stay the night in Pak Beng. Oh and there is an ATM at the end of the street, lit up like a holy temple and mounted on steps, it’s the only landmark in town – the irony…

Guest house Vanasa is like the Dorchester compared to Boom House, it has a sort of shower, Air con (which doesn’t work of course, but it looks reassuring), a powerful fan. The sheets look like they’ve been washed fairly recently which the Boom’s definitely had not and there was no mould growing all over the room and no snails in the bathroom – bliss!

Day 2 on the boat was a little more interesting. Something strange happens to all the boats after the first day and there appear to be less on the second morning. We plan well and get down early. There is a bit of a chaos but we get a good seat near the front (important as the engine is exposed in a little room at the back, hot and very, very noisy). All of a sudden lots of locals appear, not to board the boat but to deposit parcels and bags, flasks, baskets – all sorts, for transit, anywhere they can. Western rules don’t apply, if you don’t shove your bag under your rickety car seat then someone else will ram an object in there first. I fear if we sit still for too long something will land on our laps! There’s a bit of a kerfuffle on shore as some people have turned up late and the boat’s already full. Clearly we’re in the only boat going today so if they don’t get on they’re staying another night in Pak Beng and it’s really just a one-horse (dog) town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They realise there’s nothing for it but to get on a find a space on the floor to sit. Meanwhile a small Laotian man is heaving a large motorbike onto the front of the boat. We can hear some noise on top, the driver jumped up to have a look at the roof and discovered there’s 10 people up there! We only learn this worrying statistic because there’s a beautiful young Thai woman opposite who’s being taught English by her slightly less attractive,older German boyfriend. Lots of shouting ensues, bit of bumping and swaying and off we set.

During the journey we pick up more parcels and people but the scenery is awesome:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 hours later we arrive in Luang Prabang at sunset and it’s gorgeous….a UNESCO world heritage site with lantern lit streets, Indochinese architecture and crumbling French villas. A world away from Bangkok and even Chiang Mai…..

 

Bangkok and Chiang Mai

After a long delay and a long flight we finally made it! Within 2 hours of landing we were in the beautiful surroundings of the Lebua Hotel Bangkok, sipping a cool Singha beer in the 35 degree heat (that was a bit of a shock to the system).

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport

Whilst we’re on a budget for most of the trip we wanted to ease ourselves in with a spot of luxury before we get a bit more down and dirty. The hotel is pretty impressive and we dined at the open air Breeze restaurant on the 52nd floor which was pretty spectacular although ridiculously expensive (definitely the last of one of the those for a while)

Breeze, the epitome of luxury and calm (until you see the bill!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve no idea why but we got upgraded to a suite with 2 living areas, a kitchen, 3 bathrooms, two enormous balconies and 2 bedrooms.

…and bathroom number three – bonkers!

Spent our only day in Bangkok on a sight-seeing frenzy after being ripped off on a boat trip  down the river to the Grand Palace. I thought we were pretty savvy travellers, but no- they saw us coming a mile off….anyway, the Grand Palace is really impressive and we bartered a taxi back like pros!

Grand Palace

Wat Pra Kaew

 We were booked on the night train to Chiang Mai at six o’clock Sunday evening for a 14 hour journey. Bit of a scam going on that the agents on your carriage tell you that you can only order food from them and deny that there is a restaurant car at all as they get paid commission on everything they sell. We did find the car however after our chap took one look at us and then delivered a huge bucket full of Singha beer. So he found another way to make his commission after all…..clearly we didn’t complain.

The restaurant car was hilarious – more of a party car with little flashing lights in the roof – beer flowing freely, and the most eclectic bunch of travellers we’ve ever seen in one cramped carriage – ranging from hardcore backpackers going for it, to older groups of travellers getting smashed seemingly unexpectedly. Good fun all round.

Let’s get the party started….the restaurant car pre-Conga dancing.

Best advice of the trip so far: How to avoid falling from a high speed train!

Arriving at Chiang Mai revealed a tranquil (relatively after Bangkok) green, friendly and picturesque city. Beautiful temples, lovely people, good quality and cheap food and drink.

Wat Chedi Luang – Chiang Mai

Had fun doing a Thai cookery class this evening but time to slow down a little with a 3 day journey to Luang Prabang in Laos. Bus, ferry and a slow boat down the Mekong River.