July 29, 2010 at 6:08 am (Uncategorized)
Had a final breakfast in Vietnam and headed over to the Xa Xia/Prek Chak border on the back of 2 motorbikes for a relatively painless border crossing – pretty sure we got overcharged for our visas and also had to pay them a dollar for the privelige of telling them we were healthy – but that was the last we saw of Vietnam, a slightly disappointing experience in the end after we had both been so excited about going. The difference in people and particularly in poverty was immediately visible from one side of the border to the other. The road changed from tarmac to red dirt, the people’s clothes and appearances changed to more hardy and poor, the landsacpe changed into misty hills and mangrove swamps, the sun even came out for a little while! The 40km or so drive from the border to Kep was great on the back of a bike, the scenery was really great and there were yet more friendly people to wave to – although the poorer people and wooden houses and farmland made it look a bit like we had gone back a couple of hundred years!
Pulled into the “city” of Kep around lunch time and immediately set off in search of the crab market for some tasty lunch, via a nice coastal walk round the Kep headland passing some derelict old French colonial seaside villas which looked like they would have been very grand back in the 40′s, but now are crumbling and blackened and occupied by squatters!! Had a delicous grilled crab with local peppercorns for lunch (even if it did take hours to get the crab out of its shell!) overlooking the sea and the black clouds gathering over the offshore islands. Took a very short walk around the rest of the town, which really is no more than a few clusters of guesthouses, restaurants and derelict old French villas – there seem to be more tuk-tuk drivers than local people in the town! Headed back to the crab market for some dinner, unfortunately no sunset due to the black clouds, and then headed back the 1.5kms around the coastal walkway – pretty spooky at night with dim street lights and occasional camps of road builders huddled under their tarpaulin homes! Luckily there was enough sun the next morning for a quick swim at the beach before heading off to Kampot.
Arriving in Kampot was a new experience, no sooner had we stepped off the bus we were surrounded by guest house touts all shouting that their hotel was the best/cheapest/closest etc, eventually we got them all to keep quiet long enough to pick one, which turned out to be a pretty good pick as we got a lift in the guys car and then taken out for delicious local lunch once we had dropped our bags off. Had an explore round the town in the afternoon, not a lot to see except a lot of dust and a few old colonial buildings and a couple of funky roundabouts! The riverfront was a bit more lively with plenty of cafes and restaurants, one of which had baked beans which I had been craving for weeks – not very Cambodian at all but a welcome treat! The next morning we set off to the Bokor National Park on a tour where we were all loaded into a pickup truck (about 30 people in one truck, driving up a mountain – pretty sketchy!) and dropped off halfway up the newly constructed road for a 2 hour jungle trek up towards the top of the mountain, nice and scenic but not a lot of wildlife – probably something to do with the idiots who are destroying the park to build a super resort! After a final bumpy drive we came through the mist and rain to the old Bokor Palace, a hotel/casino resort built by the French in the 1920′s which is now a derelict building looming large out of the mist on top of the mountain. A seriously creepy place, the concrete shell of which is still fully intact (complete with bullet holes from the war) - obviously the insides have been fully looted and the building has been left to nature. We were left to explore the palace and as we got to the top floor balcony the Cambodian military turned up! Slightly worrying at first, but luckily it turned out they were on a training mission and had come inside to shelter from the rain – in fact they were very friendly and keen to practise their English and have their photos taken – which made the misty photos even more eerie! Had our picnic lunch in the old ballroom of the casino then headed out into the mist and rain to see some of the other buildings left behind by the French, an old guest house and restaurant, a post office, a church – all very, very spooky in the mist!
Thoroughly soaked we got back into the pickup trucks and headed back down to trek through the jungle again. On our way we stopped off to check out the new resort being built, at the moment just a load of metal foundation poles and a load of trucks carting around mud and rocks, but the billboard in front of the development had a design which looks huge and completely over the top, like something out of Las Vegas. What a waste of 2 billion dollars, especially in a country as poor as this, and even more so, what a waste of a nice natural jungle park which used to be home to all sorts of animals like tigers, leopards, elephants etc, but which have now either been forced out or killed (hopefully some are still hiding out in the depths of the jungle). I can’t see why anyone would want to come on holiday to a huge casino resort on top of a mountain that’s covered in mist and cloud and rain half the time anyway! Luckily the rain had stopped and the sun came out as we trekked back down through the jungle and then drove back into town for our sunset river cruise up the Kampot river (Kampot Mississippi according to our guest house owner!). Our boat was the dodgiest looking craft ever to have gone on water, any time someone moved it tipped dangerously and the bottom was filled with water which the driver was pumping out with a dogy looking pastic tube! Somehow we survived the hour cruise and made it back to dry land after watching the fishermen head out to sea for the evening – again no sunset, instead more black clouds and a huge monsoon storm which lasted for a good few hours and turned the main road into a river! Luckily we sheltered in a nice restuarant and ate some more baked beans until it was finished Waded back to our riverside bungalow through the lakes along the road ready for another early morning start for our bus to Sihanoukville.
July 25, 2010 at 10:38 am (Uncategorized)
Left Saigon nice and early for a surprisingly easy and very comfortable public bus to the bus station (it was even showing Up on DVD and had learn english playing over the sound system!) then a nice express bus down to Cantho with lazy boy recliners! Not quite sure why we ever decided to go for tourist buses in Vietnam, public buses are just as good and so much cheaper! Bus journey through the Mekong Delta was very scenic, soooo many rivers and canals and also quite a lot of industry and not half as many paddy fields as we were expecting to see! Arrived in Cantho around lunch time and spent the afternoon exploring the town, not much of note apart from a small market and a nice riverfront area with a huge statue of Uncle Ho! At least the people down here are really friendly and a bit more laid back than the rest of Vietnam! Found some great food at the open air riverside street stalls and booked ourselves in for a private boat tour of the floating markets and waterways around Cantho starting at half 5 the next morning – these early morning starts are getting to be far too frequent!
No surprises, the town was already bustling by half 5 when we met our boat driver and headed to the street markets for some breakfast – there is an unbelievable amount of fresh fruit around the whole area, every pavement is lined with ladies selling piles of all kinds of exotic fruit, and of course the local seafood straight from the rivers! Set off down the Cantho river towards our first stop at Cai Rang market as the sun was just about making its way over the horizon, unfortunately it was far too cloudy so no decent light for photography! After an hour or so upstream passing hundreds of boats going about their business, everything from huge tankers dangerously overladen with sand/mud to tiny little wooden canoes, we came to Cai Rang market. Not so much a floating market as a whizzing around market as everyone moved about trying to sell yet more fresh fruit and vegetables – a huge affair and well underway at half 6! Next stop down the river was the much more impressive Phong Dien market, which was much more floating so we had more time to stop and inspect (and take photos). Again, mostly fruit and veg sellers (and of course the obligatory lottery ticket seller) but the ladies that were doing the selling were much more interesting than the produce, it seemed to be a real social event with everyone bumping around chatting and haggling, much more fun than a market on dry land! After we’d finished floating around taking in the market we headed off the main river onto the smaller canals, much less crowded but full of river weeds and plastic bags which kept getting caught in the motor (instead of taking the plastic out of the water they just throw it straight back in, no surprises that we had to stop every so often to untangle the motor blade!). Stopped off at a little orchard to sample some local fruit, where we discovered Longan fruit, tiny little things that taste a bit like melon – very tasty! Lots of wildlife to see, plenty of mudskippers, lizards, snakes, butterflies, birds etc, but unfortunately we didn’t come across any monkeys, despite having a bag full of bananas ready for them! Headed back down the river to Cantho just as a big rain storm passed over so everyone was busy battening down the hatches and riding out the choppy water – all the poor people that have stilt houses over the river must take a bit of a pounding every time there’s a storm! Luckily it didn’t amount to much and we arrived back in Cantho safely in time for lunch and a rest – the afternoon was a write off as the rain storm really set in and the weather turned distinctly English - grey, wet and even a little bit cold!
Set off on our next journey across the rest of the Mekong Delta this morning, still no sign of all these paddy fields, supposedly the Mekong Delta is the ‘ricebowl of Vietnam’ – not quite sure where all the rice is hiding! Yet more rivers and canals everywhere and plenty of bumpy roads which made for a slightly uncomfortable bus trip! This area seems a lot poorer than the rest of Vietnam, much more wooden/shack like houses and poorer looking people, but on the plus side they are much friendlier and much more interested in foreigners (as Ellie said, all she seems to be doing is waving to little children!). Changed from a minibus to a very delapidated old public bus in Rach Gia for the final leg of our Vietnamese journey down to the border town of Ha Tien, the poor moto drivers at the bus station who had gotten so excited by our arrival (you could almost see the dollar signs light up in their eyes) were a bit disappointed to find out we were only changing buses! Bumped our way down to Ha Tien for our final night in Vietnam, a bit of a scruffy place by the sea with a lot of building sites! At least our hotel is one of the best yet (and cheapest!) – we have the penthouse suite overlooking the Gulf of Thailand and the outlying islands over to the misty hills on the Cambodian border – shame about the smell of crab! Off to Cambodia tomorrow, fingers crossed for a smooth border crossing….
July 22, 2010 at 11:12 am (Uncategorized)
Having been cheered up immensely by a few days on the beach in Mui Ne and Nha Trang we headed back in to the crazy world of city life in Vietnam, this time in Saigon with its 9 million people and 4 million motorbikes! No shortage of evidence of these on the drive in as we struggled through traffic for a good couple of hours before finally making it into the city centre. Luckily the usual dilemna of finding a hotel was solved by a nice lady waiting at the bus stop who offered us a cheap room just round the corner which we gladly accepted and set off in search of some dinner! Got a good welcome to Saigon in the shape of an enormous tropical storm which passed over the city for a good couple of hours, turning the sky purple and the little alleyways into rivers!
As we’ve decided to push on a bit now to get to Cambodia and the coast, we gave ourselves one day to see everything we wanted to in Saigon which made for a busy day with a lot of walking round, but very worth it! First stop was the Mariamman Temple, a Hindu temple but apparently used by Buddhists – quite a strange sight, but a nice colourful temple nonetheless! Next stop was the Reunification Palace, an amazing building in the heart of Saigon which was originally built as the presidential palace and was used by the Saigon government during the war. The whole palace looks like it has dropped straight out of a 70′s James Bond film, you can just imagine Bond running around the retro building shooting the baddies – some of the presidential suites were definitely made for Bond villains! Apart from a great collection of 70′s furniture and decoration there was also the secret underground operations area which housed all the communications equipment and maps along with some impressive photos from the war – apparently the palace has been left untouched since Saigon surrendered to North Vietnam in 1975 and the tanks rolled through the main gates – a very interesting piece of history! After another huge storm over lunch we headed off to the War Remnants museum – a bit of a shock to the system. The museum is a huge collection of photographs from the Vietnam War, some of which are absolutely horrific and really make you think about the reality of war. Of course, it is presented from a very biased point of view – to the point where no mention is made of the Vietnamese fighting for the US against their own country, but the pictures and memories are really something amazing and at the same time really heart-breaking, especially those that are of injured or affected people who survived and are still living with the effects today. Outside the museum, to bring it all home, is a collection of model war craft and some of the prisoner of war artefacts and accounts which are perhaps more disturbing than the actual war photos.
After such a sobering experience we took a bit of time to wander around the city, which is actually quite a nice place, even with all the millions of motorbikes flying around and making crossing the road a bit of an experience! Found our way into the fancy end of the city with all the luxury hotels and nice squares and high rise business buildings – quite a change from our end which is much more typically Vietnamese, busy and dirty and more street-oriented businesses! Passed by the Continental Hotel, of Quiet American fame, and on to the Saigon River – a busy, polluted waterfront with a huge shipping port and some pretty fancy cruiseliners! Made our way back through town via some big shopping malls and a huge open air market which was a little disappointing compared to some of the markets we’ve been too – again too tourist orientated! After a pretty knackering day pounding the streets we were definitely ready for some street food and a cheap bucket of vodka-orangina The next day I headed off to the North of Saigon to the Cu Chi tunnels – remnants of the tunnel network from the war, while Ellie stayed behind to check out some more shops as she was too scared of going down the tunnels! Stopped off at a handicapped arts and crafts village, nice to see that the disadvantaged people are being given an opportunity to work and make some money in a society that’s not really set up for disabled people – although unfortunately I imagine the bus companies are taking a good cut for anything that the tourists purchase! The tunnels themselves were, unfortunately, another tourist circus, with tour groups being ushered round from section to section, displaying different tunnels and weapons and Viet Cong traps – interesting but way too rushed and nowhere near enough history and explanation behind each exhibit. The best part was definitely getting to crawl inside 100 metres of tunnel, so narrow that you have to crawl on your hands and knees, definitely makes you feel sorry for the poor Viet Cong who had to do that day and night for years with the added threat of bombs and guns at the surface. Got to sample some traditional tea and some tapioca which the soldiers ate as it was an easy crop (and watched everyone else waste money and bullets in the shooting range – didn’t appeal to me!). Made our way back to Saigon in the afternoon, where yet another big storm hit which put paid to any more sightseeing for the afternoon! Back to public transport tomorrow as we head down towards the Mekong Delta and then onwards towards the Cambodian border….
July 22, 2010 at 10:14 am (Uncategorized)
Headed south from Hue on our open tour bus ticket to the next stop on the tourist trail – Hoi An. Despite positive reviews from everyone we met we were struggling to see what was so good about Hoi An! You can’t walk more than 10 metres without being offered something to buy or eat or rent, which gets very annoying very quickly! The town itself is quite picturesque and has some nice old historic buildings, it has a really nice riverfront area with loads of bars and restaurants and a huge open market which was great fun to look around and find some very tasty street food! There weren’t really any specific sights or history to keep us interested however, and as we had already got some tailor made clothes in Hue, the million and one tailors shops in Hoi An that are absolutely everywhere were not very interesting for us! By this point we were getting a little bit fed up with Vietnam, it’s a nice country but there isn’t anything really spectacular and what there is is so touristy that it’s been a bit spoilt! The other problem is the people, some are friendly and helpful, some really aren’t and even the friendly ones are generally trying to sell you something way overpriced which creates a bit of a bad atmosphere about the place. Left Hoi An a little disappointed and headed on down towards Nha Trang where hopefully things would pick up a bit once we hit the beach!
Arrived from our night bus at 5 in the morning (thanks to some very fast, slightly reckless driving by our driver over bumpy roads!). Nowhere was open so we decided to head down to the beach to kill some time, which is were we found the entire population of the city – or so it looked like! The beach was packed with locals swimming and jogging and doing their morning exercises, a really surreal sight at half 5 with the sun just coming up over the sea! By half 6 the beach was practically deserted so we headed back into town where the locals had started their day – most were busy having breakfast at the street stalls! Found a hotel and headed out to join the masses for breakfast then down to the beach for a bit of sunbathing and swimming – luckily this water was a little more refreshing than further north! Managed to get a bit sunburnt so spent the afternoon away from the beach doing some more cultural exploration – this time an impressive temple with working monks and a couple of huge Buddha statues, one sleeping and one sitting on the top of the hill. Witnessed a very strange practice while I was there, a couple went and sat beneath the prayer bell and paid the monk to bang it whilst they were under – I think this was some kind of blessing as there were some prayers said after!! Had a wander round the main part of town, away from the touristy seaside part, which was much like any other Vietnamese city – busy, dirty, full of bikes, lots of street food and generally friendlier people as they aren’t all trying to sell you something! Enjoyed our cheapest bia hoi yet after some dinner – roughly 25p a litre of beer, quite watered down and served with ice in a measuring jug, but tasty and very good value! The next day we headed back to the beach – a huge long stretch all the way along the city front and up and down the coast for several kilometres, nice and sandy and full of locals all swimming about on polystyrene floats (and plenty of other locals walking up and down trying to sell you stuff, dressed in full on winter gear despite the heat!). Unfortunately our beach day was cut short by some strong winds and some huge black storm clouds, more than likely something to do with the typhoon that had passed by and was hitting Vietnam further north, although in the end there was no storm for us – just some dramatic photo opportunities! Headed back out for some more tasty street food and cheap bia hoi then early night for yet another early morning bus – as convenient as the open tour bus tickets are, the service is pretty poor and it means you can’t really explore off the main tourist trail unless you then pay extra to backtrack and visit the places the bus drove past – however nothing is really grabbing our fancy in Vietnam.
Next stop was Mui Ne, which became our favourite place in Vietnam within a few minutes of arriving! A small fishing village with a huge, stunning beach and miles and miles of massive sand dunes stretching all along the coast makes for a pretty impressive setting! Found ourselves a cheap room a few metres from the beach and settled in to our hammocks for a bit of relaxation, until I stood on a sea anemone and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to pick the spines out! The next day we took a tour of the sand dunes, originally we were supposed to hire a bike and drive ourselves but when the guy put me on the bike for a test drive and I asked him to show me how to drive he suddenly became a bit reluctant to rent me his shiny new bike – can’t think why!! Instead he decided it would be safer if him and his mate drove us for a bit extra (he was probably right). The drive out to the white sand dunes was absolutely incredible, on one side amazing beach with turquoise sea and on the other sand dunes and canyons stretching back all around – whizzing around on the back of the bike meant we could take in all the views without having to worry about being squashed! The white sand dunes are very very impressive, a huge expanse of dunes that looks like something from the sahara, except for the big lake in the middle with loads of water lilies! We rented a plastic sheet from a little kid and set off to try out some sandboarding – highly unsuccessful! Not only did we have to trudge around in the baking heat for ages trying to find a suitable slope but we discovered we didn’t actually know how to sandboard, so pretty much ended up with a faceful of sand and gave up! Another amazing drive back along the coast – through Mui Ne village which stinks of fish from all the fish sauce they produce – to the red sand dunes for another attempt at sandboarding. Luckily this time we hired our plastic sheet from a nice old lady who took us to the best slope and showed us how to do it – pretty hardy old lady running around on the boiling sand in bare feet and outpacing us without any problem (we were pretty much dying from trudging up the dunes). Check out the videos on my facebook for some clips of us sliding down the dunes, great fun and very lucky we had the nice old lady to help us out and haul us back up the dunes after we had slid down! Gave up fairly quickly due to the heat and headed back to the beach for a nice lie down in the hammock followed by a nice refreshing swim in the sea! As the sun started to set we watched as the fishermen all started bringing back their little coracles, surfing them into shore and landing their catch, incredible little boats! Once the sun had set the horizon was dotted with hundreds of lights from boats that were still out fishing overnight. The next morning we got up early and headed down to the beach to watch more coracles returning from very early morning fishing, and more boats returning out to sea once they had loaded their catch – a really impressive sight! Had one last swim and one last relax in the hammock before heading off on our bus down to Saigon – sure to be a huge shock after such a nice relaxed couple of days!
July 13, 2010 at 10:31 am (Uncategorized)
Just about made it back in time from Halong Bay for our bus to Hue – a bit of a stressful experience! Got onto our sleeper bus full of Vietnamese, we were the only westerners, and then promptly fell asleep for a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Woke up just in time for sunrise as we were driving through the DMZ (de-militarized zone – the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the war) – a stunning sight over some beautiful landscape. Unfortunately we had to pass on the DMZ tour which was a bit of a shame but neither of us were in the mood for such a heavy day of sightseeing after almost 24 hours of constant travelling and no showers! Carried on to Hue, the ancient capital of the Vietnamese kingdom until the 1940′s, where the mood changed from crazy and stressful in Northern Vietnam to super friendly and relaxed! Just whilst I was looking for a hotel 3 different people stopped me, not to sell anything but just to practise their English! Found a great hotel in the middle of the town run by French-Vietnamese which was a great opportunity for me to practise some French! Spent the first afternoon exploring and checking out tailors shops for Ellie to get some custom made clothes – and found possibly the best restaurant yet, a local place with cheap beer, amazing food and really nice waitresses who were keen to practise English and play practical jokes!!
The next morning we went on a sightseeing river cruise down the perfume river on a dragon boat which was pretty cool! Nice relaxed way to see the local countryside and the local people living and working on the river – most of them seemed to be pumping gravel from the riverbed and transporting it on dangerously low-lying boats! First stop was a temple by the river then a pagoda a bit further downstream then a nice buffet lunch aboard the boat. After lunch we visited the royal tombs of the emperors that had ruled Vietnam during the 1800s and early 1900s – impressive complexes made up of temples and gardens and of course, the tomb building. The most impressive was the Khai Dinh tomb, one of the last emperors before Communism took over the country. On our way back to Hue we stopped off at an incense making village for a quick demonstration on how to make incense – and to look at the vast amounts of colourful incense stalls lining the road! Back in Hue we went to check on the progress of Ellie’s tailormade dress and trousers, a pretty impressive and thorough job (and incredibly cheap!). Found ourselves a good bar for the world cup final which turned into a bit of an epic affair, didn’t get to bed until 4am, slightly dissapointed that Holland lost! Feeling pretty tired the next day we set off for Dong Ba market, a huge sprawling local market selling just about everything you could imagine, then off for some more culture in the ancient walled city that used to house the emperors before it was more or less totally destroyed during the war. Fortunately, the most important parts have been restored or were left undamaged and it made a really interesting sight with grand old buildings surrounded by nothing but open fields where the land has been left as it was since it was destroyed – another interesting history lesson in a fascinating country! Headed back to town in the luxury of a cyclo to pick up Ellie’s finished clothes – the dress in particular is stunning! Early night to make up for last night and also as we have another nice early morning bus journey down to Hoi An!
July 13, 2010 at 10:06 am (Uncategorized)
Booked ourselves onto a budget 3 day trip to Halong Bay despite all the warnings not to go for the budget options, pretty much because the luxury options were way out of our price range! Left nice and early for the drive up to Halong City, via a purpose built tourist trap bus stopover, arrived about lunch time and sat around as our guide organised our boat and then to wait for our boat to turn up. The harbour was so full of junk boats it was unreal, but we were in Halong Bay (which looks impressive even from a distance) and we finally had the sea before us! When our boat showed up the driver managed to crash into the main boat we were being ferried out to – not a good start! No damage done, we got aboard and met our fellow passengers and sat down for a surprisingly decent lunch before cruising to the ‘amazing cave’ for our first stop. The cave actually was pretty amazing, going way back into the limestone island and with loads of huge stalactites, stalacmites and other impressive rock formations. With so many tours doing the same route the cave was a bit of a procession of tourists however, pretty much like the rest of Halong Bay! After the cave we cruised through the incredible limestone islands for a couple of hours, the sheer size and beauty of the place and the peacefulness on the water really makes you appreciate what an amazing place it is. Stopped off at a floating fishing village in the afternoon where the locals rowed us out to a lagoon inside a cave for a swim (not so refreshing when the water isn’t much cooler than the air!). Did a bit of kayaking round the bay after that where we managed to get stuck in a cave! Once we’d freed ourselves we paddled off to visit some more floating villages – really quite impressive to see people living in houses on floating rafts and making such a basic living from fishing (and selling things to tourists!), yet the houses looked quite normal and some of them even had tv’s and most of them had pet dogs! Quite a surreal experience! As the sun started to go down we made our way to a huge sheltered bay to anchor for the evening where we were allowed to jump off the boat into the warm sea for a non-refreshing swim! After about half an hour of being a wimp Ellie finally managed to jump off the middle deck of the boat, by which time it was almost dark and time for dinner – again pretty impressive food! Spent the evening making friends and eventually caving in to the vastly inflated drinks prices to avoid going to bed too early – although as soon as the boat crew fell asleep we called over one of the ladies selling cheap beer from the rowing boats (if they had caught us we would have had to pay a fine per beer bottle, to ensure we only drank their expensive beer!) Stayed up to watch the Germany-Spain semi-final, bit of a mistake as we only got a couple of hours sleep!
Feeling pretty tired (and slightly hungover) we swapped boats the next morning and headed to Cat Ba island – the biggest island in Halong Bay – where we were driven up to Cat Ba national park. Despite the insane heat and the hangover I decided to go on the trek through the park up to one of the peaks – Ellie sensibly stayed in the shade at the park entrance. Spent the entire ascent sweating by the bucket load and trying not to fall off the rocky paths! Eventually made it to the top for a pretty impressive view – but there were so many other tourists I decided to head straight back down for some cold water and a sit down! By the time we made it down to the bottom it looked like everyone in our group had been swimming we were all so soaked in sweat – not very pleasant! Checked in to our hotel (pretty ropey) in Cat Ba town and promptly fell asleep for a few hours straight after lunch! Checked out the local beaches after our nap, which were beautiful, but the first one was so crowded it looked like a Where’s Wally picture from the top of the stairs! Luckily the second beach was slightly less crowded and even nicer so spent a couple of hours there then headed back to have a look round town – nice harbour and nice location but jam packed with tourists (mainly Vietnamese)! Early night after another nice dinner then another cruise round a different part of Halong Bay the next morning on our way back to Halong City. A really amazing place and I’m very glad we got the chance to visit, but if they carry on letting tourists in at this rate the place will be so polluted and ruined in the near future which would be a huge shame, especially for the villagers that make their homes and livings amongst the incredible cliffs. As for the budget tour, we were pleasantly surprised! So the organisation wasn’t amazing, nor was the hotel and the tour guides and boat staff weren’t always the friendliest – but you get what you pay for in terms of service! Some of the people we met had paid twice as much for the same trip, or had paid for extras like non-existent luxury rooms or air-con so i’m glad we bargained and got a good deal because it was a really great experience – especially staying the night on the boat and watching the sunset and then the starry night sky with all the lights of the other boats floating about in the distance.
July 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm (Uncategorized)
Arrived in Hanoi about lunchtime to be met by hoardes of motorbike drivers wanting to take us into town – managed to avoid them and find a cheap public bus which then decided not to let us off where we wanted and instead dropped us off in the northern part of the old quarter, which later turned out to be a good thing! Finally found a reasonably priced hotel after a lot of bargaining and got our first motorbike experience in Hanoi, albeit a short trip, with bags on the bike too! Slightly scary whizzing through hundreds of other bikes and cars but great fun! After dinner went to the local bia hoi bar, basically a collection of plastic stools in the road outside a shop selling draught beer at 14p a half pint glass, or 50p a bottle!!! Met some fellow travellers and went to a couple of bars, pretty dingy affairs with lots of 80s music!
The next day we got up early and took a motorbike taxi across town to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (an even crazier experience with both of us on the back of the bike flying round the main roads – Hanoi driving leaves a lot to be desired!). Mausoleum turned out to be shut on a monday so we headed to the nice, peaceful temple of literature, a welcome break from the craziness of the streets! The temple was built sometime around 1060 firstly as a dedication to Confucius and then later developed into a University where people would study regional, national and then royal exams – mainly based on Confucius’ teachings. In the royal exams the students had to answer questions directly to the king! The temple is now just a tourist attraction, but still has the stelae (lists of graduating doctors) sat on top of giant stone tortoises as well as some nice peaceful gardens and statues of the past kings. Headed back into the old quarter for some lunch and a walk around the streets to explore the centre of the city which is actually quite European in design, no surprise as the French built a lot of it! Some of the colonial buildings are fantastic and the city itself is quite an attractive place, although it moves at a hectic pace (especially compared to Laos!). Walked around Hoan Kiem lake, the centrepiece of the old quarter, and through some interesting markets back up to the northern quarter for some amazing dinner and some more bia hoi in the local corner bar to watch the bikes fly past and chat to the friendly locals!
Got a motorbike taxi even earlier the next day to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where the queue was enormous even by 9am, so we abandoned that plan as you weren’t even allowed to take water to drink in the queue! Instead headed for the Ho Chi Minh museum which was a big celebration of the great man on the first floor with hundreds of pictures, documents, quotes, letters, statues etc that reflected his life and his political moves. The next floor was devoted more to 20th Century Vietnamese history with some interesting artefacts and pictures and of course lots more Ho Chi Minh worshipping! My favourite was a letter he wrote to some French POWs at Christmas wishing them a Happy Christmas and saying that for today they would be treated like equals but they had to have patience and understand that Vietnam must be rid of western forces! A very interesting insight into the Vietnam war and the politics behind it, although of course very biased! Next stop was the presidential palace (which we weren’t allowed in, or near!) and then Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house and real house where he spent a lot of time writing, studying, planning wars etc! From what is on display it seems like he was a very intellectual man who wrote a lot of interesting articles and letters on communist ideology and Vietnamese liberation. Continued the cultural theme with another motorbike ride to the western end of town to visit the Museum of Ethnography, a really interesting collection of artefacts, tools, costumes, photos etc from all the different tribes that make up the Vietnamese (and South East Asian) population. The best part of this museum was outside however, where they had original (I think) houses from each of the major tribes set in some nice peaceful gardens. The best one was a really tall wooden house where we drank some tea and hid from the insane heat (it gets up to about 40C during the day at least and doesn’t go below mid-high 20s at night). The final stop on our cultural tour was the Hoa Lo war prison (or the Hanoi Hilton according to US POWs) – a prison that had originally been built by the French to detain Vietnamese and then later used by the Vietnamese against the captured Americans. A pretty spooky place, especially death row (complete with guillotine) and the ‘cachot’ (punishment hole), and again a really interesting insight into the Vietnam war and recent history. Headed back into the old quarter by cyclo, us sat in a comfy arm chair at the front while some poor old guy cycled us through rush hour traffic! An awesome was to see the streets close up, although maybe a bit close to the cars and bikes sometimes! Had another wander round the lakes and then back up to the northern part of town via the shoe market – two whole roads of nothing but shoe shops, good for Ellie, not so great for me! Headed back to the local for some more bia hoi and watched the world go by then early bed as we are off to Halong Bay tomorrow. Despite everyone’s warning that Hanoi is crazy and unfriendly and everyone is out to rip you off we have really enjoyed it and although people do try and push the prices up and short change you, the majority of people are so friendly and helpful – and bargaining for better prices is definitely half the fun of a place like this! Slightly sad to be leaving but very, very excited about seeing the sea tomorrow for the first time in almost 2 months!
July 5, 2010 at 1:19 pm (Uncategorized)
Rolled out of Sam Neua on our Vietnam bound bus as the sun was coming up, a beautiful sight over such a picturesque location, then promptly rolled back through town in search of extra cargo and passengers! Eventually after an hour or so of stopping round town we were on our way through yet more incredible scenery to Na Maew – Nam Xoi on the Laos/Vietnam border. A pretty remote place to cross and apparently not very easy – on the contrary, it was probably easier than the average European border crossing! Had our passports stamped on both sides without any hint of being charged a ‘stamping fee’ or a ‘weekend fee’ and the Vietnam border guards even let me look at some Laos and Vietnamese passports and taught us how to say hello, thank you and goodbye while we waited! Our bus then decided to take an hour or so stop for lunch so the nice border guards pointed us in the direction of some food and then finally we were back on our way. As if by magic, the moment we crossed into Vietnam the driver turned into a nutter even though the roads were exactly the same as in Laos! Whizzed past yet more beautiful scenery beeping at everything on and off the road – normally the horn is used as a defensive tactic, this guy was anything but defensive! After a few more hours of windy mountain roads we finally came to some straight roads (where the driver proceeded to drive even more recklessly if that’s possible) past endless flat landscapes of rice paddies punctuated by the odd river or karst outcrop.
Made it to Thanh Hoa in one piece and were immediately set upon by moto drivers and taxi drivers eager to rip us off! Escaped to find a hotel just near the bus station and find some foe (noodle soup) for dinner, much tastier than the average Laos noodle soup – and surprisingly even cheaper despite everyone warning us Vietnam was way more expensive! Hotel was pretty run down, the first room didn’t have a closing door and the second wasn’t a lot better although at least we could lock up! Bit of a shock coming from Laos where everyone is so chilled out and peaceful to the hectic pace of life in Vietnam where everyone wants to sell you something and the roads are horrendous to cross because of the number of motorbikes – plus it’s even hotter than Laos (which was hot enough already!). After some more foe for breakfast we headed off to Hanoi on a public bus – another crazy experience! First our driver raced another Hanoi bound bus around the city trying to get as many passengers as possible and pulling off some horrendous driving in the process including blocking a dual carriageway just to park in front of the enemy bus! Pretty sure we hit something as we spend round Thanh Hoa, but eventually we got on the road to Hanoi where the driving got worse – no wonder they have so many road accident fatalities per year – we had so many near misses it wasn’t funny! Made it to Hanoi about lunch time where the fun really begins!
July 2, 2010 at 10:49 am (Uncategorized)
Left Phonsavan nice and early for another long bus journey up and over the mountains to Xam Neua on the Eastern border of Laos with Vietnam. Stunning journey of about 8 hours passing through some huge mountain ranges with thick forests and tiny wooden villages dotting the road along the way. Stopped off in one for some great beef and onion noodle soup, then just as Xam Neua came into sight about 3km away in the valley below us our bus broke down!! After a few attempts at kick starting the engine a few of us jumped out to push start, to no avail, so the bus rolled off down the hill and we had to walk the last part (at least the views were incredible). Had a search around for a hotel and nearly lost one of our bags with the passports in, luckily we found it again!!! Went out for another Indian with Daniel, a Kiwi we met in Phonsavan, on the recommendation of some Swiss guys in our hotel who had cycled from Switzerland to Laos via most of Asia and had been on the road for 6 years!!!!! They were planning on another 8! Whilst we were having dinner we watched a huge thunderstorm roll across the mountains that surround the town – this was still going on by the time we went to bed!
Up early the next morning to catch a pick-up to Vieng Xai, the old communist capital of Laos in the 70′s and the base for the Pathet Lao during the war in the 60′s and 70′s. Stunning 29km drive into Vieng Xai through a limestone karst valley with huge cliffs and picturesque little villages surrounded by paddy fields (currently being planted ahead of the rainy season). As we arrived into Vieng Xai you could see why the Laos people had chosen it as their base during the war, the huge limestone cliffs surround the town which is in a large open plain and the cliffs are full of caves. Booked onto a tour, which as we turned up just after the scheduled time of 9 we had to pay extra for, despite being the only people on the tour, however it was more than worth it. Our guide was really great and spoke good English so we cross questioned him about life in Laos and he did likewise about life in England – quite a few differences, notably that he got married at 15 and had 2 kids pretty soon after and that a brick house costs about 800 pounds, he was quite shocked at the English house prices and the fact that we could live together before marriage. Not sure he quite got his head round the idea that you could just buy a house, you didn’t have to build it from scratch once you got married like in Laos! Apart from the interesting conversations with the guide the tour was absolutely amazing. We visited 7 caves around town which had housed the members of the politiburo (communist party leaders) from 1964 to 1973 and had also served as hospitals, banks, entertainment venues, barracks etc among other things – they had essentially built a vast underground city and apart from the caves open to the public there are hundreds of others that aren’t open. In the leader’s cave there was the meeting room and President’s office which still had the original furniture along with some communist texts and a bust of Lenin! All the important caves also had emergency rooms still fitted with double blast doors and a hand operated oxygen pumping machine in case of chemical attack. Outside many of the caves were huge bomb craters from where the Americans had tried unsuccessfully to target the caves. The whole tour was fascinating, if a little creepy, and came with an audio guide which had loads more shocking war statistics and personal accounts from survivors of the time. The last cave was perhaps the most impressive, certainly in size – it had housed up to 2000 men in barracks, as well as families, supplies, kitchens and even a big theatre for entertainment! A hugely interesting insight into the Laos history to follow up our war lessons from Phonsavan and great to see the place where it had all started for modern day Laos PDR.
Had a nice lunch at the bus station after the tour and a walk round town and then sat and waited for a couple of hours before a pick-up finally turned up to take us back to Xam Neua – although we did get to watch another big storm approaching over the mountains and also the comings and goings at the local market. Back to Xam Neua with lots of locals and a piglet in the pick-up! Off to check out what’s left of the market if they haven’t all packed up because of the monsoon that has just hit and then dinner and very early bed as we are catching a half 6 bus to Vietnam tomorrow morning – hopefully the last of the long and windy bus journeys for a while!! Fingers crossed for a nice easy border crossing and bus journey onwards to Thanh Hoa. Shame to be leaving Laos however as we have had such a great 3 weeks here, met the friendliest locals, eaten the best food and seen the best scenery – I’m sure we will be back here one day!
July 1, 2010 at 11:56 am (Uncategorized)
Got an early morning bus from Vientiane to Phonsavan which we were told would take 10 hours (the lady who ran our guesthouse told us that when she last went to Phonsavan in 1975 it took her a week by truck to travel the 360km!!!) so we were counting ourselves lucky! Bus wasn’t too bad despite the winding roads and mountains and of course the locals being sick into plastic bags at every opportunity! Finally rolled into Phonsavan about 7pm and headed off to find a guesthouse and grab some dinner and book ourselves onto a tour to the plain of jars for the next day. Watched the football with our guest house owner and his mates who were all gambling with huge sums of money – he summed up our performance as “England is bollocks!!” which seemed pretty accurate!
After breakfast we headed off in a minivan with 7 other farang and our comedian/tour guide who was pretty funny to start with but by the end of the day started getting a bit boring – at least he spoke excellent English so we learnt a fair bit! Started off at Site 1, the biggest site with around 330 jars which are seriously impressive, especially as they are a total mystery and must have taken some serious effort to hollow out several thousand years ago when they were made. Our best guess was that they were funerary urns, our guide seemed to think they were for storing lao-lao (rice whisky!). Quite surreal walking round a huge field full of massive concrete jars of varying sizes, the biggest being about 6 tonnes! Site 1 also had a small cave where some of the villagers hid during the war and also several bomb craters as a lasting legacy of the huge bombardment that took place here throughout the 60s and 70s. Next stop was a small village where they brewed lao-lao, with a tasting session at about 11am, perfect aperitif before lunch!! Not sure it tastes so good neat, but it mixes very well with Pepsi After this we headed on to Site 2, a smaller but more scenic area of jars split into two sites under trees – still walking round scratching our heads as to why these jars were here and who made them! All of the sites were surrounded by mine clearance blocks indicating where was safe to walk, although most of the area has been cleared there is still a very real danger around the whole province of unexploded bombs – more on that later. After a lunch stop for some noodle soup we continued to Site 3, en route stopping at a broken tank which had been used by the Laos communist army in the war, kindly provided by their Russian comrades, and nicely situated in someone’s garden in a tiny village! Site 3 involved a walk through some very scenic paddy fields and water buffalo grazing pastures to another smaller site with a few more jars – still trying to figure out what they were for! A really interesting day trip, not only to see the jars but to see local villages and learn a bit more about the bombing campaigns. Strangely the landscape here looks a little bit English with it’s rolling hills and pastures, just with the addition of little wooden villages and dirt tracks everywhere!
When we got back into town we headed to MAG (Mines Advisory Group) who had some pretty interesting and sobering information about the war. Around 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos from 1964 to 1973, twice the amount that was dropped on Germany and Japan put together in the whole of WWII. This equates to about half a tonne of bombs per person in the bombed areas making Laos the most bombed country per capita in the world. And all of this on a country whose people are dirt poor and had very little means of defence, certainly not against planes and bombs – their crime? Being in a civil war in which a Vietnamese influenced communist government was trying to take power! We watched a docu-film called bombies which highlighted the issue further, especially the lasting effect on the local people. Not only were they bombed to pieces during the war but the Americans decided to drop tons of cluster bombs on them which were designed to kill civilians primarily, and around 30% of these never went off to still pose a danger to people now, especially uneducated children who try to play with them and farmers who hit them whilst ploughing fields. Not an easy documentary to watch – makes you realise just how much power the western world has, especially as they managed to keep the Laos campaign secret from everyone for several years before it was exposed (and all carried out against the terms of a treaty they had signed agreeing not to touch Laos as it was neutral!). After that sobering experience we all donated some money to the organisation, not sure how much it will help but hopefully it will to some extent – the Laos people are among the friendliest, kindest people on earth and it doesn’t seem fair that they have to live with this. Had some dinner and played pool (on snooker tables) in a local pool hall and then early bed before another long, windy bus journey to Xam Neua in the morning!