A Travellerspoint blog

Hanoi and North Vietnam

Hanoi and North Vietnam

Hoi an

Fresh off our 12 hour bus ride - they aren't fun, but I met a friend, Dill, so we aparently managed to keep a chunk of the bus awake. It's lucky we aborted our attempts to get everyone singing - we arrived into the heart of Hoi An. This town is one of the only ones in Vietnam not to have been damaged in the numerous wars. Sadly, our first taste of it was at 6am on a very wet day! Thankfully the bus dropped us at a really nice, cheap hotel - there's a lot in Hoi An - where we crashed until lunchtime and the sun had appeared. Actually, it was in full force by that point, and those of you that know me will know what the sun does to me...

Digressing slightly, I'm going to move onto the buses. Poor old Dan was becoming less of a fan of the buses than me, and often felt terrible whenever we arrived anywhere. I was ok, as long as I reacted fast enough with my knee when I saw the person in front going for the tall person crippling lever (or recliner as it's known). I 'd also like to know who's [insert expletive here] idea it was to put reclining chairs on buses and planes in the first place, and why on earth they recline to the almost horizontal position! It's madness, and seeing as every bus we took was full to capacity, strikes me as a waste of money unless of couse they don't like tall people who moan about recilining chairs.

The town is based around the old quarter, where you can find some wonderful, traditional shops specialising in custom made outfits, galleries - I can really recommend checking out some Vietnamese art! - restaurants and street cafes, perfect for watching the world go by. Watching the world go by is, incidently, one of my new favourite pasttimes! It's fascinating watching and listening to people. I'm especially a fan of the Japanese and Korean tourist groups (but heards might be more appropriate).

As you can guess from that, we spent a while just ambling round the streets and looking in shops. It's really not the kind of place you rush as you'll end up knocking people over, much like the bikes squeezing down the narrow streets! Flowing through the South side of the town is the Thu Bon river, which serves as the main artery into the town, and a great place to eat. We also did a lot of people watching, and we worked on honing our pool playing skill (or lack of - you need beer for pool). We also ran into several of our friends from Nha Trang. It's the kind of place that really draws you in with it's peaceful laid back ways, and we really wanted to stay for longer, but decided it would give us a reason to come back in the future!

Hue

Moving onto Hue - the former Imperial city - the bus journey was a much more respectable 4 hours, and once again I bumped into a friend from Mui Ne, Dave, so that journey passed fairly quickly, but no singing this time and it was during the day.

Once again, our arrival was slightly odd, but this time because they seemed to have forgotten to build any streets lights! It was actually quite an unnerving experience, especially when I wandered off to get money from an ATM along dark streets, continually tripping over potholes. We also made the long trek to the train station in the dark - some 2km - to book our overnight sleeper train tickets to Hanoi (we didn't like the thought of another 16 hours on a bus!).

Come the next day, it was glorious sunshine, and we set off on foot - for a change - to explore the Citadel. Crossing the perfume river, and then entering into the Citadel was like entering another world! It was akin to entering Angkor Wat for the first time, with large open streets, sparse buildings and moats. Our first stop was the Antique Objects Museum, which contains items from the royal dynasties over the last 2000 years.

Next up, we worked around the outer wall of the Citadel, and in through the Ngan Gate, then into the Imperial City through the Ngo Mon gate. Sadly, most of the Citadel's buildings have been destroyed in the wars, but a few are still left, and you can walk around the grounds. Of those still standing, I thought that the Royal Reading pavillion was the most regal, but we also went into the royal theatre - there seemed to be no shows that day - and round to the Queen's palace.

Exiting the Citadel, we stopped for a bite to eat in what is described as one of the best, if not the bestm restuarant by the guide books, and is run by a family of deaf mutes. It's called Lac Thien, and I'd have to agree that the food was truly excellent!

Hanoi

Taking the overnight sleeper to Hanoi - a 13 hour journey - was far more comfortable than getting the bus. We were in the SE1 train, which is classed as a soft sleeper which means soft bed and 4 persons per berth. A hard sleeper - yes, harder matress - has 6 people per berth. Our ticket also included a meal, which was rather unexpected and not something you get on the buses! We pulled into Hanoi around 6.30am. I also managed to leave my (older) glasses on the train... Fool!

Once again, we checked straight into a hotel, and crashed for a few hours. Our hotel was in the Old Quarter, which in my opinion is the best place in Hanoi to be. The streets have a real buzz to them, with street sellers, open front shops selling just about everything and scooters constantly trying to run you over - when the buses aren't trying to run them over!

There's so much to see in Hanoi, but you can also just wander around. We visited the Military Army Museum - which still uses phrases such as 'Puppet-regime' and 'spies' in the literature, unlike the Ho Chi Minh version - the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Opera House and History Museum. We also went to a show at the Water Puppet Theatre, a traditional art form created by the farmers to entertain the local villages, and since performed all over the world.

But, we also did that 'watching the world go by' thing again. Our favourite was to sit in the City View bar overlooking the most ridiculous traffic system ever devised - yes, we saw a few (not serious) coming togethers. I was reading a local paper which said that in December and January, there were 148(approx) deaths on the road, and another 300(approx) injuries, and they attributed this to Drunk driving and speeding. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the way everyone goes hell for leather at each other when the lights change, or driving the wrong way down streets, or manouvering then looking!

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is an area of bizarrely shaped rocks, caves and beautiful blue water. With fond memories of our 3 day boat trip in Australia, we decided to spend 2 days on a junk - why are they called that? - in the bay. Now, before I get onto the bay, everyone on the junk - including us - was expecting there to be slightly more decorum on the seas. In fact, it was worse! There was a small harbour, and all the junks basically just pushed their way to the front, pushing others aside, creating a floating mass of wood. We were amused as one junk performed this task, and managed to lift the roof off the neighbouring one! The skipper was not happy!

The formations in the bay are amazing! You just want to go and explore every bay and island. I could have spent months there. But alas, we were on a tour, and it's a national park anyway, so you have to stick to certain areas. Our first stop was the 'Amazing Cave' - I kid you not, that's it's name! Obviously the French were feeling adventurous when they named it!

We also squeezed in some Kayaking and a dip in the - rather cold - ocean. Everyone thought we were mad, but it was so refreshing and felt great! Dan and I also made use of the upper sundeck as a launch point for jumping into the water, some 20 feet or so. It was great fun. The people on the boat were also great, and once again, we'd been lucky to get such great company!

Our second day was dissappointing sadly. We headed round to Cat Ba Island to collect some more people, which meant to more swimming, and no early morning wake-up swim sadly. We did pass a rather impressive 'floating city' though, where lots of the fisherman and street sellers - yes, they operated in the harbour too - lived and worked. That evening, those left in Hanoi met up for dinner and drinks.

The next stop is Laos, which is either 1 hour on a plane, or an 'horrific' 20 hours on a bus. Guess which we're doing... We're both sad to have left Vietnam though as we've had a fantastic 4 weeks! but we're definately both planning on going back there, and recommend it to everyone!

Posted by Glug 05:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh City and Southern Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City and Southern Vietnam

Ok, so this blog has been a while coming. Mainly due to me not being allowed to upload my photos whilst in Vietnam.

We arrived in Vietnam, what seems like a long time ago, travelling by boat from Phnom Penh - a spectacular journey - and arriving without incident in the Delta. Our original plan from there was to stay in the Delta for a while, but we decided to head straight for Ho Chi Minh City - the locals still call it Saigon at times, but it was considered to have been given a new start once the fighting ended so they renamed it in honour of their leader. By the time we arrived, we were so tired that we checked into the first hotel we found - that was a mistake, and we moved onto a much nicer Guesthouse first thing the next day.

Following the usual routine on arriving in a new city, we set off to amble through the streets, getting a good feel for the place, and seeing as many sites as possible. Before I get onto the sites, I'm going to get back onto traffic. Now, I think Thailand may still be the worst, purely because there's more of it. But, in Vietnam there seems to be a continual game of 'Chicken' going on! The lights (they have them, and to my surprise obey them most of the time), but come the green light and it's like Carmageddon out there! Now, imagine trying to cross that... It took us 5 minutes at one point before we felt it safe enough to go!

Back to wandering the streets. Out first stop was the War Remnants Museum, featuring some of the vehicles involved in the American war, and focusing heavily on the photographers and the effects of Agent Orange. Seeing what that chemical has done to the people and countryside is frightening, and realising how many it affected is just unthinkable. Speaking to some of the Vietnamese people, you realise they'd either been directly affected, or have a direct relation who has. The photographers' stories were amazing, seeing the shots they took, on occassions where their camera had saved them, and on others, were it had been their undoing. The machinery was also largely in good condition, even the planes that had been shot down.

In the centre of town, we came across Notre Dame Cathedral - yes, there is one in Paris too. Wandering the streets for a few more hours, we settled on top of the Majestic hotel to watch the world go by with a beer or 3. This really is a great way to pass a few hours, and get some colour in my case, and I can see why travel writers enjoy it so much. We sat slack jawed, whilst the madness on the roads continued, and the ferries did piroettes in the river for no reason other than to keep the timing correct between the 2 boats. Each ferry also delivered another load of scooters onto the already heaving roads.

I'm not normally one for organised tours, but it seemed like the best way to get the most out of the Delta. On that trip, we were taken through a floating market, a rice paper and Coconut Candy factory - fresh coconut candy is delicious! Taken for a fantastic fresh water fish lunch and cycle round a village (on a bike equivalent to a BMX for me), finishing off with a visit to a brick factory (ok, even though I'm a civil engineer, I could have quite easily skipped that!), and then a local market which sold snakes. Yummy! We also got to try snake wine, which is very similar to Sake in Japan.

We also did a trip around the Cu Chi tunnels to the West of Ho Chi Minh. This tunnel network was constructed and used by the Vietcong during both the French and American wars, and was made up of a network of tunnels some 250km in length. Our guide was a veteran from the war, fighting in the American army telling us the stories of how the VC evaded them for so long using some fairly simple but effective tricks. We also got to see how the VC lived, crafted weapons from US ordnance and survived for so long. Part of the tunnel network still exists, and has been widened and heightened for 'fat westerners' as the guide put it. I also took the opportunity to be slightly childish and fire an M16 rifle on the range. Ok, I'll admit, it was a buzz.

Our next stop up the coast was Mui Ne, which is a quiet beach resort famed for it's place on the Asian Kite Surfing circuit. You can see why! For starters, the beach was golden and the wind and waves just perfect. When we arrived, the sea (and sky) was alive with kite surfers, jumping in and out of the waves. When we hit the beach, the waves were so good, I could've mucked around in them for ages - those who know me, know I'm not so good at sitting around doing nothing on a beach. The food was also superb, and we enjoyed doing nothing so much, that we ended up spending 4 days there. Alright, not strictly nothing. We did swim and go for a cycle along the 20km of coast.

Carrying on to the North, we arrived at Nha Trang where we would be for Tet - Chinese New Year. I'll start by saying that this place is a real tourist trap. Having spent the last few days in a lightly developed area, to suddenly be engulfed by this resort town reminiscent of something on the Med, was quite overwhelming. We had fun in the evenings, but there wasn't a massive amount to do during the day due to the choppy seas, and we had to stay there till after Tet - which as it turned out was a good thing due to the major party atmosphere in the town! Again, the food was excellent, the people we met were all friendly and we did have a great time. Although one barmaid really struggled with my name, and in the end opted for calling me 'Chris' the whole time.

Our one dread was the forthcoming 12 hour bus journey upto Hoi An...

Posted by Glug 05:37 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

sunny

We arrived in Phnom Penh by bus, but thankfully the road from Siem Reap is tarmac, not dirt track. And the bus was newer, air conditioned, and had more leg space - a good thing when you're 6ft 4! Our friends Niall and Tini travelled with us on this route, and stayed with us for our time there.

Lucky Number 11 Guesthouse on the lake was our chosen home for our 4 day stay. The room was comfortable - and we were getting to like having cold showers all the time. The view from the pier was superb, especially for watching the sunset across the lake. And the food and people were wonderful and helpful in sorting everything out. One thing though, a lot of the guesthouses have bathrooms that feature showers and sinks that drain straight onto the floor - meaning if you not quite with it, you get wet feet or trousers when brushing your teeth or generally using the sink.

Phnom Penh was quite a contrast to Siem Reap, with everywhere being a lot more built up, and all the roads heaving with bikes and street sellers. I particularly enjoyed Central Market, a massive domed structure in the centre of town featuring stalls selling everything imaginable at knock-down prices.

We were also starting to learn that there's a few things you need to know about the road system in Phnom Penh in particular, but most of Southeast Asia appears to have variations on this theme:

You can drive both ways down one way streets, on either side of the road. It's your choice.

Roundabouts feature 2 way, no-one has right-of way traffic flows where pedestrians are expected to cross through the middle, not across the peripheral roads.

The bigger the vehicle, the more right of way it has - most people are on scooters.

When passing a vehicle, bib the horn as many times as humanly possible, often to the point the poor thing is giving up. And the bigger the vehicle the bigger the horn - ear damaging when riding on a open sided tuk-tuk!

You turn left by driving into the oncoming taffic till someone stops.

You cross the road by doing something akin to Marla Singer in Fight Club, by wandering into the traffic making everyone swerve round you. Large vehicles provide good cover for this dangerous manouevre!

Traffic lights are optional.

As are headlights at night!

Needless to say, we didn't attempt to drive on these roads!

In the south of the city, there's the S21 Genocide Museum, which is the original school where the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered thousands of men, women and children wiping out whole families in the process. It was a very sobering and shocking site, made worse by not really knowing it had happened before we went there! More reading will be required to fully understand what went on.

Some 15km outside of town - about 40 minutes on the bumpy roads in a tuk-tuk - is the killing fields, where thousands of the victims were executed and buried. The site now features the open holes, and a memorial containing the skulls of around 8,000 of the victims.

I also took to my usual habit of wandering around the streets randomly. I find this a great way of seeing places, and finding things that you wouldn't otherwise find in the guidebook, such as the rollerink and fairground tucked away to the South. I don't think the locals were used to seeing a Westerner wandering the streets as I was, as most tourists seem to stick to certain areas. It was nice as people would say hello to you - including the slightly annoying scooter taxis that seemed baffled by me wanting to actually walk instead of riding a bike!

We also sampled the nightlife, starting off with some friends in the Guesthouse, and then moving onto Heart of Darkness - which, believe it or not, is not a goth club! It featured cheesy music, locals hustling the tourists on the pool table, and the seemingly obligatory dirty old men. But, we did have a good laugh, particularly when Niall did a cartwheel on the stage which involved him finishing off planted in the middle of a nearby table, and me trying to persuade the bouncers that despite his somewhat compromised position and inability to talk or walk, that he was infact, not drunk.

Phnom Penh was a wonderful place to and I'm glad we got the chance to meet the lovely people that live there. Our one regret on leaving for Vietnam was that we didn't spend longer there, or visit Sihanoukville (a beach resort to the South), which is a favourite with the locals!

Posted by Glug 05:36 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Siem Reap and Angkor, Cambodia

Visiting the magnificent temples of Angkor, we discovered a whole new world.

sunny 30 °C

We arrived in Cambodia slightly nervous as so many people had told us it was a slightly dodgy place at times. The road in didn't help matters! It had to be on of the worst roads ever 'built', and featured a range of potholes, mud and assorted slow traffic that our driver insisted on vearing across to pass other vehicles. Thankfully, though the bus arrived in one piece - but only just I think! We also heard one horror story from the day before where a bridge had needed repairs, causing the usual 8 hour (sore bum after that), to take 18 hours... Thankfully we missed that!

Our first day, we headed into the temples bristling with excitment after seeing a documentary on Discovery the night before. We had 2 mopeds - the preferred form of 'taxi' here - and after buying our passes - $40 for 3 days - we headed straight to Angkor most famous temple, Angkor Wat. It was amazing actually being there! The place is truly magnificent, and everyone should go and see it if they get the chance! We wandered freely around in the temple, climbing the stupidly steep stairs - worse was to come though.

Next, our drivers took us to the ancient capital of Angkor Thom, where we saw our favourite temple, Bayon. The main feature of this is that all of the towers have 4 faces, facing the 4 points of the compass. But what made it even better was the hap-hazard way it's been built, creating a labyrinth of passageways.

After wandering around the rest of the capital, we moved onto Ta Keo which is an unfinished temple. The towers are squared off, with no decoration, and even steeper steps than before! Coming down them was quite frightening, but worth the effort for the fantastic view it afforded from the top!

Next, we went to Ta Prohm, which in my opinion was one of the more interesting temples as the Jungle has started to reclaim it. Trees are growing out of and on top of the buildings, creating an almost alien landscape within the temple.

We finished the day off, watching the sunset from the top of Phnom Bakheng - the only hill in the area. Sadly, it seemed most of the tourists in the area also watched the sunset.

The next day, we went further afield - and sitting on the back of a scooter for an hour on dirt tracks is very painful! We started with the waterfall at Kbal Spean, which mainly features some ancient carvings and butterflies (a lot of them!)

Next, we went to Banteay Srei, which is one of the smaller temples, but also the most intricately decorated and intact of them all. After lunch, we then moved onto East Mebon - sorry, but by this point I was starting to get templed out. Next came Neak Pean, which was different as it featured a shrine set in the centre of a resevoir, surrounded by 4 smaller resevoirs.

Our final temple was Preah Khan, which blew us away. First of all for it's shear scal and complexity, and for the state of the disrepair it's in. This one hasn't so much been claimed back by the jungle, but age is taking it's toll on the structures, making it a great place to wander around inside and get almost lost.

Siem Reap and the ruins are amazing, and I can't recommend going there enough!

Posted by Glug 23:31 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Tokyo

An amazing place, that's impossible to comprehend. We loved it!

sunny 10 °C

We stayed in Tokyo for 4 days, which was enough to see most of what the city has to offer, but in no way have we experienced it. The city is simply huge! No, immense! No... It's a toughie to describe. Imagine the scale of New York, with the spread of London, the colours of Bangkok and site ands smells of the best food you've ever eaten, and you get part of the way to understanding it.

The major areas of the city are:

Asakusa - Our hostel was located in this more traditional part of town. The surroundings - with the exception of a few new office building and the Asahi golden blob - are older, low rise. The market was great, and we wandered round the backstreets, finding great places to eat. The temple is huge, and Dan and I used the fortune teller - it was a bad one... My friends, the Motoyama's took us out to dinner in a Shabu-Shabu restaurant. That was an amazing meal! You cook thin cuts of meet and vegetables in boiling water at the table, finishing off the broth with noodles and rice. You have to try this!

Ueno - Another traditional area, surrounded by shops, and the place we first saw the major Western influences - A Starbucks of all things! We wandered round the park here, getting our first taste of the temples we'd be seeing throughout the trip.

Shinuku - Tottenham court road combined with Soho only a lot, lot busier. I can highly recommend going to the government offices here as you can go up to the 41st floor and see mount Fuji (we had a clear day for this). There's also some great food, and gadget shopping - if you're into that, apparently they have the world's largest camera store there.

Shibuya - This is a slightly more upmarket area, comprised of a main street with designer shops, the Yoyogi-koen temple and gardens. The park area was beautiful, and kind of reminded me of being in Central Park with the trees the trees having buildings as a backdrop.  We also found some really nice cafe bars here, but a mission to find them and they're a tad pricey even by London standards.

Central Tokyo - Busy shopping district, with Ginza, one of the most expensive pieces of land in the world. And the sony centre - a great place to see the latest, and biggest Sony gadgets. There's also the Imperial Palace which you can walk around the grounds of - going inside is by invitation only sadly. We did take the opportunity to rest our feet in the spectacular surroundings.

Roppongi - The party centre of Tokyo! Roppongi hills is a fairly new place, and is described as leaving you wondering where everyone over 35 went. We didn't see it during the day, but the evening was a blast! Great place to meet people.

I love Japan. It's so far exceeded my expectations! It's absolutely amazing, and so unlike anywhere else I've been to. Wandering the streets, you constantly checking for and dodging cyclists who seem certain that their bike WILL go through that gap - and for the bike riders out there, they're all single gear, old things that must keep people so fit riding. Amazingly dense buildings, with all the cables running above ground as if they either don't care, or have never had time to put them underground - something like 20% are underground. Car parks that are like something out of Bladerunner - you park your car, and then it's whisked away into the sky by a strange swinging contraption.

The strangest thing that got me to start with was vending machines. They're everywhere, selling everything in hot and cold format. And the choice is amazing! Tea, lemon tea, Japanese tea, tea made by Coca-Cola (they have a big presence here), beer, coffee in 30 different ways... You get the idea.

As you can probably tell, I really, really like it here. The people are so friendly, the food is superb... ahh... The food... So much choice, so little money. We've tried just about everything they have going here - except for the blowfish, will try that next time we're here. The sites, the sounds. It's just a mass of energy everywhere. And no-one complains. My only regrets are not being here longer, and missing seeing the train packers in action in Tokyo. I still find that idea hard to comprehend having used London underground and knowing how much people complain.

Next off, we went to Kyoto, but we're still here, and I'll save writing that for another morning when I can't sleep. Till then...

Posted by Glug 17:28 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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