Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cambodia and China

Oh, dear reader, I’m excruciatingly sorry that it’s been an age since I last posted a blog. You must believe me that the only reason I haven’t put my fingers to my keys is that I’ve just been so very, very busy. However, I am now sat on a train heading from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, and I’ll be here for thirty hours, so this is the opportune time to tell you all about our recent adventures. Since last time we spoke we’ve been through both Cambodia and Beijing, and I’m terribly sorry but I’m going to ramble on about both of them, so you can expect this to be a lot longer than other posts.

I’m currently sat in a small two berth cabin with gold and red patterned seats that convert into beds, the Chinese train conductor is parading the corridors trying to get everything in order and Natalie is napping on the chair in front of me. I can hear the steady, consistent sound of the train rolling over the tracks and Beijing is fading away from outside of the window as the buildings get fewer and fewer and we finally head out into the countryside.

It’s a much more pleasant ride than our bus journey from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Oh, I know I complain but the bus was just long and it felt like we had been travelling forever. Two days straight of long bus journeys really drains you. The bus wasn’t too crowded and we did befriend an Australian whose name was Daniel. He was coming to the end of three months on the road around South East Asia and was gradually making his way back to Bangkok. He had been to Cambodia before and gave us some trusty pointers on what we should expect. Immigration and customs procedures were relatively simple, albeit lengthy and irritating, our passports were escorted off the bus by the bus man (I’ll call him bus man if I want) and when they were returned to us they had shiny, new Cambodian visas pasted inside of them. We were heading to our last stop on our South East Asian circuit.

We arrived in Phnom Penh at about three o’ clock in the afternoon. The sun was beating down on the concrete as we stepped off and unloaded our luggage for the thousandth time. Daniel had a map with him and from what we could decipher we were quite far away from the backpacker strip of hostels, restaurants and bars which is where we were headed in order to find some cheap accommodation. So, we took up a tuk-tuk drivers offer to take us to the riverside. It was great to be back in a tuk-tuk, they don’t’ have them in Vietnam and we had been missing them. Once we were dropped off we walked with Daniel until we found somewhere decent to stay, Daniel stayed in a dorm just across the road from the guesthouse we stayed in. Both the hostel and the guesthouse were run by a pretty decent British guy who helped us out a lot during our stay. That evening we mellowed out and got our things together, put our lives in order and then had some dinner just down the street.

So, it was our first day in Cambodia. A whole multitude of possibilities awaited us, we could walk along the riverside and watch the locals fishing or playing games on the sidewalks, we could go to the National Museum and learn about ancient Angkor and the kingdoms of by gone ages, or we could do what we did do, and visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. Cheerful, I know.

It was raining; the perfect weather for such a sombre excursion. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to both locations and we set off into the city. The city was deserted as we drove past the huge independence monument and many temples and palaces that sit side by side with grey decaying apartment blocks, littered alleyways and corrugated metal shacks. It was deserted because we had come to Cambodia on their biggest national holiday in which they celebrate the lives of their ancestors and seek spiritual reflection and time with their families, it’s very much the Cambodian version of thanksgiving, but no matter, it meant there was no traffic and we sped along the highway about seventeen kilometres out of town, to the killing fields.

Now, I’ll digress a little in a vein attempt to summarise why the killing fields exist and why it was important to visit them. I usually have wikipedia at my side to help me make sure I have all my facts straight when writing these blogs but today I don’t have that luxury so please forgive me if I get any of this slightly wrong, but I like to think I learnt enough to try and communicate it effectively. Here we go:

At the end of the Vietnam War the country (Cambodia) was divided, the Americans had been carpet bombing the country in order to kill any Vietnam refugees who might be trying to flee and spread communism to other parts of Asia, and Cambodia was left to fend for itself. The government was unstable and the military forces depleted. So, the Khmer Rouge stepped up, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, overthrew the government and destroyed what was left of the military forces. Within a day the city was left deserted. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge (a Cambodian communist political party) took charge of Cambodia and set out to put in place what I consider one of the sickest social experiments I have ever seen, or heard about.

He ethnically cleansed the country in order to try and create a perfectly equal socialist republic. To do this he set about killing anyone with a degree, anyone involved with the old government, any doctors, lawyers, basically anybody with the slightest grain of intellect. He then set up what were considered to be self sustaining farming communities across the country and kept people enclosed in these communities by putting landmines everywhere. There are more landmines per square mile in Cambodia than in any country in the world. Sure, you could try and escape if you were living under the regime but if you did chances are you’d get your legs blown off in the process.

Backtrack to the killing of intellectuals and people who opposed the Khmer Rouge. People who were smart or who were in opposition to Pol Pot and his regime were sent to prisons across the country. The biggest of the prisons was called S-21 and is now the genocide museum. I’ll get back to that shortly. Once the Khmer Rouge had tortured as much information out of their prisoners as they could they would be told that they are going to a new camp. They would be shipped onto large lorries after dark and driven (you guessed it) seventeen kilometres down the road. They would then be taken off the back of the lorry and locked up in very small cells. In groups of ten to twenty they would be taken from the cells to the ‘killing fields’ and would all be brutally murdered and buried under cover of darkness. Whilst being killed proper gander music would be playing out of loudspeakers so that nobody around could hear the screams. They killed men, women and children, even babies who were brutally smashed against the side of a tree next to the mass grave. They wouldn’t shoot the prisoners as that would be too loud, so they used a series of awful weapons to get the job done, from axes to knives to farming equipment. It was truly awful and almost unimaginable.

There is no answer to the question: why, or how can a human be that brutal towards another human, it was a dark time and what is left at the killing fields today is a reminder of the brutality that took place there, and a memorial to the seventeen thousand people who lost their lives there. That was just at the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, there are many more across the entire country, mass grave sites where the Khmer Rouge executed thousands of innocent people.

We took an audio tour of the fields which gave a huge insight into what went on there. There is a memorial stupor in the centre where all of the remains of the mass graves that have been dug up now lay. You could put a flower down or light some incense and quietly pay your respects to the deceased. The tour takes you around several sites, where the cells used to be, where the truck used to offload prisoners, and then onto the mass grave sites themselves where still to this day, during the monsoon season, pieces of bone and clothing get washed up from beneath the ground. It was a sombre, saddening but educational visit, one that will be very difficult to forget.

After this we headed to the S-21 prison and visited the genocide museum, it was not very well maintained and basically just gave a further insight into what happened to the prisoners and how they were treated, which I’m sure you can imagine, was awful. There were still blood stains on the floors left over from the atrocities that took place there. We left feeling incredibly depressed and disheartened, we went back to the hostel and got some ice cream and attempted to find some perspective, but unfortunately the ramifications of what took place in the late seventies here is hard to ignore. Even at the killing fields themselves there were limbless men begging. There is poverty all over Cambodia and what is worse is that children get dragged into the problem. There are many street kids, sleeping, working and living on the sidewalks of Phnom Penh, all of them begging for money in dirty clothes, some of whom have lost their parents to landmines that still litter the countryside. As with Laos this is something that is going to take a long time to rectify.

On our second day in Phnom Penh the sun was shining once more so we did all of the more uplifting things that we could have done on our first day. We visited the Royal Museum and got an insight into the Angkor kingdom and what Cambodia used to be like back when it was still called Khmer, many years B.C. The museum was pretty big and interesting to walk around but the highlight for Natalie was that she got to feed the fish. After this we walked through town to see the independence monument and a few temples that caught our eye. Afterwards we walked back along the river and past the royal palace which was closed as the ex-king had died that day and they were having a memorial ceremony. He was no longer the king because he got extradited after the Khmer Rouge took control.

Well, alls well that ends well that’s what I say, and after a glorious dinner at a restaurant that helps take care of street children, we booked our bus to Siem Reap, which is in Northern Cambodia and is home to the infamous Angkor Wat. The bus ride was hellish as usual, loud Cambodian television blaring out during the entire journey, a boy who was feeling motion sickness the whole way, loud screaming children, bumpy roads and uncomfortable seats and before you know it you arrive.

We were picked up from the bus station by the most amazing tuk-tuk driver ever Mr. Ou Hok. He would be our transport go-to man the whole time that we spent in Siem Reap. He dropped us off at our hotel and we checked in, it was such a good place to stay, off in a quiet alley but close enough to town to be able to walk there. The owners gave us a tonne of advice on how to explore the huge Angkor complex straight away, and about an hour later we booked our tuk-tuk ready to watch the sunrise the next day.

Mr. Ou Hok picked us up at four thirty in the morning. I wasn’t actually that tired as I was so excited to finally see Angkor Wat. It truly is one of those places you ‘must see before you die’. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. How beautiful. Mr. Ou Hok dropped us to a spot right in front of the temple where you could see the sunrise, and we walked down and got a position right at the front. The sunrise was one of those “wow!” moments that you can’t quite comprehend you’ve experienced until a few months down the line when you’re back at work and feeling run down and then you remember, “wait, remember that sunrise at Angkor Wat”, and it makes everything okay again. The colour of the sky was effulgent, as things began to get brighter I felt like I was Indiana Jones getting ready to go and discover some lost treasure in the ancient ruins. After sunrise it was time to start exploring. You start with Angkor Wat, the biggest temple in the complex and you can walk there from where you watch the sunrise.

We bumped into two people from our trip here, the Australian lady who we shared a taxi to the train station in Hoi An (about two weeks ago) was snapping photographs at the entrance and we briefly chatted about her travels before leaving her to her own devices, and then just around the corner we bumped into Daniel and we explored Angkor Wat in his company. The building is unbelievably magnificent and awe inspiring and the architecture is intricate and mind boggling. Who built this? How long did it take? Where is the treasure? 

Back in the tuk-tuk and onto the next stop, Angkor Thom which was the ancient city of the Angkor Empire, ruin after ruin and beautiful building after beautiful building, there was a photo opportunity at every turn and the whole place took us hours to explore. Plants and trees had begun to grow in and around the ruins and it started to take on a whole new life, it felt like I was in a Rudyard Kipling book (just I wasn’t in India), the jungle rising from behind ancient carvings and stone sculptures of by-gone kings and queens. Gods no longer worshipped. We were both starting to feel tired as the sun got hotter and hotter but we were so awed by the whole place that we couldn’t wait to get to the next spot. The next spot wasn’t as impressive although still wonderful, it was the old king’s residence and whilst it was beautifully maintained it was very similar to the city we had just explored, so we quickly headed to the queens palace.

The queen’s palace was made famous by the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in the early noughties. It has trees literally growing through and around the whole complex. It’s like the jungle surrounding it wants it back and is consuming the palace. We spent a fair amount of time at this one and marvelled at the trees and the carvings on the walls, and I pretended I was Lara Croft for a while, a more masculine version, of course. A few more stops later and we settled down for lunch and we talked to Mr. Ou Hok for a while about his life and his family. He has four daughters all of them either finished university or attending university, he was a very proud man and he showed us pictures of his daughters and we talked about many things over some chicken, rice and delicious spring rolls.

In the afternoon we went a little farther afield and saw some temples that were not visited by so many tourists, we also stopped off at the landmine museum and learnt about the clean up effort that is going on in the country. By this time it was roughly three o’ clock and we had been templing for hours and hours so it was time to head back after our long day of exploring and pretending to be in an UnCharted video game.

The next day we explored Siem Reap town, visited the fruit bats that live in the park and we ate our first Asian bugs. We picked up some barbequed crickets from a vendor near the fruit bat park and I’m not going to lie to you, they were actually delicious. Once you get over the fact that you’re eating little bugs, and once you’ve picked all of the little legs out from between your teeth they become a protein filled delicious morning snack. Maybe it’s not for everyone.

That was the bulk of our Cambodian trip and besides some exploring of the markets and little alleyways around Siem Reap hopefully it gives an insight into our stay there. My back is hurting my friends and I’ve been crouched over this keyboard for some time, but fear not, I will continue, and let you know what happened next on this monumental journey.

Mr. Ou Hok gave us a ride to the airport the next morning and we boarded our flight to Beijing. It was actually two flights as we changed planes in Guangzhou. The flights were tiresome but pleasant enough, I suppose, and we arrived in Beijing on time and a little overwhelmed. It was much cooler in Beijing than what we were used too down in the Southern Hemisphere. That wasn’t the only difference, where did all the English signs go? There really isn’t much help for the English speaker in Beijing, especially compared to the tourist ready places we had been used to, but no problem, we hailed a taxi, somehow communicated to him where we wanted to go, and we were off.

It was about this time I started to feel like something wasn’t quite right in my belly, (oh don’t blame the crickets) but I decided to ignore it for now. Our hostel was located down a small ancient alleyway (hutong) and it was beautiful. It’s an old converted one hundred year old courtyard and it was so authentically Chinese that I felt like we had stepped back into ancient China. It was reminiscent of our trip to Kyoto earlier in the year. We were hungry when we arrived and even though it was very late we did go and get some food around a lake close to the hostel. Then to bed, ready for day one of China. Something I’d been looking forward too for a long time.

I was still feeling a little groggy in the morning but it was nothing that was going to put me off of travelling around for the day. We were going to do the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square on our first day but as it was raining we opted for the zoo instead. We didn’t just go to the zoo for the sake of it, we had a mission and that mission was Chinese Pandas. In fact, we didn’t really go around any of the zoo, we literally went there to see the pandas and they were worth it, they had a huge collection of pandas and they were so gorgeous and so cute that I thought I wasn’t going to die of a cute attack. You can’t come to China and not see pandas, right? That would just be, wrong. The rain had really picked up after we had got out of the panda kingdom so we took shelter in the aquarium. Beijing Aquarium is actually pretty high on the list of best things to do in the city but it was a little disappointing in my books, I mean it a big aquarium and it had many sea creatures and fish within it, but it just wasn’t quite as good as we had been led to believe it would be, but no matter, we were hiding from the rain so we took advantage of the shelter.

Next stop was Olympic village, the main reason to visit this area in the Northern district of Beijing was too be able to go: “na na na na na na” at my sister. She’s big on the whole Olympic gig and the Beijing stadium is a pretty cool building. We also saw the water cube and spent some time walking around and watching everyone flying kites and running up and down the boulevard between the birds nest and the water cube. Everything seemed pretty neat and tidy there and it was a glimpse into modern Beijing and where the city might be heading in the future. The Chinese government approved a plan known as the Beijing Master Plan 2020 that will completely revitalise Beijing and bring it quickly into the future and Olympic Park is the first sign that the plan is moving steadily forwards. The rest of the Beijing that we experienced felt very ancient, small narrow streets, old buildings, Chinese tiled rooftops and lanterns. The Olympic area felt like a slice of Shanghai had made it up to Beijing. You could imagine what the atmosphere must have been like during the games, the boulevard full of athletes and spectators, the hustle and bustle of it all, but it wasn’t very busy when we went, must have been the rain.

After getting drenched in yet another downpour we eventually found a taxi to take us back to our hostel. After getting cleaned up we decided to go to a traditional Peking Duck restaurant which had been recommended to us. It was actually reasonably priced considering it was by far the most posh restaurant either of us had ever set foot in. There was a traditional Chinese hand paper performance on a stage in the centre of the room, and we were sat off to one side. We ordered half a duck and some pancakes (a traditional way of eating duck) and before we knew it a whole duck was brought out on a silver tray and started to be carved up by a trained duck carver. Our server then showed us how to eat the duck the traditional Chinese way and I felt like I was having a rather authentic Chinese dining experience. Worth the trip. Although, by the end of the meal that groggy tummy from earlier had turned into something catastrophic, I couldn’t even finish all of my delicious duck, I spent most of the night in and out of the toilet but luckily that was the worst of it, whilst I’m still not back one hundred percent I’m feeling much better now, it did take a couple of days recovery.

That didn’t stop us doing what we set out to do on our second day. We collected our train tickets from our agency first, and then we explored the silk market and I haggled for about an hour for a very special gift for my father, he had better love it! Then we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square was massive and in fact so was the Forbidden City, we spent a long time walking around here. The architecture reminded me a lot of Korean palaces and buildings but it did have its differences, after a time the many grand halls did get repetitive but it was magnificent and it’s hard to describe the sheer magnitude of the place, it truly was gigantic. You can just imagine the tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square, and lines of soldiers marching through the Forbidden City.

The next day was the big one. The one you’ve all been waiting for. Roll up, roll up, the great wall of China. I could just write ‘it was great’ and it would sum it up quite nicely but I’ll go into a little more detail despite the fact that I’ve been writing flat out for over two hours. We got picked up super early and eventually got to the great wall at around ten o’ clock. We didn’t go to Badling (the tourist spot) as we had heard that it gets so crowded there that you can’t really enjoy it as much, so we decided to head to a more secluded area of the wall and indeed a more ancient area where we could hike the great wall for a solid four hours, scouring up and down over the mountains and watching the great wall fade away over the hills beneath the horizon. It stretched as far as the eye could see. We hiked the wall with two friends we had made at the hostel, Sophie from Bristol and Marika from the Netherlands. It was tiring, in places you had to scour hundreds of ancient steps to get to a tower at the top and then go straight back down the other side, it was totally worth it though, another experience that you could call a ‘wow’ moment. It’s a shame that tourism has taken over some parts of the wall to the extreme that it has but we were lucky to catch a glimpse of the majesty of the thing without having to barge through any crowds.

We went to the night market on our last night in the city and had some more bugs; we ate grasshoppers, secqatours and some baby pigeons. When in China, you’ve got too, right? I can’t say my belly is appreciating my culinary choices though. That’s nothing to what they actually had on offer, you could eat starfish, scopions, sheep penis, sheep testicles, snake, spider and seahorse. I’m sure there were other culinary delights on offer that we passed up, but we certainly got a flavour of Chinese cuisine, what with the Peking Duck.

Well, that was China and we’re onto the Trans Siberian leg of the journey, next stop Mongolia. I’ll try and post more efficiently in the future. I’ll be posting this when I get to Mongolia, so you’ll know that if you’re reading this, that’s’ probably where I am.

TTFN. Ta ta for now.

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Paris of the East

We spent a good forty minutes wandering around the winding streets of Dalat before we finally found our hotel. When we did we were pleasantly surprised that the hotel was just what we were looking for. It was clean, friendly and in a pretty good location despite it being so difficult to find. There was one small issue when the bathroom decided to attack me, I was merrily having a shower when the light blew up. I think it knocked out all the lights on our floor of the hotel. Other than that, no complaints.

Coming to Dalat was a last minute decision, we had heard so many negative reviews of our intended destination, Nha Trang, that we started looking at good alternatives. Dalat is a small city in the central highlands of Vietnam dubbed the Paris of the East. It was originally an escape from the hustle and bustle of Saigon for the French during their colonialism. They built beautiful villas and huge wide highways across the entire town. As we drove into town it was clear we were entering somewhere completely different. It was like a cross between a quaint Vietnamese city and a town in the French Alps. The city is smack in the middle of a huge pine forest, and pine covered hills stretch out in every direction, the air is cool as the altitude is so high (at night we even wore long sleeves), and there is a tranquil lake in the center of town. It has a reputation for being a little avant-garde and kitsch, but that’s right up my street anyway. We were sold on the place from the minute we saw the lake sparkling underneath the sunset. The majority of tourists that visit Dalat are actually Vietnamese so it was nice to divert from the Western tourist trail for a while and experience somewhere more quintessentially Vietnamese, even though it felt more like Europe.

A fine example of the kitsch and niche style of the place is the ‘crazy house’, this was the first stop on our first day of exploring the town. Designed by the daughter of an independence war hero the ‘crazy house’ is a fantasy house art project that bears similarity to Dr. Seuss books, it felt quite Disneylandish. There are several different rooms of the house that you can walk around, some of which aren’t even finished yet. We spent a good hour here taking photographs and gawping at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. One of the most striking things about the crazy house and indeed the whole of Dalat seemed to be the invasion of the killer spiders. If you looked up at the sky from beneath the trees of the crazy house you could see streams of webs with giant spiders in them, spiders with yellow stripes are usually best avoided and I won’t lie, they freaked me out. Natalie was fascinated of course, and I had to drag her away from the insects, fish and lizards on many occasions during our stay. Once we had finished exploring the Vietnamese version of Wonderland, and once I had managed to convince Natalie that the spiders are dangerous and we should probably leave them alone we headed out.  

We took a taxi across town (and he didn’t even try to scam us, win) and arrived at Thien Vien Truc Lan (it’s a bit of a mouthful) in fact, I would have liked a mouthful of some delicious food but we arrived just as siesta time hit so we had to wait an hour before everything reopened. From here you can take a cable car to a hilltop monastery deep in the mountains and you can also visit a natural lake. We waited for the cable car to start running again, Natalie played with a worm (I might have her institutionalised) and we let our tummies rumble.

When we eventually got on the cable car it was clear that it was worth the wait, it was a long cable car ride to the monastery but it was incredibly scenic, the beautiful greenery sitting alongside pristine winding roads and Vietnamese farmland was beautiful from high up above. When we got to the monastery we strolled around for a while and did the clich├ęd tourist things and then headed out into the amazing pine forest to find the lake. It really didn’t feel like we were in Vietnam, and if it wasn’t for all the Asians I might have believed that we weren’t. The forest was spectacular and it did feel quite European until we got to the lake and saw the dog restaurant on the corner. Yeah, yeah the Vietnamese eat dogs, so do the Koreans, can we move on please? As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese will eat anything (see previous blogs).

We got some beef pho on the lakeside (no dog), it was pretty delicious, but the view was the really stunning thing. Soaring hills covered in pine trees stretching upwards from beneath the gentle water, several small boats cruising along the lake and clouds creating soft mist on the peaks of the mountains, it’s what I used to think Asia would look like before I came here. We slowly made our way back stopping off at a silk shop on the way and chatting to the owner for a while. That night we had dinner on the lake in the city and I tried a deer stir fry whilst Natalie lapped up some sweet and sour squid. Glutinous pigs.

The next day we took it pretty easy and we walked around the lake and eventually ended up at the Dalat Flower Park. More Disneylandish kitsch I hear you cry, well, yes, but it was pretty and we spent a good couple of hours walking around the giant flower park with views across the whole city, we swung on some swings and we smelt some flowers, we didn’t go for a horse ride on a Cinderella carriage, but we could have had we felt the need. After the flower park we did go for a swan ride on the lake, not a real swan, it was one of those cyclo boats shaped like a swan in an effortless attempt to be romantic. I tried to annoy Natalie by getting her wet but I didn’t have much luck, as usual she was too interested in the frogs and dead fish floating on the surface of the lake. Rather unnerving dead fish might I add, the lake didn’t look at all polluted but the fish told a different story. It was gorgeous though and I got a little sunburnt from the whole affair. We were pretty beat by the end of the day, the lake was bigger than it looked and we must have walked and cycled for miles before we finally got back to the hotel.

The next morning we hopped on our eight hour bus ride to Saigon, oh joy. The ride actually went pretty quickly thanks to the Ricky Gervais podcasts and a pretty good view out of the window. We got dropped off right on the backpacker strip in Saigon which was perfect. One old lady in floral pyjamas pulled us over and told us she had a room for ten dollars, in for a penny in for a pound, we took a look. Nooooo, thank you. The rooms looked pretty shabby and the whole place had an untrustworthy vibe, so we walked around for a bit and eventually found a lovely hotel for fifteen dollars, with all the amenities one could ask for, hot water, air con and finally some decent wifi, Facebook was still blocked though. Vietnam has a firewall much like China that blocks access to certain websites that the government doesn’t like, Facebook is one of them. There are ways around it of course but it’s always slow and glitchy. We didn’t see much of Saigon as we were only there for the night, we headed out the next morning towards Cambodia, and we made it. Cambodia is a story for next time, but we are here and having a great time, happy to be in yet another new and exciting place. Let’s just hope I won’t have to pull Natalie away from too many insects… 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Central Vietnam

Hue is the capital of the central province of Thua Thien and was the imperial capital city during 1802 – 1945. Much of the imperial city still remains and can be found in area called the citadel on one side of the wide perfume river, on the other side of the river is what’s called the new city which is where most of the guesthouses are and also where most local businesses set up shop. We found an amazing guesthouse (one of the best we have stayed in so far) for a decent price in the new city just off of the main backpacker strip. Most cities throughout South East Asia which sit on tourist trail seem to have a street dedicated solely to catering to the whims of backpackers, and Hue is no different.

It was great to be out of the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and we quickly set out to explore Hue. We walked from our hotel across a steel bridge to the old side of the river and approached the citadel. The citadel was huge and you could walk for hours and hours amongst the many ruins. Most of the citadel was destroyed during the Vietnam war but the people of Hue have set about renovating the entire place. Some buildings still remain, the palace being the most prominent and other buildings are nothing more than rubble. It was interesting to see so many Vietnamese workers painting and constructing, they really won’t be beaten. It was sad to see a poor elephant within the grounds of the citadel being used to give tourists rides, this was probably the first time we had seen this since learning about the industry in Chiang Mai and we were disappointed to see it going on here, but there is very little to be done. The citadel was an afternoon well spent but it was piping hot and we were tired from our fourteen hour train journey so after a little exploring we headed on back to our hotel.

Outside of visiting the citadel we mainly used Hue to relax. We hadn’t just chilled out for a day in such a long time that we decided we had earned a day of rest. We did go for a stroll on our second day and ended up in a rural village just outside of the city. We could hear children's singing coming from a school and we saw people in Vietnamese straw hats farming their fields. Mostly we just went for food and relaxed around the hotel though, nothing interesting enough to spend too much time on here. On checking out of our hotel the following morning we were humbled to receive beautiful gifts from the owner. She was a lovely old lady who gave us two magnets and a bracelet each and wished us well on our journey, thanking us for staying at her hotel. We took a bus for four hours through the countryside to our next destination Hoi An.

Hoi An is also in central Vietnam in Quang Nam province and is much smaller than Hue. It was recently recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site and it certainly lives up to the title. Hoi An ancient town spans about three blocks from a quaint river and is a spectacularly well-preserved trading town. It dates back well into the 15th century and some of the buildings whilst obviously renovated still stand today. When we arrived we had a destination in mind, a hotel that had been recommended to us by our previous hotel. It took about ten steps towards town before the heavens opened, our shoddy umbrellas didn’t help much, by the time we got to the hotel, the entrance was flooded. Hoi An is renowned for its flooding, it even holds the title of worst flooding in recent history. The hotel was so accommodating though, for a budget hotel this place was amazing. When we arrived we were offered home made tea and coconut cakes and we were shown to our room, after that they invited us to dinner with everyone in the hotel completely free of charge. This is almost unheard of in budget hotels, this wasn’t some resort, this was a small little family business and they were just so nice. We sat at the table and talked to all of the other travelers  There were two guys from England travelling through Vietnam for two weeks, another couple from England who were doing an extended trip much like Natalie and I, a couple from Germany who were way into their adventure travel, and a solo traveller from Belfast. The guy from Belfast was driving a motorcycle from South to North Vietnam. He had a few interesting stories to tell, but most of all what was interesting to hear about were the road laws, basically there aren’t any. It is however illegal to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam without a licence, or if you’re a foreigner. So, the police like to do random checks, usually the fine is 200,000dong but police have been known to charge foreigners way more than this and because of language barriers and the like there is really nothing you can do outside of paying up.

The food was delicious all of which was home-made and included lots of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. We spent the night in the hotel to avoid the rain and by the time we awoke in the morning the weather had taken a turn for the better. The sun was out and it was boiling, the hottest it had been across our whole trip. We bought a ticket which allowed us entry into five of the tourist attractions in the ancient town. We went to the museum of history and culture, an old assembly hall, an old house, and a manufacturing workshop. We still have our fifth ticket, unused. The architecture was all beautiful and although we didn’t spend too long at each attraction we got a flavour of what life used to be like in the ancient town. You could walk around the town for ages, there are spiraling narrow alleyways that meander along to hidden shops and secret restaurants, there are small houses with lanterns hanging outside, old markets with old ladies selling fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s tough to give a true sense of how it felt to walk along the lanes and sidewalks. By night you could buy candle lanterns and float them along the river, the whole of the ancient town was lit up by lanterns and bicycles meandered along the pathways and over ancient bridges, it was like stepping back in time, just with souvenir shops.   

On our second day we went to the beach, and despite seeing a dead dog washed up on the shore without its head, and plenty of dead fish along the same lines it was rather picturesque, they were probably washed up because of the storm we got caught in, you can read about the storm at the end of my previous blog. We had seafood on the beach and walked along looking at all the sea life (mostly dead sea life) but really it was a good time despite getting caught in a huge thunderstorm. We spent a lot of evenings strolling around ancient town and soaking up the atmosphere of the place. Hoi An is truly a unique place an we’re glad we decided to go there as originally we hadn’t planned too.

We also decided to change our plans for our next destination and skip Nha Trang, a coastal beach town that caters to tourists whose sole purpose of visiting the place is catching a suntan. We decided instead to head to Dalat a cool and serine mountain city, something completely different from the other places we had experienced in Vietnam. We left Hoi An late at night and shared a taxi to Danang (Vietnam’s third largest city about forty minutes out of Hoi An) with Louise from Australia and Sarah and Stefan from Germany, we have met a lot of Germans on this trip. Sebina from Luang Prabang has even invited us to see her for a weekend in Hamburg which we may take her up on sometime. 

The train to Nha Trang was about eleven hours and unfortunately we couldn’t get in a four-berth soft sleeper as there were none left, so we were booked into a six-berth hard sleeper. We were in a carriage with four Vietnamese people and by gum were they annoying. Not only did they get up at 5:30am for breakfast (which stunk) seriously who has pot noodle for breakfast? They played music from their phones and were just generally annoying, but we also had the top bunks which meant we had absolutely no head room at all. Luckily, we did sleep, a little but by the time we got to Nha Trang the next morning we were knackered. We only had about four hours in Nha Trang before we caught our bus to Dalat, we spent the time relaxing on the beach and trying to regain our energy. We were glad we had decided to skip Nha Trang as there really wasn’t much to do there and it wasn’t really our scene.

We’re in Dalat now and this place is gorgeous. We made a really good decision to come here and we’ve just had one of our best days so far, which I’ll be sure to write about in my next post. As usual I’ve written this very quickly so you’ll have to excuse any errors. We don’t have much longer left in Vietnam and I think we’re going to spend most of our time here in Dalat as it is so amazing. I hope that’s given you at least a small insight into what we’ve been up too, we have many more stories to tell and we’re still enjoying ourselves. I think it's time for dinner now, I can't get enough of the food here. So,  bon appetit, or as the Vietnamese chopstick holders like to say 'good appetite'.  

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Bay (Hanoi - Part 2)

Ha Long Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and consists of over 2000 limestone islands all scattered about a beautifully picturesque bay. The bay is about a four hour drive outside of Hanoi and we were picked up at about 8am, we didn’t get to the bay until about 12:30am. It was a cramped mini-van journey through the Vietnamese countryside but it was pleasant enough. We aren’t really used to booking onto package tours but it’s really the only way you can ‘do’ Ha Long Bay. The tour companies have kind of a monopoly on the whole thing and they make it incredibly difficult to travel independently here. We were happy enough though and when we arrived at Ha Long City pier we were quickly put on a boat that took us to our ‘junk’ (a small cruise ship).

When we arrived we were given a welcome drink and we sat down with some other people on the tour, we talked and were eventually served some lunch before we checked into our cabins. Our cabin was pretty small but was just what we needed. We had a double bed and an ensuite bathroom which according to other people on the boat was more than what most had.

The boat was of medium size, there were about twelve cabins and there were three levels, the sun deck on the top which was for relaxing and admiring the views, the main deck below it which was where the restaurant and bar were and also where our room was, and then there was the below deck where most of the cabins were and where you could sit on the edge of the boat, and if the light was working (which it wasn’t) you can go squid fishing. The sea was a perfect crystal blue colour and it glistened in the sunlight, but you could tell that the water was polluted, there was litter floating around and a few patches of oil dotted here and there, I guess that’s what happens when you open these places up to so many tourists. The amount of boats in the bay was incomprehensible.

For the first leg of the trip we just looked out at the bay from the sun deck, watching the world go by. It was a pleasant experience and a stark contrast to the past three days which we had spent in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The first stop was a small fishing village, it was literally just small houses lined up along an elevated wooden platform. It was from here that we went kayaking around the bay. Natalie didn’t want to kayak for some obscure (fear of drowning) reason so I teamed up with a Austrian man that we had befriended on the boat. He was on holiday with his Thai wife; they both live in Pattaya, Thailand, he was a pretty smart guy and he had certainly been kayaking before. It was pretty easy to pick up and we probably kayaked further out into the bay than anyone else on our tour. We kayaked around caves and the limestone cliffs and got in the way of a few cruise ships whilst we were at it.

After we had kayaked we moved onto see some caves. Very different caves to what Natalie and I were used to, the cave we explored was huge. Unfortunately the tour guide was more interested in pointing out what the rocks looked like (a duck, an elephant) than actually telling us anything scientific or geological about the cave. All I can say is that it was huge, bigger than the larger cave we explored in Laos, but was much more prepared for tourists, even the darkest corners of this place were lit up with florescent lights. We were rushed through the cave in order (I suppose) to cram as many things into our tour as possible. There were spectacular views from the top of the cave across the whole bay and as usual everyone on the tour scuffled along to have their photographs taken. I don’t mind people having their photographs taken, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the memory and it’s nice to show friends and family where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. However, from what I’ve seen tourists are too busy taking photos that they’ve forgotten to actually make memories. There was a girl in the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi who was standing next to exhibits and having her boyfriend take photographs of her, but she wouldn’t for one second even look at the exhibit itself, let alone read it. The same happened here in Ha Long Bay, people seemed to be looking into the camera lenses more than they were looking out into the bay. It’s absurd.

It was getting pretty late by now and the boat cruised along to a small beach beneath a viewpoint ready to catch the sunset. We hurried to the top of the cliff but unfortunately we were just a little late and didn’t quite catch the sun setting beneath the horizon, but the views from the top were still well worth the climb. We eventually wound up chilling out on the beach for a while before jumping back on the boat and sailing to our anchor point for the evening. I’m sorry if I’m not using correct boating terminology but anchor point makes sense to me, I’m sure you can figure it out.

That evening dinner was served and we sat on the sun deck for a while and watched the night roll on by, we were kind of disappointed that we couldn’t go squid fishing but it was nice to relax after our steep climb up the cliff. The next morning we cruised around the bay until it was time to jump back on the bus and head back to Hanoi. We could have spent two night on the boat and gone to Cat Ba island, which is a national park within the bay, but we didn’t want to spend the extra money and we felt like our one night tour gave us a great experience. The bay was amazing and despite the tour being more interested in pointing out similarities between rocks and animals we’re glad we splashed out to see it. There was more of this on the cruise back to Ha Long City where we were informed that two rocks that apparently look like two kissing chickens is the symbol of Ha Long Bay. What a joke, we thought. Apparently not, the rocks that look like chickens even appear on the 200,000 dong note, it seems like they really think those chickens are a big deal.

We got back to Hanoi in the early evening and took a walk around the lake before settling down for dinner. We went to a French restaurant in the middle of the old quarter whose overweight owner had been sat outside every single night and whenever we walked past would say ‘bonjour’ so despite its steep prices we gave it a shot. The food was delicious, I had some French sausages and old style potatoes which was a nice change to the Vietnamese food we had been eating so much of.

Our last day in Hanoi wasn’t really very interesting, we walked to the old cathedral in the middle of the old quarter and then we did some shopping before packing our things up and heading to the train station to catch our train to Hue. Hanoi train station is very interesting and they don’t make it very easy for tourists. There were no real signs that directed you where to go or what platform your train left from but after approaching some people that appeared to work there we eventually figured out where we needed to be. To get to our train we actually had to walk over some train tracks (that’s normal here). We entered our cabin and threw our bags down. This train was much better than the train we had got in Thailand, we actually had our own cabin which we shared with two other guys who were travelling solo, I only remember Andrew’s name, he had been travelling for just over a year mainly through Eastern Europe and was on his way back to Australia through South East Asia and the other guy was an English teacher in China doing a trip similar to ours before he headed back home to the UK. We slept pretty well on the train despite it occasionally coming to grinding halts, and we woke up at our destination in Hue. Travelling by sleeper train is the way to go when going long distance as it doesn’t even feel like you’ve been travelling anywhere and it saves you paying for a night in a guesthouse. We’re booked onto another train tomorrow but we’re in a six-berth cabin next time so we’ll see how that compares to the soft-sleeper four berth.

I’ll write about Hue and our current location Hoi An in detail when I post my next blog, but I did just want to write about something that happened to us just a few hours ago when we caught in a huge thunderstorm. We were lounging about on a beach when we saw the storm approaching across the islands in the distance. We didn’t think much of it, but we got up and started walking further down the beach, at this point the sun was still ablaze and we didn’t think the storm would actually hit for a while. However, it started to rain and before we knew it the heavens had opened. There was no shelter anywhere and we just had to walk in the rain and suck it up. We were drenched within seconds, the sun cream I had put on was pouring into my eyes making them itch beyond belief. We took a little shelter under a palm tree but it really didn’t work so we just had to start walking back towards the restaurants at the start of the beach, which were very far away. We seemed to be the only two idiots left on the beach as everyone else around were staying in resort hotels lined up along the coast. We were all alone getting drenched. It took us a good twenty minutes in the storm before we finally got some shelter and we were without any towels to get ourselves dry as the towel we had in our bag was wet from the storm. Luckily the lady who owned this particular restaurant took pity on us and gave us towels and a good seafood lunch. Moral of the story, always be prepared when travelling in the wet season as that beautiful sun can disappear in seconds. The waves were amazing during the storm and I took a little dip as the sea was warmer than the rain. So, not exactly the relaxing day on the beach we were hoping for but not bad either, it was a fun experience and we laughed about it the whole way through.

Vietnam has been a great place to travel, the cities are exciting and the countryside and the small towns are beautiful, relaxing and steeped in history. We’ve avoided scams, something that Vietnam is well renowned for, and we’re getting more and more confident as we travel on. We only have two more weeks left in this piping hot area of the world before we fly up to China and things will get cool again. I’ll be sure to blog as much as I can before then. Thank you for continuing to read these posts, they are often rushed and I apologize for not putting more effort in, I hope they still let you guys know that we’re having a great time and trying not to miss any opportunities. 


Thursday, 4 October 2012

The City (Hanoi - Part 1)

We caught our flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam in the late afternoon, it was quite possibly the best flight either Natalie or I had ever taken. It took about forty-five minutes, we were served a drink, a sandwich and a cake and the seats were nice and comfortable. We landed on time, travelled quickly through arrivals and we were greeted by our driver who took us to our hostel.

Now, let me tell you about this sham of a hostel. The Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ma May Street had received some pretty decent reviews, thus giving it a pretty good rating on tripadvisor, however, this was a hostel that masqueraded itself as a backpackers hostel run for backpackers by backpackers when really it was just a sneaky way to rip you off. It is owned by two obnoxious Australians and the downstairs reception area was a rave from early in the morning until late in the evening, not a moments peace. We were in a room with a bunch of gap-year schmucks whose only purpose for being in Hanoi seemed to be to get wasted. We were ripped off when we brought our train tickets through them, by a pretty large amount and when we asked to upgrade to a private room we were quoted a whopping fifty dollars. So, we left. We found an amazing hotel about three doors down that for a private double bed en suite room was the same price as what we were paying in the loud and uncomfortable dorm room. We were thus, finally settled into Hanoi.

Outside of the rough accommodation (which we cleared up) Hanoi is an amazing city. It’s busy. Busier than any city I’ve ever been in. This is nicely exemplified by the traffic. The majority of vehicles on Hanoi’s streets are mopeds, scooters, motorcycles and cyclos (as the locals call them) and they are freakin’ everywhere. To cross the road in Hanoi or indeed anywhere else in Vietnam you put your life in the hands of the hundreds of oncoming motorbikes and cyclos. There are no pedestrian crossings, there is no waiting for a gap in the traffic (it will never come) you literally step out into the road and the traffic will move around you. You walk at a steady pace, you do not stop (very dangerous), you do not speed up or slow down (that way the cyclos and cars can judge where you will be and effectively manoeuvre themselves around you), and you cross the road. Crazy.

We got used to the hustle and bustle pretty quickly and we had an amazing time. Hanoi feels a lot more European than any of the other cities that we’ve been in so far and we felt a lot more comfortable here than in Thailand or Laos. The architecture felt strangely familiar (mostly French) and the language was readable as it used roman characters, therefore navigation was simple.

We went to the Hoa La Prison on our first day, this prison was originally used by the French during their colonial occupation of Vietnam, and then later it was used by the Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war that were captured from downed aircraft. They even claim (on show near the end of the tour) to have John McCains flight suit, but whether it’s actually his or not, well, your guess is as good as mine. So, like most museums and memorials we’ve seen dotted about South East Asia this wasn’t much different in the sense that it’s being used as a propaganda tool to make tourists feel sympathetic about the hardships the country had to endure. Whilst I’m sure that some terrible things happened at this prison there is no way that the Vietnamese treated the Americans as well as the museum suggests. The death room was quite atmospheric and gave a small insight into what it was like being a prisoner there, and all in all it was a worthwhile tour.

Next on the list was the Women’s Museum and this was a little more balanced than the prison and depicted the story of Vietnamese women’s history. It was fairly interesting but what was most interesting was a video about street vendors on display on the third floor. I had no idea how dreadful the life of a Vietnamese street vendor is. They are usually working miles away from home in the big cities raising money to support their families, they might go home every two months and will bring approximately twenty dollars with them that they earnt on the job. They’ll get up at 3am to go to the market and buy their goods at a cheap price somewhere out of town, they will then head into town ready to start selling bright and early in the morning. They won’t finish until they’ve got rid of a vast majority of their stock this could be anywhere from 5pm until as late as 10pm, then they will go back to their sleeping quarters (usually a small concrete room shared with about fifteen other vendors) to sleep ready for the next day. How different our lives are, huh?

That afternoon we went to see the water puppet show at (low and behold) the water puppet theatre. This is an ancient traditional Vietnamese art which involves telling traditional folk stories using water puppets set to music. It was moderately interesting for about the first three performances but quickly became repetitive. However, it was a great experience and the music and choreography were nothing short of astoundingly impressive.

We went for dinner soon after this and had a walk around the lake which lies in the middle of Hanoi. The food has been great. I’m a big fan of Pho (a rice noodle soup with chicken or beef) and we’ve eaten a lot of French food, that’s’ what they have here. The Vietnamese can get creative with their food though. They eat what seems to be anything that moves. We’ve seen frogs getting chopped up on the side of the road, we’ve read about duck embryos and fetuses being eaten and the cherry on the cake is snake wine.

At a snake wine restaurant you’ll go along with some friends, sit down at a table and say something like “snake wine, please!” then the host will go to his little snake pit and pull out a live cobra. He’ll take the cobra to your table and slit it open and let the blood drip into a shot glass, then he’ll rip the heart out and pop it in there like a little cherry and you’ll down it. Then comes the second shot, snake bile, when you kill a snake it throws up, that’s your second shot. You can’t waste the snake though, so after that they will grill it up for you and you can enjoy some lovely snake steak. I know, right? Pretty sick. Needless to say we didn’t try any of this.

The next day we wanted to check out the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We were hoping to tick Ho Chi Minh off of our checklist of communist dead bodies (the other two would be Mao in China and Lenin in Russia) but Ho Chi Minh was away for maintenance at the time of our visit. Usually you’ll go and see Ho Chi Minh in his glass coffin, under very strict regulation and supervision, he is perfectly preserved much like Lenin, Mao and Kim Il Sung (North Korea) and we were a little disappointed that he wasn’t there. It is a rather strange tourist attraction though: a corpse. But this guy seriously means a lot to the Vietnamese. He is their national hero, he is on every note of money, on almost every souvenir, the Vietnamese people even go on pilgrimages to this mausoleum to see him. A strange scenario if I ever did see one.

We did walk around his house and a rather absurd museum which was more like an art exhibition dedicated to his life and works, we got a fair enough insight into the old man to feel at least a little like our morning wasn’t wasted. After lunch we headed to the temple of literature which was the most unique temple we have visited so far. It didn’t seem to have a specific religious proclamation (it couldn’t make its mind up) but was more so dedicated to scholars of the ages, mostly Confucian scholars or Taoist. It was a fairly big place, with a small pond (Natalie was more interested in the fishes and frogs than anything else) and some beautiful temples that you could explore.

That evening we had Vietnamese barbecue  whilst the goat’s udder sounded appealing we opted for beef. We are ticking off barbecue styles as well as dead communist leaders, so far we’ve collected Korea, Laos and Vietnam, Laos clearly comes out on top but Vietnam tries pretty hard, it was some tasty food and we ate it on the side of the street which was an experience all by itself. What with all the motorbikes whizzing pass, horns beeping, people going about their lives in the funny triangular hats.

It seems like we spent a long time in Hanoi and so far we are really enjoying Vietnam. It might be our favorite country so far, we’ll keep you posted. We actually spent longer in Hanoi than I’ve detailed here so I’m going to split this thing in two and write about Ha Long Bay (an overnight trip we took from Hanoi) in a separate post. We’re currently sat on a sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue and it’s much more comfortable than the Thai version of the same thing. So, we’re going to kick back and get some rest. We can’t believe how damn fast this trip is going, whatever you do, don’t mention how long we have left to Natalie, she bites.