Days 323-329: Halong Way to Hanoi

S: We are pleased to report that our epic 19-hour bus voyage from Hoi An to Hanoi worked out just fine. Along with our journey through the mightily spectacular South American Andes, this was another picture postcard road trip. Vietnam’s east coast served up some sumptuous sights, bountiful beaches and tranquil waters.

It was soon back to the mayhem and madness of Southeast Asia’s mega cities, this time Hanoi. We staggered off our bus and into the lions pit of tour guides and taxi drivers. We promptly picked out a taxi and escaped to our hotel. Upon checking in Richard discover he was missing a bag – a bag which contained his passport, credit cards, mobile phone, netbook, kindle and iTouch. The bellboy raced off down a twisting street and managed to head the taxi off at the pass. Phew! Disaster averted!

Much like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is a bubbling city alive with activity. The only difference between the two seems to be their roads. HCMC had spacious pavements and wide boulevards which almost represent a grid system. Hanoi is a much older city and takes pride in its narrow curling, whirling streets. The locals tend to spill out onto the pavements, hanging out at mealtimes and selling produce in between.

Days 324 and 325…20120821-205219.jpg

We became familiar with Vietnam’s heroic women at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.20120821-211611.jpg

The aftermath of a typhoon – lightning had flattened many huge trees, blocking the main roads.20120821-211844.jpg

St Joseph’s Cathedral – brillo pad anyone?20120821-212917.jpg

Here in lies the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (no photographs were allowed inside).

Days 326 and 327 were undoubtedly one of the main highlights for us both while in Vietnam. 145 km south east of Hanoi lies the mystical waters of Halong Bay. Consisting of around 1,960 limestone islands, the best way to explore the bay is by boat. Richard and I joined 15 other guests on board our junk and set sail for an overnight adventure.

20120822-164003.jpg

The glory of Halong Bay looms into view.

On our first day we enjoyed a traditional Vietnamese lunch while our junk navigated its way to our first stop. Inside one of the islands we were able to explore the many nooks and crannies of a cave. Unaware of her surroundings, one fellow girl was heard asking “is it dark in the cave?” Her sympathetic guide informed her that “there is now electricity in the cave”.

20120822-162335.jpg
Halong Bay

20120822-144405.jpg

The captain of our ship, Thang.

20120822-144603.jpg

How can I get closer..?

To get even closer to the islands we hopped into some kayaks and weaved in and around the bay. The waters were calm and the breeze gentle – perfect conditions.

20120822-162920.jpg

Perfection untouched

After a quick dip in the salty south China sea we went off for a shower and soon it was time for dinner onboard. After-dinner entertainment was thoroughly enjoyed by all: Top Gear Special – in Vietnam.

Day two we journeyed further into the stunning islands and were taken to the location of Top Gear’s final scene.

20120822-162731.jpg

Not a bad set for a closing scene.

We also visited a floating village, including a primary school, before returning on board to make our lunch. Spring rolls are big business in Vietnam, they are eaten almost every day by locals. Our guide Thang gave us his own secret recipe and helped us prepare some rolls by hand.

Soon it was time to depart as our Halong Bay adventure had came to an end. Back to Hanoi we travelled by bus and there we spent our remaining two nights in Vietnam.

To conclude our time in Hanoi we made a visit to the Hanoi prison, aka Hanoi Hilton.

20120822-162845.jpg

Hanoi’s hostel’s aren’t what they used to be.

Only too quickly has our time in Vietnam come to a close. We leave with nothing but praise and applause for the country. A country which has beautifully diverse landscapes and sits at the vanguard of Southeast Asia’s future prosperity, it has been a pleasure.

Tomorrow we take an early flight out of Vietnam and on to our last location of the trip – Bangkok. We keep hearing of the disorder and chaos which Bangkok spits out to innocent travellers. Having experienced Rio, Lima, La Paz, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City and of course Hanoi, we would be tempted to say that we are well prepared for Bangkok. But this trip has taught us that as soon as you think you’ve cracked travelling, it slaps you firmly in the face. We are, however, as ready as we’ve ever been…

Advertisements

Days 314-322: Hoi An – The Perfect Cut

S: Nothing, we repeat, nothing surprises us now. Regular blog readers will understand when we mention the words ‘overnight bus journey’ – and we’ve had our fair share. In South America we were pleasantly surprised by the comfort and punctuality of the buses. In Australia standards began to slip, as the seats were almost upright and the departure time delayed. And as we hit Southeast Asia expectations were as bumpy as the roads.

As for Nha Trang to Hoi An, Richard and I had been sold a bogey. We had been allocated a bed each on the overnighter. Richard’s bed, however, was positioned directly on top of the toilet, around four feet in length and little more than 18 inches from the ceiling.

20120815-113119.jpg

Does that face look amused?

With all the other beds taken up, and the aisles filled with locals strewn on across the floor, it was clear that Richard was in for a sleepless night.

Five hours into the journey we decided to swap beds. Being shorter (5 ft 3, not 4ft), it was only fair that I shared the experience. I can confirm: it was not a comfortable experience, but eventually reach Hoi An we did.

Equidistant from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Hoi An is arguably Vietnam’s most beautiful ancient city. Bleary-eyed we arrived early in the morning, the sun had newly risen and was shining onto the still streets and rice paddies – a welcome change from the skyscraper sights of Nha Trang.

Hoi An is an UNESCO protected city and this is reflected in the architecture and design of its restaurants, cafes and numerous tailors. The town centre is a real joy to walk around; traffic is at a minimum and the locals go about their daily chores with easy feeling.

20120815-113346.jpg

A solitary motorbike: a most unusual sight in Vietnam.

20120816-153245.jpg

Here, even the boats are in reflective mood.

20120815-113458.jpg

Officials are never in a hurry in Hoi An.

20120815-113528.jpg

Riverside living Hoi An-style.

20120815-113727.jpg

Richard and I made use of the many tailor shops and each purchased a set of bespoke silk pyjamas.

Today we are heading to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. After 11 months on the road we embark upon what we expect to be our final overnight bus ride. Wishing to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, we have decided to go for the 19-hour option – how bad can it be…

Days 310-314: Trangtastic

S: As we travelled up and over the Central Highlands from Dalat to Nha Trang we covered a distance of 140km. We made stops at the Zen Buddhist Meditation Centre – Vietnams premier meditation retreat – and a fish farm – breeding fish for Russian export in its one-of-a-kind ‘jungle waters’.

We also…

20120808-171321.jpg

Visited Dalat’s artichoke tea factory

20120808-171504.jpg

Took in the patchwork views at 1800 metres above sea level

20120808-172304.jpg

Crossed a wobbly bridge

20120808-182053.jpg

Travelled through some stunning scenery

20120808-182212.jpg

Took a break roadside

20120808-182441.jpg

Hung on tightly

20120808-182523.jpg

And joined the road traffic madness

With windswept faces and numb posteriors our thirst for motorbike travel had been quenched. Huge thanks go to Star and Thien for their invaluable insights into the lives of the Vietnamese people and Vietnam. From what we have seen of the country so far, and in particular Dalat, we have been suitability impressed. Relatively prosperous and hard working Vietnam has oodles of hidden delights.

And now it’s over to Nha Trang, our first beach destination in over two and a half months. How have we coped?!

As mentioned in our previous blog entry, Nha Trang is southern Vietnam’s premier beach destination. Determined not to be disappointed we kept our expectations low and were pleasantly surprised.

20120808-184722.jpg

As we walked across the beach the one thing which stuck out to us was the diversity. Not only were there backpackers and holiday makes on the beach, their was also a steady mix of families, couples and locals too. Looking back at our Thai beach encounters such diversity was nowhere to be seen.

20120808-184854.jpg

We made valuable use of such a charming location and relaxed beach side each afternoon. Richard was fortunate enough to catch some windsurfing waves. The equipment was a bit ropey, the wind a bit patchy, but it just about did the job.

20120808-184947.jpg

Look at him go!

With our time fast approaching its end in Vietnam, tonight we travel by bus further north on the east coast to Hoi An. Much like Nha Trang we hear it is another of Vietnam’s picture postcard beach towns. Mindful that we are to return to a Scottish autumn, we think it’s only best to take in the rays while we can…

Days 306-310: Dalat – Born To Be Mild

R: Our blog updates might not be quite equalling those golden moments you are being showered with in the land of Team GB – a Murray gold, no less! – but we hope you’re still enjoying our tales from the trail.

It’s with genuine regret that we’re not back home just now savouring what is clearly an incredible Olympics; but we shoudn’t be greedy, I guess. We’re trying to follow it here in Vietnam but the coverage is patchy: our TV mainstay is Star Sports Live, which as an Asian channel naturally focuses on this region’s athletes – so we’ve been watching a lot of table tennis, badminton and archery!

So although not back home just yet, we’re there in spirit: Go GB!

Anyway, back to the trail…

S: Eager to leave behind the mayhem, madness and heat of Ho Chi Minh City, we caught an early morning bus out of town. A stiffening eight-hour bus journey took us northeast to Dalat, a cool town perched 1,500 metres above sea level in Vietnam’s central highlands.

20120803-181859.jpg

As we stepped off the bus we were welcomed by a crisp breeze and the scent of a fresh spring day. Dalat’s temperature tends to remain within 20-25C during the day. A welcome change from the humid 30-plus we have been used to over the past five months.

It wasn’t just the climate we were pleased with; we were warmly welcomed by two local Vietnamese men who offered to take us to our hotel – free of charge. After having been scammed by our taxi driver in HCMC (he charged us treble the fair), we had our wits about us. We exchanged pleasantries with the two men as they showed us to their motorbikes.

It turned out these guys were part of Dalat’s ‘Easy Riders’, local tour guides who know the areas in and around Dalat like the back of their hands. Richard and I climbed onto the back of their motorbikes and were whizzed off to our hotel. Peter, the original Easy Rider with 35 years experience, showed us his comments book. It was filled with commentary from individuals and groups who had taken a sightseeing tours with Peter. Packed with praise and recommendation, we signed ourselves up to a day’s tour of Dalat on the back of two motorbikes.

After a day of rest and relaxation it was an early morning start at 8:30am. We met our guides Star and Thien, who clipped on our helmets and asked us to jump on the back. With the snapping wind blasting on our faces and the great open road ahead of us we were off.

It was an action packed day where we…

20120803-182329.jpg

Took in the views

20120803-182348.jpg

Discovered Dalat’s passion for bloom

20120803-182428.jpg

Spun a silk yarn

20120803-182511.jpg

Witnessed a waterfall

20120803-182533.jpg

Rubbed the belly of a giant laughing Buddha

20120803-182556.jpg

Got dark and damp with some mushrooms

20120803-182619.jpg

Visited an ethnic minority village

20120803-182703.jpg

Went mad in the ‘Crazy House’

For $25 each this was a fantastic way to get off the beaten track and into the countryside. Having seen the diversity of Dalat and its people we can’t help but give this town our praise. Dalat is a hotbed of agricultural innovation, made more tangable by our ‘Easy Riders’ – Star and Thien.

20120804-093348.jpg

Star and Richard

20120804-093417.jpg

Thien and me

Since we enjoyed the ‘Easy Rider’ experience so much, we have decided to extend it by travelling to our next destination, Nha Trang, by motorbike. Located on the east coast of Vietnam, Nha Trang is southern Vietnam’s premier beach destination. With our helmets firmly clipped on, we head off today on the great open road…

Days 302-306: Ho Chi Minh City in Pictures

20120804-091919.jpg

There are reputed to be more than five million motorbikes in HCMC. Here are just a few of them.

20120804-092043.jpg

Outside the War Remnants Museum: A rare chance to hear Vietnam’s side of the story.

20120804-093128.jpg

Cu Chi Tunnels: Hanging with the Viet Cong.

20120804-093303.jpg

Cu Chi Tunnels: Why America’s love affair with the burger lost them the war.

20120804-093503.jpg

Helicopter: probably the best way to get around HCMC.

20120804-093609.jpg

The stamp of French colonial architecture: HCMC’s Post Office.

20120804-093736.jpg

Sophia with the Vietnamese branch of The Ant Hill Mob.

20120804-093855.jpg

HCMC’s Notredame Carhedral.

20120804-093950.jpg

HCMC Museum: keeping the communist flag flying.

Days 295-301: Phnom Penh, A City of Extremes

S: Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh has suffered a great deal of setbacks. After the country gained independence it became a prosperous city in the 1960s. However, all was taken away in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over. Today it is a city which is still finding its feet.

Our first sobering visit in Phnom Penh took us to Tuol Sleng, or the Genocide Museum. Once the home of learning Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces in 1975. It was renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21) and the classrooms were converted into torture chambers and holding cells.

We couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness as we walked around the museum. Although there was not much information displayed, the bare rooms with their bitter scents spoke volumes.

20120731-210420.jpg

Once a classroom, under the Khmer Rouge pain and suffering were the only lessons.

20120731-210659.jpg

At the height of its activity, some 100 victims were killed here every day.

The Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed. When the Vietnamese army rescued Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21. They had largely survived because their skills – such as painting or photography – were deemed useful to the regime.

20120731-210947.jpg

The barbed wire was put up in order to stop individuals committing suicide by jumping from the windows.

In desperate need of something uplifting, we also visited the tranquil grounds of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace.

20120731-211254.jpg

The Royal Palace.

With its classic Khmer roofs and opulent gilding the huge palace complex dominates central Phnom Penh. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied the Palace since it was built in the 1860’s, with a period of absence during and shortly after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. One thing which did strike us as bizarre was that there were no benches or seats on which to sit back and relax. It seems a shame such an idyllic setting in Phnom Penh is so restricted.

20120731-211348.jpg

It could be a scene from a fairytale.

Although we weren’t staying in a five star hotel our accommodation was perfectly adequate. It felt uncomfortably salubrious though when we looked outside of our window and saw another side of Phnom Penh.

20120731-211453.jpg

The locals hard at work bagging coal.

Phnom Penh had one last gut-wrenching experience in store for us. On our last day in Cambodia we travelled fifty minutes out of town to Choeung Ek, infamously known as The Killing Fields.

20120731-211715.jpg

A serene setting you may think; perhaps even a golf course? No, this is where thousands of prisoners were massacred and then buried.

On the 17th of April 1975 the Khmer Rouge put into action one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia into an agriculture cooperative. Within days, the entire population of Phnom Penh, including the sick, elderly and infirm, were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Intellectuals were wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. The arrival of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero.

When wandering through this peaceful, shady former orchard it is hard to imagine the cruelty that unravelled here. A memorial stupa soon brings it home, displaying more than 8000 skulls of victims and their ragged clothes.

20120731-211834.jpg

Mass grave of 166 victims without heads.

20120731-211947.jpg

Killing tree…

The Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end by the Vietnamese, who set free the almost empty streets on 7 January 1979. It is estimated 1.7 million people were killed by the hands of Pol Pot and his followers.

As our time in Cambodia nears its end we have developed an unstinting admiration and respect for the country and its people, people who have suffered so much. Cambodia has been upsetting and exhilarating in equal measure; a county which has been through so much and is yet so resilient – an inspiration to all who visit.

The last country on our itinerary is Vietnam. Fellow travellers we have met seem to have either loved it or hated it. We are hoping for the latter. We plan to travel overland from Ho Chi Minh City north to Hanoi, stopping off at a couple of costal towns and backpacker hotspots. Today we journey from Phnom Penh to our last overland border crossing, and then onto Ho Chi Minh City – a metropolis which claims to have nearly as many motorbikes as it has citizens…

Days 291-294: Angkor Wat Part Four

S: On our fourth and final visit to Angkor National Park we took in the last part of the grand tour, just northeast of Angkor Wat. This included the temples of Ta Keo, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup and Banteay Kdei. And of course our visit would not have been complete without a final visit to Angkor Wat itself. We were blessed with a beautiful day, a splendid opportunity for some more photography.

20120725-074237.jpg

Another day, another magnificent temple – Preah Khan.

20120725-170834.jpg

Our trusty tuk-tuk driver Thon.

20120725-171020.jpg

It’s a jungle out there.

20120725-171043.jpg

Unlike in Scotland, umbrellas have a dual purpose in Cambodia.

20120725-171114.jpg

A monk in a hurry.

20120725-171139.jpg

Just a small part of Angkor Wat’s western gallery.

20120725-171201.jpg

It’ll be nice when it’s finished (sorry, couldn’t resist it).

20120725-171227.jpg

The central tower of Angkor Wat.

20120725-171251.jpg

The eastern entrance to Angkor Wat – little known, little crowded, but just as wonderful as the rest.

Four visits to Angkor Wat may sound excessive but each time it has revealed something different, and each time we have seen it in a new light, quite literally: rain, cloud, misty dawn and midday splendour.

We now leave Siem Reap for Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a city with as many sides to it as Angkor Wat…