Sunday, 29 April 2012

Hoi An, Vietnam

The journey down the coast up the Hai Van pass is possibly one of the most beautiful coach journeys I've ever been on. Out of the right windown the rolling green fields roll up to peaking hills to the Laos border and on the left the sparkling blue coast winds as far as the eye can see. It leaves you uncertain which way to look! Top Gear described the journey (and road) as one of their all-time favourites.

The train would be equally as nice I'm sure
We checked into the only remaining hotel in Hoi An, the Dai Long ($15 for an a/c double) for the first night, as it was a public holiday and swarms of Vietnamese descended on the town!  It's a picture postcard shopping mecca. You can have anything you want, handmade, in a day. Hundreds and hundreds of shops line the streets offering to put something together for you from your description, a picture, website or from their own catalogues. It's not really my scene, this shopping thing. Ask anyone that knows me! It's not that I dislike shopping, more that I have no idea what to buy so get fed up. There's one person who really helps me, to the point of me giving her my credit card and her choosing £500 worth of goods, which get delivered to my door (no, it's not my mother). I was thinking about buying a suit here but I've lost 10kg since I started travelling, and a fitting now would be inaccurate when I get home and pile that western fat back on. Talitha had some cute leather shoes made almost identical to a picture on a website. They certainly look well made (they're still going strong one month later) so I feel I should give props to the makers;

Shopping aside there's not much else to do. There's eating and drinking of course and Hoi An has many beautiful restaurants set in French colonial buildings but they don't financially benefit the long-term budget traveller, so we eat in the tasty cheap set meal joints (with bia hoi for 4000dong!). At night the town is beautifully lit up with lanterns hanging everywhere, on the bridge, the river, draped amongst the flowers on the colonial buildings and up the high street. It's not so much a backpacking destination, it's more for couples and families, but it's worth a stop even if only for one night.  

We hire four motorbikes. They are key here, giving you the freedom to visit one of the many beaches up the coast. We avoid the town beach and have a quick swim at An Bang. We then decide to find some even quieter beaches further north but all of the land north of the open beaches in Hoi An has been bought by foreign million dollar resorts, although they don't seem to have built anything yet, or started to build something but didn't finish. We find one derelict looking building around 8km north of Hoi An and wheelspin the motorbikes over the sand for a closer look. Steve, a friend of Emily, heads in first when a security guard, with gun, appears from nowhere. Time to leave. Even further north security men sit in little huts on the roadside sadly preventing us getting to these beaches. In the end we give up and head back to Hoi An. Shame that someone, looking for a little quiet beach, can't just turn up and have a swim, or bathe for an hour on this beautiful coastline. 

The next day Talitha stays back to write her blog so me and Kylie share a bike and Steve and Emily share a bike. We scoot off and get lost around some back roads, then head north on the main road to Da Nang. About 10km up the road Steve's bike gets a puncture, right outside a "garage" (some guys house!). He repairs it quick-time and we're off again.

Mr. Fix it
We're approached by a seemingly innocent lady on a moped, telling us that we're near the marble mountains and we can park in her shop if we like. With no beaches about, and having read about the marble mountains, we follow her and park in her shop which sells a million marble carvings from the tiniest Buddha to the biggest horse statue (complete with realistic penis) which are all ship-able to your home country. We get a ticket and head past a stupid plastic penguin bin (wtf?) up the stairs to the top of the tourist mountain where there is a rock temple and some ancient carvings of Buddha in caves with various sharp and slippery rocks to clamber on (and thorn trees to put your hands on) to get to the summit, for some fantastic views.

Back down and collecting the bikes we of course had to "just look" in the ladies shop. Despite the  impressive array of marble goods I don't purchase anything as it adds quite a bit of weight to the long-term travellers backpack, and I already have various Buddha souvenirs.

The ride home in the afternoon sunshine was irresponsible bliss with clear fast stretches of road and whooping overtaking, fast accelerating, cornering and braking (occasionally delivering Kylie's breasts into my upper back) then cruising into the town to return the bikes, have a quick shower then straight on the night bus to Na Trang (shudder!)

Friday, 27 April 2012

Hue, Vietnam

After the mission getting to Phong Nha we wondered how to get out. Luckily there was a pre-booked minibus direct to Hue, from the farmstay. At 6am a swish mini-minibus dropped us to the decrepid main minibus. We were the only westerners on this loaded bus and had to bounce around at the back while the bus growled down the bumpy road, all windows open, melodic horn to blaring! I like these journeys as they're a lot more memorable than easy, comfortable ones. Talitha over-hydrated before embarking and half way through the journey desperately needed the toilet. We stop at a garage and the driver refuses to let her go, as it's a quick fuel stop. He informs her that we'll stop in five minutes time, to the sympathies of the other passengers. Fifteen minutes later we stop and Talitha bolts!
An hour later and we're at the Hue bus depot just out of towm. We ignore the motorbike taxis and hop on a crowded local bus, bags and all, prompting some discussion and pointing from other passengers. We squeeze off and sweat our way across the bridge to Hue backpackers; our home for the next few days.
The bus - once the crowds departed
Hue backpackers (they also have a branch in Hanoi) has everything the discerning MC Hammer-trouser-westerner could want: beer, grungy (grungie?) guitar music, burger and beer (beerger) nights, fish & chips nights, curry nights, drinking games, many flavoured vodka shots (one called arse), pretty barmaids and silly t-shirts for sale. We settle into the comfortable dorm, meet our new roomie, Ozzzie David, then scoot off down the road in search of food.

Our first culture stop was the citadel. Now pretty much flattened from the French then Americans it's not much to look at but has a fascinating history and some amazing carp in the entrance pond. Out the back entrance we carry on the walk around the city walls, grab a sweet coffee and stroll through the markets before heading back to western headquarters.

Work it... yea, more hips... MORE HIPS
David tells us that it's his birthday today so we have a burger and wash it down with a few Huda and festival beers (it is beerger night after all). We inform the staff and they very kindly sort a delicious cake and sing happy birthday as only the Vietnamese could. The cake gets munched by everyone in the bar and we continue with the drinking, buying David a shot of arse (vodka and fish oil) to really send him on his way! Hic.

I've been left partuicularly numb in the religion region since leaving India. Apparently only 20% of Vietnamese are active Buddhists but Hue is touted as the spiritual capital of Vietnam so i'm expecting to see something. We hire bicycles and head off in the specific direction of a temple & pagoda, to a complete fail (some issues with the Lonely Planet map guv!). But this is not an issue. My favourite days in cities have always been to go with no plan. In this case we found some hyper-local backstreets, giant Catholic graveyards, a huge warrior statue and a vegetarian restaurant that gave us some pork!

"vegetarian" restaurant (the food was delicious)
Waiting for the train...
When I pop my clogs I would like a statue of me - this size.
Where's Hoochie-Minh?
Breaking from the random cycle routing I could see a temple from a hill, so decided that would be our next destination. An hour later, and a bike race with some local kids, we find a deserted back-street leading to what seems like an extremely Buddhist area containing a Thai Monastery, a temple, some large Buddha statues, an incredibly lifelike waxwork of "Hoa Thuong Ho Nhan" (I hope I have that correct) and some plastic wild animals. I cannot find any information about it on the web. Maybe someone reading this might know?

Writing above the Monastery entrance
Hoa Thuong Ho Nhan & me. Same Same!
Many mini-Stupa'
Vietnamese kiss: day 3

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Phong Nha, Vietnam

This was never going to be easy. The open bus ticket is severely limited to the main stops. Phong Nha, and nearby town Dong Hoi are certainly not one of these! Nested mid-country somewhere between Hanoi and Hue we asked if the overnight bus could drop us at Dong Hoi, as it's on the way, to which they agreed. Fingers crossed we went to sleep expecting to be shouted at to get off the bus when we arrived. Luckily (or unluckily) I didn't sleep much and could see that we were approaching Dong Hoi so woke Talitha up and gathered our stuff. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, we were silently hurried from the bus at 5am, with everyone else still snoring.

Dong Hoi is dead at 5am with just the odd motorbike pootling about, viewing us with confusion. With no help from a nearby hotel (except the use of their toilet) we head out looking for the bus station guided by the LP map. After walking past an odd assortment of government buildings, one of which had an American warplane and a tank in its front garden, we arrive at the quiet little bus station, much to the bemusement of the locals. Asking about a bus to Phong Nha leads to differences in opinions: some people saying there's no bus, some giving us one time and some saying another. I go and grab a meaty breakfast baguette from a bakery we spotted on the walk over and get back to a conclusion. "This goes to Phong Nha now!". Off we go, still a little unsure if this is correct. We must've travelled around 10km when we're ushered off the bus. Asking the passengers where we go next we're pointed to the other side of the road, where there is some dirt. The bus roars off and motorbike taxis loom down. They explain that there's no bus, but having heard this a lot we're not convinced. I get a second and third opinion from a shop owner then garage attendant, who look at me like they'd never seen a white person. They tell me that there's no bus so we sit with a staring party, in a cafe, in the middle of somewhere, on the junction of the road that clearly leads to Phong Nha. We admit defeat and call the farmstay, who agree to come and pick us up (for 300,000 dong). So close :)

View from the farmstay
The farm and surrounding countryside are breathtaking. Fields of wheat and corn as far as the mountains in the distance seperating Vietnam with Laos. The farm building is tall with an open front and back making it bright and airy. There's a nice back garden with swimming pool, a pool table and bar inside and lots of chairs to lounge on. The farmstay is run by an Australian chap and his Vietnamese wife  who speaks with an interesting mix of the two accents. Our dormatory is in a seperate building belonging to the brother of the Vietnamese lady. It's another tall farmhouse and is possibly the hottest dorm I've ever stayed in, despite the ammount of fans working overtime.

Communal area

Hot dorm
We spend the day relaxing, updating the diaries, reading and eating. The farmstay run tours to the local caves and they're keen for us to join these, but we've already decided to get a motorbike and have an adventure ourselves. That evening we have a sunset walk accompanied by the farm dog, who doesn't seem fussy who he walks with.

Next morning we crawl out of the sauna as soon as it's light, able to bear no more. Bryan, who I met in India, said to me: if you only go to one cave in Vietnam make it the Paradise cave. Tooled up with motorbike, suncream, hats, useless map from the farmstay, water and swimming costumes I give Talitha a quick lesson on how to work a semi-automatic motorbike and we pootle down the dirt track to the main road. It takes about an hour to reach the paradise cave system in the Nha-Ke Bang national park (with a couple of wrong turns and a stop off at a cute Catholic church). You're supposed to pay to enter the national park but if you tell the guards that you're just here for a quick swim they let you pass (you still have to pay to get into the cave).

At only 10am the heat is already unbearable so the path from the car park to the cave is a very welcome leafy, butterfly filled pleasure. We are the only people walking with everyone else opting to take the non-complimentory golf carts and mowing down the poor butterflies; minus one for conservation. Approaching the cave you can feel pockets of sublime cool air emanating from the cliffs like natural air conditioning - so nice!!

Tiny cave entrance leads to this gaping chasm!
The cave entrance itself is merely a hole, barely enough to fit some stairs down. The cave was only discovered in 2005 by British explorers and is 31km long and a dizzying 100m high in places. They were so impressed with the features they named it the Paradise cave (Thien Duong). It's been open to tourists since 2010. I've been to many caves in my billion years in this universe but this one is astonishing! It was extremely quiet when we were there and at the deepest point tourists can go we were actually the only people. I can only imagine how terrifying being 1km underground would be if the lights were to go out. I'll shut up typing and give you a handful of images I took on my 5D. The images are not edited in any way as I have no software for this (on my travels). Talitha is my beautiful assistant trying to give the images some perspective!

Giant stalagmite (might touch the ceiling... remember? From school?)
1km underground

Cave exit
Leaving the chilled caves we immediately broke into sweat. The difference in temperature is ridiculous. On the way out I noticed this sign and had to take a shot. Being drunk and mental illness are the same?!

Out the caves on the road back there's a spot on the river that you can bathe at (for a small fee). We got into the cool water only to be suddenly surrounded by beer drinking, shouty locals. Back out the water and clambering out of bounds downstream over hot boulders produced a much more discreet spot!

Back on the bike to the farmstay for supper. On the way back we stopped for gas, and I got off the wrong (i.e. not left) side of the bike (amateur passenger!) burning my leg on the exhaust and giving myself a "Vietnamese kiss". Very common in this part of the world. It seems you're not a real motorbikey person until you have one, or something. I'll post update pictures in the coming months!

As a final note I would just like to say that Phong Nha is my absolute favourite place in Vietnam.

Nice helmet
Vietnamese kiss - day 1

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sleepily crawling off the night bus from Hanoi the mountain freshness and a coffee soon wake us up. A lady offers us a $5 each double room at "Nha Khach Giao Thong" which translates as "The back packer hostel" I believe. Most people who come here go trekking into the nearby hills so in the town you can see groups of westerners keenly followed by the traditionally dressed resident ladies of the various nearby hill villages: Hmong, Dao, Giay, Pho Lu and Tay. They literally follow you for all of your trek hoping that you might buy some clothes or trinkets that they make. Tomorrow we do one of these treks so we have today to relax. We have an omelette then have a look around the shops and markets which sell colourful arrays of trinkets and food (including dog meat, although I couldn't find any). The village square has a huge 8-point star in the middle (Christian?) and working communist propaganda speaker arrays in each corner. Next to the square is a catholic church from the days of the Sa Pa as a French hill station.

Sa Pa town square
We book a two day one night homestay trek with Nomad trails for which I decide I'm going to need a rucksack. I hate rucksacks while travelling, purely because I hate carrying two bags around (a common sight is the traveller surrounded by a big rucksack on back and small rucksack on front). Vietnam holds no prisoners when it comes to faking stuff and here is no exception; there's hundreds of shops selling rip-offs (mostly North Face). I decide to go against the masses and not get a North Face bag, eventually finding a shop selling Deuter so reluctantly purchase a knock-off rucksack for $8. Extortionate!


There's a cute little cafe perched on the roadside with tiny chairs outside and a little BBQ. Grabbing a jug of Bia Hoi and some meaty kebabs, mushroom kebabs, purple potatoes and grilled sweetcorn we proceed to get drunk with some ex-pats who work in an eco-lodge a few km out of town.

Nha Khach Giao Thong hotel
 Next morning Talitha's friend (and violin teacher) Emily arrives off the sleeper bus from Hanoi, she's going to be travelling with us for a month. She meets us at our hotel and we let her shower and get the sleep out of her system before embarking on the trek. Fake rucksack packed, battered vans on feet and camera in hand we follow our guide out of the town, followed by around ten village ladies and their super-cute babies strapped with cloths on their backs.

Threading along the valley past fields of indigo (I never knew it was a plant!) and down dusty roads the views are fantastic, only spoiled slightly by occasional diggers and trucks. It's baking hot and sweaty work so we stop every so often for refreshments, trinket purchases and for our guide (I forget her name) to explain about the valley and village people (no, not the band) in very good English. Onwards and downwards into the valley, crossing rivers and paddy fields. For lunch we have some noodles with 100 other hungry trekkers and 1000 new trinket sellers then carry on to our homestay.


I've never stayed at a homestay before and I expected it to be literally a small cosy home, where just a few of us would spend a night and eat with the residents. Don't get me wrong, it was very beautiful, and the people did live there, but it was more like a dormitory, in the loft of the house, where up to twenty people could stay. But I have no other homestay experience to compare this to so I'll leave it there! For dinner it was me and about twelve girls. The food was incredible. All fresh cooked dishes with enough to feed an army, for want of a better expression. We had some beer and rice wine, watched a massive storm brewing then retired to our mosquito nets, worn out from the day.

Day two and we had more pancakes and bananas than anyone could ever eat (I cannot fault the food!). Before we know it our guide is up and we're off down the valley; promptly joined by more village ladies plus babies, and children. The second day took us through whispy bamboo forests, over almost dry waterfalls, through damp paddy fields and tiny farms with muddy half-clothed kids playing with pigs. Lunch was a quieter affair as most people has just done the one day trek. I bought some wrist bands from a cute old lady that had been following us for an eternity and an mouth instrument that sounds like a little like a digeridoo. I gave one lovely lady my hat and she gave me a free wrist band! We continued for another hour then were picked up by a minibus for the journey back to Sa Pa.

Cute wild village kids 
Lady in my hat and my new wristband
Next day is exploring time. Hiring some motorbikes from a man on the street corner ($4 a day) we set off up the mountain roads. Unfortunately it's raining so we have to take it easy, but eventually find the waterfall and have a coffee on what seems like a pass (there's too much fog to be sure). Back down out of the clouds Talitha drops out with a bad stomach while me and Emily carried on down the valley. It was at 60k/h that I saw an enormous bug coming towards me. Next thing I knew I felt a crazy buzzing in my helmet so prompted Emily to stop so I could look. I took the helmet off and a giant dragonfly flew out; I have no idea how it survived that! Getting too far down the valley we headed back up, refuelled then went over the other side of the mountain where the sun was blazing. HELLO rain shadow!! The roads here are fantastic and we opened the bikes up for a great ride. It was here that my motorbike appreciation nodule opened for business!