A Travellerspoint blog

Halong Bay & Hue

rain

After our trekking in Sapa, we head out on a 2 night tour of Halong Bay. Halong Bay is famed for its limestone island, there are thousands. Unfortunately the weather leaves a little to be desired and it's a little misty, but you still can get an idea of this naturally stunning place. We stay on a 'junk' boat for the first night that guides us round the bay. First stop are some caves. These are huge caverns within the limestone. The Vietnamese have picked up on tourism and ran with the opportunity it brings. This is particularly noticeable in these caves. There is a paved path that leads you one way around the massive caves, with coloured lights displaying the limestone formations. Dotted about are bins in the shape of penguins, in case you'd consider littering. There is even a hosepipe fountain in place of where there used to be a natural water source. It's disappointing, if a little amusing, to see something naturally awe inspiring be brought down to the level of a theme park attraction.

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Following on from the caves, we dock at a floating village. Here, on small rafts people live in the bay, dogs and all. We go kayaking around the little islands, getting pretty soggy bottoms along the way. That night we sleep on the boat very comfortably - our room is better than some of the guest houses we've been in and the duvet is a particularly welcome comfort in the cold weather.

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On the second day, we head to Cat Ba Island. This is the only inhabited island in the bay. It has a national park and there we do a very challenging walk up to a summit. Having just brought flip flops for Halong Bay we're a little ill equipped for the journey up, which involves clambering up rocks and along slippery paths. It's worth it though, with amazing views across the jungle covered hilltops all around. There's a very rickety tower right at the top, definitely not for those with vertigo. We stay on the island that night, heading back to Hanoi the following day.

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From Hanoi we get a sleeper bus down the coast to Hue (with an accent). It used to be the capital of Vietnam, back when there was royalty, so has quite a few old sites to visit. There's a large Citadel and many pagodas and tombs of former kings. The architecture is heavily influenced by the former Chinese rule of the country. It has a certain crumbling charm to it, although there are some frustrating 'restoration' attempts that the Vietnamese have done to their landmarks over the years. Some things are better left alone, rather than filled in with concrete!

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We take a boat tour on the second day along the Perfume River, stopping off at some sights and keeping ourselves busy in the cold and rain. The rain constantly falls while in Hue, we shouldn't be surprised though, apparently it is South East Asia's raniest city.

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One of the great things we've found about Vietnam is the people. They're very friendly and always keen to chat with you and find out about your life, usually not wanting anything in return, except perhaps to practice their English. That and the food, they have great food. We've become quite taken with eggs in a mini baguette (can probably thank the French colonials for that) for breakfast every day. Little stalls on the street sell it for a price well within our budget, cooking the egg in front of you.

We're now in a charming place called Hoi An that I'll mention next and it's still raining. But to quote one of my favourite films, Forrest Gump, Vietnam is all about rain:

"we've been through every kind of rain there is, a little bit of sting-ging rain, and big old fat rain, rain that flew in sideways and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath...shoot, it even rained at night"

Posted by EllenM 03:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Hanoi & Sapa

Good Morning Vietnam!

sunny
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We have arrived in Vietnam and I'm a millionaire! Not too difficult mind you, when 1,000,000 dong is worth 33 pounds. We fly into Hanoi and drive into roads full of motorbikes. Everyone uses them, and not just for themselves. I've seen whole families on them, egg cartons stacked on the back triple the width of the bike and the oddest, 5 pigs in net cages strapped to the back.

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and we stay in the old town. It feels quite European. There's a cafe culture and the narrow streets are full of art galleries and gift shops. On our first night we go to an Irish pub (our first of the trip may I point out) with some others from the hostel we're staying at. It's a nice evening, and at midnight the pub shuts. Normal enough, but then uniformed men come into the pub and really make sure we leave. They're polite about it, even taking a photo for us, but it's still odd to have such forceful measures to make sure people don't break the rules! The food in Hanoi is brilliant, lots of lovely noodle and rice dishes, we haven't had a bad meal yet.

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On our second day in Hanoi we catch a sleeper train to Sapa, a mountain town near to the Chinese border. Hanoi is full of travel agents all offering these train tickets for similar prices. Somehow we managed to bag ourselves quite a posh 4 berth cabin for the journey, complete with face wipes, duvets and plastic flowers.

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Sapa is high up in the mountains and we arrive to a crisp blue sky. After a nap to make up for the night train, we spend the day pottering about visiting local waterfalls and villages. The scenery is beautiful, with Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain in the distance and stepped rice paddy field hills all around. It's still hot here, but the air is actually fresh, which is a welcome change from the humidity of the last 5 or so weeks.

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The following day we wake up to a thick mist covering the town. Or maybe it's actually a cloud as we're so high. We've booked a trekking tour for the day, so head out on that with a few more layers than usual. We walk through paddy fields and local villages where the different hill tribes live. Each hill tribe has a distinctive look, with colourful, embroidered clothing. We see water buffalo, waterfalls, bamboo forests and walk across rickety old bridges.

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Our guide is a 19 year old from one of the hill tribe villages who learnt English from the tourists. She tells us how she escaped a kidnapping once that would have forced her into an arranged marriage and that arranged marriages are the only way they marry in the villages. As she likes her job, she's avoiding marriage (19 is a bit old by their standards) because it would mean staying at home and looking after her husband.

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The whole way through the trek a group of hill tribe women follow us, chatting away happily, helping us over slippery parts. They're very sweet, but they are after something. Right at the end of the tour they all whip out various gift items to sell. It's cheeky, but works, with a few people buying. We did walk 11km though, they certainly worked for their sales.

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That night we get another sleeper back to Hanoi. This time, we bought a cheaper ticket and are in a much more basic 6 berth cabin, more than comfortable enough for us. Back in Hanoi we go to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, or the Hanoi Hilton as it was known by the American soldiers in the Vietnam war. This is a prison built by the French colonials and later used as a prisoner of war camp in the Vietnam War. It's where (former Republican candidate) John McCain was kept and apparently tortured, the reason he can not raise his arms very high. The museum is interesting but does seem a little biased, with no mention of torture, but photos of Americans playing basketball and celebrating Christmas in the grounds. Who knows though, I'm quite glad I don't. In the evening, we sit on little plastic chairs at a busy junction with motorbikes whizzing by and drink beer for 3,000 dong a glass. That's 10p. Brilliant.

Posted by EllenM 05:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

24 hours in Bangkok


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The East Coast islands were a bit of a washout so I'll fly over them. Bad weather meant we couldn't get boats to the places we wanted to stay and so we ended up staying in the touristy (but deserted) part of Ko Pha Ngan.

After a few rainy days filled with card playing and Pad Thai, we left Mariano on the island and got a government run 14 hour overnight coach to Bangkok. It was a comfy ride, with all sorts of goodies thrown in. Midway, the coach stopped at a roadside place with a large dining hall. We were ushered in by a man who was a little overzealous with his loud speaker, keen to get us in, sat, eating and out again as quickly as possible. Sat on circular marble tables, numerous different Thai dishes were placed to be shared on each table. It was a good meal, if a little spicy.

Sleeping for the rest of the way we arrived in Bangkok at 5am and headed to the Backpacker Mecca that is the Kho San Road. Perhaps the oddest time to arrive there, as it was almost deserted, bar the odd Ladyboy heading home. We got a teeny tiny room to grab a few hours sleep before exploring the city.

Bangkok feels somewhere between the crazyness of Mumbai and organised Singapore. Heading to the Grand Palace we bumped into 2 girls from our India tour. And people say Asia's a big continent! Being the cheap backpackers that we are we decide to miss the Grand Palace, (the one thing you're meant to see in Bangkok) and instead go and see the Reclining Buddha. It's the world's largest and it is indeed pretty big. Its feet are a feat by themselves! Around the reclining Buddha are courtyards with temples to explore.

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We head across town to see Jim Thompson's house. Jim Thompson was an American who made Bangkok his home in 1945. He pushed the silk industry forward in Thailand and built his house by combining 6 traditional Thai houses into one. It is full of beautfiul Thai, Vietnemese, Chinese and Burmese porcelain, paintings and other pieces. The wooden fish were part of a printing block for silks.

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Now I understand why there are pubs in London that sell Thai food called Jim Thompson's!

After, we caught the river bus to a market. They're a bit like narrow boats, but they go really fast with two conductors who hang on to the side and wear helmets. I didn't really get the helmets until we went under a low bridge and they leaned the whole roof of the baot down a few feet so as not to hit it!

The evening was spent pottering about the Kho San Road before our early flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Bangkok seemed so much more ordered than I was expecting, although we hardly scratched the surface and we're likely to be back there later on.

Posted by EllenM 02:22 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and Railay

Island hopping on the west coast

all seasons in one day

We fly into Phuket in Southern Thailand and spend one night in Phuket Town. Here, we meet an Argentinian called Mariano at the airport, who becomes the first of many lone travellers to join us on our island hop. From Phuket we get a boat over to Ko Phi Phi. It's a beautiful set of islands, with magnificent lime stone cliffs, white sandy beaches, blue blue water, no cars and all the tourists. This is well known as some of the most spectacular islands, plus it has the bay where The Beach was filmed, so it's a bit of a crowd puller. It's hard not to be reminded of the tsunami in the town. Phi Phi's town was hit quite bad, had to be rebuilt and now has evacuation routes clearly marked. We get a tour around the islands on a longboat and do snorkelling (oh so many fish), relaxing on beaches and spot the monkeys on Monkey Beach. We finish with our boat put-put-putting over to Ko Phi Phi Leh, the uninhabited island that Maya Bay is on where The Beach is filmed. And yes, it is stunning. The whole area is a marine Park and they do seem to be making a big effort to keep its natural beauty, despite the number of tourists visiting.

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A group of us head over to another island Ko Lanta. This island feels entirely different. It's long, with a road with hotels off it all the way down the coast. It feels more like Europe, which is perhaps why we didn't settle there. We stay in a bamboo hut there and when we first walk in there is a huge gecko on the wall. Massive. I quite like it though, so don't mind. But the nature in our hut does not end there. We spot more smaller geckos, cockroaches, a snake(!) in the bathroom and a rat! The rat is a step too far for us, on our last night we return to find its droppings on the bed. Definitely need somewhere concrete next! The huge gecko meanwhile lives in the roof and occasionally makes a very loud noise that sounds like "geck-oooooo geck-ooooo geck-oooooo"! While we're staying on Ko Lanta it's Loy Krathong Day, when people in Thailand float little boats made of coconuts and leaves with candles on out to sea. I light one and send it on its way.

From Ko Lanta we head over to the mainland, to Railay. Railay is on a peninsular, so feels like you're on an island and it is absolutely stunning. Although, we arrived on a low tide to the muddy side in the rain, which didn't really show it in its best light. There are huge (even more magnificent) limestone cliffs all around here, making it very popular with rock climbers. Here's me and Alex with Mariano, our Argentinian friend on one of the many sandy beaches.

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A rainy day means we set our sights on exploring some of the caves. There's one that's very dark, with a quartz 'waterfall' and has a little cluster of bats hanging from the ceilings. And another by the sea that has become a shrine for the fishermen. I think they're thanking someone for the fish, but look closely, it's quite an interesting choice of symbol they have gone for. The last cave we find is absolutely huge and involves a lot of clambering and climbing, but well worth it.

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Railay is somewhere I'd gladly stay longer and want to come back to, but time is short, so we're heading over to the potentially worse weather of the East Coast tomorrow. It has been raining on and off here for the last two days though, so we'll take our chances.

Posted by EllenM 04:27 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Singapore

For one night only...

rain
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As I mentioned in my last blog entry, we had to buy a new flight from Goa to Mumbai to catch our flight to Singapore, as the original one was "rescheduled" to the next day. Useful. They're not going to pay for our considerably more expensive replacement flights, so I think it only fair that I let you all know, if you're ever in India, DON'T FLY WITH INDIGO. Despite having our contact details they failed to properly inform us that the flight has changed, they're obviously rubbish. Rant over.

We arrived in Singapore around 7am and Leia's friend Hollie was waiting to pick us up. We stayed with her and her husband and they really couldn't have been more hospitable, giving us everything we could need, including washing our clothes, yes! They had a lovely flat, complete with two bulldogs, Buddy and Poppy. I grew quite attached, finally, some dogs we're allowed to touch!

We stayed in Singapore just one night, it's far more expensive than the rest of SE Asia, so it was a bit of a flying visit. Singapore is a modern and clean city, with a whole array of rules and regulations that people follow diligently. Famously, chewing gum is banned, they also can't jaywalk and the death sentence is used for drug offences. This strict, but ordered society couldn't be further from the hustle and bustle of India and is strange for us to take in. Even when wandering around their Chinatown, looking at the stalls, we couldn't believe nobody was pestering us to buy from them.

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Singapore is a tiny country, and buildings tend to stay up for 15 years, after which they are knocked down and new, taller ones are rebuilt in their place. A city that's getting higher instead of wider. I liked how residents hung their washing out of their apartment windows.
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Singapore has a very tropical climate, humid and with heavy rain all year round. We got caught in a few heavy downpours while we were there, but the city is well prepared for it, with huge storm drains at the ready. At times it almost feels like we're in Europe, there's a large community of ex-pats, although the majority of its residents originate from China. In the centre of town while one side the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers holding global financial companies, the other side has an array of old colonial buildings designed by British architects. They're safe from the destroy and rebuild scheme!

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In the evening, as we push through our jet lag, we head out to a hawkers bar with Hollie and Arran. It's an outdoor area, with seating that is surrounded by little food shacks all serving up different cuisine. Chinese food is absolute bliss after our three weeks of curries.

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Posted by EllenM 02:52 Archived in Singapore Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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