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Hanoi and the long haul to Ha Long Bay

Hanoi, Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island

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With the city of Hue logged into the memory banks we boarded our last night train of our Vietnam trip. So, you might have heard some horror stories about overnight trains in Vietnam, but the previous two overnighters were bearable, if not alright. So I reckon you need to try things a few times before you really form an opinion about things. Take my dislike for tomatoes, for instance. I have tried to eat them on several occasions, often not even on purpose and I still despise the red fruit that so many people love. Anyway, enough about fruit and let's relive that edifying train trip to Hanoi. This is the first train trip that Lou was feeling normal, so we had bought a few drinks and sandwiches for the trip. First up, the train was almost an hour late, not really an issue in this part of the world. We boarded the train and this took a while because in our carriage there was another tour group with massive bags and bicycles to boot. Eventually we found our cabin, opened the doors and there it was a 2 inch long cockroach scuttling along the floor heading under the bottom bunk. No problem. We settled in to our cosy room chatting to Gordon and Kaye while we ate our dinner and had a beer. Now this train was squalid, it reeked of what can only be described as a sewer. and the loos were faecal - it was on the seats and the putrid smells that came from within them. I have never understood how people manage to miss the bowl when they have to go. It's incredible to think how many public toilets have poo on the toilet seats. (keep an eye out in the future.) So as per normal we headed to the party cabin for a few more beers and some card games. At one stage I swatted a cockroach off Lou's back, it was gigantic, around 4cm long and she didn't even know it was there! It really is nice chilling, playing cards, drinking and chatting on the train. It takes your mind off the decayed train and helps the time whizz by. At around 11pm we called it a night.

After an interesting nights sleep, which was not too long, our guide knocked on our door at around 5am to wake us up. After gathering our belongings we climbed off the worst, fetid train ever, thank goodness for that. We chucked our luggage into the 2 taxis kindly provided by our tour operators and walked to our hotel in Hanoi. Check-in was only at 12pm, so we left our bags at the hotel and went for a pho ( Vietnamese beef noodle soup, which is a staple breakfast) which was by far the tastiest I have had so far in Vietnam. So after breakfast and coffee, our guide was going to give us a walking tour of Hanoi, his home town.

Reluctantly, without showering for many many hours we followed "Hitler"( the name I had given him because he was always telling us what to do.) We walked past the temple of literature-Van Mieu, Vietnams 1st university was founded here in 1076. We then went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It is here, against his wishes to be cremated, that his embalmed body lies. It was closed due to him being re-embalmed, so I got a picture of the building. We also went to the museum and one pillar pagoda. We then followed Adolf to the old quarter before we fled the scene in a taxi headed for our hotel. After a long, hot and disinfecting shower we had a long nap and relaxed for the rest of the day.
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The following morning, after a quick pho we boarded our bus and headed up the long road to Ha Long Bay. A 4 hour drive seemed to last days, but man it was worth it. Ha Long Bay is around 1500km2 with a 120km coastline. The name means descending dragon. It is another world heritage site. The bay consists of a cluster of almost 2000 monolithic limestone islands which rise out of the ocean like tombstones. Each island is topped with thick jungle and many are hollow with massive caves. After arriving at Ha Long City on the mainland we boarded a boat for a trip to Cat Ba island where we were due to spend the night. The boat took us to some caves which were spectacular, then we chugged around the bay anchoring at one stage for a dip. This must be one of the most magnificent places you could ever wish to swim, it really was surreal. After around 20 mins of swimming and tom foolery we reboarded the boat and completed our journey to the island. Just in time to watch the sun dissolve behind the hills.

The next morning at 6am the boys and I went fishing with a local guy. Now it was not much of boat, but it was almost sea worthy and still great fun. When leaving the harbour we stopped at a large fishing boat where our skipper grabbed a bucket of bait. Then we headed out. We eventually stopped next to a massive tombstone of a rock and we dropped anchor. Now the whole time(around 40mins) on board I hadn't seen any fishing rods,line,sinkers or hooks. I was really starting to think our 20 000 dong trip was going to be a waste of time, when our skipper pulled up a loose deck plank and grabbed a chopping board, knife and a bag full of sinkers and hooks. Relief. I was starting to feel better about my 10 US$ fishing trip. So he blissfully chopped up the fish into bait sized pieces while we eagerly waited to drop a line onto the reef below us to catch some big fish. So our non-English speaking captain finished preparing the bait and then lifted another deck board to grab the gear. To my utter amazement he pulled out 3 plastic 1/2 litre bottles with some line wrapped around them with a hook and sinker on each one. We had been done in and were only going to fish for small reef fish. None the less it was still fun pulling out some fish with hand lines in the amazing surroundings of Ha Long Bay. Our fishing trip was cut short by the now daily monsoon rains that plagued us everyday in Vietnam. We had caught some fish but nothing massive. The storm hit us by surprise and we sat out the worst of it before we headed back to land. Dripping wet we went back to our hotel for a shower. The rest of the day was spent exploring the islands beaches and sampling the delicious food. We also decided to get massages, but I will let Lou explain her feelings about that story.

Ken decided he was going to have a foot massage while I opted for a back massage as my back had been hurting quite a bit. The massage started downstairs in these massage chairs, with Ken in the chair next to me. I had a male and ken had what could only be described as an elderly lady, probably my masseuses grandmother. After around 5 minutes of this guy prodding around he discovered my back pain and suggested we go upstairs so he could do me properly. Recently our group had been discussing happy endings with massages in SE Asia and I was immediately weary about this guys motives on getting me upstairs away from prying eyes. I gingerly followed this guy upstairs and lay on the massage table. So with my nerves shot and imagination running amok, the guy continued with his massage. I was waiting for the inappropriate gestures or touch which never happened, until the guy climbed up on to the massage bed and straddled me. now I thought it was my time for this well documented happy ending and my heart almost stopped. There were tiny beads of sweat collecting on my forehead, my mouth was dry and my hands clammy as my adrenaline pumped. My mind was working in overdrive deciding weather to fight or flee. As the guy straddled me and got into a good position, he gleefully clicked my back and told me the massage was over. All the stress for nothing because he was really good and worked my lower back that was aching. In fact it was one of the best massages I have ever had, amazing.
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So with an exciting afternoon over we boarded the ferry to begin our long drive back to Hanoi. The ferry took about an hour and a half and we were treated to a glorious sunset to finish our trip to an amazing landscape called Ha Long Bay. The The 4 hour bus trip to Hanoi in the dark was interesting to say the least but I will leave stories about road travel for our next blog post. Our return to Hanoi signalled the end of our Vietnam leg of our trip with a new group starting the next day for the Loas adventure.
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Posted by louslabbert 16:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches art skylines people animals birds sky boats trains temples traffic food markets fishing fields street bus city vietnam sights hanoi thai ancient bbq vendors hue sounds halong_bay ho_chi_ming Comments (0)

When in Penang....

Food Glorious Food!

Malaysia Continued. . . .

Penang awaits! Once off the plane, Ken rushes off to the Air Asia lost and found desk and gives them all the details of our camera in the hope that some kind person would hand it in at Kuching airport. God willing we would get our pictures back. Which unfortunately we didn't.

Roughly an hour from the airport by bus, we got to Georgetown. Named after King George IV, it is an old town filled with Chinese shop houses. Parts of the old town make up a world heritage site. It is a rather grotty place and not very pleasing to the eye. All the guide books say that the island of Penang is the food capital of Malaysia.

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Our first night, still feeling very upset about the lost camera, we wandered up the road to Red Garden Food Paradise. It is an outdoor food hall, similar to Top Spot in Borneo, but with more choice and more food stalls. We chose a stall and took a seat. I ordered a dish of duck,wan tans and noodles and Ken orders the duck, chicken and pork rice - to be helped down with a tiger beer to share. Delicious. The beer was more expensive than the meal, but very refreshing in that muggy heat.

When we eventually rolled out of bed the next morning we headed to the police headquarters to report the camera as missing. This was a very simple process and the police were very helpful and very friendly. We spent the afternoon walking around the world heritage part of town and along the docks. We eventually hopped on the free tourist bus with does a circuit through and around Georgetown so we could get a feel for the town and the layout. Towns are not really for us, especially Ken and this one felt claustrophobically chaotic for its size . The traffic is hectic and there are no real pavements to walk on, so you spend your time dodging motorbikes,cars, bikes,busses and trishaws.

When we went out later that evening it was a totally different place. Food stalls had just popped up on the roadside and the sights, sounds and smells were arousing to the senses. The place was buzzing. We went to a restaurant , Restoran Kassim Mustafa, that we had read about and yes the author was right, they do have the best tandoori chicken that we have ever tasted. We ordered that with a roti canai, a type of Indian-influenced flatbread found in Malaysia and Indonesia, served with a spicy curry sauce , washed down with a delicious mango lassi. Yum!! We then strolled up the street eyeing the food out. We stopped and ordered some chicken satay, tantalisingly terrific. With a spring in our steps and our perception of Georgetown changed slightly, for the better , we bounded up the road looking for our next morsel. This turned out to be sesame peanut balls, which we practically inhaled whilst walking back to our hotel. About 20 meters later we turned around to buy 2 more. We now understood why Penang was known as the food capital! Beach time tomorrow!
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Batu Ferringhi (forreigners rock) is a beach resort around 40mins away from town. We got off the bus and found a lovely beach cafe. Ordered some breakfast and a cuppa, payed and hit the sandy beach. What a delightful little place. Ken got to fishing whilst I tanned and read my book. What a lovely relaxing time on the beach, away from the town. Looking forward to nightfall, we chilled in the aircon room for a while, after Ken went to buy the new camera.

At around 8pm we hit the streets, 1st stop, satay chicken again, next wan tan mee ( a noodle dish with wan tans, vegetables, meat and dressed with a type of soy sauce) and lastly our favoured sesame peanut balls. Ken also managed to squeeze in a bowl of cendol, which is a traditional dessert originating from South East Asia containing shaved ice mounted over chewy pandan-flavored cendol 'strands', coconut milk, a splash of condensed milk, and gula Melaka syrup (coconut palm sugar). Add-ons like sago pearls, red beans and pulut rice are optional. Sounds weird, but really did taste good, and so refreshing! What an incredible eating experience indeed ! Oh yes, I forgot to mention the fresh fruit juice we picked up along the way - the juice is poured into a plastic bag, served with pieces of fresh fruit - with a choice of coconut, lime and litchi and served with a straw. We chose litchi. It's really fresh fast food!
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Tummies full, taste buds tantalized, we made our way to the aiport in the POURING rain after a great few days in Penang. Off to the big city we go - Kuala Lumpur.
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(Please check out the photo album for more photos.....)

Posted by louslabbert 03:00 Archived in Malaysia Tagged beaches buildings people night traffic food markets street bus city penang ancient bbq vendors stalls shop_houses Comments (3)

Land of the head hunters...Borneo!

Kuching, Borneo - First stop on our whirlwind tour of South East Asia.

The reason Kuching was on our itinerary was because Ken gave me a list of a few of the things he wanted to see and do during our trip. One of them was to see the Orangutans and so we decided on Semonggoh National Park, with Kuching being the place to stay closest to the park.

The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was established in 1975 to care for wild animals which have either been found injured in the forest, orphaned, or were previously kept as illegal pets. The centre is situated within the boundaries of the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, approximately 24 km from Kuching. When established, the three main aims of the Centre were to rehabilitate wild animals who have been injured, orphaned in the wild or handicapped by prolonged captivity, with the objective of subsequently releasing them back to the wild, to conduct research on wildlife and captive breeding programmes for endangered species and to educate visitors and the general public about the importance of conservation. As a result of its success, Semenggoh’s role has changed and it is nowadays a centre for the study of orangutan biology and behaviour, as well as a safe and natural haven for dozens of semi-wild orangutan, graduates of the rehabilitation programme. It is also home to numerous baby orangutan, born in the wild to rehabilitated mothers, a further testament to the success of the programme.

After hearing lots of feedback and stories on the number of orangutans which had been seen by other travellers, we were excited about our trip to see them. With two hourly feeding times, 9am and 3am, we opted for the morning slot. We got up early on Monday morning, made our way to the bus station and caught the bus just before 7am, getting us to the park very early. After buying our entry ticket we walked 20 minutes through the jungle to get to the rehab centre. At 9am, along with a large crowd of visitors, we were led to the feeding area. We waited, and waited and waited....and waited. Well, unfortunately for us, the orangutans were not hungry that morning and so did not grace us with their presence. Very disappointing! Good for the park, as it means that they are finding their own food, however sad for us, as we had really been looking forward to seeing them. So heavy hearted, we made our way by bus back to Kuching, where we recuperated in the aircon'd room for a while before a trip to the Sarawak Museum. It was a great insight into the local Iban life and the history of Malaysian Borneo.

The highlight of the day / night was dinner - we treated ourselves to dinner at a place called James Brookes Bistro, on the waterfront. Ken had the yummiest butter chicken and I chose the fish curry - amazing! Definitely a treat as we blew our budget that day!

Another early start on Tuesday and another early bus trip. This time is was to Bako National Park. An hour on the bus got us to the park office, where we had to buy day permits to the park. We joined up with a couple from Canada, and bought return boat tickets to the park, as they were also going for the day and so it worked out much cheaper to share the journey. The park is 27 square kilometers, with secluded beaches, mangrove swamps, cliffs, lowland forest and heath forest. After a 20 minute boat ride through the croc infested estuary, we signed in. There are 17 hiking trails in Bako - we opted for a 5.8 km loop, which was estimated to take 3.5 hours. So off we set on our hike in 36 degree Celsius heat, at around 95 % humidity. Well, were we in for a shock. My idea of a hike was on a straight/level/flat surface. Withing 5 minutes of starting we were literally climbing vertically out of the valley. The hike was tough, up and down using tree roots as steps and vines as ropes. But I survived :-) The jungle was alive with lots of noises, but we didn't see too many animals except for the bearded pigs, fiddler crabs and mudskippers at the start of the hike. We also managed to see the macaque monkeys and the famous proboscis monkeys. Ken was in his element in the jungle!

Once back in Kuching, as knackered as we were, we headed to Top Spot for dinner, which was highly rated in all the guide books/online as the place to eat. Top Spot is a food court on top of a multi story car park. Seafood city!! You walk around, checking out the fresh seafood, deciding what to go for. You choose what you want - they cook it for you and bring it to the table. We had huge prawns, cooked in garlic, chilli and spring onions. Yum yum yum! it was an awesome meal - a fitting end to a great few days in Kuching.

While on the plane from Kuching to Penang, just before take off, Ken realised that our camera had grown legs and walked! Yup, our lovely new camera was missing, along with all of the photos from our day at Bako NP. Talk about putting a damper on the day. We were absolutely gutted. After liaising with airport staff and lost property, the camera was never found. Sob sob sob :-)

Bye Bye Borneo...next stop, Penang......

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Posted by louslabbert 03:05 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains buildings trees animals birds sky boats temples food markets fishing beach travel monkey river malaysia roads city pagodas borneo funny sights ancient bbq pig deer vendors stalls sounds proboscis_monkey hornbill orangutang shop_houses kutching Comments (2)

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