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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)

Good morning, Vietnam!

Our time in Ho Chi Minh City and Southern Vietnam

32 °C

"So the weary travellers climbed off the bus after an 8 hour drive from Pnom Penh in Cambodia at the bus station in Ho Chi Minh City.........."

Ok so this place was like nothing we had ever seen before. The city is frightening to see first hand. There are so many scooters and the traffic seem to ignore any road rules that anyone ever taught us. It is like a well choreographed free for all, hooters going off all around us. This was daunting to say the least. So taking our lives into our own hands we stepped out into the oncoming traffic - seemingly taking a step closer to the bright lights at the end of the tunnel. The secret we were duly informed, is to walk slowly, one step at a time and never to stop. The bikes and cars avoid you and by walking slowly you give them the choice of which direction to go around you.

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After a great night on the town in the former Saigon, Lou awoke with the trots. So she opted to stay in bed for the day while I went around town with my two Swiss mates. After a delicious pho for breakfast, we walked around the Ben Thanh market, and then headed to the War Remnants Museum for a shocking education on the war and the US's genocide of the Vietnamese people. The emotions you feel whilst here are so varied that its hard to explain, but I will try. The first thing you see are the fighter jets, cannons, tanks(US and Viet), large bombs etc, typical war museum. Its all fun and games standing behind the guns, pretending to shoot, for the perfect photo. Its a happy childlike feeling. Then you explore some more and see the camps and prisons used by the Thai people. Then you head inside and start looking at the photographs, reading the captions and you get re-educated. some of the pictures almost make you spew in your mouth and others are just mind numbing to think about. Rage, horror, pity, sadness, fear and helplessness are just some of the emotions that I felt in those hours walking through the museum. People deformed, by chemicals used in the war by the US, sit at the museum every day to raise funds to help families who suffered the same fate. Agent orange and other chemicals continue to destroy lives of the people who came close to them( US soldiers too). It is a day I will never forget.
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So our Cambodian group had split up and in the evening we met new people joining our tour for the Vietnam leg. We all went out for dinner and a few drinks, Lou stayed home ( at the hotel ) again to try get well. Now after walking around the city for a day, I could negotiate the streets with confidence, cockily giving pointers to the new people on our tour.

With rain hammering down and Louise feeling a little better the next morning our tour took us to the Mekong delta. After boarding a boat, we were shown how the locals live on the various islands in the delta. We stopped and had Thai tea with a family who gave us local fruits to taste and sang folk songs with local instruments providing the tunes. After that we headed to another island where they make coconut candy, very tasty indeed and interesting to see how they made rice paper at the factory too. After the factory tour we were shepherded onto little canoes and were taken down mangrove lined canals to a village. We ate lunch here, it was a welcome respite from the relentless rain. After a relaxing lunch we went to another village where we were staying for the night - another home stay. This was a totally different thing to the last one in Cambodia, it was more like a school camp. Dorm rooms, separate toilets and cold water showers around the back of the building and the dining area about 40m away up a concrete path. No hot water but at least we had facilities. The afternoon was spent playing cards and relaxing on the veranda - we had planned a countryside bike ride which was cancelled due to the rain. For dinner we were shown how to make spring rolls and ate them together with pork, veg and fish. eventually we hit the sack after a few beers and a bottle of rice wine.
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The following morning was spent cycling and eating breakfast, baguettes, eggs and coffee - my old man would love the coffee here, no fresh milk, just condensed milk. We then bussed it back to Saigon for an afternoon of markets and sightseeing because Lou had missed it the other day. With our first SE Asian overnight train to look forward to, we bought ourselves some food and drinks for dinner on the train.

Overnight madness- Sleeper train, 4 to a cabin. Lou and I were paired with Gordon, in his eighties and Kaye from Australia. They were on the trip with us through Vietnam. We sat chatting for a while, eating and then I headed next door to the party cabin. Nils ( one of the Swiss guys on tour ) and I had bought a bottle of rice wine each from the family at home stay the previous night and Eugene ( from Ireland ) had got a case of tiger beer. A polystyrene cool box with ice had been purchased at the station before departure, so it was full steam ahead to Nha Trang. The train was much better then we had expected and was pleasant enough - could be down to the fact that our group was upgraded to 1st class for the journey - bonus!

At 5am the train pulled into Nha Trang station and we caught cabs to our hotel. Exhausted from lack of sleep - have you slept on the top bunk of an old train lately?? We dropped our bags at our hotel and hit he beach. Nha Trang was the place the US soldiers used to come for R and R during the war. Its a lovely sandy beach with a great view of a few small islands just off shore. By lunch time we were all beached out and went to check in. Louise was feeling rotten again, but this time with flu! We had a nap in the afternoon and spent the evening strolling along the promenade watching the locals, playing soccer, badminton and running. We settled for Bratwurst for dinner, Oh boy what a refreshing change from Asian food. Yum yum yum. We turned in early and got a really good nights rest. The following day Lou was feeling worse, but we were getting on another overnight train that evening, and to be honest, I think she was dreading it. After walking around the market we got Lou to bed. We payed extra to keep the room because we were meant to check out at 12pm. This meant Lou could sleep and I could shower after the beach. Which is exactly what happened - I body surfed for around 3 hours then showered, packed and left for the station. Nha Trang could've been any beach resort in the world. Overpriced, neon signed bars and restaurants lined the main street near the beach. It is nothing special, but it does have a great beach. We enjoyed our few days here and loved the sunshine.
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Next destination - Hoi An.......

Posted by louslabbert 21:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples traffic food bus train city museum usa sights saigon thai war genocide sounds ho_chi_ming Comments (0)

The tale of two cities....

KL and Bangkok

After a few dodgy wireless internet connections at the hotels we have been staying at recently, we decided to pop in to an internet cafe to write a quick blog post. I have now typed out that first line 3 times due to the PC I am on crashing and then the electricity going off. 3rd time lucky, I hope!

So we landed in Kuala Lumpur Sebung airport, 20 km from the city. Apparently all we needed to do was catch a bus from outside the airport which would take us to Chinatown where we were staying. We finally found the bus stop, about half a km down the road. Packed in to the bus like sardines, we continued our journey. Luckily the bus terminated right outside the hostel we were booked in to. Once again we were over the moon that our room had aircon!

We got up pretty early the next morning, had some coffee and toast and set off to explore the big city. First stop was KL City Centre and the Petronas Towers. KLCC was a huge contrast to the rest of the city - smart, posh, clean and a huge shopping centre housing the expensive stores. The sky scrapers are amazing and dwarf everything around them. After relaxing next to the fountains we hopped on a bus to Chow Kit market - local market selling everything from fruit to meat to electronics. We were craving fresh fruit so bought a mixture of fruit for lunch. That evening we explored Chinatown, which is basically 3 streets filled with stalls selling cheap knock off branded goods. Any brand you want, for a tenth of the price. And cheap dvds, cheap dvds!! In amongst all the fakes are food stalls and the odd street cafe. The place is very busy - lots of people everywhere and very noisy. We also found it quite smelly with all of the open drains.

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All in all, we were not overly impressed with Kuala Lumpur - may be to do with the fact that by the time we got there we were over cities.

Next up, was Bangkok. Yes, another city, so we were hesitant after KL. Bangkok traffic is mad! We sat in a taxi from the airport to our hotel for almost 2 hours. Three lanes turned in to five lanes, it is just synchronised chaos! Was actually busier than London rush hour traffic. The next day we explored the area around Khao San Road - the place has such a good vibe to it and very chilled. We did lots of walking and enjoyed a few stops for well deserved cold beers and iced coffee. In the evening we met up with the group we are doing the Intrepid tour with for an introductory meeting. We all went out for dinner and drinks together to get to know each other. Everyone in our group seems nice enough, which is a relief as we are travelling with many of them for 39 days! Ken and I loved Bangkok after the short time we spent there and we are looking forward to going back again after the Thailand islands in November.

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So thus began our Best of Indochina tour through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos......so watch this space, and we will be back soon!

Posted by louslabbert 04:13 Archived in Thailand Tagged buildings skylines people parties sky night planes temples traffic food city pagodas thai kl sounds bankok 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)

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