A Travellerspoint blog

Hoi An, Vietnam

days 81-83

sunny 32 °C

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Probably known best for its rampant trade in counterfeit clothing – you can simply take a Next catalogue to one of the textile shop owners and they will knock you up an exact replica for half the price in a day or two, Hoi An actually has much more to offer. From the Japanese bridge, to the 1st floor restaurants overlooking the narrow river, to the quaint coffee shops in the small lanes that run away from the river, Hoi An was the most charming place we had been to for quite a while.

Our hotel was about 25 minutes walk from the centre but offered cheap bicycle hire so that's how Lou and I got around. Once you realise that the Vietnamese advice on how to cross the road (close your eyes and walk slowly) is actually closer to how people do it than their joking tone suggests, you're ready to take to the roads. As long as you're prepared to swerve at a moments notice to avoid hitting a person, or another cyclist, or a car, or a chicken, nothing can go wrong. Hiring a bicycle also gave us an opportunity to get off the beaten track somewhat, where we found a restaurant serving fried noodles with chicken and vegetables for virtually nothing.

The following day we booked a day tour to 'My Son' – a heavily Hindu influenced collection of temple ruins from the ancient cham empire located in the midst of heavy jungle. As with most tourist sites in Vietnam, we were far from the only people there, but it was worth the visit to see what is left of the relics, although given the lack of security presence, and the propensity of the tourists to touch and trample on the ancient ruins, how much longer they will be there for is anybody's guess.

We met up for dinner that evening with a guy from Buenos Aires that Bettina knew, and he brought along a Dutch guy that he was sharing a room with. I ended up sat next to the Dutch guy who, despite being a back-packer who had just come from India, was dressed and looked exactly like a politician. He had a balding head, despite being in his early 20's, wore a stiff-collared shirt paired with chino shorts and on his feet wore deck-shoes. When we started talking about giving money to beggars, he also spoke like a politician: “yah well really its up to the government to support them so I never give anything. Giving actually makes the problem worse as it gives the government an excuse not to help”. While I understood his angle to a certain extent, in India if you have a mental or physical handicap then you get pretty much no help from any social welfare system and you're pretty much on your own and so without handouts from members of society you're going to die. “They should try and sell something” was his last thought on the matter, before confirming what I suspected all along that he was a politics student. The guy from Buenos Aires was alright though.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 08:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hue, Vietnam

days 79-81

sunny 33 °C

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From Ha Long bay we had to go back to Hanoi for our night bus to Hue. I would have much preferred to get the train as it is much safer, much more comfortable and quicker, but I was out-voted by the girls who were keen to spend the 10 dollars less it cost on the bus. I did point out that 10 dollars wouldn't be much use when we were upside down in a ditch but the argument fell on deaf ears.

The bus was a bizarre set up with 3 rows and 2 tiers of single pod-type seats. Your seat could recline until it was about 45 degrees and no further. After some investigation I realised that was because the person behind you had their feet underneath were your head was, and likewise your feet under the head of the person in front of you. If you are any taller than 6 feet then this mode of transport really isn't for you, but as I'm not it was actually bordering on comfortable. As on any night bus, quality sleep is impossible and you wake every hour or so, but as night buses go it wasn't at all bad. The key to a peaceful journey is to NEVER look at the road, as you will undoubtedly see an outrageous over-taking manoeuvre by your driver, a driver coming the other way, or very often both. They seem to be playing chicken and one will pull back into his side of the road, or onto the pavement with seconds to spare. I wish someone had given this advice to the Australian chap sat behind me who kept waking me up with yelps and shouts of “struth!! did you see how close that was”.

So we arrived in Hue (pronounced 'Hu-ey' rather than 'Hew') shortly before lunch and checked into a nice room at the 'Tran Ly' hotel overlooking the river. Hue is a city but nowhere near as busy as Hanoi, and we wandered around and saw most of the part of the city on our side of the river in half a day. We found somewhere outrageously cheap to eat – the cafe on 'Thu' wheels (Thu being the owner...) and I played pool in the 'DMZ' bar with the locals, but we resolved to leave the sight-seeing until the next day as a combination of the night bus and the humidity meant none of us could really be arsed.

Booking organised trips with travel agents seems to be all the rage in Vietnam, and pretty much all hostels and hotels also double up as travel agents and try to get you to book a tour with them as soon as you check in. Preferring independent travel, we decided to hire a boat to take us to the Citadel and a pagoda (temple) that lay on the other side of the river and so instead of getting a nice boat with a tour guide that the people who booked with their hotel got, we got the smallest boat with the loudest engine on the whole river and a little woman tried to sell us key-rings and trinkets for most of the 30 minute journey.

The pagoda was quite impressive, with a giant stupor visible from the river greeting you as you climbed the steps, and had nice gardens to walk through. The most interesting thing to see however, was the remains of a car that a monk had set himself on fire inside of in protest of the then regime's discrimination towards Buddhists.

On the way back the boat dropped us at the market. We meandered through the almost in-navigable narrow alleys of the market that were packed with people, fish, plastic buckets, fake watches and fresh flowers until we found the food section. The proprietors of the stalls spoke no English and so we sat down, pointed at something that looked like it might be edible and the lady either passed it to us to eat cold, threw it in the fryer for us, or made it into a summer roll (a fresh roll – becomes a spring roll when fried). I think what we ate was pork and fish, and it wasn't too foul so it counts for me as a resounding success in experimenting with local cuisine.

On the walk back to our side of the river, we bumped into the welsh bloke with the colonial hat that we had first met in our room in Hanoi and arranged to meet later on for food and a beer. Much to the chagrin of the girls, we were unable to find a karaoke establishment for them to live out their ABBA-shaped fantasies but we did find a fairly busy backpacker bar that had a pool table. I played doubles with a local guy and it was 'winner stays on'. 2 hours later and I was still playing as we hadn't been beaten, but looking around to see how the girls were doing it looked like the booze was getting on better against them than opponents were against us and so they headed home leaving me still playing pool. We finally ran out of opponents and so played each other and I got beaten, although I was obviously very unlucky and should have beaten him easily.

The next day we were up for an early bus for the 4 hour journey to Hoi An, and there were some slightly fuzzy heads at the breakfast table.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 08:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

days 77-78

sunny -34 °C

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Ha Long bay is just a few hours by bus from Hanoi and an essential stop on any tour of Vietnam. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, hundreds of small islands inhabited only by decorative green vegetation rise from the waters and provided stunning scenery as we slowly chugged through the middle of them in the boat we had booked a 2 day/1 night tour on.

The tour then stopped at the almost as impressive Halong caves, discovered only in the past 15 years. Standing inside them we marvelled at the natural wonder that gave rise to their existence – looking up the roof of the caves look like the waves of the ocean and then out of nowhere stalactites slowly meander their way down whilst the stalagmites amble their way up. The only slight on the experience was the sheer amount of tourists – every travel agent in Hanoi advertises trips there and there is very little time to stop to admire the natural wonders for fear of the stampede behind you.

After boarding the boat again at the end of the cave tour we were taken to a 'floating island'; built in amongst the permanent islands the island had shops and a kayaking centre. Lou and I hired a 2-man kayak to get a closer look at the islands and with the only instruction from the bloke in charge of the kayaks being “watch out for big boats”, off we went. We had 30 minutes until we had to be back and after a short training session (me – “left... no the other left... yep that's it now right... no that's left again... yep that's right so now left... no you just went right again.
Lou - “stop being mean”) we headed out into the open waters. The first 10 minutes went by without incident, or much speed, as we slowly made our way around one of the small islands. We then decided, to try and get to some caves we could see that would mean crossing the fairly busy lines used by the 60-70ft boats ferrying people back and forth from the bay to the caves. Seeing a ferry approaching us in the distance I guessed we had a minute or so to make the 50 metres or so that we should have made comfortably but by the time we had been through the right/left/you're mean rigmarole again 30 seconds had gone by so I started rowing like stink while Lou tickled water with her ore every few seconds and we lived to row another day.

The tour then took in a small beach for half an hour before we made our way back to the boat that was to be our home for the evening. There were 18 of us on the boat arranged into 3 tables of 6 for banquet/buffet style meals. Earlier at lunch Lou, Bettina and I had been sat with a Thai brother, sister and father who were pleasant enough but only the brother could speak English making simple dinner-table conversation such as: “do you want the last prawn” into a drawn-out multi-lingual affair. So for the evening meal we re-arranged ourselves to be sat with two Spanish blokes from Madrid who were around our age and then Lyn plonked herself down in the spare seat. Lyn was a retired teacher and rather eccentric older lady travelling alone who was originally from New Zealand and now lives in London. We had met her on the bus and she talked to us, and anybody that would listen (sometimes nobody) non-stop from that point onwards but she was good fun and a welcome addition to the dinner table. The meal itself was very similar to lunch and consisted of a small bowl of suspect soup, a mound of starchy white rice, some fried shrimp spring rolls, a spicy chicken dish and some breaded pork nuggets, washed down with a couple of cans of local beer.

After dinner we bought a bottle of Vietnamese wine and the 6 of us went to the top deck to admire the view of the bay. The wine was terrible and although the view was good, we were anchored next to a brightly lit 'booze cruise' subtly named 'Phuc Long' that was blaring out karaoke much to the annoyance of the 10 or so older French members of our tour. Our guide 'Hoi' then announced that karaoke on our boat would be starting shortly and so the next few hours consisted of Lou and Bettina singing Abba, the Spanish lads singing Michael Jackson, me singing the Beatles and the French contingent wishing we would all shut up. In the morning the Thai guy we had been sat with for lunch the day before asked Lou who had been singing 'The winner takes it all' because it had woken him up and she had to sheepishly admit it had been her.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 08:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ha Noi, Vietnam

days 75-77

sunny -32 °C

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We arrived in Hanoi just after lunchtime and made our way to the 'Bodega' hostel to meet up with Bettina – a friend of Lou's who she hadn't seen for 3 years and whom we were to spend 2 weeks travelling through Vietnam with. Bettina had checked into the room early and garnished the bed with some welcoming balloons and garnished the fridge with some welcoming beers. She'd also garnished one of the chairs in the room with a Welsh bloke in a colonial hat she had met in the hostel and so those of us who didn't know each other exchanged pleasantries and had a beer.

One of the first things that had struck me about Hanoi was how modern it seemed; everybody was well-dressed and were driving around in modern-ish cars, the high-street was adorned with designer shops and the tourists seemed to almost out number the locals.

One of the things I was most looking forward to from our trip to Vietnam was the food, and so we found a back-street barely wider than an alley that had outdoor restaurant after outdoor restaurant on it, picked one that had a few locals sat outside of it and plonked ourselves down. All of the tables and chairs in the street were so low it looked like to go with the knock off books and clothes that Vietnam is famous for, they had knock off Early Learning Centre furniture but we all just about managed to squeeze our arses into them and sat down for chicken noodles and a 'Ha Noi' beer which came to less than a quid.

Lou and Bettina hadn't seen each other for 3 years and so had a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully the Welshy bloke in the colonial hat was a good laugh so we got to know each other while the girls talked, laughed, reminisced and before long sung. Before the singing though we had a couple more beers at the 'beer hoi' – a makeshift 'pub' set up on the street corner consisting of nothing more than plastic stools and a big keg of draught beer.

So... the singing. At some point along the way we had picked up Richard, a 60 year old professor lecturing at the local university and so with our 5 strong gang we headed to a karaoke house where you got a room to yourself, a big bucket of beer and paid by the hour. If you know Lou then the below picture will make you laugh and if you don't know Lou the below picture will almost definitely still make you laugh...

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After 2 hours in the karaoke house we headed home, but not before sampling some late-night cuisine of sweet sausages served cold with chilli sauce, scotched eggs and plain rice.

We had 1 full day to look around the city which we spent wandering down the narrow, bustling streets where you could buy anything from trainers to bags and everything in between. All of the stuff sold looks genuine enough but for the price they want for it can't be – Nike trainers for 20 dollars, Gucci bags for 50 dollars etc.

In the evening strolling back to the hotel through the small, atmospheric streets and then around the lake that sits in the middle of the city you got the feeling you where somewhere that had a lot of life in it and our first impression of Vietnam was a good one.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 08:53 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Singapore

days 73-75

overcast -29 °C

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From the chaotic to the clean, from the dirt to the sanitised, from the smells to the sanity... from Mumbai we landed in Singapore.

We landed late on Friday evening and were due to fly out early on Sunday so we only had one full day to look around, but the contrast from where we had come from was everywhere. The trains were clean and civilised, the market stall holders politely asked you if you wanted to see their merchandise, accepted no as meaning no, and didn't assume it as merely a bargaining tactic, the buildings were tall and well-built, the roads had a semblance of order and the bogs were clean. We also had somewhere clean and nice to stay – my mum's friend and her husband had very kindly agreed to put us up for our short stay and were excellent hosts who couldn't do enough for us. We owe them both a big thanks and so here it is!

Our first morning in Singapore began with a true Singaporean experience – breakfast consisting of two grossly underdone eggs and for the brave a toasted sandwich containing a huge slab of butter and some coconut, all washed down by strong sweet coffee. Definitely different.

To try and see as much as possible we borrowed some rail cards from our hosts for the 2 nights and used the excellent MRT train system to visit China town, little India, the Arab quarter and the harbour. The city must have a hundred malls, each containing huge food halls with a vast array of different cuisine - you could literally get anything that you wanted from crispy duck to fish ball soup to pasta and pizza to fried... brain

We spent the evening in the harbour area of the city which was full of huge skyscrapers plastered with the logos of various financial institutions dominating the skyline with an arrogance that made it heard to imagine that much of the world had been in a recession for the past 4 years and a large part of it was caused by complex (rigged) financial instruments peddled by these very same companies...!

For our evening food we went to a huge Malaysian food court with various small restaurants and hawkers and sampled some Vietnamese-style Pho; soup consisting of noodles, chicken and various herbs. There was a band playing on an elevated platform James Blunt songs, which sounded suspiciously like his actual album and we have a sneaky suspicion that they were miming.

We finished our day with a Singapore sling in a bar that overlooked the harbour. The cocktail was pretty good but didn't leave a lasting impression and was a bit expensive, which just about summed up our impression of Singapore.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 07:49 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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