Sunday, 11 October 2015

Vietnam - Part 1

After what seems like years in the making, our holiday in Vietnam was finally here. Sadly though, we were not sharing it with Jan and Ross as originally planned, but excited to be seeing a new country for the first time. With an early 6.30am departure we were off to our first stop of Hanoi in the north of the country. We were met at the airport by a representative from our hotel, and it was so good to be able to ignore the dozens of taxi drivers all calling out for our attention in what can only be described as organised chaos.

From the minute we walked in the doors of the Paradise Boutique Hotel, we were made to feel like family. The friendliness of the staff who just couldn't seem to do enough for us, recommending restaurants with fabulous local cuisine, taking us out for their famous egg coffee, directing us to the best shopping area - the service was truly amazing. We spent the next few days meandering up and down the various streets - silver street, silk street, paper street, flower street with shop after shop selling exactly the same thing. How they all make a living is beyond comprehension.

We spent a day visiting the Ho Chi Minh memorial, though 'he was away on holidays' (his remains are on tour) and not due back until November. We then took in the war museum which was very interesting to learn more about the Vietnam War. The city of Hanoi is set around Hoan Kiem Lake, an hours leisurely walk around taking in the peace and tranquility of the calm water and weeping willows on one side of you, the hectic pace of hundreds of motorcycles, bicycles and cars of the other side. The noise of honking, beeping vehicles and cries from vendors and the various sellers all vying for your attention blend together into a cacophony of noise that is truly deafening.

                      The Turtle Tower - the centre point of Hoen Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam


                No - you can't take him home!!                           Inside the Ho Chi Minh Museum


                        I did step too close and had the guards blowing whistles to move away 


                                                 Pete in the grounds of the Palace
Crossing the roads was always going to be a daunting experience. My rules for survival were - hang on tight to Pete, walk at consistent steady pace, hang on to Pete, don't make eye contact with the oncoming motorbikes, hang on to Pete, breath deeply and they DO GO AROUND YOU...and remember, hang on to Pete. Ho Chi Minh is apparently much busier and the roads more challenging. Can't wait !!!

Halong Bay was our next stop and so impressive. Even though we have sailed amongst islands like that in Thailand, this is just on a much larger scale. Our 1 night Grey line cruise was very good, lovely room and meals were fantastic. We had contemplated asking if we could extend our stay for 2 nights however, we were woken early the next morning and advised that we were to head straight back to the harbour as a typhoon was heading towards Halong Bay. We missed a morning of activities and a lunch, but that was all. No big deal really but they offered and refunded us some money for the inconvenience. 


                          Our Greyline cruise boat anchored in a calm setting for the afternoon 


                                           Dinner aboard, a 5 course meal of local cuisine

One more night back in Hanoi before our overnight sleeper train to Dong Hoi. That was not an experience I would ever wish to do again - hard mattresses, noisy travelling companions, a train that stopped and started with a sudden jerking motion, all in all an unpleasant trip with very little sleep. Arriving at 6.30am and thankfully met at the station by the farmstay staff, it was a quick 30mins transfer and we were enjoying breakfast in the midst of rice paddies, water buffalo and lots of Aussie accents. 

Phong Nha farmstay is run by an Australian guy and his Vietnamese wife so we found a good mix of eastern and western influence. Option of very good western food if you prefer, and the best pizzas ever (or maybe it is just that we were craving a change from spring rolls and wantons). Only place we came across stubbie coolers, and had to buy a couple for the rest of the trip - beers go warm very quickly in this heat. Mosquito nets over the 4 poster beds, very fast Wifi and Vegemite available for breakfast - nice to have some little extras sometimes. 

Using bicycles supplied by the farmstay, we cycled along dirt tracks that eventually became bitumen road (of sorts) then into Phong Nha and we rented a wooden boat for a trip to the nearby Phong Nha caves. This area is known for its cave and grotto systems and they are still being discovered today. Our little boat took us into one of the smaller but still impressive caves, and different to be seeing it from the river that meanders through the system for kilometres.


                        Water buffalo cooling off in the heat of the day not far from our farmstay

                                    The entrance of Phong Nha caves - a journey by boat

Day 2 we had booked a full day tour in the National Park, so boarding our mini bus after breakfast we were off. Making our way up through the jungle, our first main attraction was Paradise Caves, and if we had been impressed with our small cave yesterday, this one was breathtakingly amazing. Given its name by British explorers for the stunning stalagmite and stalactite formations, the entrance has the wow factor and the further into the cave you walk just gets better and better. A wooden boardwalk with steps and viewing platforms leads through the cave with each bend opening on to another stunning rock formation. Looking back at our photos, they don't do it justice but will always remind us of the beauty tucked inside the mountain.

                    The jungle terrain around the Phong Nha region - hot and humid conditions.

                                      The impressive entrance to the Paradise Caves

From there it was on to the Dark Cave where we first zip lined across the river, a distance of 300 meters and no more than 15 meters high. Then equipped with helmet and head lamp, we swam into the dark cave, then wadded through water making our way into the centre to wards the mud pool. The closer we got, the muddier the ground became. Our feet were sinking into thick squishy mud and the smooth clay walls started to close down on us. Suddenly it opened into a chamber of what I could only describe as a huge bath of thick liquid milk chocolate. It was an amazing experience to crawl into the thick of it, so buoyant that you couldn't put yourself under if you tried. As smooth as silk to the touch and who knows how deep. Then we all turned off our headlights and we were plunged into intense blackness in the bowels of this cave. Once the oohs and aahs stopped, the silence was eerie - quite an experience in itself. Lights back on and heading out, we got to swim back to the entrance and wash a good bulk of the mud away, though those with light coloured swimmers will probably never be the same colour again. By the time we emerge, the regular mid afternoon thunderstorm is underway and we kayak back to base in torrential warm rain. What a great day out!

                   Zip lining across the river to get to the Dark Cave, Phong Nha National Park


                            Headlamps on and starting our trek into the depths of the cave


                                   Anyone for a dunk in milk chocolate? The mud pool

Back on the train for a 3 hour 'soft seat' ride down to Hue in central Vietnam. A pretty city built on the Perfume River with lovely gardens and walkways alongside. Its major attraction is its vast 19th century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City, palaces and shrines. The streets here are not as busy, mostly motorcycles and bicycles with fewer cars than Hanoi. Very touristy with wall to wall bars offering ridiculously low 'happy hour' prices for alcohol. Saigon, Huda or Larue beer served very cold equates to 61cents per bottle and happy hour can run from 9.30am - 10.00pm.


                         Sun trying to break through. Bridge over the Perfume River, Hue.


                                                       The entrance to the Citadel


                                       Time to ring the bell at one of the temples, Hue

                          DMZ Bar for a drink. Loved the ceiling fan above the pool table.

    Reaching the half way mark of our holiday in Vietnam, tomorrow we head south to Hoi An. We are opting to forego our soft seat train tickets and instead getting a mini bus which will take in a little more sightseeing as we go. The weather is starting to close in a little, though it is to be expected as we are officially in the wet season. As we are heading back to the coast, it would be nice if we can chance some fine weather - just have to wait and see.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Esperance WA

Making the most of some extremely cheap fares with AirAsia, we took the opportunity to finally get across and visit Ian and Caroline at their property in Esperance - albeit a short 6 day jaunt. It was bittersweet knowing that we were back in Oz and not seeing my family, but there is only another 6 weeks to wait until we return for some months together. Meeting up at the airport with Greg and Leigh who had flown across from Brisbane, we headed out of Perth and towards the small township of Corrigin and our accomodation for the evening. As always with Greg and Leigh, it makes no difference whether it is 1 week or 1 year since we have last seen each other, the banter and laughs start immediately and doesn't stop until we part ways again. After a lovely meal at the local pub, we called it an early night as we had not slept much on our overnight flight from KL, and they had been up before sunrise for their long flight from Brisbane.

Back on the road after an early breakfast and heading for Esperance. Of course, Ian and Caroline had no idea that we were rocking up along with Greg and Leigh, it had been a well guarded secret plan. Passing through the fertile wheat belt of WA, we headed along the Brookton highway to the town of Hyden and the nearby famous Wave Rock. It is massive granite cliff, 15 meters high and over 100 meters long and looks like a giant surf wave. We spent an hour wandering around, up and over the area with great views from the summit of the surrounding terrain. Wild flowers were just starting to appear after some good recent rain falls, wattles of all varieties, small orchids, Geraldton Wax and many others I didn't know.

                                    Standing at the base of Wave Rock, near Hyden W.A.

                               Some very impressive rock formations found at the summit


                                               With Leigh at the summit of Wave Rock


                                          Magnificent colour in the wild flowers of W.A.


                             A land mark half way along our journey. Maybe his breaks failed .....


                                   A roadside view looking across golden paddocks of canola
It was great highway all the way to Esperance and we were soon passing sheep knee deep in green paddocks that we thought probably by our mud map and calculations belonged to Ian and Caroline. Sure enough, we then spotted the Scottish flag and welcome at the entrance gates and we had arrived at Murra Murra. Sending Greg and Leigh in first to say hello, we hid ourselves low in the back seat listening to the 'loud' greetings from Ian. After a couple of minutes, they all headed to the car to unload the luggage and Ian was asked to get something out of the back seat. As the door opened, we sat up and yelled 'hello'.

Poor Ian, I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He jumped back as if he had been bitten, then realising it was us, that huge grin spread from ear to ear and the expletives started. Eventually he was quite speechless as we explained how this had all been planned for months, meeting up with Greg and Leigh in Perth and the trip down to Esperance. Each time we had spoken with him from the UK and he was telling us his plans for entertaining them, little did he know that he would be entertaining us as well. We had much the same reaction about half an hour later when Caroline returned from work, though not quite as 'colourful'. It was going to be a lovely few days catching up on old times with family and great friends.

                        The look of surprise on Ian's face. I can't repeat the exact words used!!


                                                    The sunsets over Murra Murra
Next morning we headed off for a tour of Murra Murra, driving though paddock after paddock of lush green fodder and the fattest of cattle. The rains had come just at the right time and it was going to be a bumper season for 'coos, ewes and canola'. After the tour, we headed into Esperance to have a little look around and a bite of lunch. A pretty little seaside town with marina, sailing club and foreshore promenade overlooking a lovely bay.

Day 3 was out and about in the car visiting some of the areas fabulous beaches. After 2 days of drizzly weather, the skies were starting to clear so time to play tourist. There may have been some blue appearing but it was still damn cold with a wind that felt like it were coming rom the South Pole. Heading east along the coast and into Cape Le Grand National Park, our first stop was Lucky Bay. Voted Australia's whitest beach, the sand is squeaky, the waters a beautiful turquoise colour and the local kangaroos call it home. 4 kilometres of unspoiled beauty with a view across a scattered archipelago in the instance. 

                      Lucky Bay in the Cape Le Grand National Park with resident kangaroos


                      Greg, Pete and Ian at a lookout. Just reminding him he is the shortest !!!


                                            Trying to stay warm in the 'fresh weather' 


                                                      The unspoiled beauty of Lucky Bay

Dinner that evening was a loud affair with us all gathered around the table for a roast venison meal with all the trimmings. Good food, great company and the end of the working week as we were all heading down to Albany the next morning for a 4 day long weekend to celebrate Caroline's birthday and East Coast farmer finally meeting West Coast farmer!!!!

In 2 vehicles we headed off early the next morning for our 4 hour drive to Albany. On arrival we headed down to the waters edge for a feed of prawns, calamari and chips before locating our accomodation in town and settling in. We took a drive to the top of Mount Clarence to see the Anzac War Memorial and spectacular views over the harbour and King George Sound. Albany is known as the birthplace of the Anzac story as it is from here that the 1st convoy of Anzac troops sailed to the First World War - their last sight of Australian soil. A beautiful setting for such a poignant memory.


                     With Caroline and Ian enjoying fish'n chips down by the pier in Albany. W.A.

Dinner that evening was to celebrate Caroline's birthday, with cocktails for starters, Margaret River wine, good Aussie steaks and wishes for many more happy birthdays. Leaving Greg and Leigh with Ian and Caroline for a few more days, our time in the West was all too soon over. We had an early start the following morning with a flight from Albany to Perth to link up with our return flight to KL. So many great memories to take back with us and so good to finally manage a trip across to Esperance and the lovely property of Murra Murra.

                                        The pure yellow of wattle abundant in the WA bush.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Lombok Indonesia

KL has been a great place to base ourselves and using the vast AirAsia network, nowhere is too far. After venturing back to Thailand for a few days exploring the more leisurely pace of Chiang Mai, then down to Bangkok to the hustle and bustle, we decided to re visit Indonesia. Not having been back since sailing through with the rally, we opted to try Lombok and the southern end of the island to the village of Kuta.

Staying at the Puri Rinjani Bungalows right across from the beach, we soon fell back into the swing of Indonesian life, lay back and casual. The dining area looked our across the ocean with the surf rolling in the distance, crashing on the reefs. To hear the welcomes of "selamat pagi" and the genuine smiles on the faces of the locals was like a breath of fresh air. We spent the days lazing around the pool, venturing into the village when we got hungry and deciding which of the various restaurants to try for a meal. Lots of good local seafood and lovely cold Bintang!!


                       Many hours spent lasting around the pool at the Puri Rinjani Bungalows

Kuta is renowned for its nearby surfing beaches, so we hired scooters for a couple of the days and made our way slowly along the badly rutted roads to find some spectacular beaches. Some had the whitest of sand and the bluest of waters, crystal clear and a lovely temperature for swimming. Not huge surf but great for the beginner surfer to learn. A couple of the beaches charged us $1 to enter, then the restaurant would ask $10 to use the sun lounges and umbrellas for the day. We found if we bypassed these and moved a little further along, the charges disappeared altogether and we were far happier to spend our money for beer and food in these 'less greedy' spots. Of course, you still have to put up with the various cries of "you like sarong?" or the children with boards of hand made bracelets pleading with their big brown eyes to buy a piece - so hard to resist.


                 Filling up at the local BP servo.                                    Idyllic Indonesian beach

One such young boy on approaching us with his board asked us where we came from. On telling him England, he responded with "capital is London". What followed was 10 minutes of us naming about 12 countries and he responded correctly every time. We are so impressed that we bought a bracelet then paid him double for being so good with his Geography. He wandered off with the biggest smile you have ever seen. Maybe this was his practiced routine for getting money out of tourists and it was all a well rehearsed routine - who knows.

                              Easy to reach swing at high tide - low tide was another matter


The week in Lombok was relaxing and we enjoyed both the beaches and the pool at our bungalows. It was grand finals week back in Oz, and knowing that Queensland was well represented in the NRL finals, we found ourselves a bar just down the road an sat back to watch the Broncos v Roosters semi. With the majority of spectators at the bar rooting for the Broncos, it was a successful and satisfying evening.

                        Another beautiful Indonesian beach, just a few locals fishing for dinner


Time to pack up and head back on a late evening flight to KL for 2 nights before starting our holiday in Vietnam. We opted to try the Tune Hotel at KLIA 2 airport as we were having such a short stop there, and the hotel was a pleasant surprise. Only a 5 min walk from the airport, quick check in and up to the room. Not huge, but very clean and modern and a 7/11 in the foyer - it had all we needed. The airport itself has a huge number of eatery options for dining and there is a free shuttle bus hourly to the nearby Mitsui Outlet Park where you can while away a few hours wandering around. Not a bad play to stay at all.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Istanbul was another of those places that I hadn't visited since 1980 when I had a year overseas, and Pete had never been here. It is a city that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, so the blast of warm air that hit us as we stepped off the plane made us think that we were back in the east. Then when we arrived into town, the hawkers selling their wares, restauranteurs touting for your business and street stalls offering roasted sweetcorn and chestnuts all enforced this feeling. These were all characteristics we have missed over the last 15 months.

The next 3 days we played tourists to the full, flitting from one attractions to the next. A change from visiting castles and cathedrals over the last few months, this was all about mosques. We purchased a museum card that covered our entrance fees for the main places we wanted to see, and more valuably allowed us to bypass the long queues at most places. 

Starting with the Blue Mosque (which in my opinion was the most beautiful of them all) the exterior is a cascade of domes with 6 slender minarets.  Shoes off, legs and shoulders covered and a pashmina over my head, we ventured inside. The interior is decorated with blue Izmir tiles and give the building its name. The central prayer space is huge and surrounded by 260 windows, most of them stained glass. It is truly a beautiful building, and photos don't seem to do it justice. The only negative is the permanent smell of foot odour that must be imbedded into the carpet from the thousands of people who visit daily. Ugh!!!!

                       The Blue Mosque in the distance, visited by up to 100,000 people daily

               Gold leaf decoration Topkapi Palace                    The courtyard of the Blue Mosque 

                     The beautiful blue tile also used extensively throughout the Topkapi Palace


From there we went to the Topkapi palace, the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to modern times. It is situated on the acropolis, the site of the first settlement in Istanbul and commands an great view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. There are 5 km of walls surrounding the palace with monumental gates that open onto beautiful tree shaded courtyards, a restful place to wander for a couple of hours. 

Another stop was the Hagia Sophia. It was originally built as a Christian basilica, then it became a mosque and is currently a museum. Another massive dome 55 meters above the floor and supported by 4 pendentives. On the mezzanine level you can see mosaics from the Byzantine period depicting Christ and his followers. Unlike the blue mosque, the floor on both of the levels is marble so thankfully that overpowering foot odour smell was not an issue. I don't think it is as beautiful as the Blue Mosque, but spectacular none the less.


                                                 Outside the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul


                                      Gold leaf and blue tile mosaic in the Hagia Sophia


                 View from the mezzanine level                            Colourful stained glass windows


                                                 Colourful domes really are spectacular 

                          Panorama shot - just learnt to do this. Have to do the holiday again now!!

The Grand Bazaar was also amazing. Very similar to what we had seen in Marakesh however the walkways up and down the alleys were as wide as a road in most places which was great that you didn't have to barge your way along. There were entire sections given to one trade - lighting, jewellery, pashminas, silver, art, ceramics - down one street just stall after stall all selling the same thing. The sellers there must be able to look at westerners 'features' and almost guess their origin, as in various parts of the bazaar as we pass, they would catch our eye and then hear "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" coming from them (with a huge grin)! How did they know?

                                Room to move down the laneways of the Grand Bazaar

We had a lovely long walk across the Galata bridge and up passed the Galata Tower to Taksim Square where the Monument to the Republic is located. Late afternoons most days we tried to find ourselves a rooftop bar with a great view to watch the shadows lengthen, the sun set over the city and to watch it come alive after dark. They have a very modern tram system that rounds right through the centre of the city.


                                 Galata Tower                          The Monument to the Republic - Taksim Square

                       The view looking out across the Bosphorus Sea from a bar top at sunset

Another day was spent with a ferry ride up the Bosphorus. Boarding our boat around 10.00, we spent the next 1.5 hours zigzagging our way towards the Black Sea stopping just short of the entrance where a new bridge is being built to join the two land masses. It is currently known as the 3rd Bosphorus bridge, assuming it will be given a name on completion and it is stated to be the widest suspension bridge in the world, including a rail line.


                                A great view of the 3rd bridge over the Bosphorus being built 

                                        The grand Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus

                                        Impressive gates to enter the Dolmabahce Palace 

We arrived into a small town just short of the new bridge where we had a 2 hour stopover for lunch and a look around. A relatively short but steep climb to the top of a hill to where the ruins of an old castle still stand, we had a fantastic view both up and the water. The temperature was warm and time for a cold drink to refresh ourselves. Unfortunately, these spectacular views didn't come with any beer so it was an iced tea for now until we got back down to the bottom where we had lunch.

                     A beer was what we really wanted but had to settle for an iced tea instead

                                                Just nice to sit back and enjoy the view


                          Another view of the surrounding countryside from our river cruise


                       Inside views of another smaller but spectacular mosque that we visited

                                             Sulaymaniye Mosque - Istanbul

On the last day, we got first in the queue to enter the Basillica Cistern, a huge underground system built to supply the water to the palace. There are 12 rows of 28 marble columns in total, each column being 9 meters high. Floodlit with underwater lighting, the effect is quite magical - lovely cool air and soft music playing in the background. And it was so lovely to be the first inside and have the place to ourselves even if just for a minute. Somehow that magical effect wouldn't be the same with hundreds of visitors crammed into the system.


So that was Istanbul done and dusted. Back to the hotel for a shower then await the arrival of our car to take us to the airport and an evening flight to Dubai then on to Kuala Lumpur. It's back to the east for us now. With some wonderful memories of places we have been, and people we have met. I am glad I have had the opportunity to return to some places that I hadn't seen for 30+ years, and for most of those a first visit for Pete. Istanbul - where East meets West - an interesting destination.