Friday, 16 October 2015

Vietnam - South and Cambodia

The day dawned with overcast skies and drizzle and our hopes of seeing much on our way to Hoi An looked dashed. Maybe the train would have been a better option after all. So we are collected from the hotel room and set off southwards in a full mini van. First stop is a small village and local market, though the thought of getting out of the van and trapsing through the rain to see yet another market is not enticing, but we do it. It is only a quick stop as we are all keen to re board the van and head off. Except the van won't start. Trying and trying to turn the motor over to no avail, we are soon asked for volunteers to give a push start - in the rain!! This is not a good sign - maybe we should have taken the train after all !!


                                   Here's how you buy your ducks at market - so cute !!!


                          Having to push start our mini bus after our market stop 😩😩😩 

Our next stop was at a beach, but the view was likened to a cyclone approaching so we didn't linger. Up and over the Hai Van Pass and 20 mins at the top to take in an amazing view looking southwards to DaNang and the coast. Our driver had parked the bus on a downhill slope this time as a precaution and sure enough the van needed a jump start. Down into DaNang and lunch at Marble Mouñtain, one of the five marble and limestone hills in what is other wise flat coastal area. The area is famous for its stone sculpture and the most amazing marble statues I have ever seen. Then a short steep climb to the top of the mountain after lunch for a view across the water.


                                             The view from the top of Marble Mountain 


                            Some great laughing Buda marble statues - too big to bring home.


                                      Pics from our climb to the top of Marble Mountain

From there it was only a short 20 mins south to Hoi An, our coastal stop for a few nights. It has an 'ancient town' that is cut by canals and street upon street of tailor shops as well as the usual array of lacquered artifacts, ceramics, luggage and clothing. The town has quite a sleepy atmosphere by day, but It is at night that it really becomes alive, with coloured lanterns lighting every street running both sides of the canal and the bridges lit like Xmas. Everywhere are small children to old ladies selling candles which you set adrift on the canal and make a wish. The bars and restaurants are wall to wall, all touting for your custom. We found a great one that served fried wantons with a prawn/salsa topping and we made this our 'entree' stop each night, the mains usually being somewhere else. 

Our hotel offered a free shuttle bus daily to the local beach where they had sun lounges reserved for hotel guests, so we took advantage of a lovely sunny day and spent the day swimming and relaxing. Hoi An is a great half way stop when travelling the length of the country and although it was touristy as expected,  we really enjoyed this little coastal place.


                                                  The sleepy town of Hoi An by day


                               Then by night the streets of Hoi An all decorated with lanterns


                     Shops selling lanterns.                                  Canal side decorations by night


                      Elderly Vietnamese woman selling the candles to set afloat on the canal


                      Dinner - The sun setting and the town starting to light up for the evening.

Here's where we detour from Vietnam and fly to Cambodia for a week arriving early evening into Siam Reap. As we descend, we can see that the skies are darkening and we are heading into a massive storm. Oh great! Thankfull to be on the ground as the lightning bolts and thunder start, we are met by a young man who gets us to wait while he brings our transport around. The rain is torrential instantly flooding the streets and the thunder and lightning simultaneous overhead and up comes our little man in a tuk-tuk with plastic roll down sides. Cramming the pair of us and 4 pieces of luggage in, we are off into the storm. It was a slow trip but we eventually got to the hotel - and dry!!


                               Our driver was all smiles as he packed us in to our tuk-tuk

After a shower we take a tuk-tuk to Pub Street, the equivalence to Kao San Road in Bangkok. Many of the restaurants are advertising 'Barbecue' as their speciality where you choose 4 types of meat and they are served with Asian vegetables, all of which you cook yourself similar to a 'Steamboat' Dinner. I baulked at the frog legs, ostrich and kangaroo (just a child of the 'Skippy' age) but did opt to try crocodile. Along with that we played safe and had chicken, prawns and squid. A very tasty meal but not exactly cheap for the amount of meat we ate.

Next day was temple touring and although you could spend days trapsing over the thousands of temples in this area, we opted to hire a tuk-tuk for the day and take in some of the main ones. Starting of course with Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, it was originally a Hindu temple then later becoming a Buddhist temple. Just to think how old the stones are gives an almost surreal experience as we clambered up, down and over them for hours. Bayon temple was next, followed by Ta Prohn - made famous in the Tomb Raider movie. Massive fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over the stones, walls and terraces - an almost possessive grip on the land.

                                                    Entering the impressive Angkor Watt


                                                      Amazing buildings and tombs 


                          Some of the great old trees from Ta Prohn - 'Tomb Raider Temple'

                                   Root systems that anchor their great heights to the ground

From Siam Reap we flew south to Phonh Penh with Basaka Air (never heard of them!) Not a lover of flying in the first place, it was with trepidation I boarded the flight. I need not have worried. Smooth as silk, 32 mins flying time and a relatively new'ish plane and an English captain! It saved 6 hours by road and was so worth it. In PP, we did a day trip to S21 jail, originally a school that was transformed into a prison where atrocious torture methods were practiced under the Pol Pot regime. Only 7 survivors out of 20,000 prisoners - we have just about had our fill of the depressive history of the Vietnam war. Not a lot to do in Phonh Penh so glad we only had 2 days there.

                                              A poignant reminder of the life of a prisoner

Finishing with Cambodia, with boarded Qatar Air and flew back to Vietnam and out last stop of Ho Chi Minh City, though many still refer to the capital as Saigon. And I thought I had seen streets filled with motorbikes - I was not prepared for the sheer volume of bikes here. With a population of 18 million, there are 6 million motorcycles and they all appeared to be on the streets at the same time. 

Our hotel was a 5 minute walk to the Ben Thanh markets -  a huge undercover area with aisle upon aisle of clothing and shoes, wood carvings, lacquer wear, hardware, auto parts, food stalls and more, and where we did the last of our Xmas shopping. I would like to say that I got some great bargains. The truth is I am hopeless at bartering whereas Pete has it down to a fine art. I end up walking away appearing to loose interest and saying we can always look elsewhere - magic words to ensure Pete gets the bottom price. And we know they are still making a profit, maybe just not as much as with other tourists. 


                                           Imagine trying to find a car part here ...... !!

We spent a day traipsing  through the Reunification Palace and the War Memorial - both excellent attractions and easy walking distance from our hotel. In the evenings we wandered up to Bien Vui, the main area for hostels and backpackers ensuring an abundance of bars and restaurants where food and drink prices were much cheaper than our hotel. Often we would end the evening with a  massage for Pete and a mani or pedicure for me, then wander back to the hotel and a good nights sleep.


                                             In the grounds of the Reunification Palace

We did a day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels where we were amazed by the labyrinths used by the Viet Cong. The size of the small openings that the Vietnamese squeezed through were definitely not designed for the larger European body sizes. There was the opportunity to follow one of the underground tunnels for 100 meters with an exit every 20 meters for those who found the going too tough. Imagining that claustrophobic feeling, I chose to walk the above ground path with the guide waiting for a minute at each exit in case some of our group opted out. One by one they did, Pete making it to the 80 meter mark and only 2 young Asian guys made the full distance liking it to being in a 2' square sauna. Pete also got a chance to fire off some rounds on an AK47.


                                              Cu Chi tunnels -  Oh so squeezy ......... !!

We left the city for a few days to go to Mui Ne, a resort town on the SEcoast 3 hours drive away. We opted to travel down by 'sleeper bus' and it wasn't a bad run at all. Air conditioned buses with 2 levels of almost fully reclining seats with room to stretch out the legs. Our short trip was over in no time, and we were arriving into Mui Ne. A long palm lined beach popular with wind and surf kiters, a huge choice of hotels and restaurants and obviously catering to the Russian tourists with alł signage in their language. It was a lovely few days of long beach walks, hours spent lazying around th pool reading and just chilling out.


                                Gettiing comfortable on our 'sleeper bus' for our trip to Mui Ne


                                                      A roadside stall selling dragon fruit 

                                                  A perfect place to chill for a few days 

One more place to see before we leave the country and that is the Mekong Delta. Our accomodation was a home stay on the river, basic amenities, good local food with a fun night afterwards sitting around the table playing cards with our group. The loser of each hand had to drink a shot glass of home made rice wine ...... ugh!! That was reason enough to try your best.

Our next day was a boat trip down the Mekong and included the floating markets, a bee farm, a rice noodle factory, a coconut candy factory, lunch and a ride in a sampan along the canals under the canopy of water coconut trees. It was a day of experiencing the agricultural heartland of Vietnam and seeing how the locals live.


                      That's one big Budha                                             Pretty coloured Python


                                                   Our Sampan ride in the Mekong Delta 

                                                .......... and our overnight homestay.


                              Drying rice paper in the sun before it is shredded into noodles

Back in Ho Chi Minh and time to sort out our bags for the flight home. It has been a wonderful month crossing from North to South. We have enjoyed the mountains and caves in the middle of the country then the beaches and towns on the coast, the 5 star hotels to the farm and home stays. Vietnam - another country ticked off our bucket list and now it is time to fly home for some much overdue family time.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Vietnam - The North

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.