A Travellerspoint blog

March 2016

Vietnam: Hồ Chí Minh

sunny 35 °C
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Our last morning in Hội An consisted of eating some breakfast and getting a bit felt up by one of the Vietnamese ladies who remarked that my tummy wasn't as big as her tummy and proceeded to take a good chunk of my abdominal flab in her hand and squeeze it determinedly.
This actually gave me a warm wash of nostalgia from the days when my dearly departed grandmother (Oma) would grab me in a similar place and announce that I had "A LOT OF SPECK" (German for bacon).

It was very hot and we were thankful for our 1hr air conditioned taxi ride to Da Nang train station. As per usual (thanks to Lauren's phobia of tardiness), we were VERY early for our train and so spent 2 hours cooing over cute babies and buying overpriced, nutritionally bereft packaged snacks.

This was our longest journey to date; 18 hours from Da Nang to Vietnam's capital Hồ Chí Minh. The train was in the exact same format as the one we took from Hà Nội to Huế a week earlier. For the first few hours we shared our 4-berth cabin with an old Vietnamese lady and her big potted plant. We didn't talk with each other but we shared plenty of smiles and polite gestures.
We spent the rest of the daytime hours trying to make the time pass as quickly as possible; playing games, reading, having the occasional snooze, daydreaming out of the window etc. One of the train attendants was a very smiley young man who seemed to be quite enamoured by us. Every now and again he would come into our cabin and sit beside the lady on her bed and look at us. He didn't speak any English but he seemed to be talking about us to the lady, at one point touching one of Lauren's arm tattoos. I tried my best to memorise his name badge and told Lauren not to worry as I'd unleash the scouse if he crossed the line. I didn't need to though.

At tea time we struggled a bit to order food as the menu was all in Vietnamese, but the crappy language app I'd downloaded onto my Kindle enabled us to order rice and vegetables. As we were waiting for our food a lady came round with a stall full of cooked meat items. I bought what looked like two pork satay sticks and hoped for the best. As I should have guessed the meat was tough and full of gristle and fat and also had pubic-like hairs poking out of it. I didn't finish the sticks.
We were presented with a large carton full of steamed white rice dolloped with garlic green-beans, and that was it. No sauce, no other vegetables. We later found out that rau (the word we used for vegetables) can, if said in a certain way, just mean green beans. Ah well, it was food and we were just happy to have plenty in our bellies for the rest of the long ride.

The original lady got off and was replaced by another old lady, but this one a bit more glam with pedicured feet and plenty of rouge. With nothing much else to do, at around 19:30 the three of us assumed the sleeping position and turned the cabin light off. An hour or so later a young woman came in to fill the last bed.
We both slept quite well, only a little bothered by the fluctuating temperature and occasional jerk and bump. At 5am, some weird pop music blasted in and woke us all up - this is the 'we're almost there' alarm. Bleary eyed and with limited space we got our bags together and made our way to the doors; blocking most of the aisle with our backpacks in the process.

At 5:20 we arrived and as advised by our next host, jumped into a well-marked official taxi which charged on the meter. Our accommodation was a homestay, and it didn't have a name as a hotel or guesthouse would. We gave the full address to the taxi driver but it became clear quite quickly that he wasn't really sure where it was. We'd been told (and we could see on Google Maps) that the homestay was only 2km from the station (a 10 min journey). However after 15 mins, the driver stopped on a main road and told us this was our destination. We obviously refuted this and showed him the address again. He eventually got us to the right place after half an hour of doing one big circle. Lauren then refused to pay him the amount on the meter (approx. £5) as he'd took us on a wild goose chase. Our host had told us it should cost no more than $2. I was a little shocked (and very proud) at 'easy-going' Loz standing defiant in a dark, unfamiliar Saigon. The man angrily accepted the £3.50 we gave him and we both felt a little victory (whilst also wondering whether he would come back later and murder us).

One of the benefits of a homestay is that you're generally not subjected to rigid check-in and out times. We told our host our arrival time in advance which mean he (Mr. Than) was there to greet us and let us into our room; saving hours of waiting around and falling asleep in cafés.
Our double room was on the second floor of a four-story house (typical of Hồ Chí Minh), tucked away at the end of a quiet side street and we had a shared bathroom. The house is occupied by the host's adult daughter who lives on the top floor (who we unfortunately never met). The were lots of knick-knacks around and it did feel like we were staying in a flat-share, which was cosy and nice.

We did all that we could at that time; sleep. Upon waking we stepped out onto the streets of District 3 to get ourselves some breakfast items. We walked down a narrow residential street on our way to the mini-mart where we saw the occupants of the tall houses, old and young, sat outside their doors, with their dogs, cats and chickens, in their underwear, taking in the vitamin D. And by jove was there plenty of vitamin D! We had thought Hội An was hot, but Hồ Chí Minh felt like Mars. Lauren started to worry that she wouldn't make it through the 3 days.

Later on, we ventured to District 1 - the city centre, a 20 minute walk away. At 36 °C we almost melted into the concrete. Once again, we'd thought that Hà Nội's traffic was frenzied and precarious for pedestrians, but that was before we'd experienced Hồ Chí Minh. It wasn't so much the size and complexity of the roads, although they were massive, but the quantity and unashamed conduct of the motorcyclists. It's difficult enough to navigate the streets of the capital as a pedestrian as there isn't a consistent pavement and even when there is, it's blocked by parked bikes or stalls. So a lot of the time you're walking in the road. When you do manage to get on a bit of ostensibly safe paving, you'll suddenly feel a motorbike zoom past your body - on your left and on your right. Lauren and I quickly realised that motorcyclists, in an attempt to beat the heavy traffic, will use pavements as an overtaking lane. This meant that on our first day we were constantly turning around to see if we were about to be run down. By our last day however, fighting obnoxious with obnoxious, we actively spread ourselves out across the pavement, forcing the bikers to re-enter the road. You really can't take us anywhere.

In town we wandered briefly around Bến Thành market, getting accosted most of the way by the traders. Then we booked our bus tickets to Phnom Penh and ate at a little vegetarian restaurant we'd stumbled across on the way. It was St. Patrick's day but we just didn't have it in us to find an Irish bar and face the crowds. Instead, we treated ourselves to a Baskin Robbins ice cream - when we should have actually had a Fanny's homemade Vietnamese ice cream but hindsight is a great thing.
That evening, my belly decided to act up again - at least I didn't digest the ice cream calories...

On our second day we walked back to Bến Thành market where we met our tour guide Vivianne (a young Vietnamese university student) from Saigon Free Walking Tours. We were joined on our city tour by a fellow Brit (from Kent) called Lisa who had only just arrived in Vietnam. We walked and chatted and learned a little about the history of Hồ Chí Minh. One thing we were struck by was the mass of beautiful very tall trees right in the midst of the urban centre (unfortunately my knowledge of trees isn't very good).
In the tour we explored the War Remnants Museum (previously known as Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes), Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, the Central Post Office (built by Gustave Eiffel) and the City Hall.
We enjoyed the tour but, dehydrated, hungry and overheated after waking for hours in the sun, we were keen to get back 'home'. The 30 minute walk back to District 3 at rush hour almost killed us. We stopped at Saigon Vegan for much-needed sustenance then once back, jumped straight in the shower to douse ourselves in ice cold water.

For our last day in Vietnam's capital we met up with our new friends Hattie and Michael who we met on our India tour. We chose Bookworm café as our meeting point; a scruffy little backpacker place with lots of books for borrowing and exchanging. On my way back from the toilet (that had no sink or way of hand-washing at all) I peeked in the adjacent kitchen and tried to ignore the hundreds of hygiene violations. Lauren had a disappointing fake sausage and cheese toastie and Hattie and Michael had a flavourless phở soup. The chilled/rustic vibe of the place was a redeeming feature though.
We walked to Bến Thành market and swept through the alleys of stalls, trying to browse without getting jumped on by sellers. Lauren even managed to buy some fake Ray Ban sunglasses to replace her 99p Shop ones. We then headed over to the nearby street food market which was a biggish warehouse-style location with many different food stalls; mostly Asian but some Westernised options too. It was pretty trendy and gentrified with street art on the walls, posters and indie music.

As none of us had seen it yet we all ventured over to Independence/Reunification Palace but had to walk around the whole circumference of its walls for 30 minutes to get to the right entrance. The Palace has quite an interesting history; it had started life as a palace but had also acted as government building (which aesthetically it looks more like). Inside wasn't particularly opulent as many European palaces tend to be, but the huge basement bunker was fascinating. A warren of concrete passages with lots of amazing looking old telecommunications technology.

For lunch we went back to the street food market where Hattie and Michael chose rib sandwiches, Lauren chose a Thai potato curry and I selected a Japanese Yaki Soba. We sat on the 'rustic' benches with all the other tourists, ex-pats and young Vietnamese and gobbled everything up while people-watching. The usual post-food lull hit us pretty quickly and that, coupled with the stifling heat and hours of walking around meant we were all pooped. We said our goodbyes and commenced our bastarding half hour walk back to our homestay; at rush hour, in 70% humidity.

That was it for Hồ Chí Minh city and I really liked it but I think Lauren is a little tired of cities now. I also think the heat is getting a bit debilitating for us English folks. So with that in mind, our next stop is big city Phnom Penh that's 3 degrees hotter than Vietnam. Genius!

Posted by advensha 05:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam hot saigon backpacking travelling humid ho_chi_minh south_vietnam independence_palace reunification_palace too_hot Comments (0)

Vietnam: Hội An

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The morning of our departure from Huế was a little frazzling. I realised late in the evening that I'd left my camera repair receipt at the shop and without one I'd have no chance of claiming through my insurance. So after hurriedly getting ready and packing my bag, I ran down to head to the shop. In my wisdom I'd saved a paragraph I'd written through Google translate explaining that I needed a copy of my receipt to hopefully make things easy to the shop attendants. I happened to show this paragraph to Toan (the guesthouse guy) who then dashed all my hopes and dreams and said it was total gibberish and made no sense at all. Compassionate to my plight he very kindly escorted me to the shop, which was closed. He rang the number on the sign and explained to the owner what I needed and he said that someone would be there in 10 minutes. 20 minutes later the girl from the day before arrived with a smile and opened up. The message hadn't been passed on but after flailing my hands and arms around in a crazy game of charades she understood what I needed and wrote me a receipt. Success!

At this point I had no idea whether Lauren had already been collected by the bus and was on her merry way to Hội An. Luckily, she was still in our room. We clambered down the stairs with our ever-growing backpacks and Toan asked us to pay for our stay. We were a little confused as we thought for a second we'd already paid but we handed over the 490,000 dong anyway and waited for our lift. Then, when checking our emails for our accommodation in Hội An we realised we HAD in fact paid for Sunny Fine guesthouse. We showed Toan the email confirmation and he apologised profusely and explained that he thought we'd booked through booking.com (where you don't pay upfront) but we'd actually booked with Agoda (where you do pay upfront). He felt really bad but I made a joke out of telling him I was going to call him a thief on my TripAdvisor review and we all had a good laugh about it.

We chatted to a nice solo-traveller called Mike from St. Albans for a bit then got collected by crappy old van with two poor long-legged Europeans squashed in what used to be the boot. We got on the coach and did a double-take at the format; 3 rows of mauve double-decker leather dentist chairs. The bottom level is on the floor of the coach - you have to get on your hands and knees in the aisle and shuffle into the seat/bed. To get up to the top deck there is a little ladder - you have to climb it and contort yourself into the seat/bed without knocking someone out with your arse/legs or in our case, tits. Once in place, you slide your legs into a shallow 'slot' and you can then decide whether you want to sit upright or lay down almost flat. We also had a our very own brown puffy duvet decorated with paw prints that I thought probably had more skin on it than Leatherface - so I didn't use mine.

We then spent an hour parked at the Petrolimex; people were loading box after box and bag after bag onto the coach. Eventually we left and after a couple of hours we stopped at a truck stop for toilets and food. This stop was an undeniable tourist-trap, ran by a very assertive lady who shouted at all of the Caucasians on the bus to buy food and snacks. She then went round asking everyone for foreign coins and notes as she collects them. We were pretty hungry and ill-prepared so we gave in and bought some Pringles for £2 which brought tears to my eyes. We did enjoy the delicious MSG though.

As always, I managed to fit in a few naps while on the coach; if I'm in a moving vehicle for over 10 minutes I simply cannot fight the urge to snooze. Lauren was near to the toilet and became increasingly frustrated at the male users of the coach toilet who seemed unable to shut the door after their visit; which meant a lovely smell wafted to our noses. I feel this is becoming a bit of a theme.

Four hours on the coach and we arrived in Hội An where we were immediately touted by motorbike-taxis (xe ôm) who told us that there aren't any taxis in Hội An and so we must use them. Unconvinced, we walked for less than 2 minutes and flagged a fully-licensed taxi (on the meter) that took us the 4km to Luna Villa Homestay. Nice try suckers. We received a very warm welcome by Peanut (really) and her staff and we were blown away by our massive modern room fully equipped with kettle, flat-screen telly AND a fridge! We also had a peek at the infinity swimming pool, flanked either side by huge palm and banana trees and two lakes. We knew we were going to be very comfortable.

Peanut was eager for us to book tours with her and repeatedly recommended a particular tailor shop in town (Hội An is renowned for it's bespoke tailoring trade), but we politely resisted; keen to try and do things ourselves without forking out.
We chilled out in our room for a few hours; I even got electrocuted by a lamp and almost voided my bowels. Lauren thought it was the finniest moment of her life.

That evening we attempted to visit a nearby restaurant (apparently 400m from our homestay). We got the route up on Google Maps and started following it but as we were in a really rural area (Cam Thanh village) it was pitch black. We cautiously walked up a very dark lane and heard the sounds of various creatures and different unknown things we stepped on. We used Lauren's torch app on her phone but we quickly became very anxious. Then, just as we thought we were approaching the restaurant a group of dogs came out of a yard and started aggressively barking at us. Naturally we gave up and practically ran back to the homestay; where the lovely staff made us some noodles so we didn't starve. What are we like eh!? As if we weren't spooked enough we then made the wise decision to watch Final Destination 3 on TV.

We tossed and turned a bit through the night and realised the cups of tea at 11pm were probably a mistake - we got a little excited by the presence of a kettle. Despite this we were up early and after our breakfast we had a little swim then cycled into the town centre 6km away.
As we were nearing the town a lady on the back of a motorbike siddled up to me, while I was cycling on the road, and started asking me when I'd arrived in Hội An and where I was from. Immediately aware I was being scouted for business I asked her why she needed to know and she then asked whether I needed any tailored clothes. After a firm NO she signalled her driver to speed on. I give her kudos for her unique approach.

Smoothly following our interesting introductory sales-pitch, after we'd parked up, we were promptly punched in the face by many more pestering ladies offering tailoring, massages, nail art, sandwiches and even eyebrow plucking - which one woman was keen to sell to Lauren. We ducked and blocked as best we could, upping our pace so to not inadvertently stop in front of a shop. The town itself is very pretty; lots of leftover colonial features line the very symmetrical and colourful streets and many lanterns float above your head.

The relentless bothering was a little disheartening but we were even more disillusioned when we approached the ticket booth for visiting the 'ancient town' sights and were told it cost 120,000 dong (£4) per person for a book of 5 tickets to visit 5 of the 25 sights. We had read that we'd have to pay something for the ancient sights but we didn't think it's be so much and we also didn't think we'd be limited to 5. We didn't dwell however and used our first ticket on visiting an old Chinese Assembly Hall; Phuc Kien. We then moved onto Tan Ky House; a 200 year old traditional Vietnamese trading house which among other things, contains some beautiful ornate panelling and furniture with mother of pearl Chinese lettering.

Feeling deprived of raw nutrients, we found a local grocery market where I excitedly bought apples and carrots. We then had a look at the ancient Japanese bridge deciding not to use a ticket to walk on it *cough swizz cough*. After a bit more wandering we finally had enough of the accosting and moved on to our most beloved activity; eating.

We'd spotted vegan café Annen on the ride into Hội An town and were glad to find it open when we arrived. We were also glad to find that it was locally owned by an husband and wife as a lot of the veggie/vegan places we've found thus far have been Western-owned, overpriced and with a 'hipster' vibe. We did have to Google a few of the dishes and we also had to wait an hour for them to be served (only the wife was cooking and the place was full) but boy was it worth it. Lauren chose a dish that is specific to Hội An; Mi Quang soup made of flat yellow noodles, mushrooms, carrots and tofu.

After a brisk cycle back before it got dark we had another swim before bed and felt like jammy little bastards.

We went back to the town the next day not wanting to waste our tickets. After bumping into Sandy and Peter; the Australian couple we'd met in Vientiane, we visited the Sa Huynh cultural museum which was small but had some interesting artefacts relating to the area from history, Independence from the French and the Vietnam war.

The weather was cloudy and a bit chilly and feeling hungry and fed up with Hội An's ancient town we went back to Annen café where we got chatting to a lovely young Vietnamese woman called Linh. After some initial small talk we discovered we were all part of the same club; the lezzies. It was so great to chat with a local person from our generation who was gay and hear about her experiences. Linh was thrilled to hear from us too and we spent the next hour sharing stories and asking questions. We swapped details and encouraged Linh to visit the UK and come stay with us if she did.

That evening, after a lovely long catch up with Mum until midnight neither of us could sleep and so our last day in Hội An was a very lazy one as we were knackered. We swam, ate, read and lay around.

We would have liked to use our remaining two tickets but we left them for the next guests instead. Hội An was a beautiful town with a very diverse and rich history. The constant product and service peddling did dampen things a bit, but if you look beyond this there's plenty to see. We also didn't manage to see the town at night but apparently it's a wonderful sight to behold; multicoloured lanterns are lit all over and a night market opens.

We think we hit a bit of lull in Hội An and so used the time to veg out. But thanks to the swish surroundings our batteries were well and truly recharged ready for our last stop in Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh city.

Posted by advensha 06:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam cycling travelling backpackers hoi_an scared vegetarian ancient_town infinity_pool eco_village annen luna_homestay cam_thanh_village Comments (0)

Vietnam: Huế

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When we got to Hanoi Railway Station our train was conveniently already on the platform. We found our coach (4-berth soft-sleeper) and located our cabin. Our cabin-mates were Patty and Rusty, a lovely older couple from the US. We all chatted for a few hours and Lauren and I got a bowl of noodle soup gruel for tea, The 13 hour journey was perfectly fine; I got top and Lauren got bottom and aside from the odd bump and shake and the slightly smelly loo we both got a good few hours of sleep in.

We arrived at 9am and as soon as we stepped off the train the difference in climate was palpable; gorgeous sun. We jumped in a taxi and the tout who jumped in with us too gave us a hardcore sales-pitch the whole way; cheap tours and day trips, a recommendations book and plenty of photos of white folk enjoying themselves at the various sights. We managed to wriggle out of the sales and arrived at our stop; Sunny Fine guesthouse. We then found out we should have paid a lot less than we did in the taxi. Ahhh the woes of ignorance.

We dropped our bags with the very friendly gentleman on reception (Toan) and walked to the nearby Nina's café for breakfast. There Lauren had "the best omelette of my life" - her standards must have dropped because it only had onion, mushroom and Dairylea cheese in it. When we returned to Sunnyfine we were told our room was ready - at 10am! We've been incredibly lucky with early check-ins. The room was basic but had everything we needed and instead of a window it had a nice sticker of a window on the wall.

Being the lazy bums we are we spent the rest of the day lay down. The thing to rouse us was food, so we found a veggie place online and head out. It was then we discovered it was raining; so back up we went to fetch our almost-forgotten raincoats. It was proper rain; not torrential but familiar English style 'light rain' - the kind that'll soak you through. After a wet 20 minutes we arrived at the restaurant and found it closed and locked up. We then said "fuck it" and walked to the large mall where we ate in the food court and saw Zoolander 2 at the cinema.

We'd booked a tour with 'Hue Lady Riders' and were collected by two very young looking girls called Vi and Mynk the next morning. It was spitting a little but we happily hopped on the back of their scooters for our zoom around Hue. The two girls were no taller than 5 foot and so Lauren and I made for disproportionate passengers, likely to capsize the mopeds just through sheer difference in mass. Our first stop was a traditional street stand serving drinks. We were provided with the tiniest plastic stools to sit on; another indicator of our gigantism. In an attempt to get stuck in with the culture I opted for a Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá); a small portion of espresso coffee sweetened with a glug or two of condensed milk and served with ice. Now I'm not a big coffee drinker anyway and when I do drink it, I like it mild, so the notorious potency of Vietnam's offering was quite eye-watering. I only managed a few sips.

After an exhilarating ride through the initially suburban but then very rural roads of Hue, along which we saw thick forests with signs about not poaching slow lorises, we arrived at Khải Định Tomb. We were a little disconcerted that the two girls just dropped us and pointed us to the ticket booth; with our other tours we'd be guided through the sights and the entry had been included in our tour price. We brushed this off and spent the comparatively expensive ‎£8 on the tickets. The tomb is built on Chau Chu mountain atop a few hundred steps. The concrete brickwork and figurines across the site were blackened due to age and evoked a slightly macabre image. Contrastingly, the interior of the various buildings were still very grand and colourful; the Emperor's tomb itself is covered in elaborate tiles with mirrors, gems and precious metals. A tomb that Liberace would be proud of. I was most interested by the fact that the Emperor was widely disliked in Vietnam as he was in cahoots with the French government (who were closely involved with the building of the tomb).

After another breathtaking drive on the scooters we stopped at Tu Hieu Pagoda which was deep within a pine forest and something we definitely wouldn't have found on our own. The pagoda wasn't too dissimilar from many of the others we'd seen before, a bit of the imagery was different (more of those unusual Vietnamese 'unicorns') and because of its location, it was very quiet and peaceful. On the way in was a large 'half-moon' lake full of cat fish (which the two girls wrongly or rightly fed with sugary biscuits). We later found out that the pagoda was once home to many eunuchs from the Citadel. Plenty of monks still live there to this day but unfortunately we just missed one of their chants. On our way out an old lady came running over with her old fashioned mobile phone asking the girls for help in Vietnamese. They had a look at the phone but couldn't help her. I then realised all that had happened was her phone had locked and she couldn't figure out how to unlock it. I quickly unlocked it and the lady was incredibly thankful. Even the girls couldn't believe my genius. I could do with that sort of adoration more regularly.

During the 'tour' we made an effort to get to know Mynk and Vi. We told them that we were a couple right at the beginning and they seemed quite impressed, asserting that they too felt like lesbians because they spent all their time together. They were very inquisitive and humourful if not a little immature for 20-somethings (but perhaps this was just cultural differences). They seemed to find us very funny which only made me show off more.

Next was the Tự Đức tomb, or more accurately the Tự Đức town; a HUGE and beautiful area containing the obvious tombs (Tự Đức, his fav wife and his adopted son), a few lakes, thousands of trees and plants and a load of small temples. Tự Đức, like most emperors, was a massive bastard who lived a very extravagant life; he had hundreds of wives and concubines and used forced labour to build his mausoleum. He also ordered that all of the slaves who buried him be beheaded so no grave-robbers could come and find his remains. We walked around the site for as long as we could with no guide and tried to take in as much as the scenery as we could.

The girls took us to a veggie restaurant for lunch where we ate everything that was put in front of us, including an interesting artichoke tea. We also tried (and failed) to perfect some Vietnamese phrases.

Our last ride was a very wet one; we were hit in the face with horizontal rain for about 20 minutes. It certainly perked us up from our post-lunch lull. Lauren managed to capture a little video of the ride;

We stopped at Thiên Mụ pagoda; the tallest religious building in Vietnam and just beside Huế's perfume river. This time the girls showed us around the sight and gave us some bits of information (but I won't bore you with it here). One of the most fascinating things we saw was the car (a gorgeous old mint-green Austin) of monk Thich Quang Duc who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 in protest to the awful treatment of Buddhists under the Diem regime.

That was it for our motorbike tour and we bid farewell to our petite hosts who very kindly invited us to karaoke that evening, but, feeling much too old for that sort of fun, we politely declined.

On a bit of a whim we took my broken DSLR to a camera shop just up the road from our guesthouse. The man and woman in the shop (who spoke almost no English) handled my camera for a while, trying out different batteries (despite me trying to explain that the two batteries I had were full). After a while the lady told me to come back in an hour. At this point we had no idea whether she was going to just have someone else look at my camera, actually repair it or just put it in the bin and offer me a new one when I returned, but, with no other prospects I accepted.

After a nice cheap local lunch, we returned to the shop to find that my camera had not only been repaired, but it was also in the process of being spit shined. The cost was 2 million dong (approx. ‎£65) and I tried my very best to non-verbally express my gratitude without being arrested for sexual assault. I think she understood that I was pleased.

That night in celebration we watched Freaky Friday on our 'retro' fuzzy fat TV and figured out what to do in our next destination; Hội An.

Posted by advensha 04:48 Archived in Vietnam Tagged raining vietnam backpacking travelling hue cinema south_east_asia zoolander_2 Comments (0)

Vietnam: Hà Nội and Hạ Long Bay

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Mike dropped us at Vientiane airport late morning and luckily we'd given ourselves over 2 hours because we were waiting on the check-in queue (of only 10 people) for almost an hour. While we were waiting Lauren tried to change our Laotian kip to Vietnamese dong at the two different money-shops. She was told by both of them that they'd run out of dong and could only give US dollars so, reluctantly, that's what we got. When Lauren brought the exchanged money over we quickly realised that the assistant had miscounted our kip and given us an extra $50... which was nice.

Eventually we got through check-in and security and boarded our nice little short flight on Cambodia Angkor Air to Hanoi, Vietnam. On arrival we picked a taxi and took the hour journey to GA hostel, right in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. Our first impressions of Hanoi were the weather; in stark contrast to Vientiane it was overcast, misty and cold. As we approached the centre the roads became frenetic; beeping cars and motorbikes aplenty, twisting and turning around each other on huge crossroads, roundabouts and narrow little side streets, all while avoiding the hundreds of tourists and street stalls. As soon as we were in the Old Quarter the sheer volume of noise also hit us; the people, the cooking, the driving, the beeping and the distant sounds of sirens and construction. Thankfully our hostel was down a 2 foot wide, maze-like back alley (guarded by a large cockerel), which meant the noise wasn't an issue.

Our 8-bed dorm (up 3 flights of narrow stairs with very low head-hitting ceilings) was world's away from our jungle cottage but perfectly suitable. As per I took the top bunk and after some familiarisation and the usual awkward hellos to our dorm-mates, we wriggled out into the crazy, polluted space of Hanoi Old Quarter. Lunch was at a cheap (but yummy) Vietnamese greasy spoon called Noodle and Roll where we got stuck in to the traditional phở soup (hold the beef) and Lauren had her first taste of the North Vietnamese beer Halida.

We had a short walk around the Old Quarter; eyeing up the street food, counterfeit underwear and trendy T-Shirt shops. Crossing the roads took a bit of getting used to. We tried to put our India heads back on but everything was moving a bit too fast. We wrongly invested trust in the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings which were always ignored by road-users and pedestrians alike. The key seems to be a certain level of confidence coupled with a certain level of obliviousness. In fact I think we would have been better off blindfolding ourselves and just going for it; using the force to ensure the traffic goes around us.

Back at the hostel we sat for a couple of hours in the communal area, injuring our coccyxes on the wooden floor in the process. We did some forward travel planning and eavesdropped on some fellow backpackers' conversations. We particularly enjoyed the very political and historical chat between an Aussie and Swede (who were passionately agreeing with each other).

The next morning we were met outside our hostel by Xeo; a university student/tour guide who volunteers for Hanoi Kids free tours. Xeo walked us round a large portion of Hanoi, stopping at Hỏa Lò prison (originally French but later on used in the Vietnam war), the Confucius Temple of Literature and Kem Trang Tien (a popular ice cream parlour). Xeo was a very lovely, intelligent and interesting girl. She asked us as many questions as we asked her which made the half-day tour fly by. Two curious things she told us were Vietnam's policy on 'family size goals' - if a family wishes to have more than 2 children they can face benefit cuts, fines and even termination of employment. She also talked a little about Vietnamese superstitions. Although the country is generally quite secular, many middle-aged and elderly Vietnamese people believe in superstitions such as not marrying someone born in the same year as you as it will bring bad luck. Another topic Xeo touched on was dog meat; she told us how her beloved golden retriever was poisoned and that a day after they buried him, his bones were dug up and removed, likely being sold on for food. I expressed my disdain at so-called Western animal activists deploring East Asian's consumption of dog meat while chomping on bacon sandwiches and I said that as a carnivore, it would be hypocritical to turn-down dog. Xeo agreed with my stance but told me to avoid the meat because of the risk of ingesting poison.

After saying our goodbyes we chilled for a while and then head out to hipster veggie joint Hanoi Social Club. the food was pretty good but it was way overpriced and we felt a bit like we were back in Manchester's Northern Quarter. On our way out of the restaurant I discovered that my DSLR camera had decided to break. Great. In opposition to my usual knack of catastrophising, I took the breakage in my stride knowing we'd eventually get it fixed or replaced (if budget allowed).
Back at our hostel we got chatting to the Swedish guy we'd nosed at the night before who played around with my camera for a while before confirming what I knew, it was completely fucked.

The following morning we were collected by Viola Cruises and spent the next 4 hours on a mini bus with our fellow cruisers. After doing a little bit of research into Halong Bay excursions, we'd decided on a mid-range 'cruise' as opposed to the cheap ones. With over 1000 'junk' boat companies offering 1 day and 2 days trips out to Halong Bay from Hanoi it can be a bit of a minefield selecting one. We were introduced to our tour guide Lucky, who sounded more Australian than Paul Hogan (his English teacher was an Aussie) who was incredibly warm and smiley. Our cruise colleagues were made up of a 5 Brazilian guys, a German couple, a Swiss couple, a French couple, a Uruguayan couple and a large group of middle-aged Indonesian woman (approx. 10 of) and two long suffering men.

Halfway through the journey we stopped at an interesting sort of drive-through service station. The buses drive up to the side of this large open shopping mall, let you out and then drive around in a semi-circle to meet you at the other side for pick-up. So, much like an Ikea you have to walk the entire shop floor to get out. On offer are all the goods that tourists and holidaymakers lap-up; clothes, marble garden ornaments, lacquerware and imported confectionery (Toblerone, M & Ms etc.).

It became quickly apparent that the large Indonesian group of mostly ladies were, how can I put this, a bit mental; they spent most of the 4 hour journey screaming, laughing, taking photos of each other, loudly chatting (or maybe it was arguing) and playing crap pop on their phones. My sort of women.

Arriving at Halong Bay we were escorted onto a small boat that took us all to our cruise-boat. Now I've never been on a cruise, and I suppose one night's stay on a boat is hardly a cruise, but I was quite enamoured by our little floating home. Our bedroom was quite plush; comfy double bed and a very impressive bathroom with a hot and powerful shower. Plus we had our very own deck to look out onto the water and karsts; shame it was really friggin' foggy so we couldn't see shit.
After a yummy lunch in the dining hall we got on a small bamboo boat to sail around the last few remaining floating villages. The woman on the boat with us were clearly very excited by picturesque surroundings and many photo-opportunities;

We then visited an operating fresh-water pearl farm where we were educated on the pearl-cultivating process. We actually were treated to a live kill where an oyster was picked from a tank, forcibly opened and had its ovary cut open for a shiny pearl to pop out. We learned that for all of the oysters farmed, only 30% actually produce pearls. Which all seems a little unnecessary for so many to be killed and disposed of. I forgot to ask if the dud ones are sold on for food - I hope they are. Needless to say Lauren and I weren't interested in buying anything from the jewellery shop attached to the farm.

For dinner that evening we were overwhelmed with food. There was plenty already but because we had Lauren and a vegan on our table, we were treated to loads of extra dishes too. As if that wasn't enough, it was International Women's Day so the few men on the boat were instructed to serve us all cake and wine which made the Indonesian woman fall into hysterical laughter.

After a long sleep we woke up to find the sun had burned through the mist and clouds. With our new tour guide Phong we sailed over to Sun Sot caves where, filled with solar energy, Loz and I giddily clambered around the stalactites and stalagmites into nooks and crannies. The cave is known to the locals as 'Surprise' cave and the story goes that these caves and all of the karsts came into being as a result of dragons descending and spitting out jade into the water.

At the foot of the cave is a little cove were we paddling in the turquoise water and took some group photos for the Brazilian guys.
Back on the boat we checked-out and watched the head chef creating some impressive decorations out of vegetables;

That was it for Halong Bay; it was a shame about the weather but the water and islets really were a spectacular sight and the boat along with the Indonesian's provided me with much amusement. I even managed to read a whole book in the two days; which isn't like me at all.

The drive back was a little terrifying as our driver had a habit over overtaking vehicles that were in the middle of overtaking someone else. For a lot of the journey we seemed to be on the wrong side of the road. Cue lots of frantic screaming from the women.

We got back to Hanoi much too early for our 19:30 sleeper train to Hue so we hung out at a café for a few hours trying to tackle our land-sickness.

Posted by advensha 22:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged fog beach caves cruise vietnam travellers hanoi south_east_asia halong_bay crazy_driving overtaking selfies broken_camera hanoi_kids_tour viola_cruises indonesian_tourists sun_sot_caves pearl_farm Comments (0)

Laos: Vientiane

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Our onward journey to the capital of Laos Vientiane started off somewhat higgledy piggledy. We dutifully arose at 5am to be ready for our 6am pick up to Luang Prabang bus station. On arrival we learned that the VIP bus we'd paid for and booked onto through our hostel that departed at 7am didn't actually exist. There was a 7am bus but it was the 'public' one; i.e. more of a people-carrier containing 20 locals and their animals - not what we'd paid for. After some wrangling with the ticket office we managed to secure a place on the actual VIP bus which was leaving at 8am; so we had to wait around for 90 minutes. This wouldn't have been so bad had we have not run out of kip. We tried another 2 cash machines but they still weren't coughing up so we bought some Oreos and a baguette with some American dollars we had and got ourselves comfy on the outdoor benches of the bus station. As we waited, we saw what we think was either a shooting star or some sort of comet/meteor. Unfortunately, neither of us had the speed or energy to photograph it but it certainly wasn't something either of us had ever seen before. We've since tried in vain to find something on Google to back up our sighting.

Anyway, after cooing at some babies and consuming far too many biscuits far too early in the morning we embarked the VIP monster of a double decker coach. The side of the coach was emblazoned with the words "King of Buses" and was brightly decorated with illustrations of crowns and the like. Without too much inspection you could find clever engineering hacks on and around the coach; the front bumper had been taped back on and the wheel rims were attached with cable-ties. In addition, the driver (who looked about 17) had to kick the door a number of times for it to close properly. We found our seats on the top deck and quickly discovered that mine was broken; in a permanent recline position. We had plenty of time so I went to tell one of the bus station workers. The gentleman's response to my predicament was to say yes, turn his head, then walk away from me, trying his best to ignore me completely. I tried again but evidently he'd gone deaf and blind. I then tried the driver and another guy who was putting everyone's baggage in the hold. I got the same reaction. You're not really supposed to show strong emotion in Laos, especially not anger, but I refused to be ignored and so raised my volume slightly, harnessing my German genealogy and said "I paid for VIP and my seat is broken!". Finally, the man from the ticket booth said he would come onto the bus before it left and try to sort something out for me. As the bus filled up another kerfuffle manifested; a number of passengers had been given a seat number that didn't exist (the seats ended at 48 but people had tickets up to 52). By this point I was just happy to be in a seat, permanent recline or not, so I decided not to speak up again and hoped the guy checking wouldn't mention my query - which he didn't.

The 10 hour bus ride was, as expected, rather bumpy. We were only travelling 210 miles in total; achievable in probably 4 hours on a clear-ish, straight-ish road, but this was not that. The condition of the bus coupled with the appalling state of the roads meant every lump vibrated through our bodies. This meant that any attempted snooze was brief and somewhat dangerous. It didn't matter too much though as we were travelling in the day. The bus snaked wildly around and through the Laos mountain range, steadily climbing in altitude making our ears pop. Looking out of the window was jaw-dropping; the views of the awe-inspiring Laotian landscape were truly indescribable, but they were also terrifying as we were often clutching to the edge of a sheer drop. The highway connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane is the biggest and most important in Laos. It has no road markings and no lights (hence our daytime journey) and is very narrow. It's quite aptly called Route 13 and it connects all the way through to Cambodia. Lauren described the journey as a white knuckle ride.

During the ride we befriended a young Lao girl (approx. 4 years old) who was sat behind us. She incessantly popped her head through the gap between our seats (mine on recline and Lauren's upright) in an effort to interact with us. As much as it was mildly annoying we had little else to entertain us and so we were quite happy to act as clowns for a while. She was a great mimic; copying everything we said and did. We taught her 1-5 in English and a few funny gurns (I'm sure her parents will thank us for that on the next school photo). She was a real darling and I hope she was old enough to remember the two weird white girls on the bus. Here she is;

We had one stop for lunch at an entirely Lao truck-stop. Even though we didn't have a food-voucher Lauren managed to swindle herself a bowl of unknown soup (we think it was meat-free). I was still feeling under the weather so I stuck to a yoghurt pot. The co-driver who I'd previously moaned to about my broken seat was now kitted out with a bullet-proof vest and a large, semi-automatic gun. We had read something in one of the travel guides that there was a very small risk of American war legacy guerillas who have, a handful of times over the last decade, come out of the mountains and held up tourist-heavy coaches. Bearing this in mind we were fairly comfortable with our weapon-brandishing ally.

Bums numb and eyes heavy, we arrived at the bus station at around 7pm. After putting a taxi driver on the phone to our home-stay host to give directions, we eventually arrived (1 hour later) at Jungle House. We rolled up to our home for the next 4 days and did our best to take in the amazing palatial bamboo building set amongst a jungle garden. We entered into the massive open plan reception / dining room with mezzanine second floor and were very warmly welcomed by Mike Boddington (great-grandson of THE Mr. Henry Boddington who started the infamous Mancunian beer and brewery) and his Lao wife Xoukiet, their Chinese intern Angela along with the other guests; a French and American couple. Everyone was sat round the dining table and had just finished eating and we were immediately seated and fed with home-cooked Lao delights (with plenty of veggie options for Loz).

At first we were a little overwhelmed; tired, scruffy, dirty and ill-equipped to engage in deep and meaningfuls with the older, well-cultured dinner guests and hosts. We did however take the opportunity to lubricate ourselves with the wine on the table - which helped a little. After a few hours of first impressions we were happy to be escorted to our room; which was across from the main house, past the swimming pool, through a wooded garden and in a cottage. The cottage had bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms on each side and a large communal kitchen / dining room in the middle. The French couple Nicole and Alain were in the twin room and we were in the double (take THAT heteros). Soon enough the resident geckos appeared to introduce themselves but quickly disappeared again when they realised we hadn't brought a load of insects with us.

Our first morning in Vientiane was a sobering one. After a great sleep and a picturesque breakfast sat on the veranda overlooking the lake, Mike gave us a guided tour of the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre. The centre was actually set up by Mike in 1997 and does amazing work for disabled people in Lao. The visitor centre brilliantly outlines the 9 year 'Secret War' that the US waged on Laos. I can't begin to express the inhumanity of America's actions - we were truly shocked and appalled when we understood the gravity of it all. But let's not dwell on the negative, here's a 15 minute video that goes some way to illustrating the good work COPE does;

Sufficiently crushed, we then went for an independent stroll around Vientiane town. After a couple of hours we were hot, bothered and lost, so we called Mike on the mobile phone he'd given us and got collected. As Mike had just picked up a new couple (Australian) from the airport, we had to climb into the back of the pick up for an open-top ride back to Jungle House. The wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders, we got plenty of looks from fellow road-users; presumably less shocked by the riding arrangement than our nationality.

For the rest of the day we flopped about the house and grounds; taking a dip in the pool, reading our books and generally enjoying a chill out. This time we felt more prepared for our dinnertime socialising - again making the most of the complementary wine... We had some great conversations; learning about each other and Laos and we really started to feel like one of the family.

On our second day we did nothing but lay around like lazy bums, and we fucking loved it. I tell a lie, we spent a few hours sorting our onward plans

The third day we went to visit one of Mike's friends; Mac and his wife La. Mac and La head up an NGO organisation called Soap4Life which teaches poor Lao women how to make soap (sustainably) to sell. La gave us a live demonstration and it's amazing how easy the process is. We have since learned that Soap4Life has won a contract with Crowne Plaza hotels in Laos for 50,000 pieces of soap which is a great start to the project.
At the house we also met Mac and La's menagerie of pets; 2 squirrels, a bamboo rat, 4 budgies, 2 pugs, 1 shitzu and one other dog. The bamboo rat was particularly cute (and pregnant).

That evening was our final communal dinner and we made the most of it; staying up until midnight waxing lyrical about all the forbidden subjects: politics, culture and religion.
We really didn't want to leave Jungle House; the stars aligned and gave us an amazingly relaxing yet stimulating stay. We both feel incredibly inspired to firstly, read more about modern history (specifically the atrocities of war), secondly, encourage others to do the same and thirdly, commit to some sort of genuinely helpful volunteering.
Ask me again in 6 months to see whether we've followed this through!


Posted by advensha 03:08 Archived in Laos Tagged laos vientiane swimming travelling backpackers dinner_party uxo disability jungle_house cope_centre mike_boddington soap4life secret_war cluster_bombs Comments (1)

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