Saturday, 26 April 2008

Halong Bay

The whole of Hanoi brings up memories of doing not very much, meeting people who soon became familiar as I travelled down through Vietnam by bus, and eating lots of food; so much so that I was going through periods of eating two meals per meal because I could, and partially because it meant I didn't have to think of something else to do for a little longer. Small bits of language will help you along the way, 'sin jao' means 'hello', and 'dee boh' means 'I'll walk', essential for all the motorbiker taxis, who will shout 'Hey! Motorbike?!' all through the day - here you either get earplugs, put up with it or say 'dee boh' and more often than not receive a chuckle in return.

I took a three day tour of Halong Bay with a few other people, it's trying to become one of the wonders of the world; it consists of a few plinth-like rocks naturally formed out of the water with greenery on top, and a lot of boggy water around it, no thanks to locals who sail through and live on the water in polluting little houses floating on the water. The boats have diesel pumping out, sometimes into the water - that means taking a dip ensures you'll be covered in black sludge when you get out! The weather wasn't fantastic but the company more than made up for it, much as it does in many places with little to do. We took a boat to Cat Ba Island off of the east coast, stayed one night there with nothing of interest to entertain us, then went to the so-called National Park. Here we did a short trek (a couple of hours), which thanks to the rain the night before had made the rocks we were clambering up really slippy for my trainers. All of the people in sandals who I thought would have had a tough time found it easier than me, as the grip on my soles was non-existent. That meant slow progress, and a nice slip-up ten minutes in, covering me in sloppy mud! It at least put me at ease that I couldn't get any more muddy for the rest of the hike so didn't worry as much. There were a couple of scary parts, one where the railing (the only one we came across, and with good reason) near the top of the peak had half-rusted away and barely helped as I navigated around a large cutaway in the rock below, which had a good 10 metre drop beneath it. The view from the peak was fantastic though, so very worth the muddy and scary trip up, and the returning trek down.

I was grateful for the journey back, where we took residence on a boat for the night and meant I could clean myself up, albeit with a tap of cold water and a small bucket. Hot showers simply don't feature on boats you sleep on which are aptly named 'junks'. Shortly after we jumped into kayaks and took a gentle paddle around the rocks of Halong Bay.

Halong Bay

The naturally formed tunnels we visited on the way to Cat Ba Island

The hike! Slippy, scary and fun. I'm the third in from the left, struggling up another rock.

The view after getting to the top of the hiking trail

And a picture Rassmus the Dane took when he went up the watchtower that I was too scared to climb

These huge glass bottles with dead things in are common in Vietnam. I didn't buy one.

When on our boat, we had other little boats come up with fruit, food, alcohol and many other bits for sale.

Monday, 14 April 2008

A Visual Guide To My Travels

I'm going through all of my travels and uploading them to Facebook, simply because on my tiny computer it's hard to scroll through and upload them in batches of five on Blogger. So, click the links below to view my pictures! You can use the left and right arrow keys to scroll through them or click previous or next at the top right to select the next one. You don't need an account to view them.

Hong Kong

I've made a little side-bar (to the right) with links to the pictures as well, I'll try and keep them updated as much as possible.

Sunday, 13 April 2008


We unloaded our luggage, showered, and all four of us headed for a recommended restaurant in the Lonely Planet (South-East Asia On A Shoestring) called Little Hanoi. I'm not usually a Lonely Planet traveller, but I'll carry some with me just in case - Rassmus is very much dependent on his because his partner (Eva) is pregnant, so street-food is a no-no and clean places with some standard of hygiene are muchly preferred. We order a hefty amount of dishes and all pitch in, just as well because the couple of things that I ordered wouldn't have filled me up. I'd definitely recommend ordering in a group and getting a taste for everything, as I've had a shrimp dish turn up with octopus tentacles protruding from it; great if you like octopus, but not so if you're me. The food here is fantastic, led on by a pretty drab experience of it in China.

The next day, Rassmus and myself stop by the end of the street for a taste of real Vietnamese food, where you sit on tiny plastic chairs on the pavement and in the street, have your food on tiny plastic tables that my legs cannot go under, and see the whole process of chopping, cooking, washing and serving from your seat. I'd learnt not to be put off by the way this food is prepared, since the cooks smoke, don't wear hats or gloves and have everything washed in a big plastic tub on the floor, because the majority of restaurants have their kitchens hidden, and are far less transparent than this - I've seen many 'proper' restaurants with more questionable methods. Suffice to say the variety isn't great but the food is, better than the night before and is under half the price. I came back here twice, each time I ordered around two or three dishes for myself, a couple of (glass) bottles of Coke and some black alcohol called Mineral Tree Wine, bottled in old Hanoi Vodka bottles and still never paid more than £3 for each meal. You really can live here on less than £10 a day with ease, including accommodation. We settled on a place called the Darling Backpacker's Hostel. Some rooms have ants (usually confined to the bathrooms), but that's to be expected in most places I've found, and the hostel's workers seem to have ADD - that aside, it was fun, cheap, and never short of people to talk to, mostly on similar travels to myself.

Do prepare yourself though, for the onslaught of traffic - cars are outnumbered by scooters and motorbikes by an enormous ratio, but certainly make their presence known. All you can hear going down the street are the beep-beep of vehicles narrowly avoiding each other, unless you can block it out. If you're sensitive to noise pollution, definitely invest in some earplugs as by the end of my week or so, I was going a little spare and couldn't wait for the sun-soaked east coast of Vietnam.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

On My Way To Hanoi

It's the end of March and I flutter to Nanning train station. My first train is due to leave around 8am for the smaller Chinese town of Pingxiang. The ride is painless and fairly comfortable, just like any other train I've ridden. Pingxiang looks just like every other Chinese town I've visited, and low and behold, I find some white people. Joy! The first cluster I've seen in the best part of a week. I strike up a conversation with a Danish couple, seeing if they were heading to the border also. Luck has it that they are and we wait for a decent-sized taxi with ample boot-space for our luggage. This takes a while, and we meet a girl from Beijing who also needs a lift. Twenty minutes later, after hassle from other drivers of bicycles, motorbikes and miniature vans (with a motorbike on the front, akin to an old western horse-and-cart combo with the white cover over the back), a 'normal' taxi turns up. Hurrah! We hop in, happy to cram in with no seat-belts, and take the merry ten minute drive to the border. It costs a small amount, around £1 or so. The China<>Vietnam border (named: Friendship Pass) is mostly easy. Except I couldn't find my passport. I searched my whole bag, knew that I had packed it, then open the top of my bag (with the easiest access) and find it in the pouch, oops! You fill in the standard departure/arrival card in the border office, and hand it to the clerk with your passport, so the relevant visa and passport checks can be carried out. When they're finished, they hold your passport up in the air for you to claim it - so don't walk too far while this is happening. There were another two clerks after the passport/visa one, one for a medical check and another for customs. The Danish couple and the Beijing girl handed their passports to the medical check booth and couldn't get them back until they paid RMB2 each (around 15p). So I ignored this as I'm not having my passport held to ransom for a non-existent medical examination. The Danish guy, Rassmus, paid the money for me and the other two just to get out of the place and get their passports back, despite how illegal it was to do such a thing.

Leaving the not-so-friendly Friendship Pass and we have to walk a couple of minutes to get to the departure hall, here we get our confirmation of leaving China and officially entering Vietnam. More taxis awaited us as we went through the gates, we wanted to take our time so used the 'No English! No English!' card as we were flooded with offers, this dispersed them fairly quickly. We found a decent-enough looking taxi and ask for the nearest town (Dong Dang), where we'll get a lengthy train from to reach Hanoi. We load up, take the five minute drive across a mix of dirt tracks and lush scenery, and reach a patch of dirt with some minivans on it. This is apparently the bus station - we wanted the train station so I decided mimicking the 'choo choo' of the train would be the best way to get across where we want to go. Rassmus finds his Vietnam book and points to the word for train in Vietnamese and we're soon on our way. We unload our baggage at the dusty train station, go to pay the 30.0 (x1000) fare, and are told to pay 300,000 Dong by the taxi driver for the five minute drive, that's close to £10! I tell him that 30 x 1000 = 30,000, and attempt to give him a 50,000 Dong note for a few minutes, eventually he realises we're not going to fall for his shifty little scam that many have fell for before undoubtedly; this is the problem with a currency you've only had for a few minutes at most (since you cannot buy Vietnamese Dong outside of Vietnam legally). Retrospectively I shouldn't have paid the guy anything and just left him with no money, in a slight attempt to make up for past scams and to deter him from doing it in future, but there you go.

We arrive at the train station at 13:25 for the 13:30 train (the last one of the day too!), bought our 39,000 Dong tickets (£1.10) for the six hour journey to Hanoi, and got onto the train. We wait for half an hour and wonder why it hasn't left. Close to an hour later we remember that the clocks go back and hour, and we'd actually arrived at 12:25, so had plenty of time!

The train is rickity, metal mesh over the windows and metal blinds in front of them. The chairs are wooden benches affixed to the floor, so get out your towel, a cushion or some soft clothes because six hours sitting on hard wooden slats isn't fun. The train is cheap and easy to load lots of things onto, so it doubles as a shipment method for goods. Dish-cloths, chairs, food, cutlery, plates, chickens.. most things were taken past us into the back of the train to be left until they need to be thrown off at their destination. Food isn't an issue either, as many sellers come up and down the train selling huge poppadom-like cracker things, bread (with honey-butter dip), beer, water.. all the things you need for a six hour journey.

We reach Hanoi with tired arses and eyes, and grab the first taxi we find to get to a hotel that the Danish couple had booked. The hotel had given their reserved room to somebody else because they didn't turn up at 6pm, the time they said they would, despite having paid a reservation fee to hold onto it. We trot around the corner and find a room for the night in bustling Hanoi.