New photos are up on the right, will update this blog tomorrow, promise. We are in Mongolia and it is -30 degrees outside, hope you are warm, but not too warm, and well.
Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Russia and beyond
New photos are up on the right, will update this blog tomorrow, promise. We are in Mongolia and it is -30 degrees outside, hope you are warm, but not too warm, and well.
21.01.2009 - 27.01.2009
A quick update on our adventures as we travelled further north in Vietnam. We have had some great experiences so far, and the north has proved to be a very exciting and beautiful place. We arrived at Hoi An on the 21st after an overnight sleeper bus from Nha Trang. Hoi An was fantastic. It is a really old port city, dating back centuries, and with assistance from the Japeneses government has been really well preserved. The 'Old Town' area is great - narrow alleyways bordered by old wooden houses, all very well looked after. The Old Town sits on a river which leads to the coast. Hoi An was certainly the cleanest and best organised place we have been. Doubling the excitement was the fact that it was almost Tet (Lunar New Year) when we arrived (the 26th was New Years Eve), so there was a buzz in the air, and everyone was very bust preparing to celebrate. Tet is very central to Vietnamese culture - they take 1 or 2 weeks off work around this time, and everybody travels home to their place of birth or ancestry to celebrate with their families - this means that pretty much the whole country is on the move. As such busses are pretty hard to come by, so we decided to stay in Hoi An fo 6 nights, and wait til New Years Day to go straight to Hanoi. It turned out ot be a good decision, as we easily passed the time in Hoi An. Some highlights:
- Getting clothes made! This is what Hoi An is famous for, and there are literally hundreds of tailor shops. They all look quite similar and can do similar things, so it was just a case of picking one we thought was a good quality place and hoping that the tailor did a good job. We picked well, and ended up getting a lot of stuff made. Nicola had a three piece suit, shirts, a big jacket and boots made, while Mark got a suit, shirts, casual jacket, cotton pants and shoes. The price was very good for the quality stuff we got. Not wanting to haul it round China and Russia we sent most of it to London to await our arrival - and the best part was the post office came to us! Two people turned up at our hotel with scales and boxes and took care of it all. Love Vietnam.
- The food. Hoi An probably had the best food we have had yet. They have great local specialties like Cau Lau - a noodle soup type dish that is very tasty. We became regulars at Mr Tuongs, a little street stall where Mr Tuongs wife cooked amazing food. They were happy to have us back time and again. We also did a cooking class whcih was great. Our host was really funny, a 21 year old girl - Vina. She was really enthusuatic and we ended up getting her email address and chatting to her about her life, boyfriend etc.
- Breakfast. This should be separate to food, because it is one of the best things in Vietnam. We discovered to bun stalls, which are these street stalls that have baguettes filled with egg, chilli, greens, soy sauce and the round happy Cow Cheese, so delicious it is hard to explain.
- The beach and bicycle debacle. On one day we hired bikes ($1 each) to ride to the beach, about 5kms away. Our bikes weren't the best quality, but they went ok, so we made it to the beach. The beach itself was really good. Even though it was overcast and a bit rough, it was a 'real' beach (like Aus I guess), and also a really nice ride through rivers and rice paddies to get there. However on the way back Nicola's bike broke, through no fault of hers. As we tried to fix it two or three people pulled up on scooters, including one guy who was very determined to fix it. Having no luck, he decided the solution was to put me on the back of his scooter, the bike on my shoulders, and ride back into town (5kms) to return the bike (He also insisted that we should pay 'no money, no money' for the bike). So off into the sunset i went with the bike, not really knowing what was going on, leaving Nicola behind. The ride back into town was hilarious. I was trying to balance a biek on my shoulders, while staying on the damn scooter, and also dodging other road users so as not to take them out with my bike. to make it worse, a tet flower market was on in the main street - people everywhere. I managed to knock a few people, including a veyr suprised middle aged Western lady ont he back of another scooter. Good times. About 2 hours later I finally caught up with Nicola (with a new bike), who had been riding around in circles not knowing where the hell I went (although she informed me later she did have take time out from looking and panicking to buy a dress...hah!)
All in all, Hoi An was great. There was even a latern festival on the river for Tet, with singing and dancing, and a fair with awesome Carni games that we played for 5000d (40c) a turn. and we won lollies! wooo!
Next stop was Hanoi, via Hue, but that is for the next installment. Hope everyone is surviving the heat back home!
15.01.2009 - 20.01.2009
We have finally found the time (and internet access) to write another entry! I'm writing this from Hanoi, where it is overcast and a little chilly - our journey into winter has begun. Hanoi is for another day though. This little entry is about our time in the Central Highlands, then making our way to the coast. We left HCMC on the 15th and caught a day bus to Dalat, the 'capital' of the Central Highlands. It was our first experience on the highways in Vietnam, but it was a smooth enough bus trip (with the standard honking, swerving and regularly avoiding death by a split second...). Dalat was a really pretty place, one of our favourites in Vietnam. It is a well looked after mountain town, surrounding a great lake. Kind of reminds you of a place like Queenstown or Jindabyne I guess. We had some great market food there, took a walking tour of the town (which included the 'Crazy House' - this really bizarre house an artist had created with great architecture, art and sculptures) and even broke our budget ways and had high tea at a fancy hotel.
The true highlight of Dalat, though, was meeting the Easy Riders. When we arrived in Dalat, we were dumped at the bus station not knowing where our hotel was or how to get there. Waiting there though were two guys with motorbikes who introduced themselves as 'Easy Riders', and offered us a free lift to our hotel if we would sit down with them and hear about the tours they offer. We were a little hesistant because nothing comes free in Vietnam without strings attached, but it turned out to be the best decision. After our free lift they convinced us to take a two night motorbike tour through the Central Highlands (Mark didn't need muich convincing...). There is a great little story behind the Easy Riders - they were formed by a bunch of ex-South Vietnamese soldiers in Dalat, who after going through 're-education' camp at the end of the war started scrimping a living as motorbike taxi drivers. This spawned into doing day tours, and eventually week long trips - they will even take you all the way to Hanoi if you want! There are about 80 of them now (and many imitators and copycats). The genuine guys are loosely organised, but they all operate by three principles - good english, good heart, and good motorbiek skills. We had two guides of the next generation, Thien and another guy whose name we could never pronounce. The time we spent with them was fantastic. They were really funny guys, extremely knowledgable about the area and seemed to know everyone, everywhere we went. So we got access to some places I think we wouldn't have seen otherwise - people's homes and farms, seeing how they lived and earned a living, visiting ethnic minority villages and being swamped by kids, eating great food etc. Plus the scenery and road trip from the back of a bike was great.
We were tempted to keep on going with them after the two nights (we reached Buon Ma Thuot, a nice city without many tourists, so lots of 'hello!' from kids on the streets), but our bums were a bit sore, and it is a bit expensive (though definitely worth it). So on the 19th we bussed it back to the coast to Nha Trang, a Gold Coast like resort town. It wasn't too bad a place - lots of bars, good markets and an ok beach, but very touristy (Australians everywhere). The lowlight of Nha Trang was getting pee'd on (!) by this guy near the beach who did not account for the wind...horrible hehe. Nicola did get to go diving, which she really liked, and it was nice to relax near the beach, but one night was enough so on the 20th we took a bus to Hoi An, the clothes tailor capital of Vietnam.
The trip to Hoi An was our first experience with sleeper busses. Instead of seats there are three rows of bunk beds. It is a little cramped, but you can almost lie flat. Although it did take 12 hours to do 600kms!
Stay tuned for next thrilling installment - Hoi An to Hanoi!
12.01.2009 - 14.01.2009
Hello family and friends, we hope this blog finds you all very well.
Just thought I would update you on our 3 wild days in Saigon. We sadly left Phu Quoc (a beautiful place, you must go!) and caught a painless flight (our last until Europe - it's all overland now...) back into the madness. We checked into a cheaper, but still very nice hotel (the average price for a very decent room is about US$15-20), then to the markets. Ben Thanh market is a huge, bustling, cramped and packed place, the volume of stuff on offer is amazing. Eveything from clothes to dried fruit, souvenirs, vases etc etc. Definitely a great place to deck out your entire house. But with the huge market comes the incredibly aggressive stall owners. It is literally like running a gauntley, every aisle you go down you are grabbed, herded in to shops, yelled at. If you even hesistate for a second for a quick look, then they are all over you! The best part is if you have a look at their stuff, which seems to imply you will definitely be buying something, they are terribly insulted when you walk away - personal insults were hurled in our direction...All in all it was a very interesting experience, and some really good cheap food (US$1.50 each for lunch). We managed to walk out of there with just two t-shirts.
Another icon of Vietnam, and HCMC in particular, is the cyclo drivers. These guys are usually South Vietnamese war veterans, out of work, and often residing illegally in the city, who make the money by pedalling around tourists on these three wheeled bicycle contraptions. It's like a taxi service, except they will tell you about the city and take you on a full tour if you want. We decided to take one to the China Town (Cholon) in HCMC. We were a bit wary, having heard stories of rip offs at the hand of cyclo drivers, but we found a good guy and hopped on. You have to admire what they do - pedalling two 6 foot Australians through Saigon traffic can't be easy, and it was really interesting to be amongst the hustle and bustle, dodging crazy scooters and cars. He took us to another huge market and an impressive big Pagoda. All in all about 3 hours, which we had agreed to pay him 200'000d for. Or so we thought. When he dropped us off, I went to pay him, and then the tantrum started (apparently we are by no means the first people that this has happened to). He insisted we had agreed 400'000d. There would be no negotiating this fact, and he got quite stroppy, so we paid up and left. An uneasy ending to a good trip.
Next day we attempted a grand walking tour of Saigon. This included a pho restaurant (Vietnamese noodle soup) where Bill Clinton once ate, an art museum, the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants museum and the city centre with all it's grand hotels and richy mc-rich shops (A huge contrast to our most Vietnamese people live). Highlights were definitely the Palace and War museum. The Palace is a Parliament House type place, famous as the place where North Vietnamese troops crashed through the gates in tanks to pretty much end the war in 1975. It is really well preserved and quite opulent inside. The War Remnants museum used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, so you can get a feeling for what it was like. It was quite shocking, there were no punches pulled in the photos and exhibits they displayed, and basically the general tone was Americans are evil, Vietnamese people are heroic. A very sad place that saps you completely by the time you are done, but very interesting none the less. We finished the night with a drink on a rooftop bar at dusk, then dinner at a good vego restaurant - the food keeps improving the more we explore.
Our final day in Saigon we took a day bus tour to the Cu Chi war tunnels and a Cao Dai temple. The temple was the first stop, and was a huge, colourful place. Cao Dai-ism is a recently founded religion that seeks to be the 'perfect religion' by blending all the good bits of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. They are pretty weird, a bit cultish, but it was interesting to see the worshippers in action. The Cu Chi tunnels are famous as the site where rebel peasants, Cu Chi Guerillas, resisted the US and South Vietnamese army by building a huge network of tunnels to evade air attacks and mount ambushes. It was an eerie place, especially because there is a shooting range on site where you can fire AK47's and M16's. The original tunnels were tiny, and it amazing that these people existed in such an environment for so long. We crawled through on section that had been doubled in size for tourists, and that was still really small. It was a good day trip, a little rushed an touristy. We did have the best tour guide ever - Slim Jim was what he called himself, and he was hilarious. A few years ago one of his customers has given him an Australian phrase book, so he could churn out this amazing variety of Australian slang, it was so funny.
We ended our Saigon adventure with one more trip to the Bia Hoi place. Nothing can beat 5000d beer.
Next stop Dalat, in the central highlands. Vietnam just keeps getting more and more exciting and interesting!
07.01.2009 - 12.01.2009
Good morning Vietnam!
Saying goodbye to Singapore was hard, but we were much excited to begin our Vietnamese Odyssey. After a painless last Tiger flight, we touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon depending on your interpretation of history...
First impressions - this place is insane! From the air it looks very sprawling and not-so-organised, and on the ground it is even more chaotic. We got a taxi and entered the chaos - scooters everywhere (as in 10 across and 30 deep), going in any direction, no real lanes, traffic lights or road rules. The only rule seems to be honk your horn before you do anything. Amazing that anyone can survive on the roads, but apparently they know what they are doing, as we haven't seen a bad accident yet. However, any trip on the roads is always interesting, and crossing the road is a thrilling adventure - you just basically walk out slowly and hope for the best as scooters and cars dodge around you. Awesome!
We just stopped in Saigon for one night, on route to Phu Quoc island. Stayed in a nice little hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao 'backpacker' area - where all the budget whities stay. Really fun area with cheap bars and food. There are tons of people on the street all the time - some sleeping on the seat of their scooters, some just hanging out, and a lot of people trying to sell you anything you may want. This was our first introduction to the Vietnamese hard sell - in any market and on most streets you are constantly, well, harassed by touts and sellers, and no definitely does not mean no, it just means try harder...It becomes a bit of a game after a while, and we are used to walking around to soundtrack of 'you want motorbike (taxi)', 'you want t-shirt', 'you want sunglasses' etc etc.
That first night in Saigon we just wandered around sucking up the overwhelming sights, sounds and smells, and also ran into 2 of Nicola's friends from ANU, pretty random, but had a good dinner with them. Also, we made the most exciting discovery EVER. Bia Hoi! basically these are little bars/cafes that have a fresh, homebrew type beer for sale, that they distribute out of a porcelain keg. You take a seat and the beer flows, with a little piece of paper on your table for marking off how many you have had. Awesome beer, and lots of characters around - and each beer is 5000d, which is about 40 cents. Woo!
Oh and that night we became instant millionaires after we withdrew a cool 2 million dong each. oh yeah.
Next day we flew to Phu Quoc, an island off the south of Vietnam, which is actually closer to Cambodia. This place was amazing. About 80,000 people are on the island, living a simple fishing village lifestyle, supplemented by tourism. One stretch of a spectacular tropical beach has been developed with about 20 or 30 resorts, some simple small bungalow places, and some massive 5 star type places. We scored a bungalow right on the beachfront for $40 a night.
We lived the island life for 4 nights, indulging in drinking and eating right on the beach, lazing around, swimming, exploring the towns and markets (the markets here are so great, always busy and filled with so much delicious food and cool clothes etc).
Phu Quoc is known for its amazing sunsets, and it didn't disappoint - the colours that appear at dusk are incredible, as the photos show. We hired a scooter on one day to explore the rest of the island - the roads were really rough and a little scary (Nicola wasn't having the best time on the back), but it was a fun adventure. we managed to get lost and ended up in someone's dirt driveway - a couple of lady's ran out and then one jumped on her scooter and took us on this winding, narrow sandy scooter adventure through the jungle, back to the main road. Love it! The scooters skills these people possess are awesome, they can take them anywhere, loaded with anything - we have seen a family of 4 on one scooter, and people carrying more on the back of a scooter than you could fit into a car boot.
We finished off our time on Phu Quoc with a boat trip out to some surrounding smaller islands, snorkelling and swimming. Was a bit rough, but a fun day - good coral snorkelling and really cool floating fishing villages. Also found a great night market, where we found an Au Lac, selling delicious vegetarian (chay) food. Best fake meat ever!
Sad to leave Phu Quoc, so peaceful and relaxing. But, it is on with our Vietnam adventure, back to Saigon and back to the craziness! So far Vietnam is everything we had hopes for and more - a really incredible place with incredible sights, smells, tastes and sounds, and the friendliest people going around.