Tag Archives: vietnam

That’s travelling folks!

14 May

And so we said goodbye to SE Asia. Sensing this, the taxi driver who dropped us off at the bus station took his last chance to rip us off and charged us 5 more ringgits than it cost on the way there because he refused to use the meter, but at 7am we weren’t going to argue. He had a good go at trying to convince us the buses would all be empty and would wait for hours before going to the airport and that we should actually pay him lots of money to take us all the way there, but we’d heard this many times before on our travels and just politely smiled, nodded, and then insisted we went to the bus station, where we caught the bus for £2 each and it left immediately. Can’t blame him for trying though!

Unlike the other airports we’ve visited, KL’s is quite big and full of people, so although we left with plenty of time, by the time we’d worked our way round the various queues and check points, the gate was already boarding. By luck of the draw, I managed to get a seat in the centre by myself – the third time this has happened, win! [Except seconds after writing this, a snotty kid came and sat next to me playing his bleepy little game thing. Giving him the death stare like I owned the plane didn’t work so may have to resort to actual violence, or at least making him kill himself. In the game, honest…I made him move in the end. I did give away my copy of Marie Claire to an Aussie girl to restore karma, but not sure that makes up for kicking a small child. Probably not going to heaven after all].  And the meal I’d booked whilst in Koh Samui before the tiny fish eyes incident was actually edible and Malaysian so that evens up our junk food:Malaysian ratio somewhat.

I ordered an Asahi beer and ended up with a bottle of sake but that was soon corrected and a little bag of Bombay mix was placed in front of me to go with the lager. I immediately gave this to Craig as I hate nuts…after inspected these he informed me that actually, it was a bag of tiny battered fish (with and without eyes). Yummy.

So I guess it’s time to do a round up of SE Asia seeing as I did one on Sri Lanka (don’t look at our ‘where are we’ page – our route looks like a plate of spaghetti)…

I was going to do a list of good things and bad things but it’s impossible as they often cross over. For instance, the first thing that hits you when you get off the plane is the wall of heat. That never, ever, goes away. If you don’t have a fan, or can’t afford aircon (like us mostly!), you will be sweating at all times. Even in the shower. We ended up getting used to it after so long, but the only time I really felt cold was when we were in Vietnam in January and when we had airconditioning in the room but weren’t given sheets. The rest of the time, you’re either slightly sweaty or very sweaty. But pretty much guaranteed sunshine every day was a never ending benefit despite the feeling of being hot all the time. It took a while to fight the English urge when the sun came out to immediately drive to the seaside and sit on the beach, no matter where you are. When you live in the Midlands, as far away as possible from the beach, sunshine is a rare pleasure and one that you can’t complain about.

Smells is another one. I will never get tired of the smell of frangipani trees, or jasmine, incense, delicious food cooked on the street, limes, spices and rain on hot pavements or grass, but all too often you’re half way through enjoying a wonderful combination of these and you spy a bin full of warm, rotting food, or fish drying in the sun and you tell your lungs ‘abort, abort!’ but it’s too late, it smacks you in the face before you can do anything about it and all you smell and taste is bin juice and fish guts.

One thing I feel really bad about though is the way they treat animals here. There are some people who look after them but I would say the vast majority don’t. From puppies in a cage in the boiling hot sun all day without food and water, to zoo exhibitions where the animals are in tiny cages, to stray (or pet) dogs covered in fleas and mange, it really broke my heart. I saw a Doberman like Holls in a cage in a petshop yesterday: clearly distressed and pacing in a sun-filled shop window and I really did consider buying it but there would be no way to take it over to Australia. Poor thing was docked and cropped within an inch of its life and was bored senseless. I am not sure why the state of the animals affected me more than the way the poorest people lived or seeing children begging on the streets – maybe it’s time to sort my life out? Or accept the fact and just work in a kennels?!

On that note, here’s a quick update on the puppy we adopted in Cambodia and rehomed with Geordie, a Canadian expat, and his family

From starving mongrel to pampered pup in three short months!

Something we could both embrace was the food though. Aside from the junk fest we’ve been having over the last few days, purely because it was there and it was a link to back home, not to mention laden in fat and therefore scrumptious, we have loved pretty much every minute of trying Asian food. We didn’t bother trying the things that we knew were going to make us sick (spiders, bugs, kidneys etc) but everything else was lovely and the worst times we got food poisoning was when we ate at restaurants, not street sellers. They have some of the cheapest and nicest food out there give it a try :)

Noise is another omnipresent presence in SE Asia. I hate not being able to sit in silence and it really began to wear me down that I needed to be underwater before getting any kind of peace and quiet. Whether manmade or natural, you will not find a quiet spot. I think that’s why I’ve read so much here – it helps block out the madness around me but eventually I’ll have to put it down and Asia will come flooding back in until the next time!

Philosophy – whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim or other, we very rarely saw people get angry or shout whilst we were out here. We know it happens as we spoke to the only farang Thai police on Koh Samui, and he definitely saw violence, but in day-to-day life, everyone we spoke to was very calm and resigned to the fact that being angry helps no one. If you want to bargain or disagree, it’s best to smile the whole time than get cross. This was incredibly difficult at borders where we charged huge amounts of money over the official price, or when we got robbed on the ferry etc, but I think it’s good to take a leaf out of their book generally and try and get on with things without bearing grudges or teeth. They also have some of the best manners – everyone is addressed as sir or madam in English and most countries’ people were very friendly and welcoming. In Thai they use ‘kaa’ if you are a woman and ‘kup’ if you are a man to show respect. This bled into English on Koh Samui so every morning you got ‘GOOD MORNINGKAA!’ or ‘HELLOKUP!’ depending on who was speaking. The exception to traditional manners is the habit of hocking up whatever is in your throat and then spitting it where you feel like – on the bus floor, on the street, over bridges, up walls. A custom I really couldn’t get on board with!

SE Asia was incredibly beautiful, particularly in the more undeveloped areas such as Cambodia and Laos. Whereas the ancient temples and buildings we saw were stunning, the landscape was breath-taking and it even made long and otherwise boring bus journeys a joy. We were never happier than when we were climbing the mountain in Vang Vieng, or cruising down the Mekong in Luang Prebang, or trekking through the jungle in Banlung. Even though I couldn’t afford to buy new lens for my camera, I am most happy with the nature shots of all the places we’ve been as they will cheer me up when I’m back in England staring at four grey office walls and wishing I was elsewhere :)

Toilets are fairly hard to find, never mind negotiate when you’re laden with backpacks and carrier bags. Carry babywipes with you and don’t breathe in. Don’t put your bag down because the floor is inevitable wet with water from the bucket and ladle (or worse) and don’t forget to check for spiders and cockroaches in the bowl or paper before you go! I found the bucket and ladle quite good though, especially when this was your shower option, as some of the showers we used were so weak you couldn’t wash the shampoo off. Best use the ladle and pour as much as you want over you!

Shopping was fairly amazing – we wished so often that we weren’t travelling and could take all the gorgeous things home with us. Even more tempting was the relative cheapness of everything! But we couldn’t carry much and the things we did buy were little bits and pieces for friends and family, along with some clothes for ourselves as the temperature changed. And best of all, you can haggle! If you’re going anywhere in SE Asia, never pay the first price. Or the second. Or even the third! Craig is more ruthless than I am so we got some pretty good deals.

And then of course there are the people. Obviously you get the scammers who are just after your money, but generally we found SE Asians to be the friendliest, gentlest, happiest and most generous people. Some people we met had been through the most horrific experiences but were still laughing to tell the tale, some people had nothing but offered us a shady spot and a cold drink when we had gone on one of our stupid walking adventures without water; from the old lady who fixed my skirt with her sewing machine, to the man in Laos who patched up our tyre and gave us two drinks for less than £2, to the many guesthouse owners who let us stay in their rooms with a six week old puppy, we’ll never forget you!

Things I have lost:


Nail file


2 combs





Bikini bottoms


Things I should have brought on the trip:

Something to wear on my lower half other than one skirt

Less cardis

DVD drive

Things we found:

60,000 dong in Vietnam

1 puppy

Total number of miles travelled:


Backpacker’s bad luck bingo:

Top 5 favourite experiences:

Thai New Year/Craig’s birthday on Koh Samui

Swapping a hat for a dog in a Cambodian jungle village

Gorgeous botanical gardens in Kandy

Messing about in a Cambodian waterfall

Mountain climbing in Vang Vieng

All in all, a great trip and something we were very lucky to get the chance to do. Saw a lot, got our eyes opened, laughed a lot and met some amazing people. Can’t wait to go back…although I have really missed cooking my own meals, gardening, having a bath instead of a grim shower full of frogs and spiders, the relaxation of being able to speak to someone in their own language and of course Marmite. The Aussies have this poor imitation called ‘Vegemite’ but I’ve asked my stepdad to bring the real deal over from England as our stash ran out in Sri Lanka. Oh happy days!


17 hours on a bus – leaving Vinh for Laos

30 Jan

…Surprisingly they did honour the $25 rate so after looking round a few more damp hotels, we decided to book another night as the bus to Laos left at 6am so we’d already missed it by the time we got up. We thought getting a good night’s sleep before a 12 hour bus journey was probably a good idea, despite the expense. The bus didn’t go to Vientiane like we’d hoped but it did go to Phonsavan which was in the right direction, and more importantly, 27 degrees according to the net so that was fine as North Vietnam was freezing. Our visa is still valid for Vietnam until March so we might go to the South after Laos, but we already visited Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City on our trip last year.

We went back upstairs to chill out for the day and enjoy the last bit of luxury for a while but whilst I was googling “what to do in Vinh” – surprisingly there was no results – we found that there was a KFC about 20 minutes away. Given that there was nothing else to do as the town is not geared up for tourists at all due to the main visitors being on business, we went to try and find the KFC to treat ourselves.

By the time we got there we were really hungry – this is in pounds.

As with most fast food experiences, somehow it never lives up to your expectations. The “queue” was typical Vietnamese style – this time a sticky group of children clamouring for ice cream – so it took forever to get served and it wasn’t quite what we ordered or particularly nice so we left in a film of grease and disappointment. However, we did find 60,000 dong on the way back so not a total waste of time :)

We then found that our hotel had misunderstood what we had asked earlier and did not have any dollars we could buy for our Laos visas ($35 each). Craig ended up trying pretty much every other hotel in Vinh before he found one who could change some money. He came back with $100 as this was the smallest they had! We then got a fairly early night as we had to be up at 4.30 the next day to get to the bus station in time and say good bye to grim Vinh

We got the taxi to the bus station and found two of the three Westerners we saw in Vinh on the bus. Everyone else was Vietnamese and as usual, the bus was completely packed with about 15 people sitting on plastic chairs in the aisle. It was fairly dirty

as was the habit of several of the men on the bus of hacking up phlegm and then spitting it on the floor where they were sitting :I The Norwegians told us later that the guy next to them was plucking his stubble…and then eating it. Lovely. Under every seat was a case of beer – not in-bus entertainment as I hoped – but due to be delivered to various tiny villages and shops along the way.

We paid the driver 450,000 dong each (I think it was meant to be 470,000 dong each but he didn’t have any change – £14 each is not bad for a 600+km journey) and left on time off into beautiful, if slightly soggy, countryside

We stopped after about 3 hours for some food and to go to the loo. Having looked at the dogs and flies in the kitchen we gave the food a miss but got chatting to the two Norwegians on our bus. They are taking a sabbatical from work before returning to Europe to meet their six children for a two month Croatian cruise on their yacht :) The toilets were as unappealing as the food – the doors had gaps in and there was a guy staring at me so I had to wait for ages for him to get the message and go away.

After about 7 hours, the sun finally broke through as we got nearer Laos and suddenly we were in the mountains going through the most gorgeous scenery

It was so beautiful I didn’t want to sleep. We were on one road through the mountains, carpeted with blue forget-me-nots,

the whole way until we stopped at the border control. The bus driver shepherded us through which was nice of him as we didn’t have a clue what to do and then we waited for the other 50 or so Vietnamese to get their passports stamped.

The blue sky slipped into red as the sunset enveloped the mountains (sadly the bus, being a bus, didn’t stop for me to get any good photographs of this!) and we settled down for the last bit of the journey. Until we stopped in the pitch black in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver got off and kept looking at our side of the bus…one of the wheels directly underneath our seats had gone flat and something had caught fire…so the driver threw a bottle of water on it and started jacking up the bus after ordering everyone off. This gave Craig an excuse to show off his head torch and to help undo the wheel nuts so he made instant friends with the driver :) I just enjoyed looking up at the stars because although you can see the same constellations in England, as there was no light pollution where we stopped, you could see a million more. Everyone else just went for a wee…against the bus, in the middle of the road, at the sides of the road…no one seemed to care!!

Eventually we got going again and finally reached Phonsavan at 9.30pm – nearly 16 hours after we set off from Vinh. The puncture, the border controls  The Norwegians, Bror and Trille, were planning to stay at the same guesthouse as us so we decided to walk together to see if we could find it. We got a bit lost so a boy offered to show us the way. We were pretty close but he showed us which track it was up and then stood there. It dawned on us he wanted a tip but neither of us had any kip as nothing was open and there was nowhere to change money in Vinh. He told us to put it on the room so Bror asked the receptionist to give him 10,000 kip ($1 is 7,000, £1 is 12,500). He stood there some more and then said he wanted 20,000 which, considering our wooden bungalow was costing us 50,000 kip (£4, win) for a whole night, was too much. It was beyond awkward but the receptionist eventually gave him the 10,000 and told him to go away, which he finally did. Hopefully he won’t come back to our bungalows and stab us in the night.

We dumped the bags and went out for a meal and a beer

Tired bus faces!


26 Jan

We found a little cafe that was doing food. They looked like they were nearly closing but the owners waved us in. When we sat down they told us that they were only doing fish soup which didn’t sound brilliant but we thought we’d give it a go considering hardly anywhere was open.

The soup arrived and although the broth and noodles were nice, the fish was fried until crispy with the skin on. I thought it might be a bad idea to eat that considering we had a train journey the next day so ate around it. Once we’d started, the girl disappeared with – treat of treats – “free traditional food of Vietnam” – the meat and rice cake we have so studiously avoided so far. She didn’t just bring a slice, she brought the whole cake. It seemed rude not to try it but it was so sticky we couldn’t attack it with chopsticks…the man sitting next to us came over and stabbed a piece with a chopstick and then picked it up. I broke a bit off with my fingers – it had the texture of suet and looked a bit like a green scotch egg…the rice outside having been dyed green by the leaf it was cooked in. The inside was yellow and had chunks of meat in it. The girl told us it had been cooked for 12 hours (delicious!) so I had a little try. If you can imagine the taste and texture of cat food flavoured chewing gum, then trying to swallow the whole unyielding glutinous mouthful whilst not breathing so you don’t have to taste it, and having to smile and give the thumbs up to the waitress so she thinks you love it, you can get the idea of the full experience. Given that I was still feeling ill, it was down to Craig to manfully eat more so we didn’t appear ungrateful. He sat, stoically chewing, until he’d eat most of one massive piece, definitely taking one for the team.

Apparently dipping it in fish sauce made it nicer, which gives you some idea of how bad it was to begin with.

I found the source of the food poisoning in the morning – went to use the downstairs loo by the restaurant and looked inside the pantry…there was about 25 carrier bags of defrosting meat on the floor. I am as much a fan of meat that comes in carrier bags as anyone else (Wellesbourne market’s meat man knows this) but all different types of meat, defrosting in one huge pile, on the floor and at room temperature, is likely to be a bad idea.

We went to the train station at 9.15 to catch the train to Vinh which according to the net, was leaving at 12.30. It was a good job we were early as it took half an hour to get the train tickets – everyone just kept pushing in in front of each other. Eventually Craig just blocked the ticket window and forced everyone else who had cut in front to wait :) The tickets were 170,000 dong (£5.30) and said the train was coming at 10.51 which was good news. We sat and had an incredibly cheap coffee (10,000 dong) and banana pancakes for Craig…which turned out like fritters

The train was brilliant (even though the toilets were pretty much like all Vietnamese train toilets…disgusting. For any female independent travellers out there, I highly recommend a shewee – a Scottish girl even asked to buy my used one she was so impressed – a mooncup and feminax!) as we managed to have tickets for a table seat which meant rare leg room. On the second stop two girls from Vinh and their father got on and sat opposite us.

The journey turned into an impromptu Vietnamese/English lesson as they spoke a little English and were quite keen to try it out. They told us their names, Mai and Trang, and their full names which were about 9 words long. I told them Craig’s full name (three words) and they thought his name was Crazy, which was awesome. When I said my full name was only two words long, Trang thought for ages about the only person she’d heard of with two names…”like Vladmir Putin?”. Yes, exactly like Vladmir Putin. Damn it. They were very nice and told us a bit about Vinh and where to go – Ho Chi Minh Square – and said everything that was worth seeing was round by the square, about 5km from the train station.

We said goodbye at Vinh and walked off in the direction of the centre. We saw a couple of hotels along the way but thought it was best to keep going so we could get one near the centre. After 3 hours of military-style exercise with each of us carrying at least 15-20kg, I can conclusively say that a) there is no square, or if there is, it is a Bermuda square that is impossible to find, b) there is nothing to see in Vinh…we’ve walked round so you don’t have to and c) the hotel nearest the train station we walked past first turned out to be the best bet. The hotels are a lot more expensive here – the lovely one we went into mid punishing walk was $45. The cheapest one we went to said “massage” on the outside (possibly a bad sign) and charged £4.70. However, a scan of the room and a quick costs/risk/reward analysis established that actually, the certainty of developing scabies if we stayed there outweighed the comfort of putting our bags down so we carried on walking.

We ended up going back to the first hotel and negotiated a discount from $35 to $25 given that it didn’t look as nice as the lovely one (which had a pool) we saw earlier. That price is still more than we wanted to pay but we thought that if we can try to get the bus to Laos tomorrow, one night wouldn’t be too bad. It was quite a big room and was fairly luxurious compared to what we have become used to further North. And we found out after we checked in that it also has a pool. Result :) Whether they “remember” that it’s meant to be $25 dollars tomorrow is another story…

Ninh Binh

25 Jan

Pedro messaged us on facebook – although it’s technically banned in Vietnam we can occasionally get on it via a proxy site – to say he won’t be in Hanoi until 26th as he’s going to Halong Bay first. We had had enough of Hanoi now that everything is closed for the New Year so decided to move on to Ninh Binh, but as Pedro is doing a tour of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thaliand and Laos, we might hopefully be able to meet up with him at some other point.

We got a taxi to the bus station for 98000 dong and arranged to get on a local bus to Ninh Binh. Tourist buses are easier – they pick you up from your hotel but they only leave in the evenings and are closed during the New Year. They are also more expensive. The local bus we got was 100,000 dong each (up from 60,000 normally due to the holidays) but that covers a 2.5 hr journey so considering the cost of the taxi, it’s still not too much.

The only problem with local buses is that they don’t go until they are full. We were the first to get on so we knew we were in for a bit of a wait, but we crossed our fingers when it started pulling off. Unfortunately it was only moving round the corner :) We waited 50 minutes until the driver and his assistant thought it was full enough to set off..around the block to see if he could pick up any more passengers. The way they invited people on board was to drive at crowds of people shouting ‘NINH BINH’ at the top of his voice until a person came forward.

Perhaps taking my travel pillow was a bit optimistic…this was before another 3 people squeezed on – there are people in the aisles and then a load up at the front by the driver

I think we ended up with 45 people in the minibus. The guy who was shouting all the time was quite nice as he gave everyone with children 20,000 dong back because it’s traditional to give children money for New Year. However all warm thoughts towards him went out the window when he weed up against the bus by the hatch with everyone’s bags in :I

The bus driver was typically mental but because it was wet and he was weaving in and out of traffic at full speed, he managed to lock up and scared himself almost as much as he did everyone else. Which was good in a way because it meant that he stopped competing for World’s Fastest Bus Driver, slowed down slightly, instead settling for a close second so we could relax a bit more. The nice woman mashed in next to us gave us ginger sweets which were so gingery they burned though!

We arrived at around lunchtime without a map, a place to stay and at a bus station littered with used needles. Definitely out of the relative comfort zone of Hanoi! We wandered around until we found a hotel. People are very friendly here and shout hello at you as you walk down the street, so asking for directions wasn’t too much of a problem. The hotel man said that as it was New Year, we could have the room for $8 (around £5 and $7 less than our discounted room in Hanoi) was that ok? We took a look round the rooms and were sold

The manager suggested eating at the restaurant downstairs as everything was still shut. Although we knew it was probably going to be a bit more expensive, we thought this was a good idea as we were fairly tired from carrying the bags etc from the bus station. We had spring rolls, beef stir fry, a sizzling pork dish, rice and a free beer because it was New Year (win).

We went for another walk after this

and then went back to the hotel to have a nap as it was freezing cold and we’d got up early to get the bus.

When I woke up I felt a little bit sick so sat up to read the news. Within half an hour I was being violently sick. This carried on until I had nothing more to throw up, then an hour of stomach cramps and then I was camped out on the toilet, alternating between sweating and being freezing :( I got into bed once I felt a little bit better but was so cold I had pyjamas, a jumper, trousers, a hoodie, my coat and my scarf and two blankets on. Very unpleasant. Managed to get to sleep only to be woken up at 1am by the local cockerel…who kept shouting all night until we got up at 8.

Luckily I felt slightly better this morning – skipping breakfast probably helped – so not letting a small thing like food poisoning get in the way, we hired a motorbike (I feel Craig took advantage of my weakened state here!)

so that we could go and explore the beautiful countryside of Ninh Binh and the national park.

We took a boat trip for 100,000 dong down the river, expecting it to be a half an hour ride…it was three and a half hours of floating into lagoons, through caves and stopping at islands to see temples

Best value trip ever! After that, we didn’t have time to go all the way to the national park as it’s 65km away and we didn’t want to get there too late in case it was dark on the way back. So we drove around looking at the countryside for a while

before turning back as it was very, very cold. It wasn’t as scary this time – much bigger roads, quieter traffic and less dogs, buses etc that leap out at you.

We had to stop for petrol on the way – there was something about this woman that made us stop here. Perhaps it was the two dead stuffed squirrely-things next to the pump.

Even if she was twice as expensive I would definitely go to her every time! What went through her mind when she was thinking up this amazing ad campaign?

We dropped the bike off and went to get Craig a coffee to see if we could warm up. Found a little cafe that did coffee – no one spoke English but handily the word for coffee is ca phe :) They didn’t have coke so I pointed at what looked like the next best thing, a can of something with watermelon on it. It turned out it was watermelon tea but tasted like Digestive biscuit juice. Yummmm. Craig ordered a coffee with rum in it and got a hot cup of green tea and a cold smoothie thing made of coffee, banana and rum. Odd but he said it was nice! Off out to brave eating something again now. Fingers crossed it won’t be poisonous this time :I

chúc mừng năm mới – Tết 2012

23 Jan

We had breakfast at our hotel and I unleashed my secret weapon and number one best thing I’ve packed:

or How to Make Any English Person in the Room Jealous. Yum.

We checked out of our hotel and down about 3 doors as negotiated a 10$ discount on a double room (so $15 a night including breakfast). This hotel is much nicer (instant hot water!) and the room is massive :)

We wandered around Hanoi a bit longer – we’re having to stay here a little longer than planned because the New Year celebrations means everything pretty much shuts down for a couple of days, including the buses etc, whilst everyone visits their families.

We then had tea at an Indian restaurant…we couldn’t resist the smell as we walked past. We had the works for around 430,000 dong (£13) which is relatively expensive but as there was a lot of food and it was delicious we didn’t mind. Afterwards we met Andy and Dennis for coffee by the lake

and drinks at the Gecko bar.

After a nice lie-in, we got up to see all the decorations that had been put out across the city:

In every building (even empty shops) there is a little shrine with offerings of cigarettes, food, alcohol, kinds of cake made out of rice (representing the moon) and fruit (representing the sun). I was told the leaf package in the background was also a kind of cake which got me excited but then the guy I asked about it said it was made out of sticky rice and meat which sounded a bit less appetising.

We went shopping for a bit and then had a meal at Pepperonis as Andy and Dennis prefer Western food. On the way back we found a proper beer corner – there’s one in the Old Quarter but it’s full of travellers – and beer for 9,000 dong/28p.

The crowds of Vietnamese men who were drinking there for New Year’s Eve seemed to think it was great that we had joined them for a drink so a group of them bought us the first round. They also gave packets of Thang Long cigarettes and took pictures of us with their group. No one spoke each other’s languages but it was quite fun trying to guess what each other was saying :) One of the Vietnamese men who bought us a drink got up to say goodbye and then went to get the keys for his scooter. He was clearly battered so his friend came round to convince him to try to sober up first. The first guy waved him away telling him he was fine…and then fell sideways into the road in front of a taxi as soon as he got on his bike. He thought this was very funny and after he was helped up, he waved and veered off into oncoming traffic with both his feet off the bike on the road to try and keep his balance. Hopefully he got home ok!

Dennis and Andy both left that night – Dennis to Bangkok and Andy to continue riding his bike to Sapa and then to Laos – so we said our goodbyes and went off to find some street food. I’m glad we met them in Halong, they were a nice guys and the last few days with them have been fun. We found a little place opposite our hotel where you barbequed your own food – similar to the place we went the other day but it looked like there was more variety

We had half a plate of pork and half a plate of beef, some veg, rice and the same chilli, sugar and lime marinade. We barbequed it all up and had two beers, plus one for the receptionist at our hotel as I think he was a bit gutted he couldn’t join in with all the New Year parties. When we got up to leave the waiter said we owed 5 million dong/£156. We laughed and then he said 1 millon/£31. We laughed again, a little bit less hard this time. He then settled on 600,000/£19, which, although still cheap by English standards, is very expensive for a meal and two or three drinks here, especially from street vendors. I popped into the hotel and asked the receptionist, who said it was a fair price given it was New Year’s Eve. Lesson learned – ask how much before you sit down! The barbeque place we went to three doors down charged 300,000 dong for a meal for four. But, given that it didn’t exactly break the bank and it was very nice, it wasn’t the end of the world.

We could have gone to see the fireworks at the lake in the centre but as they were at midnight, it was already freezing (trousers, jumper, hoodie, coat and scarf freezing) and foggy, we decided to give them a miss and go to bed. We heard them throughout the night but didn’t see any as it was very cloudy and foggy. There was no one about the next morning – everyone had clearly had a very good night. We got to walk on the pavement for a change during our wander this morning and found a little stall doing coffee and cake

We also managed to find some cheaper food for lunch…a massive plate of beef, pak choi and noodles and two drinks for 140,000 dong. Much more like it :)

And because there was no one around, we got more of a chance to stop and take some pictures

Tiger skin for sale – it stank

Balancing act – nothing is too big to fit on a scooter. We’ve seen people with 50 bags of live fish, hundreds of packets of toilet roll, live chickens and pigs on their scooters and wardrobes on the back of a push bike.

Electricians look away now:

If we get time before we leave we will try and meet up with Pedro in Hanoi who was one of the tour leaders we met last year through Tucan Travel. As transport should be up and running again tomorrow, we are going to try to get a bus to Ninh Binh to see the national park there so the timing might not work out but fingers crossed we will get to see him.

Halong bay

21 Jan

We got to Halong bay via a 3.5 hour bus ride. Some of the group were from our hotel and some were not – showing the importance of haggling, a girl from our hotel paid $90 for a two day/one night tour (including $10 single supplement) whereas we paid $69 each for three day/two nights with the same agency. People paid between $68 and $130 for the same tour via different agencies so worth having a go.

When we got there it was very gloomy. We were half expecting this as it had been misty last time, and our tour guide who had been doing the same tour for a year said that he’d only seen it sunny four or five times. It was so dark that it didn’t really matter whether I took pictures in colour or black and white so here’s a picture from last year showing what it normally looks like

We had lunch on the boat and then as Craig had brought his fishing gear, we stayed to see if he could catch anything whilst the rest of the group went to see some caves we saw last time. He attracted quite a lot of attention from the locals

who told him he hadn’t got the right stuff for sea fishing so he would be better off river fishing instead. Despite that, the crew on our junk boat still had a go with it whilst we were kayaking and got it all tangled up :)

Kayaking was great

as we got to go through holes in the stacks, see the floating villages up close and go to lagoons where there are no boats (the floating villages used to be in one of them but they kept hunting the monkeys that lived on the rocks there so they were moved!) so it was completely silent. Difficult to describe but there’s a quick video of it here.  This is the first picture of me because my hair has got confused by the climate and has permanently arranged itself into devastatingly attractive peaks and troughs. This hood is my new best friend.

After dinner we had a few drinks with the rest of the group and then went to bed as I’d been up since 4am still getting used to the time zone change. Apparently some random South  were invited onto our boat during the night, there was belly dancing and karaoke for ages but we didn’t hear anything as we were so knackered.

The next morning we went to Cat Ba Island for a trek in the national park. The guide made it sound like a walk, which was good as I don’t have any hiking shoes yet. What he actually meant was a rock climbing session up 266m of cliff. When we eventually got to the top

he asked me whether I wanted my picture taken (mmmm big red sweaty face – that’s going in the album!). What I actually wanted to do was push him off but I admit the view was worth the effort in the end :) Craig climbed the extra tower bit that was on the top, but given that I am petrified of a) heights and b) very high rusty towers with ladders with planks missing off them, I gave it a miss.

We got the bus into Cat Ba town to have lunch as the rest of the day was free time. Somewhere along the way I was convinced that hiring motorbikes to go and look at a temple we had spotted up one of the mountains was a good idea. We hired two scooters between four of us so Craig drove. Despite us not going above about 15mph I was absolutely terrified. If you imagine what Craig would look like with a backpack on, then imagine me as that backpack, that’s about right. I was so tense all my muscles were sore the next morning! It was nice to get to see a bit more and we did find a really pretty beach

but it was still very scary as the Vietnamese think that if you pull out you have right of way no matter how late you leave it! It took Craig about 5 minutes to unclench my hands from his middle :) But we made it in one piece to dinner alright after paying the petrol bill (we put 15,000 dong (less than 50p) in it) – you can do 300km on 150,000 dong! – and then walked back to the beach with some of our group and a bottle of vodka (80,000 dong – £2.50) for us to share.

It ended up being a bit of a crazy night as we met a bar owner who invited us in for drinks and what looked like a whole chicken that had been smashed up, cooked and then put in a box. I gave that a bit of a wide berth. Almost as disturbing was the fact that due to it nearly being New Year, Abba’s Happy New Year was on the soundtrack on repeat. For an hour. So we got them to finally understand what we meant (pointing at the video and miming shooting ourselves in the head), the karaoke (Vietnamese people LOVE IT) was turned on. Some absolutely terrible singing was enjoyed by all and then we said goodnight. We all offered him some money for the meal and drinks but he wouldn’t take it. He probably just wanted the singing to stop.

My phone got lost that night and as we were due to leave the island very early the next morning, it is probably still there somewhere. So Orange have now blocked the number etc so don’t text or call as they are still trying to sort out how to get a replacement sim card. I’ve still got access to emails and skype etc though.

We got back to Hanoi in the afternoon yesterday and went for a meal – found a little stall that gave you a heater and a massive plate of meat and veg for you to fry, and then dip it in a mix of brown sugar, chilli and lime juice. It was delicious but as I was with three boys (Craig and Andy (English) and Dennis (German), who we met in Halong Bay – they’ve been riding up from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and on to Laos), they were complaining there wasn’t enough food so we went on to another bar. We found a great place on the third story of a building. The balcony had big cushions to sit on and fairy lights so it was a nice place to sit and watch everyone get ready for the New Year, but more importantly for the boys it also did burgers and spring rolls :) After their second meal, it was time for bed. Somehow I have managed to get a really horrible cold so needed to get an early night!

Lost in Hanoi

17 Jan

We got up fairly early today to make sure we were in time for our free breakfast at the hotel – more beef pho, yum. We’d decided that the best thing do to explore Hanoi would be to get purposefully lost so we could see things that we didn’t get the chance to last time. So everytime we saw an interesting street, we went down it. We left at 9.30am and got back at 4pm so the plan worked quite well.

Hanoi is such an interesting place to walk around; especially the Old Quarter. It is a hectic labryrinth of tiny streets of a mix of modern and old French-style buildings

and stuffed full of people on motorbikes. There are nearly 7 million people in Hanoi and nearly 3.5 million motorbikes. That means that walking around is something only tourists and street sellers really do as everyone else has a bike. It also means that you offered a scooter or a pedalo ride every 5 seconds because all the Vietnamese think you are mad to walk anywhere. And to be honest, I agree with them sometimes – walking is fine but stopping a stupid idea as unless the Vietnamese are eating, drinking or selling, they are moving. If you stop, you will always be in someone’s way (which is why finding a bar with a balcony is such a good idea!). Traffic comes at you from all directions and using the pavement is an acceptable shortcut, as is jumping the red lights (which only stop one lane of traffic anyway!). I blame the F1-style traffic lights as they give you a countdown in seconds til when they will turn green again…

As everything is done on the street or from the scooters/bikes, there is no space to walk on the pavement. Women prepare food and cook it out by their stalls, men fix bikes or give haircuts right on the pavement so walking in the street is the only option, but they seem to have a good system of beeping their horns if they feel anyone is particularly close to death. This way you get a fair warning but it does mean that every step of your walk is punctuated by bike horns amongst all the general chatter and clamour. However, we found an outside barber today who did a great job on Craig’s hair in no time at all and for about £1.50

Craig’s best catalogue pose

Crossing the road can be a challenge but we’ve learned that making eye contact with the people whizzing past and never, ever stopping as it confuses people are the best ways to avoid getting squished. It is quite hard though when there’s so much to see – whether it’s the motorbike with 50 bags of live goldfish attached to the back of it, the birds in the cages outside shops which apparently bring them good luck (not sure the birds themselves feel that lucky!)

and market stalls selling everything from snails to stoves to roasted whole dog. The weird thing is that in Hanoi, if you see a stall such as this – selling decorations for the upcoming tết festival, or New Year –

it probably means that the whole street is likely to be selling exactly the same thing.

So if you want sunglasses, you go to sunglasses street where every shop and stall only sells sunglasses, if you want rope you go to rope street etc. I am not sure of the reason for it but it is very strange when you’re used to shops selling everything you need under one roof.

It will be nice to be here for New Year’s as apparently it is a great party lasting three days where everything shuts down and people celebrate. There are lots of these trees around

– peach flowers – and kumquat trees as they are meant to symbolise luck and happiness. I am not sure precariously balancing eight of these on your bike to ride home with will automatically bring you luck though :I

We stopped for lunch on a street corner and had a lovely meal – you add a plate of cold noodles, a little dish of very hot chillies (excellent!) and fresh Vietnamese herbs to a spicy broth containing sliced mystery vegetable and spring onions. You then add meat that was barbecued in front of you. It was incredible

and only £2.30 for two meals and two Cokes, which is unbelievable really. The money here gets some getting used to – £1 is 32,000 dong. This means if you take out enough cash to pay for tours etc you are a millionaire :)

We have booked a tour to Halong Bay for tomorrow and then when we get back we might think about heading South as although Hanoi is an experience, it’s not somewhere you can really relax and take your time over!