Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ha Long Bay times two

I went to Ha Long Bay twice, for reasons I will get to below.

Take one
Cat, Mat, Claire, Sam and I took a Vega travel tour to Halong Bay straight after our overnight train from Sapa. There were 11 of us on the boat. It was misty and grey and a tad rainy, but through the mist we caught glimpses of the mythical landscape of Ha Long bay. There are over 3000 limestone islands and formations in this world heritage site. If you're feeling nerdy, check it out on wikipedia.

First stop was Ti Top Island. This tiny island with a white beach was visited by the cosmonaut Ghermann Titop, from the Soviet Union, accompanied by President Ho Chi Minh. To mark the significance of their visit, Uncle Ho named it Ti Top Island. The island’s real attraction is the pagoda-styled lookout point its peak. After climbing the 427 stone steps winding up the tall island you get a great view from the top. But it is a hard walk up there in the humidity!
View from Ti Top Island. From Vietnam

The Surprising Cave was next. I went in thinking yeah, whatever, we have Janolan Caves in Australia, and the Careys Cave in Wee Jasper is pretty cool. And Surprising cave was not that impressive to begin with. But turning a corner it was surprising, it was so massive! It also had an interesting phallic rock formation, suitably lit up with bring pink lights...

The surprising cave. From Vietnam

We then did a spot of kayaking. My kayaking buddy was Nikos from Greece. So we paddle through a tunnel into a lagoon, and pottered around talking about science, philosophy and psychology. It was a bit dark and misty though, so we didn't spend too much time on the water.
Cat and Mat kayaking. From Vietnam

We had a very relaxing night with delicious food and wine on the boat. My room was comparable to the hotels I'd been staying in, with wood paneling and twin beds. Rather luxurious really for a junk in Halong bay!

The next day involved a lot of cruising through the waters and admiring the scenery. I think I took close to 100 photos of it all. The scenery is just so incredible - limestone islands rising from still green water, rocks covered with dense jungle, eagles soaring around. It is such a mythical landscape that you can almost see the dragons fighting in these waters, spirits creating the stunning beauty. It is the stuff of fairy tales and folk lore. The clouds and mist did not lift while we were there, but it added to the magic of it all.
A fishing village on the water of the bay. From Vietnam

Halong Bay, take two
I mentioned in a previous post that I met two fabulous Israeli guys, Amit and Ido and decided to change my plans to travel with them some more. So that is how I ended up in Halong Bay again 6 days later. This time we were on the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel Tour. There were 30 of us, the sun was shining, it was hot, and our guide AJ was absolutely hilarious. It was basically completely opposite to my last tour. The sun lit up the bay beautifully and the views were incredible.

We went kayaking for two hours, the highlight of which was the suitably random Fairy Cave. So much laughter with our guide saying all sorts of crazy things about it. There was a really special moment though when 32 people were in an unlit cave, and the torches were turned off and we spent two minutes in silence, thinking about how we had all ended up in a cave in Halong bay. It was intense, but brilliant.
Halong Bay in sunshine. From Vietnam

Our kayaks tied up while we were in the Fairy Cave. From Vietnam

That night everyone drank and listened to music and had great conversations about travel on the top deck. So people jumped off the roof of the junk into the water, but the sun had gone down and it was a tad cool so I wasn't game.
Amit paddling. From Vietnam

We were up early the following day to get off the bus for Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the bay. The group did a 2 hour hike, but Ido had just had a knee operation so we caught the local bus into town with a French couple and drank coffee and looked at the view instead. We had some great chats about our countries and cultures and all sorts of things. I'm really quite glad I didn't go hiking up a mountain!
Amit and Ido, silly smiling. From Vietnam

After a delicious lunch of fish and stirfry at the Princes hotel where we were staying, AJ took some of us on a walk around to some of Cat Ba's beaches. We stopped at a beach side bar for a tiger beer. There was a mean soccer game happening on the sand in front of us, the locals were so agile, playing on the sloping sand! Amit and I sat and chatted, looking out to the ocean and the islands. We had a great conversation about people and love and life... Again I was struggling to believe that this person that thinks so similar to me comes from such a far off place.
The tour group on the boat. From Vietnam

That night we all ended up at a bar dancing and drinking whiskey. It was great fun, I hadn't danced in ages. And dancing on an Island in Halong bay just made it all so awesome. At one stage a black guy from the states read some very cool poems. I'm all for the spontaneous poetry, there should be more of it in the world!

the longest day to end
The following day was my last in Vietnam. I was very sad to say goodbye to Amit and Ido. Particularly Amit (sorry Ido, you are a very awesome guy too!) as Amit and I had grown close in the few days we had spent together. I caught the bus from Cat Ba Island at 9.15am rather than going back with the tour, which was taking the long route as I had to catch a plane. Lucky for me the French couple also took the bus option, so we had some good chats on the bus, ferry, bus and taxi to get back to Hanoi. There was only one incident involving a rigged taxi meter, but it all ended without too much drama.

I picked up my bag from the hostel in Hanoi, caught a shuttle to the airport, and checked in. 30mins before the flight was due to depart at 5pm, there is an announcement that it has been delayed 2hours. Now this was bad news as I needed to make the check in for my international Jetstar flight in Saigon by 9.05pm... and it was a 2 hour journey. I discovered two Aussie girls in the same situation as me, and the airline was really helpful, putting our bags on an earlier flight and being reassuring that we would make it. I was so lucky to meet to Aussie girls though to keep me from stressing over the possibility of missing my international flight! We had a great chat on the plane in our front row seats reflecting on our journeys to Vietnam, our past travels, and what was happening next in our lives.

We landed in Saigon with 10mins to get off the plane and check in. The airline met us with a special bus, we ran to find our bags piled them on a trolley and then, well imagine a trolley full of bags and three girls running through the airport with people almost jumping to get out of our way... that was us! We got to the International terminal just as they were calling out final check in for our flight... We were so lucky to make it! And a benefit of arriving so late was the check in guy gave us each a whole row to lie down in for our journey to Darwin. I slept the whole way home.

home again home again
Now I'm back home and the silence of Canberra feels strange. Where are all the people? Where are all the plastic chairs and tables on the side of the road? Where's all the raw meat being cut up next to scooters? Where's the beeping of horns, the noise of air conditioners, people trying to sell me stuff, the humidity? Home feels like a foreign country. And going to work seems incredibly odd. I can't stop thinking about where I'll go travelling to next. Perhaps Israel? We'll see.

Darwin airport at dawn. From Vietnam

Vietnam photo album

You can find all my photos from Vietnam in this album. These are just from my camera, there are bound to be tonnes more that I love from Cat, Mat, Claire, Sam and Amit.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hoi An has swallowed me whole

I love Hoi An. It is the perfect place for a holiday. There is fabulous food, fascinating architecture of the old town, incredible shopping, hot holiday weather, friendly people, and a nice beach not too far away. I could spend every holiday here, although my bank balance and my overflowing wardrobe would not thank me for that.

[the old buildings of Hoi An - with Cat and Mat chatting)

I made rice paper and new friends... all at the same time
The greatest part of my holiday started with the Red Bridge cooking school. We started with a delicious cool drink at the Hai restaurant in town, chatted to fellow novice chefs, and headed to the local food markets. Our guide Hip was very entertaining, telling us about the foods you come across in the markets here, how to cook them and what they are good for (tummy aches, headaches, etc).

We then got a boat for a nice ride down the river to the cooking school. We were showed around the herb garden, and then to the cooking class area - a covered deck on the edge of a river, with chairs in the centre facing a cooking bench, complete with the mirror about the chef. Our chef was great as well, very funny, and easy to follow. We had printed notes to annotate and lovely drinks. We learnt how to make rice paper, rice paper rolls, rice pancakes and eggplant hotpot. All very delicious and interesting items to learn to cook.

[in the food markets with the cooking class tour]

After the class we all sat down to eat some of the food we'd made, as well as some additional dishes. The setting was perfect, with views of the river.

But the main reason the cooking class was such a tipping point in our trip was because we met two wonderful guys, Amit and Ido from Israel. We met them for dinner that night at Cargo Bar - our favourite restaurant in Hoi An. I had the best mushroom risotto I've ever had that night - not what I was expecting in Vietnam! And the desserts there are to die for, absolutely delicious. Ido, Amit and I went out for a few drinks and wandered around town that night, talking about everything. The kind of conversations that only seem to happen on holidays when you're far away from home in a strange country with people from the otherside of the world from you. I got back to my hotel at 1am, having woken up a taxi driver! They were all just sleeping in their taxis.

[Cao Lau, a specialty dish in Hoi An, and tomato shake]

Beach and boating
The following day I took a free bicycle from the hotel and went to Cua Dai beach. It was no Australian beach, but it was more beautiful that I was expecting. Of course even while I was trying to read my book on the beach there were people trying to sell me stuff. It never ended. I had little will power and bought some jewelry... I got home and realised I was sunburnt. Pale skin is no good in any country!

I rode my bike into town for my fitting at the tailor Yaly. I had so many awesome clothes made, particularly for the Canberra winter. The tailor was brilliant, everything I had made fit perfectly. I bumped into Cat and Mat and then Ido and Amit. We sat down at the outdoor eating area and ate some delicious noodles and very cheap beer (about 30cents a glass!). Cat and Mat took off for more fittings at tailors, and Ido, Amit and I took a boat ride on the river. It was a great idea of Amit's- the sun was setting, the boys rowed me round, and even sang a hebrew song about sailing. It was rather surreal, but wonderful. Discovered that we shared the same taste in music and movies...

[Amit and his coconut drink]

That night we had dinner at the Riverside cafe. Run by Austrians, it had the most stylish toilets I'd seen in Vietnam. The food was quite good, and after dinner we went upstairs to an awesome lounge area to drink cocktails.

That night Amit, Ido and I ended up on a bus to a beach party at midnight. The mini van had seats for 10, but about 25 drunk backpackers squished into it! It was somewhat crazy, but we made it to the beach party. It was pretty chilled out. We went swimming in the ocean. It was lovely. Ido said I should change my plans and go with them the next day to Ninh Binh. I decided I couldn't (clothes being tailored, friends, etc). We stayed and watched the sunrise and it was absolutely stunning.

[View from the boat]

It amazed me that I could meet two wonderful people that shared so many of my interests, yet who had lived their whole lives on the other side of the world to me, in a country constantly at war, and of which I only know a little. Amit said it is not that surprising, as we are all human. But I disagree, meetings of minds like this don't just happen everyday. they are so rare.
[squished on the bus to the beach party]

Don't go to the markets when you are tired
The next day I woke up at 1pm (after going to bed a 7am...) and headed into town. Here is a tip - don't go shopping when you're not awake. Somehow I ended up ordering even more tailor made clothes and shoes, bought even more handbags... and scarves... I was in a daze and didn't notice.

That night after dinner I started thinking that maybe I could join Amit and Ido for the rest of my travels... It all depended on a flight from Hanoi to meeting my flight from Saigon...

In the morning I checked out the one flight factor. I could do it. I bought a sim card, called Amit and Ido, bought 2 plane tickets, went to 4 shops to pick up my clothes, shoes and more clothes, checked out of my hotel, and headed to Hanoi at 8pm from Hoi An, arriving at Amit and Ido's hotel just after midnight. I changed all my plans to spend a few more days with Amit and Ido, and it wasn't difficult, it all fell into place. I've never been that spontaneous in my life before, but I'm so glad I did it.

[sunrise on Cua Dai beach]

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sickness in Sapa

We arrived in Lao Cai from our overnight train journey from Hanoi. The journey was smooth, I slept just fine in my four-berth cabin with a Danish family. We eventually left Lao Cai in a mini van and for an hours winding journey up to the mountain village of Sapa. It was covered in mist and cloud, and I expect that the view from the hotel would have been spectacular had it not been for the extensive mist, which has still not lifted. It was also pouring with rain. We ate breakfast, bought some heavy duty rain ponchos for about $3, and took off on our trek to the minority villages of the Dzao and H'mong with our guide Khan, who is from the Dzao minority.

As we exited the hotel we were followed by a group of women in traditional dress. They began asking us questions... "What your name?", "Where you from", "How old are you", "Ah, you very young!". Little did we know they would follow us for our entire journey, like an uninvited shadow.
[Sapa in the clouds]


Before we'd left the hotel, Claire began feeling some gut pain. As we headed down from the road and into the villages, the rain stopped and I was overwhelmed by waves of nausea. We sat down for lunch, I couldn't eat a thing, and was very ill, not even making it to the loo. That was not fun. We changed our plans to stay the night at a homestay nearby for the night. By the time I got there, I was very sick, dizzy, nauseous... I spent some time at the loo and took myself to bed and slept for 13 hours. By this time, Claire was also nauseous and slept a lot as well. The others spent the night drinking beer, enjoying the freshly made food the family we were staying with had prepared, and engaging in cultural exchange.

[the rice padies being plowed, preparing to plant this year's crop]
Waking up in the morning I felt much better, and had a few pancakes with honey for breakfast. Claire was feeling about the same. That morning we trekked along incredibly muddy steep paths through the valley, with stunning scenes of rice paddies, children playing, buffalo, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and pigs scavenging for food. My shoes were so slippery, but those women were still with us, and helped me get along the path without falling (although I almost fell so many times). We stopped to rest and they mobbed us trying to get us to buy their handicrafts. We'd bought the afternoon before for inflated prices and were certainly not going to be ripped off again. Eventually they got the message that we were not buying anything else and left us alone, finally to soak up our journey.

[Me feeling a better, with one of the minority women who had followed us behind me]
That afternoon we returned to the hotel to take hot showers and rest in warm beds. That was just delightful. Kahn took us for a dinner of Vietnamese Hot Pot. It wasn't exactly what we were hoping to eat, all being rather wary of food due to the illness going around, but attempted to make a dent in the the huge plate of raw meat presented by boiling it in the soup on the burner on the table. Kahn said we must try the black chicken... Black Chicken? none of us had ever heard of it. But guess what, it tasted like chicken! We ended the night with a chocolate tart at a bakery that was rather tasty and normal for a change.
Awaking the next morning, Cat and Mat had come down with head colds and stayed in bed. Claire, Sam and I went on another trek to Cat Cat village - this trek had paved paths the whole way, and it wasn't raining. Word had got round all the hundreds of women trying to peddle their crafts that we weren't in the habit of buying now, so it was some relief not having them following us. We walked to the bottom of the valley, and Sam became very ill. He got a ride on the back of a motor bike back up the hill to the hotel.

Claire and I got back to the hotel about 20mins later, and we decided to change our plans to return to Hanoi via the night train that night. We postponed our train journey, and the Ha Long Bay tour we were supposed to join the next morning by a day. Just as well we did because by 4pm Mat had also come down with the illness. Now Claire and I were mostly fine, the two men were in bed, and Cat is the last man standing so to speak, with only a head cold.

[Cat with some medicine - a bottle filled with snakes and scorpions]
With the men in bed, Claire, Cat and I wandered around the town of Sapa. It could almost be a mountain village in Europe, except for the minority women on the street trying to sell you handicrafts. We became experts at ignoring them - no eye contact and turning your head the other way gets them leaving you alone pretty quick smart. We saw street vendors selling every kind of meat on sticks - pork, chicken, baby bird and even black chicken again on sticks, with eggs roasting on their charcoal fires. We saw bags and bags of traditional medicine with bizarre ingredients like starfish, lizards and snakes. There were markets filled with local handicrafts and silver from Thailand and pashminas from India. And there were the smells - every few seconds a new smell would waft past your nose, ranging from mildly odd to down right disgusting. We've decided that Vietnam in a plain stinky country really. Cat and Mat are masking the smell with tiger balm on their necks, which is a bloody good idea really. I'm digging into my pot of vicks.


[Cat and me enjoying being dry and warm with espressos]
It's raining again outside. It is so damp and cold in Sapa, I've borrowed Claire's thermal because I'm chilled to the bone. They're not big on heating the buildings here. I keep expecting to walk into a restaurant and being all cosy and warm, but it just isn't. We're spending the day here and taking the night train back to Hanoi, arriving at 5am, and beginning our tour of Ha Long Bay at 8am. Hopefully the men are improving today, and like me their sickness only lasts 24hours. They say in the lonely planet that 20 to 50% of travellers to Vietnam get sick within 2 weeks of their stay. So far we're at 80%.

After a night on a luxury junk (an oxymoron? we'll soon find out), we're back to Hanoi for a night, and then off to Hoi An. We'll relax there, get some clothes made, check out some ruins, go to the beach, lounge by the pool, before heading on our next Vietnamese adventure.