A Travellerspoint blog

Please Don't Rush...

Thailand -> Laos and back again...

semi-overcast 24 °C

Sorry for my absence of late. It's been quite a while since I wrote something here, but time flies!

Anyway, finally having grabbed a few hours to catch up I guess I should start where I left you, which was just about to go to Laos.

The People's Democratic Republic of Laos (or Laos PDR) would be better named Laos: Please Don't Rush. Please. Just don't. Incidentally, why is it that countries with 'Democratic' in the title are usually anything but?! To say that Laos was nothing as I expected is something of an understatement. I expected something like Cambodia (awful roads, little infrastructure) but with commie flags and loads of hippies who forgot to go home. Usually I try not to have any expectations, but you know, this one was fairly basic.

So anyway, off we went from Thailand to the Laos border by sleeper train. For the 12 hr journey (with bed) we paid 488 Baht, which is about 8 quid. Not bad. It even left on time. Actually, since I've been travelling, pretty much all of the transport here has surpassed the standards endured by the UK. That bus in China definitely wins, but this train was pretty good too.
We arrived in the morning at the border, and obtained a few more stamps and a very pretty visa to hop over the Mekong into Laos. Expecting the beautiful Thai roads to turn into a clay bone rattler ride, the quality stayed just the same, which was nice. As an aside, did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the history of warfare? A B52 planeload every 3 minutes around the clock for 9 years, to be exact. They didn't really mention that one in history either. All the evidence in SE Asia shows just how much more compelling the US effect was than any 'domino effect...'

Vientiane, the Laos capital is just over the border - a short taxi ride away. We were somewhat unsettled by the Tesco tissues in the taxi (with Thai or Lao on it), are they taking over the world??? Anyway, so we get to Vientiane and were dropped off in the centre.. and was it quiet. In fact, we walked to a fountain which is supposed to be the centre of the whole city, and I think in the ten minute walk we must have seen a total of 7 people. Even at the centre, we were beginning to wonder if something had happened, there was no-one around. When I think of capitals I think of people zipping around doing lots of stuff. To me capitals involve being bumped by throngs of people. This place was unsettlingly close to a ghost town!

Vientiane was actually as quiet as first impressions implied, so we moved on earlier than planned to Luang Phrabang in the north of Laos. We took the cheapie bus - 100,000 kip (about $10) - and I think the journey rocketed straight into my top 5 beautiful bus rides ever. In fact, it was one of those bus rides where you don't mind that it's 10 hours long because the scenery is so entertaining. Beautiful hills and karsts covered in jungle complete with moody mist and a few rainbows. Fantastic. Finally we arrived in LP and got ourselves a delightful room in a colonial style guesthouse (with balcony) for $4 a go, which we didn't complain about at all and got some sleep.
You know how I said I was expecting hippies? Well we were so, so wrong. In fact, we were stared at more by the other westerners, who were of something of a higher calibre than us. Luang Phrabang is a lovely quiet and colonial-type old place. The monks from the millions of temples within the city and the surrounding countryside collect alms at 6am by taking a route through the city single file and walking past locals who drop handfuls of rice into the bowls the monks are carrying. The rather picturesque, serene scene was somewhat disturbed by a yowling cat.
I found Luang Phrabang pleasant and enjoyable, but the hoards of flashpacker tourists were really quite unsettling. Loads of the shops were fancy boutiques selling fancy wares, and food prices had taken a hike for the worse. It dawned on us that the main attraction of Laos is chilling out (please don't rush) and watersports (money money money). So we had a quiet few days then headed back down to Vang Vieng, and equally quiet and touristy town (but more geared towards budgeteers like us). The main attraction there is again to chill out at the million and one places serving pizza and Friends on tvs and to go tubing. The tv bars are actually pretty cool. Instead of seats, there are raised platforms with cushions and a little table for food/beer separated into small compartments where you and your friends can sit for hours and hours on end. We were pretty tired by the time we got to Vang Vieng, but we're all pretty active people and get bored pretty quickly. That said, tubing was extremely entertaining. Essentially, one takes a tractor inner tyre, sits on it and floats down a river for a day (yes, I got sunburned, I'm British, it's what I do!). There are bars serving big bottles of Beer Lao at stops down the river and it's all very entertaining - especially as the river is actually relatively zippy at times.

It's turning out to be quite hard to write about Laos, our time there was relatively inert. The tourist trail doesn't seem to give much of an impression of the country itself, and we didn't really have time to stray off the beaten track. I feel having spent 9 days there that I didn't really see the country itself that much, even though that's nearly twice as much time as we spent in Cambodia, yet I feel like I saw so much more of it. It's not easy to really get to know a place on a runaway-train travel adventure like ours, so I guess that had I more time I could have seen the south and done more. Anyway, it was nice to chill out all the same.

We did another of our special 24hr travel monsters by bus, tuk tuk and train back to Bangkok and here we are. Tomorrow we fly back to Hong Kong to spend a little more time exploring then finally a flight back home.
We've now covered 6 countries (if you count HK as a country), collected 4 delightful visa stickers, 14 stamps (16 when we go to and leave HK) and a lot of pirated CDs! It's been quite incredible and we've covered an absolutely huge distance, mostly on schedule and almost on budget! We've seen some amazing and beautiful things as well as upsetting and dark things (such is life is it not?) but all equally memorable and valuable. If I had to choose a favourite country? Perhaps Cambodia left the deepest imprint. The least favourite? China's sinister machine-like atmosphere was somewhat offputting I must say. The best view would have to be that of Angkor Wat, every time, although those Lao hills come pretty high up too, along with the view from Victoria Peak in HK. The worst, my stinking feet at the end of the day! Thailand has the best, cheapest food, although the most amazing meal we had was at Lucy's blow-our birthday meal, which might have been a little obscene. Vietnam wins every time with comedy communism - some of those propaganda billboards were pure beauties I can tell you. Biggest disappointment? My camera's inability to upload photos early on, leading to my inability to take any more. Fortunately Mark and Lucy have some splendid snappers, so I'll be getting copies to show off to anyone who sits still long enough.

I've only 2 minutes left, so I'll dash off. Hope you've enjoyed reading these posts - next year Argentina?
Loads of love to all...
Soph

Posted by fuzzbuzz85 07:57 Archived in Laos Tagged boating Comments (0)

The not-very-lost-but-none-the-less-astounding Angkor Wat...

Cambodia-> Thailand

sunny 32 °C

I've given up on adding the fancy map thing, since it no longer really represents my whereabouts! We've picked up enough days to already arrive in Bangkok, and spend a very enjoyable and laisurely time in Laos. We won't be overlanding it to China any more, but will go back to Bangkok and fly to Hong Kong to go home. It's not ideal, but better than wading through mud in northern Loas (app the roads are impassable in the summer you see).

So I left you in a slightly sombre mood in Siem Reap, the base for most forays into the ruined temples and cities of Angkor. Most famously, Angkor Wat, the temple with several peaks and general awe-inspiring picturesqueness is the temple which will come up on Google first, but there are actually scores of them dotted around the countriside, all in different states of decay and accessibility.
There's a reason Angkor Wat is so famous though, and that's because it's by far the best preserved and most breath-taking. Arriving you have to cross the perfectly square moat over a stone causeway, walk through an impressive gate and then down another long stone path to the temple itself. It's really, really huge, and for a long while we just had to stare at it, to really believe we were there. Anyway, we were pretty lucky beacuse we'd missed the main tourist crowds, and as we explored the passages and courtyards it became quieter and quieter. There are three main levels, and to reach the final level which sits beneath the famous conical towers that make the temple so destinctive you have to climb the most hair-raisingly steep steps I've ever seen. The descent was even worse (lots of anxiety for pretty much everyone who had braved the climb up!) but absolutely worth it for the view over the temple grounds and into the jungle. By the time we had climbed down (very, very slowly) we had the 2nd level to ourselves and the slow walk to leave the temple was worth every penny of our $40 3-day pass. We saw so many temples over the three days, some of them like mountains, some like labyrinths. We explored as many nooks and crannys as possible, sometimes finding little Buddha shrines in the most unusual of places, other times finding lots and lots of bats. Our luck with the tour buses (or their absence) continued for the three days, and for the most part we shared each temple with just a few other tourists, making us feel very intrepid indeed, although I doubt Lara Croft or Indiana Jones would have started their explorations by TukTuk.
The carvings of millions of individual nymphs (all with unique expressions and stances), the inscriptions on the walls, the shrines and the overall atmosphere seem barely possible to describe, I don't think photos could even really do it justice. It was most certainly an experience and I feel really priviliged to have been there. If anyone's planning a trip to Thailand, it's really just a hop-skip-and-a-jump, and worth every penny. Check it out here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor

One thing that caught our eyes on the journeys in and out of Siem Reap was a cello recital at a local children's hospital. Intruiged, along we went on Saturday evening, and after the concert started with a white Doctor working in Siem Reap playing a piece on cello, we were shown an Australian-made video about him and his work in Cambodia. To say this guy is.. contraversial.. is something of an understatement. Specifically, he's taking the WHO and UNICEF to court accusing them of 'passive genocide'. Strong words in Cambodia. His name is Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician who has set up and runs 3 hospitals in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Don't get me wrong, the hospitals are nice, and his principles of providing western-quality medicine and health resources in the developing world is good, but completely and utterly unsustainable. He screens children for TB using a CT scanner, which I'm sure we'd love to do on the NHS but it's just such an expensive diagnostic technique to be used for the small increase in pick-ups. In fact, the whole thing functions on charitable donations from his concerts and his position as a medical pseudo-celebrity, something he flatly denied in the film which was really all about him. Despite the fact that I think he's wrong, and flippantly using the word genocide in Cambodia, he claims to run each of his hospitals at $20m a year.. so plenty of food for thought. You can check him out at www.beatocello.com.

So leaving Siem Reap found us on the worst bus yet, which had no baggage hold, so we were up to our ears in bags all the way to the border. In fact, it seems that the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is the only fully paved road in Cambodia, and from Siem Reap to the border was the worst main road I've ever seen. Part mud, part pot-holed dust track, it took us 6 hours to cover the 145km to the border with Thailand. Mark was so uncomfortable in his tiny seat that he had to sit on the window sill with his bum sticking out of the bus for the majority of the journey. We were so dusty when we arrived that we felt coated in a thin layer of brown.

Several stamps more and we'd crossed into Thailand onto the air-conditioned beauty of a coach with upholstered seats and rolled to Bangkok in 4 hours thanks to the stunning road conditions and general relative wealth of the place. I've never seen a border crossing like it. Quite astonishing.

So now I'm on the infamous Khao San Road, complete with its own branch of Boots. Last night we headed to a giant shopping mall to see (the very silly) The Invasion and eat fancy food. Glorious. Well, except for not finding the exit out of the shopping mall for about an hour, which seemed to threaten to incarcerate us for our flagrant capitalism.
Interestingly, everyone in Thailand is wearing yellow. I'm not joking, about 40-60% of the people you'll see in the street are wearing yellow. It's testimony to the Thai enthusiasm for the King, who's 40th anniversary is this year, and is being celebrated by yellow flags and lots and lots of yellow-wearing Thais (complete with the royal arms on the left breast of the t-shirts). At the cinema, it's standard for a film about the King to be played before the feature, and everyone stands up. Lucy, who's been to Thailand before, warned us not to put our thumbs over the King's head on bank notes, as it's extremely rude. In fact, the Thais are extremely friendly and forgiving, but bad-mouthing the monarchy is such a no-no here I think I'd better change the subject.

Lucy's Thai is quite amazing. She came here on holiday 2 years ago, and has retained enough to be able to get us much better bargains than we would have in English! Not bad given that it's a tonal language.

Anyway, I think I've filled you in on everything till now. I'll probably write again from Vientiane or Luang Phabang. How did the time go so fast?!

Until the next time, hope you're all well and good. Loads of love
Sophie

Posted by fuzzbuzz85 04:25 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Western Bound...

Saigon - Phnom Penh

sunny 29 °C

As I was saying...
so the Cu Chi tunnels would have been pretty terrifying, accounting for the bombing and disease of the thousands of inhabitants in the 1.2m high tunnels. In fact 40,000 Vietnamese fighter and civilians perished during the construction and use of the tunnels, which brings me neatly onto a familiar rant about the audacity of certain tourists....
Given that so many perished during the war, at the end of bombs or guns, our jaws dropped when we were offered to have a go a 'shooting a gun', and dropped further when some guys took up the offer to fire some rounds at a haystack near the tunnel. I honestly struggle to understand the mentality of someone who sees something as horrific as the remnants of war who then decides 'hey, I'll go shoot something'. Why!? So we can recreate the sounds of gunfire and pretend we're in 'Nam? Similarly, in Cao Dai some people were praying and this tourist chap with a big camera lens was taking the most invasive pictures, right in their faces, as if their faith and existence was laid on for his particular entertainment. Cao Dai is pretty unusual, to say the least, but we westerners seem to have it in our heads that everything's just there for our amusement.
Anyway, back to the sprawling Saigon for a final night in Vietnam. I liked Vietnam a lot, although the level of state influence really took me aback. I was vaguely expecting the socialist realist propaganda (and really, some of them were real beauties), but the red banners with yellow slogans hung on every street, and over archways leading off the roads were quite unsettling, clearly some sort of party slogan... And the 'public announcement' speakers hung at every corner.. it's quite easy in Vietnam to pretend that you're in any other holiday destination, especially somewhere as touristy as Hoi An. But although Vietnam is economically capitalist, the society is still well and truely under party control. There are no free elections, no freedom of speech, no real free use of the internet. We tried to e-mail pictures to Vietnamese people we met, and all of the e-mails to Vietnamese were returned. Just recently, a young guy was arrested for viewing websites about democracy (I read that through Amnesty). So, a very interesting country to visit, and people were friendly and make fantastic food, but socially it's not unlike it's former cold-war self.

The next day was an early bus to Phnom Penh, a relatively zippy 6 hrs away, including border controls, so not bad. My passport is looking absolutely splendid now, with stamps and visas all over the place! For the tender young age of 22, it's actually quite indulgent, and as we rolled into Cambodia I marvelled at just how lucky I am.
Cambodia is so much poorer than Vietnam. Even on the major road between the two capitals we were treated to sections pot-holed dirt track. The party archways turned into some splendid carved stone ones, just casually positioned at the side of the road. Phnom Penh is remarkably likable, and seemed to crop up out of nowhere after field upon field of paddy fields and flatness. Thursday is Lucy's 21st birthday, so we decided to curtail our stay in PP to spend today (weds) on the bus so that Lucy's birthday could be spent in Angkor Wat, which actually worked to our advantage. Given our late starts and general scattiness, we figured on a rapid 'Phnom Penh on acid'(as Lucy called it), paying 5US to zip us around the sites and see everything. Amazingly, we managed to see the things we wanted to see in one day, but without feeling hurried.

Phnom Penh's attractions, for want of a better word, fall into two categories: beautiful, and gut-wrenchingly miserable. By the former, I'm referring to the Khmer arcitecture of the Royal palace, which is rather 'bling' and extremely photogenic. The latter, of course, refers to the museum and memorial to the events of 75-79, and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Just outside of PP is the Cheong Ek Killing Field memorial, where the skulls of some 8500 victims exhumed from the (tiny) area are displayed in a memorial building. They're just the tip of the iceberg, and throughout the site are clothes and bones poking up through the ground. Signs explain what buildings were situated where, and their purpose as part of what was essentially an execution centre for, well, pretty much anyone. After the Khmer Rouge rolled into town in 75, city dwellers were evacuated en masse to the countriside to realize the ludicrous dream of a completely agrarian society. 'Year Zero' was declared, 'God is dead', and gradually intellectuals, doctors, teachers, foreigners, people who wore glasses were packed off to detention centres, tortured and exectued at sites like Cheong Ek. The madness of the Khmer Rouge regeime defies belief or understanding. Once the slaughter began, even KR officials and combatants themselves were targeted. Interrogators were murdered by their replacements. For four years the country turned into an anarchic nightmare of starvation and murder, and surprise surprise, nothing was done about it. In fact, after the regeime was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese, the US, UK and Thailand actually supported the KR in hiding. The US re-equipped them, the Thais provided them land and protection and the KR received SAS training courtesy of Her Majesty's Government, despite the fact that the KR perpetrated one of the worst genocides of the last century, if not ever. Aside from all that, in the grips of the cold war, what amazes me the most is the subject's absence from the UK history curriculum. I thought I'd studied modern world history, yet a genocide just before the beginning of my own existence seems to not be considered important enough to teach. How offensive, that after arming and training the KR, we can't even include the murder of nearly 3m people in the education of our own citizens.
Tuol Sleng, the interrogation centre, was just as depressing. Although such places are not enjoyable to visit, it feels more like one should and despite their misery I'm glad I did.

Onto more cheerful topics, we've taken another super-short 6hr bus to Siem Reap this morning, and have bagged a rather good bargain at 7US for a triple room (no a/c though, nice). Tomorrow we'll be heading off to check out the ruins at Angkor Wat,and the surrounding temples, which will take about 3 days in total. Yum yum. It's nice to be stationary for a little while, at least.
Anyway, since I've brought you up to right now, I might head off and find myself some much.
Hope everyone's well,
lots of love
S

Posted by fuzzbuzz85 03:49 Archived in Cambodia Tagged educational Comments (0)

A terrible cooking lesson and some spectacular propaganda...

Hue - Hoi An - Saigon - Phnom Penh

semi-overcast 30 °C


It's been a fair while since my last post, and so there's plenty to catch up on! My last update was way back in Hue, which from Phnom Penh seems a long long time ago!
Hue
The next day in Hue we took a tour around the surrounding area, including one of the many imperial tombs the area is well known for, and also some of the less visited (and cheaper!) sites too. The tomb was built for emporer Tu Duc in the 19th century, although seems much older. The whole thing is in remarkably good nick, and there was so much to explore it felt like we could have spent all day there. Essentially, the tomb site was for burial purposes, and also for something like an alternative living area during the Emporer's life- I'm not sure how much I'd like hanging around where i was to be buried but there we are. The tombs also accommodated the Emporer's 186 wives and for his concubines - it's a wonder he got any Emporer-ing done at all with all that going on but there we are.
Anyway, another of the stops was a vantage point on a hill used as a checkpoint by both the French and Americans. Our guide let us take a few pictures, then told us a potted history of Vietnam, as well as his own story (which isn't the propaganda I refer to in the title, that comes later!). He had served in the South Vietnam Army as an officer towards the end of the war, and had been packed off to a 're-education camp' after Saigon fell to the North. After 2 and a half years he was finally let out, but has never been allowed to work in state jobs so spent time farming, working as a cyclo driver and finally a tour guide. Even his son isn't allowed to work. All of this in stark contrast to the billboard-sized propaganda that decorates the road-sides depicting happy Vietnamese united under a loving, paternal 'Uncle Ho'. Actually, the blatant propaganda is what has surprised me most about Vietnam. Before I went I thought that flags with sickle and hammers, and propaganda and a very biased official interpretation of history were all stereotypes.. but not so, these things are alive and kicking in Vietnam, even today.

Hoi An
Our next stop, Hoi An, turned out to be extremely leisurely, and quite a break from the rest of the trip thus far. In fact, we had something of an ulterior motive to spend as much time there as we did in the form of some fantastic tailored suits made by a very flamboyant Mr Xe. Of the three of us, Mark was the most tempted, and is now hauling around an evening suit, a business suit, a waist coat, a pair of smart shoes, several ties and 5 shirts (one of which Mr Xe made for free, I think just because he liked Mark!). Lucy and I can't be too scathing however, we also had a few things made, but for the price we paid, it would have been rude not to...
So whilst we waited for our stuff to be made we wandered around Hoi An, swam a bit and drank beer for 3000 d (10p, glorious!). Then we spotted that our hotel ran cookery courses, so we though 'hey there's a good idea', and for 5 hours the next morning endured the worst rip off I'd ever seen. Essentially, the morning catching our own fish, learning about vietnamese vegetables at a market and cooking vietnamese food turned into about 10 minutes sat in a boat, watching someone buy some vegetables in a market for about 5 minutes (all in Vietnamese) and chopping a carrot. We were unimpressed, and managed through a 3 pronged middle class tactical complaining strike to get half the cost knocked off. Oh well, these things do happen I suppose.

Saigon
We departed Hoi An one bag-load heavier each (planning to store them in Bangkok while we go to Laos, so not too long to haul them) on a monster 26.5 hr bus ride to Saigon. It was awful. 26.5 hours is a sorrowful experience, and after we had finally arrived and gone to sleep I woke up with a horrible leg cramp, the kind I hadn't experienced since I was a teenager. We recovered pretty quickly though, and the next morning trotted off to visit the Ho Chi Minh City (as it has been called since 1975) museum, and the reunification palace. It was here that we marvelled at the party propaganda, with most accounts written to include things like 'American Imperialists', and 'Japanese Fascists' (referring to the occupation during WWII). Oh and 'puppet regeime' and so on. The same continued at the Reunification Palace which has been maintained as it was when the president of the South ruled from there until the end of the war so it's all like a very retro James Bond set, especially the bunker in the basement with lots of old radio equipment and telephones and typewriters. In the room entitled 'war room', decorated with maps, I couldn't resist punching Mark on the shoulder, just so I could say I fought in the war room (that's a Dr Strangelove in-joke by the way, if anyone hasn't seen it!). Our guide recited a party-tilted script all the way through, and the video at the end also treated us to some splendid party music (the only words I could make out were 'Vietnam Ho Chi Minh') which sounded like it had been written by a committee.
The next day we went to the Holy See of Cao Daism, which I can't even begin to explain, so I'll leave it to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Dai, and also the Cu Chi tunnels, a preserved, claustrophobic hideout of the Viet Cong. We had a little scramble around in the tunnels which actually span 200km in length, and are 3 stories deep including hospitals and sleeping quarters. When you're down there with a few friends and a torch, it's quite fun to explore tunnels on hands and feet, but when B52s are bombing up above (the craters are still visible) and there are thousands of other people down there, I imagine the experience would have been somewhat different.
Yikes, got to dash as the net place is closing, but will report more soon!

Posted by fuzzbuzz85 07:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Descending Dragon

Hanoi - Ha Long Bay

semi-overcast 28 °C
View =>[Lost in Asia]<= on fuzzbuzz85's travel map.

So here are more adventures up to now...

On Monday night, we decided to check out the Vietnamese Jazz scene at Minh's Jazz Club in the old quarter. Minh himself (not to be confused with Ho Chi Minh, who's different) learned guitar at 13, then played in the army band before hearing Jazz during the Vietnam war.. and then it was his dream to set up a Jazz club, which seems to be the only one in Hanoi. It's got the classic Jazz club setup, and looks a little like some Chicago gangsters should be holed up in a corner, except in downtown Hanoi. The Jazz itself was actually not too bad, although a little out of time in places the sheer enjoyment of the musicians more than made up for it! We treated ourselves to a few Singapore slings and sat back feeling rather pleased with ourselves (we had found this fantastic beefsteak place down an alleyway earlier, that fed us steak frites, bread and beer for about 2 quid each, or something silly like that).
The next day we had decided on a slightly more active day of sightseeing, but the singapore slings made our start slightly later than we had expected. Lucy and Mark are now much better at crossing roads, although I still instinctively plant my feet to the ground so Lucy has to rescue me and tell me when to cross. It's like I'm 5 again! We stopped for a fantastic lunch, which again was remarkably cheap and yummy. We feasted on the very typical Vietnamese Pho, or noodle soup with beef, lots of vegetables, and served with chillies, bean sprouts, a variety of green things and lime to juice and throw in for good measure. All for 30,000 dong, or $2. Fab.
We started our sightseeing at the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university, which was built 200 years before either Oxford or Cambridge (whichever one came first!). Three levels of examinations were held, and were concerned with pre-Confuscian literature and poetry. The hardest exam, and the highest standard was held by the King, who would question the candidates himself. The names, grades and towns of origin of the graduates are recorded on large slabs of stone mounted on the back of stone turtles (which make our poxy little degree certificates look a little flimsy in comparison I must say). 82 of these 'stelae' survive, and show the details of 1032 successful candidates, and it's amazing to see them even today.
By now rather sweaty, we paused for a large bottle of water at the temple, when we were joined by a Vietnamese student about our age called Tony who wanted to practise his English. Even though he lives 10k outside Hanoi, he goes to tourist areas for 2 hours every day to practise his frankly excellent English. We chatted about our courses and things, and he brough out a little notebook where he had asked other westerners to write him messages, all neatly numbered and dated. In return, he wrote in my diary too. As we left to make our way to our next stop we marvelled at how dedicated he is, and how rubbish we British are at learning languages.

After that it rained. We stepped out of the temple, and the Vietnamese were scattering for shelter as the skies opened. Being British, we doggedly tried to pretend that it was just rain, and not anything to hide from, but within thirty seconds we were completely and utterly drenched from head to toe. Dashing across the road, we optimistically sought refuge under a tree by a government building guarded by a soldier in a sentry box. Behind a low fence near the wall of the building, three Vietnamese women were taking shelter under an umbrella stand, ignoring the soldier's agitated gestures to move on. Eventually, he dashed out into the rain, and closed the umbrella, forcing the women to move on. At this point, still getting soaked so did we. Passing a low tarpaulin some more locals beckoned us to join them, and with lots of jokey sign language we waited for the rain to pass.

When it did, we were pretty near our destination, the main parade ground and Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, heralded with what looked like it might be a christmas light strung high above the road. As we drew nearer, it turned out to be a hammer and sickle. Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is huge (bigger than Lenin's, according to Mark), and guarded by soldiers who angrily blow whistles if you cross the white line surrounding the perimeter. We watched a short changing of the guard ceremony, then gave up on getting our soggy selves anywhere else and caught a cab back to the hostel. It was then that we became aware of a public announcement system with speakers at each street corner crackling into life at rush hour. We asked our hotel manager what it was saying, and she hesitated before telling us 'um.. news, information, social stuff'... Very strange.

That night, we returned to our yummy atmospheric street stall, and the owner recognised us but still looked bewildered as to why we were there. Surely the first time we must have been lost, but to come back? Very strange.

The next day we headed off early (PA system was on again at 8am..) to Ha Long bay, (as featured in a bond movie, but I can't remember which one), which means 'descending dragon'. Dragons feature pretty heavily in Vietnamese mythology, along with unicorns, phoenixes and turtles, and in one of the caves we saw our guide pointed out these creatures in the rock formations, although I couldn't see it really. The bay consists of nearly 200 karst islands looming out of the sea, all covered in luscious foliage. We spent a night on a boat touring them, and had a rather amusing session kayaking and swimming (perfect water temperature, hurrah). After the madness of Hanoi, it was a welcome break, although I couldn't use my camera as my memory card is full from Hong Kong and Hanoi and for some reason the pictures won't upload onto computer, which is pretty sad because it's stunning. Lucy and Mark got some fantastic photos though, so I'll be able to use them instead.

On Thursday night we went back again to our lovely street stall, this time welcomed like old friends, complete with hilarious photos of us all (looking rather sweaty). Friday was occupied by pottering and museums and stuff, and we caught the world's most horrid bus down to Hue. I don't know why it was horrid, and we've all done some really heavy duty journies before, but it was one of the most horrid I've experienced all the same! Oh well, we're here, and arrived in Hue this morning.

Hue was originally the seat of power in Vietnam before the French interfered and things started to go crazy in the 20th century. You may also have heard of it during the Tet Offensive, where the Viet Cong holed up in the city and the ensuing bombardment pretty much levelled it. To say that this is a shame is something of an understatement. Some of the royal buildings remain, but the old citadel is nothing compared to what it used to be. We had a pleasant couple of hours pottering around and admiring the 'purple forbidden city', before more street food on a dusty street behind the city walls. After that, feeling quite wiped out, we thought we'd relax at the neighbouring pool hall, so we wandered in and got a table. Our fellow players looked pretty bemused - it was obviously not somewhere frequented by the likes of us - but their bemusement was nothing compared to ours when we were given three gloves and three balls.
"What should we do?!"
"I dunno, hit it in the pockets"
"There are no pockets!!"
By now having attracted the stares of every other customer, we decided to try and look like we knew what we were doing, so half heartedly knocked the balls around the pocketless table and writing random scores on our little whiteboard. I think it was pretty obvious that we had no idea what we were supposed to do! Eventually, after a long and embarassing 5 minutes somebody suggested we swallow our pride and quietly leave, paying 5000 dong (16p) on the way out. I can imagine the whole place erupted with laughter after we left, but we were pretty amused too so it worked out ok for everyone!

And that pretty much brings me up to date, so I'll scoot and write more when more happens.
Hope you're all well (please feel free to show other people and please leave comments or e-mail me!!)

Much love to all
S

Posted by fuzzbuzz85 10.08.2007 04:32 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

The day the circus came to town...

Hong Kong -> South China -> Vietnam

semi-overcast 30 °C
View =>[Lost in Asia]<= on fuzzbuzz85's travel map.

So we've finally made it to Hanoi and it's very, very sweaty. It's barely possible to explain how sweaty, but lets just say that I haven't been dry since I arrived. It's been quite the journey here - by bus, plane, train, tuk tuk, taxi, metro and foot - and we did it in record time.

Our flight took us to Hong Kong, a long journey but worth every tedious second for the veiw of the bay when we landed. For tight students such as ourselves, there was only one real option for accommodation, the enormous Chungking Mansions. Comprised of about 5 towerblocks, each with about 15 floors connected by 2 lifts (one for the even floors, one for the odd ones.. of course) and a pair of filthy, sordid stairwells. We were shown the way to our guesthouse by the manager Mr Jonny, who sold us a cramped triple room with air con and rather amusing tv for a few quid a night. Perfect.

It turns out that Hong Kong is pretty pricey... to be exact, it's one of the world's priciest places to live, so the obvious place to begin our monster budget adventure into asia. All the same, the city offers plenty to do on the cheap - the island itself is a photographer's playground of skyscrapers, the park, the zoological gardens and of course the view from Victoria Peak. The latter in itself is an adventure into the heart of a carnival of capitalism. At the peak, accessible by a very pricey tram (we got a taxi, the queue was about half a mile long), you have to ascend about six floors of shopping mall to get to the viewing station before battling hordes of snapping tourists to get your own picture.. heaven forbid anyone actually quietly enjoy the view. That aside, the view is jaw dropping, and its title of one the world's greatest cityscapes is well earned. With so much to look at, it's a sight you could gaze at for hours and still be fascinated. We had only seconds at a time between jabs and pushes from our photographer comrades. Mark, having seen all this before, had attempted to find a more private view, following a route he had taken in the daytime 3 years ago.. which lead to an hour's sweaty hike into the now darkened hills only to find a view overlooking the other side of the island. Good exercise I suppose!

The next day we went to China, which really was as easy as it sounds. We were guided through the border formalities by helpful signposts that were translated into English - "no refluence", "no lingering" and "no U-turns". Having saved time by avoiding all that refluence we usually do at borders, we arrived into China, by this point rather hungry. Feeling rather pressed for time, we ran a gauntlet of delicious looking noodle stalls to head for the tickets, and boarded the train to Guangzou (pronounced Guang jow, I think). Our next move was to take a train to Nanning, further into the south of China, but this was not to be - the only option available to us would be to stand for 13 hours overnight in a carriage of pigs, which wasn't really an option at all (although Mark seemed quite keen on the idea!). After an episode on the metro, we managed to get ourselves pretty cheap tickets on an overnight bus instead, and settled into Guangzou bus station for the 4 hour wait. We were now ravenous, and had no choice but to brave the bus station canteen. The chinese have a very waste-not-want-not attitude to meat, which is unfortunate, since we were treated to all kinds of greasy chicken claws and the like. I didn't eat much. It was then that we realised that we were not only the only westerners there, but probably only members of a very small group of westerners who had ever been there. Our every move was fascinating. On our occassional ventures outside to pass the time, people would just stop and stare at us in a bewildered mix of awe, horror and amusement!

Anyway, we got the bus, and my oh my what a bus it was. I used to worship the south american camabus, but no longer. These busses have real beds in tiny little compartments, complete with blankets and pillows and air con. The only person on board who was less than amused was Mark, who sizes up to 6'4, and looked a little cramped. From Nanning, another bus to Pingxiang, a rather exciting moment when we wondered whether Lucy's pronounciation of where we wanted to go would actually have sent us in another direction all together. At Pingxiang the fun really started, with a 30 minute ride in what would generously be called a tuk tuk, but should really be called a big, big mistake. The three of us were housed in a tiny little container, comprising of a metal floor and seats and a canvas awning, which was in turn positioned precariously on top of the back of a motorbike, supported by a pair of feeble wheels for good measure. As we started off, it occurred to us that all the other tuktuks had only one passenger. Ours had three, including Mark and 3 large bags. Over our shouts of terror we could hear the friendly driver howling with laughter, and the vibration numbed our feet as the little tuktuk struggled up hills and zipped down them in neutral. Out of the back of the tuktuk minibusses sped past us, and everyone in them was laughing at us, and I guess I can see why!

Still with all our limbs intact and attached to the right parts of our bodies, we crossed into Vietnam, exactly 24 hours after we left Hong Kong. It was another bus ride to Hanoi, and here we are.

When the guidebook said that Hanoi is relatively laid back, it lied. Old Hanoi is like walking down the main corridor at school, but with motorbikes. The pavements are used as motorbike parking, the kitchen, shops, dining room and bar so it's impossible to walk in a straight line down the street - instead it's a case of dodging on and off the pavement in the hope that no-one hits you. Mark has mastered road crossing faster than Lucy and I. This skill involves marching into oncoming traffic and hope that the oncoming motorbikes don't hit you. Mark insists that if you keep going at the same speed the bikes will zip around you, which to me still seems unlikely, in the face of speeding Vietnamese! Each street in the old town is devoted to selling a certain kind of product. There's a street for toys, a street for bags and so on. By now desperate for a good meal, we headed to the street food area, and sat on tiny little stools at a little plastic table and enjoyed a mound of beautifully flavoured noodles, beef and veg. Again, most of the locals found our presence quite entertaining, but with the beer costing 4000 dong (25p) and the whole meal a pound each, I'm quite happy to provide the evening's entertainment!

Hope everyone's well, and that the British weather hasn't degenerated again!
Love etc from a rather warm Sophie

Posted by fuzzbuzz85 06.08.2007 02:37 Tagged transportation Comments (0)

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