Monday, 20 August 2007

From One Special Administrative Region to Another

Hong Kong's status as a Special Administrative Region, a condition of the hand back from the UK, is not unique in China. We would be leaving Hong Kong on a Turbo Cat Ferry to the Island of Macau. Macau was formerly owned by Portugal and enjoyed several centuries of colonial rule resulting in a very visible heritage of beautiful buildings and patisseries. Macau only returned to Chinese ownership in 1999. Portugal had actually tried to hand it back to the Chinese in the 1970's but faced with a lot of problems at home at the time, China couldn't afford the resources to rid the island of it's gambling and organised crime. It would have been an embarrassment to the communist state to have let things be so it simply said no and left the problem with Portugal.
Today, the gangs have gone, but the Casinos which are the Lynch-Pin of the island's economy are very much still here and are still getting thrown up in ever bigger and brighter fits of decadence. As such, Macau is another Special Administrative Region so that the Gambling can still be allowed with out embarrassment to the State - it's heritage you see.

We stayed in the old quarter. A maze of back alleys with bakers and butchers and strings of lanterns and flags overhead. While the men throw all their money in the cards, the ladies (those who aren't doing the same) pop down here and buy boxes of cakes and treats to take home as souvenirs. The whole quarter has a sweet smell that permeates across the streets and down the lanes. The problem is, even most of the buns have meat in them.

The architecture is really authentic colonial. Pastel colours of yellow, blue and pink adorn the walls, punctuated with white lined windows and doorways. Cobbled roads and street names beginning 'Rue De...', big arches and staircases and lots and lots of churches. You could walk through here and truly believe you were in Europe if it wasn't for all the massive signs covered in Chinese characters. Much to our delight, they understood how coffee should be served, and though it wasn't particularly cheap, proper fresh coffee flowed in an abundance beaten only by the fountains.

We spent most of our time just soaking up the atmosphere and walking around town and up into the posh residential areas with their big fancy mansions complete with guards standing at attention. They all compete with each other to see who can place the biggest and most obvious cctv camera on the side of their houses too. We stuck our head in a couple of casinos one night too but it seemed unusually quiet, given it was a Saturday night. The tables were probably only 20% full and the little cabaret show on the stage behind the bar looked rather neglected by the punters too. This was the big shiny new Casino, which was in fact only half built, the hotel bit still getting placed on the top of it, in the shape of a giant (and I mean massive) pineapple. We thought that might be the very reason it was so empty but a quick visit to the older more established place next door revealed an even more desperate situation.

In total we had three days in Macau and had a very relaxing time, spending any money we could have gambled on coffee, deciding that was our safest bet we could make. Another hour and a quarter back to Hong Kong, to be processed back through immigration and then make our way to the train station to be processed back out again and we were on our next sleeper train for a 20 hour trip to Shanghai. Then we really would be in China proper.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Hong Kong

Not since my first day in New Zealand when I would meet Nic's Dad and Brother, had I had more trepidation stepping off a plane - this was China we were stepping into. The first unusual thing we had to do was walk past a scanner that detects your body temperature, through a heat sensing camera. If you're not green and yellow on the screen then you're probably green and yellow in the flesh and there's no getting through. After immigration we collected our bags and funnelled through a corridor before entering the vast cavern that is Hong Kong's shiny new airport. In that corridor was a little information counter with a very friendly girl who told us exactly how to get the cheapest train ticket to our station for the hotel, wrote our hotel out in Chinese so we could give that to a taxi driver too and then even wrote on another piece of paper in Chinese 'I am vegetarian'. This now crumpled comfort has saved us in many moments of difficulty.

Our hotel was decent enough, but so it should have been considering it is the most expensive place we have paid for yet. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China and as such we granted it a special administrative budget while we were here, otherwise we just couldn't have done it. We were here for three reasons. 1. To see it, 2. Because it was a good place to arrange our Chinese Visas, and 3. Disneyland Hong Kong!!!!!!

Through a tangled series of events surrounding me asking for butter, we had left the plane with two United Airline dishes in our bags and these proved invaluable when we bought a box of Muesli and also some fruit, chocolate, milk and juice from the shop downstairs. Combined with the teaspoons in the room, and the fridge, kettle and coffee sachets, we had everything we needed for making our own breakfasts as we looked out over the gigantic container ship port outside our windows. We were on the 30th floor with a fab view over the port and back across the bay to the iconic skyline beyond. Our hotel was not in a central position, it was in fact in the centre of a suburb on Tsing Yi island - a public bus and an underground away from the action but we kind of liked that to be honest. There was a charm about waiting for and then riding a small bus with everyone going to or coming back from work. It gave us that little bit of insight into life here, after all, it's not like we're on holiday. We could see in the windows of the apartment blocks behind our hotel and the size of the apartments is tiny. It's amazing that such a tightly packed population, with such cramped living conditions is as friendly and civil as they are. We wondered how these characteristics would continue when we entered the mainland.

The mainland was a visa and a week away yet though, and while the government scrutinised our papers (which happened to be a little vague regarding professions) we had a city to play in. This didn't mean too much walking though, at least not if you happened to be heading in the direction of Escalator Street, where for 17 minutes we rode a series escalators up the street from the bottom of the hill to the top. The escalators change direction at different times of the day to suit the commuters. We also went to the space museum which was utterly dreadful. The artifacts were all mock-ups, including a laughable space suit that wouldn't win a fancy dress competition, and the odd interactive demonstration was either in bits or did it's own thing regardless of your frantic button pressing. The only exhibit worthy of place was an HK flag that had been to space and back, a bit of a tenuous exhibit to build an entire museum around. Still, it was fun enough, not too expensive and we watched an omnimax 360. presentation about space that was pretty cool. Hong Kong has a light show every night which fires lasers and spotlights into the sky and quite impressively, all the buildings that form the skyline, flash on and off and twinkle together, synchronous to music and fireworks. We watched that and then wandered along HK's version of Hollywood's Avenue of Stars, where people clambered over each other to put their hands in the imprints of Jackie Chan and his fellow artisans. We found a beer festival by accident one night on a back road and had a good time sampling the exotic European ales and barbecued food. Also enjoying the scene was a boat load of US Navy guys on a bit of shore leave. We left before things turned unpleasant, but there was reason to suspect the fun might have wrapped up an hour or so after we left. Then the following day it was up bright and early, a bit of breakfast, a bus, the underground and then change onto another underground train with a bit of a difference. This train had plush seats with little golden statuettes in display cases, and its windows were an unusual shape, that matched the shape of the handles for standing passengers. The shape resembled the silhouette of a familiar cartoon mouse's head and ears. We were on the Mickey train heading to Disney.

Disney HK was great fun. For the hard-core theme park goers it's going to disappoint but for a day's departure from our travels it was great. In size and intensity it was like a two thirds scale replica of Florida Disney but in terms of crowd excitement it was right up there. We arrived half an hour early but were by no means the first there. We were allowed in straight away but along with the rest of the crowds were kept within the main street USA precinct where the shops are until a cordon was dropped at 10 o'clock and the craziest all-or-nothing rush ensued as little girls competed with familiar Navy marines to be the first on the roller coasters or to shake hands with Pluto.

Disney was not the most surreal experience we had in Hong Kong. The conference centre was playing host to the 2007 world Toys Expo. We went along to see what this Christmas' must-have was going to be. With the exception of Lego however, there were no other stalls that anyone in the west would recognise. Instead it was all Manga cartoons and ninja robots and very Japanesesque such likes. Amid the mele were hundreds of kids dressed up as their favourite sword waving, laser touting, kitty eared, big Haired, big booted, short skirted characters, all posing and taking photos of each other - it was mad.

Goodbye S.E Asia, Hello China

As our plane flew out of Ho Chi Min city towards Hong Kong early in the morning, laden with more prams than any other plane in history, we bade farewell to part 2 of our 4 part trip. America and New Zealand seemed like a year ago already and now S.E Asia was also officially finished. Part 3, being China was now only a few hours away. China has always been the part of our trip we had the most trepidation about, the place where we had the least expectations and knew the least about.

We reflected upon our last five months, stepping out of Jakarta airport facing our first army of touts, our cheapest room ever in Jogjakarta with a hose for a shower - a world away from the Ritz Carlton KL, getting stranded in the middle of the night at a junction on Bali, lying ill in bed in Singapore and so forth through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam with the unscheduled addition of Cambodia and learning to dive. It had been Jam-Packed and we covered enough ground to have made a year's trip out of it alone.

It was interesting to watch subtle changes across the continent as we made our way north. The staple Indonesian dish Nasi Goring, consisting of fried rice and vegies, a bit of meat stirred in too with a fried egg on top and a couple of satay skewers transformed at a consistent rate, first losing it's skewers and finishing up in Vietnam as a plate of plain rice with a scattering of green in the middle, Cameron Highlands seeing the last authentic plateful really. The driving standards remained fairly consistent across the board and the continental record of 4.7 million roads injuries every year, including 75,000 deaths stands testament to the lack of standards. In Thailand for example the driving test consists of a successfully filled out application form - the end! It's probably the same else where. The award for the scariest streets went to Surabaya. It wouldn't be possible to say that the people of any one country were nicer than any other, they were all uniformly nice and helpful, though the North Vietnamese definitely scored a black mark. The novelty of being white ended shortly after Indonesia with fewer people wanting to take our photos. Against expectation, the award to the country with the best English goes to Cambodia, where we were taken aback several times by their grasp of not only the language but international politics - testament to the benefits of international cable TV.

We also wondered how much we had forgotten already - you don't think this blog is for your benefit do you? That was all behind us now though. The future is bright, the future is red.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Lost in the City and Lost Underground

The sleeper train had delivered us safely to HCMC train station. All we had to do now was get to the hotel. Nic has been our default hotel booker but this time it was my shot to show that I can do it too. I had picked a hotel online and made the reservation in Hue for it so there was nothing to worry about until we realised I hadn't written any of the important information down. I say important, I hadn't actually written anything down. What with the train and all and the general passing of time, I couldn't even remember the hotel's name or the street name. This was the situation as we stepped out into the sun and the army of Taxi touts trying to take us to a hotel. In the end, we had to just pull out our tired and trusted S.E Asia guidebook, now in it's last country, in fact last city, and pick a hotel out of the hat to ask a taxi to take us to. We hoped that where there was one hotel we would find others and maybe work out a new deal where ever we ended up. There was an army of touts trying to get us to jump in their cars but we avoided them for two reasons, first they would have taken us to their cousin's hotel in the middle of no-where which needs guests and second, the fare they quoted for our chosen pick was twice what the book suggested it should be, and that was after we had bargained it down from the ridiculous. In the end we found a metred cab making no effort to get customers further down the road and got taken to where he thought our new hotel was. The price came in bang on the quote though he had dropped us off outside someone's house, having gotten confused and hoping we would just pay and get out so he wouldn't have to deal with the language difficulty. We were happy to oblige despite knowing all this, because two minutes walk back up the road was the very hotel I had booked. Nic spotting it after I had remembered it's name in the car, round about the time a big white tourist decided he had had enough of Vietnam and stood in the middle of the pedestrian crossing shouting and gesturing to all the cars who were responding as you might expect.

Our hotel was expecting us and showed us to our room, however we had passed several others on the stretch of road and realised it's rate was a little high. A check of the room and we were decided that it was not good value. We made our apologies and checked into a different place just up the road. By fault rather than successful design we had plonked ourselves in the centre of backpacker HCMC and were delighted with our result.

One of our first places of 'interest' that we fell into was a massive electrics department store which was utterly mobbed with music blaring and crowds shoving. We let ourselves get caught up in the flow and took a tour of the digital cameras, PCs, Air Con Units and Tumble Dryers before being spat out at the bottom again with a ringing in our ears and a wobble under our feet. These people go mad for store openings.

HCMC was already revealing itself to be quite different from Hanoi and we were pleased to discover this. The roads were wide, much cleaner and people actually treated us just like anyone else. It just felt like we all had a little bit more air to breath and the effects were obvious.

We didn't have a lot of time to spend in HCMC so there wasn't a lot of sights we could fit in. One attraction that we did make the time for though was the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a complex about 2 hours out of the city on a tour bus. The Cu Chi Tunnels are where the Viet-Cong hid out in resistance to the occupying US forces during the war. The tunnels lay under a major artery linking HCMC to Laos and this was a route used by the US to bring supplies into the city. The deliveries of food and weapons were often ambushed and taken by the underground movement. There are hundreds of miles of tunnels, all just shy of 4 feet high and about 2 feet wide, and there are three levels which form a dizzying network linking villages and armed posts. It proved unbeatable by the Americans and our very proud guide wasted no opportunity to stamp Vietnam's supremacy over the defeated American's weaknesses. First we watched a particularly dull propaganda video, twice, and then got taken on a tour of a re-created village. In the village they showed us the make shift Kitchens used by the Vietnamese, these like their other buildings were big square holes in the ground with rattan apexes placed over the top. Next we were shown the traps that they laid which were particularly unpleasant, usually resulting in someone becoming impaled on bamboo spikes by one method or another. It was all quite unpleasant but fascinating all the same. I wondered how an American might consider the tour as it was so skewed against them, and proud in its insistence the soldiers deserved such torturous deaths, still refusing to accept any complicity between the US and a fair proportion of Vietnam. Just as we were thinking that we weren't going to get to go down any tunnels, our guide led us to an entrance and said we could go down, and either come out the first or second exit. We duly launched ourselves down the murky tunnel which was lit by the odd little bulb in places but was pitch dark in others, passing connecting tunnels as we went. It was like a giant mole tunnel, being dug straight through the earth with no lining or treatment to the walls. Our enthusiasm got the better of us and we missed the second stop, or rather saw another exit just a bit further on and saw no harm in going to that one. It was great that we did because it was much more exciting with big steps to jump down inside the tunnel, leading us to the second level. We reached the source of daylight and popped out blinking having decided we'd better not go on to the fourth exit. We found four other people from our tour, also Scots and wandered back to the meeting point to discover that everyone else had already run through the tunnel and out (didn't we all come here to spend time in them?) and had now gone somewhere else with the guide. We got quite lost trying to find them but we did find another couple of even cooler tunnels which we took full advantage of and scrambled through. We then noticed that the time table of the day said we were supposed to arrive back in HCMC, 2 hours away, in 30 minutes - and these tours never give you extra free time. With a more alert sense of urgency we found our way out of the village only to meet our very panicky guide who was heading back in for the third time to find us. We boarded our bus which was full of very hot and unhappy people who had spent the best part of an hour sitting waiting for us and we sat quietly staring at our feet for the journey home.

That evening, over dinner, I pondered what the chances were that the four people who got lost were all Scots. Was it some genetic deficiency in our sense of direction (I had always thought mine rather good)? Did we unconsciously club together into a little subterranean clan? Was it just chance? Just as I thought we would never know, Nic reckoned she had the answer - it was just another case of the Scots trying to ring every last penny worth out of the experience.

The Vietnamese Sleeper Train Service

We are no longer strangers to the concept of sleeper trains. They have become our friends, turning an intolerable journey into a fun night's camping with mildly alarming food thrown into to spice up the night. Since our first sleeper out of Singapore and into Malaysia, we have become accustomed to the 2nd class refinement of this survivor from a nostalgic age. The typical arrangement is that we will have a bottom and top bed bunk, with the beds running in the same direction as the carriage, meaning that the aisle runs down the middle separating four sleeper's whose head's in turn are separated from the next person's feet by a robust partition. Each carriage probably holding about 50 beds or so. Food is delivered to you based on you choice from the lamenated menu given to you by the jolly carriage attendant who also looks after beer orders, carriage arrangements and cleaning the toilet. The food tends to be served before the toilets demand her attention which is probably just as well and yet also somehow linked. The food is generally not bad, and adequate in its proportions.

The beds have little curtains which once pulled over afford as much privacy as you require, though for those on the top bunk, it's not quite enough to keep out the light from the fluorescent tube just outside. The lights get turned off at a reasonable hour but get turned back on at a ridiculously early hour sometimes accompanied by music to make sure no-one misses breakfast or the view for the next 5 hours of trip still ahead. If you're on the bottom bed, once awake you can turn your bed into two facing chairs with a table in the middle and wait for your slumbering partner upstairs to climb down and join you. The chairs are nice and wide, and a bit square meaning you can find a range of comfortable positions to sprawl across them in, with only the window to one side of you and the aisle to the other, it feels like a 1970's business class seat ripped out of an old plane. If you are in the top bunk and wake up first, you have a bit of a rough deal because you can't get a seat to sit on and you have no window to look out of. The general arrangement is that Nic gets the top bunk because I tend to wake up earlier while she sleeps on through the Thai Top 40 and other classic hits.

Our Vietnamese sleeper was not quite up to spec. The pictures used in all the advertising, and on our ticket, depicted a super streamlined futuristic shiny train, full of very satisfied customers who wanted for nothing. Ours was about as streamlined as a box. We had booked ourselves on the best class available (we had applied the Vietnam filter to the pictures) which was called 'soft class', the next being 'hard class'. This meant we had the luxury of a wipe down mattress with a dirty sheet hanging half off it. We had a berth this time too, so the beds went across the carriage, resulting in the people on the top bunk clinging for dear life every time the train made a change in speed. We had a little table that we could have used except it was covered in stuck on egg shell and the half emptied plastic bottle probably belonged to one of the people who had clearly had our cabin before us. There were four beds in the berth and we shared the room with two Danes who had just come from China. There was no curtains this time so we all had to sleep in our clothes which was just as well because the people on the top bunk narrowly avoided hypothermia due to an overactive AC vent. We also had a blaring Tannoy above our heads which every time the guard spoke, sounded as though we had Davros leader of the Daleks for a driver. Food was in the form of a pot noodle thrown at us, and just as we were starting to think you had to eat the thing dry, a grumpy trolley pusher came along with warm water.

We didn't have the worst deal by a long run though. I took a little wander and found the hard sleeper carriages which stack 'em 3 beds high a with a rattan mat to lie on, beyond that was the seated carriages which looked like some form of torture. Back in our happy little back packer freezer though things were quite amiable, everybody trying to avoid going to the toilet until absolutely necessary, for reason that don't need to be described in detail. I did have to get up once during the night though and had the obstacle course of a dozen people sleeping flat on their backs in our aisle to deal with before reaching the door at the end. The next challenge was to open this door, back in towards myself, with one foot between a man's groin, the other hovering in the air, one hand for support against the wall and my other hand clutching the door handle. Upon opening the door, I could only open it as far as the head of the same man allowed, though he had done me a favour by sleeping with his neck contorted at a most alarming angle which allowed the door an extra couple of inches ajar, and just enough to bend my hovering foot around before hop scotching through and towards relief.

The following day we arrived in Ho-Chi-Min city, a little mal-nourished but not too much the worse for ware, ready to face the touts and find our hotel.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

We head South

After several hours delay and a couple of free cans of Coke we found ourselves on the last bus of the night from Hue (pronounced: way) airport into town. It was about 22:45 and there were a few back-packers on the bus. We couldn't help but over hear as a Scandinavian group were chatting with a hotelier who had just packed his eldest on a plane to uni, teary Mum by his side. In their jovial conversation they apologised for not coming with him to his hotel but they already had a booking elsewhere. He waved his hand and smiled as he told them that he couldn't have put them up anyway, his hotel like every other one in town was fully booked. This wasn't what we wanted to hear, given that we had planned to arrive in town and find something when we got there, expecting this to have been tea-time.

We quickly butted into the conversation and the chap phoned his first hotel and then his second and managed to find something for us. It was basically the room that they don't rent except in emergencies but to be honest it wasn't too bad. The bathroom didn't have a ceiling, or very much hot water but it was great considering our earlier terror. In the end we stayed a second night having moved to a better room but the third day we had to shift out because it was full again, a trip across the road solved this problem though.

It was while we were in his hotel, that the girl at the front desk pulled one of the most amazing attempts at ripping us off we saw in Vietnam. Their internet in the foyer had big prices painted all over the windows but when we finished and tried to settle the bill it was nearly twice what it should have been, the rate she quoted being different to what the windows advertised. I turned to point to the windows only to discover that in the time we were online, they had removed the prices and were already applying the new rate to our time spent. She did relent, but not before giving it a good try.

As for Hue itself. It was a nice little town, formerly a Citadel and still with the original city walls surrounding the old town inside. We enjoyed the architecture and the greenery, and got a bit of heat-stroke as we meandered the lanes and roads. It was also reassuring to notice a shift in the general demeanor of the population. It seemed that we were no longer quite as despised as previously, though we were still viewed largely as walking wallets. Things seemed to be improving and we wondered if this would continue as we got the bus to Hoi-An (not to be confused with Hanoi), our next stop on the road south.

The bus was a fairly pleasant ordeal with a pit stop at a holiday resort/road side service station combination thing. For a service station it was quite nice, as a resort it looked utterly grim. Actually it looked quite nice, but that was probably the problem for anyone who might have looked at it online and booked because up close it was dire. It was bang at the beach but there was nothing else a million miles near it, and for food, you would have to eat at the same sub-standard road side diner place for every meal. We counted our lucky stars not to have fallen into that rip-off and also counted the mysterious absence of flies or insects of any kind which was especially unusual and eerie. Back on the bus and we got a trip through their new 6.3Km tunnel which was all shining and lights still working, just as well as it took ten minutes to drive the length of it.

After our last little fright, we made sure we had booked ahead for Hoi-An. The bus didn't stop at the bus station but instead outside a hotel that was in cahoots with the operator, so that all the passengers would stumble in there and book rooms, and for anyone who wasn't so easily coerced, there was a troop of girls waiting to drag you in. We had done our research though so we were well prepared for this, with our pick up waiting at that hotel to take us to ours. Our pick up turned out to be two guys with scooters. We climbed on the back of the bikes, bags and all and enjoyed a quick spin through the back streets and footpaths of Hoi-An before toppling into our really quite nice hotel.

The room was decent with a fruit bowl and everything (lacking only a bath full of hot water) and the free breakfast was also good, though you had to be stern that you wanted what was promised at booking, not what they wanted to give you instead. But best of all, it had a pool, and sitting at the side of the pool, our Australian friends from Ha-Long Bay. We spent another enjoyable evening by the pool with Ben and Jo doing our best to keep up with the beers and then when one of the many power cuts that plagued the hotel descended the whole place into darkness, we did the only appropriate thing and all jumped in the water.

Hoi-An itself is known for it textiles, with countless shops dragging you in if you come within 20 metres, to try and fit you out with a new wardrobe, from tailored shoes through to heavy winter jackets (bear in mind it's 35.C here) . For two back-packers with not a lot of space in our already heavy bags, it was not too difficult to decline the offers, which we agreed would be great if you were there for a fortnight's break. Aside from what was inside the shops, there was plenty to be enjoyed on the outside too. The narrow streets and winding alleys serviced an ancient town which had not changed much in the centuries with maybe only the addition of very heavily laden power lines trailing along at neck height to mark any change to the townscape. The shops too, are still selling the same kind of things that they have traditionally sold for as long as people can remember, albeit a little more contemporaneous in their style.

Three days in Hoi-An and it was time to catch the train to our final destination in Vietnam, Ho-Chi-Min City. The pleasantry and goodwill of the people had continued to improve as we had come south, Hoi-An now being the most polite so far. Would this continue as we reached the country's premier or would the city dwelling nature return to greet us once more?

Friday, 10 August 2007

Halong Bay

Our first stop out of Hanoi was actually a package trip out and back. It was a three day excursion to Halong Bay, a vast expanse of bright blue sea, full of craggy islands and rocks all covered in jungle vegetation with sheer cliffs every side. The statistic was something like 998 Islands, most of which have not had a human foot set upon them. It is a limestone formation and something you would think was made up if you saw it in a movie.

Naturally, having booked our tour in Hanoi, we were fully prepared to be ripped off but all in all it wasn't too bad. It was a three day trip. Day one began with getting a minibus for the three hour drive and listening to this American twit explaining why everything in the world was as it is for the best part of the journey, then trying his best pick up lines on our unimpressed guide. We arrived at the dock and after an unexpected reshuffling with another minibus of passengers we got on our boat with our guide, but not the American. Our boat was a big wooden endeavour, mimicking the style of the oriental junkets of legends, the kind of thing you might see Sinbad sailing. There were ten of us and we would spend about 24 hours on board, we had a cabin down below. There was a small deck area at the bow and upstairs was the restaurant which impressed everyone with its freshly caught seafood, though our vegetarian alternative was a little less satisfying. We bobbed around passed all the amazing scenery and then stopped at the aptly named 'Amazing Cave' which was pretty massive, in fact seemed bigger than the Island it was on. It had been pretty well lit too, though the concrete paths leading us through did detract slightly from it's authenticity. Not half as much though as the thousands of people sharing it with us. The bay is a massive revenue earner, and there are hundreds of boats just like ours (a few a little bit better looking than ours) all plying the waves. The competency of the captains is utterly dreadful, with no end of collisions between the boats, not all of them slow or gentle collisions either. They sail like they drive. We moored for the night in a central spot where lots of other boats all moored up together too and saw out a thunder storm as it soaked the deck and sent everyone into the restaurant or down to their cabins. We were lucky and had a good sleep though not everyone could say the same, an Australian couple we met, Ben and Jo, had the cabin that let the water pour in all night, a problem the crew had obviously had for some time because they had a perfectly sized piece of tarpaulin which they had pulled out without prompting and laid over their roof area before the rain got too bad, but to no avail.

The following day was an early start and we were off the boat with all our bags and onto a smaller boat that would take us to a site to go Kayaking. We could have picked that activity or Mountain Biking but thought that in the heat of the day the water might be more pleasant. We also thought that we would have had a guide or something but instead were left to our own devices to explore the shipping channels and currents in our semi sunk kayak with broken paddles. It was quite good fun though and we had more of the same in the afternoon, having had lunch and a swim in between the two. Day two ended with a hotel on Katbah Island, the biggest and most populated island in the reserve. The hotel was particularly nice and was enough to make us forget the small problems and sum the whole trip up with a thumbs up when we returned to the mainland the following day and were minibused home via a pretty nice restaurant for lunch. All in all, the trip was pretty good value considering all the food was paid for and we had no accommodation costs for three days.

We returned to Hanoi, caught a taxi and made it to the airport where due to a wide range of excuses including 'late arrival', 'engineering difficulties' and 'the plane not quite being ready yet' we eventually left for Hue, further south in Vietnam.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Horrible Hanoi

Vietnam could not have been more different than Laos. Gone were the wide open spaces, with little traffic, smiling people and a very leisurely pace of life. In the place of all that was - Hanoi.
We flew from Vientiane into Hanoi. One of the common Characteristics we have spotted across S.E Asia is that despite cabin crews best efforts, it's a lost cause trying to get people to remain in their seats immediately after a plane has touched down. No sooner has a plane bounced onto the tarmac than, with engines still engaged in full reverse, a chorus of unbuckling seatbelts and text message bleeps will ring through the cabin and people will be up out of their seats getting their bags down from the lockers.

In what would become a recurring pattern for our time in Hanoi, things were taken one step further. In this instance it was the man sitting across the Aisle from us who, with 30 seconds to go before landing revealed himself to have already switched his phone back on because it rang out loud. Admittedly he was a little embarrassed, but not enough to not answer the call and chat away as we touched down. I did the only suitable thing one can do in that situation and dropped my bag on his head as I got it out of the locker after landing. We then had a lengthy queue to clear immigration and it was here that we realised they don't queue in Vietnam, at least not the women anyway. Despite there being what we in the west might recognise as a number of queues, there were still plenty of little old women who would just constantly push at your back and try and slip passed anyone they could. I spent about ten minutes fighting with one lady who just kept trying to sneak passed until it came to the two of us fully shoving each other with all our might. I'd say that I was the bigger person and just let her through but the truth is she beat me. She then proceeded to make it past about another dozen people, with her friend in tow until they got to the counter and because of something wrong with their passports held everyone else up for about 15 minutes while they were dealt with. By now, our blood was boiling with rage and we hadn't even cleared immigration yet!

This would set the mood for Hanoi. The people have a manner about them that is not tourist friendly. They are the least polite we have encountered anywhere, and you are always at your most guarded against rip-offs. This is not entirely new to us, but there is a much more unpleasant air about it all here, it's as if your presence is really resented. The restaurants are expensive, the accommodation poor quality and expensive, and the noise in the streets is simply impossible to describe. The city is filthy and smelly and nothing is made easy or straight forward.

If you're reading between the lines here, you might have deduced that we didn't really like Hanoi. We walked about plenty, and tried to spend as little money as possible. We hired a giant swan pedalo one evening and paddled about on the lake during sunset which was nice except that every time we drifted over some invisible line, an angry man with a megaphone espoused no end of fury at us from a boat. We ended up deliberately drifting over it backwards just to annoy him. There's only so much peddling a couple can do though, so we hired a man on a cyclo to peddle us home. When we got back he tried to double the price - even though we had just paid him and given him a decent tip on top. It was on the same spot we would later fight with a cabbie over our fare, this has never happened anywhere else on our travels at all.

We had about 4 days in Hanoi, and despite its less appealing qualities we had a reasonably good time just walking around and hating everything. The back streets are very narrow in Hanoi, but that is where everything that makes Hanoi Hanoi is. The roads are squeezed in by 4 or 5 story buildings, french colonial style, some with pretty little shutters and the like but with air cons and random pipes espousing water adding the Viet touch. The pavements are consumed by the shops stretching out onto the first few inches of road with food, dead or dying animals, toys, burning and whirring machinery and fires all diverting you onto the road. The next obstacle is the rows of motorbikes that look abandoned that forces you further out into the road where there is maybe about three metres of roads space left in the middle, filled with bikes and cars going in any direction. It is also the Viet way that pedestrians on any odd bit of pavement give way to motorbikes who have more right to that space. It is perfectly normal to stop dead as a bike runs across you path, literally in front of your toes, and then just parks and gets off, blocking you. Or the opposite, as you walk around someone sitting on their bike doing nothing, they will just roll into your way as if you are invisible.

In terms of sights, we went to see Ho Chi Min's pickled body floating in a big glass tank in his Mausoleum, but the cyclo man who took us there forgot to mention it closed at 10.30. Instead we wandered around and took in the vast open spaces and squares and the grand mansions that belonged to the communist party's leaders. We also went to see the Revolution Museum which was really a gentle dipping in the national propaganda machine. It turns out, that in all of Vietnam's history, of everything that has happened for the worse, it can all be attributed to either the French or the Americans. There is not a single mention of the internal Vietnam against Vietnam conflicts, except for the odd mention off some imperial puppets. The only consequencies which can be attributed to the Vietnamese are those that have undoubtedly benefited their great nation. And it occurred to me afterwards, that just maybe that was what fuelled the typical Hanoi'an's psyche and why it seemed they resented everything about us so much.

Spiders, Guns and a Hopeless Hotel

We stumbled off our bus in Vientiane not too worse for ware considering the road we had just driven. It wasn't just the unending winding-ness but the utter remoteness of it, and the awareness that the bus was mostly full of western tourists. Highwaymen (being robbers not repairers) are not common in Laos (actually neither are the repairers) but they do exist (the robbers) and we passed quite a few suspicious individuals and small parties on the road who were armed to the teeth but didn't really fit the bill of law enforcer. It's hard to know though. On one occasion we were stopped by a uniformed 16 year old boy who looked the cabin up and down and then interrogated the driver while his AK47 (or something like that) hung round his shoulder with the barrel staring me down, a couple of rows back. He was probably genuine, we didn't seem to have what or who he was looking for and we carried on our way. But it was not lost to us that our bus was probably quite a good seize if we did meet the wrong people on the road. On the plus side, we stopped at a little cafe for lunch and had a really good feed, all included in the ticket price.

In Vientienne, we checked into what we thought was the premier hotel for one night only, to celebrate Nic's birthday. It was an absolute dump and we were out like a flash first thing in the morning (well, not before we inspected the terrifying breakfast buffet, welded to the bottom of the hot-pots and took a dip in the pool you couldn't see the bottom of). We promptly checked into a much smaller, cheaper and nicer guest house down the road. The big hotel, which was a state-run endeavour (we really should have spotted that big clue) didn't care less that we were leaving so abruptly, except for the bell boy who's heart visibly broke when Nic said we checking into another hotel round the corner. A speedy re-assurance that it was because the big hotel was too expensive and we were just there for a birthday treat went some way to console the chap, but we left having knocked a little more pride out of the only person in the establishment who had any for it in the first place.

Vientiane shares many of Luang-Prabang's traits. Despite being the capital city, it still has a relaxed air about it. The first mall had just opened about a fortnight before we arrived (our inspection revealed a half occupied precinct, with shops still getting fitted out, a food court that was still getting to grips with itself and a guard with a machine gun on the mezzanine), and there were plenty of monks to be seen about town too. There were plenty of cash machines to be found in the capital which was good because we also found another Joma coffee shop and spent lots of time (and Kip) looking out on the world from within the air con sanctuary. One of Vientiane's tourist sights is it's Arc de Triomphe which is a full scale slightly unfinished concrete replica of the one in France, and serves as the focal point in a big park. The copy was built in the 60's with money and concrete donated by the US for Laos to build a runway with. As such it is nick named the vertical runway.

Just across the road from our hotel was the Mekong River again, and there were plenty of dining opportunities to be had from hawker kitchens set up with plastic tables and chairs all the way along it's side. Directly across the river from here was Thailand where we saw a power cut descend the opposite shore into darkness one night while we ate and enjoyed fully working Laotian power. Plastic chairs might not sound particularly posh but they were a good bit better than the proper rattan furniture we dined on one night in a Mexican restaurant when, after dinner we got up and found that our clothes had all been stained permanently from an anti-bug spray that had been applied to the chairs but not yet cleaned down. The manager was very apologetic and took our clothes to the dry-cleaners but alas, they never recovered (and probably neither did the cleaners - they scrubbed so hard that the pattern was faded beneath the stubborn stains). Ironically too, that was the night that we saw our first (and to date only) full size totally wild tarantula sized spider, which we first spotted on the wall a few meters from our table. As we looked at it, deciding it was probably real, a waiter moved in a manner that alarmed it and faster than I have ever seen anything move in my life it was gone around the corner. The speed of the thing was utterly gob smacking and I wouldn't immediately assume to be fast enough to outrun it if it had come to the Mexican for dinner too.

Tranquil Times at Luang Prabang

We had arranged our hotel online before arriving in Laos, and they very helpfully came and picked us up from the airport for a small fee. Our hearts sank though when we discovered our bedroom to be a cramped and dark room with a window opening straight onto a wall. There was also what sounded like a party getting into full swing in the next room. We asked if there were any other rooms and for about US$1 more per night we were moved to the biggest room in the hotel, with two walls of windows, loads of space and a massive big balcony. We still had the evening left and took it upon ourselves to go exploring Luang-Prabang, our home for the next 4 or 5 days.

There is a hill in the center of town with a Wat at the peak which you can climb to the top of for a fee. We didn't want to waste a fee's worth of visit by going when it was about to shut so we climbed halfway up the hill, to the ticket counter and watched the sunset from there. The setting sun-light in Laos has the most beautiful golden colour to it. It's not something that your eyes adjust to either, it remains this golden colour and tints everything around in a slight veneer. One of the reasons for this may be because the air is so clean. Luang-Prabang is by no means in the dark ages, void of industrialisation, but the air pollution is much lower than any of Lao's neighbouring countries. Following the sunset we took a walk through the evening markets that set up on the side streets at dusk. These sold an array of really eye catching craft items, reputedly made in the surrounding hill-tribe villages. Items included, intricately carved little boxes made of marble, paper lanterns, fabrics, clothing, cushions, wooden ornaments and all kinds of other paraphernalia.

We found a coffee shop just round the corner from our hotel, called Joma, which became our regular breakfast spot and retreat from the heat, serving some of the best coffee we have found so far on our travels, Laos grown. Fueled and ready for action we spent our first full day wandering the peaceful streets and taking in the French colonial architecture and the flourishing gardens. Luang-Prabang is a quiet town (except for the motorbikes) where everyone wanders at about half pace, and every second person is a monk in robes. The town has managed to avoid falling victim to bland redevelopment over the decades and remains a picturesque postcard town from the colonial times (albeit a little rougher on the edges now). Food producers leave their produce drying out on the streets. We saw racks of sausage and trays of rice cakes and flocks of wide eyed birds licking their beaks. There's no supermarkets, or malls and only one ATM which only works some of the time, and is very fussy about which cards it accepts. Luang-Prabang feels like someone forgot to wind the clock up again and time is just coming to a rest for a while until someone else notices, which might be soon sadly, because despite it's underdevelopment, Luang-Prabang is very much bang in the centre of the tourist circuit and is not missed by anyone who is passing through.

We met a Kiwi couple, Simon and Amy who were staying in our hotel too, and arranged to share a minibus/tuc-tuc thing called a jumbo to a series of waterfalls and rock pools an hour out of town. The series of pools and falls which start somewhere high up a jungly hill side fall and meander for as long as it takes 20 minutes to walk the length of, and then continues beyond where you can reasonably get to in both directions. The falls and streams are punctuated continuously with rock pools and little lagoons. We weren't the only people there. Dozens of other jumbos and buses had parked up in the near-by car park, surrounded by stalls selling T-shirts and souvenirs but this little burst of entrpreneurism is a good ten minutes out, on the other side of the woods to the attraction itself. The rock pools are quite idyllic, and though they have been a little engineered at some point in the past, nature has retaken its foothold and has found a nice balance with it all. The pools are a beautiful turquoise colour and the water was not too cold, in fact we timed it right to be plunging in at the heat of day, finding a quiet pool with no-one else in it until the hordes saw us and decided you must be allowed in after all and bounded in to join us.

As a bonus, we also stumbled across a little bear sanctuary nearby where free of charge you could watch rescued moon-bears tussle with each other and generally wreck the vegetation thrown into their compound for dinner. Moon bears are half-sized bears with a big silver V under their necks which apparently reflects moonlight. They had a nice big play pen with plenty of stuff to keep them happy, and we had a good quarter hour or so watching them before buying a t-shirt with paw prints on it and leaving them be.

The following day we took a boat trip on the Mekong, to make amends for our not sailing down it from Thailand. We went to see a cave full of Buddha statues and ornaments which people have taken to the cave throughout the decades to retire them. The king used to come here every year as a sign of devotion to ensure good times for his country but unfortunatley, the good times didn't last long for him and the army took charge and took him away where he had to see out the rest of his reduced days, ironically in a cave.

A final day in town and we enjoyed lots more coffee, finally climbed to the top of the hill to see the full sunset and then went to the market where we really went a bit silly and bought far too many things which, though a bargain to buy, ended up costing us an arm and a leg to send home from our next stop which was Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and an 8 hour bus trip down the road from Luang-Prabang.