Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Summer 2012 - 10th Stop: Halong Bay

Just a quick blog update this time around for our final stop in Vietnam - 3 days and 2 nights cruising on one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature - Halong Bay. (Well, technically we spent the first day on Bai Tu Long Bay, but that's not really as catchy or prestigious). It was another stress-free little break, following on from Sapa, and a nice way to round off our time in the country.

We booked our tour, once again, through our hotel in Hanoi with a company called Ethnic Travel. There were a lot of cheaper options available, and walking down the streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter you'll see agents with a variety of low-cost packages. But, as with anything, you get what you pay for and it's definitely worth splashing out a small bit to get, not only a nicer boat but, a tour that takes you away from the main route and the swarms of other day-trippers.

We left Hanoi on the morning of July 15th, and after a four and a half hour minibus journey, we arrived in Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong Bay's less famous but equally as beautiful neighbour. As soon as we landed at the dock, we set sail, enjoying a tasty lunch while we took in the panoramic views of the endless sea of karst peaks.

The scenery was certainly stunning, although very similar to Palawan in The Philippines, where we spent last Christmas. For this reason, we weren't as wowed by it all as we maybe should have been, but we could still definitely appreciate the beauty of the place.

After lunch, we just relaxed on deck, lounged around in the sun, caught up with our reading, and after a spot of kayaking, headed to Quan Lan Island, our home for the night.

This was all part of the tour, spending the first night in the family home of Mr. Sau, a retired local fisherman. And that was fine with us, we were expecting a real traditional island experience - staying in a wooden hut, sleeping on a straw bed, eating food straight from the fire etc. But when we got there, it was just like a mini-guesthouse, a great big building with marble floors and a flat screen TV! He must have caught some amount of fish in his career if this is his family home!

We didn't mind though, and we did at least have a lovely traditional dinner with everyone from the boat before bed.

The next morning, we were up early and, despite being promised breakfast at the house, we were greeted with a 10km cycle back to the boat for breakfast instead! It was a lovely cycle around the island, one we really enjoyed, although we would have preferred not to tackle it on an empty stomach first thing in the morning... That's one minor fault I'd have with the company, they did seem a small bit disorganised at times, but it wasn't the end of the world.

We finally got breakfast on board as we headed towards Halong Bay, and that rounded off the first half of our trip. As we arrived at the dock, we upgraded to a bigger boat with our very own private cabin, our new home for the next leg of the tour. It had a nice sundeck up top as well, so we spent most of the afternoon there, working on our tans.

I'm sorry for the lack of excitement in this blog entry, but we really did very little besides balming out in the sun - great to do, not so great to write about...

We did go swimming too later in the evening to cool off, although saying that, I've never swam in such warm water before, it was, well not roasting, but definitely lukewarm!

And look, I'm jumping in, wooooo! (that really was as exciting as it got...)

In fact, I'm just gonna fast forward the next 12 hours as it's just one big montage of eating, sleeping and sun bathing. Accept this video diary instead:

Aaaaaand, that's the end of Halong Bay! The next day we got a minibus back to Hanoi (to Tu Linh Palace of course), where we greeted at the doors with a big "Welcome home!". It really was like home for us though as we were given more free drinks and another room to hang out in until our train that evening. (And remember, at this stage it had been a week since we last spent the night there!)

But sadly, that was the end of our time in Tu Linh Palace, and Vietnam as a whole, as we jumped on a night train up north to China. It was sad to be leaving Vietnam, as we greatly enjoyed our time here. Some places more than others of course, but definitely a country worth visiting and perhaps worth returning to some day.

For now it was on to China, so I guess that's where I'll pick things up next time!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer 2012 - 9th Stop: Sapa

And now for something completely different, here's Sapa! This charming mountain town was certainly a huge change of scenery from, not only Hanoi but, anywhere else we've been on the trip so far. And a welcome change too! After enduring a few long travel days, and then being engulfed by the chaos of Hanoi, it was nice to escape into a world of our own. High above the clouds and reigning over the rolling, green hills below, Sapa was everything we hoped it would be, and certainly three days very well spent.

We arrived in the town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border, after a very pleasant 9 hour night train, before jumping on a minibus to take us the rest of the way. And that 45 minute ride from the station introduced us to the best and the worst that Sapa had to offer - from the breathtaking views and dramatic scenery, to the torrential downpour that greeted us on our arrival. Thankfully, the weather didn't affect us too much in our time here, as I know it can be unpredictable at best. We just had to wait it out, have breakfast and enjoy the views from our balcony until the rain died down.

Not a bad view to pass the time though!

And as soon as we had the all clear, we were out the gap, taking a stroll around the tiny town centre, before trekking downhill to the nearby Cat Cat Village, home of the Black H'Mong tribe. Actually, just to backtrack a bit, when I said earlier that the worst thing about Sapa was the weather - forget that. The worst thing about Sapa were the tribe members who would follow you incessantly trying to sell you things! They just don't leave you alone! In Sapa itself, it's fine, no problems, but as soon as you venture out into the countryside, it's a different story. Three women latched onto us on our walk down to the Cat Cat Village, and we just couldn't shake them. We tried speeding up, slowing down, no use. We even went up to a viewpoint for about 20 minutes and they waited for us at the bottom! (We also made a video diary up there for Phonsavan, Hanoi and Sapa. Have a look!)

We finally got rid of them as we entered the village, (I think they may not be allowed to follow tourists in) but they assured us that they'd be outside waiting when we were finished and even tried to get us to pinky-promise that we'd buy something from them later. We didn't promise them anything, and although we knew we'd have to face them again later, for now we were free!

The village itself was quite nice, with lovely views of the surrounding hills and a little waterfall at the bottom. There were some more people trying to sell you things along the way, but at least they just stayed in their stalls and didn't follow you down the street!

The village just loops around downhill all the way, along by the river and then there's the slow climb back up to Sapa. A few locals on motorbikes hang around at the exit, preying on lazy tourists who don't have the energy or patience to walk back. But where most people would see an easy way out, we saw opportunity! So, we jumped on a moto and made our way back uphill - not to avoid the steep climb, but to bypass the three H'Mong women waiting for us at the entrance! We even saw them calling after us as we zoomed by. Ah well, try following us now, bitches!

We just relaxed for the rest of the evening in our hotel room - Sapa Elegance Hotel, really nice place! 

The next day, our plan was to visit the Tram Ton Pass, the highest road in Vietnam, 15km from Sapa. Much too far to walk of course, so we had to arrange an alternate method of transport. And then, just when you thought I couldn't get any cooler, this happens!

Yup, we rented a motorbike for the day! I had never driven one before, and it was a bit of a baptism of fire having my first experience on these windy (and windy!) mountain roads. I have to admit, I was a bit nervy at first, taking it around the block for a test drive, but I soon got the hang of it, even riding down to the petrol station for a refill. I was feeling pretty good about myself, confidence high as I went back to pick up Aisling, ready to set off when the bike man added, "by the way, that's a woman's bike...". A nice kick in the groin for my confidence there. But we really had a great time, and although I'd never drive one in a built up area, I'd certainly get one if we're ever in a quiet, scenic place like this again.

And even though it was quite misty all day, obscuring most of the views, we still had one of our most enjoyable days of the holiday so far. Riding a motorbike is surprisingly fun! Even a women's one! It's like riding a normal bike but faster and with no effort, who'da thunk it?! The mist did clear slightly every so often too, just enough to give us a brief glimpse of the views below, and a taste of how amazing it would be on a clear day.

On our last day in Sapa, we reverted back to travelling on foot, this time walking to nowhere in particular. We were originally planning on going to another nearby village, but we just didn't want the hassle of being hounded again. But even then, we were followed every so often. We still didn't have the heart to tell them to 'f*ck off', so this time we just pretended not to speak English. It was somewhat successful and maybe the H'Mong picked up a few words of Gaeilge too for themselves! Everyone's a winner!

The scenery here, although less mountainous, was equally as stunning, with lush, green rice terraces flowing across the landscape like an endless, patchwork quilt. And even though we weren't going to see anything in particular, we still had a really lovely day, just enjoying the natural beauty of Sapa.

And sadly, that was the end of our time here. That evening we got a bus back to Lao Cai for our return train to Hanoi. And after another very pleasant night's sleep, we were in Hanoi once more. 

On the bright side, we were only in town for a few hours as we were leaving for Halong Bay at 8am. And on the even brighter side, Tu Linh Palace had told us to come back to the hotel for free breakfast and a free room until the bus arrived to collect us! I know I've said it before, but seriously like! And bear in mind, we had checked out from this place 4 days ago, and had no plans to stay there again. Best hotel ever? I think so!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Summer 2012 - 8th Stop: Hanoi

And so on to Hanoi, the latest place to suffer from “Capital City Syndrome”, we just never learn… At the time, I didn't think it was too bad, nothing amazing, though certainly adequate. But sitting down now to write the blog, and looking back over the photos, it actually wasn't that good at all. I think the only reason why we still have some fondness for the place was down to our accommodation, Tu Linh Palace, and in particular, the staff there. Tim and Kim really couldn’t have been more helpful to us, and their hospitality is probably the only thing saving the city from a wholly unfavourable review. I wouldn’t recommend spending time in Hanoi by any means (unless you’re en route to Sapa or Halong Bay), but if you do wind up here, stay at Tu Linh Palace!

As I mentioned in the last entry, we arrived in Hanoi in the middle of the night, fresh from (or rather, stale from) a day of solid travelling. All we wanted was a place to collapse, but at 3am, we didn't know how likely that was. We weren't due at the hotel until the next morning, but seeing as we had nowhere else to go, that's where we headed. And right from the get-go, they won our hearts! When we arrived, we had to wake the night staff who, not only weren't annoyed, but apologised for not having a free room to give us. Instead, they paid for a taxi to take us to another hotel, where we got a half-price room for the night, free breakfast and a free taxi back again the next morning! A nice way to end a rough day!

As for Hanoi itself, we were still a bit worn out the next morning, so we just took it easy for the day. We walked around the Old Quarter, down to Hoan Kiem Lake, had a couple of ostrich steaks (as you do...) and just took in the scenery. The lake was probably the nicest part of the city, away from the chaotic traffic and narrow streets, and I guess the Old Quarter was interesting too in its own way.

And while Luang Prabang gave us countless robe-clad monks to occupy our lenses, our main focus during our time in Hanoi was people wearing those cone-shaped hats (and preferably those double-basket-stick things too...)! That was always my stereotypical view of Vietnam, and surprisingly, it was actually quite an accurate one, not just in Hanoi but all over, in the cities and the countryside. They just can't get enough of those hats!

That afternoon, we also sorted out the fine details for our next two destinations, and again, the hotel staff did everything for us, booking our train tickets up north to Sapa, and also arranging our tour around Halong Bay. We were originally planning to spend only one night on Halong Bay, but the fine people at Tu Linh convinced us that it was definitely worth an extra night (and they were right too!). That decision also meant that we'd be spending a day less in Hanoi (double bonus!), but it just highlights the kind of selfless service the hotel offered - sacrificing a night from our booking just to make sure we had the best holiday possible. Kudos to you, Tu Linh Palace!

The next day was again none too eventful. First, we went to the water puppet theatre, which was mediocre at best. It was just like a regular, poorly done puppet show, but on water! After five minutes, you'll see all you need to see, don't expect too much more. They did have a traditional Vietnamese band though providing musical accompaniment, they were probably the best thing about it!

And then in the evening, we resorted to our 'holiday plan B' when we've nothing else to do, we got pizza and went to the cinema! For some reason, it's always much more fun going to the cinema in foreign countries, I don't know why. And way cheaper too! We saw Brave, the latest Pixar release, which was very enjoyable, all Pixar films are though.

On to our final day, in the morning, we went to the highly recommended Temple of Literature, which paled in comparison to things we had already seen in Hoi An, and then on to the Ho Chi Minh Mauseleum, which was just a big grey, blocky block!

We didn't even go inside. I think they have the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh in there, I'm sure we'll get over not seeing it. We also walked around the grounds of the presidential palace, again, nothing special. (I hope this isn't terribly boring to read, cause it's a nightmare to write! Hanoi just didn't do anything for us!).

Actually, the most interesting thing we saw that day technically wasn't in Hanoi at all, but in the skies above. There was some kind of strange rainbow swirl going on around some of the clouds, I don't really know how to describe it. I still don't really know what it was! If anyone out there does know, please tell me! I've never seen anything like it!

That evening, we just went back to the hotel (which we had checked out from that morning), where they gave us free drinks and a free room to hang out in until our train to Sapa that night. They also paid for our taxi to the train station! Seriously like! And just so you know, this wasn't even some swanky, high-end hotel, it was quite cheap! I should have just named this entry "Tu Linh Palace" instead of Hanoi. It really was a shining light in a sub-par city. Anyway, bye bye Hanoi and off to the mountains of Sapa we go!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Summer 2012 - 7th Stop: Phonsavan

And so we come to the end of our Laotian travels, last stop – Phonsavan! The town itself is little more than a central strip, but nobody comes here to see the town. There’s really only one reason to visit the area – the Plain of Jars, which is exactly what it sounds like – a big plain with big jars… and that’s it! We actually had a really great time here though, and it’s definitely one of the most unique places we've ever been. But if you don’t like big stone jars, you should probably stop reading now…

We arrived in Phonsavan on the evening of July 6th, after a bumpy but scenic 7 hour minibus journey from Luang Prabang. As we had been travelling all day (and since there’s nothing to do in Phonsavan), we just checked in, got food and enquired about tours to the jar sites for the next morning. We also met a lovely American guy named John, who had the same agenda as us for the following day, so we joined forces and agreed to meet up again the next morning.

Our plan was to wait until all of the tourists had set off, and then find a desperate driver who had been left behind and didn’t want to miss out on a day’s wages. And it actually worked a treat, with Aisling expertly negotiating a car for the day to take us wherever we wanted to go. So, off we went!

The jars themselves are a bit of mystery, over 2,000 years old and carved out of large boulders, it's still unclear what the hell they're doing there! Theories range from burial urns to rainwater collectors, and even the cups of mythical giants. Whatever their purpose, they're certainly interesting. There are apparently over 90 different sites in the area, ranging from 1 to 400 jars, but only a few are opened to the public. As I mentioned in a previous entry, Laos is still heavily covered in unexploded ordinance and here is no different, making most of the jar sites just enticing minefields. Even the sites that have been cleared, still have marked paths which you probably shouldn't stray too far from.

The jars themselves vary wildly in size and shape - big and small, horizontal and vertical, some perfectly preserved, others blown to pieces, and some even big enough to climb inside (although you're really not meant to), so of course we didn't...

We had a really enjoyable day going around to the three main sites, each one with something different to offer. I’ll just scoot through them quickly as there's only so much I can say about each one. We started off, as you do, with Jar Site 1, the biggest of the three, and also the only one where we actually encountered any other tourists! It was probably the nicest of the bunch too, although some of the jars had been destroyed or fragmented during the bombings. There were still plenty to admire though.

After a nice bowl of noodle soup (I think it was all they served), we had a look around Jar Site 2, which was split into two halves. The first bunch were almost completely intact under a large tree, with the second lot up on top of a small hill overlooking the valley below.

Jar Site 3 was certainly the most difficult to locate, as we had to journey across rivers and streams, through rice fields and over fences, finally spotting the cluster of jars under a small group of trees. As with Jar Site 2, we had the place to ourselves again, so we had to make the most of it, the only way we knew how. Some said it couldn’t be done, and after 21 tries, we were thinking the same, but at the 22nd attempt, we finally got our three person jumping shot!

Phew! After we returned to Phonsavan, we rounded off our day with a nice dinner in one of the few restaurants in town and then said our sad farewells to John, before retiring to our room for the night. 

Oh actually, while we were watching TV, we decided to tuck into a little snack that I had bought in Vientiane.

With these Success Chocolates, you’re really spoiling us!

What a pile of crap they were! I knew of course they’d never compare to real Ferrero Rocher (I only bought them so I could take a picture), but from the outside at least, they looked the part. It was when I took off the lid that this illusion started to unravel, with each step bringing a new level of disappointment.

As you can see, the label cleverly conceals the fact that there are actually no chocolates in the centre of the tray, but that was the least of its deficiencies. It got much worse with the chocolates themselves. Instead of the usual rich, nutty ball of delight, there was just a pissy, little hemisphere of sheer embarrassment. No nuts, no wafer, I’d be tempted to even say no chocolate! 

I took one bite and threw the box in the bin.

And on that note, it was time for us to head back across the border and leave Laos behind! So, how do I sum up our time here? Hmmm... Well, before we left on our summer holidays, I was secretly hoping that Laos would be the dark horse of the summer, charming us with hidden delights and coming out of nowhere to knock our socks off, but as we leave the country, we are certainly leaving with fond memories, though sadly, our socks are still well and truly on. It's a nice place, but it certainly won't be threatening our list of favourite countries.

The next morning we set off on a long, long slog to Hanoi, arriving in the middle of the night after 20+ hours of solid travelling. From a surprisingly pleasant bus to Vinh, to a hideously uncomfortable train to Hanoi, the day was certainly one to endure rather than enjoy.

When we arrived in Vinh, we were originally planning to buy our tickets, chill out for a few hours, get some dinner and then grab two beds on a night train to Hanoi, but when we got to the station, all that were left were the cheapest of the cheap, hard seats on an overcrowded slow train, leaving in 20 minutes and arriving at 3am. Not the best welcome back to Vietnam we could have hoped for...

Check out this guy though! This is how you travel in style! Hello Hanoi!