Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hanoi - take one

Another day and another early flight. Arrived, in Hanoi and then, at the recommendation of the irish girls from Hoi An, made my way to the Hoi An Backpackers. After settling in, I did a bit of tour of the surrounds and adjust to the new environment. Hanoi again has a very different vibe to Saigon/HCMC, particularly in the old quarter. The streets are smaller, and the architecture has a much more european feel. The food also varies in that they seem to have a preference for deep frying thier food.

One big advantage or perhaps disadvantage of staying at an Aussie run backpackers in Vietnam, is that the place was set up for getting people to meet and drink together. And that I did, probably a little too much. I am a big rap for Mao's red bar - very melbourne like small bar.

In between the drinking, I did manage to sneak in some culture, visiting the Museum of Ethnology - which provides an overview of the 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam. Don't quite understand some aspects of some trips, such as placing a bunch of phallic statues around a tomb. I walked past the opera house and museum of vietnamese history.

pictures to follow

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hue and the DMZ

The morning bus to Hue was a surprisingly pleasant ride. The bus was comfortable enough, and with my earphones blocking out most of the bus' drone, I was able to just enjoy the view and also get a few minutes kip. The sleep was greatly appreciated as the night before had been a pretty decent one. Beside the pool, I also caught up with some irish and dutch girls I had met earlier in the day then went to a beach party - not getting back to the hotel until 4am.

Again, I was surprised by the completely different dynamics of Hue compared to Hoi An, the towns are relatively close but the physical environment and the people seem quiet different. My first experience of the people was when I got of the bus and was harrassed by one of the hotel owners about staying in his hotel. Again, high pressure sales tactics proved my downfall, and I booked the room for $10 a night. Having secured a bed, I decided that I would then book a tour. I had heard really good things about tours from the 'cafe on thu wheels'. Having no sense for the layout of the town, I jumped into a cyclo, and was very only slightly less lost than the cyclo driver. I then decided that I would be better off walking, but soon discovered that I was more lost than I first thought. I was then pleasantly surpised when a local came up to me and offered his assistance without any strings.
Feeling happy with my new course, I embarked on the trek to the cafe. I was then soon stopped by a guy on scooter - it the hotel manager. He offered to give me a lift to the cafe, but soon stated that I should only book a tour with him - after assuring him that I was just going to the cafe with friends, he then took me there.

At the cafe, I managed to get a cheap feed and book the scooter tour of Hue for the afternoon. The tour itself was fantastic, I visited the citadel and a number of tombs and other interesting pagodas and saw some more budhas (I also ran into my interpid friends again). My scooter driver was really cool, and spoke pretty good english. I highly recomend this tour as you get to see the best bits of Hue in an afternoon, with very little fuss. Having completed the tour, we returned to the cafe, feeling pretty happy with my day. However, those feelings were quickly dashed, as my hotel manager was waiting near the cafe and commenced to tell me that I was a liar as I had promised to do a tour with him. That day seemed to demonstrate the ambiguities of Hue, lots of really friendly people but also a lot of people trying to push their wears pretty shamelessly.

I decided that I should have a quiet night in Hue, and prepare myself for the tour to the DMZ on the monday. Again this tour was a really mixed experience. Much of the tour was underwhelming, it was cool to see the Ho Chi Mihn Trail, but it wasn't a sight to behold. The DMZ itself was just a field for which we were unable to get a very good view. On the flip side, the military museum we were taken to was pretty interesting and the experience greatly enhanced when an American Vet gave a brief overview of his experience of the battle of Khe San.
In addition, I saw the tunnels in Vinh Moc. It was interesting the contrast this complex, which provided a save haven to the locals during the vietnam war to those in cu chi which were only used for fighting. I was able to complete the tour of these tunnels, largely thanks to the greater size of the tunnels and the greater amount of lighting. Seeing Vinh Moc reinforced my respect for the resourcefulness and resilience of the vietnamese people.
Having finished the tour by being stuck in a traffic jam near the citadel, I jumped off the bus early and headed to a resturant mentioned in the LP. The owner is deaf and mute, but boy can he cook, and the prices were so low. It was such a nice way to finish off the tour.

That night I decided to go to one of the bars near the hotel. I met a German guy from berlin (timo), and an irish couple. Played some average pool but managed to take care of a couple of french blokes. For some reason, timo was keen on the vodka shots - these really didn't go down that well but I managed to push through the pain. Having decided it was time to hit another bar, we took to the streets and got thoroughly lost. This was made all the more embarrassing by the fact that a team of young cyclo drivers had been following us the whole way, teasing us about being lost. Eventually, they won and we jumped in for what should have been a very short walk to the bar called brown eyes. As that bar was dead, I decided to retire to the comfort of my bed, safe in the knowledge that I would wake up in time for my flight to Hanoi.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hoi An - when will I, will I be famous

Based on the response I received about my first post from Vietnam, I can see people are gagging to hear more about my adventures.

After leaving HCMC, I had a short flight to Denang, as there appears to be nothing of note in that town, I caught a taxi and headed due south to hoi an. The trip to my hotel was interesting, we spent the majority of the trip on the wrong side of the road beeping at oncoming traffic, however my nerves were settled by taxi driver's decision to play an eagles covers tape at near deafening levels.
Having heard, nothing but great things about Hoi An from one and all, I have to say that I was initially underwhelmed by the town. The contrast between HCMC and Hoi An is staggering, and having just gotten into the swing of a big city, where the bars, restaurants and tourist attractions seem to encourage visitors to interact with each other, Hoi An, while more appealing to the eye gave me the feeling that it was going to be hard work to meet other travelers. After a bit of a wander around the town, I soon discovered two things that could cure the blues within a couple of minutes - a gin and tonic and a perfectly prepared lemon meringue pie. The stories about this place being the culinary paradise of Vietnam are completely true.

Other meals and cafes that deserve a mention are Cargo which I think provided me with the best ever breakfast - poached eggs with hollandaise sauce, just the right amount of crispy bacon and not to mention the non-optional extras of orange and lime juice and coffee and freshly baked breads with home made jam. I am pretty sure that this is the breakfast they would serve in heaven. Another venue called Mango also dishes up some pretty impressive meals, including the duck with a chocolate and mango sauce.

Besides eating, Hoi An has many other attraction. The first of those attractions that I partook in was a the trip to Cham Island, with the Cham Island Diving School. The tour was lead by Ludo, an entertaining italian guy that has decided to go local with a few of his friends. The island of Cham is very pretty, the beach is secluded, free from hawkers and has some very comfy hammocks. The water was great to swim in, although my experience there has confirmed suspicions that that I have absolutely no snorkeling abilities.

Another attraction of Hoi An is the cooking classes. I managed to book a half day with the red bridge hotel's course. The course started the very respectable hour of 11, it included a tour around the market, then a boat ride to the restaurant. After a tour of the herb garden, we were greeted by our chef, the Elliot Gould of vietnamese cooking - he delivered joke after joke without cracking a smile. The second leason that I have taken from my time in Hoi An is that I am unable to cook vietnamese food very well. However, this failing could result in fame and fortune for me in Korea. This is because our tour group included the Korean film maker, Kim Taz Yong, who was shooting a documentary for Korean TV. His camera man spent an inordinant amount of time capturing my ineptness.

Other highlights of the trip included the bus ride to the My Son ruins for sunrise - the bus was running pretty late so there was no sunrise for us, just an incredibly early start to the day. At the ruins I met an Intrepid tour group. They were a great bunch, mainly from the UK, they made the trip a barrel of laughs, and I managed to meet up for a drink and some pool with a couple of them later on in the night. Having said our goodbyes I incorrectly figured that that was the last I would see of those guys.

Another leason from Hoi An is that I have very little backbone when it comes to haggling. Not only did I spend too much on some cargo pants, but I also gave my scooter tour driver, my first one for trip way too much money - particularly as I also bought a marble turtle that I really didn't want from one of the places we stopped at on the way to marble mountain.
On the flip side, marble mountain was an incredible place, the budhas and pagola's are a sight to behold, as is the common tourist shot of being caught in the light, transending to heaven, which will soon be my facebook picture. This picture was made possible by the fact I again ran into my intrepid friends in that particular cave completely by accident.

The final thing that I learned in Hoi An is that I am a better pool coach than player. I managed to turn a nice japanese guy I met, Kazuki, from a practical pool virgin into a novice pool shark. He still has some ways to go before, such as knowing which balls to hit, before he will be a full shark.

Anyway enough of Hoi An for now. Next stop is Hue.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Run away plane…

It’s finally time to get around to giving those of you with a mild interest in my travels a quick run down of the trip so far.

The trip got of to a slightly unusual start, in that I ran into some guys from touch rugby at the airport starbucks ‑ I am embarrassed to have been in the starbucks, but hay, I was past customs and all the coffee shops are expense and rubbish. I took running into friends so quickly as good omen for the trip, despite the fact that we soon parted company as left for their Japanese skiing trip.

After a fairly uneventful flight I touched down in Ho Chi Minh City. (Aside – I highly recommend that all travelers get noise isolating earphones, the pair I had made the flight far more comfortable as they blocked out both the plane engines and the screaming children). As is the norm for all travelers, as soon as I got outside I found myself confronted with a taxi driver offering to do me deal into the city – just $30. Fortunately, I decided to read the LP on the flight across, and soon found the metered taxis. This reduced my fare to a much more reasonable $6.

My first thoughts as the taxi weaved its way between the millions of motorbikes and scooters was, ‘this is madness, what the hell have I gotten myself into’. These feelings soon subsided though, as I got used to the mayhem that is Saigon. At my hostel, I soon got talking to people and then started to make my way around town. I was amazed that I managed to walk across so many massive intersections without being hit by a scooter or car. The roads here are organized chaos.

My first forays with the local cuisine weren’t fantastic. I suggest avoiding the beef ball soups – I really have no idea what that stuff was, but I haven’t tasted beef like it anywhere else. Although my confidence was a little dented, I pressed on with the trying the local food, and soon found the flow of things and some dishes that were more than a little enjoyable. Big fan of the bbq pork, and have developed a bit of taste for good pho.

My drinking exploits were a little more favorable. The mango smoothies are amazing, as are the flavoured sugarcane drinks, and this crazy ice drink with chocolate flavoured jelly in it. However, no drinking story from Saigon is complete without complimenting the bai hoi set up – not only do you get 30 cent pots (even it is light beer) – you also get to meet heaps of fellow travelers as well.

Overall, I walked the fairly well trodden tourist path around Saigon and HCMC. I went to the Cu chi tunnels and was overwhelmed by the ingenuity of the VC, as well as the tightness of the tunnels – being a massive wuss, I only made it two-thirds of the way before I had to get out. I also did the two-day tour of the Mekong Delta. It was a very tourist oriented trip unfortunately. We basically stopped at places were they were constantly trying to get us to buy things we didn’t really want. I managed to get myself some coconut candy, which I have to say was excellent and very quickly eaten. I also got to hold a python, and then eat some snake spring rolls and curry – didn’t care too much for the meat but glad to have tried it.

Other experiences in Saigon included, going to the reunification palace – very kitche; going to the local sports complex – the pool wasn’t great but shooting hoops with some local kids was a bit of a laugh. I also hit a local club for a very short period of time ‘lush’, but spent a lot more time at the local tourist bar next to the hostel.

Overall, I had a fantastic time in Saigon. I have already met a heap of great people from all over the planet – although a surprising number of the Aussies I have met have come from Melbourne. I will give a special mention to the group of Hungarians from my Mekong Delta tour, as they helped make the trip a lot of fun.

Anyway, I think that’s enough for now – I will fill you in on Hoi An soon.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Last drinks

Melbourne really decided to turn it on for my last weekend here for quite some time. Having finished work a little later than usual - editing my work to make it harder for my replacement to finish it off - I enjoyed some quiet brews, friendly banter and then a Thai meal with some work mates on the friday.
Feeling pretty chipper first thing in the morning, my energy quickly began to wane, despite multiple coffees and sugary treats. However, I managed push through the mental haze and get on top of my packing and even sneak in a final ski paddle down at Brighton beach before heading out to St. Kilda for Vin and Mark's birthday drinks. Deciding that I needed to take it easy given the upcoming Sunday session, I left it to others, such as my house mate Geeta, to get drunk and a bit messy.
The real highlight of the weekend was getting to spend some quality time with friends at the Corner's Rooftop Bar. The sun was shining - a perfect 28 degrees - the beers were flowing, and the food was a treat - I rate the burgers very highly. Starting at around 2, the day really just seemed to fly by, although I am sure that people must have gotten pretty sick of hearing me repeat my itinerary and explain that I was still waiting for the excitement to really kick in.
Before we knew it, it was 10pm, and with some people having jobs and the like, it was time to say farewell. I made the standard promises about emailing and keeping the blog up to date. However, to confirm what we all already know - it's not going to happen, but I will pretend that I have tried.