Friday, April 25, 2008

Catching that run away train

It´s about time I told you guys a little bit about my time on the vodka train, the stuff you have been hanging out to hear about.

After my first relatively unsuccessful day in beijing, I returned to the hotel to meet the people whose personal space I would be invading for the next days. Not surprisingly, the tour group turned out to be a fairly motley crew. Despite the differnces in age (18 to 32), professions (students to coppers - I was the only research economist) and nationalities we all got along really well from the start. Following the initial introductions and our greeting from Alex, our honcho for the beijing leg, we went out for a bit of Peking duck and some beverages. After the meal which was pretty tasty, except for the five massive bowls of noodles ordered by Tim.

Next we hit the dodgy bars of Beijing. In the first instance we had to bargain for a good price on the beers as well as a hookah, having agreed a price, they then sent someone to the shops to get us our drinks. After a couple of drinks, we hit the clubs on the other side of the lake. Effectively our little band of 10 made up the entire clientèle we then got down to some serious drinking and bad dancing. It was a great way to finish what had otherwise been a pretty ordinary day.

The following day, we did the sights - the summer palace, the forbidden city and tiananmen square. The all the sights were pretty amazing, the summer palace is beautiful while the forbiddin city is also very impressive. One of the most interesting things about sightseeing in Beijing is that all the sights are so chocablock full of chinese tourists. Further, the chinese tourists got super excited about seeing anglo people. In particular, one guy Tim had dreadlocks which absolutely freaked the locals out, as did lauren with her height and red hair. In one case, I was pretty certain that one chinese lady wet herself in her excitement of getting a picture with Tim.

After a what felt like a really long day of sight seeing, a few of us, out our guides suggestion went to a kung fu show. The monks were really cool, and the show was pretty impressive, although it did turn out to be a bit of tacky play mixed with some cool acrobatics and crazy feats of strength. Following the show we went to the street market for dinner. While others might disagree, the food I settled on buying was horrible, particularly biting into uncooked squid. Unfortunately, this lead me to go to Maccas for something that I could be fairly sure wasn´t going to poison me.

The following morning we made our way to the ming tombs and then the great wall. After the wind and rain of the first day, the pleasant sunny conditions got us all pretty fired up (even if it was still under 10 dgrees). Although the ming tombs appear to be an impressive complex, the actual tour itself was a little dull. The chinese have a different approach to setting up there sights, were the artifacts tend to be removed and put into a museum, instead of with in the tomb.

After a bit to eat, we headed to the great wall. As a group, and based on Alex´s advice, we went to a section of the wall that is in excellent condition but relatively low on tourists. It was also made more cool by the fact that we could catch a toboggan down. It was at this point the group split up a bit, a couple of the girls decided to catch the cable car up, while the rest of us decided to walk. It was a strenuous but not difficult walk to get to the top of the great wall. Walking up also increased my appreciation of how hard it must have been to build the great wall, and the effort makes the views a little more rewarding as well.

We had heaps of fun on the wall, some sections of the wall were really steep and we had to take time to catch our breath on several occasions. Unlike many of the other sites we saw, there were also relatively few other tourists. For a bit of fun, we decided to do something a little stupid, but well worth it, that is we climbed onto the roof of one of the main guard towers for the wall. Well most of us climbed, Abbie, the youngest member of our group was hoisted into the roof in a group effort. Tim, Ned and I climbed up the outside of the tower. While the climb was particularly difficult, a slip in the wrong directions would have been fatal.

That night we were all a bit buggered and knew that the next day would be a big one, so the night was a bit of a quiet one for most of us. Two of our crew, Peter (the copper from NSW) and Tim, managed to meet a local and have an all night bender. As Pete was my roommate I was a little worried when he hadn´t made it back to the hotel 20 minutes before we were scheduled to head off to the train station for our first ride to ulaanbaatar. But, fortunately they both got back to the hotel, still well and truly drunk, with a few minutes to spare. We would make our april fools day train with our still in tact.

due to technical difficulties, pictures will follow later, but most are on facebook.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Beijing - part one

The flight to Beijing was rough, plenty of turbulence, but we got there in one piece. Despite my cold I was feeling pretty happy as I made my way through customs, even managed to get someone at the airport to write out my hostel's name in chinese characters - a necessity I would latter find. However, this is where my fun for the day ended.

It was cold and raining as I exited the airport and made my way to the shuttle bus. Unfortunately, what should have been a 45 minute trip turned into two hours. Getting off the bus at what I was meant to be the train station, I was greeted by nothing but moderately heavy rain. Having forgotten what it was like to be cold and wet, I soon became miserable as I found myself unable to hail a taxi. It took me another 2 hour before I would find the actual train station, the ajoining official taxi rank, and a taxi that was willing to pick me up. The systems for catching taxis in beijing are unique, as they only seem to pull in at certain spots. In addition, and despite the warnings I was quite unprepared for the complete lack of english speaking. Fortunately, I did make it to my hostel in one piece and what a beautiful hostel it was. I can highly recommend the Sitting on the City Wall Hostel to anyone travelling to beijing.

My first night in Beijing was a quiet one. I met some other backpackers who had just finished the Transmonglian railway coming from the other way, so I picked up a few pointers from them and then hit the sack. The next day I woke up and made my way to the hotel that the Vodka train group were staying at. After checking in, I decided I needed to get some clothes appropriate for the weather i.e. a beanie and some proper gloves. Being a little confussed about where to go, I ended up heading to what can best be described as Beijings bourke street mall. It was here that I suffered my first propper swindle of my travels.

Feeling a little bit low, as I was sick and couldn't find any cheap clothes (I thought that china was a mecca for cheap knock-offs), a chinese girl started talking to me. She was the first chinese person I had met who could speak proper english. As she was waiting for her friends she asked me if I wanted to grab a drink. Thinking that she just wanted to use me to practice her english, and me having nothing better to do I said yes. Somehow we ended up at a tea house, where she got the tea attendant to set up lots of different teas for me to try. Having just bought some tea at a reasonable but high price I figured, at worst I would be out $30. Then the bill arrived, she wanted me to pay over $300 for our teas. I almost cried, as realised how baddly I was being stung. After a great deal of protesting, I got out of the two house $150 the worse for wear.

While disappointed, I know from others that I have met since then that it could have been a lot worse. And at least now I know a lot more about tea. Life also significantly improved after I made it back to the hotel and met the rest of my vodka train tour group. But I will save that for my next post.

Getting out of Vietnam

The train pulled in from Sapa at five in the morning and after a little mix up with directions we made it back to the hostel. As I was not able to get a bed until 12pm, I decided that I should do some more cultural stuff and visit uncle Ho.

Having the beginnings of a cold I wasn't in the happiest frame of mind, so when I ended up taking another wrong turn, which resulted in an additional half hour walk, and some admonishment by Vietnamese soldiers for walking on the wrong path I wasn't in greatest of moods. My mood was further challenged by the confusing cueing system required to enter the mausoleum. Then to top it all off, my cueing experenience was further frustrated by having to listen to an obnoxious man from Wales and his polish wife, deride vietnamese culture and make antisemetic comments.

Fortunately, I really enjoyed seeing Ho Chi Minh, while it is true that he does look a little waxy, just seeing the set up and the reverance with which he is held is something unique to an Australia (unless you count John Howard and his obsession with the don).

After visiting the Uncle Ho, I decided it was time for a little R&R, so turning to my lonely planet for guidance, I went to one of the recommended hotels for a massage. The massage was very pleasant, however, I was a little surprised half way through, when I received the offer of a souvenir of my visit to Hanoi. While flattered by the offer as well as the many compliments regarding my handsome appearance, I politely declined.

I returned to hostel feeling pretty relaxed, but ready to check in to my room and have a little nap. This was followed by a visit to the water puppets. I managed to con one of the girls from the hostel to join me, as I always think that it is better to do these things in twos. The show was pretty cool, although after the long day, I did struggle a bit to stay awake towards the end.

After another power nap, it was time to paint the town red with "team swag" - my roommates from the hostel. It was a pretty big night, but the hightlight was seeing one of the most unappealing pieces of dancing I have ever seen. A random irish girl (not from our hostel) appeared to be what I can only discribe as "presenting" on the dance floor i.e. she put her hands on the floor infront of her and then swayed her bits at some unfortunate guy. To top the act off she started offering to fight other girls on the dance floor. Anyway all in all it was an adventure packed day full of fun.

Then next couple of days in hanoi were relatively uneventfull, did a few more cultural things. Hung out a bit with an irish guy named Fin - who is completely besotted with melbourne - and a German girl named Christina, who is also keen to return to work in Oz. I also got to catch up again with a few of the english people I have met while spending time in Vietnam. It will be great to catch up with them all again in a few months.

The only down side is that I ended up leaving vietnam with a bit of cold and no voice.

Final aside - I really enjoyed my time in Vietnam and would recommend it anyone wanting a fun holiday. There is plenty to do and overall the people are interesting and friendly. Personally, Sapa aside, I preferred the south of vietnam to the north. Ho Chi Mihn is such an exciting and vibrant city, and there isn't the same desire to deep fry all the food, as they do in the north. I look forward to returning to Vietnam some time soon.

Ha long bay, sapa

While in the north of Vietnam I did the two standard tours, Ha Long Bay (including Cat Ba Island) and Sapa.

The first leg was the much hyped Ha Long Bay. Having booked the tour with the hostel, and knowing many of those on the tour, it was always going to be a fun trip. The bus ride to Ha Long Bay was a barrel of laughs as, we had three tour guides all trying to outdo each other.

Ha long bay itself is pretty, and would have been far more enjoyable had the weather been good. Unfortunately, we couldn't really enjoy the sun deck on the boat due to the fog and rain. Overall, though this didn't pose much of a dampener on the trip. It wasn't too cold and we were still able to enjoy the cave and some kayaking.

The kayaking was good fun even though I snapped my paddle - too much strength - and ended up spending most of the time out-rigging. The food on the boat was also pretty good, as was the evening entertainment - Beers and karaoke. After I butchered a song or two, I decided to leave it to some of the irish songbirds on the boat to take of the singing.

The next day and night were spent on Cat Ba Island, given the weather. The island itself is quiet pretty however, it wasn't possible to take advantage of the beaches due to the weather. The following day was spent almost intirely in transit - we left Cat Ba Island, then went to Hanoi, where I waited for a few hours before jumping on the train to Sapa.

Sapa turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Vietnam far more enjoyable than the mekong or ha long bay. The landscape was trully impressive, particularly as we scurried through the mountains and along the rice paddies. I was fortunate to have numerous helpers as we walked through the rice fields. Although I still managed to take more than a few tumbles in the mud. I ended up buying a scarf off the lady who helped me the most, and given the number of times she saved me for falling in the mud, it was a steal at the five dollar I paid for it.

I think the reason why the trip was so much fun was because of our guide, Chu. She was lots of fun, constantly taking us off the beaten path and then trying to hide and surpise us. We also got to meet some of her family and see her house. The first day was finished perfectly by a dip in some hot springs then a hardy dinner with a shot of rice wine.

The following day was spent walking to some more local villages and meeting more of the locals. The second days hiking was far easier than the first, however by the time the group got back to the town and had some dinner, we were more than ready for the overnight train ride back to hanoi and some well earned rest.

Again, I am having some troubles uploading the pictures to go with this post but they can be found at my facebook page.

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.