24 hour bus trips – Not always what you’re expecting

So, southwards, from Hanoi to the small town of Hoi Ann, rather neatly about midway between Hanoi and HCM city. But first, we have to get there.

Planning on catching the train, we found that full. Next option, a 24 hour bus trip. In South East Asia. This did not sound appealing. But, with few other options, bus it was.

Thankfully, it was not nearly as bad as it could have been. It fact, it was almost pleasant. The bus was modern, clean, did not break down, and it was a bona fide sleeper bus. It actually had ‘bunk beds’ for lack of a better word in the bus. That fitted my 6 foot plus frame. Bliss. Leaving Hanoi around six, Hue was reached around 8 the next morning. And thanks to the bunk beds, we slept most of the way. Although I was fortunate enough to wake at around 3 in the morning and catch a glimpse of some Vietnamese rice paddies, ghostly and beautiful under a full moon. Pity the camera was not close at hand.

At Hue, we had another unexpected surprise. We had a layover in this ancient imperial city for around 6 hours, before our 4 hour bus dash to Hoi Ann, so technically it was not a 24 hour bus journey. What a blessing.

So, after some breakfast, and stowing our bags with a friendly (and hopefully trustworthy) restaurateur we hired a couple of motorbikes and drivers and sped off for a literal whirlwind tour of Hue. First up, the ancient Citadel. The imperial seat of government in ancient Vietnam, it has been severely damaged in both the Vietnamese
War and the French resistance. However, slowly but surely attempts are being made to restore, replace and in some sections rebuild this historic site, part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this, it is still a formidable structure, although from what we gleaned from eavesdropping on tour groups, a guide would add to your experience

The wall of the Imperial Citadel from the back of a moving motorbike.

Next up, a short cruise on the back of the bike along the banks of the Perfume River to the Perfume Pagoda. The site of a functioning Buddhist monastery , it has a fantastic view over the Perfume River, and the Pagoda itself as gold images of Buddha on its base. An atmospheric and beautiful Pagoda, and well worth the visit.

The Perfume Pagoda in the background

Our briefest of brief visit over, it was back to pick up our bags, cadge a quick shower and back on the bus. For Top Gear fans this is the stretch of road that the presenters ogle over in their Vietnamese special, and rightly so. Dropping down to the coast in a series of hairpin bends before opening up on magnificent lagoons, this is some scenery you do not wan to miss. It’s also the first spot I’m visiting next time I’m in Vietnam.

A view of one of the lagoons on the way to Hoi Ann

Anyway, finally in Hoi Ann. We found a cheap hotel, and hit the streets in search of dinner. With a couple of friendly Dutch girls we found on the bus trip down, we holed up in a little restaurant, and took it upon ourselves to sample as many of the local delicacies as possible. Thankfully, nothing on the menu was more than $4, so for once this was possible. It did not hurt either that they were selling locally brewed beer at the mind-boggling price of VND4000 ($0.25) a glass. Needless to say, the meal was well washed down, and thankfully the Dutch know how to hold their beer. I had a feeling I was going to like Hoi Ann.

Published in: on 28/09/2010 at 7:31 pm  Comments (2)  
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Vietnam tales – Halong Bay


Right, where was I? Oh yes, we were just leaving Hanoi after a wonderful few days, heading for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and gobsmackingly beautiful Halong Bay. On the north-eastern edge of the country, around four hours from Hanoi, the bay is very firmly on the tourist trail, and you’ll be hard pressed at times to avoid the crowds, even outside of peak season.

It is possible however. Hanoi is literally teeming with travel agents who will organize a one in a life time trip out to the bay, sometimes for as little as $45 per trip. However, be warned, you will definitely get what you paid for here. It might be worth paying that little extra and going with a reputable tour company. It is possible to do the bay under your own steam, and if you have no time constraints, I’d say go for it.

 Anyway, on the advice of a few friends who had been in Hanoi a year earlier, we booked a 3 day trip with Hanoi Backpackers. Although they have a bit of a rep as a party outfit, they are incredibly organised, and if you’re of the travelling variety where you prefer people to hold your hand and point you in the right direction, then theses guys will make your travels a breeze. For a price of course.

Our junk - The Jolly Roger

 Anyway, an early start saw us crammed into a minibus for our four hour trip out to the bay, Only 200km away, a combination of Vietnamese roads, driving, and a welcome dislike for speed (very welcome when you consider the driving skills on offer) we made it to the bay around 11:30 or saw. Along with what seemed like half the foreigners in South East Asia. The place was awash with travellers and tourists, all keen on getting away for a little…

 Only once we had navigated round the masses, and hopped on a little tender to take us out to our junk, rather boringly called the Jolly Roger could we begin to appreciate the beauty and splendour of the place. According to our junks skipper, which rather conveniently tallies with all knowing Wiki, “when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. The people kept their land safe and formed what later became the country of Vietnam. After that, dragons were interested in peaceful sightseeing of the earth, and then decided to live here.” Lesson endeth.

 Now that you’re educated, let’s move on. We said goodbye to the hordes, and went steaming into the bay, thankfully in a direction opposite to most of the other boats.. Beer in hand and up on the top deck, it was difficult to chat to any of the fellow backpackers on board, because the views on offer were just too distracting. Limestone cliffs that seemed to defy gravity were dotted all over the place, and they seemed to hide so many little bays and inlets that it would surely take years to explore them all. With hardly another boat in sight. The views were so good I had to be called twice for lunch. A mistake I only made once. Prawns, grilled fish, fresh fruit and veggies, beef stir fry. And endless quantities……Rarely have backpackers eaten so well.

Limestone cliffs and outcrops that seem to defy gravity

 It was just as well we fueled up. The afternoon was passed in a blur of activity, jumping off the top of the junk into the waters below, a kayaking trip through the caves and tunnels, and a little light caving. Once we had all wriggled our way though the cave, we came out into a hidden pool of water, totally surrounded by the tall limestone cliffs. It looked like something straight from the movies. Floating in the warm water looking up at the sky was the most epic way to pass a Monday afternoon. That evening was spent under a full moon on the deck of the junk, after yet another wonderful meal and a few cold beers. Mercifully, the few other junks that were moored in the same bay were well scattered, so it was quiet and peaceful, and truly beautiful in the moonlight.

Our secret swimming hole

 Bright and early the next day, we transferred onto a smaller tender, and set off for a two hour cruise deep into the heart of the bay. We passed a few of the local, floating fishing villages, and saw some of the fishermen in action. Almost all of the little floating villages had a few dogs living on them, and as our skipper explained to us that the dogs are used for security when the family goes out to fish. They, like the fisherman will hardly ever go onto dry land, and will spend most of their lives on the water.

Guard dogs out on the water

 And then, a little piece of paradise. Overlooked by sheer limestone cliffs on three side, we came across a small bay, with a little white beach, some palm trees,and a few beach shacks. This would be our home for the next couple of days. Complete with hammocks, English books(a rarity in Korea), snorkels, a speedboat with skis and a banana boat, great food, large quantities of cold beer, twenty or so backpackers, it was a tough place to spend a few days. But someone has to do it…

Our 'Beach'

 Stay tuned for the next installment. Hue and Hoi Ann….

I hope heaven looks something like this

Published in: on 24/08/2010 at 7:14 pm  Comments (6)  
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Vietnam Travels – Hanoi

As I write this, I’m on the night train, slowly chugging south towards Saigon.

Admittedly, I am only posting this post several days after the fact, yet that sentence just seems to impossibly romantic not to include. But wait, I’ve skipped too far ahead. Allow me to backtrack a little.

Summer means holidays in most parts of the world, even in the Korean public school system. Two weeks of freedom to go and explore a new part of Asia. Myself and a couple of fellow teachers who had coinciding holidays choose to visit Vietnam, around a 4.5 hours flight from Korea. A country that is perhaps better known as a war than an independent state (at least in the west), I was not sure what to expect. And yet, and expectations I had were completely surpassed one hundred times over, and then some. I only hope these blogs can do some justice can adequately convey just how wonderful I found Vietnam.

Saturday saw us at Incheon airport, eagerly awaiting our Vietnam Air flight into Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. As chance would have it, some friends were heading out to Cambodia at the same time as us, and yet more friends were flying to Beijing, so we all had a celebratory breakfast before we scattered off to our various holiday spots.

On the flight, for once, instead of being seated next to a crying baby, or an obese sweaty man who has no concept of personal space (oh the joys of flying) I found myself next to a gorgeous Korean girl. Unfortunately, she was seated next to her father and mother. Equally unfortunately, she spoke barely a word of English, and I’m not much better in Korean.

Oh well, next time perhaps.

Anyway, with all thoughts of a holiday romance shot down before they could even get going, we land in Hanoi. Despite being Vietnam’s capital, Saigon in the south is the country’s economic powerhouse, and Hanoi is consequently much smaller than its big sister in the South. This is clearly illustrated in the airport, which is small and bland and reminds me of East London’s airport. Equally surprisingly, although this was a pleasant surprise, was the weather on arrival. While hot, it was not unbearable, and while humid, is was nothing special. After Korea’s humidity, this was a piece of cake.

 A bus trip took us into Hanoi and dropped us off on the edge of the old quarter of Hanoi. The ride in had given us our first taste of the crazy traffic, with thousands of motorbikes, hooting everywhere and what seemed like chaos going on everywhere. It was almost (and I stress almost, more chaotic than Cairo’s traffic). Somehow it seemed to work though, and within a few days we hardly even noticed the crazy traffic.

Motorbikes rule supreme

We found accommodation at the Viet Fun Hotel, in Ngo Huyen Street, just a few blocks from Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter. We were headed for the backpackers just next door, but who would say no to their own private room and bathroom for just a $1 more than sharing a dorm? Especially a room with a balcony overlooking the colourful streets of Hanoi.

Looking out onto Hanoi's streets

Settled, it was off to hit the streets. Noisy, bustling with people, motorbikes everywhere, it was chaotic. And wonderful. The more we wandered the town, the more I liked it. Once we had figured out how to cross the streets (simply plunge in, and walk steadily, no running, the motorbikes will avoid you) we did some shopping in the Old Quarter, tried to eat everything we saw, visited a few attractions and reveled in being somewhere new.

One highlight of Hanoi, and one the continued throughout our trip , was the food. Especially after 5 odd months in South Korea, the use of fresh herbs like mint, basil and lemon grass to namebut a few was wonderfully refreshingly, as was as the abundant supply of fresh fruit and shakes. All at knock down prices. It really was bliss. A firm favourite was quickly discovered in the form of Pho bo (thick beef noodle soup) with its generous mint flavours. Sold just about everywhere, the best I had was one night on the street corner. Seated on tiny wooden stool,quite literally cheek to jowl with the other customers a large bowl of pho and bread, all for the princely sum of VD20 000 (around $1).

Hoan Kiem lake at night

A definite must next time you find yourself in Hanoi is the Hoa Lo Prison. More commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton, the was the prison that most recently housed downed US pilots during the Vietnam war. However, it has a long history prior to that as a detention centre that the French used during their occupation of the country prior to WWII. Expertly done, the museum is an excellent place to wonder for an hour or so, and tells an interesting, if rather one-sided view of the Vietnam struggle for liberation. Definitely well worth a visit.

The French influence on Vietnam is particularly evident in several spheres, most notablyin  much of Hanoi’s architecture. Of much more importance to me however, is the food legacy that they left behind. Imagine, after five months in typically Asian Korea, finding real bakeries. With fresh baguettes, croissants and cheese. Loads of it, in all sorts of varieties, everywhere. And at wonderfully reasonable prices as well. My only regret is that I didn’t have more if it while I was there. We found an awesome bakery right next to the UN buildings in Hanoi, and I am actively looking for a job with the UN in Hanoi so that I might be able to have lunch there every day….

The Old Quarter. So much shopping, so little time

After four wonderful, and all too short days in Hanoi, it was off to Halong Bay. Coming up in the next installment…..

Published in: on 17/08/2010 at 7:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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