Friday, 23 October 2009

Sapa





































Sapa is a town in the highlands of the northwest of Vietnam, a stone's throw away from the highest peak in Indochina, Mount Fransipan. We reached it by yet another overnight train, this time from Hanoi to Lao Cai which is right by the Chinese border, pulling in to warm darkness at 5.30am and then driven the 40 odd km to Sapa, a short but very steep trip through misty valleys.

The town of Sapa and the surrounding region is home to many indigenous tribes, most of home fled persecution in China a few hundred years ago. As we arrived into town, curious women of the black H'mong tribe, all less than 5ft tall and all dressed in their traditional outfits made of handwoven hemp and dyed with a dark blue colour made from a local flower, gawked at us through the van windows. After breakfast, they proved a lot more open and savvy, asking question upon question and politely trying to sell their wares to us as they remained glued to our sides through the day.

It seems that since good roadways were built around 2001, the tribeswomen have been coming to Sapa to walk with tourists who were trekking through this region and through their villages, a safe and interesting way for them to learn english and create income by selling along the way. There is no doubt they are persistent, asking over and over 'Buy from me' but they are simple people with an interest in foreigners and are happy to help with the hard bits of the trek. They also have very beautiful faces, full of expression, character and almost always, laughter!

Our excellent local guide, Name, led us out on the first morning for a four hour round trip down to Cat Cat village to see a waterfall and an old French built power station now used as a hall to show tribal dancing. After the long overnight train trip, we needed a long snooze in the afternoon to ready ourselves for the two day trek we were about to embark on!

As we departed on the second morning, a group of 5 H'mong women left with us for the long walk to their village of Giang Ta Chai. The questions started again but this time we got to ask a few in reply. It seems most of them marry at 16, start having children at 17 and often birth their children at home without medicine and with only the help of their mother. As it turned out, we found out later that one of the women who walked with us that day, covering the 14 km of hot, steep and often slippery terrain, was 8 months pregnant and another, had lost a child to fever just 10 days ago! Talk about resilience!

It was an easy flat decline on the road out of Sapa but after a kilometre or so, we plunged into the valley to reach the first village of Y Linh Hao, helped every step of the way by our tribeswomen friends. Libby often had a woman on each arm, holding her weight and make her footing sure! Dave managed on his own in a very manly way but after switching off his concentration for a moment, managed to put both feet in ankle deep mud when he wasn't watching where he was stepping!

The landscape is quintessentially spectacular. Thousands of hillsides in the valley are terraced with recently harvested rice paddies, all carved by hand scythe, creating a live topography map. It's easy to see why they say that the wet rice paddies are full of sweat as the terraces are often too steep and narrow for buffalo, meaning all the planting, watering and harvesting has to be done by hand!

After lunch by the river at Lao Chai, we visited a primary school in Ta Van village, built and maintained by the government but supported by Unicef who provide books, pens and bags for the children. It was nice to see the real life end product of the support that we and many other people give to this huge organisation. Leaving the school, our happy H'mong ladies helped us up the valley face and through a bamboo forest, coming out the other side next to a waterfall situtated above the Giang Ta Chai village where we would spend the night with a local family. It was here we bid goodbye to our H'mong friends, but not before some stern bargaining to purchase some handmade pillowcases, bracelets and bookmarks in order to thank them for their help to reach our destination.

Our homestay family belonged to the Dzay tribe, who do not wear distinctive tribal clothing but live side by side with the black H'mong and Red Zao tribes. The parents had two small sons, one at the local school which is also supported by Unicef, and they were extremely welcoming and friendly - especially the father who brought out his 'Happy Water' moonshine during our dinner feast which we helped prepare! Needless to say, we slept like logs after the long walk, especially with the knowledge that tomorrow's walk was 'shorter, but more vertical'. Sheesh!

It was a very steep hike up and out of the valley, passing an even smaller primary school where children share classrooms in years 1 and 2, 3 and 4 etc, with one set of students facing a blackboard at the front and they others facing the blackboard at the back of the room, while the teacher oscillates between the two. Also, the teacher visits the homes of the children each morning before class to get them to come to school in order to encourage attendance! Amazing.

We stopped in at a house of a Red Zao family, whose tribe wear distinctive red head dresses and once married, shave their eyebrows to signify cleanliness! They also proudly refuse to eat dog (dog is eaten in Vietnam but only at the end of the month) as legend says that their ancestors survived only on the milk of a canine in a time of ancient famine!

Leaving the home, we dove down through more thick bamboo forest, passing huge and beautiful butterflies and locusts as we crossed the river at the bottom of the valley again, pushing hard back up the steep slope and past more terraced rice paddies to the road to Sapa. We were overjoyed to have made it to lunch on a little terrace in the breeze after such a hard slog that day, but the effort was well worth it! On the road back to Sapa we were amazed to see how much of the valley we had covered in our two day walk and equally amazed by the state of the road, broken in many places by landslides not yet repaired.

Sapa is now a busy tourist town with many travellers coming for the rewarding trekking in the valleys that lie below. But we were lucky enough to have walked with a guide who took us on the tracks less travelled (and more steep) and it was that, along with the friendly and entertaining tribespeople we interacted with along the way, that made this trip some of the best travelling we've done!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Hanoi locals






























By the end of our time here in Vietnam, we'll have spent almost a full week in the northern capital. During that time, we've felt very much at home and part of the local community. It's got to the point now where our coffee lady sees us coming and has our order on the way even before we sit down, friends we've made at cafes and restaurants spend longer each time chatting and practicing their english. It's a very friendly city, particularly in the Old Quarter and we'd recommend it to anyone looking to truly experience the romantic images and emotions of old Indochina.

The city is full of wily old characters like the man who runs the photo shop down the street from where we are staying who, while making a copy of our photos, engaged in a long chat about changes over the last thirty years for 'The Party', corruption, population growth, as well as memories of the War like 12 continuous days of bombing of the city by US B-52 bombers. We asked if he hid in basements or left the city but he replied that it was no use, if the bombs hit your home, you were dead in the basement or wherever so he preferred to watch from the roof.

The night markets on Hang Ngang Street are always buzzing. Women pushing past each other to reach bargain scarves and shoes, children in pyjamas playing on the footpath or walking with their parents, lads on scooters beeping and slowly weaving their scooters through the crowd with their girlfriends sitting side saddle.

Hanoi is much quieter, slower and easier to manage on a Sunday. The kids are out of school and piled into the internet gaming cafes. Women pushing bicycles overflowing with flowers or carrying baskets teeming with bananas for sale wander through the streets and the markets themselves are full but not rushed. The older generation walk around or sit by Hoam Kem Lake, pondering what life has given them and what is left to come. An old man opens the window of his upper floor apartment to hang washing on the hundreds of electrical wires above the street.

Before leaving for Sapa, we both endured a hilarious three hour 'foot spa', which turned out to consist of a bowl of warm water too small for both of Dave's feet, then a stern scraping of our feet to remove the dead skin, a foot massage, a dipping in paraffin wax and covering with cling film to keep the skin moist and warm, removal of the wax and rubbing with lavender oil, more foot massage and even a complimentary neck and shoulder massage; all for the bargain price of 8 quid each! We also stopped in at the hilariously named but actually quite good ice creamery - 'Fanny'. A very funny day indeed.

We've certainly visited the sights as well. Hoa Lo prison was quite bare and bleak, the Temple of Literature was an oasis of quiet in the hustle of the city, the City Flag Tower is yet another reminder of the colonial powers who have been and gone. We also stopped by KOTO for a lovely lunch prepared and hosted by young trainees. KOTO is a charity, set up by an Australian Vietnamese man Jimmy Phan, to give opportunities to children and young people in poverty, homelessness, and from disadvantaged backgrounds in Hanoi. Each year KOTO takes on around 50 trainees who are given a home and the opportunity to learn hospitality and catering skills as well as English over a 24 month period and whom are supported into a work placement when they have graduated. KOTO is much like what Jamie Oliver has done with Fifteen. Dave visted KOTO in 2006 when he was in Hanoi and was pleased to see the sandwich sized cafe grown into such a large buzzing successful restaurant.

The lasting memories for us will be the people themselves, their stories, their smiles, their interest and friendship. They have welcomed us into their city and made us feel less like foreigners. Thank you Hanoi.

Mr and Mrs T xx

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Hanoi and Halong Bay














































Arriving late into Hanoi, we walked over towards the night market for some late dinner, only to find some of the most hilarious entries on our food stall's menu such as 'Intestine Hot Pot', 'Fried Noodle and Noodle', 'Poached Pigeon or Frog', 'Chicken Heart and Tiny Intestine' and best of all, 'Rarely Fighting Cock'! Needless to say, we opted for safe options like beef and potatoes and chips cooked in butter.

It was wet and windy the next morning so of course we decided to spend the day walking in the rain, doing a circuit of Hoam Kem Lake and stopping in at a few galleries. We then hiked it right across town to find the Bicycle Cafe, full of old velocettes and bikes and bric-a-brac. It was amazing to see locals using the street as an extension of their kitchen, even in the pouring rain. With no such thing as frozen storage, everything has to be bought fresh and cooked fresh. The whole city is a walking farmers market!

We had a lovely dinner at H Silk Cafe, a small but smart space above a silk shop. In the evening we indulged in some local 'kulcha' at the Water Puppet Theatre, a show of fire breathing dragons and spawning pheonix all set to traditional singing and music - Andy loved it! We stopped in at Half Man Half Noodle for a nightcap where Caroline, true to form, managed to order the strongest cocktail ever.

It was wet again the following morning when we left Hanoi for Halong Bay. It was a super slow drive out to the bay and a long wait for our boat but a lovely afternoon cruising between the limestone karsts, looking ominous in the grey mist. We kayaked through a small tunnel to reach a bay where a family of monkeys were clinging to the cliff face with their youngsters scaling the walls. We moored in a small cove for the night next to a 'party boat' where one reveller managed to dance on and then fall through a chair. Nice one. Andy and Dave rounded out the night by sampling the local Hanoi Vodka, rice fermented for a (not so) smooth taste!

Next morning Dave got up early for some photos at dawn with the boat later swinging out towards Cat Ba Island. The weather was perfect for sunning on the top deck and plenty of clear views of the more than 2000 limestone islands sitting in the emerald waters. Back on land, it was a quick lunch then slow ride back to Hanoi for our last night with Caroline and Andy. They were lovely enough to treat us to an amazing dinner that night at Green Tangerine, a fantastic French Vietnamese fusion restaurant set in a 1920's colonial house in the Old Quarter. A fitting end to a perfect two weeks with them. It was so lovely to have them along for the ride in Vietnam and we can't wait to hear their stories from Thailand and swap ours from the rest of our trip. Miss you guys already!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Danang and Hoi An




























































We pulled into Danang the following morning and took a taxi for the 30km out to Hoi An, passing huge developments being built on the coastline including a Sheraton resort and Montgomery Golf course - Danang will be a very different city in 3 years time.

Hoi An is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, the whole city is UNESCO world heritage listed with houses and temples sporting a heavy Chinese influence, buildings washed in French colonial yellow, cobbled streets and super friendly people. They love to tout for every business you could possibly need in Hoi An but for the most part, it's friendly rather than pushy banter.

Andy and Dave kicked off the day with their own photography tour while Libby and Caroline got measured up for their tailor made dresses and jackets. The tailor was especially fond of Caroline who got a firm slap on the bum each time she finished a measurement!

We found a little strip of outdoor food stalls by the market on Le Loi and Nguyen Than Hoc streets, where cheap but scrummy local food is prepared quickly, noisily and always with a smile. The energy was always friendly when we ate there during our stay and Libby and Caroline even managed to meet some lads from their parents' hometown of Sprowston, Norfolk!

Next day we sharpened our culinary skills at the fabulous cooking course run by Red Bridge Restaurant and School. The day started with a visit to a local organic farm to see how their herbs are all grown, watered and picked by hand, even using a particular type of fish to purify the water they use on the plants rather than any sort of chemical! Dave even volunteered to help out with the watering. We then visited a local market to purchase our spices and vegetables for the dishes we were to make that afternoon and to see how fresh meat, chicken and fish is sold to the masses.

Our cooking class was held at a beautiful river villa and it was here we learnt the art of turning super fresh ingredients into fantastic tasting food. There's no magic to it, just a respect for the best and freshest ingredients possible and using them to compliment and highlight their tastes. We somehow managed to turn out a beef pho noodle soup (including rice noodles made from scratch!), grilled chicken salad, marinated prawns cooked in banana leaf and tumeric fish cooked in a clay pot....the best food we had tasted so far on the trip and some of the best food we had ever cooked ourselves! Caroline and Andy were especially adept so we are now expecting they will keep up the practice when they get home next week so that we can have a Vietnamese feast served up on our return in December!

Next day we hired a couple of scooters to ride out to Cua Dia beach for a spot of sun and a laugh at the men jackhammering on a roof top in their flipflops (no such thing as health and safety over here!) before riding out on back roads to see daily life at 30kph - women sifting rice by the side of the road, water buffalo working and lazing in fields, men throwing fishing nets out from their riverboats. Vietnam is certainly relishing their current peaceful life after generations of struggle against external invaders.

Dinner that night was back at our friendly spot on Le Loi where Caroline spotted an offer on the menu that sounded just too good to be true - "Buy one, get one!" Bargain!

We took the bikes out again on our last day in Hoi An, braving the heat and the dust on the road towards Danang to reach the Marble Mountains. Here, at the top of a lot of stairs, are pagodas and Buddhas and temples in caves carved out of the marble mineral that makes up these rocky outcrops. Long views of Danang's beaches are to be had from the top and as much as we would have liked to take a 'Happy Buddha only one dollar' home with us, it was too much weight to risk given our planned spending spree for our last days in Bangkok. So we legged it back to Hoi An before getting our flight (cancelled by Jetstar again! Thanks fellas!) to Hanoi.

Hoi An is definately a place to spend a few days in Vietnam. The old town is beautiful, the people kind and friendly and as Libby and Caroline will attest to, the tailored clothes and shoes a must!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Na na nana na na Nha Trang!
















After the (unnecessary) 5am wake up call from Libs and Caroline, we took an early breakfast and a little power snooze before heading out to Long Son Temple where a huge reclining marble Buddha rests in his side along with an imposing bright white sitting Buddha on the hill top. Our 'guide' convinced us that the monks were sleeping and we should therefore tip toe around the pagoda but given the searing heat, there was no way we were stomping around in any event.

After Long Son temple we stopped in at a small gallery of black and white photography by local artist, Long Thahn, with some fantastic portraits of daily life in this region. The afternoon was spent cooling down on the beach and (more) beers at sunset before a brilliant dinner in the evening at Lac Cahn restaurant, where we grilled little marinated strips of chicken, beef and pork on a little charcoal grill they bring to your table. Kind of like a mini BBQ, Vietnamese stylee!

During dinner, a waitress stopped at our table and asked if she could chat with us and practice her english, a friendly phenomenon that happens quite regularly in Vietnam. With this generation of Vietnamese people being the first to live their whole lives without an external oppressor, they are genuinely curious about the world and how we live. Her english was very good and she had a million questions about life in the UK including the retirement age, the number of children couples tend to have and even maternity leave entitlements! Our exchange of facts and figures passed the time while we waited for the torrential storm to pass outside, heading over to Guava Bar for late drinks with the backpacker crew.

The following day we took a cab down to the pier to grab a super fast speed boat across the bay to Hon Tre Island where we visited Vinpearl Land, a huge entertainment world complete with a waterpark and amusement centre, that hosted the Miss World pageant a few years back. It was waterpark first up and Caroline somehow managed to bust her nose on the very first slide of the day! But showing some true Ashley-Booth spirit, she sucked it up and jumped back on as we rode 'The Tsunami' halfpipe and the 'Family Raft Ride'. Andy and Dave braved 'The Space Hole' that painfully spat you down a long decent and into a large bowl where you spun round and round and round before being unceremoniously dumped into a pool. Fun fun fun!

In the afternoon we played free video games and rode the bumper cars and carousel before taking that speedy speed boat back across the bay for dinner and late night shopping, where Andy got shown every table runner in the shop!

We started our final day in Nha Trang with a lazy morning at the beach and had to run for cover when the rain pulled in but no matter as we took refuge at the Louisanne Brewhouse, a microbrewery and restaurant right on the beach front. They do a very good Czech pilsner, a refreshing passionfruit ale and very decent sushi.

Leaving the Brewhouse we flagged what turned out to be the most grateful and pleasant taxi driver in the world as he thanked us a million times while driving us to the Thap Ba mud baths and mineral pools. The four of us sunk into our little private tub of mud, working the warm muck into our skin before getting under a high pressure shower to wash the mud out and then sinking into a big bath of warm mineral water, finishing up with a swim in pools varying between 20 and 38 degrees and a warm waterfall to wash the tension away. Who needs Clinique and Estee Lauder!?!? After 3 hours of relax-a-vous, we were amazed to see our happy taxi man still waiting out the front for us and he was over the moon to see us too as he thanked each of us personally over and over for giving him a return fare! Bless him.

It was a long overnight train that night for Danang and Hoi An, with Libby meeting a few bug friends on the way!

Mr and Mrs T xx

Hot and sticky in Ho Chi Minh
















Despite the unplanned delay in Darwin, we were over the moon to find Caroline and Andy waiting in the Hotel Metropole for us in Saigon, in the bar of course! They were here to spend two weeks travelling through Vietnam with us, gaining an insight into the travel bum lifestyle we've perfected since April.

It was a baptism of fire on the first day as we took them on the public bus to the Chinatown area of Cholon to visit the Binh Tay market. No english speaking drivers or guides on the bus, only Dave's eagle eye and fading memory to make sure we got off at the right stop. We got there and found Binh Tay, a maze of every product you could ever want and some you definitely wouldn't, like the pungent dried shrimp and cuttlefish stores. We wandered out of there and searched for some temple pagodas that Dave had visited last time but it seems London living has taken it's toll as we just walked around in circles in the searing heat before giving up and getting a cab across town to the War Remnants Museum. It is a truly moving experience to visit this museum and no visit to Saigon is complete without it. The photography displays lay out the useless and random brutality of war as well as the resilience of the Vietnam people to survive despite horrendous ploys like the 'tiger cages' used for prisoners on Phu Quoc Island.

We walked around the Reunification Palace and Ben Thanh market for beers where a street vendor tried to sell Dave a razor to sort out his travel beard! Clever woman. Passing through Le Loi Park we stumbled across 60 or so ladies all doing aerobics in the dark! The Vietmanese are very health conscious, despite their super fast paced lifestyle. The next day we walked across to the Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office where Uncle Ho's portrait hangs in the main hall and then had a fab lunch at Quan An Ngon, set out in a lovely french colonial house with open air kitchens. We grabbed some cakes from a german bakery on D Pasteur and then past the People's Committee Hall and Opera House to reach the Caravelle Hotel for drinks on the 10th floor bar named Saigon Saigon (so good, they named it twice!).

Took a slow walk back through Pham Ngu Lao for drinks before heading to the station for our overnight train to Nha Trang. Poor Caroline got a bout of the Saigon Belly before we even left the platform but pulled it together for beers and cards as we trundled along the coast. Overnight trains in Vietnam are generally clean, comfortable and safe, despite the fact that the movement of the train during the night makes you feel like you are trying to sleep on a longhaul flight with turbulance the whole way!

In the end, Libs and Caroline made some local friends when they cleverly woke Dave and Andy (and the rest of the carriage!) up at 5am when they thought the train had arrived at it's final destination, only 2 and a half hours early!

Out of the stifling heat of Saigon, into the hot frying pan of Nha Trang!

Mr and Mrs T xx

The Darwin Theory






















There are a lot of strange people in Darwin. Really strange. And our theory is that it's the heat and humidity that brings a little climate change in the minds of these poor souls, raising the ocean levels in their brains. But for or because of that, it's a place to be seen to be believed, just stay out of the midday sun if you don't want to end up a fried, sweaty, crazy version of your former self.
We spent the first day lazing by the pool at our hotel and ended up celebrating the engagement of Cam and Claire with an extra bottle of vino. Nice one guys! We also stopped in at the BAT House to check out a very good photo exhibition that traced the history of a local family dynasty with ties to the indigenous Aboriginal communities as well as the Scottish and Phillipino immigrant groups.
Day two we took the bus up to Fannie Bay, walking along Vesteys Beach to the Darwin Ski Club (water, not snow skiing obviously) for another session of beers at sunset - we've lost count of how many of those we've had so far on this trip!

The following day we were up and out at 7am for our day out at Litchfield National Park. Our bus headed south out of Darwin, passing the jail where Lindy Chamberlain was once held ("A dingo took my baybee!") and John Murdoch, the man convicted of Peter Falconio's murder, now spends his days. We also passed Humpty Doo, unsurprisingly the only town in the world with that name and also home to some of the most frequent lightning strikes in the world as there are lots of iron deposits below ground.

We then took a morning cruise on the Adelaide River where 4 to 5 metre crocodiles use their tail to push their bodies vertically up and out of the water to get the pork chop dangled to them over the side of the boat. Awesome! We also saw a huge white breasted sea eagle swoop in to get his feed and black and white whistler kites that swarmed and squawked like a scene out of Harry Potter!

After lunch, we stopped at Wangi Falls and took a dip in the water hole below, watched on by 100's of huge bats taking refuge in the shade of the trees. We then stopped by the beautiful Florence Falls before another swim at 'nature's 5 star baths' at Buley Rockhole, a succession of cascading plunge pools. On the way back we stopped by huge 4 to 5 metre magnetic (built to face north to south) and cathedral (built with lots of individual towers) termite mounds on the floodplains. All in all, a fabulous day out in the Outback!

On the thursday we took a bus to the magnificent Mindl Beach markets, full of stalls selling great handcrafts and fantastic food, all against a beautiful beach sunset backdrop. Dave even tried his hand on the mechanical bull, shirking his city boy status by staying on for 53 seconds! Yeehar!

We savoured a little slice of luxury thanks to Mel and Ben after that, staying at the new Vibe Hotel in the Wharf Precinct. We lazed by the pool and played in the huge wave lagoon nearby with Libby getting some serious air on the blow up rings!

Our stay in Darwin was actually a day longer than expected after Jetstar kindly moved our flight back a day without telling us, meaning we couldn't meet up with Caroline and Andy in Saigon as planned, but that rant is best saved for another day. It was still a great week in the far north of Oz, the weather readying us for our landing in the hotbed of Saigon!

Mr and Mrs T xx