Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Saigon (Sorry Ho Chi Minh City)



Last post was finished with just a couple of hours in Dalat to go but these should be just briefly mentioned. Went to a restaurant we had been before and were invited to try his artichoke wine on the house – a fiery brew. Had a couple of glasses of wine then back to the hotel where Tien and Viet (our landlords) threw a small soiree of guests to celebrate Tiens birthday. As promised would happen when drinking beer – her cheeks went like the sun! Very nice evening again with cakes and beer to fill us up.

Saigon. Whoa!? A bit lively but in a good way. Same noise as Hanoi, same obligatory profusion of bikes everywhere, same food but buzzy and vibrant. Much more happening feel.  Nearest we  can compare to is Bangkok. The road we are just off is even a bit like Khoa San Road without the market in the middle but same Bars, restaurants and prostitutes. Its full of back packers and hawkers and everyone is out to make a buck so it only seems to sleep for about 2 hours in every 24. Its in your face but we like it and even stay up till 10pm on the first night after travelling all day and go to bed with milk and cookies.

Day two and we walk our little legs off. Notre dame style cathedral but with big Vietnamese star over the round glass window;  The recently renamed ‘War Remnants Museum’ (previously the American War Atrocities Museum) – Basically a complete propaganda smear on the yanks that sort of warps the reality of what and how stuff happened. OK they did shitty things and used chemicals on civilians but the war had raged for years prior and after and the communist forces were no angels. Still very interesting if not somewhat gory in its pictoral portrayal of the American years of involvement; Independence place. A large, 1960’s built building of little interest filled with boring conference rooms where the seat of government was or is (can’t remember) run from. Anyway we walked in, scratched our arses and walked out; we saw the post office – nice, various markets and squares – some good some not and generally drank coffee and walked. Would happily spend time hear again just people watching as the sights are not that many but the place is interesting.

Day three we went to the Cu Chi tunnels. Now I thought this would be interesting but the constant monologue given by our group guide and former Vietnamese born, US serving Naval captain bored the shit out of us. This self congratulatory man told us of his war exploits in which he was always the hero and the various friends he made along the way – all now famous (guess we wouldn’t be impressed if they weren’t). Anyway, the droning voice and fact this was an organised tour took its toll on us. With un scheduled ‘authentic handicrafts’ stops and piss breaks it was almost 5 hours before we saw anything of the tunnels. What a disappointment. First a political film with chirpy music where happy viet cong cheerfully kill Americans. Next another monologue to an extended group about our guides involvement in the war, then a slow tour of a bomb crater, various traps involving spikes, a hole to hide in, an air vent and a tank all of which were either to tedious to actually take pics of or, if you wanted to, they had to include images of a German and Australian family’s kids who were the first at any attraction and the last to leave. There was an opportunity to shoot real ammo in a gun but the thrill seemed somewhat limited since you shot a pile of dirt at the cost of £1.20 per bullet. Finally you got to go in the tunnel – 100 metres of bending over and sweating in a area under 1 metre high and 600mm wide. Plainly this would have been a horrible way to fight your war so begs the question why not make life easier and make the tunnels  a bit taller!!! All in all we and several others on the trip were dissatisfied with it and had to drink at least two beers on return to Saigon to cheer us up.

Tomorrow we are on a bus to take us to Chau Doc (via a floating market) and then the following day up the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh on a slow boat. We are a little bit afraid but will report on that once its finished

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dalat and the Highlands




The journey to Dalat was a 10½ hour overnight train to Nha trang was bumpy, not that air conditioned and spent sharing a small cabin with two other people and a baby. Sleep for both of us is minimal and our tiredness is not improved after tramping the streets for 3 hours before another 4 hour bus journey.

The good news is that the bus then provides a free taxi service to get us to our hotel which is cheap (£7 a night), clean and quiet. Our hosts Tien and Viet are warm and welcoming and smile when they tell us we should have arrived yesterday (whoops).

Dalat, is sadly not like Paris in the Alps as was suggested. It is like any other town in this country and is filled with motorbikes, motorbikes, scooters and more motorbikes. Our first afternoon and evening are not the best of starts….we get lost walking to find somewhere to eat. Eventually, very tired and hungry we find a restaurant that is serving food and are shown to a table by a lovely young lady who has limited English. The menu is all in Vietnamese with only a few pictures of unrecognisable food stuffs. So we order beer. And peanuts come out too, hooray. This followed by something that is half edible and  is no sooner finished than real fatigue sets in and we stumble home to bed. By 7.45 we are sound asleep.

 
The following morning is beautiful, bright and hopeful. We hire our customary motorbike and head off in search of interesting stuff and find Linh Phuoc temple.  This is a temple, pagoda and adjoining building is entirely covered in broken pieces of crockery or glass (tessellation I believe is the correct term). This might sound a bit naff but until you witness the scale, splendour, colour and skill with which the task has been completed you cannot make that assumption. This place is astonishing. Three dimensional murals, dragons, flowers, and patterns  cover every inch of the place from the underneath of stair risers to the top of the ornate and shapely roofs. Whilst this on-going adornment has become a tourist attraction its roots and essential purpose is in the veneration of Budha. This incredibly labour intensive work gives rise to wonder but without the overpowering sense of majesty one gets from a Church or Mosque. And set as it is, in a little village in the hills, it is even more impressive and virtually deserted so we were at liberty to nose at work in progress, see the 18 metre high flower sculpture and look enviously at a religious pimp my ride bus.

We had intended to go to Tiger Falls but could not find the bloody place although it turns out we drove past it twice. Since hunger was setting in we gave up and on route home ate from a hawker stand at the side of the road – a soupy concoction with bits of pate floating on soggy noodles. The food was mundane but the company rapidly grew as news of ‘round eyes’ eating at the side of the road got around the village and we were soon joined by several onlookers including the town drunk who tried to make us drink hooch.

On route home we visit a newly built temple high up on the hill overlooking a small village. No one is about, save a couple of gardeners, until loping out of nowhere there suddenly appeared the caretaker. Stooped, a speech impediment, twitching, an odd gait, unsettling eyes and a large chunk missing from his temporal lobe which had left him slightly brain damaged. He proceeds to beckon us into the temple which he opens specially and after flicking on the neon lights that bedeck the main hall, gives us a tour including (this is true) the twin turrets  in which are housed two giant bells that he caresses fondly when I touch them. He shakes his head, smiles and then leads us up to the roof to look down around the town below. The similarity between Notre Dame/Quasimodo and the temple/caretaker character is startling. However, young Esmeralda and I left unscathed and we warmly shook the kind gentleman’s hands as we thanked him and left some time later.

That evening we were invited by the hotel owners Viet and Tien to join them for dinner, rather than go out to eat and were treated to tasty fish,  various vegetables, rice and a few shots of Viets very strong home made liquor. A great evening with lots of laughs and such an honour to once again be invited to share time and food with our lovely generous hosts.
 
The following day was spent looking around Crazy House, one of the old kings summer palaces and the town. In reverse order the town is just a town and a bit shit, the summer palace is an art deco building with strangely worn out (for a palace) 1930’s furniture and drab walls – not terribly palace like, a thing made even more apparent by the strange inclusion of a few large dilapidated plastic animals scattered around the , quite frankly, slightly tatty gardens. Finally – Crazy House. A bizarre, surreal dream-cum-reality building of fantastic, dali-esque shapes. Walkways like dripping lava caverns connect irregularly shaped rooms in which weirdly shaped furniture is found. Stairways go, in out and over the top of the building and have moulded vines falling down into the profusion of flowers and other strange ornaments below. This fantastical realisation of a dream was the work of Vietnamese woman who was plainly tripping when she designed this amazing piece of architecture.

Another beautiful morning started by buying breakfast in the swankiest hotel in town at the cost of £8 for both of us. That is a lot here but if you consider how much we ate (ney, gorged) then it was money well spent. The day was spent first at Elephant falls. It’s a waterfall reached by a lovely journey with stunning views along the winding roads of the highlands as we dipped in and out of various valleys. The sun shone and lovely fragrances filled our noses from the various market gardens and crops along the way. The falls are about 20 metres across and the water cascades down onto rocks and small pool before rushing away down the river.  The sound of the falling water, the spray in the air and surrounding scenery are a joy to see but the sense of power and excitement from the torrential water when we managed to get behind the falls was something else and well worth the scramble over boulders and through crevices to get there.

Just by the falls is a temple in whose pleasant gardens stands, or rather sits, a giant, lime green, laughing Budha. This huge statue (20m at a guess) is fabulous. His huge mouth is agape in a roaring laugh and bulbous belly (that contains a room) rests on his chubby crossed legs. No doubt he is laughing at the expansive views which he overlooks.  This is religious iconography as it should be. Humorous, self depreciating and friendly (rather than a wounded, tortured man nailed up on a cross).The obligatory weird shit can also be found in the gardens – this time a sort of nativity scene of kneeling and standing men and women with a back drop of 3d mountains.

Final visit of the day was to a silk factory. Did you know that the average Cocoon is spun with 1km of silk thread and 10 silk strands make up the average commercial thread. We learnt other stuff and watched the process of extracting and spinning the silk. Very interesting but quite frankly not as interesting as eating the grubs. One of the workers was drying some grubs out on a hot pipe beside the place she worked and offered one to me. After I had finished impressing various locals and other travellers I had eaten five. Not as heroic as it seems as there was no goo just a brown shape that tasted and had the consistency of peanuts. No great but actually not bad.

Final day in Dalat and we are going out in style. 5 star breakfast again in the posh hotel followed by a trip to 'The Valley of Love'. A piece of sheer inspiration from the Vietnamese government. A huge lake, picturesque gardens, pleasant walks and shadey pine forests set in a few hundred acres and populated with every cheesy symbol of love you can think of. Cuddly animals, love swings, hearts, romantic couple statues, holding hands statues, heart shaped fountains and even seats with lovers embracing on the back rest. There were carriages rides and swan pedloes and horses for hire. Even tandems and a gaudy looking train to take you around the

We thought she was just running her loving fingers through
his hair but soon realised she had tweezers and was looking for
'The Lice of Love'


 lake. Everything was as tacky as tacky can be but set in this lovely landscape. On the one hand we were in hysterics at how bad it was then we would turn a corner and see a beautiful tree or aspect of the lake unseen before. An absolute must for any visitor here as long as its taken for what it is. so good in fact that we dedicated a folder of its own on drop box if anyone is interested:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/kmsvx0c4wc04j7j/xpgMCujIFl

Quick visit to the Botanical gardens on the way back home. Nice but bit dull so won't bore you as this one is pretty long anyway



 
 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Cooking and exploring the marble mountain




We have just done a Vietnamese cooking class. Normal form - visit to the market with the chef to buy the ingredients then prepare and eat the food. There were just the two of us in the class so lots of personal attention and time to ask questions. The market, as all markets in asia, are a profusion of colour and smell. Each stall, virtually identical to its neighbour (same, same, but different as they say), is arranged with artistic consideration to best display the quality and variety of the foodstuffs on sale. Visits to are always an experience and one becomes practised in the multifarious ways of saying "No thanks" to the pushy stall holders plying their trade.



In a shady courtyard covered with trees with orchids draping from the branches we prepare Papaya salad, banana leaf salad, fish in clay pot, chicken on lemon leaf and a desert soup made with lotus seeds and wash it down with a pleasant white wine.


Our days here have been lazy and we are taking our time to enjoy them walking, motorbiking and emersing ourselves in the towns atmosphere. We both love it and could easily live here for a while!

Today we hired a motorbike (getting reasonable at using the geared versions now) and went to the Marble Mountains near Da Nang - 5 large stacks of limestone of various sizes just rising out of the plain just outside the city. The largest has hundreds of rough hewn steps to take you up to the top and here one can wander along between shrines, pagodas and caves. The shrines are housed in smooth teak sided buildings surrounded by bonsai creations, in cathedral like caves or tucked away in small intimate caverns and are all impressive, peaceful and inspirational. Were it not for the tourists (and there were only a few) then this would be a wonderful place to get all goddy in.

The paths wend their way beside limestone rockfaces draped with vines, vantage points, where one can overlook the community below which is almost exclusively stone mason shops and lovely pagodas of various heights and provide multi teired roof spaces for dragons, griffins, and various deities to perch upon.a

Our visit was made even better by some fairly ignorant Aussies who kept on about the swastikas someone had carved on the Budhas (If unsure why this is funny then look it up), warned one another about the monks who they thought were kung fu specialists and who later poured coke on a 10 inch grass snake they found it on a path because one of them thought it was thirsty otherwise it would have "ran away".

And so with one last hit of Vietnbamese coffee (a rich dark brew that is mixed with generous serving of condensed milk) we await the night train to our next destination of Dalat.





 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Disney does Vietnam

 
 

The old part of Hoi An (The bit that everyone gravitates to) is a bit like walking down Main Street in Disneyland. The buildings look like they are direct from a set designers imagination with just the right amount of decreptitude to give authenticity and charm but not enough to make your think Urrrghhh. There is a slight discolouration in the paint, moss grows, but not profusely, on walls, pavements are uneven but not dangerous, a crack in a wall will have a flower blooming from it and a sleeping dog is scruffy and dusty but not mangy. Again like Main Street these lovely buildings have classy or quirky restaurants selling various fayre and bouitique shops selling gifts or good quality clothing. Unlike Disney however, everything is pretty cheap and doesn't have that bloody mouse on it. This particular set consists of three long traffic-free streets (wide avenues with trees and wide pavements) running parralell to the charming river which has mall fishing boats bobbing upon it and locals in bleached white wooden punts that willl take you a slow drifting ride. The river parade is wider than the other streets and thus gives room for a few tables to spill out from a cafe and the occaisional floating candle sellers to ply their trade without hindering the meandering pedestrians or pushbikers (which at this time of year a few in number and diverse in age and nationality). It is "Oh so charming" but at night this same scene becomes magical with a profusion of lanterns lighting the streets, simpathetic spotlights shining strategically on asiatic standards such as dragon statues or budhas. Finally, just to fully give your subliminal perceptions one last tick there are gentle strains of Mendhelson or Chopin being played out gently through speakers hidden away beside picturesque signposts thoughout the whole old quarter. In short it is a lovely place and a joy to spend a little time in and certainly worth a visit.


Our rambles have taken us throughout the town  so we have wandered down residential streets, through local food stalls, around markets and poked our noses in places that perhaps we shouldn't. We applied to help in an orphanage but were told they didnt need us. Sad because we found a little house that we could rent for £90 a month and even buy for £4,000. A charming little place that overlooked the river and was just 5 minutes walk from Disneyland.

We have today been to visit the Cham ruins at Mysore. Various piles of ancient bricks, some in the form of towers, some with the the vestiges of building sstill visible, all with creepers and moss adorning them.


A bit of a schlep on another hired motorbike but well worth it since we were amoungst the first to arrive therefore and had the place pretty much to ourselves for 30 minutes until suddenly the hoards arrived in their coaches. This curtailled our enjoyment of the quiet overcrown setting but allowed us the specatacle of watching a little free ethic dance show in the company of 500 japanese tourists who were Nikon'ed and Canon'ed to within an inch of their lives. The dancers must have felt as if the paparazzi were in town with the number of flashes that were so prolific it bleached the colour from the shiney set behind them. One woman beside me must have take 200 pictures in the 20 minute spectacle of strange movements and even stranger costumes.

After the show we head home through villages, by paddy fields, and play the game of staying alive on the lawless roads of this beautiful land. The culmination of the day were having a quick meal beside the river and returning to find our bike had been impounded for parking in the no motor vehicle area. Eventually we discovered the bike in a small warehouse along with 20 or 30 criminal vehicles and were in the process of breaking it out when the guard walked out to find us. Luckilly being stupid looking and English we were let off the inevitable fine that would be levied on the locals and had to push the bloody thing out of the non motorised zone. No sooner had we jumped on we were witness to a drunken moped driver crashing into an old man and played a small part in swelling the crowd and removing the keys of the drunkards bike as he was trying to flee the scene.

Am now enjoying a rum and coke whilst the newly arrived rain washes the streets clean for tonights perfomance.

 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Hewey in Hue



 
Hue (pronounced Huuaayyy!) starts off interestingly with our hotel collection from the train being on the back of mopeds. That’s two people, one big backpack and a day bag on each. A bit cosy but a pleasant change to the normal spacious taxi hotels provide. Our room was also out of the ordinary being on the 6th floor  of a hotel without a lift (96....NINETY F***KING SIX exhausting steps) and having no window – fine, less noise!.

The town sits astride the Perfume River – sounds exotic but was named with some artistic license as it is neither fragrant nor ironically smelly. We spend the first day first napping then roaming around the pleasant roads, stopping at tourist bars and wandering beside the above mentioned river. The weather is no better than Dong Hoi and so we are still slightly underdressed.

Day 2 and we head off to the Forbidden City. A walled palace that is undergoing restoration to its former glory when it was the private domain of the King and his courtiers. The area is a collection of courtyards, ornately roofed oriental buildings, open grassy gardens and decorative ponds.  It is restful, quiet and quite wonderful with pleasing vistas around every corner. Later we go in search of a pagoda which is outside of the forbidden city but within the walled citadel that surrounds it. This is area of about 2 miles square and packed with shops, residential streets, lakes, canals, the obligatory motorbikes and, as we eventually discovered after traipsing all over the bloody place, it also has ...no pagoda.! Oh well, we get a good insight into city life and play the fantasy meal game as we are hungry but not up to eating the weird stuff that is on offer – Pigs snout, tripe, penises, chicken claws and dubious soups. Finally, and joyously, settle on an Indian near our hotel which first filled us up and then for the next 48 hours emptied us.

We spend 1½ days and two nights in our windowless, smell retaining, room throwing up, shitting water and enduring headaches and fevers whilst we dip in and out of fitful sleep. We miss our home!

Interesting final day in Hue. Get up and about midday drag ourselves from our pit to hire a motorbike (slowly going up the food chain towards a hog), actually this was a real pig as the brakes were crap, the indicators and the lights didn’t work and the battery was flat so had to keep jump starting it. But who cares huh? We were living the 125cc Honda Dream in all its rusting, decrepid, stuttering glory and the sun was shining. Now motorbikes have never been my first mode of transport having only ever ridden a geared bike on an eventuful holiday in Crete some 25 years ago. So when we were offered an impromptu lesson in gear changing at the second set of traffic lights by a friendly looking Vietnamese woman we gladly excepted. This led to her suggesting that we followed her to our destination - the tomb of Minh Mang, some 10k out of the city as it was near her home and then back to hers for tea. Great we thought - Another example of Vietnamese hospitality… The tomb was magnificent.  An extensive walled area containing woods that surround a large lake into which a large paved spit of land projected. This housed a succession of temples, ornate gates, ponds and  gardens bedecked with bonsai creations and statues through which you move to the eventual resting place of Emperor Minh Mang which is effectively a  hill with a closed wall around it. Apparently the beautiful area in which we had walked was only the surrounding gardens and the real deal lay beneath the huge pile of dirt. Minh Mang  was a man who plainly liked his personal space because his mausoleum is an underground palace which was sealed and covered over upon his death.

Roi, the Vietnamese woman, had been waiting outside. We had offered to pay for her to come in but she declined. We followed her along bumpy dirty tracts to a little village beside the river where her home was. A single room 20ft by 10ft with a double bed, table, primus stove and shelf. The building (shed) was tin roofed and slatted, wood sided and provided no privacy due to its poor construction. We were touched that she wished us to see her home and share a cup of tea and the conversation was surprisingly good as she told us of her life, her children and her financial troubles, her family, her finaincial troubles and then just her financial troubles. Finally asking for money to help educate her children. It is a far more complex story than this blog allows but in short I stuck my heels in as I felt duped, she cried, we left, I felt guilty, Rachel felt compassion and we gave her all we had (only about £3.00 as it happens). I don’t know what the right course to follow should have been but it was an odd end to the day and gave us much to think about.
On a lighter note (as this was genuinely quite upsetting) Am finally getting the hang of driving on the roads here. Basically, trust no one, go slowly, forgive everything and keep your wits about you. As long as you remember one rule you should be ok ... namely 'There are no rules'.
Aslo discovered that a lot of people wear the facemasks, not for polution reasons, but to keep their skin whiter and out of the sun. Better jobs go to whiter Asians...How wierd is that!!!! I could become prime minister.
 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Wet, windy wietnam



 
Good Morning Vietnam …Actually not such a good morning in reality. Hanoi is cold, grey, misty, spitting rain and windy. Weather that will stay with us for least the first 6 days up to writing this.  Coming here after the Eutopia of Singapore doesn’t help as the city has little to recommend itself. The buildings with, rare exceptions, are generally uninspiring, the parks mundane, the people have big city mentality, and the roads are packed with hundreds, thousands of motorbikes.  The cold is invasive and everyone is wearing woolly jumpers, puffer jackets, gloves and scarfs. Food is mainly street food or found in open sided restaurants that afford no respite from the chill to ill-equipped travellers such as us. Sadly neither do the hotel rooms that have no heating.
Whilst here we have seen Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum (a large block of concrete fronted by doric columns) in which said President lays under vacuum sealed glass for daily inspection by the masses. Although there are gardens and a large square surrounding this the highlight was seeing lots of soldiers in poorly fitting lurid green uniforms with oversized caps being drilled in silly marches.

We have seen the infamous Maison Central (Hanoi Hilton) jail in which political prisoners and American GI’s were held during the war; a huge statue of Vladimir Le-Nin (Not sure if the Asianisation of his name was a mistake or to make his communist views more palatable); A water puppet show which was interesting in a lets-try-and-pretend-its-great-coz-its-an-ethnic-tradition sort of way. In truth it was watchable but I can’t help wonder whether the warmth of the theatre coloured our thoughts; The temple of Literature and one or two other temples were very nice but not a reason to come back. Because of the cold and rain we decide to change our plans of going further up country where it is worse. This does mean we will have to forego the  pleasure of hiking in Sapa and seeing Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay which seems a shame but we have decided to save seeing the iconic images associated with those places for another time when they might be appreciated more. Consequently we jump on the wonderfully named “Reunification Express” for an overnight journey to Dong Hoi. Trains are generally better than India but the driver of this particular one was a bit heavy on the brakes so the ride on our three tiered, very hard bunks was bumpy and we didn’t sleep very well.

 As we leave Hanoi I leave you with a couple of interesting things of no touristic value but are still worth noting.  Crossing the road in Vietnam. This is an exercise performed slowly and with assured movements. Hesitate and you are dead. The technique is to walk out amidst the on-coming traffic staring down those who hold your fate in the movement of their handlebars and continue moving at a steady rate. This allows bikes, cars to compute your speed and direction and swerve around you accordingly.

Bikes are king here. Pavements are used for parking them on and for short cuts. Markets are crowded beyond belief but still a motorcyclist will drive through the people and shop from the saddle – Even trying on clothes without dismounting.
 
 
Finally an appreciable amount of people wear facemasks. On bikes this is of course understandable. But they wear them on trains, planes, walking down quiet streets and even when sightseeing in the pollution free countryside. Bizarre.

 Dong Hoi is spread out with wide avenues and a few shops. There is little to see here but it has a better feel than Hanoi. We walked along the front and looked out over the grey sea and thought how like a UK seascape it looked. We have not really found a restaurant of any note so are a little bit hungry and since we have not managed to shake the cold weather we have stayed in our hotel room which was very nice. Big room, efficient service and quiet street makes for a happy traveller. We went walkabout and looked down various streets and eventually went into a shop to buy something to drink. Who would have thought that the sentence “Do you have diet coke” could inspire such a reaction. The shopkeepers daughter (Van) spoke English having been in Newcastle to do an MBA. Whilst the shopkeeper himself (Thin) had worked in Birmingham and Coventry for 5 years before opening his shop in Dong Hoi. They didn’t have diet coke but they did sell wine so sat us down and plyed us with glass after galss of a good red Shirraz. After 30 minutes of chatting and drinking shots of wine (odd but that’s how they drank it) we were then asked to come back for a further drink a little later. Why not we thought and so slightly drunk we jumped in a cab to our hotel to scrub up and returned at 7.00pm to find the whole family there –Grandmother, cousins, a few friends. We sat down at a table in the shop and there, whilst customers still came in. we were served a meal of fatty wild boar, pork knuckles, cabbage and noodles – Weirdly Rachel suddenly became vegetarian but said it was ok because “Chris loves all this sort of stuff” waving her hand over the chewy, fatty meat. Luckily a lovely piece of fish, ordered in especially, arrived shortly afterwards with some rice and all of a sudden Rachel wasn’t a strict vegetarian so would graciously (and ravenously) try some. More wine flowed and although our conversations were somewhat limited and relied heavily on posturing and sign language we had a great time. These lovely people were generous in spirit and in preparing this meal for complete strangers and welcoming us into their home.  We were made to feel so welcome and were completely overwhelmed  by it all. Leaving three hours later with embraces, pictures and fond memories of something very special and a rapidly improving view of Vietnam.

Yesterday we took charge of a 125cc mopedy thing and whizzed 45km off to see the caves at Phong Nha. Apparently the third biggest caves in the world. The journey there was miserable and very windy. Our bodies were freezing cold and when we saw the sign for a café we pulled over for coffee. Sadly it was all closed for winter but the owner, who was chatting with some friends next door, took pity on us and went inside and made us some Vietnamese tea to drink whilst the coffee brewed. We communicated with sign language and via google translator. We kicked a can with her three children and joked with her and her husband when he arrived (somewhat surprised to see us) some time later. After 45 minutes we literally had to drag ourselves away and, once again, were treated to Vietnamese hospitality and not allowed to pay. It may be cold here but this warm fuzzy feeling that these people give us goes a long long way to keeping off the chill.

The caves themselves were amazing. A thirty minute boat trip along the river through limestone hills to the cave entrance where we transferred to a smaller punt like boat rowed by two locals. On this we travelled through the colourfully lit initial caverns for 600 metres and then onward 1.5km into the mountain. The underground river runs through the caves whose ceilings are 15 to 20 metres above us and our way is lit by only our head torches and single spot light. It is eerie, beautiful and quiet with only the paddling sounds to break the silence.  Amazing stallamites/tites are everywhere and I and 3 others brave a 300 metre trek on foot over, under and through rocks to an underground lake beside which we stood in darkness and experienced, in the words of a polish woman in our group, “The most complete black nothingness I have ever seen”.  A great day made wonderful by the simple act of sharing a coffee.  Tomorrow we leave Dong Hoi and head further south…still seeking warmth… to Hue

Monday, 7 January 2013

Just when you thought it was all over


Sorry, Just a quick one. I know the last blog was supposed to be a sign off to Singapore. But, as Rachel said were leaving in a couple of days and we had thought we had seen it all. However, we hadn't and since this blog is for us as well as you lot I have to add a couple of things

Gardens by the Park. An amazing botanical garden with a twist. The main features are, firstly, the two huge bio domes containing geographical environments much like the Eden Project. The difference being these are a bit funkier in design and have the addition of a huge cloud garden. A vertical garden of 30 metres. high. Outside the paths make circuitous routes through palm groves, soundscapes, fragrant gardens, huge scultures, beautiful lakes and general loveliness. The skyline of above all of this is the second main feature which are the Supertrees. 10 or 12 huge metal treelike structures of 50+ metres covered in foliage and supporting between them an arial walkway. The largest of these houses a restuarant and rooftop garden bar. At sunset we found ourselves sitting with cilled wine in this fabulous setting drinking in the amazing views over both the city and the boat laden sea feeling just a little bit special and thankful to be able to be there together. Later, because the park doesn't close till 2.00am in the morning we ambled around in the warm darkness, drinking in the smells and watched the multi-coloured lightssparkling on a group of night flying kites
.
And finally (really this time as we fly in 60 mins) I know its only an airport. But as a final reminder of the perfection of this place we have to just mention that if you come to singapore and can't find a hotel then just stay in the airport where there is a gym, airport wide free wi fi, A Koi pond and orchid garden, a free cinema, free multiple gaming stations, gentle soothing music and friendly border staff. The check in queues move quickly, you can go outside to a sunflower garden and the restaurants don't rip you off. Don't they realise they a not improving my travel experience but rather ruining it for ever after. Bastards!

Friday, 4 January 2013

Goodbye to our life of luxury




Well our time is almost up in singapore and its been another experience. When Chris and I first arrived we were impressed with the place and we still are. I have had several changes of heart about the place along the way. After about 2 weeks I was getting itchy feet, wanting to move on and see the next thing. Thinking I'd seen everything here and felt like I was wasting time. But as the last few days here are rapidly approaching I am glad we have had this opportunity.

We have got used to the constant hot water showers; not having to sniff test clothes because you know they have been washed; being able to make a cup of tea when you want; not having to pack a back pack every couple of days; cooking your own tea, beans on toast if you want it; fast reliable Internet connection 24/7; soft comfy bed and pillows with no bugs and a snuffling dog laying on your feet. All the things you might take for granted. The only trouble now is that as leaving all this approaches ever quicker it is getting harder to give up.

When we left England in October that was difficult enough. Leaving family, friends, home, jobs. Now we've had a short taste of travelling and the excitement and the difficulties it can bring, followed by the luxury of staying in a home. The first time was nerve wracking, exhilarating, scary but we took each others hands and did it. This time we have an inkling of what awaits us. The dodgy hostels with grubby sheets, hours on appalling poor roads in hot fetid buses, the upset tummies, running out of clean clothes, no shampoo left, random connections so you can't communicate with anyone at home. We also now know about the beautiful people we will meet, the diverse culture we will see, the delicious food we will sample, the amazing sights that we hope to see and maybe some friends we will make on the way.

So in three days time the backpacks will be full of fresh smelling clothes, toiletries replenished and we will take each others hands again and head off to Hanoi for the next part of the World Adventure. It is a little scary but also exciting. We hope that you've enjoyed the last three months with us and that you will continue to read and comment on the blogs as we dive into the next part of the road less travelled, well less travelled for older idiots like us!