A Travellerspoint blog

6 - Good Morning Vietnam & Halong Hazards

20 - 29th December 08

View Fi & Bryn's Big Trip Travel Map on FiColes's travel map.

Arriving into Hanoi at a 'bus stop' outside the city centre, we were forced to jump in a taxi - which then proceeded to take us on the 'tourist' route to our hotel. Once we had him going the right way he then decided to go nice and slowly so that the meter further racked up the Dong. The golden rule - never trust anyone with a dodgy eye or a very hairy mole (in this case the latter). Walking out that evening into the Old Town quarter of Hanoi was quite a different experience.....motorbikes everywhere!! Unfortunately they tend to either set up restaurants or park their bikes on the pavements so we were stuck dodging bikes in the narrow roads. Welcome to Vietnam!

Then it was a frenzied day of culture! First stop was Uncle Ho...who's corpse was illuminated by a strange orange light but all in all...suprisingly small Communist leader. Then on to the Army Museum to pose with the military hardware outside. We both really enjoyed the main exhibition though which helped us understand recent Vietnamese history but also left us wanting to understand a slightly more balanced picture - ie without the vietnamese propaganda.


Upset with the hotel as they tried to kick us out that night so they could accept a booking from a large group. We stood our ground but were too scared to go out for long for dinner and ended up pacsafing our luggage to the room in the event that they tried to get rid of us whilst we were gone! Ended up watching a Vietnam - Singapore football match (ASEAN Cup semi-final for those interested) which the Vietnamese won - party time in the streets!

And then we were off on our Christmas holiday trip to Cat Ba Island and on to the Ocean Beach resort on it's own private island. Cat Ba Island is in the spectacular, if a little misty, Halong Bay....


However, arriving onto Cat Ba Island we made a major mistake and didn't get the shuttle bus to Cat Ba town as we thought we were in the right place for our pick up to the island. Spent an age trying to negotiate a decent moto rate to the other side of the island from the greedy locals who seem to love seeing a foreinger in a pickle. Bryn insisted we stand our ground and start to walk the 40 km in midday sun to the correct collection point. Eventually after we'd walked about 5km through the middle of nowhere with our full packs we stopped in a restaurant and, the angels must have been looking down on us, as we ran into a tour guide from Ocean Tours who'd been asked to look out for 2 lost Westerners on the island.

We finally arrived at Ocean Beach and were met with welcome drinks and escorted to our beach bungalow - woohooo! The holiday had finally begun!! The slight disappointment was that it wasn't sunny and despite meticulous planning on Bryn's spreadsheet we'd failed to spot that North Vietnam would be experiencing their rainy season whilst we were there!


Christmas Eve was spent taking a quick dip in the sea and heading off round our island on kayaks. Due to low tide, we weren't able to make it directly round our island and ended up going round quite a few islands and navigating through a narrow channel of churning water!

In the evening we headed to the restaurant and joined the BBQ party set up on the beach. When we headed up after dinner to the bar we were amazed to discover the staff had transformed the bar and were all ready for a big party!


The fact that we were celebrating on the wrong day didn't perturb us overly. And despite us having eaten our fill at the BBQ we managed to find room for all the goodies they'd laid out for us all. Steered clear of the karaoke after our experiences in China and made sure we made use of the free beer keg they'd laid on.


Unsurprisingly Christmas Day was a very quiet affair for us and we settled for a fresh seafood spread for lunch :)

Begrudglingly we had to abandon Ocean Beach... :( and headed over to Cat Ba Island for our trip to the National Park. We hired two motorbikes and after Fi's initial kangaroo bucks we were off across the island! First stop was Hospital Cave, which was an impressive feat of wartime engineering - it was built so that it was safe from the US bombs. Not quite certain about all the rooms....there seemed to be more swimming pools, cinemas, games rooms than places for sick people.


Second stop was the national park where we had a very quick 8km march to reach Frog Pond through Jurassic Park terrain. A shallow stagnant pond home to many mosquitoes and not many frogs as far as we could see.


We beat a hasty retreat through the jungle underneath the ever darkening canopy in an effort to get back before dark.

Ten minutes in and Fi was distraught to turn a corner and find that Bryn had skidded his bike and was examining both himself and the bike for injuries at the side of the road. It would appear that Bryn had found the only bit of gravel, on a road, on a corner on Cat Ba Island. Bryn suffered a bruised hip, grazed elbow and knee, sore ribs and a yanked thumb. The bike suffered extensive scratching, cracked body work and a bent gear lever. It was the gear lever that was to cause us most grief on the way back to town....eventually the bike got stuck in 1st gear which is not the ideal one to be in at all. We stopped and scratched our heads...no traffic passed....and then a friendly farmer appeared on the horizon and managed to bend the gear lever, enough for the bike to function, with his massive machete. It was a very slow 20km back into town particularly as we lost the daylight and had to go even slower so as to not compound the situation. Back in town we psyched ourselves up to take the bikes back to their owner wondering what our strategy was in a situation where we didn't have a signed rental agreement. It turns out that he really didn't expect anything...he realised he had no right to demand anything so Bryn agreed to pay $30 which the chap seemed relatively happy with. Fi procured a big block of ice from the hotel to treat Bryn's injuries and we went out for some Western comfort food and an early night.

Back in Hanoi we had a few days waiting round to get our passports back from the Cambodian embassy and we perhaps fell off the backpacker boat a little and for some reason ended up treating ourselves to an all you can eat buffet in a French colonial house . BBQ'd prawns, seafood, steak etc


Street party time again as VietNam beat Thailand in the final of ASEAN cup, in Hanoi - tickets for the game were 200 quid on the black market - which is a lot for these folks. Street food and street party commenced......all through the night.

Monday involved finding a clinic to see Bryn's thumb which had swelled up somewhat, was clicking and didn't seem to want to move that much. Big palava trying to contact our insurance company who seemed to think they required a police report of the incident for us to be covered, despite that fact that Bryn was the only person involved! A big learning for us though on insurance companies. However, in the event the clinic forgot to charge for the X-rays which thankfully came back with no breaks. Phew!


Decided to take the relaxing sleeper train 12 hours south to Hue. Arrived in enough time to be first into our cabin and find good spots for our giant bags and continued our strategy of taking the top two bunks in a cabin of 6 so that Fi didn't have strange men looking at her in her sleep. Train left and we all settled down to sleep.

Posted by FiColes 01:34 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

5 - Deepest Darkest China

Xian to Guillin (28th Nov - 17th Dec)

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We Flew to Xian on Bryn's persuasion as only 42 quid and we get the airmiles (very important!). Very easy and comfortable (except the 'walking bags' Bryn and Fi trying to get on the Beijing metro at rush hour!) Fi enjoyed 'testing' the perfumes in Duty Free.

We quickly notice people stare a lot more here than Beijing - especially at Fifi. Walked/marched around half of the 14km city walls - amazing 18m thick and very high.

Walk through the muslim quarter and a enjoy a big Hans beer in a bar- has 12 beers on the menu but says they have none except Hans! We go for dinner and end up ordering a second main as we are still hungry, and go for the crispy chicken (no chilli as fi feeling dicky). What comes.......deep fried misc meat (prob dog) in the most chillis you have ever seen!

Get the bus to the Terracotta warriors fairly easily - no need to cough up for a tour. Didint realise that the tombs were still largely unexcavated but still an amazing find - definitely the 8th wonder of the world.

Although starting to get hacked off by the walking, shouting, spitting, chain smoking machines flag bearing machines i.e. chinese tour groups....

On the bus on the wayback the bus is hot and Bryn falls asleep and wakes to a guy trying to unzip his pocket and pinch his wallet! Straight stare down and the guy gets off shortly after pretending he was bending down to look at something - reminder that budget travel options do come with more risks and to always be on guard! Wandered out at night and stumble across Tenerife-style Bar St with people trying to persuade us to come in. Bryn mistakenly (!) nearly takes us into a strip joint!

Up at the crack of dawn to head off to Hua Shan - 2200m sacred mountain. Started off and tough going as usual for Fi at the start...

.....but happy when she noticed the km markers and began to notice the KM starting to tick off. Start of the steps was a bit tough but made steady progress until the start of the chains. Very scary series of notches cut into the cliff which you have to haul yourself up with a chain......

Stupid chinese signs as usual....."No Striding Bryn"

Made it up to North Peak for 12:30pm which was the 6km mark - 1600m high...and where most of the chinese get the cable car to begin their walk! Finally shook off the hoardes and enjoyed a slightly more level final walk over to South Peak (2200m). Elation at making it there!!

Chongqing and Three Gorges Yangtze River Cruise

Catch the soft sleeper train (carriage of 4 bunks) and Bryn strikes up a rapport with a furniture salesmen - Bowah.com - very limited conversation, just the usual pretending nods of acknowledgement totally unaware of what is being said, but Bryn spotted an importing business opportunity!

In Chongqing we are amazed at the tall skyscrappers, posh shopping malls full of Armani, Prada etc - can't believe this is double the size of Brum and we haven't even heard of it! Not quite sure about our shower over a squat toilet which comprises our bathroom though :( Smog everywhere - never seen somewhere so bad.....

3 Gorges Museum - Good insight into the dam and the cultures of the people who lived in the area. Slight overplay I feel by the chinese government saying that the 1.5m people had been dying to be relocated from their homes in order for this proud national project to go ahead!

Push on to the Stillwell museum. Get off at the right stop and spend a while traversing up and down the hill through the hutongs, surprising locals, looking for it. Not many people to ask! Stumble upon it! All set up for tour parties - except that they only get 10,000 visitors a year! It's a museum commerating the work of General Stillwell who led the US effort during WW2 to aid the Chinese resistance to the Japanese.

Get back and decide we are both coming down with colds. Keep our meeting with Nick and Hope for us all to go our for famous 'Chongqing Hot Pot' - mega mega spicy bubbling pot of hot chillis to which you add anything from fish lips to pig brain. Bryn tucks in thinking that the spices will ward off his impending cold. Fi can hardly eat anything not just due to the spices. Go home and Fi vomits. Bryn follows shortly after. Both paralysed in bed for the next two days. When Fi feels better she goes to get a cheeseburger and gets stalked by a inanely smiling Chinese lesbian!

Join our cruise ship at night to see the city lit up.....

Arrive in our cabin to interrupt a portly Chinese man's pot noodle dinner and throwing orange peel over the floor. Pop into the main function room to find wierd karoke dancing going on...and not that many people in there at all.

Early nights sleep with funny cabin occupants. Start having issues with the portly one...who thinks nothing of getting up in the middle of the night and turning the lights on to visit the bathroom. Dislike of the portly one intensifies as he gets up at 6am to get ready for the 7am trip. Slurps down a pot noodle, spends forever in the bathroom...and then bizarrely puts his clothes on top of his thermal pyjamas. Christened 'Pyjama Bottom' from then on.

Very impressive - 3rd largest river in the world, surrounded by high narrow gorges....

Stop for the Ghost City, but its really a crap Disney World sight with no English - cable car was nice though. P1000745.jpg

Settle into the cruise and crack open a bottle of 'Great Wall Red Wine' - Chinese Cab Sauv - really is not too bad and can't get any other wine anywhere.

Finish the 4 day cruise at the Three Gorges Dam..


3rd class sleeper to Yangshuo, where we would stay for a week - heading south and getting hotter :) For 13 GB per night we had a suite with a lovely balcony overlooking the road and Li river, a bath, a massive double bed, a sofa area and best of all our own computer!!!

The karst scenery is amazing here - best we have seen in China. Went out in the evening, however, and amazed by the transformation in the streets. Bars pumping out beating music and touts trying to usher us inside - Magalouf meets China!!

We had a day like a normal short holiday - ice cream , bamboo raft on the Li River and the Impressions of Li light show in the evening. A 70 minute show involving 600 performers which happens on the Li river with rafts, boats, booms etc Quite impressive...loved the silver light outfits that flashed on and off. Afterwards had the local speciality Beer Fish which is carp, chillies, tomatoes, chives, ginger, beer....yum!

Really nice to get on the mountain bikes and get out amongst the karst scenery. Although Fi started to moan about sore back after 15 mins and Bryn thought he would be in for a tough day! To be fair I was a bit John Wayne after the rocky tracks with ropey suspension!

Started biking back along the other side of the river and then we got cocky and decided we wanted to be closer to the river....suddenly the track become a narrow ridge in between the rice paddies! And then, wobble wobble and Fi was off her bike and down into a ditch :(

Picked up in the evening for our cormorant fishing trip and joined the Chinese tourists on our noisy narrow boat. Met up with our 79 year old fisherman on his motor powered bamboo raft complete with powerful light at the front so that his cormorants could see the fish. Bryn had seen the very same man before on one of Palin's adventures! Motored along with the cormorants diving down for fish....mostly finding fish small enough to get past their cord throat restricters. Every once in a while the fisherman would yank one out by the string on their feet and empty the fish in their throats into his basket. Amazingly clever but reckon that it would take him a while to get any serious volume of fish in!

Went up in a hot air balloon, a wedding gift courtesy of Colin, Cargill and John & Isobel. Amazing, although it was the tiniest of baskets and went up very quick - before we knew it we were up at 500m!

This was followed by boating into 150m tall water caves where we took the obligatory silly westerner mud bath.


Went off on a 2 day trip to the Longshan rice terraces. What a mission trying to figure out the best way to get there. Managed to book ourselves onto a tour group in order to get there and then to come back with another tour the next day. After an early start and 3 hours in our minibus we were all dropped at the corny tourist village where you were supposed to pay 5 GB to see a 'cultural display'. We just wanted to get off on our walk! Had to wait on the tour group but eventually we made it to Ping An...a nice little Chinese village reminiscent of an Austrian ski village.


Shook off the tour group, who were off for their lunch and then a 20 minute trip along the rice terraces and then back on the bus to Yanghshuo! Seemed like a waste of a journey to us! We knew we'd made the right choice to stay and walk when we saw the views...hardly any westerners around and soon we'd left the tourist villages behind and were seeing a bit of real China :)


Found a tiny to village to spend the night in and were surprised to find a Chinese film crew in our hotel. They didn't seem to mind us wandering round their film set! They were filming the local women doing their dancing...so we had a smug chuckle at everyone else who'd coughed up for their touristic display....we were being treated to the real thing!


Onwards to Vietnam!

Posted by FiColes 19:58 Archived in China Comments (0)

4 - Happy in the Beijing Happy Hostel

21st - 27th November

-17 °C
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We arrived in Beijing full of expectation of our first taste of China - but also with a little trepidation at arriving into one of the biggest cities on earth and hoping that our Happy Dragon Hostel would come and pluck us out of the train station. Amazingly they did and before we knew it we were unpacking into our hotel style room. The hostel had only opened weeks before so they couldn't do enough for us and were constantly brining us cups of tea etc Before we knew it they'd invited us to Betty's birthday party and we were tucking into a Chinese feast with all the staff! Then we were heading off to karaoke with them all - although enough said about that :)


Woke up the next morning, feeling a little groggy, but determined to complete our free bike tour of Beijing. Of course, not before the hostel had gone and bought the bikes! And then we were off....weaving through the Beijing traffic. No really, it wasn't that bad - Fi only got stranded in the middle of a massive road just the once. 3 hours of biking and then into the hutong and treated to an endless dumpling lunch - yumyum.


The next day we set off to the Great Wall with a couple of people from the hostel. We were due to walk from Jianaling to Simatai - a tough 10km that would take us at least 5 hours apparently!! We had it sorted in 3 and were quite disappointed to realise that we'd finished as we could have kept going. Fantastic experience - hardly met anyone else walking it! It was great to see the restored and unrestored sections as well. Definitely an experience not to be missed.


Then we needed to see some sights of Beijing!

So we went off to the Forbidden City....

And then a trip to the Summer Palace and a walk around the lake...another fine Lonely Planet mess of course as we spent an age searching for Bus 375 before we need to revive ourselves in McDonalds :( For lunch we got the wierdest thing - a self heating lunchbox .....


And of course, Bryn couldn't miss the zoo and the chance to see a first Panda.....

Before taking on the hostel at pool....whilst Betty and Bryn were the doubles champions Fi was proud to give Bryn a schooling in the first game of the trip.


And Bryn couldn't resist visiting another sports stadium...great to see them with the lights on as well


And of course we went off for our Chairman Mao viewing - he wasn't in a photographic mood.

Bryn got quite emotional when asked to name two of the younger staff in the hostel team who didn't have English names yet. We chose Jenny and Katie! He'd never seen two such big smiles and had to autograph their english books!

Very sad to leave the Happy Hostel and we hope that the team there make a success of their new hostel! But onwards to Xian!

Posted by FiColes 19:57 Archived in China Comments (0)

3 - Three Days in Mongolia

Mongolia (17-20th November)

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Arrived into Ulaan Bataar and were shipped off to the UB Guesthouse like all backpackers that had gone before and likely most that will go after. The hardest, lumpiest beds ever experienced. Off exploring UB we saw the Palace and went off to the Intellectual Museum in the afternoon which was full of wooden puzzles, which we were allowed to try and showed our lack of intellect in minutes. A niche museum for sure but quite fun.

Up early the next morning to head off to Teralj Ger Camp which being only 2 hours outside of UB we were worried it wouldn't be wilderness enough for us. We needn't have worried....the five of us were dropped off by the taxi and for the next 24 hours we hardly saw anyone.

Our Yurt...


Went for a walk around the camp and were amazed by the desolation and barren beauty of the landscape.


After lunch we were off on our horse trip! Our horses were more donkey-like and only listened to the guide who would throw branches at them to make them move. Bryn won sprint finish after a few large kicks in the gut, just edging Fi.


Dinner was served at 7pm...sun went down at 5:30pm. Due to the fact that we didn't have any lights we were all asleep by 8pm!


And then we were off on another train to Beijing...our best train yet...ensuite bathroom with a warm shower :)

Posted by FiColes 19:54 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

2 - Heading East

Moscow to Ulaan Bataar (10-16 Nov)

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Arrived into Moscow station and after stowing our luggage we were off to see what we could in 12 hours. Into Red Square...and saw Lenin's mausoleum and upset we couldn't visit as Monday was his day off.


Trekked over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where it's traditional for an unknown reason to us for newly weds to be photographed. We instead got lured into McDonalds. Made it over to see the goosestepping guards changing over.


Visited the Kremlin and luckily bought tickets for the Armoury as well. Not a whole lot to see in the Kremlin actually - but the Armoury did have lots of bling.

Wandered over to the Gum Arcade which is a posh old shopping arcade just off Red Square full of Western brands. Security guards eyed us warily in our hiking gear.


Popped into St Basil's which is a rather different 'church' as it's actually a collection of about 10 chapels all in the one building.


Then we were off to the Sanduny baths for our traditional Russian bathing experience - birch branches in super hot sauna. Bryn sat and read his book quietly and did 3 sauna followed by cold plunge pool routines - avoiding the shady characters sat round drinking beer in the nud. Fi got harassed by the women to put a towel on her head whilst the old Russian ladies stoked up the sauna which resulted in everyone having to squat (naked) on the floor. Certainly an experience to remember!

Then another train station kerfuffle - went to the wrong station twice! It's long and complicated but things really are tough when you can't read Russian and your guidebook doesn't have the cyrillac. Only realised with 45 mins to go! Sprint down the subway to the other side of the road - Byns back nearly snapped with the heavy pack! Board the Baikal Express for a 23:25 departure - our cabin had a nautical theme with pictures of Lake Bakial covering the walls; the unfriendly butch samovar lady wouldnt accept our tickets at first as being genuine and took our tickets off us and wouldn't give them back! eventually she allowed us to board - phew! Woohoo! Three days in our little cabin now!

Time on the train passed peacefully playing games and reading in our first class luxury cabin. Got off and bargained with locals at the stops for snacks and goodies. Didn't see any Westerners on our train at all - and little interaction from the miserable Russians.


Pretty excited at my giant Baltika beer!

But it's all too much for Bryn....


The landscape started out with pine trees covered in snow and lots of little wooden houses each with their own vegetable plot next to the tracks.

But by day three the rivers were starting to steam it was so cold outside....


Arrived in Irkutsk around 9am and found our way over to the Baikaler Hostel in town - unsigned to avoid paying tax (hard to find). Freezing cold and snow on the ground - welcome to Siberia! Took a minibus over to Lake Baikal.


Visited the Lake Baikal museum (yellow submarine interactive video dive with the most unenthusiastic russian guide ever).

Tried to find the lookout and failed - found a water tower and an excitable horse.


Then walked over to Listvenyanka. Ate tea including Omul fish from the lake at the bus station cafe. Back to the hostel to chill out.

We didnt realise we had to stamp our trolley-bus ticket and a traffic cop pounced asking for a 2.75gbp fine. Bryn's principles got in the way as usual and we refused to pay, insisting it was a naive tourist mistake. We then legged it at the next stop, darting through side streets and into a cafe where we safely changed into our 'disguise' - waterproof jackets and rucksack raincovers on - no-one would ever see us!

Skulked in the shadows for the remainder of the day before heading to the station and getting our next train to take us to Mongolia!!

Posted by FiColes 03:37 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

1 - The Honeymoon Bit

St Petersburg (6th - 9th Nov)

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Arrived into St Petersburg full of excitement at the start of our big trip! But we were foiled at the first hurdle by the cyrillic street names and our roman letter map. We spent quite literally two hours walking round with our massive packs bulging with our library of books and wine cellar of champagne. Fi was moaning about the weight after 30 minutes and I thought it was going to be a long year! Eventually an English speaking Russian took pity on us and directed us to our hotel. Never been so happy to find a hotel in our lives! And even more happy to find some Champagnski awaiting our arrival, a dozen red roses, chocolates and not just a jacuzzi but also our own ensuite sauna. Nice one Wren and Bryn.


Up promptly for a massive breakfast at the hotel including all manner of delights such as sauerkraut, rice and frankfurters. Walked over to the other side of the river to St Peter & Paul fortress....


Over to Peter's Cabin, and the Aurora....


Enjoyed posing for photos with Lenin and then back on the metro to town.


Headed over to the Hermitage and spent about 4 hours in there wondering at the amazing collection of arts and rooms.

Dinner at a German beer house....

Up early again! And off to the Kunstkammer which contained numerous pickled babies with all sorts of deformities. Peter the Great had a fascination with them and had decreed that all babies born with deformities must be sent to him from all the lands. Lovely stuff for one's honeymoon. Had a laugh at the Russians having their wedding photos taken outside in their horrific dresses....


Then we were off on our guidebook's suggested walk around an island to the north of the city which was supposed to contain verdant parks and many beautiful mansions - where people escape from the city and relax. We enjoyed our walk around the building sites and busy roads, but at least with our Thames Water knowledge we could pass comment on the utility excavations.....


Walked back via St Isaacs and Decembrists Square. Newlywed photo opportunity by the statue in the middle.


Out to see the Church on Spilled Blood - pretty amazing mosaics covering the inside of the church everywhere.


And suddenly our time was up and we had to check out of the hotel!! But one final bit of luxury for us! We were off to the Marinsky Theatre to see the Nutcracker!! The first of our many kind wedding gifts - thanks Deb/Yves/Chris! We had great seats at the side balcony at the front. Bryn even enjoyed it! It really was fabulous and kept us captivated right the way through!


And before we knew it we were out into the cold and off to the station where it all turned a little nightmarish as we were told our tickets had already been picked up!!! A rather stressful 30 minutes with Bryn co-ersing an English speaking Russian to help translate and our tickets were 'reinstated' for a couple of quid. Train to Moscow overnight - the Nickolevsky Express which was an old fashioned style sleeper train. Pretty excited at our first sleeper train! Eventually we did unpick the mystery of our tickets and complained to our travel agent who had picked our tickets up and had them for us in Moscow! - they got confused over our complaint and ended up refunding us the entire ticket price of 200GB...woohooo.....shhhhh!


Posted by FiColes 19:53 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

0 - Live Travel Map

Posted by FiColes 05:34 Comments (0)

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