Sorry it's been so long since my last email but Han and I are alive and well and have finally hit the wonderful land of Oz!!
It still feels very bizarre to be here after such a wonderful 2 months in South East Asia, but we are embracing the home comforts in Sydney, where it makes a strange change to walk down the buzzing streets without every other person gawping at you strangely or trying to touch your arm as you walk past!
We have now officially completed the South East Asian loop, comparing massage techniques from country to country )
From Cambodia, we travelled by boat along the Mekong to Vietnam, and spent 3 weeks working our way up this fascinating country of smiling people in conical straw hats! We started our adventures in Ho Chi Minh City, visiting the famous (and very small) Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong took cover during the American War, and Han had fun revising her GCSE history lessons (while I learnt them) in various museums including the War Rembrants Museum, which displays (in a slightly biased manner) the disastrous consequences of all the Agent Orange and Napalm destruction that is still visible in some of the countryside and people of today. From Saigon we headed to Dalat, a cooler spot where one highlight was meeting an eccentric old poet who had the longest beard I have ever seen, coupled with a beret to complete the avant-garde look, and who fed us cherry tea and cake and gave us flowers to put in our hair!
Our next 2 days were incredible. We took Easy Riders (Vietnamese motorbike drivers) through the central highlands and discovered some of the more remote villages, silk factories, rice wine makers and tribal villages of Vietnam. It was so refreshing to get off the beaten tourist track (and the bumpy buses!) and spend some time seeing a privileged slice of the 'real life' in Vietnam, and despite the fact that we left coated in a thick film of slightly orange dust from the mountain roads (Han looked the most tanned I've ever seen her) it remains one of the best things we've done so far, a real eye-opener.
Our next stop was Hoi-An, a beautiful, quaint town with winding streets and French-style architecture remaining from Colonial times, as well as a strong Chinese influence along the river front and over 200 tailor shops. We spent a beautifully relaxing 4 days people-watching in arty cafes, sampling the delicious local culinary specialities, meandering along the market-filled streets which are set up from 4am to around midnight, and (of course) having clothes tailor-made. Unfortunately this was somewhat disastrous for Han, who left 5 of her 12 items in our hotel as they were so ill-fitting, despite the fact that they were made for her body!? But we did get some nice things for pretty bargainous prices, though we'll see how long they last! (It's amazing how quickly they can whip up so many items for you but we remain dubious about the quality!)
Further North in the capital of Hanoi, we had a crazy experience doing Slow Motion Shadow Boxing (a local form of Tai Chi) at 5.30 am by the lake. It was a surreal sight to see the city so bustling at this hour - there were literally hundreds of people power walking around the lake, doing aerobics to strange music, doing sit-ups and generally hanging from benches and railings....the Vietnamese really are a hard-working people who never seem to sleep!
From Hanoi we set off for the stunning Halong Bay, a breathtaking collection of karst scenery off the North-Eastern coast. We took a 3 day boat trip there, and it was like sailing through an enormous natural graveyard: in every direction you looked there was nothing but smalll islands and islets jutting out of the water, extending right to the horizon, and it was so peaceful it felt surreal and almost eery had it not been for the sheer beauty of it all. We slept the first night on the boat and spent a magical night beneath the stars on the water. Fortunately we visited just at the right time, as if we had been one day later we would have been stranded on the island of Cat Ba (a beautiful National Park) for 3 days due to the approaching typhoon which hit the East coast of Vietnam. In fact we took the final boat permitted to leave, and could feel the wind and waves picking up considerably as we sailed back to shore.
Our final stop in Vietnam was Sapa, a small village set high in the mountains in the North-West. We spent 3 days 'trekking' there, which was beautiful, despite the fact that the hardcore trekking we had anticipated was more like a country stroll through the hills! We did, however, meet some beautiful people, and spent an incredible night in a hilltribe village, helping the locals to cook and eating with the whole family, my favourite of which was the old Grandfather, who'd built the house himself. The delicious food was washed down with the local (and powerful) rice wine. As in Japan, it is custom amongst the Vietnamese to pour someone else's drink for them, and you should never allow anyone to drink alone (it is polite to drink with them). This caused great amusement, as the family were extremely careful to refill our glasses the moment they were set down, and as soon as they were filled someone else would raise their glass in a toast. Unfortunately Han wasn't overly keen on this local speciality, but I must admit it was hilarious to watch her wince with every shot (and there were many), and then smile as she failed to prevent them filling up her glass!
Our final day in Vietnam was only slightly dampened when I had my phone stolen, after which we spent a long and tiring day bribing the police so that we could get a statement signed! We had read and heard that the police in Vietnam were pretty corrupt, and that it was custom to slip over a bit of cash or some cigarettes in order to reduce a fine given for no reason, or to get the police to see reason, but it was a frustrating experience to witness it first-hand: when we arrived at the police station the officers were sat reading newspapers and wouldn't even acknowledge us. Fortunately a lovely man at our hotel helped us out, and translated and wrote out 4 different statements for us. After 4 journeys back and forth to no avail, he immediately succeeded in obtaining an official stamp when we slipped a note in with the statement(!)
Thankfully I was cheered up by a *ridiculous* 20-hour bus trip to Laos, in which, despite the fact that we had payed extra for a "VIP bus", there were more passengers than seats, rolls of carpet and bags covering every square inch of the floor, and even a hammock strung up over the aisle! It was so unbelievable that we had to laugh about it, and having survived 20 hours squeezed into our seats with our knees to our chins and only 2 toilet stops, we were pretty confident we'd be able to survive anything after that!
Laos is stunning, and as soon as we crossed the border we were surrounded by lush greenery, rolling hills and extraordinary cliffs. It is much poorer than Vietnam and Thailand, but the people are exceptionally friendly and the whole place exudes an aura of calm (they say that Laos PDR stands for 'Please Don't Rush'...) We arrived in Vientiane, the quietest capital city I've ever visited, right in the middle of the National Boat Festival, so the city was manic by Laos standards (and about the equivalent of a St. Albans market day by our standards!) Again there is a strong French influence across Laos, from Gallic restaurants and cafes (we particularly enjoyed the bakeries!) to Vientiane's own version of the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe!
From Vientiane we travelled North to Vang Vieng, a small but beautiful town which looks something like a film set, with a few streets of buildings surrounded by towering mountains and beautiful karst scenery. We spent 2 days cycling around the countryside and participating in the highly cultural activity of 'tubing'. This involves floating down the river on the inner tube of a tractor tyre, stopping off at numerous bars along the way, and drinking enough Beerlaos to realise that it's a great idea to fling yourself into the water from the zip wires that tower above it. Such fun! We reached as far North as Luang Prabang, a beautiful town full of temples and housing a wonderfully peaceful nightmarket along the river, before setting off on a long and arduous journey back down South to the famous Four Thousand Islands that speckle the Mekong River. Sadly we could only spend one night here, on the beautiful island of Don Det, but it was a fabulous ending to our South East Asian adventures. We strolled around the small island, stopped ourselves from kidnapping the adorable children who inhabit it, and watched an incredible sunset from our wooden bungalow on the waterfront. The Four Thousand Islands (thankfully) still remain very basic and so far largely unaffected by tourism, which means that there is only electricity and running water for a few hours each day. By 10pm we were veiled in darkness and looked up to see the most spectacular sky I have ever seen. It's incredible to think that it's the same sky that we see (or don't see) in England: the stars were so numerous, so bright and they seemed so much closer. We saw a handful of the slowest, brightest shooting stars you could imagine, it really was a magical ending to our time there.
We were brought back down to earth the following morning when we set off at 6.30am for Bangkok. Having learnt to have no expectations regarding transport since our Hanoi-Vientiane experience, we were mildly amused to find that we would be travelling to Pakse on the back of a pick-up truck alongside live and dead chickens and various other (delightfully aromatic) and mysterious treats seeping out of plastic bags. 3 pick-up trucks and an overnight train later we were safely in Bangkok, with time for breakfast and a stroll down the Kao San Road before jumping in a taxi to the airport. By the time we arrived in Sydney yesterday we were feeling the most traveller-like we have ever felt, and I have never enjoyed a shower so much!
And now the next stage of our adventure begins! We may (possibly) have miraculously found an apartment already right in the city centre for a very reasonable price, but we are to confirm tomorrow so fingers crossed! Then there's just the small question of finding a job..!
Anyway, I'm so sorry again about the length of this email, I will definitely keep them shorter from now on! I hope you're all well and enjoying the new academic year!
Keep me posted on all your news and speak soon!
Lots of love,