Hello everyone. Firstly apologies that it has taken us so long to do this blog, internet hasn't been great recently and this is the first access to an internet café we have had in over a week! We hope you all had a great New Year. Anyway lots to cover and the internet is expensive here so on with the blog!
We left you in Hoi An before New Year in the last blog. Hoi An turned out to be one of our favourite towns of the trip, despite the hordes of tourists. The Old Town is a very well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. The architecture is amazing with mainly wooden Vietnamese houses along with influences from other cultures - the pictures will show you what it's like. We would be staying here for New Year and so had a few days to explore it, relax, and try the amazing food on offer. We spent a morning exploring some of the attractions within the old town; there were some temples, Chinese assembly halls, old traditional houses and the famous Japanese Bridge. These were all nice but not anything jaw dropping, the main attraction of Hoi An is basically the whole Old Town and atmosphere at night when the streets are lit up by Chinese lanterns with candles floating down the river. Whilst we were there I got a suit and a couple of shirts tailor made. The hardest bit was choosing one of the hundreds of tailors in the town! We found one that seemed good based on reviews and went there, I had decided to get a suit but Helen couldn't think of a dress that she wanted. Anyway we went there and I chose a style, materials, lining etc. Even got on the lady's moped and scooted to the nearby warehouse to choose some shirt materials. Then got measured up for it and that was that! The suit and shirts got made overnight and I was back the next day with a perfect fitting suit! That's since been shipped home by seamail….suit made in 24 hours….will arrive home in three to four months. Amazing.
We checked into our nice hotel by the river in Hoi An (The Vinh Hung Emerald) for which we would spend New Year. The Hotel was putting on a nice dinner and entertainment for New Year's Eve which we were getting excited about! This started at 7 and so we went down and sat at a table with two other couples in our age range! One from New Zealand on the other from Leeds! Small world. We had a very nice buffet dinner and chatted with our new friends. The hotel then put on their entertainment which went on for a couple of hours and involved some fantastic singing, dancing, games, raffle, pianist etc. They were also doing a countdown but Helen and I and the other couple from Leeds decided to go into the town centre and enjoy the atmosphere there. We got in there about half 11, grabbed a beer and made our way to the front where they had a stage set up with singing and dancing. We then counted down from 10 and welcomed in the New Year in Hoi An, Vietnam! The party started and we were soon up on the stage dancing with everyone else and the Vietnamese singers! The four of us stayed out till about three in the local bars until it started to die down and we returned to the hotel. Our time in Hoi An involved one more day in a hungover state before we caught the bus up to Vietnam's old capital Hué.
We got to Hué and checked into the Four Seasons hotel…a bargain at six pounds a night including breakfast! The main attractions here were the tombs and the citadel. We did this on a group coach tour as it's the only cheap way to get around them all! The three tombs were the nicest parts, the Citadel was ok but not as great as we were hoping. We also stopped off at a Kung Fu show which turned out to be very good. It involved a few martial arts displays which were impressive, and then the two main events. The first one was the standard smash about 10 tiles held between two supports with your hand, and he did it very well! The second was a bit random, the guy got a spear and placed the pointed end basically between where your collarbones meet. Someone then held one end whilst he gradually leaned into it until he was leaning into it so much that it looked like it would pierce through him and come out the other side, all the time groaning a lot to show us that it was indeed painful. Once he had reached a bit of a climax with this, someone put a concrete breezeblock on his back whilst someone else smashed it across his back with a large hammer. We weren't quite sure what we had just seen but there's a video that we'll try upload to give you a better idea! Anyway we didn't do much else in Hué, and on the 5th we caught a sleeper train up to Hanoi. The sleeper trains are abit better than India's, for the main reason that there are only four beds within a closed off compartment making it more spacious and private (India was eight beds in each open compartment with a corridor running through the middle). Anyway we slept well that night, despite some of the stories we had heard of cockroaches and rats roaming the carriages during the night!
We got to Hanoi and walked the mile or so to our hotel, the weather is definitely getting colder as we travel North! The first bit of our time in Hanoi was spent trying to sort some things out. This included finding and booking a Halong Bay cruise, which turned out to be one of the hardest things we have done. There are just so many available and all look very similar. We had also decided we would quite like to do abit of China since we were so close to it! We had the option of going north into China and then dropping down into Laos. So we had to get a Chinese visa from the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. This proved quite an effort to get and we spend a fair bit of time organising it. We managed to get it in the end and it was only $30 each which is relatively cheap as far as visas go. We then got round to exploring Hanoi, which meant lots of Vietnam War attractions, or as they call it here, the American War. We went to the Vietnamese Military History Museum first. This was a big place with lots of war remnants: helicopters, tanks, trucks, planes, guns etc. Was interesting to look around. We went to Hoa Lo Prison which was first used by the French to hold Vietnamese prisoners, and then by the Vietnamese to hold American prisoners. We then went to the Vietnamese Women's Museum…very very boring. And we both thought that….not just me. We tried to do a walking tour of Hanoi's Old Quarter that we had found online. But whoever had made the map had really messed up on it and it didn't make sense, we tried to follow it for about an hour before giving up and just getting a beer. We also saw Hanoi's famous water puppets show which was quite impressive.
The next day we went to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum which holds the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself….or so they say. When Ho Chi Minh passed away in 1969 his wishes were for his body to be cremated, with his ashes scattered across the north, centre, and south of Vietnam. Instead, the government did the opposite. They embalmed his body, built a huge concrete block and lay his body in there where it still lies….Unless you believe in conspiracies, in which case the government employed Madame Tussauds specialists to make a wax Ho Chi Minh and convince the world that it is actually his dead body. Either way we wanted to see. It took about an hour from entering the complex to get to Ho Chi Minh's body. First we entered the complex where I had to leave my rucksack at security, but take any cameras and money out of it first, which was all I had meaning I left an empty rucksack at security in exchange for a small keyring. We then walked to the next security point, where I had to put my camera case in a bag that it wouldn't fit in. Then to the next security point where they took my camera away from me all together, my belongings gradually being scattered around the complex in exchange for little keyrings. Things then got serious, we were ordered to march single file in a line snaking towards the mausoleum watched by Ho's guards. If you talked, put your hands in your pockets, smiled at anything, walked out of the line, took a picture or looked on your phone, you would be cautioned by one of these guards. We eventually made it inside where we entered a large dark room and the line snaked in a U around Ho Chi Minh's lying body, with guards on each of the four corners of his bed. We weren't allowed to stop so had to make the most of the 20 seconds we had walking round his body. We got outside where Helen remarked ' He's definitely made of wax', to be fair he did look very well for 45 years dead.
Halong bay was next on the list. A four hour bus ride from Hanoi and we boarded our Bhaya cruise where we would spend the next two days one night. We had spent abit more on this to ensure we avoided some of the scammy boats out there. We checked into our own cabin which was nice and fully equipped with heating which we would probably be needing! After that we enjoyed a nice buffet lunch as we set out into the bay. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy and visibility low so pretty much the worst conditions to visit the bay and see the limestone karsts. It would get better though. We sat outside despite the cold and took in the scenery as the weather did start to clear up. We then got into local rowing boats and visited a floating village that was sheltered within a circle of the rocky outcrops. The weather really cleared up and we got blue skys and some fantastic views. The floating village was amazing. The people just live on houses floating out in the bay, totally secluded from the rest of the world. The funny thing was that a lot of the houses came with pet dogs, not sure where they go for their walks. Back to the boat after that for our evening meal which was delicious! We also got a cooking demonstration on how to make Vietnamese spring rolls. We had dinner and enjoyed the evening with a couple from New Zealand, another couple from the US, and later on a couple from Ukraine….a nice mix of people. The drinks were quite expensive aboard the boat but luckily they provided two happy hours in which we bought all our drinks to last us the night! Before we knew everyone else had gone to bed and so we decided to call it a night…but not before the Ukrainian flower tycoon insisted on buying us all a shot of our choice. The next day consisted of an early breakfast, followed by a visit to the 'Surprising Caves', which were large and impressive, and maybe abit surprising I guess? Then a nice brunch as we cruised through the scenic bay back to land. Back on the bus to Hanoi, and then onto our sleeper it train to the mountain town of Sapa.
We arrived in Sapa and wondered what we had done. It was pouring, freezing, and the so misty that we could only see about 20 metres in front of us. We checked into our hotel which could potentially have been colder inside than it was outside. Thankfully the room came with heated blankets making our beds the warmest places in Sapa. The rain eased off abit and we wasted no time heading to the market and buying much needed hats and gloves! Sapa is known for its scenic trekking opportunities and minority villages. But the time we spent there the area was covered in cloud and mist and it was freezing, and so we didn't really do much walking. We did trek to the nearby Catcat village and surrounding waterfalls one day which was fairly interesting. Between us we established that Sapa is clearly a summer place. However we did do a great cooking class here. It was just the two of us and a friendly young chef. We made spring rolls and green papaya salad to start, and then pork with caramel sauce and salmon for mains. The food was all delicious. After we had made it and eaten we were treated to a little piano recital by the owner's six year old son, who was very talented! There's also a video if we manage to upload it.
Next up was our little adventure off the tourist trail and into China. And so we set off armed with our Mandarin phrasebook. We got the minibus down from Sapa to Lao Cai, and then a taxi to the border where we exited Vietnam on the day our visa expired. We then got to Chinese customs and got through there easily. We found a cash machine and managed to get a taxi to the bus station, our Mandarin phrasebook already coming in handy! We booked on a bus to Kunming at 1:30PM and arrived in Kunming at 8:30PM…China's roads noticeably better than the ones we've been using up until this point! One more taxi and we arrived at the Cloudland Youth Hostel, a place filled with Chinese and Western Backpackers.
The following day we went out to explore Kunming, firstly going to the Green lake park and looking round there. Here the main attraction seemed to be feeding the thousands of seagulls that were whizzing around. There were also a lot of people doing their Thai Chi and various other strange things. We then went to a Buddhist temple (Yuantong Temple) which was one of the best temples we have seen. Amazing architecture and colours and so well maintained, and no other tourists! We also spent a day here going to the Western Hills. Where we took a cable car/ski lift up to the top and explored the Dragon Gate and the surrounding temples which were all amazing. It seems like China wins in the temple department from what we have seen so far! We also looked around the pet market where they were selling every kind of pet there is! Kunming was a nice place and it was great to see life in a Chinese city. It was still very cold there and on our last day we even saw a little bit of snow. After that we went to Jinghong (still in China) by nightbus. It's amazing how you can go to sleep in a place where it is snowing, but wake up in a tropical town where the temperature gets up to about 20 degrees. Jinghong is a smaller town with a laid back relaxing vibe. Nice outdoor cafes with wide tree lined streets, and some great food. We spent our two days here mainly relaxing.
The time then came to travel into Laos. We had two days of bus before we would reach our current destination of Luang Prabang. At the station in Jinghong we met two other guys that we would spend the next two days travelling with. One of them a young Australian guy who lived in China and spoke Mandarin - which proved to be very useful! The other an old Australian guy with quite a negative outlook on things, he seemed to have travelled most of the world but was still looking for a place he actually liked. We set off and enjoyed the nice roads before reaching the border and getting our visas. Into Laos where we travelled for another hour before stopping off in Luang Nam Tha for the night. The next day was the one we had heard bad things about. We opted for the minibus over the public bus as it was quicker and only a fraction more expensive and set off. This was a 9 hour journey of hair pin bend after hair pin bend. The road was smooth for an hour, then deteriorated rapidly. The journey was a long one and left us feeling pretty sick, but we had made it….despite the Australian guy telling us he would be praying for us. And here we are in Luang Prabang for the next three nights at least. So I'll leave it there, sorry it's so long but it is nearly a month's worth of travel!