A Travellerspoint blog

Trains, minibuses and bicycles ...

A trip back to Vietnam's Imperial past

sunny 38 °C

We love Ho Chi Minh City. We love the chaos, the vibrant atmosphere, the friendly local people, the constant change (for good or otherwise), and for the fact that hu tieu chay noodles only cost 80p. That’s a full-blown, each as much as you can, leave you absolutely stuffed lunch for 80p.

However, it’s a city from which you do sometimes need a break. So it was for our latest adventure that we found ourselves on a 22 hour train ride, heading north, to the old Imperial capital of Hue. Vietnamese trains are not the fastest trains in the world; they’re not really the cleanest either, but they are hugely entertaining. I’m not sure I could sustain 22 hours in the basic hard seat compartment, but our sleeper carriage was very comfortable and we shared it with two lovely old Vietnamese sisters for most of the journey. It’s the sort of train where you can still stick your head out of the window, get off at stations for a stroll, and you also get a spectacular view of the Hai Van Pass and Lang Co beach. The train line hugs the coast as it slowly meanders its way over the Pass and the shoreline looks stunning.

We arrived in Hue and promptly found ourselves 300 metres from the station in La Residence, a 5-star art deco hotel, formerly the home of the French governor. It is a beautiful hotel that looks serenely out over the Perfume River and the Citadel. The Citadel is the centre of the old Imperial city and, though it was heavily bombed during the war, it is still very atmospheric and an amazing place to stroll about. It is easy to imagine how decadent and impressive the area would have been in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Royal Tombs, slightly out of town, continue this theme. Tu Duc’s tomb is simple but set in stunning grounds; Khai Dinh’s is more sumptuous and colourful with a host of European influences; and Minh Mang’s is set by the river amongst quiet lakes and gardens. A boat ride up the Perfume River takes you to Thieu Mu Pagoda, an iconic symbol of Hue. All in all, Hue is a world away from Saigon and a very beautiful town.

After 3 days in Hue we went a bit backpackery (which was a bit of a shock to us … we’re a bit old for such things) and hopped on a minibus destined for the Phong Nha National Park, via the De-militarised Zone, Vinh Moc Tunnels and the Ben Hai River. This area was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam and was heavily bombed during the war. The 17th Parallel ran down the Ben Hai River, and crossing the bridge and visiting the Ben Hai Museum that explains about the area was strangely eerie and poignant. Similarly, the Vinh Moc Tunnels, built by the local population to hide in and avoid the bombs, were a very sobering experience. We were joined in our minibus by quite a few very young travellers as well as a lovely older couple from Alaska / Arizona called Jim and Lynne, and a great Vietnam vet called Suel. Suel, in particular, provided us with a really interesting commentary of the whole area (in a very unbiased way) and now works for Veterans for Peace, a charity that actively educates school children about America’s disastrous role in the war, as well as supporting local people in Vietnam about the dangers of unexploded bombs.

We ended up in the middle of nowhere in Phong Nha at a backpacker’s farm stay where pounding music blasted out very loudly and beers were freely flowing and there were lots of people in vests advertising Vietnamese beer and we realised we were all just a little bit long in the tooth for such things. Luckily the music calmed down quite quickly, we had a basic room overlooking acres of beautiful rice paddies and everything seemed to (sort of) mellow out.

Phong Nha is a UNESCO designated World Heritage site (as is Hue) and famous for some pretty impressive caves. We began by visiting Paradise Cave, which has a huge cavern and millions of stunning stalactites and stalagmites. The size is simply breathtaking. We then donned hard hats and head torches and went swimming underground in Dark Cave. This was brilliant. It was great just floating around in the dark, swimming in the cool water and wallowing in the mud. The next day we hired bikes with Jim and Lynne, found a guide and spent the day cycling along the original Ho Chi Minh Trail and through the local villages. Our guide was really good and he took us off the tourist trail for much of the day, crossing rivers by sampans and rickety old bridges, meeting the local people, and we even got to see our very first wild monkey! Top tick! Jill managed to crash three times and has a rather impressive scar on her leg. We finished off with a swim in the river and it was just a lovely day. On the last day Jill cycled down to see Phong Nha cave, a flooded cave that boats take you into, and I headed out for a jungle(ish) trek to the Tu Lan caves. These caves are set in the most stunning limestone plateaus in the middle of nowhere. The trekking was wonderful, the caves were again stunning, and the swimming equally so. All in all, it was a fantastic few days in tranquil and really picturesque countryside and a world away from Saigon.

We ended up in the sleepy town of Dong Hoi on Independence Day. Not a lot happens here. The locals are very friendly, there are just about zero tourists and we spent the day strolling along the river front, watching the fishing boats, taking in the annual dragon boat race, having a massage for £2.00 administered by blind masseurs who actually walk up and down your back, and generally just watching the world go by.

This has turned out to be our best bit of travelling in Vietnam. It was a bit off the beaten track which was great and the whole area is nothing short of stunning. We met some really nice travellers and the local people were so welcoming and we just had a beautiful time. This is what makes living here so good!

Back in Saigon there appears to be a few riots kicking off. It's quite hard to figure out what's actually going on but it is quite a way from us and it appears to mainly involve issues with the Chinese community and Chinese owned factories, mainly because China has moved an oil rig into disputed waters in the East Sea. We 're both fine and it shouldn't really affect us but we'll be in touch if things escalate. We'll let you know ...

Posted by TheBackyard 01:10 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

We're going Up Country ...

Or, Hoi An, My Son ... and ice skating!

sunny 34 °C

So, it’s been way, way too long and as ever, apologies for that. We’re aware that we’re about to head off on another adventure in a week or so and we haven’t written anything about the last one … so here goes.

Well, Daisy’s gone home and is back in cold and wet Brighton but Tet holiday here meant that Cheryl came to visit again. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year and is the biggest holiday for the local population. Everything shuts down and it’s a time to head home to families as well as a time for flower festivals. In Ho Chi Minh City they don’t do things like this by halves and there are flowers galore. There’s a massive flower market in the park in the centre of town, and the whole of Nguyen Hue street in District 1 is given over to flower displays. It’s very beautiful and extremely colourful.

Straight after Tet we headed for Hoi An and spent a few days exploring the old town and My Son Cham remains. Both places are UNESCO World Heritage sites and each is pretty impressive. Hoi An is very quaint with stunning wooden houses and other buildings and seems to be a throwback to Vietnam about 100 years ago. It’s fantastic. The people are extremely friendly and at night the streets are lit by hundreds of traditional lanterns, making it very endearing and peaceful, despite the crowds. It is quite a backpacker’s haven and there are far too many Jim Morrison t-shirts and people that need a haircut but if you ignore them it’s a great place and one of the best places we’ve been in Vietnam so far.

My Son is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a collection of Cham temples dating from 3rd-13th century. Most of it was bombed to smithereens (good word) by the Americans during the war but there’s still enough remains to make it pretty impressive. It is also in a stunningly beautiful and peaceful valley in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a lovely place to wander around and is very tranquil.

We also spent some time just lounging lazily by the sea, ate some delicious local food and were particularly impressed by the restaurant that prided itself on being “dust-free”. It wasn’t … but the food was good and it was a catchy slogan for their business card.

Since then we’ve had a long term at school. We’ve taken a few pupils to Hanoi again for the MUN conference there and they were as ace as ever. We were very proud of them. Hanoi is a great city but, boy, was it cold. And wet. And grey. We struggled to cope and it was blissful after five days of 20 degree wetness to get back to 30 degree sunshine in HCMC. Oh, and we did go ice skating there which was brilliant. It was the only rink in Vietnam that has proper ice and our Korean students were amazingly good at the skating. The Vietnamese less so. Particularly TD who persuaded us all to go.
On Saturday Joe and Kirsty arrive on a flying visit which is very exciting. Then we’re off to Hue for Easter. Twenty two hours on the train. And we’re also off to Phong Nha National Park to see some impressive caves. I know – you can’t wait. I promise we’ll be more punctual in our deadlines this time.

Missing you all. Love J and J.

Posted by TheBackyard 07:07 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A bit of Bangkok bling

Or, gold, gold, and a bit more gold

sunny 30 °C

In the latest of our South East Asian wanderings we have just spent a mesmerising and brilliant 4 days in Bangkok. For a city so close to Vietnam it is a world away in terms of culture and atmosphere and it was an absolute joy to explore it’s numerous sights and experience it’s chaos and vitality.

Bangkok is a city of bling. There is gold everywhere. Many of the temples and wats are covered in gold and the royal palaces are bedecked with the stuff. We visited the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, both of which were visually stunning (even for anti-Royalists like us!) and we managed to see all 66cm of the Emerald Buddha, which is regarded as Thailand’s holiest image. The architecture and colours that adorn the buildings were absolutely beautiful and it is extraordinary to witness just how highly worshiped the royal family are. Next door to the Grand Palace is Wat Pho which houses the country’s longest reclining Buddha. Now, I don’t know about you but I’m rather fond of a reclining Buddha and this (gold!!!) one is particularly impressive, measuring a whacking great 46 metres in length with rather neat mother of pearl feet. Wat Arun, across the river, has a more obvious Khmer influence and is adorned with porcelain figures and motifs. It’s a splendid, if steep, climb up but well worth it. To finish off the royal and religious buildings we visited Dusit Park that houses Vimanmek Palace, a royal residence and possibly the largest teak building in the world, and constructed without the use of a single nail. It’s pretty impressive. Not quite as big, but equally exciting is Jim Thompson’s house. He is credited with re-establishing Thailand’s ailing silk industry as well as designing his own traditional Thai house. It is absolutely stunning and extremely peaceful considering it is situated in the downtown hub of the city.

Bangkok is also a shopping mecca (apparently, though I’m not an expert on such things) and as well as a number of massive shopping malls there is also Chatuchak weekend market – it is absolutely enormous, with over 15000 stalls but it is just a lovely place to spend a few hours wandering around and perusing everything Thai. And, unlike the markets in Ho Chi Minh City, no one hassles you and it is just very easy going. It was terrific. Throw in a bit of modern art, a cinema, ferry trips, canal cruises, tuk tuk rides, political demonstrations, a decent foot massage, delicious food, and lovely people and you have four days of wonderful enjoyment and relaxation. It’s a city we will definitely come back to!

All that remains is to wish you all a very happy new year (Chuc Mung Nam Moi) and we hope that 2014 is good to you all. Thanks for following us this year and we’ll see what places we find ourselves in in 2014.

Posted by TheBackyard 21:44 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

The beauty and splendour of Brisbane and beyond ...

Or, how to hug a koala bear and other exciting Antipodean adventures

sunny 30 °C

It appears that the length between our blog entries is getting longer and longer and we can only apologise for that. It is not through lack of things to talk about but more through sheer incompetence of the writers who, frankly, are pretty hopeless at keeping to deadlines. Well the librarian half of the team is anyway.

To remedy this situation we’ll give you a two, no three, make that four for the price of one offer and throw all sorts of things into this boiling pot of South East Asian and Australasian cuisine.

First up, we spent our half term holiday way down south in sun-drenched Brisbane, and that is the farthest place away from home we’ve ever been in our lives. By miles. We went to visit Daisy and we had a splendid time. Having not seen her for 14 months it was an unusual place to meet up. But it was really, really lovely to see her. Brisbane is a beautiful city and after the chaos of HCMC it was lovely to spend some time in a place that is both laid back and incredibly green and clean. We crammed a lot into our week’s adventures. We began with a busman’s holiday and ticked off the Queensland State Library, including an exhibition on the history of Queensland music, from early jazz and big bands to the Go-Betweens and the wonderfully named Six Ft Hick. We also checked out the restored city hall and the excellent clock tower. We visited the Queensland Art Gallery (which was excellent) and then took in the campus at the University of Queensland where Daisy has been studying. It really is an amazing campus. Universities have clearly changed since I went to Plymouth. I don’t remember seeing lakes and fountains and peacocks and lizards there. It was a fantastic place and Daisy seems to have had a brilliant time there. She bought us tickets for the city ferris wheel and so we had a lovely sunset ride on that. This was followed by a really cool visit to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where we hugged koalas, fed kangaroos, watched Tasmanian devils being fed, and spotted duck-billed platapuses (possibly platapi) which were a lot smaller than I imagined. Great place though. The day after that we caught the bus up to Mount Coot-tha, which has spectacular views across Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and then visited the Botanical Gardens. Now I don’t profess to know a lot about botanical gardens but in my humble and totally non-green-fingered opinion these were right up there with Kew Gardens. They were absolutely beautiful.

For the last two days Daisy joined us glamping on Moreton Island. This is a stunning island of sand dunes just off the coast of Brisbane and only walkers and drivers of 4 x 4s can go onto it. It is extremely scenic and very peaceful and where we glamped we had the beach virtually to ourselves. We spotted a few dolphins and saw some amazing birds including Ospreys, Brahmany Kites, Whistling Kites, Crested Goshawks, and a few more besides. You might have guessed – I’m quite rubbish at birding. We had some lovely strolls along the beach watching the whitebait and mackerel jumping and it felt remarkably like Burton Bradstock, except there’s no rockfalls.

So, our stay in Brisbane was short but sweet. We crammed a lot in and had a very fine time and it was really nice to spend some time a little more Western, after a year in South East Asia.

Before our Antipodean shenanigans we welcomed a number of friends to Vietnam. Our very, very good friends (whom we love so very much) Peter and Linda visited us over the summer and we had a ball with them. We took them down to the Mekong and paddled up and around the quiet rivers of Ben Tre. We cycled all around the area, through peaceful coconut groves and then cruised downstream on the cargo boat. We also caught the train to Phan Thiet and spent a few days on the east coast. It is really lovely here and we stayed in a luxurious 5 star hotel and were pampered, and pampered, and pampered some more. We visited the local fish market and watched the fishermen haul in their daily catch on their little coracles, cycled to sand dunes and sampled rather potent alcohol with the locals, ate the most ridiculous breakfasts, and generally lived like kings and queens. It was a top few days.

My brother Chris and his wife Pat visited in September and we did much the same thing. We had another beautiful few days in Ben Tre, before they headed off to Hoi An, a crazy few days in Cambodia, and some rest in Phan Thiet. Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong are great places to show people round and Jill and I always see something different whenever people arrive. There is always something new to see, the city constantly changes, the bus station changes every week(!) and new buildings seems to spring out of nowhere. It is a city in constant state of flux and it has changed so much in our first year.

So, there you have it. We’re up to date; Daisy arrives soon, followed by her friend Rhianna; we’re off to Bangkok just before xmas and who knows where after that. We’ll keep you up to date. I promise.

Oh, school continues to thrive. The library was re-vamped and enlarged over the summer. One day it was small. The next day it was very large. It looks ace and it’s full of kids, which is as it should be. They aren’t quiet, they aren’t silent, and I have no control over them, so it’s much like the last 12 years of my professional library career. But it is good. And Jill is now working at the school as a counsellor and is doing a tremendous job.

See you all later.

xxxx

Posted by TheBackyard 06:28 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Our Japanese journey

Warning, this post contains lots of photos of food and trains ... we apologise in advance ...

sunny 35 °C

Dear all,

It’s been far too long yet again but summer is nearly over (for us) and we’re back to school next week so we’ll provide you with a two for one offer and tell you a bit about our Japanese adventures and our recent meanderings down the Mekong and along the southern coast of Vietnam. This will be against a backdrop of a bloke in flip-flops sitting on what was once our windowsill but is now a rather precarious bit of scaffolding and drilling and hammering what is left of our back wall. By tonight we shall probably have no wall at all but a splendid panoramic view across the river where we can watch the boats chug up and down in the moonlight. Personally we’d rather have a wall but the way the bloke’s hammering I don’t think we have much choice. In Vietnam, if something needs doing, it needs to be done with a hammer. I suspect they ice cakes with a hammer. And iron our shirts with one too.

Anyway, I digress. We had a splendid couple of weeks in Japan exploring Tokyo, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Nara, and Kyoto. It really is an extraordinary country and one that quite often takes your breath away. At the risk of boring you all senseless we’ll be painlessly brief about where we went and you can then look at some pictures.

Tokyo is a city that is really hard to get your head around. There is no real centre to it and it is, instead, made up of a myriad of districts, each with their own character and flavour. Amongst the best places we visited were:
• Tokyo Sky Tower (the tallest tower in the world)
• Senso-Ji Temple (beautiful),
• Imperial Gardens (better even than Grandma’s front garden)
• Ame-ya Yoko-cho market (delicious pancakes and fine country and western clothes)
• Tokyo National Museum (very museum but in a very good way)
• Ueno Park (tranquil)

We also threw ourselves head-first into Japanese cuisine. This is quite a challenge for vegetarians but Jill was in heaven with her sushi, fresh fish and bento boxes, all of which are beautifully presented and almost an art form in themselves. It was a great city!

Kanazawa, WNW of Tokyo for the geographically minded amongst you, is a very traditional city with a few 21st century bits thrown in for good measure. Here we stayed in a traditional Ryokan guest house and wore fancy kimonos, slept on proper Japanese beds and bathed in really cool (but very hot) shared baths … which is much better than it sounds. Sights included:
• Kenrokuen Garden (better than Grandma’s back garden)
• Myoryu-ji (the Temple of the Ninja, and a building that has 7 floors in the place that looks like it only has 2. It was very cool.)
• Naga-machi (the Samurai district)
• Normura-ke (a beautiful traditional Japanese house from the 19th century)
• Higashi-no-Kuruwa (the old Geisha district)

Hiroshima is a city dominated and shadowed by its past but it is also a very laid back and welcoming place. Highlights included:
• The Peace Memorial Park (extremely moving but, ultimately, very uplifting)
• Miyajima (a short train ride and ferry boat ride took us to this very peaceful island with the dominant O-torii gate)
• Adachi Museum of Art (a quality train ride through the hills took us to this beautiful art gallery and a garden even better than Grandma’s front and back gardens put together)
• A visit to the mighty and magnificent Hiroshima Carp baseball stadium to see the Carp hammer the Dragons 3-0. It’s a bit like rounders from what we could figure out.

Nara is a small town with a huge history and we spent a really relaxing couple of days here ticking off a few temples and deer watching. They’re everywhere and just wander aimlessly about. A bit like Knole Park in Kent but it’s a town. The temples of choice were:
• Todai-ji Temple Complex (including the Daibutsu-den, which is (probably) the largest wooden structure in the world, and is truly spectacular, especially (obviously) if you like wood. It also has a 53-foot bronze statue of the Buddha inside.
• Kasuga Taisha (a peaceful temple with pathways leading to it lined with over 2000 stone lanterns)
• Kofuku-ji (with an impressive 5 storey pagoda)

Kyoto is the temple mecca of Japan and was Japan’s capital for over 1000 years. There is so much to see here that you just have to close your eyes, point at the map and have a lucky dip. It’s also a very cosmopolitan place and we really liked it here. We arrived in the middle of the Gion Festival with street processions and a collection of enormous floats pulled by ropes and men. Not quite the Notting Hill Carnival but close(ish). Anyway, our lucky dips included:
• Ginkaku-ji (the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, which was indeed very silver, and had a beautiful garden)
• Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was indeed very golden and very spectacular)
• Sanjusangen-do (a 400 foot long hall with 1000 golden statues of the many limbed Kannon. It was genuinely magical)
• The Philosopher’s Path (a beautiful peaceful 2km wander past loads of great shrines and temples. We were in Kyoto just as the maple trees were changing colour all along this route and it was absolutely beautiful)

We ended up back in Tokyo and caught up with Satsuki and her mother. Satsuki was Daisy’s exchange partner when she went to Japan a few years ago and it was so lovely to see her again and meet her mum. They took us up the Tokyo Tower (a bit like the Eiffel Tower), and then back to Asakusa for some delicious noodles and a wander around the backstreets. Satsuki is like our 2nd daughter and she is just the best. It was a perfect end to an awe inspiring trip.

Just a few other things.
• The Japanese trains are brilliant. Especially first class! As you know, we both love a train or two and the Bullet Trains were particularly good … but also the small train to the Adachi Museum which you can look out of the front of and watch the driver … very exciting. Indeed, so exciting were the trains that I got stuck on one after Jill had got off in time and I didn’t in Osaka. I had to wait until the next stop, get off, and make my way back.
• Jill loved Bento Boxes, which are what the Japanese usually eat for lunch, and are beautifully presented and delicious sushi and other delights all packed in a box. Alas, there were no vegetarian options.
• Cheap sake is very strong and gives you a massive headache, as we found out when two old blokes shared some with us at the station in Hiroshima.
• We found the world’s largest rice scoop on Miyajima island. It was, indeed, very large.
• I was close to visiting the Pokemon Centre, but not close enough.
• The Japanese like pickles and they’re a different class from piccalilli or any other such pickles. And the Japanese also like displays of plastic food outside their restaurants. This is handy as you just point to the plastic food of choice and you get the real stuff!
• Whenever we had our fortunes read Jill always got a really good fortune and I always got a really bad (and I mean dire) one. Everything from fortune sticks in the shrines, to bits of paper in the temples, to rolling dice in the museum … I had seriously bad fortune.
• Did I mention that we had a brilliant time and really loved Japan?

Posted by TheBackyard 20:20 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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