A Travellerspoint blog

Hue

It's cold, well 24 degrees feels cold after 3 weeks of 30+

overcast 24 °C

It is becoming increasingly apparent as we travel and plan that our RTW trip should in fact be called “Justin and Lynne’s amazing UNESCO collection journey.”

We took the train from Danang to Hue on seat61’s (www.seat61.com) recommendation and it didn’t disappoint. The train crept along the cliffs of the mountain coast with beautiful views down the steep green slopes to white sands and blue waters. We spent the evening in Hue having a stroll along the waterfront, eating at a lovely vegetarian restaurant and booking a tour for the next day.

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Yes Lynne is asleep.

The morning of our first group tour dawned and we waited at the café for pickup to the boat (even though the terminal was only 8mins walk). Lynne was again very “excited” to see some scooters arrive to pick us up and a few death-defying moments later we were deposited on a Dragon Boat for our trip down the Perfume River to the Nguyen dynasty mausoleums. The Nguyen dynasty lasted nearly 150 years from 1802 to 1945 and with all good emperors/ kings they had a monstrously inflated idea of their own importance and had serious building sprees. Such is the strange amalgamation of Vietnam religion their temples, palaces and mausoleums are a mix of classic Chinese tradition, Buddhism, animism and even Catholicism.

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Our favorite was Minh Mang tomb. It had a beautiful symmetry and serenity:

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Second place went to Tu Duc with its stunning setting of man-made forest and island in lake:

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And in last place of the three (3/8) we visited was the strange Khai Dinh. As the last, gambling and alcoholic king with a penchant for French culture his was a bizarre temple complex in concrete.

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Our second and last day in Hue was spent walking around the Hue citadel and Imperial City. However first thing in the morning I had to check the Tottenham score. 5-0 to the Lillywhites. Bosh. And Chelsea lost. A good morning indeed.

The citadel was built with the help of the French and boasts impressive 3m walls - a serious defensive structure. The Americans got caught napping by the Viet Khong with the Tet offensive and got swiftly pushed out of the citadel they were holding. The ensuing battle to reclaim it took its predictable toll on the Imperial Palace and Hue as a whole. Large parts are still just empty plots with some of the remaining building showing the scares of bullet holes.

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However it is still a beautiful structure. Much like Beijing’s forbidden palace in lay out but not as well preserved. The moss, mildew and dilapidated state lend an Indian Jones quality that we know the writer likes. Remote corners were lovely only spoilt slightly by the Vietnamese karaoke whining (really at 11am!!!!).

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With the wife very happy with a belly full of KFC chips we are beginning the next mega train journey. This time a little 12 hour hop north to the capital Hanoi and our gateway to Sapa and Halong Bay. Bring on the next UNESCO site!

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STUPID THINGS TRAVELLERS SAY:
As we enter our fourth week Lynne has had a few blonde moments but no real howlers. Our orator this week is obviously travelling SE Asia with the sole aim of fulfilling his countries stereotype. Our overweight American tourist pronounced very clearly in the middle of a temple that, “Vietnam monks are boring, they have their hair at the back tied up but the Thai ones are much more colorful”. I hope the monks could not understand rather than being too polite to show recognition.

Posted by Justin Woolley 17:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An (Day 19, 20, 21 and 22)

Do you take Visa????

semi-overcast 27 °C

Time for the next big journey across Vietnam. Rather than hit some of the beach resorts, we opt for an overnight sleeper train from Ho Chi Minh to Da nang. Neither of us are big fans of cramped overnight bus journeys so we're hoping train travel might be better for a 16 hour journey. Justin almost fits on the bed if he lies diagonally! It is clean(ish), but pretty basic. We're on the top bunks and we have two Vietnamese travellers below us who don't speak any English and are fast asleep by 8pm (and wide awake and chatting by 5am). Breakfast is at 7am (rice and chicken...my favourite), with beautiful views across the paddy fields and central highlands. We spend the last couple of hours writing our blogs as well as debating the best technique for using the open squat toilets in a train that occassionally sways violently from one side to another. We agree on the 'hold on tight' technique!

Feeling a little worse for wear after a 13 hours on a train...hmmm time for breakfast

Feeling a little worse for wear after a 13 hours on a train...hmmm time for breakfast

Beautiful views from our train carriage

Beautiful views from our train carriage

We jump in a taxi to Hoi An, a beautiful little town with historic streets and over 200 hundred tailor shops. We check in at our hotel and immediately get whisked away to the hotel owners tailor shop...just to look around. Fifteen minutes and a decent amount of female flattery later and Justin has been measured and put a deposit down on a handmade blue jacket! We wander out a little dazed - what just happened?

Hoi An itself is beautiful. Lots of little narrow streets filled with beautiful architecture, cafes and tailor / handicraft shops. The old town feels like a time warp - helpfully preserved by its Unesco World Heritage Site status - filled with time travelling tourists. We have a meal in 'Morning Glory', a famous restaurant producing Hoi An specialities like banh xeo (savoury pancakes wrapped in rice paper, White Rose (steamed shrimp dumplings) and Cao Lau (lots of fresh vegetables, noodles and beef). We then wander over to some of the cafes, many of which specialise in French cakes. This isn't going to be a good week for my healthy diet resolution.

Day turns into night and the streets light up with multi coloured lanterns whilst the air fills randomly with jazz and classical music. We have managed to arrive on the Hoi An Legendary Night, a festival that takes place on a full moon night. The town is busy with both tourists and Vietnamese having a drink, buying street food and floating candles on the Thu Bon River.

Beautiful historic Hoi An...oh and Justin

Beautiful historic Hoi An...oh and Justin

Enjoying a traditional Hoi An dish...yummy

Enjoying a traditional Hoi An dish...yummy

Hmmmm...chocolate cake

Hmmmm...chocolate cake

Lantern festival on the night of the full moon

Lantern festival on the night of the full moon

Jazz hands dragon lantern

Jazz hands dragon lantern

The next day we jump on our bikes and head out of the town to see some of the local beaches, farms and temples:
Traditional fishing boats

Traditional fishing boats

Visiting a local temple

Visiting a local temple

Some of the rice paddy fields surrounding Hoi An

Some of the rice paddy fields surrounding Hoi An

Hoi An's old market

Hoi An's old market

The afternoon is spent looking around tailor shops until we are all tailored out from the constant sales banter. I pick a local shop called Khoa Cloth Shop (81 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street) - very welcoming, didn't pressurise and answered all our questions patiently without wandering off! We spend the afternoon looking through fabrics and discussing different styles. What was meant to be a short shopping list of a couple of shirts, some trousers and a coat expands into a couple of hundred pounds worth of made to measure clothing and handmade shoes - all very beautiful and expediently put together by our lovely tailors who ensure everything fits before adding the finishing touches over a couple of days - thank you Khoa :D We parcel everything up and weigh it to get shipped back home by seamail. A weighing competition ensues - our tailor weighs in at 45kgs whilst Justin weighs in at 91kgs causing a lot of amusement.
Getting measured up...

Getting measured up...

First fitting...

First fitting...

The final product...well one of them anyway

The final product...well one of them anyway

Our last morning is spent at a cooking school. We wander around the early morning markets before learning how to make a few Vietnamese dishes. They are all very tasty - hopefully we can find some of the ingredients when we get back - although as a recovering vegetarian I struggled with the pho stock made with animal bones including a lovely fresh chicken head. Justin's medical dissection of the different parts of the chicken brain turned a number of us a slightly whiter shade of white!

Buying some herbs at the local market

Buying some herbs at the local market

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Lovely lady who helped us make rice milk

Lovely lady who helped us make rice milk

Tourists in hats!

Tourists in hats!

Yes that is a chicken brain...

Yes that is a chicken brain...

The perfect spring roll...

The perfect spring roll...

Vegetable pancake

Vegetable pancake

Beef salad

Beef salad

Posted by Lynne Woolley 03:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Saigon.

This can't be for real?

sunny 33 °C

Ho Chi Minh City AKA Saigon. Population: 5.4 million. HCM or Uncle Ho (or the other 11 names he used at different times during his life) didn’t want a city named after himself. But it happened. He really didn’t want to be canonized. But he ended up on every bank note in the country. Well he did lead the North to victories over the French and the US and united his country. I wonder now what he would make of this city. Just as I wonder what Mao would make of Beijing. Communism my behind. This country has its foot on the pedal and loves capitalism.

Last time I was here I was 18 years old and everyone we spoke to said it was changing and would be unrecognizable in 10 years. Well 13 years later and the same backpacker road is still here. The odd same café too but everything else is shiny and modern and screaming capitalist. It’s more Hong Kong than Bangkok. Amazing skyscrapers tower above with new ones under construction. What surprises me the most perhaps is the lack of shanty towns and poverty, has it been moved outside the city or are the poor not as poor in communist/capitalist Vietnam? We buy fresh ice coffee in swanky coffee shops and are slightly taken aback at the western prices but even more taken aback to be surrounded by school children on their lunch break. The middle class is clearly massive and enjoying its buying power.

Our first full day saw us sort out our train tickets for the 1,700km trip to Hanoi via Danang and Hue. Paying the 3.5 million dong price in 50,000 Dong notes was a bit surreal. After this we spent the morning at the Reunification Palace. This was built as the palace for the president of South Vietnam and we got an official tour. And very pro-north it was too.

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In the afternoon we went to the War Memorial Museum. Much shinier and with air con now its anti-war and anti-western subject matter are as disturbing as ever. The atrocities of the Vietnam War and the use of Agent Orange in operation Ranch hand (and its birth defect affects) are as horrible as ever. A new addition is a brilliant photography exhibition arranged by Tim Page the photojournalist. It adds a much needed unbiased exhibit, showcasing the work of photographers who captured the war from both sides and lost their lives during the conflict. The eight others exhibits can begin to loose their message a little as too many anti-western slogans wear the reader down. A must see though.

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The evening took us to the 23rd floor of the Sheraton and some 2 for 1 cocktail during happy hour. Unfortunately they were 2 for 1 on your next round and so we had two very strong cocktails as the sun set and the lights started twinkling. The talking followed as so often does with alcohol and we had a great time. And again as so often occurs with alcohol we went for a curry!

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Our final day in Saigon and we took it easy. Ate some great Vietnamese food at a social enterprise that offers hospitality training to young people living on the streets. By 7pm we were rolling out on the sleeper train for a 16 hour journey to Danang. While not as clean as perhaps hoped (and some very grumpy French people for it) I was just very thankful for a soft bed, A/C and no bouncing bus journey.

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Posted by Justin Woolley 17:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Good morning Vietnam (Day 13)

sunny 32 °C


So we jump in a minivan to the Cambodian - Vietnamese border. It takes border control an hour in the mid-day sun to stamp our passport twice (as well as having to pay a highly dubious ‘tourist charge’). Our bus has disappeared with our bags. We’re told “No worries, back soon”.

We jump on a bus on our own and drive through the Mekong. Our arrival into Chau Doc is lined with field upon field of rice paddies filled with workers wearing traditional conical hats. Justin, who visited Vietnam 13 years ago, is already noticing major differences: the roads are tarmacked; boats crossing the hundreds of little (and not so little) Mekong tributaries have been replaced by bridges; and the air is filled with the world’s worst selection of mobile ringtones!

We arrange a homestay with a local family in Can Tho, before going for a walk around Chau Doc, a small but bustling town on the banks of the Bassac River:

Where's the boatclub???

Where's the boatclub???

House boats on the river

House boats on the river

Houses over the Bassac River

Houses over the Bassac River

Just a few motorbikes on the roads

Just a few motorbikes on the roads

I experience my first Vietnamese road crossing. I take it all back about the Cambodian roads. These are so much worse! Justin tries to reassure me before we cross a major eight-lane junction ‘ It’s not in their interest to hit you’, ‘Whatever you do don’t run, just keep walking nice and slow and they’ll just swerve to miss you”… feeling even more nervous I slowly edge across into the middle of the road. Justin continues confidently across like a seasoned pro whilst I freeze in the middle as taxis, buses and motos stacked with everything from ladders to gas canisters swerve around me. An elderly Vietnamese lady hobbles past me laughing, completely oblivious to the bus that nearly flattens her…

The next day we jump in another bus and head to Can Tho, the major transport hub of the Mekong. Thankfully the karaoke fuelled bus journeys of Cambodia have been replaced by Vietnamese movies (think crouching squirrel, hidden chipmunk) and a Vietnamese equivalent of our Royal Variety, showcasing national singers and dancers.

I hate motorbikes. Only an hour before I’d said to Justin that I would never go on a motorbike again in the UK. I especially didn't want to go on a motorbike in Vietnam. Our host, Mr Yu, meets us at the bus station. He’s wearing a motorcycle helmet. We head towards his motorbike complete with our 20kg bags and small rucksacks. He looks all 6 foot 5 of Justin up and down and calls over his friend. This is going to take two bikes.

Our homestay is lovely. A simple room complete with a completely pointless lock for a door you could easily squeeze through or climb over. The best part, our lovely homestay family who make us feel very welcome and try to get us both drunk. We use our phrasebooks to point out questions and practise our Vietnamese.

We head out on a bike ride around the little paths that line the tiny rivers running in and around the houses and businesses, before tucking into a seriously nice meal (just like your Vietnamese mum makes- thanks Mrs Yu). Justin obviously looks peckish – they role out the bbq fish and more beer. We are joined by some of Mr Yu’s family as well as some Vietnamese students visiting the area for Tet (Vietnamese New Year). The girls want to see pictures of our travels around the world and pictures of our wedding (all 3,000 of them in one go - seriously):

Does this bike make me look small?

Does this bike make me look small?

Chilling in a hammock at our homestay

Chilling in a hammock at our homestay

Justin looking smug on a 'monkey bridge'

Justin looking smug on a 'monkey bridge'

Not so smug Justin...

Not so smug Justin...

Yummy mums cooking...

Yummy mums cooking...

...and then BBQ Vietnamese style.

...and then BBQ Vietnamese style.

I head to bed. Justin is convinced to go frog hunting at midnight – sucker. He comes back disappointed, without any frogs and a very wet pair of trousers! Early start next morning. We head out to see one of the regions biggest floating markets:

Floating market in full swing

Floating market in full swing

Fruit and veg on sticks

Fruit and veg on sticks

Making rice noodles

Making rice noodles

Traditional boats

Traditional boats

Posted by Lynne Woolley 08:42 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Kampot and Kep.

A different pace of life.

sunny 33 °C

A short dash in the mini bus deposited us in Kampot and the excellent Mea Culpa guesthouse / pizzeria. So good in fact that Lynne had to eat pizza two nights in a row at the restaurant.

Kampot is a small provincial town set by an estuary. There isn't much to do but thats just fine as its slow pace and quirky buildings are the main draw.

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In the afternoon we visited Epic Arts.http://www.epicarts.org.uk . Epic Arts is a disability arts charity established in 2001 and working in the UK, Cambodia and China. They reach out to those with physical and learning disabilities of all ages and backgrounds, through workshops in dance, drama, visual arts, crafts, photography, music, and story-telling. A very good cause with some excellent food at their cafe. There work in such a poor area is vital. For example there was a kid at the centre who had Down's. For the first 19 years of his life he was treated as deaf and dumb by the community. With Epic arts he was making and selling awesome greeting cards, as well as running around with a toy gun and having a laugh while we were there.

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On our first full day we borrowed some bikes and went to the market. This was very much a traditional, functioning market. While it didn't boast the huge range of horrors a good Cantonese market does, I haven't ever quite been assaulted by so many smells, tastes, sounds and feelings in such a place before. It was most probably heightened by the low tarpaulin draped as a make shift roof by the sellers. The roof certainly kept the sellers amused as "Giant Justin" stooped through each section. Much finger pointing and laughing! A great experience though.

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Market Fruit
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Market Vegetables
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Market Giant

After a quick lunch we decided to go exploring a bit on our bikes and over a few bridges came a cross a Buddhist temple with some sort of large scale blessing on the go. It was lovely to be off the beaten track. People came up to talk solely because they were interested rather than wanting the green dollar. An old monk motioned us to go inside and have a look around. He then pushed his youngest disciple in after us to clearly try and practice his English. The inside of the temple was covered in the stories of the Buddha painted in the most beautiful vivid colours.

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The next day saw us get the Tuk Tuk out of there. We went 25k east to Kep. Kep is famous for being a ghost town and for its crab. It was a popular holiday retreat with the French who built lavish country houses. However the war meant they were abandoned in the 60's and the town largely forgotten about. Nature did what it does best and reclaimed them. As we walked around town shells of once grand houses peer through the trees and bushes. Unfortunately for this part of Kep's selling point the town seems to have been rediscovered and lots of new hotels have sprung up too. It has lost a lot of the charm which it has been famous for. However the second selling point turned out to be one of the best meals ever. Crab with Kampot green pepper. Never did i think I would happily munch through whole pepper cloves. Seriously delicious.

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After securing Vietnamese visas (through a dodgy guy we gave $100 dollars to and both our passports in Sihanoukville) we make our way to Vietnam tomorrow. I will be returning after 13 yrs. My last trip as a naive 18 years old. The naive 31 year old can't wait to see how it has and hasn't changed.

Posted by Justin Woolley 02:10 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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