October 3 | Comments (1)
Last Thursday we touched down in Calgary, Alberta the final stop on our trip back to Canada. The last few days have been spent acclimatizing to the cold (it's freezing here!) and our new home. Yesterday, I started work at Critical Mass and you'll be able to expect some more recipes as soon as I get through the trip photos.
September 25 | Comments (0)
Before we left Queensland Jen's cousin took us up to Kuranda where we took the skyrail down to Cairns. The skyrail is a 6 person gondola that takes you over the top of the rainforest and includes a couple of stops along the way where you can see the forest up close and get a guided tour. It's a great way to see a rainforest - you can see for miles. We didn't see much wildlife but we did get to see some cockatoos searching for food in the top of the canopy.
We arrived in Sydney late afternoon on Wednesday and realised that we weren't really dressed for the occasion - having traveled in SE Asia for 2 months we didn't anticipate how cold it would be. Funny though, if we were coming from Canada, we would have been happy in shorts.
We spent most of Thursday shopping for shoes and a sweater for me (and keeping out of the morning rain!) and met up with some friends for a drink in the evening. Friday we walked around the harbour to see the Opera House and the Botanical Gardens with its hundreds of flying foxes (bats). In the afternoon we took in a movie, Ratatouille, which we both very much enjoyed - I think it's a very close second to The Incredibles as far as Pixar animation goes. It was also a great relief to our sore feet - never break in new shoes whilst visiting a new city!
Saturday we walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as I had to get a picture of the creepy entrance to Luna Park. It's like a set for a horror movie. On the way back we were almost fined $500 for walking on the wrong side of the bridge - thank god for our accents, the security guard just turned us around. More shopping in the afternoon as I had to find a shirt that I'd seen on a guy at breakfast the day before; I asked him where he got it and it turns out he's promoting the brand in Australia and left a message for me later that day with details on where to buy them. We had dinner at Zia Pina (great pizza!) on George Street in The Rocks for the second time (did I mention it has great pizza!).
A great end to our Australian visit - next stop is San Francisco for 3 days and then home for a rest.
September 16 | Comments (0)
We arrived in Port Douglas on Monday after a fairly painless 8 hour flight from Bangkok and a 3 hour flight back up the coast from Sydney. Jen's cousin picked us up at the Cairns Airport and took us to our home for the next 9 days. We're staying at the Mediterranean in a self contained apartment. It's amazing how good it feels to be able to cook your own meals...even a bowl of cereal in the morning is a novelty.
Port Douglas is a very sleepy little town on the northern coast of Queensland. There is plenty to do here including diving, snorkeling, beaching, wandering around the oldest rainforest in the world and visiting with family. Our main reason for visiting is to see Jen's Grandmother (fastest moving 92 year old when used as a landing pad by a flying cockroach) and her Aunt. It's been a great visit so far. Meals out, lots of ice cream (Nana's fave!) and good company.
On Friday we took a day snorkeling trip aboard the Calypso out to the Great Barrier Reef. We stopped at 3 separate sites along the reef where we saw thousands of tropical fish including a very friendly grouper (groper if you're a Kiwi or Aussie) who would eat from your hands. Whilst at the first site Jen and I managed to pick up a traveling companion. A small fish about 4 inches long decided to piggy back a ride, thinking that we were a large fish. No matter what I did I couldn't shake it and even when i was sitting on the end of the boat it was hovering around my legs as I was getting out of the water. It's the type of fish that hovers under large ones hoping to catch some of its lunch.
Yesterday we've visited the Daintree rainforest with Jen's cousin and one of her daughters. We made several stops at the beaches along the coast and had a beautiful cream tea at the Silky Oaks Lodge, which would be an amazing place for a special occasion. After our tea we took a quick walk down to the river where we befriended a little turtle which was named Isabella Angel by Jen's cousin's daughter.
Today we've visited the local market and tonight we're in for a feast of Barramundi and kangaroo steaks. I can't wait!
September 9 | Comments (0)
The last few days in Asia were spent shopping in Bangkok. We stayed at the Buddy Lodge on Kho San Road for the 3rd time. We've visited most of the big shopping areas (including MBK, Suan Lum Night Bazaar and Chatuchak) and at the end of it we were both exhausted - We forgot what it was like to walk so much after such a long time on the beach. We both managed to get a few new outfits and I even managed to pick up a new set of glasses and new lenses for my Oakleys. We didn't do much sight seeing this time as the last time we were in Bangkok we visited all of the major sights.
Next stop is Port Douglas, Australia. It's a bit sad as this ends the Asian leg of our travels. I can't believe 2 months have gone by so quickly, I start work again in 2 weeks (Yikes!!). It seems like just yesterday we were deciding whether or not to fly or take the train into Vietnam from China.
September 9 | Comments (1)
Things that have fallen on us from the coconut palm we used to shade ourselves on the beach.
1. Coconuts (obviously) - Luckily it didn't fall on us, just beside us. THUMP!
2. Spiders - One as big as my palm fell on Jen and bounced up the beach back into the tree.
3. Snake - The same snake fell out of the palm 3 times. The first time it slithered up the beach, over my arm and back into the tree. The second, it fell with a thump and caught a gecko on the beach which it proceeded to devour. The best bit was watching the gecko's tail twiching in its mouth! The third time it slithered up beside Jen's leg.
Our 12 days on the beach were glorious!
August 30 | Comments (0)
It's been a rough ride the last few days. I'm not sure if I can handle all of the sun and sand.
Dao, 27, female - long trunk, quiet, likes long walks and fresh pomelo.
Yesterday we spent the morning on an elephant trek through the jungle (Chang Chutiman Tour Tel. 089-939-6676, 087-135-7424). On the way back Jen got the prime position on the head of the elephant (just behind the ears), and I got to sit like a maharaja (yeah, I know wrong country) on the seat behind her whilst our mahout walked in front calling out commands so that Dao didn't get any bright ideas. She was very well trained and only started to deviate once we reached the pomelo grove, then the temptation to disobey orders was just too great. We spent the better part of 20 minutes picking fresh pomelo and feeding them to our large friend (still sitting on top, she'd just reach her trunk up to grab the fruit) each whole pomelo exploding with a large "POP" followed by a splash of juice on my legs and the wonderful smell of fresh citrus (beats elephant flatulence I tell ya!). I think I could have easily spent the rest of the day eating pomelo with Dao, but unfortunately the trip was only scheduled for 2 hours.
Unfortunately, we've been rained out today so apart from watching dodgy copies of the Simpsons (movie), Borat and Die Hard 4 we haven't done much.
A few more days at the beach and then we're off to Bangkok for our last bit of Asia. This trip is going too fast!
August 24 | Comments (0)
Our flight to Chiang Mai was uneventful and quick. We booked a hotel in the Chiang Mai airport and made our way by taxi. Chiang Mai is nice, but not amazing...the scenery is very very similar to Laos and northern Vietnam. As a staging point for treks into the mountains it's a great base, but as we've already done enough trekking on this trip we decided to cut our visit very short and head for the beach a little early. We spent lots of time wandering the streets and visiting the local markets, Jen bought a shirt but otherwise we spent lots of time browsing.
After much deliberation we left Chiang Mai after only a day and half, we flew to Bangkok and took an express bus to Trat and then the ferry to Koh Chang island. After one night on White Sand beach (we stayed at the White Sand Beach Resort, which was ok, nice bungalows but far from anything interesting) we moved to Lonely Beach. We're now staying at the Nature Beach Resort, which, aside from the nightly parties, is lovely. Aircon bungalows, fast internet, good food and a gorgeous beach...is there anything better?
August 16 | Comments (1)
We're still in Luang Prabang awaiting our flight to Chiang Mai (Thailand). We've met some lovely people, had some great meals (including the ever popular meat (chicken) stick) and indulged in massages and body scrubs. The most adventure we've had was visiting the nearby caves (by long boat) and waterfall (great swimming location, right out of a movie set). After finishing Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, I'm now into Harry Potter and it's a struggle to leave our very comfortable porch. Everything is so relaxed here, it's going to be very tough to leave (I'll let the thought of Thailand's beaches console me).
Since not much has happend in the last week, I thought I'd write down something that Jen and I have been meaning to for a while. This is for the benefit of our friends with new children and for us when we get around to having a sprog (I'm sure there are parents who do this anyway, but so that we remember later*).
* No Mom, Jen's not pregnant! :)
Asian parenting 101
Observation 1 - Let your children run around with nothing on for as long as they want to. They'll have to wear clothes for the rest of their lives so why be a prude? The clothes will get dirty anyway and then you'll have more laundry to do. Think of it as water conservation - you're doing your bit!
Observation 2 - Don't worry so much. Let your kids get all the bumps and bruises they can, these little life lessons whilst immediately painful will teach them to be more careful next time.
Observation 3 - Let your kid eat what it likes. Unless you know it's poisonous, ground food and other delights will help them build up immunities.
Observation 4 - Don't be tempted to coddle a child that screams. Walk away, It'll stop when it realises you're not listening.
Observation 5 - Adults eat in public, why can't babies? No need to be ashamed/offended, it's natural.
That's it for now, I'm sure we'll have more before we get home. As mentioned, we're off to Chiang Mai. We'll be there for a few days before hitting the beach (not sure where yet) and reading a few more books.
August 10 | Comments (0)
Another hour on a plane, and we're in another country. We arrived in Vientiane expecting another seething mass of humanity similar to HCMC or Phnom Penh but boy were we wrong. With just over 200,000 people it feels like a tiny backwater in comparison. Everything moves just a little bit slower and the people are wonderful. For the most part, we spent our two days in Vientiane at the JoMa Bakery Cafe (near the fountain) due to the constant rain. (Try the jumbo cinnamon bun, you won't be disappointed.) In between iced coffee and cake we visited a few of the local sights, if I were visiting a second time I'd give the big golden stupa a miss as it's much better looking from a distance.
So far on this trip we've managed to avoid long distance bus travel, and our bus ride to Luang Prabang was vindication of our decision. The ride in our VIP (King of Bus) coach was meant to take 8 hours, but after 4 breakdowns and multiple stops we finally arrived nearly 11 hours later. Fortunately the scenery on the road up to Luang Prabang was the most beautiful we've seen on this entire trip. It would be nice to do the same ride on the back of a motorbike. We'll be here for a week or more so perhaps we'll hire a tuk-tuk to take us out to the country. Getting in so late, we only manged to find a cheapy guest house (Sokdee Guesthouse) that wasn't very nice. This morning we moved to the Sopha Guesthouse which is much more agreeable.
Luang Prabang itself is beautiful, I'm not at all surprised why so many people recommended it to us (before and during the trip). All there is to do here is relax, eat, get massages (1 hour = $3) and other spa treatments.
Off to get a fresh lemon juice...life is rough.
August 4 | Comments (1)
The flight to Phnom Penh was uneventful, we arrived late afternoon and found a decent hotel for a couple of nights. Most travelers stay around the lake area, we decided to skip the rats/roaches and stay just off of the river. We lucked out as the Paragon Hotel (on Sisowath Quay) was great, small room but only $15/night and very friendly and helpful staff. The next day we took a trip out to the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng museum (S 21). Both are equally disturbing and made for quite a heavy morning. After the killing fields we were offered the opportunity to go to a shooting range only 200 metres away. Somehow it just didn't seem right, so we gave it a miss. In the afternoon we went to the Russian market and the Palace (which is virtually the same as the one in Bangkok). There isn't much else to see in Phnom Penh so we decided to move on quite quickly. We heard lots of bad things about Phnom Penh before arriving, but it's not as bad as people make it out to be. Most of the main areas felt quite safe, although the difference in wealth was noticeable compared to Vietnam.
In the morning we took the fast boat to Siem Reap (5.5 hours) and compared to a bumpy bus ride the price was worth it ($23/person). Our trip included a short ride through a floating village at the very end. Watching life on the river was great, they even have a school. Siem Reap is a tiny place in comparison to the other cities we've been to on the trip, it has a nice feel to it. Our hotel is the Green Village Palace hotel, the rooms are clean and it has a great pool. On the way into town from the boat launch we met our tuk-tuk driver (Mr.Bean) for the next 2 days. Note to travelers: He's a great guy, lots of information about Angkor and very friendly. His number is (855) 12 762 085 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We both had huge expectations of Angkor and it hasn't disappointed. Angkor is definitely in the same league as the Taj, Pompeii and the Great Wall. All of the temples are amazing and well worth the steep entrance fee ($40/3 days). Our favourite is Bayon, its many faces seem to be watching your every move and walking around feels like being in your very own Indiana Jones movie. We've spent nearly 2 full days visiting all of the temples; we could visit tomorrow but I think we're both a bit templed out.
The next couple of days are going to involve eating copious amount of Amok (I've had 4 already), perhaps taking a cooking lesson and getting more massages. Tuesday we fly to Vientiane.
July 30 | Comments (0)
Our flight to Dalat was delayed so we arrived later than expected but we managed to find a clean room fairly quickly. We stayed at the Peace Hotel which was fine but, the best part is that we found our Easyriders...rather, they found us. We booked a 3 day journey from Dalat back to Saigon through the Central Highlands and a night at Cat Tien National Park.
Our drivers, Mr River (Mr Giang) and Mr Forest (Mr Lam we called him) provided two very comfortable motorbikes, rain gear, helmets and great conversation. The price was a little on the steep side (but well worth it), $260 including accommodation (for us and them), petrol and two English speaking guides/drivers. Note to travellers - these guys were great; if you're thinking of doing a tour ask the receptionist at the Peace Hotel (one of them is married to Lam) as they'll know how to get in touch.
Day 1 - The first stop was Crazy House which is right in Dalat; a cement bad dream full of winding staircases and rooms with colourful names like kangaroo, bamboo and gourd. The design of each room reflected each name, gourd for example had a giant cement gourd - nice! The next stop was a flower farm, Dalat produces a large amount of flowers (roses, gerbera dasies) for most of the major cities in Asia. Next stop was a coffee plantation where we saw the Arabica variety of beans growing - they don't harvest them until September/October time so it's early in the season yet. Vietnam is supposedly the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, after Brasil that is. All I can say is that the coffee is great - very strong and served black on ice with loads of sugar is the best way to have it. Silk worms in action was the next stop, we saw the first stage of silk production which is where thousands of silk worms gorge themselves on mulberry leaves (it sounds like a river in the distance - weird). Later we would see the cocoons transformed into the finished product. We made two more stops during the day, one at a mushroom farm and the other at Elephant waterfall where we saw a pagoda as well - with huge smiling buddha. We stopped to sleep in Bao Lac; the hotel wasn't great but it was clean and a good place to lay our heads, especially as we'd been driving for the last hour in torrential rain.
Day 2 - A short ride to Cat Tien National Park; on the way we saw some beautiful views, tea, coffee and cashew plantations and even stopped for some fresh rambutans which we picked fresh from the tree. We had to leave the bikes behind once we entered the park as you have to cross a river by boat. Once on the other side we were free to walk through the park and trek as we desired; but we decided to play cards and wait for our night tour which was cancelled due to rain (it IS the rainy season...). We did however, get to see some monkeys, many many butterflies and some bears as well as a poisonous snake.
Day 3 - For me, the best of the 3 days as most of the ride back to Saigon was through little villages and on small roads through the amazing countryside. We saw a rubber plantation as well as a floating village along the way, but the best bit was staying on the bikes. We ran into rain again late in the day and after waiting an hour or so for it to die down, we donned the rain gear and pushed the final 60km into Saigon. We're back safe and happy and will be having one final meal with River who's staying in the city to see if he can find some more tourists to take back with him. Lam had another tour booked already so he was heading part of the way back tonight.
Tomorrow we're off to Cambodia; we'll be sad to leave Vietnam but what a great way to end this part of the trip!
July 26 | Comments (0)
We've spent the last 2 days visiting the sights in Saigon, the War Remnants museum was certainly the most impactful. It's a nice city, none of the charm of Hanoi but it certainly has a life of it's own. Even crossing the road here is an adventure, hold the arm of the person next to you and step carefully into traffic so that the mopeds can dodge you as you walk slowly to the other side. We've almost got it mastered, you can tell new arrivals by how long they wait on the pavement.
The food here has been great, I've fallen in love with the Bo Tung Xeo Restaurant, we've been back 2 times already (and we'll be going back when we return from Dalat). Cook your own sliced marinated beef (Bo tung xeo) on a charcoal BBQ, with sides of rice and stirfried spinach. The marinade made of the following:
Tons of garlic
A little milk (that's what the guy said)
Vinegar (probably rice vinegar)
No oil, but it looked like there was some.
I'm not sure of the measures, but you can be sure I'll be trying it when I get home. Not sure if lighting a charcoal brazier in your home is that safe...I'll have to have an extinguisher near by.
Fanny's, the best ice cream and sorbets we've had so far in Asia, was our dessert option. For those that are a little more brave (Kelly & Francois) try the peanut, green tea or cinnamon (which I'll be trying next time). I opted for the passion fruit sorbet and wasn't disappointed.
Off to Dalat tommorow for a motorbike tour through the mountains...
July 24 | Comments (1)
I went in yesterday to get a shave and a haircut at the local street barber, however the Vietnamese take shaving to a whole new level. After carefully shaving the top of my head, he proceeded to use a straight razor on the rest. This included my eyebrows, nose, forehead and even the tops of my ears. I was unaware that ears need shaving, but hey. I opted out of the ear cleaning, it looked too dangerous. The barber puts on a head lamp and proceeds to dig around in your ears with tools that look like medieval torture devices, apparently Vietnamese men go once every two weeks to get it done. They were giving me a hard time for having 29 years of built up grime to clean out....maybe i'll work up the courage to give it a try.
July 23 | Comments (0)
We were up at 4am to catch our flight to Hue from the Hanoi Airport, the taxi arranged by our hotel arrived on time and the flight was perfect getting us in to Hue at about 9am. We chose to take the airport shuttle into the city and it dropped us off at the Thahn Noi Hotel. Slightly more expensive than the accomodation in Hanoi, but well worth it as we were staying inside the walls of the the citadel in Hue. We spent the morning visiting the citadel (gorgeous and sprawling) and the afternoon on a mission to send home a giant tea pot. On our way to visit a pagoda we stumbled accross a pottery shop and both fell in love with a massive teapot and bought it without hesitation. We spent more than an hour wandering around the south bank of the town in order to find the Central post office, who generously helped us pack it in foam. (Hopefully it'll make it once piece.) The only problem with travelling with small bags (not that the teapot would have fit anyway) is that shipping charges start to add up.
The next morning we took a bus south from Hue to Hoi An which took about 4 hours. After some searching we managed to find a great hotel thanks to a random encounter with an 'Easy Rider'. We're staying at the Phuoc An hotel, just outside the old town. $17 gets you a pool, a large room with air-con, breakfast and very friendly staff. It's only a 10 minute walk to the river in town, but they give you free bikes if you want them. If you're coming to Hoi An, you can't do much better than this for what you pay.
Hoi An is beautiful. It's a great place to unwind for a few days/weeks. The beach (just outside of town) is gorgeous, the old town is resonably quiet as no cars are allowed and every street is filled with tailors ready to create whatever you want....dangerous! Four pairs of trousers, three skirts and a coat later, we feel we've embraced what Hoi An has to offer. The food choices here seem more Vietnamese and less Chinese. We've had grilled fish, fresh clams, king prawns as well as the local specialties - white roses (shrimp dumplings), deep fried wontons, fresh spring rolls and Cao Lau.
We'll be living the good life in Hoi An until Wednesday and then we're flying to HCMC before going to Dalat for our last few days in Vietnam. Right now...off to get fitted for my nice new trousers.
July 18 | Comments (1)
We arrived early in the morning at the Hanoi train station (roughly 5 am)and made our way to the Van Mihn hotel for a quick shower before getting on the bus for Halong bay. We were picked up shortly after 8 by our tour guide, taken to our chariot and whisked away to anticipated bliss. Boy were we wrong.
Tours in Vietnam operate in a very interesting way. The price you pay for the tour doesn't dictate the service level, or standard. Therefore someone can pay $37 for the same tour as someone who paid $100. It also seems as if It doesn't really matter which tour company you book with as they all pool together in the end. It's all a bit of a lucky dip, some people get lucky and some people don't. We booked with Sihn Cafe on Hang Bac Street (May the fleas of a thousand camels infest their genitals). I feel lucky that we were on the low side of the price range as our Halong experience was by far the worst travel experience we've ever had. If you're thinking of taking in the scenery of Halong bay, book a day trip or 1 night on the boat.
Arriving in Halong city we were shuttled on to our boat. We were supposed to have booked a small tour with 15 people, but it turns out that it just means that 15 people will sleep on the boat in the evening, not how many they can ferry accross to Cat Ba island. We spent most of the afternoon anticipating the cool water, only to find out that we would be spending the first night in a hotel. Once on Cat Ba we unloaded the 15 suckers (including ourselves) who were driven to the centre of town. The driver (opium teeth included) was a nutcase, only after breaking the wing mirror in a near collision with another, much bigger, bus did he decide to slow down.
We arrived, a little shaken at the Chiang Son hotel. What a shit hole! Even those people on a very tiny budget weren't happy. Obviously someone was trying to cut corners and make some more margin on the tour.
Note to single travellers: Make sure you get your tour operator to write down "single room, no sharing on pain of death" on their forms. Make sure you get the "single" extra cost included in your fare. If you don't, the hotels and boat operators will assume that you will share with anyone, male or female, sometimes in a double bed.
Our new friend Niamh was unfortunately one of those that paid for a single room but failed to get them to write it down in the tour book. So she was forced to share, or pay for a more expensive room. As we had a 3 bed room, the tour guide expected her to share with us...even though we were clearly a couple. In the end we had the hotel owner pay us to share the room, but it left a very sour taste. It was so late by the time we settled the hotel debacle, that we couldn't go swimming. We had a quick supper and went upstairs to bed as we had a very early start the next morning. The food wasn't great, either on the boat or in the hotel...if you're doing one of these tours you'd be better off finding your own food. If we take other tours in the south, we'll learn our lesson.
Our guide (if he called me friend one more time I was ready drop him off the boat) was waiting for us at breakfast and notified us that we would start our Cat Ba trek at 8am. The trek itself was beautiful, 2 hours of very rocky terrain in the national park. We saw big spiders and snakes, and were soaked with sweat when we returned. If you ever go, bring lots of water, a hat and good shoes...although the guide did it in flip flops (not sure how). The view from the top of the mountain was amazing.
Finally after spending most of our time away from the boat, we were ready to get back on and hopefully do some swimming. At about 3pm we were taken back to the boat, thankfully with a much safer driver. Crossing paths with the other 15 we warned them of the hotel and our experience (turns out they had a very similar one.) They warned us to bring lots of water to the boat as they ran out and it was a struggle to get the captain to go and get more.
On the boat Niamh was again told that she would have to share a room with a stranger (a guy), this time with a double bed. In the end she had to sleep in the dining area as the lock on her room was broken and the boat crew said that the only way to use the room was to climb through the window.
The swimming in the evening was nothing short of wonderful, after almost 2 days of waiting to get in the water we had 1 hour of free swimming time. Bliss. After supper we sat on the upper deck, watched the stars and ate Oreo's. Our room was muggy and hot, as the fan kept stopping...but my mood improved after the swim so it wasn't too bad.
Breakfast just about tipped everyone over the edge. We were served bread (with ants for extra protein), 1 deep fried egg, and 1 small glass of tea. They didn't have any water left, and they wouldn't let us have any more food. By that time we couldn't wait to get off the boat and back to Hanoi to relax...who would have thought.
Given the number of people who go to Halong Bay, all experiences can't be like ours. Just make sure you get all promises in writing before you go so that you can force them to give you a refund when you don't get what you expected.
Back in Hanoi, we returned to the Van Mihn, and had a great nights sleep. Today we wandered about the old quarter and had a fantastic lunch at the Green Tangerine (48 Hang Be, Hanoi, Old Quarter). The service was fantastic and the set lunch was devine. We took the recipe for the Tamarind chicken with vermicelli noodles!
Tommorow we fly to Hue, the start of another adventure.
July 15 | Comments (0)
Booking the tour to Sapa was relatively painless, just hand over your cash to one of the many tour operators in Hanoi and hope for the best. We booked with Sihn Cafe (or likely one of the fake ones). The system is one of organised chaos, tickets arriving at the last minute, different drivers, and that's just to get you to the train.
Be careful when booking your tour and make sure that you get exactly what you paid for. The tour companies appear to book your train tickets after they promise you the nice cushy VIP berth, when in fact they have no idea of availability until later in the day. This means that you can be stuck with anything from a VIP ticket to a hard seat for 10 hours. We booked soft-sleeper and had hard-sleeper, although we were lucky by all accounts as other travellers fared much worse.
Once we arrived in Sapa everything seemed to go much more smoothly and was definitely worth the trouble to get there. We booked a 4 night 3 day tour, which started off on day one with a easy trek to Cat Cat and a beautiful waterfall. Benjamin (the Chilean photographer) and I couldn't help but go for a swim. The water was clear and cold and worth the effort scrambling over a few rocks. We spent the first night in the Sapa Summit Hotel, which was clean and had an amazing view from our fifth floor room. The food included in the tour package isn't the best, so if we were going again, I think I'd skip it and go into town. (The chocolate chip and raisin cookies at Baguette & Chocolat were amazing!) We spent the night in the Sapa Summit Hotel, which was lovely and well equipped for dealing with sweaty, dirty hikers.
The second day was very wet, forcing us to buy lovely ponchos...everyone was laughing at me as I looked like a monk. The trek itself wasn't too bad for most of it until we reached the muddiest hill I'd ever seen. Without the help of the village ladies who were following us the whole way, none of any of the groups would have made it down. The H'Mong women were amazing, no taller than 5 feet, but more sturdy than mountain goats. It took two of the them to hold me up (yes, I checked my pride at the door and accepted all the help I could). We spent the night in Ta Van village, with a family. Both the stay and the food were excellent. We had friendly conversation (mostly with sign language) and they even managed to get Jen and I to have a couple of glasses of their home brewed rice wine. Waking up in the morning to mist over the rice terraces and the smell of pancakes from the kitchen was amazing and made the upcoming muddy trek seem better. Four hours of muddy/rainy treking later we were back in Sapa ready for the bus back to our train to return to Hanoi.
After all the walking, climbing and sliding we were ready for some relaxation in Halong Bay...
July 9 | Comments (0)
We've been in Hanoi since Saturday and will be staying until Wednesday before heading off on a tour through the hill stations in northern Vietnam.
Upon arrival we were a little bit apprehensive about Vietnam as the impression we got from other travellers was that the Vietnamese were pushy and wouldn't leave you alone - they couldn't be more wrong. Compared to China, Hanoi is a paradise. The people are friendly, often smiling and usually ready to help (even for free!). It's amazing the difference a smile makes when you're travelling. So far we love Hanoi and could easily stay here for a week at least.
We haven't done a lot in the last few days as I've still been recovering from my bout of the 'travellers flu', I've even lost inches and Jen figures I've lost 1/2 to a whole stone!
We've visited the Museum of Ethnology (alright - Jen liked it better than I did), which had nice exhibits and explanations in English, French and Vietnamese. We've also been to the Temple of Literature, which was beautiful. It was a school for the teachings of confucius. This afternoon we took in a water puppet show - good family fun.
Normally I'd fill this space with the food choices that we've made over the past few days but I've had a baguette, iced tea, water and a banana - not exactly gourmet but good enough. Jen however, has had a number of excellent meals including Pho Bo (Beef Pho - noodle soup)and simmered pork spareribs with grilled aubergines (eggplant).
As mentioned, we'll be hanging out in Hanoi for the next couple of days and now we can officially say we've been to the Nam.
July 7 | Comments (0)
This post is more for those travellers looking for information on the journey from China to Vietnam by train as we found it extremely difficult to find any reliable information before we went. Everyone we met seemed to have a different answer to the same question so we through we'd tell you our experience.
Buying the tickets for us was relatively easy once we found a travel agent in Yangshou (see Note below for Beijing detail) who knew what we were talking about. You find a lot of people providing travel advice to tourists in Yangshou but make no mention of this method of crossing the border into Vietnam; we were even told by one girl that you couldn't take the train to Hanoi. We used the CITS travel agent across the street from the Morning Sun Hotel who was very helpful. We were told that there are only 4 soft sleeper berths from Guilin to Hanoi so they get booked quickly - make sure you book as soon as you can (3-4 days in advance). He also told us that there are no hard sleeper berths that go all the way to Hanoi - they all appeared to be soft sleeper from what we could see.
China to Hanoi trains originate in Beijing every Thursday and Sunday, arrive in Guilin on the Friday or Monday and into Vietnam on the Saturday or Tuesday. We took the Friday train from Guilin to Hanoi (there are more than these 2 stops throughout the entire journey).
We got on the train at Guilin Central Station just before 15:00. The Chinese leg was relatively painless until we arrived at Nanning when we were all told to get off the train and we weren't sure why. We were told to leave our bags and sit in the soft berth waiting room. It turns out that the train separates and only a few cars continue on from Nanning to the border at Pingxian. Make sure you get some sleep in on the first leg as once you hit the border it becomes quite hard. Once back on the train we had a couple more hours before we arrived at Pingxian where the Chinese border officials board the train and have you complete exit cards and take your passports for examination. We were lucky as this only lasted 1.5hrs but our passports were gone for most of this time. When your passport is returned, make sure you get an exit stamp; if you don't, this could cause hassle at the Vietnamese border crossing in Dongdang.
Vietnam Border Crossing
The train rolled on for about 1/2 an hour after all of the Chinese hoo ha and stopped in Dongdang where we all had to get off the train, this time with all our bags, to go through Vietnamese border formalities. Remember, this is happening at about 3:00am. The crossing is a fairly small room with a customs window for collecting your landing card and an immigration window where they check your visa, Chinese exit stamp, completed landing card and then give you the necessary stamps. They tend to take large numbers of passports, check for the necessaries and then take the passports to another room, which you can't see into, and do some more checks (likely on a database or something). The room also includes a health check, which costs 2 Yuan to stick a thermometer into your ear, and a ticket window where you must verify your ticket.
Order in which to do things:
1. complete landing card
2. hand passport and landing card to immigration
3. verify ticket
4. health check
5. go back to immigration to pick up your passport.
Again, it is a very small room so you'll not be walking more than a few feet for each of these.
Our train from Nanning was 4 sleeper cars whilst the Vietnamese train was 2, hence the need to verify tickets and reshuffle passengers as necessary.
The Vietnamese train is not as nice as the Chinese one but it's a place to lay your head for the next 4 hours until you roll into Hanoi at 8am Vietnamese time (1hr behind China).
The journey was made even harder for me as I spent the entire night very sick (you know what I mean) - ate something dodgy in Guilin before we boarded. I'm still not feeling so great and only barely managing to hold down water after 24hours. Jen's been nursing me to health though so I'm sure I'll be better soon.
Note - Train Tickets from Beijing to Vietnam
This information comes from a passenger who did the journey herself and who we met along the way - we told her we'd blog her experience along with ours as she had very little information on the journey beforehand.
In Beijing she was told by her hostel to go to the East train station to get her train ticket for Hanoi. At the station they didn't know what she was talking about and after going to a number of different windows was told to go to Beijing West station. She went to Beijing West station only to be told that they didn't sell those tickets but to go to the bank next to the station. The bank told her that they didn't sell the tickets but to go to the Railway Hotel*, which is connected to Beijing West Station. Next to the entrance to the Railway Hotel there is a small door with an RTS sign - this is where you buy your Beijing to Hanoi train ticket in Beijing.
Whilst there may be other ways, this is how she managed to purchase her ticket in Beijing.
*The Railway Hotel may be called something else i.e. have another word in front of Railway - she couldn't remember specifically but you should recognise it if you go.
July 5 | Comments (0)
Well, it's Thursday night and we've been in Yangshou for the entire week. It's a great place to veg and the surrounding landscape is absolutely beautiful!
On Monday we went cycling around the countryside. We peddled 3.5hrs in total and went along highway (at 9km, we thought we may have been lost until a kind Chinese man stopped in his car and confirmed that we were heading in the right direction - we had a map thankfully), through rice fields and small villages. Arriving at the only river crossing we were told that we couldn't use the bridge (not convinced!) and would have to cross by bamboo raft. After some negotiation we managed to secure passage to the other side even though the raftsman tried very hard to convince us that the trail wasn't wide enough for bikes (we found out later that he was sort-of right). We spent the next 2hrs cycling back to Yangshou through rice fields and the most amazing limestone formations. Jen even fell ankle-deep in mud whilst single track riding through a rice paddy - hard core! We'll have to get Jen on a bike when we're back in Canada now that she's an expert :).
The next day we decided to try our hand at some Chinese cooking and were joined by 2 other couples, one Dutch and another American at the Cloud 9 Restaurant. Our menu included:
Gung Bao Chicken (Kung Pow - to us Westerners)
We started the course by taking a trip to the local food market to pick up some of our ingredients (we skipped the dog section; slightly disturbed by the ones being bled out and skinned). Our facilities included 7 workstations, one for the teacher and the rest for us. We had some initial prep, learning how to properly chop veggies with a cleaver and then got down to business. The instructor reminded us of the Chinese takeaway woman in Dude, Where's My Car?, for those of you who know the film (those of you who don't, rent it, it's a good laugh). She kept saying "...and theeeen..."; tempting us to respond "...No And Then!" We cooked for the better part of 3 hours and learned how to fold dumplings properly. If we remember by the time we get home, it'll be a miracle! We got all of the recipes and I'm sure we'll be posting them in the future.
That afternoon was spent by the river giving impromptu English lessons to a few Chinese students. They teach themselves English using books and the China Daily newspaper as the 2000 Yuan per person cost for a one-month course is just too expensive for some of them.
On Wednesday (happy birthday to Jen's dad!) we went from Yangshou to Longsheng to see the rice terraces North of Guilin. Our tour included a gem of a bus which included no aircon (well, not really), blinds on one side of the bus and a tour guide who was hell bent on filling it to the rafters. 3 hours later we were more than happy to make the 15 minute climb uphill to our lunch destination. Our lunch included bamboo rice and bamboo chicken, it was rice with veg and chicken cooked over a fire in a piece of bamboo with cobs of corn to keep both the heat and food inside; they were split in 1/2 lengthwise to eat from - very tasty. We spent the next couple of hours wandering around the terraces with a Belgian family of 4; it was absolutely beautiful and well worth the trip. The way back was much nicer as fewer people came back with us, until 15 minutes down the road we picked up some women from a broken-down bus. I had the pleasure of providing my shoulder for a woman to sleep on - grumpy!
Today we took it easy and pampered ourselves with a haircut & shave from the local barber who looks a lot like my dad, just Chinese. He managed to shave just about every bit of my head including ears and other orifices. Later I had a massage and Jen had a trim foot (slough all of the skin off of one's feet) which involved torches (flashlights), tubs of tea-coloured murkey water and lots of tools that you'd likely find in the tray of a Morrocan street dentist.
Tomorrow, off to Vietnam...
July 1 | Comments (0)
It's been a while since our last post so this should be a long one. Our 2 day trips from Guangzhou turned into 1 day trip and a day sauntering around, eating and playing cards in Starbucks (I know, I know...). We took a bus from Guangzhou to Zhaoqing (2hrs) where we watched fab music videos along the way - who knew that the nooma nooma song had been remade into a chinese pop song! It's actually quite good.
Zhaoqing was a lovely town; we spent the afternoon walking through a protected park of lakes and limestone formations. You take a speed (sort of) boat from the main town for 5 minutes or so to the park. The landscape is beautiful and the caves are a great way to cool off in the heat of the day. Some great flourescent lights showing off the rock formations inside and a little boat ride which reminded us a little of the 'It's a small world' ride at Disney World.
The next day was spent walking around Shamian Island in Guangzhou; straying only to have lunch in a local place across the river which we went to the other night for dinner. The meal was great - pork & potato hot pot, choy sum, rice and tea - and a guest. For the first time ever on any of our travels we were visited at lunch by an inch long cockroach crawling up Jared's arm - you've never seen a grown man move so fast! Needless to say, the rest of the meal was consumed very quickly from there. We spent a lovely afternoon playing cards and drinking mango frappucinos in Starbucks until we had to catch our night train to Guilin.
The night train from Guangzhou to Guilin was great. We took a soft sleeper and in our room were two Chinese ladies who spoke excellent English; so we ended up chatting for most of the evening. Did you know that people born in the year of the snake have good luck if they are friends or are married to those who are also born in the year of the snake? Well, all 4 of us in the room were snakes; so we felt very fortunate.
We arrived in Guilin just after 7am and found a decent hotel (a bit smokey) and then went off for the day wandering around town. A much nicer place than Guangzhou - very green. We spent the morning at Princes City Solitary Beauty Peak (mouthful!) which provides a lovely view of Guilin and the surrounding countryside; but by the time we got to the top we were a little hot (understatement!) and all we could think about was cool aircon - must find cool aircon.
Shire Hobbiton Coffee Shop was a great place to veg out for a few hours. Not sure about the coffee but the drinks were good and the staff extremely friendly. We spent quite a while speaking to a young Chinese girl named Belinda who speaks like an Aussie, which was unexpected.
The next day (we're on Friday 29th if you've lost track) we went to Reed Flute Caves and, after a failed attempt to find the commodities market, we went to the Seven Stars park for a snack. More cooling off in the Shire and then to a really good Guilin noodle house recommended by Belinda. We scoffed down 2 bowls of noodles and a coke for 6 Yuan (40p) - bargain!
The highlight of the week had to be the boat trip from Guilin to Yangshou up the Li River; although a few dozen boats go down the river together, the scenery is still amazing and it's definitely worth the trip (and the cost). We've decided to spend a few days in Yangshou (likely for the rest of the week...) in our great little hotel - Morning Sun Hotel.
If we fancy doing anything tomorrow, it'll likely be cycling through the countryside around Yangshou, but we don't want to exhert ourselves too much.
Oh Yeah - HAPPY CANADA DAY!!!
June 27 | Comments (0)
If you're ever looking to buy a small painting in China with your name or a loved one's name on it in English and Chinese, a word of advice - John, Paul, Clare, Sarah or Becky may not be suitable choices anymore. Instead, consider a name change or naming your child something more typical such as Cowgirl or Zoltan, you'll have more choices.
June 25 | Comments (0)
Day 3 and I think we've lost at least a stone (14lbs for you non-Brits) in sweat - needed to know that didn't you! It's 20:30 and it's at least 30 celcius - frosty!
Whilst the visit was short, we really enjoyed Hong Kong. We had some fantastic food (fresh Lychees - yum), saw some great sights (Victoria Peak, dragon boat races, live fish flapping for it's life on the floor of the grocery store) and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere Hong Kong has to offer.
Today we got up early to catch a train to Guangzhou (1hr 45min north of Hong Kong). We're staying on Shamian Island which was one of the first places the Westerners were allowed to trade from on mainland China. These days you see Americans, mostly, visiting with the sole purpose of adopting a Chinese baby, it's definitely the place to go if that's what you want.
We enjoyed some Chinese bureaucracy this afternoon as we waited for 1hr to change 500 Hong Kong dollars (that's not much more than 32GBP) into Yuan. You wouldn't believe how many forms we had to fill out and they even took Jared's passport away for some sort of inspection - ahhh, keeps people busy and employed I guess.
We'll be taking some trips outside Guangzhou over the next few days and then taking a sleeper train to Guilin on Thursday night. This travelling stuff, I think I could get used to it.
June 23 | Comments (0)
The finality of our departure hit us as our plane left the runway and took to the sky - a few tears were shed whilst we looked back on the 'green green grass of (our former) home'. We'll miss you London.
A sad time but excitement was only 12 hours away!
A relatively smooth flight into Hong Kong saw us touch down at 2pm and, in true Folkmann style, we went to the hotel (Lanson Place Hotel), freshened up, went up to the Peak, took in the beautiful view and walked all the way back down - our thighs and calves won't be thanking us in the morning.
We finished the day off with a fabulous hot pot - Kelly & Francois, fear not, there are pictures!
We're off to browse the night market and go back to the hotel for some well deserved rest. Tomorrow, dragon boat races and a walk through Kowloon.