A Travellerspoint blog

Coming home

Highs and lows

sunny 17 °C

Making my way to the airport my senses were still open to all the chaos of Vietnam. A herd of water buffalos are guided across the exit from the dual carriageway, the taxi driver grabs my hand when he laughs and shakes it, the hot sun shines through the window and bikes criss cross around the cars and trucks waking the dust that swirls up and twists back down. The sun is setting as I reach the airport at 5pm. I have 3 hours 35 minutes until my flight leaves. At duty free I make one or two last purchases and then finally we board. I am sat next to a Thai girl and as the plane is landing we both get a horrendous piercing of our ear drums. Deaf and bored I walk through the massive shopping centre that is Bangkok Survarnabhumi Airport. I now have to wait 2 hours for an 11 hour flight to London Heathrow. I am in a daze numbed to the feeling of leaving anything behind and to arriving into anything new. I'm in limbo. The waiting area is clinical, other people are lying across the cold silver floor as the barriers arent yet open. We are at the furthest end of one of the arms of the airport. Its dark outside through the immense windows and the 747 sits patiently waiting for us to board. After what seems like forever we are allowed to sit downstairs nearer to the boarding gate. There are rows and rows of chairs and we plonk ourselves there for yet another eternity. Flashing ambulance lights alternate bright electric blue and neon red at the back of our plane. 00.30am boarding time arrives and passes. 00.50am What the hell is going on. 01.00 Finally! I seat myself next to a Thai couple (Thai airways by the way) but a stewardess approaches me after a few minutes and explains there are plenty of spare seats at the back so I head there and realise how truly massive this vehicle is - how does it get into the air? At the back, a few rows from me and to the left there is a sectioned off compartment seperated from us by two curtains. It is closed for take off but during the 11 hours as I walk past to go to the toilet I see a man lying there bandaged from head to toe, on oxygen, travelling alone aside from the two nurses. I cant help but wonder what happened and if he'll be ok. Its a sobering thought following all those tense taxi rides. I'm glad i'm going home.

After broken sleep, crap films and average food its another ear popper and i'm approaching England. On the map screen in front we are flying away from Holland now and over to London. The clouds which have created a sheet over the land break to reveal light green fields and dark trees. The sun is shining over London and a Cambodian man starts peering right over the city at this unfamiliar sight. For me it is a welcome and relieving one. In the film version of my travels this is the moment when the emotional music rises to its peak...volume high and the shot spins round to the morning light on the runway and on the houses and cars around it. The music reflects the emotions of returning home with the relief and expectation that goes with it. The girl on the plane sits and takes a deep breath, looks from window to window and then unclips her seatbelt. With the music still playing she walks down the aisle of the plane, through the airport, to the luggage belt, through the corridors of the airport, into the lift and then out into the fresh morning. Music to fade.

To my utter distress the bus I had taken so much time deliberating over in Vietnam and had finally booked....is cancelled. Its the only bus that has been and I feel its a sign. Being rearranged reshuffled and rejigged I finally board a bus for Leeds. The accents and the sights are so familiar I feel like I never left. Whilst waiting for Dad in Leeds bus station hours later I go to Upper Crust to buy a bottle of water. An off duty member of staff leans casually against the counter whilst the fat spotty guy behind chats to her about shifts. She glances at me and says to him 'You have a customer', to which he replies 'So?' and continues to chat. Welcome to England.

So here I am. Sitting in front of this computer with classic English countryside out of the window to my right. The birds are wrestling with the wind and the trees bending to it. But its home. This is where real life resumes....for now!

Posted by hazelmoto 22:32 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

Lang son and the end of my trip

Wierd and wonderful

overcast 25 °C

After returning from Sapa I have no more planned for my last few days. I feel I have 'done' most of Hanoi but I spend another day exploring some of the beautiful craft shops, go to the travel agency to pick up my plan ticket and sit to enjoy an ice cream by the lake. At the travel agency the two people that work there, a young man and woman, lift their heads as I walk in through the open front. The girl has a small cute face and wears jeans so minuscule I may just get one leg in through the waistband. She is probably about 4ft tall. However she has a big personality. Berating me for not having come in sooner I get the feeling they relish the company of tourists. Each time I have come in here I end up chatting for along while. I really feel that they can be trusted in here as well, giving me accurate information whenever I have asked. Research on the internet and other agencies tells me that. This time Eddie, although its clear thats not his real name, is eating a bowl of rice with the leftover fish bones sitting delicately on the side and some overcooked and cold greens strewn across the middle. The bowl is blue and white patterned, I should imagine perfect for an English dinner party 30 years ago. Showing some interest in the food the girl takes my hand and leads me down an alley to the right and right again out of the shop. The alley is narrow, an old crinkled lady serves tea in the first outlet on the right and a little further down, edged to the side of the alley is a small trolley displaying a few Vietnamese dishes and then some small tables and blue stools. About five people sit eating their lunch and grin and nod as we approach. I don't think they get many blond western ladies eating here and some of the diners, and passers by, look at me like I'm attempting a record breaking high jump. Full of hope, expectation and encouragement for me, almost shaking my hand for trying it. One of the things I love most about Asia is that the people are genuinely enthralled when you enter into their culture. There's a certain amount of brownie points to be earned by being open to their food, traditions and language. Here the girls sat behind the serving, and money taking table, look shy and almost giggly when I pay for my food. I have a bowl of rice with a piece of oily fish in tomato sauce, some tofu, green beans and some pork ribs in a sticky sauce. This all comes to 20,000 dong - 75p. My Vietnamese tea is brought to me steaming in a glass cup that is too hot to hold. This amounts to 2,000 dong which equates to about 5p. Its a good meal and well worth the money! In the evening I head over to the Tamarind Cafe which was recommended to me by the Dutch woman from Sapa. She is a vegetarian so it makes sense that this cafe serves only veggie food. The salad and dessert are great, but particularly good is the range of smoothies. I opt for the China sea Breeze with pineapple, mint and soda. I seem to be on a bit of a mint phase at the moment getting as much of the fresh scenty herb as possible. The Tamarind is decorated with giant posters of Chinese characters and underneath them is the translation. I sit and wonder how many people have them tattooed onto their bodies somewhere. Also in the cafe I meet Roger and Mary-Ellen from NYC! They have the unmistakable accent and are really really warm and friendly people. They are travelling for about a year, they have many months to go and take on any advice that I ramble on about in their direction. I cant work out whether they are travelling together as friends or as a couple but it goes past the stage of asking after a while and I don't like to pry. They offer to buy me a beer and despite being tired its nice to sit with them for a bit longer. For the first time I am using my strawberry umbrella that I bought back in the Cameron Highlands. Its cute but silly with its small frilly fringe and strawberry shaped handle at the bottom. Nevertheless its extremely handy when the heavens open and the sky literally falls down onto the streets of Hanoi. Sitting in Le Pub, cleverly named indeed, where they serve specialty beers we watch the rain fall outside. The bar employs the homeless and under privileged but you wouldn't be able to tell by their smart appearance and excellent manner. They all seem quite young, about 18, and wear bright red t.shirts. The rain is so heavy some people are asking the staff to ring them a taxi to take them only streets away. The thunder claps down booming across the top of the buildings and the roads turn to rivers. Using my faithful brollie I turn the corner to the Elizabeth.

Since I am no longer taking the train from Hanoi across the border near Lang son and into China I decide to visit Lang Son in a day. The guy from the hotel gets me a ticket on a bus in the morning. Its fairly cheap so I expect a commuter bus but a mini bus arrives the next morning and I'm the first on. We go on to pick up locals until the bus is full. One girl gets on and sits in the front now that their are no seats left. Her mobile rings and she starts a loud conversation with a western man. I can tell because she is speaking in her best attempt at English, it is basic and broken but I think he should be getting the message that she is sorry she slept through all his calls but she is now awake and on her way to see her parents. No, he shouldn't be angry because she is very sorry, and he should call her later. Hopefully he will be calmer and less disappointed later. Later in the journey she turns and sees me squashed against the window in the first row of seats back from the driver. She smiles. Her face is quite pale and she has a thick nose but she is still a pretty girl. The older woman beside me looks and me and giggles. Once the girl has the confidence to speak to me she turns and asks me where I'm going and for how long. The older woman must then ask her what she asked me and everyone is filled in on the loop. As we leave Hanoi and drive north east the scenery changes and the 3 hour bus journey goes so fast as i'm distracted by the stunning landscapes. There are magnificent limestone cliffs covered in lush green. The hills are like waves rising up and then flowing back down dramatically. Nestled in the hills are villages of 10 or so houses. Some are basic wooden shacks and occasionally there is a grand town house, thinner than a terraced house in England, grandly painted and complete with balconies decorated with intricate patterns to the outside. I am enjoying the journey, driving past bicycles carrying as many baskets as you can physically fit onto the back, spiralled round so that the width is at least a metre. The rice workers stand up in their paddies with only their waist up visible and on top their hat. The crop looks almost reed like and so soft blowing back and forth with the wind. Suddenly in my euphoric contemplatative state I simitaneously hear gasps and a scream at the same time as a large bump clunk sound from under the bus, and a bit of a jolt. We continue and I look at the faces of the two women beside me who are cringing a little bit. Apparently I dont want to know what we hit. I concentrate on not being sick for the rest of the journey, because no one initially tells me what we hit my imagination runs riot creating images of a hit and run from an injured child. As we stop at a cafe five minutes later all the passengers are going about their usual business, eating, chatting, smiling. Therefore I ascertain it was a dog seeing as they walk randomly into the road at various points during our journey. At the risk of sounding cold hearted i'm quite relieved to find it is a dog. To rationalise it to myself I think of my attitude to hitting a rabbit in the UK and the fact that it is far worse to swerve putting your passengers at risk. Besides, they eat dogs here! Its exactly the same principle. With that distraction over in my mind I get back to thinking of the task in hand...getting photos and souvenirs for the Thoong family who lived here for years in the past.

I am dropped off in Lang son. I'm dropped off an a road next to a large green sports stadium that looks very much closed. On the other side of the road is an arched entry to the market across a car park. The road is very wide and there are a few bikes and cars but not many. There is nothing that I can see with any English signage at all. Feeling fairly vulnerable and lacking any confidence whatsoever I decide to keep my head high, walk and look like I know what i'm doing. I wander down a street lined with fruit stalls, small outdoor food servers, some women on the corner are selling flowers. They squat in the usual sitting position arranging the colourful blooms. Everyone is staring, but as I look again its not maliciously. They are absolutely fascinated. A lot of them smile and as I start to smile everyone smiles broadly at me and turns to their friends, some people actually shouting to their friends to come and look. As I take more paths remembering my steps I see a highly ornate temple and lareg bridge through the buildings. Keeping that in sight I enjoy looking at the twon around me. They are too quiet and respectful to be seeing a celebrity...I am greeted like the a member of the royal family walking through a marked route through a crowd. All the locals stand at the side of the road just looking in disbelief. Some of the braver people say hello and soon most people are saying hello so that I will respond. They react like this is the highest compliment. This has to be the friendliest place I have been so far in Vietnam. After reaching the bridge and what looks like the set up for a large celebration at the temple I saw in the distance I retrace my steps. I take pictures all along the way to document the town as it is today. The decorations are bright fun colours with giant pink flowers, acid yellow and pillarbox red banners, flags hanging across the road and over the staging. I walk through town a little bit more and reach a small shrine for Hoh Chi Minh. Then it clicks...its the celebration of his birthday today. There are now red banners everywhere across the road in this part of town with gold writing on each. I turn the corner again feeling hungry and start to conemplate attempting to order some food somewhere. I pass a few small stands selling fizzy orange and coca cola but in the distance I see a sign for Com and Pho, rice and noodle soup. As if the universe has picked up on this as I approach a nice young guy comes out grinning and pointing into his restaurant. So, I accept!

The restaurant just looks like the lower floor of a house, as so many buildings do over here. The upper floors are the home and the ground floor is an open area. In this case the kitchen is right at the back. There are a few tables and chairs at the front and inbetween is a tv and sofa. A girl of about 10 appears, as does a woman and baby another guy. All of them try and talk to me and smile, as usual! They give me a menu which I look at. It has many options none of which I can read and then a few pictures in the middle of a fish, a cow and a crab, much like a childrens story book. I point to the chicken and then the writing trying to ascertain which relates to which section. That doesnt work. They signal for me to hold on and one guys gets his phone. I assume he is caling the only guy in the town that can speak English. In the meantime they chatter to me like I can understand and I goofily give them all the Vietnamese I know which sends sheer delight into their eyes and they carry on talking to me. I think perhaps if I let it all sink at some point i'll automatically understand them. A few minutes later a guy arrives on a bike and I am presented with a menu with scrawled English next to each. Rather than an English speaking person we have a menu that must be shared between the town. I order a few things including some roast duck. This will be the first roast duck i've had out here and as i'm as close to China as i'll get this trip I might as well try it here. After some great food the family from the restaurant start taking pictures of me so I feel I can do the same. Then they give me their baby to hold and take pictures of that everyone laughing and enjoying the novelty. Thge beauty of this experience was that they were as in awe of me as I was of the whole situation. A wierd and wonderful day.

By now the over amorous guy at the hotel had turned into the bear hugging, arm punching and down right cheeky guy. For some reason I didnt find out or dont remember his name but after having stayed at the hotel on and off for about 6 nights I felt i shouldnt ask again. To other guests amusement when I was in the large communal area in reception using the internet or hanging out he would come and grab me and beat me up. Occasionally it was funny, sometimes it got far too much and I had to shout at him like a little kid. The positive from the situation is that I was invited to eat with the 'family' during the last few days. The Elizabeth hotel had become my Hanoi home. I was called the wife by all the male staff and to my comfort all the girls started coming and just hanging out with me when i was on the internet or reading just sitting with me and attempting to read some or talking to me. They are all so tactile, the girls will just come and hold your hand or just rest their hands on your shoulders whilst you face the computer screen. After not having visited a beach or been in a sunny area for almost a week or more I've already completely lost my tan, have a sore throat and nothing to entertain me for the next two days. As vain as it is its really quite disheartening. Honestly and truthfully despite everything you experience and the care free attitude that you can adopt most travellers still want to go home with a wicked tan. On my last evening I book a ticket for the water puppet show. This is a traditional style of theatre originally created by the farmers in rural areas where the flood watre would rise during rainy season. It is a tiem old tradition. The stage looks like our aged amateur dramatic stages with the curtains and lighting around the bottom. The diiference is the pool of water surrounded by the plain burgundy set. On the two edges of the water are flags in the same colour of those celebratory flags in Lang son. After an introduction in English, French and Vietnamese and some traditional music the show starts. There is one instrument that interests me greatly. It has a unique sound and apparently in days gone by the young girls were not allowed to listen to it for fear they would fall in love with the musician. They would always have been men in those days but tonight a woman plays it. There is a film called Kung Fu Hustle, which happens to be one of my favourite films, and there is a magical scene where two musicians use an instrument to kill some kung fu masters. The sound is almost haunting but at the same time sensational. It could send you into a trance. There are 20 scenes within the production. Each scene simply called something like 'Fishing'. The puppets dance, move and glide within the water to the music. Its fun and light hearted.

On my final day in Hanoi, in Vietnam and on my trip I just simply want to pass the time to go home. I watch tv and read until I have to check out at 12midday. Then I take a walk over to the lake. The sun cant decide whether its our or in so it moves graciously through the clouds occasionally heating my back as I sit on a bench looking out over the lake past the red blossom trees and the temple to the left. I have 100 pages left of 'A Man named Dave' and I want to finish it as I have no room to carry it! So I sit there until I have. Laden with a bag of mini fruit jellies, some seaweed crackers, some water and some iced jasmine tea I pass a couple of hours. At 3pm I go over to the post office, give my finished book to a guy selling them on the street and in the PO make a call to my Dad. I tell him I will see him at 15.10 the following day...30 hours from now including time difference. It seems like a long but manageable task. On the way back to the hotel I stroll past two men, one sat on a small stool with a white cloth over him and a mirror hung on the post in front. The other man, the barber holds his razor carefully taking up the back. Further on there are three women sat on low stools at the front of the pavement. On the table in front of them are wonderful glossy cuts of meat. The table is full of what looks like a whole animal, fleshy joints, dark rich offal and clear healthy bones. The roar of bikes flying past me and the shouts and noises of the Vietnamese language are amplified. I'm starting to realise what i'm leaving behind, a bustling unique country with a big heart and the best of what mother nature has to offer. Somewhere else in my mind echoes my conversation with my Dad and the excitement of home comes to the forefront. In 23 hours I'll be touching down in the old blighty, English soil, recognisable number plates, cats eyes in the roads, full green oak trees, rolling hills dotted with black and white cows, fresh drinking water from a tap and a cold nip in the air.

Posted by hazelmoto 22:00 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)


North West Vietnam

semi-overcast 28 °C

Leaving the others in a real hurry the bus came to the Elizabeth to take me to Sapa. The train station looked familiar and it was the tracks that we had crossed on our moto tour of Hanoi a few days before. The train station was bustling and I followed the group and the guide into the departure hall. Here the guide began to row with a random bloke, shouting louder and louder in their harsh tones. After being ordered to sit and wait, barked at my our now angry guide, the group had a little giggle at his mood. Tickets were passed from pillar to post and eventually we were shown to the train and onto the carriage. The carriage was filled with cabins, a long corridor down the side. Each cabin was completely lined with wood and four beds, two on each side. A small table seperated the two sides. Having been allocated a lower bed I managed to squueze my bag into the compartment underneath the bed and made myself comfortable. The guards all wore blue uniforms, dark blue trousers and light blue shirts. The sounds of whilstles, chugging trains, moving passengers and closing doors filled the ever increasingly dark night. One jolt and the train was moving. The vietnamese guys in the same cabin closed the door and went straight to sleep. It is now 9.15pm. I continued to read The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer and having finished that turned out my light and put the book down on my bed. The train must have rocked me to sleep like a baby as I was awoken at about 5am by the train stopping and the guards opening doors, people selling hot tea and coffee and the noise againf rom all passengers leaving the train. This is Lao Cai.

Holding up my little cardboard sign saying Summit Hotel in white and green I head for the mass of taxi drivers, tour operators and moto riders all competing for attention. Light is breaking and people are everywhere. Some one from the crowd grabs me and checks their clipboard. Packed on to yet another mini bus we head off for Sapa. The sun is breaking through the mist and clouds over the green hills. At first sight, along the 45 minute drive to Sapa, the scenery is not dissimilar to that of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Deep valleys and steep mountians make up most of the view, the road winding round the two. Layer upon layer is built into the mountian side of rice paddies and cultivated land. There are many trees that look like pine or something similar. Burning through the fine mist settling in the valley, the sun looks almost dark and then turns to a yellow and then orange as it lifts into the sky. As we approach the town the buildings start to become more frequent. There are yellow clad buildings with iron railings and small balconies set with tiny pillars just like French architecture. Cafes, shops and hotels come into view all plotted up the hillsides. At what feels like the peak of a hill we stop. Summit hotel is surrounded by trimmed garden and hedges and the bus pulls up on the drive. The reception is on 3rd floor and from there the restaurant and rooms are downstairs buried within the hill. after a shower and breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread we go to reception to meet our guides. The guides are the village tribes dressed in their tribal dress. They looks so beautiful and unique. These are the Loa Chai people. They dress in navy blue made from the dye of plants we see on our trek later. Starting from the bottom, they have beige plastic shoes much like the sandals we wore to primary school years ago, open pattern with a small buckle at the side. Next they wrap black material around their calfs to protect from the mountian, these are tied with green and blue weaved threads. The black 'velvet' shorts are partly covered by the next two layers which are like a wrap around dress and waistcoat but with cut away flaps...reminding me of the jacket of a prince in a disney film. They wear a t.shirt or top underneath also. The cuffs and belt of the dress is decorated with embroidery. In their ears big silver earings hang pulling down on their ears and their hair is wrapped around their heads and fixed with clips or combs. they have several bracelets, metal, silver and threads. Each of them has a tiny nose and they are really distinctive because of it. I feel like I have arrived in another country. Khir is my guide, she has a broad smile and speaks great English. We are arranged into a group of 6 and given a map and our itinerary. Taking only a small bag we set off down the hill to Muong Hoa valley.

We follow the road as far as we can past trendy cafes, stone carvers and tribal shops. As we leave the town looking back we can see the buildings clinging to the hillside and then the cascading paddies below each unique in shape, diverse in colour and content, some containing water, some mud, some green growing crop. We leave the road and take a rubbley muddy path. A giant butterfly rich in colour and edged in black flies past as we walk floating and dipping so elegantly. We are heading towards Y Linh Ho village. The 13 year old girl Mi walks with me throughout this first part of the journey. We talk about our families, she is curious to learn more about me and my culture and in turn I am able to ask her questions about the tribe, the dress, the village and the scenery that we are walking past. She is wearing the traditional dress but her long dark hair is tied loosely at the back. She has three brothers and two sisters, most of them older and some married. Girls marry as early as 15 here and apparently at 30 they might as well give up as no man will want to marry them. I have a three year deadline in that case! We pass through both Y Linh Ho village and Lao Chai village. The houses are very simple, open huts within the hillsides. The river carves its path through the valley and supplies the villages with water. At Muong Hoa river we stop for lunch. Other groups are also at the cafe where we stop. It is a stone house, the entrance from the track and then we pass through and out the other side to the back by the river. Stone steps lead us to small make shift tables and more tiny stools. There is a Dutch woman in our group who I chat to throughout lunch. She is now the director of studies for a school in Kampot, Cambodia. This is one step up from a teacher, merely with a TEFL qualification. I've heard so much about this over the last three months, its certainly a consideration for me at some point. Lunch is good, and strangely almost everywhere in North Vietnam we are served crinkle cut chips. Spring rolls are more as I know and love them in the north too. Crispy fried rice rolled, mushroom, carrot, rice noodle and vegetables...maybe pork inside, served with that amazing garlic chilli light sauce. After being bombarded with silver jewellery, embroidered bags, scarves in wonderful green, orange and pink neons and other Sapa tribal goods, we cross the suspension bridge to Ta Van village. We pass some one girl in a bright pink top walking down to a small waterwheel in the land by her house, more groups working in the fields and after a short walk we reach Ta Van. Here we experience a homestay with a Zay family. There are a few makeshift shops and other signposted homestays nearby. Its like a tiny hamlet in England but dedicated to rice and tourism. The home is big, like a barn. As we teeter down a short steep path to the front of the house the big open doors welcome us in. The main room has three beds to the left, all covered with bright blankets and mosquito nets protectively hanging from all four corners. There is a big table and cabinet in front of the door ad to the right a kid watches satellite tv. There are four more doors leading from the room, the nearest to the tv being the kitchen, and a set of stairs to a mezzanine floor equipped with further beds. From the outside it is also possible to enter the kitchen. It is a dark room with only a small window and the two doors. All the floor is made of a concrete looking material. There is a round fireplace in the floor on one side and a food prep area on the floor on the other. Scraps are merely washed away along the floor. This is another reminder of a rural victorian house with the darkness and the traditional methods of cleaning and cooking. We enjoy a dinner with the family where the 'Dad' gives us tiny shots of rice wine throughout dinner. The french Canadian guy, about my age, buys a bottle of Vietnamese red wine from a 'shop' in the village, the wine originating from Dalat, and shares it with the group. Tiger beer is also available from the hosts fridge. We drink and are merry and with 4 out of 6 people speaking Fench primarily the conversation is spoken mainly in that language. Fortunately I can understand almost everything but have the confidence to speak only a little back. I must re-learn my French!

In the morning I wake early for my usual toilet stop and I creep out of the big wooden doors, across the yard to the toilet. Its a modern western toilet and clean. I slip back under the mosquite net and back into bed for an hour before hearing everyone else stirring in their various beds, and one by one getting up and opening the big creaky doors. One person could not figure out how to close it and so the daylight pours in making further sleep impossible. Cocks are waking us anyhow. The weather hasnt been so kind today and the mist and rain are sitting low within the valley. Breakfast is a stack of pancakes, piles of fresh pineapple and two small bowls of syrup and sugar. We eat this in the shelter from the rain just outside the homestay on our tiny chairs. Setting off at 10am we leave the village saying goodbye to our hosts. Khir presses on up the side of rice paddies, down muddy slippy trails of orange mud.

We pass through the bamboo forest, the lime green colour is surprising and so fresh. The pathway dwindles to a small trail and the tribe help us to walk across the trails and the slippy tracks squeezing our hands tightly. Its all women that walk with us whikst the men seem to socialise together drinking and playing various games. Khir tells me the women do all the work..and the men are lazy. Much like England? Perhaps not! My helper points out young shoots and tells me about the bamboo, we pass a man working on the forest with only his flipflops to walk and work in. Much like the masked women on that bridge in Cambodia..toiling away on immense stuctures, a bridge made for cars and buses over the river, wearing only flipflops on their feet. As we leave the bamboo forest and its amazig silence and beauty we start hearing the thundering of water cascasding down the rocks. We are heading for the waterfall. It seems so high up as we follow the corner and divet right to a small hut, resting point, and the top of the waterfall. The rocks that it flows down are white and smooth like marble. Pure white rushes of water energetically bounce and swirl past us down into the river below. Slowly tackling the hill down holding on to our guides hand for dear life we make it to Giang Ta Chai village where the Red Zoa people live. Here there head scarves are a rich red and a toothless woman with crinkled leather brwon skin and a smile that lights up her whole face sells fans and wares from this tribe. Friendship bracelets in many patterns and colours are exchanged, reminding me of childish traditions. Along the path on the way to lunch I see a tiny frog. It is the size of the white of my little fingernail and I only see it as it hops in front of my feet as I concentrate on each step trying not to fall. Mist has stoodfast all day and its gives a magical fairylike look to the whole landscape, creatures big and small appear at each turn. When walking up the last incline to the school ad the road some children are walking down. The path has become rockier and small stream flows down it. One small boy, about 6 years old rides a water buffalo and hits it lightly with a small cane probably plucked from a tree nearby. About seven children in total pass us. Each is dirty, half clothed and some with snot dripping from their noses. But still they are cute and real seeds of the land. They blend in so effortlessly and I wonder from what age they understand the processes of agriculture that they seem so proficient in already. and children. The school which is bright yellow, much like all the important buildings in vietnam, marks the end point of our walk.

At the end of the walk we are collected by a minibus that takes us back along the road to Sapa town. We have walked about 10km sauntering along this route. At the hotel I am eager to set off to the markets knowing we only have a couple of hours before we leave for the overnight train. The markets aren't that impressive to me so I wander along to the stone carving shops. They ahve some beautiful pieces and I spend a while looking and choosing and speaking to the artists. There are so many symbols that I really want to know about and to learn but the language barrier is a problem. The dragons, turtles and three men carved into lanterns, tea sets and incense holders. I learn that the three men symbolise long life and this sways my choice. I climb the hill to the hotel with my body leaning into the hill once again and just in time to have a quick dinner before the bus collects us to go to the train station. The dinner is fairly spectacular and I cant believe its all included in the price...but it is so I tuck in. There is about 5 courses! I have time for a quick shower and then its back on the bus to Lao Cai town.

Posted by hazelmoto 15:57 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Halong Bay

The most stunning place...the worst tour

sunny 30 °C

The bus to Halong city was another hair raising journey. Give me the health and safety on Englands roads anyday, even if some people dont follow it, its a lot more than over here. Once in Halong city we were slung off the bus and told to wait in the blistering heat, complete with faithful old Ric and my other heavy bag. Tourists were everywhere. The offices were covered by a roof that spread across the road too within the port complex. Everyone was hanging around underneath here. The boats were waiting patiently at the harbour, perhaps a hundred junk boats. All wooden, two or three floors, various flags, names, signage and numbers painted on to them to differentiate. Boats are seperated from people by shiny silver metal railings and there is a small opening for the ticket collector. The guide 'Butterfly' from the bus took our receipt and our passports and told us that another guide would be here shortly to show us onto our boat. Throngs of people milled about inf ront of us, buying Oreo's from stands, walking back and forth to the toilets, talking in their groups, going to and from various minibuses...soaking up sun and hiding in the shade. So we waited. No-one came to us so after about 15 minutes we took it upon ourselves to find someone who knew what was going on. When we spoke to one guide he shouted at us 'Where are your tickets?' 'Where are your passports'? Good question! What a great start to seeing one of the 'highlights' of Vietnam. Once we had explained to him what thge deal was we just joined that boat group, presumably as we should have done all along and therefore HE was our guide. Wearing all black and a face like thunder he wasnt the best guide in the world. Stark contrast to Moon from the Mekong Delta or Khir from Sapa (which you will hear about later).

Boat 3105. Wooden junk boat. We walked down the steps with our big bags and attempted the bridge across from the land to the boat. Awkward! Once on the boat we went up more steps and put our bags down. At this point we were still unclear as to whether this was our boat and what we were doing. They directed us into the middle level of the boat where several tables stationed either side of the boat were laid for lunch. The wooden tables were dressed with white tablecloths, everything else in sight made of a rich tan coloured wood shiny and varnished. We sat with a Canadian guy and another from Thailand who spoke perfect English in an American accent. His Dad had taken them to Boston whilst learning English for a few years. Lunch was great as they brought plate upon plate to each table. To add to the strangeness of the day the Chilean guys from Hoi An were also on this boat but not as talkative today. They were with the same Austrian girl and two new girls from Holland. Perhaps talking to us would take away the brownie points. After lunch eaten whilst still in the harbour area we set off across Halong Bay. I read a book that my parents still have in the bookshelf called 'Things that go bump in the night' or something like that. Its a fantastic illustration with fantastical monsters but wildly imagined scenery as well. Perhaps mixed with my imagination and my memories a little, the crags of the bay remind me of something surreal. 3000 peaks, crags, bumps, whatever you like to think of them as sit within the flat calm sea. The mistiness of the horizon in the distance accentuates its beauty and mystery. The legend of the dragon flying down to protect the Vietnamese fisherman and families from invasion, carving up the rocks and churning up the landscape, is a romantic one and one that I like to go along with. The crags are rocky and toped with trees and greenery but all are different shapes and sizes like little topsy turvy creations in the sea, almost rounded bending round from point to point. Our first stop is the cave.

The cave is someway from the harbour but the city skyline is still well visible. We are dropped off and told the cave is one way. I just pray that it wont include any tiny passageways...or this cave will no longer by one way! Fortunately the cave is immense and really well lit, a little too well lit for some of our group. They complained afterwards about the coloured uplighting in the alcoves but it did highligh some of the prettier rock formations, stalegtites and stalegmites. Back on the boat we sail further to make a drop off at Cat Ba island, half of the group will stay in the hotel tonight whilst 12 of us stay on the boat. Setting of again we slowly make our way towards a floating village. These Vietnamese people live on their own individual houses built on platforms in the sea. There is no habitable land nearby. Boats selling snacks and fruit approach and then we change to a smaller boat that can take us underneath gaps in the rock to open caves. These openings are like the inside of a drum, shouts and voices echoing off each side and booming back round. The boats are flat and we each take a seat around the edge, i'm beside the stick that controls our direction and it keeps pushing on my leg as we turn full circle. Not the best choice of seat! Then we cruise down closer to some of the houses. The houses are completely wooden, some still have mini plastic stools in bright red and blue stacked outside, families and groups socialising on the decks. We sail along for at least another hour as the sun is lowering into the bay. All the rocks become sillhouettes and small fishing boats sail across behind us. The deck of the boat is tinged with gold warm colours whilst we lay on the sunbeds reading and taking photographs. Giant eagles fly from peak to peak surveying the sea below. We pull up by another floating village where another junk boat has arrived. There is a stack of kayaks and oars. Heidi and I grab our bright neon orange life jackets, slide into an orange kayak and are given black oars. As we push ourselves off into the water the woman is shouting something at us but we ignore her and row on. Later we realise all it was were the details of the charges should we lose or damage anything, great. The sun is now a bright red blob heading for mist so we row towards it briefly before diverting to check out gaps in the rock and then on towards the village. There are two small kids on a raft that we row along side. Before its too late we see we are heading towards someone's house and we turn back towards the junk boats. Our arms are aching anyway! That night we have an early dinner and an early night. The twin rooms are small and cosy. We have our own bathroom complete with cockroach and our door sticks at the top. After jamming it shut we read and then fall asleep.

In the morning we have breakfast and then head off for Cat Ba island. Arriving mid morning we board the bus and then it stops half way to the town. Apparently here we are trekking, its a shame we hadnt been prewarned. So, without water, insect repellent or adequate footwear we begin the trek. It starts in a village area and then we begin the ascent through shubbery and dusty paths. The incline gets steeper and rockier and you can hear the breathing of others getting heavier. It is really hot and with only a drop of water left its going to be a dehydrating walk. We stop periodically and the views become more rewarding. Hills and hills of green trees stretch out before us. Each a dramatic peak it makes quite a sight as the green gets more muted the further back it goes. Scambling up the last few rocks the view is fantastic and we can see the sea behind the hills now. A Vietnamese flag sits on top of the summit. Its thisty work so I dont mind sliding and hurrying down back to the bus and a welcoming cafe bathed in shade by the hanging tarpauline. Re-watered we get back on the bus and are taken to the hotel where we drop our bags and have lunch. The staff are downright rude but the food makes up for it. Heidi and I set off almost immediatly for the beach now that we have a free afternoon. Two motos conveniently arrive and we hop on for the short ride to Cat Ba beach II. There are three beaches lazily names I, II and III. The beach is down behind some rising rocks and the bay is deep. The sand is light and soft but the sea still cloudy. We both take a quick dip but scare ourselves thinking of jellyfish and then nap on the beach for a few hours. On the way back to the hotel we fancy a milkshake so we take a seat in a cafe by the harbour and chat away an hour or so. For sunset we head to the rooftop. Cat Ba harbour fades into darkness after the golden yellow of the light has gone. Another Vietnamese flag waves from the top of the building and the floor is warm on the soles of my feet having soaked up all the daytime heat. Dinner is served outside the hotel on the pavement by candlelight before the electricity comes back on and we chat to the group before heading out for a drink or two at the 'Good Bar'. Its average. Back to the hotel at about midnight we read some more and then lights out for another day.

Posted by hazelmoto 16:46 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)


...the first time

sunny 30 °C

At Hanoi a bus collects us and we are taken to their choice of hotel yet again. This time its the Elizabeth. The over amorous member of staff shows me a room but at least I get mine cheaper than everyone else. Here we get free breakfast and internet. After a lazy morning we all head out for lunch and a few sights in the afternoon. Heidi and Adrian are in charge of the map and we weave our way through the old quarter. The streets are small and the pavements are covered in stools and tables for cafes or stalls and merchandise for sale. If not those mopeds and bikes have parked there. All in all there is no room to walk there so everyone walks in the road. However in the road more chaos ensues, bikes scrape past you, cars toot their way past them. Traffic goes and comes frm all directions making your head spin. There seems to be districts for each item. One street is full of shoes, another of glasses, next street might be full of toys. We cannot see any cafes so we continue to walk...but the further we walk the more confused we become. There are few familiar signs for us to follow. This old quarter is a maze. Everytime we see hope in the distance we arrive to find no menus and no English spoken, so none of us brave enough just yet, we carry on. Eventually we find a cafe with a menu outside specialising in spring rolls. Popular choice, we all head in. The spring rolls are delicious, as is the salad. After lunch instead of taking in the sights as planned we head back towards the hotel. The Hoan Kiem lake is close by so we wander over to that. There is a beautiful red bridge over to a temple in the lake. The bridge casts a reflection into the flat of the water and the trees around it frame the picture in the water too. I take a moment to sit by the lake choosing not to cross the bridge over to the temple. Heidi comes to join me and I munch away at some juicy pineapple sold to me across the road. Soon after the guys join us and then a stream of vietnamese and some monks stop to stare and to take pictures of me. My how the tables turn! I suspect it is my blonde hair. After watching insects skating on the water top and looking out across the lake to the buildings all around we choose to walk up to a cafe overlooking the lake. There are six floors, each with a cafe but we settle for fifth floor. Here the view we get is over the fountain, roundabout and busy road. From above the bedlam is in full view. Cars ad bikes criss cross at the junction, horns blaring, the roar of engines and then the peace of the rest of the sky over the city. The sun is now setting and the dusky view romanticises the scene. A lady with a giant bunch of inflatable balloons stands in the middle of the road, pinks, blues, all cartoon character figures. The lights surrounding the fountain come on, flashing neon colours. We drink our beer and gaze down at the action below.

Tonight will be time to say goodbye to Adrian again, but this time until we meet in England. He is going to meet his girlfriend Ailsa tomorrow and spend the week with her before going into Laos. Despite his request for me to be his slave in Laos I have simply run out of money...and time. So we all go out together firstly for food and then on to a bar. We have met up with Dan again as by coincidence Matt and Dan were also staying at Elizabeth hotel. Matt has now gone to Sapa. After asking the moto and taxi drivers where the best bars are we are taken to Solace bar by moto. Heidi and I, already having bought a bottle of vodka at the restaurant, are half cut. As the moped thunders across crossroads i'm glad i'm not fully aware. They drop us at some dodgy looking bar floating on the river where we can see the coung doung bridge towering over the river about 500 metres away. Cars and buses motor over with their headlights shining out and across. There is a long unstable path made from wood and any other materials that they must hae had to hand leading to the bar front. Entering the bar we see through the dark and smoke that we are the only westerners. The bar has a large sqaure bar opposite the entrance, an empty dancefloor and DJ booth to the right and a pool table to the right surrounded by players and their cigarette smoke. Outside a small metal terrace overhangs the river. Here we sit on a large round table. Heidi and I sneak vodka into our glasses and just buy coke from the bar. Four western girls arrive and join us. They have been driven round the houses by a corrupt taxi driver, an then charged a fortune by the meter. They are young girls with a lot of energy and it is just what we need to pick it up a bit. After a while Adrian and I stumble to the dancefloor as the DJ plays old classics. When American pie comes on we swing each other round taking up the whole dancefloor. Truth be told I will miss travelling with Adrian. It is Adrian and Heidi that I confronted earlier about the whole Danang incident when everyone seemed to be on my back about how and where we were travelling. Adrian already understood why I was annoyed, especially as he is also travelling alone. Although company is fantastic and preferable it also independance and freedom of choice that made me travel alone. Heidi is fast becoming a good companion too. Back to the dancefloor antics, when American Pie comes on Adria and I make a video and career about the bar without a care in the world. A great ending to a good few months. Back at the hotel we seem to rouse everyone who is sleeping, we have to wake the hotel staff to let us in for a start. Adrian has gone past the point of drunkeness to be completely trashed and doesnt care who knows it. Its a drunken and stupid good bye witnessed by the rest of the group as we loll about on a pile of washing and then I try and retain my balance down the stairs to my room.

The next day is a mixed bag of emotions. After being told a few times that I would be able to get a chinese visa without queueing at the embassy i'm told that I cannot. Fantastic. So having already booked a trip to Halong Bay and Sapa if I were to wait for a visa the earliest I would get to China is about the 24th May. My flight from Hong Kong is the morning of the 27th. Hardly worth it, well not worth it in fact as the liklehood is those days would be taken up by travel. After some deliberation I decide i'm ready to go home. I have no money left anyway. Dad to the rescue I find myself booking a new flight from Hanoi to Heathrow via Bangkok on 21st May. At least i'll be back for bank holiday in England. Part of me is disappointed to be changing my plans and cutting them short but another part of me is ready to go home. Living out of a bag is wearing thin and there are lots of things I miss about home now. Besides, I'll be back next year no doubt! Stress over (of which I haven't dwelled on here but believe me there was some) Heidi and I decide to go on to the Temple of Literature. Right up my street. The temple is beautiful and walking through the first gate I get a sense of an old oriental history here. Perhaps this is making up for China? It certainly meets my expectations of what a chinese temple might be like. Ornate gardens, a small pool surrounded by gates delicately designed. Red paper lanterns swing from old stone walls edged with red wood and gold symbols. Bonsai trees stand proud in the courtyard. I spend a while looking at postcards in the shops in the open courtyard and then saunter into the main body of the temple which houses several chinese style figures sitting pipes in mouth! The place is extremely serene, even with this many tourists. A few chinese ladies stroll past with an umbrella sheilding the sun.

Outside the temple once again we are reminded we are in the middle of the big city. Honking horns and hassling motos prevail. This time we are hassled long enough to agree to a moto ride. The guys seem pleasant enough. And even better, they hand us some helmets. Off we go down the pavement before entering the road. This enatils avoiding any cracks, lumps, baby stools and lamp posts. It turns out the guys drive really safely and always stick together meaning Heidi and I can take pictures of each other. In the end this is the best 40,000 dong I spend in Hanoi. Firstly we stop at the one pillar pagoda. This is a quaint little thing situated in small pond covered in lily pads. It looks like an old tudor house with its wooden beams. I wander with helmet still on and a vietnamese man and child stop for a chat and seemingly to practice his English. Waiting patiently for us, our moto drivers then take us past the Ho Chi Minh museum and the mausoleum where the embalmed corpse is...not for me thank you. Thankfully its closed in the afternoons. We battle with the traffic to drive past the palace which is a grand building in bright yellow. Onwards we go towards the big lake and now in contrast to the old quarter the newer part of the city boasts big wide roads and large impressive buildings. The ride past the big lake is an eye opener and shows us just how much of the city we are still yet to explore. We stop off at the Quan Thanh temple. The sun is going down over the big lake leaving a shimmer of gold across the centre. A giant balloon floats gently above the water tethered down somewhere out of view. Wise words are printed on banners leading into the temple. 'After realising the Karma law, human beings must tame their own thoughts, words and acts according to morality.' Too true. On the way back from the temple we see a queue for a petrol station about 200 metres long and bikes everywhere. This town is busy to say the least. We bob in and out of stationary cars and buses as only bikes can do. Before we are dropped off they take a shortcut down a small extremely narrow alley. We are in the back streets of the old quarter and the alley is about one metre wide. Despite the width it is still full of bikes, stools and people! That night we eat early and plan an early night. In spite of this I get to bed late having spent an age uploading photos onto facebook...the slow way.

In Hanoi I start to see things that remind me of Zong's family. Aspects of their life that I thought were unique to them are actually wholely Vietnamese. I understand now why the Thoong family keep tons of plastic dishes and containers. These are everywhere here, on bikes, in restaurants, keeping fresh food from the day. I understand how Zong's mum is able to carry 6 watermelons in bags held by her tiny frame. Here the fruit vendors carry two baskets joined by a piece of wood. Its very flexible and they balance it on their shoulder. The weight is vast and the pressure must be intense. This morning I saw a woman carrying at least 50 apples on each side, in each basket. They shuffle along in a rhythm which must keep the momentum. It certainly looks back breaking. It also makes sense now how Zong's family prepare vast amounts of food and encourage everyone to join them and to share. This is a massive part of their culture. We have been fed such good food and in such abundance whilst we have been here. The three year glimpse into vietnamese daily life I recieved in Birmingham was more valuable than any homestay experience here to date.

Posted by hazelmoto 16:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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