Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Been busy.

Well since the last post we've been busy. Moved around lots and have seen quite a bit. After HCMC we headed for the Mekong Delta region. It really wasn't what we expected at all. It was just a series of cities that were the same as any where else except they happened to be on the Mekong River. We were lucky that we booked a tour for our first day because we got to see a few of the lush green islands on the delta and some of the 'industries' they have there like making rice paper, honey, coconut shell souvenirs, and coconut candy.

We got to see a floating market too early one morning which was something different but probably not worth the money we paid to get to it. We were totally ripped off!

Other than that it was a lot of time on local buses that were like travelling zoos at times. In one we had a dog in a bag hanging from the seat in front of us and roosters in baskets in the seat behind us. Crazy!

After the Delta we spent 3 relaxing days on Phu Quoc Island. It's in the South China Sea off the southern coast of Vietnam, but it's very close to Cambodia and the Cambodians claim it should be theirs. It was so blissful there. Our hut resort was right on the beach and in the 3 days we only left the beach once and that was to book our tickets back to the mainland. We spent all day on the beach but it was so hot that for most of the day we were in the shade and we still managed to get burnt. The water there was lovely and warm, and it was so salty that you could just float for ages. We got to watch the sunset over the sea every evening as well and that was really beautiful.

It a good job we were so relaxed leaving there because it was hard work getting to our next destination. We got the hydrofoil (like a giant speedboat type ferry) back to the mainland, then we had to get a minibus to Ha Tien (the closest town to the border), from there we got motorbikes to and through the border. They were supposed to take us all the way to Kep in Cambodia but it was too hot for them so the fobbed us off on a taxi driver so we got a car to Kep. When we got there we had to wait 2 hours for the bus on to Kampot. That was all in the one day, and it was only the following day we found out that the bus from Kampot to Phnom Penh (where we were going to) now goes through Kep so we could have just stayed there for the night instead of hanging around for 2 hours and then taking the bus to Kampot. The bus journey to Phnom Penh was fairly tough going, a rattly old bus on bumpy dirt roads, but we got there in the end.

We went to see the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison museum. It was fairly harrowing stuff seeing all the skulls out in the Killing Fields and some of the pictures and displays in S-21.

It was good to hear in the news that some of the people who were responsible for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge are finally being held responsible.

We left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap and have spent the last 3 days looking at the ruins in Angkor Wat. Some of them are really spectacular. I think Ta Prohm was favourite for both of us with the giant trees and sprawling roots growing amongst the ruins. After the 3 days though I think we've both had our fill of ruins for quite a while.

Siem Reap itself is a lovely town, really laid back and relaxed. There's a few markets here and it's a good job we met up with Kate and James again because Foss and James can go off and have a few beers while Kate and I go shopping. In one of the markets they have a fish massage thing where you put your feet into a pool full of fish and they nibble off all the dead skin. It was really funny and tickly at first but enjoyable once you got used to the sensation.

One of the nights in Siem Reap we went to the ACODO orphanage to see a show that they put on every night. The kids did all the dancing and played the music themselves.

It was free to get into but they do ask for donations. We all really enjoyed it and it was nice afterwards to talk with the kids and take photos with them. They were all really well behaved and seemed happy and well looked after. We went back there another morning for a few hours. We spent the morning playing with the kids and then we went to the market with one of the volunteers and some of the kids to buy them some cooking ingredients like cooking oil, fish sauce, soya sauce, sugar, salt and seasoning. We really enjoyed it and had great fun with the kids.

On our last night we had dinner in a place where you barbeque your own food in the centre of the table. We were very adventurous and went for the sampler menu of chicken, beef, squid, snake and crocodile. They were all delicious.

Then it was a long bus ride back to Phnom Penh to catch a cheap flight to Bangkok that turned out to be not so cheap since you have to pay $25 departure tax. One night in the Khao San Road, one day of shopping and now we're heading for the islands. Yipee!

Hope everybody is keeping well,
Jan and Paul

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dalat, Mui Ne and HCMC

After the pretty little town of Hoi An we headed for the hills to Dalat, a town in the Central Highlands. The first part of the journey involved a night bus to Nha Trang.

I thought it was fine and comfy, I even had a foot to spare.

On the other had it was just a little bit cramped for Foss but strangely enough he still managed to sleep.

I dozed at the start but woke up after a while and I sat up to look out. A very bad idea. After about 10 minutes of witnessing the driver's driving technique I didn't think I'd be getting back to sleep anytime soon. He was more concerned about avoiding the crater-like potholes in the road than getting out of the way of oncoming traffic. Wouldn't really make you feel safe enough to drift of into a peaceful sleep!
When we got to Nha Trang we had a hour to grab breakfast at a buffet (an we certainly ate our money's worth) before we had to get on a bus to Dalat.
I don't think I have ever been in a creakier, rattlier bus in my whole life. I don't think Bus Eireann would even accept it into their fleet. It made the bus journey more like a roller coaster ride, we were lurched forward and flung side to side so often. There was more than one occasion where I thought someone must have pressed an ejector button in my seat, I was thrown so high into the air by some bump or pothole we must have hit. Not the most comfortable journey in the world but some of the scenery was spectacular, looking out on the valleys.
We just wandered around a bit that evening but the following day we did a motorbike tour with two Easy Riders. We had a really great day, they took us to see loads and they were really informative.The highlight was probably the Datanla Waterfall, though Fossie might argue that it was the cable car ride, what with his fear of heights and all that.

We headed to a beach resort called Mui Ne next. Thankfully we had a better bus for that trip and the road was okay most of the way, but we still managed to hit a motorcyclist and knock him and his bike into a dike on the side of the road. No worries though the driver did help get him and the bike back onto the road and he was off on his merry little way in no time - not a bother on him. Not even a cross word spoken!
Mui Ne was such a nice change to all the cities and towns we've been in. We got a beachside bungalow (just a detached en-suite room in reality, but who am I to argue) that was literally about 2 metres from the beach.

It was almost too hot to lie out there, though we tried our best and I got roasted the first day.
There are some sand dunes nearby and we took some motorbikes out to see those.

Apparently they're beautiful at sunset - just our luck that it was too cloudy to see it!

We spent Paddy's Day in and out of the sun and the sea. We managed to recruit two English girls, Kirsty and Carly to help us celebrate it that night. It wasn't your typical St. Patrick's Day dinner, but it was delicious.
We headed to a place called Mellow that's supposed to be a lively spot but despite all the people wearing green, drinking Jameson, and playing Oirish music, there was no atmosphere there. We hot-footed it down to another bar to catch the very last minute (literally) of the 2 for 1 Mojito happy hour. Carly decided to request some Irish music from the Vietnamese DJ, in the spirit of the day that was in it. We didn't know how she'd manage that one but after explaining that like Ho Chi Minh is a hero for the Vietnamese, St. Patrick is a hero for the Irish (?) and so he'd have to play some Irish music. Credit where it's due we had diddly-i music filling the bar within 5 minutes. Of course, I had to teach the girls how to Irish Dance, sure the music wouldn't have been any good otherwise. I don't think we sat back down after that. Mighty craic was had by all.

Unfortunately we had an early start the following morning to get the bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We spent the first evening wandering around and paid a visit to the market. The next day we got a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It was brilliant. Really well set up and organised. We watched a short documentary about the war, it was an old film, but totally anti- American. Then we got to see try out a tunnel entrance that has been enlarged for tourists.

Our guide showed us some of the booby traps the Viet Cong used against the Americans - most of them involved getting impaled on spikes in some form or another!

It was onto the shooting range next and we both had five shots on an AK-47.

The last part of the tour was the tunnels themselves. They have been made 40% wider to facilitate tourists but it was still tight down there.

We we got back to the city we went to the Reunification Palace which has been left the way it was when the first tanks crashed through its gates in 1975 - it wasn't very interesting to be honest. The War Remnants Museum that we went to next made up for it though. Loads of photos, artefacts and info about the war, labelled in English so we knew what they were. We spent ages looking around there.

We decided that we'd seen all we wanted of HCMC so we left a day early to head to the Mekong Delta region.
BTW, sorry about all the slides, I know they're a pain to load up but Blogger's really acting up whenever I try to add photo's so it's the easiest way to add them.
Don't forget to email us or leave a comment to keep us filled in with all that's happening at home,
Jan and Paul

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beannachtai na Feile Padraig

Hope ye're all enjoying the day off. We'll have to go out tonight and see if we can find anywhere to get a green pint.
In a beach resort called Mui Ne now and enjoying the sunshine. Bet it's raining at home for the parades - Murphy's Law and all that!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Halong Bay and Hue

Apparently no trip to Vietnam is complete without a trip the the World Heritage listed Halong Bay. The bay has over 3000 limestone islands, some of them are tiny and the biggest, Cat Ba Island is over 14 km long. We decided to make the most of it and take a 3 day trip. We left Hanoi on Tuesday, hoping the weather in Halong was better than the grey cloudy skies we were coming from. Unfortunately is wasn't, but the visibility was still was good enough have a good view of at least the islands that we were passing.

We just sailed for the first hour or two, to get to the Amazing Cave. It's an underground cave on one of the larger islands, where some Vietnamese lived for 10 years while their country was being bombed.

After that we kayaked around one or two smaller islands.

We spent the evening on the boat, sleeping there that night. The boat was very nice, and the bedrooms were lovely. Probably the one of the comfiest beds we've been in over the last 6 weeks. There was only 8 of us on the trip too (the capacity on the boat was 16) so it meant we all had plenty of room and everyone was lovely and friendly so we all got on great. The next day we sailed around the bay for a bit and saw a floating fishing village. We also saw some little boats that people live on 24/7 365days a year. These were not big boats, they were like tiny little rafts with a plastic covering over one section and whole families lived on them. I don't know how they do it. I'd crack up.

Anyway we got off the boat at one of the little docks at Cat Ba Island and cycled to a little village. It was misting fairly heavily by then so we were all soaked but the scenery was worth it.

We were meant to do a bit of trek into the jungle but it was wet and muddy so we skipped it and just had a few drinks in a local shop instead.

We cycled back to the boat then and had lunch before we set off in the kayaks again. We rowed to a secluded beach on one of the small islands and the guys all went swimming. I didn't bother because it wasn't warm at all and I knew it would be late in the evening before we'd get to shower. We headed to Monkey Island then and saw a few monkeys.

There was a pathway up through the trees that gave a fantastic view out of that section of the bay as well.

We sailed towards the main harbour of Cat Ba Island then and got a minibus to our hotel. The hotel and our room were gorgeous. And it was great to be able to have a really hot shower after being cold and wet on and off all day. We had an early start the next morning and we were glad it was the last day of the trip and not our first because the weather had gotten worse. You couldn't really see anything at all and we were stuck inside for the 3 hour journey back to the mainland because it was so wet. We were thankful that we had had better weather and we got to enjoy the scenery, doing the kayaking and cycle around the island. We had 3 really great days, and I would recommend APT Travel for the tour they operated.

After Hanoi and Halong Bay we got the night train to Hue, which was fairly comfortable it has to be said. Went to see the Citadel and got completely ripped off by our cyclo driver, who is recommended by name in the Lonely Planet apparently.

Anyway we hired bikes the second day and went to see the Thu Mien Pagoda and the Tu Duc tombs. They were nice sights and it was good to do some bit of exercise too. While we had the bikes we cycled to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Hue City. I reckon we must have done about 25kms in the day!

On our last day in Hue we took a day trip to see the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It's a 5 km stretch of land along either side of the river that divided North and South Vietnam during the war. It saw the most heavy fighting and bombing during the war. We booked through the Sinh Cafe since they have a really good reputation but we were really disappointed with the day. It was probably mainly because the guide was fairly bad. He didn't give much specific information to the sights we visited (Khe Sanh Base, Doc Mieu Base, Vinh Moc Tunnels...), just some general info about the war. It was a fairly boring day really which was a pity because with a good guide it could have been very enjoyable. Luckily the Vinh Moc tunnels redeemed the day. They were definitely worth seeing, even if the guide couldn't tell us as much as our guide book! We were glad to see them but it was a pity that the rest of the day seemed a waste. The DMZ is over 100km from Hue so it was a long bus journey!

We headed to Hoi An then and have spent a lovely 4 days here. Most of the time was spent browsing hrough shops and having clothes fittings though - Hoi An is known as tailor town.It's crazy. At least every second shop here is a tailors, well they offer tailor made clothing anyway, but most of the shops outsource the actual making of the clothes. I've had 2 dresses made, one casual and one dressy, and a winter jacket too. Fossie got a suit made up, and he got a winter jacket too. They all turned out well and we're just back from the post office to send them home, along with a few other bits we acquired here. We were lucky that our time in Hoi An coincided with the full moon because they celebrate that here every month. It wasn't a full moon party or anything like that but all the street lights in the town were off and it was just lit up with lanterns. It was so pretty and picturesque.

Jan and Paul