Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gone in a flash. Goodbye Asia... For now...

After a 18 hour flight (including stopovers), no sleep, a missing bag and much running for connecting flights, I am back in the UK. The final week in North Vietnam was a highlight. After a bumpy 14 hour bus journey from Hue to Hanoi and a lazy day coffee-crawling around Hanoi we took an overnight train to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is only 3km from the Chinese border, though most tourists (us included) use it as a means to get to Sapa.

Sapa is a small French hill station in the North-Western highlands.With its meandering colonial streets and outstanding views of the mountains and rice terraces, it is a truly picturesque place. Local women coming from tribes such as the H'mong (with Tibetan origins) where colourful clothing and carry straw baskets try to sell their home stays and handicrafts, immediately presenting the traveler with a culture quite different to that of the low lands. Most are friendly but they can also hassle you a lot if you decide to go on a hike without a local guide... Sapa is a nature-lovers paradise. Whilst lacking in wildlife (as is the case in most of Vietnam due to excessive poaching), there are numerous waterfalls, peaks, treks, raging rapids, valleys and deep canyons to explore. We visited the Silver and Love waterfalls by motorbike, did a 15km hike through the Muong Hoa valley and visited Cat Cat village. In town we ate a lot of pumpkin soup, fresh tofu and French baked goods and I indulged in a few spa treatments. I could have stayed longer in Sapa even if I were just hanging around. This was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

View from our motorbike ride

Silver waterfall

Love waterfall

View from our room in Sapa


trek through the Muong Hoa valley

"splurgey" £3 meal with a view at the Hill Station

Cat Cat waterfalls

Whilst waiting for our train back to Hanoi we attempted to cross the Vietnam-China border.Yes, you need a visa, but we were told that there are some areas where you can go across for a little to go shopping. We got turned down, of course, but looking at China which was a few meters away made me feel a little nostalgic for a trip I made 2 years ago.

Directly after our overnight train back to Hanoi we got a pick up to join the luxury Imperial Junk cruise for a night in Halong bay. As expected, the structure of the trip was a little too rigid though what we saw was interesting and the room was comfortable. With the trip we visited the Surprising cave, kayaked around the bay and spent a bit of time on a small island. The food on board for vegetarians was pretty bad. There was tofu and many vegetables but everything was floating in MSG and made with little love. After dinner we took a cocktail to the top deck and I counted 8 shooting stars. Meanwhile a big group of English people were drinking, likely vomiting, and as cliche as it is, spending the next few days talking about how wasted they were, and consequentially, what a great night it must have been.

Halong bay

surprising cave

After a-far-too-early breakfast and an unnecessary trip to a pearl farm (felt sorry for the oysters...), we took a small boat deeper into the bay and arrived at our bungalow on Nat Cat island. The light on the way to the island was quite magical, though interrupted by a brief but violent storm. We had a sea view onto a secluded bay and kayak rent was included, so we spent the afternoon exploring the local coves, caves and beaches and chickening out of going deep water soloing. After a bit of time chilling on the beach we got fed again, this time in an excessive quantity.

gliding through misty mountains

bungalows on Nat Cat island beach

view from our bungalow

The following morning we got yet another early boat trip, this time heading to Cat Ba island. After finding an inexpensive hotel and resting we explored the island a bit by motorbike, heading to hospital cave and afterwards taking a short "walk" through Cat Ba national park,home of the rarest primate on earth, the Cat Ba languor (being rare we obviously didn't see any of them). This walk turned out to be more of a muddy and rocky climb through a jungle full of beautiful butterflies and not-so-beautiful mosquitos. We emerged from the rocky limestone outcrop with a beautiful view of the misty, hilly jungle-scape. That night we witnessed a crazily loud storm in the bay, one clap of thunder sounded like a bomb and shook our room.

Cat Ba national park

The following day we got picked up again by our tour and had an even worse lunch whilst cruising through the beautiful halong bay back to the harbour. After a bit of waiting and 4 hours in a minibus we arrived at our final destination, Hanoi. That evening we ate in a vegetarian restaurant which had received good reviews, but was a little disappointing with regards to the high price and mediocre food. We then walked around the centre, the lake, spoke to locals in a park to help them with their English and rested. The following day we did the same, but also visited Notre Dame, the Opera house and the temple of literature.

Hanoi French quarters

Notre Dame

Hanoi Opera house

The temple of literature

As tradition somehow goes, our farewell lunch was a vegetarian Indian feast. It's always sad to say goodbye to a continent, a place and a person...

And so ends my official year abroad, but definitely not my last. I have visited 11 countries this academic year and three continents. Now for one final burn at Edinburgh University and then onward and outward to other things...

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Vietnam-half way point

After a strange night sleeping at Manila airport we took our connecting flight to Saigon (otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh city). We arrived in the morning, took a very cheap bus into the centre and from there walked to our hotel, Linh guesthouse in the tourist district of town. Saigon wasn't quite as hot as Japan and walking around was quite pleasant. It was also the start of the rain season when we were there which meant the occasional unexpected heavy downfall was actually to be expected, despite the blue sky.

We just had three days in Saigon, on the evening of the 8th we caught an overnight train to Danang. We checked out the Vietnam war museum, which was full of disturbing images but quite interesting. I went to the Mekong delta alone, doing one of the highly inadvisable but cheap tours which quickly take you in and out. On our last day we went to China town, which now feels very Vietnamese, and a couple of buddhist temples. Saigon is extremely busy and the road chaos is reminiscent of India, minus the tuc tucs plus motorbikes. We traveled by foot, taxi, bus and motorbike. The food in Saigon was surprisingly good for vegetarians, and I just discovered that the international vegan chain Loving Hut actually originated here in Vietnam. If you see the word "chay" in any restaurant it means vegetarian, and the local options are often very cheap.

delicious pho at loving hut

The Mekong Delta

Fresh tofu spring rolls

Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon

Scarily convincing rice and veggie pork

The overnight train journey to Danang was in a very comfortable soft sleeper. We arrived in the afternoon on the 10th and immediatly got a taxi to the Blue Clouds homestay in Hoi An. I was a little disheartened on the way into town as we saw so many tourists and so few Vietnamese people, so many sterile looking resorts etc, but Hoi An turned out to be a very pretty little town with a lot to do in the surrounding area. We both briefly got a bit of Delhi belly there, but that didn't prevent us from cycling around the old town, taking a motorbike to the marble mountains and My Son and scuba diving at Cham Island. We also spent a bit of time on the beach... We were in Hoi An just in time for the monthly full moon lantern festival, which made everything look very pretty. Our homestay was particularly nice, with friendly and very helpful staff who went out of their way to help me when I was feeling sick.

Hoi An old town

Lantern festival, Hoi An

Japanese bridge, Hoi An

Hoi An beach with a view of Cham island

Tofu and lemongrass noodle soup

View of Cham island from the Marble Mountains, Danang

A series of impressive buddhist caves

climbing through caves

My Son

Scuba diving off Cham island

Cham Island

Yesterday we took a sleeper bus during the day up to Hue. We are staying in a nice hotel called Hotel Hong Thien 1. There is even a tiny swimming pool... Hue is a quiet and quite laid back city, but I have been quite underwhelmed by the 19th and 20th century tombs, replica of the Beijing Forbidden city and charred remains. Tonight we are taking a sleeper bus up to Hanoi, where will pass a day before taking an overnight train to Sapa. I am looking forward to being back in the countryside, and hopefully somewhere slightly cooler.

Hue Imperial Palace

Khai Dinh tomb, it's more recent than it looks...