Wednesday, September 23, 2009

23rd September - Hanoi

Got back to Hanoi at 5am this morning after upgrading our train journey back from Sa Pa. The hard beds in hard sleeper were just too much to handle so for the princely sum of $5 each we upgraded to the much more luxurious soft sleeper class.

It was worth it. There was a western style toilet, soft beds and only four people to a cabin. We had one other person in ours, a Vietnamese Princess no less... Ok well she may not have been a bonafide princess but she certainly acted like one the trumped up little madam. She breezed into the cabin without saying a word to either of us and put down her pink and white leather holdall, took off her matching pink and white trainers and proceeded to spend the next hour on the phone.

She then went to sleep without so much as a glance in our direction. Oh well, we got on with enjoying our journey.

Hanoi wasn't exactly dead at 5am, there were actually a few brave souls taking their morning constitutions. Lots of walkers and joggers and not that many motorbikes thank god.

Tal and I got dropped off by the hotel we stayed in before but to our surprise, everything was locked up. Hotels had shutters down and there wasn't any sign of any life anywhere. We didn't have anywhere to stay... We walked around for a bit to find some semblance of life and then this little old lady gave us a genius suggestion....

Motioning to the obvious bell by one of the hotel doors she made a pointing movement with her finger... Great idea... Ring the bell. So much for a university education....

We did so and found out that a hotel around the corner was open and had rooms. Result... That's how we ended up at the Prince 3 hotel. Not bad at all either.

We got a few hours kip and then met Rory who was also in Hanoi.

We spent the day checking out a few sights and also arranging our tour to Halong Bay.

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


The search for the B52 bomber that didn't exist was a particular highlight. We gave up and headed somewhere for refreshments... We found a place but a look at the menu kind of suggested we should go elsewhere...

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


We then headed back to Hanoi City only to find ourselves surrounded by bridal photo shoots which seemed to be a regular fixture of Hanoi..

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


We ended the day at a place called Dragonfly for a shisha pipe and a well earned game of jenga.... happy days.....

Monday, September 21, 2009

21st and 22nd September - Sa Pa

On Monday 21st September Tal and I embarked on our big trekking day. 12km in all which is less than I've done before but when we saw the rain in the morning we knew we had a bit of a challenge ahead.

Hung met us at the hotel and he still had not been paid his wages by his boss. He and I went to bargain for a raincoat as mine had been lost during the trip. I managed to get a real North Face rain coat for 12 pounds... result. It rained all day on the trek and the rain coat did it's job very well.

It's really funny how trekking works here in Sa Pa. You get these shadows that follow you on your trek. They're the local tribe women who want to sell you stuff but they just sort of hang around you and it takes a good 30 or 40 mins of them following before they finally go for their sales pitch. So you kind of stop to take photos and they stop too. You then set off to walk again and they follow about two paces behind you.

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


The scenery on the trek was amazing.

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


From Hanoi and Sa Pa


It was such a pleasure to be out of a big, smelly city like Hanoi and into stunning, mountainous countryside in Sa Pa. Tal stopped to take pictures of almost every animal she saw. I'm starting to get a little scenery exhausted after 7 months of it but it's great to travel with someone who still has that excited energy that I had at the beginning of my trip.

We met some real characters on our walk including Ha (yes her name is Ha). Ha is a hill tribe girl who claims to be 16 but looks more like 12. She is hilarious. Brimming with confidence she answers my 'How are you?' questions in 4 languages (English, French, Spanish and Italian), only falling down on German and refusing to speak Vietnamese because she doesn't like to speak it.

She's very cheeky and we met up with her again when we got back to the town of Sa Pa after the trek. Tal bought a bottle of red wine which we shared while looking over the landscape from the hotel terrace. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

I then went out for a walk and bumped into Ha who walked and talked with me for a good 40 mins. She was being her normal cheeky self and wanted to see me juggling so I did a bit of showing off for her. We saw her quite a few times afterwards while having dinner in the town.

This morning, she popped in for a chat and I teased her about her Japanese boyfriend who she claims she doesn't like... It's such a pleasure to mix with such characters. I feel very honoured that she would want to spend her time with us instead of earning money from selling her bags and bangles.

This evening we travel to Hanoi, sad to be leaving such a beautiful town behind. Sa Pa is definitely a place to visit in Vietnam.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

18th to 20th September - Hanoi and Sa Pa

So, after an interesting and slightly bumpy ride on Laos Airlines, we arrived in Hanoi.... The taxi driver wanted to drop us off at all of his families hotels (of course) but we had a destination. We got to the old town and ended up staying at the Hanoi Palace Hotel which was plush compared to our previous residences.

Tal and I went for a walk and were wowed by just how many motorbikes there are in Hanoi. Also, the place is so crowded and people just down seem to like tourists. It's very odd.

We walked around the lake and ended up at a posh restaurant. The food was good but we were glad to get back to the relative sanity of the hotel. We were tired and needed sleep.

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


The next day we booked our tour to Sa Pa playing almost every tour operator off against each other before getting at least $20 off the initial price. Nice....

Tal and I headed out to explore Hanoi old town during the day. It seemed a little quieter but still had the plethora of killer motorbike drivers wanted to harm us as we shuffled across treacherous roads. Tal was in search of a new camera and we got one sorted out after an 8 stage process of decision making. It was an experience but a fun one.

That night we boarded the overnight sleeper train to Sa Pa. I didn't get much sleep because of snory mcsnorer on the bunk above Tal (what is it about sleeper trains and snoring....) We arrived in Sa Pa today tired and in need of refreshing...

From Hanoi and Sa Pa


The guy who picked us up at Lao Cai train station kept us waiting for about 40 mins and we quickly realised why.... He was doubling up our pick up with an effort to line his own pockets by driving locals on our tour bus to Sa Pa...

We met Hung our tour guide at our hotel (yes that's his name although I didn't ask him if his first name was Well or sirname was Ry). He took us to his office to meet his boss who kept us (paying customers) waiting for about 30 mins. We then asked to change our plans to stay in the hotel for two nights as opposed to doing a home stay. This seemed to be met with derision. The boss said he'd see what he could do while Hung proceeded to tell us he had not been paid for a while and had no money. Not a good start to the trip. We went for our first trek after the boss promised he would call Hanoi to arrange our change of plans. Sa Pa is beautiful. So picturesque and the trek was great.

The boss messed up again leaving us waiting for 30 mins for our transport to pick us up from the end of our trek. Not good considering we were tired, hungry and getting increasingly annoyed. We eventually got to lunch which was a magnificent banquet of Vietnamese food. Then we found out the boss had not managed to get in touch with Hanoi... 4 hours after we initially requested it, a phone call seemed to big a stretch for him. So we got back to our hotel and promptly complained. We now have our plans changed and a formal complaint put in to the head office in Hanoi... Not a good start to our tour.

Tonight we have dinner and take a walk around the town. It should be fun.

16th to 18th September - Vientiane

the Capital City of Laos is pretty small. We took the VIP bus (ha ha.... just such a funny name for such a bus) to Vientiane and I was travelling with Steph, Robert and Lawrence (Germany), Emma (UK), Tal (Israel), Thomas and Elsa (Sweden), Dave (Australia), Alex (US) and Martijn and Arwin (Holland).

After the usual, let's walk around for an hour without getting a guest house, we all, strangely enough, individually ended up at The Riverside Hotel. Surprised to see each other there...

That night was a little quiet as we were tired from the journey and the heavens opened. The next morning, we said goodbye to our German (except Lawrence), Swedish and US friends. Again, they were all wonderful people and I truly hope we can stay in touch. Lawrence and I headed for a foot massage. One of the girls working there loved the colour of my skin for some reason and kept smiling over at me saying a word similar to cow which apparently means either white or idiot in Laos.... I think it means white.

The rest of us went to see the Buddha Park and the largest temple in Vientiane. It was great to see these places and the Buddha Park is definitely worth a visit.

From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


Afterwards, I had a couple of hours to kill so I went back to have a body massage. It was great although a little disconcerting. The girl who kept saying cow to me was there again and midway through my massage I heard some noise. I opened my eyes and saw three pairs of eyes peering at me through the curtains... The girls seemed to have a thing about my alabaster appearance.... It was funny if a little weird... They giggled and scurried off after I busted them glaring.

That night I asked the tuk tuk driver who took us around that day for a suggestion of where to go to. He recommended Future Bar... I probably won't request advice of this nature off a tuk tuk driver again... Let's just say it was an entertaining evening.

We ended up in this strange part of town with a million Japanese restaurants. The usual no one making a decision where to eat happened and Lawrence and I just sat down at a quiet small place forcing the decision on the others. We quickly noticed a couple of interesting things about this place. The lady who was the manager and chef was err.... not really a lady at all... Norman Bates Mother from Psycho sprang rapidly to mind. Also, English was a language that was without grasp by the staff of the place. Anyway, not one to judge the judged I set about ordering food. The others did so too. After about 15 different problems with the food order later (the non-English thing proved a little tricky), the manager who we'll call Jack/Jill for the sake of this tale, walked off and headed to the direction of the road where she/he proceeded to burst into tears. I felt pretty bad for him/her as I never like to see anyone cry so I took it upon myself to go over to him/her and brought Jack/Jill back to the restaurant. A couple of salsa moves on the way back to the restaurant brought a smile to his/her face and the evening was able to continue.

We went to future bar and quickly realised it wasn't for us so we headed to the Penguin Karaoke place down the road. Oh man, it was hilarious. There was a traditional Laos band belting all the Laos classics on stage, there were private Karaoke rooms dotted about upstairs and there was a strange room full of girls on the ground floor. I dragged Emma up for a dance on the empty dancefloor and quickly dropped her on her back after an errant move.... Then the song changed and the girls started to filter out of their ground floor room. There must have been about 30 of them. It was very strange. They then got into formation on the dancefloor and moved in a very shy and non-interested dance routine on the floor.

From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


From Vientiane


So of course, i joined in... :) The girls then disappeared back into the room re-appearing every couple of songs. We found out later that you pay for a dance with the girls and the reason they come out to dance in formation is so the male guest of the club can pick who they want to hire for a dance. Very strange.

Another couple of bars later saw us head back to the hotel after an extraordinary evening...

The next day, Tal and I headed to Vietnam while the others headed down south to Cambodia... We were a group of two now after a week or so of being a group of 12 to 15. It felt a little strange.