Monday, December 31, 2012

Luang Prabang

The brilliantly named Luang Prabang is our introduction to the small nation of Laos. It is noticeably different than Vietnam - much calmer and quieter, and many more tourists. And because of this, noticeably more expensive. From what I've heard from a few people, the number of tourists have skyrocketed in the last few years, bringing higher prices to the point where locals can't afford to live or eat in town.

But it is easy to see why. The town is full of ancient Buddhist temples that are still active, meaning orange robed monks can be seen walking all over the place. The town is also built in a bay where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, so the river views are stunning. And as always, if you're willing to leave the main town area, you can find the less touristy places - riverside bars serving Beer Lao for less than a quid (for 750ml bottles!), a market where you pay a quid for a vegetarian buffet, and wonderful little lantern filled side streets.

Because of its proximity to the rivers and the countryside, we went on a day tour which took in hiking through the jungle, through a minority people village, a serene waterfall (where I climbed above the jungle roof to zipline my way down - exhilarating!) and finished with a 3 hour kayak down the Nam Khan where we saw elephants crossing the water.

Off to the capital Vientiane today, where hopefully we can find a New Years Eve party. Technically there is a 1130 curfew in Laos (which is definitely enforced) but hopefully relaxed tonight!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Good Morning (and goodbye) Vietnam

And so ends the Vietnam portion of the journey. In the early planning stages we had thought two weeks would cover it, but we quickly fell in love with it and found reasons to stay on (knowing it would impact plans nearer the end). You quickly find its charm has hooked you, while mostly getting used to the more frustrating aspects (honk honk). Shall miss the mad street crossing, plastic stools, Saigon Beer, conical hats, and the fascinating history and opportunity that is Vietnam. Cam On (thank you) and shall see you again soon I hope!

But now - off to Laos!


The capital of Vietnam - much more laid back in some regards compared to the madness of Saigon, but full of equally wonderful experiences. A few highlights:
-arriving at 5am on the night train, and walking to the lake in the heart of the city to come across hundreds of locals doing Tai Chi, and what could only be described as energetic Vietnamese Zumba to pop music. Watched the sun come up. I'll never be a morning person, but so glad I was up to see this.
-the single most bizarre Xmas of my life. Hordes of folk out with Santa hats, a big pop concert near the lake, Vietnamese people wishing us Merry Xmas, drinking in a backpackers bar. Well suited cops kicking us out at midnight, but coming across a locals cafe who slyly gave us beer till 2am. And for Xmas day - no presents, but rather a visit to the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh himself. Went to see Life of Pi in the evening. Full of children despite being late.
-the Old Quarter markets. Street after street of tents, shops, and stalls selling everything you could imagine, with vendors calling out, bartering and bantering. Motos flying around. Food stalls everywhere. A pure sensory overload. Imagine the most mental market scene you've seen and it wouldn't come close. I walked out numb - the brain can't take it all in.
-on our last night, a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show, depicting the fables of how the Vietnamese people came to be. Surreal. A word I've used a lot!

All this, with great beer, wonderful street food and lovely locals. Perfect.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ha Long Bay

Just back from an overnight cruise in the otherworldly Ha Long Bay. Another UNESCO World Heritage site (of which Vietnam has many), this was yet another highlight of this trip. It's hard to describe, but the as the boat passes by a series of rock columns topped with jungle (complete with wee monkeys) you really get a feeling like you've sailed into a land time forgot. After the sun goes down, the hundreds of other boats bobbing on the bay look like a miniature floating city. On the boat itself, the crew was great as was the food, and it was good fun chatting with other travellers. My personal highlight was kayaking into a small bay within a bay with mountains towering all around you, bobbing in the sea. Plus, an exploration of the aptly named Surprising Cave (a massive place that was straight out of Lord of the Rings) and a personal Tai Chi lesson at 630am!

Monday, December 24, 2012

'Tis The Season

I think the sign below says it all!

Heading North

I'm writing this from a top bunk on an overnight sleeper train to Hanoi, and despite the warnings from a few other travellers we've met, I do fit on the bunk and can sit-up to read so all good.

Just leaving Hue which was ok - possibly a bit underwhelming after Hoian. It rained, proper monsoon style, all afternoon so it's hard to appreciate the grandeur of the Imperial Palace whilst soaked to the skin! We also ended up on a boat to visit the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc with only a Vietnamese family who shamelessly tried to flog stuff to us and we couldn't walk away.

That said, the pagoda we visited and the Emperor's tomb were stunningly beautiful and serene. Tu Duc was a bit of a legend. Every meal had 50 dishes prepared by 50 cooks, and his tea was made from dew that accumulated on leaves overnight. Not to mention a whole series of buildings to house his concubines. It's good to be Emperor clearly!

Up next - Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and home of the embalmed Uncle Ho himself. The locals have all warned us it's very cold up in these parts, but I think this is by Vietnamese standards so reckon we should be fine. Might be nice to wear a long sleeve shirt again!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Culinary Delights

The food we have eaten since we arrived in Vietnam has been wonderful. Hoi An, described as a culinary tour de force, seemed like the best place to take a cookery class complete with a visit to the local market to learn more about the ingredients.
We dawned the conical hats so we would fit in with the locals and set off to the bustling market with our guide. We started with a fruit stall and tasted delicious mangosteen and green oranges. Dragon fruit is very popular here although its taste doesn't quite equal the exciting look.
Herbs are so important in Vietnamese cooking including watercress, lemon basil, fish leaves, mint and Chinese coriander.
The fish stalls were full of tuna, red snapper and live crabs. While the meats were pork, beef and chicken - every part of the animal.
There were very few men at the market. Women are clearly the dominant force selling the goods and shopping twice a day! Selling must be done as early as possible as the price drops in the afternoon when the food is not as fresh. In Central Vietnam less than 10% of the population own a refrigerator so the food is bought regularly and eaten on the day.
Due to the popularity of the classes, the owner has just in the last week opened a cookery school and we walked back there from the market for our lesson!
On the ground floor they have recreated a street food market theme so you can visit different areas and taste some of the food sold on the street. There was sugar cane juice, Vietnamese pancakes, salad rolls and coconut candy.
The class was taken by the commanding Vy, who started cooking at the age of 10 and has clearly grown a bit of an empire with 4 restaurants, the cooking school and a hotel in Hoi An.
We were lucky enough to make 5 dishes ably helped by Vy's team of staff who bustled around our workstations clearing up after us and providing the next set of ingredients. Here's what we made:
- Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth
- Rice paper rolls with pork and prawns
- BBQ chicken and lime leaf
- Crispy Hoi An pancakes
- Mango salad
Vy has written a book on her life and cooking so we will definitely seek out on our return home.
Hopefully you are all suitably hungry now! We'll maybe have another wee practice before we have our first Vietnamese dinner party!
(Fiona highjacking Matt's blog!)

Hoi An

The last few days have been a welcome change of pace after the intensity of the motorcycle. Hoi An is an incredibly beautiful old town that has hardly changed in centuries (other than the influx of tourists of course). Because of its roots as a trading port, it is a wonderful mix of Chinese, Japanese, European and Vietnamese influences. Many of the streets are limited to bicycles and pedestrians only, so you're able to stroll and take in the ambience without the constant honking.

It is also known for its tailoring - we went to one shop and were fully measured out. After pointing to a Next catalogue of styles we like, we ordered a few things, and the next day came back to find everything ready, perfectly fitted. There is a reason so many clothes are made in Vietnam. Even indulged in leather shoes made perfectly for my feet (apparently one is slightly bigger than the other, who knew?).

Also did a day trip to My Son which is an a ruined city built by the Hindu Cham people back primarily in the 10th century, but some parts as old as the 8th century. It had been abandoned for centuries until rediscovered by the French during occupation. Sadly it was heavily bombed by the Americans, with many of the up to 20 metre high temples destroyed. It felt like a walk in a scene from Indiana Jones - utterly surreal.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Back On Two Feet

Arrived safely in Hoian after 6 amazing days riding around the Central Highlands on the back of a motorcycle. This is one of those posts I wished I was able to include maps and labeled pictures and such but unfortunately have to do the best I can from the phone!

In a nutshell - amazing. Mentioned earlier how we took a day trip around Dalat with a couple of Easy Riders who are local Vietnamese tour guides who drive you around on their motorcycles and show you the local area. We got along great with our guides (Quy and Tan) who speak excellent English and have a wicked sense of humour. So rather than get back on the bumpy bus to Hoian, we decided to take the much more scenic route on motorcycle, driving through villages and towns well off the beaten tourist track. Many of the people we saw rarely see foreigners, and waved at us like celebrities. The kids would run to the side of the road to say hello. Very cute.

The drive itself was an incredible experience, allowing us to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. We would stop often, where we would be told about the history of the area. Many of the stops were related to the war, whether it was a monument to unknown soldiers, a battlefield, or part of the Ho Chi Minh trail (used by the communists to travel to the south). Sometimes we would stop at a roadside building and view people making things such as rice paper, incense, wood carvings and pagoda drum making. We also stopped at 5 different minority villages, getting the opportunity to see how the different minority groups live.

And the food! We stopped for lunch at (very) local cafes, sampled fish wrapped in forest leaves that they picked while we saw the farm, at roadside fruit stands, everything. And for dinner, the most amazing local restaurants (pretty much just a room with a few plastic chairs) where we tried deer, goat, pork and beef using coal BBQs on your table, along with the most fresh veg and herbs you could imagine. All washed down with plenty of Saigon Beer or "Happy Water" (rice wine). Getting a bit tipsy with Quy was an experience in itself, listening to his take on modern Vietnam and his own story (he was orphaned during the war very young). Lots of hugs after our final beers in Hoian. He would especially miss "his baby" with the diamond eyes. Fi would do well here :)

Can definitely say we experienced a more authentic Vietnam - for better or for worse. Sometimes the poverty of the villages and farms were a bit overwhelming, but talking to our guides and the people we met along the way was such a great way to hear about their lives while sharing something about ours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


We went to visit one of the minority people villages today, and it felt like we were walking into an exhibit you'd see at a museum showing how the Inuit used to live. But this was very much an active village with people living inside wooden huts. Got to talking (via our guide) to one of the ladies who lives there. She asked us where we were from and why we came to Vietnam. She then said she would also love to go on a holiday, but she was very poor and had to work everyday. She hoped to be able to see the nearby town one day (50km or so away). She said we were very lucky to be living where we do. With a big smile, no bitterness in her eyes at all. And what can you say back? It's true.

Earlier we had met two young girls who were interested in hearing about our home nations. One asked if I brought a skirt (i.e. kilt) I could show her. The other had seen many pictures online from Canada. She wants to see maple leaves in Fall. Better than Vietnam which is too green she says. But the cost to travel for Vietnamese folk is just too high so saying to her "maybe you will visit one day" was a bit naive. Even our guides who know every inch of this country have never even crossed the border to Laos.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Beep beep

The only rules of the road I've been able to pick up so far are:
1) Try to not hit other vehicles.
2) If the other vehicle is bigger, you move over.
3) Honk your horn. Often.

Any other rule can only be seen as mere suggestion. But somehow it works.

But after a while, one must pull over and take it easy for a bit :)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Easy Riders

We'd been told that a motorcycle tour around Dalat into the countryside was a must, but the day was a genuine thrill from the beginning. Even being on a bike weaving through Vietnamese traffic was an experience, but our guides took us not only to the famous pagoda and waterfall, but also to a several places off the beaten track. For example the local silk factory where we were shown how they harvest silk from the worms, then produce the garments. Or the town where some of the nomadic people of Vietnam have settled, where you can see how they farm and live. The experience was so good that we arranged to travel to Hoi An via the Central Highlands on a motorbike over 5 days - 2 days in and seen some incredible things so far. Will try and do them justice next time, but have posted some pics from the first day below.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


As amazing as some of the mini tours have been, sometimes the best ways to experience a country is through the normally routine things in life.

For example - getting a haircut at a small roadside barbers. Shoes off, then sit legs extended on a couch rather than a chair, listening to the banter between barbers (not that I could understand) along with Vietnamese pop music. Or the bus to Dalat which slowly wound its way up and down hillsides while navigating around massive potholes on roads that sometimes were barely there (Kenyan roads I call them now - my Dad will know what I mean!).

Russians apparently are the equivalent of Brits on Ryanair holidays - taps aff, tattooed, loud, on the hunt for their own food rather than local. Congregated at the beach though so all good :)

Went to this great pub last night with not a soul inside except the owner. Drank beer and played Connect 4 with him at the bar and bantered. He beat us almost every single time. And the Pixies were playing on the stereo. It was awesome.

I drank weasel coffee today. The weasel eats the coffee berry, and shits out the the bean. And it was delicious rocket fuel.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Action Man

Felt the urge for a few activities and got a bit carried away. Managed to cover the following in one day:
-bicycle ride through Mui Ne, stopping for incredible sea views and one of the best sandwiches ever
-arranged for a jeep tour of the area, with a Vietnamese guy who showed up in an old school US army jeep. Feeling very GI Joe with my new travel beard
-trip to a fishing village to see the different types of boats used. Looked like something out of an old historical film, incredible
-trip to sand dunes, complete with a quad bike to get up. Stunningly beautiful and vast. Even managed to see the sun go down and watch the sand colour change as it did.

All that with another outdoor seafood BBQ feast and a wee beach bar busting out 70s Motown classics. It was a good day.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mui Ne

After the madness of Saigon, it is particularly satisfying to be writing this sitting by a beach on the South China Sea. Managed to bag a bungalow for next to nothing, and have been having a brilliant time swimming and exploring this seaside town. Just had an incredible dinner where you basically are shown an aquarium and you pick what you want barbecued. 1kg of scallops, red snapper and a beer for 8 quid. Awesome. They also had toad and snake but not quite ready for that.


I've been filling in lots of gaps in my knowledge of Vietnam over the last few days. The War Remnants Museum was a very interesting, if harrowing, account of the Vietnam War. Considering it used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes you can imagine my southern neighbours do not come off well. Also took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels which show how the Viet Cong fought the Americans using tunnels and booby traps. And regardless of your politics or views you can't help but feel that the Vietnamese were well within their rights to defend themselves, and that the tactics used against them were grossly disproportionate.
Interesting to chat with people to get their views, like the taxi driver who preferred the county before Saigon fell and begrudges Hanoi (i.e. the Communists) while the tour guide spoken of her love of "our great leader Uncle Ho". You can almost forget it is a communist country what with all the commerce but it is still very much present as we've been learning.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


I had one of the best steak dinners of my life tonight. 50p, sitting on a plastic seat, in a car park.

Later, beers were had for 33p a go. I'm drunk. I need to catch a bus in 5 hours.

Ho Chi Minh City - I love you.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Weather Outside is Frightful

Listening to Let In Snow with a 30 degree heat and sunshine is a first for me. Just out of the time warp that is the Reunification Palace where the North conquered Saigon. And saw my first statue of Uncle Ho (seen below)