Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rockin' Phnom Penh

We've spent the past couple of days in Phnom Penh and I have to say I like the city.  We decided to splurge a bit on our hotel and are staying at an excellent boutique hotel with a nice pool just behind the Royal Palace.  Pretty cool that a splurge costs $50/night.  But at $50 this is the most expensive hotel we've had yet on our trip.

I have a bunch of pictures from Vietnam ready to upload but the wifi connection here is horrible so hopefully we'll get a better connection in the next few days.

We spent yesterday going to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21).  It was a very moving experience and I am going to try and do separate post just on that.

Last night we went to the Foreign Correspondents Club for dinner.  This was a place made famous during the civil war as it had a great balcony overlooking the Mekong that the journalists would all hang out and drink/eat at.  It was quite lively last night and we had excellent pizza along with cheap beer and cocktails.

We also got our Lao visas sorted out so instead of having to fly into Laos (where we could get a visa on arrival) we now can travel overland through Cambodia into southern Laos.  That will be a haul but should be interesting.

Tommorrow we head to Battambang, the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but one not frequently visited by tourists.  We don't really know what to expect there but it sounds pretty laid back. We might rent some scooters and go explore the countryside.

After that we head to Siem Reap, we'll spend a few days seeing the temples of Angkor before heading back to P.P. for a day or two to begin the long slog up to Laos.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Travels Up the Mekong - Part II

If you haven't read Part 1 of our trip through the Mekong Delta to Cambodia see the previous post.

We woke up at 545am on Friday morning as we had to have breakfast and check out of our hotel by 7am to catch the bus.

The previous day our tour had actually consisted of 3 groups, those doing a 1 day tour and going back to Saigon that night, those doing a 3 day Mekong tour and those like us doing a 2 day tour ending in Phnom Penh.  The 1 day group left us when we got off the boat in Vinh Lung, and the 3 day group was going the opposite direction of us from Chau Doc so we were anxious to see who was going to be accompanying us to Phnom Penh (P.P).

We had met a couple of other couples we knew were going with us during  the previous days tour but figured there was more than just the six of us.  There was 1 other couple from Hong Kong and a Japanese couple as well so it looked like the 10 of us would make the slog upstream.

At our hotel in Chau Doc we were little late going as our tour leader was talking with a mixed group of French and Cambodians.  There seemed to be some confusion regarding them but they ended up getting on our bus with us, 4 french guys, 2 cambodian women who I think were wives and two cambodian guys along with 1 child.  They were all together but we never really did figure out the family dynamic.

I am not sure how they joined our tour at this late stage but they proved to be trouble right from the start with us leaving about 30mins late.  It turned out 1 of the french guys had overstayed his visa so they were trying to figure out how to get him across the border with the minimal amount of hassle.

First we had to finish the "tour" part of our trip. This involved  getting into rowboats where Vietnamese women rowed us through floating villages and we stopped to see how the people lived along with a fish farm they had.  This might have been interesting except that it was blistering hot and there was zero wind!  We were both sweating buckets and coupled with the fact we had done the floating village/rowboat thing in Halong Bay (where it was much more scenic and picturesque) we could hardly wait for the row boat to end so we could get on our boat to head upstream to Cambodia.

About 930 we finally finished rowing and got on our boat to the border.  It was about 40-50 feet long, covered with padded chairs you could move around as you pleased.  Relatively comfortable but even with the boat moving no wind and blistering hot.

We went upstream for about 2 hours, along the way we filled out the forms for our Cambodian Visas and paid the captain who was going to act as our fixer $22 each for the visa.  Now the visa's are supposed to be $20 each but we had read there was a tendency to overcharge at this border so we chalked up the extra $2 as the service fee for having someone take care of the visa for us.

About 1030 we stopped at shore and the Captain/Fixer and the overstaying Frenchman got off the boat.  From the sounds of it they were going to hop on a motorbike and go through the land border and meet us at the "boat border", at least we hoped that was what happening as the Captain/Fixer had our passports and documentation!

We sputtered up the Mekong for another hour before reaching the Vietnamese border.  We hopped off on to the border post and told to wait in the adjacent room where conveniently there was a restaurant.  We ordered a couple of mediocre meals and had a couple of lemon juices.  Soon the Captain/Fixer showed up with the overstaying Frenchman, however again there seemed to be confusion and we ended up waiting about an hour and a half in total (I blame the French!).

Finally the Captain/Fixer jumped up and told us to get our bags off the boat as we would be switching  to a Cambodian boat for the rest of the journey.  As soon as we saw the Cambodian boat we longed to get back on the vietnamese boat.  Whereas on the Vietnamese boat we had padded chairs (not comfortable but padded nonetheless) and we could stand up in the boat, the Cambodian boat just had two long benches facing inwards down below.  The ceiling was also less than 5.5 feet as even Betsy had to crouch down.  Finally the benches were quite high so that my toes could barely touch the floor while poor Betsy's feet were dangling 6 inches above the deck!

It was even more blistering hot on the Cambodia sign with even less wind than we thought possible but at least we were moving once again.  That wasn't to be for long though!

We stopped about 10mins after we got going to get our visa's stamped.  We had visa's but no arrival cards.  We got to the dock walked up a steep bank to a little building and lined up to have all our arrival paperwork scrutinized and a half dozen stamps added to our visa's and passports. It took about 15mins to process our original group of 10 and we headed back to the boat.   Did I mention it was still blistering hot and no wind??

So we all got back on the boat and waited and waited and waited....where the heck were the French/Cambodian group??  About 45mins after we had finished they sauntered down the gang plank to our boat.  Who knows what the problem was but once again we were waiting for them.  Finally underway again we hugged the shore of the Mekong for the next few hours, saw kids swimming, buffalo swimming, kids swimming with buffalos and fisherman doing their thing.  After a couple of hours we were ready to be done with the boat trip.  About 515pm we got to the dock (if you could call it that) where a minibus was waiting to take us the last 90 mins into P.P.

The dock consisted of a couple of 2x6's in varying states of rot held up by bamboo about 6 feet above the water.  Betsy thought for sure she wasn't going to make it across that with her backpack but she did as did everyone else.  

Ninety minutes later and about 2-2.5 hours later than scheduled we arrived at our hotel in P.P.  The hotel was decent (and free as it was included in our tour) but the location was terrible, we went out to try and find somewhere to eat with a Swiss/French couple that had been on our trip but after walking through some pretty dodgy areas and not finding anything decent or even not decent to eat we ended up back at the hotel to eat.  An average meal of rice and vegetables and it was off to bed.

Up at 545am and in Phnom Penh at 730pm it had been a very long travel day.  There had been trials and tribulations but it was one of the adventures we will probably most remember on the trip.  If we'd taken a 1 hour flight from Saigon to P.P.  we would have forgotten it completely by now.

After 27 days in Vietnam we were now in Cambodia, who knows what adventures we'll find here. Keep coming back to find out!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gecko In My Bed!

CHAU DOC, Vietnam - After the first day of our Mekong Delta tour, our bus arrived at our hotel in Chau Doc; a border town with Cambodia. After dinner and a quick walk to the riverside, we went back to our hotel since we were going to have an early start to day two of our tour.  The next morning we were packing up and getting ready to go.  I removed the towel from my head and threw it on the bed.  I'm still not sure where he came from but at that moment a baby gecko ran across our bed (like the one pictured here).  He had either been in our bed the entire night or in the towel that had just been on my head.  My initial reaction was to scream until I realized it was just a little gecko and then my reaction turned to "oh, how cute" and then relief that it wasn't a cockroach.  Stacy just stood there laughing at me.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Good Night Vietnam! Good Morning Cambodia!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Well the last couple of days have been an adventure!  We are currently sitting by the pool at our hotel in Phnom Penh.

Two days ago we were boarding a bus to do a 1 day tour of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. We left Saigon after 4 great days and headed west to the Cai Be Floating Market about 3 hours from Saigon.  

Once we arrived we boarded a boat that toured us around the floating market (which by time we had arrived was pretty quiet), then we were dropped at an area where we were shown how they made coconut candy (not bad, tasted like coconut taffy), puffed rice (made like popcorn and mixed with coconut, sugar & salt to make what tasted like rice crispie squares) and rice paper which we made in our cooking class in Hoi An.

It was what you'd expect of a tour, show  you how some products are made, let you try a sample and then stand around for 10 or 15 minutes giving you 'time' to buy said products.  Not really my thing.  We did buy some prawn chips to snack on however and they were yummy!

After a stop for lunch we headed by boat through the delta where we met up with our bus.  The boat tour was nice and we passed through some small channels and saw a lot of local life.  We also had a bit of a rainstorm which helped to cool things down ever so briefly.

Once back on the bus we had a 4 hour drive through the Delta to our hotel for the night in Chau Doc a border town in Vietnam.  The drive was uneventful if a little long but we got to enjoy the scenery as we passed through the countryside and towns of the Mekong Delta.

We arrived in Chau Doc about 630pm and quickly got settled as our guide was going to take us to the best restaurant in town.  Since it was dark and we were tired and didn't feel like exploring much ourselves we decided to go with the group.  Our guide took us a few blocks away to a local establishment where about 12 of us sat down at two tables.  The food turned out to be pretty mediocre and our guide left as soon as we were seated probably to go find a better restaurant for himself after collecting the commission from bringing us to that restaurant!

See the next post for our adventurous boat trip up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Saigon...Be gone...

Saigon, Vietnam - Well after a few hot & steamy days in Saigon we are moving on.  Saigon has definitely been the hottest part of our trip so far, the rainy season can't get here soon enough!

We've spent the past couple of days going around seeing the sights like the Reunification Palace Ben Thanh Market and the War Remnants Museum formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum, I guess that name became politically incorrect when Vietnam and the USA normalized relations in the mid 90's.

They may have changed the name but the exhibits I don't think have changed at all.  It was interesting but also a little like listening to the former Iraqi Information Minister Baghdad Bob!

Apart from the heat we did enjoy Saigon.  Good food, good sights, very interesting and cosmopolitan city.

Tomorrow we are headed off on a 1 day tour of the Mekong Delta and will overnight near the Vietnamese border.  On Saturday we will take a boat about 8 hours up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia.

We will spend a few days in P.P. getting our Lao Visa and then head to Battambang (2nd largest town in Cambodia) and Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat).   From there it will be back to Phnom Penh for a couple of days before we start the long slog north up to Laos.  

We expect to be in Southern Laos by around May 10th.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yummy! Banh Xeo!

Saigon, Vietnam - Today we made the trek up to Banh Xeo 46a which supposedly has the best Banh Xeo in all of Vietnam.  Banh Xeo are rice batter pancakes that are cooked quickly until they are crispy and contain shrimp, pork belly and bean sprouts.

You then add herbs and roll the Banh Xeo pancakes in rice paper or green leaves like a lettuce wrap.  

We took a cab up to where we thought the eatery was but got our wires crossed and had to walk about 5 blocks further to get there.  Down a narrow alley we  walked until we saw a sign that said "Banh Xeo 46A".  We sat down on the little plastic stools and ordered a large Banh Xeo and some BBQ pork with rice vermicelli.

The pork came out first and it was excellent, crispy, sweet and caramelized it went perfect with the cold noodles, peanuts, sprouts and herbs.

Next came the main attraction  the Banh Xeo!   It was folded in half about the 10" long and 6" wide stuffed with bean sprouts, pork belly and shrimp.  On the side  were lettuce leaves and vietnamese herbs like mint, basil and other small peppery leaves.  It was excellent and well worth the trek up there.

Total cost for the Banh Xeo, BBQ Pork w/vermicelli, and two lemon juices was about $7.

Haircut & A Shave!

Saigon, Vietnam - It's been 6 or 7 weeks since I got a hair cut (usually it's 4 weeks between cuts) and I've been thinking for a week that I needed to get one when I got to Saigon.

Over beers last night Betsy and I watched a barbershop across the street as people poured in and out.  Seemed like as good a place to go as any so this morning after the Canucks OT winner was scored we headed around the corner from the hotel to the barbershop.

It was with some trepidation that I walked in the door, a guy motioned me to a seat and asked if i wanted a haircut and a shave? Shave? Sure, why not?  It had been 4 or 5 days since I'd shaved and I'd never had a barber shop shave before so what the heck!

The guy pulled out the clippers and proceeded to buzz me, it took about 15mins and he was done.  So far so good.

Next was the shave.  He sprayed some water on my face massaged it in and then put on the shaving cream.  Pulled out a new razor, slapped it on to the straight razor like an exactor knife blade and went to work.  Ten minutes later he was done. It was the best shave of my life!  

After the shave he grabbed an ice cold facecloth and slapped it over my face and rubbed it around to get off the leftover shaving cream then he folded it in half so it was covering my eyes and forehead, next thing I knew he was doing karate chops on my forehead!!?!   

Next he put on a glove that had what looked like a small air compressor attached to it.  What the heck was this thing?  He plugged it in and proceeded to massage my scalp and neck.  It felt good but also thought my teeth might fall out from the vibrations!

A few minutes later we were done.  Excellent haircut, great shave, nice neck/head massage total cost <$4!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dalat, in a nut shell

DALAT, Vietnam - We only had a couple days in Dalat but here are a few things that made it unique...

* enjoyed artichoke tea
* walked through the pine trees enjoying the cool breezes
* watched women weave traditional silk and cotton into scarves and table clothes
* "stalked" by an EasyRider (motorcycle guide) until told him we booked a tour with someone else
* fields and fields of all sorts of fruit & veg.....not a rice paddy in sight
* enjoyed nachos; the first Mexican food we've had since we left home
* parted with my walking boot after having it strapped to my backpack for over a week just in case

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Ride on the Wild Side!

Enroute from Nha Trang to Dalat, Vietnam - Today we took a bus from Dalat to Saigon.  We were "lucky" enough to get what I affectionately refer to as the "Oh Sh^t Seats!".  Those would be the front row opposite the driver so you can see out the front window.  I refer to those seats as the OSS because you get to see up close and personal how many times you almost hit somebody and how many times you were almost hit by someone else.

I have no idea what the number for either was on our 8 hour trip but we did make it to Saigon safe and sound and didn't manage to kill anybody or any thing.

Our intial impression of Saigon is very positive especially compared to Hanoi.  Hanoi seemed dour and depressing while Saigon has a vibrancy and excitement about it.  Both places are chaotic and crazy but Saigon just seems like a lot more fun!

We have a week left on our visa here before we head to Cambodia.  We are scheduled to be in Saigon for 3 days and want to try and do a Mekong  Delta tour.  If we can't organize that we might spend a couple more days here before heading to Phnom Penh.

Dalat Observations

We spent the last couple of days in Dalat which is a town in the mountains about 7 hours north of Saigon.  Dalat is 1500m high and subsequently has a much cooler climate than the rest of Vietnam. It is cool enough that our hotel didn't even have AC!

I would say the best thing about Dalat is the weather.  Yes its a pretty town and reminds me of some of the swiss mountain towns we spent time in but it is also pretty boring.  There are a million hotels but very few restaurants or at least good/decent looking restaurants.  Compared to Hue/Hoi An/Nha Trang the choice of where to eat seemed much more limited.

We did take a trip on the cable car which goes over the mountains (~2.3km) to the Quang Trung Reservoir.  We walked around the reservoir and saw some interesting temples.  That night we actually did have a very good meal at a restaurant called Da Quy that served some excellent (& cheap)  vietnamese fare.  Shrimp mousse on sugar cane wrapped in rice paper with a variety of herbs and vermicelli noodles and beef with lemongrass and chili.  Yum!

Two days was plenty for Dalat.  A nice enough town and a nice respite from the heat of the rest of the country.

Go Canucks Go!!

With the NHL playoffs beginning last week I had to find a way to watch the games if I could.  That of course was easier said than done.  Hockey obviously isn't very popular in this part of the world and the games aren't even broadcast on satellite in SE Asia so forget going to a bar or restaurant to watch.

So what is an NHL fan to do?  Well I installed a program called Sopcast on the laptop and by checking the schedule at http://myp2p.eu / i've actually been able to watch the first 3 games on the internet.  The games have started between 6-9am so are over early in the morning and haven't interfered with our day's plans too much and Betsy has been right there next to me cheering on the good guys!

The picture quality has actually been pretty good (better than my slingbox, truth be told) with little to no dropouts.  We sat in the garden of our hotel and watched game 2 on Saturday morning and watched the first two periods of game 3 as we got ready to get on the bus to Saigon from Dalat this morning.

We had a 7 hour bus ride today and I was desperate to find out what happened in the game.  At our first rest stop I checked for a wifi signal and actually found and connected to a strong signal but couldn't pull up any pages. I think someone's router needed to be rebooted.

Next try was when we were going through a fairly good sized town at slow speeds I managed to connect to a network briefly and half pull up TSN's homepage where I at least saw the headline "Blues on Brink", "Canucks up 3-0" so I knew they had won.

When our bus stopped for lunch I checked again for a wifi signal and got a strong signal that allowed me to download the podcast for the 3rd period to my IPOD and listen to it (with Betsy) on the bus after lunch.

All I can say is thank god for the Internet!  I am not sure what will happen when we get to Laos, not sure I'll get the same download speeds or wifi access I've gotten in Vietnam!  Might have to change the itinerary if the Canucks go on a roll!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Off-roading in a bus!

DALAT, Vietnam - We caught the bus from Nha Trang to Dalat this morning at 8am.  Compared to our train experiences to date, the bus was actually very clean and only about half full.  The trip takes about 6 hours including a stop for lunch.  As we left Nha Trang we headed South along the coast and stopped for lunch at about noon.  Knowing that Dalat was a mountain town we knew we still had the climb to do.  The last 90 minutes of the trip was the adventurous part.  The road up the mountain was very narrow, steep and full of pot holes.  This along with other cars and cows in the road made it interesting.  At  one point we came across a broken down truck in the middle of the road.  Our bus driver managed to get our bus around him even though the road was so narrow.  As I sat on the bus I could not help but wonder if Greyhound would travel on roads in these conditions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Best BBQ in Asia

We took the train from Hoi An (Da Nang, actually) to Nha Trang last night.  It was about a 9 hour train ride.  Vietnamese trains leave a lot to be desired!  They may have been nice 5 or 6 years ago but they are pretty rundown these days. Holes in the curtains, tray tables held up by twine, tinny speakers playing vietnamese pop, not exactly the swiss efficiency and comfort we  were used to in Geneva.

Nevertheless we made it to Nha Trang in one piece and got checked into our hotel which is quite nice and a bargain at $18/night.  We had originally planned on being in Nha Trang for only 2 nights & 1 day but it is nice enough here that we decided to spend a couple extra days so will head to the mountains and cooler temperatures (hopefully!) of Dalat on Friday.

Today we were looking for a place for lunch and saw that tripadvisor had highly rated a restaurant called  Texas BBQ & Steaks.  It was just around the corner from us and we had noticed as we were walking about but hadn't paid too much attention thinking it was probably some poor ripoff of BBQ.  The reviews were great though so we decided to give it a shot and OMG it was awesome! 

We shared Buffalo wings as an appetizer and Betsy had a "pulled pork" sandwich and I had a jalapeno cheeseburger.  Everything was excellent and we spent a lot of time talking to Wayne the owner.  He's originally from Memphis where his family has run BBQ restaurants and he has lived in Vietnam for about 9 years.  He was bored being semi-retired and decided to open a BBQ restaurant in Nha Trang about a year ago.  He imports all the food from the US so it tastes like authentic American BBQ.

This was one of the best if not the best BBQ restaurants we've been too!  We will definitely be going back to Texas BBQ before we leave.  Sometimes you get tired of noodles/rice all the time and it is nice to have something that reminds you of home.  Plus I got some good rib-smoking tips from Wayne that I can try out when we get home!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Son

Yesterday we did a half day tour to My Son which is a collection of ruins about 1 hour east of Hoi An.  It was a  partially guided tour in that we had a guide who walked us out, told us about the first set of ruins and then said we could wander around for a couple of hours exploring the rest while he went back to the cafe for an iced coffee.  We can't complain though as it cost us $5 for the tour.

My Son was mildly interesting nowhere near comparable to Angkor but still interesting nonetheless.  The ruins are in pretty rough shape as the jungle has really taken over and the bombing sustained during the "American War" didn't help them much either.

Most of the ruins were built by the Champa Kingdom between the 4th and 13th century.  While the ruins are in disrepair the setting is beautiful, deep in the jungle and it was a nice way to spend a morning.

It was VERY hot out though. In fact it felt like one of the hottest days we've had. Betsy heard the guide saying it was 35C (100F) and coupled with the humidity we were totally spent by time we got back to the hotel.

Today we head to Nha Trang which is about an 9 hour train ride down the coast from Hoi An. We are probably only going to spend 1 day there and then head to the cooler confines of the mountain town Dalat.

One other note when we got back from dinner last night (excellent indian food!) Betsy found a massive cockroach scurrying along the bathroom floor.  It was quickly dispatched with but I don't think Betsy slept too well last night :)

Red Bridge Cooking School

Yesterday Betsy and I took a half day cooking course at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An.  It was great fun and we got to eat our creations so thankfully they turned out!

First we got a tour of the market which was nice as we'd walked through but didn't really know what a lot of stuff was so it was nice to have it explained.

After the market tour we hopped on a boat and went down river about 4km to the cooking school.  The cooking school is right on the bank of the river and you cook under a thatched roof that is open on all sides.  The class was a combination of demonstration and hands-on cooking.  The chef made a seafood salad consisting of squid & shimp along with shredded greens, papaya, chili, garlic etc stuffed into a hollowed out pineapple.

We then got to make homemade rice paper and fresh spring rolls out of the rice paper we had just made.  The next dish we made was a Hoi An speciality called Banh Xeo.  It was essentially a crispy pancake made of rice flour, water, shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion.  Once this was fried up, various Vietnamese herbs were put on top such as basil and mint and it was rolled in rice paper like a burrito.  It was then dipped into a peanut sauce!  Our last dish was stewed eggplant in a claypot.  We worried that it would be too mushy but it was delicious.  Eggplant, garlic, lemongrass, chiles, green onion, tumeric, salt, pepper  and sugar all stewed with some water.  It was all delicious and we had a great time.  We'd highly recommend the Red Bridge Cooking School if you are ever in Hoi An.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Miles to go

HOI AN - While in Singapore we purchased a pedometer and have been keeping track of the miles we have been putting on our shoes. So every now and again I'll be posting how many steps & miles we have walked to-date. So here is the first update...

26 March - 11 April we've taken 157,1600 steps/43.8 miles

(Today I had a new pair of sandals custom made for $14.00 to replace these.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hoi An - Venice of the East?

Hoi An, Vietnam - We arrived in Hoi An after 3 relaxing days in Hue.  Hue was a nice contrast to the hectic pace of Hanoi.  We visited the citadel which is the main site to see in Hue and walked around the town a fair bit.  We contemplated doing a tour to the DMZ (Demilitarized zone) but the bus tour sounded like a nightmare (6am-7pm) with most of that spent on the bus and the private tour was too expensive ($100 for a private car!) 

We also spent one of our days mostly in the hotel as Betsy had come down with a bit of a cold. This gave me a chance to catch up on some internet posting and cull through our photos and finally get some of those posted on the website.

We had a spectacular drive over the mountains to Hoi An.  It is about a 4-5 hour trip and we made a couple of stops along the way.  We stopped at Lang Co Beach which is a pretty nice beach with a run down resort.  It looks like it might have been a  happening place during the war but is pretty run down now.

We also stopped at Ha Van Pass, a 500m high mountain pass that has stunning views of the surrounding hills and the sea.  It is quite a drive up there through steep switchbacks crisscrossing the jungle.

Hoi An is a very pretty city.  The reason I call it the "venice of the east" is the staggering number of tourists here!  There is also a canal/river down the middle of the city.  Last night was the full moon festival so there were more people than usual out, there were floats lit up in the middle of the river and people were lighting candles and floating them down the river.  There was also some music and some kind of bingo/50-50 draw being played out which we couldn't figure out in the slightest.

We may stay here a couple of days longer as our hotel is quite comfortable (it has a pool!) but also we have some things we want to do.  We want to do a cooking course, visit My Son (some ruins), Betsy wants to finally hit a spa, plus we want to tour around the city and maybe even hit the beach a couple of days.  So while Hoi An is very touristy (Like Venice) it is also very nice (like Venice).

From here we are deciding where to go, Nha Trang, Dalat or even straight to Saigon all remain possibilities.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Finally some pictures!

Click on the Northern Vietnam link to the right. Enjoy!

First day without the "beast"...

HUE - Seeing as Hue is a MUCH slower pace of life than Hanoi, I thought it would be safe to take a "test drive" without the walking boot. Thumbs-up....ankle is holding up nicely but I still have my walking boot strapped to my backpack. Not quite ready to give it up YET.

Hip, Hip, Hue!

Hanoi – We were not looking forward to spending another night/day in Hanoi after the peace and quiet of Halong Bay but unfortunately our sleeper train south did not leave until the following night. We returned to our same hotel in Hanoi and received the same room that we had during our first visit so there was some comfort in that.

We decided to head out to Cha Ca La Vong for dinner. Cha Ca La Vong is a Hanoi institution. It is a restaurant that has been around for 200 years (apparently) and only serves one dish, fried fish! We headed out into the Hanoi night and found the restaurant without too much trouble. The restaurant looked like it probably hadn't changed in 200 years. Up a steep stair case we climbed and into the dining room where we were promptly seated. A few minutes later the waitress brought out a tray of “condiments” that included herbs, bean sprouts, some leafy greens, peanuts and some fish sauce with chiles in it. We were also given bowls of cold rice noodles.

A few minutes later a charcoal brazier was put in the middle of the table and on top of that was a fry pan full of cubes of fish sizzling away in oil. The fish appeared to be seasoned with tumeric mainly. We were a little perplexed as to what we were supposed to do next but the waitress reappeared and started throwing greens, herbs and sprouts into the pot and stir frying it with the fish until the greens were wilted. We waited a few minutes and then scooped the fish mixture onto the noodles, sprinkled some peanuts and chile-fish sauce over the top and went at it. The meal coupled with a couple of large Hanoi beers set us back about 12USD, expensive by Vietnam standards but well worth it!

The next day we hung out at the hotel until our noon check out, doing some Internet stuff and watching TV. The weather was rainy and we had a long train ride ahead of us so had little inclination to get moving. We finally got packed up and checked out and since it was still raining went to the cafe next door and had a coffee and lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the park and buying some provisions for our train trip (baguettes, pain de chocolat, mini-pizzas).

We finally headed to the train station about 5pm, 2hours before our scheduled train. We had decided to book the private tourist train as 1. the regular 1st class train was full and 2. the private train was only $5 more and looked much nicer.

Needless to say the company brochures and the reality of the train were quite different! We were in a four berth compartment and moments after entering the compartment Betsy spotted a cockroach crawling up the wall of the opposite bunk! I thought she was going to hop on the next flight home at that point but she toughed it out.

We were lucky enough to have the whole compartment to ourselves and spent the next couple of hours playing cards. When we decided to goto sleep Betsy wrapped herself in her sleeping bag liner such that she looked like a mummy with even her face and head covered. She also refused to turn the light off and slept the whole night with the light on. I was on the upper bunk so was not to bothered by her light but I did think it was funny. It was a long night as the Vietnamese trains are not quite as smooth as the Swiss ones we were used to. In fact it was like being on roller coaster for 13 hours and neither of us got much sleep.

Thankfully our hotel in Hue (pronounced HooWay, see the post title) provided us with a great welcome and allowed us to check in soon after we arrived that morning. The train trip was definitely an experience but I think that is one trip where it is worth the extra cost to fly!

Halong Bay Update

Halong Bay – After the crazy intensity and chaos of Hanoi it was with great anticipation that we were looking forward to our 3 day - 2 night Halong Bay Cruise.

The minibus picked us up about 830 and somehow negotiated the narrow streets of Hanoi without hitting anything or anyone. A couple more stops and we were on our way to Halong Bay.

We finally made it to Halong Bay and were shuttled off our bus and asked which boat we were on, our luggage was put into different piles based on our response. There were probably a couple of dozen other tourists in the waiting area by the dock with us and we all looked around speculating who might be our shipmates for the next few days.

Finally everyone from our boat must have arrived because we were shuttled onto the tender and headed out to our home for the next 3 days. It was gray and drizzly as we boarded the Prince II and Betsy had fun climbing up the ladder out of the tender. We shuffled into the dining room and were served a welcome drink of fresh watermelon juice. Our guide Hai introduced himself and proceeded to go around the room asking each of us to make a brief introduction. Our shipmates were Graham & Anna, a couple from Ireland who had moved there from Britain 30+ years ago, David a recent university grad now working in finance in London and his university mate Rohan who had recently moved home to Malaysia. We set about getting to know each other as the crew readied the boat to leave.

We were soon underway and shown our rooms which turned out to be quite grand. They weren't large rooms but were very nice and we had large windows all down the side that allowed us to lie in bed and enjoy the view.

We motored out to our port for the night which turned out to be a floating fishing village set amongst the Halong Bay islands. Some of the members of our party then went for a kayak while Betsy and I sat up on deck and enjoyed the view and chatted with the ship's bartender Viet.

The next couple of days were spent kayaking around the islands, eating, drinking and motoring around Halong Bay. We got to enjoy a nice beach BBQ on one day and had great food every night and day on the boat. The food was mostly seafood oriented and I think Betsy's favorite were the sea snail spring rolls.

We got along great with the rest of our shipmates and we usually outlasted the crew as we drank late into the night. This was definitely reflected in our bar bills at the end of the trip. The last night the crew decided to sing some songs for us and did a few Vietnamese ballads. They also taught us one song that honored Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as he is known by the locals.

All in all it was a great trip and we would both highly recommend it, and while not cheap by Vietnamese standards it is definitely a beautiful part of the world that should not be missed if you are in the area.

The crew was great on our boat and treated us well and our shipmates were a lot of fun and great to spend a couple of days with. The only downside was the weather was quite cool (temp in the 60's, some drizzle). It would have been great to see the scenery in the sunshine but it wasn't to be on this trip.