April - October 2015
  • Day177

    Ha Long Bay to Hanoi

    October 13, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    We woke to the steady thump of a small boat's engine as it motored past our own. The bay is not just for tourists, it is also home to small communities who live in floating houses to fish the waters or sell drinks and snack food to the passing tourists.

    A cotton wool sky remained to deny a fiery sunrise but it did not deter us from the sun deck, where we took a Tai Chi lesson with one of the crew before breakfast.

    We travelled to Luon Cave, where we left the boat and paddled a 2-man kayak into its dark mouth. The sound of paddles scrapping against fibreglass hulls and human voices echoed under the stalactite ceiling. Darkness began to wrap itself around us but before it had a chance to cover us completely we exited into the bright light of a hidden cove.

    We quickly realised the cave was the only entrance into the cove, where sheer limestone walls towered around us. We shrank in scale to the scenery before us and despite the presence of other tourists we felt as if we had entered a hidden world. Circling the edge of the livid water pool we absorbed the views before rhythmically powering ourselves back under the cave and to the boat.

    Returning to Ha Long harbour, we past through channels of shadow-casting rock that towered over us and the local fishing vessels. The undulating spines and swirling faces of the limestone catching our eyes as they past by our window.

    Once on land we took the road back to Hanoi, where the bustling capital welcomed us with a cacophony of noise, which was in sharp contrast to the calm of the bay.
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    Kim and Alex

    Alex, Jacqueline, Eddie, a Korean couple whose names we can't recall, and Kim

  • Day176

    Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

    October 12, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    For a change of scenery from the hectic streets of the nation's capital we took a boat tour out to what has been titled as one of the seven natural wonders of the world - Ha Long Bay.

    The name 'Ha Long' means 'descending dragons' and was given because from a distance the tall limestone islands appear like the curved backs of these mythical creatures. We were told there are 1969 islands in total, a poignant number to the Vietnamese with it being the year Ho Chi Minh died.

    Our three tier wooden ship of greying white and mahogany coasted its way out of Ha Long harbour and took a path out into the bay, passing through the imposing limestone cliffs of the closely-knit islands. The sun remained hidden behind cloud but it's penetrating light left a white haze over the horizon, giving the more distant islands a mysterious aura.

    We docked outside the Sung Sot Cave, the concave of its mouth high up on the cliff-face. Climbing a narrow staircase we entered into three lit caverns, each larger than the previous. Millions of years old, the ceiling appeared like a Gaudi sculpture, honed away by water that had once crashed around inside before the sea receded.

    Afterwards we went by boat to Ti Top Island, which was named by Ho Chi Minh after the Russian cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, when he visited in 1962 ('Ti Top' being how the Vietnamese pronounce Titov). Again we climbed a steep staircase to the island's summit, where we gazed out upon a panoramic view. Down below in the bay, the many anchored tour boats shrank in the still grey waters against the island cliffs jutting skyward.

    Meals on the boat were eaten communally, with us sharing platters of local cuisine between our tables as a Vietnamese family would do. There were French, Vietnamese, Korean and Malaysian travellers onboard but they spoke very little English. Fortunately we met a friendly couple, Eddie and Jacqueline from Singapore, who spoke excellent English, were well travelled and had a daughter studying business at Manchester University. Despite Eddy being a Manchester United supporter, we got on very well and they were great company to share our Ha Long Bay experience with.
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    Kim and Alex

    Ti Top Island

    Kim and Alex

    View from Ti Top Island

    Kim and Alex

    Inside Sung Sot Cave

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  • Day175


    October 11, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    A thick white blanket of cloud, backlit by an invisible sun, spanned the sky. At 23 degrees the day felt very mild compared to the high temperatures and humidity we had experienced. The locals were wrapped in jackets and hats as we might be on a cold autumn day.

    Around the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake and down wide busy streets away from the Old Quarter, we stopped for lunch where the chef/owner had appeared on Vietnamese Masterchef in 2013. Alex enjoyed delicious 'Bun Bo' (rice vermicelli and beef in sauce) whilst Kim had tasty 'Pho Ga' (chicken rice noodle soup). Not only was it very enjoyable it was also very cheap with the bill totalling £5!

    With full stomaches we marched westward to stand before the brutal architecture of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Lined on either side with giant red Communist flags, which fluttered brightly in the faint wind. Guards in uniforms, taut with medals and starch, stood watchful whilst on the lawn women crouched low to pull weeds. You go inside and file past Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body with thousands of other tourists. However the prospect of viewing a corpse 46 years dead did not overly excite us so we wandered by.

    Adjacent and behind layers of security was the intensely yellow Presidential Palace. Just like the White House in Washington, we had no idea if anyone was at home behind its tall gates and blinded windows. However it is said that Ho Chi Minh did not reside in the lavish overthrow of French colonialism, choosing instead to live in a small stilt house set within the grounds.

    Circumnavigating the edge of the old crumbling citadel walls we came to its North Gate. Originally built in 1805 by the Nguyen Dynasty, at 17 metres tall it remains an imposing structure. It's face is scarred by two great holes gouged out the brickwork, caused by cannon fire when the French took the city by force at the end of the 19th century. Atop of the gate incense vapour drifted from a solemn bronze altar to the Nguyen leaders charged with the city's defence.
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  • Day174


    October 10, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    We lay in bed listening to the rain continue its patter against the tree lined street outside. With no indication that it would dissipate, we contemplated another day hopping through puddles before deciding that we would visit the Vietnam Women’s Museum. Both because it was highly recommended and indoors.

    The museum housed a number of exhibits on the roles and experiences of women in Vietnam, both currently and historically, showcasing the importance of their contribution to the development of Vietnamese society.

    Whilst some of the ethnic societies within Vietnam unsurprisingly follow a patrilineal model, interestingly others are matrilineal; where the eldest daughter plays an important role in family affairs, females inherit wealth and are preferred as a gender for new-borns. Nevertheless women in rural Vietnam have an unenviable role of being primary care givers to their children whilst undertaking all domestic tasks in the family home as well as agricultural labour, which includes the harvesting of rice and maize; cut by hand and carried on their backs in large woven baskets down from the fields. We learnt how some women are forced to leave their rural communities to work in Hanoi, selling food, flowers and other products, in order to effectively feed and educate their children. This is due to their land not producing enough income and means very long days and weeks away from home and their families. In worse cases, the women’s husbands are either too ill to work or have died in work accidents, leaving the women alone to raise an income and their children. Already we have past many women matching the description of those in the exhibit, leaving us to reflect on what their own stories might be.

    Most interesting was the exhibit on Vietnam’s ‘Heroic Mothers’, women who lost children, their husband and/or their own life whilst engaging in the resistance against French and American forces for the country’s independence. Women actively engaged in front-line guerrilla warfare alongside men and in the south of the country they represented up to 40% of the fighting force. As well as combatants, women also worked as medics, engineers and spies and many were captured, tortured and executed in enemy prisons.

    Interested to see if London had a similar resource we were dismayed to find a number of news articles from this summer on what had been proposed as the UK's first women's museum, only to become a museum on Jack the Ripper... (http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jul/29/museum-billed-as-celebration-of-london-women-opens-as-jack-the-ripper-exhibit)
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    Kim and Alex

    We're thinking about this for our own wedding - Alex in the black PJs and Kim under the walking tent.

    Kim and Alex

    Vietnam's 'Heroic Mothers'

    Carol Stringer

    And what would you like the guests to wear?

  • Day173


    October 9, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Rain steadily washed the pavements and our feet as we wove a pathway through lines of parked scooters, street stalls and locals running for shelter. Without a planned destination and our cheap umbrellas struggling to defend us from the unrelenting shower, we ducked into the inviting glow of a shopping mall.

    Ushered by a smartly uniformed doorman into a pristine gallery we entered the opulent Trang Tien Plaza. Walking through a glossy landscape of Dior, Lacoste and Calvin Klein, we felt very out of place in our damp backpacking clothes. An aura of elitism radiated out of the central hall of escalators and reflected off the brass handrails and polished marble of quiet empty spaces.

    We wondered who in Hanoi had the finances to shop at such a place, where prices were equivalent to home and the average wage is much lower. It felt far removed from the political ideals that the modern country was founded upon. We then wondered how we, in our attire (not to mention Alex's hair), even made it inside before imagining how the colour of our skin could bypass this.

    Amongst shelves of overpriced Calvin Klein jeans, tailored for petite Asian bodies, we simultaneously found ourselves closely shadowed by staff around the store. It was perturbing enough to make a swift exit and led us to reexamine our outward image and how it could have brought such close scrutiny.

    Subsequent internet research identified that the staff's behaviour to be common etiquette rather than reactive to us. We then realised that it was something we had already encountered but in local shops. The plaza's gloss unbalancing our sense of where we were in the world.

    Leaving the plaza and culture shock behind we circled the edge of the Hoan Kiem Lake, where tree branches dripped the remnants of the deceased shower. A smog hung in the air to dampen the view so we ventured further into the city's Old Quarter. Down the narrow streets we wandered through a world far removed from that displayed in the plaza.

    Originating from the 13th century system of guild cooperatives, each of the quarter's '36 streets' (there are in fact more) sells a particular product and are named accordingly. Firstly with the word 'Hang', meaning shop or merchandise and then with the name of the product. For example, 'Hang Bac' is the street where silver products are sold, 'Hang Ma' for paper products, 'Hang Gai' for silks and so on.

    Yet we found it less precise as we past a frenetic collection of street hawkers peddling snacks, lighters and shoe repair as well as shops selling fresh fruit and women's shoes side by side. We imagined the discussions generated in Hanoi homes ('I thought you just went to the grocer for Bok Choy?...Yes but these fake Jimmy Choos were on sale next to them!') when a hawker, squatting down on the littered steps of a shop, grabbed Alex's passing foot and attempted to lift his flip flop off his foot to 'repair' it with glue. However a look and a few words were enough to convince him that Alex's flip flop was in perfect working order.
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    Kim and Alex

    No idea what he was transporting but it drawfs his scooter!

  • Day172

    Stray - Tam Coc to Hanoi

    October 8, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    As it was only 100km to Hanoi from Tam Coc we visited the nearby Cuc Phoung National Park and its Primate Rescue Centre. The centre rescues and protects endangered monkeys and gibbons, some of whom have been hunted to near extinction for their profit as speciality food and medicine, particularly in the Chinese market.

    Wu left us at the main gate to wander down a lonely path with the hiss of the breathing rainforest around us. As we neared the centre the silence was broken by the rising calls of gibbons echoing through the trees, like the repeating whistling boom of a strange alarm.

    The centre's guide, Hom, smartly dressed in shirt and trousers with a Viet Cong helmet, led us along moss speckled brick paths and past cages of the different species. Dark inset eyes on small faces watched us intently as long tails hung down from perches and powerful fingers gripped the cages' mesh.

    Hom explained that the centre's goal was to rehabilitate the primates back into the wild and showed us a 'semi-independent' area of forest adjacent to the cages, which acted as a stepping stone to complete rehabilitation. Different vegetation was also grown at the centre so the primates had the variety in their diet that they would in the wild.

    At a time when some of the species' total populations are as low as 45 and reproduction is only once every 2 years, the centre's work is vital in preventing these species becoming completely eradicated by human desires or speciality food and medicine.

    Thanking Hom we returned to the bus for the final journey to Hanoi, where our Stray route completed. We said goodbye to our Stray guide, Wu, who with the enthusiasm and humour of a teenage boy has taken us all the way north from Ho Chi Minh City.

    In the late afternoon heat we edged our way through the hectic streets of the city's Old Quarter but by dark we found peace and dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Hoan Kiem Lake.
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    Kim and Alex

    Cuc Phoung National Park

    Kim and Alex

    Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

  • Day171

    Tam Coc

    October 7, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 31 °C

    The steady rise of humidity with the morning sun invited us to spend the day unwinding from yesterday's long journey, not that we needed much encouragement. However the bus driver put our pathetic woe into perspective when he explained that it was a 40 hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh City...

    Sat on the hostel's balcony, a vista of terracotta roofs, mustard fields and limestone mountains stretched around us. From our shaded vantage point we absorbed town life below; small wooden canoes sent ripples along the winding river and farmers spread carpets of grain to dry in the sun. The bass of revving traffic and the shrill of children playing filtered up through the buildings, upon which yellow stars on red hung limply in the heat.

    We reflected that in 2 weeks we would be flying home after 6 months away from our family and friends. There was still much to do, yet it began to feel right that the end was in sight.

    We used the time to plan our stay in Hanoi, where we will base ourselves before flying to Bangkok on the 18th October and then home on the 21st. Whilst we had spoken about visiting Japan or another country, as somewhat expected, our budget has prevented us. Nevertheless we are content, having been blessed with a fantastic time so far. Instead these countries will be our adventures to come!
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  • Day170

    Stray - Phong Nha-Ke Bang NP to Tam Coc

    October 6, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌧 28 °C

    With our arrival in Hanoi due in less than 72 hours, it was time to make some ground on the 500km of road still ahead of us. Passing under the bold white signage of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park we headed back onto Vietnam’s version of the M1 to journey further north.

    On a day where distance was the goal, the world largely rolled past our window. The country was also on the move up and down their motorway as women in conical hats rode bicycles laden with goods whilst men wearing the olive green helmets of the Viet Cong weaved through lines of rumbling lorries on their scooters. Young people also zipped by, some holding the hands of their friends on bicycles to tow them alongside. Out on the wide rice fields, water buffalo and cattle grazed, a group herded by women along a railway line. The bonfire scent of burning crops and the oily taste of exhaust fumes faintly filtering through the bus' air vents.

    Large advertisements invited motorists to stop for steamed rice, noodle soup and other local staples but when we attempted an ad hoc lunch stop even Alex’s low standards were put to the test. Food waste, used napkins and empty drink cans littered the floor whilst flies hungrily patrolled over the stained tables. The air smelt of fat and the owner gave us an unwelcoming look before we turned to leave for another restaurant. Wu was apologetic and explained that there were limited options along our route for eating.

    Later we reflected with our fellow travellers on the apology and the true feelings behind it (there was interesting but unintelligible interaction between Wu and the owner as we left). Whilst we could have asked Wu about this we have found that his unswerving devotion to customer service means that keeping us 'happy' can prevent an honest answer.

    By the time we arrived in Tam Co, the sun was setting over the limestone mountains that have led the area to being described as ‘the Ha Long Bay on land’. We were thirsty, hungry and tired so when Wu suggested we drove back out of town to eat dinner at a ‘local trucker’s stop’, we were less than enthusiastic, particularly after our experience at lunch. Arriving by taxi on a dark road lined with small eateries, where diners ate at small plastic stools under harsh fluorescent lighting, our expectations dropped further. However to our shame and Wu’s credit, the meal of egg and tomato broth, fried spinach, fried chicken with ginger and omelette served with steamed rice was filling and enjoyable.

    In the end, it was an example that, just as with anywhere in the world and whatever the cuisine, there are good, bad and down-right dirty restaurants. Satisfied we returned to our hostel, grateful for full stomachs and the knowledge that we were now only 100km from Hanoi.
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    Carol Stringer

    Recycling Vietnam style

    Kerry March

    Poor u hungry and tired I'm very grumpy with that combo lol x

  • Day169

    Phong Nha-Ke Bang NP

    October 5, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Eager to avoid forecasted rain we headed out early for the Thien Duong Cave, the already hot sun flittering between white clouds. After a 50 minute drive, we took a 1km hike along a rainforest pathway, where huge red ants marched purposefully past our eye line and other insects buzzed unseen behind walls of green. Climbing 500 steps, the humidity clawed at our skin as we rose above the tree line and came before the mouth of the cave. A cool breeze emanated from its small black space to kiss our faces, giving no indication of the enormity held within. Thien Duong is nearly 33km in length and filled with stadium spaces but without direction you could easily by-pass the unremarkable entrance. The cave was only located in 2005, by a local collecting firewood, but even then they could not have had any true comprehension of its extent until British explorers later examined it in full.

    Tentatively we descended the damp wooden steps, ducking under an overhanging rock to leave daylight behind. We moved out into the black void before our eyes adjusted to the floodlights illuminating the switchback staircase and colossal cavern before us. The ceiling roared overheard and the floor fell away as we shrank deeper and deeper into its depths. Down on the floor we followed the walkway through vast spaces were multitudes of limestone stalagmites and stalactites rose and fell as if to meet each other. Terraces of glass water gave mirror images of the formations above them and shades of ice, rust and granite melted over each other in the ghostly halo of the floodlights.

    Whilst our experience of the Kong Lor Cave in Laos, with the boat ride through its 7km haunting darkness had been fascinating, the walkway and lighting at Thien Duong allowed us gain a greater sense of both its scale and detail. That said, there was a moment when the power abruptly cut out and we were plunged into utter darkness for a long minute. Nevertheless despite this and whilst it was only possible to explore 1km into Thien Duong, it was a breath-taking experience and a highlight of our Vietnam adventure so far.

    Making it back to the hostel and no rain yet on the horizon we dined on large fresh spring rolls and salad before taking a relaxing plunge in the warm waters of the swimming pool. Unfortunately dark clouds quickly gathered soon after and thunder and lightning drove us into the shelter of our bedroom. Listening to the rain tap against the windows we basked in the memories of a brilliant adventure.
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    Carol Stringer

    Fantastic but not for the faint hearted ie. ME!

  • Day168

    Stray - Hue to Phong Nha-Ke Bang NP

    October 4, 2015 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 11 °C

    Onward and northward we climbed up Vietnam's spine, passing through the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) that divided the north and south of the country during the Vietnam War. Over the Ben Hai River, which complimented this political map, both sides fired bullets, bombs and propaganda at each other. Wu described how the river had run pink with the blood of the casualties, however it was now slate grey, mirroring the sullen skies and showing no signs of its bloody history.

    During the war, the Americans' aim had been to drive the inhabitants and Viet Cong away from the northern side of the river and its surrounding area. Between 1966 and 1972 they dropped 9000 tons of bombs, enough for 7 tons of bomb per inhabitant. The ground was still littered with bomb craters and some of the enormous shell casings were displayed, slowly rusting away but still bearing the hallmarks of their owner. Yet despite this frightening display of wanton destruction it was unsuccessful as a strategy.

    Rather than give ground to the Americans, the inhabitants constructed the Vinh Moc tunnel system to shelter from the rain of heavy munitions. Using only hand tools the tunnels were completed over a period of approximately 20 months from 1966. Initially digging down to a depth of 10 metres, until the Americans began dropping bombs that could burrow to this depth, the tunnels eventually went as deep as 30 metres. The tunnels housed approximately 60 families and included wells, kitchens, bedrooms and even a maternity room, where 17 children were born over the course of the tunnels' use.

    Crouching our shoulders to fit through the narrow tunnels we descended to 13-14 metres underground into the complex. Fortunately our way was lit by electric lighting, something the inhabitants would not have had the luxury of at the time. Cool damp air filled our lungs and our eyes squinted in the dim light as the shuffle of our feet echoed up from the floor. We past crevices dug out of the walls, large enough to crawl into and sit, which had rooms for people and supplies. Other openings veered downwards into deeper sections, where the inhabitants would shelter during bombings. Clambering further through the twisting maze of passages we ascended back out to the surface, where the air was thick with humidity and the daylight temporarily blinded us.

    Back on the bus we moved further north, we eventually stopping for the day beside the Dong Suon Lake, within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Eating dinner on the hostel's veranda, which overlooked the lake's still waters, we contemplated the incredible feat of the tunnels whilst looking forward to another subterranean world to come, the Thien Duong Cave.
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