29 November 2008

Compact Flash - Help!

Because of the virus ridden state of the PCs out here we dare not plug my camera in to get any pictures off. Liz's camera uses SD cards which have a write protect switch. Does anyoe out there know if it's possible to write protet a compact flash card? Either by modifying a USB lead or is there an download I can install on the card? Any help would be much appreciated!

The perils of forgetting which day of the week it is

On our second day in Ninh Binh our driver took us to the Cuc Phuong National Park. Established in 1962, Cuc Phuong is the oldest national park in Vietnam. Covered in a dense forest it forms a habitat for some of Asia's rarest species. First we went to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. The EPRC is home to more than 140 primates including six species which are kept only at the EPRC and in no other facility in the world. Other than the captively bred primates, all of the animals at the EPRC are victims of poaching and the illegal animal trade. The animals are confiscated in cooperation with Vietnam’s forest protection authorities all over the country. More than 50 infants have been born. My favourite monkey was the red-shanked Duoc langur which name translates to monkey wearing red shorts! We couldn't get close enough for pictures but found this one on the internet, what a handsome fellow!

After the monkeys it was off for a but of trekking. We were thinking this would be a back to nature experience in a remote Vietnamese National Park. Apparently on a weekday it would have been but as it was Saturday, which we had forgotten, the trail route was full of screaming, shouting and giggling tour groups of teenagers who all wanted to shout hello at us, that was when they weren't busy smoking, dropping litter and playing loud music on their mobile phones!

However they only went as far as half the trek to the 1000 year old tree and we had the last hour of the trek in peace and the forest was very beautiful. Si decided he wanted to take an arty shot of me in some long grass. I wasn't too keen as there were a lot of insects about and I was concerned there might be snakes too. 'Of course there isn't any snakes' stated Si, and complained that I looked a bit scared on his picture. The next info board we came to, only a few meters away, did indeed warn of several types of poisonous snakes found all over the park! I think I'd better be a bit wary of that husband of mine!

Same same but different!

Yesterday, Friday, we headed from Hanoi to Ninh Binh on the train. Ninh Binh itself doesn't have much to see but is very handy as a base for several day trips. The two and a half hour tain journey was quite noisy and ended with a woman trying to set up her bed on my feet! Luckily we weren't staying on for entire journey which would have been 41 hours to Saigon. We found a really good hotel in Ninh Binh called the Thanh Thuy and they quickly sorted us out with a great room and a car and driver for the trips we wanted to do. First we headed off to Tam Coc. Rather like Halong Bay, it features huge rock formations jutting out of the rice paddies rather than the sea, and the scenery is just as breathtaking. Tam Coc means three caves. You get to these by rowboat and luckily you don't have to row yourself as the lady rowers will take you on the trip for two hours with two people in each boat for just 5 pounds. They can also rather cleverly row with their feet or their arms, I don't think I could ever be that co-ordinated! The two hour journey was fantastic, the river was really calm, it was pretty much silent (a great break from the incessant honky horns!) and the scenery was stunning.

After this our driver took us to Bich Dong Pagoda which was a temple set up in the limestone peaks. To end the afternoon he took us to the Mua Cave. While rowing we had seen a carved dragon and temple on top of a huge peak, and this is where we were heading. After a particularly steep climb, and much panting and puffing on my part, we reached the top and the view back down over the limestone peaks and rice paddies was amazing.

The journey back to Ninh Binh was also very scenic as it was rural, so we saw people working by hand in the rice paddies and lots of cows, water buffaloes, chicken, ducks and geese, which all needed to be dodged by our driver! We ended the day with a nice Vietnamese meal washed down with some local rice wine which I think is an acquired taste!

27 November 2008


Our camera memory cards have been attacked by a computer virus. We've manged to save the pictures on Liz's. Mine is currently under repair. Lets hope it's salvageable!

No Photos

Sorry folks we're having a few problems posting pictures at the moment. We'll try and update the posts when the issues are resolved!

Sapa to Hanoi

The trip back to Hanoi was even longer than the trip there . . . a mere thirteen and a half hours door to door.

The bus driver from Sapa to the train station in Lao Cai was considerably better than the one there, as he only tried to kill us three times. Twice by nearly plowing into herds of water buffalo that had wondered into the road, and once by repeatedly trying to overtake a truck through a series of blind hairpin bends! Even the locals looked relived when we made it to the train station in one piece! And of course, because this time the route was all down hill the journey was taken at a considerably higher speed than previously. That combined with the twistyness of the roads led to one poor local women heaving her breakfast back up. It's a good job she was sat by the window because the driver didn't offer to stop or even slow down.

This time we caught the morning train at half past nine which allowed us to see some of the beautiful scenery we had missed on the way there on the sleeper. The scenery was great, rugged mountains in the background with rice paddies and the Red River in the foreground. It's always really interesting traveling by train abroad and seeing how different it is to back home. Doing a bit of people watching and trying to work out whats going on. It always seems more buzzy what with the vendors working their way up and down the train. Selling all sorts of stuff from crisps and chocolate to a go on a pipe! I can't remember the last time you could buy a new watch or a four inch hunting knife on a British Rail train.

The people here always seem far more friendly than the average train traveler back home. If you find yourself sat opposite a local it wont be long before they strike up a conversation to find out about who you are, where you are from and what you do. When the conversation turns to football, which it often does, they really know their stuff. Although rather strangely none of them are Wolves fans!

One poor guy from Sweden on the seat behind us was sat next to a couple of Vietnamese businessmen who had brought two bottles of vodka onto the train and were having a drinking competition. Their hospitality meant that he had to join in and was only able to escape a couple of hours later when they both passed out! I like a drink as much as the next man but a neat vodka marathon at half nine in the morning is even a bit much for me.

We made it back into Hanoi for nine in the evening and checked back into our quiet fifth floor room at North Hotel No2 where we had stayed last time. Then we headed of out for dinner at a rather unusual restaurant called Cyclo, where all the chairs are made from the passenger seats of Vietnamese cyclo bikes. It was fun but unfortunately it looked a little like we were dining from wheelchairs

Shivering in Sapa

We've had a great couple of days in Sapa, but it's been bloomin' cold! Due to it's elevation (over 1600 meters above sea level) and location in the Hoang Lien mountain range it is often shrouded in mist and fog. Unfortunately for us we were visiting during off-season when the weather is at it's coldest.

Being as everywhere else we're going to (apart from Nepal and Tibet at the end) should be hot we have only really packed warm weather clothes. This has resulted in us wearing most of the contents of our backpacks at the same time. Liz has even had to go out to buy a fleece. Even worse though is the ultimate fashion no-no that she has committed . . . wearing socks with her traveler sandals!

The town of Sapa is a bit of an odd place and I didn't really like it to start with. I think I was expecting it to be more in the French colonial style, when really the style is a bit of an ugly mish-mash. That coupled with the cloud, fog and cold weather put me in the wrong frame of mind about the place. However, once I had acclimatised after the first day it was all good and I began to enjoy the place.

The views from the edge of town to the mountains and valley below are really spectacular. Towering above Sapa and the valley is Fansipan the highest mountain in Vietnam. Apart from the views the other thing that gives the town something a little different is the people from the H'mong and Dzao hill tribes who come into town to run the market and sell (hawk!) their traditional wares to the tourists.

Whilst we have been here we've had a couple of trips out. The first was what Liz would like to describe as a "trek" to the H'mong village of Cat Cat, which is 3km away down the valley. I personally wouldn't call a half hour walk a "trek". Looks I might have a little trouble talking her into the 14 day trek to Everest base camp that Jeroen and Judith did in Nepal.

Life for the villagers of the hill tribes looks really tough. In Cat Cat everyone was living in little huts, either farming the land, without the use of any agricultural machinery, or making items to sell to tourists. Neither of these activities generates much money and on the whole they are incredibly poor. Down in the village the only brick building is an old disused French power station which has been converted into a cultural center where they put on traditional shows.

Whilst on the walk, as well as soaking up the scenery and seeing life in the village we also got to see some of the local animals and wildlife.

The other trip we made was a ride out in an old Russian army jeep to Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) and the Tram Ton Pass. The Pass, at 1900 meters, is the highest road in Vietnam and the trip along it was certainly something of an experience. Thank god that our driver was more sane than the bus driver from Lao Cai. The road in places is so bad that it was smoother going off road!

Despite the coldness of Sapa there is only one hotel in town with central heating, the four star Victoria. As you may have guessed our backpacker budget would not strech to such luxuries. Although we did spend a couple of afternoons making the most of their very nice centrally heated bar, free board games and pool table!

Back at the Cat Cat View the heating in our room was provided by an open fire, which gave me plenty of opportunity to earn man points and prove my Ray Mears survival skills!

24 November 2008

Hanoi to Sapa

Sapa is an old hill station close to the Chinese border up in the mountains of Northwest Vietnam. It is renown for spectacular scenery, treking and the local hill tribes. Getting to Sapa is an adventure in itself. Although its only about 380km from Hanoi the journey took us about eleven hours.

The first stage was a nine and a half hour overnight sleeper train for the town of Lao Cai, which left Hanoi at 10:05 on Saturday evening. We took what is known as a hard sleeper carriage. The carriages are arranged like you see in the old films, with a narrow corridor down one side with rooms on the other. The rooms on the hard sleeper hold six beds, in two banks three. Liz had great difficulty getting into her mid level bunk, much to the amusement of the four locals who were sharing our room.

Most Westerners take one of the earlier trains which have the more luxurious soft sleeper carriage, so there were a few raised eyebrows to see us there. The train was really comfortable and we slept virtually all of the way there.

Apart from Liz not being able to get into her bed the only other difficult bit was the toilet, which was a Asian squat style one rather than a Western throne. Using it was incredibly difficult on a train that rocked like a galloping horse!

Being as we were the only Westerners on the train every hawker, taxi driver and tout made a bee line for us as soon as we had pulled into Lao Cai on Sunday morning. The first couple had even made it to us before we had chance to get off the train! Thankfully we had booked a ride through the Cat Cat View Hotel where we were staying in Sapa.

The drive from Lao Cai to Sapa is 38km which is all up really steep hair pin bend hill roads. As is the way in these parts, if you can travel marginally faster than the vehicle in front then you must overtake it. Irrespective of how much road this takes and many blind hair pin corners are ahead of you. This is either . . .

a) really exciting, or
b) buttock clenchingly scary.

Sapa bus drivers and anyone else answering a) should seek the help of a psychologist.

There were several occasions when motorbikes coming the other way had to take evasive action and swerve onto the grass bank that seperated the road from the rice terraces below. We were both concerned about what would happen if something larger than a motorbike came the other way whilst we were doing some insane overtaking manover. Thankfully we didn't get the opportunity to find out and made it to Sapa in one piece

Bac Ho

On Saturday we made our way over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Ho Chi Minh is not the real name of the former leader but means Bringer of Light in Vietnamese. His real name is Nguyen Tat Thanh but is more affectionatly known as Bac Ho, Uncle Ho to you and me.

Despite the fact that Bac Ho had requested he was cremated, his body, like many other communist leaders is now on display. This is a place of great importance and pilgrimage for many Vietnamese and is absolutely crawling with military personel.

Unfortunately for us the actual Mausoleum is closed during the months of September to December because Uncle Ho has to go to Russia for maintenance! Whilst we were there we also got to see the Presidential Palace and the old Vietnamese stilt house where Uncle Ho used to live.
We also made a visit to the Temple of Literature, which is the site of Vietnam's first University founded in the 11th century to educate the Mandarins. It's a really beautiful collection of traditional Vietnamese buildings.

As we made our way back into the Old Quarter we stumbled across the rather strange museum that is the Army Museum. It's displays seemed to mainly consist of bits of American hardware that had been shot by the Viet Cong!

We finished the day at a fantastic tapas restaurant called La Salsa. We've promised ourselves that we'll go back there when we return to Hanoi at the end of the week.

A bad burger and a rusty football

We returned to Hanoi from Halong Bay late Friday afternoon and checked into the North Hotel No2. It's barely fifty meters from the Phu Vinh where we stayed a few days ago but it's much quieter as it's a little further from the road on a pedestrianised street.

Since we left Augusters in Macau the rooms have been getting cheaper but better. This time for just under a tenner a night we have a quiet fifth floor room with a private bathroom, hot water, air con, fan, fridge and cable TV. We now also have the added luxury of furniture other than the bed; things such as chairs, a table and a wardrobe. I never thought I would find the sight of furniture so exciting!

All of the food we've had since leaving the UK three weeks ago has been fantastic, not one bad meal. All that changed on Friday night.

Whilst we had been on the Halong Bay trip we had only eaten Vietnamese food, mainly noodle based stuff. Although it was all really tasty I was looking forward to having something more solid that I could get my teeth stuck into. It's not very often that I have a craving for a burger but tonight was that night.

We ended up at a cafe/restaurant in the old town that shall remain nameless (to protect the guilty) and found ourselves a nice seat on an upstairs balcony overlooking the street. We thought we would treat ourselves and have a bottle of white wine, which when it arrived was so hot you could have made a cup of tea with the contents. Not the best of starts. It didn't get any better when the burger arrived. Well, some people may have called it a burger but technically it was so thin it was more of a meat venere. Oh, and when a menu says burger and chips the word chips is plural!

After the calamity that was dinner I needed another drink to cheer me up (and to help me forget how awful the meal was). We found ourselves in a little pub called The Polite Pub where in the corner was what we have now identified is the worlds worst table football table. The unoffical rules of table football state "and thus there shall be no spinning". Well the bars holding the players were so rusty that even Arnold Schwartzenegger in his prime would not have been able to spin the men on this table. We barely had enough strenght to move the players side to side let alone turn them with enough force to actually kick the ball. The situation was also hindered somewhat by the fact that the table sloped by about fifteen degrees to the one side. This resulted in the ball spending most of its time up against the edge out of reach of the players feet.

22 November 2008

So Long Halong

On Thursday we made the trip out to Halong Bay which is on the North Eastern coastline of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, about 60 miles South of the Chinese boarder. The bay contains more than 3000 limestone islands and is also home to the legendary Tarasque, Vietnam's equivalent to the Loch Ness Monster. The bay is renown as one of the natural wonders of Vietnam. The trip out to the bay from Hanoi took about three and a half hours by coach. From there we transferred onto a converted rice junk which would be our home for the next 2 days.

We spent most of the time just sailing around the bay, looking at the beautiful scenery whilst sipping cold beer and exchanging travel tips and stories with the other people on the boat. We also had a couple of stop offs to explore some limestone grottoes and to go sea kayaking.

The scenery was really beautiful but it was a real shame that the weather took a turn for the worse on the second day as the mist descended. It was still a great trip though and a much more tranquil couple of days after the chaos and horns of Hanoi.

We're not big fans of going on organised tours and always try to avoid them wherever possible. However; the guide books advise against doing this trip independently due to the hassle factor plus the tours are no more expensive.

There are two main reasons for our dislike of tours. The first is that you can't take things at your own pace or divert from the plan if you see something else of interest on the way. The other reason is that you can sometimes end up spending a lot of time with people you don't actually like!

This time though we had some great company, particularly a young couple called Jeroen and Judith from Holland (or was it the Netherlands?!?). They were great fun and taught us how to play a bizarre card game called cow trading. I wont go into the technicalities of cow trading but we were all soundly beaten by a couple of girls from Israel. We then played an Israeli card game called Janiv, which I was also quite hopeless at and managed to loose by some margin.

Jeroen and Judith are spending 6 months traveling through Asia before going to South America for 6 months. Their friends and Family will be flying out to Costa Rica in February 2009 for their wedding. We wish them all the best. Their blog can be found at the following link . However; I think most people reading this, myself included, will need a little assistance from Google Translate or Babel Fish.

Although we didn't see the legendary Tarasque on our visit tp Halong Bay we did see the very rare sight of the much fabled Vietnamese cave penquin!