Rainy days

Our next stop up the coast has been Quy Nhon. This is not on the usual tourist routes as the open route buses do not stop there, and whilst the Saigon-Hanoi train does stop its rarely visited. That in itself seemed like a perfect reason to go, and to break up the journey between Nha Trang and Hoi An.

We had to catch a local style bus from Nha Trang which took 5 hours. The entire journey was a game of chicken, with at points 3 or 4 trucks filling the width of the 2 lane road. Both of our drivers, they changed half way, were mad. Seems to be a running theme,taxi drivers and bus drivers all having death wishes. We think it might be a macho thing, there seems no other reason. There was another western couple and ourselves, we were all relieved to get there.

Quy Nhon has a great long beach, as good as Nha Trang, and thunderous waves crash into the sand. Our hotel was right on the beach and the noise was impressive. Out at sea a whole city of lights appears at dusk with the huge numbers of fishing boats on the horizon.

There are not many tourists here and you do get looked at a fair bit. Getting around you might as well ignore the LP as it is totally out of date. One of the entries only existed for 6 months back in 2008 according to Barbara who ran one of the places which is in the guide and does exist. We had some good local beer and some pasta at her place, along with her getting interrogated on lots of things by us, sorry Barbara.

We had two meals at a random place called Bon Thit Nuong in town mentioned in Trip Advisor. Great food and service although we needed a local to guide us on how to eat some of it. There was no menu, just meat or vegetables with cold noodles or rice. It was pretty basic and very cheap. A starter of sorts, two meals and 2 beers came to 1.50 pounds between us.

During the day we went for a long hike around the city to see the sights and ended up seeing three funerals. Normally this would be odd thing to do I admit, but here they are spectacles in themselves and you cant really avoid them. Much like us you get what you pay for and we saw three different ones of varying expense. The grandest was almost like an episode of Monkey, a man dressed as a pig fake fighting a painted masked man with a stick, playing out the theatre on the street with a supporting cast of 20 odd people, and a clearly very important group of Buddhist monks providing the key words. It went on for an hour on the street and in the house with fairly incessant music and drumming. Then a band strikes up which is quite Mardi Gras and they all get in trucks, vehicles and coaches and go off for the burial. The whole neighborhood turned out to watch and were encouraging us for the best vantage points. The best bit was at the end when another funeral procession then collided with the one we were watching and the street turned into complete chaos, even the locals were laughing.

We found out later that the bits we were seeing were actually the end of the process. Five days of music and other traditions happen prior to this stage, not always good if you are a neighbour. In our hotel later the party continued as a large group from the funeral were singing karaoke and consuming a few beers. Turns out the funeral was for somebody from Vietnam Bank, so I guess bankers are liked somewhere.

The only disappointment has been the weather as its been stormy and on off rain. Such a shame as the beach would have been stunning in the sun. Regardless of the weather we really liked the place, and its worth getting off the trail to see it.

A room with a view

Nha Trang had not been given much of a billing to us, people we have met have said the sea was dirty, the sex industry was rife and there was one good place to spend the day. So those thoughts, combined with it being Valentines day and our recent luck of places to stay, convinced us to relatively splash out. So we booked a room at the Sheraton,which was doing a 3 nights for 2 deal. When we arrived we got upgraded to a sea front executive suite which was stunning, combined with free drinks and food in the club lounge made it an excellent relaxing 3 nights.
The first benefit was that you can see the whole coastline from the hotel and it is a lovely long sandy beach, with gardens and palm trees, with the road behind it. Similarities with Miami or Venice beaches sprung to mind. However the sea looks murky, maybe dirty, and we did not swim in it and many people chose not to from what we could see.
There is a great selection of bars, resturants and travel shops further down which helped us both with food and our onwards bus and train tickets.
As for the sex industry, we didn’t see much to be fair. There certainly seemed to be a number of candidate couples to paraphrase Mrs Merton, ‘what did you see in the overweight rich eastern european’. Although there were a number of clubs and bars which might have fitted the bill, but we didn’t visit them.

There are a lot of Russians in Nha Trang, and a number of shops catered directly to them. Our hotel had a conference, which I think was Russian or Baltic car dealers, and pretty much all of them seemed to follow the dress code out of the film Fargo, including some quality 70’s footware.

We rented a motorbike, which was not the most manly bike I have ridden, and went further up the coast, and the quality beaches and views continued. They seem to have a master plan for development but they are playing the long game. The gardens, beaches and layout are all in place, just no hotels as yet.

Overall we liked the place, although it was probably biased somewhat from the hotel.

The long and winding road

We took a bus from Dalat to Nha Trang, a short ride of 4 and a bit hours over some of the most stunning scenery we have seen so far. The bus, a very bashed up sleeper bus, wound its way up very slowly through the clouds and back down to the coast. We have found that we are going the opposite way to most travellers so the transport can be a little hit and miss, but the advantage is it can be quieter. Our bus was about half full, and because it was old it did have sliding windows which was good because from my ‘bed’ we could take pictures. Not possible really from the newer sealed buses.

On the west side of the hills, there were vast tracks of deforested land that had largely been turned into arable land. It was not a great sight to see, and the clear upshot of this process is the land slips. Once over the cloudy top which seemed to take ages to reach, the land then turned into full jungle which went for as far as you can see. As the land flattened out it became paddy fields with stunning mountain backdrops.

Of course its a Vietnam main road which meant that for large portions of it the road did not exist, was broken, was being built or just was plain scary. Our bus driver managed to truly multi-task by smoking, being on the phone and pretending to drive at the same time. Just what you need with a 500ft ravine a few feet away.

Easy Riding

Dalat, le Petit Paris, honeymoon capital, vegetable paradise and motorbike heaven. Now not sure why Paris other than the mini Eiffel tower and a few french style buildings but the rest is true. Set up in the hills surrounded by stunning countryside its much cooler which is a welcome break. Surrounding Dalat there are huge plantations of every conceivable vegetable, and lots of flowers as the soil is so good. In the city centre there is a market where some of the produce is sold, but most gets shipped all over Vietnam. The usual barmy collection of loaded up scooters carrying all their goods, women carrying cooking facilities, and lots of Vietnamese tourists fill the market amusing colour and odd looking food.

We were only here for two days so our first aim was to sort out an easy rider to take us out into the country. Easy riders are bikers generally with old (or very old) proper motorbikes who you pillion with and act as guides. However we wanted to ride ourselves, nothing like cruising around the hills bugs in your face. We picked, or should i say they picked us ambling along looking lost, a tour from the Easy Rider club next to the Peace cafe. Our rider and guide Kim sorted out a route and another bike for us for an early start the next day. We ate at the book recommended Da Quy where we practically devoured a small farms worth of great vegetables and surprisingly good Dalat local red wine. On our return to our hotel a show was going on in the theatre in the town centre which we were encouraged to go into, it was being televised and a man in a very shiny suit introduced a variety of singers and dancers, including a cracking we love Vietnam show piece, which had something to do with china and a huge flag unveiling at the end. Outside amongst the crowds kids were jumping skateboards and the worlds worse Michael Jackson dancer was trying hard.

After a fairly horrendous nights sleep (more of that later) we met Kim in the morning,there were two bikes to pick from. A Honda cruiser with a slightly better engine than the 125 badged on the side and upgraded seats, and a Chinese badged something cruiser. The latter had a better engine and a very easy clutch, but the seat won. I rode both around the town first to test which was a little hairy. Then without further ado Kim leads us off. We were a little worried about it being a tourist trap as there were lots of stops but every stop was interesting and Kim was an excellent guide. We stopped at a flower farm, saw some cracking vegetable farms, coffee plantations, an impressive happy Buddha, a silk factory which was bizarre and using 200 year old machines, the Elephant water falls, a rice wine and weasel coffee shop( coffee bean eaten by weasel,then you drink it post exit..). We stopped at probably the dingiest and fly ridden ‘restaurant’ yet seen for lunch for Pho, we are still alive 2 days later so it was ok. In between we rode some amazing roads and the scenery was stunning. The seat kept us fine, the engine wasn’t quite my 1000cc Ducati but managed just about. Around 70km round trip later we arrived back, worn out and shared a very welcome cold beer. Lots of graffiti on the walls say thank you and talk about how friendly they are. We totally agree, a great day.

Now usually you get undressed for bed, in our case after waking up itching all over on our first night we put clothes on. We are not sure if it was the washing powder, something in the bed, or something in the air but after the first night we were taking no chances. Thankfully, we still had thermals with us so we were completely covered up for the second night and slept better. We stayed at the Dalat Plaza, room 303. It was also very noisy from the road, and the light in the bathroom was so dim that it was helpful to have a torch.

We booked an onwards bus to Nha Trang.

Room number 21

Our 4 night stay at Nhat Lan on Phu Quoc is finished and we move back to Saigon, next stop Dalat.
Our experience of the island has been pretty good. It’s still an underdeveloped tourist location and none of the big chains are here which is good, until they sort out the roads that’s likely to stay the same. The beaches are good sometimes picture postcard like, some have way to much rubbish on them and as far as we can tell that it is coming from the locals, not tourists. Most of the place is National park which is definitely helping keep the development down. We rode pretty much all round the island and there are pockets of real poverty, especially where there is little or no development, but it has great scenery and is still pretty cheap.

definitely worth a visit to see it. When the roads and airport get developed it will take off and never be the same.

We wrote that our hotel was good value a few blogs ago. After 4 nights it is difficult to say that now in comparison to other places, as we didn’t move. However we would not stay in hut number 21 again for sure, and probably not in the hotel either. This is a tropical island so wildlife is expected, especially rats. There are lots of them everywhere, thats ok, it’s expected. It could be less if the island cleared up its rubbish, or even if the hotels cleared up the rubbish immediately outside their spot.
So.. Hut 21 had rats running over the roof and up the outside walls, so not ideal and they make a racket at night. The cute house puppy dogs running around the beach managed to catch a rat in the beach kitchen. The for all pretenses outside bathroom was a wet room with a hand held shower, the waste was blocked so we had a small swimming pool when you used it. The room had one light, a nice flourescent, and one fan which didnt stand up straight. They never changed the sheets, or towels, or cleaned the bathroom. The reception had one person that could speak any other language. There was wasn’t enough cushions for the few beach chairs that existed, and no bins to put rubbish in, or enough people cleaning up afterwards.
But, the hotel does have probably the best bit of beach, the sea is clean, calm and warm, fish jump out of the water which is a great sight. It has an eclectic and generally very friendly group of people staying from everywhere in the world and not all the huts were like ours, some are right on the beach. It also has rooms in the main block which some adventurous families stayed in.

We rented our scooter from outside the hotel just up on the left past the veranda entrance. They actually gave us a card and said we could call them in event of breakdown which surprisingly is not normal. They were recommended to us, they only do motorbikes. We had to show no id, deposit or passport to get a motorbike. This seems to normal here and 5 dollars a day is standard. Riding here outside of the tarmac’d roads is a little hairy, we saw more than a few tourists with bandages or worse.

We had food one night at Modo which was very good if pricier than the usual, it does great tapas and had decent wine. The chocolate cake there might be the best in the world, a big statement to make but we have never had better. It’s on the main road run by a Swedish couple.

For amusement we went to Amigos and played pool, Yul Brynner was actually playing keyboards/guitar and singing with a couple of matching front singers. It was so bad it was great.

After a night in Saigon we have moved onto Dalat.

On a road to nowhere

We rented a couple of scooters (5 dollars a day) and set out to explore the northern beaches, it turned into a bit of an adventure.

We are staying in Long beach located on the west of Pho Quoc. The northern end of what is a pretty decent sized island is largely national park and we wanted to see the forest as well as the beaches of Bai Dai and Bai Thom. Until relatively recently many of the beaches have been inaccessible due to military installations, and some still are. Pho Quoc is claimed by Cambodia and was given to the Vietnamese via the French annexation of the Mekong delta in 1949, hence the previous military presence.

Of course we got lost on the way to Bai Dai probably around the time the roads literally turned to dust. Some enterprising kids however decided to take us to where we ‘needed’ to go. Fair to say our scooters were not designed to actually ride through partial jungle. A slightly nervous 20 odd minutes later we were back on tarmac, with the growing collection of local kids now all wanting payment for their good work. Clearly sharing money out is not kid etiquette here or probably anywhere.
We did, we think, find the beach or something near to it. We stopped and had a beer at the Mango bay hotel, secluded and definitely more upmarket than ours. Not a bad beach, but you are in the middle of nowhere in this part of the island.

From here we decided to go to the north-east to Bai Thom which was probably another 30km. All the way from the airport to the north-east they have been building a new road. The problem is that they haven’t actually finished it. Dual carriageway (why?) most of the way, but one side is partly finished or the other side is, you have to keep swapping sides, sometimes it’s not clear which side to be on which is a little disconcerting. Then large portions of it are not finished at all and are pretty hairy to ride on as it is large shingle or just small rocks. Then there is the sections which have nothing on but dirt. Comforting for those stuck in road works in the UK, nothing of course is happening or being built. Between the sections are ramps, dips, holes and potholes. Adding to the fun are cows which wander across the road, and dogs which play chicken with you. It is not a good choice for newbie motorbike riders.

Eventually we made it to the north and after a couple of false starts of local rubbish strewn beaches we found our destination. On a clean beach in a warm lagoon we had a great lunch of local grilled squid, and a lukewarm beer. It was truly was what we were looking for, the food was great and so was the service in what was basically a brick shack on the beach. At some point they might finish the road and when they do this area will change radically as it gets built up. After a swim and a great local coffee we ventured back.

We finished the day very late playing pool with some locals but suffering from very badly bruised bodies from the ride. We had been totally covered in dust, sand and a fair smattering of bugs but it was worth the trip.

Super Dong

Our guide dropped us off at the bus station in Can Tho, as we were to take a bus to Rach Gia to catch a ferry to the island of Pho Quoc. The station was as expected chaotic and a little over staffed. Why have a booking computer when you can have 8 air hostess dressed young ladies shuffling paper?. Eventually we did get on our bus which was sparkly new, but had leg room suitable for 5ft high locals. A very bumpy uncomfortable 3 hours later we arrive at Rach Gia. Not the prettiest place you might want to visit, and neither was our hotel. Stuck out on way from the ferry we were met with almost total silence except for a grunt of passport, thud of keys on the counter and a point at the lift. Dino had a ‘nice’ collection of wild life in his room, we had a view of the sewage works out the back.
At some point in the future KT and I might get a new bathroom and get those London underground map tiles on the walls. However this hotel had its own tiling theme of bikini clad women from probably the 80’s, in both our rooms. It was a lovely touch.
The current lonely planet is from 2009 and out of date (why don’t they release an electronic subscription and download for phones and tablets?), so finding food was tricky but in the end we picked a bright looking local place and had some good fish and noodles.

The ferry is entertainingly called Super Dong and is pretty fast, the 120k to the island goes past in a few hours. The outside space at the back has some pretty low safety rails on it, the inside showed some ripped dvd movies. Arrival at the island we jumped in a cab to our booked hotel and Dino came along to see if there was space. The roads on Pho Quoc are pretty awful, dirt tracks and loose gravel is common and the cab was infested with mossies, which to the entertainment of the driver watching our attempt to swot them all. Arrival at our place and it looked good, no space for Dino though. No panic need somewhere to stay jump in a cab and they know who has space. Dino drives away, i pull out my booking only to realise we are a month early. No panic, call a taxi. We ended up in beach bungalows in neighbouring hotels at the end of Long Beach, ours was called Nhat Lan. The bonus is it was 30 dollars a night, almost half the other one and on a better quieter part of the beach, the downside it was more basic. Its fine and good value.

What more do you need, a lovely beach, palm trees, warm sea and a cold beer.

Snake wine, a cure for all ills

An early start on our trip down to the Mekong delta. There are 3 of us as we are joined by a well travelled Frenchman, Dino. The road for an hour or so is pretty good, almost freeway style, with two impressive bridges built by the Australians and Japanese. After that the good roads end, and its single carrageway and cars, lorries, buses and the usual thousands of scooters compete on a very bumpy road.

Then the 3 of us are transfered onto a boat large enough for the Queens upcoming Thames trip. First stop is a very touristy coconut sweet making place which looked good but tasted awful. Then onto a fruit farm which was considerably more interesting, especially the local shop which had some lovely fresh meat sitting in the sun. Back to the ocean liner we traveled for a few hours up the delta, with a cracking lunch and a great siesta.

The delta is huge, it starts in tibet and works its way via laos, china, cambodia and eventually vietnam, and is the lifeblood of all in its way,unless China builds too many dams. Considering how many people rely on it for food, sand and business the concept of looking after it has not become widespread. The number of boats dropping rubbish into it, along with all ‘houses’ emptying into it is pretty awful. There is a lot of rubbish, banks piled high with it. It does not look clean,but of course fish from it is the stable diet.

We then transferred to a small boat to go to our homestay, a sort of b&b. Basic but very welcoming. A large collection of various animals to keep us company, and of course an impressive array of mosquitos. A short cookery lession took place followed by a pretty good meal. Our early wakeup call from the roosters and something sounding like a cross between pig and a duck got us underway at 6am.

Next stop the floating markets, although it was difficult to tell if the market was for the locals or the large number of tourist boats. After clambering aboard one pineapple selling boat we moved on to a localhouse who was a friend of the guide.

Our guide for the 2 days was an interesting guy. He fought with the americans in the war as a southerner, then was put in camp for 2 years by the new communist government for re-education. Fair to say he was not the most pro-communist person,but the stories of corruption rang very similar to our China experience. An ideal political utopia neither country appears to be. His friend however was a 76 yo loon who specialised in snake wine. As it sounds, it is rice wine fermented with actual snakes. Famous for being the medicinal version of Viagra, there is a famous one called 5 Times. We had tried a couple of shots the previous night, but at 9am we were drinking a special brew of mushrooms, herbs, snakes and the rice wine. Its fair to say all 3 of us were pretty trippy at 9am. KT had a problem getting up. The guy looked like he had drank a lot of it.

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Heat Heat Heat

After China our arrival in Ho Chi Ming has been a welcome temperature change. From below zero to 35 deg. It feels great to be in a mad house asian city, and we have had a wacky start to our visit.
Why is it that taxi drivers like to put on a show for tourists. Ours from the airport was a complete loon. Saigon is a totally bonkers traffic city, thousands of scooters going in absolutely every direction, horns blaring all the time. But taxis think they are the kings and so they and buses are usually avoided by the scooters. Our one however was on a mission to knock a few thousand off regardless of the miniscule following of road rules. We were happy to arrive in one piece.

Our hotel is good pretty standard stuff in district 1, clean and very well located. We slept a full night for the first time since our trip started.

First day we took in the sights of the Ben Thanh Market and had some great pho noodles at Pho2000, famous for Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000. I think it was cleaner then… Actually having had some pho at Pho in london, the london version is pretty accurate which is a good compliment.
We then walked around for a few hours, and the usual mad dogs statement rings true. KT looked like she was cooking, so we went home and cooled down for a while. Its hot, and there are no complaints from us.
So we booked a massage, and not a dodgy one, at My Spa, which is listed top on trip advisor. Having had a few massages i can honestly say i have never had such a bonkers one. Not sure you could call it relaxing, but amusing it certainly was. Our two tiny Vietnamese ladies giggled away and seem to take great amusement in our squeals. Not sure i will ever have a more amusing sight or sound than KT lying flat on her front with her lady walking on her back.

We finished up watching the mayhem with a few lovely cold Saigon beers down in the backpacker district. The noise and view is intoxicating. Crossing roads is fun, it reminds us of dodgeball. If you can cross the road with 500 scooters, a few cars and a mad bus coming at you, you can cross any road. China fortunately gave us some practice, but its best just to start walking and don’t look, and definately do not hesitate.

We took another walk around to see the museum and ended up in the zoo. We dont really like zoo’s but there was some entertainment show on, so we thought it worth a look. Watching what must have been 4 year olds riding unicycles was certainly distracting. The grounds are very nice. Saigon is quite a green city, lots of trees, so different in terms of buildings, architecture and design than China. Oh and people smile at you, and its nice not to be stared at.

Kt went to a yoga class today at Soham yoga, whilst it wasn’t bickram yoga it certainly felt it. It was a good class and highly recommended to anyone in the area should they wish to practise their bendiness.

We move next down to the Mekong Delta and then onto Phu Quoc island for soe beach time ,we used Sinhbalo who were very good in sorting it all out,and also our flight out of Hanoi in March.

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Getting a Grip on Shanghai

As all the guide books tell you Shanghai is very different from the other cities in China. Yet it there are some common dominators; the panic on the metro, the designer shops and the awe of ginger.

We took in the Shanghai Museum and the Bund. The former was as you would expect, a homage to China with the built in challenge of finding the oldest artefact. The hands down winner was a 20,000 yr old pot, almost as old as our national treasure Bruce Forsyth.

The highlight was the propaganda poster museum which is situated in the basement of a block of flats in the French concession. The curator being a zealous man very keen to show you the anti truman/churchill posters. He clearly forgot the power of Wham in the 80s and their Foreign Skies tour, Andrew Ridgely’s guitar playing was enough to bring about a coup d’etat.

The bund is the riverfront with a few streets behind. You get the picture postcard view of the city and along the front are many historic buildings, behind are a number of old Shanghai streets. Tourists also took our photo, or I should say KT’s. We think it was the hat she was wearing but some Chinese family have a lovely holiday photo of KT and their son. I think they made a great couple.

Shanghai is pretty special, its huge at 20+ million people for a start, over half of which are classed as migrants. Never ending blocks of apartments fill the sky lines and countless skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes help fuel the Chinese miracle. Having visited Bangkok, Singapore and Kl it all felt a bit familar. More Asian than Singapore, not as hectic as Bangkok, but in many places you felt you could be anywhere in the world. Thats not to say we didn’t like it. The french quarter is tree lined and very pretty and the whole city is architectually full on.

In the end we wondered if all the posters in the museum, talking about beating the USA and Europe and how good the Chinese way is, were really ultimately a failure. Would Mao really have wanted shopping malls full of American and European brands, or god help us all Starbucks.

We retreated to our hotel URBN for free drinks. Shanghai’s first carbon neutral hotel. Every hour 4000 Toyota Prius drivers hold their breath for a minute to offset it. It is a very good boutique hotel and we would definately recommend it. However carbon neutral, maybe for a minute when it was built. Around the corner there is a reasonable and free for guests gym which we visited a couple of times. This too was carbon neutral supposedly. However that was so hot via air con that unless Wales is covered in new trees every other week its not going to offset anything ever.

Vietnam tomorrow, we can’t wait for the real heat.