Thursday, 31 May 2018

Vietnam: Hoi An

Arrived at the beautiful Palm Beach Resort a 20 minute drive from Hoi An.  The rooms are huge, with heavy wooden furniture, tiled floors and enormous bed, air conditioned.  Bathroom has giant stone bath with rainforest shower.  We had breakfast only here but it was a feast with a very extensive buffet offering European and Asian food.  They made me vegetarian asian crispy pancake rolls daily although there was always fish and meat versions available to help yourself to.  Fruit in abundance, rice, lentil curry, soups, steamed vegetables, cereals, breads and a variety of juices.  We didn't need lunch and ate dinners outside in local places

It's the only hotel I have ever stayed in where there is no shortage of sunbeds or towels and you can swim in the pool at night!

Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Site where part of the town is closed to traffic other than bicycles and rickshaws.  It is picturesque, colourful and very French/colonial.

A ticket can be purchased in town to access up to five of the many tourist attractions - the most popular being the Japanese bridge.  A £4 ticket gets you into 5 places of interest of your choice.  You could get by without the ticket but if you want to explore inside the ancient houses and temples (including a small one inside the famous Japanese bridge) it's great value.  The old houses are very dark inside but are designed around an open courtyard area where originally they would have cooked and relaxed.  We visited at night so I would recommend daytime visits if you want to see well and get good pictures.

If you order a meal in the smaller street bars, they will often bring it from somewhere else, it could be cooked in their home round the corner, in another bar, who knows! but it will arrive by moped in a pot balanced precariously and the driver will run in with the steaming pot straight to the kitchen, seconds later it's on your plate!  Pizza, curry, noodles, all delivered by moped to the kitchen.

The market sells fresh vegetables, fish and spices during the day then turns into a tourist/clothes and street food market at night.  There are plenty of places to eat or sit and drink beer all around the outskirts of the market which are nicer than the very cramped food areas inside.  This is where I tried some of the delicious food - the one below is an egg pancake with mashed banana inside and chocolate sauce over the top, chopped into squares and eaten with a stick.  It was hot, delicious and very filling.

pancake with mashed banana filling, hot, filling, delicious street food

There were 'ice cream' curls:  made from crushed/chopped  strawberries, prepared on dry ice and then spread with some condensed sweetened milk, the pulp freezes instantly and is scraped off into 'curls' presented in a little paper cup.

chips and beer, Hoi An market

I bought some lightweight cotton wrap beach trousers and an open back top for only a few pounds after some bartering.  There are many shops selling coffee and it's a good place to buy the traditional Vietnamese coffee filter pots.

Beautiful silk lanterns are on sale here.  When shopping you can expect to bargain 30% or more  off  (about £3 each) so having had the fun of the barter, you could pay a little more if you want to walk away feeling you were fair.  People aren't poor by their own standards, but their lifestyle is very different to ours (one elderly lady was so surprised at my paying a bit more after a hard haggle that she hugged and kissed me, a lot!).

silk lanterns on sale on street corners and in the market

You can get one of the many brightly painted boats below or a little rowing boat above to take you along the canal.  Night times are best as the rowing boats are lit by silk lanterns, the scene is absolutely beautiful,  as are the streets (it is a requirement in the area for the shops to maintain lanterns at night, they run on cables across the streets, failure to comply can result in a government fine).

Around the bridge and river at night there are many young and elderly people selling little 'helicopters' for a few UK pence that you can release into the sky like bright blue and white fireflies - they 'die' quickly but last just long enough to make a wish!

Throughout Vietnam there are Bhuddist, Hindu and Animist temples.  In Hoi An the temples we saw were Chinese.

We were told that the wooden doorways deliberately have a 'step' so you lean forward as you enter, forcing a bow of respect towards the inner alter.

toad is a popular street food here (we didnt try this one!)

 The school run, not a car in sight. people carry babies in 
body pouches to squeeze the whole family on their mopeds and the school
bags are either placed on the handlebars and/or the footwell.

navy silk flippy skirt, charity shop find!

inside one of the ancient houses within the town that are now museums

temples abound, the smell of incense is overwhelming at times

Hoi An market, we had chips and beer whist watching brisk sales

our hotel lounge bar

Jaeger beach kaftan (charitiy shop) split trousers Hoi An Market
It is pleasantly hot on the beach from about 7am, early morning is a good time to sunbathe, as the day goes on it becomes too hot.  We spent most of our time in the sea or shade.

But the best time is to be had in the towns and markets, exploring and observing every day life,

Useful tip:  always agree the price before you sit down to eat/drink so there are no misunderstandings, if it's beer on the street, it's easier to pay up front.  If extra dishes are placed in front of you (black tea, spring rolls, breads) and you didn't expect them and don't want them, be firm as you will be charged!

Friday, 25 May 2018

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Hang Dau Go Cave

The next 3 pictures are from the website of Bhaya Cruises, who we did the trip with.  We stayed one night on a 'junk' with our own cabin/balcony and visited a floating village and the famous Hang Dau Go (Wooden stakes) Cave full of spectacular stalactites and stalegmites although we only saw the main chamber of the cave and the time inside was 20 minutes.  We docked overnight in the bay with beautiful views of the stone karsts.  Halong Bay is a Unesco National Heritage Site and it is indeed beautiful, but has become a major tourist attraction.  There was some polution in the bay (plastic bottles) and it occurred to me the diesel used on the many tourist junk boats could damage the water quality, which is the most beautiful emerald green.


Our cabin, similar to below, was compact so difficult to get a good picture:  
this picture is from Bhaya Cruises Website.

I couldn't believe our cabin on this little boat - it was like a tiny hotel on water, a feeling that you were stepping back in time, tongue and groove panelling and low lighting. Our cabin had room for a double bed, a balcony and (unexpected) a shower! Tiny but functional, I LOVED every moment in there and on the balcony.

small 'beach' within the karsts/bay

The boat felt like something out of a Harry Potter scene, a sort of magical adventure.

The restuarant on board
 Vegetarian food was prepared specially for me (I felt like a queen!) - Vietnamese type vegetable stir fry, rice, pancake rolls.  Everyone else had a choice of a similar style meal with fish or chicken.  Breakfast sitting outside was wonderful. 

food on-board
neighbouring boats docked for the night

view from my balcony at sunset

 We fished for jellyfish at night off the back of the boat by torchlight ...then  snuggled up in a cosy duvet in a luxurious cabin and woke up to a cooked breakfast, followed by a trip to a floating fishing village.

We were taken from our boat on a little tug to a rowing boat, and then local fishermen rowed us over to a floating village ... the village floats on empty fuel cans and a criss cross web of wooden boards.  People sleep in hammocks in fairly open plan housing/hut type arrangements.  Their food supplies are brought out by boat to them by locals and they make their living. fishing.

rowing with legs!

These were not wealthy people, this is their lifestyle for generations, they have chosen to continue here and are proud of their village and don't want to move into the cities, some people have tried and returned as they don't have skills that can be applied.  The Government wants the village to remain unchanged so tourism is controlled by employing the fishermen to row the tourists over and see the village.  The Government has built a small museum which shows the way the people live and work.

the houses with hammocks
Footnote:  I enjoyed the boat and the fishing village, which was a lovely unscheduled surprise, being a substitute for more caves and time on the little 'beach', this was due to the bay being overcrowded with boats like ours - schedules will change without notice.  I would go again for the experience overnight on the boat seeing the beauty of the bay and its karsts, but not, to be honest, for the caves.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Vietnam - Sa Pa

I think this was my favourite part of our trip, the scenery, people and villages were so interesting and untouched.  Everyone was very friendly and didn't mind us taking pictures.

We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, near Sa Pa.  Our carriage was the Victoria, it was compact and clean with two attendants who brought cold beer before bed time and returned in the morning at about 5am with croissants and hot coffee, there was a toilet to each carriage and I think about 12 compartments with 4 or 6 beds in each.

The beds had clean fresh sheets and pillows/duvet.  Although the track is very noisy and bumpy, with stops throughout the night, we managed a fairly good sleep over the 8 hour journey.  It's a great way to travel without 'losing' a day and a fantastic experience.  There was a toilet to each carriage!

our cosy train carriage, bunk beds with fresh sheets/duvets, wifi charge point, beer!

our friendly, uniformed host who woke us with croissants/coffee at 5am

We were met at 7am by our guide and driver/van for the 5km trek.  We were the only ones on this trek so had our guide all to ourselves and learned a lot about the country, it's people and that inevitably tourism is impacting on rural life... and we were driven through valleys into the mountain regions of Sapa, close to the border with China.  First we had some time on our own to expore the town of Bac Ha where at 8am there was a busy market in full swing, selling wild orchids (taken from the jungle), charcoal, wood, food, woven cloth and pots and pans.  Everyone was friendly and as interested in us as we were in them. There were small hotels and guest houses in town with aircon so we rested and drank coffee.

selling wild orchid
I wished I hand't asked to sit up front on this journey! the driver drove dangerously close to the open cliff edge with a sheer drop into the valley, there were times when lorries or bikes would come towards us on the wrong side.  An hour or so drive upwards along this precarious road with a sheer drop and uneven, crumbly surfaces and we arrived at the village of the Red Dao.   we walked through this and other villages (Black Hmong, Gaiy, taking in the clear air and fabulous views of rice terraces and the most beautiful scenery.  The villagers were friendly and curious and followed us considerable distances wanting to sell their woven cloth and bags but also just wanting to be part of the walk, they are learning English and try hard to build a rapport, they are very funny, happy people.

The lady above was in one of the hill villages, her 'shop' sells fresh tofu and she was busy making a  batch.  The living conditions were fairly basic but they have water, power and cling film!

This lady was not swotting flies, but waving cheerfully whilst resting at the roadside with her sugar cane, I thought it was very nice of her considering the sweltering heat and heavy load!temperatures averaged 36 fahrenheit, humidity was good in Sa Pa but in the towns/beach could be 80%.

There is an opportunity for a homestay here and there are quite a few new build homes in progress as this tourist opportunity is realised - but these aren't the original tribal homes - which are very basic with earth floor, no lighting or running water with one room serving cooking and sleeping for a whole family, there are plenty of these and the amenities are basic, hammocks rather than beds, cooking on small burners, people are very happy to show you inside their houses but I think as they get more tourism this will change.

Each tribe has it's own traditional costume and they take great pride in wearing it, not just for our benefit - they live and work in their beautifully woven scarves and tunics although teenagers are adding Nikes and slogan t-shirts to the mix.    The children wear these decorative outfits and can be seen in the main town market area and also in the villages, selling trinkets like bead bracelets to tourists.

 Red Dao ladies shave their  eyebrows and sides of their heads and wrap their hair in red turbans with tassles and silver coins.  In their village we saw bunched leaves on sticks outside the entrance to a house which is to ward off evil spirits as a new baby was within the house.  Marriages are arranged, around age 15 and involve a diviner who determines compatibility.

This Red Dao lady was a very noisy market trader
 Our visit to the market was not planned, it was a 'toilet stop' with a spare hour where we wandered off to explore on our own while our guide had a fag break!  Yet it was probably the best part of our entire trip as so many of the hill and valley tribes were here in their traditional woven 'uniforms' selling their wares.  We saw no other tourists here either so got great photos!

 People all over Vietnam like keeping songbirds, they use very small wicker cages as in the picture below and take their birds out from the home, as at this market, because they like the birdsong and the older people 'compete' one birds song against another', which is undoubtedly beautiful (although the quality of life for the bird is sadly restricted).

 although these people are making an honest living selling wild orchid, they are taken from the jungle which is not particularly eco friendly.   

*Not all orchids are being taken from the jungle, this was a small market in the hills; we also saw the most spectacular orchids in flower markets all around Vietnam ... which I will show you in future posts ...which were commercially grown on 'farms' of gigantic polytunnels to provide for the demand in cities.

young generation wear their tribal clothes with pride but a mix of western influence is seen here and there

Baby in backpack!

We stopped at a little cafe/ home stay with a kitchen and a few tables, the toilet was a hole in the ground affair(!) Our guide chose the traditional Vietnamese coffee.  I shared his, which was delicious - made with sweetened condensed milk in the bottom,  the very strong coffee filtered through these steel pots - it takes about 10 minutes so the glass is seated in a bowl of hot water to keep it hot.  The coffee has a strong chocolate flavour.

traditional Vietnamese coffee
It takes about 10 minutes to brew but the wait is all part of the experience, sitting watching our coffee brewing, chatting and watching a funeral group in progress in the valley below us, we were told this deceased was a prominent figure and would have many mourners so a buffalo was being prepared for the funeral feast.  We didn't take pictures as the locals would not have appreciated this but it made an interesting spectacle of a whole village of Black Hmong men lined up to show their respects, the buffalo in the background awaiting his fate and the backdrop of the green rice terraces, the odd giant tropical butterfly gliding by and heat haze of the early morning giving way to bright sunshine.

We were met at the end of our hike by our vehicle and taken up to the very top of the mountains for two nights at the Topas Eco Lodge.  The most beautiful, calm surroundings, birds and butterflies, no tv or technology (wifi in reception only).  Minimalist yet luxurious in its simplicity, bungalow style accommodation with spectactular views, rainforest shower and fresh crisp sheets on the bed, an infinity pool looking out over the rice terraces cascading below us like an endless stairway from heaven.  The sunsets and sunrises here are spectacular and unforgettable.  So glad we stayed here rather than in town as this Lodge is very special.

everyone in the mountains has an umbrella nearby for rain or shine
it gets very hot up there even early in the morning

 This lady missed a tourist opportunity to sell some of her lovely woven bags.  It's a very slow pace of life in the hills.  I asked if the Government supports them or buys their rice but was told the people farm the land only for their own needs, there is little profit to be made so they are on the look out for sales opportunities with trekkers to boost their incomes, many want to leave and work in the cities, try, but then return as they don't have the skills to find work, nonetheless this way of life may not be sustainable much longer.  Homestays houses were being knocked up by the dozen when we were there but the investment is coming from small business men and not the locals.

Cock fighting goes on here although officially it is illegal
Disturbing for us Westerners, some areas of Vietnam still eat dog.  The meat is expensive, the dogs are bred specifically and considered a delicacy, so it would seem it is not extensive, but we saw some dogs being transported on mopeds on a major road to the North in awful cramped conditions and their fate was confirmed by our driver.  It's one of the few things we may not understand or condone, but in another country you have to show tact and respect for their way of life methinks.

 Mopeds are used to transport anything and everything, kids as young as 10
can be seen riding around with all kinds of things on their bikes (it is illegal for children to ride mopeds but that doesn't stop them up here).

I may have some more pics of Sa Pa so will do another post if they turn up.  Next I think it's Cu Chi  Tunnels and Halong Bay.

Useful tip:  In vans/cars ask to sit next to the driver to get the best pics and don't be shy to ask them to stop if you want to get a really good picture sometimes, they soon get the idea.