Wednesday, 26 October 2011

So long Saigon...

Saigon welcomed me at dawn with a noise that filled the streets, plenty of hustle and bustle and more than anything it was moped mania. In Vietnam, there are over 23 million mopeds...I feel as though all 23 million are in Saigon. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, whichever you prefer really...even the locals call it Saigon, is a city that is extremely vibrant and full of diversity. It oozes something much more than it's partner up in the North, Hanoi. It gives you a feeling of safety, history, culture, fun and more than anything...a beautful place to be.

Initially the plan was to stay for perhaps 3 days, we then extended it to our last visa day of 6 days, it captured my heart so much. As I am staying in the 'backpacker' area, there are plenty of hustling streets filled with neon glowing lights, street vendors and an unlimited selected of Pho (Traditional Vietnamese Noodle Soup) stalls. Each day, I have wandered around this huge city, visiting the grand palace, museums and parks.

My most enjoyable day was the Cu Chi Tunnels. This place was amazing, I was able to take the tour around the battle areas, crawl through the tunnels....yes you do literally have to crawl. It made me realise just what people had to do in combat as a means to survive. At the Cu Chi tunnels, I was able to visit the shooting range, to which my selection was a M16...I must admit I was nervous but excited. The sounds of guns blowing through the tree's and openland is scary to say the least, it also gives you a quiver than runs thorugh your whole body, almost an uneasiness for what is occuring around you. When I walked up, I positioned myself and then shot the gun, it was a strange sensation. I do not like war and I despise the fact that so many human lives on both sides, especially in the American/Vietnam War were lost, however, firing that gun gives you a sense of power. Adrenaline fills your body and it's almost addictive in a sense that it's fun. Fair enough I am in 2011 and firing at a sand bag on a target, so in a sense it is easy for me, what I reflected upon later was what all those soldiers on both sides must have gone through during battle. This has furthered my admiration and determination of the Vietnamese people on how they dealt with this war on their land, worked through it and have now moved on with their lives and society as a whole.

Vietnam has been a country that has educated me on many things about human determination and belief. Through many centuries this country has experienced war and control, even today people could say as a 'Communist' country it is under strict control. I would rather disagree and express my opinion that this is a country founded in independence for the people, history, cultural diversity and more evidently openess. The country varies throughout, my journey from North to South has experienced many enjoyable experiences and this is something that I am grateful. I am sad to leave Vietnam but also ready to embark on something different and a new chapter in my travels. So tomorrow I shall depart for Cambodia...on a hopefully comfortable bus and smoth ride, but we shall see, giving the rollercoster journeys I have experienced over the past month.
Coming out of the Cu Chi Tunnels

Chilling by a tank

Firing my gun...the names Newman, Laura Newman 008! haha!

Exploring one of many museums throughout Saigon

Outside the Palace...exploring Saigon

Glorious Beach time...Nha Trang to Muine

Arriving at dawn to the welcoming feeling of sunshine, a warm breeze in the air and the feeling of chilled beaches, Nha Trang welcomed me with an array of moped men, shouting 'Easy Rider', it was almost comical to see lots of Vietnamese guys on huge motorbikes on every street corner, suited and booted with helmets and leathers. My main priority was one more so important to me...the beach! I spent the next six days, reading on the beach, splashing in the salted sea, as the small but gusty waves washed over me.

On my third day, we ventured on a bicycle up to the 'Spa', this is a place where you can search for total relaxation and enjoy some spa treatments too. The price was superbly cheap, the whole day setting me back 3pounds. We cycled through Nha Trang, waving to locals and manoeuvring our way through sometimes crazy traffic, after many twisting narrowed streets, the arrival at our destination of the 'Spa'gave feelings of excitement. The day entailed an initial cold shower to wash off the excess dirt on our bodies. The real enjoyed was what followed...45mins in a mus bath! The sensations I experienced was most unusual, the mud is so creamy and smooth, you can instantly feel it cleansing through your skin, as you float freeily in the mud. Therefore, the lovely long soak in the mud bath was fun and enjoyable. Afterwards, was sunhine time, allowing the mud to stick, then you have a normal shower, followed by a shower which shoots water aggressively at your body. Then, a wonderful experience was the nicest of my journey, my first bath in over 3months...glorious! The hot mineral bath allowed my skin to feel squeaky clean, refreshed and the warmth was soothing. Evidently, after all my 'baths', the afternoon was spent sunning myself by the hot and cold pools.

As we departed Nha Trang in the early morning, the bumpy journey was headed to Muine, I was most excited to stay here. Even though I enjoyed Nha Trang, the development of tourists and long spiralled streets of bars and restaurants became almost irritating. I felt that what I needed was more tranquillity and more so 'off the beaten track' type of place. Therefore, when arriving in Muine, I felt anxious to see whether this place was one that could fulfil my feelings that I most longed for.

So, you may be waiting with curiosity or anticipation on evidently was my search for tranquillity fulfilled, to tell you the truth I would say it was not met, it was surprisingly exceeded. Muine is a place that is filled with beauty, in terms of its landscape, people and food. The beach is the hub and heart of the whole town, the huge stretch of golden sands plays host to many locals and travellers together. The town is a key area for kite surfers and the whole approach of 'mellow' living. Which in a way relfected our secnd choice of accommodation, staying at the...'Mellow Guesthouse', wonderful. Our initial place of accommodation, which we stayed for two nights may have been used by what I may say 'ladies of the night', given the fact that it was situated between two 24 hour spa's and many strange people entered the rooms from dawn til dusk...interesting!

The next week I spent relaxing and taking in the natural beauty and awe of Muine. We visited a fantastic place on the outskirts of the town. Driving down to the sand dunes in an original military jeep, then spending the whole afternoon sand boarding and sledging down the vast sand dunes. The strength of the wind smmothly hurling sand across the peak of the dune was overwhelming, but the sensation when you dive head first on your sledge down the sand dune was brilliant, I loved it all. The local people always engaged in conversation, plus the taste of the fresh food was delicious and enough to make me eat three course meals the whole week...even on a backpacker budget. After my enjoyable week, the time came to head to the city agagin, that's when the bus was booked to go to Saigon for a 2am pickup, oh well it's all part of the experience. After having a few...ok many Saigon beers, I departed Muine and had a pleasant sleep to Saigon, or otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Eating a local snack on Nha Trang Beach

DIY BBQ...we cook our own BBQ dinner in Nha Trang

Walking through Nha Trang at night time

At the 'Spa'...having my first 'real' wash in 3months!

Overlooking Nha Trang from the beach

Walking along Muine Beach

Enjoying the sunset by the beach

Observing the kite surfers and local lady selling fruit

Walking the local stream, before going the dunes

The beautiful sand dunes of Muine

Flying head first down the dune at a good speed...adrenaline junkie!

On my way back up...ready for another sledge

Chilling by a restaurant/bar pool...I bought the cheapest cup of tea so I could stay all day long.
Overlooking the Fishing Village in Muine

Fishing Village in Muine

Taking a snap of John as the sand storms past

Celebrating sunset on the sand dunes

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Halong Bay, Hue and Hoi An

Once the swarming typhoon had passed, we where able to head out to Halong Bay. The weather remained overcast, drim and not so pleasant but the important thing was it was dry. We arrived to our boat, the 'Cristina' around lunch time and tucked into a tasty treat of rice, chicken and spring rolls. We cruised throughout the bay, taking in the spectacular surroundings of this natural wonder. The islands each rise from the sea to form an unusual correlation of huge mounds of rocks, so vast and strong they feel slightly superior as you glide slowly pass them throughout the day. We visited a cave hidden within one of the islands and wandered through the mysterious layout of sculptured formations of natural earth. The evening drew upon us and we spent sunset diving off the boat into the bay, a cool ambiance was something I felt. The whole bay became settled and each boat rested and anchored into the seabed. The evening was shared with good people, eating, drinking and listening to some music. Thankfully, the boat didn't sway too much throughout the night, so my sleep was restful and not too much spinning room...literally. Halong Bay is a beautiful place, however, I felt slightly let down as it has become so popular with tourists alike, that it felt in someway to have lost its natural charm. The bay is filled with boats and people alike and this something I felt had a dampened feeling on me. The next day was spent on Cat Ba island, to which we trekked in the national park and climbed the highest the most unsafest structure on the island. The afternoon we visited Monkey Island, which was such a calm and tranquil place. This was the calmess I had searched for and the chilled atmosphere and warm water fulfilled my afternoon peace. That was, until the monkeys popped down to greet everybody, they where the most aggressive and vengeful monkeys I had ever seen. A Russian couple on our boat, naively enough wandered over to the monkeys only to be attacked. The lady had a huge bite on her hand and her husband received a deep scratch and lost his bag to the 'mummy monkey'. So, my peaceful afternoon then became one with me armed with a stick and a rock along with everybody else, standing by the edge of the water, trying not to make eye contact with these monkeys and pray for our boat to hurry back...must say it was an interesting day!

After Halong Bay, we headed south and reached Hue. This is a nice historic town, with lots of historic architecture and history into Vietnam. I spent most of the afternoon walking the small streets, speaking to locals and viewing the huge Citadel. The next day, we booked onto a tour called the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). This is the place where Vietnam had the border between North and South and the very point where a great deal of battle went on during the Vietnam/American war. It was such an intriguing tour, spent the day viewing war/battle bridges, Ho Chi Minh trail, significant military points and most importantly the underground tunnels. The tunnels where interesting because it was not so much the military who used them but the small town that lived there. Over 300 people built and lived in these underground tunnels for over 6 years, we explored these tunnels for over an hour and to my amazement it was so enchanting. The only lights where small oil lanterns and the tiny rooms, that barely fitted one person in nowadays but then housed 4 people was interesting to see. The underground tunnels housed its own school, maternity room, community room and much more, super fascinating.

After Hue, we headed further South again to Hoi An. This is a pretty place, filled with lots of street lanterns and friendly people. Hoi An is most famous for it's...tailoring. The place is great for making absolutely anything, every street is lined with clothes-makers, making everything from trainers, shoes, dresses, suits, cushions and much more. I have thankfully resisted, even though my inner self had a major battle not to buy...the coats are the nicest! Yesterday however, was spent battling the wrath and tailend of another typhoon that had hit Central Vietnam. The rain not only poured down but hit so hard to not let up for over 12 hours. We lost power in the morning for it only to return around 7pm, after spending 5hours walking around the city, I looked like a wet doll. It was as though I had gone fully dressed and jumped straight into a pool of water, soaked through. Thankfully, today is humid and dry and the small pockets of sunshine filter through, giving my body the sense of hope, that I will soon see sunshine fill the sky. I am setting off tonight on the sleeper bus to a place called Nha Trang, further south along the coast. Hopefully mr sunshine will pay me a visit and I shall hopefully be able to go to the beach and catch some waves. This is all hopeful and almost wishful thinking, giving the sporadic weather conditions Vietnam receive, so I shall shortly update you on whether I am fried to a crisp or soaked like a smelly dog...all shall be revealed shortly.

Cruising along Halong Bay

Some of the islands...natural wonder

View at the top of the mountain in Cat Ba National Park...after a scrambled trek

Arriving onto Monkey Island

The nasty monkeys fighting with one another

Happy the boat arrived back before the monkeys attacked us
Exploring the caves at Halong Bay

Admiring sunset onboard the boat

Settling in for my sleep upon the sleeper bus

Ducking through the underground tunnels

Enjoying the downpour of rain in Hoi An

Ok...not really enjoying the downpour of rain in Hoi An

Hello Hanoi

After undertaking my long yet comfortable 29 hour journey from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, I arrived looking something like a zombie. The first thing that hit me about the city of Hanoi, was the buzz and vibrancy of the whole place. True it is the capital of Vietnam and yes it is hugely developed and population, however, there is still a charm that lingers throughout the small clustered streets. We spent our  first two nights in a basic hotel, to which we later found out was owned and ran by the government. So, after me having a slight run-in with the reception man over checking out, we feared slightly either being spied upon, ransacked or perhaps even kidnapped. Gladfully, the next day I awoken just fine and we then opted to stay in the Hanoi Backpackers. This place is brilliant, has an amazing atmosphere that fills the whole building and it is great to meet other travellers alike. I have spent the past four days wandering around the whole city, visiting museums...observing the propaganda films and all the history of Vietnam. It is rather interesting to observe how a communist country reinforces and develops infrastructures, everyday life passes by everybody pleasantly and the Vietnamese people appear quite proud of the place they are from. The people themselves are friendly and engage in learning me small abouts of Vietnamese words, well I am trying to learn anyways. This proves that they are patient and also great at delivering tasty cuisine. I have enjoyed so many dishes, noodles are the best here, super delicious, especially when washed down with a Hanoi beer!

The original plan was to travel to Halong Bay on Friday, however, as a rather big typhoon was heading our way, there was concerns over the weather conditions and safety, so our boat tour was cancelled. Evidently, opted to not travel upto Sapa to do some trekking, as my body was subconciously telling me to slowdown and rest a little. The weather still remains grey, gloomy and gleefully dim but hopefully should head to Halong Bay tomorrow, spending a night on the boat and another on an island in the bay. The vibes of the whole city is a very good one and I am now excited, rested and raring to go, furthering my journey throughout the 'Viet of Nam'. 

Helping out the locals...selling some fruit!

Enjoying my evening meal...lovely street food

Moped city...Hanoi

Drinking on the 'streets'

Exploring the sunshine (rare occasion)

Hair of the dog...we became resident dj's
Monument by the lake...peaceful Vietnam

About to be eaten by a 'bush dragon' in Hanoi

An art sculpture of American war planes at the Military Museum

Drawing of Ho Chi Minh