Archive for May, 2010

We left Hoi An for Hue, a relatively short journey up the coast. Hue is famous for the numerous temples within a short distance of the town. After visiting temples in Cambodia we opted to give the outlying temples a miss and just visit the Imperial City. It is built on the same principals as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing and housed the emperor and all his family around the 1800’s. Unfortunately most of it was destroyed during the wars. There is a lot of reconstruction going on but ultimately it was a disappointment for us. In hindsight we could have skipped Hue and gone straight to Hanoi. That said the other temples we didn’t visit might have been more impressive.

The highlight of Hue was meeting a chap from Bolton! Small world as they say. He had converted to Buddhism and lived in Taiwan. We got talking to him in a cafe whilst avoiding a storm outside. In the end we had to get up and leave because he just wouldn’t shut up! We actually had 2 Bolton “connections” in Hue. We met a crazy Kiwi couple whose mother was born in Bolton.

After a couple of days in Hue we flew up to Hanoi to avoid a mammoth bus journey. Hanoi was similar to Ho Chi Minh in many ways, non stop moped traffic and noise. That said I think we both preferred Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. We saw some stormy weather in Hanoi too. Luckily we were sat on the balcony of the local microbrewery watching the world go by over a beer.

After a couple of days we took a trip to Halong Bay. This was definitely the highlight of the area. We stayed overnight on a Junk boat…no not a boat that was junk…a traditional (built in 2009!) Vietnamese Junk boat. It can be a minefield choosing a boat because there are so many companies and tour operators. Luckily our hotel staff were very good and recommended a company to us. After a little research we decided to go for it. We ended up on a boat called the Amber Gold. There were only 8 of us on the trip although the boat could accommodate 24. We had a lovely room and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We kayaked around some of the caves which was really nice.

Here’s a few shots from Hanoi.

Snake Whisky

Halong Bay

Wheeling Along

Street Barber


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Hoi An

The journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An didn’t get off to a good start. We were expecting to be collected from our hotel in Nha Trang at 7pm to catch the train at 7:26pm (yes very precise times here). At 7:10pm still no sign of our pick up. At this point we also caught a glance of the clock in reception and realised that either my watch was 5 mins slow or it was actually 7:15pm! In panic we scrambled to get a taxi. The Vietnamese don’t seem to understand the term “put your foot down mate”! Traffic just crawls along, in fact yesterday was a prime example; our minibus almost got overtaken by a motorized bicycle, you know the type with a hairdryer for an engine! Anyway the train was late arriving in Nha Trang so we made it, phew!

We’d booked a sleeper carriage in 1st class, the only way us backpackers travel 🙂 We shared this with a lovely Vietnamese family. They had the bottom bunks so it was over to us to clamber up top with our rucksacks ‘n’ all. We slept suprisingly well though and arrived in Danang at 5am. Luckily our pre-arranged taxi was waiting for us so no need to haggle prices whilst still half asleep. It was a 40 min taxi ride to Hoi An. We were suprised to see all the locals swimming in the sea and playing badminton by the beach even at this crazy hour. You can’t blame them though, by 7am the sun has started to burn through and the temperatures are back up in the 30’s.

We arrived at our chosen hotel without a booking to find no rooms available until 11am. Given that it wasn’t yet 6am we decided with some sceptism to check out the other hotel they owned slightly out of town. It turned out to be the best decision we made all day. The hotel was so nice, large room, marble bathroom, balcony, tv, ac etc etc They had a lovely swimming pool and offered a free shuttle bus into the centre on request. All this for $20 US per night! It’s hard to compare with the hostels we stayed in throughout South America.

We instantly fell in love with Hoi An. It’s without doubt our favourite place in Asia so far. The quaint historic streets are filled with lovely cafes, restuarants and art gallaries. The people are very nice and approachable. It’s perhaps best known for it’s tailor shops though. Here you can get any kind of garment made for a very good price. Gem picked up a lovely dress, hopefully she can get it home in one piece! I resisted the temptation to buy a few “whistle and flutes” knowing it would be a hassle to carry them around.

Hoi An is also at its most picturesque during the evening. At this time the streets are filled with glowing lanterns of varying colour and people are sitting outside enjoying a cold beer or cocktail whilst the sun goes down.

On our second day I went on a little photography expedition. They day before I’d met a French guy who’d moved over to Hoi An 3 years previously. He was just in the early stages of starting to offer photography tours around Hoi An and the surrounding area. With the promise of seeing something a little different I signed up for a morning tour the day after. We started early at 4:45am to catch the sunrise whilst making our way to a small fishing community across the river from Hoi An. There were 4 other people on the tour too and it was a nice group. I really enjoyed the tour and managed to get some good pictures which I wouldn’t have otherwise. We arrived in time to see the fishermen returning with their catch. Following this is frenzy as the local women fight over the best fish. I’m not exaggerating; two women almost came to blows over one basket of fish. We then took a break to enjoy some Vietnamese coffee and cake. The Vietnamese make coffee very very strong, served in a shot glass with sweetened condensed milk. It sounds horrid but actually tastes pretty good. Afterwards we returned to see the fish being loaded into the smoke house for smoking. Also a number of the fish are laid out and dried in the baking sun. A short cycle ride back to the town followed. It was only 9:30am, a perfect time to meet Gem for some eggs benedict in our favourite little French inspired cafe.

After escaping the sunshine during the heat of the day we took a couple of bikes from our hotel and cycled off to the beach. We avoided the typical tourist beach and headed a little further out to An Bang beach, popular with locals and expats. It has a more relaxed feel with many bars and restaurants setback slightly from the beach. We enjoyed a lovely drink here before cycling back whilst watching the sun go down behind the mountains; a beautiful time of the day as the rice paddies are lit in a radiant red. Definitely one of those pinch yourself, life doesn’t get any better moments.

We’re now on our way to the historic city Hue.

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Nha Trang

We left Ho Chi Minh on the “sleeper bus” heading for Nha Trang. Lets just say the sleeper buses in Vietnam are not like the ones in South America…in a bad way in case you’re confused! They are this weird combination of two levels of reclining seats, a little like bunk beds on a stripped out bus, however, the beds are half the size! Anyway it was not an overnight journey so it didn’t matter too much.

We finally arrived in Nha Trang around 10hrs later. We hadn’t booked any accommodation and managed to get our cheapest hotel deal yet, $10 per night! The hotel was lovely and the room was great too. That’s one of the big differences between here and South America. In SA it’s all about the hostels whereas here it’s hotels or guest houses and the standard is excellent.

Anyway we had a great time in Nha Trang. It’s a lovely coastal town with a nice beach. The beach is popular with the locals at crazy o’clock and also when the sun is going down. It has a much more relaxed feel than Ho Chi Minh.

Nha Trang Beach

We did some snorkeling around 3 small islands off the coast of Nha Trang which was great. It was the first time for Gem and she was amazed at the underwater world. The reefs were beautiful and we saw loads of different fish. You never know it could be the PADI next. Included in the trip was a great seafood lunch. The tour guide on our boat was a little confused though. He came out wearing a Man Utd shirt and a Chelsea baseball cap! On the way back we passed a floating fishing village. Here they still fish using the traditional boats like below.

Back with the "Catch of the day".

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We arrived in Vietnam a few days ago. Our tour of duty started in Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon).

After getting off the bus from the airport we were met by the usual crowd of people selling rooms for ridiculously low rates. As it happens we’d already booked our room so we just had to fight past them to reach our destination. It was located down what you might have thought was a shady alley but it was actually a quiet haven away from the raucous city.

We were delighted to find Ho Chi Minh was about 1 degree cooler than the hot steaming streets of Siem Reap! After a short recovery we headed out for drinks and a bite to eat with a couple of fellow travellers we’d met earlier. We enjoyed our first taste of Vietnamese food but there was room for improvement on the beer front! We then headed to a local bar to see the 2nd half of the F.A. Cup…I wish we hadn’t bothered! Cheating Blue Nose &$%%£^^^&^!!! Not that I harbor a grudge against them for winning the double.

The next day we explored the city of Ho Chi Minh beginning with a visit to the War Remnants Museum. It houses a very interesting collection of photos taken during the Vietnam War or the American War as they call it here… It’s a pretty one sided view of the whole war but still very interesting and the camera doesn’t lie eh.

Heavy fire power

Fighter Jet

Afterwards we hunted down some more lovely Vietnamese cuisine for lunch whilst trying to avoid being run down by a passing moped or two…hundred! Yes it’s very much the city of the moped. No point in waiting on the pavement for a gap in the traffic. Here you just close your eyes, hold your breath and go for it.

Moped Ville

Eyes on the road please

We selected a bar from the guide book for drinks in the evening. True to form the place wasn’t there anymore. We agreed previously never to trust the guide book for bars and restaurants so I don’t know why we expected it to be any different this time!

The day after we visited the Cu Chi tunnels. These are the tunnels built by the Viet Cong and used to avoid capture by the Americans. They actually started building them during the earlier war with the French. You can attempt to climb down as I did but you realise that it’s not advisable as a westerner. Even though they have now widened the entrance for visitors it’s a tight squeeze as you can see below. Still there is a further section which is widened to accommodate most folk. The tunnels stretch for around 250km in a spiders web like formation. Much of this is now collapsed though. Afterwards you can shoot a variety of guns including AK47 and M16, not really our thing but popular with the tourists.

Going in at Cu Chi Tunnels

After Ho Chi Minh we headed up the coast to Nha Trang for some fun in the sun.

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Where has the time gone?? Suddenly we’re moving on again, this time to Vietnam. Today is our last day in Siem Reap before we fly to Ho Chi Minh tomorrow.

We’ve spent the past few days finishing up our volunteer project at Bakong High School and learning to cook Khmer style. We managed to get the pictures for the school printed and displayed in the new P.E. classroom. The teachers and school kids seemed pretty pleased with them. It was lovely to see all the kids running into the classroom, they were so excited to see photo’s of themselves.

Teachers at Bakong High School with the Group Shots

A Collage of Prints from Bakong High School

A second collage of prints from Bakong High School

Yesterday we took a Khmer cooking class at one of the local restaurants. It was a great experience and we have a few new recipes to inflict on people back in England now! First we were asked to pick 2 starters, 2 main courses and a dessert from the menu. Afterwards we went on a tour of the local market to see where the ingredients come from. The market was a hive of activity and quite an eye opener. Afterwards we got down to the business of making our food. We opted for fresh spring rolls and banana flower salad for starters, followed by Beef Lok Lak and Fish Amok for main course. We finished it off with Sticky Rice Flour for dessert. After making it all we got to enjoy it in the restaurant, it’s fair to say we rolled ourselves out afterwards!

Mud Fish an essential ingredient for Fish Amok


Weighing Fish

Chopping Away

Teacher and Student

The fruits of our labour

Beef Lok Lak

Fish Amok

In Siem Reap you’re often approached by young kids selling postcards and guide books amongst other things. It’s sad to see this because you feel they don’t ever get a childhood. We got talking to this little chap you see below. He was happy to pose for pictures and share a few stories.

Street Seller Siem Reap

We finished our day watching the sun go down from one of the temples, a fitting end to a great day.

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We spent the weekend visiting the majestic temples of Angkor. We started early…very early to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat. The stunning sunrise was well worth the 4am wake up. We managed to get a nice quiet spot before the bus loads of tourists turned up.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We then looked around various other temples in the so called “Grand Circuit”, including our favourites Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. There was a great deal more restoration work on many of the temples compared with several years ago. The heat was draining though so we returned to base at midday, we’d been up since 4am so it felt like a full day!

Banyon Temple

Windows of Buddha

Guardians of Angkor Thom

We had a more relaxing 6:30am start on the Sunday to visit some of the more far flung temples.

Monday morning was spent working on the pictures we’d taken for the High School. We presented the pictures to the teachers so they could select their favourites for printing. The afternoon was spent celebrating my 21st birthday (again…). Gem organised a few nice treats including a massage at the FCC Spa, this is one of the nicer hotels in Siem Reap. It was great to hang out by the pool afterwards. We then enjoyed birthday cake from our favourite cafe “Blue Pumpkin” before having drinks and dinner in the evening. A very nice day!

On Wednesday we’re going back to the school to complete our project. We’re looking forward to seeing the finished pictures displayed in the High School.

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You might think from the blog title that we have been on a culinary indulgence again! However, this is not the case this time. As part of our volunteer work we had an early start at Bakong Primary School. At 6:15am each day the kids are given breakfast as part of a program called Food for Thought. The idea being they receive a good hearty breakfast so they can concentrate on their studies and have some nourishment for the day.

It was a great experience for us. We arrived to see the children all busy cleaning the school!! I mean could you imagine the school kids in England doing this! The children here are so well behaved, well mannered and appreciate the opportunity of a good education. It’s an eye opening and humbling experience, you realise that the western school kids could learn a thing or two. I think we take education for granted and to see how appreciative these children are really brings it home. Following a clean of the school the kids are invited to sit down and have breakfast before lessons start at 7am.

Waiting Patiently

Breakfast time at Bakong Primary School

Setting the world to rights!

Following breakfast they all clean their teeth. As mentioned in the previous blog post a clean water supply has been installed at the schools to enable this initiative.

Teeth Cleaning Smile

Group Teeth Cleaning

Once the breakfast and teeth cleaning are out of the way it’s time for class. We had the opportunity to witness the English lesson for a short time. Before the lesson starts the kids wipe down all the lesson books too. They were all very well behaved and seemed to enjoy the English lesson.

Kindergarten Class

English Class at Bakong Primary School

Afterwards we moved on to the High School for the next part of our project. Here we were tasked with taking pictures of the various sport teams. The football, basketball and volleyball teams have all won trophies recently and wanted some pictures to display. The walls are very barren at the moment. We created a number of shots of each group along with some action photos as the teams took their P.E. lesson. Tomorrow we will visit the school again to decide on which pictures they’d like to get printed. Afterwards it’s off to the local print houses to negotiate a deal. We’re hoping to get some nice shots displayed in their new classroom this week.

Girls football team

Basketball Team Trophy Photo

Volleyball Team

Running the ball

Is it in?

We’ve really enjoyed the whole experience, it’s been both refreshing, humbling and sometimes sad. It was especially touching during the food for thought breakfast, you could see how desperate some of the children were for a meal. Many came back for seconds!

We have a few other things left to do in the school this week as well as some temples to visit over the coming days.

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