Friday, April 23, 2010


Hanoi Video

Hong Kong

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong to Hanoi

Once again we are in the air, this time on a very short 1.5 hour flight to Hanoi,Vietnam. We have just spent the last 3 nights in Hong Kong where we lived it up on our special deal room rate in the Novotel in Kowloon, the mainland.
We had booked the hotel on arrival at the airport and having asked for the budget option we weren't expecting more than a very basic hotel. So as we were welcomed through the huge glass doors by the concierge into the large reception hall with chandeliers and designer clad tourists we felt majorly out of place in our ninga turtle disguise (huge rucksack on back , equally heavy mini backpack on front , and handbag hanging off whatever other limb was available.

Waiting in line at reception we got a few strange looks off the Gucci / Prada / Chanel / Louis Vuitton etc. suitcase owners but took no notice of them and smiled in glee when the receptionist told us we were being upgraded! A short ride in the fancy piped music elevator later we entered our beautiful room and immediately went about investigating every orifice of it including the tea machine, the free slippers and gown, the shower big enough for 5 in the bathroom with piped music, the flat screen TV, the chaise longue and not forgetting the choice of 3 pillows depending on how soft or hard you like your pillow. It had been a while since we were faced with a 'which type of pillow would you like' question! We were soon settled in and being so comfortable toying with the idea of ordering room service. Then we had a reality check - backpackers do not order room service! However staying in this room kinda made a farce of our rucksacks! As a compromise we went 2 blocks up and got take away and curled up in bed watching some random hotel TV!

The next morning we set about exploring the city of lights, electronic, jewellery and designer clothes shops. We were staying in Kowloon which is an area full of hotels and restaurants and shops and touristy doesn't even begin to describe it. Nathan Road is the main drag and as we strolled down only a small portion of it we gazed in awe at just how many shops they can fit on one street and how much bling was a major part of Hong Kong.
If you're looking for a super bling engagement ring or simply an amazingly tacky large gold pig necklace with piglets hanging out of it then Hong Kong is definitely the place for you!! We eventually made it down to the water and through the thick cloud and smog made out the Hong Kong Island skyline as we wandered along the Avenue of the Stars. It appeared to be 'survey a tourist day' on this strip and within moments we were approached by groups of school kids doing some surveys which apparently was their English homework! We were asked a myrid of questions including what our favourite food in Hong Kong was, what sport we did, where we did it, who are favourite sports star was, what we were most likely to buy in Hong Kong and what we thought of the place. Some surveyors diligently recorded what we said, others attempted to spell what we were saying and others simpy nodded and never recorded any answers. However they did all get the photo of them with a western tourist - very important!

So after feeling like celebrities we decided to dine like celebrities and join the non backpackers for the buffet lunch in the very grand Intercontinental Hotel on the waterfront. For a mere 30 euro I ate enough to keep me going for at least 3 days and gorged on freshly made sushi, every type of salad you could imagine, 20 different main course selections, ice cream bar, made to order stir fry, pizza bar, soups , fajitas, pancakes and not to mention the 100 different types of desserts which i seriously tried at least 30 of!! needless to say I haven't been able to face anything sweet since and am vowing to stay off dessert for the next 8 weeks except for maybe one or two choclate banana pancakes in Thailand!!
After the huge feed we took ourselves on the Star ferry over to HK island and wandered through yet again more shop and bright light filled streets. Then we did the touristy thing and hopped on a bus to Stanley market where we quickly got back into haggling mode and began to fill up any spaces we had painfully made in our rucksacks before leaving NZ.

Next day we spent seeing a couple more tourist shops, including the famous Jade market and then we moved hotels to the not so amazing BP international.Being accostomed now to robes and slippers in the room I was very disappointed to find the robes were missing so I phoned housekeeping who promtly sent someone up to the room and she placed 2 small boxes on our dresser.I would never noramlly do something like this but decided 'when in Rome'! A little confused how a robe would fit in these small boxes we asked her what they were. We couldnt really understand the reply so I did some charades to demonstrate a bathrobe and she apologised , said 'no sorry' and left the room with us none the wiser as to what was in the box.
Anyway we thanked her very much and as soon as the door closed behind her we rushed to open the mystery boxes. Inside was not the world's smallest bathrobe but 2 very stylish Hotel mugs which had the Scout logo on them and I subsequently found out the hotel hologram lit up on the mug when you pored hot water in!! We decided they must have run out of robes and gave us these to pacify us instead, very nice of them but unfortunately a heavy mug isn't a necessity in the rucksack so they had to stay behind!

Next morning I took a stroll through Kowloon Park and watched the locals carry out their Sunday rituals, tai Chi, stretching, leg swingning, singing, playing guitar and small gatherings of people who looked to be conducting some sort of personal mini acts of worship. There was an amazing aviary with what Im sure must be the world's largest toucans and a few beautifully maintained mazes, rose gardens and a pond full of pretty pink flaingoes. Not bad for bang in the middle of a mental city, a nice retreat. It also has a few swimming pools and sports fields.
On from there we took the airport express train which is great cus you can check in with your bags right through from the origin train station. So with just our handluggage (which still weighs a bit!) we headed for the airport and a few hours later we were onboard our short flight to Hanoi. A two hour flight now seems like a few minutes upin the air. We will definitely be seasoned long haulers after this trip! We arrived safely, the bags came through quickly, always a relief to see them the other side. There's only so much emergency pairs of knickers and toiletries you can carry in your handluggage just incase it doesn't turn up! We had applied for our visas on line so all that needed to be done was show our approval letter, pay a stamping fee, fill in a couple more forms and bingo we were in with a flash new whole page
visa pasted in our passport - very exciting! We were being picked up by someone from our hostel which was also very exciting because we've only had 2 people greet us at an airport on this whole trip so having someone with a sign and our name on it was extra thrilling! Also not having to think about how we would get to our accomodation was one less thing to think about.

Soon we were whizzing along the road towards Hanoi city about 30 odd Km from the airport. It's amazing how with one short flight your scenery could change so much. Just hours ago we were in one of the world's busiest cities, looking at bright lights, grand hotels and endless shops full of designer goods. Now our window view was men, women, children and buffalo at work in the paddy fields, painstakingly trashing water, digging, planting and seeding with their bare hands and generally displaying the simple ways of life. A comfortable silence fell between us as we smiled to oursleves and took in everything around us and once again thanked our guardian angels for getting us to yet again another destination safely and thanked our lucky stars for giving us this amazing opportunity to experince all these different cultures.

Within moments the road was full of hundreds of bikes,push bikes, trikes, motorbikes and tuk tuks, if it had two or three wheels it belonged in Vietnam! It soon became obvious that the horn was the most essential piece of equipment to any bike or car owner and basically there weren't any rules of the road, you just drive wherever you fit whether this be on the tracks inbetween the paddy fields, on the right side of the road, on the left or simply take the middle, as long as you have a horn it seems to work!! Like many other Asian countries the bike is not simply a vehicle made for one person, here whole families ride the one scooter. Four people on one scooter is the norm as is wearing your stilletos and business suit , with ofcourse you rip off designer plastic helmet, not forgettig the rip-off designer seat covers you can also get. Accesorising your bike is important to the fashion conscious in Hanoi!!

As our driver niftily maoeuvered our vehicle in and out of the traffic we gazed in amazement at some of the sites we drove by ,in particular the row of barbers along the footpath of a main road. Each had their chair facing the concrete wall and a mirror hanging out of the wall or tree if they were lucky enough to have their 'barber shop' beside one of the large trees lining the roadside!
As if that wasn't funny enough we then came across a dentist at the end of the barber's row. No kidding, he had a fully reclinging dentist chair on the side of the main road, a head torch on and a scary looking instrument hovering over the patient's mouth!! Maybe Vietnam will become the next hotspot to come get cheap dentristy done!!

About 30 minutes later we amazingly arrived in one piece to our hostel which was bang in the middle ofthe Old Quarter Hanoi and therefore bang in the middle of the action. There's only one word to describe life in the back streets of Hanoi Old Quarter - Mental!!! I have never seen anything like it,I had thought Bangkok was mad, but this place takes mental to a new level. Incessant horn blowing, bikes whizzing in every direction, people sitting on the street sides in any available place trying to sell anything from dried fish to bamboo fans.
We soon learnt that most local eat on the streets, literally. There are rows of women lined up along the streets cooking up a variety of dishes on their little stoves and serving up to anyone who'll take a seat on one of their tiny baby colured plastic chairs. At meal times the footpaths are covered with families eating like this. I reckon this woud be a huge hit at home if the weather was more predictable, especially with students. They could just come along, sit on the side of the street on their little plastic chairs and pay a nominal amount for home-cooked meal!!

The hosts in our hostel couldn't have been more welcoming and we were promtly shown to our room which was unbelievably deluxe for 8 euro each a night, including ensuite bathroom with hot water and towels! As we admired our home for next coupe of nights one of the staff arrived with our bags , some fresh fruit and a cup of tea for us - so cute!! We had a good feeling about Hanoi and it didn't disaapoint. Did I mention there was free wifi in the rooms and breakfast included?!!
Once we'd settled in we decided to take a stroll through the mayhem outside. It was so exciting to be in Asia again, I had really loved Thailand when I was there years ago and coming to Vietnam was a dream come true. So far it was everything I had imagined it would be. Following our highlighted map from the hostel we weaved our way in and around the old quarter trying not to get killed as we crossed the roads.I've never been anywhere in the world where crossing the road proved to be such a huge challenge. No traffic lights at intersections and the free for all attitude led to some very amusing junction crossing people watching. After trying to figure out some logical way to cross the first few times we soon gave up and resorted to the local way, just walk, keep your eyes peeled for bikers texting and therefore not looking and hope for the best! I honestly don't know how we came away with all our limbs in one piece after 2 days in this mad place!

One night on our way back to the hostel we saw a middle-aged woman being knocked down as she was attemting to cross a 4 way jucntion by foot. We couldn't believe our eyes as cyclists, bikers and cars just kept going around her as if nothing had happened. This poor woman lay flat on her back in the middle of the junction and nobody went to help her. We could see she was alive as there was some leg wiggling going on and some whimpering coming out of her but nobody seemed to care. At least 3 minutes passed as we looked on in shock and then eventually some locals came to her rescue and helped her up. Again what can I say - this place is mad!!

We meandered throough the streets soon realising that each street is allocated to a different set of shops for example there is cellotape street where basically ever shop just sells different sized rolls of cellotape. then there is toy street, shoe street (not so exciting for me as they laughed at me when I asked for my size and pointed to the men's section!!), box street, lantern street, silk scarve street, electric fan street , hairclip road and the list goes on!! Very handy for giving directions though, i.e. take a left on shoe street, right at cellotape steet and straight on at lantern street!Although we still managed to get ourselves completely lost as every shop begins to look the same.
After our first meal in Vietnam which for a maincourse and drinks cost us about 2 euro we headed to the weekend night market. Luckily we didn't have much money with us or we would have come home heavily laden back to the hostel! We made up for it the next day though and after 15 minutes of following the 'Rough Guide's' Old Quarter walking tour we abandoned the map and made our own Old Quarter shop tour stopping the odd time to look at some supposedly noteworthy site. really though we probably saw more of real life in Hanoi in those 5 hours of wandering through the streets aimlessly than any tourist walk would give you.

We eventually made it home to the hostel and then went to enquire where we could get a box to put all our stuff in in order to post it home. We were given another highlighted map with what supposedly said in Vitnamese on the back please sell these girls some boxes! Off we went and soon found ourselves on box street where supposedly we could buy a box off some children?? Not really sure what that was about,I think something got lost in translation, but anyway soon we were the proud ownes of 4 Hennessey Cognac boxes and a large roll of tape!As we walked back into the hostel we heard other backpacrs asking the man at reception what we were making! Must have looked like some sort of Blue Peter moment!
Turns out we only needed one box although it does weigh quite a lot. We hauled it back downstairs and were on our way out the door to the post office only to be told the post office was shut for posting after 4.30, and was only open till 9 for phone calls. Not such useful info given by the hostel lady about that! As we were leaving early the next morning for our 3 day tour we were quite concerned what we were going to do about our precious cargo. However the hostel hosts being the lovely people they are have offered to take it to the post office for us and we will pay the when we return from our tour before leaving on our night bus. Fingers crossed it has gone safely!

Later that evening we took ourselves to the theatre to watch one of the world famous Vietnamese water puppetry shows. It was certainly a cultural experience,a lot of traditional music and costumes but amazing how they control the puppets from behind a screen while standing waist high in water!! There were dragons on fire dancing on the surface of the water, men and women bobbing around in the paddy fields, cattle pulling ploughs and even dancing fish! This was all narrated by the orchestra and two Vietnamese girls who although we had no idea what they were saying sounded like they were saying 'He's behind you ' in Vietnamese! They obviously knew their lines off by heart and as it was the end of the day and the last show were looking quite bored with the whole thing and gave the impression they coulkd definietly do this with their eyes shut! Auto pilot would be a good desription for their vacant look!

Next morning it was up early to avail of our free omelette and bread brekkie before the bus picked us up for the three hour drive to Halong Bay where we would board our boat that would be brining us to Halong bay and Cat Ba National Park, which they are trying to make one of the 7 wonders of the world and righly so.We were met by our very enthusiastic young Vietnamese guide and the 4 others who would be joining us on the trip.The bus was quite cramped as we were also bringing 4 other backpackers and all thier bags to the city for a transfer so leg room was not a luxury we would be getting for the next 3 hours.
We arrived at the busttling port and eyed up all the 'junks' (traditional Vietnamese wooden boats) . This would be our transport for 2 days and our home for the first night. We boarded the boat which involved a tricky procedure including jumping down off the pier via a wicker chair held in place by a staff member onto the deck.The boat was beautiful and huge. It slept up to 14 guests but as there were only 6 of us we had a lot of space. Our room was fantastic, great sea view , ensuite, fan, AC and a comfy bed. What more could you want! It was definietly the best boat room i'd ever been on. Irish Ferries could learn a thing or two from these people!

The boat had an upper and lower deck, living area (with kareoke!) and the upper deck was kitted out with sun loungers and tables and chairs , perfect for watching the sunset and sunrise. We were served a fabulous lunch which set the standard for all the meals for the rest of the trip. This was definitely the best 95 dollars I'd ever spent on a trip. The weather improved as the day went on and soon we were able to sit on the upper deck and watch the fab scenery as we sailed along. Our first stop were some caves that were really impressive and seemend endless.
Next on the activity list was kayaking, where we kayaked around some of the 3,000 islands in this National Park including going through one of the caves used in 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. Our guide had a knack of getting us to places just before all the other tourists so we had the whole place to oursleves which was pretty cool. It was lovely to sit back in the kayak and listen to only the sound of birds and water lapping against the rocks instead of the incessant horn blowing and scooter engines of Hanoi.

We slept on the boat that night and hit the hay early in order to get up for sunrise, much to the disappointment of our guide who was itching to show us all his kareoke skills!Next morning we climbed 420 steps up to the summit of Titop island and admired the islands from a higher level. back down for another huge feed and then a short sail to CatBa island. Here we were told we were going for a 2 hour hike in the National Park. There had been no mention that this hike was in any way challenging and sounded to pardon the pun 'like a walk in the park' . However the poor older German woman on our trip was soon huffing and puffing and breaking into a severe panic sweat as she tackled the clamber up slippery muddy cliffs and rocks and rusting ladders with rotten safety handals. We were finding it challenging so really felt for her, but fair play to her she made it to the top and back down the same way which was nearly worse.

We thought ourselves lucky that we'd worn our runners , most other tourists were carrying their flip flops and some even were attempting to climb in wedge flip flops - who goes for a two hour hike in wedge flip flops , a bikini and a sarong - seriously?! When we finally reached the summit there was then a severly rusting tower we could climb as an extra option. it was definitely a 'don't look down' climb and don't think too much about how rusty the whole structure is!!

After our excitement in the park we were brought to our 3 star hotel which was the second nights accomodation included in the tour. it was really bizarre to have these huge Torremolinas like hotels on such a cute small island , and to see this modern luxury against the clear poverty of the majority of the locals. They seem to have a huge resort development planned for this island which I'm sure will bring more tourists but at the same time it kinda kills the small island feel.
After check in we were served another huge lunch and then it was off on the short boat ride to monkey island. We were a litte apprehensive about this as we had been warned the monkeys can bite and if we see one with a red face he is really dangerous. We clambered off the boat down the rickety ladder and immediately spotted some monkeys in the trees just at the back of the beach. We kept our distance and kept strollinng aloong the beach.

Our guide told us we could walk through a bit of jungle over the other side of the island , it would take about 15 mins but to be careful of the monkeys. We set off on our own as the other couple decided to wait on the beach. About 100 metres into our walk we spotted a large monkey with a red face sitting in the middle of the path with a look that said, unless you have a banana don't even think about passing me. We decided to take no risks and retreat ,only to find he was following us. There was only so quickly we could move back down the rocks so we were a little nervous. Luckily another bunch of tourists came along including a kid that had a no fear attitude and some bananas so they kept him entertained as we retreated to the safety of the beach!

A little while later some locals were feeding the monkeys and like woodworm coming out of the wood the monkeys started appearing from everywhere onto the beach. There was lots to keep them busy so we decided this was a good opportunity to get a liitle closer to take some pics. We were still what I considered a safe distance away but as I was zooming in through the viewfinder I suddenly felt something grab my leg. Thinking it was Jo playing a practical joke to scare me I turned around to give out to her and saw her far too far away from me for it to have been her. Quickly I realised it had been a monkey and went into 'agh, I'm going to get rabies' panic.I moved away in slow motion incase the monkey was still there and not wanting him to chase me! Scared to look down at my leg incase he'd drawn blood I was already imagining being airlifted to HK airport to get rabies shots! Luckily there was no blood, he appeared not to have broken the skin and rather just left a claw mark and a bruise. I was still freaked out for the rest of the day and waiting to start foaming at the mouth!! I think myself very fortunate to have escaped what could have been a potentially serious medical issue.

Back in the safety of our monkey free hotel we took a stroll around to work up an appetite for yet again another huge meal we were served up, I honestly don't know how the locals stay so slim. Then we went for a wander, a cocktail and a one dollar pedicure! Next morning we were back on the bus, then the boat and 3 hour bus back to the craziness of Hanoi. We had been told that the mini bus to bring us to the bus station would be picking us up at 6, then half 6. In typical Vietnam style where time seems a bit irrelevant it turned up at 5.30. we weren't quite ready so asked it to do a lap and come back for us in 10 mins. 1 hour later it still hadn't showed up. Kim our lovely hostel owner told us not to worry that the bus wouldn't go without us. After some South America experiences we weren't sure about this! Seemingly the mini bus company only had one bus working today and a lot of people to collect so that's what the delay was and that the main bus would wait for everyone to arrive as this was the ususal system. So and hour and half after the supposed departure time we boarded our night bus. It was immediately apparent that these beds catered for small Asians and not tall backpackers with a small rucksack and a handbag and laptop and pile of other crap that probably really isn't necessary to carry around the world! We were assigned our 'beds' right behind the driver on the top bunks, Jo right beneath the blaring speaker and myslef right under the glaring flourescent strip lighting - lovely. I also had the TV right in front of me blaring out jackie Chan films in I'm not sure what laanguage with very loud Vietnamese dubbing - this was warming up to be a night of pain!! After some regigging I managed to fit my bags underneath my legs so that I slept with my legs elevated form just below the hips down. This proved to be highly uncomfortable and I can safely say my back has nevver hurt so much for such a long time in all my life. I tried every position possible but there wasn't much rrom for manoeuverig and as I was in the middle with an aisle either side of me anytime I tried to sleep on my side and we hit a bump I had to hang on for dear life as I slipped most way off the bed! My back hurts now just thinking about it!! 2 Jackie Chan movies later the ligts thankfully went out and for the rest of the night I reckon I woke up eery 40 minutes with some stupid Vietnamese ring tone on someones mobile phone, an incessant horn blowing form the bus driver or merely the bumping form the unbelievably huge potholes on what was supposedly the 'main' road. Every now and again I'd peep outform under my eye mask thinking we must have been shoved off the roadand be taking some side dirt track only to find that no we were actually still on the 'road' passing somebody else at some highly dangerous point. It was quickly back down with the eye mask, turn up relaxing Il Divo in the headphones and try to forget you are doing what they recommend you don;t do in all the guide books 'get a night bus in Vietnam!'15 hours or so later we arrived safely at our detination and I don't hink either of us could have been happier to get off the 'cattle mart / refugee camp' sleeping bus. There were some very officially dressed smiling men holding a sign with my name on it at the station wihc is always a welcome sight! They kindly took our bags and led us to our transportation to the hostel. we turned the corner expecting to see a mini bus of some sort but instead we were handed a helmet each and ushered onto the scooter!! They skilfully loaded our 20 odd kilo rucksacks on infront of them and us on the back with all the rest of the luggage and soon we were whizzing through the streets of Hue, beeping our horns and weaving in and out of the hundreds of other bikes, bicycles , cars, trikes, pedestrians and any other obstacles. My helmet had fallen over my face and I hoped to God I wouldn't actually need it as it was clearly not actually going to give me any protection! We arrived shortly at our hotel, another bargain room, with balcony, wifi , brekkie and bang in the centre all for about 6 euro! We were shown to our room and then we went exploring. Just back from the Citadel which is the old palace type area and emperors quarters. Hue is a city steeped in history which was pretty badly hit by the Us and French and other parts of Vietnam . A lot of the city still remains in ruins with ongoing restoration. It's an interestign stopover. Onto Hoi An tomorrow, about 3.5 hours southbound where we will be spending a dew days and hoping hte weather will imprive from the cloudy coolish drizzle here today!Pics to follow asap