Monday, February 28, 2011

Halong Bay

I took a tour arranged with my hotel in Ninh Binh to Halong Bay. I was a bit worried at the start because the owner of the hotel put me on a very crowded local bus (they had to hoik someone out of a seat to give me somewhere to sit) to send me on my way. Nothing was explained to me, so I assumed that I had lost my money and the bus would just leave me stranded somewhere. Then after 3 hours and a rest stop which consisted a group gully in which to relieve yourself, a man in a suit pulled me off the bus and took me on a motorbike to Halong Bay harbour. I then joined another group of tourists on an old wooden boat with quite luxurious rooms to sleep in. We had a good lunch on the boat, then sat on deck to watch the limestone peaks go by. We visited a cave, which was beautiful but slightly ruined by the amount of tourists and multicoloured lighting. After dinner and (unfortunately) Vietnamese karaoke, I slept very soundly despite the stories about the 12 people that died only about a week before when their boat sank in Halong bay (2 were British). In the morning we went out for some kayaking which was very peaceful and it was fun to disapear off where you liked. Then we headed off to the harbour and on to Hanoi by bus. I enjoy taking tours as its a good opportunity to meet other people. I met a Czech guy who was in Vietnam teaching maths in the hope of taking the brightest students back to work in the Czech Republic. There was a Chinese guy who had lived in New York for 15 years as a lawyer and was doing business in China (he says he is being asked to do more and more business in China as it is becoming more of an economic force with the U.S). I also got to practice my German and Spanish on a couple of German girls and a brother and sister from Argentina. My Spanish is definitely worse since speaking only English for the past 2 months.

Me and some people I met on the boat

Our boat

Inside one of the limestone caves

Me on the boat

The limestone peaks

Ninh Binh

I arrived here at 5.30am fresh (not) from an overnight sleeper bus. Although the beds were quite comfortable, Vietnamese roads and Vietnamese driving make it almost impossible to sleep. Several times I was nearly bounced out of my bed (I was on the top bunk) and we were constantly swerving from side to side. When I arrived it was pitch black and there was not much in the way of street lighting, but miracle of miracles there was an internet cafe open (well, he was eating his breakfast anyway!) where I waited until my hotel opened. I didn't get very good weather while I was here, but the cool was a bit of a relief from the heat of the south. I went running a couple of times which amused the Vietnamese greatly.

This is a common sight in the countryside but not so common on this dual carraigeway through the town!

The rice paddies around Ninh Binh with limestone peaks as a background

More rice paddies

The paddle boats

There is a monkey sat at the top of this limestone peak if you look carefully. My guide who paddled me out there made noises to encourage them to move about

A limestone cave

It was a very serene kind of place

Rice paddies

Kenh Ga, a village near Ninh Binh. Some people still live on houseboats here, it used to be almost an entirely floating village

A house boat where people sleep in contrast to the concrete house behind

Water buffalo grazing

Me taking control of the steering

A man and his wife fishing

The limestone peaks are very majestic in the background, shame about the concrete houses

Thursday, February 24, 2011


The train ride from Danang to Hue was very beautiful but getting off it was quite a challenge. The Vietnamese do not do the English polite thing of waiting for people to get off before getting on the train. The corridors are already meant for a very thin person with no baggage so squeezing past was impossible. Also the guards kept blowing their whistles which only caused more people to hurriedly squeeze on the train leaving me and another lady with no chance of escape. Luckily at the last second I managed to push my way through.

In Hue I visited the Citadel and the Imperial Palace inside. It was very beautiful, and I really enjoyed the landscaped gardens, so peaceful away from the rest of Vietnam. The emperor resided here from1804. A lot of it was bombed by the Americans but the citadel walls have survived pretty well. The rest has been restored.

The train trip to Hue

A war memorial to French and Vietnamese soldiers

The Ngo Mon (noontime) gate to the Imperial Enclosure

View out from the palace

Inside the Thai Hoa Palace, with the emporer's throne where he sat on special occasions

The Palace from the outside

A beautiful gate to the Forbidden Purple City

One of the Halls of the Mandarins

Ornate walkways

Yet more ornate

A pavillion set in landscaped gardens

Landscaped gardens

Detail of pavilion roof with dragons

A beautiful lake where I sat for a long time

Yet another beautiful gate

The river/moat around the citadel

Hoi An

I came here expecting just to enjoy the old town and the riverside and came away with a wedding dress, two evening dresses and a suit! I am really surprised by the quality and how cheap it is to get things made for you. The town is really pretty and has been preserved following UNESCO status in 1999. The only problem is that since then, tourism has become the major source of income so the majority of the old town is now either a cafe, a hotel or a tailor. There are Chinese lanterns everywhere so it is very romantic at night, especially by the river. Also the old town is shut off to traffic so is blessedly quiet (a rare thing in Vietnam). The Vietnamese lady who sold me my dress told me that she works 13 hours a day with 2 days off a month and that is fairly normal. But she took me to the where the tailors were working on my dress and I was relieved to find it was not a sweat shop but a back room in a house with 3 ladies chatting away happily while expertly putting clothes together.

The river

Typical street in the old town

Chaos around the market

One of many temples

An old French colonial streetscape

The river at dusk

The riverside promenade

Chinese lanterns

The Japanese covered bridge in front are a couple advertising getting married in Hoi An