Friday, April 16, 2010

From Rooftops to Ruins and Rice Fields to Rivers...

Nha Trang and Hoi An Rock!!

We stayed for one night and two days in Nha Trang and though the beach there was beautiful, we didn't actually spend too much time lazing about in the sun. We rocked up at about lunchtime and found ourselves a place to stay. Six bucks over budget but who’s going to quibble with a roof top terrace and sea view! We made the most of it too, enjoying the last of the evening light with a few Saigon beers and even waking up at dawn for the sunrise (not a great one but we felt we’d got our money’s worth at least).

Apart from that we went to check out Po Ngar, where an ancient Cham Temple sits atop a hill overlooking the port filled with brightly coloured blue and red fishing boats. There were some local girls doing traditional dancing while their friends stood to the sides, giggling at all the tourists taking their pictures. On my way into one of the shrines I got cornered by a lady who was gesticulating wildly at me. Turned out my dress wasn’t decent enough and I was revealing too much shoulder, so she directed me to a stand to take a smock style wraparound tunic before I could enter. Despite the people and music outside, inside it was absolutely quiet and offered cool respite from the heat. A teeny tiny room, the walls blackened from years of incense smoke there was a stone table with a phallic piece of marble set on top of it, shiny from years of touch. This is something called a linga,andyoni and together they represent the male/female genitalia so this is the place to come and pray for children and fertility.

The next day we got back on a motorbike to explore further north of the city and drove along some very nice coast roads, past beaches littered with fishing debris and hundreds of the Vietnamese-style, round fishing boats laying upside down, their recently tarred bottoms left to dry in the sun. They are funny these little boats. Perfectly circular and made from reeds you can’t imagine they are at all practical but when you see them on the water, the fisherman waggling the one big oar from side to side, they really can move.

About 12ish we came to a port just as all the boats were offloading their catch and spent an hour wandering around, slipping about in fish muck and generally getting in the way while watching the locals go about the daily business of selling, sorting and cleaning their catch. There was one entire room a foot deep in prawns with a family of four sorting them into sizes, a man with a giant hook doing brisk trade slinging enormous ice blocks into crushing machines to keep everything cool, other men on their boats fixing up rigging and lights, bells ringing, horns beeping, trucks trying to reverse but being blocked by baskets and baskets of slippery looking squid. It was fantastic. A bit further on we went to the Bo Ai waterfalls. Here there are three falls spread over about 2-3km and you have to clamber over rocks and through pools, to get to the top. We had a well-deserved swim in the top pool before making our way back down and returning to Nha Trang for the sleeper bus to Hoi An.

A super chilled out town, you could spend days wandering around the narrow roads of the old town of Hoi An, with its pretty yellow buildings that blend traditional and colonial architecture, its many cafes and boutiques and its many, many, many tailors. There is also a beautiful stretch of beach, rice fields filled with buffalo and ancient tombs and endless rivers and greenery. In short, it’s pretty awesome.

We also went out to My Son about 50km out of town. The Vietnamese answer to Angkor Watt (though on a much smaller scale), these are the ruins of an ancient Cham Hindu temple complex, dating from 4th to the 14th century. Some are just clusters of red brick poking out from the overgrown grass but many are almost intact though very weather worn and with several statues placed inside the buildings for conservation. Here there were more small dark chambers filled with linga and various other statuettes and carvings honoring Hindu deities in their different forms. We were there right at midday and it was blisteringly hot, which was exhausting but meant there was hardly anyone around and made for a much more reverential atmosphere.

On the way back we wanted to take in China Beach, the famous R&R spot for American GIs. A huge stretch of sandy white beach and rolling waves, the bit we went to by Danang was a construction site for several kilometers, evidence of as Vietnam’s entry into the luxury resorts and 5-star hotel rat race – if you build them, they will come! A stop at a riverside cafĂ© for a beer and some nem was the perfect end to a lovely day.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New Year in 'Nam (14-25 Feb 2010)

Considering that three days before leaving we had no plane tickets and no visa, it was the mother of all Chinese holidays, Chinese New Year in China and its Vietnamese counterpart, the Tet Festival, it was a small miracle that we made it to Vietnam at all.

We’d been back in Shanghai for a week and still there was no news from Flo’s job and the outlook for the holidays looked bleak. Crappy weather, in a city at a standstill with nothing but the noise of non-stop fireworks for a week was not an enticing prospect. After a few days of umming and erring we managed, by the skin of our teeth, to get a rush visa from the Vietnamese Embassy before it closed for the week on Friday, and a last minute flight that took us through Hong Kong with a 6-hour stopover, but finally, we arrived. Being the first day of the New Year, public transport was minimal so we hopped straight in to a taxi bound for Mui Ne, kite surf-central and home for the next week.


We met up with a few friends over there – Nico and Kennon - and Max and Marie, also from Shanghai, arrived a few days later. After my successes in Puerto Princesa a few weeks earlier, I was all bravado about my kite surfing prowess… though I had still never set foot on the board I could feel this moment drawing ever-closer… indeed, with the wind in my hair and a beer in my hand, by midnight, I was pretty sure I’d have the whole thing nicely under control by the following afternoon. This was not to be.

Its not that I didn’t try, I really did, but once again, the elements outwitted me and most of the week went like this:

Breakfast, 9-10am. No wind.

10.30am pack stuff and head to the beach.

11am – wind arrives with gusto (sorry), we get kitted up, and we have lift off! The kite is in the air and we’re flying (along with the other 100 kiters on the strip)

11.30am-1pm – Flo watches helplessly from the beach as I flounder about trying to control the kite enough to get my feet on the damn board… not such an easy task when you can't touch the ground, are surrounded by other very large flying objects (in varying degrees of control compared to your own), occasional buoys demarcating swimming areas and of course, the more than occasional swimmer that thinks it's a laugh to run the kite gauntlet instead.

Usually by 1pm I had managed to get myself vertical once or twice for no more than few seconds before plunging face first into the water to emerge fuming and cursing like a spoiled child 500m downwind with a hefty walk back to start the process all over again. Fortunately, the wind tended to give me an excuse to stop at lunchtime by stepping it up a few notches and introducing some monster waves. The first afternoon I was ballsy enough to give it a go but learned my lesson after 20 minutes of being buffeted about above and below the water. It chewed me up and spat me out with my soggy smile wiped firmly off of my face.

By the end of the week the wind had completely dropped. It was time to bid the others farewell as they departed for Shanghai and Flo and I stayed on in the hope that it would be back but even a 14 metre kite was tough to fly so we called it a day and kicked back and relaxed. We took the opportunity to finally go to the Fairy Stream. On the excellent advice of my parents, we took an early morning, barefoot stroll down what is a really pretty, shallow stream that curves through the base of some remarkable red and white sand cliffs and ends up at a small waterfall. We were the only people in sight and had the early morning light illuminating the rosy cliffs and the satisfying sensation of the silken sand squishing between our toes.

We left Mui Ne on a bus bound for Dalat that we’d been assured was a full size coach and would have no problem to accommodate our obscene amount of luggage (3 kites and 2 boards do no light travelers make). Of course, when it arrived, it was a 25-seater with fun-size seats and a moped already installed in the front. We managed to squeeze in all the same and 3 bumpy hours later, arrived in Dalat.


Up in the central highlands, Dalat is a centre for agriculture and tourism though agriculture is the more visible with much of the surrounding hillsides covered with plastic greenhouses, churning out everything from chrysanthemums to avocados. Though not always the prettiest sight, it does make for an amazing local wet market with stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables so fresh and delectable that I yearned for a kitchen to try then all out.

We spent an afternoon roving the city and drinking coffee, were disappointed to find the lake drained of water and spent some time trying to navigate our way through back streets to find the Hang Nga Gallery & Hotel, known locally as “The Crazy House”, a hotel/gallery designed by a madcap female architect with a passion for breaking with the norm. When we did eventually find it, it was certainly pretty loopy. Filled with impossible angles, stairs that climbed up the neck of a giraffe, giant spider webs in the garden, animal themed rooms with said animals often featuring sinister red eyes, it was a bit like Disney on acid.

The next day we signed up for an “Easy Rider” tour around the countryside. A group of motorcycle guides with an excellent reputation for serving up their extensive local knowledge with wit and charm, the Easy Riders come highly recommended by other travelers and also my folks (John and Lesley having ridden with them from Dalat to Mui Ne a few years previously). With all this in mind,we got over our initial misgivings about the price – at $25 per person, its not the cheapest way to sightsee but our guide, Lou, assured us we’d be doing and seeing things we could not do independently and it would be well worth the price. In fact, if we weren’t happy at the end of the day, there was no need to pay, he was that confident.

Sadly our experience did not live up to the sales pitch, and after a disappointing morning which involved very little actual guiding and a few moments of genuine concern for our safety, we told them we’d prefer to continue the day on our own. The situation got a bit nasty and ended up with Lou brandishing a rock at us and shouting insults before angrily driving off, leaving us open-mouthed and in utter disbelief at the scene we’d just witnessed. Once we our wits returned, we went back to the hotel, hired a motorbike for $5 and went off to continue the tour we’d begun that morning.

It was a very unfortunate incident and one that didn't fit with all the other great things we'd heard, or the other guides we'd met who all seemed very genuine and nice. We just got the rotten egg of the group. Anyway, one of the benefits of the Easy Riders is that they do know where they’re going and once we struck out alone it wasn’t long before we were lost. I like to look at this as all part of the fun and often taking a wrong turn or two would lead us into lovely fields or coffee plantations, along streams and over rickety wooden bridges.

We accidentally visited Ankroet falls whilst looking for Elephant Falls, which we did manage to find eventually though a ridge of multi-coloured rubbish took the edge off what would have been an attractive view. We also went to the old train station to check out the old steam engine and Pullman trains before going out of town again, bound for Tiger Falls and on the way stopping at Linh Phuoc Pagoda which turned out to be an unusual temple and pagoda, every square inch of which was covered in a colourful mosaic of ceramics. After 5 years in Asia our eyes are a little temple-jaded so this was one of the prettiest and most unusual ones we’d seen for a long time. By the end of the day we were satisfied that we’d seen enough and booked ourselves on the bus to Nha Trang the following morning.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Homeward Bound (2-9 February 2010)

A Roundabout Return: Singapore – Malaysia – Singapore – Malaysia again – Hangzhou – Shanghai….

Finally, it was time to head home to Shanghai. We’d chosen the slightly unconventional and geographically illogical route of going via Singapore as we’d been railroaded into buying our return flight last minute at the airport (Filipino customs don't like you not to have an onward international ticket – understandable as it is an awesome country and we could easily been tempted to stick around longer) and Singapore was one of the cheapest options. We then planned to take a snoop around Malaysia before taking a budget flight from KL to Hangzhou.

So off we went to Singapore, where we stayed for a couple of days with friends, enjoyed the beautiful Botanic Gardens and did a bit of shopping. Flo had a meeting scheduled with his soon-to-be new company but in keeping with the process thus far, it was postponed to the following week. This turned out to suit us nicely as my good friend from school, Eleanor, and her man, Mike, were in Malaysia, in the first weeks of their epic journey back to the UK from Oz. I hadn't seen Eleanor or Mike since they’d moved to Melbourne 5 years ago and had missed their wedding the previous year so was determined to see them somewhere on the Asia leg of their trip. Just a few days behind them in Singapore and KL, we were glad to have the chance to catch them and flew to Penang where we spent a night in Georgetown before heading to our rendezvous point in Batu Ferringhi the next day.

It was the first time in Malaysia for both Flo and I and we spent sometime exploring the streets of Georgetown with its old colonial architecture (much of which looked sadly rundown and in need of a paintjob but still had the majestic air of times gone by), Little India, filled with colourful saris, the smells of delicious spices floating in the air and bhangra blasting out of every other store-front and of course, Chinatown also abuzz with activity. After a couple of hours under the blazing hot sun, the life and sightseeing spirit had been sucked out of us and, far more excited about an ice-cold drink than the old colonial fort, it was time to head for the beach.

Batu Ferringhi is not the place to go if you are looking for a deserted paradise. If you are looking for a beachfront consisting almost entirely of very large, very expensive international hotels with equally large swimming pools and pricey beer, then this is the place for you. Eleanor and Mike had won a prize of a weekend at a ritzy hotel which was very nice but where many of the guests, on what was presumably the holiday of a lifetime, looked frankly bored out of their skulls and a bit fed up. There was one guy in a wheelchair who whizzed passed us on the ramp down to the swimming pool, neatly swerving away from the water, and leaving the pool attendant with a very panicked look on his face.

“That’s the most fun I’ve had all week,” the guy chuckled at us as we walked past.

Flo and I stayed in a rather less salubrious place set back from the beach where baby mosquitoes bred behind the wall in the bathroom, coming out to feast at any opportunity, but at just 20 bucks a night, it was a bargain. We dined at the local restaurants on the beach anddiscovered the joys of breakfast roti and fresh pineapple juice in the early morning, before the jetskiers and parascenders were awake. Every now and then, we were reminded that we were in a Muslim country as mothers, encased head to toe by their heavy black burkhas, looked on as their husbands splashed about in the water with the children - two very different worlds indeed.

As well as hanging out, eating, drinking a lot of beer and reminiscing, Flo, Mike and I went out to do a circuit of the island on motorbikes. Eleanor was sick and stayed behind to suffer in 5-star comfort. I’m sure in those few hours we can't have seen all that Penang has to offer but we managed some hiking and a quick swim, saw some quite disappointing waterfalls and, from a distance, an enormous Chinese temple under construction.

We later all went back to Georgetown together before going our separate ways, glad to have caught up after so long.

We returned to Singapore for two days then took a bus back into Malaysia and up to Kuala Lumpur. We found ourselves a hostel in Chinatown that wasn’t in the middle of Petaling Street and the intense atmosphere and noise of the enclosed street market – not quite the Chinatown I was expecting, it was more like a nightmare version of Shanghai’s old Xiangyang Market choc-full of fake designers bags, sunglasses and more watches than you could shake a stick at. In the surrounding streets we found a more chilled out vibe with plenty of street restaurants and stalls, the whole place seething with backpackers.

I think KL would be a pretty cool city to live in but as tourists, three days here was plenty. We took in all the main sights, Chinatown of course and another Little India, the old mosque on the river, some museums, the Petronas Towers, the KL tower set amidst a tropical park and Central Market. Here we had our feet nibbled by Doctor Fish, an excruciatingly ticklish but very amusing experience though as far as ridding our feet of dead skin goes, I think they’d need to munch for a lot longer than 5 minutes.

We didn't make it up the Petronas Towers having not understood the ridiculous ticketing system where you have to queue from 7am to secure a time slot and returnlater that day to visit so by the time we rocked up at 4pm there was no chance. We weren’t too bothered though and were admiring them from the outside and then from the park that sits just behind, when the heavens suddenly opened with a vengeance and a wall of big black clouds appeared, completely obscuring them from view. We found ourselves a spot in a bar with a covered terrace on which to have a beer and wait out the downpour, smug in the knowledge that we hadn't wasted our time queuing only to go up and not be able to see a thing because of the rain.

The best view came later though when, taking the advice of Eleanor and Michael,we made our way up to the rooftop bar of the Trader's Hotel (a little nervous they might turn us away, waterlogged scruffbags that we were). There was no need to worry, it was still early and not too busy and being an mostly open bar, it was about as wet as us. We made our way around the swimming pool that sits in the middle (how cool is that?) to a window booth where we could enjoy what is probably the best view you're going to get of these amazing buildings. We enjoyed it so much in fact that we stayed till long after dark and spent about a weeks worth of hotel money on G&Ts.

When it was time to leave KL, we were both quite ready to get back to Shanghai, sleep in our own bed and catch up with our friends. It was a long journey given that we were flying into Hangzhou airport, a good 3 hours outside of Shanghai, but eventually we made it home, tired but happy.