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The Pirates of Halong Bay

By on Sep 28, 2012 in Vietnam | 0 comments

My tour bus driver has just been arrested…this was going to be one of those days. That’s what I’ve loved about Vietnam so far, its ability to throw a curve ball and sometimes you duck and miss it, other times it hits you square in the face. Today Niki and I joined a tour which we purchased through et-pumpkin to the majestic, mystical, mighty, magical and any other descriptive word starting with M, Halong Bay. About 3 hours from Hanoi, this world heritage listed site is known for its thousands of giant karsts and islands that dot this secluded bay. This was one of our honeymoon treats; however the local police had different ideas. See, we were picked up in a mini van, yes a rather large minivan, but nevertheless a minivan. Unfortunately though the local police viewed our transport as a small bus rather than a large minivan and promptly arrested the bus driver for driving a “bus” through the old quarter of Hanoi. Apparently there are laws regarding this. So as a small army, *cough*, sorry police truck rocked up, a couple of guards got out and told the driver to drive down the road to the station and hand himself in.  So he did. An hour later, not having even left Hanoi, we found ourselves still sitting in our large minivan watching our poor driver making dozens of phone calls, sorting out a bribe, *cough*, sorry a fine, being reprimanded for his mistaken confusion that his minibus was in fact a bus, with this all concluding with our driver jumping back in the van as if nothing happened and continuing along our way to Halong Bay.   The drive was pretty straight forward by Vietnamese standards, with a rest stop at the Humanity Centre. What, you’ve never heard of a Humanity Centre? Well, if you think it’s a place where good people, do good deeds, to help people in need, you would be absolutely wrong! It was a pottery and souvenir house, because “the only way to save humanity is to put a big arse statue in your garden”. I’m still not sure how we would get any of those statues home. Arriving at the pier in Halong Bay to board our beautiful teak Junk was an exciting moment. I felt like I was a pirate boarding a mighty vessel to drink some rum and find me some loot. When I turned to Niki and went “arhhhhh me lady, heave the sails, stow the ropes, lock up the whores and get me some rum” she simply said “I’m not with you and walk away”. I dropped my head in disappointment; I hadn’t even shown her my eye patch yet! We were joining the crew of the Halong Phoenix Cruiser, an opulent teak Junk big enough to fit about 25 people on board. We chose this boat as it was a good price at $100US per person, was small enough that it didn’t feel like a party boat yet big enough that you could have a good chat with people. Once we received the welcome spiel and our complementary fruity drink, we were assigned to our cabins.  Our a/c cabin was honestly amazing, with beautiful teak furnishings, an oriental atmosphere, a marble bathroom and a big 4 pane window that opened onto the bay. This was truly the way to sail and I felt like I had just added a tick to my list of things to do before I die. Looking at the other boats sailing by, ours was easily the most impressive and elegant.   After lunch, which had never ending delicious food, Nic and I decided to go kayaking. Let me get this right out from the start: Rule No. 3 of being married – Give your wife her own Kayak Okay, so Nic and I have a rather turbulent history when it comes to Kayaking, some may even say explosive, the word apocalyptic also comes to mind. See a year before we went to Laos and kayaked down the Mekong in a double kayak. The person in front controls the pace, the person behind controls the steering, or something like that. In this simple setup is where it all falls apart us – both of us want to steer and both of us want to set the pace. In the confusion we go no where, paddles start flying all over the place, insults start getting thrown around, a misguided paddle hits my head, water gets thrown at Niki and inevitably we both sit there saying nothing, sulking and seething whilst we get closer and closer to hitting a whole heap of rocks. Needless to say Halong Bay was no different. However getting past our wedded bliss, the kayaking was truly mesmerizing and tranquil as you slowly passed local water villages, spiritual grottos and colourful birds fluttering around the karsts. The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming and jumping off from the top level on the Junk, which isn’t for the faint hearted. I was living out every pirate and lost on a tropical island fantasy I’ve ever had. That is until I lost my balance as I was jumping from the top deck and landed sideways in the water. All I remember as I fell sideways was “shit, this wasn’t the way I was meant to die”. Nursing a few sore ribs, the evening finished off with Niki...

The Vietnam Conclusion

By on Apr 1, 2011 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Hello, What’s Your Name? A three week adventure around Vietnam.   After three intense and chaotic weeks of travelling through Vietnam, Nic and I had made it to our last destination, Ho Chi Minh City airport for our flight home. It was with a mix of sadness that we were to be concluding such a great adventure, yet relief as my travel worn body, challenged at every corner on this overland trip, was glad to be heading home to the comforts of a clean shower and a comfortable bed. We had done it! A journey that so many dream of and a journey that will remain with me for the rest of my life. In retrospect, Vietnam is what I had always been looking for in my South East Asian adventures, rough and ready travel, chaotic Asian influences, amazing food and the chance to really get off the beaten track with no one holding my hand. Yes I nearly got Niki injured a few times, yes Giardia is not a good travelling companion and yes I was pick pocketed, however we can’t overlook the most important aspect. We had successfully travelled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for our honeymoon and Niki and I were still married by the end of it (not to mention the rules of marriage I learnt) – that tells me my marriage is as strong as Vietnamese rice wine. Wrapping up the Hello what’s your name? Blog Series, I want to share my thoughts with you on a country that is rapidly opening to tourism and some of my highlights over the three weeks. Hanoi, like an estranged lover, just as you get close it bitch slaps you and puts you back in your place. I liked Hanoi for this reason. It’s a political capital city with hard liners and a do or die attitude which more resembles China than South East Asia. I won’t lie though, I can see why this city wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It’s not relaxing, you’re constantly on edge from touts and manic traffic and you never quite feel like you’re welcome. Halong Bay. It’s touristy, it’s expensive and its one of the best indulgent activities I have ever participated in. Let’s face it, this is Halong Bay, nothing else in the world is similar! Splash out and spoil yourself with this one, its well worth it. Sapa’s uniqueness comes from the gracious Hmong indigenous people of the area who single handedly make it worth the 12 hours of train travel it will take you to get here. Its cultural vibe is rivaled by nowhere else in South East Asia as its not staged for tourists like Thailand. Well worth a trek to Ta Phin if you get the chance and the whole experience is a must when travelling to Vietnam. Hoi An is Vietnam’s tourist town and is polished, buffed and presented in a neat package. Needless to say Hoi An is popular and you’ll be surrounded by tourists from all over the world and from all walks of life. However if you’re like me and you wish you could have seen Asia in the times when Singapore was the whore of the east, Hong Kong was the opium capital and sea traders ruled South East Asia, then Hoi An can give you a glimpse into what a trading port would have looked like. No opium or ladies of the night (not that I saw) but heaps of great restaurants, relaxed nightlife, clean beaches and of course lots of lanterns. Hue! I don’t really understand where Hue fits into Vietnam. Torn apart by war, centered on its cultural history of emperors and moving forward whilst watching its back. Perhaps I was in a travel low whilst here or perhaps travel shouldn’t always be fun, sometimes it should be hard going and thought provoking – which Hue certainly is. Nha Trang is a small town and reminds me of the coastal towns of Spain – English breakfast cafes, themed pubs, tourist development, the beach and not much to do. Nha Trang was comfortable but I personally don’t know why people stop there. The beaches are better near Hoi An, there aren’t many attractions and unless you’re into getting cheaply drunk all night………ohhhh that’s why people stop there. Apparently it’s a good dive spot too! Ho Chi Minh City. I have to admit I didn’t give enough time to explore this city, only staying here for two days. Saigon as it was formerly known is just as crazy, chaotic and thrill riding as you expect it to be. It’s also very sobering with the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace giving a horrific glimpse into Vietnam’s history. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time when visiting this city and hold onto to you knickers you’re in for the ride of your life! So with that I say thank you for sticking with me over the last five months, the trip to Vietnam was life changing. I really encourage you to visit Vietnam before it starts to open to the mass western tourism that so much of South East Asia has already adopted. Vietnam isn’t a walk in the park however if you’re thinking of travelling to Vietnam, you probably already know that.  That’s it for “Hello, what’s your name?” and with that I’d like to say my name is...

The Black Hmong of Sapa Vietnam

By on Jan 20, 2011 in Vietnam | 0 comments

I found this great promo video for a documentary that I wanted to share with you. It  explores the issues associated with the young Hmong women in Vietnam pursuing tourism as a way to survive. It’s not only thought provoking about how we travel and of our impacts on these remote destinations, however it also gives a rare insight into how the Hmong view tourism and their future. If your interested in finding out more about this documentary, check out Galloping...

Ho Chi Minh City – The Remnants of War

By on Jan 3, 2011 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Hello, What’s Your Name? A three week adventure around Vietnam. “Peter….arhhhhh….it hurts…..this isn’t good…..I think….oh hang on, maybe not…actually yep….I’m going to be sick!” And with that Niki shot out of bed and made a run to the bathroom of the hotel we were staying at in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My horrible friend Giardia, which I managed to loose in Hoi An, had made an untimely return, this time attacking Niki.  Sadistically, Niki falling ill has become a bit of a tradition of ours whilst travelling. Since I first met my now wife, we haven’t had a single trip where she hasn’t got horribly ill from Giardia or some other mysterious stomach ailment. The poor thing has her heart set on visiting India one day, however I reckon her stomach might explode if we do. Whilst noises vibrated from the bathroom similar to the sounds Chewbacca makes in the movie Star Wars, I sat on the bed reading my guidebook with a sense of accomplishment. We had made it to our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City. Given our hectic itinerary, we had only allowed ourselves one day to spend here before we flew home to Perth the next day. With Niki feeling under the weather, I reluctantly shrank our Ho Chi Minh to-do list down to the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum and Ben Thanh Market. Rule No. 15 of being married – Never under any circumstances tell your wife as she is in the bathroom being sick “May the force be with you”. You’ll regret it later as she walks out and says very sternly whilst grabbing hold of anything she can throw, “I’ll give you the bloody force”. With a bathroom stop along the way and a few traffic moments that had Niki looking familiarly like a stunned deer in headlights, we had successfully walked to the Ben Thanh Market. As soon I walked in and got lost in the labyrinth of everything from clothing, fabrics, produce, tourist products and handicrafts, I knew it was a bad idea to bring Niki here. The market was great, but coupled with the intense Ho Chi Minh humidity and the energetic, some may even say fearless, market touts pulling us in every direction, the unwell Niki was not going to cope. Realising the danger, I turned back to see Niki engulfed by ten ladies who were keen to sell her a life time’s supply of souvenirs. Then in a fit of slow motion heroicism, only fit for the movies, Niki scrambled free of their clutches and passed me in a slow run heading for the closest exit and bathroom. As I stood there watching her run with my jaw dropped, whilst the ten ladies looked at awe at the one person who ever escaped their clutches, I simply turned to them and said “That’s my wife” and took off after her. Leaving the market behind us, we headed for the Reunification Palace. Built in the 1960’s it was once the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, before being infamously photographed as the communist tanks rolled through the gates to signify the end of the war. The palace had been strangely left in a sort of  time warp of what it looked like on that  very day, with outdated maps, stuffed colonial animals, old photography gear, military aircraft and stately furnishings found throughout the palace and the grounds. Entry is 20,000d, just be aware that the ticket counters throughout most of Ho Chi Minh city close for lunch. After our interesting bit of time travel, we decided to grab a bite to eat and wait for the War Remnant Museum to open. After looking at a few restaurants, walking out of one due to the fact that they served snakes and something that resembled a porcupine, we found a great little cafe. It had to be good, it was full of Vietnamese locals. After 3 weeks of  South East Asian travel, their western food was great and Niki loved the fact that their bathrooms were modern and clean. Feeling well fed, we psyched ourselves up for the War Remnants Museum. I say psyched because from what I had been told, this museum was going to rip our souls apart, they weren’t wrong. The War Remnants museum is principally about the Vietnam/American war.  The grounds of the museum are dotted like a used car yard with American and Vietnamese weaponry. Everything from fighter jets and helicopters to rockets and bombs. Inside however, was a trip into the dark side of humanity. With exhibitions aimed at exploring the devastating impacts of Agent Orange, Napalm and the effects of war. The exhibits range from poignant photography of dismembered people to a real fetus showing the continual effects of chemical weapons on generations to come. It didn’t stop here though, the museum had also developed a realistic representation of a concentration camp and still months on I can still see the horrific images in my head. Niki had to walk out after the first exhibition with tears streaming down her face; she was uncomfortable with what was being shown and I could empathize with her. I on the other hand wanted to see it all, I thought it was the least I could do to remember the people who experienced the war and by the end, was emotionally drained and on the verge of tears...

Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh by Train

By on Jan 1, 2011 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Hello, What’s Your Name? A three week adventure around Vietnam. It had been one of those mornings as I sat in reflection on a dingy train bound to Ho Chi Minh City. Running out of money that morning when I had tried to check out of my hotel, and then spending 10 minutes frantically dashing around the various ATM’s  in Nha Trang. All whilst knowing I had less than 15 minutes until my train departed. Now as I looked down in my not so comfortable seat, I could see my fellow passenger literally sleeping under my feet on the floor, whilst her head lolled on her part of the seat. If this little hindrance wasn’t uncomfortable enough, my knees were now resting around my neck due to the large package placed in my leg space by sleeping beauty. I could have placed them in the aisle, however I run the risk of having them amputated by the megalomaniac driver of the food cart. To make matters worse, my wife had been placed in a different seat from me. As I looked across the carriage it was evident Niki was is a state of anaphylaxis shock. Tears were welling in her eyes, lips were uncontrollably trembling and a scary scowl that would make the devil seem like a good promotional face for L’Oreal. Originally I thought she was reacting to the fact that she wasn’t sitting next to me for the next eight hours, and who wouldn’t right? However looking closer at the situation unfolding, I thought this isn’t right. Then it clicked, everything fell into place and I understood why the nuclear like bomb was appearing behind her eyes. It wasn’t our separation, it was a pair of smelly overgrown feet with long yellow nails belonging to an old man behind her, whom had evidently taken the opportunity to shove them into the side of her stomach and  nudge her as he slept. It was like a matador teasing the bull and if it wasn’t so serious, I would have laughed. Because if you knew Niki, you would know her biggest pet hate is feet….let alone dirty feet. Rule No. 14 of being married – Suggesting to your wife to play “this little piggy went to market” with a strangers foot will get you the silent treatment. So in other words if you have nothing constructive to say to your wife, facebook it instead… Nic and I were in the closing days of our trip and making our way from Nha Trang to the legendary city of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is known today. Saigon has long enticed people by its almost wild west appeal, attracting people from all walks of life for its debauchery, craziness and exoticism. After our uncomfortable train ride, we disembarked into peak hour chaos of Saigon and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life – not even in Beijing, Bangkok or Rome! The traffic was gridlocked in a mass of cars with no lanes evident and no sense of direction. I had heard rumors about the traffic here, however thinking that I’d seen the worse in Hanoi, thought nothing could shock me…I was wrong. Bikes were zooming in every direction, cars where mounting sidewalks, taxis sat in the middle of intersections whilst other cars locked them in from the other direction. Buses were driving diagonally as they darted to pick up passengers and police officers were waving their hands like a conductor controlling an orchestra of bees. Gees if I had trouble getting Niki across the road in Hanoi, it was going to be bloody Mission Impossible here in Saigon. It was cities like this that make travel insurance worth it. Finally we arrived at our hotel, Madame Cuc’s Hotel 64, which we had booked a couple of days before. On arrival we were told that they didn’t have room available and we would be staying at a guest house down the street, however we would come back here to use the internet, breakfast and pay. Apparently this disgraceful practice is common in Saigon, so be prepared for it. Our room was small and had single beds, not as booked, and overlooked the busy D Bui Vien. I wouldn’t recommend this hotel, the service was a little sloppy, rooms very basic for the price and they tried to charge us double to get to the airport over what a taxi would. When we disagreed with the cost they all of sudden found a transfer that would take us for cheaper.  The story of Vietnam really. Grabbing a bite at a small food stall for dinner, we retreated to the bedroom to get some needed sleep. For tomorrow was our last full day, I was going to need every bit of my concentration to keep Niki alive and away from cars. As we fell asleep I heard Niki mumbling in her sleep “stinky feet, yuck”, I’m sure I was going to need to book her some serious therapy when we returned to...

Hue to Nha Trang By Train

By on Dec 28, 2010 in Vietnam | 0 comments

Hello, What’s Your Name? A three week adventure around Vietnam.   The first three hours of our twelve hour train ride to Nha Trang was stunning as it snaked its way along the coast of the China Sea. It was also the quietest of the trip as Niki was horrified into silence by the demanding conditions of our carriage. I on the other hand thought the rough and ready approach the Vietnamese had was great and was more than happy to risk my life eating poorly handled chicken and holding on for dear life in a room that resembled something similar to a bathroom thirty years ago. Nic and I were heading for the sea side town of Nha Trang via Danang (jump off here for bus connections to Hoi An) which was a solid twelve hours by train from Hue to catch up with a good mate of ours who had spent the last three months working as a promotional rep. Or at least that is the story we are meant to tell the world, the real story involves espionage, foreign relations and pick pocketing hookers – that’s another story though. Rule No. 13 of being married – Never lie to your wife about the condition of a train to lure her onto it. She will find out that there is no such thing as tourist class,  limited food options and that the bathroom is simply a  hole in the floor – this making the next 12 hours on the train a little awkward. After passing along the coast, the train veered inland past many rural towns, small commercial hubs and remarkable landscapes. Images from the puppet show in Hanoi were coming to life as I saw many people working off the land. Every time we pulled into a town, our windows became the centre of attention as beggars tried to find a way to get by. It was hard and I felt arrogant, but I couldn’t support them. The look in the hungry children’s eyes was gut wrenching and as the conductor “shooed” them off, I thought there had to be a better way to help these people without just handing money out? Arriving into Nha Trang at about 8 .30pm, we headed to the second best hotel we stayed at in Vietnam, Ha Van Hotel. Excellent location, great service, the best breakfast and polished rooms with no cockroaches! Nha Trang had an instant feel of a tourist town similar to those the British loved to visit in Spain or Greece; full of pubs, British breakfast cafes, Italian restaurants and a slightly naughty night scene. Grabbing a bite at a local restaurant that I can’t remember the name of, so its food must not of been any good, I just happen to see my mate walking down the street chasing some women to whoo to his bar – Guava. For the sake of confidentially lets call my mate Hot Dog. My mate hails from the land of the his majesty the queen, but don’t hold that against him. Hot Dog was one of those guys that everyone lovs and was always up for a drink and a good time – I could see why he found himself in Nha Trang. After having a quick chat and arranging to meet up the next day, we headed back to the hotel for some well needed sleep. Waking up to our one and only full day in Nha Trang, we strolled around this relaxed town. Nha Trang is all about the diving , so physical attractions were on the low side. Realizing this, Niki and I decided to head down to the main beach. Unlike the beautiful beaches of Hoi An, Nha Trang’s were cluttered with rubbish, mass development, noisy speed boats and slightly polluted waters. Not to mention a great Hollywood like sign construction on an island in a distance. It had seemed all the major tourism players like the Sheraton and Novotel had come to town and were exploiting Nha Trang for its full potential. That night we grabbed a bite to eat at Lanterns, a local restaurant that supports an orphanage in the area. The food was good and atmosphere was predominantly American. Catching up with Hot Dog after dinner, we headed off to pub crawl the town. There are three main bars to hang out in Nha Trang. The first being the Red Apple Club, a backpacker haven with cheap beverages and a no mercy approach to drinking everyone under the table. The second residing on the beach is the Sailing Club, which is an institution in Nha Trang. It has a funky Asian vibe with slightly over polished décor; any local mafia wouldn’t look out of place here. The final and my personal favourite, which just happened to be the place Hot Dog was working, was Guava. A groovy lounge bar with live bands, good priced drinks and a wicked atmosphere. It’s easy to crawl between them following the vibe and the Sailing Club is open to the early hours of the morning. Nha Trang definitely has a grungy party town vibe to it, however it is a little more blatantly commercial than other parts of Vietnam. If you’re in for a laugh though, Nha Trang can provide and as Hot Dog so expertly put it – “when you stumbling home at night and a...