Not Really a Blog

June 29, 2012

Mekong Delta

Filed under: Cambodia, Mekong Delta, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , , — jesus @ 05:11

To finish up my stay in Vietnam I decided to take a Mekong Delta tour during three days ending in Cambodia. These tours are very common in Saigon where you go for three days (two nights) and then you come back to Saigon. Anywhere you walk in Saigon you’ll find a travel agency where they advertise them. I don’t know if there are different types of tours, but I would generally avoid them if you are thinking of going yourself. Mine was not very good, and on top of that I had a bad experience with the hotel, the Nga Hoang Hostel, I was staying at in Saigon. If I were to do it again, I would probably travel by myself and choose the places I wanted to go, sleep in the area and avoid the worthless visits to different places where all they want you to do is to buy some stuff. Which is fair enough, but it gets old very quickly and you don’t get to see that many nice things.

Mekong Delta 3

Mekong Delta 2

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Anyway, the idea is not so bad though. You are supposed to go around the Mekong river south of Saigon and see all this area in all of its grandiosity. The river, the rice fields, the floating markets, etc. In the end, it feels more like you are in a theme park than anything else. It’s not so bad because you get to see some nice sights, but it feels like it’s not enough though. And, that you are taken to a theme park of Vietnamese stuff.

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Mekong Delta 49

Wanna see crocodiles eating ducks? how to make rice noodles? play with a big snake? being taken through one of the canals of the Mekong river? This is your place.

Siesta

Instead of returning back to Saigon, I booked a boat trip into Cambodia through the Mekong River, to get to Pnomh Penh, the capital of Cambodia. To me the most interesting thing on this trip was a visit to the floating market in Can Tho. You know, you are on a boat in the river and you go to this market made of tens of other boats where people are buying stuff and exchanging goods. And of course this has become a tourist attraction. Very funny, but interesting anyway.

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Floating market where you can buy coffee

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Fresh pineapple, ummm!!!

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Rice noodles

Fried rats with onions

Something on the menu, fancy it?

We were getting closer to the border and the weather was getting muggier and hotter, as we spent the last night in Chau Doc from where we were going to go, supposedly through the Mekong river, to Cambodia. And well, it turned out to be not the Mekong river proper, but a canal that goes along the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. Where we finally arrived, waited a couple of hours to get our passports sorted out and then finally we took off again on a different boat to get to Phnom Penh. Or that’s what I thought. In the end we went up the river for like 30 minutes where a bus was going to pick us up.

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Cambodia in the distance
Cambodia in the background

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Isn’t he cute?

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And isn’t she cute???

Now, this was my first encounter with Cambodia. Bus is a very loose term in Cambodia, it seems. Instead of what you could think, it was not actually a bus, but a van for around 12-14 people. There, they put us all, 20 people plus bags. You can’t imagine the scene? try hard, remember Twister? that’s basically what we did for 2 hours. It gets better. Driving at 100km/h and overtaking on blind spots while speaking on the phone.

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Untitled
The Canal

From Vietnam to Cambodia 8

Boat Driver
Boat driver

Welcome to Cambodia, this was certainly going to be an interesting country…

Bus or minivan (2 of 2)

The back of the van where we were squeezed in!!

More photos of the Mekong Delta and the trip to Cambodia.

June 6, 2012

Don’t stay at Nga Hoang Backpackers in Saigon

Filed under: Saigon, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , , — jesus @ 02:38

This post is more about balancing karma on the internet than any other thing. Well, also to provide some advise to people who are thinking of going to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.

While I was staying in Saigon last January  I stayed at a hostel named Nga Hoang because a friend I was meeting up with was staying at this place. I had a bad experience with this hotel and got really really annoyed, even more when I found out what they did a few weeks later. This is my way of paying back by not recommending people to go there. As I couldn’t go back to discuss the issue, I’m hoping this will make it to google and level the karma a bit. (See http://justinvincent.com/page/1874/yelp-you-cost-me-2000-by-suppressing-genuine-reviews-heres-how-you-fix-it for something background information about reviews on the internet)

The hotel is the Nga Hoang Hotel, or backpackers, whatever you want to call it. It’s got good reviews on hostelworld.com, but if you read carefully on the reviews, you’ll see that there are some people who are not having a nice experience there. I usually think there are a lot of whiners on the internet leaving bad reviews to places based on minimal stuff. And I don’t usually complain about minor things, unless I’m paying $100 a night. And so far this has been true on many hostels where I’ve stayed at. But when someone tries to rip me off blatantly and being a bad person, I feel really annoyed and I don’t let it slip.

My idea was to spend 3/4 days in Saigon before heading south to do a Mekong Delta tour so I booked one through this hotel.  I booked the Mekong Delta tour (three days, two nights) through this hotel because it had affordable prices and it’s always more convenient this way, less hassle. I booked it with two extras, going to Phnom Penh via the Mekong River on a slow boat (instead of returning to Saigon) , and a paying for a single room, otherwise I would be sharing with someone else. For the extra single room I had to pay $4 per day. So I did pay $8 extra for that.

I did pay her the money for the tour, the money for the extra trip to Cambodia and the money for the two nights in a single room and asked to have a receipt. She said that was not necessary. I insisted and got the same answer. (You can see where this is going). But hey, what am I going to do? Punch the owner of the hotel? Speaking of who, the owner (or well, the person who sits there all the time) is a woman of an interesting character. Interesting because she’s normally not nice and borderline rude sometimes. Maybe something to do with the culture. Anyway, I did not have any massive problems except asked to pay the money upfront for my room. Which by the way, despite having a booking, was not available. So the first night I had to sleep at a different hostel nearby, and then I went back to this hostel for the remaining 3 days.

During these days, I saw some huge arguments between her and some customers regarding breakfast, which was included in the price but she was not offering at all. I did not involve in those as I didn’t care much, but I did not have breakfast there, for the record.

On my last night there she reminded me of my upcoming tour:

Remember, tomorrow be ready at 07:30, three days, two nights accommodation, single room to Phnom Penh.

And so I was picked up the following morning at that time and I went on my tour.

Now, whilst going on this tour, on a boat, the guide came to me and said there was some kind of problem with my booking and he gave me a mobile phone and talk to someone. So I grab it, and here’s the owner of Nga Hoang Hotel who says:

You have to pay the extra single room to them.

Excuse me?

You have to pay $8 dollars to them to get the extra single room

Sorry, I paid that money to you <click>

I couldn’t believe it. She hung up on me. So I went to the guide and expressed in no unclear terms that this woman was a lier and that in no way I was going to pay the extra money as I already paid to her. Their problem, they go and sort it out, as they are the ones doing business with this woman.

End of story, I got my single room and I didn’t pay anything else.

I then left a bad (which is not that bad) review on hostelworld, warning about this woman. And I got a reply to that review (owners of establishments can reply to reviews. Now look at what they wrote there (You can find the reviews here, but they might disappear as people leave more and more reviews). I got a screen shot just in case it disappears:

Reply to my review of Nga Hoang

Reply to my review on Nga Hoang

So, read the reply, in perfect English (which she didn’t speak, just broken). I had a disagreement and I booked somewhere else, comments are meant for another hostel… Well played, but no, I stayed at your bloody hostel for 4 days you moron.

I really hope this makes to google so other people get a warning about this. I know that this hostel is recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide, so I will send them a message too.

And before you tell me that this might be excessive, think about how pissed off I was about this woman to write this long post.

Anyway, I’ve not had any other thing like that except one thing that happened in Thailand, but that was a Thai woman ripping off some other Thai people, but that’s another story for the future.

March 31, 2012

To Dalat and then Mui Ne

From Nha Trang we decided to visit Dalat, which is up in the Vietnamese Highlands. It’s a bit of a change compared to all the other places I’ve been in Vietnam as it is further inland and 1500 m above the sea level. The central highlands is a plateau that borders with Laos, Cambodia and other southern provinces in Vietnam. It also changes as it has a year-round cool weather due to its altitude.

So we decided to pay it a visit for a couple of days with the intention of hiring some easy riders and have some fun (more below).

Dalat is known for its French colonial architecture where the train station is probably the most obvious example.

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Train Station

But possibly the thing that most people know about Dalat is the Crazy House (Hằng Nga guesthouse). From wikipedia:

…popularly known as the “Crazy House”. Described as a “fairy tale house”, its overall design resembles a giant banyan tree, incorporating sculptured design elements representing natural forms such as animals, mushrooms, spider webs and caves. Its architecture, consisting of complex, organic, non-rectilinear shapes, has been described as expressionist. Its creator, Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga (also known as Hằng Nga), who holds a PhD in architecture from Moscow State University, has acknowledged the inspiration of Catalan Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí in the building’s design.

So, have a look at some of the pictures

Crazy House

Dalat's Crazy House 4

Dalat's Crazy House 6

Dalat's Crazy House 15

Yeah, Crazy crazy….

Marielle
Marielle

Marielle and I arrived to this city and spent a day and a half just enjoying it. And to be honest, the weather was just great, sunny and not hot. So we enjoyed walking its streets and eating its food. Really good. We even caught some action along the way.

Oooops
I think they are embarrassed

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Dalat 5

Wheel

More about Dalat (Full flickr set)

 

But what we really wanted to do is grab one of the Easy Riders for a ride around Vietnam. The Easy Riders is a term that now applies to many groups of people who do basically the same. They give you a ride on the back of a motorcycle around Vietnam. The original Easy Riders due to its popularity has made appear lots of spin-off which basically offer the same thing. The idea is that you choose what kind of itinerary you want and how many days you want to do it, and then they pack everything on the back of the motorbike (and the front), you jump in and then they take you around while stopping frequently on different places which are usually not easily reachable from main touristy cities (you might like the many spots they stop or you might not, but they are interesting nevertheless).

From Dalat to Mui Ne 1
That’s how they pack your stuff on the motorbike

We wanted a 4-day tour starting on Dalat, going around the border with Cambodia and then going south to Mui Ne, but due to the Tết Holiday (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) which was starting in two days, we just had to reduce it to two days. During these holidays basically everything shuts down (and they even say that finding bus tickets is difficult, but I didn’t have any problems. The easy riders stopped though). Well, I took a 2-day tour, Marielle took a 1-day tour as she had to go to Saigon to catch a flight. So be it, two days.

I have to say that the experience was awesome. A bit tiring, but a lot of fun. So, if you are thinking of going to Vietnam, don’t even think about it, just get on one of these tours. You’ll love it. Make sure you also have your camera with you (and, just unlike me, make damn sure your filters are properly attached to the camera, as I saw, like in snow motion, how my $80 polarizer filter dropped off my camera while we were going at around 80 km/h, seeing it crashing on the asphalt. I think I shed a tear).

Among the highlights:

American Airport
American airport abandoned in Dalat

Weasel
Weasel (AKA shit coffee)

I think I have to introduce you to the weasel coffee. So, they feed weasels with coffee beans that go through their systems. Then they collect them from their droppings (good euphemism) and then they toast it as normal coffee. It seems it’s one of the most valued coffees in Vietnam. More information in Wikipedia. As I’m no fan of Vietnamese coffee (sorry guys, I kind of hate it), this didn’t actually made me appreciate it more.

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Me trying weasel Coffee :-P (Photo courtesy of Marielle)

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My rider

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From Dalat to Mui Ne 26

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The Highlands

Dead Snake
Dead Snake

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From Dalat to Mui Ne 37

Oh yeah
Little I knew that my filter was about to drop off :-(

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Kid on a bike
Kid on a bycicle (Love this photo)

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Feeling the speed

And finally I arrived to Mui Ne. I have to say that I really liked this. It was fun and I got to see parts of Vietnam I never thought I was going to see. I really liked the ride through the forest going from the highlands down to sea level. It was actually a shame to see that so much forest has been destroyed due to Agent Orange, as you see big chunky patches missing. The parts where there’s still forest/jungle, it’s actually very very cool.

So now you know, boys and girls, if you go to Vietnam, get one of these, get on a predefined tour or a tailored one, and enjoy yourselves! :)

(Full flickr set)

March 26, 2012

Experiencing Nha Trang

Filed under: Nha Trang, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , — jesus @ 12:00

We arrived to Nha Trang after a bit of a horrible train trip. I was travelling with Marielle, a swedish girl I met in Hanoi who I met again in Hoi An. We were going in the same direction and so we decided to have the same itinerary to make our trip more fun. We decided to take the train because it’s way more confortable than using the bus and we both had had pleasant rides on trains in Vietnam before. It turned out this train trip was going to be a bit different.

We had to go back up north to Danang as there is no train station in Hoi An, so we could catch the night train to Nha Trang. Air Conditioned cabin, upper berths. Sounded like a good plan. But when we jumped on the train we discovered that there wasn’t much of AC. Instead there was some air coming from the ceiling but that didn’t make things easier. Plus, the beds were not that clean, and there were some bugs crawling around. Yay!!! On the lower berth there was a woman with a little kid who was crying all the time and a woman who was totally wrapped up in winter clothes and covered by a blanket!!! And we were sweating the moment we got in. This was going to be fun.

So, we tried to sleep. I think I slept some. I don’t know, I only recall being like feeling like I was under the influence. Half asleep, half awake, feeling how sweat drops were all around. Not a nice ride at all, so when the first daylight rays got through the window, I got up and got out of the cabin. Don’t know how I survived there, really :-)

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But, the train was going down south along the coast while the sun was rising and I was able to see an amazing sunrise, so I went to take some pictures:

From Hoi An to Nha Trang 8

From Hoi An to Nha Trang 9

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Coming back to the cabin, we actually discovered that the kid downstairs was really cute and sweet :-)

From Hoi An to Nha Trang 14
Marielle and the kid

From Hoi An to Nha Trang 21
This is the kid posing while I took the photo

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Just Cute

So we arrived at 08:00 to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a very touristy city in Vietnam, famous for its beaches. Reminded me of Benidorm in a way. Full with russians and having a not so good reputation towards tourists who come here. We read somewhere (I think it was on wikitravel) that it was full with kamikaze hookers. You know, girls/hookers who come harassing you after you exit a club and then they hug you while they empty your pockets of valuables!!! We didn’t see any of this, to be honest.

A note on wikitravel. Don’t believe everything that’s put in it. I have the impression that, being a collaborative effort, it’s kind of full of generalizations made by people who had a bad experience and they write it down to make it look as if that’s a common event. Also, I’d say the same thing about the lonely planet guides too. Some common sense thinking needs to applied here :-)

Anyway, as we arrived in Nha Trang so early, our hostel room were not ready. So we left our stuff at the hostel and went straight to the beach for a swim, just because we needed to remove all that night sweat from us! And it was warm. First place that we could call summer. And it was very very welcomed. Getting rid of all of our winter stuff was a relief!

Nha Trang 1
Nha Trang Beach

There we met Brad, a cool dude from the USA who was travelling across South East Asia too. And was into photography as well (Check out his flickr stream)

Nha Trang 2
Brad

Nha Trang is full of water sports. Diving, boat parasailing (I don’t know how this is called in English, really), water skiing, etc. We just took it easy and enjoyed a tour on a boat that would take us to a few islands. I also did some diving which was really good as I hadn’t been diving for many years. The water wasn’t very clear but it was not the best time of the year to go diving anyway.

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Off you go girls

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Parasailing

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Sailor

Boat ropes
Boat Ropes

Jumping III
This was FUN! :-)

Brad and his faces II
Brad had amazing faces!!

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The Lady Boy moment

The barman
He ended up being our bar tender in the water!

Now the funny anecdote in Nha Trang. This is possibly a good summary of Vietnam, in my opinion. So we went to this place to have dinner. Apparently good. It was like 10 of us, more or less. They had a variety of different dishes, european and Vietnamese cuisine, so, oriented for tourists. I ordered, if I recall correctly, chicken with lemongrass. There was a girl who ordered chicken with curry or something similar. Now, what happened is that this girl got served a dish which she didn’t know what it was. On asking they said it was the chicken curry so she started eating it. 5 minutes later, they arrived with another dish with chicken and they said chicken curry. Hang on a minute, chicken curry again? This can’t be, what am I eating here?

So, as it happens, she was given my chicken with lemongrass which she eat half of it when the proper chicken curry dish came. Argument for a while, trying to decide whose fault it was and trying to get another chicken with lemongrass for me (I needed to eat it anyway). Them saying that it was not their fault (despite saying at the beginning that was the curry dish). Anyway, this girl asked them to get another chicken with lemongrass for me and pay for it. Fair enough, we were not going to ruin the night for a few dollars.

Now, 5 minutes later these guys come to me and they bring me a dish and say: Here’s your chicken with lemongrass. Thanks!. I look at it and I don’t see any lemongrass in it, just chicken with pineapple. So I call the guy to take it back as they’ve given me the wrong dish. They apologize and they take it back. Ok then. 5 minutes later they come again and they put a dish in front of me. I look at it and it’s the same pineapple chicken dish. What the hell? Now I call them again, a bit angry, and look at the logic of the conversation:

Sorry, this is not the chicken with lemongrass I’m waiting for.

Yeah, but if I take it back then I will have to pay it with my money.

Well, that’s not my problem. I ordered chicken with lemongrass, no? so you guys have made a mistake.

No no, you pay for it.

Excuse me, I don’t want this, why would I have to pay for something I haven’t ordered? I want chicken with lemongrass.

But I can’t pay for it. It’s not my fault.

It’s not your fault? So whose fault it is?

etc etc.

I don’t like you, and I don’t like this restaurant.

So, I’ve seen this a bit too much. In the end it was all a good laugh, but I had to eat the frikking pineapple chicken. It just that they didn’t even bother to apologize. They kept dealing with the issue as if it was our fault and they were not doing anything wrong.

But anyway, it gave us a few moments to have good laughs! :-)

Update: Thanks to Rishi for letting me know about parasailing.

March 20, 2012

Hoi An

Filed under: Hoi An, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , , , , , — jesus @ 13:44

Hoi An is this little precious town which was initially a fishers village and now has become a full tourist attraction. It survived the war fairly well, and now it’s regarded as a lovely destination for tourists. Part of it is the small size and traditional atmosphere you see here (French style). And mainly, too, because it has around 450 tailors who will make suits and other clothing items for you in a matter of days.

Hoi An 9
A vendor at the beach

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It also has this…

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Hoi An 14

Hoi An 60
French style?

Here’s the deal, you go to one of these tailors where you can choose a suit from their extensive list of models and get it done in two days. Not only that, you can show them a photograph of a clothing item you like (or bring an old one) and they’ll copy it within days. And cheaply. And when I say a clothing item, I mean anything. You can bring your favourite Nike shoes and they’ll copy them, in different colours if you like!!!

Now, you can imagine, hordes of tourists who only come here to get stuff done and have it sent back home, spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars to have tailored-made suits and dresses, at a fraction of what you’d have to pay back at home. It’s not that every other tailor is this town is good, but you’d like to shop around and find someone who has a good reputation (search online) if you want to have the best outcome at the best price. So my advise is, if you are visiting Vietnam and happen to pass by Hoi An, do a bit of looking at home, for something you like, take a photo, copy it from a magazine and bring it with you to get it ‘copied‘ in Hoi An. Because you’ll want one of these. And it’s fun to try anyway! :-)

Boyfriend Blazer
At one of the tailors…

The city has an interesting atmosphere. Apart from the suit business, it’s full of small restaurants, most of them oriented to the tourists, where you can have really interesting and cheap (and good) food. Its colonial French style gives the houses an interesting and pretty look. This frenchness can be also appreciated in the food, finding normal coffee everywhere (Vietnamese coffee should have a post of its own) and baguettes with butter and jam for breakfast.

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Espresso Machiato
Umm, real coffee! :-P

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Hoi An 20

Hoi An 13
Happy Hour all day long…

The other thing that catches your attention is the number of shops selling lamps, very colourful lamps that you can buy for nothing, and they make a good present.

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Hoi An 3
You could buy these and put them on the river

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Hoi An 32

It's sunny, make love!

If you end up buying some stuff, don’t carry it with you, go to the post office and have it sent home, via airmail. I’ve used the Vietnamese post service a few times and have found it to be very reliable. You just show up with your stuff, they’ll put it in a package, wrap it up and fill in most of the forms you have to use. Very convenient.

And then, there’s the people of Hoi An, young and old:

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Isn’t she pretty?

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Playing in the street

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I know, I know, I said people…

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Awesome lady!

When are you coming? :-)

March 11, 2012

Hué

Only spent a day and a half in Hué. I somehow didn’t particularly like it. I have this theory about liking a city, where , when  you don’t like a particular city, it has to do with your mood during those days. And I don’t know about you, but my mood changes a lot during this trip! :) Or maybe, it was the welcome I got when I arrived to Hué and went for a stroll…

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I was on my own on this city and I joined an organised tour to see the city. I’m hating these tours, but I came to this realisation after doing a few of them. They are too constrained, as they take you from place to place where you have limited time to see it, and generally you are being hand-held all the time. They even tell you when you can take pictures ‘Sir, now take pictures‘ ‘Oh, really? Thanks‘. On the other hand, it’s a good way to meet people, on these trip I ended up meeting three nice australian girls who I would see again in Nha Trang. You keep bumping into the same people on different places. this is good if you like their company. Not so good if you don’t like them (oh, it’s you again (smirk)).

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Anyway, Hué is interesting from a historical point of view. Here the battle of Hué took place (remember Full Metal Jacket)?. It’s kind of weird to be in one of these places where all this Vietnam war happened (sorry, American War as it’s called in Vietnam). But well, it’s not only about recent wars. You can visit many temples and other places in the city, like the Citadel.

Have a look at some of the views about this city.

Hué 10

Hué 11

Hué 14

Hué 16

Hué 18
Car that belonged to Thich Quang Duc

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Hué 26

Hué 30

I specially liked the market, where you don’t get to see many foreigners and see the real Vietnam. Markets in this part of the world are even more boiling with life. You see all sorts of people selling everything. Clothing, accessories, amulets, roots, meat, vegetables, everything.  And it’s full of food stalls where you can try real cheap-ass food, sometimes not knowing what you are eating. But that’s part of the experience and what makes it interesting.

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Hué 32

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Hué 38
Yummy!

But maybe, it was that it was raining (again) and that made me not like this city very much! Rain Rain Rain, when are you going to go away? ;-)

March 10, 2012

From Ninh Binh to Hué

I really don’t know any more which day it is now. I mean, I know the number, as I base my bookings on that. I also know when my visa is expiring. But I don’t know if it’s a Thursday or a Sunday. Not anymore. I guess this is what happens when you are doing pretty much every day the same thing and there are no ‘weekends

That’s what happened to me when booking a train from Ninh Binh to Hué. I thought it was going to be on a Sunday, but it ended up being a Tuesday Morning.

Anyway, I had this train ticket I had bought in Hanoi to go to Hué. I found out that I paid some commission at the hostel. OK, fair enough, they did all the work and I didn’t have to go to the train station. In Hanoi. Beep beep.

But today, I was talking to this girl at Ninh Binh train station. She’s German, but from Vietnamese origin, so she looks totally Vietnamese, and people treat her as a local, until she speaks, because she only has a basic command of Vietnamese.

  • Yeah, I look Vietnamese but I pay foreigners’ price.
  • Foreigners’ price? What?
  • Oh yeah, they have a two-tier pricing system here. Institutionalised.

Fantastic. I still don’t know if it’s true or not. But on the tickets themselves it’s printed with a big font: Foreigner

Score: Vietnam 5 – Jesus 1

From Ninh Binh to Hué
Typical Vietnamese Train

From Ninh Binh to Hué
My cabin

I had a ticket for this soft sleeper on an empty cabin, just for me. Boring. Almost every carriage was empty. And I had 12 hours ahead of me on this train. Only the people who work on the train are using one of the cabins. Luckily, after one stop more people come in and it becomes nicer, as you see you are not the only one travelling on this carriage.

From Ninh Binh to Hué
Empty train

Alright, what do I do? The train is moving. There’s nobody in this train except two women and a semi-naughty kid on the adjacent cabin. Get some sleep? No, too noisy to get some sleep at 10 in the morning. Try some music? Could do, but I still have 12 hours ahead of me…

It was obvious that this was going to be a really boring trip, 12 hours trapped in this metal cage without having anyone to talk to.

From Ninh Binh to Hué
Kid next door

But as it happened, the guys working on this train were very nice and they somehow managed to get my attention. First, one of the girls gave me some sunflower seeds, like the ones we have in Spain, but not salty at all. And while I was eating them, a middle-aged woman called me from 5 cabins away. Intrigued I went there and found all these guys who work on the train. They were all sitting comfortably there.

Three girls, one guy and this woman. Ah, yes, and a Spaniard. All the conversation carried in Vietnamese, as English was only spoken by a couple of them, and by English I mean a variation of ‘How are you?‘, ‘What’s your name?‘ and so on.

So what happened is that each of them sat in front of this woman, who had deployed a table-cloth on the train seat, on which she put some cards, while all of them paid attention to her. WTF? After a few moments, I figured it out. She’s a fortune-teller. In Vietnamese. Awesome!

Fortune Teller
Fortune teller in action

From Ninh Binh to Hué 13
more fortune telling

So I sit there for like an hour watching the whole thing fascinated while I try to speak some rudimentary English with one of the girls, who had a limited vocabulary and pronunciation. At the same time I’m paying attention to this woman and the reaction on these guys. Well, trying to get their body language, because to say this was a conversation would be a bold statement.

I was enjoying watching all of that, actually. When the lady finished we all moved to my compartment (except the lady, who wanted to get some sleep ;-)) and they all tried to engage me in some conversation. They either kept my company as way to spend some time or they really wanted to know more about me because they don’t see many like me (I know, I know, one of a kind…). Probably they were equally bored about being trapped on a train to Saigon (36 hours)

And to top it up, the kid sleeping next door joins us attracted by the smell of some Oreos cookies, so a lot of fun was guaranteed.

From Ninh Binh to Hué 30
Oreo cookies, anyone?

From Ninh Binh to Hué 19

I have to say that the Vietnamese have surprised me in many more ways than the Chinese. While they try to squeeze a few dollars off you, when buying stuff or negotiating a taxi, etc, they always do it with a smile and, true, they try to get your money. But the normal people you see on trains, hostels, etc, they seem very very nice, and they actually are very friendly by inviting lame foreigners like me to share a bit of their lives, which has made me very happy on all of these tiny moments so far :) It’s nice to get to talk to local people and know a bit about their lives (and I guess them knowing a bit about mine too)

From Ninh Binh to Hué 12
Fun and giggles

From Ninh Binh to Hué 15

From Ninh Binh to Hué 18

This trip has been very enjoyable, what looked like a train trip from hell turned out to be a fun trip. There was even more to come. Apparently one of these girls seemed to fancy me as she gave me her phone number. Like she saw my phone, grabbed it and put her number on it. She didn’t speak any English so I’m still wondering what she was thinking, as most of the time she was ‘translated‘ by the other guy. This one even wrote on my notebook ‘Dung loves Jesus‘ (I think he meant ‘likes’ instead of loves). To which I tried to reply with ‘everybody loves Jesus‘ but they didn’t understand the pun ;-)

From Ninh Binh to Hué 26

From Ninh Binh to Hué 28

And now the other girl moved the conversation about whether I was married or not and whether I wanted to get married and, specifically, married to a Vietnamese girl. Oh, I can see where this is headed. He he he. And, the thing is that all of this was happening while I was cracking up and didn’t have anyone there to tell this story while it was unfolding :-)

From Ninh Binh to Hué 17
Rice fields along the way

From Ninh Binh to Hué 22
And the kid who would not stop

This way, a 12 hour train ride to Hué that looked like it was going to be hellish turned into an entertaining day.

From Ninh Binh to Hué 21

And then I got to Hué, got to my hostel finally. I took a taxi which reminded my of my first day in Hanoi. Again, they try to scam you and get more money. You get approached, no, harassed when you get off the train by all these ‘taxi‘ drivers and they offer you a flat-price ride to your hostel. Where flat is 100000 dong ($5). But I thankfully had done my homework and had found out that the taxi rate in Hué is 15000 dong ($0.75) per km. Telling these guys that you want to use a metered-taxi for 15000 dong makes them disappear. And when they disappear you can see the official taxis that use that rate. Total fare in the end was 45000, so a bit less than $2.

And, 22:00, I need some fresh air and I go for a stroll around the hostel. Just have an hour. Guess what? you get approached by moto and cyclo drivers. Every 5 minutes, and the conversation goes like:

  • Where you going sir?
  • Just want to walk for a bit.
  • I can take you anywhere.
  • No thanks, I want to walk.
  • Marihuana?
  • No thanks
  • ‘sniff, sniff’ (while he does the snorting gesture)
  • No, thanks.
  • Boom Boom? Girls, pretty girls?
  • No thanks.

(If you are interested, it’s $20 for one of these girls…).

Anyway, welcome to Hué.

February 25, 2012

Ninh Binh

Filed under: Ninh Binh, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , , , , — jesus @ 12:00

I was hoping to go south seeking warmer climates and different scenery, but Amy and Mike recommended me to stop in Ninh Binh for a couple of days to explore the area as it supposed to be pretty. They were right.

Ninh Binh 1

The city itself is like 3 hours south of Hanoi by minivan, with not much in it and not many foreigners. They come usually on a day-long trip so they don’t usually stay overnight. You can tell because there’s nothing for tourists in the way of restaurants, bars and other tourist oriented establishments. And that’s good, because you get to experience the Vietnamese style. On the other hand, once it gets dark there’s absolutely nothing to see or to do. Zero, Nada, Kaput!

Like the eatery I found on my rented motorbike. I was going around and I saw this dodgy-looking eatery that was full of local people, so I decided I had to tray that. If it’s full of locals it has to be good.I was welcomed  by big smiles and fascination looks as I think they must not get many foreigners there. The food was really good and I kept coming back for the rest of my two days, as good food plus beer for 42000 dong ($2), what can possibly go wrong? I even took Santuu and Ella, a finnish couple I met at my hostel there so they could enjoy it and come again if they wanted as they were staying in Ninh Binh for longer. :)

Ninh Binh 86
The machine!!!

There are a definitely a few interesting things you can visit in Ninh Binh.

The city of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital, was the capital of the old Vietnam back in the day. There you can see a few temples and other random ruins. It’s interesting to note that it’s full of Chinese tourists. Dunno why. Interesting for a couple of hours, better if you get a guide who explains the history to you.

Ninh Binh 4
He took a photo of me, I took one of him

Shadow

Ninh Binh 5

But if you are interested in landscape and nature, you definitely have to visit Tam Coc and Mua Cave.

Tam Coc is this river across mountains (same style as in Guilin) where  you can hire a boat and you get taken around this river while you look at the fantastic scenery and go through a few caves, one of them is 120 metres long. The fascinating thing apart from the scenery is that these guys row their boats with their feet. Yes, feet, not arms, so it makes for a nice photo moment.

Tam Coc 1
Feet rowing

Tam Coc 4
Isn’t it amazing?

Tam Coc 6
Fishing

Tam Coc 9

Tam Coc 10
Getting out of one of the caves

Tam Coc 15
A shame it’s not sharper

Tam Coc 17

Not just photo moment, it’s just mesmerizing to look at them how they do it, as they are really really skilled. Totally recommended.

If you have a look at wikitravel and/or the Lonely Planet Guide, they warn you about people trying to hard sell you things on your return trip (on the boat) and getting really aggressive and rude if you don’t buy anything. Not my experience though. True, there are people there who try to sell you stuff, but if you refuse politely all is good. All you need to do is give them a small tip at the end of the trip and that’s it.

Tam Coc 3
One of the vendors

There’s this other place called Trang Ang Which is basically like Tam Coc but less crowded and apparently nicer. I didn’t have time to see it but just saying in case anyone wants to pay a visit as they say it’s less crowded than Tam Coc and you get to see the same kind of scenery.

Mua Cave is this cave at the bottom of one of these mountains. A bit difficult to find actually, so you’ll need a scooter or a bicycle and, armed with the map, ask locals for directions. The cave itself is not really great, to be honest. Just a hole at the bottom of
the mountain which lets you get literally to the other side.  It’s just like 60 metres at most.

Mua Cave 18

Mua Cave 15
What you see is Tam Coc

Mua Cave 20

But the interesting things for me were the pond at the bottom where I could take some amazing pictures (lucky me) and the stairs to the top of the mountain.  I arrived late in the afternoon when it was getting closer to the sunset and the pond, with its lighting and crystal clear water it seemed fantastic. Just check the photos! :-) (more on flickr)

Green Reflections III

Mua Cave 1

The stairs have around 500 steps that take you to a kind of sanctuary on the top of the mountain. There you have an amazing view of Tam Coc (the river on one side) and rice fields (on the other side). Really really nice! (Big warning, there are mosquitoes of the tiger variety, and this was Vietnam’s winter, so be warned if you go in the summer.

Mua Cave 12
The start of the 500 steps

Apart from these, there are a few other spots you can see close to Tam Coc, like a small pagoda and temples in a cave on a mountain, not much, but you can climb to the top (with someone who will take you up there for a small fee) where you can get a pretty good view of the area. Difficult and  dangerous (really) but worth the visit, as you get a nice view of the area (which must look amazing if you get it on a clear day)

Let me take a picture of you
They get the ‘let me get a picture of you’ treatment :-)

Ninh Binh 31

Ninh Binh 34
Our ‘guide’

There’s also a set of temples around 25 km away from the city.  That’s the Bai Dinh temple area. It’s interesting because it’s got a pagoda in construction. And they seem to be building this huge complex to visit it, including a road through some tunnels across nearby mountains. But you’ll definitely need a scooter to visit it.

Ninh Binh 20

Ninh Binh 21

Ninh Binh 17

Ninh Binh 19

Ninh Binh 27
Before you say anything, have a look at the history of the Swastika

In summary, I liked it. I thought it was pretty and interesting to see, plus the city is mostly interesting as it doesn’t have almost any tourists, so you are seeing a real Vietnamese city!

Mua Cave 22
Bye, bye. See you next time!

February 24, 2012

Halong Bay

Who hasn’t heard of Halong Bay? Or who hasn’t seen a picture of Halong Bay? Well, I had, and I had felt fascinated by it, its ghostly waterscapes, so much that I wanted to visit it badly. Having seen amazing pictures on the internet had made my desire grow stronger. I just wanted to take my camera with me and shoot away at the amazing scenery, hoping to have great weather and perfect images, combined with a nice stay in the area.

Halong Bay 58
The place looks like this

As it happens the place is a tourist trap and for this and other reasons it was a bit disappointing. The weather wasn’t good at all,  with temperatures dropping to a maximum of 13 Celsius precisely the day I was going there, so enjoying Halong Bay in the typical way, standing on the top of a boat while you go around the thousand islands was no longer an attractive option. Also, being it a tourist trap, the place is overcrowded with boats targeting all sorts of tourists, from the party-alcohol-fuelled-goer to the more senior-citizen holiday kind of thing. Water is dirty on many spots due to the large amount of boats leaving diesel residue behind. If you add to it the possibility of drowning on one of these poorly maintained boats, then choosing whether to go or not is no longer a simple question.However, the place is fantastic, and deserves a lot of praise regardless of its shortcomings. So I went!

Cold Halong Bay
It was this cold

Upon arriving to the main dock you realise how big this tourist trap is, seeing hundreds of boats coming and go, buses loading and unloading tourists without stop. And, all of this during off-season. I can’t really imagine what this must look during the peak season. Shortly after arriving you aboard a small boat that takes you to the main pirate boat, one of those that has a resemblance with the typical Chinese junk-style boats (mind you, they are just modern boats).

Halong Bay 1
Tourist Trap Alert

Halong Bay 70

You usually get to one of these boats using a travel agency in Hanoi who offers you a tour/package in Halong Bay, where you can choose whether to stay one or two nights being the second night on an island or again on the same boat. There are prices for everyone, but everywhere you search on the internet (and on the lonely planet guides) it recommends not being tight with your money as getting one of the $50 dollar-mark tours can very well leave you on a boat infested with rats and cockroaches, and a horrid experience to remember. From there you can go up to more than $400 for just 2 nights although most tourists settle for something around $130, which is fair enough for the amount of staff you get (apart from accommodation, you get food and transport, but not drinks). Some tips to book Halong Bay tours here.

Halong Bay 49
You will be in a boat like this

Mine was called Party Boat and despite what our agent had sworn (no party, it’s just the name) there was some party. Mainly because all of these tours are led by a guide who’s not only a guide but also someone responsible of making everyone have fun, which on a boat called party boat involves putting loud music and trying to get everyone to dance and sing all the time. I guess that you know the type.

The party boat
Halong Party Boat :-/

However, as the weather was not that nice and the bunch of people aboard were closer to 30 than to 20, most of our guide’s efforts were futile. Good. Except there was a fairly large group of young Australians during the first day who were generally nice, but there were two dudes in this group who wanted to make a career at annoying people. They decided they wanted to piss everyone off and so they did put the karaoke system on full power late at night, trying to sing every song in the most ridiculous and stupid way, screaming and yelling and generally trying to keep everyone awake while they were getting high on booze. To make you an idea, they even tried to sing Dido’s Here with me. I was considering the option of making them walk the plank into the sharks…cold water. I survived that and learnt a couple of card games from fellow travellers!

Anyway, apart from these two, we were a nice group. A couple from the UK who just got married (Amy, Mike and their friend Sally), another couple from England and Germany (Laura and Dennis) and a few other made the group we were in. And we had fun in this group :)

Halong Bay 36
Amy and Sally

Halong Bay 41
Mike

Halong Bay 27
Dennis and Laura

And Jeremy, our tour guide (Jeremy was his chosen western name). He was trying desperately to rock us (come on, party party) while we had cold-stone faces (What are you doing dude?). I think he felt really frustrated that we were not responding.

Halong Bay 4
This is not Jeremy, though! :-)

But hey, it was frikking cold outside and he wanted us to party on the boat, play sports on the beach and get ourselves wet in the freezing water, as if it was summer. No exception ;-) Funny though.

Halong Bay 25
He managed to convince Mike to play football

Mike, cold
But later he was recovering like this

I chose the two nights/three days tour. It’s the right amount of time, methinks. If it were not because I had to use three blankets at night to keep myself warm in bed ;-).

You typically stay on the boat while they wander around taking you to nice spots and cool beaches, mixed with activities like hiking the hill on one of these island, playing beach football or kayaking.

Halong Bay 21
Hike to the top

Halong Bay 44
kayaking if you wanted to get your ass wet

Halong Bay 23
This would have been so nice being warm and having a mojito in my hand…

At the same time you are taken to floating villages, caves and pearl farms which makes the experience interesting.

Oyster
A pearl

Halong Bay 33
A vendor on a boat

Halong Bay 65

Halong Bay 40
Did I say it was cold?

It was a shame that it was very cold, because the colour of the water invites you to jump in, no matter what time in the year it is. Watching the sunset and sunrise was magical nevertheless. Sure I didn’t see the sun (for three weeks) and couldn’t get the amazing colours you see on photos everywhere, but still the light seemed kind of magical. You just fantasize you are in a pirate boat and this is your little empire ;-)

Halong Bay 7
Colours

Anyway, Here there are a few photos I took in Halong Bay:

Halong Bay 28

Halong Bay 39
Decorated food

Halong Bay 37

Halong Bay 56
Supposedly squid fishing, but bullshit actually :-D

Halong Bay 57
Night shot

Smile
Crew member

Halong Bay 14
Your own private beach

Halong Bay 15

Halong Bay 8

Halong Bay 60

Halong Bay 53
Want to jump into the water

Halong Bay 29
Sunset

Halong Bay, captivating, relaxing, awe-inspiring despite it being a tourist trap. I worry that the Vietnamese will convert this into a full-scale tourist-exploitation system and break the ecosystem and destroy nature here which is what attracts people here in the very first place.
I have to come again, spring time, or in warmer climates, for sure! :-)

February 16, 2012

Hanoi, crossing the street

Filed under: ¿Pero qué coño?, Hanoi, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , — jesus @ 06:14

If you guys have been to Vietnam, you’ll know that traffic is chaotic and that there doesn’t seem to exist any kind of traffic rule.

Well, the rule for crossing the street among the millions of scooters passing by is just walk, at a steady pace and don’t stop. They’ll see you and they’ll avoid you. Sounds scary, but it’s easier than it looks like.

An example:

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