Sunday, January 31, 2010

Japin' round the world: SUIT UP!

I have now left the overcast Northern province of Vietnam and have made my way to the sunny and warm, central coastal town of Hoi An which is about 30Km away from Da Nang. Instead of slumming it down here on the bus, I decided to take the slightly more expensive sleeper train down. This was a good call, I later decided, as it was comfortable and the views were spectacular. Also I was lucky enough to be sharing a cabin with 2 other Londoners which made for some interesting conversation. It was a bit of a coincidence to be fair.

From Da Nang I was forced to take a cab to Hoi An, as the town itself doesn't have a station. However, this wasn't all bad as en-route I got a chance to see some of the old US Military bases (Da Nang was where the Americans first set up base in Vietnam in 1963).

Hoi An itself is a massive breath of fresh air compared to Hanoi. Firstly there is a lot less traffic compared to Hanoi. Also its a lot smaller and easier to explore, and doesn't feel quite as westernised, as far as building design is concerned. Unfortunately there is no getting round the fact that this humble little town is overrun by tourists. Not quite as badly as it could be, but you get the idea that at any time the floodgates will open and the tourist bars and clubs will open. At the moment Hoi An has kept some of it's small town feel. For instance the bars all shut at 10pm, as does the rest of the town.

What I am really here for despite the beauty, weather and sights, are the tailors. Hoi An has about 200 tailors shops who will custom make almost anything you want. So far I have ordered 2 shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of shoes, and a pair of sunglasses. I don't think I've spent over 50 quid yet. I plan to buy a full suit also. I've been told to expect to pay about 30 - 40 pounds for this, which is cheap!

I've only got back one shirt so far, but it fitted perfectly, was really comfy - it was made from a cotton and silk mix - and was clearly well made. It was made in less than 24 hours also. I can see myself spending a fair bit of money here but to be fair it was always my intention to offload a lot of the clothes I brought with me here and replace them with better made, and better fitting attire.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Japin' round the world: I'M ON A BOAT!! (or at least I was)

I decided, after spending numerous days in Hanoi, to get out the city and to go to Halong Bay. I ended up booking up a 2 day 1 night sleepover tour with the hostel I'm staying with. This seemed like the best idea as I'd met a few people here who were going too, and also at least I wasn't likely to get scammed by a dodgy tour operator.

The trip set off moderately early in the morning, and it took about 3 hours to get to the harbour in Halong. Despite the fact that Halong is only about 100 miles away from Hanoi it takes longer than it should because of the insane traffic. When we arrived we were met, amusingly, by the captain who had turned up in a crip white uniform, which looked very official, and boarded the vessel.

The boat itself was really cool, it had three levels, with a bar on the second and a veranda at the top, and we were each allocated two to a cabin. Now these, after days of staying in hostel rooms comprising of at least myself and 3 others, seemed palatial. We had our own en-suite and two adequately sized beds. Also everything was pretty clean. The food onboard the boat, also was a highlight. Everything was very fresh and tasted delicious. Portions were plentiful too.

By the time the boat had moored up, we had made our way amongst the many thousands of little limestone islands that dot the bay. These were just as beautiful as I'd hoped and they were given a mystical tinge by the mist in the bay (which according to local legend is because of dragons in vicinity - Halong itself means descending dragons). What was fortunate as well, was that the sun came out for the first time since I arrived in Vietnam. The weather here hasn't been bad to be fair, but it has been consistently overcast.

Before we got on with the afternoon's scheduled activity, kayaking, everyone took a swim in the bay. For many of us, myself included, this involved jumping off the top deck of the boat. The water was a little chilly, in the end and jumping off the veranda was quite an experience as a result. Not least as I'm not very good with heights. It felt like I was falling for 5-10 seconds, rather than for the 2-3 seconds in reality.

After the short dip in the bay we made our way to the kayaks. First of all our guide (a friendly and informative local called Yang) took us to the fishing villages around the bay. These are villages literally built on the water, and I've heard that many inhabitants seldom tread on solid ground, which in some cases can lead to them becoming land-sick. What was a little strange was that many of them kept dogs, which seemed quite cruel considering they had very little room to exercise. Then again, considering my experience with the crispy shredded dog in the markets of Hanoi, perhaps they weren't being kept for the companionship.

Afterwards, Yang took us - still in the kayaks - through a small cave which took us through to an enclosed bay. Here we saw some monkeys playing about in the trees. One also stole a banana off some tourists who had come ashore, and proved an entertaining bonus to the trip.

When the kayaking was done, there was dinner, and after this a number of drinking games began. Thankfully they were games that everyone seemed to suck at equally at.

The next day I came back to Hanoi, and was quite sad to leave Halong Bay. For one thing the stillness and fresh air in the bay, had been a real relief compared to the noise and pollution in Hanoi.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Japin' round the world: Ho Chi Minh sends his regards.

So I have now spent a few days in Hanoi, which to me seems to be the city of 100,000 car horns. To be fair I haven't really seen anything yet with regards to extreme traffic; I'm told Ho Chi Minh City is worse. However, it's still pretty weird to behold the absolute madness of the roads here. Pretty much anything goes for the several thousand cars and several million mopeds that clog the streets. I was unnerved massively when the driver to my accommodation spent a majority of the trip sitting in the middle of the road straddling both lanes, except for when overtaking other cars and such. Also he seemed to hoot at every vehicle we passed, irrespective of whether he had been cut up or not. This was, at least, when he wasn't running dangerously close to mowing down several bike riders.

In the end you become so used to people beeping their horns that you just kind of zone it out. It loses all the significance that it has back home (where people often will restrain from using the horn unless necessary, or they are a stupid bastard who enjoys making people jump). I personally wonder if the car horn is one of Vietnam's official languages, with one sharp beep meaning "hello," one flat blast meaning "red" and 4 sharp honks meaning "can you please tell me the time."

Like the incessant horns, you also get used to the free-for-all that is crossing the road in Hanoi. I've been told many times - and it is definitely true - just walk across the street at a steady pace and the traffic will adapt. Just for gods sake don't walk in front of a bus! They tend to be less understanding of this logic. Also for a harrowing experience, try hiring a cyclo for a journey. They are basically like rickshaw bikes, and sitting in that, during the mid afternoon traffic, was an experience to remember.

Dealing with the people here is a tad awkward at times because of the language barrier. There is also the fact that you have to barter for everything as the locals always try to charge you double the going rate (rarely succeeding though). Also once again, you have hawkers everywhere who try to sell you nick-nacks, food, or even in one case - trying to mend my shoes. In the end you just find yourself blanking the ones who are trying to chase you into buying stuff and they get the message. They don't tend to push too hard in most cases and a lot get the idea when you say no.

Vietnam is certainly as cheap as I've been led to believe. Here 30000 Dong = 1 Pound, and in general one beer costs 20000 Dong or less. This has so far led to some nights of heavy drinking whilst socializing with the many people who come and go from the hostel I'm staying at. Whilst doing this I have discovered a new drinking game which is called Mushroom. To be fair it's a bit like drinking Jenga with a guess the right card colour element It's good fun, although through my own clumsiness, I ended up having to down two bottles of beer in quick succession. I don't find that too difficult, but it's a skill I use sparingly.

The buildings in Hanoi are very much like a cross between France and Chinese designs. Given that Vietnam was once a French colony this isn't surprising, but it really creates the feel of a kind of ramshackle version of Paris. And like Paris, the food here is delicious. I have now - bravely - sampled some of the street food and it is really tasty and extremely cheap (under 1 Pound). This is even more impressive considering the portion sizes that are served, which are fairly generous. Also the markets are very good too, considering you can buy seafood such as fish, squid and prawns, which are still alive. There is no doubt that here the food is fresh. What was slightly more weird was seeing a roast dog for sale on the market stall. I've often bragged in the past about trying dog meat for the experience, but something about the glaring teeth (left in despite the mutt's crispy appearance) really put me off the idea.

What has also been interesting is getting used to the fact that for the first time in my life I am in a Communist country. On the surface of things this doesn't really show much, except for a few generic and fairly amusing (mainly for their blind optomism and/or reverence to Ho Chi Minh) posters.

Old Ho Chi Minh is seen everywhere round here, from the money to the postcards. It is quite funny to walk around the Vietnamese Revolution Museum, as here 'Uncle Ho' is treated like a hero. The museum is adorned with gifts presented to him, mostly from other Communist nations (where in most cases Communism has since collapsed) such as a model tractor from Romania, and a . The museum is also unabashed about it's position on the South Vietnamese government during the war. Referring to it regularly as the "American Ngo Dimh Diem regime" or "The puppet government/army." All this is pretty true - which takes me back to doing GCSE history - but it's funny that they just come out and say it.

What is more surreal is the Ho Chi Minh museum near his mausoleum. Here there is a section showing off Vietnam and North Korea's allegiance. Here we can see Ho Chi Minh standing next to Kim Il Sung (who incidentally seems to be the smiliest man in the world in all the pictures he's in) and also, there are fairly recent pictures of Kim Jong Il visiting Vietnam. As for the main museum, well, it's trippy in a word. There are several avaunt-gard sculpture - such as a plate of giant fruit - representing positive values the government wants to promote, such as environmentalism. Also there is a strong feeling of propaganda here, as a lot of the documents keep using key words like: 'freedom,' 'happiness' and 'peace,' although thinking about it it's a bit like an American style speech where the words 'freedom' and 'liberty' are often used ad nauseum. Also the museum seems to re-write the history of the reunification of the Vietnam war claiming the Americans agreed to reunification at the Paris Peace Accord. I remember hearing that the Americans insisted on South Vietnams sovereignty. Funny eh?

You can also visit the Hoa Lo Prison, which during the war used to be known as the 'Hanoi Hilton' - interestingly there is a real Hanoi Hilton hotel now too, and certainly looks a hell of a lot nicer than this place. What is interesting to see is John McCain's flightsuit in here, as he was one of the most famous inmates of the prison.

After everything else however, I couldn't leave Hanoi without seeing the man for whom much of the national hysteria revolves. Ho Chi Minh's embalmed corpse can be found in a large, rather grand looking, masoleum in the west quarter of the city. Here visitors can come and pay their last respects to 'Uncle Ho' himself. He also has an inordinate amound of guards - all dressed in crisp white uniforms - keeping an eye on him, which seemed over the top, as he's not going to walk off suddenly. The great man himself doesn't look very well these days. Almost like a waxwork. I wondered to myself whether a few animatronics may add to the experience. It would be great! You could get him to sit up, sing a few songs, divulge a few facts about his life before quitely returning to his eternal slumber. What also made the experience a bit more interesting was that Vietnamese TV was filming near by, and they seemed to be recording a few 'patriotic' singers singing songs about Ho Chi Minh. They weren't very good songs I should add. Basically just putting the name 'Ho Chi Minh' to a tune. Now a bit of rap about Ho Chi Minh, that would be something!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Japin' round the world: Hong Kong

So I had made my way to Heathrow Terminal 5, (which is actually very good despite the bad press at the beginning of it's life) and apart from wondering what good a condom machine was in the departure gate toilets, (you'd think they try and discourage people joining the mile-high club) it was you're average flight experience. Just longer.

Arriving in Hong Kong was naturally a relief as firstly, it was nice to get off the plane after 12 hours, and secondly it was much warmer here than the UK. 22 degrees to be precise. I've definitely had it with snow for one year, and here it seems to be guaranteed to stay away.

The first impressions I had of the city were good. It seemed to live up to my expectations of being a large modern metropolis. Then I got to the Hostel. I wasn't expecting much and that's what I received. The place I'm staying in is above an arcade of shops that seems to be based on Blade-Runner style LA. I half expected to see Rick Deckard running around, looking for replicants to 'retire.' What is very surprising is the sheer amount of ethnicities present. Obviously I was expecting a lot of Chinese people, but there really is a mix of everyone.

So what's good about Hong Kong then? Well, for one thing it's got many features which might seem familiar to the British tourist. They drive on the same side of the road as us, they use the same plug sockets etc, most people speak English in some capacity, they have Marks and Spencers, and they have those Big Bus company open-topped buses also. What's different? Well for one thing there are these strange shops everywhere that seem to sell dry fish and other such things (I cannot tell for the life of me what the stuff is mostly). I don't know if they eat the stuff they sell in it or if they simply use it for medicine. Needless to say it's not what we tend to see at home. Another difference is how crowded in everything is. Yes, Hong Kong is a big city but it doesn't spread over a very wide distance. Everything just seems to go higher to compensate. Also strangely they had a shop called Marry Claire, (I'd rather see what she looks like first) which seemed to be a cheap knock-off of the Marie-Claire brand.

Unfortunately a downside was the hawkers who see a white tourist and try to hassle them into buying a suit (mostly Indians I might add, the Chinese tended not to bother me, except for one fierce woman that practically insisted that me and my companions should go to the massage parlor she was promoting.) After a while you become used to seeing them coming, and then could start trying to duck out the way whilst doing everything to break eye-contact. However, they're persistent and walk up to you and talk to you. Mostly a simple "I'm not interested" wards them off but others are more assiduous. Much like an Indian call-center, but in real life. What I really wanted was a big stick and a sign that I could attach to myself saying, "I AM NOT INTERESTED IN BUYING A SUIT OR A WATCH!" and then if they refuse to acknowledge that then could deal with Mr Stick. Sadly though, I didn't have the time to construct such a thing.

Most of the enjoyment I got out of this city was just from simple sight-seeing, be it from the top of the peak,to the many parks and sky-scrapers. Hong Kong is undoubtedly a shoppers dream, as there seems to be at least one branch of every big brand you could think of. However, I'm not a shopper so this went right over my head. Also it's worth mentioning Hong Kong isn't cheap. Drinks are pricey and food is so-so for cost. Overall I think 3 days was enough to spend here. Now onto Vietnam where I might struggle to update for a while if they block blogger etc.

Note: 1. Blogger isn't blocked in Hanoi, so let the fun continue.
2. Excuse the shoddiness of the first draft of this article. I noticed on reading it a second time it was riddled with errors. I'm hoping I've edited most of them out, but I was in a real rush to write this post first time round.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Japin' round the world: A Preamble

At the moment I am currently preparing for my round the world trip. Well I say round the world, it will take me to the other side of the world but I am not visiting the Americas on this trip, so it may be better calling it a trip to the other side of the world. That’s if anyone but me actually cares about the specific name for this trip, and I’m imagining they don’t. Anyhoo, I’ve decided to document my travels on this blog, firstly to keep people informed on what I’m doing and also just to keep myself writing for the next three months.

So I’m now going to enter the realms of the travel writer, and it’s a writing genre that I haven’t really tried as yet. My only real influence for this comes from reading a few books by Bill Bryson, and watching some Alan Wicker documentaries. Compared to these guys I lack two things, travel experience and defining facial hair. I mean, look at Bryson for instance. The man has a proud, thick, bristling beard, and even Wicker has a neatly clipped moustache. All I have to show for myself facial hair wise is a bit of patchy stubble that appears once at week. If facial hair maketh the travel writer then I don’t stand a chance, so I have to hope that this factor is just a coincidence. In fact it must be, there are plenty of women travel writers after all. I guess I’ll have to find my own style, although I think I may follow Bryson’s rather inane style of commentary where I can. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to convey the sheer information he does, as before every trip he seems to swallow an encyclopaedia on his destination, whereas all I do is buy a small travel book, which I seldom read cover-to-cover.

It’s difficult to comprehend how different the countries I’m visiting are going to be to home. The culture is going to be a huge departure from what I’m used to, so it’s going to be massively eye-opening. Not to mention I’m going to see things that – to me –are going to look just plain odd. After all where I’m going is literally going to be my part of the world turned on its head. Having looked at the maps – especially when I arrive in Australia – I’m going to be as far round the world from home that I can possibly be, before I start coming back on myself. It’s a crazy thought, but it’s going to be good to get away. The weather has definitely driven me to not look back after leaving, as it should at least be guaranteed not to snow in the Far East or on the Gold Coast of Oz, and over the last few weeks, which has seen snow close down much of the UK, I’ve had more than enough of winter for one year. Also I’ve come to realise that by leaving now I also miss a lot of TV I dislike such as Celebrity Big Brother, and the new series of Skins so in that sense its great timing also. The only downside is I might miss the beginning of the final season of Lost.

So what is there to look forward to out there, well, in short a lot. In long, here is what I am at least, planning to try and see:
• The view from the peak of Hong Kong
• Tet Celebrations in Hanoi
• Ho Chi Minh (the man/corpse, not the city)
• Halong Bay
• The temples of Angkor Wat
• The Golden Temple in Bangkok
• The Great Barrier Reef
• The Australian rainforest
• The plains of Brisbane
• Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Bridge Walk
• The mountains of New Zealand (including Mount Doom, and much of the rest of the LOTR set)
• The busiest road crossing in the world, in central Tokyo
• The memorial gardens in Hiroshima
• The ancient palaces of Kyoto

It’s a suitably impressive itinerary, so I keep being told. In fact I’ve felt quite sheepish that everyone keeps telling me that it’s going to be exciting. I am well aware but I never really wanted to make that bigger deal over it.

Well it’s very little over 24 hours before I’m in the air, and I’ve managed to speedily pack everything I need, perhaps more. It’s so often the way that we stress about packing something we think we might need, and inevitably we never use once on the trip. Hopefully I should keep the blog updated fairly regularly, although I have doubts that I’ll be able to access Blogger in Vietnam, as the government seems to have the Chinese attitude to social networking websites, and have a lot of them blocked to prevent dissident writers from complaining openly on the web. If so then I’ll just have to splurge the whole Vietnam experience into one massive post when I get to Cambodia or Thailand. I can’t really say much more except that from here it’s a massive step (a step of about 6052 miles/9740 km initially) into the unknown from here.