Uncle Ho's Hanoi

CURRENT LOCATION: Bangkok, Thailand

Zev:

For our first real day in Hanoi we decided to visit the famous Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed "The Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War. We jumped in a taxi and he dropped us directly outside, for a perfectly reasonable price, with no sign of a scam in sight. He even smiled. It was shaping up to be a great day! Since we had slept through breakfast, we decided to get some lunch at a nearby cafe to keep hunger levels low and prevent meltdowns. Sam had "nachos", which was wonton skins cut into triangle/nacho shape and deep fried, covered in bolognese sauce. Needless to say, these were delicious. I opted for a classic staple of Vietnam - the bahn mi sandwich. This was a particularly fancy one as it was made with teriyaki chicken.

After filling our bellies, we headed back Hoa Lo. The prison has well and truly been converted into a museum and as a result, it has lost some of its appeal as an attraction. The buildings were completed restored and filled with modern decor, and only a few token areas were left as they would have been on the 1960s and before. However, with that in mind, there were loads of "information" panels all in English, Vietnamese and French, so the museum was aesthetically very well presented. I say "information" as the majority of plaques contained blatant anti-French propaganda. This was a nice change from the anti-American propaganda, I suppose, but it didn't feel particularly educational, informative, or objective.

 Hoa Lo Prison (AKA the Hanoi Hilton), Hanoi

Hoa Lo Prison (AKA the Hanoi Hilton), Hanoi

A bit of background about Hoa Lo prison. It's situated in the heart of Hanoi city and was originally used by the French during their colonisation of Vietnam. The prison was used to house mainly Vietnamese anti-colonialists/rebels .... Or as the plaques referred to them, "patriotic revolutionaries". This was the first chapter of the use of Hoa Lo prison. Again, I'm not saying the curator of the museum is not justified in venting the nation's beef with the French, but it was a bit heavy handed.  Cramped cells, lined with life-like, wax  mannequins whose faces depicted emotions of rage, anguish and despair, photos and illustrations that showed the unbelievable torture techniques, often accompanied by the actual instruments of torture - it was definitely grim. (Sam's note: the lack of objective information available within Vietnam about the 'Vietnam-American War' has naturally made want to learn more about it. While I didn't find the time during our travels in Vietnam, I intend to do some research over the coming weeks, maybe taking advantage of our time in Phuket, and will post about what I learn when I do - which will probably be much more use to those of you who weren't alive during the war, rather than those who were and probably understand far more about it than I ever will!).

After the liberation of the North from the French, the Vietnamese took over control of the prison. The second chapter of the prison was during the Vietnam War where it was used almost exclusively to detain American fighter pilots who had been shot down and captured. The museum went to great lengths to divulge how well treated and looked after their prisoners were. Photos of pilots smiling, cooking, eating, playing card games and even basketball with one another lined the walls. It almost looked too good to be true. However, I guess there is some truth in it - it was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton after all. One interesting fact was that U.S. Senator (and former presidential candidate) John McCain was one of the pilots captured and held in Hoa Lo prison during the war. We made our way through the museum and after about an hour and a half, had seen everything there was to see.

 Hanoi, Vietnam

We walked about 2km from the prison into the Ancient Quarter to see one of the oldest residential/commercial areas on South East Asia, and apparently the oldest in the world that is still 'operational'. This was amazing! The streets were lined with fantastic old buildings of various architectural influence. Every single building was not only a house but had an associated shop at street level. The streets or alleys seemed to contain shops selling similar wares. Later Brendan told us that the names of the streets often reflect what was typically sold on them (eg Silk Street). There was a row of shops selling decorative ceramics, followed by plastic furniture, across from an entire block selling party decorations. A fresh foods market, a block with dried goods etc etc. One intersection had all four corners packed with huge bamboo ladders. There were thousands of people running around getting various things and strapping them precariously to their motorbikes! It was so entertaining and fun, we just walked aimlessly for about an hour, watching people and dodging the crazy drivers on the narrow roads. We just walked and walked and got lost in the hustle and bustle. We eventually consulted the map and made our way back to our home away from home.

 Hanoi, Vietnam

After a short break at the house, we went in search of a Lomography camera store so Sam could get some more film for her camera. For those of you unsure of what that means, Lomography is a type of funky, plastic, old fashioned film cameras. Sam uses one and she's running low on film.  Sadly, after 45 minutes of searching the address listed on the website we only managed to find a barber, a chicken soup stall and clothing shop with the matching address. No luck. Much like many of our other expeditions in SE Asia. Oh well, it was a very pleasant walk back to the house along the lake-front.

That night, the four of us went out to dinner. We tried to go a Mexican restaurant that Brendan frequently orders takeaways from (and highly recommended), but alas, strike two for the day. It was closed. Instead we went to a very hip restaurant nearby where we had a delicious western-style meal. Sam had a bacon cheeseburger and I had a Philly cheesesteak (my second in SE Asia). Delicious! Oh and it was also a celebration as earlier that day Brendan was successful in getting a job! Congratulations to Brendan!! Qiuyi was also very happy, because she said that meant she could fire him as a housekeeper, because he's 'crap'!

On day two we headed out relatively early to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. This is near the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, and has a huge concrete tomb and surrounding garden and grounds. When we got there we were ushered all the way to the other side of the of grounds (probably 1.5km away) in order to queue to get in. As we walked we realised the line was as long as the walk...if not longer! We made a quick decision to flag it, based on the heat and prior advice that it was a bit average once you get in. Instead, we made our way to the Temple of Literature. The walk to the temple was interrupted by the sudden requirement for a cold, refreshing fresh fruit smoothie. After two tasty mango smoothies, we entered the temple. It was erected to celebrate the scholars of ancient Hanoi. Inside of the Temple there are about 40-50 stone plaques atop a carved, stone turtle, with engravings explaining what area the individual achieved their doctorate in. They had a distinctive Chinese-inspired feel as did the rest of the temple.

 The closest we got to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

The closest we got to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

 Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

In the afternoon we took a taxi across town to the Ethnology Museum. This was comprised of 2 huge main museum buildings and a surrounding garden containing many traditional-style buildings of the various groups/tribes of the people of Vietnam. This is basis for the whole museum. It is a celebration of the diversity of the people of Vietnam. There is a massive amount of information on the different cultural groups that make up the country. The museum explores the culture, music, food, livelihood, agriculture, and pretty much all aspects of life for many diverse groups of people in Vietnam. There is history of the origin of each group as well as artefacts to depict what their living situation is like. It's a museum of anthropology and diversity. It was well curated and we both found it to be fascinating. After you have completed both floors of the main building you can wander around see replicas of the buildings of the various ethnic groups. These building are all made using the traditional materials, tools and techniques. To ensure this, the museum would bring in builders from each group to complete each project in the same manner that they would in their own village. You can enter all the buildings and inspect the craftsmanship and skill that goes into making impressively large structures from mainly wood, bamboo and palm trees, and watch videos of the workers constructing them. Highly recommend a stop here if you are in Hanoi!

We got in a taxi to go back to the house, who, after assuring us he knew were he was going drove us around the block and started going the scenic route home. Jaded by too many bad experiences with crooked taxi drivers we got out and walked the rest of the way home. Grrrrr. It was ok though, as the walk home was really pleasant!

For dinner, Brendan took us to a real local restaurant. There is NO way we would've been able to find a place like this on our own, so big props to him for getting us there. The restaurant took alfresco to a new extreme. We were literally sitting in the middle of the street... On plastic children's furniture. It was weird and awesome! The children's furniture is weird, but we were used to it, as most local restaurants seemed to rely on Fisher Price for their decor. However, the area where the restaurant was situated consisted of about 10-15 different restaurants and the extremely aggressive employees outside who were tasked with getting their respective restaurant the most customers. These guys would literally jump in front of people on their motorbikes, forcing them to slam on their breaks and then usher them into a parking spot at their restaurant, all the while, yelling and screaming in an attempt to beat their neighbour. So the atmosphere was nuts! Oh and yes, not to forget we were actually sitting on furniture they had put on the road - luckily the traffic couldn't go very fast as there were so many recruits slowing them all down!

 Hanoi, Vietnam

The food was really good. I can't tell you what the names of the dishes were, but we had some spring roll-type things, beef noodles (like instant ramen noodles), and beef with greens and deep fried, crunchy poofballs things, and sweet potato fries. Yeah, dunno what it was, but it was awesome! We were just finishing off the last of our shared, family style meal when something very strange happened. Suddenly, there was a great fuss. The recruits had stopped harassing innocent pedestrians and were now yelling at their customers, and fanatically telling them to move off the street and under the awnings or inside the restaurant proper. Sure enough, we were asked to get up and our table was literally picked up and moved off the street and onto the curb. Within a matter of seconds the roads were clear, the restaurants looked even more bloated, and we had no idea what the hell just happened. We thought, maybe it was about to rain? But, how would they know that? Then about 3 minutes later, a police truck came around the corner. The restaurant employees smiled as they drove past, as if to say, "Evening officers, nothing to see here." As the truck came past we noticed that in addition to the 3 police officers in the back, the flatbed was full of....you guessed it... TINY CHILDREN'S FURNITURE! We guessed that someone had tipped off the restaurants that the police were on the way and they would have been fined for taking up room on the roads. I guess maybe even having their offending furniture "impounded", which would explain why the police were toting around miniature tables and chairs. A great local experience!

 Brendan and Qiuyi's house, Hanoi

Brendan and Qiuyi's house, Hanoi

Just wanted to quickly say a big, big, BIG THANK YOU to Brendan and Qiuyi for hosting us in Hanoi! It was so great to catch up, meet you, and your two adorable cats (Maomao and Skippy), and pick your brains about Hanoi and the rest of SE Asia. We definitely wouldn't have had the same experiences in Hanoi without you.

 MaoMao, playing it cool

MaoMao, playing it cool

 Skippy: playing it a little less cool

Skippy: playing it a little less cool

So, I'm writing this in the food court in the international airport in Bangkok. We are enroute to Phuket, Thailand! Billie and Pete Harbidge have invited to join them on their holiday. Will and Grace and her folks are joining us there as well, so guaranteed tales of general good times in our next blog!

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx

(Original post date: 15th April 2015)

How the 1% live

CURRENT LOCATION: Hanoi, Vietnam

Sam:

We last left you in Hanoi, as we prepared for our trip to Halong Bay. While booking our cruise in Halong Bay, we were both overwhelmed with choice, and unable to be picky. There are thousands of cruise companies in Halong Bay, but it was Wednesday, and we were trying to book a cruise for Friday, so our options were limited to what was still available.

When we were thinking about the cruise before leaving NZ, we had decided on a standard two day, one night cruise. It was something we were really excited about doing, and one of the big 'bucket list' items for our trip. Enter Sati Sembhi and Rob Butler, our incredibly generous friends from home who chose our cruise on the wedding registry. As a side note, they were also the biggest fans of Zev's Smiths serenade at the wedding! Obviously, our huge and heartfelt thanks go out to Rob and Sati for their part in making our Halong Bay cruise such an incredible few days!

Once we arrived in South East Asia, did a bit more research, and spoke to people who had been, it became clear that the best idea is to do a three day, two night cruise. Most people said that they wished they'd stayed longer, or that the two day itinerary felt a little rushed, and that the three day cruises go further out from the city, so you get a bit more peace and quiet.

After our recent feelings of 'meh', and with the help of Rob and Sati, we decided to treat ourselves. We did some TripAdvisor research, and picked the best ranked company that had space left over the weekend - Paradise Sails, ranked #2 on TripAdvisor. The lady at the booking office was incredibly helpful, and managed to find us a twin room - the only room left in the fleet that weekend. I asked if there was any chance of a double, since it is our honeymoon and we're not quite sick of each other yet, but to no avail. Ah well.

And so, at 6.30am on Friday morning, we were pounding the pavements of Hanoi in search of a taxi. You might think that sounds easy, but it most certainly is not! We walked for about 20 minutes, with all the taxis either full, or going in the opposite direction. Eventually we managed to flag one down, after walking about 10 blocks. Luckily we left ourselves with plenty of time. After a little bit of driving around the block, disguised as negotiating one way streets, we were dropped off at the address provided by the cruise company. It looked like a community hall, and as we tried to ask the man inside if we were in the right place, he shut the door in our face. At that point, I honestly began to think that we had been ripped off again, and was getting ready to set Hanoi on fire. We walked to the corner and asked a waiter at a cafe if he knew where we could find our pick up point. He kept pointing at a table and saying, "Sit!", while my blood pressure was elevating. I don't want a coffee dammit, tell us where the address is! At that point, Zev realised that he was pointing to a sign behind that table that said "Paradise Sails pick up point", and that he wanted us to sit down and wait there for our transfer van. How embarrassing. We sat, and he gave us complementary bottled water. I sat sat there feeling terrible. Sure enough, bang on time our van turned up, and in we hopped with one other girl. We settled in for the four hour trip to Halong Bay, queued up our podcasts, and napped.

About an hour and a half into the drive, it was time for the obligatory stop at the cafe/souvenir shop/art gallery/toilet/sculpture garden. It was FREEZING, properly cold (Zev estimates 15°, so maybe I'm just getting soft, and my definition of freezing is changing). Now those of you who have been paying attention may remember that my luggage cull in Bangkok included throwing out my pants, because I couldn't imagine a world in which I would ever need pants again. What an idiot. My warmest clothes are a pair of 3/4 yoga tights which, don't get me wrong, I was grateful for, but were not cutting the mustard. In an attempt to warm up, we ordered two cups of overpriced coffee (delicious), and some food (inedible). At this point I panicked, we were going on a boat for three days, and I didn't want to freeze. Cue buying of incredibly overpriced pants. Sigh.

Back in the van, we continued the trip through to countryside to Halong Bay. Eventually, we arrived at the headquarters for Paradise Sails. As we got out of the van, a man with a clipboard asked us our names. "Oh hello Zev and Samantha. I'm pleased to tell you that your cruise ship has been upgraded." Well alright then! I have to admit we didn't know much about our particular cruise ship because we had booked what was available, so there didn't seem to be much point in agonising over what could have been if we'd booked earlier. The only thing we knew was the twin bed situation, so at the very least we were pretty happy we'd now be getting a double bed at least. We were given our boarding pass, and sent into the waiting room, where we would be collected when our ship was ready for boarding.

I would've been happy to spend three days and two nights in the boarding lounge. There was free tea and coffee (and I mean proper tea, with milk and everything), and snacks like sweet potato chips and kettle corn. I'm pretty easy to please. We looked around. We were about 10 years younger than anyone else there, the only people dressed in hiking shoes, and the only ones with backpacks rather than wheeled, hard sided suitcases. It was then we realised that it was only a matter of time before they found out we were imposters and kicked us out.

 Our boat, the Paradise Peak

Our boat, the Paradise Peak

Clearly we were pulling it off though, because we were told it was time to board and taken down to the ship. I am not kidding when I tell you that as we boarded, they showered us with rose petals. They threw rose petals on us from the balcony. We were then greeted with hot towels for our hands and faces, and glasses of warm passion fruit juice. We were introduced to Ronald, our amazing, friendly, funny cruise manager, and shown to our room. He led us past the spa, where you could get massages and facials, the pedicure and foot massage room, the sauna, the gym, and the library. Yep, you read all that right. And then our room. Holy crap, our room. At 32m2, I think it was actually bigger than my first apartment.

 Cloud bed!

Cloud bed!

We entered into the bedroom section, with the biggest bed I've ever seen. I'm pretty sure it was two double beds pushed together, and it was heaven. They'd put a duvet under the bottom sheet, with an enormous duvet on top, and the biggest, fluffiest pillows on earth. Obviously, we called it cloud bed, and loved it very much. We had a wardrobe, complete with robes and slippers, an espresso machine, a flatscreen TV and DVD player, and a minibar. Not bad at all. 

Turning left, you enter the bathroom. The shower was enormous, with a shower head and rain plate. The sink faucet was like a gentle cascading waterfall. And there was a jacuzzi. A JACUZZI!!!!

Turning right from the bedroom, we had a private dining room with a bench seat/lounge room area, and sliding doors opening onto the front deck of the boat.

As soon as Ronald left, we literally squealed, hugged, and jumped up and down. Oh yes, this would do just nicely...

By this stage it was about 1pm, and lunch was to be served at 1.30pm. We made our way up to the sun deck, introduced ourselves to some of the other guests, and took in the scenery. As mentioned, it was cold and pretty stormy looking. Oh my goodness, it was beautiful. Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site, approximately 1553km2, containing nearly 2000 islands, mostly limestone. The mist and fog cloaked the limestone karsts, creating a really moody, mysterious atmosphere. The whole area is like nothing I've ever seen, and is one of the few sights I've seen that looks just how it does in photos and on screen, but doesn't disappoint. I cannot possibly explain it - you really must come here and see it for yourself!

 Halong Bay, Vietnam

Our trip began properly with lunch. So much lunch. As was the case for the rest of the cruise, we ate until we were sick. Our four course lunch consisted of duck and baby mango salad, followed by tomato soup, then the seafood medley for Zev (squid, scallops, prawns, and a whole butter fish), chicken for me, a fruit platter, and tea to top it all off. By the time we were done, we needed to be rolled to our room. We still had 45 minutes of cruising until we reached our destination, so we retired to cloud bed to sleep off our food comas.

Sure enough, we stopped shortly after, and got on to the transfer boat with the rest of the passengers to go to one of the islands. We pulled up on a sandy beach, climbed some stairs, and entered a massive cave. We wandered through and out the other side of the island. But this stage, it felt like we were quite far away from the city and other cruise ships, so it seemed pretty peaceful. They were a couple of other boats around, but it certainly wasn't crowded. As we headed back to the beach, the weather started looking pretty grey. Zev and one other guy were the only ones brave enough to get in the water - although Zev assured us all that it actually wasn't that cold (the other fella disagreed!). Just as our transfer boat arrived to pick us us, the heavens opened, and it poured with rain. I love storms, so it was really cool to be in this amazingly beautiful place while the rain buckets down, and you're snug and warm in a cloud bed on a boat. 

 Halong Bay, Vietnam

Later that evening, we attended our "cooking and drinking" class, where we learnt to make deep fried spring rolls. Since Zev and I had already attended a cooking course, we were naturally the star pupils. Or at least that's the story we're telling. While we waited for the chef to deep fry them, Ronald poured us each a shot of rice wine. Shudder. After learning the traditional Vietnamese cheer of "mot, hai, ba, DZO!!!!", which translates to "one, two, three, CHEERS!!!" (another thing Zev and I excelled at), we downed our rice wine. Thank god the spring rolls turned up in time to get the taste of it out of our mouths...

We had a little free time before dinner, during which we played a game of chess that I WON!!!!! After I won chess (did I mention that I won?), we changed for dinner. We had been provided with traditional vietnamese clothing, which was really fun. Everyone turned up for dinner looking fabulous, and we all had photos with Ronald, which was a hoot. I think the rice wine greased the wheels for a few people...

 Halong Bay, Vietnam

Dinner was another gastronomical delight. I started with fresh spring rolls, followed by pork, and the most amazing chocolate pudding I've ever eaten. Zev enjoyed beef noodle salad, hot and sour soup, crab, and an apple fritter. Completely full, content and exhausted, we retired to our room for the night. Flicking on the lights, what did we find on the bed but a chocolate cake with "Happy honeymoon" written on it in chocolate icing. What an amazing crew, they're just so sweet! We wished we'd known about the cake though, because the sight of it nearly had us throwing up because we were so FULL from dinner! We politely moved it to a side table, and hoped they wouldn't be offended if we didn't eat it that night... Zev popped out to the back of the boat to try his hand at squid fishing. They shine a huge spotlight into he water to try to attract the squid, and you use a green lure on a bamboo rod, which you bob up and down in the hopes of making it look like a shrimp. He returned to the room squidless.

The next morning, Zev attended sunrise Tai Chi on the sundeck. I was enjoying cloud bed far too much to even consider getting up. He reports that it was hilarious, with a delicate and coordinated Vietnamese lady up the front demonstrating the moves, while 9 uncoordinated white folks tried to follow along, giggling and looking like fools. Apparently there were people on other boats laughing and taking photos.

At 8am, we had breakfast in the dining room, and again, ate far too much delicious food. At 9am, we were transferred from our boat, the "Paradise Peak", to the day boat, the "Paradise Explorer". The way they work the cruises is pretty genius. Of the 14 people on the boat with us, only 4 of us were doing the two night cruise. All the others were doing an overnight. So while we went onto the Explorer boat, the Peak cruised everyone else back to Halong Bay, and picked up the next load of passengers. The explorer boat also contained all the two night passengers from all the other Paradise Sails boats, which all do the same thing. Then they cruised back out to pick us up at the end of the day. Brilliant!

Off we headed on the a Explorer. We cruised for about an hour, enjoying a cup of tea or two and more stunning scenery. By this stage we were really far out, so there were even fewer boats around, and we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. We arrived at a floating fishing village, and transferred to bamboo boats, rowed by locals, to tour it. We visited a floating primary school, and saw the floating fish farms. Here, the fishermen catch small fish, but rather than eating them, bring them back to the floating farm where they feed them and grow them, so they can sell them for more money. We continued on to a pearl farm, where they showed us how to harvest the pearls, and naturally gave us a tour of their shop.

 Pearl farm, Halong Bay

Pearl farm, Halong Bay

We transferred back to the Explorer where, surprise surprise, they fed us again. Soup, scallops, salad, tofu, fish, chicken, fruit platters.... We could feel the ship getting lower in the water as we ate.

After recovering from lunch, we went kayaking around the bay. Well, Zev kayaked, and I sat in the front, groaning and rubbing my stomach. We paddled around for about half an hour, before returning to the boat to follow lead of one of the kids on the boat. We made our way up to the roof, and jumped off. It was cold, but great fun. As everyone came back in, we got some bad news - there was a typhoon the way, and it wasn't clear whether we would be able to spend another night out in Halong Bay. They thought we might have to go back to the mainland and spend the night in the hotel owned by the cruise line. This was really disappointing to hear, but there wasn't much we could do about it. We started cruising earlier than planned, so that we would be able to get back to shore before the typhoon hit.

After about an hour of cruising back to the rendezvous point for the Peak, we got word from the cruise managers that we'd been given the all clear - yippee! We transferred back to our boat, happy that we got to spend another night in cloud bed. Somehow, even after all that lunch, we managed to demolish our honeymoon cake, and let me tell you it was just as delicious as all the rest of the food on the cruise. We had some rest time before dinner, as the other guests enjoyed their cooking course, so I took advantage of the jacuzzi... Having never used one before, I nearly flooded the bathroom, but it definitely felt like a most luxurious drowning.

We made our way upstairs for our 9 course dinner. Yes, 9 courses. As if he regular meals weren't enough to kill us. Our feast included chicken and herb salad, fish, baked chicken, stir fried beef, clam and vegetable broth, stir fried bok choy, prawns, steamed rice, fried bananas, and ice cream.

We decided to work off dinner with round two of squid fishing. We both returned to the room squidless, but were cheered up with a pot of tea delivered to the room.

Our final day started with a 7.15am wake up, to board the transfer boat at 7.45am. We made our way to "Surprise Cave", and ended up having a private tour with our own guide. The activity choices for the morning were a bamboo boat to a lagoon where you can see monkeys (no walking required), or to climb "lots of stairs" to the cave. We were the only ones who chose the "lots of stairs" option, which actually wasn't very many stairs at all. Surprise Cave was discovered in 1901 by the French. I suspect it was discovered by the Vietnamese long before that, but gosh, that doesn't count. The roof is 30m high, it covers 10,000m2, and is located 25m above sea level.

 Surprise Cave selfie, Halong Bay

Surprise Cave selfie, Halong Bay

We headed back to the Paradise Peak, and enjoyed a final enormous room service breakfast, before packing our bags and 'checking out'. We then headed up to the back deck to enjoy one final view of the limestone karsts in the distance.

 Halong Bay, Vietnam

After disembarking, we headed to the hotel to wait for our transfer back to Hanoi, where, wouldn't you know it, they gave us lunch. By this stage we were both actually starting to feel pretty sick. Our 4 hour van ride back to the city was basically a giant nap, and luckily, the bus home dropped us half a block from Brendan's door, which was about as far as we could manage to drag our fat asses by that point.

That night, we got to meet Brendan's wife Qiuyi, who had been away for work when we arrived. They very kindly arranged a curry dinner for us on their lovely deck, looking out over Hanoi and one of its many lakes. While we were sad that our time in Halong Bay was over, it didn't last long with this kind of hospitality on offer.

Thanks again to Rob and Sati for making our Halong Bay dream a reality. We had the most amazing time, and it's something we will remember for the rest of our lives. Ronald and his crew have already invited us back for our 10 year anniversary! I hope we're lucky enough to take them up on it.

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 13th April 2015)

A crisis in confidence

CURRENT LOCATION: HANOI, VIETNAM

SAM:

As Zev said, we arrived in Hue after a perfectly reasonable 4 hour bus ride from Hoi An, so we were raring to go once we checked in to the hotel and had showers (or in my case, a looooong bath). We decided to hit the street, and made our way to a pizza joint for a quick lunch. It was hot. HOOOOT. Hot like we hadn't yet experienced in South East Asia. Is was 37° with a heat index of 44°. The heat really has a physical presence. It feels like you're wading through it, and it drains the life out of you. From the pizza shop, it was about a 3km walk to the imperial citadel, our destination for the afternoon. Hue is situated along the banks of The Perfume River, and is the former imperial capital of Vietnam. The walk along the waterfront was stunning, but of course punctuated every few steps by somebody coming up to try to convince us to take a boat ride, and that it's way too far to walk to the walled imperial city. As usual, we declined, ignored their advice, and bottled on through the heat. I have to say, I think we would've been drier if we'd swum across the river, rather than walking. There is a reference photo on Flickr of a few days later, which illustrates exactly how sweaty we got. Just think sauna, but without any opportunity to get out when you overheat!

 The Imperial Citadel, Hue

The Imperial Citadel, Hue

We crossed over the river and wandered along until we reached a large rampart (I think that's what it's called) with a huge Vietnamese flag on top, which was incredibly striking. We made our way across the moat, and paid our entry fee. The imperial city is a walled fortress and palace, with an innermost enclosure reserved for the Nguyen imperial family. Many of the buildings were damaged in the Tet Offensive in 1968, and only 10 major sites remain out of the original 168. It was deemed a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993, and the remaining buildings are being preserved and restored. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the late afternoon, wandering round in the dreamy low light. It was a very relaxing and peaceful place to be, and there weren't very many people around to spoil the atmosphere. We wandered back to the hotel to have another shower before heading our for a delicious curry for dinner.

 The Imperial Citadel, Hue

The Imperial Citadel, Hue

After the previous day's intense heat, we decided to have a lazy day the following day. We had a sleep in, watched some TV (current TV shows: The Knick, The Newsroom season 2), ate our leftover curry, and generally appreciated the comfy bed and air conditioning. As the afternoon wore on, we decided to brave the heat again, and head out in search of a couple of pagodas on the other side of the river. We wandered for around an hour, enjoying the city's atmosphere, but unable to find the pagodas. We found something that might have ben a pagoda, but it might also have just been an active Buddhist temple. 

We headed back to the riverfront, and enjoyed a cold drink and a bit of a chat with a local. He was at the park with two of his children, who were 7 and 5. His English wasn't great (but it was much better than our non-existent Vietnamese), so it was a fun conversation that took place largely with our hands! 

 Sunset on the riverfront, Hue

Sunset on the riverfront, Hue

We crossed back to our side of the river and found a bar to grab a beer to toast my Mum's birthday, and play a couple of games of pool. Amazingly, I seem to have gotten worse, rather than better. I didn't think it was possible. We made the mistake of heading to a cheesy touristy restaurant for dinner, where I ordered pasta. What turned up was essentially Kraft Mac n Cheese, which I think is probably the most disgusting thing in the world (I know! I eat so much other crap, you'd think I'd love it! But it appears that even I have limits). Zev had a disappointing sandwich, and we spent some time feeling sorry for ourselves. On our way back to the hotel, we detoured to the riverfront to check out the Blood Moon. Sadly, it was obviously hanging out with the two pagodas from earlier in the day, because we couldn't find the moon either. Not a terribly successful day!

We awoke the next morning full of beans, and hired bikes to ride into the countryside to looks at the Royal Tombs. Between 3 and 14kms out of Hue, along the banks of the Perfume River are scattered the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). We read the instructions for how to cycle there, which basically said "Get on this road, keep cycling, and look for signs". Pretty straightforward right?! Except there were no signs. This was our first experience on bikes in South East Asia (other than our guided tour in Battambang), and it was really nice to be out and about. Even though it was seriously hot, you get a bit of a breeze, and it's nice to feel genuinely independent for a change.

We must have looked more lost than we thought, because a woman on a scooter next to me at the traffic lights said, "Hello, where are you from?", followed closely by, "Are you looking for Minh Mang's tomb?". When I said yes, she said, "Turn left, I'll show you!". So off we went. And so we had a new friend, who told us that she had been working in the market in the morning, and was now heading home. She lived very close to the tomb, and would show us the way. I'm sure you all know where this is going, and since we're not idiots, so did we. We wanted so badly to believe that she was just being nice, but again, alarm bells were ringing. Eventually we pulled over to stop for a drink, and she said "We're nearly there, come to my house and buy some fruit, and then I'll show you the way." And there it is. We explained that we don't have much money, but we would buy some mango. Reluctantly we cycled up to her house. I was fuming. You'll hear more about that later. She began slicing our (unripe, rock hard, sour) mango. We asked how much. "I have five children and I need to buy them school books." We can't afford to help you, how much for the mango. "One school book is 100,000 Vietnamese dong (~$5USD)." Oh for god's sake. Fine. Take our money. Again, we'll come back to this later, but I was livid. $5 for an unripe mango? We can get that in Auckland.

We hit the road with some vague instructions to the tomb, and a sick feeling in our stomachs (thanks mango). We managed to find a sign (the first since leaving Hue) pointing in the direction of the tomb. Every driveway we passed, someone would yell out, "Hey! Tomb this way!", but I was not falling for that!!! Finally, we saw a massive home made sign that said "Minh Mang's tomb 200m this way. Park here!". I ignored it and kept riding, determined not to be ripped off twice in one day. Eventually, I had to admit defeat, when it became clear that we had definitely missed the turn off. We returned to the hand made sign. The man assured us we could park our bikes, and all we had to do was buy a drink on the way out. Fine, it was hot, and we would probably have bought one anyway. 

We headed down the path, through a field, following alongside a large brick wall. Eventually, we came to the ticket booth, and the 'real' carpark. Obviously we had missed the turn off somewhere along the way, and had ended up on the wrong side of the tomb. Ah well, what can you do. Again, we paid our entry fee, and wandered in.

Minh Mang was the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, and work on his tomb began in September 1840, while he was still alive. He died in January 1841, and construction was completed by his successor Thieu Tri. Set in peaceful parkland, the tomb is a lovely place to wander and enjoy some respite from the craziness of the rest of the country! It's also a nice spot to find some shade and enjoy a cold drink. The kind woman at the concession stand also gave us a chunk of ice, which we gratefully used to cool down our heads and necks! After about an hour we hit the (very hot) road, but not before buying our obligatory drink from our bike minder.

We intended to stop off at two other well known tombs on the way back into the city, but a lack of signage meant that, surprise surprise, we couldn't find them! So we called it quits, and headed back to the hotel to enjoy a little air conditioning before dinner. Sadly that evening it was my turn to be sick, with the heat turning out to be too much for me to manage. I ended up spending the rest of the day in bed with a horrible headache. Zev ventured out for dinner, and brought me back some goodies, but I was not up to the challenge!

 Nightlife, Hue

Nightlife, Hue

We had another admin day the following day, sorting out our onward travel, blogging, skyping, and planning. And yet another lazy day the day after! More on this in a bit... That night though, we caught up with our friends Andy and Fiona from Dalat again, which was nice. 

On our last day in Hue, we hired the bikes again, and headed to Thien Mu pagoda, about 4kms out of town. It is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. As an added bonus, it has a small troop of bunnies which let you pat them (if you're willing to climb through a hedge, and lean over a fence, which of course I am). Thien Mu is also home to the Austin in which Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon, before setting myself on fire in a busy intersection in 1963, in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. We cycled back into town for lunch and played some pool to kill time. We had checked out of the hotel, but our train wasn't leaving until 9.30pm, so we had to find a way to pass the day! After lunch we headed to the park to lie in the sun and read books (okay, I was reading my book). Soon, two girls appeared, explained that they were students, learning English, and asked if they could practice by talking to us. They were very nice, and their English was pretty good. They were both 19 and studying at the same school, and were from out of town. We talked to them for about 45 minutes, and it was really nice. About 10 minutes after they left, two boys came over with the same request. These two were medical students (one in second year, one in fourth), and the more talkative of the two had excellent English. We had a great time to them about medical school and the way that it works over here (they declare a major from the beginning of their training, so they specialise from the beginning), and the differences with New Zealand. He offered to take us on a tour of the hospital the next day, but since our train was leaving that night, we sadly had to decline.

After saying goodbye to the boys, we returned the bikes to the hotel. We grabbed a drink since we were still super full from lunch, then got some take away fried rice, plus other snacks for the train, and headed back to the hotel to grab a cab to the train station.

Our train pulled up and we found our sleeper cabin. Each cabin consists of two sets of bunks (so four beds), and we had booked the two bottom bunks in a "soft sleeper" cabin - so the beds have mattresses. We opened the door to find two Vietnamese girls asleep in our beds. It was pretty obvious that they didn't have tickets for this cabin, and they were just trying their luck, hoping it wasn't booked. They got up and left, and we settled in. It was pretty nice, with enough room to sit up on the bottom bunks, and room under the bed for our bags. The room had air conditioning, a table, and power points. Soon enough, the girls were back, but this time there were three of them. It then became clear that the ticket checker was either a friend of theirs, or thought they were pretty easy on the eye, because the three of them got up on the top bunks and got comfy (one got a bunk to herself, and the other two got to top and tail). Every five or so minutes, one of the conductors would come by to 'check on them', which meant lots of loud conversations, giggling, and eyelash batting. Gross. Eventually, the girls went to sleep while Zev and I watched a TV show (we're on to season one of The Americans now), but that didn't stop the conductors from swinging by to have a good gawk. It started to get a little creepy, so we shut the door. I got into my sleeping bag liner, and inflated my pillow, and Zev snuggled up with the provided bedding. The provided bedding looked very plush, but I had doubts about its cleanliness, so opted to give it a miss. Sharing pillows with strangers.... Ew.

Some time in the middle of the night, we lost our friends, and when I woke up at around 8am, Zev and I had the cabin to ourselves. So it remained for the rest of the journey into Hanoi. This was definitely the most comfortable travel we've done in our 2 months in South East Asia! Our train pulled in to Hanoi station bang on time, walked a few blocks away from the train station, and jumped in a cab.

While in Hanoi, we're staying with Brendan, who played frisbee in NZ with Zev's team Magon 2013-2014. He has kindly offered us a room in the house that he shares with his wife and two cats. Of course, our taxi driver couldn't find it, and after walking up and down his street for 20 minutes we finally managed to call him and find it. The house is beautiful, right on the water, and has incredible views, all these cool staircases, and did I mention he has two cats? Skippy is super friendly, and has been following us around since we arrived, and Mao Mao has been hiding. You win some, you lose some. We're spending the night here tonight, before heading off to Halong Bay for a two night cruise early tomorrow morning (thanks Rob and Sati!! You'll get your own blog post!), then coming back for a few days before moving on.

So - the things I alluded to earlier, and the reason for the title of our post. As you know, we were in Hoi An before Hue, which was one of the most beautiful places I've even been. We both fell madly in love with it, and were sad to leave. But we were excited to get to Hue, which we also read was very beautiful, and had lots of hiking and national parks nearby.

Not so much. Hue was nice, but nothing compared Hoi An, so that was a little disappointing. The national parks were all a couple of hours drive away, and logistically, needed to be visited on an organised tour. So here we were, stuck in a place that was okay, but not great. Which really got us started talking about money. Now we knew realistically before we left New Zealand that with a laundry list of things to do as long as our arm, we were very unlikely to be able to do it all, especially given the amount of money we managed to save. We did our best, but we had a big year last year, with, among many other things, a 6 week trip to Italy, and a (completely awesome) wedding. But now, we've reached the point in our trip where we've started to get the money jitters. All our pre-trip research says this is really common. You look at your bank account, and it just keeps dropping. You're not earning any money. And everything you do costs money. That's part of the reason we got so frustrated in Hue. We're so spoilt in New Zealand. Some of the world's best hikes and scenery are available unguided, and many of them are free. You forget that going to the beach is only free because you have transport to get there. Here, we are slaves to package tours, or taxi drivers, poor signage, non-existent public transport, and scams. Unlike in Cambodia, where people were genuinely helpful and friendly, we've had very few positive experiences in Vietnam that weren't with people that we were in some way paying. Don't get me wrong - the hosts at all of our accommodation have been friendly, welcoming, and helpful, as have our tour guides, and of course the students we talked to were very genuine. But on the whole, everyone who has been nice to us has had a good reason to be. Pretty much everyone else has tried to rip us off.

In Hue, all of that frustration came to a head, and we were left feeling pretty unhappy. We have definitely spent more money than we'd hoped, it felt like all we're doing is spending money (which is true of course!), we feel a little trapped by needing to do tours all the time, and we're really REALLY sick of feeling ripped off. So that's why we spent a few days laying low in the hotel room, re-grouping.

With that in mind, we're thinking of changing up our plan a bit. From Hanoi, we intended to head north to Laos, then cross into the North of Thailand, making our way down to Bangkok, fly into Myanmar, continue down into the South of Thailand, into Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. So we still had quite a bit to do here. Then from there, we were heading to Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

Our first change of plans is the decision to fly from Hanoi to Phuket next week to meet up with Zev's best man Will and his family. From there we'll head south to tackle a thinned itinerary with only our most desirable locations in Malaysia and Indonesia, before flying back to Bangkok to complete Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

From there, we're toying with the idea of heading straight to the US, to have a bit of a break from developing countries (and I'll be honest, the cheeseburgers are a pretty big draw card!), enjoy some landmine free nature, and if Zev managed to do a little work to bolster the travel fund, well that wouldn't be all bad. Sadly the US government is not interested in my assistance, so I might have to settle for being a kept woman if that pans out - how awful...

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we're at. I've been reading and thinking about social media etc recently, and how easy it is to envy people's lives based on what they choose to show - nobody is logging on to Facebook to tell you that they didn't really do anything today, or anything else mundane. Even while on the trip of a life time with my wonderful husband after an amazing wedding, I find myself looking at Facebook and thinking, "Oh, she bought a house? I'm so jealous!". Yes, I know, it's ridiculous. But I wanted to share our "crisis of confidence" for that reason - nobody's life, no matter how awesome, is awesome all the time. 

I read another interesting blog, written by a mother of two young children. She talked about the fact that every time she complains about something to do with her children (eg, I'm so tired, they didn't sleep last night), she gets hit with waves of, "Oh, you should be grateful, there are so many people out there who want children and can't have them!", or, "Enjoy it while it lasts, they'll be grown up before you know it!". She points out that this does nothing but make her feel bad for what she's feeling - it doesn't stop her feeling it. She points out that you can be grateful AND tired. I think that's how I feel too. I am having the time of my life, and there's nowhere I'd rather be, and no one I'd rather be with, but I also feel tired and frustrated and disillusioned. It reminds me of another anecdote I read somewhere. People always say "You should be happy, there's always someone worse off than you". But that's just as pointless as saying, "You shouldn't be happy, there's always someone better off than you". Without getting too new age on you all, you're entitled to feel whatever you like, and denying yourself that is not going to make you any happier.

Also, I think that stuff like this is what makes trips like ours so interesting. Anyone can come to South East Asia and have a $500,000 holiday, no problems. But it's the hard stuff that makes it memorable.

I think that's enough waffling for one day! We're very excited about our Halong Bay cruise tomorrow, so on that note, we'll finish our packing and hit the hay!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 9th April 2015)

The lanterns of Hoi An

CURRENT LOCATION: Hue, Vietnam

Zev:

While in Nha Trang we decided to wander to the far end of the beach to have a traditional Vietnamese BBQ for dinner. This was a grill your own food experience by way of a small clay charcoal BBQ that was placed at the head of our table. The restaurants was al fresco which was entirely necessary, as even with the "fresh air" and about 100 fans going, the entire place was filled with BBQ smoke. Luckily, it was so busy we got crammed right at the far, back corner of the restaurant so the smoke wasn't so bad. They brought us plates of "vegetables" (which included tomato, pineapple, tofu, okra, potato, onion and banana), a plate each of raw beef and chicken for us to cook up. Everything was marinated in the same sauce, which was definitely tasty! Getting to cook dinner was a really welcome experience for us as we have eaten exclusively at restaurants for the last 7 weeks - every meal has been cooked for us. Frankly, I miss cooking!I think Sam recognised the look of determination on my face and she left the cooking to me.

 Nha Trang, Vietnam
 Nha Trang, Vietnam

The next day we woke up at 4am to catch our train to Danang at 5am. We walked in the abandoned streets of Nha Trang about 600m to the train station. It was strange to see the streets so quiet. They even turn off most of the street lights at this hour. At the train station we got our staple white-people-tourist-travelling-somewhere-in-SE Asia snack kit, which includes 7-Up, Pringles, Snickers bars and Mentos, and boarded our train. Once again we were shafted by getting the only seat in the carriage that shares leg room with people across from you, so basically that means, well, you have none. Anyways, the seats were really comfortable and reclined enough to have a snooze. So we obliged, it was 5am after all. Zzzzzzzzz.

At 6.00am it was time to was wake up. The lights all came on. One of the seemingly thousands of train workers came through and opened all the curtains. The food vendors came charging through the aisles smashing their cart in to every second passenger, and yelling information about their wares. The 2 ceiling-mounted TVs were turned on to the Vietnamese karaoke channel and the speakers set to full volume. As I said, it was definitely time to wake up. Other than this, the train was a really nice way to travel after a countless difficult bus rides. It's smooth. It's fast. Best of all, you can stand up and stretch your legs whenever you need. Which, when you have no leg room, can be quite often.

The 9 hour journey through rice paddies, mountains and with the ocean always to our right was stunning. It's such a beautiful, green and picturesque country. All of the fields were dotted with farmers and water buffalo working hard to contribute to one of the world's largest producers of rice.

Our homestay sent a driver to pick us up on Danang where the train arrived and take us the 40km to Hoi An. When we arrived in Hoi An we decided to walk into the ancient town for a drink and dinner. We were staying just outside the centre, on Can Nam island. Our homestay was really nice and the owner and his family were super friendly! Hoi An ancient town is stunning! The river cuts through, filled with fishing boats and tourist boats, and as the sun sets it becomes increasingly full of floating lanterns. The streets are packed with restaurants, bars, tailors, local markets and tea houses. The centre of ancient town itself is a pedestrian and bicycle only area, so no cars or motorbikes! It's a lovely change from the rest of the cities we've been in. Finally some respite from the noise and traffic, and most importantly, from constantly being harassed about where we're going and how we're getting there. We found a decent looking restaurant and stopped in for a drink - and based on the high price of food, we decided to carry on exploring. We found a more acceptably priced restaurant and their menu had a "traditional food of Hoi An" page - which was perfect as I love ordering the local specialties. Sam ordered the fried rice and perhaps just out of curiosity I ordered "hand crabs with French potatoes" - this turned out to be crab hands with chips... Yes, crab hands. Which I guess you would traditionally call claws. Anywho, it was certainly entertaining! It didn't matter that dinner was a bit of dud, because we were completely smitten with the beauty of Hoi An at night! While 'enjoying' our meal at 8.15pm, the whole town switched off their lights to celebrate earth hour. Suddenly, all the restaurants were lit with candles (largely due to the earth hour 'police' coming round and making people switch their lights off), adding to the beauty of the town. After dinner, we wandered a while in the darkness, soaking up the atmosphere.

 Hoi An, Vietnam
 Hoi An, Vietnam

The next day we decided to venture to the Aussie-owned sports bar in town to support our cricket boys in black for the World Cup final vs Australia. Needless to say we, as kiwis, were well in the minority. In the first innings, a friend of Sam's, Anna, from nursing school and her partner, Hamish joined us for some delicious burgers, pizza and a bit of cringing.... They had stuff to do so we were on our own for the second innings. We met a really nice, if not a bit smug Australian who didn't rub it in too much and even bought us a beer. Turns out he was somehow high up in the chain of command for the NZ winery Matua. He was cool and had a great sense of humour! Despite the scoreline, we were super proud of our boys to get as far as they did! Well done those Black Caps!

We did a bit more research into dinner for that night and it paid off. We had a magnificent Vietnamese meal in a restaurant completely lit by lanterns. All up it cost us around $20 for a three course meal and drinks! Wowee!

The following day we had arranged through our homestay to go on a tour of the ruins of My Son (pronounced: Me Soon). We didn't really know what to expect other than that we were getting picked up at 8.30am and dropped in town at 2.30pm, and there was a boat somewhere along the way, but it was recommended by Mr Tuan (our host) at our homestay! We were collected in a minivan with few others in it, and we drove around to a bunch of hotels and accommodations to pick up other guests for about 20 minutes and it soon became apparent that this tour was rather big. This was confirmed when we parked up behind a massive tour bus, with an already over-full minibus. The tour guide Lee told everyone except for us and another Kiwi couple to go get on the tour bus. Which too, was completely full! We made one more stop to pick up four more guests and we were on our way! When we arrived at the ruins Lee reminded us (us was about 55-60 tourists) about 30 times that we were to follow him through the ruins, where we'd be going, and that we needed to be "back at the bus at 11.55am. That's one, one, five, five. 11.55am. Yes, back here at one, one, five, five" - holding up the correct amount fingers as he spoke. Lee only got crazier and crazier. He repeated everything he said at least 5 times. His English was relatively good, but he has a very thick accent. This was just hilarious and about 5 minutes into the tour, half the group decided to ignore his instructions and go do their own thing. After all, they knew to be back at the bus at 11:55.... But we stayed with Lee, our 45 year old, chain-smoking Vietnamese tour guide! He was so funny! He obviously took a liking to a young Asian woman in the group wearing a slightly revealing bright red dress. He starting referring her to as his "girlfriend". Pretty sure it was borderline sexual harassment... (Addit from Sam: nothing borderline about it. I did not like Lee). However, the young woman was playing along. Super awkward! Despite all this, we learned a lot about the history of the ruins and symbolism as it related to the Hindu religion. The tour had a wonderful end. We were all driven to a boat and cruised down the river while we were served a tasty vegetarian lunch.

 So excited to be at My Son!

So excited to be at My Son!

That afternoon we visited one of the hundreds of tailors in town. Sam picked out some material and patterns for a dress and some shorts which she was going to have custom made for her. Hoi An is famous for their tailoring. The women who worked in this shop were great and super efficient. Within 24 hours Sam was to have 2 tailor-made additions to her wardrobe! Awesome! For dinner, we went to a suggested restaurant called Cargo. Wow. This was one of the best meals we have had on our whole trip. We had deep fried spring rolls wrapped in fresh herbs, spicy sausage on skewers, braised pork ribs and I ordered the whole fried fish with tamarind sauce! Everything was amazing! We didn't let the fact that we both felt sick stop us from getting dessert - Sam had the tiramisu and I ordered the profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Mmmmmmmmm.

Given the success of our My Son tour, we decided to do a second tour of the fishing village and waterways. This was an eco-tour similar to the one we did in Battambang. This tour group was significantly smaller than the day before, and the other guests were lovely! An English guy and his Dutch wife, their two children (who all live in Brunei), and her dutch parents, and two British mothers with their combined 3 children (but they were living in Dubai). This tour was so fantastic. The company is called Jack Trans Eco tours. All of the tour guides were enthusiastic and friendly! We got to meet a water buffalo - I even got to ride on it! We cruised on the river, met the local fisherman on their small, wooden fishing boat, rode in a small 4 person basket boat through the water coconut forest while our guide made us flax jewellery and art, had a go at throwing a 4kg fishing net, pulled in a massive 700kg fishing net using the bamboo/wood foot crank, ate a delicious lunch on the boat, and perhaps most the  memorable was chatting to Nga, our young female tour guide about her grandfather who was in the Viet Cong during the war. She said that he would only ever talk about the war when he was drunk, so locals would give him drinks to hear his stories. She talked about how she grew up being taught a one-sided view of the war, but being in the tourism industry she has learned a whole new side from the tourists (particularly the Americans). As a young child she genuinely hated Americans. But now, she is aware that so many Americans hated the war, and protested, and fought to get the troops out of Vietnam. She says this is never mentioned, and she would have never learnt about the protests if she hadn't heard about it from those who were involved, or whose parents were involved. She was extremely genuine and honest about this. It was a very moving moment. After the tour we said goodbye to all our new friends (who even offered us a place to stay in Brunei!), and went to pick up Sam's tailoring. They looked great and Sam was very pleased!

 Hoi An, Vietnam

Given our lavish and frankly expensive couple of days we decided to do dinner on the cheap and get the local noodle soup called Cau Lao for dinner! We stopped in a small family restaurant because of the young boy who convinced us that their Cau Lao was "same same, but better!" For the crazy price of $4.00 we both ate dinner and had a drink. After dinner we went to tea house called Reaching Out. This establishment was started by a deaf man with a vision to empower and employ people with disabilities. All of the staff were deaf or mute. They encourage whispering and quiet in the tea house, and it is decorated to create a very zen atmosphere. We each had some Oolong tea and reflected on our experiences. A very peaceful way to end a busy day!

 Local fisherman, Hoi An

Local fisherman, Hoi An

Our second to last day in Hoi An we dedicated to doing a much awaited cooking class! We had to cancel the last cooking class because I got sick, so we were determined to make this one count! It started with a trip to bustling market in the centre of ancient town to gather all the goods for the day of cooking. This was interesting, although the cramped nature of the market made it difficult to stay together in our group of 11, let alone hear what our guide was saying. Regardless, it was interesting to venture through the market with confidence that comes with having a Vietnamese speaking guide. On the menu for the day were four items: Ban Xeo (traditional pancake using rice milk and turmeric), beef noodle salad, fresh spring rolls, and Pho Bo (beef noodle soup). They had a team of people making sure the day ran quickly and smoothly. This was perhaps in their best interest, but it definitely took away from the cooking experience a bit. Everything was already, peeled, chopped and put into separate containers. There was not much cooking to be done, but it was still an enjoyable day with good food! That night we met up with some of our friends from Da Lat for dinner. It was really great to catch up and get to know these guys even better!

 Local markets, Hoi An

Local markets, Hoi An

 Making rice milk, Hoi An

Making rice milk, Hoi An

 Heading out on the fishing boat, Hoi An

Heading out on the fishing boat, Hoi An

 Our beautiful spring rolls, Hoi An

Our beautiful spring rolls, Hoi An

The next day was our last in Hoi An, and we planned to wander the ancient town, and visit some of the preserved buildings in the area. After wandering in to town to get some brunch (including a salted caramel cronut for Sam!), I started to feel a little sick, so we headed back to the accommodation in a cab. It wasn't serious, I just felt a bit off, so we thought we'd rest for a bit and head out later in the afternoon when it wasn't so hot. Sadly, I didn't improve, so Sam headed out for dinner without me. I felt worse as the night wore on, and around midnight, I felt the worst. Until I experienced some of the most powerful projectile vomit of my life. Then I felt better. Much better.

When I woke up in the morning, I still felt pretty lethargic, but other than that, it was like I was never sick. Strange! Our homestay was kind enough to cook us an early breakfast, and we were picked up by the bus company at 7.15am. Another sleeper bus ride (only 4 hours this time) took us through some spectacular scenery to Hue. Luckily, our hotel was walking distance from the bus station. Again, we were greeted with a cold drink, and cold towels. And Sam is ecstatic, because our hotel has a bath!

More on our adventures in Hue in the next post!!

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx

(Original post date: 5th April 2015)

Don't be lazy, be crazy!

CURRENT LOCATION: Nha Trang, Vietnam

Sam:

I believe Zev left off after our coffin ride to Dalat. As he said, Dalat was a complete change of pace from pretty much anywhere else we've been in South East Asia. At about 1500m in altitude, it was significantly cooler than everywhere else, and it was much quieter.

We arrived in the mid-afternoon to Camellia Hotel. If you ever find yourself in Dalat, you have to stay here. We were greeted by our host Phuong with two cups of green tea, and hugs. She's a little firecracker, that's for sure. At all of 5 feet tall, she's got more personality than most people twice her size. The hotel is owned in partnership with a local adventure tourism company, Groovy Gecko (whose slogan is 'Don't be lazy, be crazy!'), so she filled us in on the best tours, and what there is to do in town. She showed us to our room, which was HUGE! It had two queen sized beds, a massive wardrobe, and an ensuite. Clearly there had been some flooding at some point, as the plaster in the ceiling would occasionally fall down, but we chose to ignore that... We settled in, and headed out for a delicious vegetarian dinner, wandered the night markets, then got an early night. 

As an aside, usually when I say we got an early night, I mean that we watched an episode of The Newsroom (or whatever show we're watching at the time. Previously it was Avatar: The Legend of Korra, then Death on the Staircase, and now we've finished The Newsroom and are on to Penny Dreadful. All highly recommended shows!).

The following day, we (okay Zev) planned a walking tour of Dalat. Our first stop was Crazy House. It's kind of a cross between the Swiss Family Robinson (now Tarzan) treehouse at Disneyland, and something Gaudi would have made. It was designed by a Vietnamese woman who was sad that her people had lost their connection to the environment. Its this incredible concrete structure made to look like a tree, with all these weird rooms hidden through it, and trees and plants everywhere... I really can't describe it, you'll have to look at our photos in Flickr, or check out the website here.

 Crazy House, Dalat

Crazy House, Dalat

It was while we were wandering around that we found out it is a functioning guest house, and the rooms are pretty reasonable. That afternoon, we ended up booking a room for a night - but more on that later.

 Crazy House, Dalat

Crazy House, Dalat

From there we headed down the road in search of an art gallery/cafe that Zev read about, but sadly we couldn't find it. So we decided to carry on to the waterfalls that were next on our list. But we couldn't find those either. Never mind, off to the cathedral!! Oh.... No cathedral. Huh. But that's okay, because just up this hill is a road of old French houses, which show off some great architecture, and some of them are abandoned, so you can wander round inside! Oh I see, they've been demolished....

Luckily, Dalat is a beautiful little town, and the weather was so mild that it wasn't a problem to wander the streets. We strolled around the lake, and made it to the Dalat Flower Garden. Dalat is known for its flowers, and grows them to supply the rest of the country for various festivals throughout the year. The flower garden was a bit of a strange place, filled with empty ponds, and fountains that were switched off for the dry season, and vaguely Disney-themed instalments that edged dangerously close to copyright infringement. An enjoyable way to spend an hour regardless. We polished off our afternoon with a wander around the lake, before heading back to our super guesthouse for a rest before dinner. When we arrived back at the hotel, we booked into the canyoning tour for the following day. 

Dinner turned out to be a great success. We made our way to the top rated restaurant in Dalat according to TripAdvisor, and it was packed, we managed to swipe an empty table just as we arrived, and the waitress apologised profusely - apparently the wait on food would be about half an hour as they were so busy. The poor girl was literally running everywhere!! Nonetheless our food arrived much faster than she said, and it was outstanding. Spring rolls, caramel hot pot chicken, and yellow noodle soup with beef - delicious! Toward the end of the meal we were treated to meeting the owner, who was a very funny and charismatic guy. You could see why this place was so highly recommended. He had us sign his world map, which they change each year as it fills up. 

I totally forgot to mention the incredible breakfasts at Camellia Hotel! For $1.50, you get baguettes, eggs, coffee, tea, fruit, and homemade jam and peanut butter. And let me tell you, Phuong's peanut butter is to die for. But I digress... The following morning, after gorging ourselves on peanut butter, our driver arrived for our canyoning adventure. We piled into a van with three other English guys, plus our two guides and a driver. We pulled over at the bus station and got out of the van. Here, we were told to change into our wetsuits. At the bus station. On the side of the main road. Hmmmmm..... We changed, put on our helmets, and piled back into the van. After another 10 minutes of driving, we pulled off the highway. "Quickly, quickly. Get out of the van and follow me!" This was a little strange, but we're getting pretty used to a little strange these days, so we did what we were told. 

We were introduced to our guides, Hung and Long (we're still not sure if that was a joke), and did a quick practice abseil down a bank. We obviously all passed the test, because we moved on. As our first 'Don't be lazy, be crazy' test, we hit a natural waterslide - basically a small waterfall over some rocks had created a smooth path into the pool below. Not content with just having us slide, Hung declared we would all be going down head first!! Thank goodness for the helmets and life jackets! It was awesome though, and we had no bruises to show for it!

Now for those of you paying attention earlier, you'll know that there were five people in our group: me and Zev, and Gav, Will and Cal, from York. At the first abseil site, we met another group. There must have been at least 40 of them, and they didn't have wetsuits. I'm sure they were all still having a great time, but I'm so glad we had a small group. And because we had such a small group, the big group let us go first - woooo! This abseil was 12m over a cliff to the rocks below. Not too bad, and our group was through pretty quickly. We were instructed to swim to the bottom of the nearest waterfall for a photo - no easy task, given how strong the current was! Sadly we didn't bring a camera, but the boys took some photos for us on their phone, and said they'll email them to us, so fingers crossed!

After a combination of river floating and hiking, we hit the next waterslide. This one had two routes - one we went down in groups, and the other alone and backwards. The group part was great, but the solo backwards ride resulted in a few bruises! Didn't stop usable from wanting to do it again though.

And then we made it to the big kahuna - a 25m abseil down a huge waterfall. We all took our shoes off for better grip. From the top, we were instructed who to watch at which point (the top guide or bottom guide), and were told that near the bottom, the rope runs out, so you have to jump. When he bottom guide gives you the signal, you push out from the wall and let go of the ropes. Simple right? What they don't tell you at the top is that when you get the signal, you're still 4m from the bottom and getting pummelled in the face with the full force of the waterfall. I'm glad they didn't tell us that though, because it was amazing!!

A little more hiking took us to my highlight for the day - the cliff jump. Hung told us there were two heights we could jump from: 11m, or an outcrop a little lower at 7m. To jump from the top you had to run and jump out, so that you didn't hit the outcrop, so it was important that you didn't change your mind at the last minute and hesitate, because you'd probably just fall onto the rocks... Ouch. He then explained that the higher jump wasn't good for girls, because they get too scared. Needless to say that made my mind up. Zev went first - he was the canary down the coal mine for the rest of us. Once I confirmed he'd made it, I went for it. I knew if I looked over the edge to see how far it was, I wouldn't do it, so I just ran and jumped as far out as I could. It felt like I was falling forever. I could've spent the rest of the day doing that jump! Cal came next, off the top, then Gav from the 7m outcrop, then Will from the top. I think Gav might be hearing a bit about that over the course of their trip...

More floating and hiking took us to the last activity - the washing machine. An abseil down about 6m, before just sitting in your harness and lowering yourself down into a waterfall. Once the rope runs out (these guys need longer ropes), you let go, hit the water and get pushed out from under the waterfall towards the shore. Sounds great right? I think I swallowed most of the waterfall, and got a great sinus rinse, but other than that, not many redeeming features for me!

A 10 minute uphill hike earned us lunch. Out of Hung and Long's backpacks came a while watermelon, two mangos, a pineapple, a dozen baguettes, tofu, mystery meat (which Hung told us was Chihuahua meat), cucumber, tomato, chillis, cheese, Oreos - it was like a magic carpet bag of food. Things got pretty quiet while we all stuffed our faces. Another 5 minutes up hill and we were thrown into the van, no time for taking off wetsuits or helmets!! 

To those of you with a more adventurous streak, canyoning probably doesn't sound that remarkable - we have similar activities in NZ. What WAS remarkable was that it cost us $25 each. In NZ, I think you'd be looking at at least $200.

We got back to the hotel at about 3.30pm, and were greeted by towels and hot tea. Despite our exhaustion, we booked in to go hiking the following day. The most energetic thing we could manage for the rest of the day was hot showers and pizza for dinner.

The next morning we were picked up by our hiking guide, whose name I'm sorry to say I can't recall. We drove about 30 minutes from to hotel to a local village, before beginning our three peak hike. We reached the start of the hike, and there was a big gate/archway at the entrance. Much like the following day, we ignored that, went down a nearby side ride, and popped into the park a little further along the trail, out of view of the main road... Interesting... The climb to the first peak was pretty steep, and after the canyoning the day before (and no exercise for 6 weeks), my legs were really feeling it. We passed onion and strawberry farms, and looked back to see hundreds of greenhouses. The temperate climate in Dalat makes it a great place to grow vegetables, but the cold nights mean they need greenhouses. I was more than a little disappointed when we reached the first 'peak' to find a carpark, souvenir shop and cafe. Luckily the stunning views more than made up for it. 

 Three Peaks hike, Dalat

Three Peaks hike, Dalat

The climb to peak number two was more gentle. On our way, we saw orchids growing in the trees, bamboo ladders used by locals to catch birds, and delicious sour berries. Peak number two had another great view, even higher than peak number one.

 Three Peaks hike, Dalat

Three Peaks hike, Dalat

I was lulled into a false sense of security by the flatness of the beginning of the walk to the third and final peak. 'This isn't so bad!', I thought. Then we reached the stairs, with a sign next to them saying '360m to the summit'. Well that doesn't sound too far, does it? Let me tell you, it was very far. My bum was on fire by the time we reached the top. But oh man was it worth it. At 2163m, we had 360° views of the surrounding area.

 Three Peaks selfie, Dalat

Three Peaks selfie, Dalat

Again, at this point our guide pulls out lunch - a pineapple, two mangos, bananas, two dragonfruit, two filled rolls each, some biscuits... Here was me complaining coming up the stairs and our poor guide was carrying all this food! To make it up to him, I ate until I felt sick so he didn't have to carry anything back down. I think he appreciated it.

 First peak, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

First peak, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

 So close, yet so far... Three Peaks hike, Dalat

So close, yet so far... Three Peaks hike, Dalat

 We did it! Lunchtime, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

We did it! Lunchtime, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

 The lunch spread, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

The lunch spread, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

 The view from the top, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

The view from the top, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

 We did it! Three Peaks hike, Dalat

We did it! Three Peaks hike, Dalat

The descent was significantly quicker than the ascent, and took us past a coffee plantation. We stopped to see the berries, open them and have a look, and a little nibble. The berries are very sweet, but with a slight coffee tang.

 Dalat, Vietnam
 Final selfie, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

Final selfie, Three Peaks hike, Dalat

 Us and our guide, back at the accommodation. Three Peaks hike, Dalat

Us and our guide, back at the accommodation. Three Peaks hike, Dalat

We made it back to our accommodation at around 4pm, pooped again. We had signed up for a family style dinner at the accommodation, but Phuong decided we'd all go out instead. After a shower and a nap, we met the rest of the gang and headed out. It was a super fun group of varying ages (22-48), and it was fun hanging out with a big group. We started with dinner at a place where you make your own spring rolls, then headed for dessert at a local coffee shop. Next up, a bar. And what a bar. It was about the size of a coffee table, and every white person in Dalat was there. Soon, we knew why. There was a Vietnamese cover band, singing in English. A sample of their songs: Wonderwall, by Oasis; a song by Linkin Park (I'm not sure which one, because they all sound the same), remixed into Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio; Every Breath You Take, by Sting and the Police, remixed into Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio; Careless Whisper, by George Michael, remixed into Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio.... I'm sure you get the gist. I'm also not sure whether any of the band members spoke English, or whether they'd just learnt the songs phonetically, because there was some interesting pronunciation going on there! After a few (too many?) beers, we headed back to the hotel with the whole crew in tow.

Upon our return, the whole place was boarded up. Luckily, we had Phuong with us, who runs the place. Except she had left her keys inside, and by this point, was a bit pissed. After 20 minutes of rattling the bars, knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, and calling the landline, a very sleepy Vietnamese guy opened the door, looking sheepish before copping an earful from Phuong... We hit the hay.

The next day was our last in Dalat, which we added on so that we could spend the night at the Crazy House. Since it's open to tourists during the day, we weren't so keen to hang out there, so we spent the day pottering around town and hanging out at Camellia. At mid-afternoon, we made our move. We checked into the Termite Room, which was super cool. It had a weird tiled bathroom, its own fireplace, and an oddly shaped bed. Oh, and a mirror on the ceiling. Huh... Also, it smelt kinda strange. Like... Well, like wee. But hey, it's the Crazy House! We hung out for a bit (another two episodes of Penny Dreadful), then headed out for dinner. 

 Dalat, Vietnam

Our night at the Crazy House was interesting. The urine smell got worse, which was nice. The staff arrived for work at 6.30am on their motorbikes, which they parked outside our room, then stood there for a while talking. At the top of their lungs. At 6.50am, the Russian couple staying upstairs checked out. From what I could tell, he headed down to outside our window, then she packed their bags while he yelled instructions. I managed to fall back asleep at about 7.30am, and at 8am, banging on the door alerted me that breakfast had arrived. Which was great, since we ordered it for 8.30am in the garden. Oh well, breakfast in bed is never a bad thing!

Our bus to Nha Trang was due to pick us up from the Crazy House at 12.30pm, so we had some time to kill. With our room smelling like piss, and the garden full of tourists, it was a long few hours. For once, our bus was on time. We were picked up in the bus we'd be travelling to Nha Trang in, which was great. We settled in as the bus did the rounds of Dalat, picking up all the other passengers. Our insane bus driver drove us up into the clouds, using his horn as everything from brakes to indicators. We drove through some stunning scenery very reminiscent of New Zealand - windy roads through green hills, much like Coromandel. To make it feel more like home, we were completely fogged in, and it started raining. About halfway through the trip, a song started playing, over and over and over. We couldn't figure it out where the hell it was coming from - was someone playing a game, or had someone knocked their headphones out?? People started looking around, laughing awkwardly... I realised it must be menu music on a DVD. Obviously the driver had put in a DVD, but not pushed play or turned on the screen. After about 30 minutes of repetition, the driver realised what all the murmuring was about, and that is when the magic happened. He started the DVD. It was a sweet 'Best of' DVD by the 80s band Modern Talking. The entire bus was in fits of laughter.

Eventually we made it to Nha Trang, checked in to our hotel, and went to the train station to book our onward train tickets to Hoi An. We only came to Nha Trang because there is no train station in Dalat, so we're only here for a day. 

Nha Trang is an interesting place. Like most of the beachside resorts in South East Asia, it seems to be owned by the Russians. The people are Russian, the signs are Russian - it's very strange. It reminds me of Hawaii, in that there is a lovely 6km beach, right next to a strip mall.

Today we hit the beach, which had waves which was a nice change. Zev had the time of his life when I got knocked over by one - I must be out of practice. While drying out on the sand, the PA speakers started playing a message, first in Vietnamese, then in Russian, then in English. It was informing us of the rules of the beach - how very communist!

This evening, our plan is to pack and have an early night in preparation for our 5am train to Danang (ugh!!), followed by a bus ride to Hoi An. Wish us luck!!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

Addit: wow - this morning I tried to look at our last blog, to see where Zev had written up to in his last post. I couldn't load our blog - it kept redirecting to a weird Vietnamese site. I thought our blog had been hacked, but couldn't figure out how since we only access it from our iPads. I asked a friend in NZ to go to the site, and he said it was fine. So I just did some googling, and found out that some internet service providers block blog sites, because the government is very disapproving of blogs. Several bloggers have been jailed for anti-government blogs. Yikes!!!

(Original post date: 27th March 2015)