Saturday, 4 June 2011

Back on the road again...

Hello all!
So, we're back on the road again after 5 and a half months in Melbourne, and already I'm behind on the blog (nothing changes, eh?!) But as we have a computer and free internet in our room in Hanoi, I thought I'd make the most of it while Chris has a birthday chat with young David back in the 'burgh (I say YOUNG David, because Chris is now officially old, hee hee! happy 27th Christopher!)
So our time in Melbourne turned out to be really good, and we were certainly sad to say goodbye to all the friends we'd made along the way. Chris worked his wee socks off while I studied, so our travels came upon us rather quickly and we weren't very prepared, but we managed to get ourselves going again, and had about a week on the West coast of Australia in Perth and the coast/countryside south of there. Hired another campervan, a Backpacker this time, and spent about 4 or 5 days trundling through sleepy little towns, wineries, beautiful coastlines, and very Australian looking outback (at last, it looked like how you imagine Australia: red earth, green scrubby trees and blues skies!) We even saw our first wild kangaroo, which was a treat (and I wasn't asked to molest its tail this time!?!)    By the by, while we were still in Melbourne we also took a road trip along the Great Ocean Road, which was just spectacular: a must for anyone who ever visits the region. 
So after Perth, which was a very nice city, if a little small, we flew to Hong Kong to start our Asian adventures...and as some of you may have already heard, this mailnly involved being bitten to absolute shreds by bed bugs (only me, Chris wasn't to their taste!), eating bad food, and getting hot and bothered by the distinct lack of signage and tourist info in the city. Chris also got hassled on the street a lot by all the guys trying to sell tailoring: they obviously thought he looked shabby and needed a good shirt or 5, as they really would single him out from afar!
On the other hand, the Hong Kong skyline at night was just amazing, and even more so from up the peak looking down on it all, so that made up for the other set backs. It was an interesting city, crammed full of people and designer shops (I mean really, just how many Burberry stores does one shopping centre need?!) but we were pleased to have experienced it.
After 3 days in Hong Kong, we then flew to Hanoi in Vietnam, where we have based ourselves for the past week whilst exploring other parts of the country, such as Halong Bay, and the mountains in Sapa, but more on them in a bit.
The first thing about Hanoi (and Vietnam in general) is the roads and the driving. Oh. My. God.  You have NEVER seen anything like it, and as a Westerner with good driving skills, the whole spectacle is totally nerve-wracking and unbelievable. The concept of lanes is a very loose one, and overtaking every single vehicle in fron of you, whether they are actually slower than you or not, is just standard behaviour. They particularly enjoy overtaking on blind corners, and seem to time it just right so that you meet the ten-tonne truck coming the other way head on. But then of course, they are all very skilled at swerving, so all is "fine" in the end...except all your terrified passengers have repeatedly soiled your seats and are convinced they are going home in a box. At one point our coach driver for our Halong Bay tour decided that avoiding a pothole on our side of the road, was more prudent than avoiding the truck in the on-coming lane. He then followed this up by taking on a steamroller. He actually beeped his horn at it, but I think it knew it would win, so kept on trundling towards us. Our driver took the ditch by the side of the raod instead: cunning.
And that is another thing, they all beep their horns here CONSTANTLY. This is not out of anger, this is just to say, "hello! i'm here! just behind/beside/in front of you! how you doing there? mind if I just squeeze past? close enough for you to hear my mobile phone conversation? okey dokey! cheers!"  And that is how it goes for the 20 million people on mopeds, mixed in with the pedestrians, cyclists, vendors, women pushing prams: you name it, it's in the road and it's going go whichever way it wants, regardless of lanes, directions, lights, junctions, other traffic...oh it's a sight to behold! And to be a part of!!! To cross the road, you just have to step out onto the road and walk at a steady pace, so that the traffic can drive around all directions. It's actually the cars that are the scariest things because they're not as nippy, and the drivers tend to have the attitude that if they squash you, they at least won't get any of the blood and guts ON them, as they are safe in their metal boxes. It's been an interesting experience to say the least!
Anyway, we explored the little winding streets of the old quarter where our room is, and did a bit of shopping avec rather pathetic bartering (what a chore! especially when they won't actually haggle with you, and don't chase after you when you "leave"...I mean c'mon people, play your own silly game or don't put it out there at all!) and so then went off to explore other parts of Northern Vietnam.
Our first excursion was to Halong Bay, where we stayed on a lovely boat for the night, and cruised around the stunningly beautiful waters between the bobbly islands that poke up out of the water. There are over 2000 islands, so the scenery was pretty amazing. We visited some caves, went kayaking, drank some beers, relaxed and then did some night fishing for squid. Once again my beginners luck saw me catch one of the 4 we managed to coax onto our hooks, so that was fun : )  Overall a lovely trip, with great weather and some really nice people: not too busy either as it's low season, so not the "motorway of boats" we'd heard about, though there were still quite a few boats around and about.
Our other excursion was to Sapa, which is up north in the mountains. It took 9 hours on the sleeper train to reach Lao Cai, and then a further hour on a bus up a very windy mountain road to the town of Sapa itself. From here we went on a 12k trek to reach the village where we stayed the night. 12k may not seem too bad, but this was up and down incredibly steep mountain sides, mostly in the rain, and therefore in the wet clay/mud! It was good fun but my god, the mud and the steep descents were pretty crazy. Luckily our local guide from the Black H'Mong tribe had her lady-friends along for the trip, and as they clamber up and down those mountains their whole lives, they can leap about like little mountain goats, and leant me more than a few surprisingly firm grips to help me along the way! I mean, these ladies were quite old, and wearing sandals/jelly shoes, but didn't slip once, and were taking the trickier routes whilst letting old clod horse here take the good foot holds (and holding up my comparitively vast weight!)!!! So it was all good fun, and the landscape was just incredible, with all the rice paddies cut in steps into the mountainsides: so incredibly neat, it was really awe-inspiring how they figured it all out and maintained it and worked on the land, with buffalo wallowing about in the mud or pulling the ploughs.
We were pretty knackered when we reached the village for lunch, so the hassle we got from all the ladies who'd been helping us was really not appreciated! They were trying to sell us their handicrafts, which were actually very nice, but it was almost as though we weren't allowed to sit down and recover until we'd bought something off each of them because they'd helped us. I told them I didn't want their bags and purses, but to bring me the good sh*t in the form of jewellery and scarves, which I'd been admiring on them all for the whole trek! So they tootled off home and came back in the middle of our lunch with what I'd asked for...they really are desperate to sell you stuff, but could perhaps try and realise that pissing people off ain't good for business!!! It's the same all over: people seem to think that hassling you will somehow endear you into buying their tat that you don't want. Then when you do quite want something, you can't find anyone to sell you it!
Anyway, we bought stuff we wanted, got loads more hassle from those who'd missed out on our dosh, then headed off to the next village where we were to stay the night.
We met people from 2 other tours at our homestay who were all lovely, so we had a great time chatting over dinner and drinks, whilst slathering ourselves in Deet and admiring the local insect life ricocheting off the strip lighting. Nothing too scary though, just the prospect of malarial mozzies...excellent. But we were dosed up and deeted up to the max...but what do you know? they didn't like the taste of Ogg up there, and it was Rogers who got a bit nibbled (don't worry Marian, we're on the expensive stuff!)
The next day was torrential rain, and therefore an even muddier walk (or trudge!) to a waterfall. Well worth it though, and a great experience all in all. We then explored Sapa town for the last few hours of the day, then got our night train back to Hanoi. The trains are pretty much okay, if a little disorganised. On our way out, they hadn't got enough carriages, so had to find one from somewhere. Typically, it was ours that was missing ; )
Anyhoo, due to a slight misunderstanding with our well-meaning hotel owner who arranged our two trips (think young Vietnamese Basil Faulty, complete with Manwell figure in form of small, odd brother-in-law) we have an extra day in Hanoi, so are going to do a bike/boat trip on the outskirts of the city, before getting another night train down the coast to Hue, which is about 11 hours away. Is very hot here in Hanoi, so hopefully not too crazy for cycling, plus my legs are killing me from the downhill trekking, so we'll see how it goes! Will hopefully update again soon when we've had some more crazy Vietnamese adventures : )