A Travellerspoint blog

Quick Update

yes - we're a little behind

Finally got around to posting the entry for Hanoi so we are only about one month behind on updates. At this stage we have finished with Vietnam, travelled through Cambodia and Malaysia and now we are in Singapore. Tomorrow we fly to Australia where we will be until after Christmas.

I'll try to catch up over the next week or so but for more recent updates check out the Sniamh advent calendar on our photo website.....

Posted by steve1000 17:22 Comments (2)

Hanoi Vietnam

Taxi Adventures in the North of Nam..

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Hanoi is not for the faint of heart. If you were dropped into the old quarter you genuinely wouldn’t be able to identify which side of the road they drove on. On the dual carriageways it was more straight forward at least most of the vehicles on each carriageway drove in the same direction. Even crossing the road is and adventure that will test your bravery (or stupidity). At first Niamh and I were pretty much stuck on a short circuit that required no such crossings but we had to be braver if we were to see any of Hanoi. Once used to the chaotic madness of Hanoi we set about our sightseeing – pagodas, museums, old houses.

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Our plan for our next move was to get a bus / boat combo to Cat Ba Island and use it as a base for seeing Halong Bay. As such we headed on foot to the bus station to check out departure times and if possible pick up some tickets. We got lost en-route and when we did eventually find the station the lady was extremely unhelpful and refused to sell us tickets stating that we could buy them on the bus the following day. It was at this point that we decided to be lazy and take a taxi back to the old quarter...

Every direction you turn (lonely planet, travelfish, hotel websites, hotel maps) warn you of the taxi scams – normally they take circuitous routes or tell you your chosen destination has burnt down, is closed today (delete as applicable) and take you to an entirely different location of their choosing. Some even have dodgy fixed meters. Niamh and I were discussing this as we were surrounded by taxi drivers and we tried to find one that spoke some English and knew their way to the Hanoi Hilton prison. We found one – he reset the meter and off we went. In the wrong direction.

Niamh with her map and Stiamh with his GPS – too clever for this taxi driver. We indicated our dissatisfaction with his route choice and he promptly made some turns and got us back on course. Score one for Sniamh.

All was well, the meter at a mere 40,000 dong (about $2) very reasonable. Quick check for a street sign to monitor progress and the meter is suddenly at 365,000 dong. I suggest we pull over immediately but apparently the area was a little too busy for our driver and he found a quiet alternative with just a couple of kitchen appliance and washing machine shops around.

We were stupid – we knew we had been scammed but we knew it was a risk and should have agreed the price upfront and not ridden on the meter. We gave the guy 500,000 note and waited for our change – which was 20,000 dong. A dodgy meter was one thing but this was undisguised theft – Sniamh’s collective foot was put down - we were not having this.

Niamh opened the taxi door and started calling to the shop for help meanwhile our friendly local taxi driver was simultaneously hiding 500,000 dong in his sock and showing us that his pockets were empty. He was insisting that we had given him 2 x 200,000 dong notes. It seemed futile to point out that we had given him no such thing and that even if we had he was still short changing us, we pointed it out anyway. At this point he mysteriously lost the gift of the language of Shakespeare and was only able to converse in Vietnamese.
The man from the shop appeared – looked at the meter, laughed and hurried back to his shop to summon a lady we took to be the owner of the shop. Through a series of hand gestures and map pointing we got across to her the route we had taken, she seemed shocked and phoned the taxi company. At this point she was not aware that any cash had exchanged hands. The taxi company told her that 50,000 dong was the fair price for this ride. With more hand gestures, scribbled numbers and arrows Niamh got across the cash transactions that had taken place. Our lady friend immediately stationed her shop assistant in front of the taxi so our driver couldn’t abscond, she insisted we stayed in the car and she called the police.

Our cabbie was now starting to look a little nervous, putting the car into gear but with the door open and a man standing in front he had nowhere to go. He gestured for us to leave his cab and even gave us some more money back, in fact the correct change from 500,000 if we were to pay the full metered amount of 365k. We declined his offer, informing him that we knew he spoke English and that he had missed his chance, that he was a thief and we would wait for the police – he then had the audacity to ask for the money back – a request we politely refused. Meanwhile the shop owner was berating the taxi driver – we don’t know what she was saying but the gist, we think, is that tourism is good for Vietnam and people like him will stop people like us coming.

More nervous gear movements followed by a phone call to summon another friendly cabbie who upon arrival took receipt of the 500,000 dong note from the aforementioned sock and thus disappearing with the evidence of the crime. Our friendly washing machine dealer photographed the transaction on her phone for the police to enjoy later on.

Finally the police arrived – they had no interest in Sniamh but talked at some length with our shopkeeper heroine and the taxi driver. Another phonecall, another cabbie arrives and we are given a further 200,000 dong – this is apparently the end of the matter for us. We leave the taxi, thank our friend the shopkeeper and make our exit stage left as the taxi driver takes a policeman for a ride – presumably to check his meter but perhaps not. Somewhat appropriately we head to Hanoi Hilton followed by an emergency visit to get a dirty bird (that’s KFC for the uninitiated).

Upon getting back to the hotel we booked the first trip out of Hanoi for the following day – a cruise to Halong Bay.

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This episode illustrative of a wide reaching problem in SE Asia. There are so many people out to scam you that it darkens your view of everyone, you stop trusting and find yourself rudely turning away those that offer genuine help with no strings attached. The vast majority of people are wonderful, welcoming and helpful people like our shop owner. Should you find yourself in Hanoi and in need of kitchen appliances – please let us know and we will send you in the right direction.

Tally updates:

Victim of Scam: 3 (we have already included Hanoi taxi in early updates) net cost to Sniamh $5.25

Reluctant tourist update:

KFC: 1

Posted by steve1000 16:59 Archived in Vietnam Tagged taxi bay hanoi halong scam Comments (1)

Laos 2

Oh to be 21 in Vang Vieng

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The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is a stunning mountain road passing paddy fields and limestone karsts it has to be seen to be believed. The road is windy, it is bumpy and the bus has very poor suspension. The vomiting started at the back of the bus and worked its way forward... apparently... I was wearing my headphones and was oblivious to it all. Niamh, on the other hand, spent the entire journey concentrating every effort to avoid joining in - a task at which she was successful.

Vang Vieng comes across as quite an ugly little town having been spoilt by the backpacker insurgence that has occurred here. Our hotel had a balcony which overlooked the limestone karsts towering above the river which was stunning at sunset. It also overlooked the "bucket bar" which pumped out the sort of music the kids like to listen to until about 2am.

Most of our time here I spent cursing my lost youth. The number one pastime in this town is tubing. Floating down the river in a truck tire tube you catch ropes thrown to you by each bar you pass (of which there are many) to pop in for a quick beer or free shot or whatever you fancy. We saw the end result of all this from our hostel balcony, the youngsters staggering back with their tubes in desperate hope of hitting the 6pm deadline so they didn't lose their deposits.

Not going tubing in VV would be like going to Paris and not climbing up the Eiffel Tower. As I pointed out to Niamh I have been to Paris and not been up the tower so we could probably skip the tubing aswell.

We went kayaking instead. Along the kayak route we stopped off at some caves - as we waded waste deep into the water at the entrance to the cave our guide enquired whether we had remembered our torches. No one had ever mentioned a torch so we indicated that we had not. Not to worry though, he had some candles and we were promptly issued with two each. Once he found his lighter, and got it to work, we were off.

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The water got deeper, and the candles went out on numerous occasions plunging us into darkness. At one point the three of us that were foolish enough to continue (the other 5 had made various excuses and waited outside) all slid on our backsides down a 6 foot slope in the mud landing in a slimy heap whilst our guide nimbly hopped down and laughed sympathetically in the remaining light of his two candles.

Finally we could see daylight ahead but through a very small gap - our fellow visitor regaled us with stories of his last caving trip - not being a slight fellow he had got stuck in a tiny gap, not unlike the one we were about to traverse, and had to be greased up by his fellow cavers in order to squeeze through. As he started his squeeze Niamh and I looked at each other and the inch left on our candles and fell into silent prayer. All was well though and a minute later we were all out in the fresh air - no greasing required.

Having kayaked a few times in Cayman we felt quite confident in our kayaking skills and this proved to be the case until we reached the start of the boating festival. In Laos, all along the Mekong, the towns gather at the river’s edge to celebrate the end of the wet season with boating competitions. They had gathered, in this case, at exactly the point where Niamh and I lost control of our kayak and started spinning in the water unable to steer ourselves the 10 yards to the bank where we were to reach dry land. This was met with great amusement by our guide, our tour mates and about 500 Laos people present to witness our humiliation. We cheered ourselves up in one of the bars showing constant re-runs of Friends, the other pastime in VV (although Family Guy reruns are making a strong play with at least half the bars having made the switch.)

The next day we went climbing, Niamh's first time and she tells me she enjoyed it although I am not convinced. Our climbing was hindered by the weight of the guilt of rejecting the tubing so when the rest of our tour group decided they would tube that afternoon we agreed that we would go along too.

Only one or two people die or are paralysed each year tubing and they are normally drunk and stoned so statistically we would probably be ok if we stuck to beer, only stopped in one bar and at all costs avoided the ziplines.

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Within the first 200 meters of the tubing route there are four bars - we visited each of them, drinking our beer along with bee rice whiskey (the local homemade hooch with actual bees in it – “for the sweetness mate”.)

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Not surprisingly it wasn't long before Niamh was on the zip lines meanwhile I was taking in the whole experience of twenty somethings, drunk and stoned out of their collective tree, writing all over each other with sunblock pens so that their desire for ladyboys would be indelibly marked on their un-tanned flesh for some days to come.

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We got back at 17.59 and proudly collected our deposit.

The day after our tubing adventure we were off to Vientiane on a substandard minibus which was most certainly not the luxury bus the sales lady had in her picture. We arrived without event to find the boating festival in full swing. Half the town was closed off to traffic so we set off on foot with our backpacks. Eventually admitting defeat with our navigation we flagged down a Tuk-Tuk. His navigation was no better than ours and he dropped us off further away from our hostel than he picked us up, charging us a dollar for the privilege. With the help of some sketchy directions from a local resident and some rather better ones from a couple of English lads we tracked down our hostel.

Vientiane isn’t our top recommendation on the SE Asia circuit, at least not when we were there - it was noisy, busy and dirty, the streets full of rotting food. We accept that this was purely because of the festival and if you came here at another time you would probably be fine - although one day would be enough. We did the obligatory cafes, visited the unexploded ordinance museum which is run by COPE ( www.copelaos.org ) an organisation which help not only provide artificial limbs but also trains the local people to make them. We also visited the Laos Arc de Triomphe which was built out of concrete given to the Laos government by the USA to build a runway. I think the tourist information sign speaks for itself:

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The following day we took to the airport to head to Hanoi.....

Posted by steve1000 00:30 Archived in Laos Tagged vientiane caving tubing vang vieng Comments (1)

Laos 1

Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang

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It's time to leave Thailand and head into Laos - whilst we are really looking forward to Laos I have been dreading the journey to get there for some time. Stories of boats barely floating seating 80 people on seats designed to hold 35 - for two days - not much fun.
We journeyed to Huay Xai across the river from Chiang Khong - a 3 min boat ride in a tiny boat loaded with 6 backpackers and 6 backpacks so that it was reminiscent of the bamboo rafting in Chiang Mai ie barely above the surface.

Huay Xia is notable for two things - average hostels and our very first taste of Beerlao - in fact much of our one and only night in this border town was spent enjoying the latter in the company of Stuart and Sarah whom we had met earlier on the bus. A couple of the many faces that keep cropping up in towns and cities hundreds of miles apart now that we are on the SE Asia backpacker circuit.

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Due to my boat transit concerns I had persuaded Niamh to take the flashpacker option of a more exclusive boat with limited numbers, soft seats, meals and accommodation included. The only problem here is that the internet had a number of very worrying reviews as to how this option worked out for other travellers. As it happens our boat (Nagi of Mekong) was great, the journey comfortable, peaceful and picturesque. The accommodation in Pak Beng was basic to say the least but I honestly believe that it was one of the best options in town.

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Our boat stopped a couple of times, once in a village that seemed to be, predominantly, inhabited by children selling coloured fabric wristbands (Niamh bought at least 5, I bought none) and the Pak Ou caves which are, to say the least, underwhelming - if you find yourself considering a day trip here - skip it and have a beerlao instead.

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Arriving in Luang Prabang we find a sleepy town full of wats, monks, backpackers and bakery cafes. We were planning to meet up with Kat and Dave, friends from Cayman, and such is the size of the town it didn't take long to bump into them and we headed off to a riverside bar which became our local for our time in LP.

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The rest of our time in Luang Prabang was spent watting, trying to get a picture of the front of a monk, drinking coffee, eating cake and a trip to the stunning waterfalls for a dip.

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After a few days we bade farewell to Kat and Dave and head off on the vomit bus to Vang Vieng.

Posted by steve1000 06:47 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfall prabang luang beerlao huay xai Comments (2)

Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai

Travels through Northern Thailand

After Bangkok Chiang Mai is like heaven on earth. We were staying just inside the old city walls and can walk to most places. Most places seem to be Wats and we have seen quite a few of these already – still it has to be done so watting we went.

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To break it up we did a one day trek which had an elephant ride, trekking, white water rafting and a bamboo raft. The elephants’ trunk technique was more interesting than the elephants as a form of transport, the white water was brown and the bamboo raft had neutral buoyancy about 8 inches below the surface of the water resulting in us effectively sitting in the river – still a fun time was had by all.

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The food in Thailand has been amazing and in my mind has eclipsed that of China. Having selected a cooking class from the multitude of seemingly identical offerings we braved the cockroach infestation at the market to pick up our ingredients and then we were off to school. Our efforts were extremely good even if we do say so ourselves and we got a free recipe book so hopefully we can recreate some of it when we eventually make it home.

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Quite uncharacteristically we booked ourselves onto a cycling tour from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. Over 3.5 days we cycled about 130km on and off road, across rice paddies, muddy hill paths, through fields of peanuts, guava, mandarin, lime & potatoes.

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We cycled past the local prison which according to Mr Win, our cycling guide, houses 10 to a cell so that, when sleeping, the inmates had 5cm spare space either side of them – he assured us that it was quite dangerous in there – “lots of ladyboys.” Oddly though the warden had placed plastic models of Giraffes at the front gate which looked somewhat out of place.

We ate noodles in a rice farmers hut in the paddy field. Between turns on the bikes we visited temples, caves, a strange hut with jars of preserved animals, climbed a waterfall, I had a rather unpleasant time in a monk's toilet, and we assisted our guide Damian with the Bangkok Post cryptic crossword.

Of everything we had done the cycling, though very tiring for us poor unfit souls, has been the best thing so far and definitely beats a sweaty, bumpy bus ride. Enormous thanks are due to Mr Win & Damian of Crank Adventures ( www.crankadventures.com )

Cycling Tally:

- Hills walked rather than cycled: 3 (Niamh wants it to be noted that she only walked 1)
- Photos taken by locals of two farangs struggling up hill: 1
- Gear cable thingy broken by Steve crashing through a rut in the road: 1
- Chain coming off Steve’s bike: 5
- Fast dismount by Steve into 6” muddy water of a paddy field: 1
- Despairing tour guides: 2
- Despairing wife: 1

Posted by steve1000 04:40 Archived in Thailand Tagged elephant wat raft cycle Comments (2)

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