Friday, July 30, 2004

 

Vietnam part 2

I've been travelling around quite a bit since Hoi An. I spent a few days in Hue and met a couple of nice people. Dung (not pronounced like that) is a medical student who came to chat to me one day as I was cycling around. A couple of days later he took me on a tour around the countryside near Hue and we stopped for lunch and a snooze at his house. His house is in a really nice spot by the river and I guess typically Vietnamese. The kitchen is outside on a kind of porch and the garden is full of pineapple and grapefruit trees. I wish I'd taken a picture of his grandma; I reckon she spends so much time smiling that her face has got stuck in a permanent grin! From Hue I caught an overnight train up to Hanoi; really plush and air conditioned.

Hanoi is quite different from Saigon, it's got a much more towny feel. The main area for hotels is much more spread out and mixed in with local shops and markets. I've been to a few good museums, including Hoa Lo prison. It was used by the French to imprison troublemakers and during the American war it was used for US POWs who nicknamed it the Hanoi Hilton. Yesterday I got back from a tour of Halong Bay. There were 16 people on the tour, mostly 20 something couples and a few single blokes, including Steve - another medical student who I've kept bumping into since Hue. Halong bay is a collection of thousands of mini limestone islands, some of them with caves. The best part was waking up with the sun on the deck of our boat after a day of messing about on the water and under it.

I've just received a couple of emails from fellow travellers with some photos. Thanks to Julie and John who I met diving in Na Trang and Dominik and Sylvia who I met in India.

My heart is sinking as I write this because I'll soon go from being traveller to unemployed person living in Perth. So, probably not too many more photos from now on; in any case I'm running out of web space. Does anyone have a spare 3 or 400MB with .NET capability they can offer me? Cheeky I know, but worth a shot!

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

 

Vietnam part 1

I've made it as far as Hoi An, not even halfway up to Hanoi - there have been too many distractions along the way. As a tourist in Vietnam there's and overwhelming incentive to join organised tours for about $10 a day all in. My first trip was to the Cu Chi tunnels which the VC used to hide from the American army and at night they could control a large area outside Saigon. Our guide (a war veteran) explained that the tunnels have been enlarged to accommodate "Americans with big ass" but they are still a tight squeeze. After a few hundred yards of scrambling in a crouching position I was gasping and my thigh muscles hurt.

Next was the Mekong Delta where we travelled by bus, motorboat, rowing boat, car ferry and river cruiser. We changed vessel every few hours or so, sometimes for no apparent reason other than to stop us getting bored. The Mekong is a busy food producing region with loads to see: floating marketsrice noodle factory, coconut candy factory, rice husking factory (where transactions are calculated in chalk on the pavement outside), crocodile farm, fish farm, paddy fields, not to mention the cheeky locals. We also came across a wedding where they were serving up some exquisite food

The Mekong tour took me back to Saigon where I stayed for a couple more days to get some Vietnamese lessons and do a sightseeing tour on the back of a motorbike. I made quite a few Vietnamese friends in Saigon, they are all keen to practice their English which is always fun. I can even make myself understood in Vietnamese which makes me feel quite proud because the pronunciation is tricky and needs to be exact or you end up saying something completely different.
 
From Saigon I took a bus to the hill station of Dalat which is full of French architecture and cuisine. I didn't make it out into the hills and waterfalls to go trekking - my back was killing me after the bus ride. Always bring a pillow or something! I spent a day and a half in Dalat visiting the tourist kitsch and getting my back rubbed and walked on by a gorgeous masseuse.
 
Next place was Na Trang which is a truly amazing beach resort along the lines of Varadero in Cuba. There were loads of activities on offer like jet skiing, surfing, parasending and kite surfing. On the bus I met some travelers who were going scuba diving. We stayed in the same hotel and got drunk together and I resolved to go diving with Kate who was very sweet and also a beginner. When I first put my face in the water, although I could breathe OK, I couldn't see much and was quite panicked. Once we got a little deeper and out of the glare of the sun, I could see clearly and concentrate on keeping calm. From then on it was a totally surreal and unforgettable experience; there's another world down there and I'm drawn to go back. 

Now I'm in Hoi An which is a very "historical" place with lots of old houses to visit. Not really my cup of tea, I'm getting some clothes made while I am here. Going to Hue tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

 

attack of the psycho monkeys

Hi Everyone



Thanks to everyone who has written to me, it really helps me keep going. I've been traveling so fast in India that I'm ready to sleep for a couple of weeks. Just got to Saigon, more about this place later.



So - where did I leave off, I think I was in Hampi on southern India. Next was Bangalore - real pizza, Diet Coke, bars, pubs and a rickshaw driver who took me to a club that really seemed to be a house of ill repute: lots of blokes sitting around smoking cigars with a dance floor in the middle where women in glittering saris bobbed around to bad dance music played at unbearably high volume. None of the men got up to dance, they just sat there smoking and drinking crappy Indian whisky. From Bangalore I went to Mysore, where I got ripped off trying to buy essential oils didn't even really want. Less said about that place the better...



Next I went Cochin in Kerala in search of a bit of relaxation and culture. I got it too, in the form of some Kathakali dance Theatre. Plays are acted without dialogue; communication is through dance, sign language and exaggerated facial expressions. The masks and costumes are incredible, take a look at the website to see what I mean. The food was very tasty in Cochin; they can even cook up pretty good Chinese noodles at a place called Salt and Pepper near the fort. Here I met group of Swiss volunteer workers; their leader, Fran├žoise, suggested I go to Ooty and the nearby wildlife sanctuary.



She sent me to guesthouse called Wild Haven, run by chap called John. It was an amazing place with a view over the forest which fell away on a gentle slope off into the sunset; this pic is a bit dark but you get the idea. There were plenty of wild elephants in the park along with deer, bison, bears and even tigers (didn't see any tho). By this stage I was becoming conscious that Myra (Goan friend from London) was coming over soon and I had promised to be there at the airport to meet her. Myra was coming over on the pretext of visiting her family (some of them for the first time) but really I think she just fancied a 3 week holiday from the Introduction Leaders Program (most of you won't know what that is but don't worry). Whatever the reason, I'm glad you made it Myra; it was great to have a travel partner for a while.



I wasn't the only one stranded in Ooty, Bhupesh and Shruti (on their honeymoon at Wild Haven and totally skint after having paid for the wedding themselves) were waiting for their friend to give them a ride back home to Bangalore. Eventually a ride was secured from someone else and I tagged along in the jeep. We got on really well and they took great care of me. I stayed overnight at their place and they spent hours on the phone trying to get me a bus or a train ticket to Goa. Being holiday season, this proved tricky so I got on a plane the next day, arriving in plenty of time to meet Myra. Goa is great, especially if you like sand (Dad, you'd hate it). It's a very easy place to spend alot of time doing not very much. We went of a few sightseeing tours, lounged on the beach, drank the local brew (fenny), played pool and lounged on the beach some more. Oh and I went for a run along the beach anytime we started to get on each others nerves.



The humidity and rain in Goa was getting too much so we headed to the mountains via Mumbai and Delhi. Not much to say about the big cities except for the interesting experiences we had with trains and hotels. Basically we had lots of fun taking the piss out of the people of this great country - can't really relate over email as you really had to be there and some of you might get offended.



The monkey thing happened when we were staying at the YMCA in Shimla and before any of you start wondering why I was naked, rest assured, there was no funny business going on. I often sleep naked. Anyway, twas the middle of the night... "Dom!" I heard Myra almost shout. Half awake, I could hear the floorboards creak as Myra scrambled to her feet. "Monkey! There's a bloody Monkey in our room!". She switched on the light and screamed but the animal just sat there on the window sill, baring it's teeth noisily. "Dom! Get it out of here!" I was stuck frozen in my bed, helplessly naked and sweating. I didn't dare reach for a pair of boxers in case the monkey imagined them to have some sort of nutritional value. Myra waved her arms about and it seemed to get the message: I want you out of here NOW! The monkey dropped out of sight but not before lifting one of my shirts from the back of a chair by the window. Myra hesitated for a moment before rushing over to the window. She leant out making a grab for the window latch but missed and reeled back into the room with a yelp (I think there were quite a few of the little blighters out there). A second dive at the window did the trick. Window bolted we went back to sleep. In the morning we realised they had been after the bananas and lychees we had bought that day; they'd finished most of them and the skins were littered all over the floor.



From Shimla we trekked down the valley to Tatapani with a Kashmiri guide (christened "Boss" by Myra). There are hot springs and a raging river on which we did some rafting with a bunch of students who weren't half bad considering they were American lawyers. They joined us later for a drink as part of Myra's pre-birthday celebrations. On the last day we did some swiming and high diving in a pool by the local Shiva temple.



We traveled back to Shimla by bus where we parted company. I headed North to Manali and Myra went back to Delhi to visit more relatives and see the Taj Mahal before flying home. Manali seems to be over developed these days but it's a good place to meet travelers and organise trekking. I hooked up with Mike and Katherine 2 brits taking time out from their volunteer work to trek from Manali to Malana over the Chandrakani pass. We got a deluxe guide service - 4 donkeys, 1 guide, a cook and another bloke who seemed to do all the jobs the other 2 didn't want. We walked for 4 days in great weather and got some nice pictures. We ate really well - the cook even managed a wicked steam pudding!



From Malani I bussed to Mcleod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama. The town has a great atmosphere and you can watch the Tibetan monks going about their business. Lots of them spend the afternoon debating (loudly and with lots of leaping about and hand clapping) in the courtyard of the temple. I happened to bump into Dominik and Sylvia (a Polish couple I had met previously in Hampi). We hung out and shared the great food this town has to offer. Oh, and we caught a glimpse of the Dalai Lama too!



After a few days of relaxation I was ready for more adventure. I wanted to go to Rishikesh and learn Yoga but found that I had to go via Amritsar. I stayed for free in dorms next to the Golden Temple (Amritsar's main tourist attraction and the most holy place in the Sikh religion). Next day I was shown around by a helpful fellow tourist called Maninder who, being Sikh, had visited a few times before. We ate in the communal kitchen (again for free) and he put me on the train for Rishikesh.



Rishikesh was packed with Indian tourists - this was pilgrim season, no doubt about it! I was feeling restless and wanted to go trekking again. Sod Yoga, I thought, and headed for the Valley of Flowers. I knew I could do this trek without a guide; what I didn't know that I would be joined by thousands of Sikh pilgrims who were trekking to the nearby lake at Hemkund where Guru Gobind Singh is supposed to have meditated. I proved fitter than most, leading 8 young Sikhs up the mountain towards the lake at 4000m. For 700Rs (10 pounds) The 9 of us stayed overnight in a tin shack belonging to a local (while he presumably slept rough). We got up with the sun and trekked the rest of the way to the lake. I didn't believe them when they said they were going for a swim in the freezing water, but they did - so I joined them! We parted company at the entrance to the Valley of Flowers national park, where I was determined to go. Most of the Himalayan Flowers pics are from here. Having slept on hard floors and trekked 50km in 2 days, I was ready to check into a decent hotel. The Great Ganga in Rishikesh was the place I chose... AC, TV, BBC, balcony, hot shower, perfect!



Next day I caught a train from nearby Haridwar to Varanasi Despite trying all day, I couldn't get a reserved seat and so spent 24 hours on a hard wooden seat in second class. My ass still hurts. Varanasi was gorgeous, much pleasanter than I expected and just a colourful. Time was running out however, I needed to get to Calcutta and catch my flight to Vietnam. In Calcutta I was met by my friend Andy who I had first encountered on the beach in Goa. I saw my first Bollywood movie (a comedy called Ragu Romeo) and went shopping for Indian style shirts and tea. On my last night we went to a particularly posh restaurant where I was able to have a wee shot of Macallan whisky before getting on the plane.



Now I'm in Saigon and so far I like the place. The people seem to never frown even when they are protesting. My taxi driver kept on grinning and saying "boo hoo, me very sad" when I insisted we go to Miss Loi's guesthouse rather than somewhere else. I'm staying on the top floor where I've got a great view over the city.



OK that's it, love to all, see ye later!



Dom

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