A Travellerspoint blog

Moscow-on-Sea

A brief stay in Nha Trang


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After all the sightseeing I thought it necessary to chill out for a bit. To that end I got off the sleeper train in Nha Trang on the South China Sea, famed for its beaches. It seems the Russians have also cottoned on to this- a combination of free visas and package tours have enticed enough over to justify Russian menus and guides. After making myself sit on the beach for an hour I gave up and walked 4km along the coast to the Po Nagar ruins, where the Cham built a temple over 1500 years ago.
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The next day I went on a boat trip to go snorkelling around the islands in the bay. My previous experience hadn't been all that positive, but a combination of good equipment and warm, calm waters with plenty of colourful fish made this trip a success and one I'll hopefully repeat later in my travels. Add to that a huge lunch and sun deck on the boat and I'd finally got this chilling out thing sorted.
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After an evening of drinking cocktails with the British couple I'd met at Danang station, I got up early to get the train to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it's still known on the timetable. As I've come to expect, the train was delayed (advertised with cunning use of Microsoft Word). As a pro, the 8 hour journey should have been painless, but the basket of fermenting vegetables another passenger had left behind my seat had other ideas.
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Posted by arianemeena 06:34 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Floods and Ruins

Hoi An


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To leave Hue I finally got to try the Vietnamese train system. It did not start well. I arrived at the station to be told my train to Danang had been delayed. However, the early morning service hadn't arrived yet and I could swap my ticket. I was in the 'soft seat' carriage and was delighted to discover tv screens blaring Vietnamese pop would accompany us on the 2 and a half hour journey. I was more interested in watching the impressive coastline out the window, although my seat wouldn't budge from the fully reclined position so I saw it all from a slightly odd angle. On arriving in Danang I shared a taxi with a lovely German couple to my next destination, Hoi An. This is a small coastal town that was once an important port, bringing Chinese and Japanese architectural influences that have survived five centuries of unrest and flooding and are now recognised by UNESCO. Indeed, the river had burst its banks after the storm that had flooded the train tracks and, I later discovered, killed 12 people in the centre of Vietnam.
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In the evening I dined with my new German friends, who had asked me to show them my TransSiberian photos as they are considering embarking on the trip (I was more than happy to advise, I've become somewhat evangelical on the topic). The next day I visited several of the preserved Chinese Assembly Halls and merchants' houses and ate the local specialty of flat noodles with roasted pork and crackling.
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With my night train not until late the next evening I had time to visit the Cham ruins of My Son- these temples and burial places survived over a thousand years until the Americans dropped B52s on the Viet Cong who were using them as a base. What remains is still imposing and fascinatingly no one has yet worked out what the Cham used to stick their bricks together.
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We took a boat back to Hoi An via a small fishing village, which has its own ferry service tailored to the locals choice of transportation.
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And so to the sleeper train. The hotel had advised the best time to take a taxi to be at the station in plenty of time but they were a little on the generous side- I found myself, along with some Brits and Belgians in the same situation, with a couple of hours to kill so we sat drinking tea on the tiny patio furniture beloved of SE Asia. Having successfully passed the time we were informed our train would be two hours late, so there was only one thing for it; beer. Vietnamese beer isn't half bad and at 4.3% is a vast improvement on the watery nonsense they serve in China.

The carriages followed the same premise as the other sleepers I've been in- 4 berths, scratchy blankets, grumpy locals. The cleanliness left a little to be desired (Sasha would have been horrified) and I was glad for my sleeping bag liner and travel pillow. But my gift for sleeping anywhere came in to its own and I awaited our arrival in Nha Trang.

Posted by arianemeena 01:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Imperial Splendour

Hue


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After the track flooding incident I had another half day to spend in Hanoi before my flight so I ambled around, drinking iced coffee and looking at cathedrals and pagodas and temples. Hanoi, consider yourself well and truly done.
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The pre-booked car from the airport wouldn't start and I wondered if this was the universe telling me I wasn't meant to have gone to Hue... However the driver very apologetically called for a replacement and the hotel staff were welcoming, plying me with fruit and sending me off to a local restaurant for a much needed beer and plate of cashew chicken.

As I now only had one whole day in Hue, I booked a sightseeing tour through the hotel. This turned out to be a great choice as it sporadically pissed it down all day and I was much happier in a bus then on the back of a motorbike, which was the alternative suggested. Hue was the Nguyen dynasty imperial capital from the 19th century until HoChi Minh declared power in Hanoi in 1945. Many of the emperors chose to have grand mausoleums built to the west of the city (although these ones weren't pickled) and we visited three of the most impressive.
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After a surprisingly good lunch (given that it was included in the tour) we made our way to the Imperial Citadel. It was based on the Forbidden City of Beijing but on a smaller scale and sadly much of it was destroyed in the American War. The ruins feel like they are returning to nature but there are plans afoot to restore parts of it.
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We visited a pagoda to the west if the city that was the monastery of the monk Thich Quang Duc whose name you may not know but whose image you will almost certainly have seen. In 1963 he set fire to himself on a busy Saigon street in protest at the treatment of monks by the South Vietnamese government. The Austin that he arrived in is kept at the pagoda.
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The next day it was time to give the Vietnamese train system another shot as I headed to Danang on my way to Hoi An.

Posted by arianemeena 06:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Good Morning Vietnam

(massive cliche but had to be done)


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Vietnam Airlines was a pleasant surprise, the two toddlers and newborn behind me were less welcome. Baggage collection resembled a budget version of the Generation Game; 7 rice cookers, 3 vacuum cleaners and a microwave (no cuddly toy) went past as I waited for my bag.

My flight had been slightly delayed and I wondered if that was why I couldn't spot the driver sent by my hotel. However after calling them from a pay phone (thank you Lucien and Caroline for a generous donation of 200000 Dong) it transpired he had been standing with a sign for someone called Sophie. I'm hoping there isn't a girl stuck at Nai Boi airport without a lift...

The Hanoi Guesthouse is in the heart of the Old Quarter and full of unbelievably helpful staff. I popped across the road for my first Vietnamese dinner and got talking to a couple at the next table who it transpired were medical students on their elective. There is no escape.

The next day I headed to the train station and thanks to the invaluable seat61.com (for those who haven't yet found this gem, it is the font of all knowledge on global train travel) managed to book 4 tickets for a staggered trip down south. Pleased with myself I headed to Ba Dinh Square, the ceremonial heart of Hanoi, but was most disappointed to discover Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is closed for renovation- apparently every winter he gets sent to the Russians responsible for Lenin for a touch-up. This scuppered my chances of completing the 'pickled despot triumvirate tour' but there is plenty to see and I headed to the Confucian Temple of Literature and the French Quarter.
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China had partly prepared me for negotiating the scooter-filled roads in SE Asia as a pedestrian but Hanoi is a step up from Beijing. The key initially is to spot a local about to cross the road and walk out when they do, using them as a human shield. Once you have the confidence to go it alone there is one rule- never change direction. The scooter drivers have taken in to account your course and will happily go round you if you stick to it.
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Next morning I headed off on a boat trip in Ha Long Bay, because my enthusiasm for karst landscape knows no bounds. The guide filled us with optimism when, at the beginning of a 3 hour bus trip, he informed us of the road death statistics for Vietnam (a staggering 13,000 a year). The bay contains nearly 2000 limestone hills projecting from the sea and provides calm waters for junket cruising, kayaking and swimming.
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We saw the largest cave and climbed one of the hills but I have to admit the highlight for me was the seafood- 'jacuzzi' prawns steamed in vodka on hot stones, deep fried squid, barbecued catfish, grilled oysters...
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I had a final day in Hanoi so visited some of the museums. Ho Chi Minh's Museum is utterly bonkers- they've taken an abstract approach to his life and works and exhibits include a model of his cave headquarters re-imagined as a human brain and a 3D interpretation of Picasso's Guernica. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum was a much more sober affair and the Vietnam Women's Museum was excellent.
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In the evening it was meant to be time to test out Vietnamese trains with a sleeper to the imperial capital of Hue, but flooded tracks meant I was stuck in Hanoi. After debating the merits of a 16 hour overnight bus I've opted for the more civilised (and expensive!) option of a short flight. Here's hoping the rest of the trains run more smoothly!

Posted by arianemeena 06:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

24 hours in HK

Whistle-stop tour of Hong Kong


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I don't think any of us had realised when booking our flights from Hong Kong that we would have so little time there, but after getting the sleeper to Shenzhen, making our way through immigration and catching the metro it was gone 3pm on our penultimate day. However, I was determined to make the most of it and after wondering around the street markets of Kowloon we had our final group dinner. Then we walked down to the harbour to get a good view of HK 's 'Symphony of Lights'. This is a really very underwhelming laser light show set to music, beamed from the harbour-front skyline of Hong Kong Island. I think the skyscrapers are spectacular enough without all the computer-mediated shenanigans.
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In the evening we had our goodbye room party, which was 16 people manically adding each other on Facebook. I set my alarm early as I wanted to have a productive morning and persuaded 3 of the Norwegian girls to join me in getting the renowned Star Ferry then the funicular up Victoria Peak. The pain of so little sleep was worth it, the ferry and the peak were virtually deserted and the views were phenomenal.
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Then it was time to head to the airport. I've had the pleasure of spending 18 days with a lovely group of people and hopefully will see some of them in Thailand. But for now I'm embarking on my truly solo travels. Having taken 10 trains and a boat to travel more than 14500km since landing in St Petersburg, I boarded the flight to Hanoi.

Posted by arianemeena 04:06 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (4)

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