A Travellerspoint blog

Trekking Sapa

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After surviving the bus journey back to Hanoi we then had to directly take the overnight train to Sapa which is in Vietnam's North West. Sapa is one of Vietnam’s few mountain ranges and this is where the majority of the country's rice is produced. This was our first occurrence of a train ride in South East Asia and this was an experience in itself. Our berth had 6 beds in it so it was very tight and we later discovered we had bed bugs as we all felt the nips in the night.

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In the morning we woke bitten but alive and we finally arrived at The Summit Hotel and managed to get settled in to some form of luxury. I was really impressed with our hotel, it was clean and the best part was that all the food was inclusive in our tour. After a wonderful breakfast, we then started our tour where we were introduced to our guide “Shom”. She was 16 year old girl who could speak 4 languages and she was just amazing. She was from one of the Hmong tribal villages which is an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Her job was to take us on an trek around Sapa's mountain range, showing us the ways of the various tribal villages, explaining the difference in cultural beliefs while providing a guided tour of the rice paddy fields. Funnily enough at the start of our tour, we were introduced to most of her tribe who followed us around asking questions and being really friendly. I thought these young girls were cute and harmless until they turned on us at the end of the walk producing tons of hand made items for sale out of thin air. It was quite incredible how they managed to hide this stuff and the way they would hassle you and make you feel guilty if you refused to buy. The only thing is once you buy from one they expect you to buy from everyone and these handmade items are not cheap. At the end of the tour you are then free to explore Sapa town but we decided to spend the rest our day relaxing in our hotel trying to recover from the midnight express, the bedbugs and Halong Bay.

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As we woke on the second day bright and early, it was time to start the long trek around the tribal villages and rice paddies. The weather in Northern Vietnam can be quite cool and rainy but we were lucky to have sunny warm weather, which was great as the walk is very muddy and slippery. I could not imagine doing this tour in the rain as it would be slightly dangerous and unpleasant. As we trekked though mountainous region it was really interesting to meet the people from the villages and hearing about their ways of life and cultures. In the afternoon, we stopped off for a meal before the end of the trek then took a mini bus back to the hotel. We said our goodbyes to our amazing tour guide Shom and thanked her by rewarding her with a rather generous tip of £9. This would have been a massive tip for her and she literally ran out the hotel then skipped down the road, so I think we made her weekend. On the way back to Hanoi we then decided to upgrade on the night train and wow what a difference a 4 bed deluxe berth makes. It was cleaner, more modern and happy to report no strange men (apart from Karl) was in our berth! Overall, I must say this was one of the best things I have ever done since travelling and it was the perfect way to end our Northern Vietnam trip.

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Paula

Sapa, Vietnam

Posted by karlnpaula 10:04 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Sailing around Halong Bay

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For this part of our trip we decided to take an easy approach by visiting Northern Vietnam’s highlights through guided tours. We (Karl, Ian and me) did a tiny bit of research and managed to book the tours for really cheap but we later found that cheapness comes at a rather different price.

On our first tour we visited Halong Bay which is located in North Eastern Vietnam and it literally borders Mainland China. In 1994, the core zone of Halong Bay was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site and once you see the bay it is easy to see why. In the morning when the mini bus picked us up from our hotel we were feeling a little uneasy as the bus was an hour late and no other tourists were in sight. But this uneasy feeling was soon replaced by an anxiety as we sped down the road overtaking anything that got in our way – obviously the driver had to make up lost time. During the bus ride we witnessed a near fatality where two motorcyclists crashed into one another and as we dodged to avoid them we nearly hit an 'innocent' cyclist riding down the wrong side of the motorway. In Vietnam, road accidents are a daily part of driving life and thankfully we were able to avoid being part of one. When we arrived at the boat dock our passports were then taken from us as my uneasy feeling returned as I watched my most valuable possession being put in a plastic carrier bag! The apparent reason for this was that since we would be sailing so close to the Chinese border, there was a chance that customs could demand to see our passports and it was also prevent us from abandoning ship and swimming to China. We later found out this was a load of nonsense and the reason why they took our passports was in the event that we would do a runner and not pay for the bar-tab. I think they know backpackers way too well.

The cruise was a 2 day and 1 night tour which meant we got to sleep on the boat. We started off the day by getting to know our boat buddies over a rather plain meal of rice, green leaves and one fish between six people and this is one of the main reasons why you should pay a little extra for the tour. As we sailed around the beautiful waters of Halong bay we passed through some of the 3000 amazing limestone islands. These islands are thousands of years old and considered as one of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights and it really is a stunning sight to behold. On our first stop we arrived at a massive underwater cave called the Thien Chung grotto which was just amazing. It literally took 40 minutes to walk around the cave and when you reach the light at the end of the tunnel you encounter panoramic views of limestone islands sitting like statues peacefully on the clear turquoise water.

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This was the last time we would be on solid land as the remainder of the tour was spent sailing. During this time you sail around stunning floating villages where all the fishermen and their families live even with their dogs! After a hard day’s sailing it is then time to settle down for the night and anchor up where you are free to do what you want. We then spent the early evening jumping off the top deck into the warm water, swimming, playing drinking games and having to suffer another dreadful meal that was apparently beef but I had my suspicions that it was mostly likely dog or a combination of both. I have to say though, even though the cabin crew and the food weren’t the nicest, I really had a fantastic day and we were very lucky to have a great bunch of people on our boat who really made the trip.

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In the morning we then woke to incredible views and as I chilled on the top-deck soaking up the rays we made our way back slowly to the mainland. For the best part of the day, we went kayaking around the limestone islands which was great fun but tiring on the old arms so I ensured that Karl was doing most of the hard-work. Iain was also unfortunate to be the last person in the queue and he had to then kayak all by himself. When we arrived back at dock in the afternoon we were then taken to a restaurant for a meal which was tasty and by this point I was very relieved to eat after literally feeling starved. Overall, Halong Bay is a must see for anyone who is visits Vietnam, but it really is worthwhile to pay a little extra and there is no reason why your tour will not be perfect.

Paula xxx

Hanoi, Vietnam

Posted by karlnpaula 10:04 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietnam is Braw

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Hello avid readers of Karla and Paula’s South East Asia Travel blog. My dear friends and co-authors Karl and Paula have kindly given me the privilege to contribute my thoughts. Firstly, introductions are a necessity. My name is Iain Logan and I was part of the Scottish contingent that boarded the flight from Glasgow to Dubai nearly a year ago to the day. Previous to Karl’s blog called ‘Goodbye Beautiful Brisbane’ I will begin by giving a brief outline of my thoughts on Brisbane and Australia. Karl is truly in love with Brisbane. He bravely took the leap from the comfort of Glasgow University and studied his junior honours year at the University of Queensland. Upon his arrival back in Glasgow we moved into a flat along with another friend Stephen. Karl would simply not shut up about Brisbane. Every time we were having a wee bevy (a mix of cheap Scottish alcohol and banter) in the flat he would load up the old Dell computer, dim the lights and the slide show of Australia would commence. Suffice to say his enthusiasm was contagious and a year in the Sunshine State was firmly planted in my immediate plans. However, as regards to Brisbane as a city I simply do not share the same level of love that the Karl possesses for her. Yes Brisbane is a fantastic City in terms of location and climate. To the north is the majestic Sunshine Coast with hidden gems like Coolum Beach and the French Riveriaesque style Noosa. To the South you have the fun and games of the Gold Coast where all your dreams can become reality if you have the required capital. Yes the climate is subtropical and for any Scotsman simply luxurious. However, Brisbane lacks one key ingredient – an edge. For me this is why Brisbane simply cannot compete on a City level to the diverse, cosmopolitan and bohemian Melbourne. If any readers have visited Glasgow before you will understand what I mean by a City having an Edge. Not in dangerous way but a place of excitement and energy. For me Brisbane did not have this. However, Brisbane is currently entering an economic and population boom period so it will be extremely interesting to visit in 10 years to see if it’s inherited this edge that Melbourne currently possess.

Moving onto Asia, the rough plan was to meet Karl and Paula in Hanoi Backpackers situated in the Old Quarter in the Social Republic of Vietnam. I was on a marathon journey from the small holiday resort of Krabi in South Thailand while Karl and Paula were on crazy 24 hour bus journey/flight from KL. Basically, we were arriving in Vietnam airport at approximately the same time after horrendous journeys. To be honest I was fairly anxious and nervous about entering Vietnam customs as I had heard so many horror stories from various backpackers. At customs I was filling in the necessary forms and suddenly my ears prickled with the unmistakable dulsic tones of a broad Kirkcaldy accent. I spotted Karl and Paula and to their detriment they didn’t notice me. Always one for a practical joke I decided to sneak up behind Karl, grab his right arm with considerable force and drag him off his feet while simultaneously shouting a concoction of made up Asian gibberish. As soon as I played this prank I felt guilty as his tanned face drained of all blood and turned a strange shade of yellow. He absolutely shat himself!!! Like I said I instantly felt guilty but could also not stop laughing at the success of the prank. So... welcome to Vietnam folks.

We managed to befriend a fellow Scot in Hanoi Airport and share a taxi to Hanoi City Centre. Wow... the most unforgettable driving experience of my life. For any Mothers or loved ones of Karl and Paula reading this I think it is best to omit certain finer details. So Hanoi... Stop. Close your eyes. Smell the petrol fumes of thousands of motorbikes. Hear the constant din of over revved engines. Open your eyes and welcome to what can only be depicted as organised chaos. I instantly fell in love with the place. If you want a City that has edge - come to Hanoi. If you have ever worked with a ‘jobsworth’ who loves rules and regulations transport them to Hanoi and watch their eyes bulge while their veins on their neck pump with blood as the physically breakdown and weep at the madness. The French have visually left their stamp of imperialism on Hanoi. This ranges from the beautiful architecture of the quaint cafes serving coffee so strong it would be illegal in any other country to the best French baguettes outside Paris. After checking into our spotless hotel with ensuite, mini-bar (which got destroyed) and satellite TV we ventured out onto the paved jungle of the Old Quarter. After 100 yards of walking like stupid sleep deprived western tourists amongst the chaos, Karl and I nearly got pick pocketed. Not for the first time in our adventure in Vietnam, Paula saved the day by scaring the pick-pocket away with a forceful slap. Fore his sake, he luckily managed to escape!

I simply cannot emphasise how beautiful Vietnam is. After a day of recovery and finding our bearings in Hanoi we booked a boat tour to the famed Halong Bay and a 3 night/2 day trekking adventure to Sapa (North Vietnam). Paula will cover these days in more detail so I will finish my post with a brief view on our current location in Ha Noi. If anybody reading this post dreams of paradise beaches with palm trees, literally servants to fulfil all your desires beach side and the cheapest tailored made clothes in the world, then cancel all your current holiday destinations and come to Vietnam. With one hundred percent certainty you will not be disappointed. From my perspective it is only backpackers that venture to Vietnam and this should not be the case. Yes it is technically a communist government and perhaps this distracts Westerns from visiting Vietnam. However, I believe this is to Vietnams’ benefit as it retains its unique culture, heritage and charm. Thailand on the other hand is like a Disney Land version of Asia compared to Vietnam. This is mainly due to Thai Government freely welcoming all Western tourists and making it extremely easy for any Western to holiday in Thailand. My advice is to be gallaus and book a flight to Hanoi and explore this wonderful country before the rest of the Western world discovers this gem with the detrimental result of driving up prices and in the worst case Vietnam becoming a replica of Thailand.

Iain

Hanoi, Vietnam.

Posted by karlnpaula 08:58 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Chillaxing on Kecil Island in the Pulau Perhentians

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We’re in Malaysia’s Pulau Perhentian Islands and it’s paradise. We booked the mini bus at our hostel in Penang, we were picked up at 5am and it still always surprises me how they fit all our bags in the back of the bus. The journey took 5 hours to get to Kuala Besut which is the gateway to the islands. We then took a speed boat to Small Island which was going to be our home for the next 7 days. We had not booked accommodation on the island, but Karl assured me this would be easy – “you just rock up!” – little did we know it was a Malaysian public holiday and accommodation was very scarce.

As we stepped off the boat into the turquoise water onto the white sands our first priority was to find a hostel. The first ‘resort’ had one room left but did not fill us full of confidence as it looked like a shanty town and the bed was collapsed, so we swiftly moved on. Now Karl being the gentleman that he is offers to look for a room while I wait with the bags at the second hostel, which was lovely but fully booked. A few minutes later he comes back drenched in sweat saying he has found us a beach hut for the first 2 nights. Great! At this moment, I was just so glad to get sorted and take my backpack off in the 40 degree heat. So we struggle along the beach burning our feet and dripping with sweat to be faced with a lovely green swamp, a plank of wood acting as a bridge to a range of beach huts. The ‘resort’ was called Chempaka Chalets and the lonely planet describes Chempaka as getting ‘extra points for cleanliness and its beach bum vibe’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Firstly, the beach huts were very unstable and rotten. As I climb up the stairs (while some are missing), things get worse as the fan doesn’t work, the sheets look like someone had died in them, there was no mossie net and wait for it...piles of rat droppings in the corner of the room. I turn to Karl, he smiles sweetly and says ‘I told you it was basic’. I draw the line at having rats for neighbours and we upgrade to a slightly bigger room and stay for only one night. The new room however came with an ‘en-suite’ but this didn’t mean much as the outdoor facilities were cleaner. Our toilet was lopsided, not even connected to the pipe work, and there was a huge bucket of dirty water which is meant for flushing your business away. The last straw was after we had outdoor cold showers, I was brushing my hair next to the swamp and two GIANT black creatures literally jump out of the swamp and chase one another into the trees. As it was dark, we never had any idea what they could have been and concluded they must be nasty, disease ridden and dangerous. Needless to say I felt rather uneasy going to bed that night and couldn’t wait for check-out.

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In the morning we woke bright and early and checked into a really nice place called Bintang. This beach chalet is owned and operated by an Irish lady and her Malaysian husband who strived to create a hostel which is clean, chilled and offers a great balance of Western and Malaysian food. Bintang is truly a hidden gem and really should be listed in the Lonely Planet. It was so clean, the beach huts are great and it just had a great relaxed atmosphere. I could tell I was going to love spending a week here. The funny thing was our cabin was a magnet for strange creatures of the forest. On our first night, we had to deal with a huge hairy spider which I told Karl to get rid of it and couldn’t help but smile hearing his screams trying to catch it. We also made close acquaintances with ‘Harry’ a rather big lizard who often tried to crawl into our bed and spent most of his time on our balcony which overlooked the ocean. We also bumped into many GIANT black creatures which turned out to be monitor lizards which I still have no idea whether they are dangerous our not, but we thought it was best to avoid them as they looked like they could easily hack one of your legs off.

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The rest of our time was spent enjoying Long Beach which is the islands most popular backpacker congregation spot. Long Beach was stunning with its white sands, turquoise waters and jungle. During the day all you can do is eat, drink, sunbake and dive. At night the beach becomes alive with bbq’s, fire throwers, live music and partying. This all sounds like paradise (which it was) but we quickly realised that there was a growing problem with stealing on the island and unfortunately we were victims of this. We had our bag stolen with BOTH our cameras in it, but thankfully we lost very few pictures. This was really disappointing as petty theft seems to be rising on the island and we would have liked to have been warned.

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To put a smile back on our faces we arranged two dives which were just brilliant. The Perhentain Islands are said to have some of South East Asia’s best scuba diving and it was easy to see why. The seabed water temperature was 32 degrees, the visibility was great and the marine life was really diverse. We went with a company called Quiver which is run by a Scottish guy and they really made us feel at home. During our dives, we saw bamboo sharks, various types of stingrays’, loads of nemos and beds and beds of fish... the list is really that long. It was without a doubt some of the best dives I have ever done. For our final few days on the island we just relaxed, but it was slightly hard as I was upset about losing our cameras but life goes on. On the upside, we met this really nice English couple called Kerion and Donny who kindly let us borrow their very expensive camera to take pictures, which we took full advantage off. Their kindness and trust made me realise the up’s and downs that go along with travelling and how can you cant let stuff like that ruin your trip. Trying to enjoy the Perhentian Islands really wasn’t hard though as it is paradise and was prefect in helping us revitalise for our next trip to Vietnam in less than one weeks time....

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Paula xxxx

Kecil Island, Pulau Perhentian

Posted by karlnpaula 08:47 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

A Federation of Food in George Town

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Our final day in Borneo was spent on the beach in KK. Not only is KK the gateway to Kinabalu national park, but can brag to be one of the world’s only industrial city’s to have direct access to Abdual Rama (Marine) National Park which houses not one, but four paradise islands. Within 15 minutes, you can literally go from filthy industrial streets to crystal clear water and golden sand by water taxi. It was not difficult to work out how we were going to spend our final day in Borneo.

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Despite a rather turbulent time, we were both very sad to leave Borneo and wish we could have stayed for longer. We grossly underestimated Sabah (Eastern Borneo), never-mind the rest of the island in terms of holidaying activities and it was clear you could spend at least a month taking it all in. For example, Sipadan which is located in south eastern Sabah is considered by diving enthusiasts to be one of the best scuba diving spots in the world. We never had time for this which was very unfortunate, but sometimes even for the avid traveller sacrifice is the only option when you are on a time budget. One of the things I liked most about Sabah was the minuscule amount of Western tourists that come to visit in comparison to the neighbouring mainland peninsula. In both KK and Sandakan for example, if you walked past a ‘Westerner’ in the street, you would almost automatically and expectedly exchange a glance or nod, acknowledging that you were not the only tourist in the city. I was not expecting to experience this for the remainder of our trip.

When we arrived in Penang International Airport, I immediately felt like we were back to normality. The airport was clean, standardised and normal, so all in all, very boring. We then jumped in a taxi, the driver spoke perfect English, charged us a set price and directly dropped us outside our hostel. Too easy! The City of George Town is located in North West Malaysia close to the Thai border. Originally named the Prince of Wales Island (Penang), the settlement soon grew into George Town and was named after King George III. For more than one hundred years, Penang was held under British Colonial Rule until 1957 when it gained independence and became part of the now Federation of Malaysia.

On first impressions, George Town was very different to KK. The city is strongly influenced by British, Chinese and Indian settlement and this is certainly apparent in its cuisine. Penang is known to have the best food in Malaysia. There is diversity, fusion and value for money. There are street stalls everywhere selling everything from Noodle soups, to Indian favourites to Cheeseburgers. It really did seem that eating for over £2 was going to be a challenge. KK never had this diversity as it was noodle soup, Malaya curry or nothing else. However, some places in KK offered the dreaded ‘Western Menu’ which is the most terrible attempt at ‘bolognaise spaghetti ‘, ‘hamburger, cheese and fry’ and ‘American breakfast’ which consists of turkey bacon, egg, bread, cucumber and celery... Mmm, yum yum yum!!! It was very clear Penang never had this problem but instead was the epicentre for Malaysia’s food federation.

Our only day in George Town was therefore spent walking around the city and eating – we done lots of eating. We recovered from our previous day’s travel by sleeping into midday and we decided to walk to Little India for lunch. One of my main observations about George Town was that the city really is split into cultural districts which are all a short walking distance to one another. As we left our hostel walking down the cramped busy streets, it felt like we had literally walked through China and crossed the border into India. This took 15 minutes and it was amazing to experience the buzz, the shops blaring out bollywood music and shopkeepers heckling you to visit their shop to buy silk and gold. I’ve never been to India, but it certainly wetted my appetite for future adventures ahead. We then decided to sit down at one small market stall on the street and they brought over the only choice – Indian curry. I have no idea what it was but my suspicions were that it was a Chicken Balti. The sauce was thick, rich, tomato based, hot and spicy. But what I did know that it was one of the most memorable meals I have ever had. It was unbelievably flavoursome and just awesome. After the meal, we bumped into some Australians we met on the bus from Mt Kinabalu to Sandakan (see blog 5) who said if you ask nicely and pay the stall-owner a fee, they will happily provide you with a cooking lesson and let you recite their one and only culinary masterpiece, which has most likely been within the family for generations. If had known this, I would have been right on it, taking the recipe home, starting my own stall on Buchanan St and charging 6 quid a serving. I reckon it would be a definite winner!!!

After we had lunch in India, we then set out to find an ATM in the financial district, which was the British part of our trip – or little London. All of the major banks are here such as HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Barclays as well as the Malaysian banks. Like London the banks are located in substantial Georgian period buildings. This area is clean, tidy and wealthy and then you only need to walk 5 minutes to be back in the hustle and bustle of Chinatown and the food markets. The food markets were just incredible and you could literally spend all day there eating yourself to death. For dinner we had beef curry noodle soup and a fruit shake for desert. Overall, I found the cultural consolidation of George Town quite amazing, refreshing, unexpected and I think it can only be best realised on a visit. Today has been a great day. Tomorrow we head for sun, sea, sand and diving in Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. Pick up is 5AM and the bus journey takes 5 hours, so I best get to sleep. Visiting and eating in three countries in one day can be very tiring work.

Karl

Georgetown, Penang.

Posted by karlnpaula 07:35 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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