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Martin & Sue

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Too old to be backpackers? or

A dose of land travel reality for soft cruisers!

 

April in Malaysia is akin to the ‘silly season’ in Darwin – very hot, humid, still days punctuated by violent electrical storms at night. So it is time to leave Mandolin Wind to the oppressive heat and the safety of Rebak Marina in Langkawi and head off to do some land travel.

 
Our first stop is Kuala Lumpar where we immediately visit the Vietnamese embassy to put in our visa application.  It will take a week to process so keen to escape the heat we hire a car and head for the Cameron Highlands – a few hours drive north. Getting out of KL is a bit exciting but the road systems in Malaysia are first world and it is an easy drive on a multi-lane highway until we branch off towards to hills.

 

   
 
     
Above: 'Ye Ole Tudor Inn' in the Cameron Highlands  

Above: Inside our room at the 'Ye Ole Tudor Inn'

     
There are very few tourists about in the Cameron Highlands and we are able to take advantage of some real bargains in terms of accommodation and stay in a wonderful old tudor-style English manor house for a quarter the standard rate (although at $60 a night it was still well in excess of our normal budget!) The hotel is crammed with antiques and memorabilia from the British days and is surrounded by a very quaint cottage garden.
 
When we can drag ourselves away we explore the tea plantations that cover the rolling mountains –interestingly, the tea bush is very much like a camellia plant with the same shiny leaves.  ( Think they may be the same family )
     
 
     

Above: Tea Plantations in the Cameron Highlands

Below: There are literally hundreds of old land rovers in the Cameron Highlands

  Above: Pick your own Strawberries the Malaysian Way!
     

  As a change from curry, we indulge in Devonshire tea with home-made strawberry jam – ‘plucked’ from one of the many strawberry farms interspersed amongst the tea plantations. The place is full of original 1950's Landrovers still chugging away. Probably left over from the British days. I guess it says something about the way they were made in those days !!
     

On our way back to KL we stop off at another hill retreat called Frasers Hill. Access through the final 10 kms of winding road  is via a one-way road system and with perfect timing we arrive at the entry gate just as the one-hour slot for the downward traffic is beginning. When we are finally allowed up we are pleased we made the detour as the scenery is stunning and the heavily wooded mountain tops and shady creeks remind us of the Dandenongs outside Melbourne.  Again, there are very few tourists and we since we are the only guests in our hotel we are given the one bedroom suite at a bargain rate. We have to be careful we don’t get used to such luxury as once we get to Vietnam. The $15 a night hotels willl be a very different style of accommodation!

 
Below: Our suite at Fraser's Hill   Below: The mist rolling in at Fraser's Hill
     
 
     

Back in KL we pick up our Vietnamese visas before retiring to our hotel ready for an early departure for Vietnam the next day.

     

 
     
Above: Land tax is quite expensive in Vietnam and based on land footprint, so most hotels are very tall and narrow  

Above: Electrical wiring anyone?

     

For the first few days after our arrival in HCMC we simply absorb the chaos that is Saigon – the ever present beeping of horns, the unruly traffic, the oppressive heat, the busy, industrious people and the clash of spices and fumes that is the signature of Asia.

     
 
     
Above: The things you see hanging from the bottom of a plastic carry bag!   Above: Where are the fashion police when you need them!
     

We normally dislike big cities but with HCMC we make an exception for it is a crazy, wonderful, frenzied place. Rather than visit any particular tourist destination we prefer to simply wander around aimlessly exploring the many narrow lanes and markets. In Vietnam, life is very public – everywhere we walk we dodge people squatting outside their stalls performing all manner of activities that most Westerners would consider private:  from cleaning teeth to shaving, the brushing of hair and even in one case, the picking of nits from a child’s locks.

     
 
     

But even walking the streets can be potentially hazardous – the footpaths are virtually impassable with wall to wall parked scooters – but to step onto the road seems initially suicidal for there are no traffic rules and bikes and cars make no discernable effort to stick to a particular side of the street or even follow the correct direction in one way lanes.  Surprisingly, it does not take long to feel at home with the danger – and one quickly learns that as long as you are game enough to strut onto the road in front of traffic with a confident air, then the traffic simply moves around you. The trick is to never ever make eye contact with the driver for if they think you have seen them this somehow gives them the right of way.

 
 
     

One of our favourite pastimes is to sit on the sidewalk on tiny red plastic chairs sipping beer Hoi (literally meaning ‘green beer’ – a very cheap beer brewed on the premises in large stainless steel vats) and observe the craziness. Sometimes the jam of cars, scooters and heavily laden pushbikes seems gridlocked but the locals never seem fazed and eventually the traffic starts to move again. We exchange friendly banter with the street vendors who – if you joke along with them and smile – quickly respond with their own banter in broken English. However, this does not prevent them from trying every selling trick – including their favourites, ‘I see you yesterday – you promised to buy from me today’ or ‘Where you come from? I have best friend in Melbourne!’

 

 
     
Above & below: Around the market in HCMC - including some strangely coloured black chickens
     

 

 

 We are tempted by the cheap, photocopied books on offer from vendors who stack 20 or so titles along the length of their arm – but know that if we show any interest we will be inundated with hopeful vendors who will tag us as easy targets.

 
We encounter a few western tourists who simply find the turmoil overwhelming. We meet a retired Aussie couple who, on their first morning in Vietnam, are robbed when a scooter deliberately runs into the husband’s leg only to fleece  him of his cash laden wallet as he stumbles. Luckily such incidents are rare – but it pays not to be complaisant and we always take the precaution of carrying our valuables in money belts or neck bags hidden under our clothes.
 
  Left: You can always rely on finding an Irish Pub anywhere in the world! I think we actually had beef and guiness pie at this one. Made a change from the rice dishes !
 

 

After a few days we crave for some peace and so head south to the Mekong Delta. We would not normally consider an organised tour but the price of the three day bus trip including accommodation and lunches is so ridiculously inexpensive at $42 that we cannot make the figures work any cheaper by doing it ourselves.

 

 

 

 
     
Above: Local beer at a typical watering hole   Above: Sue sheltering from the sun under a Jackfruit tree
     

The first thing that strikes us (apart from the appalling driving) is the number of rivers, all the actual Mekong, snaking through the region. We were expecting water – but the area is literally criss-crossed by large river systems and we cross hundreds of bridges as we make our way firstly south and then veer to the south west towards the Cambodian Border. It is fascinating to observe river-life.

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  Everything is either sold on the river from boats or from the open shops lining the banks – our favourite was the stall selling brightly decorated coffins.  Some boats are so seriously overloaded that we cannot believe that they are still afloat.
     
Below: Check out the free board on this one   Above and below: fruit anyone ?
 

 

The other thing that strikes us is the lack of birds – with so much water we would expect to see the area teeming with them. When we ask our guide about it, he explains that they are a favourite delicacy and that they have all been pretty much wiped out. Only very small sparrow like birds are observed ! They do say if it moves in Vietnam it can be eaten

 

 

 

 

 

Our next destination is the resort town of Mui Ne - a 4 hour bus trip north of HCMC.

 

 

 

   
Above: The resort that had risen in price from $30 to $200 a night in just 3 years! ( See text below )   Above: The resort where we found a room for $40 a night
   

 

Below: No wonder you cant catch any fish here. Just a few of the hundreds of fishing boats

Nyree and Sue had visited here two years ago and had stayed in a magnificent beachfront villa in a 4 star resort for only $30 a night. Since then, the Russians have invaded the town ( they seem to be huge visitors all throughout Asia at the moment ) and the same villa was now fetching $200! Fortunately, with a bit of sniffing around, we are able to find a $40 villa in another resort that had not yet featured in the Russian Guide books.

 

 

Below: A fisherman sorts his catch ( at 5am ) with the help of his wife and daughter after being out all night. The 'bowl' boats have no engine and are controlled via a single paddle. They have not changed in design for thousands of years. We watched in the breaking light as hundreds of them came ashore after a night of hand fishing.
     
 
     

 After resting up by the pool for a few days we continue our journey northwards towards the ancient Chinese village of Hoi An. We think long and hard about whether to take the train or the 'sleeping' bus - in some ways the train seems the better option but unfortunately the station proves to be a long, expensive taxi ride from Mui Ne and the train times are not convenient. And how bad can the bus be anyway??

 
Well, we can report that it is 'nightmare' bad!!
     

Imagine a crazed driver who seems to be in a perpetual 'I am running late - have to hit the gas and increase the speed' mode. Then throw in the inappropriately named 'Highway 1'- an atrocious, potholed, narrow strip of bitumen overloaded with trucks, buses, scooters, push bikes and pedestrians all competing for the limited space available. Did you know that 2 lanes go into 4 lanes quite easily when buses need to pass slower  moving cars or bikes - why not just use the oncoming lane and push any approaching traffic into the dirty verge (and if you happen to mistime it and there is a vehicle bigger than you coming towards you - no problem - just hit the brakes (simultaneously as you wave your free arm from side to side and hit the horn continually) and veer sideways to push the smaller vehicles you are passing off the road?

 

 

    Above: The sleeping bus looks innocent enough!
     

Now add to the mix a scam that the driver is running whereby he picks up odd stragglers on the side of the road, pockets their proffered cash and allows them to bunk down (and furtively smoke!) in the aisles thus making it impossible to get out of the bus at the toilet stops without stepping on someone’s head! But, really, who wants to use the toilets anyway since they have not seen H2O for many a day and are decidedly stomach turning (oh how I envy the boys who can disappear into the dark to relieve themselves)!

     
 

But hey, it is all part of the experience (a one-off I hope - we will leave the sleeping bus to the real backpackers in future!) and Hoi An is worth it. The town is an old seaport faithfully preserved and devoid of traffic (cars and motorbikes are banned from the narrow lanes for most of the day and evening) and there are no fast food outlets or 7-11's in sight  - only French patisseries ( remember they had a crack before us at running the place ) interspersed between local cafes serving delicious seafood delicacies.

     
Above: Hoi An    
     

Luckily we really hit pay dirt with our hotel. The bus had dropped us off at a scummy hotel about 3 kms out of the old town and there was intense pressure on us to check in - but fortunately we were able to stand our ground and were soon zooming along on the back of motorbike taxis (heavily loaded packs and all!) called Xom's ( pronounced Zee oms ) They are the dominant forms of taxi in Vietnam and available everywhere. Of course the drivers dropped us off at their favourite hotel (ie where they got a commission) so we again found ourselves fending off persistent hoteliers as we backed away lugging our packs.

 

 

 

   
Above: A very artistic way to present guest towels!   Above: The friendly reception staff
     

As luck would have it, we soon came across a promising hotel not far away that turned out to be only 6 months old. When we were shown the rooms we were staggered by the beautiful Chinese wooden furniture, the massive stone bathrooms equipped with large freestanding bath tubs, the wooden bridge spanning the swimming pool, the free internet complete with computer in our rooms AND a $US30 / night price tag! It was still only 7am but they welcomed us and we were soon showering off the grime from the 18 hour bus ride and planning how we were going to spend the next 3 days relaxing (all memories of the bus ride from hell thankfully erased!!)


     
 
     
Above: The hotel provided free pushbikes to explore the town.   Above: Hoi An is renowned for its tailors and who could resist getting a fitted shirt made for $10?. Depite the appearance, the shop assistant was married , had two kids and was 30 years old!
     
After a few days in Hoi An we head further north (this time by train!) to Hue, a former imperial city famous for its moated citadel and ancient pagodas. Although interesting from an historical perspective, we find Hue a bit touristy and soon board the train again for the 8 hour trip to the intriguingly named town of Ninh Binh – a place well off the tourist trail but renowned for its spectacular landscapes.  
     
Below: Picturesque Ninh Binh   Above: the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace
     
 
     

We soon discover that being off the ‘tourist trail’ is a two edged sword! On the plus side, rice harvesting is in progress and the golden green paddy fields set against the backdrop of majestic limestone formations makes for stunning scenery. When we hire a bike and explore the back roads we discover that the locals use the roads to dry out  and de-husk their rice – so we are constantly confronting narrow lanes completely covered by rice.

 
     
  On the down side, however, we soon discover that unlike the rest of Vietnam, Ninh Binh is a culinary desert and after a few days we are thoroughly sick of Kam pong – a glorified name for bland gluggy fried rice served with a fried egg on top!
     

It is during our stay in this area that we have our most frightening motorbike experience. Returning from a visit to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park we are required to ride on a short stretch of Highway One. It is late afternoon with the sun low in the sky and the road works add to the danger by creating clouds of dust. We are prepared to be forced onto the edge of the road by oncoming trucks and buses (for we know that bikes are very low in the pecking order and that Size rules on Highway One!) however we are not very happy when we are driven totally off the road into the grassy verge and almost into a ditch in order to avoid not one, but two oncoming trucks travelling on the wrong side of the road, side by side!

     
 
     
 

That night we catch the overnight triple decker sleeper train to Hanoi. Despite being in a very overcrowded compartment overflowing with young children (who travel free and do not need to book a bed) we are still happy to be travelling by train and safe from the horrors of Highway One!

     

On our last visit to Vietnam we had only spent a day in Hanoi so we enjoy the next few days walking around the old market area of Hanoi and – as we did in HCMC – simply soaking up the atmosphere and observing the industrious people as they going about their daily lives.

 

Right: So much for safety - the 'Reunification Express' train travels right beside street stalls as it makes its way into Hanoi from HCMC. One track all the way !

 
Below & Left: School girls in Hanoi - always immaculately dressed in crisp white.    
 
     
With our 30 day visa rapidly approaching its ‘use by date’ we decide on two final destinations in Vietnam. Firstly we catch the train northward to the Chinese Border and the picturesque Hill Tribe town of Sapa. Luckily we had visited this area before for this time the area is shrouded by heavy rain clouds alternating with thick fog during most of our visit. However, this is not necessarily unwelcome as it is a great relief to be cool after the weeks of steaming heat.
     
 
     

Above: In Sapa, they grow rice the traditional way

Below: A member of one of the hill tribes selling her handmade designs

  Below: Another member of the hill tribes - this time glimpsed through the mist
     
 
     

Lastly we visit the famed ‘Halong Bay’ and ‘do the tourist thing’ on a floating junk. After travelling on our own boat through similar limestone scenery in Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, we are a little overwhelmed to be one of the multitude of tourists crammed aboard one of the hundreds of boats chugging around the bay. However, on the plus side, we meet some very interesting fellow passengers, see some amazing sites (including a live oxen about 6mths old slung sideways across the back of a 125cc motorbike!, presumably going to market ) and find it relaxing to sit back and let someone else take responsibility for the safety of the boat!

     
 
     
Above: An example of the number of tourist boats vying for the tourist trade on Halong Bay   Above: Relaxing - with not a care in the world!
     
 

Our original plans were to head to Laos from Hanoi – however two things work against this plan. Firstly, we have encountered many backpackers with horror stories about the trip by road between Hanoi and Laos (most involving so called 12 hour bus trips that turn into 30 hours!). As well, we have received reports that it has not stopped raining in Laos for weeks (and since we had planned to hire a motorbike to tour around, this was very unwelcome news). So we make the snap decision to shelve our Laos travels plans until next year – and since it is also the wet season in Malaysia and Thailand, we decide it is time to head home to Aus for a break from our travels.

     

The fact that within three weeks of our arrival in Brisbane we had bought a ‘renovators delight’ at auction is another story entirely  - suffice to say that fixing things on the land suddenly seemed appealing after so many months of contortionist manoeuvres fixing boat bits in steamy exotic locations!