Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Who Stole the Sole?

We were on our way to Hoi An, reputed to be one of the prettiest towns in Vietnam; old cobbled streets, colonial French architecture and HQ to the best tailors in the country, but first we made a flying visit to Hue, Vietnams old Capital and home of the Citadel of the Nguyen emperors and the Forbidden City.

Hue, (pronounced Hway as in "Haway the lads") is a fairly laid back but not particularly attractive town with mostly drab concrete utilitarian buildings set along the (deceivingly) romantically named Perfume River. It is however easy to forgive them this, as being very close to the North-South divide it was the site of some of the worst bombings in the US/Vietnam Conflict and some gruesome mass executions by the VC. Much of the city incurred the full wrath of American fire power, including a lot of the old monuments central to the history of city. Reconstruction is still taking place across the town and when we visited the Forbidden city and Palace parts if it were actually being worked on to restore it to its former glory. Nevertheless, the Citadel and the Forbidden City and Palace (located in its centre) remains very impressive and still evokes much of the sense of power and ceremony that must have existed there when the Nguyen Emperors ruled.

The following afternoon we headed on to Hoi An on one of Vietnams super efficient buses, passing en route the notorious battle sites Da Nang and China Beach. In stark contrast to Hue, Hoi An is as attractive a town as you could hope to find in Vietnam; incredibly quaint, with beautiful old houses crammed into a maze of streets. Cafes, restaurants, art and jewelery boutiques make up literally every other building, and there's a bustling row of food stalls with superb fresh produce and seafood straight from the market just fifty metres away.

We arrived in the evening when the town looks at its best - everything lit up with rows of red lanterns hanging from the facades of shops and houses, and restaurants filled with the scent of Vietnamese cooking. We also managed to stumble on a specialist wine cafe where we ended up ploughing through a few bottles of Bordeaux with a couple honeymooning at one of the expensive resorts on the edge of town. By the look on their faces when told them we were paying twelve pounds a night for a smart hotel with pool I gathered they they were probably paying ten times as much - even we had been surprised at just how cheap good accommodation is in Vietnam.

The next morning we set out on bikes to check out the town properly, which by the light of day was totally different. Although still quaint, we both felt it somewhat resembled a vintage version of Bicester Village Retail Park in places (but without the kids in Kappa tracksuits smoking their mums Bensons in the car park). Being a UNESCO heritage site you get the sense that the town is somewhat fossilised, which in some respects is great as it retains its old appeal, but the downside is that it feels very touristy and a little artificial. However, it does have some of the best cooking we found in Vietnam and as ever we were more than happy to while away the afternoons in restaurants or down at one of the street stalls; one of which produced the best Shrimp Wantons either of us had ever had - so good we went back three times.

Hoi An is also a lager drinkers paradise. It's not often you can go out with a pound, get eight pints of lager and still come home with change for a Wagonwheel. At those prices it could well be the next big Stag party destination, if groups of hammered blokes were into buying pashminas and handmade Mangowood tableware in between bars that is...

Anyway, the sun had finally reappeared with a vengeance and we were now well into the Southern half of Vietnam. Sams S.A.D had miraculously disappeared (personally I put it down to the healing power of cheap lager), so we headed on for Nha Trang - Vietnams big, brash seaside town for a few days of kicking back on the beach. Pulling into town at five AM it seemed strange to see locals on the promenade doing Thai Chi, out jogging and exercising - clearly they get up early here we thought, but by nine AM it was easy to see why - temperatures had soared to plus thirty and by lunchtime it was so hot that you could barely stay out for more than an hour without looking like Michael Winner in a Sauna.

Several people had said to us that they hadn't liked Nha Trang, that they found it too commercial and developed, but as ever these things are subjective and we both took took a liking to the place. Yes it is built up and modern, and little old style architecture exists but its not pretending to be anything else and we've both found that despite the general preference of travellers toward rural environments all the cities we've been to we've had a great time in. I guess we're more urbanite than we thought!

For a big city, Nha Trang has a surprisingly good beach - clean, golden sand with turquoise blue water and a good inland wind making it a kitesurfers paradise. There are also two superb upmarket beach hangouts; Nha Trang Sailing Club and The Louisiana Brewhouse, which is as far as I know is the only micro-brewery on a beach in Asia. Of course there was some sampling to be done so I ordered the full Beer selection menu and had my first pint of Ale in nearly five months. On balance, I'm still pretty sure Ale tastes better in a decent English pub with a pickled egg on a hazy Autumn Sunday afternoon, but I wasn't complaining. So, we went posh for a few days and got waited on hand and foot while lazing by the pool and on Saturday night hit the mega beach party that the Sailing Club puts on, and had our first encounter with South East Asias notorious "Buckets", which are essentially a bucket or massive jar loaded with whisky/vodka and red bull.

Now, its pretty plain to anyone that hard liquor is not meant to be drank out of litre buckets but we didn't want to be rude obviously. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be a fairly wild night of dancing on the beach which involved me getting into an absurd argument with an even drunker French man who stole my flip flops (I'm sure there's a joke about a French man and flips flops?) and me then trying to rip them off his feet while he tried to run away. Myself and a new Canadian compadre tried to hunt him down unsuccessfully (mainly down to the fact that neither of us could see straight), so, alas that was the end of my authentic Brazilian Hiavanas...goodbye my friends, you have served me well. I hope you enjoy your new home on a smelly Frenchmans feet.

If you were to rate hangovers on a scale of one to ten, then the following morning would probably be about a fourteen. I was unable to leave the room for a whole day and in the words of Withnail felt like "a pig shat in my head". It was pretty evident that we had not been consuming buckets of Grey Goose and Highland Park, probably more like formaldehyde and ethanol, but a good party is a good party and I'll always treasure those four hours that I can't remember from the night before...

We did eventually pull ourselves out of our self induced pits of despair, and before we left for our next destination had time to fit in an afternoon at the mud baths (see pics for attractive couple looking like they're covered in cow shit), visit the marine life centre and also eat possibly the best fish and chips ever, made with beer-battered fresh Sturgeon cooked by an Aussie Ex-pat who looked disturbingly like Alf from Home and Away. Maybe it was a little more exotic than the traditional Cod, but sometimes all you need after a big night out is good old fish and chips...

View our pics here:

Hue, Hoi An & Nha Trang

Monday, 8 March 2010

Ain't no Sunshine...

The Australian guy next to me on the bus to Ha Long Bay was looking decidedly ill. We'd exchanged a few words when we got on the bus which pulled out of Hanoi at seven thirty AM, but I could tell he really wasn't up for a conversation - he had that dead-in-the-eyes look that you only get from a savage hangover and you'd only got to bed three hours before. There were five guys who had all been staying in the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in town and judging by the sound of it they had gone on a proper bender the night before. Pretty much at the first pit stop we arrived at to they all piled off and grabbed more beers and it was only ten AM. From then on it was drinks all the way to the ferry to Cat Ba island, and while amusing to start with by the time we'd got there everyone on the bus looked like they wanted to batter .

We'd been told before we took the ferry to Cat Ba Island that it could be a bit "badly organised", but that had turned out to be an sizable understatement. What it was actually closer to was herding cattle onto a floating container and then barking orders at them for the next four hours. Ten metres off shore the captain announced "you bring you own drink you pay us five dollar to drink". To which there was much disagreement and shouting of "this is bollocks mate" and "you are very bad men" etc.etc. They clearly waited until everyone had bought themselves a few beers and then imposed the surcharge when there was nothing you could do about it.. We refused to pay as did a Portuguese couple with kids we sat with. We were then blanked for the rest of the trip. Their own beer was extortionate and the food provided was crap, but the Aussies didn't give a toss though and after abusing the captain/pirate king got thoroughly pissed again on the roof of the boat while trying to pull a group of Swedish student girls. The stop at the cave on the way was equally as fun - with "you go in cave now - come back in half hour we leave, be quick". Inside the island cave which was clearly impressive (once,) a host of coloured lights on cycle illuminated the walls in pinks and greens. A (presumably calming) backing of what sounded very much like the theme tune to The Gallery off Tony Hart played through speakers mounted on stalactites. It was difficult to move without someones camera in your face or bumping into Japanese tourists queuing up to have their picture taken together on a pink Stalagmite that looked sort of like a Dolphin. Ha Long bay is a real spectacle - no doubt about it, but it is tourist hell. They really need to sort out the local mafia idiots who manage the boats over.

Cat Ba itself is a strange place. The largest island in the bay, its like staying in an out of season Minehead or Skegness. Think Vietnamese League of Gentlemen. Modern-ish glass fronted hotels called things like "Hotel Holiday View" and "Hotel Happy Land" look out onto a harbour and rows of small restaurants knock out very average food, as if they cant be bothered. Maybe they can't - as far as we could see its a pretty dull place to live. At night women would stand singing Karaoke in bars on their own, no audience, just them. I'd imagine you'd go a bit mad. Apparently its rammed in summer with mainland locals but the rest of the year is just a steady trickle of travelers passing through for to check the bays out.

It started hammering it down the day we arrived, adding only to the dreary English seaside town feel, but we booked a trip out Lan Ha Bay anyway, undeterred and not wanting to waste the trip. We were taking a boat out with half a dozen other guys to do some Kayaking around the limestone Karsks and towers of the bay and a few were planning on climbing and doing some deep water soloing (free climbing on rock over deep water). Luckily we got a boat with a great crew this time and an even cooler bunch of people to spend the day with - it was a real laugh. Our Kayaks were full off rain water after hours out on the sea, and climbing was called off due to conditions being too bad, but it was amazing to get out into the bay all the same, paddling around amongst the floating villages with their fish pens and sea-dogs that had never seen land. We didn't waste any time leaving the next morning however and grabbed the fast boat back to the mainland and sanity...

"I've got S.A.D. Definitely". We were in Nimh Binh, a few hours south of Ha Long and it had now been raining non stop for the last four days. "It's making me depressed". Sam was convinced that the lack of sun for all of ten days since we'd left India was taking its toll and she now had Seasonal Affective Disorder. It had been chucking it down solidly - proper cats and dogs. "Raining all ze animals!" as I'd once heard a Frenchman so eloquently put it. We had come to Nimh Binh to see the the famous caves at Tam Coc a few miles away but there was no chance of that now - the idea of more rain, spending a miserable day in plastic dollar macs sitting on an open top rowing boat and getting soaked to the skin was just not appealing. The town itself was not exaclty charming too; an industrial, grey looking place made worse by the dismal weather. You got the impression that even if was sunny, the locals would still struggle to raise a smile. So we did all you can do when your plans are rained off in a strange town - hole up in the hotel, read, talk rubbish to friends on the Internet and watch whatever American trash happens on HBO/StarTV/Discovery. I did feel slightly better after speaking to Edd from back home who was currently riding out one of the worst winters in recent years in Kiev. A ball busting minus thirty, coupled with a failing boiler and a drunken landlord who seemed to only break things every time he came round to attempt to fix them. Even though it was raining like something out of the old testament, Nimh Binh it wasn't really cold, and we were separated by 55 degrees. I'm pretty sure he would have swapped places right then.

A duff afternoons travelling is still better than an average afternoon in the office, and all was not lost. From the wreckage of the trip to see the caves we did manage to forge some entertainment in Nimh Binh, notably meeting Mr Lee, a ninety year old Vietnamese gent who now lived in San Francisco, while we were in a coffee shop across the road. He had moved to the US in the mid sixties and was back in Nimh Binh, his home town to visit family. He was without doubt the best turned out Vietnamese chap we'd met and certainly a contender for GQ's best dressed man of the year - if they had an geriatric category. We sat and had a couple of whiskeys and he chatted away about America, Vietnam and his business in San Francisco. In between he made organised notes about something or other in a leather notepad with a fountain pen in the sort of handwriting that you only ever see grandparents use. He was a fascinating old guy, and we could have spent hours talking with him and sipping whisky, only I suspect he would have drunk me under the table.
The other saving grace was the hotels menu. We'd considered venturing into the town to see what we could find on the street stalls, but by the time what was left of the sun had gone down it looked like a scene from Bladerunner; neon lights shrouded in rain - sour faced women with umbrellas everywhere and rats scurrying from one side of the road to the other, so we ordered in. The menu, had everything, pork, beef, eels, snails, frogs, catfish and even snake, which I probably would have tried if hadn't been $30 a plate. The bottles of green liquour with pickled cobras that lined the shelves of the hotel didn't do much to sell it either, so fancying something different we ordered the frogs legs along with a few other dishes. Now, I've eaten frogs legs before, in France as a kid and in the UK, but these were something else. They were huge, like the legs of some amphibian that had spent too much time hanging around Selafield or Chernobyl. I asked the waiter, who spoke good English whether these were actually frogs legs "They are specially farmed! Big frogs!". He wasn't wrong. It was hard not to imagine Olympian size frogs that could jump twenty feet in the air. I expect they must have very high walls at the farm just to stop them escaping. Anyway, they were good, a bit like chicken as everyone says but a bit more, well...froggy.
It had been a weird few days. It was still raining heavily the next morning and showed no signs of improving. Sam had a permanent frown on which said "I didn't sign up for this". It was time to head South.

View our pics:
Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba and Ninh Binh