A Travellerspoint blog

Heather & James travels - Thailand & Vietnam

The following is an email sent summarising our travels to a few friends

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Hello one and all,
Hope this email finds you well, and that you have enjoyed your Easter, and ANZAC Day (for all you Aussie's), and St George's Day for all you poms.
It has been nearly five weeks since my last email (almost sounds like a confessional .)
In that time we spent two weeks in Phuket before heading for Vietnam, starting in Ho Chi Minh City with a side trip to the Mekong Delta, bus to Dalat and on to Nha Trang, then by train to Hue, bus to Hoi An and back, flight to Hanoi and then a side trip to Halong Bay before flying to Hong Kong where we staying for the next few days before going on to the Chinese mainland.
There was nothing backpacker related about our two weeks in Phuket. We booked ourselves in for 14 nights in a four star resort on Karon beach and did very little other than eat great Thai food, lie by the pool, walk on beach and relax. We took a day trip out to Phi-Phi island ( from the Beach fame) did a touch of snorkelling and we also partook in a Thai cookery class, and discovered how simple it actually is to make great Thai food from scratch in about 10 minutes. Then it was all too soon, time to get back on the tourist trail and to a much simpler way of life...
I have to admit that we both really loved Vietnam - with its incredibly friendly people, crazy traffic and motorbikes and some of the most beautiful natural scenery full of contrasts.
Ho Chi Minh City & Mekong Delta
Our first fun-filled day was spent learning how to cross the road (walking out very slowly into the oncoming traffic and praying they drive around you is the only technique which works - we met 2 tourists who had been hit by motorbikes so we are very happy to be in one piece) and generally walking around town soaking it up.
Then it was straight to the Mekong Delta, and it is really quite astonishing. The river gets up to 5 km wide, at points, but you never get a real feel for the true size because there are so many big islands, however when you drive over 10 or 15 rivers the size of the Hawkesbury River one after the other it starts to add up. We took a speedboat from Saigon to My Tho which was a great way to see the locals, up to their waist in mud digging for snails, or some of the innovative extensions to the back of their houses looking like they would collapse in the river at any moment. We cruised the floating markets, visited any number of little workshops , stayed overnight in Can Tho and finally arrived back in Saigon (as the centre of Ho Chi Minh citry is still called) exhausted.
Our next day we did a half day tour to Cu Chi tunnels built used during the Vietnam war by the VC to get around without drawing attention - the highlight of which was crawling through a pitch black tunnel for 35 metres - it was a little terrifying to be honest - given that it was 80cm tall and 60 cm wide and there was the occasional drop to look out for :) We then went on to spend the afternoon at the war Remnants museum which was quite disturbing - particularly the sections on naplam, Agent Orange and prison torture. The entire museum is quite one-sided against the Americans as you might expect but the photos and displays are incredibly graphic, including a jar containing a pickled human feotus with two heads. I can tell you it took some time to put a cheery face on after we left.
From Ho Chi Minh we took a bus to Dalat on the advice of someone we had met a few days earlier, it's in the central highlands, and was cool, and surrounded by beautiful green hills with several lakes and a thriving agricultural industry not based around rice (which is what you will see almost everywhere else you go). we only spent one full day there and then caught the bus to Nha Trang - a seaside resort town. Funnily enough whilst in Dalat a motorbike tour guide enlightened us that a couple of buses had a head-on collision on the road we had just driven the week before killing 15 people. We started to think that wasn't any methods in their madness afterall, and wholeheartedly approved of the amount with which they used their horns.
Nha Trang
We had one fantastic day in Nha Trang - first we did some snorkelling and saw some very strange fish and pretty coral and in the afternoon we went to a day spa for a double mud bath, soak in mineral water, massage and steam bath. I think it is the first massage I had where someone has been wandering around on my back whilst holding a pole in the roof, or using their knees to massage my lower back.
From Nha Trang we ditched the bus and grabbed a train to Hue. Spent a whole day just watching the world go by, locals in conical hats and pyjamas, winnowing rice in the paddies, water buffalos, tombs in the fields, the works.
The citadel in Hue was quite nice to look around, but I have to admit we found Hue to be a bit of let down. The people were less friendly, and really just wanted your money, so we decided to head to Hoi An for a couple of days - best decision we ever made - even if we did have to get back on a bus. We also discovered the wonderful concept of Squid Jerky which adds a whole new smell to the myriad we had already come to know and love. If you want to reproduce this, just get hold of between 2 and 100 fresh squid, and then either hang them up outside or lie them flat on a table wait for them to dry into something rock hard and flat...mmm yummy
After Hoi An we did take a tour to the DMZ before heading off to Hanoi, we drove past the rockpile, visited Vinh Moh tunnels (much bigger and more enjoyable than Cu Chi), the Khe Sanh miltary base, Ben Hai river etc.. It was nice to drive around in the countryside, but otherwise quite missable as we spent 80% of our time on the bus, and when we stopped it was to point at things that weren't there anymore. Of most interest was a quick look at how some of the hill tribes still live, in very poor conditions and with each couple having at least 10 children to help them work the land, and still practicing slash and burn farming techniques, despite the government trying to dissuade them.
Hoi An
Charming little town, with its world heritage listing is an absolute pleasure to wander around, looking at handicrafts, markets, museums, old houses etc. oh and there are more tailors than you can poke a stick at. Our hotel had a swimming pool which was also a pleasant change. we had a lovely meal at one of the many good restaurants on the waterfront, and then head back to Hue, before flying to Hanoi.
The old quarter in Hanoi is quite an experience with everything from spot welding, lantern making, cooking, chopping pork into mince, peeling and chopping bamboo etc etc. happening right there on the pavement as you walk past - be careful not to step on anyone or anything :) We had some fun shopping and haggling for new shoes and backpack for me as our belongings are now starting to fall to pieces and an England jersey for James to celebrate St Georges day. We also wandered around the lake, avoiding offers for bikes tours, cyclo tours and everything else you could imagine.
After our 2 day trip to Halong Bay - see below - we spent another enjoyable day in Hanoi at the Temple of Literature, more shopping - for souvenirs this time, and then the Water Puppets in the evening - thanks for the recomendation Alex - they were unique!
Halong Bay
Without doubt the most beautiful part of Vietnam - somewhat similar to Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, but far more stunning with thousands of limestone islands protruding from the water creating little bays, and waterways which were pristine except for the occasional floating village. We drove out there from Hanoi and spent two days and one night on a Junk cruising the islands, went for a swim, visited a cave (reminisent of Jenolan caves for example). The only downside was that we ended up on a boat without air conditioning ( despite promises otherwsie by the tour agent) and whilst the rooms had a fan, they weren't much use because there was no power on the boat after we went to bed. The tranquility was a huge change from the hustle and bustle we had been immersed in the for the past weeks.
Oh yes I didn't mention did I that our digital camera died in the Mekong Delta and we have been living off disposables (so we spent yesterday in Hong Kong buying a new one) and we temporarily lost our video camera, but we very lucky to find it again thanks to the staff in our hotel in Hanoi. I have think James was sad because he couldn't buy a new one of those too :)))
So that was Vietnam - we could easily have done with another 2 or three weeks in this fantastic country and we didn't even get to touch on Cambodia and Lao which are close by.
Enjoy your day and our blog address is below if you have time to read more :) We are off to explore Hong Kong
Heather & James

Posted by jefranklin 22:04 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking round_the_world Comments (0)

This cooking malarkey is easy...


Today we had our Thai cooking classes. The course was held in Patong with a kick-off time of 3pm. As such, we were told to be at our hotel lobby for 2:30 for pickup. Ever the cautious pair, we arrived at 2:20 and waited in the lobby. And waited. And waited.

After waiting 40 minutes, we decided that the course had started and we should go to the tour agent that booked our tickets and get a refund. Just as we got up, a car pulled up and 2 people leapt out looking for us. After a quickly checking it was us (we looked the same in the mirror this morning), we got into the car and sped off to the course. Well, at least that's what I would have done - driving in Phuket is interesting as no-one seems to go over 40kmph (unless they are a moped with 4 people on it) and they don't like to go above 2nd gear. On the trip I was muttering to myself that I didn't really want to walk in to the class late and miss most of the lesson (it was only scheduled for 90 minutes). To shut us up, they fed us a Thai snack which is banana kebabs with a coconut milk, sugar and honey dunking sauce.

We arrived at the cooking school (called Pums) and signed ourselves in. Until this point, I had been expecting that we were going to be in a class of up to 10 or so. Bzzz, wrong! Instead, we got private lessons of just Heather and I and the "teacher" - a nice result! The course itself, was structured in to 2 parts: the first was an introduction to the main herbs used in Thai cooking. This was given by a bloke from Yorkshire, who had been in Thailand for about 4 years and has a passion for cooking. Following him, one of the Thai chefs taught us the 3 dishes we were going to learn: Green Curry (chilli, basil, coconut milk and chicken), hot & sour soup (prawns, chilli and more chilli) and white curry (chilli, coconut milk and chicken). Each dish took no more than 3 minutes to cook, and (as the English guy said) if you freeze small bags of the ingredients and you can have dinner ready 5 minutes after getting home from work. As part of the course, they also gave us a mini cookery book which contained the main Thai recipes (pad Thai, hot & sour soup, etc), so when we eventually set ourselves up in the UK, I will be experimenting :)

Posted by jefranklin 04:00 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking round_the_world foodie Comments (0)

I'm the king of the world!


Ok, wrong movie quote but it still had Leonardo De Caprio in it...

Today we went to Phi Phi island (pronounced pee pee) which was used for filming the movie "thee Beach". Phi Phi actually has two islands Phi Phi Don, which is the main island with all the tourist facilities (and was absolutely hammered by the Boxing Day tsunami) and Phi Phi Low, which is an uninhabited, and was where the Beach was filmed.

The day started with the alarm going off at 6am (aagghh!) and we wandered down to breakfast. We were picked up by shuttle bus and driven to the sea terminal on Phuket (can't remember the name of it, even though we landed there during our honeymoon cruise). Then it was on to a high-speed ferry and the 1hr 20min trip to Phi Phi Don. On arrival, we didn't get on to the island, but cross-decked to a smaller tour boat that was going to take us on our bay tour.

The first anchoring was actually still on Phi Phi Don, and at a spot called Monkey Beach, which (subject to weather and their moods) monkeys hang out and can be fed, if you're feeling game. There were monkeys there for us, however it is also a snorkeling spot, so we threw ourselves overboard with the appropriate gear and took in the underwater sights. In contrast to the Great Barrier Reef, the fish seemed to be a lot smaller and more inclined to swim up to you. This meant that there were decent photo opportunities, but nothing like a grouper or a shark. Nevertheless, the underwater camera case got a good workout.

Following the first stop, we were taken to Phi Phi Low (we were not allowed off the boat though) and taken around the island to look at the major features (e.g. Viking Cave, the film spot for the movie, etc). We also stopped at a second spot, where again we got in the water for some more snorkeling and pictures.

Afterwards, we were taken back to Phi Phi Don for lunch and a spot of sun-bathing on the main beach there. As mentioned, Phi Phi took a lot of damage in the tsunami, but they are rapidly rebuilding. Already, there are a number of backpacker hostels and a couple of 4 star hotels open (getting both ends of the tourist spectrum :). It is well worth staying on the island, as from there you can hire a speedboat or a long-tailed boat that will let you land on Phi Phi Low.

Posted by jefranklin 03:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches backpacking round_the_world Comments (0)

Patong Beach, Phuket

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The resort that we have been staying in is located on Karon Beach in Phuket. This is a quieter area than the most popular destination on Phuket (for backpackers) which is Patong Beach. We decided however, that we were going to need to see some of the island otherwise we would spent the entire time lazing by the pool - nice and relaxing but necessarily a good use of our time.
The hotel where we are staying runs a shuttle bus service twice daily to Patong - one at 10am and one at 3pm (return times being 10:30 and 3:30). As we planned on spending the evening in Patong, we decided to get the 3pm shuttle and make our own way back.

In contrast to the relative quietness of Karon, Patong is a heaving mass of hawkers trying to flog designer knock-offs, cut prices tailors and other souvenirs that the traveler needs. On arrival, we walked the length of the beach front road looking in most of these stalls as Heather was looking to replace the shoes that she broke while Darwin. This managed to take us upto 5pm, and for some reason no shoes were bought. We could have spent that time at the pub/beach. Eventually, I managed to persuade Heather that I was severely dehydrated and needed some Chang (local beer) quick. We found a beach-side pub and watched the sun go down of the ocean, taking a photo of it for posterity.

Once darkness fell, we decided to find somewhere to grab something to eat and then the problems started. As mentioned, Patong is the main backpacker resort, so we thought before we arrived that there would be plenty of cheap noodle bars where we could indulge our taste buds in wonderful Thai food. Bzzzzzz, wrong! We managed to find one small place, as everything was serving Western junk food - at one point we even considered MuckDonalds as an option, as there was nothing else appealing (common sense did prevail though). Again, a real contrast to Karon where you can't swing a stray dog without hitting anything from budget to expensive Thai restaurants. You probably wouldn't want to go near the stray dogs, mind.

After dinner, we explored Patong further and it is at this point we discovered the Lonely Planet was not exaggerating about some of the seedier sides. Having been through Patpong with no problems, we thought nothing could faze us - however we didn't expect Patong to be even more dodgy. It was an experience in itself (we didn't go in to any clubs though). At one point, we were at a bar that had been bought by a 25 year old guy from Manchester for about 43,000 pounds. He had only been in country for 3 weeks, and he was learning that getting the appropriate licensing was going to be a bit of a challenge for him. Still, he seemed happy enough - not too bad a way to spend a few years I imagine.

Posted by jefranklin 01:31 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches backpacking round_the_world Comments (0)

James Franklin is resting

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We have been travelling none-stop pretty much since 2 February, with only a couple of days respite here and there. When planning this trip, we figured that after 2 months of backpacker accommodation, we would need something to make us feel a bit chilled so I had booked us in to the Thavorn Beach Resort, in Karon Beach, Phuket for 14 nights. As such, since arriving here nearly a week ago, our only activities have been lazing by the pool, lazing on the beach and lazing in the room.
Karon Beach is a family-friendly part of Phuket, so walking down the main street does not require you to fend off touts trying to sell dodgy merchandise or advertise their bars. It also means that there are decent amount of restaurants to choose from, offering everything from Western (steak and pizzas) and Chinese (sweet and sour) t0 Indian, Malay and Thai (curry and curry). We have tried out a couple and generally have been impressed (a Panang curry that we tried was very similar to the recipe at Curry Frenzy).
Tonight, we are heading to Patong which is more backpacker-oriented and later in the week we're off to Phi Phi island (the island on the movie the Beach) for some snorkeling and Heather keeps bugging me to play golf, so I am sure we will be doing that at some point. If I can find an Internet cafe that we read CF memory sticks, you may even get some pictures :)
We're also planning on doing a cookery course where we learn to cook 3 traditional Thai dishes. I'll show that Jamie Oliver who's boss.

Posted by jefranklin 00:00 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches backpacking round_the_world Comments (0)

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