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Phong Nha National Park

Vietnam Top 13

1. Where not to miss:
PHONG NHA NATIONAL PARK
Travelling in Vietnam is pretty easy. Since the country is quite narrow, you either go from North to South or vice versa. Many a traveller misses out on Phong Nha National Park as it is off the main thoroughfare and the train ticket route. Even if you didn’t think you liked caves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. How to get there? You can get a night bus from Hanoi, DaNang or practically any major stop off in Vietnam. Expect there to be loud Asian karaoke all night long and the chair beds to be slightly too small (for a 170cm person). Where to stay? Easy Tiger is a backpacker haven. There are also farm stays for those wishing for something quieter and away from the backpacker scene. What to do? Explore caves and cycle around.

2. Where I wish I went:
SAPA
I was in Northern Vietnam in early December, their winter. My thin leggings and hoodie were hardly cutting the 16 degrees celcius dull weather in Hanoi and Halong Bay, never mind going further north into the mountains of 4 degrees. It’s supposed to be glorious and enchanting on a good day though, which are hit and miss at that time of year. What to do? Get your own private local guide to bring you on hikes with amazing views over tea plantations.

3. Where I didn’t mind missing:
CUCHI TUNNELS
The main attraction to the Cuchi Tunnels is getting to squeeze into the tiny tunnels that were used during wartimes. As a verging claustrophobic, I was happy enough to see other friends photos and read up about them online.

4. Where I wouldn’t go again:
NHA TRANG
An unusual displaced city where all signs are also in Russian and you’ll be sure to eat in a Russian restaurant. The market wasn’t anything to write home about with cheap looking knock off sports gear.

5. Where one day is plenty:
MUI NE
Go to Mui Ne for the sand dunes and the fishing village and nothing else, unless you want to peruse the resort lifestyle where a man-made beach is erected above the beach as the tide is too close.  What to do?  Go on a half-day tour, take fabulous photos on the sand dunes and be done.

6. Where to get custom clothes made:
HOI AN
It’s pretty self-explanatory. Streets and streets are lined with shops ready to make clothes to fit only you! Where to stay? If you want to meet backpackers stay at DK’s House Backpackers. If you just happen to be there for Christmas (like I was), stay somewhere fancy and then book in for the Christmas dinner to make lots of new friends. What to do? Rent bikes to check out the beach, visit the island over the walk bridge, check out the markets and eat some great food.

7. Where to spend New Year’s Eve: 
SAIGON
A bustling city with lots of nightlife and motorbike-filled roads. Where to stay? The multistory Vietnam Inn Saigon has it’s own rooftop bar so you’ll be sure to make lots of friends and see the new years fireworks from a height. What to do? Wander the streets seeing the sights, visit the War Remnants Museum, and check out the indoor market.

8. Where to challenge yourself:
DALAT
If you see photos of someone in Vietnam with a hard hat and harnesses on then they are sure to be in Dalat. It is the must-go place to try out canyoning, ie. Abseiling down and jumping off cliffs. Even those with fears of heights, myself included, are able to muster up the courage for a day in your swimsuit. Where to stay? Dalat Family Hostel. A bit weird and cosy but you get used to it.

9: Where to find paradise:
PHU QUOC
A tranquil island off the southern end of Vietnam. What to do? Rent scooters and explore the island visiting the beaches of turquoise water, the pearl farms, and eat a fresh fish dinner at the market.

10. Where to find a Natural Wonder:
HALONG BAY
The best option is to just book a cruise trip and let them take it from there guiding you through the karst limestone island landscape. You can be lucky enough to book a cheaper trip in the winter and end up on a more expensive one because there weren’t enough people for yours (this totally happened to us).

11. Where to drink 19 cent beer on a tiny plastic stool and get an amazing Banh Me from a food cart:
HANOI
A city full of wonder. Fully grown men alike sit on those plastic chairs. Where to stay? There’s lots to choose from. Just read up the reviews to find the one that best suits you. Sometimes the backpacker ones are too party party! What to do? There is so much to do. (Another blog post coming about the wonders of Hanoi.).

12. Where to see the “real” Vietnam:
MEKONG DELTA (CAN THO)
We took the long way back to Saigon from Phu Quoc, via the Mekong Delta. The bus was squishy and the view out the window echoed the poverty of Vietnam. Rubbish lined the streets and the tin shacks (houses) lined the river. The people at a bus stop were desperate for our custom. What to do? Go to the floating markets where boats line up beside you selling their wares by holding them out on a stick. They’ll cut the pineapple up on the spot with artistic precision. Many of them live on the boats year-round, moving with the weather.

13. Where to have a unique experience:
HUE TO HOI AN MOTORBIKE TRIP
If you want to have a taste of the scooter/motorbike craze then book a motorbike with a company in Hue or vice versa. They allow a rental one-way and take your luggage for you and deposit at your destination. If you want to live by the rules or are too nervous to drive, get an Easy Driver to drive you instead. Be prepared to see wonderful sights, but to also drive through a day of rain (if it’s winter), lose your travel mates after the first hour, and breakdown on top of mountains thus relying on the generosity of non-English speaking locals to help you out (yes, this happened…TWICE!).

*HANDY INFO ABOUT VIETNAM*
Hostel Rules
It was in DaNang that I found out about the strict hostel rules in Vietnam. In every hostel you hand in your passport and don’t receive it back until you leave. At first it seems daunting as it is your gateway to the rest of the world but you gently become accustomed to it and are glad you don’t need to worry about where it is at all times. All that will happen is you will leave the country with a passport cover full of small stickers with all the dorm room numbers you stayed in. The reason they take your passport is that they need to have all foreigners accounted for and send a list to the police every night.

You will also find Vietnamese hostels stricter in their rules about guests only allowed on the premises. There are hefty fines (5,000,000 vdn) so best to stay where your friends are staying if you want to chill at your hostel.

Winter Weather
If you go to the North of Vietnam in winter you are going to be cold. That’s if you’ve come from hot sunny climes and don’t have appropriate clothing. There are always cheap Northface knock-offs you can buy in Hanoi but not ideal if you’re on a budget and don’t want to drag winter clothes around with you in your rucksack for another few months.

Where to start your trip from
Vietnam is pretty easy to travel around. You either go from North to South or vice versa. North to South suited me better as Cambodia would be my next stop. A rare flight while backpacking is perfectly acceptable, especially if it will save time. Vietnam Airlines was a glorious, roomy, clean experience and at 60 euro one-way from DaNang in central Vietnam to Hanoi in the North, it wasn’t bad.

Package Holidays
Be prepared for Western hostel workers to plug every package trip going and dodge as many as you can. Though you’ll find Halong Bay can be a whole lot easier if you book with an agency. Still avoid booking with your pushy hostel unless booze cruises are you thing and you don’t want the full experience of backpacking because they organise everything for you.

All information as of 8 January 2015.

Bangkok

What we did in Bangkok:

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Loi Krathong floats

Loi Krathong festival
This is celebrated in certain parts of Thailand. In Bangkok people put lotus-shaped boats made out of banana trees, banana leaves, and flowers into the river. It is to symbolise letting go of any past negativity. In Chiang Mai it is celebrated by sending lighted paper lanterns into the sky. We bought them for between fifty cent and one euro twenty-five off ladies selling them near the river. They were beautifully handmade. We lit the candles and incense and a man put them into the river for us. It all seems lovely but we did have trouble keeping the candles lit and as soon as they hit the water they went under the dock we were standing on and didn’t drift out until I couldn’t see them any more as I had originally imagined.

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Tuk-tuk

Got a tuk tuk
We avoided the first tuk-tuk driver as he said he’d do the journey for thirty baht (seventy-five cent) with just one stop off on the way (this is so they can bring you to a scamming gem market). Our other tuk-tuk journeys were crazy. They weaved in and out of traffic and wiggled across the road to play up to our screams of delight (fear). Some came with disco lights and rain covers, on others you just got wet.

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Boat to Grand Palace

Attempted to go to the Grand Palace
Myself and my two travel buddies, along with our Ozzie friend, Odette, headed to the river to get a boat up to the Grand Palace. The boat journey was a boat journey. We walked around the entire walls of the palace to get to the entrance and put on our temple attire (scarfs, long trousers, shirts) only to find that it was closing at 1pm on this particular Friday. So that was that.

Instead we sat out of the oncoming rain in a cafe across the road and sang along with the radio (the owner delightedly filmed us).

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Koh San road

Koh San road market
Against what other backpackers originally told us, we didn’t stay on the touristy Koh San road. Instead we chose the Suhkumvit area (we followed the well-travelled Odette to here). We were happy with that decision. Koh San road is busy and jam packed with people and shops and stalls and hostels. We just browsed the market and added to our trinket collections.

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Monk blessings from a truck

Got hit with water three times in one day (just me)
First was from a completely ignorant ‘farang’ who threw water over me from a moving tuk-tuk. Second was from a monk who was blessing people from a truck. I got the secondary splash of the water dong. Third was from a drain or something.

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And then there were two

Said a teary goodbye to Aisling
After a month of travelling with Aisling we had to say goodbye to her so she could go back to Amsterdam to start her new job. Naturally we spent our last night in a hotel with free water, tea and coffee, a lovely hot shower, and big soft beds. Not before having dinner in a German restaurant with Odette and a few glasses of wine.

…sniff sniff.

Bangkok notes:

– Public transport is easy to do in certain parts. Beats the crazy back log of traffic in the evening.

– Scooter taxis are mad. The ladies sit crossways on the back, don’t hold on, and lean over with their phone and bag in hand. You will also see entire families on the same scooter. Toddler standing at the front, father driving, child jammed in the middle, and mother at the back.

– It can be hard to walk around Bangkok with lanes coming in all the directions. Asking people on the street doesn’t work either. They either don’t speak English (and don’t understand that you want to go to the place you are pointing at on the map) or they want to send you to some other place. Some fella was trying to send us to a government building!

Having never been to Asia before this trip, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting from Bangkok. Probably something more like what you’d find in India–dusty streets, crazy traffic, and lots of hassle.

I’d been told that no one would really want to stay longer than two days and the list of scams and tips to getting around was quite long. As a result, I was pretty nervous about hitting Bangkok.

The first thing I remember was coming along the outskirts of the city, after being woken at crazy o’clock on the night train, and seeing crowds of people at train stations and lots of cars whizzing about before 6 am. The next were the backs of shanty tin houses and shops with satellite dishes attached!!  

It turns out I wasn’t as overwhelmed by Bangkok as I thought I would be. I guess it just depends on what you do, where you stay, and how you travel around.

I got a random hug and kiss from a smiling Thai man on Koh San road.

It can’t be all bad. 

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Crazy scooter rides