9.04.2014

Halong Bay - "When a UNESCO site fails to impress."

If I had one criticism of my STA tour, it is how they 'do' Halong Bay. After a long overnight train that arrived to Hanoi in the small hours we then got a coach to Halong, arriving in the morning. The journey itself wasn't a problem; long journeys come as part and parcel with travelling in Asia. This is especially true if you're going to see a country in 12 days. You just have to stomach long distance travel, so it wasn't that.






Inclusive of the STA tour is a boat trip out to Halong Bay...but it is only an afternoon trip. I say ONLY because there is a limit to how far you can sail in one day and still make it back in time for supper. Halong Bay is huge with approximately 1,600 islands and islets. Needless to say, we only reached a select few parts - the parts hoarded with tourists. 

If you're planning a trip, try choosing one that is at least one night. Castaway trips are three days and come recommended for the party type, though friends said they are basic and somewhat expensive. There are plenty of trips to Halong Bay which can be booked from Hanoi. I'd imagine there are also Halong Bay trips on offer at most hostels in the other big towns.

...So. Our trip.


Kayaking

We made it to the only inhabited area of Halong Bay, where we got out to rent Kayaks and explore the massive caves, bays and limestone structures.  Anyone who knows me well will know a certain incident with a kayak 5 years ago left me a bit traumatised by water, but luckily I've built my confidence back up since then. I'm glad I made the effort to Kayak as it would have been a missed opportunity not to get out and actually explore the structures up close. 
The kayaking was pretty cool... until more boats arrived and more tourists swarmed the waters in larger boats paddled by the Vietnamese. Not known for their manners and gentle nature, the boats pretty much pretended we were driftwood and pushing us out of their way. It somewhat hampered our efficient kayaking, especially through tunnels, but it was good that we had some [limited] time to explore before the others descended. Back to the boat to sunbathe.

Water

The water of Halong is very dirty, so much so that you can't swim. This was certainly not something I had surmised from the pictures I'd seen. It's the big factor that really 'put me off'.


Dau Go Cave

I realised by the time we got to Dau Go Cave that despite being out at sea, the crowds still existed. Due to the complete absence of research before my trip (as I confessed before) I didn't know about the caves that exist in Halong Bay, or that we were going to make a trip to one of them.

Apart from being used as a timber store to make awesome boat traps (read more here), the cave has no title to boast of. It's 'one of' the biggest caves in Halong Bay. This said, it is very convenient for day trippers as it's only 30 minutes from the coast. Quite charmingly it is on Driftwood Island and often referred to as Driftwood Grotto (after the aforementioned use as a timber store), which sounds like something out of Peter Pan.

A lot of my group hated the way they had made the caves look like a Disney queue line. I have to say I quite enjoyed it, especially given that if you ever take an extended trip across
Asia, then you will see a fair few caves. It takes something new to make the last cave/temple/waterfall stand out from the first.


Halong Bay Town

If the town had a good atmosphere OR the beach was nice and not covered in litter OR even if the town had been small, calm and authentic then I really wouldn't have minded only an afternoon trip to Halong Bay. As it was, the town had a really tacky market, tacky Vietnamese karaoke and distinctly average restaurants. It was just not a place worth knowing.

Running

The only benefit of staying on dry land was the fact that the beachfront promenade encouraged me to take my first run since the marathon and my first run in Asia. Following the waterfront made for an easy route and you can follow the road for quite some distance. I stopped at the end of my run to do some core work etc. and it caused a bit of a stir. I clutched on to my phone and promptly ran back, staying clear from the edge of the road and not making eye contact. It was a quick lesson as to what exercise is and isn't acceptable in public, in SE Asia.*


*More coming soon about running in SE Asia.

8.28.2014

A short stay in Hue, Vietnam

With only 25 hours in Hue, it was always going to be a fleeting glance. And after Hoi An I knew that a glance is all I would want, as anything would be less beautiful, less phenomenal and just less when comparisons were made.

Considering Hue is the ancient capital, the new town is not dissimilar to Hi Chin Minh - a modern developing urban area. There are high rise hotels, tourist restaurants, cyclos and scams a plenty.
The suggested activity for the town was a motorbike tour of the city and the outer lying areas. It seems from Lonely Planet that motorbike tours are the norm in Hue, as a lot of the sites are located around the perimeter of the city and within the vast Citadel complex. Our was $20/400,000 dong which seems to be average pricing, though I wouldn't necessarily say our was that outstanding - so have a look around yourself.
The motorbike tour took us through the paddy fields, to a local village, to a bunker, a museum of rice, a stadium and to a pagoda... Oh and a shop to buy gifts of course.
An action selfie from the bike - see I'm ok mum?...

The Stadium

After biking through a graveyard and a small village where small children delightfully told us to "Fuck Off" as we passed through, before arriving at a stadium. The stadium was used to fight tigers and elephants. With elephants representing royalty and tigers the rebels, the tigers were tied to the centre of the stadium an so ultimately the elephant and therefore royalty always won!

The Paddy Fields

Queens Tomb

An emperor could have as many queens as he wanted. Soooo there was 1 emperor and 100 queens - "He was a busy guy" our guide informs us. Each queen had a tomb built around the city, so there are plenty to choose from. We went to a less well-known tomb, as we had access on our bikes.
According to feng shui, the higher the tower the better, and a tomb facing water is also preferable. Each of the 100 queens has a tomb, so there are dozens of them around the city of Hue.
The emperor had 147 children... Imagine Christmas?


Thien Mu Pagoda

Although 7 stories and the tallest religious building in Vietnam, the actual structure isn't quite as grand as the title it holds. That said it's a lovely place and perfect for a later afternoon trip, which gives you a beautiful light.

The Asian tourists took pictures with us for 20 minutes.
... And we took some awkward family photos.
The beards on these guys are made from plastic hair, unfortunately. I liked to imagine that it was made out of the monks hair.
This guy is doing the 'girl-in-the-club' finger Uh uh errrrrr.
Brilliant photobomb right there... We were none-the-wiser.
The monks playing football.
If you can make out the story of this monk - Thích Quảng Đức - (under where it says "a relic") it's worth a read. He burned himself to death in 1963 in order to try and achieve religious equality, as promised by the government. On a cheerier note it looks like the Chamber of Secrets car.

The Local Village/Rice Demonstation

This part of the tour felt a little bit cheeky to me. We went to look round this local village and a sweet lady demonstrated how they make rice, and other aspects of traditional village life, then of course, a basket was wafted around for tips. We get to the bridge for a group shot and then one lady does fortune telling for Tom... And then demands $1/20,000 dong. It was pretty but I wasn't prepared for this and was glad I grabbed a few spare notes last minute. It left a bitter taste in my mouth as we had no heads up about this and already paid a set amount for the tour. At first I thought I had left a 100,000 note for as a tip - that's 10 beers (!!!) - but luckily I left a smaller amount. Here are a few photos anyhow...

This is a pillow. No joke.

Pretending to whip the buffalo.
The fiesty fortune teller. Apparently Tom may have 2 OR 4 children and live a long life of 82 years. Pretty sure there was something about a girlfriend in there too.

The Fort

Our guide took us up to a fort to have a little snoop and it reminded me of the ones we used to explore as children in Guernsey.
The real selling point though, is the view over the Perfume River.

Making Incense

We also stopped to 'buy souvenirs' and watch how incense was made. 

So that was the motorbike tour. A good way to see some of the city fast and also support the local community, even if tact isn't their middle name. 

Citadel

The Citadel is the main reason why people go to Hue, although it wasn't anything that I'll be talking about for years to come.
The complex is absolutely massive, meaning there are actually golf buggies throughout the day that take you to different areas of the site.

We only had a morning, so looked at the immediate building and the surrounding area.

The moat itself is very pretty with waterlilies coating the water like a blanket in areas.
It's worth a look if you happen to be stopping over in Hue, but I wouldn't say you're missing out unless you have a particular interest in seeing it and you know the history and context. To really get the most out of it do your research, allow an entire day and take precautions against the heat.


Don't be mugged off - the tuk tuk drivers are pretty persuasive in telling you that the citadel is closed and offering a tour until it opens again in an hour or two.


What else did people get up to in Hue?