A Travellerspoint blog

On the Move Again!

Still heading south, hunting down the sunshine

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We picked up our heavy bags (which I'm sure get heavier every time we do so) and loaded them on to the mini bus that took us to our first open tour sleeper bus. After the transfer to the larger bus, filled with rows reclined seats, we settled down for the long overnight journey to Hue.

The next morning we arrived and were dropped off at a random hotel – something we were already expecting, as it is apparently very common for bus companies to do this. We got our barings and headed for the hotel we had booked online the night before. The receptionist tried his luck (as it seems many Vietnamese do) and told us the dorm we had booked was fully booked so we would need to pay for an upgrade and stay in a private room instead. We stayed strong and argued that we had reserved a dorm so we are only willing to pay that price. He buckled and we got a private room for the cost of the dorm. I personally don't think there were any dorms in the hotel, as it was relatively small, and quite a smart looking establishment. Ah well, we now had our own space, complete with ensuite and air-con.

There wasn't a great deal to do in Hue apart from visit a number of temples, so we decided to keep moving and head for the beaches at Hoi An. We spent the rest of the day checking out … and as the sun began to set we wandered back to our hotel along by the river.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 00:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged bus Comments (0)

3 Day Tour of Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island

A trip that was certainly value for money from beginning to end!

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We decided to take a 3 day tour visiting Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island. Our tour guide got us all laughing early on by going through the different years we were born, and telling us what animal that made us along with their characteristics, and who they should be compatible with. I'm the year of the Rat, which is actually a well respected animal in Asia. Apparently I work hard and my family will always have enough food and money because I spend a lot of time gathering. Steph is the year of the horse, which apparently isn't good for me as she can walk all over me!

We were lucky to have a really good group to travel with, who also happened to be very multicultural! There was an Aussie couple, a girl from France with her English boyfriend, a couple for the Netherlands, a couple from Italy and finally a Vietnamese couple! We all got on really well, which made the trip even more fun.

We spent the first day travelling to Halong Bay by mini bus, and cruising through it's unique landscape on a deluxe 'Junk' boat. We visited the 'Amazing' Cave and then kayaked around some other smaller caves on neighbouring islands. The first night was spent on the boat, mainly socialising but with a bit of Squid fishing thrown in just for funsies. The next day was also action packed. We visit Monkey Island and took a mountain bike ride through Cat Ba national park, visiting a small rural village and a Viet Cong cave along the way, and we also stopped on a secluded white sandy beach to have lunch. All meals were included in the trip, and the variety of food was amazing.

That evening we arrived at Cat Ba Island, where we had some time to explore ourselves, and also get cleaned up at the hotel where we were due to spend the night. After dinner we went with our guide to a local bar for some crazy dancing and general silliness. Unfortunately the night was cut a little short as Cat Ba Island has a curfew of 12 o'clock.

Considering we paid about £50 for the three day trip, which included the cost of the guide, activities, junk boat, 3 star hotel and 3 meals a day, we were all really impressed with the quality we received.

On our return to Hanoi we spent a day or two chilling and organising our 'open tour' bus ticket, which would take us right along the coast of Vietnam, down to Ho Chi Minh City. We had to wait a couple of days, as the price of the tickets were double due to Tet – the Vietnamese New Year. When we did eventually buy it dropped right back down to £30, which considering the distance covered is again great value for money!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 00:14 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Touch down in Hanoi, the bustling capital of Vietnam

Motorbikes, motorbikes and more motorbikes!

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We stayed at the best hostel I've ever visited during our time in Hanoi. 'The Drift Backpackers Hostel' was packed full of friendly travellers, the staff were really helpful and the dorms were kept immaculate. Not to mention they also offer a pool room, a large open plan movie/chill out room and a small American diner style café as well!

Among 'The Drifts' many perks was the opportunity for free bicycle rental. The bikes were pretty terrible, but it did allow us to explore much more of Hanoi. One of the strangest experiences for me was when we went to visit the morseleum of Ho Chi Minh – the deceased president of Vietnam, and someone who is greatly respected throughout Vietnam. When we passed away they even decided to rename Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City in his honor. The morseleum is open to the public 3 days of the week, which means that you can actually see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh. It was eerie, yet strangely exciting to be able to see the face of the man that was such an influential figure in Vietnam's history.

Whilst in Hanoi we also visited Hanoi Prison. Don't panic, I didn't get in trouble, it's now a museum dedicated to the part it played during the American war. The prison was a very interesting place to visit. That was my first time visiting any kind of prison (fortunately) and I really got a feel for how the prisoners suffered, particularly when I tried out being locked in solitary confinement!

Some of the other highlights of our time in Hanoi included visiting a couple of parks, which were filled with badminton, hackie sacks and many many wedding couples having their photo's taken. We also caught a small circus performance held in the street while we made our way to get some dinner. … lake looked very impressive lit up at night, and we were lucky enough to even catch a glimpse of the elusive giant turtle that lives in it's murky waters.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 00:09 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Free Tai Chi Class (and another Big Buddha)

A powerful symbol of peace overlooking a tiny town

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I got up really early and rushed down to the 'Avenue of Stars' to try out a free Tai Chi class, offered by the Hong Kong Tourist board.

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I was a little nervous, but also excited. I'd always wanted to give Tai Chi a go, and learning first hand from a master, in a stunning location seemed too good to be true! It turned out that our session was to be filmed, probably to be used as material for advertisements by the Hong Kong Tourist Board, so there was a film crew and some presenters buzzing around while we started. I really enjoyed the class from start to finish. The teacher was excellent - great fun and very motivational.

After a quick shower Steph and I headed for the Giant Buddha and a trek known as 'Wisdom Path'. When we first arrived the view of the Buddha was obscured by the low lying mist, but as the day went on we got a better view. It was an unforgettable image, and actually quite comforting. This huge symbol of peace and well-being watching over you from above.

After a brief stop at the 'legendary' vegetarian restaurant at the Buddha's base we headed for a trek around 'Wisdom Path'. After a nice long walk/climb out in the countryside we decided to head back home, as the mist was unfortunately spoiling our view.

To kill a bit of time before the 'Symphony of Lights' show, we headed over the the Hong Kong Science Museum. Lady luck must have been shining on us, because as it happened Thursdays were free! We spent a couple of hours there learning about science and messing around like little kids.

We got back to the 'Avenue of Stars' just in time to catch the 'Symphony of Lights' show which was made up of a laser/light show set to music, and projected onto (and above) the many modern and unique high-rise buildings that make up Hong Kong Islands skyline.

Ant Knee

Posted by howlett 22:30 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Hong Kong – A Westerners Home Away from Home

Lot's of lights, tiny hostel rooms, western food and beautiful parks

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I enjoyed our short stay in Hong Kong very much. As expected it was completely (and I can't emphasise that enough) different from it's big brother, China. Very westernised, colourful and above all friendly! Although relatively expensive to sleep and eat there, Hong Kong has a wealth of activities catered directly for visiting tourists.

As we unfortunately were only able to visit for 2 days, we tried to cram in as much as we could! We spent the first day exploring. Our route first took us down the 'Avenue of Stars', which is a shortened version to that found in Hollywood and this one was dedicated to solely stars of the Chinese Film Company. We spent a little while absorbing the fantastic views across to Hong Kong Island and it's high-rise skyline, then we moved on to the metro to try and reach 'The Peak' – which is the summit of Hong Kong Island, and supposedly has a breathtaking view across the river to the rest of Hong Kong.

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On our way to the Tram, which takes travels throughout the day ferrying passengers up and down the incredibly steep hill face, we decided to take a look at Hong Kong Park. I was amazed at how immaculate everything was. Great pride was obviously taken in maintaining this leafy oasis, which is almost drowned by towering sky scrapers. Just walking around the park was fantastic, however the experience was made even more pleasant by it's gigantic 'walk-though' aviary (which was free to enter). We continued on and reached Hong Kong Botanical Gardens – another beautifully natural area, which this time played host to some primate enclosures and a small reptile house.

As we exited the gardens we stopped to decide whether we wanted to brave the every growing queue for the tram, or head somewhere else and tackle it the next morning instead. To our surprise we were greeted by a friendly local who spoke very good English (as many of the people of Hong Kong do). He asked us if we were lost and could he help us find something. After a brief while chatting about the various sights of Hong Kong, picking his brains and finding out how we could get to them we parted ways. My Dad had told me of the Government Building, so as it turned out that we were very close we headed there for a quick peak at it. It was certainly worth a look, and it's importance justified our visit alone.

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After that we decided to head for 'The Peak', so we braved the queue and after a long wait, arrived at the summit. The view was stunning. We explored the massive shopping arcade that dominates The Peak, and decided to have dinner at one of it's many restaurants. I owed Steph a Valentines meal, so it was my treat, and I would say it was worth every penny. We enjoyed the fantastic food (and service) as we watched the night fall in, and Hong Kong's bustling lights begin to eliminate the city.

The perfect end to a wonderful day.

Ant Knee

Posted by howlett 22:18 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Happy New Year! (Chinese style)

This year is the year of the Tiger, a good year

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We took a lovely 30 hour train ride down to the deep south of China, arriving at a large city named Guangzhou. Guangzhou is also known as 'Flower City', and aptly so. It's given the name due to it's wide variety of flowers that blossom all year round.

However, apart from the parks there really wasn't a lot more to do there, so it was unfortunate that we were forced to spend about 5 days there, due to pretty much all of China shutting down to begin there New Year celebrations. We could have easily got a train into Hong Kong earlier than we did (and in time for the New Year) but the problem was with accommodation. After many hours scouring the inter-web for cheap places to stay, to our dismay we found that all of the hostels in Hong Kong were either shut for the holidays or fully booked!

The New Year was still a fantastic experience. The hotel that we stayed at through a huge party on the eve, where all of the staff and their relatives were in a very light-hearted and jovial mood. During the party there was lots of food, the hanging of traditional red pouches containing money, fireworks, and also some team events such as tug-of-war and three legged races.

Feeling adventurous, we awoke the next morning and left the hostel to explore. To our surprise we didn't come across lots of street parades and parties as we had expected. So instead we decided to follow the crowds, and made our way to Yui Xie Park. The park was really beautiful, and meticulously maintained. It was clear to see where the city gets it's name. Again everyone seemed to be in a happy mood, even through there were occasional spots of rain throughout the day. The park was filled with families wandering it's grounds, which reminded me a lot of how many people in the UK spend Boxing Day (walking off the turkey dinner!).

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The park also had a section dedicated to lots of roller-coaster rides, chair-o-planes and haunted houses! Although it was no Alton Towers, it was good to see everyone having a good time.

That evening we decided to head for Purle River, where supposedly a fireworks display was due to take place. We managed to time it perfectly, and arrived just as the first fireworks started to explode. The banks of the river were stacked with spectators as we stood and watched a very impressive display. A personal highlight of mine were the heart shaped explosions in honor of Valentines Day - which I still don't know how they managed achieve!

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We let the crowds clear by taking a stroll down by the river, which looked stunning eliminated with gently changing coloured lights.

Before long we were on our way to the bright lights of Hong Kong...

Ant Knee

Posted by howlett 03:08 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hua Shan Mountain...

...the time for cliff walking was finally here!

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If any of you had a chance to talk to me before I departed on this trip you'll probably remember me banging on about a mountain in Xi'an where you can walk around the edge of a cliff, with nothing but 3 very narrow, broken planks supporting you from the 2000+ metre drop.

This was something I had seen once on a YouTube video. I couldn't quite believe my eyes. Once I'd seen the video I knew it was something I wanted to do before I died. That day had finally come.

It took a 2 hour coach journey to get to the ticket office of the mountain. You have to buy tickets for everything here in China from walking in a park to climbing a mountain. Once we had our entrance tickets we had to take another bus to where the cable cars left from. None of those cars were for us though, oh no. We planned to take a route rather ominously known as 'Soliders Path' up to the north peak. The north peak was the lowest of the 5 peaks (north, east, west, centre and south). From there we planned to climb to the summit of the south peak, which was the highest. After that we planned to head for west peak to catch the sunset, then descend slightly further to book in to one of the over priced hostels on the mountain.

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Soliders Path was certainly an appropriate name for the route we took. It was gruelling, with stack upon stack of seemingly endless, steep and arduous stairs to climb. The views were spectacular however, even with the deep mist decreasing our visibility. It felt almost eerie as we climbed higher and higher.

The route we'd taken was needless to say the toughest of the three routes to north peak. It twisted and turned below the effortless route of the cable car. Some sections were completely vertical, so we had to cling to steel chains as we climbed up. This is no mean feat when your thighs are already burning intensely. The stepper machine in the gym seems like a piece of cake compared to the 2 hours of relentless, unforgiving stone stairs.

Along the way we passed an enormous frozen waterfall. It looked incredible, like it had been placed on pause mid flow. It was stunning scenery like this that spurred us on to reach the viewing platform at north peak.

As we got closer and closer to the first proper stop of our climb the sun gradually started to pierce its way through the clouds and mist. I remember thinking that was someone or something smiling down on us, telling us we were nearly there. A short while later we'd reached the north peak, sweating but at the same time completely exhilarated.

After a brief stop to catch our breath, we trekked on. Our next obsitcle was called 'Blue Dragon Ridge' a long, narrow stretch of rock with laced with steps. After navigating that we reached 'The Golden Gate' - the entrance to the paths that lead to all four of the remaining peaks. With our game faces on we headed straight for the big one – South Peak.

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The steps were relentless. Never-ending. After another couple of hours we reached a fork. One side leading to South Peak, the other to the notorious 'Cliff Walk'. As many of you may recall, I went on and on about a plank walk on a mountain in China – this was it! I couldn't believe we were finally there, about to walk on some shaky planks around a 2,200 metre mountain. I'd seen this in a YouTube video a long time ago, and I remember saying to my brother 'I'm going to do that one day'. Well, the time has finally come. It was incredible! My stomach was churning as we climbed vertically down the cliff face, held on only by a small rope and our fingertips. Next we had to navigate some indents in the rocks, and finally the planks! The view was breathtaking, and the feelings rushing through my body filled me with energy and at the same time tranquillity.

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Both our faces carrying wide smiles, we climbed further, still heading for the summit at South Peak. A short while later we reached it. I'm starting to get a taste for mountain climbing. The feeling of being on top of the world is very addictive!

Now our day started to get interesting. We descended a bit to West Peak, where we knew of a hostel to stay at for the night. This hostel turned out to be closed, probably because it was low season. Fortunately for us we had meet a Chinese lady and her boyfriend during our climb to the summit, and even more fortunate – she was an English teacher! She told us she had booked a room lower down at North Peak, and that we should get there pretty quick as it was getting late in the day and the rooms might be booked up. She also told us how much she had paid for a room (which was much more than we had been told) and consequently could not afford. Luckily for us she offered to barter a price for us, so we walked together down to her hostel. After a nervous wait she confirmed that she had negotiated a rate of around £7 for us to stay the night! Grateful already that she had got us a bed, she then offered to buy us dinner! We sat down and although feeling a little guilty, tucked in to some delicious spicy beef noodles. After dinner we learnt how to play Chinese poker, and settled down for the night.

The next morning we climbed to the East Peak to watch the sunrise (which was completely obscured by cloud... boo) and started the long (loooong) trek down to the bottom. Eventually we reached the bottom gates, and started our hunt for the bus back to Xi'an. We were directed by a number of people to a bus, which did go to Xi'an, but some random bus station, not the rail station! Now we had no money and no idea where we were. Not the best situation to find yourself in. We tried several banks to withdraw some money for a cab, but none would accept Visa! Good times. Now we were tired, hungry, dirty, poor and lost. After an hour or two we found a bank that was kind enough to give us some cash. Immediately we grabbed some tasty buns from a nearby stand, and hailed a taxi. Before we could get the car type of taxi, we were approached by a motorbike/wagon taxi. We negotiated a fantastic price, and hopped in, clueless that it would be the wildest ride of our lives!

Heading in to oncoming traffic such as buses and coaches, swerving around cars, darting on to the pavement and multiple near misses with women and children and finally some skidding where the pavement was so drenched in rain. Talk about adrenaline filled! I was buzzing by the time we got back to two feet.

48 hours of my life that I will never forget. What an adventure!

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 20:38 Archived in China Tagged foot Comments (0)

Terracotta Warriors

An awesome sight and an incredible archaeological discovery!

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Visiting the Terracotta Warriors is a must if you ever come to Xi'an. Be prepared though as it is still a 2 hour coach ride from Xi'an Rail Station to get there.

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We set off early in morning and spent a few hours walking around the 4 main buildings which housed the Terracotta Warriors. To our amazement inside each of the buildings were the (still active) archaeological pits where new terracotta statues were still being unearthed! The first room we entered was the main site, and it took my breath away. Rows upon rows of terracotta statues standing to attention in army formation. The majority of them still in very good condition. A phenomenal sight. There were supposedly 6,000 terracotta statues in the first pit alone!

The amazing thing was that the Terracotta Warriors were such a recent discovery. The first pit was discovered in 1974 by some local farmers who were attempting to drill a well. As we wandered into the tourist shop on our way out the farmer who made the discovery was sitting at a table signing copies of the official guide book. Bet he owns a bit more than just crops now!

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As we walked back to the coach park through the reams of stands trying to flog memorabilia we saw a women who was standing outside an empty restaurant stretching some dough and banging it off the table. Steph had read about this in Lonely Planet, hand made noodles! A delicacy of northern China. Steph bartered a fantastic price for a fresh batch, which were absolutely delicious (and quite a generous portion too). By far the best tasting, freshest noodles I have ever eaten. We decided to over pay a little as we left, as they were so tasty and so very cheap. We wanted to show our appreciation as it's not every day you see a fresh noodle dish produced from start to finish right before you very eyes.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:53 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Train Travel in Style!

Soft sleeper train, 11 hours overnight from Beijing to Xi'an

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We left Beijing at around 9:17pm and got to Xi'an at about 8:20am. The best long train journey we've done by far! We had a soft sleeper ticket, which meant we were living in relative luxury for us, even though it was still very cheap in terms of train fare.

A soft sleeper ticket gets you a closed off, semi sound proofed cabin which contains 4 beds, a small table and net curtains across the windows. We shared the room with another Chinese man who spoke no English, so due to the time of our departure we all pretty much bedded down straight away, and got nearly a full 11 hours in the land of nod.

A fantastic journey, and we were now ready to find out what Xi'an had to offer us.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:52 Archived in China Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

The Summer Palace dressed in Winter Snow

Summer Palace, the Olympic Park and a colourful food market to round it all off

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On our way to the Summer Palace we stopped off at a small stand in the street where a lady was selling hot sweet potatoes. They were delicious! Steph had read about them in Lonely Planet and apparently there are quite popular in these parts of China. So simple, but a nice, cheap and tasty snack.

Once we reached the entrance to the Summer Palace the ground was already coated in more snow. The Summer Palace consists of a large park area filled with woodland and dominated by a huge frozen lake. Hidden within the woodland there are lots of Temples, Gateways and Religious halls.

We walked along a well maintained stone path through the woodland, which gradually climbed to a point where there was an opening in the trees and we had a perfect view across the frozen lake. It was stunning. The whole area was made even more magical by the thin covering of freshly laid white powder.

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After a few hours braving the cold we headed back to the metro station (picking up a couple more hot sweet potatoes along the way!) We took a slight detour on the way back to the hostel to visit the Olympic park. It was incredible! What a fantastic structure the 'Birds Nest' stadium was. Such brilliant design, and so original. The whole area was huge. As we walked along the main parade we came across some young Chinese children practising speed skating on roller blades – who knows, maybe we'll see some of them competing at London 2012!

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It was dark by the time we left the metro on our way back to the hostel. We took a different route back and walked down a busy shopping street where I was approached by a young guy who strangely wanted his photo taken with me! I obliged and posed while the rest of his family looked on. I'm not sure if he thought I was someone famous (Beckham, Vin Diesel... Ross Kemp?) but all I knew was I had my hands on my stuff and was closely watching Stephs in case something dodgy was going on.

As we walked we came across a huge 5 storey book shop. Steph had ran out of reading material and wanted to look for a new book to get her teeth into. Fortunately they had a large section dedicated to 'imported' books (which basically meant written in English) so Steph found something that took her interest pretty quickly. If you know me you'd know I'm not a big reader - I think I've only ever finished 2 books in my entire life – so even though there were a couple that caught my eye, I hadn't even come close to finishing the tiny book I brought with me yet: 'A Brief History of the Universe' by Steven Hawking. If you've read it, don't tell me how it ends!

In the road adjacent to our hostel we found a brilliant food market that sold everything from scorpions to water beetles. There were also a lot of less disgusting foods such as beef noodles, chicken kebabs and fried ice cream! We, and in particular Steph, were getting pretty good at bartering now, so we managed to both get well fed for less than £5.

Ant knee

Posted by howlett 08:46 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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