A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Returning to Thailand - Koh Samui & Koh Phangan

sunny 32 °C

Ironically, this blog entry has been more hassle to write than any previous one. It’s ironic because I’ve had far more time on my hands for a change. I suppose it’s because I’ve gone into complete relaxation mode. The plan was always to chill out for the last two weeks in the South Eastern part of Thailand on the islands. I have to say, it feels great doing very little these days!

I arrived into Koh Samui on the 15th. Carly was spending more time in Luang Prabang so I had two days on my own. The journey was quite tiring – my first flight was delayed by an hour leaving me little room for my connecting flight. Like a scene from Home Alone, I ran the whole way through Bangkok’s airport to make it on time. Thinking I had just made it, it turned out that my 2nd flight had also been delayed – initially by 20 minutes which ended up being 90. Still, they had a special waiting area for Thai Airways customers which felt like a 1st class flight style luxury. Everyone flying with the airline were entitled to it so I was able to kill time eating some of their free food on offer and on the internet in a posh lounge. Arriving into the Samui airport it felt a bit strange – there was a big difference between somewhere like Laos and a Budget travel packaged holiday style resort. I wasn’t sure what to think. The mini-van journey to my hotel only confirmed this feeling. Looking around I saw McDonalds, Subway, Pizza Hut and endless amounts of bars and restaurants. I was in Thailand but it felt like one of the Canary Islands. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a 1 week packaged holiday for a week every year or two but I have done these to the death and you don’t exactly fly to Asia for this type of experience. The commercialization of Thailand’s largest island is very evident to see. Still, I had expected this in advance so rather than moan about it I decided to enjoy it and just chill out for the 4 days in Samui.

The first three days were spent by the beach reading my book, also called ‘The Beach’. I love this movie and it felt appropriate to read the book as it takes place just off Koh Phangan. I’ve been quite engrossed in it actually. For the first time in six weeks there were no early starts, demanding self-inflicted sightseeing schedules or endless bus journeys. I was loving it. By the fourth day I felt a little guilty for doing so little so I hired out a scooter for the day and travelled around the island. I had a great day and got to see a temple, a waterfall and their main attraction on the North end of the island, the Big Buddha. It’s bloody huge! Randomly they also had an Alien Vs. Predator store right beside it. Very strange..

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My last night in Samui was spent with Carly – we had a lovely meal in a local Irish pub and chilled out by the beach with a cocktail and cards. The next morning it was onto Koh Phangan. Our main reason for flying straight down to the islands rather than travelling by bus was to make the Full Moon party in time. Of course, it was just as nice avoiding a 3-4 day bus journey with a couple of overnighters thrown in for good measure. The Full Moon party is notorious in Thailand and we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. That night we ventured down to the South part of the Island at Haad Rin where it was taking place. After dinner I got myself painted (as you do) and met up with Chen and Roni, the two Israeli girls we had met in Mui Ne in Vietnam about four weeks earlier.

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We spent the evening with them, their mates and Roni’s boyfriend Aras. Describing the party only one word comes to mind – mental! The event takes place on a beach and with at least 5,000 people there it was quite surreal looking up and down at the endless crowds. It was very easy to lose one another so we had to stay close at all times. Most people were painted and some were completely covered. Vodka and Redbull in a bucket is the main drink on offer. It’s quite cheap too but I was apprehensive of getting too drunk. I had heard reports of people being robbed and others getting so wasted they would have no choice but to collapse on the beach and hope for the best. Carly and I didn’t want either of these to happen so we got a bit tipsy and enjoyed the night for what it was. Each area blasts out different kinds of music so you end up walking up and down the beach, stopping at various sections to dance when there is good music on offer. Other attractions include a waterslide which I was tempted to try out but didn’t want to risk further injury. My ribs from the swing on Vang Vieng are still causing discomfort so I thought it would be best to avoid the risk. Having started drinking at midnight, it was easy to keep going well into the night and we managed to stay for sunrise and daylight. It wasn’t a pretty picture! Plenty of people were sprawled across the beach unconscious and the whole place was littered with buckets and rubbish. I wouldn’t fancy being on the cleaning committee put it that way. By 8am we were ready for bed. We had a lot of fun and made it back in one piece with nothing stolen, damaged or lost – job done!

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Away from the Haad Rin area (where parties on a smaller scale take place every night), Koh Phangan is quite a beautiful environment. It’s much smaller than Samui and I’ve yet to see any international franchises. We’ve been staying at Haad Yao on the North Western part of the island which is very quiet and peaceful. Our hotel is beautiful. Surrounded by trees and plants, our bedroom is a log cabin style hut complete with a toilet that is partially outdoors (the shower section where there is a bath has no roof which is cool). Despite being man made the hotel feels very natural and the pool is a great place to hang out during the day. A five minute walk brings you down to the beach which is both warm and colourful.

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Similar to Samui, we’ve enjoyed doing very little. The weather is very hot on both islands which is in itself quite tiring. On the 21st we took a taxi into the main town area. We had a walk around, had a good meal and I bought a few more books to keep me entertained. Yesterday I rented out a scooter and travelled around the West part of the Island. Once again I got to see a few more waterfalls and temples. I also stopped off at Mae Haad beach – this leads to the Koh Ma island where you literally walk across a small section of the ocean to get to it. The water only goes up to your waist but I was a bit worried with my backpack on and camera inside – thankfully it didn’t get wet. Once on Koh Ma I explored around and got into the ocean for some snorkelling. The reef isn’t all that great but I can never say no to swimming around observing fish, especially when it’s free. As in Samui, the highlight of taking a scooter out is the thrill of riding one. Driving at 40KM per hour on quiet roads through picturesque scenery has never felt so thrilling. It’s simple things like this that can sometimes be hard to remember but remind me why I'm doing all of this. Another example being last night – I got into the pool after dark and lay down on an inflatable bed for almost an hour, staring up at the stars admiring their beauty.

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Today is our last on Koh Phangan. It’ll be sad to leave but after five nights here it is time to move on. Our final joint stop is Koh Tao for a few days. After that, a couple of nights in Bangkok await where I’ll get to meet up with some friends from Ireland before my flight to Sydney. Seven weeks into our Asian adventure only one remains – the time has flown.

Posted by mattld 00:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Into Laos - Vientiane, Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

sunny 26 °C

I was relieved in some ways to be leaving Vietnam. It had been a long three weeks in one country and I was looking forward to experiencing a new one. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time greatly and have no regrets. Although Ho Chi Minh is a city I have no desire to return to, other stops such as Mui Ne, Hoi An and Halong Bay made it all worthwhile. I arrived into Laos via Vientiane and was immediately impressed. The staff were friendly, spoke good English and the airport was far more developed than what I was expecting. We checked through and got a Tuk Tuk. Ahh the Tuk Tuk – there are none in Vietnam (I’m assuming they’re banned). I must admit I missed them a little bit. To add to the thrill, the Tuk Tuks here are a different variety to the ones you see in Thailand and Cambodia. The carriage where you sit in is much larger and you sit directly opposite one another as opposed to next to each another. I read in the guide that this is because some Tuk Tuks will take additional passengers if going on a similar route. In fact you could see many of them transporting up to ten passengers at a time for trips/excursions etc.

Once again I’m typing this entry from the airport as I wait to fly back into Thailand for the final leg of my Asian trip. The last five days have been brilliant but hectic. I had originally planned at least six nights if not more in Laos but in order to save some money of flights I had to cut it short. Before I go any further, here’s a little breakdown of information on Laos…

• 1 Euro = Approximately 10,000 KIP
• Sabai Dee = Hello
• The capital is Vientiane
• Geographically, the country is the same size as England but only has a population of six million
• Just under 20% of Laos is completely covered by forests/natural habitat
• Little is known internationally about the country in comparison to its South East Asian neighbours – however they are quickly developing a strong reputation for eco-tourism activities e.g. kayaking, caving, hiking, tubing etc.
• Laos citizens are well regarded for being laid back and relaxed – they are more focussed on family, friends and enjoying life than making money
• Laos is one of the safest countries in the world
• Laos is one of the top 20 poorest countries in the world – however having visited it I am surprised, at least from a visual point of view

One of the first things I noticed in Laos is the difference in temperature. The past two weeks have pretty much been mild at best so it was nice to experience some heat and humidity again. We arrived into Vientiane and unlike before, we hadn’t booked a hotel in advance. It took a little bit of time wandering up the streets to find a place that had room but it wasn’t too long before we were able to check into a hotel. It was ok, nothing special but it did the job. I had been unable to upload any photos to Facebook due to a silly censorship rule enforced in Vietnam so I took the afternoon to post just under 200 photographs online. I quickly remembered the reason why I like to do it as I go along as it took so bloody long! That evening I took a wander around the town and had dinner. I met up with Carly after and we went through our itineraries for Laos. We were both loving Laos but wanted to do it a slightly different way. Therefore we agreed to split up for a couple of days in between so I could visit Vang Vieng and she could spend more time in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I had only one night in Vientiane so it was an early start on Friday in order to do as much sightseeing as I could before my afternoon bus. Carly and I visited a number of temples. My favourite one was Wat Sisaket. Another good stop was Patouxai which is their version of the Arc De Triumph in Paris. The ceilings inside are nicely decorated and we were able to climb to the very top to take photographs of the view.

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A few hours later I was on my way to Vang Vieng. It was a bit strange travelling alone for the first time in Asia but it wasn’t long before I met another traveller from Australia who was on the same way up as me. Through some sort of fluke, I got lucky with the transport as we were driven up in a very modern mini-van with leather seats and plenty of room to sit back and relax. The roads were quite bumpy as expected but I managed to sleep for a small part of the journey.

I had heard some mixed reports about Vang Vieng in Veitnam. Most people visit it to go tubing (whilst drinking) – this is well renowned amongst travellers in South Asia. I was expecting some sort of Ibiza style party atmosphere on arrival so I was pleasantly surprised to see it was a very a laid back beach-town style resort (but there’s no beach nearby, only the river). It reminds me of Byron Bay in Australia but in an Asian/Laos style. There are no clubs – mainly just restaurants and small bars. Most show Family Guy and Friends on a constant loop which I found amusing. I checked into my hotel and Matt (the Australian traveller) invited me out for drinks with his three friends that he was meeting later. A good fun evening chilling out with a few drinks was had.

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The next morning I was up and ready to tubing. I met with the guys from the previous night at about 1pm, had some lunch and off we went. For those of you don’t know what tubing is about, it essentially involves riding a large rubber tube down a very long and wide river over a morning/afternoon (or both) and stopping off at various bars on the way. The staff throw a tyre into the water to help drag you in and free shots are offered with almost any drink. Some stops have water slides and swings and most pump out dance/chart music. Karaoke is offered at others and as it starts to get dark many will light camp fires so people can keep warm.

I was a little bit apprehensive beforehand but I must say I probably had the most fun afternoon in a long time. Each bar had only 15-20 people at it so they were never too packed. It was hilarious to see that 90% of people appeared to be English! As with any event involving drink, there were gobshites about but most were in the same boat as me i.e. just out to have a fun day, take a break from all the temples/sightseeing and enjoy the experience of it. It reminded me of a college freshers week event, only the majority tended to be in the 25-30 age category. At the first stop I decided to have a go on one of the swings. There were two attached, one that you could swing back and forth before slowing down and dropping into the river. The other just went straight down. For some reason, I went with the latter and without thinking accidentally fell on my stomach. It was quite painful! In fact, even today it hurts a little. I think I may have bruised ribs so I’m going to give it a couple of days before I decide whether to go to a doctor or not. Dropping 30 feet down on a cable into water isn’t something I get to do every day so it was hard to resist. Next time I’ll get the swinging one and make sure I hit the water with my feet first! Despite the initial pain I was on a great buzz and after a few drinks the pain numbed.

The whole tubing experience is like being in a giant water park for adults. It’s just such a bizarre idea but strangely works. I must note that 1-2 people die from it each year but most cases have involved travellers tubing after dark and being absolutely hammered to the point where they can’t swim if they fall in. Therefore if you’re going to do it stay with a group at all times, don’t get too drunk and get out when it gets dark. You could see a lot of people just enjoying floating down the river without stopping for drinks and older travellers in canoes and kayaks. The current in the river is quite weak and a couple of places are shallow to the point where you have to get out of your tube and walk for a little bit before you can get back in. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to risk bringing the camera with me (most people don’t) therefore I have no photographs from the day. However I Googled a couple of images from the same river online which you can see below.

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That evening, I got back to my hotel and somehow managed to shower and change myself while drunk. I met the gang at a local Indian restaurant, ate and retired to a quiet bar to watch episodes of Family Guy. By 10pm I was fit for bed and it wasn’t long after that I was fast asleep. The next morning I had to take a six hour bus up to Luang Prabang. I was sad leaving Vang Vieng. If I had the time, I would have spent two additional days here – one to do caving/kayaking and another to go tubing just one more time! It really was that fun.

The bus ride to Luang Prabang was absolutely awful. In fact it was the worst one I’ve had since leaving Ireland last September. I had booked a ‘VIP’ bus but there was nothing VIP about this. There were about 50 of us on the bus and no air conditioning at all. It was a sauna! To add to this, the roads were covered in potholes. I’ve never experienced so many bumps in the space of six hours. Finally, with my ribs still sore from the day before, every bump was painful. Luckily, there were a nice couple from England sat next to me and they gave me some painkillers. One positive point about the journey was that it went through some stunning mountainous scenery. If you could ignore the fact that one dodgy swerve could result in instant death, it was quite enjoyable to take in the view. We also had two stopovers beside some villages where you could observe the locals.

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I arrived at my hotel at about 6pm. The English couple from the bus (Andy and Helen) were also staying in the same place as me so that evening we went for dinner and a wander around the night market. I got myself a nice souvenir and headed back. Carly had arrived by this stage and was understandably exhausted. She had the same bus journey as me but having come directly from Vientiane it was twelve hours long! Poor Carly. We got to bed and met up at 8am the next day to head on a one day tour.

This tour brought us out to the Pak Ou caves in the morning. To be honest, it’s overhyped. The cave itself isn’t that deep and the most interesting part for me were the dozens of religious ornaments that were placed inside. The journey to the caves was via boat on the Mekhong river – my main sightseeing regret was not doing a one day river trip on the Mekhong back in Vietnam so this was a plus.

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That afternoon we visited the Kuangsi Waterfall (which randomly included a bear sanctuary). This was spectacular – as I’ve said before, pictures just don’t do some of these sights justice but you can get a good idea from the snaps below.

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That evening Carly and I met up with Andy and Helen. We went for dinner, played some cards and like most evenings I’ve had in Asia, it was another early night! The last six weeks have been spent mostly sightseeing and travelling. However that will soon change as my last two weeks will be more relaxed with less moving around. Hopefully, I’ll get to party a little bit more too. I wish I had more time in Laos. I’ve loved it here. The country has so many beautiful parts and for me the people really made it. Locals just can’t be bothered running after you to sell you something or screw you over financially. Over the past five days I’ve been offered a Tuk Tuk twice. Don’t forget, in Cambodia I was offered a Tuk Tuk 28 times and that was over a space of ten minutes! The Tuk Tuk driver wished me the very best of luck dropping me off today (this has never happened before) and within ten minutes of entering the airport a tourism official asked me to fill in a feedback form on what I thought of Laos. You can clearly see that they are going out of their way to improve the experience foreigners are having here. This country is completely underrated. People don’t talk about it enough. In terms of South East Asia, it’s at the top of my list of countries that I want to re-visit for a longer period.

I arrive into Koh Samui at 4pm today. Carly will be meeting me there on Thursday as she has two extra nights in Luang Prabang. I’ll have a few nights at Samui before crossing over to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon party on Saturday.

Posted by mattld 05:46 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Hanoi & Halong Bay

overcast 20 °C

It’s 7am and I’m sitting here in Hanoi airport waiting for our flight into Laos. I had meant to write and upload this entry last night but was absolutely brain dead when I got back from our trip. The last two days have probably been the highlight of my Asian experience so far. Our first day in Hanoi was relaxing enough. We visited several tour operators in order to get the best deal for Halong Bay and then spent the rest of the day chilling out in the hotel. It was a much needed break and rest after the hectic few days before it. Up until two days ago it was still very much New Years Eve (or ‘Tet’) mode in Vietnam – most shops are shut and it can even be a bit tricky to locate a restaurant. However the roads are far quieter and it makes for a nice change.

Sunday was spent sightseeing. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex which is described as he ‘holiest of holies for many Vietnamese’. This was obvious when we arrived – it couldn’t have been any busier. Mind you the time of the year and day of the week didn’t help. Ho Chi Minh has a city named after him so it’s fair to say he is pretty well remembered from the time when he led the country in the mid 20th century. The main event is getting to see Ho Chi’s embalmed corpse in the building pictured below. It was very strange walking through in complete silence with guards standing by his body. Still, it was hard to tell whether it was a wax model or not – our guidebook said that sceptics believe Madame Tussaud’s have the contract!

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Another highlight was the Temple of Literature. You get to see 12th century Vietnamese architecture through five different courtyards. This was absolutely packed with locals given the time of the year. One interesting part for me was seeing the Vietnamese pray to the various statues inside donating money. Another was watching them write invisible words or wishes/prayers on a block of wood using their finger. Of course, you had to pay more money in order to be allowed to do this…

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The main focal point for Hanoi appeared to be a rather large lake. It’s quite beautiful and there were at least four sets of couples having photographs taken for their wedding. There were plenty of decorations up too so I took time for some ‘arty pictures’.

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That night we headed to a Water Puppet Show. We had heard about this in advance and normally it’s very difficult to get tickets – we were quite lucky in the end to get two. I wasn’t expecting too much but it really was entertaining. It starts off with a small band playing traditional Vietnamese music and then you have segments with puppets appearing on the water performing various actions. There was no speaking, just live music throughout and occasionally some singing. Some parts were quite funny too. If you are in Hanoi make sure you go see it.

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Monday morning and we were up bright and early to be collected for our two day trip to Halong Bay. I had been looking forward to this since we left Ho Chi Minh City, our first stop in Vietnam. We spent three hours getting to the harbour by bus before being brought on board our boat. We had our own private twin room which made for a nice change from my sleeping conditions on the Whitsunday Islands trip in Australia last year. A couple of hours later we arrived in Halong Bay. That day Carly got chatted up by an older Asian man who insisted on donating his hat to her. We got a couple of pictures before Carly left it behind on the boat. She rightly described the sight of one of us wearing it as a ‘Westerner with far too much money’.

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To say this place is stunning is an understatement. The bay itself is home to more than 3,000 mini islands – all of which are unique. Our first activity was visiting one of its more well known caves. Some of the rock formations are pretty impressive although there were one or two dubious shapes…

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After our cave trip we returned to the boat and went kayaking around the area. It was only when you got up close to some of the vegetation-covered islands that you could truly appreciate what you were seeing. Words and photos just can’t do it justice. It would easily fit in with one of the seven natural wonders of the world and I believe they are bidding to get it included.

That night we had dinner and hung out with a couple of girls from Israel (for a second time, there’s plenty of them out here!). The crowd on our boat were mostly 40+ so unfortunately it wasn’t exactly party central. Although it was a sober evening, karaoke followed and as usual I couldn’t resist a song or two. I definitely sound better when I’m drunk!

The next day we had breakfast and checked out from the boat. That night we would be staying on one of the islands. Before that we went on a 10-12km cycle on Cat Ba island including a mini-trek through the national park in between. The sights and views were very picturesque. One other ‘interesting’ thing we were shown by our guide was a plastic jar which contained whiskey, a dead bird and a dead snake! It wasn’t pretty. We were told it gives you good health, strength and a longer life. I think I’ll pass.

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Later that day we arrived on our island which was tiny (but cosy). With just a handful of bungalows there was just enough room for the 11 of us that were staying over plus a couple of staff. The bungalows we were given were really nice even if the bed was as hard as a rock and the shower leaved a lot to be desired! We essentially had free time for the day so Carly and I went out for some further kayaking and exploration. That evening we ate and hung out with three sound lads from England. We had a few drinks and played some cards. Yesterday was a long day and we didn’t get back until after 4pm. I would really recommend this trip – we spent 85 dollars which included all transport, accommodation for two nights, all food and tour activities. You could easily pay five times more than that just for one night on a similar island if it was located in the Maldives or somewhere in that region.

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We’re about to board our flight in an hour. The bus route into Laos was considered but after some further research, the flight is our best option for sure. The bus takes anywhere from 24 to 36 hours and has been described online by one person as the ‘trip from hell’. Bear in mind you have to cross the Vietnam/Laos border which is apparently the worst one. We’ve had enough bus journeys to last us a lifetime so I think missing out on this one will be just fine. At this point it’s looking like six nights in Laos before heading back into Thailand for my final two weeks in Asia. I’m curious to see what Laos is all about as I’ve heard so many mixed reports. It’s meant to be one of the most laid back countries in the world. I was informed by the guidebook not to be upset if we’re on a bus journey with an ‘old man coughing frantically into a bag, caged chickens squawking from the back and an obligatory breakdown just for fun’. I think I’m going to need a lot of patience…

Posted by mattld 20:39 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Chúc Mừng Nǎm Mới! Hoi An & Hue

overcast 20 °C

Carly and I were well happy to be leaving Nha Trang – we enjoyed our visit here but definitely overstayed by a night. Three would have been plenty, and possibly even two. Part of the problem here was the weather – while it was great to chill out it was very windy. We’ve quickly discovered that the temperature starts to drop fast as you work your way up the coast – at this stage I’m wearing trousers during the day and jumpers at night. As detailed in my previous post, we spent the final day killing time. By 5pm we were all ready for the bus to pick us up. Only it didn’t exactly go according to plan.

The lady who we had booked with the previous day arrived in to see us on her motorbike. I knew it was bad news straight away. Due to some sort of a ‘traffic accident’ and ‘road blockage’ our bus was unable to depart that evening and we would have to wait until the following day to leave. Feck! Apparently it was affecting all bus companies and our only option would be to stay a fifth night and take a 6am bus out the next morning. To be fair to the woman, she did make the effort to drive down and give us a full refund.

We quickly got on the internet and started researching last minute flights and train options in order to get to Hoi An as soon as possible. We had spent enough time chilling out and just wanted to get a move on again. Unfortunately neither of these options were possible. A couple of minutes later we went over to the reception desk to enquire about another bus. A few phone calls later he had us booked on a 10pm bus out of the city. Happy days! It seemed what we had heard earlier wasn’t exactly true. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say it must have been lost in translation.

After another four hours of killing time we headed to the bus depot. Finally we would be leaving. It was a little worrying to see that there were no other Western passengers – I must admit I always feel a bit more comfortable when there are. A couple of minutes later we were told to get on a mini bus – only it was just the two of us. What was going on? Our bags were put in the back and I must admit I leapt over the seat in the van at one point to ensure they were still there. I guess that story of Carly’s friend having her baggage stolen in South America still haunts me! A few more minutes passed and fifteen odd European passengers started to get into the van with us – I was quite relieved to hear a few Dutch accents!

It’s important to state at this point that we had booked an overnight ‘sleeper’ bus in advance. It was going to give us a lot more room than a normal bus and with a comfortable place to lie back and sleep on. Off we went in the mini-van crammed like sardines. I had just enough space to breathe and move one of my arms. There were four of us on our row. We had just presumed we would be a few minutes before we’d be transferred onto the bigger bus. Surely? Only this didn’t happen. About ten minutes later a mini-television was switched on at the front of the van. Why were they switching this on if we were going to be transferring? Were we going to be stuck on this van for at least twelve hours, possibly more? I also need to add that the programme that was turned on for our entertainment was one of the most annoying things ever. It was some bizarre Asian singing/comedy show. To say it was out of tune was an understatement. It was no Top of the Pops. I’ve never seen Carly reach for her iPod as quick in her life. I endured the show a little longer but followed suit along with anyone else on the bus that had one.

Thirty minutes in and it was starting to get really uncomfortable. Soon afterwards the bus pulled over in the middle of nowhere and the driver hopped out. Thank god, surely they must be transferring us now and the other bus must be around the corner. It turned out the driver was going for a slash. It was then I started to ask what was going on. ‘2 hours!’ I was told. Hmmm ok, we’ve no choice but to go with it. The two hours passed and we got into a small village. It was pitch black outside at this stage and the van started to do a number of u-turns. What was he looking for? A little bit later we pulled up at a closed petrol station. It started to rain as we got out. Nice. We all stood under the station shelter as the driver wandered off to the restaurant next door. Can somebody please explain what is going on?

A bit more time passed and we were encouraged to go into the restaurant. There was no way I was going to sit down and be sold a load of food I didn’t want so we stayed put. More time passed and eventually a small bus pulled up – it was the Vietnamese passengers who we had been waiting with originally at the bus depot. It was starting to make more sense now. Maybe we were all going to be transferred together? The locals quickly moved into the outdoor restaurant, sat down and ordered food. It would seem we would be here for a while. Once again the driver tried to usher us in. This time we agreed. During the next hour, we sat down and basically stared the driver out of it while he drank endless bowls of soup and chain smoked his way through at least ten cigarettes. He was having a great time with the owners and his pals. There were two Australian girls and a Dutch guy there who we were able to have a bit of a laugh with – at the situation that is. You just can’t take these things too seriously. You must go with the flow. One evil highlight for me was Carly having to go to the loo. The only option was a squatting toilet around by the garage. I had a childish giggle to myself while I waited outside. As a guy, I was able to sneak around the back and go in the dark.

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After a bit more waiting around (have I stressed this part enough?), a mega bus finally arrived. We’re saved! It started to lash rain and we couldn’t get on quick enough. A race to clamber on endured – myself and Carly ended up getting separated as I had to go around to the other side to get my bag on. By the time I was on the stairs of the bus I was instructed to take my shoes off and put them into a plastic bag. No problem. It was at this point I heard a lot of people shouting and getting a bit rowdy. What was going on? It turned out they were shouting at Carly as she was being forced to climb up a set of make-shift stairs into her ‘bed’. She was blocking the way for the other passengers and they weren’t impressed! ‘Carly!! What the hell?’ I shouted. It was in fact very funny. I got my first look at the inside of the bus – there’s a picture below but it does no justice. It was three rows of ‘beds’ with two levels. You climbed into this coffin and there you would stay for the remainder of the journey. It was a bit like being stuck in a mini prison cell. It had as much space as the 1970s submarine equivalent I had visited in Darling Harbour last year. It was hilarious. The Vietnamese fella next to me must have been well used to it – he quickly stuck on his mask (as you do in Asia) and conked out asleep immediately. Well for some.

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Me and Carly had a bit more of a laugh as we shouted across to each other. She was not so lucky with her seat as she one in the middle, right underneath the air conditioning unit. We both had bags with us but had nowhere to put them. They tried to take mine off me but I was like ‘as if!’. Instead I had to put it between my legs and try to make myself comfortable. After listening to a few songs I took my sleeping tablets (lost without) and knocked myself out. I woke up once or twice but was drowsy. When I woke up properly we had more or less arrived at our destination. There was one final toilet stop beforehand where I ventured out into a mucky field which turned out to be someone’s garden – I felt a bit guilty looking at the house but that’s where the bus had stopped so there was no choice. It was amusing to see a Vietnamese lady and her husband desperately try to find a private place for her to go. There were barely any shrubs never mind trees so this wasn’t an option. In retrospect, once we had arrived at our destination and gotten off the bus, it didn’t seem all that bad in the end. Sleep wise, I certainly slept better than I did on one of the standard night buses I had taken in Australia. However I’m sure there are more comfortable sleeper buses in existence than this one!

First impressions of Hoi An were very positive. It’s a sleepy little town – not as quaint as Mui Ne but it certainly had a charm to it. We checked into our hotel fairly quickly. It was a lovely little place called the Sunflower and I would highly recommend it – the staff were extremely friendly and it had the best breakfast on offer so far. After a quick shower we headed out to explore the ‘old town’ area. We bought a generic ticket that allowed us access to five heritage sites. This included temples and old style Vietnamese houses with Japanese and Chinese influences. My favourite was the traditional music concert that we were treated to at one of the stops – I got to see some very exotic Asian instruments being played. They also performed and sang Auld Lang Syne in the countdown to the Lunar New Years Eve. That evening we headed back in that direction for dinner and to see the set-up for the party that would be held the following night. There were plenty of decorations all lit up and a concert stage.

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Wednesday arrived and it was also my 28th birthday. This time one year ago I spent that evening drunk in a Japanese karaoke bar in Dublin with friends. Little did I know where I would be the following year! The hotel showed a nice personal touch as I was wished a happy birthday at breakfast by the staff. Shortly after they called to my room with flowers! As a guy I’m not too keen on flowers but I must admit I was very impressed. I also got birthday cards from Carly and Liz (who had given it to Carly in Sydney). That morning we took a half day tour to ‘my son’ (pronounced ‘may son’). We got to see the ruins of a religious centre dating back to the 4th century. To be honest it wasn’t all that impressive after visiting Ankor Wat a couple of weeks earlier. However in its defence it was a lot older.

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On the tour we met two other travellers – a Finnish lad named Eriko who was of a similar age to us and an older English ex-pat who had since relocated to Australia ten years ago when he was thirty. The four of us got talking and later that day we arranged to meet up and celebrate the evening together. We had dinner once again in the old town near the river banks and had a few drinks. I bought Carly a pink helium balloon for a laugh just after dinner – a small highlight later on was when she gave it to a little girl who had been staring at it for quite a while (with my permission of course!). I’ve never seen a child so happy. You can see a picture of her below – she was just adorable and I think we made her evening.

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The New Years celebrations consisted of a number of things – the main event was taking place on the concert stage where various singers performed. One song in particular that will now always remind me of Hoi An is ‘Happy New Year’ by Abba. It was probably one of their least well known songs but by god was it played a lot! Elsewhere some of the locals were taking part in the Vietnamese equivalent of piñata. Instead of tying a cover around your eyes you put on this strange looking doll mask that reminded me of that horror film Valentine. You then walked (blind) towards a little urn. From there you would have to guess the right angle and swing your bat. Children would start banging cymbals together and making more noise as you got closer. They would shout directions at you but naturally it was hard to hear. Yours truly was only happy to have a go but I did miss. It was harder than it looked.

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It was close to twelve and by this stage we were up near the concert stage. A few songs later the hosts came back on stage and the ten second countdown appeared on the screen. For a second or two it almost felt like it was our own New Years Eve again. However there were a few key differences – people did shout out the numbers in an excited fashion but on the stroke of midnight it all went quiet. Nobody hugged one another or shouted etc. There was no Auld Lang Syne and everyone was sober. Thank god I didn’t drink much I would have made a show of myself. It was all quite mundane and strange for me in comparison. However it was interesting to observe their tradition and what followed made up for it – a spectacular twenty minute firework display. It was one of the best I had witnessed in person and a lovely way to end my birthday.

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The next morning it was an early start as we were on a bus to Hue at 8am. We’ve decided since Nha Trang that ‘less is definitely more’ – it’s better to leave a place after a couple of days with very good memories than drag it out and ruin some of the positive feelings associated with it. We were unable to book a proper bus for that day as it was New Years Day and all of the bus companies were shut. The only option was our favourite – the mini van! Once again we were all crammed in for a five hour journey. The most annoying part here were some of the passengers – one English girl, an American guy and an Australian lad in particular were drinking whiskey and were shouting their way through the entire trip. It was too much ‘spring break!’ for me, especially at that hour and with a severe lack of sleep. At one point the girl demanded that the driver pull over so she could go to the toilet and threatened that she would go in her pants if he didn’t do so straight away! Poor Carly was mortified. One positive point about the journey is that it took one hour less than what we were told – the thrill of arriving early I had almost forgotten when it felt like!

Our hotel in Hue was once again another really good one – it’s called the Amigo Hotel and at 15 dollars per room per night it’s fantastic value for money. I would highly recommend it. After we checked in we headed out for a walk around the town to check it out. From what we had read in the guidebook, it was far quieter than normal due to the holiday season and this suited me down to the ground. Most of the shops and businesses were closed. For a change I wasn’t once offered a moto or taxi! Love it. It’s a nice town but nothing spectacular. After a wander around, we had dinner and an early night.

Thursday was again an early start at 6.30am. We had booked the day before to go on a half day tour. The highlight for us and one of the main reasons for visiting Hue are the royal tombs. There were three that we visited – my favourite being the tomb of Minh Mang. They date back to the early 19th century and belonged to the respective emperors at the time. Some of the architecture and scenery surrounding the tombs was just spectacular. We also got to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda (1601) which was well worth seeing. As with most organised tours, there were a few ‘dud stops’. These included having to pay fifty cent into what was effectively someone’s back garden to see a few plants and a visit to observe how incense sticks were made. Basically it was an excuse for a sales pitch! Due to my trip taking four months, I have a policy of not buying any souvenirs unless I practically need a magnifying glass to see them. The other tourists who were on our bus were very friendly. One couple in their early 50s from New Zealand filled me in on lots of useful information and at the end gave me their number and said to call them so they could show me around in Auckland! How nice was that? I’ve heard that New Zealanders are amongst the friendliest in the world and this was a fantastic first impression. I’m really looking forward to my time there in March.

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A special mention from the tour must go to our guide. On the day we had booked, we received a quote of ten dollars from our hotel. We tend to shop around these days after overpaying previously and managed to find a local tour operator offering the same one for five dollars. Half price! How could this company afford to do it so cheaply? Well we were promised an ‘English speaking guide’ and technically, he delivered. Camp as Christmas, I could probably understand about 35% of what he was saying. That’s when I was fully concentrating. Still, he would make a wonderful drag queen miming (poorly) to Whitney Houston songs in Bangkok or Phuket. I’m sure he’d learn the infamous ‘lip quiver’ in no time. He was a nice guy though and did his best to help which is more than I can say for many other tour guides.

That evening, we met up with Aaron, one of the other tourists from our bus that day. He’s from LA and dead sound so we invited him for dinner. At one point during the meal I mentioned how Abba’s Happy New Year had been played loads recently. He innocently asked ‘Is that a 1st world song?’. Those of you that know me will know I’m not the most PC person at times (although it’s all in good humour). Still I was shocked when he said this and Carly who is PC was even more horrified. It was hilarious for me watching her facial reaction and the conversation that followed. Aaron if you’re reading this sorry but it had to be mentioned mate! I did embarrass both of them in the pub shortly after though. I walked up to the table and noticed there were four chairs so without thinking, I quickly removed one and put it at another table where two women were eating their dinner. I didn’t realise the rudeness until Aaron took it back and put it elsewhere. Woops! Bold Matt. We played some cards after and then headed home for yet another early start. Instead of sightseeing, we were up for our first flight. We decided on flying from Hue to Hanoi as the cost was only 60 dollars and it took 1 hour as opposed to 12-15 odd on the bus.

I was a bit weary of flying with Vietnam airlines but I have to say this was completely unfounded. The flight took off on time, the journey was smooth, it was the most amount of space we have had on any public transport in a long time and our baggage came out straight away. Couldn’t believe it! The plane itself was far nicer than anything Ryanair offer and at that price you couldn’t get much better. One funny part though was when we got onto the bus in the airport field in Hoi An to get to the plane. We all packed in and after a few minutes the driver started up the engine. He literally drove forward for five seconds, did a u-turn and then pulled over. What a waste! Surely they should have had some barriers instead? Anyway loving the plane. We’ve just arrived at Hanoi – we have two nights here then we’re off on a two day trip to Halong Bay which is meant to be one of the highlights of South East Asia. I'll also have no mobile or internet access for two days whilst on the island. I can’t wait.

Posted by mattld 02:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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