Not all who wonder are lost, but I sure was

Sunset in Hoi An
 
– A city of tailors
The three of us slept very well during our first night in Hoi an as we were exhausted from the odyssey that we had undergone the day before. When we woke up we had the pleasant surprise of finding two school friends, Adam and Archie, waiting in our homestay lobby. 
This was of course not by accident but a organised meet up, our friends are travelling north so we knew that we would cross paths at some point. Once we had a lovely breakfast we started walking through the town looking for tailors as Hoi An is known for that craft. The town is magical and beautiful, roads lined by green trees go through orange buildings dating back to French administration. The roads are overhung with yellow and orange lanterns hanging from above and communists/Vietnamese flags on the side.
 We walked past many tailors, their walls full of silks and other such materials and also many leather shops in which you can get custom shoes, handbags or coats. We had a look at a few tailors and decided to get ourselves a tailored suit. The hard part was deciding what materials to go for, in the end I went for a light blue with a bright inner lining. After they took many measurements we were told to come back tomorrow to see if they fit. In the evening I decided to go walk to the beach. The road to the beach took me past a beautiful river which was lined by coconut trees on one side and rice paddies on the other. Eventually I made it to the beach and I strolled north for a while looking at a group of islands on the horizon. The walk back took me a ‘bit’ longer as I got lost but I was able to view a stunning sunset over the rice fields and the river. Seeing the traditional fishing boats floating in the orange light next to the rice paddies made the longer walk worth it. In total the little walk to the beach and back took me two hours. 
In hoi an we discovered something we had not yet encountered, the legendary Bahn Mi. The Bahn Mi is a legacy of French influence on Vietnamese culture. It is a baguette filled with meat (mostly beef or chicken) vegetables and many sauces. We quickly grew very fond of these and had them at least once a day. As evidence of french colonial administration gets stronger the further south you go, so do the Bahn Mi shop frequency increases and their products in taste. 
The nights where usually spend in a hotel that offered unlimited drinks for two hours, and at night we saw something we had not seen yet, that being completely empty roads (cities like Bangkok or Hanoi never sleep). One evening we met up with the older brother of one of our mates who was working in Da Nang (something in renewable energy). It was interesting to hear him discuss the pros and cons of working in Vietnam (the latter mainly being the corruption). Also we found several bars that sold beers for 3000 VND which is about 10cent. 
During the days we would often rent bikes and cycle through the town or down to the beach. One day near the end of our stay there I went back to the tailor to pick up the last items I had purchased there and decided to visit the old town. This area was closed to motorised vehicles and full of pedestrians, both locals and a fair amount of tourists. The old town was full of beautiful pale yellow colonial buildings, all of which had paint crumbling of their walls, however that only added to their charm. These buildings also usually had this green plant growing on them with intense purple flowers. In these shops you could find many things, from leather products to colourful spices, from silks and fine cloths to fake Adidas and Nike shirts. As I continued my bike ride trough this part of town I reached the river on which there where many long wooden boats with ladies in rice hats slowly gliding above the sunset dyed calm waters. The river was lined by the colonial style buildings, Chinese lanterns and tall trees. Crossing the river was made possible by a very old bridge which separated the Chinese and Japanese districts. As it was getting darker I decided to head back along the river. I cycled through a market full of fruit I have never seen before and big strange looking fish gazing at me with their big eyes from the piles of ice they where kept on. My way back took a bit longer than it should have as I got lost again which I did not mind however as I was cycling through peaceful rice fields as the sun was setting.
A day after we first went to the tailor we came back to check if our suits needed any readjustments, the ones that needed readjustment where told to come back the next day. After all of us where satisfied we had our suits packed up and put in a parcel for sea shipping (they should arrive in 3 months).
Saying goodbye to Hoi An was hard as our room and home stay had been amazing, and the town was magical. From the windows of the bus we had one last look at Hoi An before heading south on the road to Nha Thrang.

Crossing the Hai Van pass

A picture I took about halfway up the mountain. You can see the roads we were driving on.

The hai van pass also known as the ‘Cloud Pass’ is a natural boundary between north and south Vietnam and even centuries ago was the boundary between ancient kingdoms. The Hai Van pass is also of great strategic importance which can be seen in the remains of French and American defensive positions on it. Finally the Hai van pass is also a climatical border as the weather is dramatically different on either side.
We got our bikes in the morning, three Yamahas that looked alright from the outside, a lot better than what we had feared they would be. So with our day packs and some bribe money in our pocket (incase we should encounter any corrupt policemen) we set of on this adventure. Our first journey was to the petrol station, which took a lot longer than it should as we kept on getting lost. Driving in the streets of Hue was very hectic but also very fun as we would slalom through cars and bikes, drive through markets and avoid potholes. We soon reached the motorway and started cruising towards our destination. The driving became less of a crazy free for all, even though the occasional lorry would still force us on to the hard shoulder. The motorway soon became very empty and we could test how well the bikes went. Jamie’s bike had the odd property or sounding a loud bang every time he let go of the acceleration. I was also overjoyed when I found out that I could whizz past the others on my red Yamaha as by luck of the draw my bike was by far the fastest. The three of us would often drive next to each other when the road was empty, sun in our face and wind in our hair. Soon though dark clouds covered the sun and a rainstorm started pouring down on us drenching me and harry. (Jamie was thoughtful enough to buy a poncho, me and harry only had “waterproof” jackets. (They where not waterproof)). 

Nevertheless we continued riding through the countryside and soon we reached the mountains and spotted a little village in which we looked for a place to eat. We found a place with tables that looked like we could buy some food and asked if they had any pho (standard noodle soup with meat). The people here did not understand a word of what we said apart from pho so we sat down and waited for the food. Cold, wet and hungry we received the pho and started eating. However the bits of meat didn’t taste good and very different to the meat we have had previously. Looking around the restaurant we saw many short haired dogs, the same type we saw on a BBQ in Hanoi and then we realised what kind of pho this was. We were eating dog.
Needless to say we did not have anymore of the meat but hungry and cold as I was I could not resist eating a few more spoonfuls of noodle and broth. Luckily it stopped raining and we paid for the pho (cheapest pho we have ever had) and I bought a poncho from an old lady. We continued our ride on the motorway until the road suddenly split off into two, one of whom lead to the hai van pass the other to the tunnel. (The tunnel build around a decade ago meant that there was almost no traffic on the pass apart from oil trucks that weren’t allowed in the tunnel, occasional tourist busses and other bikes). We continued up the empty road that was winding itself up the jungle covered mountains until we had a beautiful view of a beach below. The beach was walled of by mountains and on it was a huge modern bridge leading to a near by island. Around the bridge where the traditional long wooden fishing boats. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson this is a perfect representation of Vietnam, the mountains and the coast and the traditional meeting the modern. It really was a beautiful sight to see from the empty winding mountain road. We continued to drive up the mountain roads (it had not rained since we left the village and even the sun decided to smile down on us occasionally) when we saw the pass in the distance. Once we reached it we were not alone anymore as there where a few tourists up there and some ladies trying to sell us the usual shenanigans and petrol that came in plastic bottles. We parked our bikes and started climbing the mountain a bit until we reached the defences the French and American had left behind. After climbing on top of one of them we had an amazing view of the coast, the mountains and the winding road we had conquered previously. We could also only imagine the heavy fighting these battle scared defences must have witnessed. 
And so we started on the journey down to Da Nang we could see some beautiful islands with white sandy beaches bellow the mountains. On this road we passed maybe two busses and a few cows, apart front that we had it to ourselves. After driving down this beautiful road we reached Da Nang and drove through the city. We stopped to have some drinks and rested for a while in a road side cafe. As we continued on our way we drove over the beach promenade, a beautiful wide empty road with palm trees on either side and on which we could see the beach. Sadly though the rain started again so we decided not to see the marble mountains and headed towards hoi an. At one left corner I had a bit of an incident which involved my bike slipping and me hitting the curb (bike did not fall down, a lot less dramatic than it sounds) After examining my bike I found the cause of my slip, the bike stand had became loose and was hanging down touching the road, which meant that on sharp left turns it would lift the back wheel into the air. After fixing this problem with a bit of rope I had in my bag we continued on a road that became increasingly un-drivable with potholes the size of small children. 
The rain was very heavy and the sight because increasingly bad which meant that potholes became harder to spot. This lead to us occasionally bouncing into the air, testing the suspension and our skills to keep the bike standing and us from crashing to the extreme. Our road seemed to increasingly lead us in the wrong direction as it because smaller and smaller and further into villages and forests away from our destination. Very tired from a day of riding we hoped that we would arrive soon as the sun was setting.
Finally after 8 hours of driving our bikes, through beautiful rice fields with triangular hats poking out of the lush green and busy cities with traffic worse than any where west of the Ural Mountains, through mountains with stunning views and beaches with waves rolling in, through rain storms and sunshine we arrived at our homestay, our own very nice room with three queen sized beds and our own bathroom. This would turn out to be the nicest place we had stayed at yet (and it cost less than a hostel in a big city).
Linked below is a video of the Top Gear presenters doing the same journey in reverse (Hoi an to Hue). You will se them at first driving along the beach road I describe near the end (we also got tailored suits in Hoi an, just not quite as funky) then around 3 minutes in to the clip you will see them contour the hai van pass.

PS. I forgot to talk about the toilet in the place we had the dog pho. It was a pig stile. And that is not describing the state of the facilities but the fact that there where three big pink pigs running around.

Also I haven’t really talked about the currency here, Vietnamese dong. Apart from a name that has been the source of a lot of immature banter it is also fun to note that we are all millionaires for the first time in our lives. (1$ = 23000). And finding 50000 on the floor sounds a lot more impressive than it is.

The Ancient Capital

Our dragon boat shortly after it dropped us of.
After a gruelling 14 hour sleeper bus journey, on which we were destroyed by bed bugs (the blankets don’t get washed after a journey) and during which we crossed the old border, we arrived in Hue. After leaving the bus we got swarmed by moped drivers aggressively asking us “Hey you, where you go !”, we told them the name of the hotel and that we would walk there as it was just around the corner. The moped drivers and even our bus driver told us it would be a 20 minute walk and that we should take the moped taxi. We declined and walked for about one and a half minutes to our hotel which was, after all, just around the corner. 
We dropped our bags in our rooms had lunch and walked to the perfume river. Our trip for the day was the Citadel. What we did not know was that the perfume river was absolutely enormous and walking to the bridge and across it would take ages. We then saw a few dragon boats on the shore and asked how much it was to be taken to the citadel. The 10 minute journey in our own dragon boat was about 1$ per person. As we jumped of the boat (literally jumped as there was no pier) we could see the walls of the citadel and headed toward them. After passing a variety of cannons and crossing a moat we took a look at the citadel. The landscape around this impressive system of defences was full of old trees with pale yellow flowers and the castle inside had a beautiful roof with dragons coming out of the corners, painted in red and orange. This, to the best of my knowledge, was the seat of the emperors and capital of Vietnam until just after the Second World War.
In the evening I (the other boys where not feeling well) met up with two girls (one of whom I knew from school) who had bought motorbikes in Saigon and are driving them up to Hanoi, which was very impressive considering they had little or no biking experience beforehand. One thing I found interesting about the Hue nightlife was that western travellers went to the same bars and clubs as the locals, something that did not occur in Hanoi. (I recommend the DMZ bar).
After a lovely breakfast in our hotel we gave our big bags away to be send to our next stop and rented bikes to ride over the hai van pass to hoi an.

A Story of Dragons and Plankton

View from our island balcony

A landscape formed by an ancient dragon, hidden lagoons, glowing water and being castaway on an Island.

Our bus to ha long bay arrived just before lunchtime and from the bus (3hours) we hopped on a very small boat which took us to our ferry. We had lovely two man cabins in which we dropped our bags as the ship left the harbour. The ship had three levels, our cabins at the bottom, a restaurant in the middle and a sun deck on top. During lunchtime we got to meet our fellow travellers over a lovely sea food meal. There where about 20 travellers that quickly divided into two groups, those who spoke English (by no means just people from English speaking countries) and the francophone.
As the ship moved further from the mainland giant towers of rock started to appear from the water, each taller and more striking than the next. They would often be several hundred meters high and all where covered in a green cloak of shrubs that managed to cling onto the ragged cliffs. The farther we got into the bay the closer these towers became.

These towers caught the clouds and fog which gave the bay an eerie feeling. The three of us got to experience the bay even closer as the ferry stopped and we got given Kajaks to explore this area. As we paddled towards the towers and got closer to the cliffs we could really visualise the height of these mountains as we were dwarfed in the face of them. We continued to paddle towards what appeared to be a dead end however it turned out that there was a cave we could just about fit through that lead us to a hidden lagoon behind a short tunnel. This lagoon was incredibly beautiful as it was completely surrounded by the cliffs and could only be accessed by Kajaks. During this Kajak expedition we were able to witness a stunning display of nature as two sea hawks where gliding trough the air, one of them even catching a fish out of the water. There where also flying fish that would jump out of the water and then glide for a few meters in the air before gracefully diving in the sea again. As we returned from the boat we spend sometime jumping of the top deck and swimming in the sea before drying and heading to dinner. After dinner we enjoyed the “party” aspect of the cruise in which there was apparently a ‘no own alcohol policy’. As we had not complied with this policy we got told off by the barman on the boat (which was fair enough, he wanted us to buy his drinks). The barman however found me later at night and gave me a tablet of free cocktails (ironically made up of the same ingredients as our self brought drinks) to share with jamie and harry and to apologise for getting angry. (In Vietnam everything runs heavily on reviews, TripAdvisor and other such websites are very important for a business here and I assume he did not want us to write a bad review. Which of course we would not have done anyway because we had a lovely time).
Die 

Waking up in the morning was amazing as I could gaze at the mountains without having to leave my bed as the ship was making its way through the bay. We checked out of our cabins and relaxed on the sun deck for a while playing cards with some Scots. We passed some floating fishing villages, which are very interesting to look at but also somewhat enjoying because although they live in a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most beautiful places in the world they throw all of their trash in the water.

After lunch we left our ferry and went on a slightly smaller boat that only had two levels, a seating area and a sun deck. This boat took us to one of the big rocks rising from the water and we were told we could climb it and jump down if we wanted to. The climb was very tricky as we were only wearing Flipflops and had to use all four at all times. After a bit of climbing we reached a ledge that we could sit on and prepared to jump. 14 meters looks a lot higher when you are standing on a cliff towering over a boat and looking into the deep blue waters below, but as it would have been impossible to climb down we jumped. At that height only a few Belgians joined us, the rest spend their time jumping from the boat. As we got on the boat again and drove away I could see a sign on the other side of the rock we jumped from saying “No Jumping . No climbing”. 

After a a while longer abroad we could see the island that would be our home for the night. It consisted of two mountains about 100m in height and a small gap in the middle that had beaches on both sides. We then got on an even smaller boat and landed on the south beach. In the middle of the island was a big wooden building with a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor and our sleeping quarters on the top. After fashioning a fishing rod out of some tree that was growing there me and harry took a two man Kajak on the south beach out for a paddle. Before we left we were told to keep left as that way we would stay in the sheltered labyrinth of the rocks instead of heading to open sea where the current would take us to china. The water was very shallow and we could see that some years ago someone paced a lot of baskets filled with rocks in the water to stimulate the growth of a reef, and we could see the first pioneers of this new habitat, some plants and sea cucumbers. It would be interesting to see how this microclimate will develop as succession takes place.

On our little journey through the calm waters we were accompanied by the eerie sound of birds that lived in caves in the mountains. On our journey through the waters we passed several untouched beaches and even found a small wreck of a shipping vessel. After about 30-45 minutes of paddling we discovered the north beach, which we were happy about as we thought ourselves lost in the maze of the bay. Once we saw the beach we decided to paddle to it instead of heading for Chinese waters (an idea we flirted with for a bit). Rejoined with jamie we played a few card games before having the brilliant idea that one of us should take a styrofoam mattress and float to the beach on the next island that was a good while away. Jamie decided that he was up for the challenge got on the mattress and headed off. Me and harry ordered some cocktails while enjoying a magnificent sunset over the sea and the mountains, and of course the ever smaller dot in the distance that was Jamie’s head. (Don’t worry, in case he started drifting to china me and harry had a Kajak ready to save him). Reunited for supper we then enjoyed a sort of beach party which was lovely.

Very late that evening we decided to go for a midnight swim in the ocean which was very fun and refreshing when suddenly we noticed something peculiar about the water; it was glowing. All around us there where tiny glowing dots that made it look like we were swimming in a sea of stars. It was a truly spectacular sight and I decided to get my diving goggles to get a better look. When diving deeper and looking up I could see the area around the people swimming above me in a bright mass of intense blue light. The plankton lit up when there was movement so the more we moved the brighter the water got. Swimming in the deep blue water with the light of the plankton under the deep blue sky, with the light of the stars surrounded by the green mountains is something we will surely never forget.
Rather annoyingly the girl that was sleeping in the bunk above mine decided to wake up really early and in doing so woke me up as well. It was around 5 in the morning and I was struggling to go back to sleep so I decided to go for an early morning swim in the sea. Before I jumped in the water I set up my camera to capture the sunrise as it was still completely dark. After a lovely swim I looked up at the hut we were living in an saw Harry leaning over the balcony, I thought that he was enjoying the view, the light glimmering in the sea or the waves rolling in on our beach. This turned out to be wrong when I saw him vomiting eruptively over the balcony down onto the beach below. It turned out to be food poisoning. Maybe a bad oyster, who knows.
After breakfast we take a variety of boats and busses to Hanoi. We staid there till our bus left for Hue.
Ps. I hate cockerels, in Sapa and on the island those bloody chicken would always wake us up really early in the morning.
Also if you are interested look up the stories and myths of the creation of halong bay.

The alps of Tonkin


We arrived early morning in a town called SaPa and were taken to a hotel in which we had showers and left our big bags. The town was build on the side of a mountain and around us we could see many peaks, one of them being over 3000meters above sea level, the last great peak of the Himalayas in the east. Continue reading “The alps of Tonkin”

Kingdom to Communism 

Tortoises being sold in the market

Overview. First day in Vietnam. 24 Hours in Hanoi.
Our arrival in Hanoi went very smoothly apart from that the hostel we planned to stay at did not have any beds left. However we quickly found a hotel in a small alley, which cost a bit more (10€ in total) but we got our own room, proper beds, bedsheets, towels and our own bathroom so it was worth it. The nightlife is a lot tamer than in Bangkok (apart from one situation in a bar where there was a small situation involving some waiters trying to inflate the prices, which we obviously weren’t happy about) and we wanted to make the most of our day in Hanoi so we went to bed fairly early. Continue reading “Kingdom to Communism “

The Anglo-German Indochina Expedition.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to tell the story of my impending journey. For the next three months I shall travel through the farther Indian subcontinent, nowadays know as Southeas Asia with a few friends that I will link up with in Bangkok.

On the ides of march I will be leaving Lower Saxony on a journey that will take me through Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Bangkok with the final flight taking me to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. From there I have neither planned nor booked anything else apart from my return flight leaving Bangkok sometime in June. The rough idea is that we will make our way south, linking up with friends from the United Kingdom along the way. Throughout this journey I hope to be able to share my stories with you and will try to write as much as time and the availability of wifi permits.