Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hanoi and HaLong Bay

Step 4 of the December holidays, north Vietnam. Different from the south in many ways, one of them being that Facebook doesn't work in the North!

After a delayed afternoon flight, we make it to our hotel in Hanoi by dinner time. (the airport is really far away from the city!) lovely location, we are right in the centre, near the cathedral. Going out we notice that lots of people are outside of shops, drinking while seating on really tiny stools, they appear and disappear everywhere (the stools) depending on people affluence!
Just looking for the restaurant, we have already decided that we will like this city, there is a home feeling to it! And I didn't really know what to expect of Hanoi as I had read mixed reviews...
On the 30th of December, we have the entire day to discover the city so we visit a couple of temples, we walk around the lake,

we admire the juxtaposition of French colonial architecture, narrow Asian streets with markets

and communist style for all recent political institution, including Ho Chi Minh memorial. (he died in Hanoi)

It's a very interesting mix, full of history!

In addition to architecture, the French have left a love for bread and large avenues with trees on each side; it's actually very similar to the French quarter in Shanghai!
We have the most wonderful lunch in a tiny alley where we point at everything to order.

On the evening, we decide to participate to the use of the tiny stools and go out for a drink, it is quite an experience: the main drinking spot for locals is a street junction (for expats, hotel bars), at midnight, there's no one left and at the first seeing of a police van, the girls selling dried fish disappear running... (I haven't really figured this last point out)
The day has passed really quickly and the time in Hanoi is over, tomorrow we are leaving for HaLong bay.
It's an early start as there are 4h drive and we are starting our cruise by lunch time. We have booked 2 days and 1 night on a junk, these old style Vietnamese boat cruising the bay.
The journey is not really exciting, we stop for a short break half way in a weird place selling all the touristy things a tourist in Vietnam could ever buy, including giant marble statues...(don't ask...) Arriving at the boat terminal, we meet the million other tourists who are here with us to enjoy this 8th world marvel. But as soon as we board our boat we feel more secluded and the feeling of being one sheep following the other goes away. There are only 15 of us on this boat so it's nice and cosy.
During the 1st few hours, we stay outside on the bridge admiring these big rocks poping out of the water everywhere.

We also make a stop at a gigantic cave which was used by the fishermen as an escape during typhoon. First, here are a couple of views from the platform:

The cave is enormous, it could fit a village which is good news as we meet again the million tourists from the terminal...
Just after sunset we go kayaking in between the rocks, even managing to go through one!

We cross path with a big tanker (no idea what it is doing here) and a big cruise ferry; slightly out of place vessels....
The staff has prepared us a beautiful new year eve dinner (with the best spring rolls I have ever had) and it is outside, on the bridge of the "Jewel of the bay" that we celebrate the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011.
Happy new year!
Being the victims of the 1st of January iPhone bug, we miss sunrise but we are awake to climb one of the rock and get this lovely view of the bay:
Then we spend a good hour on the beach working on producing a decent photo for our christmas/new year card!

After another good lunch, it is time to disembark and say good bye to half of the group, we are heading back to Hanoi for our flight back to Singapore on the 2nd. It is unfortunately time to go back to work.
But this is not the last time you will read posts about Vietnam, we loved it and I'm looking for an occasion to apply for a multiple entry visa!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thaipusam 2011

Yesterday evening, we went to see Hindu people walking the street of Singapore with their friends and family wearing heavy constructions on their shoulders all connected to their back, cheeks, mouth, tongue and chest with needles!!!!
They are apparently doing that to glorify one of their god (once again, check the details on Wikipedia!)
Sensitive people, don't look too closely at the following pictures!

First we watched the procession, then we decided to join the walk to the temple. Suddently I felt very very very white as we were pretty much the only caucasian people in the queue. We were asked to remove our shoes and given yellow plastic bags to store them. these bags were just thrown on the side of the road. For some people finding their shoes must have taken hours...
Half way through the queue, we gave up and let Hindu people enjoy their festival on their own.

Another surprising tradition of Singapore!

Kitesurfing and beach holiday in South Vietnam

3rd leg of the December family holiday. (1st was Angkor, 2nd was Phnom Penh)

First, we fly to Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC or Saigon depending on the feeling of the day. Let's note for the people who might want to visit Vietnam that an application for a visa must be made before going, there are no visa on arrival!
We passed this first test, so we just exchanged our approval letter for the proper sticker on arrival, that was done quicker than we all thought. Second step is the immigration officer. Queuing, I got 2 chances of admiring how to bribe an immigration officer! From behind my yellow line, I kind of understood that the guy in front of me wanted a longer visa and after a few head signs from the officer he got that he needed his wallet to sort this problem out. It took 2 attempts, apparently there wasn't enough money in the first try and that was reflected in the disgusted face the officer pulled on seeing the note. Unfortunately, I can't give any guidance on how much is required, I didn't see the notes...
After immigration, we met our taxi driver who was going to drive us for the next 5h to MuiNe.
I should specify that this journey happened on Christmas day, so we had the most special Christmas lunch with Vietnam airlines: plastic cutlery, main course wrapped in foil and everything! One of a kind... :-) The drive was made of thousands of opportunities to admire nativities, (everyone seems to have a huge one in front of his house), plenty of churches with even bigger nativities and even an outside mass! By 7.30pm we finally made it to destination, a destination which felt very much like Russia, signs for massage in Russian, Russian food and as you might have guessed, a lot of Russian tourists! (unfortunately I'm not allowed to count it on my travel world map). Having spent most of the 5h driving at 40 km/h and being scarred of the local way of driving, we were very glad to arrive!
We regrouped with the rest of the family and headed out for a proper Christmas dinner: sea food BBQ on the sea front! It's different from foie gras, turkey and chocolate but I liked it a lot!!!
The next 3 days will be made of a mix of cycling along the coast, jumping in the waves and swimming in the beautiful pool.

More energetic activities will include wind surfing (hard in the waves),

climbing sand dunes,

breaking the kite and finally, what we came for: kite surfing lessons!
If I can summarise my feelings in one sentence, it is not as easy as the hundreds of people happily surfing in the waves might let you think!

Anyway, we made significant progress in 6h lessons! We are now really good at body dragging in the water and flying 5m forward when making a 8 shape with the kite! But still not on the board...
After 3 full days in MuiNe, it is time to take the 5h journey back to HCMC and fly up North to Hanoi. (see next post!)

Phnom Penh, the capital city

I have finally convinced R to be a guest writer on this blog, so here is his first attempt


After the ancient Khmer capital city of Angkor, what's best than heading to the present capital city: Phnom Penh ? So after M decided it was time to go back to S'pore and work, we opted for the waterways (the alternative options are the air and the road): it happens that Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are almost connected through a huge lake and a river, both called Tonlé Sap (for further information about it you can have look at your old encyclopedia, or our friend Wikipedia).
Basically the journey takes about 6h on a speed boat that looks like a sardine can.

Fortunately, the can isn't packed and the sardines have room to lay on seats or on the roof (non secured area for sun burning). But don't mistake me, it is a lovely trip on a lake that looks like a sea and further on the river, trying to avoid the fishermen boats.

So 6 h later we arrive in a small city where the Tonlé Sap meet the mighty Mekong: it is Phnom Penh. We don't take much time visiting the area around the boat dock, as our primary objective is to reach our hotel. It should be fairly simple as the streets are numbered in a sequential order: odd numbers in the N-S direction and even numbers in the E-W direction. Unfortunately it looks like our Tuk-Tuk driver has not been told it was this simple and we have to navigate a bit before we can find our street and the hotel.
Then the next one and a half days are spent visiting the city, eating local food and relaxing in fancy cafés. I have to admit that you don't need that much time to visit Phnom Penh, but it is quite good to relax after the extensive visits in Angkor. Furthermore it is much cheaper.
But sometimes it is not easy to find what you are looking for: though streets are numbered sequentially, houses are not in the same street and we had to spend some time to find a restaurant that was finally closed… on a Sunday evening (something I am not used to anymore in S'pore).
Amongst the highlights of Phnom Penh, I can cite the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda,

some monkeys in a park in the centre of the city,

the covered market

and the tragic Tuol Sleng Museum (Security Prison 21 during the Khmer Rouge period).