A Travellerspoint blog

Hong Kong (and Macau)

*Long blog entry warning*

sunny 26 °C

Getting to Hong Kong I found myself in an airport for the first time since travelling from Perth to Singapore in November. I always find the experience of flying exciting but it was nice to spend so much time using land and sea transport to maintain an idea of where I was and how big the continent is. It was only right to be feeling more 'international' as I departed my flight and found the airport express trainline to take me in to the big city.

For my week in Hong Kong I had the pleasures of being joined by an old friend from home and staying in my cousin's apartment. It was great to catch up with them as well as having their company and a good guide for the city. People from home will also help, I'm sure, for my impending reintegration back into normal life.

Day one we visited the fantastic Hong Kong Museum of History. Inside they've reconstructed an ancient tomb as well as a late 19th century street containing tea shop, bank, post office and medicine shop. After the museum we went for a walk down the Avenue Of Stars - Hong Kong's answer to the Hollywood walk of fame - and bumped into Bruce Lee. That evening we ate at a Michelin star dim sum restaurant for about the cost of a decent meal back home. It was once considered one of the world's top 10 restaurants according to the New York Times. After that I had my first experience of horse racing (me betting a little money, not actually riding) at Happy Valley.

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The morning after we took the ferry to Hong Kong island for a good wander through the streets. A good 10-15 minutes was spent soaking up the ambience and incense in Man Ho temple followed by a rummage through the "antique" stalls of Cat Street. Evening entertainment was $30 (£2.50) cocktails and pizza.

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On Friday we went to the huge Wong Tai Sin temple (Chinese temple on steroids) and the stunning Chi Lin Nunnery and park. We had a walk through the night market and got some street food later.

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I even managed to fit in a 9th country on my trip with a day on the nearby peninsula of Macau. It's one part pretty old town and another part casino resort. In the last 5 years they've built replicas of Vegas casinos on an astonishing scale. The Venetian was the second largest building in the world at the time of it's construction. I'm not a massive gambler but met some great Danish people and a little game I loved called Sic Bo.

Getting back from Macau at 4am meant a late start on Sunday. Walking through HK island taking photos of the modern/old architecture mix we were treated to the peculiar sight of thousands of Filipino maids covering the streets, parks and pathways. Sunday is their only day off during the week and rather stay in their rooms at their host family's house they go out and socialise. It's so funny just how many there are! Also very telling about how much money people are earning here. Another night in HK, another amazing value meal at a Michelin 'Bibs Gourmands' rated szechuan restaurant (just under 1 star, offers great value).

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The weather so far in Hong Kong has been sunny but very comfortable. On Monday morning we were hoping to get a good view of the city at the top of a mountain on the island. Unfortunately there was a bit of mist but we took the cable car up nevertheless. The view was still good but conditions weren't ideal. We later found out that it wasn't mist but actually pollution! Air quality bad enough to close a school playground. In the afternoon we went to the other side of the island to see a nice little town/fishing harbour called Stanley. A delicious evening meal was had on the brilliantly gaudy "Jumbo Floating Restaurant."

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On our final day in Hong Kong, before our red-eye flight home, we saw the huge Buddha statue and monastery on Lantau island. This time the 'genuine' mist created a peaceful atmosphere that makes me want to fit the word 'mysticism' into a sentence. My final meal of my travelling was some amazing Thai food, very appropriate as it's my favourite cuisine.

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Overall I really enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and love the city. I found it a bit less Asian than I expected but that's due to it being a worldwide banking capital with a strong and recent colonial history. In this respect it's far more liveable for western people as you also don't receive the constant haranguing from street peddlers or have to be as wary for scams. There's plenty to keep you busy day and night and your stomach constantly filled.

Posted by oli.heeley 05:56 Archived in Hong Kong

Ha Noi

sunny 26 °C

Last stop in Vietnam was the capital, Ha Noi. As previously mentioned, I had stopped here for a few nights before Ha Long Bay so I had already got a good idea of the city and my way around.

Like most areas of the world, you have an idea in your mind of what they are like from reading books or the images you see in film, tv, internet, etc. When I first arrived in Asia I was actually quite surprised and a little disappointed because it wasn't how I imagined. I even found it hard to describe what my expectations were. Walking through the small streets of Ha Noi old quarter I realised that this was exactly how I expected Asia to be. Narrow bustling streets, motorbikes darting left and right, people selling food at the side of the road, rustic 3 story buildings and a healthy amount of dirt. I think this photo I found on the internet is a pretty good representation of your average Ha Noi street:

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One of my favourite places was a cafe overlooking what must be the world's craziest road intersection. It is literally 5 streams of traffic driving into each other as they head straight in the direction of where they're going. It's a wonder there aren't more accidents but you realise how careful drivers have to be around here. It makes for great viewing while munching a traditional Vietnamese baguette and slurping a big mug of coffee.

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Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in the capital is Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. It's set in a large group of parks and buildings, some of which he lived in for a duration of time. The actual mausoleum is only open for 4 hours in the morning and is naturally a very popular site for many Vietnamese people. Those two facts mean that the queue is about a kilometre long! The building is very impressive, dark grey with huge pillars. I found it so strange to see his body lying in state, no signs of decay after more than 40 years. It's strictly forbidden to take photos inside.

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Walking through the old quarter it's possible to come across old Christian cathedrals as well as the temples, a legacy from the years of colonial rule that many of the countries in their area experienced.

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It's great to walk through the vibrant streets of Ha Noi during the day and night but with the length of my stay I was finding it hard to keep busy during both of those times. Also I was finding the Vietnamese cuisine a bit of a challenge as it is predominantly noodle soup and seemed to like the spices and seasoning found in food from other SE Asian countries.

Wanting plenty to do and good food I prepared myself for my next and final destination...Hong Kong

Posted by oli.heeley 08:41 Archived in Vietnam

Sapa

sunny 20 °C

From sea to mountains, it was a long day of travelling from Ha Long Bay to Ha Noi by bus and then sleeper train into the heart of northern Vietnam. I was heading for the mountain town of Sapa, a place I had not originally intended to visit but after arriving in the north of Vietnam earlier than expected I had some days to 'use up' before my flight to Hong Kong.

It didn't start too well as upon arrival at the train station I found myself in the standard soft sleeper cabin. This was after the person at the travel agent showed me pictures of the VIP carriages for just 5 dollars more per ticket. This was extremely frustrating as my money is practically zero as I approach the end of my trip and spending any extra dollars becomes a very considered purchase. Also the constant lies and deception from locals looking to scam or overcharge tourists is putting me on the verge of emulating Michael Douglas in Falling Down i.e. psychotic rampage at a society's flaws.

I arrived in a very misty Sapa at about 5am. From the glimpses of tree covered mountain-sides through the window of the minibus on the final leg of my trip here I could tell this is a very special place. Any remaining frustration from the train melted away instantly. In nearly all my blog entries I feel compelled to give a balanced view of a place a temper the good points with the bad. For Sapa that won't be the case as this entry is going to be an absolute love-fest!

Arriving in the town visibility was about 20m. I had some breakfast and then went back to bed for a little sleep with the hope that the weather would clear. When I got up at midday the mist was just as thick but the town no less stunning (what I could see of it anyway). Sapa is well known for it's lingering bouts of mist and visitors wish for them as well as clearer whether. Walking through the town I was lucky to bump into some of the guys I met in Ha Long Bay and we spent the remainder of the day wandering the narrow streets and markets. The following day I joined in with their guided trek of the nearby hillsides.

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In Sapa, a great many women from local villages work in the tourism trade either selling handicrafts or their services as a trek guide. All wear the traditional tribal clothing - as seen in the photo above - and whether this is just for show or not, it is great to see the preservation of local cultures. Due to the fact they spend all day talking to tourists the tribeswomen speak amazing Engish, ironically much better than the young city-living generation found in Saigon and Ha Noi. I read that a few years ago they realised women were much better at selling to tourists than their slightly intimidating male counter-parts, which explains their dominance in the Sapa tourist trade. Interestingly, I wonder if this strange arrangement puts women as the more dominant gender in this society as they have the potential to earn more money and receive a better education.

My third day in Sapa was truely amazing as the mist departed and spectacular views were ever-present. It's hard to show just how beautiful it is as the photos never do it justice. Dry roads and good visibility gave me the last opportunity to take part in one of my favourite local past-times, renting a motorbike. With the right conditions it is definitely the best place I've found the drive. Good quality tarmac, little traffic and twisting roads on the edge of mountains....perfect!

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Getting out on the bike I managed to visit a number of waterfalls, viewpoints and a village. It's also the worst place to drive as every 50m I had to stop just to take more photos!

My fourth day in Sapa was spent doing a solo trek down to the nearest village. As well as the stunning views, waterfalls and piglets I saw a traditional dance and music show. This included a bizarre performance by a guy playing an L-shaped flute who at the same time rolled around the floor somehow managing not to crush his instrument. It finished with only his head and shoulder in contact with the ground and feet straight up in the air.

Most people spend a few days in Sapa but I had the luxury of 5 days/4 nights. This required a chilled out approach that I was more than happy to enjoy. I walked the streets and spent a while sat in a cafe or park, soaking up the atmosphere.

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Before leaving town to catch my train I had time to visit a local school for a spot of English language lessons. Volunteering in Cambodia had wetted my appetite for teaching English and it was great to see what things are the same or different here in Sapa. This was a much smaller school but served the same purpose in the local community - to provide further schooling to children who would otherwise go without. A group of about a dozen performed a song they were rehearsing for an upcoming public performance in town. It was in English and had a solo rap performance by one girl!

While there is a great deal of tourism in Sapa it was the one place where I felt the correct balance had been struck. Local culture was being preserved and tourist money was helping the local people. Visitors are met with warm, smiling faces and from talking to local people it seemed very genuine.

I had a fantastic time in Sapa. The place was great, the people were friendly and I had many great experiences in my 5 days. Looking back I have to say that this is my favourite place in Vietnam, narrowly beating Hoi An. And to think I nearly didn't bother going!

Posted by oli.heeley 00:55 Archived in Vietnam

Ha Long Bay

semi-overcast 22 °C

One of Vietnam's must-see locations is Ha Long Bay. I think most people are familiar with imagery of the limestone karsts jutting out of the sea, most notably in the Bond film 'Man with the golden gun.' To see the bay it is almost impossible to arrange a boat privately, instead requiring visitors to face the orchestrated tour guide companies controlled by local mafia - according to my local guide.

I opted for a 2 night/3 day cruise of Ha Long Bay so I could get the full experience. Sleeping 2 nights on a boat made a nice change to hotels/guesthouses. The beds were comfy and bathroom surprisingly big. The water in the bay is very calm and combined with a slow moving boat there wasn't any chance of being seasick.

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On the first day we visited an island cave and then went kayaking. The second day we went to Cat Ba island (the biggest in the bay) for a hike up a large hill followed by lunch and a few hours free time in the town. On the final day we had a short cruise back to Ha Long City.

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The weather for the whole cruise was misty during the day and storms at night. Seeing the stunning islands drift in and out of the mist added a slant of mystery and wonder to the experience. I only wish that it had been sunny on one of the days as I feel like I didn't see the islands at their best.

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I don't normally do guided tours and this one reminded me why. It felt very restrictive keeping to a timetable and given time limits, albeit loose, for each activity. Food was plentiful but largely tasteless with the same dishes each night. Being a captive audience on the boat, beer was overpriced and a service charge applied to drinks brought onboard. To avoid this we drank smuggled spirits in cabins, a self-defeating rule for the boat operators as atmosphere in the common room suffered. Crew members trying to flog postcards with cocktails felt like even on a private cruise I couldn't escape the hassle of the street hawkers.

Overall I really enjoyed Ha Long Bay and met some great people although as one of the world's 'top natural wonders' it fell a bit short of expectations. Maybe the circumstances of the cruise and soggy weather just prevented me from truly appreciating the landscape. Don't get me wrong, it was beautiful.....just not breathtaking.

Posted by oli.heeley 03:27 Archived in Vietnam

Hue

sunny 26 °C

Between 1802 and 1945, Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty (thanks Wikipedia). The city is bisected by the Perfume River with the south side containing a majority of the hotels and restaurants and the other side the citadel and imperial enclosure.

Arriving in the evening we went out for a walk of the city for some food and to see the night market. After that we joined a crowd going out to a rowdy bar with a good mix of tourists and locals. Plenty of drink and dance later it was time to go home and I had one of my less proud moments. I had separated from my mate and couldn't remember what our hotel was called or exactly which road it was on. Lots of fruitless searching around with a motorbike driver later I ended up crashing in someone's house at 4am. This can only be testament to the kindness of Vietnamese people that upon being woken up at 4am they were still willing to give me a bed.

Due to the previous night we had a late start the following day and went for a relaxing bicycle ride around the citadel seeing the further away places of interest.

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That night we revisited our favourite bar in Hue and had a thankfully less eventful but just as fun night. Here I have to make honourable mention to the passing of my flip-flops that had been in loyal service since November 27th. Despite refurbishment in Saigon their days were always going to be numbered.

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The next day we walked into the imperial enclosure (inside the citadel) for an exploration of the most prestigious buildings in Hue. Having suffered from a heavy bombing operation by the USAF during the Vietnamese war there is now a lot of restoration work being undertaken. Some buildings are very well preserved while others only the foundations remain visible. There are many buildings or remains within the enclosure so it's worth spending a few hours to walk around.

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Having experienced most the day and night activities that Hue has to offer we got on another night bus and headed to Ha Noi. Seeing as I have a longer stay in Ha Noi slightly later in my trip I will skip the few rather uneventful days I had there in this blog.

Posted by oli.heeley 20:09 Archived in Vietnam

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