7.28.2014

Cu Chi Tunnels

There are many tours that head out to these tunnels, but ours was lead by a guy nicknamed John Wayne, who had a strooong accent. For example, rather than saying "Ladies and Gentleman" he would just say "Lady Gentleman". Or "First... Chicken..." rather than second, but don't asked me how that worked out. Me and Kirbie got the giggles.

There were many groups at the tunnels and it seems to be the only way to do it, as without a guide you wouldn't have any context to the place.

The tunnels were used by the Vietnamese in the war against Japan. They didn't live in the tunnels - they were only for fighting. The photo above shows the excess tunnels that were created so they didn't flood!

There are displays of how the Vietnamese were very resourceful in creating weapons from bamboo and also on show are some of the traps they used against the enemy, which they will demonstrate for you (minus human in trap).

As you walk round the corner you will see a huge tank, an original I must add. You're allowed to climb in it, on it and through it. I can't imagine ever being allowed to do this in the uk... Or at least it would be covered with sponge for Health & Safety reasons. Hmmm... I wonder...

You also get the opportunity to shoot a gun. You just pick your gun, buy a minimum of 10 bullets and go. There's no safety briefing and the ear muffs are there 'if you like' (trust me when I say, you will like). It's South East Asia so health and safety is very relaxed/none existent.

Word has it that you used to be able to shoot cows, but now it's just a few targets in front of a huge mud hill. I chose the machine gun and split the 10 bullets with someone else. I unintentionally fired the first 4 bullets within seconds. Very sad, I really savoured my last bullet and aimed half heartedly at the bullseye. No idea where my bullets went, but it is fun to be able to say you've fired a REAL machine gun. The gun really pulls back as you shoot and it's crazy to feel the power the machine has. It's also pretty scary that there are these guns just there for anyone to shoot - the British in me just thinks it doesn't feel right.

And then there is the star of the show - the tunnels themselves, which you can walk/crawl through. I got the heebyjeebies and only went 10m but you can keep walking through and just come out after another 10m, or another, or another.

You can also climb inside the little hiding hole, big enough for only one man. An ex-military woman went in and put the roof on and confirmed that it was pretty dark and pretty sketchy! But anything for the photo op, right?

I completed my tour of the tunnels as part of the STA Vietnam on a Shoestring tour and so do not know the price, but saw plenty of adverts in Ho Chin Minh City for trips to the tunnels and you shouldn't have a hard time organising one.

 

7.26.2014

Ho Chin Minh City- "Just walk in to the traffic."

Ho Chin Minh City, Vietnam

By the time I arrived in HCMC after my 6th flight I was nursing a sore ear and fatigue after an incident with a washing machine* kept me awake for a majority of the night. When I arrived at the hotel I managed to get in to my room, despite it only being 9am (hurrah for silver linings) and stayed there til afternoon trying to recover.

Buying Medication

Many places in South East Asia allow you to buy prescription drugs over the counter. Even though I knew this before I went, I assumed they would ask at least one question, perhaps what it was for, or if I was taking any other medication. Nada. I walked away with my antibiotics without any questions asked whatsoever. It pays to know the generic name for what you're looking for, as they may not have the western brands.

The Roads of Vietnam

The roads in Vietnam, particularly Ho Chin Mihn and Hanoi, are crazy, madness, unbelieveable and relentless. There is a constant stream of motorbikes, like a school of fish channeled down the road. Crossings are virtually non-existence and traffic lights are rare and illogical anyway, as the traffic never seems to fully stop. The only way to cross the road is to make the first step. Don't try and wait for a gap - there will never be one - and don't try and run across or weave the vehicle, just walk slowly in a straight line and the bikes will miraculously miss you. Only exception to this is cars - these are less frequent anyway so just wait for it to pass before you walk in to the road.

Meeting my G Adventures Tour

After meeting my roomie and the rest of the group I was really pleased I'd opted to do the tour. It was nice not having to think about organising transport or even waking up at the right stop on the sleeper train. It's also been great to meet a bunch of people and know that you're going to have friends for the next 12 days. Priceless. (Actually it comes at quite the price - perhaps double what you'd spend doing it solo.)

Street Food

There didn't seem to be as much street food as in Bangkok, though it seems in Vietnam it's more casual eateries, so you go in and sit down like a restaurant.

It still seems unnatural to eat food cooked right there on the street. I shy away from anything that looks like it's been sitting in the sun, but on the whole, street food is fresh and it's encouraging to see EXACTLY what goes in to your food. In fact I would go as far to say my top ten meals have been local eateries or street food.

As I was with G adventures we tended to go to restaurants for dinner, rather than eat street food. The tiny little local restaurants and street food stalls are more convenient for solo travellers, but can be tricky for a group of 9.

Coffee Scene

I noticed straight away that Vietnam had a healthy number of coffee shops and it wasn't until I tried a Vietnamese coffee that I knew why... It's goddamn incredible. Smooth, strong coffee (forget the bitter taste) with condensed milk, normally iced. OH MY. And there are other wonderful drinks...

Sleeper Train on to Nha Trang

This was my first sleeper train and it was pretty darn okay. There was a mini bottle of water for each person and 4 people in each room, so for our group of 8 it worked out well (though poor Mu Mu, our guide was in a room with the locals). We bought a crate of beers and got to work whittling away the hours. We also met another tour group so spent time socialising with them too.

If you are in a room with strangers, place your valuable under your pillow or in your sleeping bag liner at the bottom. People have been know to riffle through bags while people are asleep.

*I used the in hostel laundry facilities. Turned on my washing and left it be. It was already late but I sat and skyped, set an alarm to move the washing across and just thought at least I can sleep on the plane. Went back when my alarm went off (already around 10pm) and realised MY WASHING HADN'T EVEN BEEN ON. Apparently it happened a lot. With the detergent all over my clothes and no clean pants to my name I had no choice but to stay awake, wash and dry my clothes before stuffing them in to my ridiculously undersized bag.

NOTE: You may notice a distinct lack of photos. The day before I arrived a girl took her phone out of her pocket to check the time and BAM someone on a scooter took it. Especially in HCMC motorbike snatching is common. Travel safe.

 

 

 

 

7.25.2014

Ayutthaya

Me and Kirsty both wanted to wait and 'do' Bangkok when my friend and her boyfriend arrived, so we planned to do a little overnight trip somewhere, settling on Ayutthaya.

Ayutthaya by train

The journey from Bangkok only takes a few hours and trains are 3rd class. We actually found it to be relatively comfortable, especially with the breeze from the open window. There is no need to book the train ahead and our fare was less than £1! What a bahtgain (poor joke, sorry).

Sleep & Eat

As we only decided to book last minute, a lot of the recommended budget guesthouses were booked up, so we decided to treat ourselves to Baan Tye Wang Hotel, which was truly outstanding. The price included free bike hire and breakfast. Ayutthaya is very small, so you won't find hostels. Look for budget guesthouses, some of which are recommended in the lonely planet guide.

 

Casual restaurants are the main affair here, but the real star of the show was the brilliant food at our guesthouse. We had a great meal along the next road on the left, travelling North along the main road from Baan Tye Wang.

Why Ayutthaya?

Truthfully we chose it due to it's proximity to Bangkok, though it is a Unesco World Heritage site, so that's one easy excuse to visit!

Ayuthaya is full of temples and history, though it doesn't attract the same volume or concentration of people as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Many people come as a day trip from Bangkok, so get up early and some of the temples will be deserted, ready for you to explore. Even in the height of the day many temples only host a few guests as there are so many temples in this small town.

The town is actually an island, surrounded by rivers with the train station on the mainland to the East and the two bus stations (one for minivans) on the island itself. The bus offers an alternative way to get to and from Ayutthaya.

The best way to get around Ayuthaya is on a bike. Start early to beat the heat and you may want to pick your route before you head out, although aimless wandering is encouraged. Some of the sites are across the river and although there are bridges, night boat tours are a popular way to see these temples.

You can ride an elephant around Ayuthaya, but I would strongly urge you not to - the elephants are chained, in a cramped enclosure, made to walk on the road and Tarmac and are mounted with chairs, none of which is considered ethical.

See

Wat Phra Mahathat is one of the most iconic images of Ayuthaya - the Budda's head which has been swallowed by tree roots - just the face peeps out. Amazingly the head seems vertical, though it was a lot smaller than I was expecting.


A huge bonus of visiting this temple first is the excellent audio guide will give you a context to the town's history (a hint - it was very important) as you learn about Ayuthaya's kingdom and its eventual demise. A second bonus is that you're more likely to beat the day trippers.

Wat Chai Wattanaram temple was damaged by flooding in 2001 and you can still see the water line in places, though don't let this put you off though - it was perhaps my favourite and I felt more awestruck here than any of the tourist-infested temples of Angkor Wat! Bold claim I know...

This temple is located across the river in the West, though it's accessible by bicycle. Make sure you stay hydrated along the way!



Wat Mongkhon Bophit was the first temple we went to and as we approached from the side, as the adjacent market was setting up, it wasn't as impressive as if you approached from the front. It's a nice little temple but not necessarily a 'must see'. It's an active temple though, so be respectful of those who come to pray to the large Buddha. It was for this reason I took no photos of the interior.

 

We also found this little bridge, which leads to a traditional house. Completely deserted. I can't find any information on the name at all, but it's behind the elephants... If you find it just think of it as a little bonus.


Wat Phra Si Sanphet is located right next door to Wat Mongkhon Bophit (see above) making them easypeasy to see at the same time. This temple was deserted, despite its central location.

There were bike racks to lock up. There wasn't much shade at this temple, so as always stay hydrated in the heat.




Wat Lokayasutharam is worth cycling past, just to see the giant Buddha, though there isn't really much else to it. It's very near Wat Mongkhon Bophit so easy to tie in and it's something different to see en route.

Entrance to some of the temples was 50 baht, everything else seemed to be free of charge for you to explore. The audioguide is around 150 baht for Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Chai Watthanaram, and Wat Mahathat though we didn't find out about this until too late and consequently only got it for the one temple. I really recommend getting this for at least one temple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.19.2014

The Unspoken Truth About Travel Lows

You're in paradise yet today you can't shake your mood. It's something you've probably not heard often. Never? I'm not surprised. Who would complain when they have their feet planted in white sand, glasses on and beer in hand?

My generation is the generation of "you can do anything"s and "take a gap year and travel the world"s and "quit your job and find yourself before you settle down"s. So you've followed your dream, done some soul searching, made friends, drunk Chang, seen the world but this morning, think week you're just grumpy. And your friends are at home studying for exams, slogging at an internship, working as a lifeguard at the local pool on minimum wage. You feel bad complaining and they wouldn't understand anyway.

Ask anyone about their trip away and they will say it was amazing, unforgettable, awesome, but what about those times where you just wanted a hug, a bowl of coco pops and a delayed first great western train?

This the the truth. You can't be happy every day for months on end, unless your high on something strong and intoxicating. Like 'normal life' there are some days and weeks where you're just not feeling it.

I've had a couple of these and for many reasons including isolation, phobias and panic attacks, loneliness and illness. Two illnesses in a week and a half (including a severe bout of couples food poisoning on Josh's last night) really took it's toll and I was all but ready to chop a month off my trip. I knew in my head it didn't make sense, as I deferred Uni (twice) partly so I could travel for more than the length of a uni holiday and here I was considering ending it at 14 weeks.


In the end what helped was a long ass journey. I sat down with my lonely planet book and started from scratch. For my last month what did I want to see and do? I settle on sun, city, yoga and nature. I read at the inspiration at the beginning of the book and considered a whole new country - Malaysia. I had planned to go to Myanmar and had met half a dozen travellers who talked avidly about how amazing it was and how amazing the people were, but it would help me achieve my new list so I made the decision to cull it.

Some ideas to get back your travel mojo

  • Pick a random page in a guide book or find a travel blog and start reading to be inspired all over again.
  • Phone home and talk only about quantum physics, where lost socks go or fluffy... Anything to take your mind off things and stop you overthinking.
  • Book five nights at your next destination with no plans. Settle in to a routine - lie-in, eat western food and do some exercise. Go against every travel 'rule' to break away from 'should and must do's.
  • Do something normal that makes you feel more in control eg. do some laundry, chuck out old toiletries bottles, repack your entire bag, sort your photos in to albums.
  • Send postcards to your family with ByPost telling them your highlights so far and that you're missing them. This will help you focus on the positive and combat the feeling of being alone in the world.
  • Find a quiet viewpoint and do some deep breaths, read a book or listen to music to help you relax.
  • Pamper yourself with a hair mask, massage, nail varnish, facial etc. to boost your confidence.
  • Make a non-specific bucket list that can be ticked off at any time eg. meet someone with a story to tell, find a secret spot, find a great novel at a book exchange, find your new favourite food. This will give your travel new purpose and focus without the pressure.

 

 

7.17.2014

Hong Kong - "And the rest.."

It seems I really did pack in a lot to a short stay. Hong Kong and Nutella turned out to have a lot in common - I love them both and my appetite is endless. In fact Hong Kong would make it to the first page of destinations I'd most like to return to. Here is the best of the rest of my trip.

By chance, me and Jeremy decided to go to explore the museums on some sort of national museum day (he wouldn't go to disneyland). On the plus side, entrance was free to all the museums, but with this comes the crowds and kids.

 

Hong Kong Museum of Art

Next to many of the other museums, right on the river by Tsu Sha Tsui pier (Kowloon Side), this museum has size on its side. Although there was some interesting pieces and some of it was well labelled, it didn't 'grab' me. I did like this duo though.

... And I would definitely hang this up in my house.
It was interesting to find out what some of the symbols for luck, money, health etc. were and it kept us entertained for an hour or so. Maybe have this one on the back burner for a day with torrential rain?

Any museum session deserves a treat, enjoyed in the fresh air. Call me sad, but there nothing like a skinny hazelnut cappuccino to remind you of friends, home and rushed lunch breaks.

In the vicinity, there was also some big sculptures on show which can be enjoyed before or after the nightly lights show (or of course during the day).

Hong Kong Space Museum

This museum in particular was popular with mothers and their darlings. It was fun to wander, but honestly the best part was the toy shop... Ooo and the 'walking on the moon' simulator. There was a little queue for it and a selective height and weight limit, but it was worth the harness rub for 10 mins of fun. The museum seemed a little dated, but had lots of interactive displays and mixed up the itinerary. It's right by Tsim Sha Tsui/Hong Kong Museum of Art/here...


Hong Kong a Symphony of Lights

As if the skyline wasn't impressive enough, every night at 3pm the buildings get their jazz hands out and razzle dazzle for those on the river banks.

You can view the debacle from both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon side, but there was great atmosphere Kowloon side and it's supposedly the better side to watch from, as there is music and English narration. Crowds can get a couple of people deep, but I'm short and didn't have too much trouble getting a good view and I arrived maybe 15 mins before the start.

Seeing as this is a freebie, you'd be silly not to try and catch it, but ...*whispers* if you miss it then you're not a complete donkey.

Mong Kok

This is an area of Hong Kong rather than an attraction, but when I met up with Gloria (who's a HK native that I met in Osaka) she took me here for a local experience. It was such an awesome area to wander around.

It made me want to spin round in circles with my arms rasied like they do in the movies. I held back and had a bog standard grinning photo instead. It's a great place to try out some Hong Kong munch on the go (see last post).

Mong Kok is only one stop away from Tsim Sha Tsui.

LKF

Anything that can be identified with only three letters is going to be infinitely cool. At the weekend this is zee place to be, yarzzz. Everyone heads here, buys their beers from the 7/11 and just unwinds on the street.

It's like a street party with expats, tourists and locals mingling. You could stay on the street all night, grabbing a huge pizza slice on your way home OR you could bar hop and go to a club. Note if you're going in to a club, it's worth making an effort as girls and guys do get dressed up (dresses, heels etc.) - flip flops are certainly not the done thing.

Like I've already said, I'd love to go back to Hong Kong and still feel there are half a dozen things already on my list. A huge thank-you to Gloria for her recommendations and for coming out to party the night before your flight!!