A Travellerspoint blog

Paying to see a dead body

Heroic women, Ho Chi Minh and a graduation

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We have a bit of a secret to confess. We’ve fallen in love with Hanoi. Out of the Asian cities we’ve visited it is probably our favourite. It’s a perfect mix of real Vietnam with just a hint of fresh tourism. When we think about what we’ve actually done in Hanoi there’s not a great deal we can list. Instead we’ve enjoyed the people-watching, the wandering and stumbling across some fantastic things.

That isn’t to say we haven’t tried to go to the sights. Yesterday we planned to go to the Vietnam military history museum but again were caught out by the sudden increase of prices from our version of Lonely Planet. We ummmed and ahhhed and decided not to bother so we headed five minutes down the road to go to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Unfortunately Rach was scantily clad in her vest top and shorts so we were sent away with our heads bowed in shame. Time for plan C.

Rach had been perusing our map on the city when she came across the Women’s museum. Intrigued she checked the guidebook and discovered it was a collection of exhibits focusing purely of the women in Vietnam and the contributions they have made to its history. After a short march we discovered there were a lot more exhibitions then we first thought. Not only did they have sections on the women who had fought for their country either in a military sense or political but also areas dedicated to revealing a woman’s place in the current culture. It showed the different styles of Vietnamese weddings and how they would bring up their children. It was fantastic to see a museum dedicated to the gender that’s generally looked over in Vietnamese history.

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In the evening we drank as much of the free beer as we could and got involved in a game of arrogance with some of the other backpackers. We headed out for dinner back to our favourite street restaurant and as we’re so cool we attracted a few middle-aged westerners, like moths to a flame, who followed our example and pulled up a plastic chair.

The next day we marched determinedly back to the mausoleum, this time with Rach covered in a longer sleeved top. There was a bit of a queue to get in as they gather you in a large group and lead you through together. It’s like a race though and you have to power walk to get through. It’s incredibly strict and there are no cameras allowed, no dawdling and definitely no talking. We near sprinted around his glass coffin but we were astonished by what we saw. Ho Chi Minh didn’t look real; he actually looked sort of plastic. We have no idea how they are maintaining his body but it does look good, he just looks like he’s sleeping.

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Approximately thirty-nine seconds later we were back out into the grounds and spent a few hours relaxing and enjoying the sun. We decided on our way back to the hostel to drop in on one last sight; the Doan Mon Gate and accidently stumbled across a graduation prom for Vietnamese students. Three words; They. Looked. Sensational. Rach was actually a little ashamed of British prom dresses because the girls’ outfits here were stunning. We watched for a while as the graduates spelled out letters with their bodies and posed for photographs. It was a brilliant surprise to find.

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Now we’re about to get on the overnight train to Hué and we wonder what it’s going to be like. Will it be the same as the Chinese trains?

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Whilst Hanoi has a lot of sights you can pay to go and see, it’s a brilliant city just to walk around and watch the world go by.
  • Make sure you have your shoulders covered if you go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or you will be turned away.

Posted by rexontheroad 22:17 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

FREE BEER!

A prison, a bridge and lots of free beer.

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So we arrived in Hanoi and it being pretty late went out and got some delicious food at a street vendors. We had been recommended to do this by some friends from our previous tour and they said that it would be amazing. Long story short after some pointing and broken attempts at Vietnamese we got what we wanted; some rice noodle soup with beef and squatted down to eat. Yep you heard right, squatted. All the outdoor street vendors very kindly provide tables and chairs, it's just that they happen to be tables and chairs for the vertically challenged. It was, however, a brilliant experience being sat on the street corner with all the mopeds flowing past, honking their horns, the sound, the noises and the smells. For the first time we felt full after a meal out and after we collapsed into our beds it wasn't long before we succumbed to the darkness of sleep.

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The following day we decided to go out and do some sightseeing (as you do when in a foreign country I guess) and headed straight for the lake Hò Guom. It was a lovely little place and after having seen no proper parks for so long it made a nice change. There was also a beautiful little temple called Ngoc Son off to one side of the lake. On checking it out Alex once again realized his celebrity when he was asked to pose with two young women. Whether it's his chiseled good looks or his body of steel we'll never know.

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After the comparative escape of the walk by the lake we reentered the fray and braved the roads to get around and explore the city. Crossing the road in Vietnam seems to be a matter of trust. All it takes is a simple step off the kerb and a determined, constant forward movement, trusting the mopeds not to hit you as they part like water around a stone. Surprisingly it feels quite safe and as long as you keep moving without making any sudden stops you greatly increase your chances of not being hit.

After having wandered around for a little while (which is pretty rewarding in itself) we came to the Hanoi Hilton (Hoà Lo Prison). It was an incredible place and much of the signage was in English so we got to find out a lot. It was used at various times as a prison by the French for Vietnamese communists and later during the war it was used by the Vietnamese to keep downed American pilots. There was a stark difference in how the different lives of the prisoners were portrayed. The communists had undergone a brave struggle surviving the brutal punishment of the harsh overlords, whilst the Americans had been treated with civility and respect and, for them, was a home away from home. So no political angle whatsoever.

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The rest of our time for the day was then taken up by several failed attempts to get into whatever was free. Sadly most of it was shut but luckily as we said before wandering is entertaining enough in itself. We took in markets, lakes, rickety train bridges, stalls, crazy traffic, street sellers and more! It was great. And then, even better, once we got back to the hostel that we’re staying in, it was happy hour. Happy hour at our hostel means unlimited free beer for one hour. Bring it on!

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • At $5 a night Central Backpackers isn’t bad, especially with free beer and breakfast too. Check out Rach’s review of the hostel and the Prison.
  • When crossing the road in Vietnam, wait till there are no cars coming (ignore the mopeds) and step out. Then just blindly carry on at a steady pace. Do not, we repeat, do not stop. That is when the accidents happen.

Posted by rexontheroad 21:31 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Alex breaks the loo

Sticky fingers, a change of scenery and a tough jigsaw

We had a bit of a problem with our water throne this morning. The toilet cistern lid managed to slip through Alex’s fingers and upon collision with the floor instead of deciding to remain in one piece tried to spread itself into as many different corners of the bathroom as possible. The situation arose because the toilet cistern wasn’t filling so Alex was having to use the shower to fill it. So really it was all the hotels fault. Obviously. However we doubted that the hotel would see it this way and so after a quick search and rescue mission we’d located the vast majority of the lid and piled it onto the bed. Alex then pulled out his ever trusty superglue and attempted the nigh on impossible task of emergency reconstructive surgery. Sadly there were none of the sterilising options available that are normally present in an operating theatre and so there was a lot of skin left behind on the toilet lid as the glue really did what it said on the label and actually dried quickly. This also meant that the moment of truth came around very soon and it wasn’t long before we were staring at the finished article complete with stylistic cracks. Our hearts trembled as we separated it from where it had attached itself to the bedspread , we hoped against hope that it would hold as we placed it back on the toilet. Luckily it did and now it just needed to hold until we came back at the end of the day to collect our bags. Erk!

We had most of the rest of the day to kill before our flights to Vietnam so we decided to head across from the mainland to the island. There is a ferry that takes you across for HK$2 which is really cheap. We had read somewhere that this is one of the top ten short boat rides in the world. This is not the case. The skyline was definitely interesting but unless there’s a giant rampaging lizard of some kind it is like every other big city skyline in the world.

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After disembarking we formed our plan of action and set off in the direction of the eight hundred metre long escalator that makes it way up the start of Victoria Peak. Once we’d gone up far enough we made a turn off and made for what was billed as the famous Man Mo Temple. After struggling to find it we had a brief look around. It really isn’t all that impressive as a temple but the history behind it runs very deep and as such it is often held in quite a high regard. However it definitely wasn’t a place to spend the entire day and so we meandered our way back through the streets trying to put from our minds the thought that our superglue ruse might have been uncovered. We eventually made it back to our hotel to pick up our bags. There was a tense moment when the receptionist came out to greet us and for a second both of our hearts dropped when he started talking as we were walking off, but he was only wishing us on our way. We had gotten away with it; as they say he who dares, wins!

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There was then a quick bus to the airport before a relatively pain free entrance onto the plane in readiness for Vietnam. We were originally planning to go overland via train but we hadn’t planned ahead and got the multiple entry visa for China. Flights was the stress free option as opposed to hanging around waiting for visas to come through and then two days of travelling. It was a little more expensive but actually in terms of timings will probably work out better for us. And so it was that we took one last look at the bright lights. Not too sure what to expect when we touch down but either way we’re sure it will be something to look back on.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • At this point we well amend one of the rules in The death of a comrade, super glue can also be used to fix toilets.
  • The Man Mo Temple is an important landmark and if you have time worth seeing but don’t bank on spending the whole day there.

Posted by rexontheroad 19:35 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Starring in a flashmob

Hong-Kong, flashmobs and a sneaking hand

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And so it was that we reached our final destination of our time on the tour in China and indeed our last destination before heading off to South East Asia. The night was a fairly typical sleeper train journey with everyone a little too tired to be staying up too late. Joy, our tour leader, had however prepared a little surprise for everyone; a small card with a lovely personal message in each one. She really has been an amazing guide and we owe so much to her.

The arrival in Hong-Kong was a little strange; first we had to go through the usual tight Chinese security but you had to go through it to leave the country?! After this we then had the Hong-Kong immigration to get through but on the British passports this was a breeze and soon we were South of the divide. We could see the difference straight away. Everything seemed just a little cleaner and as a massive bonus nobody was spitting on the floor! It wasn’t until we noticed a sign warning all those coming over the Chinese border that this offence carried a $5000 penalty that we realised this was probably why.

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The city itself generally felt a lot nicer and it was nice to see some familiar sights as well. As everyone said it was just the right balance of Chinese and British. It was a lovely setting for our final farewell to the rest of the group and we had a sad last meal together before going off to see the light show and the Avenue of Stars. The light show was a bit disappointing in all honesty, not enough light really. Still the Avenue of Stars was fun. It’s a bit like the stars on Hollywood Boulevard except it’s all the Chinese film stars. Alex ran off like an excited little child and found Jackie Chan and Jet Li before trying to pick a fight with a statue of Bruce Lee. Not long after that we were once again impressing the locals with our Gangnam style dancing except this time we did it as a flashmob adding the element of surprise to the mix.

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Sadly it was to be the last time that we would perform and after a sad goodbye in one of the hotel rooms we departed from our group for what we thought would be the last time. During the day we did all sorts ranging from applying and getting our Vietnamese visas, being molested, visiting the Hong-Kong History Museum, being molested, moving hotels, being molested and oh yeah did I mention being molested. Alex went to get the visas and whilst he was gone Rach decided to run out and post some cards. It was as she was waiting at some traffic lights that she could feel the stare of the slime ball next to her. She looked over and if you can imagine a Gollum like creature with scabs covering his arms you have him in one. He leered at her and being a sensible girl she faced away and waited for the green man. It was then that she felt something touching her leg. She jumped back and realised that he had his clammy claw out and was pawing at her leg. She started out across the road and he started following her so she ran off successfully losing him in the crowd.

As you can imagine it was a pretty stressful day so we were looking forward to a nice evening out with a couple of our group. Turned out that there were more people than we thought were going to be there and we went out again with almost the entire group there. It was really nice and we had some Vietnamese food (ironically) and then went down the night markets before sipping on some cold beers.

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Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • The members of any group can make or break a trip. We’ve met plenty of people who have had crap tours because of a crap group.
  • Be careful who you stand next to at traffic crossings. You never know who might be going to touch you next...

Posted by rexontheroad 23:42 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

The death of a comrade

Tai Chi, Calligraphy and footwear disaster

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After an overnight train-ride, a bus and some tuk-tuks we arrived at our destination in Yángshuò. It was peeing it down but we still went out for a stroll. Yángshuò is completely different to anywhere we’ve been in China as, although it had a touristy feel with a large number of Westerners strolling around, it was a stunning place surrounded by huge limestone mountains. Sadly because of the tourists there were a massive number of vendors all out to try and snag an unsuspecting Westerner so we felt a little heckled as we walked down the main strip. However we managed to escape and found our way down to the river. It was a beautiful spot and we stayed there for a while, just soaking in the scenery until it was time for bed.

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The next day we discovered a downside to Yángshuò - no supermarkets!!! As we shop buy all of our food, as opposed to eating out for each meal, we were at a loss of what to do. We found one that sold our precious pot-noodles so tea was sorted but for breakfast and lunch there was nothing. Wandering in despair it was with luck that we stumbled across a bakery. This is quite a rarity in China as they don’t really eat bread so have no need of them. We ended up buying a huge sandwich that had been soaked in egg and cheese with ham in the middle. It’s indescribable just how good it tasted and they had some gorgeous buns for our lunch too. Sorted!

We had been given a list of activities we could do in Yángshuò and had selected two of them; tai chi and calligraphy. First up was the tai chi; our instructor took us along to the river that we had discovered the first day. There, overlooking the beautiful scenery, he took us through the first ten steps of tai chi. It was quite easy to learn and we both had a good time exercising, however a large group of Chinese people had gathered around us and most of them were taking photos which was very distracting. They finally took heed of Rach’s mind control and left us alone in peace to enjoy the remainder of the lesson. We had a few hours left of the day and as Yángshuò is the perfect place for a wander, we just walked around all the shops once more before it was time for our glorious pot-noodle.

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The following morning being as how we were in an area of some formidable limestone peaks with several of the other members of our group we set off on a rock climbing expedition. We pulled up and after climbing into our gear got started off. Rach had volunteered to be the official photographer and so spent her time with her neck craned towards the heavens. Alex had an amazing time scaling the walls and managed to get a few difficult climbs under his belt. Seeing this, the instructor decided to really test him and set him to work on a vicious overhang. He gave it a couple of goes and very nearly made it over but was defeated in the end and retired with a bruised and battered arm. The instructor then gave us all a lesson in how to climb like a spider and practically leaped over the entire thing wearing just his trainers!

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After we’d had our fill we headed back for the hotel to wait for our afternoon activity, a slightly more relaxing one of calligraphy. When the time finally came to leave we set out with our leader Joy and it was as we were walking down the street that the truly devastating incident happened. As we were minding our own business a flagstone of the pavement maliciously rose up into the path of Alex’s oncoming havaiana and, bam, it was the tragic death of a faithful comrade. The toe strap had snapped and it was all over, no amount of resuscitation could bring it back and so hopping Alex had to make his way onto the calligraphy session.

It was a really good session and it wasn’t long before Rach started to get the hang of it. Alex’s technique was a little more subtle and as a result his characters became more abstract works of art than anything else. We learnt to write our names, (always useful) and then Rach persuaded the teacher to show her how to write love and she wrote out Rach loves Alex (awww!). Soppiness over and done with we rolled up our efforts and headed back for a quick snack on a delicious Chinese burger before setting off for our longest overnight train yet!

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Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Don’t feel pressured by the vendors in the streets trying to sell you activities. Just say a solid no and if they persist just ignore them.
  • Always carry superglue to fix any broken flip-flops. It can also be useful in other circumstances but this is definitely the main use.
  • Rock climbing can be really fun but if you do go make sure that everything is included and check all the safety gear over once before using it. China isn’t exactly renowned for its health and safety after all.

Posted by rexontheroad 18:23 Archived in China Comments (0)

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