Saturday, 25 July 2009

coffee + condensed milk + ice = awesome

Just a quick note to say that there is nothing better after walking around in the sweltering heat than sitting down in the shade and enjoying a vietnamese ice coffee - bliss!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

At the halfwaypoint in Vietnam

I can't believe we have been in Vietnam for over 2 weeks. It actually took us a little time to warm to the place and I think that it is possible to read too much about somewhere before you get there. Search for any travel info or about Vietnam and you come across an overwhelming amount of negative feedback on scams and people feeling like they had been ripped off. I really think people need to give this country a break. Or at least give as much air time to the things that are great as the things that vex.

From what we have seen, Vietnamese people are hard working and friendly. There are a few unsavoury characters thrown in to the mix (insert 85% of Hanoi taxi drivers here) but on the whole they are just trying to get by and have a bit of fun at the same time. We have been welcomed on numerous occasions by large family groups; sometimes to share tea, mostly to share shots of rice wine. The best way to enjoy ourselves, we have found, is to not sweat the small stuff and be sensible about prices we want to pay without being ruthless and unrealistic in the bargaining process. We began to appreciate this place a lot more once we began to go with the flow a bit and put aside our western expectations about bus timetables and road rules.

The first week or so we spent in the north in Hanoi and Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay. I guess you could call this our breaking in period. We went on a tour around Ha Long Bay which we thought was OK. Compared to other boat trips we have done (Croatia and Turkey) the crew seemed a little fatigued but it is hard not to enjoy yourself when you are surrounded by some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. The moment we left the tour to stay on Cat Ba Island under our own steam we really began to take pleasure in our surroundings. We stayed in wooden bungalows on the beach and just whiled away 4 days swimming and relaxing with a cool Belgian couple (Lien and Kwinten) before we jumped back on another boat and bussed it back to Hanoi.

After one more day in Hanoi (during which time we managed to corrupt both the computers in our hotel with a virus that had made it's way onto our memory card somewhere in China - OOPS) we caught a bus to a place called Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is 2 hours south of Hanoi but after a late start and a detour down a pitch dark side road in order to weld something in the engine our bus managed to stretch this to 4 hours. Our first experience of Ninh Binh then was in the middle of the night being dropped off about a kilometre from where we were staying for the night. Silver lining is that it wasn't raining and when we did finally get to our hotel they were really friendly and refuelled us with pineapple and cold water.

I cannot speak highly enough of Ninh Binh. One of the best places we have visited on our trip so far. Our first morning saw us on a scooter riding in convoy with a French-Canadian couple (Catherine and Jack) out to Cuc Phuong National Park. This was one of our best days travelling so far. The roads rising out of the paddy fields and wetlands were so much fun to ride along. I played the part of wing mirrors as our scooter didn't have any. After a few wrong turns and the help from some locals we got to the park and sat down to eat at the restaurant by the gate. A Vietnamese photography club had just finished a morning of searching for wildlife and were toasting their success with numerous shots of rice wine which we were not so much invited as recruited to join. As you can imagine 30 people with an avid interest in photography and rice wine in their veins = a lot of photo taking. When it was time for them to leave they left us the rest of the last bottle which we put away for later.

We visited the primate rescue centre that is located in the park. A really great facility that does its best to combat poaching and ignorance by running a breeding programme alongside the rehabilitaion of rescued animals. After that it was time to ride 20km into the centre of the park. Such an experience. The noise of the insects and birds was deafening. Little pockets of butterflies would spring up as we rode by, until we rounded a bend where the road was flooded. While the boys figured out the best way to get across, Catherine and I crept close to a puddle where thousands of butterflies were drinking. I have never seen so many. As we got nearer they all suddenly launched into the air and we were completely surrounded in a cloud of white and orange. It was such a beautiful moment.

On our way home we rode through herds of water buffalo being brought in for the night. As the sun began to set we had to keep stopping so that we could take it all in. At dusk a lot of insects came out but it took a while to figure out what it was that was hitting us (Steve was still scooping them out of his eyes the following morning). When we got back to the hotel we were making such a lot of noise about how amazing our day had been that we convinced an Aussie couple (Glen and Brie) to do the same thing the following day.

We spent 3 nights in Ninh Binh in total (we extended our stay after day 1). Another highlight was being rowed along a river through a myriad of caves and grottoes (Trang An). Rainbows end log flume eat your heart out. Basically if you come to this place and don't have a wicked time there is something wrong with you.

We caught an overnight bus to Hue when it eventually was time to leave. Not the most pleasant experience but compared to some stories I have heard we had a dream ride. We spent our day in Hue wandering the Citadel and relaxing and then had a hilarious night out with the people we had met in Ninh Binh. We stumbled back to our hotel room some time just before 3am comfortable in the knowledge that we could sleep in the next day before catching the afternoon bus to Hoi An only to have a phone call at 8am informing us that we had missed the morning bus, the afternoon bus (that we had booked to be on) was full and if we wanted to get to Hoi An that day we would need to leave immediately! So dazed and quite confused we were rushed onto a bus with only 1 spare seat. Steve took it in his stride and announced that he was fine on the floor and a kind British guy donated a cushion for the trip. Our hotel had given us half a watermelon as we didn't have time for breakfast so we cut this up at the rest stop and all in all it was pretty funny.

We are now in Hoi An and just having a lazy day today. Tomorrow we will visit My Son ruins, maybe on a tour or possibly by ourselves. Might get some clothes made as I split a pair of trousers getting onto a scooter. Now all I need to do is find somewhere that I can sort my photos out....


Thursday, 9 July 2009

Back to life but not quite to reality

OK so to say that it has been a while since I last posted anything would be a bit of an understatement! Unfortunately the Great firewall of China wouldn't let me get onto blogspot and since I've been in Vietnam (crossed the border on June 30th) I seem to have been just a wee bit busy. Not to mention that wood huts on Cat Ba island don't come equipped with internet access.

Anyway, rather than spend the rest of my time in Vietnam trying to catch up on what we did in China I have decided to run through our most memorable moments.

Beijing - really enjoyed our time here, could have easily stayed for longer

  • Gazing up at the 18 metre tall buddha carved from the trunk of a white sandalwood tree at Yonghegong Lama Temple
  • Learning how to make dumplings amid much hilarity (mainly at the state of our dumplings) at Gulou Hostel
  • Walking the length and breadth of Beijing trying to find an ATM that would give us money
  • Seriously considering eating a scorpion on a skewer...until it moved
  • The haven that is the airconditioned Beijing subway system
  • Standing on the Great Wall of China with the sun shining and being able to look in both directions without seeing anyone else
  • A whole Peking Duck fed the both of us for les than 7 quid - delicious
  • Wandering around the Imperial Gardens of the Forbidden City and Steve making me take undercover photos of Arsene Wenger (manager of Arsenal football team in case you were unaware)
  • Insisting we walk left out of the Temple of Heaven station and walking around half of the complex before finding an entrance when we could have turned left out of the station and walked right in (Steve is still smug about this)
  • Steamed buns by the lake and then climbing to the top of the Summer Palace complex
  • Chinese roadworks = digging up an entire street and running balance beams across water filled ditches
  • Having fun on the hard sleeper train from Beijing to Pingyao after negotiating Beijing West train Station (the largest train station I have ever seen)

Pingyao - a sweet little walled town. Didn't get up to much, just relaxed and wandered aimlessly

  • Harmony guesthouse with gorgeous garden courtyard
  • Cute Pingyao puppies
  • Playing made up games with a the little boy of the family who owned the reataurant where we ate lunch one day - singing, dancing, cards and kung fu
  • Finally mastering how to eat noodles with chopsticks
  • Buying Mao's little red book
  • Successfully buying our first train tickets without help from any english speakers (Steve would like to add that he bought these tickets as I was in a bad mood with China at the time. I would like to add that this was after not much sleep and some unpleasant encounters with rude people)
  • Jumping onto a (not quite stationary) train in the middle of the night by the light of the stars and a naked light bulb some distance down the train platform

Xi'an - had a blast in Xi'an and made friends with a sound Irish couple

  • Wandering the Muslim Quarter and snacking on sticky rice pudding, dumplings, pea flour cakes, dried kiwifruit and fried savoury pancakes
  • Looking across Terracotta Army, some soldiers restored and in formation, some still emerging from the earth
  • Riding a tandem bicycle around the 14km city wall
  • Discovering a carpark barbeque where the locals ate meat and guzzled beer into the wee hours (and us with them). Trying cow intestine (tastes like scallops)
  • Being 2 of thousands visiting the fountain and light show at the big goose pagoda - madness

Dehang - Tiny little village of Miao minority people. Lots of walking, beer and pot noodle (after the insect incident)

  • Met a charming pair of Students from Xi'an on the train to Dehang. They studied technological english and were really sweet
  • Meeting a 68 year old portrait painter from Guangzhou and having a long boozy lunch with him on the edge of the village square. Becoming firm friends and laughing constantly all without being able to speak to eachother except by pointing at words in our phrasebook
  • Randomly ordering food from a chinese menu and ending up with 4 plates; one with bak choi, one with cabbage one was an omelette and one piled high with insects stir-fried with green and red chillies (tasted like prawns)
  • Being shown the river out the back of our guesthouse after asking about how to wash clothes
  • Going on long beautiful walks in the surrounding karst countryside; watching people go about their daily lives on the rice paddies
  • Seeing giant moths, bats, lizards, snakes, dragon flies of every possible colour, huge hairy caterpillars, crabs, water buffalo, tiny frogs. The noise from the rice paddies at night was unbelievable but very easy to drift off to
  • Having a fight with a tiny old bird of a woman who demanded money after forcing me to put on an old shirt and pushing me into the seat of her loom (Or rather Steve had a fight with her - I was rendered speechless by the iron grip with which she clutched my arm!)

Fenghuang - Our time here was coloured a little by the fact that we couldn't get out of this town and that being 2 of only 4 westerners meant we got a lot of attention, especially with Steve's baby blue eyes. A very pretty town though.

  • Not actually knowing if we were in Fenghuang or not for the first hour as the bus station had been moved since our map was printed and all the signs were in chinese characters - this led to a less than pleasant traipse around the town as we tried to find a guesthouse in the sweltering heat backpacks and all
  • Eating whole freshwater crabs (shell and all)
  • Being amazed at how quickly a room can change from affordable haven during the day to bug filled hell hole at night
  • Not being able to buy a bus/train ticket ANYWHERE. Consequently feeling trapped and claustrophobic in a town with no other foreigners in it where noone spoke english and noone could understand our pitiful attempts at chinese
  • Being stopped every 50 metres so people could take a photo with us; having to stop every 10 metres or so to negotiate our way around people who didn't ask us for photos but blocked our path to take them anyway
  • Feeling much better about Fenghuang as soon as we were able to buy bus tickets to Zhang Jia Jie - enjoying our last night by eating icecream with our feet dangling over the river while the sun set behind us
  • Watching paper lanterns float down the river after dark

Zhang Jia Jie - we just chilled out here for a couple of days

  • The joy of being in a clean room with double bed TV, air con and mosquito nets on the windows
  • Exploring the our first chinese supermarket - buying random things with funny pictures on the labels just to see what they tasted like. A surprising winner was sweet bread rolls with ham sausages; mung bean biscuits sadly were no good
  • Watching the british Grand Prix in our room with cheap beer and pot noodle

Guilin - no real desire to go back here

  • Getting very annoyed with 2 touts who after having put us on a bus to Yangshuo made us get off the bus, walk across the bus depot (in the rain) only to get back on the same bus when it had driven to the other side. Luckily we only paid once and we kept our luggage with us. We shouted a bit which made us feel better. That was pretty much our only experience in Guilin.

Yangshuo - spent a good few days here enjoying the town and the surrounding countryside

  • Mountain biking 19 km around paddie fields and karst landscapes - getting very sunburnt with my day pack on and having the most ridiculous tan lines seen on a human being ever
  • Floating down the river on a boat and enjoying the view (and the breeze)
  • Cycling to and climbing up moon hill and admiring the fantastic view
  • Actually beginning to enjoy the hectic chinese traffic - an overwhelming sense of accomplishment washes over you after surviving it on a bike!
  • Passing a lady crouched on the side of the road eating lychees after doing her grocery shopping. Out of her shopping bag poked out two little puppy paws

Nanning - we basically stopped in Nanning as a means to get to Vietnam. Stayed in a wicked little hostel for a couple of nights.

  • Being lost in a bus depot somewhere in Nanning after getting off our bus and meeting a young man who, after seeing where we needed to get to in relation to where we were, insisted on driving us for over half an hour, calling ahead to our hostel to double check the address and then not accepting any money or food or anything from us - what a sweet guy
  • Having a night on the beers with a group of Americans and Finns
  • Steve catching someone with their hand in his pocket
  • Passing through the chinese border in an orderly fashion (there were even queues and shuttle buses) and then entering the mad free-for-all that is the vietnamese border control - literally throw your passport over a crowd of 20 at a guy behind a window and wait for him to pass it to another guy that will call your name out at random

Saturday, 23 May 2009

My dear friend

On Wednesday 20th May a light went out in New Zealand. A very dear friend, Cameron Anderson, passed away. Steve and I are devastated.

He would have been one of the first people we saw when we got back to New Zealand. That he won't be there is inconceivable.

RIP Cameron, we can't be at your funeral but we are holding a memorial in London on Monday afternoon.

I love you. You will be truly missed


Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Adieu, adieu to ye and ye and ye

See: lots of the good friends we've made (some we brought with us) in our time over in the UK
Smell: ....
Hear: lots of laughing
Touch: Played quoights, darts, pool, lots of hugs
Taste - best snacks ever! And a bit of tipple admittedly

Well more than a's Wednesday night and I have only just recovered sufficiently to update. Thank you to everyone who came along to our going away party at The Dog & Truck on Saturday. It was great to see you and Steve and I had a really great time.

Having a few teary moments as the goodbyes begin to come round. Tell you what is easing the pain a bit though; it's my last day of work on Friday for months (plural).

Running out of time to do things in. We are pretty much booked up every day/evening until we leave now. We have 7 boxes packed so far so we are feeling fairly organised but trying not to be smug about it as complacency will probably turn round and bite us on the bum.

Well back to it. Hmm what else can I try and organise before I go to bed?


Thursday, 14 May 2009

Farewell Watlington

See: A box of memories saved for a lifetime in a garden shed
Smell: Cut grass and loam
Hear: The boys cutting the lawn with a weed wacker
Taste: G&T at 6pm
Touch: The leaves of the vine growing over the final resting place of two very special people

Last weekend, Steve and I went up with Russell to Elbow Cottage, Uncle Ray and David's old place in Watlington to tend to the garden and for us to say our goodbyes.

When we first arrived in the UK in June 2005 one of our first outings was for Steve to see his Uncle and meet his partner of 45 years and also introduce me - his blushing bride. It was the first of many enjoyable visits we had to the cottage.

Sadly since then both have passed away, Raymond Stringer in 2006 and David Waite in 2008. Their ashes are scattered on their favourite spot in the garden and the cottage, though now empty, has not lost the sheen of the life they shared within its walls.

As we worked in the garden on Saturday the sun shone, the red kites circled overhead and a mischievous robin played games with me all afternoon as I chased it around the garden trying to get a photo. Going through the garden shed, we uncovered a box full of David's old photos and amongst it all I found a post card written by David to his father when he was a young boy:

Dear Daddy

I hope you have finished your book

here is a little story

One day Mr Brown

wanted to go

for a walk so

he went for one

The wind was

so strong that

it took his

hat away ha

ha ha

love from

David x x x

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Ukulele madness!

See: The ukulele orchestra of Great Britain
Smell: Nothing - too much pollen up my nose
Listen: 6 men and 1 woman do amazing things with 8 ukuleles
Touch: As little as possible - I am almost out of hand sanitiser
Taste: Belgian chocolate peanuts for dinner

Well I went to see this last night and had such a good time! Highly recommend it. My particular favourites were 'Life on Mars', 'Shaft' and 'Wuthering Heights'.

I am now considering becoming a ukulele groupie.