The last 4 weeks of our travels have been anything but a set plan.
19.04.2012 - 17.05.2012 32 °C
Has it really been 4 weeks?
So here we are, it's been quite some time since I sat at a computer ready to disperse the much anticipated information of what we've been up to, and whilst I may have just slightly over cooked the readiness in which everyone is at home waiting for this entry, I must say that I apologize. I did intend to do an entry before leaving Bangkok but that never happened, and then we simply haven't had the time to do it, so it just means that there's rather a lot to cram into this one. So here goes, kettles boiled, brews made, Rich Teas at the ready, it's time once again for those steady 20 minutes of reading time with Brett and Bethany
The cost-saving border crossing
The last time we wrote we were just leaving Nepal, which now seems like months ago. Our destination was Vietnam but we decided that we would fly to Bangkok and then cross the Cambodian border, continuing on to the Vietnamese border, eventually ending up in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Two reasons...firstly we thought it would be much more fun, as well as cheaper, if we did our border crossings over land instead of flying, which would reduce our carbon footprint as well of course. The second reason was that we couldn't get to Thailand over land because of Burma getting itself all in the way and such. From Nepal the only way to get into Burma, and therefore through Burma, is to fly in, which meant that one way or the other we needed to fly. Which leads on to the second reason for Bangkok over Saigon...about $330! This was the difference between flying to Bangkok instead of Saigon, which also meant that we could continue our plan of crossing over land, even if it was just for a little bit.
So we arrived in Bangkok after about a 2 hour delay in our flight time, went straight to the backpacker area of Khao San Road and found ourselves an extremely basic room complimented with a fan, a toilet with no flush, (stupidly loud) music until 3/4am and humidity of about 4000% or so, which attributed directly to my favourite friend heat rash appearing on my feet after about 3 days. Still, we're travelling bums, that's what we have to deal with if we only pay 400 Baht for a room (about 8 pounds)...that is of course until you find that you have to spend about 3 days longer in Bangkok that you had originally planned, in which case you grab your things as soon as you get back (even though you've already paid for that night), meander about 10 minutes away from Khao San Road and find a lovely place with quieter, cleaner rooms with air conditioning and even a 'please clean my room' door knob hang, all for the princely sum of 450 Baht - about a pound more. It's fair to say that worked out quite nicely for us.
The 3 day delay came about when we were organising our visas for Cambodia and Vietnam. For reasons that have drifted to the back of our minds we had a feeling that the Cambodian visa could be a bit of a mission to get, not because of our nationality or anything, just because of 'procedures' and because the Cambodian embassy's locality was a bit more difficult to get to than the Vietnamese embassy, so we decided on Monday morning to get there first and then try to get the Vietnamese visa sorted the day after when we had our passports back. In the event it worked out not to be that bad at all. Granted we had to get a boat, then sky train, then metro, then taxi to get to the embassy...to find that it had closed for lunch 15 minutes before we arrived, but we simply had a walk down the road to a restaurant where nobody spoke English apart from a rather friendly Thai chap who helped us out by ordering our delicious lunch (fried rice with sort sort of pork tasting balls in a soup), went back to the embassy after a Magnum from a 7-Eleven, handed over the required paperwork and walked out with our visa 15 minutes later. Happy days.
So it was now 2:15, we got a taxi back to the metro, the metro back to the sky train, and the sky train to the stop for the Vietnamese embassy to try and get both in one day, after all the Vietnamese one should be simple...
Hmmm yes, whenever I recount getting our Vietnamese visa I can never put my finger on way I thought it was such a hassle, we handed over the required paper work and got our visa 3 days later, I think it was just the Vietnamese way of dealing with any kind of organisation or bureaucracy that did it. At the time we wondered if it were to be an introduction to Vietnam or if it was simply a one off after getting so lucky with the Cambodian visa, now we know it was definitely an introduction.
To fill you in please answer the following question assuming that you'd just handed over the required paperwork:
Can you pick the passports up tomorrow (it being 3 pm the quickest they could do it was for the following day)?
Answer: To us it was simple, we had nothing to do so yes of course.
Excellent...chap fills in a form...please pay at the counter immediately next to me. (So you don't take payment? You have a whole separate area for payment? A whole 2 inches to your left?).
Ok fine, he hands the payment lady the slip that he has just written on...at which point I notice sign-writing on the window stating that only Thai Baht is accepted as payment (even though on their website it lists visa fees in US dollars). Price is displayed to me in Thai Baht via the use of a calculator...that seems a lot of money, do you accept US dollars?
Of course they do, but only if the payment lady can let out an almighty sigh first, and then once again display the amount using the calculator from before. It's strange but I never knew 'an arm and a leg' could be displayed on a calculator screen but there it was in clear view. How much?! (In the Lonely Planet we'd read that visas cost '$30-$60 which in itself is odd because normally a visa costs 'X' amount, not a fluctuation) The price before me was $180!! But how, there's only 2 of us?!
Payment lady with her best upside down smile cheerfully exclaims that it's because we asked for the express service of course.
We did? When? Oh that must have been the informative 'Can you pick the passports up tomorrow (at a cost of $60, because sir, this is the express service, alternatively we have the normal 3 day service at which no extra charge is incurred)?'
Right, well actually no we'd rather spend a couple more days in Bangkok thanks, so that brings the total down to $120 which is the maximum they can charge someone for a visa, either money was low that day or they just didn't like my face because I can't find any explanation as to why it would cost more than $30 each, but still, the visas were indeed processed in the 3 days stipulated and there was no exchange of words upon pick up in case anything else were to be misconstrued.
Thailand to Vietnam
So we had a few days to fill and because we'd already done a fair bit of shopping and had never actually explored Bangkok, that's what we decided to do. It was a really lovely few days, especially with our new room welcoming us every night. We visited a number of temples, experienced all manner of transport and sampled a ridiculous amount of Thai food, all of which was either delicious or very good. The fresh fruit and shakes were an amazing change from the mass of rice and fried foods that we had for the whole time in Nepal. We even went to Lumphini Boxing Stadium to watch Muay Thai (Thai Boxing). In all it made our trip to Bangkok seem more worthwhile and made us feel like we'd given it a good go, there's nothing worse than visiting a place and not exploring it at all because we don't feel like we've got a fair reflection of it then - and now we actually like Bangkok quite a bit which is better than our thoughts before having been there on a stop over to Australia 5 years ago.
So all content and ready for something new we headed for Vietnam on the Friday morning. We used to always stock up with crisps, bread and biscuits for these long bus journeys but we've got quite used to just eating anything on the menu at the stops along the way so all we made sure we had was a bottle of water. We travelled for the whole day on the bus, crossing the border at about 1pm with no trouble, arriving at Siem Reap (the home of Angkor Wat) in Cambodia at about 7pm. Hotel found we went out and had some Cambodian cuisine for dinner whilst being in shock at how built up Siem Reap was, we were expecting dusty roads and small guest houses, instead we saw amazing 4/5 star hotels and well, seemingly a lot of money floating about somewhere. But we were off again in the morning, on a bus all day again ending up in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh at about 4pm. Like I said before we really don't like visiting a place without exploring a little but the purpose of our trip through Cambodia was solely to get to Vietnam, so we had to sail straight through and promise to ourselves that we'd be back (which we will be!), although Phnom Penh may well get the cold shoulder when we return because it didn't seem all too nice to us on first impressions but we have been told otherwise since then. The morning after brought another bus journey, crossing the Vietnamese border with the aforementioned smoothness of our day getting visas. Although no problems occurred, why they decided to stamp the whole bus's passports at once with everyone waiting in a huddle with all their luggage, waiting for their name to be called so they could muddle their way through the crowd of obliging participants to collect their passport and continue on, instead of simply dealing with each person in turn, is beyond me, but that's how things are done on the Vietnamese border. Then onwards to Saigon arriving at about 2pm.
3 fast paced weeks
We now had 29 days to see Vietnam which sounds a lot, but when you spend 3 long bus journeys looking at things to do in Vietnam, it suddenly becomes a bit of a headache. There really was so much that we wanted to do, and still is, but we had to make a plan as to what we could do, and what we'd have to leave out. This has meant that since 29th April we have constantly been on the move and doing things which has been equally as nice as it has been tiring. In short we have made our way up the coast of Vietnam visiting Saigon, Mui Ne simply for the beach (and after having a very minor crash in the bus on the way, transferring to a comfortable seat in the aisle of another bus for the remaining 3 hours of the journey), Nha Trang for some snorkeling and scuba diving in the reef there, Hoi An (which I'll come to later), Hue to see the old Citadel and Forbidden City as it used to be Vietnam's capital city, Ninh Binh (another favourite that I'll come to later), Hanoi - current capital city which is where we are now, and Halong Bay. We are still to return to Saigon to visit Hannah and JP and see the city a bit more, travel through the Mekong Delta and have a relaxing day on Phu Quoc island.
Everyone has their favourites
Our favourites have been Hoi An and Ninh Binh without a doubt. We have really enjoyed our trip so far and I think every place has been worth a visit at least, some more so, but Hoi An and Ninh Binh have been delights to visit. Hoi An is a nice town-sized place with some beautiful architecture and a lovely old town to wander through on a lovely (if not too hot) sunny day. There is such a relaxed feeling about the place which is probably because it's one of the only places we've visited that hasn't been a small city at smallest, and the beach in our opinion is the best one that we've been to in Vietnam. All of this and we spent our 3 days there with some really good friends in the Rudderhams and JP. Hannah (one of Bethany's bridesmaids) and JP are working in Saigon and have been since October (I think), and Hannah's parents had come over to visit in May, so we luckily had our plans cross over in Hoi An. It was brilliant seeing some familiar faces again, it always is when you're away from home, and we had such a lovely few days together so thanks guys - especially for helping us in our time of need.
That's right, I LOST MY WEDDING RING!! We were all at the beach and JP (still your fault) said it would be a good if we had a ball to throw around. Me being the sport hater begrudgingly went off and purchased a particularly good ball for throwing around either on the beach or in the sea, it really was splendid. Then, before some pretty macho throwing around from JP, Ian and myself, Bethany, Hannah, JP and I all took the ball into the sea for some light hearted throwing around, which developed into piggie-in-the-middle naturally (this time Hannah's fault), which got quite physical to the point that JP threw the ball into some space for me to swim to whilst Bethany grappled with my left arm. I got free and just as I was about to break into a majestic swimming style Bethany screamed 'BRETT HAVE YOU GOT YOUR RING ON?!!' to which I half nodded and brought my left hand up to see that the ring in fact was gone. Panic ensued...
Luckily - somehow - JP and I had managed to stay in around about the same location to where the ring had fallen off, and luckily the sea was very clear, and luckily the girls had gone to buy some goggles to search around for the ring. I had a go under the water with no success as did Hannah, JP and Ian who had joined in the joviality, but Bethany was tiring emotionally pretty quickly, struck with panic (being as it was - by her own (later) admission - her fault that it had come off) she asked for the goggles for one last attempt. I handed them to her promptly, she dove down and immediately returned to the surface with her arm in the air, mouth open trying to shout that she'd found it but instead swallowing and chocking on sea water, with a huge relieved look on her face. She had indeed found it and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. The rest of the day was spent in the lovely sun and on our bicycles with a 'I can't believe we found it' from Bethany roughly every 20 minutes. But of course we were all in good spirits after that and the next few days were much better than they would have been had we not found it.
Ninh Binh was different because it was overlooked by most other backpackers and tourists. It was so nice and peaceful! We spent our time with an English guy called Steve who was the only one to get off the bus with us, everyone else went on to Hanoi. The three of us went for a bike ride on our first day to Tam Coc which was beautiful. It's known as the 'Halong Bay of the paddy fields' but in our opinion Halong Bay should be named after Tam Coc. Obviously Halong Bay is more renowned and is much bigger but the combination of beautiful limestone mountains and gloriously green paddy fields, floating through on a small boat with barely anyone else there was just fantastic. We had a couple of hours on the boat in the scorching heat and then continued on our bike ride, climbing to the top of one limestone mountain to get a wonderful view, and just enjoying the rest of the countryside. The next day in Ninh Binh was spent on motorbikes riding around Cuc Phuong National Park. It took some time to get to the park but it was a beautiful ride along quiet roads and through the forested national park. We then spent a couple of hours losing about 3 stone in sweat by trekking to a 1000 year old tree. We thought we'd got lost but it turned out we hadn't but we still ended up returning to Ninh Binh in the dark which in itself was an adventure because somehow between the 3 of us, we hadn't noticed that we'd somehow turned completely around to face north instead of facing south which is where we needed to go. So we added a good 30 minutes to our return trip on the bikes but it was a cracking ride once again, supplemented by the sound of thunder and lightning.
A few days of rest, a well deserved treat
After those 2 days we headed to Hanoi and straight on the Halong Bay, then returned to Hanoi once more, planning on going to Ba Be National Park, but we decided that we'd spend the 3 days in Hanoi, with one on a motorbike to a closer national park (Ba Vi), and soke up the capital city and basically to unwind for a bit because we were so tired from all of the travelling around. So we've visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum this morning which was good, and now we're ready for our flight tomorrow back to Saigon. We still have a lot to do in Vietnam so still lots to look forward to. Overall we have found it to be a truly beautiful country and the people are generally really nice, and they've been a great help to us when we've ventured out of the main tourist areas, just take deep breathes when it comes to dealing with them about any kind of business.
Plans are made to be broken
We had originally planned to go to Indonesia after Vietnam, over land and sea of course, but we have since decided to change our plans. Since 2008 - when we left Australia - we have always wanted to travel the northern territory in Aus. We managed to travel the east coast up to Fraser Island, and the west coast from Perth to Broome, but couldn't afford to do the north, so now we have the money we've decided to fly over to Brisbane, travel north to Cairns taking in the Great Barrier Reef along the way, and then travel across from Cairns to Broome. It'll mean that we'll have travelled almost everywhere we've wanted to in Aus except Ulluru which we'll visit another time. It works out that we can either see Ulluru or spend a month in Asia, so we've gone with the latter. Whilst we're there we'll also see a few friends from our last trip which is very exciting, as well as a few friends from home in Jim & Kellie and Ginny & Zoe, so it should be a really nice trip. It gives our carbon footprint a huge kick in the stomach and means we'll also have less time in Asia afterwards but we're more than happy with those consequences if it means we can do the north, so we're extremely excited by the prospect. Only 10 days to go until we fly :D
So with all our plans laid out I guess it's time to bid you farewell on this occasion and leave you with a couple of pictures once again. I hope you've enjoyed this monster effort, the next one will either be a fair bit shorter because it'll be before we leave for Aus, or another marathon attempt if it's at the end of Aus, time will tell.
We both hope you're all well, take care