A Travellerspoint blog

Sa Pa


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Sa Pa is the subject of this blog even though we spent two nights in Hanoi beforehand while waiting for our train. We will cover Hanoi in our next blog.

Tania and I missed seeing Sa Pa the last time we visited Vietnam and were keen to put this back on our travel itinerary. We caught an overnight sleeper train in a soft sleeper from Dong Hoi arriving in Hanoi on 23 June 2015. There is supposed to be a difference between hard sleeper (3x2 bunk bed and harder mattress) and soft sleeper (2x2 bunk bed and soft mattress) but we didn’t notice too much difference this time. The boys always seem to sleep well which is great, considering the Vietnamese don’t seem to be as noise conscious as we are used to, they just go about their business whatever time it is with lots of doors banging and people yelling!
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The overnight train was always going to be a bit of challenge given that the trip is only around 8 hours. Our 20:17 train translated into a Lao Cai (3km from Chinese border!) arrival time of 4:30am. The boys did exceptionally well again, settling down and sleeping the trip and also waking up well to face the early morning. We couldn’t believe we could get a photo of Cameron looking so happy at this time of the morning.
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As soon as we got up in the mountains to Sa Pa we noticed a huge change in temperature. It was around 25 degrees, no humidity and was quite pleasant to walk around, a great relief from the weather we’ve had over the past few months. On the first couple of days we had sporadic rain and lots of mist, which looked fantastic with the mountains. It made it interesting for walks, but we did manage to explore quite a bit of the town.
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While Tania and I were happy to have made the trip to Sa Pa, it didn’t really strike as much interest in us as some of the other places we have visited. It was quite touristy and geared more for those interested in hiking the areas around it. I am sure this is something we would do if the boys were that bit older. The people from the ethnic minorities were everywhere through the town selling the wares they are famous for; extremely colourful skirts, hats and rugs that they weave themselves, identical to their own clothing. They’ve made an industry out of selling these products to the tourists that constantly pass through Sapa.
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We’re used to fending off the constant request to buy things that are part and parcel of travelling through Vietnam, but to be honest we haven’t seen it happen to the extent that we experienced in Sa Pa. The ladies would not take no for an answer, to the point where Cameron would turn around, put both his hands up in the air and say “No! We don’t want any!”

We did a trip out to the local Cat Cat Village and watched the Sa Pa (indigenous) people doing their weaving and sewing. We also visited some really nice waterfalls and had a great walk around the village area. We saw some of the most beautiful landscape scenery, with the mountains and the terraced rice fields, which I have tried to capture below. It was just nice to enjoy the cooler weather and see the sights of the town.
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After six days we headed back to Hanoi by daytime bus (watching Cameron devour his rice-only meal during our lunch stop), ready to spend the last couple of weeks we had in Vietnam checking out the capital
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Posted by tollidaytravels 23:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Dong Hoi & Phong Nha National Park (Caves)


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We decided to catch the train again for our trip from Hue to Dong Hoi. The train trip was about 3 hours and we went through more farming countryside with bullock-pulled ploughs. Who needs a tractor??

On the train, we met an Aussie guy (Glenn) who has retired and lives in Vung Tau (on the coast, east of Saigon – where Aussies fought during the war). He was on his way up to Phong Nha to stay with friends. Phong Nha is about 1 hour inland from Dong Hoi (on the coast) and is the location for the caves; the reason we were going there.

We looked for accommodation in Phong Nha but weren’t able to find anything we were happy with. We decided to stay in Dong Hoi and take a tour bus to the caves from there. We weren't all that sure what was at Dong Hoi but thought we would give it a go. Glenn mentioned that he would be taking a trip into Dong Hoi and would visit the beach as it was a pretty good spot and was worth a visit. By a stroke of good luck we'd booked a place that happened to be right near the beach.

As we discovered the next day, it was a fantastic beach, and we spent every afternoon/evening swimming, eating dinner (usually something seafood) and enjoying a beer while the sun was setting. The little restaurant/backpackers we found overlooked the sand and all of the Vietnamese who also came to cool off in the ocean. We have visited a number of beaches in Vietnam but this one was by far the best. Very clean and clear water and good temperature for swimming. Not many westerners stop in Dong Hoi as people usually have limited time and tend to skip it and Hue, travelling between Hanoi and Danang (Hoi An). Although this might change with the caves now becoming a popular drawcard. It is certainly a good substitute for Nha Trang which has become extremely built up and touristy. Anyway, all of us had an awesome time and we slept very well each night.

As for the caves, they were nothing short of fantastic. We had chosen a tour as it offered transport, boat ride for one cave and lunch - allowing us to see what we wanted in one day. We went to see two caves – Paradise Cave in the morning and Tien Son caves in the afternoon.

Paradise Cave was discovered around 7-8 years ago by a guy around in the bush. I have absolutely no idea what that person was even thinking to be out in this location but what he stumbled on was nothing short of amazing. On further subsequent exploration and mapping, Paradise Cave turned out to be a 31 km length cave which stretches toward the Laos border. Regular visitors are restricted to going 1 kilometre into the cave however there are tours that will take you around 5-7 km’s in.

I remember reading about Paradise cave in National Geographic. It has now been incorporated in the Phong Nha National Park and has been set-up to cater for the tourism that is descending and will continue to descend on this place. While we didn’t get dimensions of the inside of the cave, you should get some feel for the size from the photos below.

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Tien Son Cave (we called it Phong Nha Cave) is accessed via a 30min boat ride from the Phong Nha Township. They essentially motor their way to the mouth of the cave, then cut the motor and paddle the rest of the way in. Although not as impressive as Paradise Caves, the roof height could be up to 100metres and water depth 30 metres plus. The river actually originates from within Laos and the Viet Cong Army used the cave to rest soldiers and set up hospitals etc. It was a lot cooler inside than out when we visited. On your way out, they let you off at a beach area inside the cave so you can explore and walk your way out. I will let the photos speak for themselves.
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Anyway, we had a look around Dong Hoi and saw out the rest of our time with some schoolwork and beach time. Although we loved the beach, we weren’t too impressed by the massive coachroaches we found in our room each day nor waking up in the night finding them perched on the walls and running around the room (generally 1-2 per day). Love geckos, not cockroaches! We could have easily stayed longer and taken more time to enjoy the beach and beautiful sunsets.
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And a day wouldn't be complete without a train drawing at sunset….
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Posted by tollidaytravels 03:04 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hue


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Well as usual time as slipped away from us, but here is our take on Hue.

After farewells to our friends in Hoi An, we caught the SE2 train from Danang to Hue, which took about 3 hours and was along some of the best Vietnamese coastline (which was the reason why we decided to take the train). It was lovely, the mountains covered in jungle came right up to the water. We could see secluded little beaches every now and then, which would have been just paradise if you could find your way to them (unfortunately the photos just don’t do it justice and we couldn’t escape the power lines). Train is the best way to travel around Vietnam, there are internal flights of course, but you miss all the extra scenery and it’s a lot safer than travelling on the roads!
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Our taxi ride from the train station to the hotel gave us our first impressions of Hue. It’s a very nice city, maybe about the size of Geelong and located on the Perfume River (love that name!). It was were the Emperor reigned over Vietnam from 1802 until 1945 when the long line of Emperors finally ended (incidentally control of the country was transferred to Ho Chi Minh). They choose that area based on the landscape providing security against invaders and then built a massive citadel to keep invaders out.

The sights to see are all a result of that reign, and we made use of a good day tour to get around and see some of the best while we were there over a couple of days. We saved a tour around the Citadel for a separate day. We didn’t want to stay in Hue for too long, we have one month left on the Visa and we still want to see the Phong Nha Caves, Hanoi and Sapa, so we decided to have a concentrated time of sight seeing and then move on.

We visited the tombs of two Emperors, Tu Duc (12th emperor) and Minh Mang (2nd emperor), both very different in their style but both amazing. Apparently when Minh Mang died his 500 concubines (yes, 500) had to all move out there and live there for 3 years, after which they all went home to their families. We thought later, what would have happened to the 140 plus children from the Emperor when he wasn’t there anymore? Here are some photos of the Minh Mang tomb.
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The Tu Duc tomb was fascinating, a lot smaller area than the Minh Mang tomb but a lot more colourful (on the inside at least), covered in gold and ceramic dragons, with gifts from all of the French ambassadors for the Emperors 40th birthday (the French were weasling their way into Vietnam by that stage).

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The tour we went on included a visit to a pagoda, and a ride on a dragon boat back to the city (which is always nice, a trip along the river is a great way to get a different perspective of a place).
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We saved the Citadel until the next day, because we’d heard that it was a huge area and that turned out to be right! This was basically a separate town within fortified walls, in the middle of Hue. The Emperor spent his entire reign inside, he didn’t need to leave since everything came to him! It was great to walk around and learn more about each of the 13 Emperors, the kind of people they were (which was sometimes amusingly honest) and the way that the Citadel operated in its prime. Sadly, this was bombed extremely heavily in 1947 and 1975, so there’s a major project underway to restore the Citadel fully to its former glory. Looking at the model of what used to be there, and what is actually there right now, the people working on the project have a major job ahead of them!
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It’s amazing how many people you meet and chat with when you’re travelling, even in our short time in Hue we had great chats with a mother and son from Belgium (the Mum lives in Florida now, and the son is teaching English in Saigon), an American who is travelling through Asia after spending time working in the vineyards outside of Adelaide, a young family from Brighton, UK, who are travelling around the world with kids even younger than ours, and numerous retired or semi-retired Australians who’ve made Vietnam their second home. It just brings home the point that it’s a big world and there’s so many things to experience.

Next stop, Dong Hoi and the Phong Nha National Park to see some amazing caves!

Posted by tollidaytravels 04:17 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

More Hoi An!

34 °C
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We've been in Hoi An for just shy of four weeks and have loved it just as much as when we came here 11 years ago. It is a bit of a tourist town but not overly so like we saw with Nha Trang. There is an old town area with UNESCO declared buildings (see previous blog). There are also countless tailors here where you can have anything from formal to a pair of jocks made - while I doubt the quality changes much, the prices sure do.

We have settled into a daily routine - breakfast, school work for a couple of hours, lunch, swim then a ride into the Old Town to find somewhere for dinner - throw in the odd tour or day trip every now and then. We are going to be fairly mobile again with our future travels, so it was good to knuckle down and get some work completed before this happens. Also, we have enjoyed incorporating 'local features' into the boys curriculum too.
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The days have been very hot and humid, which has limited us a bit in getting out and about (we don't feel like it, plus it's not worth taking the boys out in such strong heat), but we've still managed to see quite a bit and have great experiences!

We've been absolutely loving the cuisine here. Hoi An has quite a few specialties that are absolutely delicious. We've managed to find a few restaurants that cook these specialties beautifully, but don't break the budget! We've been eating Fried Wontons, White Rose (little parcels of shrimp/meat wrapped in wontons and steamed), Cao Lao (pork meat with noodles, lettuce and a special sauce), Hoi An Chicken Rice and BBQ Pork Salad (I have to say, this is the best pork that I've ever had).

One of those weekday type meals at the Old Garden restaurant
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Claypot rice at Banh Trang Tron - we were sitting on the verandah adjoining the lounge room of someone's house (we got a tip from an Aussie Expat)
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Set menu dinner at the Ba Le Well - pork skewers and rice pancakes wrapped in rice paper
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Being in one place for so long gives you an opportunity to see and experience how the locals live. This was certainly something that we were both keen to experience and we have been able to do this in the 4 weeks we have been in Hoi An. We've been having great chats with Mrs Ha, who has a little stall outside the hotel and has been teaching us some Vietnamese and generally letting us know why things are done the way they are. She also cooked us a lunch one day of sticky rice in banana leaves - Tan and I enjoyed this however the boys were just happy with steamed rice.
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We have got to know the hotel staff here quite well and are slowly improving our Vietnamese skills in conversing with them. In particular, one of the staff members Quyen ('Win') spoils us rotten and makes sure that they boys are always looked after with breakfast. Quyen works from 6 to 3 at the hotel and then from 4 to 8 at a restaurant in the old town (Two days off a month for R&R!). As it is very hot at lunch time, the Hotel Management kindly allowed Quyen to take us up to the Market each morning for us to buy our lunch. We then bring it back, where Quyen cooked it in the hotel kitchen. It is great of the hotel and very kind of the staff but best of all we get to eat with the locals! Lachlan also thought up and prepared a salad for all the hotel staff which was very kindly received.
Here's the vegetable market
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The fish market..
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Preparing the beef salad...
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And two of the meals we sat down to eat..
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The boys have been playing with some kids, Sophia and Connor, on the other side of the hotel. They have been helping them feed their baby chicks (which Lachlan has been super-excited about). They've seen all sorts of wildlife while we've been here; butterflies, dragon flies, bats, frogs, geckos (which can be really noisy when they sneak into your room at night!) and fish. We got invited to Sophia and Connor's Dad's (Mark) birthday one night - as usual we accepted without hesitation - Tan and I sitting outside at table and chairs on the river front feasting and drinking beer while the boys were playing! They had bought a piglet which got roasted over hot coals (no photos). We were quite impressed with the Vietnamese men at the party who made up a bamboo 'arch' to cook in on when they realised they didn't have anything in the kitchen. Pork was followed by homemade soup served by Mark's wife Han. Delicious - and we thought the piglet, clams and BBQ prawns were it!?! Birthday cake tartlets, prepared by a local bakery, followed.
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We have been invited around again tonight (13th) for a bit of a fairwell dinner.

Staying in Hoi An almost a month makes it difficult to miss a Lunar Festival. Apart from the street theatre and musician's, and generally large numbers of people on the street, we also did the local thing by buying and placing a lit paper lantern on the water and watching them float down the river. The lanterns, combined with all of the other lights and lanterns around the place, looked absolutely beautiful.
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We've been on a small boat ride with our new friend from Berlin, Daniella, up and down the river, which gives us a different perspective of the place and let us get a good photo of the Sun River Hotel that we're staying in! Ash even tried his hand at net fishing courtesy of some local fisherman who were only to pleased to come aboard teach us and then ask for a huge tip!! We got out in the Old Town and then went to a favourite restaurant for a big feast of Hoi An Speciality food.
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This was Ash trying netfishing
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... and this is how it should be done
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Here's the boat jetty in the old town..
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and all of us with Daniella at our favourite local food eatery - Pho Xua
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We did manage a local tour and went back towards Danang to visit the Marble Mountains. It was certainly a climb to get up to the main walking areas, pagoda's and cave's.
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The views from the top's were worth the climb in the heat to reach the summits.
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There was a lot more here to see than what we initially thought. 5 large marble outcrops have had Pagoda's built over them and their cave's developed into worship areas. Huyen Khnong Cave would have had to have been the highlight for us all.
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Needless to say that it just wouldn't be Vietnamese tourism without souvenirs to buy of your experiences, so the roads around Marble Mountain have Marble shops where you can buy anything from a small trinkets to 2-3 metre high statues of Buddha.
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After Marble Mountain, we got dropped off at the An Bang Beach in Hoi An for some lunch and a swim. The beaches are beautiful and the waters crystal clear. After a treat of burgers at the beachfront restaurant, they boys had a great time swimming in the ocean.
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One of our daily sights which you could set your watch to is the '8 o'clock ladies' and it has become a bit of a novelty to look out for them. They are a group of women travelling to the market with all of their daily produce to sell on a boat that sounds like it has no exhaust. I'd be surprised if any of the woman have any hearing left.
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And what blog is ever complete without a photo of a local dunny.
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So now we're leaving tomorrow, and we don't really want to. We're looking forward to the plans we have over the next few weeks, but we've really enjoyed what we've done here. We have enjoyed coming back to Hoi An and this remains our top pick of places to come back and live - our second home if you like. Hopefully we have been able to convey a bit of the vibe and great experiences we have enjoyed over the last 4 weeks.

Posted by tollidaytravels 00:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An

33 °C
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We arrived in Hoi An on the 19th May 2015, after a rather interesting ‘local’ bus ride. Prices for the bus trip seemed to be whatever the guy felt like at the time, and we caught up with some Canadian travellers and shared travel stories which made the trip go quite quickly. After a brief taxi ride to the hotel, we started to settle in to our new lodgings.

When we look for hotels, we consult a number of information sources. Tripadvisor is one of them and Tania’s sharp eye managed to find the Sun River Hotel, recommended for families, and what a gem it is. It sits immediately adjacent to the Thu Bon River and is about 2km from the Central Market and Old Town Area.

Our breakfasts consists of a table adjacent to the river with some amazing views.
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One of the hotel staff, Win, has taken to the boys and from day one made sure they had enough breakfast by bringing them out more food as needed. Tan has taken to the ice coffee’s but for me, it’s the Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk which are an absolute dream. It’s quiet where we sit and extremely relaxing and the boys happily excuse themselves back to the room giving Tania and I 15-30minutes of time together to soak up the atmosphere.
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There is a huge range of restaurants here offering a great variety of food. Due to the location of the hotel, it involves a 5-10 minute bike ride there and back but after a few days of practice we have all pretty much mastered the bikes and it has become part and parcel of our meal routine.
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Tan and I came to Hoi An about 11 years ago and although there has been some development around the place, it’s still retained it’s charm and great vibe. The UNESCO World Heritage listing has also stopped it from being overdeveloped. The Old Town area, while looking a bit run down in areas, just has an amazing beauty to it and you can’t help soaking up the atmosphere as you walk/cycle through it.
By day...
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And by night...
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And finally, another great hotel feature is the pool. We have had some fairly humid and hot days and nothing beats a daily dip in the pool straight after schoolwork and lunch.
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Posted by tollidaytravels 07:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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