Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Halong Bay

This was the place that the Top Gear Vietnam Special really sold to me - if you haven't seen it, Clarkson & Co. had to ride motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City up the length of the country, finishing in Halong Bay (after turning their motorbikes into boats, of course). The shots of this place were just amazing; a maze of huge limestone rocks jutting out of a turquoise sea, it looked magical, and so was instantly placed on the 'to-do' list.

We were persuaded by a lady in our hotel to book a tour through them so that we could leave the bulk of our luggage in our room, which was definitely worth doing. To her disappointment, we declined the luxury tour, and went for the standard three day option - I really can't imagine the luxury option could have been much better as our tour was fantastic!

Halong City is roughly three hours drive from Hanoi, and there really isn't much there to see other than the huge tourist-infested harbour that houses about 600 junk boats and lots of Vietnamese tour guides trying to herd their groups around. It's much better once you're on the boat! As we were there mid February, we didn't see the place at high season, and therefore our boat was only half full, with ten of us in total. It was a mixed bag - we shared with a Danish family with two young children, a young French couple, a middle aged German guy and a young Swedish girl (both travelling alone). Despite being with a scattering of Europeans, we all sat and spoke in English - good for us, but also a little embarrassing that we couldn't even attempt to speak to anyone else in their native tongue. The English education system really should sort that one out.

It takes about an hour to get to the Halong Bay you might have seen; dramatic chunks of jagged rock randomly jutting out of a serene sea, making a maze for the junk boats and fishermen. They slowly appear out of the sea mist and are just mesmerizing, and kind of eery. It's not a great description, but it's the best I can muster.

The first stop of the tour was at 'Surprise Cave' (pictured), which was amazing, the sheer size and elaborate shapes and patterns that have been ingrained into the rock. Our guide showed us several animal shapes in the rock - some were more lifelike than others! Outside the cave was a small floating village, I think it has probably only been there for as long as the tourists have been visiting, where we had the chance to do some kayaking, making sure to avoid the boats and massive rocks of course! It would have gone smoothly had my kayaking partner not been paddling against me any time I tried to steer us anywhere. Hilarious, I'm sure.

The next morning was my favourite part of the trip. It wasn't waking up at 6.30am, it wasn't the cold shower, it was opening up the cabin door to the scenery I had forgotten was outside; sunshine, miles of deep blue sea, and the imposing, grassy rockface that was stood staring at me. "Oh yeah, that's where I am. Cool." The second day of the tour involved disembarking on a couple of the larger islands in the bay. We had the joy of renting some very old bikes, without any gears and questionable brakes, which made the steep hills quite interesting! Once we got to the village in the middle of the island though, it was definitely worth it. There were very few people living there, all in simple houses and huts, where they grew rice and bred chickens and pigs, but yet they had mobile phones and one little boy I spotted was wearing a football T-shirt with a big bling necklace! The scenery was stunning, lush and green, with dramatic hills that looked like they were from the set of Jurassic Park. The second island, Cat Ba, was quite large and built up, and would be our home for the night. It looked as though it had been built for tourists - lots of multi storey hotels, restaurants and bars - one of which suddenly started blaring out the all-time classic Who Let The Dogs Out?, brilliant. As it wasn't high season, the place was almost like a ghost town, but I kind of liked it that way - there's nothing like being the only person on a beach.

It was a truly astounding place, and remained one of my favourite parts of the two month trip, despite being right at the beginning. We left the majestic calm to return to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Tet - Happy New Year!

It's the most important event in the Vietnamese calendar, on the same day as Chinese New Year, Tet is the celebration of a new Lunar year. We were pretty naive, turning up in Hanoi as the locals finalised their plans and preparations, as to how big a deal it was - in England you go out, get drunk, spend New Year's Day hungover, and then go back to work. In Vietnam, you go back home to be with your family, get drunk (but in a respectful and orderly manner), and spend time with your family for at least the next few days. As a foreigner this means that the buses and trains are fully booked and more expensive than usual, and many shops and restaurants are closed, and tours are off. So, while some things were made off limits, I think we managed to get some different added extras.

The best of these was the New Year celebrations themselves. A very friendly woman working in our hotel informed us that the best place to go in the city was Hoan Kiem Lake, so we headed there around 10pm to get a good spot to sit down. Of course, we then had two hours to wait until the excitement of midnight and fireworks, so we had to fill the time with naming an A to Z of bands and films, and people watching. The latter activity was particularly interesting, as the youth of Hanoi - which seems to hide somewhere during the day - was out in force, clutching at little bags of popcorn, and tottering on ridiculously high heels. Not so different from what you'd find at home, except that there was no swigging alcohol, no violent pushing, no shouting. Evidently, you don't get Vietnamese chavs.

The fireworks themselves were distinctly average compared to what you can see at New Year in London, but it was the reactions of everyone around us that made it special - genuine awe and excitement, with 'Oohs' and 'Aahs' and everything!

Walking back to the hotel, everyone seemed to be on a high, and - somewhat oddly - Abba's Happy New Year was blasting out from shops and restaurants as we walked back to the hotel. But there was still no escape, the damn song was on repeat in the hotel lobby, where we were obliged to stay for a little 'party' we had just walked in on. This consisted of the guys working in the hotel (who, by this point, were both rather drunk, which was funny) forcing cans of beer, glasses of whisky, and trays of fruit on a slightly uncomfortable group of their guests, and every so often going into long stories about what the Vietnamese do on New Year - which, in fairness, was quite interesting. I'm not sure whether many hotel workers in England would provide an array of food and drink for their guests on New Year just so that they can involve them in their celebrations. The whole evening was a great experience.

Monday, 12 April 2010


After a very long journey, we arrived tired and bewildered into Noi Bai airport and were instantly approached by a young Vietnamese guy who spoke very good English - he supported Chelsea (English football is huge out there), his favourite player was John Terry, he liked Cheryl Cole and Britney Spears, oh, and a friend of his had a taxi and could give us a lift to our hotel. It sounded like a great offer. We weren't to know then, having just arrived and in an inferior state of awareness, but all the signs of a con were there - it wasn't a metered taxi, and they kept telling me that I was 'very beautiful' - firstly, after so many hours of travelling, this was never going to be the case, but it is a very good indicator of when you are being ripped off! So, these 'helpful' guys dropped us off at an ATM and instructed how much we should take out - you cannot get Vietnamese Dong (VND) outside Vietnam, so unfortunately we weren't aware of what the exchange rate was. Basically, what should have been a $30 taxi ride cost us nearer $200. Not the best start to a budget trip, but you live and learn. Where some countries are known for violence, Vietnam's biggest problem is its' con artists, so chances are we were going to experience one at some point. It's not what you want as soon as you get there, though.

After an initial minor setback, we weren't put off by the city. It was actually pretty charming, if completely disorientating. The streets are manic, filled with people, stalls - food, souvenirs...anything!, but mostly mopeds and motorbikes. They're everywhere. They fill the roads - to try and cross you have to hold your breath, walk, and hope that you're avoided, and if the roads get too busy, well, people take to the pavements, honking at you for being in the way. In the middle of this chaos, is Hoan Kiem Lake, a centre of calm. There are pavements surrounding it where people quietly sit, or the more energetic exercise. The multicoloured lanterns and extravagant flower displays were added extras that had been put up in preparation for the Tet celebration (Vietnamese New Year) that was coming up that weekend.

We went on the city's walking tour, as outlined in the Lonely Planet guide, which gave a really interesting overview as it took us through a cross-section of the Old Quarter, the city's temples, and traditional markets. One market in particular sticks in my memory - it was busy, so you had to walk through it very slowly, which was fine when the stalls were selling fruit, vegetables, or household goods. But then there was the pretty extensive meat section, which tested my gag reflex. Piles and piles of raw meat surrounds you, that had presumably had been sat out until early that morning, as well as a big bag of live toads, chicken feet, goose head and necks, and probably a host of other delights that I missed as I covered my nose and mouth and focused on nothing more than getting away from the smell.

There is a wealth of cultural buildings, museums, temples and pagodas dotted in the centre of the city and all around it. I don't think we did a bad job of taking in the culture. Our first stop was the Temple of Literature, a complex dedicated to early Vietnamese scholars and their teachers, which had been celebrated with a collection of ornate shrines and large stone plaques with tortoises at the bottom.  Every shrine is looked after with such care, there is always burning incense, fresh flowers, food - usually fruit, and the whole temple is spotlessly clean. In fact, Vietnam in general is a very clean place, there is no litter, and it is not uncommon to see women sweeping the streets near their shop or stall just to clear the dust.

As for the famous Ho Chi Minh complex, which contains the mausoleum, the museum, Ho Chi Minh's house and stilt house, and botanical gardens...our visit was a little unsuccessful. Granted, it was our own fault for not reading the guide properly, and failing to notice that it was closed between 12 and 2, so turning up at 1 wasn't great, but, it wasn't our fault that Ho Chi Minh was not in his mausoleum...apparently every so often he gets sent to Russia to be cleaned. It's kind of morbid, but it makes sense that a corpse needs cleaning once in a while. Eurgh. On a brighter note, if you go at the right time of day, when Ho Chi Minh is in town, the complex is beautifully maintained and well worth seeing. We did manage to have a nose around the stilt house, which was interesting, but the leafy grounds surrounding it are much more striking, not to mention the pond teaming with excitable carp!

Saturday, 10 April 2010


As I have mentioned, I have recently been away on a trip to Vietnam - an idea born on a dark, wintery British night when I imagine a lot of people are tempted to try and escape the cold and cloud. I received a text from a friend asking 'Have you ever thought about going travelling? Maybe to Asia?' Well, of course I have! I didn't think anything would actually come of this casual question, but pondering and planning began, and eventually a trip was born - albeit a very disorganised were only booked a couple of weeks before we wanted to leave, and we pretty much made up our route as we went along, but it's all part of the fun.

Initially the plan was to do a grand tour of the whole of South East Asia, something the majority of fellow travellers we met seemed to be doing, but with time and money constraints we realised we wouldn't be able to see any country 'properly', rather a skimmed snapshot version. It was then a toss-up between Thailand and Vietnam, as these two countries seemed to have a lot to offer, but are so different. A pros and cons list was needed to make the ultimate decision; Thailand was well suited to first time travellers, has a great party scene, amazing scenery, ladyboys to study...but then Vietnam has so much history and culture (which I knew virtually nothing about), and it looked amazing on the Top Gear Vietnam Special, and their currency is 'Dong', which is always funny..."I have a pocket full of Dong", "Get your hands off my Dong" etc etc. It eventually came down to a coin toss to choose where to go, and as I was about to reveal whether our fate was heads or tails, we both realised that we didn't want to look, as it might mean that we couldn't go to Vietnam...problem solved!

While I was away, I conscientiously kept a diary of everything we got up to - where we went, what we saw, what we ate - so that I could jog my own memory, and so that I could have something to write about when I got back. Since I've been home though, I have to admit that I've found even just talking to friends and family about the trip a little difficult...someone asks "So, how was Vietnam?", and I answer "It was amazing," but as for further elaboration, well, I just don't know where to start.

The Vietnamese have a saying, which unfortunately has been immortalized on to tourist T-shirts, 'Same Same, But Different', and that pretty much sums up their culture in relation to ours. I was fortunate enough to travel the length of the country, as well as across the Mekong Delta, where there was a lot of differences in both the landscape and the people, and I think the only way to try and describe this country and culture to someone is to take it in little steps. So I'll start at the beginning; the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Apollo 101

I first came across this Norwich based band a couple of months ago when I had the pleasure of reviewing their single One More Chance. Now the boys have a whole, brand spanking new EP, Here And Now, and I once again get to have a listen and impart my humble opinion! Not a bad swap...

For those who haven't yet heard of them, Apollo 101 are comprised of brothers Chris and Andy Walker and Josh Rayman, whose major influences come from the likes of Feeder, Muse, and a collection of gems from the '80s - all of which can be traced in their uber catchy songs packed full of synthesizers. On their newest EP are tracks Here And Now, One More Chance, and Push, as well as a couple of acoustic and remix versions chucked in for good measure.

Each song is quite different; Here And Now is infectious, the kind of song you could see in an '80s movie that has the 'crazy kid' jumping around their room, One More Chance laments a lost love to a catchy beat and a rocking bit of guitar, and Push has much stronger guitars, with an irresistible 'wo-oh-oh' you can't help but sing along to. The acoustic version of Push adds another level to the track as it is given a bit more heart. Fingers-crossed a studio album will follow next...keep cranking up the guitars guys!

Check out more from Apollo 101 here...

Every family has a weird Uncle...

...But an Uncle Ugs? They're not so common. It's okay, I'm not about to give you a breakdown of my family tree, Uncle Ugs is in fact stage name for Surrey boy Alex Martin, a rising artist on the local music scene. Armed with little else than his voice and an acoustic guitar, 'Ugs' manages to produce music that sounds like it has had a whole army of people tuning and tweaking the sounds to get them just right. From the 'Halfway EP', you can download (for free!) Halfway, Curse The Day, and I'd Do, really great songs that combine a chilled out sound with some haunting vocals and lyrics that seem to have genuine feeling behind them - unfortunately a rarity in the manufactured pop age we live in. The Uncle Ugs sound is hard to pin down, think of some main stream Thom Yorke, mixed with a bit of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly!, and the rest is just something extra!

Hopefully you're intrigued, to find out more information and have a listen to these songs and other material for yourself, check out:

Explaining my absence

So, my last post is dated towards the end of January...and now it is all who are hanging on my every word (!) I apologise, but I do have a pretty good excuse; I've been in Vietnam for the majority of this time. And I have lots of highly exciting posts backed up to feast your eyes on, so worry not!

Ok, ok, I'll get typing...