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Mal and Laura

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A bit of China and Vietnam
Mal and Laura's Travel Blog
Mal and Laura's Travel Blog

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Sitting on a boat on the Bay

Ha Long, Vietnam

6:30 am. Showered, dressed and packed for 7:15 am. Served a relativelty disappointing baguette with jam and butter to get us through the morning on the bus. Yes, we're off on a field trip.
Ha Long Bay is a 2,00 sq. km. area of the Nort East coast of Vietnam and home to some of the most impressive karsts (there's that word again) in the world. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organazation) has declared the bay a World Heritage site but we'll come to that in a bit. Firstly the trip. The minibus picked us up at 8:00 from the hotel and we were packed in with a very varied group. An Aussie backpacker who has spent 6 out of the last 10 years travelling the world, an Aussie family with 2 young girls and a boy, two french girls who have spent the past 6 months teaching English in Ho Chi Minh city and three business men from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan respectively who were on a group getaway from work in Singapore. The 180 km trip took over three hours due to the fact that there is a 60km/h speed limit on most of the roads. This was also prolonged by our stop at a 'tourist warehouse'. This pretty much does what it says on the tin. Its a big warehouse full of touristy crap that you don't want or need and the tour buses stop there for an indeterminate amount of time. To imagine it, think of what John Lewis would look like if it were established in Communist Eastern Europe about 20 years ago. When we did arrive we were greeted by some British weather, rain, which sounds bad but was quite refreshing given the heat wave of the last few days. Next we had to find out what boat we were on. All of the tourist boats were dressed up and painted in various bold colours to make them more impressive than the next. We were guided down the docks to ours and led into the main seating area on the middle deck. We were joined by another tour group and were served lunch. The table I was sat on was mainly European and there was only me and a Vietnamese woman who were using chopsticks. I only mention this because when the Vietnamese women asked for chopsticks they were fine with it but when I asked they were confused and seemed to wonder why I couldn't just use a fork.
We set out to sea and with a small detour into a small cave we spent most of the afternoon exploring the bay. The views were stunning but the bad weather put a dmpner on it. One of the guides sat with us out on the deck and told us what some of the karsts were called. He then informed me that I looked like some one famous which I was pleased with. I was less pleased when he told me that I reminded him of Pipin from Lord of the Rings, I was less impressed. He wasn't sure I I was amused by this or not so he pulled a funny face and walked away.
That evening was the best part, we dropped anchor out in the bay and they lowered the ladder out into the water. In about six seconds flat half of us had already dived off the lower deck into the water. As we swam around and enjoyed the beautiful view, a small boat rowed up. It was absolutley heaving with cakes, biscuits, cigarettes and drinks. We were told by the captain of our boat that if we bought anthing from the boat lady that we had to pay a 30% charge to our boat! This seemed a little absured so we passed. We stayed outt in the water until the sun went down and just as it set we got a quick shot of the bay.

Dinner was served at 7 pm and we were treated to more Vietnamese food which was mostly seafood. We ended up spending the rest of the evening drinking overpriced super strenght beer and we got into a very serious political discussion with the Taiwanese man ?(Mr. Li) over the History of the Chinese government, British politics and the rise of capitalism in communist countries. For a 64 year old Taiwanese businessman he had a staggering knowledge of English and Irish history and put both of us to shame. By that same token he was surprised that I semed to know so much about Chinese culture and society so it was an interesting trade off. After a few beers and some anti-Chinese sentiment from Mr Li we retired to our cabin and wiped out from the busy day, we were asleep by 10 pm.

We were up at 6 am and wathcing the boat already moving. At 7 am we were served an unusual breakfast of one fried egg, tonnes of bread, butter, jam and a banana. We decided upon one egg sandwich and one jam and banana sandwich. With that out of the way we found out we were heading for the docks on Cat Ba island. Arriving an hour later we found that the dock was much higher than our boat due to low tide so we had to climb 2m up a gang plank to get off the boat. After this we were lead to a small minibus and taken across the island. Before heading to our hotel in Cat Ba town, we had a hike through the national park to complete. A very dull fifteen minute video in the hut at the edge of the park introduced us to the place then we were out on the trail to the foot of the mountian we were to climb. Along the way our tour guide showed us a strange plant by the path side whose leaves folded over and curled up as soon as you put your finger on them. It was an interesting little plant to watch but we had places to be. In five minutes we were outside a small shack waiting to go up the mountain. Our guide waited at the bottom and a small lady began leading us up the steps.

Don't have time to finish it all now, catch up on the rest of this later.

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on September 5, 2007 from Ha Long, Vietnam
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Evidently Chicken Street

Hanoi, Vietnam

Our passage into Hanoi from China was through a city called Nanning. 1.3 million population but very little to do. It was a really plesant city and if you enjoy lots of attention its great because of the 1.3 million people in the city about 20 of them are white so we got used to being stared at all the time. The giant Wal Mart there was about the only interesting part as it allowed use to get real cheese, bread and crisps for the first time since entering China (which we had a craving for). Having suppressed our appetite for Western food and got our Vietnam vsia we booked on for an 8 hour coach trip to Hanoi. Changing coaches at Frendship pass which is the name for the boarder checkpoint we arrived without complication. Getting to the hostel was not a problem as the bus company laid on a taxi to the door.
We are staying in a section of Hanoi known as the Old Quarter. The street we are on is called 'Hang Ga' meaning Chicken street. Every street name in the Old Quarter indicates what is sold on it for example; if you want some baskets you go to Hang Bo (Basket street). This does hold true and the streets are filled with exactly what their names suggest.
The hustle and bustle we had experienced on Chinas roads pailed into insignificance in comparison to the Old Quarter. To give you and idea of the number of bikes, scooters and cars on the road here is our safety tips for the Old Quarter:

1) There's no such thing as a side of the road so expect traffic in both directions at once
2) Don't assume that because you are on the pavement that you don't need to look for motorbikes coming at you.
3) Red lights mean stop if you want to (seriously, it's not a joke)
4) Looking for the next gap in the traffic is pointless, just cross in the traffic
5) When crossing do not look at the on-coming vehicles, it will only scare you
6) Walk very slowly and let the traffic work its way round you
7) Always remember, don't ever stop in the road or you may die.
Having taken a few days to familiarize ourselves with the 'Highway code' we got quite good at just stepping out in front f moving vehicles just as the natives do. Once we learnt how to cross the roads, the next step was to go somewhere. One of the highlights was the Temple of Literature. Built in 1076, it was the home to all scholars in Hanoi and created by the KIng himself to train Vietnams literate men. Stone tablets seated on giant stone turtles contain the names of every graduate of the national exams since 1442. The temple is set in stunning gardens which a beautiful in their simplicity.
The m ain temple building contained satues to Confucius whose teachings inspired the creation of the temple. Even as the tour groups pased through, many Vietnamese prayed outside the temple door.

The furthest hall was rebuilt in 2000 as it was bombed by the US in the Vietnam War. While it was a faithful recreation it was nothing compared to the main temple old buildings. However to comemorate the original buildings, they did install a large bell and drum which were most impressive.
The other major stop for us was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex. Ho Chi Minh requested that when he die he be creamated and there be no special grave or monument to him. As a result, the Vietnamese built what may be one of the most enormous and visually stunning mausoleums in the world. The entire area is surrounded by the buildings which made up the old French colonial buildings and the villas of the colonists themselves which are a far cry from the living accomodations of the Vietnamese people of the time. The French villas are now part of a military base in the city and the governance buildings are occupied by the Vietnamese Communist party. As both are swarming with guards and 'No photograph' signs, we can't show you what they look like but Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum which is right next door is along the same size and scale but lacks the French sence of style.
The Tran Quoc pagoda was our final major site. The pagoda sits on the Ho Tay lake. The temple is small but impeccabley beautiful and the pagoda itself houses eight white marble Guan Yin (femal buddha) on each level.
At the rear of the pagoda there was a small temple hall in which could be heard chanting. People entering were instructed to take off their shoes before entering. The hall was filled with women chanting and after walkking through to the other side I was informed that this was a funeral ceremony and that these women would chant continuously for up to two hours. While not stunning, this temple was very unique in its style and atmosphere from all the others we had visited.

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 31, 2007 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Gagged and bound for Yangshuo

Yangshuo, China

An effective tourist trap only requires a few vital ingredients. Take an area of stunning natural beauty ie. golden beaches, strolling countryside, breathtaking vistas or all of the above and you've got the makings of a tourist trap. Now add generous dollops of cheap hotels, restaurants and gnik nak shops peddling all manner of wears from "traditional" artworks to knock off clothing brands.
Leave to simmer in 30 degrees c heats and voila! Tourist trap. Yangshou is the picture perfect example of this recipe.
This all sounds quite negative but beneath the tinsel and glitter, Yangshuo is still a Chinese country town in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. We took a day trip out to see moon hill, a karst whose formation has a giant opening in it and depending on where you stand the moon can be full or crescent. Having navigated the towns chaotic and overcrowded roads we got onto the country roads. These quickly became dirt trails and the dirt trails became smaller. we cycled through small country hamlets made of several stone built houses with timber and corrugated iron extension. The dirt tracks sloped down to the vast expanses of rice fields whicfh were tended by the inhabitants of the strone buildings. Thick overgrown sub-tropical foliage sat side by side with the unifrom rice feelds and stone building and all framed by towering karsts which dotted themselvers around the planes. It's hard to imagine anything on earth that looks as calming and simultaniously as breathtaking as this. We stopped at a little farmhouse with a bar called The Giggling tree to rest and get directions. This dutch owned guesthouse was a little unexpected given where we were but was well worth it. Finally reaching Moon Hill and the 1251 steps to the top we set off only to be followed by old Chinese ladies trying to sell us drinks. Escape was impossible as these old ladies knew how to haul ass when they could smell the lure of tourist money. We took a stern approach and ditched our unrequested tour guides. After stopping for Lauras numerous rest breaks and debating whether she should go back down because she was tired we reached the top. The view was to say the least impressive. Yangshuo had other treats however such as some traditional chiense cooking. We were treated to a trip to the farmers market to start and saw some interesting delights such as fried pig ears, live baby ears and an assortment of dried cats and dogs. he cooking itself was more pleasant working on the restaurant rooftop we donned our aprons and chef hats while we were led through cookng vegtable dumplings, aubergine with pork and chilli, and beer fish. At the end were were allowed to devour all we had cooked along with some boiled rice and a cold bottle of Tsing Tao as we sat on the roof to watch the sun set behind the karsts.

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 27, 2007 from Yangshuo, China
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Hard sleeper

Yangshuo, China

Having had our fill of Guangzhou next stop is to cross the province border into Guangxi towards the small country town of Yangshuo. It's a bit easier said than done. Plan A was to get the bus, the sheer number of bus stations and our inability to find a ticket office put a stop to this so plan b was put into action; the train. Firstly the ticket, not too much of a problem I just said the word Guilin and put up two fingers (from there we could get a bus straight to Yangshuo). Easy enough, however several people felt quite happy just walking infront of me in the line for tickets. Next issue, the train wasn't due to leave for about 5 hours, Laura was ill, we had our bags with us and KFC served dodgy chicken. All in all it wasn't a great day and it wasn't getting better yet. Finally being called into the waiting room for our train we were intercepted by about 600 chinese people heading straight for us. As they tried to leave to get on a train we desperately had to push through them to reach the waiting room. It's literally hard to picture 600 people crammed into a corridor pushing the opposite direction to you but thats what we were working with. Having navigated that we were in an enourmous bland communist era waiting room with leaky air conditioning, food and mud all over the floor and a large shop which seemed to sell all of six items. A quick trip to the bathroom before boarding the train did little for my stomach, after being greeted with a smell that resembled dead people and each cubicle having a squat toilet filled with large piles of excrement. I opted for the urinals. On a side note we have no pictures for any of this, with good reason.

Finally it was time to board the train and we now got to join a completely different mass of 600 people pushing down a corridor. Once we'd all made it outside and got on the train it was a much more comfortable affair. We were greeted with carraiges filled with 6 bunk bed semi seperated compartments. And after swapping with a chinese woman we found ourselves on the top bunks. The train journey was pretty cool, the constant procession of vendors selling hot food, instant noodles and fresh fruit kept us entertained as we dared each other to find out what exactly was being served. We even had time to socialise, and I was approached by a teenage boy called Xiao Shao Bin. Within no time we exchanged email addresses, discussed our understanding of each others language and he was pointing out his home town in my lonely planet, while we both munched down on some Shantou pears (that was his home town). At 21:30 I retired to bed and we both decided to get some kip as it was lights out at 10pm. The bed wasn't too hard but the movement of the train made it difficult to lie on ones back as it moved things inside, and the climb down to the toilet in the dark would have been too much.

Next morning, having shockingly had the best nights sleep since we arrived in China we both rose at 6am. By 7am we were standing in the carpark outside Guilin train station. As this is about as far as we had planned we didn't really know how to get to Yangshuo from here, so in tried and tested method we followed the nearest group of westeners. Thank god they got on a bus to Yangshuo or we could have ended up anywhere. By 8am we had arrived in Yangshuo. This place has to have the most stunning scenery I have ever encountered. The large karsts (feel free to look up what that means) rise out of the ground and are dotted throughout the town. These enourmous formations mean that even in the middle of a large town you can still just tilt your neck up a small bit to see some of natures most amazing wonders. Anyway having the bus lady yell yangshuo at us repeatedly and gesture that we get off the bus we worriedly made our way off (we were the only people who got off the bus at this point and as far as we could tell its final destination was Yangshuo). Having been hurried off the bus at the wrong point and not having our wits about us this early in the morning, after being approached by a friendly young chinese chap called Thomas we found ourselves in the back of his car on the way to a hostel. This probably isnt the smartest thing we've done since arriving, or ever. Fortunately he only ripped us off on the price of a room as opposed to robbing us blind and leaving us for dead. On the plus side the hostel was a three storey structure which was connected entirely by outdoor terraces and staircases and built into the side of one of the Karsts had some spectacular views up to the top. The rip off aspect here was that the walls of our room had more mossies on them than paint, the toilet smelt so bad we actually purchased bleach to clean it and the stunning view from our particular window was that of an unimpressive 2 storey dwelling next door.

We now had 3 goals:
1. Explore the town and find west street which apparently is a backpackers haven
2. Get out of this hostel into a cheaper, cleaner one with no midnight curfew
3. Find out exactly what there is to do here in the Chinese countryside

P.S No photos yet as our quest for a computer with a CD or DVD rom drive remains fruitless

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 21, 2007 from Yangshuo, China
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Guangzhou - Hustle and Bustle

Guangzhou, China

The train from Hung Hom Station in Hong Kong was relatively easy to catch and a very pleasant journey. Upon arriving we went through the first passport control into China. The fact that the two entry points were entitiled "Chinese Nationals" and "Foreigners" was a little unusual. Then it was on into the City (after a panic about losing our visa card which had money on and being unsure as to whether bank machines would take maestro).

Some background first; Guangzhou is a large commercial city similar to Hong Kong but with vastly more sprawl and a population of approx 3.2 million people. The reality is that Guangzhou is similar to any other major city, busy, noisy and very dirty.

Where we ended up is a bit of a haven from the rest of the city. Shamian Island sits in the Pearl River running through Guangzhou. As it was used by westerners as a storage island in the 19th Century (half the island was French and half British), there was a heavy western influence in the layout and architecture. It is also a big draw for westerners for this reason and most restaturants and shops on the island could speak good english (unlike lots of other parts of the city).

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 14, 2007 from Guangzhou, China
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Culture, culture everywhere...

Guangzhou, China

Despite having fewer engaging activities, the city of Guangzhou certainly has its fair share of cultural sites. A quick afternoon trip out brought us to the Chen clan ancestoral hall. The hall was built over 120 years ago and houses examples of every form of artwork which was found in the Gagnzhou region at that time from sculpture and embroidery to calligraphy and even puppetry. The exhibits are facinating but the building itself is the real spectacle. The level of intracacy with which the carvings on the building have been produced is beyond belief. Even the awenings are covered in ornated painted carvings of ancient chinese battles and scenes of family life in ancient China. This had to be the first time I entered a museum and was genuinly interested in the history of what was on display.
Our next cultural checkpoint was the Temple of the Six Banyan trees. This is a Buddhist temple located at the centre of the city. Constructed in 537 AD the small temple contained at its centre, the flowery Pagoda.
For those not in the know, as I was, a Pagoda is 'the general term in the English language for a tiered tower with multiple eaves common in China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia.' - Wikipedia. The 17 storey climb up to the top was tiring, especially as the staircases and rooms were not designed for people of our stature. The view at the top did however give us a view of the whole city.
The final stop was the Guangxiao temple. This was also a Buddhist temple and was one of the oldest structures in Guangzhou dating back to 4th Century AD. The main hallis in the temple were huge with large Buddha and Kuan Yin (female buddha) statues in the centre. Much of the building has been rebuilt over the past 100 years but this took little away from the look or feel of the temple.
Both temples had many Chinese offering insence and praying to the various statues around the temple. On the way in a monk tried to hand us a small gold thing in return for money which we decided against as we did not know what it was, we were probably quite rude and on the way out two other english people were chatting with the monk which we should have taken the opportunity to do (I thought he was a chinese guy dressed up and trying to extort money from us).
After this we didn't do very much in Guangzhou as Laura became ill, the next days consisted of Starbucks, McDonalds and an American Diner called Lucys as well as the Guangzhou English Channel and George of the Jungle. Malachy was a little more adventurous and went wandering round the city, soaking up its many delights such as a huge market at Hauizhu square which had hundreds of shops which only sold one thing. For example on the top floor there was a flower shop next to a vase shop next to a plastic flower shop.
Having taken in as much of Gaungzhou as we cared for, our next decision is to decide how to get to Yangshuo.

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 14, 2007 from Guangzhou, China
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Hong Kong by Night

Hong Kong (historical), Hong Kong

The most amazing things in Hong Knog usually don't seem to happen during the night. For example, the streets seem busy by day but you can gaurantee there'll be twice as many people out at night. Shopping is also a big night time activity. Even jewelry stores are heaving by night with customers jostling through the doorways. I had to push my way past three people to get into a Stationary store at 8:30 at night. Even the buildings are more alive at night with their neon signs and spotlights. The first night we arrived we were treated at a huge fireworks display along the Avenue of the Stars. Not only were there fireworks involved but in addition, there were lazers coming from both sides of the bay and the buildings illuminations were co-ordinated with the fireworks (with The Bank of China building taking the lead of course).
But all of this can get a bit much and the best way to enjoy Hong Kong by night is from the top of Victoria Peak. The tram ride to the top is an experience in itself as it becomes almost vertical at some points. On arrival, there are a further five storeys to ascend to the top of the peak tower, each filled with overpriced restaurants and boutiques. ).At the top, the journey is all made worthwhile as almost all of the Hong Kong Vista is visible from here and the only sound is that of the hilltop breeze (and 100 other tourist). Even the ferry back accross the bay to Kowloon takes on a more majestic feel after dark with the crashing black waters illuminated by the surrounding city. Hong Kong is a city which truly comess to life after the sun has set.

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 10, 2007 from Hong Kong (historical), Hong Kong
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Culture shock

Hong Kong (historical), Hong Kong

On landing we felt rough thanks the the wonderful plane journey and highly edible finnish food so we were looking forward to getting to the hostel to settle down and have a nap and a shower, however upon arriving we were told we could not check in till 1pm. Given that it was 10am when we arrived at the hostel, this caused us some concern. 17 hours of travelling left is in somewhat of a delicate state. It was at this time that we we introduced to the joys of culture shock.

Many people throw the term around but I'll be honest, until that first day in Hong Kong I had never truly understood it. To be thrown into a genuine state of shock by the differences in culture is a daughnting experience. Wandering round Kowloon in the middle of the day, overheated, tired and in need of some cleaning up, we were not prepared to take on a mega city like Hong Kong. When even basic premisis that you take for granted such as opening times of shops and being able to decifer the contents of a KFC menu are not true, it does send you into genuine shock. As a result, the first day or so was quite tentative and we were very withdrawn in our exploration (on a side note though, we discovered that Pizza Hut in Hong Kong is very sophisticated, check the link if you don't believe us. http://www.pizzahut.com.hk/tc/home.html).

Hong Kong offers some spectacular sights and sound. In one day you can

take in the remarkable sights like the top of Victoria Peak and then go on to see the traditional backstreet night market just off Nathan Road.

The language barrier is the biggest issue at first. Not even being able to read most signs make getting around and communicating very difficult but the ex-colony status of Hong Kong means there's pleanty of English speakers around. The big test is entering mainland China.


permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 9, 2007 from Hong Kong (historical), Hong Kong
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
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Planning madness

Manchester, United Kingdom

We got the money, got the tickets and its all plans on deck! Flying to Hong Kong on the 3rd August, so lets all go and eat and drink before that to say bye! So far we have learnt:
- That the Chinese and Vietnamese and Hong Konganese want to charge you to get into any space that may be of vague interest to anyone including caves, parks, waterfalls and other such wonders of mother nature.
- We have also learnt that bedbugs are most visable at dawn, and that adult ones are 1/4 inch long.
- HSBC make money for Hong Kong and we feel rich because we have thousands of dollars!
- American money smells of playdough (though there is some debate as to whether this smell is actually crayon).
- The Chinese consulate has a big dip in the pavement near it which in the rain is dangerous as your foot can be completely submerged and soaked, this combined with the consulate being closed is heartbreaking.
- We could stay in peoples houses for free, but I (Laura) is scared (because she is scared of people).

Finally we have discovered that China is so mega massive that there is no way we could possibly see all of it in years let alone months, though we are going to the land that brought you Spring rolls and sweet and sour chicken (as far as most takeaways are concerned).

permalink written by  Mal and Laura on August 3, 2007 from Manchester, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: A bit of China and Vietnam
tagged China, HongKong, Planning, Manchester, Vietnam and Facts

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