who ... moi?

a social butterfly: scared of much, but not of many. never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. not a fan of acronyms, snakes and angelina jolie. a HUGE fan of Fathead.

this blog is black for ENERGY-SAVING reasons.

thanks for your understanding.
if it's too dark, put your glasses on old one.

Friday, July 23, 2010

finding our hue

on the sixth of july we arrived in a small town called hue (pronounced "hway"). quite the opposite from hanoi's bustling streets and peddler-filled pavements, this town was more graceful, greener and calmer - a very welcome and much-needed "woo-sa" from the chaos we'd just left.

while Fathead doesn't rate hue as a favourite, it was an absolute hit with me.  much older and stooped in ancient history, the lush beauty and understated stature of the architecture just drew me in.

hue was the imperial capital of the nguyen dynasty, until  1945 (when it lost it's rule to a communist government, established in hanoi) and as a result exists as a enormous collection of monuments, palaces and a royal legacy lost through war and time. 

divided by a river, the small city thrives in modernity on the one bank, and tip-toes around an abandoned kingdom on the other.

on the day we arrived, we set out to tred the rich historical path that hue is famed for.  boasting several of unesco's world heritage sites, we simply had to see what all the fuss was about.  in hindsight - taking a few more moments to examine the map with care, however, would have been far more beneficial to our quest.

as a result, we crossed the river on the wrong footbridge, found the giant wall that protects the emperial citadel and turned right - spending the next hour walking in 45 degree heat attempting to find a way in.  the entrance, we were to discover a good 4km's later having walked the entire circumference, was actually just to the left of where we had begun.

inside the citadel, the ruined remains of a massive forbidden city - where only the highest of emperors, concubines and royalty were permitted to enter.  a few decades ago, trespassers like ourselves would have been put to death as a penalty. 

while there are clearly areas that are constantly being restored - the crumbling of the city makes this place a truly incredible one to be. 

it was fascinatingly enormous, with gardens and walkways that stretched whole suburbs.  the palaces and temples within the forbidden city hint at a time long since passed, where opulence and decadence reigned.

thoroughly exhausted from what must have been a total of 10km's on foot (the flip-flop fitness being tested to the max), we decided to catch a cyclo back across the river to the new (yet equally as charming) part of town.

Fathead (ever keen to practice his haggling skills) managed to bargain the cyclo down to 20,000 dong ($1) and on we hopped to enjoy a scenic cycle through the tree-lined streets.

it was our second ride on a cyclo, and as we perched in the front basket - the dear driver peddling away in the schvitzing heat - Fathead grinned, rather chuffed with himself for striking such a sweet deal, and we remarked how street-smart we were to have avoided being ripped off throughout our time in hanoi.

then we hopped off the cyclo, and Fathead, thrown somewhat by the new and foreign currency, happily handed over a 200,000 dong note (the equivalent of $20).

needless to say, i had the pleasure of enduring our river-side lunch with the uplifting company of one sulky-sue.

never before has so much been paid to one cyclo, for such a short distance.

that night, we strolled through the restaurant-lined streets and picked a beautiful little garden courtyard filled with tanks of tropical fish and faerie-lit trees.  the music was enchanting, as were the smells from the kitchen ... and in an attempt to cheer my Fatlip up i suggested we treat ourselves - and at 30,000 dong ($1,5) each why the hell not, right?!

"a seared tuna steak for me, and a chateaubraind for my wounded partner over here"

well i tell you, by the time mine arrived (on a piece of lettuce and a side plate) Fathead had all but devoured his three french fries and was about four minutes into chewing the first mouthful of his match-stick piece of rubber.  the "tuna"  "steak" was neither tuna nor steak - but rather the lopped-off tail-end of a far smaller common-variety bait fish (you know the kind you catch when you're actually trying to catch something you're willing to eat?) 

never before has so much been paid to one restaurant, for such a small meal.

map-reading fail.
money-handling fail.
food-envy fail.

it seemed we were losing our hue ...    *da-dum-dish*

but by that stage the giggles had set in, so a few tiger beers and another dinner at another restaurant - and all was well with the world.  we bar-hopped for a while, played some pool with the locals and then challenged eachother to a mamoth jenga championship which was so entertaining it had all the bar staff and a few of the lookers-on cheering around us.

i did not win, and as my penalty, was forced to speak in an australian accent for the remainder of the night.  at least half of us thought this was hilarious. no prizes for guessing which half.

the following day we trekked through the dong ba market ...

(the usual patchwork madness of strange-smelling fruits, wickerworks and knock-offs)

... where Fathead was cornered by a murder of vietnamese seamstresses, and forced to try on several pairs of shorts as they flapped and squawked about him.

truth be told, he did look a little distressed and i suppose i could have come to the rescue, but then who would have taken the photos?

dinner at a little place (called "ushi") on the backpackers strip restored our faith in 'nam food - and in a jovial spirit we returned to "why not? bar" for round two of the ultimate-extreme-jenga-off.

once again, i did not win - and this time was forced to stand on the street corner and sing "you've lost that loving feeling" to the mortified audience of fellow pavement sippers.

thankfully there are no photo's to prove this catastrophe ever took place.

unfortunately there is a video.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

the vietnamese trial

i realise that when i talk about the different towns we're visiting, it's about as meaningful as taking a black and white photo of a rainbow.  so, herewith - a highlighted map of our tour. to date i am (slightly) behind our travels - as in about two weeks behind.  but nevermind that ... i intend to get my a-into-g and catch up as soon as i can.

in the meantime, our trip has followed a similar route to the map above - starting north in hanoi from which we took a trip to halong bay, then returned to hanoi for a few more days.  an over-night sleeper bus drove us for 14 hrs down to hue ("hway") where we spent about 3 days.

then another bus through (the 4th largest city) danang, where we got it to drop us off 20km outside of the city, at the foot of marble mountain.  we intended to stay for a night, but ended up staying for 4 days ... at hoa's place, a magical backpackers on a deserted beach (details to follow).

a short taxi ride took us to hoi an, which was incredible (and definitely our favourite spot so far) - then it was another 11hr over-night sleeper bus to beach-party town nha trang.  almost a week lost to the lethal cocktail-buckets in nha trang, brings us to where we are currently - as i post this: dalat.

not much left of the coastline, you'll note - and tomorrow we're back on another bus headed for the city formally known as "saigon": ho chi minh city.

so this should at least help you orientate yourself with the next few posts.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

cat ba and monkey island

waking up on a boat in a still bay isn't a half-bad way to start your day.

it was an early start as we cruised towards cat ba island. approximately 140 km2, this is the largest of halong bay's islands and is entirely protected as a national park.

we docked in their small port and duly set off on a "small" trek up the 800m high summit of the island.  through jungle vine and leafy carpets we trudged - as our (self-named) guide "monkey man" swung from tree-to-tree fanning the sweaty troops.

while many complained, and despite the fact that my dodgy knee had a run-in with the mountain side, both of us absolutely loved the hike.  it was unbearably hot, save the relief we found in the shade of the jungle's canopy.  but once you've spent a few days in vietnam, you come to realise that it will always be unbearably hot - and to constantly verbalise this, becomes quite pointless.  so we sucked it up, sweated 'til it literally ran down out legs in heavy streams, and enjoyed the (somewhat challenging) climb up to the highest point in the bay.

1,5 hrs later we reached the summit - and surrounding us for as far as the eye could see was a soft wavy blanket of the greenest jungle canopies i've ever seen.  it's what i imagine hilton must look like on the two days of the year when there's no mist.

in the hazy distance, halong bay's blue waters were bordered by more jungle-covered islets.  it was almost too picturesque to photograph - as it smacked of the most stereotypical, picture-postcard, cheesy moments in paradise. of course, despite this, we snapped away and took plenty of photographs to make everyone back home jealous.

exhausted and limping (thank's to one times gammy knee), we returned to the base, back onto the boat and then headed off for monkey island - our home for the night.

we only found two booking places in the whole of hanoi that were offering a night's stay on this totally private beach, and if anyone is going to do the halong bay trip - take my advice:  do not do this tour unless you go to this island.

again - do not do halong bay unless you go to monkey island:

well ..unless you're not into beautifully rustic, wooden bungalows scattered on the beach amongst palm trees and sun loungers.
i mean, if you'd rather not have cocktails in the sea as the floating bar paddled its way over to refill your mojito, then obviously don't even think about it.
and if a massive sea-food barbeque on the beach with the sun setting across your private bay isn't your vibe ...
then seriously don't take my advice.


Monday, July 12, 2010

ha long

on the first day of the seventh month, we climbed aboard a bus heading for one of unesco's world heritage sites, ha long bay.  we were dropped off in the harbor of ha long city, where we stepped onto the deck of an old wooden river boat ("junk") - the vessel which would carry us across the waters of the surrounding bays.

admittedly the junk was not the best on the bay - nothing compared to some of the flashy floating mansions we came across.  then again, with its top-storey sundeck, social dining-cum-bar area and cozy cabins for two it was all we needed and wanted. that and we didn't have the wood lice that the junk next door did.

the cruise began with a floating tour of some of the outcropping limestone karsts that scatter the bay.  it truly is a breathtaking part of the world, and once you're away from the other tourists, each seeking to "discover" this piece of paradise themselves - it is silent, untouched ... just perfect. 

ha long's total area is 1,553km2 and boasts a collection of 1,960 islets that scatter throughout the bay. over 500 million years of weather and wear have shaped these limestone towers into intriguing formations - and left them covered in tropical jungles.

several hours passed as we drifted through the maze, but if felt like "suddenly" we were docked at one of the larger islets.  here we walked a short, yet steep trail into the (aptly-named) "surprising or amazing cave".  very similar to the cango caves, yet equally as impressive - these caves just went on and on. 

the ceilings were so beautifully crafted through time that they looked as though they had been hand-plastered with a generous amount of the old polyfiller.

our guide, tsang (but call him "captain jack sparrow"),  spent much of the time using a laser pointer to show us things he "saw" in the rock formations.  these shapes weren't actually there, mind you - there really wasn't a rock depicting "king kong holding up the ceiling of the cave whilst munching on a bag of pretzels".  but we let him tell us it was.

after the caves, we did some kayaking around the floating villages - an adventure spent largely with Fathead steering us from behind, and me "backseat" driving about how not to do it, and in which direction we should be going.  it was a specially-designed test to see how long Fathead could last before klapping me over the head with his paddle and making my disappearance look like an accident.

in my defense, there were hundreds of other junks moving in and around the harbor and docking ports of the floating village and then tiny, little, hard-to-see, easy-to-flatten us in our kayak of two. and we live to tell the tale. so there.

back on the junk Fathead joined some of the others in leaping off the second and third level decks, into the jellyfish-infested pea soup below. 

with the swimming done, everyone drip-dried themselves on the sundeck whilst we waited for our on-board feast.  as the sun set behind ha long bay, we had dinner and drinks, swapping travel tips with the others in our group.

though captain jack (bless his fish net socks) tried to coax the group into a little late-night karaoke, the party poopers were having none of it - so by 9pm we were in bed, listening to the silence - bar the faint lapping sound of the bay against the boat.

it was heaven.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

quick tip for side-stepping the commies

facebook is "banned" in vietnam - making it somewhat challenging to keep in touch and upload photos.  however, like most things - there is a way around it:   if you do find yourself in a communist country hell-bent on censoring your communication channels, try this website:


most of the time is works, although - whether it lets you upload pics remains to be seen. 

to-ing and fro-ing: wednesday

caught a taxi to the australian embassy, which was great as we got to have a tour through the surrounding city areas outside of the old quarter.  we arrived at the embassy with a kilo of the required paperwork, and the application process seemed to go off without any hitches - so we're hoping that this is a sign of things to come.

stopped in hanoi city-centre to bargain down a price on a bikini - something Fathead gets a kick from (the bargaining, not the bikini ... well, i suppose both).

returned to the old quarter, and purchased a sim card, so we are now contactable on +84 121 303 6296.

we checked out of central backpackers (as it was slightly beyond the budget), and moved down the road to viet fun hotel.  it's amazing what you get here accomodation wise.  even the cheapest of rooms come with air con, TV, free wi-fi, ensuite bathrooms, clean linen, stocked bar fridges, lock-up safes and cupboards.

after lunch at the hotel we booked our trip to halong bay ($85 each for 3 days, 2 nights all incl.)  the tour was for a night on a wooden bruise boat (called a "junk") and a night in a bungalow on a private beach called "monkey island".  i intend to post a shit load of pícs in the next few days - so watch this space.

you'll note that we seem to be doing very little more than drinking beer and eating. i assure you, this ís the case. get over it.  we're on holiday.

so, that said - we found a very cool spot on the top floor of this enormous building in the middle of the old quarter's biggest intersection. 

the "city view" cafe ís situated right next to the hoan kiem lake (the focal point of the old quarter) and we lost hours watching asia's version of the arc de triomphe from a bird's eye view.  we enjoyed it so much that we returned later that evening (with paul and amanda) to see the same view at night.    

we finished the day off with dinner at "the kangaroo cafe" where Fathead had hís favourite meal to date (stir-fried beef with noodles) and then met up with a few people for drinks at the world's hottest (and smallest) bar where their large bottles of tiger beer sell for 15,000 vnd (vietnamese dong) = just under $1.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

to-ing and fro-ing: tuesday

a quick retrace of our footsteps:

went for a strategy-planning meeting in highlands coffee.  drank lime juice over crushed ice - which brought a welcome relief from the heat outside.  by 9am is was around fakken hot degrees celcius (real-feel 45 ... no jokes).

went from tour office to backpackers comparing package rates for a trip to halong bay. this is such a diferent foreigner experience to being in korea.  they are so jacked for tourists - you can't sneeze without hitting an info centre.  it's really useful to have so many places to check prices and transport tickets - as basically everyone here is out to scam someone.

had lunch, our first meal in 'nam, on the balcony of "lucky restaurant".  it was absolutely delicious!  duck springrolls, rice, side salad, bbq chick...en and beers for $2,50.

drank a beer on a street corner at a "bia hoi" joint. got harrassed to buy a handpainted fan by a woman who was more persistant than herpes.

calle dthe australian embassy and booked an appointment to see them the next day.  held thumbs that we would be able to find the embassy and process the visa applications without any more drama.

despite a map from the backpackers, a map from the lonely planet book, a map on the iphone and gps - was got very lost.  wandered through streets and markets and walked and walked and walked.  it's the best way to explore a city - a wonderful past-time when you have no where to be at no particular time.

eventually found our bearings, made our way back to the hostel and stopped for a beer at "the golden drum" where we sat under fans overlooking the chaos in the streets below.  and then the rains came. 

pasting our ponchos on (plastic and sweaty skin are a lovely combination, by the way), we walked through the summer down-pour to a fabulous little restaurant called "69 bar-cafe-restaurant".  had another amazing meal there, and met two aussie dudes who raved about byron bay (when they heard of our december tour through oz).

returned the central backpackers for the nightly free beer and travel tips.  met a rad couple from the uk (paul and amanda), and once the keg ran dry, joined them for a few toots in the world's smallest (and hottest) bar down the road.

first impressions

before venturing into the streets, we checked out of the 16-sleeper dorm and into a dbl room.  yes, the princess in me came out - but when you weigh up the additional dollars vs. what you're "saving" in free beer, we actually made money that way.

the dbl room was meant to sleep two couples, but as there is only one key, we had the palace all to ourselves ... much more room for Fathead to swing his cat in.  after the royal couple had moved their bags to the new room, they headed straight for highlands coffe shop for something fruity on ice, and some time to figure out what the hell we were going to do with our day.

most of the morning was spent comparing packages for trips to halong bay and sapa, as we explored the old quarter of hanoi. 

this part of town is filled with utter charm - it's been "left alone" with all the architecture and french influence remaining.  every building captivates your imagination - how old is that? why was it originally built? who lives there now?  what does it look like inside?

old and new live in harmony - with the exquisite detail and style of the tall and narrow buildings, interwoven with modern-day necessity.

vietnamese women with conical hats roam the streets, wooden planks on their shoulders, a reed basket hanging off each end.  on every street, local cafes spill out onto the pavements with minute plastic stools and tables.  all day and night, these are filled with hot and sweaty bodies of all ages, who gather in the shade to enjoy a local home-brewed beer called "bia hoi".

it's cheap and chips, and if you can get over the fact that it's slightly watered down - there is nothing better than grabbing one, squatting inches off the ground, and watching this amazing city go about it's day.  it really is exactly as the postcards depict, although it lacks the "in aid of tourists" element.  here, this is real life. 

one thing that cannot be separated from "real life" in hanoi is the motorbikes.  they are everywhere you look. they drive on both sides of the road, in both directions.  they park all over the pavements- which is a godsend, as it means they can't actually drive there.  at night, shopkeepers wheel their cycles into their stores, slide down the garage door that covers the entrance, and then retreat upstairs to their residence.

learning to cross the road here was one of the things we'd heard about, read about, had nightmares about.  but it's rather thrilling in a death-defying kind of way.  if you're ever here, remember this very important piece of advice:

the locals know how to drive. 
they've been doing it since they could walk.
they avoid other motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, busses, cars, cyclos, tuk-tuks and roaming street vendors everyday.  they will be able to miss you.  do not try to out-run them, or they will drive into you. 

the weirdest part of crossing the road here, is the counter-intuitive way you have to do it:
  • don't bother with pedestrain crossings - they don't mean anything, they were only put there because there was excess white paint and they didn't want it to go to waste.
  • don't bother waiting for a gap in the traffic - let me save you the time now, there is never going to be a gap. 
  • you're welcome to look left and right, as the motorbikes are definitely going to be coming from both directions, but don't be fooled into thinking this will actually assist you in any way. 
  • staring straight ahead is best.  just walk slowly into the chaos.  
  • don't rush, don't move in different directions to avoid anyone or thing. try not to scream.