Postcards from Abroad

Whether your dream is to stay in a colonial-era bungalow in the middle of a tea plantation, an Indian princely palace, or to cruise in luxury the Irrawaddy to Mandalay, we never tire of searching for your next great travel destination. This is the place to share with us your most recent adventures.

Bangkok and Vietnam adventure by Pete and Mo Hill

Mekong deltaBangkok

We were on our way back home from a family wedding in Australia and had planned a further break in Bangkok and Vietnam on the principle that if we’d already come half way round the world, it would be silly not to see more whilst we were there. We didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start in Bangkok airport; we’d had to run through the place on a short transfer on the way out and now we had to deal with a chaotic and badly-signed arrivals hall. Eventually we were able to get a taxi into town and our hotel on the west side of the Chaopraya River and once settled into our plush room and fed, prepared for a hectic sightseeing day to follow.

 

 

 

In truth, we’d been largely focussed on the Australian leg of the trip until then, so it became a case of “what are the unmissables to see in a day?”. We used the hotel shuttle boat to Sathorn Pier on the East side of the river and then were steered on a tourist boat to Wat Arun – the Temple of the Dawn. There are other, cheaper boats plying the route but we wanted to minimise our queueing time and not worry about finding the cash for tickets every time. Our day passes cost the equivalent of a fiver each.

Wat Arun

The quick look at the guidebook the night before does little to prepare you for Wat Arun. A temple complex would be a better description of the site, with an 80m ceramic-covered spire at its heart. The grounds also contain 4 smaller spires, pavilions and corridors which were packed with lines of Buddha images, giant-sized demons guarding courtyard doors and crowds of statuary inside. From there we crossed the river again to Wat Pho and the reclining Golden Buddha, all 140 feet of him. Again, this is a temple complex and we spent a couple of hours investigating the many halls, colonnades and shrines inside it. Subsequently we headed off to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha but fell foul of an early closing time and instead diverted to Sampeng Market and Chinatown which lay further upriver and nearer the hotel. Mo and I have a thing about markets and this didn’t disappoint – we only scratched the surface but you could spend hours going around it if you’re in need of a little retail therapy. I ended up with one ready-made shirt (printed with demons) and the material for 3 others, all of whose designs were suitably loud and never to be found on a UK market stall.

We took it easy the following day, a leisurely breakfast on the riverbank terrace, a bit of sightseeing and a swim in the pool before heading to the airport, the taxi driver watching Brad Pitt in “Fury” on his dashboard phone whilst negotiating the crammed, multi-lane expressway. Good film but Mo couldn’t work out where the sounds of gunfire were coming from until I told her once we were safely in the terminal building.

Ho Chi Minh City

Whereas the average Brit will pick up the occasional news story from Bangkok and Thailand over the course of a year, Vietnam is largely an unknown. For many of us, most of our knowledge revolves around the TV pictures we saw as children and teenagers in the 1960s and 70s during the war. We landed, disembarked and went through the usual arrival formalities, culminating in us passing through the doors into the arrivals hall which then closed behind us with an unsettling, authoritarian thump. We were in. A quick hunt for an ATM and getting to grips with our 30,000 X table meant that we met our guide outside with 2,000,000 Dong in our pockets (just over £60) for the drive into town.

bikes in HCMC

We were accompanied by what seemed to be a goodly proportion of the city’s residents, all of whom were on small motorbikes. Truly, we had never been anywhere like this before, there were bikes everywhere. Solo riders, some with passengers, some families (mum, dad and the 2 kids) and the occasional fast food stall perched on the back. Vietnam’s rules of the road are simple. There aren’t any as we would understand them. The T-shirt in the market explains things like observing traffic lights simply – Green means I can go. Amber means I can go. Red means I can STILL go. This sense of humour also extends to lane discipline in that whilst 95% of the population drive on the right, the other 5% find this too restrictive and drive on the left. It makes crossing the road interesting even when you’re on a pedestrian crossing and leaves you with a desire to sprout another pair of eyes in the back of your head. This seeming anarchy notwithstanding, we were only to see one traffic accident during our entire stay.

The very comfortable hotel down by the river dates back to French colonial times and was our base for the next few days. The Eastravel itinerary is detailed on the website and I need not duplicate it. Suffice to say it brings home how energetic/frantic the place is. Chinatown in particular was a sea of red and gold (for luck and wealth respectively) preparing for the Lunar New Year and the Cho Ba Chieu market sharpens your reactions as you try to avoid the bikes whizzing up and down the aisles. The stalls in the upper floor of the market are so closely packed, its not unusual to see the vendors selling from on top of a pile of stuff. The passageways around the place are very narrow and a tight squeeze-past to get around.

Mekong delta

We were introduced to Vietnamese hospitality and cuisine the following day on our tour to the Mekong Delta and Ben Tre. Delicious. Much to the hilarity of our host, we also discovered that Morag was better at making a bamboo mat than I was at climbing a coconut palm. We variously used car transport, tuk-tuk, push bike, rowing- and river boats during the tour and had a good day out. The Pasteur Street Brewing Co. (guess where you find it) was good for evening beer and nibbles. The Passion Fruit beer is particularly refreshing on a hot night.

Last day in HCMC and excursion to the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city. Begun during the war against the French and extended during that against the Americans, the tunnels speak volumes of the determination the Viet Minh and subsequently the Viet Cong were to show in expelling both. Although modified to accommodate large, western tourists, the tunnels are claustrophobically small and cramped. I was too wide even to get into one of the entrances, let alone explore the passageways – and no, I’m active and not overweight! If you are of a certain age, give thanks that Prime Minister Harold Wilson declined all entreaties to get the UK involved in the war and feel sorrow and admiration for both sides who fought in the tunnels.

After the sobering morning, we finished our stay in HCMC with a surreal afternoon visit to the old Presidential Palace which we’d last seen on TV in April 1975 when 2 (North) Vietnamese T-54 tanks crashed through the palace gates. Our guide was there at the time and the tanks are still there. The palace looks as though it has been frozen in time, 1970s design and décor from the decade that good taste forgot. The leatherette-covered cocktail bar upstairs would be something that Austin Powers would treasure.

Hoi An

Hoi An by night

In the evening we left for the train station and our first experience of the Reunification Express which connects HCMC to Hanoi. We bedded down in our own air-conditioned 4-berth compartment and clattered out of the suburbs past the cheek-by-jowl homes and shops which flank the tracks. The next morning we passed every stereotype sight you would expect to see in South East Asia and from the books I remember from childhood – rice paddies with workers in conical hats were hoeing away at the dykes which surround the fields. Water buffaloes and white cranes stood in the mud under the silent gaze of the ancestors in their isolated tombs and mausoleums which pepper the slightly higher ground.

Arriving in Danang at noon, we were greeted by our second guide and transferred to Hoi An, described as Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town on the banks of the Thu Bon River. We hit the old town (largely traffic-free) immediately and went in search of a 24-hour tailor to make use of my Bangkok shirt material. No problem- there are plenty, and the answer to the question “Do I really want a pair of made-to measure Chelsea boots?” was yes. The old town is a blend of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese buildings and temples. There are small shops, cafes and bars everywhere selling just about everything. We hit the market one day and were almost jumped on by the food stall owners as soon as we walked in. Lunch that day was superb as were all the other street-food type meals we had whilst we were there. Another way to guarantee keeping body and soul together is to insist that you buy lunch for the guide and driver and benefit from their knowledge.

Hue

After a couple of days in Hoi An, we were back in the car and on our way to Hue (the Old Imperial Capital) via Danang, another name from the 1970s teatime news. The site of the huge US airbase is still there although being redeveloped at present. Some of the rows of concrete aircraft shelters are still visible though. We paid a short visit to the Water Mountain, one of the 5 elemental marble mountains which rise from the otherwise flat landscape. To get to Hue by road, it is necessary to take the picturesque road up to and over the high, fog-shrouded Hai Van Pass. The weather gets noticeably cooler North of here and we went for a walk in the cloud, also finding an old GI concrete observation post complete with a pair of newly-weds on top posing for their wedding photos.

hue Imperial Palace Grounds

We stayed at another French-era hotel in Hue. Like Hoi An there seemed to be many more tourists in evidence than HCMC, at whom many of the bars and eateries were aimed. There are plenty of alternatives though and we perched with our knees almost level with our ears at/on small tables and chairs more suited in size to school kids whilst we tucked in to our noodles and bia (beer-honest!). After another day touring outside of the city and the nearby Dong Ba market, we spent our last morning visiting the old Imperial Palace complex. It is huge, stretching several kms along the North Bank of the Perfume River. Heavily damaged during the fighting of the Tet Offensive in 1968 and patchily restored since the end of the war the halls, courtyards and grounds are impressive in their sheer scale. Signs of the fighting are still visible – ricochet marks and bullets embedded in some of the nine dynastic urns, still overgrown walls etc., and again we had a guide who was able to give us a first-hand account of what happened at the time.

Hanoi

We rolled onto the train later that afternoon and into Hanoi at 5a.m. the following morning to be greeted by our third guide and an increasing cacophony of small motorbikes again. This leg of the train journey was courtesy of a different company than the one to Danang. Our compartment was more modern and there was a well-stocked travel pack (beer, juice, coffee, milk, snacks and a very superior equivalent of a pot noodle!) Showered and breakfasted by 8a.m., we were out on the town shortly afterwards. This proved to be hard going, I reckon the train wheels were probably over-sized threepenny bits (ask your parents/grandparents if you’re under 50) and our sleep had been patchy. We kept going for a few hours and took in the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh memorial complex and a walking tour through the old Quarter but cratered as soon as we were able to get into our hotel room. I managed to get to the Hoa Lo Prison, aka “the Hanoi Hilton”, where downed US aircrew were held after capture. Hoa Lo is an old “Maison Centrale” complete with guillotine and communal cell rooms for colonial-era political prisoners. The exhibits graphically illustrate the conditions in which the prisoners were held and how some of them were able to escape via the barely-squeezable sewer system.

Hanoi street scene

The traffic is not quite as manic as HCMC but it has its moments. It is also worth walking alongside the rail tracks where you can in some places – trainside shops and refreshments are a whole different experience here.

Halong Bay and Hanoi (again)

halong bay

Our driver picked us up early the following morning and we headed out of town, North East to Halong Bay for a day/night cruise, sailing around the limestone peaks. There are 1969 of them we were told. It was a peaceful relaxing experience despite the number of other boats out there and we were ferried ashore a couple of times to explore one of the spectacular caves and to climb to the top of Titov Island. Be warned, it is a stiff climb and a bit narrow in places. To continue our culinary theme, Morag was able to have an on-board cookery lesson making up some shrimp spring rolls and I ended up fishing for squid over the side of the boat at night. We sailed back to port the following morning and returned to our Hanoi hotel for the final night before transfer to the airport and home. We left as we had arrived, surrounded by hundreds of motorbikes in equally-bonkers traffic but with our eyes opened wide to a country on the up.

Thanks, Eastravel for organising everything so smoothly and efficiently and for the taster of what this fascinating part of the world has to offer.

Postscript

Whilst passing through Danang on the way up to Hue, we stopped at on of the marble-carving factories. Mo drew the line at us coming back with the three near life-size figures signifying prosperity, health and longevity in favour of a pair of marble dragons. Bru and Irn arrived in Scotland a few days ago and are now known as the “Guardians of the Lum”. Be advised, whatever you pay for them in Vietnam, you will pay the same in customs clearance, import duties and freight haulage but they’re worth it!

Guardians of the Lum

Rail tour of Taiwan by Dilys and Colin Ward

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