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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Day 95 & counting: A warning from Team 365

In the interests of health & safety Team 365 would like to warn all readers that staying for "a couple of nights" in Mui Ne may not be physically possible.

Extensive research in the field can confirm that one's feeling of health, safety, happiness and all-round relaxation will increase dramatically on arrival, especially in the area immediately surrounding Ly Ly Guesthouse.

Offering a mere 36km of beach and a plethora of swanky resorts, chilled out eateries, multicoloured sand dunes and a high number of bicycles and motor bikes to explore them all on - it is the leaving that is proving difficult.

Ly Ly Guesthouse, for example, is ran by a friendly German/Vietnamese couple and is the kind of place that leaves it's fridges and kitchen open. Guests are asked to mark on a sheet anything they take. A few bottles of spirits sit on the bar in the seating area at the front of the guesthouse, right on the one and only road that runs through Mui Ne, and have not been taken - or even visibly touched in days that we've been here. It's that kind of a place.

We've been basking in the slow pace of life here in a climate that switches from sunny to stormy without warning, leaving the untrained tourist soaking and sweating - but always smiling - in quick succession.

And so we feel it necessary to provide ample warning for those considering entering this unassuming town; enter at your own risk and leave...only if you can.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Day 91-94: Is the cup a quarter full or a quarter empty?

Either Hoi An we officially reached one quarter of a way through our intended trip (hurrah!) and we celebrated by getting smashed with a few people we'd gotten to know, a few people we got to know and a lot of people that I can remember close to nothing about at all.

Any night that begins with beer that costs 4,000 dong (about 20p) a half pint and ends in a bar, on a beach, with a pool, is bound to be a good'un; and this one most certainly was!
But since we managed between us to take a total of two photos and lost a day to a killer hangover, we shan't dwell on it. Nor shall we get all philosophical about the landmark that is reaching the 25% point.

Instead let's talk Hoi An; a gorgeous town about half way down the long eastern coast of Vietnam that both Rob and I fell a little bit in love with. It's built on the Thu Bon River and, somewhere in the history of time, a genius took the decision to 'pedestrianise' the streets. In reality this means that the small winding walkways are filled with pedestrians, streets sellers, market stalls, restaurant hawkers, bicycles, scooters and the occasional pig. I would argue that the old part of the town has been successfully 'de-fourwheeled'. Labels aside, the result is a town with a calm and intimate feel and we were happy wandering the streets, spotting temples and pagodas and the tiny Japanese bridge that crosses the river until nightfall, where the place really comes to life. Lanterns are lit and the whole town can be seen twinkling in the moonlight - it really was magical.

From here we were also able to visit My Son (pronounced me sun) a site of ancient ruins dating back to the Cham people of the 4th century and, unfortunately, further record of the damage that this country sustained through it's many wars.

Rob has updated the 'ol photobucket account so please pop by and have a look - here's hoping for a further three quarters that are just as eventful!

Friday, 23 July 2010

Day 89&90: Hue; a gift

We arrived in Hue like children that had taken a nap for a little too long in the back of the car on the way to a birthday party; tired, groggy but quickly over excited.

With the assistance of two hired bicycles we soon set off into the heat of the day. Passing carefully sculpted gardens and crossing the beautiful Perfume River (no; we're not sure why they call it that either - it wasn't as bad as the sewer-come-canals of India but it didn't exactly smell of roses) and into the towns main attraction; the Citadel.

Originally built by the Nguyen dynasty and now officially a UNESCO heritage site, it bears the wounds of the many wars this country has fought with a pick'n'mix style of architecture alongside a buzzing little community.
To continue with the kids party metaphor, if I may, the highlight of our visit was the pass-the-parcel style citadel, within a citadel, within a citadel. Walled spaces that once played host to temples and the various emperors' every whims now, sadly, can be seen crumbling and, as one progresses to the very centre, to the fantastically named Forbidden Purple City, only the rubble of the foundations remain.

We spent the whole day exploring the tiny winding streets, circling huge lillypad-covered ponds and rumbling over the cobbled stones that surround the zig-zag moat. When we got back to the hotel and showered it became apparent that the sun had given Rob the perfect outline of his t-shirt on his skin - a departing gift, a party bag if you will.

All we needed was jelly and icecream; we settled for a few too many cold beers with some new friends we'd made. Absolute bliss.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Some pictures

Hi all,

I've just finished uploading all our photos from Vietnam... take a look at if you so feel the need.

Big hugs, xx

Day 85: Karsts and kayaks and other things

If we thought that leaving India meant waving goodbye to long journeys...and we definitely did think that we were waving goodbye to long journeys...we were sorely mistaken. And I use the word 'sorely' in the truest sense of the word.

Here Team 365 would like to impart a newly learned bit of travel advice; those of European proportions should not contemplate travelling in any sort of comfort in vehicles designed for tiny Vietnamese folk. Those of, say, Scandinavian proportions should consider a double leg amputation before contemplating fitting into a "sleeper" or "semi-sleeper" vessel.

Anyway. A leg-cramping 22 hours later we had arrived on Cat Ba Island; our chosen gateway to the beautiful 1,553 square kilometers of Karst islets that is Halong Bay.
We secured ourselves a lovely room with a stunning view of the harbour and then arranged ourselves onto a tour that meant we would spend the minimum amount of time in the afore mentioned room. That's how we roll.

As soon as we departed it was clear that this was going to be a very special day indeed. Our boat passed through Lan Ha Bay - a landscape that contrasted the greenest of seas with sheer rock faces that stood precariously balanced on eroded bases. Even above the boat engine the sounds of the many species of wildlife that live there were audible.

We sailed on. Past caves with gravity-defying stalactites and, after stopping for a delicious lunch, onto one of the many desserted white sand beaches dotted around. Apart from the other guests on our boat, we had the place to ourselves - a far cry from some of the nightmare tales we had heard about those who had taken backpacker-tours from hostels in Hanoi.

And so we threw ourselves (and eachother) overboard and explored the mollusc-coated coves until it was time to sail through more stunning scenery, past 'floating villages' and onto the dubiously-named kayak farm. They weren't exactly farming kayaks in the traditional sense of the word but they did let us have one until our arms were sore.

Somehow in and amongst all the sights and sounds a whole day had passed and we were soon back at our hotel; elated, exhausted and extremely satisfied with another wonderful day.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Day 82&83: Kiss me - 60,000 OK?

And so it was that we made our way the 300 km up to Bac Ha; almost on the Chinese border, we arrived on a packed bus in a beautiful town with wide roads, a humid atmosphere and, most notably, barely any people.

It was Saturday and this was about to change for Sunday was Market Day and the sleepy town soon filled up with colourfully dressed Hill Tribe folk, locals and tourists. Though it was a little more touristy than we had hoped - the souvenir stands far outnumbered the water buffalo for sale - that said, there was indeed water buffalo (and other livestock; puppy, anyone?) for sale.
To my mind the Flower H'mong people - the predominant tribe of the area - have the right idea; they wear amazing clothes (pics to follow shortly but think bold prints and bright colours), tie their hair with ornamental combs in gravity defying swirls right above their foreheads and come into Bac Ha town to work on only one day of the week.
The down side of this is an increasing reliability on the tourist trade and you do kind of get the feeling that from Monday to Saturday they're hanging out in the hills in their knock-off Nike shirts and joggers like everyone else.

One thing that is definitely not for show is the Vietnamese ability to drink; the market starts at 6am and locals can been seen enjoying a bia hoi right from the off. We also had the ...erm...experience of drinking a local speciality, ruou, which is so potent it can actually ignite. And it tastes it. The locals sample sips from the lids of each jerrycan for sale before buying the stuff by the litre.
After the market we made our way west to the bigger mountainous town of Sapa. It was in this exchange that title of this post occurred. You see, the naturally tonal Vietnamese pronunciation of 'excuse me' sounds exactly like 'kiss me' and in a country with inflation that means the smallest denomination is a 1,000 dong note, prices can quickly escalate into hundreds of thousands. We had bargained our bus down from 100,000 to a much more sensible 60,000 dong or 2 British
pounds and 40 pence.

The landscapes here in Sapa are incredibly. Every view looks like a postcard. At 1650m above sea level, the carefully farmed land sits just below the clouds that act as temporary peaks to the tops of the many mountains that surround the town.
We took a long walk (it would be ambitious to call it a 'trek') to a few of the local tribal settlements. Unfortunately some of my fears were confirmed when we found tickets actually being sold for entry into one, Cat Cat - we didn't go, and an array of satellite dishes on the sides of corrugated metal homes in Sin Chai.

As a tourist in the area, it is perhaps to hypocritical to complain about the adverse affect of tourism on locals. But it pains me to see that here, as in India, there a girls as young as 10 walking the streets all day every day selling their wares to westerners. Is this just a natural evolution of a tribe that once made its living in other ways or the gross and progressive destruction of the culture of a sacred tribe? For me, it's a bit of both.

The natural landscapes are what brought Team 365 here and it is these that we have enjoyed the most; tonight though we're happy to embark on a long journey to the East coast and a totally different type of vista...

Friday, 9 July 2010

Day 78: How not to enter Vietnam (and other resolutions)

So here we are in pastures new and the first of our South East Asian resolutions is to leave behind the musical punns that were forming the title of our posts [*brief pause while you look back and realise that was what they were all about*] But - fear not - we won't be stooping to anything as helpful as using actual place names...

Our second resolution, after being refused entry into Vietnam, is to be more visa-efficient. I should explain; Vietnamese visas can be quickly and easily obtained on entry with possession of an 'approval letter' from the government which is, again, easily obtained in advance. The problem arose when we extended our stay in India by a month and subsequently arrived at the airport with an approval letter that allowed us entry up until the second of July...on the seventh of July.

After much pleading, smiling, dodgy translation and even some tears we were provided with a last-minute visa for $140...each; more than five times the price we'd already paid for our (now expired) approval letters in advance.

Needless to say we left the airport with spirits somewhat dampened. But - and this is one of the joys of backpacking - the bus we boarded into town was full of other travellers and we spent the rest of the day finding accomodation and getting our first taste of bia hoi (local beer) with some lovely folk.

Hanoi is an awesome city; we've been pounding the pavements, and the streets, since the pavements are usually full of parked mopeds and street cafes. The locals are a venerable mix of the super-stylish and weathered-workers; friendly folk with wide smiles and peaked hats.
We've seen some incredible architecture, some beautiful art galleries and some seriously fresh fish being sold; they're kept in bowls pumped with oxygen and they're still gasping for breath when they're cut and weighed and sold. It's quite something to behold. And all the more reason (for me) to keep it en chay (vegetarian).

Tonight we're leaving for the mountaneous north of the country, right up on the boarder with China, where we hope to trek through paddy fields, meet some of the Vietnamese hill tribes and, Heiniken in hand, watch Holland win the world cup.

Let the Vietnamese adventures begin!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Day 76: The end has no end

As our time in India draws to a close and we prepare ourselves to depart for Vietnam, we've been watching the rain fall on the lush greenery of Verkala and thinking of everything that's been.

We've been up mountains (boulder-strewn or otherwise), strolled along beaches, bustled through markets, sailed on rivers and swam in no less than three oceans.

We've learned, laughed and loved (almost) every minute. Would we come back? Yes - but probably only to explore the mountainous north of India, which we did not do on this trip. Should you go? Yes - but only if you are happy to endure long and hot bus and train journeys, attract a lot of attention wherever you go, and often be over-charged just because of the colour of your skin.
Tourists here are seen as walking wads of cash, and for the for the most part it is true, we can afford to pay more than locals. The visible Indian/tourist can be frustrating; the Taj Mahal entry fee is 20 rupees for Indians and 750 rupees for tourists, still only just over a tenner.

The aggressive touting and tacky merchandising of the booming tourist industry can often seem to stop westerners, like us, from really immersing ourselves in the real India. Especially with each state adhering to it's own cultures, tradition and language(s); a two month trip isn't really enough to scratch the surface.
On the occassions that we have made it past the facade, we have found poverty, honesty and hopefulness in equal measure. These glimpses of India are times we have treasured.

We've met some inspiring people, enjoyed some of the warmest hospitality and certainly had our eyes opened to a way of life that is as diverse as it is colourful and enthralling.
Thank you for sharing them with us here.

Food for thought

As so begins what we're hoping will turn into something of a tradition.
When we leave a country we will run-down our all-star menu for a days fine dining. This is part self-indulgent confirmation of what local foodies we've become and part useful record of our tastes so that in a years time we can (try to) recreate these culinary delights for you fine folk.


Masala Omlette on toast
drink: Train Chai

Street roasted spicy nuts

Mutton Rice with Onion Raitha (school lunch) with naan
drink: Appy

Egg Puff

Spring Roll (from Allepey)
Main Course
Egg wid Mushroom biryani [sic] with Chicken Hydrabadi & parotta
drink: "cooling water"
Free Chocolate Milkshake (Crafters Cafe, Fort Kochin)


Masala Dosa with Vada
drink: Train Chai

7 rupee slice of cake

"Backwater Thalli" Veg curry, pineapple chutney, spiced beetroot,
ladyfinger fry, green salad, chapatti & popadom
drink: Appy

Samosa (bus stand, Hampi)

Papad & dips (from Bangalore)
Main Course
"Ashram Thursday Dinner" creamy chick-pea
& corriander curry, dry noodles & parotta
drink: Kingfisher beer
Ooty Chocolate

NB: threesixfive would like to strongly recommend against attempting to eat all of the above on the same day... not for the lack of trying - there is certainly no way that we could do it anymore