Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Yangshuo was simply stunning. It is a small town set on the banks of the Li River, and surrounded by dozens of limestone peaks. It is the China that most people imagine or see in the movies. The town itself is a bit of a tourist haunt, and one thing we have learnt about China is that 95% of the tourists are domestic. That makes for some pretty entertaining viewing. There is so much junk for sale - the Chinese are consumers, no doubt about that, and they will buy anything.

The area surrounding Yangshuo is really what makes this place interesting. Several rivers flow through the area amongst the limetone karsts and farms. Twice we hired bikes and rode around rice paddy's and small villages - a good way to appreciate how beautiful the place really is. We did a 24km hike along the river which was incredible. Sometimes its easy to put your NZ hat on and say that nothing compares to home, but this was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I guess the difference being that at home its all in close proximity - in China the good stuff is REALLY GOOD, but so far has been few and far between.

On our final night we did a cooking course out in the country which was heaps of fun. Its the second one we've done now and its such an awesome way to get to know a culture better. In China the food reflects the seasons, and after cycling and walking around in the countryside you realise how important each ingredient is and how much effort goes into obtaining it. Yin and Yang is also represented in the food, and knowing these small facts makes a walk through the market more interesting and certainly gives you more appreciation for what you're eating, rather than just wolfing down a bowl noodles.
Despite a minor blowout in the form of a missed flight (quickly sorted out by the legendary Annelies), we finally left Yangshuo bound for Chongqing. It was an amazing six days and I can recommend it to anyone travelling in China.


Guilin promised so much and unfortunately delivered so little. We arrived from Nanning and found yet another amazing Guesthouse (the dream run continues) and set out exploring. This place was very different to Nanning - not very modern and quite dirty. The 'sights' were lucklustre at best, and after two nights we were pretty eager to move on to Yangshuo. I guess this wasn't the polished China we had seen in Nanning, nor was it the relaxed countryside we were about to encounter in Yangshuo.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


We approached the Chinese border with a little trepidation. We'd heard multiple accounts the bureacracy of the officials was of legendary proportions and that a long wait and the confiscation of our guide book (the Chinese do not like the fact Taiwan is listed as a separate country) was a possibility. The process turned out to be rather painless and we were ushered through to our waiting bus for the other half of the journey to Nanning.

The border was immaculate, with marble/granite buildings and paths lined with red flowering trees. The rail terminal looked equally as polished. We stepped onto our bus which was an immediate contrast to anything we'd had previosuly in SE Asia - seats with ample leg room that resembled lazy boys. The theme of contrast continued as we pulled out onto the double lane highway, lined with manicured gardens and concrete edgings, that was as smooth as silk for the whole 4 hour trip to Nanning.

Arriving in Nanning we were shocked to see a massive modern city complete with 3 or 4 amazing bridges (in typical Chinese style, lit up like rainbows with neon lighting) , countless skyscrapers and a flood lit golf course. It was so clean and tidy we could hardly believe it.

At that stage we didn't have any Chinese currency, which made paying for a taxi to our Guesthouse a minor problem. After having our Travelcard rejected from 3 ATM's we finally found one that came to the party and dispensed us some Renminbi. We found our way to the hostel which was run buy an American expat who in time turned out to be quite a weirdo.

The next day we had a walk around and continued to be awestruck by the number of shopping malls and the like. After a brief bit of shopping in order to get some supplies I headed to the 'golf ball-like' Guangxi Province Museum of Science and Technology for a look while Lizzie subbed out. This place was housed in yet another impressive building and had a series of interactive exhibits aimed to educate the young through old on the scientific method, innovation, resource management and clean energies. It was quite cool even though I could only read half the exhibits. I think such a thing would be really useful back home for the NZ public.

That night we went to a street food market - welcome to China. The theme here seemed to be 'anything goes'. There were hundreds of BBQ's, dumpling and noodle stands, and then of course your more exotic foods like goat heads, shark heads, chicken feet - pretty much everything we throw away. It turned out that the specialty of Guangxi province was dog hot pot, so after making a special effort to avoid that we ended up with a grilled fish and oysters (yip...really roughing it!).

Today we said goodbye to our strange American hostel-owner and made our way up to Guilin on another easy bus ride. I don't think for one minute Nanning will be representative of China. As an entry point and economic stronghold for ASEAN trade, it was bound to be polished. However, coming from two months in SE Asia Nanning was definitely a bit of shock to the system - where was all the dust, heat, and general craziness? The sheer wealth and level of consumerism in a modern China was startling. It was not only the gulf in wealth between China and SE Asia that stood out, but even the difference between Nanning and NZ. All this made for a rather unsettling first few days in China while we tried to get to grips with the differences in culture, environment and language.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Hi All,

One of the downsides of travelling in China is the internet censorship laws. I had known previously that you could't access Facebook or YouTube here, but I was unaware that I couldn't access my Blogger site, or even view any .blogspot blogs! I think I've found a way around it, posting by email, but I'm not sure how this will affect the layout of any of my posts. Apologies if they come skewed or minus any photos, hopefully I can sort a solution out soon.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hanoi and Halong Bay

We thought that Saigon was hectic enough, but even though Hanoi is smaller (3 million vs. 7 million), the tightness of the streets and the fact that 2/3 of the population own scooters makes for a cacophony of noise. It really is scooter city. Crossing the road is not so bad though, like Saigon, if you hold your line and move slowly, the traffic will swarm around you. Hanoi has an Old Quarter, where centuries ago the 36 Guilds came together to form an area of commerce. Many of the streets have been taken over by things more modern, and we saw sunglasses street, shoe street, clothes street, and my favourite - shelving and storage equipment street. Imagine trading like that back home - a street full of your competitors!

While in Hanoi we're staying with Matt and Lindy who have been teaching English here for the past 18 months or so. Its so good to see some people from home and they've been amazing - showing us around on their scooters, taking us to amazing restaurants and making us feel at home. Its so nice to be in a house for a change, we have our own room here and have been able to do washing, watch the cricket and Wellington Phoenix, and generally catch up on life.

We took a trip to Halong Bay, north of Hanoi a couple of days ago - another UNESCO World Heritage Site which has almost 2000 limestone Karsts rising out of the sea. The scenery is amazing...if you keep your eyes above the horizon - the water is quite polluted, nothing like clean green NZ. Perhaps I'll tell you what we saw in the water another time!

We spent a night on the boat which was pretty cool, we kayaked around the islands into jungle surrounded lagoons accessible through caves, and there were only two other people on board and so we were upgraded to the "deluxe suite". The catch with these boats is that the drinks are pretty expensive, and I think they were quite upset that we snuck a bottle of vodka ($1.50) on board and dealt to it up on the top deck.

We're back in Hanoi now and organising our bus to China. I'm very much looking forward to this part of the trip, as I find China an intriguing country due to both its history and the rapid change its going through. A new country also brings new food and new people, which I've found helps keep the excitement up when you're on the road for a long time. Hopefully we can get into Tibet, and we also get to see Annelies which is so damn exciting too.

Hoi An

Hoi An is a beautiful old trading port about halfway up the Vietnam Coast. Again the French influence is clear, with beautiful old washed colonial buildings that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hoi An is also famous for its tailors and these guys are amazing. Take in a piece of clothing, a picture, a drawing, and these guys will be able to knock something up which is almost identical. They are also becoming known for shoes, and the same thing applies. There are over 400 of them in Hoi An and its quite daunting to have to choose one when you arrive. Each hotel has their recommendation of course - usually their uncle, cousin, or friend that they make a good commission off. It really is luck of the draw, and after passing on Lonely Planet's expensive recommendations, we decided to bite the bullet and go with the one recommended by our Guesthouse. It turned out to be a great decision as they had great prices, were really attentive to every specific detail we had, and gave us multiple fittings to make sure everything was A-OK. I got two tailored suits which fitted like a glove, plus shirts and leather shoes, and Lizzie went nuts getting all sorts done.

During the whole tailoring process we hired a motorbike and drove out to a nearby beach and fishing villages and just had a general look around. I am becoming more in love with this way of seeing a new place the more I do it.

The food in Hoi An was also amazing - they have their own local dish called Cao Lau - which is made from grilled pork, noodles, fried rice paper croutons and fresh herbs. Incredible. And of course with the French heritage so prevalent, there was no shortage of patisseries if we ever felt like a bit of a treat. Throw in a few more Bia Hoi's and cheap market food, and Hoi An was a winner.

We picked up our finished clothes and jumped on a night bus for Hanoi where we'll stay with Matt and Lindy - can't wait.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beaching it up (Mui Ne & Nha Trang)

After spending time in the heat of Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City, it was awesome to arrive in Mui Ne for our first bit of genuine beach action. Mui Ne is about 200 km north of HCMC and is set along a 12 km stretch of white sand peppered by resorts. We found a relatively cheap one on the beachfront, with a pool and all the other mod cons. Mui Ne is a windy place, which make it quite popular with kite surfers - the learners making for good entertainment as they were dragged face first down the beach by their kites. Not a lot was done in Mui Ne, apart from swimming, reading, skyping and eating from the fresh seafood stalls right on the beach, which were incredible (think tuna steaks, fresh scallops, prawns for only a couple of dollars each).

After a few days we made our way up to Nha Trang, which is quite a bit larger (pop. ~300,000) for more of the same. We had plans to head further up the coast to a quiet beach, but were roped in by Nha Trang and all it had to offer. We hired a scooter and got involved in the mad traffic and rode out to the local hot spring for a mud bath (which was awesome), and riding around on the scooter tooting at all and sundry was a great way to see the 'real' Nha Trang rather than polished resort fronts.

On our last day we went snorkelling, spent the day feasting on seafood, looking at crazy tropical fish and coral reefs, sunbathing and doing bombs off the top of the boat. Awesome. We then got on the night bus to Hoi An, and after all the swimming, and over indulgence in Bia Hoi the previous night, I thought we would sleep pretty well. I'm a terrible sleeper on any form of transport anyway, but the fact that the bus driver hit what seemed like every single pothole from Nha Trang to Hoi An (an 11 hour bus ride!), made for some pretty tired travellers this morning. We got in at 6 am, got a guesthouse and caught up on a few hours sleep, so it was all good in the end.

Finally, I must give a huge shout out to those whose weddings I missed over the weekend (there were a few!) - CONGRATULATIONS, we had a toast ('brown' of course) to ya here in 'Nam!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City by bus late afternoon from Phnom Penh. The dream run continues with Guesthouses - we nailed a great one down close to the action for a bargain price, and then got out in the thick of it for some Vietnamese food for dinner.

Beef Noodle Soup, or Pho as it is called, is absolutely delicious. Like most Vietnamese food we have encountered since, Pho is incredibly fresh - served with a plate of fresh herbs, lime and chili to add at your disposal. And it's cheap - about 20,000 VND (NZ) $1.50 for a massive bowl, which fits with our budget! Another favourite is Ban Xeo, a rice flour and coconut milk crepe stuffed with pork, prawn, and bean sprouts, and served with the usual plate of fresh herbs, lime and chili.

HCMC is itself quite a nice city. It has a population of about 8 million, is quite spread out, and relatively clean to the rest of Asia. The streets are wide and leafy, and like Cambodia and Laos, there are some amazing French Colonial buildings about the place. There are scooters EVERYWHERE. Crossing the road is a bit daunting at first, but you get the hang of it. You just walk out slowly, let the drivers see you so they can swarm around you.

On our first full day we had a bit of a look around the city, which included a visit to the War Remnants Museum. Propaganda aside, it was quite interesting, largely due to the incredible photo exhibition showing the war and its aftermath. On the way home we stopped in at the rooftop bar at the Sheraton to watch the sunset, only to find the beers were NZ$12, no thank you. After walking back to the backpacker haunt of Pham Lam Nga, we found a Bia Hoi stand selling draught beer (essentially homebrew) on the side of the road for about $NZ0.50. These Bia Hoi stalls are quite cool, many tables crammed in which allows you to meet and chat to a whole bunch of randoms - we met a guy from Ibiza who had rowed the Mekong from Laos to HCMC with only a few clothes and some camp equipment, quite an achievement.

The next day we decided to see the Cu Chi Tunnels where the VC hid and fought the US in the war. We did this via a tour, which was quite revolting, but they seem to have a monopoly on the tunnels, you could taxi or rent a scooter and head out yourself, but there is little in the way of information unless you have a guide. Seeing the tunnels and going down them, gave us an appreciation of how terrible the war must have been to fight in - for both sides.

The next day we packed up and caught a bus to Mui Ne, a beach resort about 5 hours north of HCMC.