A Travellerspoint blog

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (21st - 22nd October)

We were picked up from our hotel quite early. There was another couple from our hotel who were on the trip as well - Tyneil and Daniel from Australia. The bus journey to Ha Long took a few hours and we then got on a small boat to take us to the larger boat that we'd be staying on. We were allocated our bathrooms and were then served lunch. As Jamie had told them he was vegetarian, plus I'd said I don't eat seafood, we got some interesting veggie alternatives. It was all communal food, so we'd take bits of whichever dishes we fancied anyway, but the veggie squid was fascinating! It looked like tiny squids, complete with eyes. Not sure why they thought vegetarians might want their food to look like meat, plus it tasted pretty gross, but kudos for the attention to detail. Plus there were veggie shrimps that really did look like shrimps (but tasted like rubber). The pretend fish was decent though, plus all the regular dishes were good, so I'm not actually complaining about the food - we ate well.

After lunch we were back on the small boat and we went to visit Sungsot Cave (known as 'Surprise Cave'). It was pretty spectacular, plus lit really beautifully. Although there was also a part with a phallic stalactite that they'd illuminated in red and referred to as the 'happy finger'. Not quite so tasteful but amusing for sure.

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After the caves there was the option of doing some kayaking, though I passed on that as I'm not a water person. We were then taken to an island where we could walk up to a lookout point and/or have a swim. It didn't take long to walk up to the lookout, though it was quite tiring. When we were back down on the beach we strangely bumped into Ruut, who'd been on our carriage on the Trans-Mongolian! She was on the same tour, with the same company, just on a different boat. Small world and all that. It was nice to catch up with her.

We then headed back to the main boat for the evening. We had a brief cooking lesson before dinner - learning how to make spring rolls. Then after dinner it was Happy Hour on cocktails, so we took advantage of that and played some cards. There was much amusement over the inclusion of 'spite' in one of the cocktails, as well as Jamie's request to inspect the milk before ordering a White Russian. That wasn't quite as mad as it sounds - it's common to be given sweetened condensed milk instead of regular milk in Vietnam.

The whole of that first day at Ha Long Bay was pretty rushed, just to fit everything in. There wasn't really time to just chill out on the boat and enjoy the scenery, which is totally beautiful. I have to confess that it was the Top Gear Special that first made me aware of the existence of Ha Long Bay - it looked amazing on TV so it was pretty exciting to actually get to see it in person. Thankfully there was more time to just chill out and enjoy it on the second day. The only other thing we did was visit a pearl farm where we ran into Ruut again.

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The bus got us back to Hanoi late afternoon. We were getting the overnight train to Hue but had a few hours to kill first, so hung out at the hotel for a while and also went to have some dinner, of course. As we'd booked the Ha Long Bay tour through the hotel, they'd offered us a free taxi journey to the train station, which was really nice. Tyneil and Daniel were getting the same train (though getting off earlier), though had booked their tour independently, so hadn't been offered the free taxi deal. Still, as we'd become friends, it made sense to share the taxi, which was fine with the hotel staff. One of the guys working there carried our bags to the taxi and waved us off. However, when we arrived at the train station, he reappeared to unload our bags and pay the taxi driver. It was really shocking, he seemed to just magically appear from nowhere. Apparently he'd been following on a scooter. He then carried our bags on to the train for us. You really can't fault the level of service at Hotel 3B.

Our cabin mates were 2 independent male travellers who didn't say anything to us and pretty much went straight to bed. We assumed they were both Vietnamese. However, the next morning, the guy on the lower bunk said something in English to Jamie and clearly had an American accent. It was a bit of a shock. Thankfully we'd not said anything rude about him the previous evening when we thought he couldn't understand us! Actually we've taken to talking about people in a kind of pigeon Welsh, just because they're a lot less likely to understand that. I think we'd just said how our cabin mates didn't seem to be annoying! The verb 'to annoy' - cythruddo - has definitely been a useful one to learn. Anyway, after a night of sleep, the American was suddenly chatty, which was nice. The other guy was definitely Vietnamese.

We arrived in Hue about 2 hours late, though that did make it a more reasonable hour, so wasn't too bad.

Posted by chantalpatton 04:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi, Vietnam (18th - 21st October)

We caught a local bus from the airport to the centre of Hanoi. Getting off the bus was quite a shock - Hanoi was incredibly different from Seoul - it seemed completely chaotic, it was a little overwhelming. The traffic doesn't seem to obey traffic lights and there are motorbikes and scooters everywhere. The pavement's covered in parked motorbikes so you have to walk in the road, in amongst the moving motorbikes. People are honking their horns all the time as well - usually for no apparent reason. But still, we managed to walk to our hotel - Hotel 3B.

Hotel 3B was great - the staff greeted us with a welcome cup of tea and were incredibly helpful. The guy called Dragon had a bit of difficulty pronouncing my name, but he was always checking we were ok and offering to help with things. Our room was really nice as well. My only minor gripe was with the breakfast, which really wasn't great. It was mostly pre-cooked food on hotplates, including some hard and rubbery fried eggs. They offered banana pancakes cooked to order, which sounded promising, but they'd only be cooked on the outside; the insides would still be batter. They weren't thick pancakes either, so not sure how they managed that. Plus the coffee was pretty gross. But still, breakfast aside, I'd recommend it as a place to stay.

Hanoi's not a hugely exciting city - you don't need to spend much time there - but there are a few nice sights to check out; temples and such like - plus the prison was interesting too. There were some decent bars and restaurants as well. Still, it's mostly useful as a base to visit Ha Long Bay and Sapa. We were going to visit Sapa but the weather forecast was awful and we didn't want to spend a lot of time and money to go somewhere that would just be wet and unenjoyable. We booked a trip to Ha Long Bay though as that just had to be done.

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Posted by chantalpatton 03:45 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Seoul, South Korea (14th - 18th October)

We couchsurfed in Seoul, staying with an American guy called Michael. We even had our own room, so it was more like bedsurfing I guess, though without any slutty connotations. Michael was a great host - we didn't get to hang out with him a huge amount as we were only there on weekdays, but we'd chat to him for a while in the evenings and watch some TV together. He was also doing a cool thing with his couchsurfers where he'd take 2 polaroid photos of him and them together - one for him to keep and one as a memento for the surfers.

Michael's apartment was in the Itaewon area, which was a perfect place to be - it was full of restaurants and bars. As much as I love Chinese food I was kinda sick of it by the end of our time in China - it's not that you can't get other cuisines there but there's not a huge amount of choice and it's a lot more expensive. So to suddenly be on this street in Seoul that was filled with restaurants of every cuisine imaginable was rather exciting but also a little overwhelming. We ended up going to a Mexican place on our first night. The only element of our time in Seoul that wasn't so enjoyable was how expensive it was in comparison to the previous 2 countries we'd been in. It was quite comparable to UK prices. Although drinks were more like London prices, so we didn't do much drinking there.

I really really liked Seoul as a city. It felt kinda familiar somehow. Even riding the subway was a pleasant experience - it was clean and spacious. We only had a few days there, mostly because it's not so cheap, so I'm sure there's loads of stuff we didn't get to see, but some highlights:

- Namsan Park and N Seoul Tower - we didn't pay to go up the tower but you don't really need to as you get a great view over Seoul just by being at the top of the hill where the tower is. There's also an impressive amount of Love Locks up there. We made it up just in time for sunset, which was great.

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- Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art - I'd mistakenly thought this was free. It wasn't expensive but it's also not that big. There were some interesting parts in the contemporary section but overall I wasn't that impressed. It kept us out of the rain for a while though.

- Korean War Memorial and Museum - This one was free and it was amazing! We went there a couple of times as there's so much to see. Definitely one of the best museums I've ever been to - brilliantly done and with some nice interactive touches as well. There are a few 3D and 4D cinema things that run every half hour for about 10 minutes, which are totally free as well. Plus I got quite excited by the toilets! They had a control panel of buttons, so you could heat up the seat and spray water at your bum and who knows what else!

On our last night we stayed at a hotel near the airport as we had an early flight the next morning. We took the subway to the airport, which was quite fun as you get a fanfare when the train approaches. We then got a free transfer from the airport to our hotel. We got one back the next morning as well.

The hotel was called Oceanside and it was really nice. It was on quite a run down street but the hotel itself was really nicely decorated. Our room was pretty lush and had one of the futuristic toilets plus a jacuzzi! We went for a brief walk to the nearby beach (where the sky looked amazing), popped into a 7 Eleven for snacks (and to use up our Korean money), then went back to our room for a bit of a feast and to play with the jacuzzi.

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Posted by chantalpatton 02:14 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Shanghai, China (10th - 14th October)

Shanghai was a lot more clean and modern than Beijing. I preferred it as a city in general - it seemed like a much nicer place to live - but Beijing's more interesting in terms of historical buildings and a more traditional feel.

We stayed at Mingtown Etour, which is an HI hostel. We had a private room and it was a really nice place. The cafe area's in an open courtyard which is probably the biggest draw of the hostel. We had fun watching some of the turtles in the pond. The breakfast there was OK but more expensive than the ones in Beijing.

I'm getting quite behind on my blog posts so here's a summary of some of the places we visited in Shanghai:

- The Bund - the area by the river where you can look out over to the most iconic buildings of Shanghai's skyline. We walked along there a few times - it's great during the day but even better at night with all the lights. We also took one of the cheap public ferries across the river which was really nice. It was also on The Bund that we got stopped by a Chinese family who wanted their photo taken with us. It happened to other Western travellers quite a lot (especially the blonde ones) but we only had it that once.

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- Urban Planning Exhibition Centre - Not a very exciting sounding name but it was a really good museum. The highlight has to be the scale model of the whole of downtown Shanghai.

- Yu Yuan Garden - This is a nice enough area to walk around but not so impressive once you've been to Beijing and seen the Forbidden City etc. It also wasn't as impressive as...

- The Jade Buddha Temple - This was well worth visiting. The most memorable part being the koi carp. You can pay to feed them, which we didn't, but we were greatly entertained by the people who did. They'd put some food on the palms of their hands, lower them in the water and the fish would go crazy. I've never seen such animated fish before - they'd suck the food in quite aggressively and they'd even wriggle up on top of the other fish in order to try and get to the food. It was crazy.

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I've not really mentioned what we did for food most of the time in China. We'd been a little worried beforehand that we just wouldn't know what anything was and that Jamie would find it particularly hard as a vegetarian. We needn't have worried though - in Beijing and Shanghai at least it seemed pretty standard to have English translations on the menus. We also found a few vegetarian restaurants. The best of which was definitely Vegetarian Lifestyle in Shanghai - we went there twice.

When we left Shanghai we took the Maglev to the airport. The Maglev's a high speed train that uses magnets to levitate above the tracks. Futuristic eh? I hadn't known such a thing existed. I think the only other one's in Japan, though they're also building one in South Korea, which was where we were off to next.

Posted by chantalpatton 21:48 Archived in China Comments (0)

Beijing, China (4th - 9th October)

Lauren and Ricky, our cabinmates from the train, were staying at the same hostel as us, so the 4 of us travelled there together. We were only booked into the Happy Dragon hostel for 1 night as we'd booked it back in July as part of our visa application. We'd all booked to stay in a 5 bed dorm but got put into a 4 bed dorm instead, which was cool. Although they initially tried to put me and Jamie in separate rooms (as they'd misread our booking), which wasn't so cool. It was a nice enough hostel - the bar/restaurant area was small but had a nice feel to it. We had dinner there on that first night, plus breakfast the next morning - both were fairly cheap and decent, though nothing amazing.

That evening we went out to visit one of the night markets. We met up with Alan, Anne and Erie from the trans-mongolian, plus an Australian guy called Karl who we'd just met in the hostel bar. We marvelled at all the strange things you could buy to eat - mostly stuff on sticks; spiders, scorpions, frogs, testicles (which the vendors enjoyed selling far too much), plus various other creepy crawlies and things I wouldn't personally classify as food. After that we all went back to our hostel bar for drinks, which was a good laugh.

Some of the 'treats' at the night market:

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I just realised I've not talked about Beijing in general. The thing you notice first is the smog. Even though I knew it was going to be bad, it was still quite surprising. We arrived at the end of a national holiday week though, so that might have added to the pollution levels. There were a couple of days at the start of the following week which weren't too bad. But yes, the smog is the first thing you notice. The second thing you notice is how much people spit on the street. I find that horrible in general, but in China they manage to do it in as noisy and disgusting a manner as possible. I know it's a different culture an' all, but why do they constantly seem to need to hack up huge amounts of phlegm and share it with the general populous? Why are they so phlegmy in the first place? Are they all constantly ill from breathing in each others' spit germs? Is it some kind of vicious cycle? Do they compete with each other to see who can make the most noise when hacking it up? I've no idea, but it's pretty gross. Although you will also get some people urinating or defecating in the street - mostly kids, but not always- so maybe the spitting isn't so bad really.

On our second day in Beijing we checked out of the Happy Dragon and checked in to 365 Inn. We took the subway between the 2 hostels. The subway's incredibly cheap, though high on security - you have to put any bags you have through x-ray scanners. This led to us having a can of insect repellant confiscated as you can't take anything flammable on board (well, nothing with the flammable chemicals symbol on it - I don't mean anything that could potentially be set on fire, as that would be rather excessive). Thankfully the can was nearly empty anyway so it wasn't too much of a loss (though still annoying). 365 Inn was a nice hostel - we had our own room at this one. The bar/restaurant area was much bigger than the one at Happy Dragon and the drinks were slightly cheaper, but I didn't think the food was quite so good. Plus the music wasn't great and seemed to be on a loop, so we heard the same few songs every morning at breakfast.

Feel free to skip over this next paragraph unless you really want to hear me rant about my inability to get Suede tickets...

After checking in to the hostel, we headed out in search of gig tickets. When we were in St. Petersburg we'd found out that Suede were going to be playing Beijing the day after we were due to arrive there. Now, for anyone who doesn't know me that well, Suede are one of my favourite bands, so I was pretty excited. They re-formed back in 2010, but as that was the year we went out to New Zealand, I only got to see them once before leaving the UK. Annoyingly they didn't gig during our 6 months of living in London, inbetween our years in New Zealand and Canada, so I've had 3 years of being frustratingly far away from all the amazing-sounding gigs they've been doing. It therefore seemed like a perfect pay-off to get to see them as part of this trip. Of course I went to buy tickets as quickly as possible, but the price put me off. The cheapest seats, right at the back of a huge venue, were about £40. The most expensive, up at the front, were about £100. Yikes! I'm used to paying about £20 to see them in much smaller and more intimate venues. But how could I not see them? And how could I not be near the front? My natural instinct was to go straight ahead and book the £100 tickets, but my sensible side (and Jamie) knew we couldn't afford that. I couldn't bring myself to book the cheaper ones at that point though, so I left it for a few days. When we were in Moscow I checked up on the ticket sales. The cheapest seats had gone, so the next cheapest were about £55. Still a lot of money, but just low enough for me to feel ok about buying them. I held out on booking them until our last day in Moscow, just so that they'd go onto the following month's credit card statement. However, when I did go to book them I found that I couldn't - I needed a Chinese mobile phone number! So annoying. I e-mailed the company to see if there was a way around this, but I didn't get a reply before getting on the trans-mongolian and being without internet for 4 days. Although when I did get the reply it wasn't much help anyway - I was too late for doing any kind of bank transfer so I could only buy tickets in person from their Beijing office. So that's what we attempted to do on the day of the gig. Of course it was too late though - they'd sold out. Not wanting to give up we then went to the venue to see if they had any there. Some touts were outside and tried to sell us tickets, albeit with some difficulty due to the language barrier. If I'd been on my own I'd totally have bought them - I held some tickets in my hand! Jamie had to be the voice of reason and hold me back. We had no way of knowing if the tickets were genuine and the guy seemed too keen to get rid of them. We'd quite likely have still not gotten into the gig and parted with a lot of our precious travel money. It was so incredibly frustrating though. We then walked around the gig venue, which seemed to be being used for some kind of military training - it was a bit scary and intimidating, but nobody told us to leave. We could see posters and banners for the gig, but the main entrance was closed and we couldn't see any kind of box office, so we had to give up on that. I tried messaging people on Twitter, including some of the band members, in the vain hope that I could maybe somehow still got tickets, but no, no response. It probably doesn't help that Twitter's blocked in China. I'd downloaded a VPN to get around it but you can't assume that everyone will do that. So yeah, no Suede gig for us. Saved us some money though. Plus we're still on this amazing world trip, so you're not going to feel too sorry for me, I'm sure.

Anyway, back to things we actually did manage to do in Beijing:
- Tianamen Square. This was right near our 2nd hostel, which was handy. It's not that exciting or attractive a place, in and of itself, it's just good to visit because of its history and to be in such a famous place. It's mostly just open space, though surrounded by some nice buildings and right next to the Forbidden City.

- The Forbidden City. This covers a really large area and is really nice to walk around. We hired an audio guide between us, which gives you more information on the various structures and buildings, but mostly just got annoying and didn't really feel necessary. There's also a park opposite where you can walk up a hill and get a good view out over the forbidden city. Sadly the view was marred by the smog on the day we were there, but on a rare clear(ish) day it would be pretty cool.

- The Summer Palace. This was a nice area to walk around. Everywhere's incredibly busy in Beijing, but parts of The Summer Palace were fairly peaceful. Although this didn't include the parts down by the water. The giant rubber duck - designed by a Dutch guy - which has been travelling the world, was in Beijing, so that whole area was manic. It was great to get to see it though.

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- The Great Wall. We went to the Jinshanling section of the wall as we'd read it's much quieter and less touristy. We booked a tour through our hostel as it was a decent price and made things much easier than trying to do it independently. We got picked up from our hostel in a minibus, so I thought it was going to be a really small group of us. We travelled around Beijing for about an hour, stopping at a couple of other hostels to pick people up. However we then parked up behind a big coach and were transferred on to that, so not such a small tour group after all. On leaving the minibus we were given our breakfast, which had been included in the tour price, along with lunch. It was a McMuffin and a coffee - all of which had been on the bus since before we were picked up, so were starting to go cold. Mmmmm, not the best. Although it was a pleasant surprise to find that Erie and Anne were already on the bus, so we had some ready-made friends for the day.

It was quite a long journey to that part of the wall, so we only had 3 hours to spend on it, though that was a decent amount. We got the cable car up, just to save some time. Part way up we started hearing some Chinese power ballads, which they play from the speakers on the towers. I'd imagine this is meant to add some element of drama and excitement, but we just found it really funny. When we got to the top there were a few people trying to tag along with us as guides - just after money of course. I had thought that we might be with a guide the whole time anyway, all walking together as a large group, but happily we weren't - we could go do our own thing, so long as we were back at the bus on time. However it wasn't that easy to shake the would-be-guide who started following us as soon as we got off the cable car. We said 'no' a lot but then basically had to shout at her to 'go away' and make a bit of a run for it. She seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. Still, that aside, it was a really great walk along the wall. The tour group had really spread out, so it was really quiet and we could get some great photos. The area we were in had parts of wall that hadn't been fully restored, so it felt more authentic and interesting than the perfect looking touristy areas.

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We'd been told it would take about an hour and a quarter to walk back down to the entrance, so we gave ourselves plenty of time. But it didn't take us anywhere near that long - it took less than half an hour. It meant we could have spent longer on the wall, but we did get to chill out with a drink before the buffet lunch was served. The lunch was nothing special, but ok. On the long journey back to Beijing it seemed really surreal that we'd just been walking along the Great Wall of China. It's such a famous landmark that you can't fully take in the fact you've been there.

- The Olympic Village. Not a must-see but enjoyable. The Birds Nest looks much more impressive from a distance than it does close up though.

On our last day in Beijing we got the overnight train to Shanghai. At the train station I was fascinated/disgusted to see that people don't just spit outside on the street, they did it inside the station too. I also marvelled at women not bothering to shut toilet cubicle doors. They were squat toilets, not western toilets, though I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse... Not easily embarrassed anyway - I guess that's a good quality?

We were in a soft-sleeper carriage, which means 4 beds per berth. We were sharing with 2 Chinese guys who both seemed really quiet and unobtrusive until it came to going to bed. One of them was totally fine but the other guy was the loudest snorer I've ever heard. Maybe he'd not spent enough time spitting during the day and he was all full of phlegm, but god it was bad. He seemed to make a whole array of different animal sounds - sometimes a pig, sometimes a tiger, sometimes some kind of hell beast that only exists in your worst nightmares. It would have been funny if we hadn't had to try sleeping in the same room as him. Amazingly we did actually manage to get some sleep though - we must have been incredibly tired.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:54 Archived in China Comments (0)

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