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Hanoi

July 9th, 2009
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Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam but despite this, and its historical and political importance, it has managed to remain fairly low key. It retains buildings from the 11th century, from the French Indochinese period as well as recent buildings pertaining to the ascent of Ho Chi Minh himself.

To begin with I have to say that I really liked Hanoi. For me, personally, it was nicer than Hoi An with a great mixture of the old and the new. Whatever you wanted you could probably find, although saying that we did manage to spend an awful lot of time trying to find speakers for my laptop. Regardless of that I managed to get in most of the city. Most of the active city revolves around Hoan Kiem Lake: the Old Quarter to the north and the French to the south.

We spent the majority of the first day checking out the city and trying to visit the Hanoi Hilton, the site of a French prison and later a prison for Americans. We did manage to get there but sadly a little too late; it was 3.50pm and they closed at 4pm. At that point I headed off on my own to find St Joseph’s Cathedral. I circled it for a while before getting myself in there. Quite a cute little Cathedral really and a nice spot to have a bit of quiet time. St Joseph's CathedralFollowing that I headed off to the east of Hoan Kiem Lake to take in some more of the French quarter and in particular the very elegant villas and tree lined streets which really do remind you of France. A beautiful part of the city and made all the more impressive by the great atmosphere with people playing badminton in the street and generally relaxing.

The second day (a Friday) was spent trying to go through all of the main tourist attractions west of the Citadel. Sadly, it’s all shut on a Friday so we walked around the area looking at a few things before heading off to the Temple of Literature. Not much to say on the Temple really;Temple of Literature it’s essentially the first University of Hanoi, dating from the 11th Century. More impressive was the little restaurant we happened upon just to the east of the Temple. Called Koto the restaurant teaches kids how to cook and gives them skills in the restaurant business. That’s all very good and well but the food has to deliver. Didn’t it just; great food and even better shakes ensured that we had a great lunch and didn’t even realise that a load of our group were upstairs from us! We eventually made it to the Prison from the day before and while the prison itself was nothing too impressive the behaviour of the Vietnamese was exemplary. Not only did the American prisoners (John McCain included) seem to have the time of their lives (there are pictures of them playing basketball and all sorts of stuff) they were also handed souvenirs when they left the prison!!

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Ha Long Bay

July 9th, 2009
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We arrived in Hanoi early in the morning and pretty much headed straight off to Ha Long Bay to get on a junk boat around the islands. The title “Junk Boat” is definitely an unfortunate one, given that the boat was massive (we had one all to ourselves) and well equipped. A trip to a cave plus a bit of swimming ensured a great day had by all. Best to just check out the photos really. http://www.jerzykowski.me.uk/?page_id=9&album=3&gallery=13

We spent the evening doing a spot of swimming in a hotel pool as well as grabbing a spot of food in Ha Long Bay. On that note….the bay is very impressive, the town is not. Stay away!

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Hue

July 9th, 2009
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Hue is a relatively small city, with a population of just over 250,000, situated on the Perfume River. Hue has somehow missed the economic growth that other cities have experienced and, as a result, retains its original charm. In 1802, during the Nguyen dynasty, the capital was moved from Hanoi to Hue and therefore contains a large citadel, the remnants of the Imperial City as well as several Royal Mausoleums.

We arrived in Hue early in the afternoon and immediately went for an orientation walk (yet another) mainly designed to take us for a spot of lunch. After lunch we split in to two groups, one group heading for the beach and the others, of which I was one, headed off to the citadelTo the Citadel! for a spot of sightseeing. The citadel is pretty sodding massive encompassing 6 square kilometres in total. Based on the forbidden city, in Beijing, it is enclosed by a moat and comprises three walled enclosures, with the forbidden purple city at the centre. Unfortunately a fire in 1947 destroyed much of the city and of the original 148 buildings only 20 have survived. Despite this the citadel is a worthy visit as the grounds are stunning and those buildings that did survive are (pretty) nice.The Empress' Relaxation RoomThe majority of the next day was dedicated to a scooter trip around Hue and the surrounding countryside. As everyone was doing this we all got up early to get downstairs ready to start a 14 person procession through the city. Charles told us that the guys driving the scooters were experts and to just go with what they say. Taking this to heart I got on the scooter with the last guy available - one whose eyes didn’t exactly follow each other - feeling slightly sorry for him given that noone else wanted him. I assumed that it was merely visual and that everything would be ok. The ride started fairly well, with a bit of car and scooter slalom, before heading out in to the countryside. About 5 minutes in to the trip the fun began. My “guy” went over a fairly hefty divot a little too quickly and the rear tyre completely burst forcing us to skid to a stop. A short stint on the back of Charles’ scooter, as well as some gay banter, and we were at our first stop where, alledgedly, my “guy” would catch us up with a new bike. The first stop was certainly interesting; an 80 year old spritely woman seemingly dedicating the rest of her life to demonstrating the old art of rice growing. Crazy Rice WomanFollowing this we got back on the bikes and headed off again. At this point I started to realise that my “guy” was awfully keen on making sure that I stayed as far away from the back of the bike as possible and, consequently, as close to him as possible. He had a nasty habit of pulling me in closer everytime he thought I was too far away. Not only was this annoying, in itself, it was also quite literally a pain. Too many years of playing football mean that neither my groin nor my back is comfortable in that sort of position. Not speaking a word of English and seemingly not taking no for an answer he kept pulling me in. Anyway, heading on we revisited the citadel before going to Thien Mu Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Hue and a site famous for Buddhist protests against oppression. In 1963 it hit international news when one of its Monks, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death in Saigon. He drove all the way to Saigon in his Austin before adopting the lotus position and lighting himself on fire. The car is on display alongside the pagoda.The Austin of Thich Quang Duc

After that we headed off to visit the perfume river before then going to visit a hat maker. On going through the back streets of Hue I then realised that my “guy” was also fairly useless at riding a scooter nearly taking my knee caps off several times. Had it not been for Emma constantly laughing at me I think I would sacked it all off and walked back to the hotel. Despite all that, and the foul mood I was in, I actually tipped the guy, feeling a bit sorry for him.

Once we’d grabbed some food and sandwiches we headed off to the train station for the trip to Hanoi. Another night train but a good one nonetheless.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Hoi An

July 9th, 2009
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Hoi An is an ancient port town on the Thu Bon River but is now far more famous as the place to go for tailors. A very pretty town, with a mixture of Vietnamese, French and Chinese architecture giving it a very laid back feel. The first day was spent having a look around Hoi An and then heading to a tailor, recommended by Charles, to see what kind of bargains could be had. A few of the guys had suits made, while the girls had dresses, shorts and other things made. Ravi, Steve, Harry and I all took upon ourselves to get silk pyjamas made. Picking out the most obscene silk fabric we could and getting measured up gave us, for $38, a top souvenir, not to mention great fancy dress for the tubing in Laos.Tailor Made Silk Pyjamas

Highlights of Hoi An for me included a bike trip to the beach and around the surrounding area, it’s really nice when you feel like you’ve gotten away from the usual tourist path. The restaurant, Cargo, on the waterfront also gave us (well at least me) the best meal of the trip so far (This is still true over a month on). A starter of fried camembert with cranberry sauce was followed up with a beautifully cooked steak - delicious. I couldn’t manage it but the chocolate brownie was highly (ridiculously highly) recommended by Harry who spent most of the trip, thereafter, referring to it.

Lowlights of Hoi An don’t really exist but there is the possibility to pay for a ticket to visit some of the cultural buildings within Hoi An. They sell you a ticket allowing you entrance to 5 such buildings. This is great but in all honesty only one, possibly two, of the buildings are actually worth it, the museum of trade ceramics being particularly disappointing!

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Nha Trang

July 9th, 2009
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Nha Trang has nothing in particular that appeals on a cultural level to travellers but it’s wonderfully placed as a stopping point between Saigon and Hoi An. It also happens to have one of the best beaches in Vietnam so was a welcome stopping point for a couple of days tanning and relaxing.

A particular highlight is the Mud Baths to the north of the town, easily accessible by taxi. On arrival you pick what “course” you would like to take. We decided to have pretty much the full works mainly because it looked like a load of fun but also because it’s actually very cheap. It’s mostly frequented by locals with a large influx towards the end of the day as people finish work. We started off with 15 minutes in a tub full of muddy water, made very funny by Steve’s attempts to clean his finger (to remove a contact lense) by licking it not realising that a bucket of clean water was to his side. Determined to go one further, as well as hoping it would work wonders on my hair (!), I decided to fully submerge myself. This would have been fine had I not gone about it on my back, promptly getting muddy water up my nose and ears - it was not good. A few other baths and showers led us to a waterfall (by which time it was raining heavily) of hot water followed by a dip in a hot swimming pool and then a cold pool. Brilliant.

The only other highlight of Nha Trang was the brilliant story from Claire who, being very sunburnt, went for a massage by a blind person. She was then massaged with Tiger Balm (which gives a deep burning sensation) for a full hour before somehow stumbling semi-naked back to the hotel.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Ho Chi Minh City

July 9th, 2009
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We arrived in to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) fairly late in the day and were quickly taking another one of Charles’ (dis)orientation walks around the main part of the city. Obviously a working city Saigon lacks the charm of other Vietnamese cities but in some ways this makes it more interesting, especially given the insane amount of (generally scooter) traffic on the roads and the requirement to forget the highway code altogether when crossing the road. The first night was spent familiarising ourselves with the city, some dinner and then a night out in (I think) Go Go Bar. This was not quite the type of establishment you’d expect it to be but the cocktails were strong (In fact the Go Go Slammer nearly floored me) and the music was good.

We got up early(ish) the next day to go visit the Cu Chi Tunnels northwest of Saigon. These tunnels were begun in 1940 and supported the Vietcong during the American War. At there greatest they were over 250kms long and were built on 3 different levels to support the Vietcong, if necessary, for weeks at a time. The tunnels themselves are very small, being dug to allow the smaller Vietnamese stature through the tunnels but being prohibitive for all but the smallest American. Original Tunnel Entrance Both the tunnels and the ground above the tunnels was laced with various types of booby trap. Demonstrated in the museum they are truly horrific, usually made from American ordnance and involving a quick and painful fall into/on to it. In fairness though the Americans didn’t exactly pull any punches with their weapons. In order to keep a fresh air supply the tunnels have shafts going to the surface. Obviously these would be a prime target for destruction, by the americans, but were ingeniously hidden within termite mounds. The museum itself is good fun, an amusing propaganda video on the way in shows off a few “American Killer Heroes” - those Vietcong who killed an American. Along with a few original tunnels there are also a few “modified” tunnels for tourists (i.e. fat westerners) to go through. These were good fun, slightly claustrophobic with absolutely no light at all, save for the guide up front who kept taking the piss out of us, as well as pointing out the very real scorpions on the ground.

Having visited the tunnels we headed back to Saigon to say goodbye to a few of the people who had been with us and then welcome a few newcomers to the group. Having done that we headed off to the War Museum. A chilling collection of photos as well as an excellent collection of weaponry makes this museum a definite highlight. It’s here where some perspective is put on the differences in weaponry between the americans and the vietcong. The biggest bomb there making this all too evident, being about 20 times as big as me, and able to completely destroy everything in a 500 metre radius. Crazy.

The evening was spent saying bye to the rest of the group as they took the night train to Nha Trang and we stayed behind to watch the champions league final (less said the better I think.) We began the night by going for dinner with a couple of girls from the trip and then off to a cowboy bar (of sorts) suggested by one of the girls. We were given our own waitress (for the night) and having had a beer realised that it was, in fact, some sort of escort bar. It was a bit weird really, definitely for sad old men, some of them didn’t even talk to the girls, just had them sitting there. Anyway, we sacked that off and headed back to the hotel for some sleep before the game. Having watched the game we got back to bed and then left Saigon by plane the following morning.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

In to ‘Nam

July 1st, 2009
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Crossing in to Vietnam was an interesting affair, undoubtedly the most isolated border crossing I’ve ever made. It also rained and rained and rained, which is no good when you’ve got a 70 kilo backpack and are wearing shorts and flip flops.

After the formalities we headed to Chau Doc, a small town with nothing of any real interest which was actually kind of interesting as there was nothing for tourists so it felt more real. A quick walk around town was followed by a meal on a floating platform over the Mekong. Very cool location, beautiful skies but loads of mosquitoes and a tendency to lose your food everytime a boat went by!

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Sihanoukville

July 1st, 2009
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A day and a half on the beach basically. Sihanoukville is in the south of Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand. Not quite up to the same standards as the Thai islands but very nice nonetheless.

We spent a fair bit of time on the beach, watched “The Wrestler” in a personal cinema - quite a cool idea where you can hire rooms for a couple of hours to watch a film or play games - and that was about it. Oh, also had a roast dinner. It wasn’t the best but it was sooooo good.

Both evenings we partied pretty hard, the result of some excellent little beach bars. The most memorable evening was spent in a bar on the beach where pretty much the entire group was drunk and not a penny spent - the result of a thankful bar manager appreciating the fact that due to us his bar was absolutely packed, with us taking centre stage on the dance floor. Once again, the boys (Ravi, Steve and I) outlasted the rest of the group. Steve and I finished off the night by getting lost on the way home, a quite ridiculous feat given that the bungalows were just off the beach about 50 yards from the bar. We were approached by a few people at which point Steve told me that he didn’t want to get in any fights because he “would kill them”! Nice.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Phnom Penh

July 1st, 2009
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Phnom Penh is the current capital of Cambodia, having succeeded Angkor in the 1430s. It’s also the place where the Khmer Rouge started their “social restructuring programme” in 1975.

We had two nights in Phnom Penh although essentially one full day for exploring. With it’s recent history of genocide the tourist attractions centre unsurprisingly around the Tuol Sleng museum (S21) and Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields).

S21 was originally a school but, under the Khmer Rouge, was turned into a detention centre for torture and, essentially, the killing of ~17000 people between 1975 and 1978. Every prisoner was photographed and had their details recorded which now provides a scarily detailed account of what went on. In the event that the prisoners survived their torture they were taken away to Choeung Ek for killing. In all only 7 people survived S21.

Choeung Ek is not as far from the town as you would expect (although this is probably due to recent development) but is a quite horrific site containing 129 mass graves. In order to save bullets many people were bludgeoned or stabbed to death or sawn to death - a tree growing there had sawtooth like leaves which would no doubt cause immense pain and a very slow death. At the entrance to the fields a temple has been built containing many, if not all, of the skulls exhumed thus far. It’s almost not shocking due to the sheer number of them.Skulls at Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields

The rest of the day was spent not going in to the National Museum or the Royal Palace. Instead we went to the local market and up Wat Phnom, the only hill and original birthplace of Phnom Penh.

We finished off the day with a trip to a restaurant/orphanage where we had great food and played with the kids, a good way to finish an otherwise sober day.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags: