Not without a fuss.

We’re back. Hurrah! I have to say I was worried about the journey home (from Hanoi, via Seoul to London, via Hong Kong).

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travelling with a good friend

The cheapest way to fly long distance is ‘return’ so, too and from east Asia we booked London to Seoul, and back again. We did that with Cathay Pacific because they were the best value, provided we flew via their hub in Hong Kong (about £700 each if I remember rightly … BA was £850 direct). That was fine on the way out as we had just under a week in Seoul before we flew one-way to Singapore. But, getting back was complicated in that we had pre-positioned ourselves in Hanoi. We had to get from Hanoi to Seoul …

… in time to catch the flight to London (via Hong Kong). You’re confused now, right? I looked at all the flights and eventually chose the late evening flight from Hanoi with Viet Jet (Vietnam budget airline) which would get us into Seoul three hours before our Cathay Pacific connection. Three hours. Come on, that a lot of hours? What I hadn’t told C was that Viet Jet have a reputation for delays … and a series of other issues (none of which, thankfully, involved the aircraft getting lost, or an engine falling off). But there were plenty of ‘I’m never flying with this carrier again. In the end we left exactly on time in a reliable Airbus 320 which arrived with all its engines, and in which I was given extra leg room because I’m taller than your average Vietnamese.

C was not allowed in the emergency exit aisle because, when asked, she told the girl that she was over 60. And that was not allowed. No sirree. She was to be at the back where she could be trampled on by much younger people dashing for the exit. But, when we sat down there was a spare seat next to me and the guy had no problems allowing her to take the seat. Although he did ask me my age – clearly I had lost a decade in the four hours from booking in to getting on the aircraft. Cheeky so and so.

Anyhow, we landed on time and made the mad-dash scramble through Hong Kong airport to meet our next connection – another Cathay Pacific flight which left an hour later than our arrival. Phew, that worked as well. As you have learnt, we don’t travel without a fuss.

We were aircraft-seat shaped by the time we got out at Heathrow, with my eyes as dry as a camel’s flip flop. But we had survived. And now, two days later after a night at Mary’s, a trip to see my mum (who is in remarkably good form, thanks for asking) and then a military, 25th anniversary black tie dinner at Staff College – which was fab – we are home. And, wow, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling to be able to go outside without leaking. It’s a good feeling to walk across the road without fear of being run down by a tsunami of scooters. It’s a good feeling to know that tonight I’m not eating chicken and rice, and having the left overs reheated for breakfast. It’s a good feeling.

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mum’s in good form, thanks for asking

More of the post-trip review later. It was fab. And now we’re back. Good.

And I am already halfway through the final ‘Rosemary the proofreader’s’ edit of On The Backfoot To Hell. Without a hurricane or flash flood I should make the 1 August deadline for publication. Am I excited? Yes. Is it going to change anything? No, probably not. Not without some marketing. That’s definitely going to happen this year. I’ll believe it when I see it, I hear you scoff.

Anyhow, it’s nice to be home … and I’m so glad you could join me. I hope you enjoyed the trip.

Batpoop crazy

Our last stop: Hanoi. For C and I, three nights at a very swanky boutique hotel with a fab breakfast. How much? £29 a night. Perfect.

And what, you may ask, do we think of Hanoi? Well, it’s a proper city with boulevards, important houses, a couple of lakes, parks, a big river (imaginatively named ‘Red’), some skyscrapers, at least one, new, two-tone Rolls Royce and a couple of Lambos, Starbucks, high-end shops and a bus service. Pretty much like any normal city?

Eh, no.

It’s batpoop crazy. Nine million people and five million scooters. I think we’ve seen all of them, most of the riders on their mobiles. Strolling, loud karaoke men, pushing a speaker on a trolly. Pavements, but not pavements … instead they’re scooter parks, street vendors and street food, shops that have barfed their wares onto them, old women with stereotypical paddy field hats selling cabbage … and strange doughnuts. Every type of restaurant and many you’ve never thought of. Shops selling a single item. Want a padlock? How big? What colour? How about a safe?

Tourists and touts. Visitors and Vietnamese. Life like you’ve never experienced it. A lava flow – it’s blooming hot here – of people and bikes and cars (and small dogs?). It’s super mad … and I love it. Easily my fave city we’ve visited so far.

 

We arrived on the final day of the Vietnamese holiday and they’d taken over the centre. It was one helluva party with stages and karaoke, street games and lots of tiny children in electric toys cars driving wantonly at people’s ankles. We did Ho Chi Minh’s tomb (he was absent, apparently getting a makeover in China), a bit of shopping, the train street (there are many – and maybe the best experience of the trip?), a walking tour, the Hanoi Hilton (the prison where Senator John McCain was held during the war) and lots of air-conditioning rest stops.

We ate out an an Indian and a French-themed but v Vietnamese restaurant, and got used to #HighlandsCoffee, the Vietnamese version of #Starbucks, but so much better. I ran around one of the lakes in a new, not-Nike baseball cap and we generally slowed our pace to the weather.

 

And then it ended. Bex and Steven caught an early flight home and, as I write this, we are waiting for a chain of flights from Hanoi to Seoul to Hong Kong to London. I shall put together a summary in the next couple if days. But, in short, we are definitely Vietnam vets!

 

Halong Bay

Another rattly sleeper, a very early arrival in Hanoi (4.30 am) and a three-hour wait for a coach-ferry-coach to Cat Ba, the northern Vietnamese island which is one of the launch points for a boat tour of Halong Bay … which might just be the highlight of our tour.

The travelling was seamless and our latest digs a functional hotel in Cat Ba town. Now we’ve only seen 10% of the island so we’re not ones to comment. It could be super-lovely, but the buildings are all a bit shabbily constructed (especially as it’s a major tourist destination), there’s still plenty of poverty and lots of rubbish. But, we had a bite of lunch (all of our stomachs were crying out for meat and two veg) and then, with swimwear in hand C and I walked to the next bay (as you can’t swim in Cat Ba town as it’s a fishing port).

Mad dogs and Englishmen. It was hot but the shortish walk lovely, and the ensuing bay a bit of a building site with the infrastructure doing its best to keep up with demand. But there’s no getting away from the backdrop: those James Bond limestone islands, all pointy and sheer, topped with green, shrubby bristles. Fabulous. Leaving the builders to their sand and cement we found a well made path around the headland (with commensurately fab vistas) and stumbled across a small resort and beach which suited us.

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We swam and people watched and then walked back to the hotel, at which point C was shattered and I was up for a run, so I retraced our steps … and got very hot. We had a lovely evening out, discussing holiday plans (Bex reckons we ought to take a repatriation cruise from Miami down to Tierra del Fueggo and then drive north through South America). With Scotland, Paris and Tunisia planned between now and Christmas, we have nothing to complain about. Oh, and to finish the night we found the Vietnamese version of Britain’s got talent on the harbour ftont. Some of the singers were excellent.

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And then onto the highlight of the trip: two days cruising around Halong Bay. To get to the boat inevitably (for us) it was bus, small boat and then big boat – we don’t travel without a fuss – but we were piped aboard by 11 am onto a two-storey, 18-guest boat that at one point in its life was probably swish and splendid. Now, the wood panelling was a little worn, the paintwork needed, well, painting and the fixtures and fittings were not quite fixed or fitting. But squint your eyes and you could have been on a luxury cruise.

But it was fab. Our room(s) were big family affairs with two double beds and two large aspect windows onto scenery which photos cannot do justice. A lot of that was the fact that whilst it was stifling, Mrs Sun was veiled by thin cloud. It didn’t matter to us though – it was all pretty perfect.

We jumped off the side of the boat (16 feet?), with both Bex and C managing it before we finished the trip – both were v hesitant, but encouragement from the lovely, mixed-nationality crowd provided the impetus. We paddled (twice) for a couple of hours, between shear rock faces, into bat caves and through small tunnels into hidden lagoons. We ate well – the food was simple and local and v plentiful. And the company excellent. In the end, for £110 each, it was well worth every penny.

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To top it all we met a lovely Danish family. He’s an electrician; his wife a kindergarten teacher, their son had just finished school. We all hit it off immediately. They have our humour and our values. We spoke about everything. And, no surprise, we had so much in common. It was never the Vikings v the Saxons, unless we were laughing about it … or messing about in the canoes.

So tell me. No, come on. Why are we leaving the EU? Denmark is in the union, but not in the Euro. That makes them even more like us? The dad couldn’t understand what we were playing at … but was still very keen that we stay. There was no anger; just sadness. That’s how friends treat you.

We are living in a mad time. Who knows how it will end. Let’s hope well for us and all of our European friends. Oh, and the US. Them too.

The long march

We arrived in Sapa at 5.30 in the morning after an uncomfortable night in a 4-berth cabin. We had room, some free water and biscuits, but the train’s carriage had been built on a trampoline and we felt every bump. But we made it. Phew.

 

Sapa was chosen as a hill station, spa-type resort for the wealthy, colonial French to escape to. It has its own lake and nestles in green mountains, with the tallest (3,200 metres and the last big mountain in the Himalayan range), served by a cable car. Nowadays it’s a backpacking magnet, with some inexpensive boutique hotels, more fake North Face shops than you can shake a hiking stick at, and treks through glorious, tiered rice plantations. Which was our plan.

 

Having made the trip from the station (near the Chinese border) to the town by minibus, our first day (we were tired) was spent wandering around the town, having a nap and then finding a brilliant place to eat with balcony views over precipitous valleys. The next day was trekking day … and we woke to torrential rain.

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But, that didn’t stop the trek. Nope. These guides (you’d struggle without one) won’t stop guiding for a bit of torrential rain. So with a couple of lovely east-coast, and very obviously anti-His Orangeness young Americans, we set off for a 12 km hike through the paddy fields. Well, I salute all of us. The route would be treacherous in the dry. In the wet, without proper hiking gear, it was mad. But such fun! Jungle, mud, deluges, streams of cascading water, more rain, cannabis plants, fab views even in the mist and cloud, six local women helpers who held the hands of the more unsteady (and then, after four hours at lunch, proceeded to sell us their wares) and a leach, which the guide pulled expertly off Bex’s leg, summed it up. A fab day.

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And then out for a well-deserved happy hour and more chicken and rice, although to be fair, ‘Yummy’s’ restaurant served lovely, multicultural food.

How about a bit of Vietnam’s history? What do you need to know? It’s complicated … even the US Vietnam war is almost beyond telling. In short, it was par-colonised by the Dutch, Portuguese and the Spanish, but eventually was subsumed into French Indo-China. There were uprisings, an invasion by the Japanese and then an agreed split between the north and south after WW2 with the French still kicking around. Another local war (the first Indo-China War) eventually saw the defeat of the French by the northern, local, opium-growing Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu.

Then the second Indo-China war, or the American War, where the US tried hard to prevent the overthrow of a southern, non-communist government in Saigon, followed smartly on with the Us eventually taking on both north and south. Well, you’ve all seen the films and know how that ended. At which point the country remained split in two … but not for long.

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And then (takes a deep breath), the third Indo-China war. Where it seems Vietnam had a bash at/with most of its neighbours up until the late 80s, including the Chinese. How the country has managed to shake itself down, brush itself off and be ready for the hordes of unwashed backbackers is a mystery. But, thankfully, they have.

What’s left? Pragmatic communism … and a one-party state. Which, at the mo, seems to be working. There doesn’t seem to be any general discontent, the way we felt in all the countries we’ve visited so far. But we’ve hardly scratched the surface. Who knows?

Anyhow, night train back to Hanoi today and then a bus to the island of Cat Ba, and two days on a boat exploring Haylong Bay. Hopefully the weather will improve?

 

A long time on a train

We left Phu Quoc with me feeling a sense of regret. For three nights, two days, we’d hardly left the resort other than a run and a v short cycle ride. There was good reason for it, in that it rained all the first day and we had beautiful weather for the second that shouted, ‘stay by the pool!’. But as we headed off on Superdong 3, skidding at 30 mph across a pool-table sea, I thought, ‘we really should get out more’ (like we did in Langkawi where we hired a bike for 3 days).

We had put the sunny day to good use. We’d planned our final ten days, which wasn’t without incident, C and I had managed a run on the only running machine (I’d forgotten how much I like running machines … I am kicking along nicely – and my heart is pretty much behaving now that I’ve cut out all caffeine), and we lounged by the pool and dipped in the sea. It was fab, although we both have the odd lobster patch to show for it.

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The ferry left on time, and arrived on time, and we managed the connection to the five-hour bed-coach trip to Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, you read it right … a coach, with beds, no matter that it was during the day. Whilst it was hardly five-star comfort, it did give me chance to reflect on Vietnam.

For a start it’s much more prosperous than Cambodia. We started at the southern, Mekong Delta, bit of the country and some of it is very Western. The roads were mostly good, some of the new-build residential on the coast could be any Mediterranean town, the many canals have Rhine-style ‘cloppiter-cloppiter’ barges plying their trade and there’s plenty of industry kicking about. But there is still a lot of poverty and, in public places, so much rubbish even though we’d seen bin men of sorts.

It’s clearly come a long way in forty years since the US used the place for carpet-bombing and napalm practice. And, of course, Vietnam has, quite literally, been through the wars.

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We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and took a taxi to our hotel (Red Doorz – room for £14) only to find that they’d double-booked us and they were trying to find us an alternative. On interrogation we found that they had basic rooms for £10. We took them and they were lovely – with a glass cubicle ensuite. Supper was a mad-dash out into a city that looked even crazier than Phnom Penh, thousands of mopeds scurrying around like a water-scolded ants nest. I loved it. Crossing the road was an outer-body experience. You have to launch yourself into a tide of two wheelers confident that they will miss you. And, so far, they have.

And then the train: the Reunification Railway. With a strict environmental ‘no fly’ policy, and Rebecca only flying when the were no alternatives as she hates it, we booked the 30-hour sleeper from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi in the far north (£45 each). Unfortunately, as our itinerary planning was never to book anything until two days before, they were out of a four-berth carriage and we had to take two sets of two top bunks in two separate six-bunk carriages, bunks you need a wealth of mountaineering experience to reach. I take my hat off to C for being such a trooper … in the end we were best positioned, well out of the way of the mass of tactile, culturally different humanity. Because the SE Asians are different. There is no sense of personal space, no part of your body they won’t touch to move you to one side, no niceties, no decibels too loud, no noisy children too, well, noisy … no pleases and thank yous, not away from the service industry at any rate.

But, apart from the odd person with a peaked cap who could be overly officious, they’re default position is loveliness. The children are as cute as crib full of teddy bears and, when you engage the adults, they all smile and laugh, even though they haven’t a clue what you’re saying. And we are amusing. At six-four I am an alien from an altogether different planet. The kids stare at me as though I’ve got three heads … until you wave at them, and then they frantically wave back. The adults couldn’t be more helpful, unless you are in their way and then they’ll manhandle you out of it.

So it wasn’t an unpleasant journey, just a very long one. On the other hand we were able to catch a glimpse of the Vietnamese countryside – from bottom to top. And, wow. Just wow. The south is all Mekong, flat and riddled with rivers: beautiful and calming, like a giant Somerset levels. Interestingly we saw massive solar farms and the odd wind farm. The middle is spectacular. High, pointy hills covered in scrubby jungle, the bits between them alluvial valleys rich in rice – all greener than a green thing. And the railway makes it to the coast, clinging to a shear face at times … think Croatian colours, but with junks rather than gin-palace yachts. Perfect and unspoilt (yet).

The north before Saigon was flat again, and not unattractive, although we have some spectacular vistas to look forward to over the next week. More of which later.

Good morning Vietnam!

We left Kampot in very heavy rain in a taxi that promised to take us across the border into Vietnam to a ferry port for $30, a journey of around 30 Kms. Once we were in the taxi the promise dropped to ‘the border’ (6kms short of the ferry) and the price rose to $40. We soon got him back down to $30, but he wouldn’t budge on the border. Ho hum

As we drove (on roads that at times were the worst I’ve experienced), Bex worked out that the price we should pay on the Vietnamese side of the border for a taxi to the ferry was 150,000 Dong (about a fiver; info from Lonely Planet).

Ok. So we paid the taxi bloke and then walked through a very unbusy border crossing, which only required us to pay $1 each at two separate locations for visas that was meant to be free. Oiling the wheels of corruption … if we have to.

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And then the taxi to the ferry. There were four of drivers waiting for us … and the starting price was $30, about £25. I held out 160,000 Dong, to which I was first offered 300,000 Dong. Then 200,000. We walked away … and after 20 metres a taxi pulled up beside us and accepted 160,000 (just under £6).

The ferry terminal didn’t accept a card (£8 each for a two hour journey + 80p each for a bus to the main town on the other side) and the closest ATM was back over a big road bridge about a mile away. Thankfully we had some Dong (come on, no jokes, please) which I’d bought from Olly in Singapore, so we sorted ourselves out and had time and spare cash enough for a simple lunch. Phew …

 

The ferry was better organised than the Malay equivalent and was called ‘Superdong’ … and I’m now struggling not to pen some euphemistic nonsense.

We arrived in Phu Quoc in the rain and it hasn’t stopped. We’re at the start of the rainy season and, so far, we’ve been lucky with the weather. It seems that we might have run our luck. The problem with the rain is that you don’t see things at their best. Phu Quoc is meant to be a bit of a paradise island, but grey skies, browny-grey seas and a wall of rain dulls the pallet. It’s actually not a problem for us, in that the temperature has dropped and at least we’re not trying to see a sight or visit an attraction. But I do pity those who have saved up to spend a week in the Vietnamese sun, only to find that they actually signed up for a week in the Vietnamese storm.

 

The resort (Echo Beach, far away in time), is pretty perfect. Built around a private sandy beach looking to a horizon-filled sea, the villas are spacious and well equipped. There’s an infinity pool, a small gym and a pool table. And lots and lots of rain. I ran on Thursday morning, down to the main road and back, and whilst I popped out on one of the free-to-use bicycles to get some provisions, C did 25 minutes on the running machine.

The rest of the day we did not a great deal. I dipped into the sea, which was warm and busy. We relaxed, took a couple of bikes out in the rain and relaxed some more. We ate, again, in the resort restaurant which was moderately inexpensive, but easy.

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And woke on Friday to bright sunshine. We then spent two hours sorting out our final eleven days. We want to go for a cruise in Haylong Bay and also up country to the tea plantations in Sa Pa. They are both at the other end of the country … about 800 miles away … and we’re determined not to fly. That leaves coaches or trains and, as we tried to book we found that the sleepers were almost full. I won’t tell you how it turned out, but it looks like another adventure!

And an update on real life: books? Well Rosemary, my proofreader, should have the finished article ready for when we get back (19th) and my ambition is to turn it round before the 1st of August … the paperback maybe taking a few days longer. And then onto rewriting Unsuspecting Hero, which I am convinced is the right thing to do. I’ve got some new scenes to add and just generally smarten it up and put it more into my, now slightly more mature (and sophisticated?) voice. I am really looking forward to that. And then marketing in the late autumn … and launch into book 6. Hurrah?!

Money and things

Another bus, this time from Phnom Penh to Kampot, a small riverside town just short of the Cambodian coast. Bex chose it because it’s meant to be provincially beautiful. We are staying in an atap right on the river; no air-conditioning, but a fan and mossie nets.

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The coach was $10 each, including pastry and water, and that brings me onto currency, always a traveller’s concern.

Korea, Singapore and Malaysia work solely in their own currencies. We’re using our HSBC cards. We get the (sensible) Visa rate with HSBC charging 2.5% on top of every transaction. You might remember that we have a Caxton currency card which allows you to put money on the card at a competitive rate and then use the card abroad as you would in the UK at no cost. The problem is, it doesn’t work in SE Asian currencies. Steven, Bex’s husband and ahead of me in the ‘be prepared’ stakes, took out a new Halifax credit card, which does the same thing as Caxton but works over here. We didn’t get round to that – should’ve.

Thailand differs slightly in that the same ‘use your Visa card as normal’ applies, but all ATMs charge 220 Baht (about £5) regardless, and it’s a countrywide fee. So it’s best getting as many Baht as you think you’re going to need for your entire stay in a oner.

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Cambodia is, unsurprisingly, crazy. They work in both dollars and their own currency, the Riel … in a way that is completely interchangeable. There are 4,000 Riels to a dollar and you can pay in either – or both, and will often get change in both. At first you think that someone is swindling you, but they’re not. It does mean you do have to have a head for numbers. I’m not yet sure about Vietnam. I’ll let you know when we get there.

Kampot is as end of the line as you can get. Riverside and run down, but untouched by the US bombing and with an international quarter which serves any food you like, it seems a magnet for older ex-pats, mostly men. It doesn’t take much to leap to a bit of a seedy conclusion, especially as our French host tells us that there are a good number of ‘girly’ bars recently opened in town. But I’ll let you make that jump. Certainly, having now spent a day here it seems that Kampot is somewhere you could easily lose yourself and live by your own rules if that’s what you wanted. It’s cheap and, well, a long way from anywhere.

Our two nights here are care of a glamping spot (Retro Guesthouse), thatched huts by a small river. No air-conditioning, shared bathrooms and accessible only down a mud path just big enough for a tut-tut. It’s new, but is so well done it feels old. And it’s fab. We had time to take a canoe down the river … which was quite ‘African Queen’, and had supper and cards before a night under a mossie net. To add to the atmosphere, C found a sleeping lizard in her shoe. Eek.

I went for a run round the paddy fields the next morning (I’m not managing every second day, but I am getting out where I can). And then C and I walked the same route before we caught a tuk-tuk for a full day tour of the local area including a trip to the internationally renowned pepper farm and then lunch on the, very windy, beach.

And now onto Vietnam, specifically to Puh Quoc, an island off the coast for some R&R after intermittent bursts of moving about. Hurrah!