Beijing was an interesting city and even now I can’t decide if I liked it. Here, even more so than the other cities, the continuous security checks were apparent. Perhaps it was because I used the metro, excellently signposted in English, which has a security check at every entrance or that every street corner seemed to have a policeman standing on it. Either way it always felt a bizarre mixture between unsettling and ridiculously over the top. Especially with most security checks being incredible lazy.
I started off with two of Beijing’s most well known tourist spots, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is not much to say about Tiananmen Square, it is a square that even with hundreds of tourists still seems empty. I didn’t fancy visiting Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum so after taking a photo of its exterior, I turned round and ventured into the Forbidden City.
Getting tickets was far more work than should have been necessary. Paying by mobile phone using WeChat or Alipay is increasingly popular in China in fact it is so popular that the majority of Forbidden City tickets are sold by scanning a QR code and paying online. This method doesn’t really work for those of us who don’t have either payment method. Instead I wandered around the entrance courtyard with the vague instructions of “go straight turn right” to find the counter that sells tickets for cash. I eventually found it under the title of service counter near the entrance into the Forbidden City proper. While I imagine this method is considerably quicker, I do feel there could have been a signpost showing where to get tickets if one didn’t have the correct online payment methods.
I sped through the Forbidden City, perhaps I would have spent longer if I had decided to rent an audio guide but my patience for them fizzled out somewhere in Vietnam. As it was, I enjoyed looking around and reading the few signs that were up. The shear scale of the palace was truly impressive. I particularly liked the huge man made rock formation towards the back of the complex.
After refuelling with some beef noodles, I ventured into Jingshan Park which offered a marvellous view over the entire Forbidden City complex and, more importantly, a cold breeze. This was doubly precious since, as is generally the case, to get a good view one has to climb up a hill. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hill but the Asian sun makes mountains of molehills when it is pounding down from above. On the way up I ran into half of the Australian family that I had had such an enjoyable time with in Xi’an. This was my first time running into someone I had met earlier in my travels so I was very excited. I had begun to think of such events on an almost mythical level.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in Beihai Park alternating between strolling and reading my book: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The park was lovely and open with a huge lake in the centre and lots of little buildings and temples that one could investigate. This was also my first time trying the Chinese yoghurt which came in a cute little jar and is drank through a straw. It was rather tasty to say the least, although I dread to think how much sugar was in it. I wrapped up the day with Peking duck and a very full stomach.
The next two days were spent on my Great Wall tour, which was absolutely amazing and made my bucket list one item shorter. I spent the afternoon of the second day making friends in my new hostel and wondering around the Qianmen area. This is quite a touristy spot with lots of hostels but the historical buildings (a fair few of which I am certain were just imitations) were very nice to walk among with lots of fancy tea shops and more affordable souvenir shops. As I was meandering I came across a group practicing some kind of dance. This is one thing I like about China; it is common to seeing groups practicing dancing or tai chi together.
The next day I visited the Summer Palace with another lass from the hostel. The weather was horribly muggy and turned to rain just as we were leaving so we cut short the rest of our day. As for the Palace, I much preferred it to the Forbidden City as there were a lot more trees and elements of nature throughout the complex, including a large lake. I also think the buildings seemed nicer: they had more historicity to reference The Man in the High Castle. The aged paint and weathered walls made the whole place feel far more real.
My final full day in Beijing, I visited first the Temple of Heaven followed by the 798 Art District. The temple was cool, I found the towering nature of it quite imposing and the symmetry was please but at the end of the day, I’ve seen a lot of temples and old buildings and sometimes they do tend to blur into one. The Art District of the other had was awesome. It was a lovely change from old Beijing to the quirky, new and upbeat modern Beijing (dare I say hipster).
Stretched throughout the complex of old factories are galleries, cafes and boutiquey shops selling artists’s wares. My eyes hardly knew which store window to stare through as I walked along and my window shopping game was strong as ideas for entire outfits sprung from single pieces of jewellery. The galleries were also amazing. I had two favourites; one which worked with melted copper, turning it into both abstract and more realistic sculptures, including one that just hinted at mountain peaks with trees sprouting from them; the second contained beautiful abstract paintings that again just hinted at an idea of form and shape creating a tranquil harmony. The district, while out of the way from a lot of the main sights, is a must see and perhaps me favourite spot in Beijing, although Beihai Park is a close contender.
In a way it serves me right, I should have known better than to talk of having good weather. However I do think it a tad unfair that the bad weather has pursued me so doggedly since Xi’an. As it was, I rocked up to my two day Great Wall trip with a slight drizzle accompanying me. After everyone had arrived, a German family, two Americans and two other Brits, we loaded into the bus and set off towards a wilder section of the wall.
Arriving at the wall around midday, we had lunch at a farmhouse before setting off. Our guide said flat. This is not a comment I can agree with. Admittedly he did eventually add the caveat that there was an up bit at the start and a down bit at the end but even then the stretch is the middle was, to my eye, by no means flat. This isn’t really a complaint in true form as I suspect walking along a completely flat stretch of wall would get boring very quickly. With the gentleish rolling of the hills along which the wall is built it meant we had a constantly changing view of the wall as it stretched out in front and behind us.
The visibility was not amazing due to the weather but the real downside was that while for most out hike it had been only cloudy, with a storm predicted for the night, we could not camp at the wall and instead had to stay in a farmhouse. This meant that we didn’t get the chance to see a sunset or sunrise (I do acknowledge neither would have been any good with all the cloud) or do any hiking on the second day, instead eating breakfast before returning to Beijing.
As previously mentioned the view was somewhat limited by fog but this did not detract from the walk all that much as we, unlike our cameras, could still see a fair ways into the distance as watch towers slowly became nothing more than silhouettes on the horizon. This section of the wall hadn’t been rebuilt like some of the more popular sections, rather the opposite, as in the 1960’s the Chinese government encouraged farmers to take bricks from the wall to build their homes. Furthermore, our guide tells us that in world war two there was a lot of fighting in the vicinity of the wall so bombs had damaged other sections. Fortunately it was still possible to walk along the top of the wall for the entire way, although there were a few don’t look down moments.
All in all it was and enjoyable trip with the only real downside being the lack of hiking on the second day. For those interested, I went on China Hiking’s Gubeikou to Jinshanling Great Wall two day camping trip.
While my days in Xi’an were relatively lazy, I did do a number of interesting things. Not least among these was my visit to the Terracotta Army. Getting to the museum was easy: I merely had to get the 603 bus followed by the 306, totalling 8 yuan, which is less than a pound. Finding the entrance however, was more challenging. The exit and entrance to the museum were at opposite ends, so by the time I found a sign to the museum, having to wade through the crowds of the adjacent restaurant and souvenir shop area, it led me to the exit rather than the entrance. After walking all the way back down the side, I eventually found the entrance I made my way in. Sadly my student card did not seem to apply here and I had to pay the full 150 yuan (£17).
Personally I found that while impressive in age and history, the warriors were a little disappointing with all three pits still in the process of being excavated and the lines note that straight. There was also little signage, although I will give credit where it is due and admit I was impressed that, with the exception of the artefacts in the bronze exhibition, all Chinese information boards had a English counterpart. I suspect the limited signs was to try and keep traffic flowing in the big hangers (the air con makes it tempting to linger even with the crowds) and to encourage people to hire tour guides. At 200 yuan (£23) for a guide this would be reasonable if one was in a group but is rather steep when one is alone and as such, was an experience I opted out of. This also meant I could see the museum at my own speed instead of rushing from one spot to the next so worked well for me.
Something I would have really liked an explanation on though was why there was an exhibit all about Pompeii in the exhibition hall. I wrapped up my visit to the museum in the food street with the most amazing cumin meat skewers ever. While they were more expensive than the ones in Xi’an, three for 10 yuan instead of one for 1 yuan, they were absolutely amazing and definitely worth the extra, unlike the one for 10 yuan in the Muslim Quarter which were mostly just fat and gristle on a thick fancy looking stick to make people more inclined to pay.
The next day I relaxed in the morning, making a Guernsey poster to add to the hostel’s collection and chatted with an Australian family before spending the afternoon sightseeing with them. This was an excellent pairing because it was my third day in Xi’an so I had a good idea of where to visit and one of the daughters and her friend both spoke Mandarin so were able to negotiate and ask directions for us. Our first stops were the Bell Tower and its counterpart the Drum Tower. These offered impressive views out over the centre of Xi’an and included a live Chinese music presentation in the Drum Tower. I was particularly amused by the combination of traditional Chinese dress and bright white fashion trainers that the lead drummer was wearing.
From the drum tower we ventured further into the Muslim Quarter towards the Great Mosque. This took a while as we walked through a winding market and it was very easy to get sidetracked by the multitude of souvenirs on offer. When we reached the mosque, we had a peak through the main door but since the majority of what we could see was scaffolding, we decided to forgo paying the entrance fee and looking around.
Instead we walked down the main food street of the Muslim Quarter, enjoying watching the pounding of some kind of cake or sweet that looked a little like fudge and a lady who was pulling noodles before throwing them into her huge pot of boiling water. We eventually settled on buying some flat bread for the next day and a pulled lamb Chinese style burger which was absolutely delicious.
After refreshing ourselves at the hostel we set out again in the evening to cycle around the city wall. This was a lot of fun and it was great to see the city all lit up in the night. We had probably left this trip a little too late in the day as we spent more time cycling in the dark than in the light but honestly I don’t think this was such a bad thing as it was considerably cooler than cycling under the pounding heat of the sun.
The next day we had planned to head up Huashan Mountain together but between getting the wrong train station and disgusting weather this did not come to be. After much deliberation, the family went to see the Terracotta Army while I regrouped at the hostel before braving the rain and visiting the Tibetan Temple. The temple itself was a wonderful splash of colour in a very grey day but with such weather I decided to count my circuitous route to and from it as my sightseeing for the day and retreated to the dry haven of the hostel.
The next day I walked up Huashan Mountain, which I talk about in a separate post. In the evening I was relaxing in the hostel common area-cum-bar when I saw the most glorious words a food obsessed tourist can see, food tour, being written up for the following evening. Needless to say, my name was the first on the board closely followed by the young woman I had been speaking to’s.
The next day I did a little clothes shopping but spent a large amount of time taking it easy in the hostel, unwilling to push my self after the previous day’s hike. There was no way I was about to risk wearing myself out before the food tour. And what a food tour it was.
Instead of going the the widely touted Muslim Quarter for food, we went to a food quarter preferred by the locals that used to belong to one of China’s historic Prime Ministers. This suited me just fine as while everywhere online claims the Muslim Quarter is the place to eat, I found the food not as good as the small local restaurants that are everywhere as well as being supremely overpriced. I expect there are a few very good stalls or restaurants however, I am inclined to believe that there is far more chaff than wheat and that sorting through everywhere to find somewhere good is not worth the effort. By all means go and soak up the atmosphere just don’t bother with the food. The only exceptions are if one wants savoury bread in which case the flat bread is a good option, and the green stall selling lamb Chinese burgers for 15 yuan at the entrance to the main street opposite the Drum Tower.
The food at this market we went to was absolutely sublime. We paired up for each dish to ensure we wouldn’t become full too soon. We started out sitting at a long table and digging into some excellent noodles. Fortunately my buddy and I both prefer a less spicy genre of food so were both content to pass the chilli bowl along without adding any to our bowl. It was very amusing to watch all the locals walking passed while filming and taking photos of us. To me, it is an experience of China that only other people experience as with my relatively dark hair and a tan that makes me darker skinned than half the locals, I make a very uninteresting foreigner.
While still at the table we tried a pulled pork bun where the pork is first cooked for hours and the bun was a wonderfully light and flaky pastry. This was so good that when a spare one was going free, I quickly volunteered to take one for the team and split it with the other guy who was interested. It was at this point that the bottle of Jack Daniels, produced by an American guy in order to celebrate the 4th July, made its first round of the group.
We then moved onwards, in amongst the buildings of the market and tried some roast potatoes, and a beef and cabbage bun similar to the pork one. The potatoes were good and I was surprised when the chilli covered ones weren’t actually too spicy. The only downside was I was hesitant to fully enjoy them, worried I would fill up before the end of the tour. We took a quick break from eating to pound mash potato with a giant hammer which was absolutely hilarious. The gentleman running the stall had a hat with a potato attached to it.
Our next stop also wasn’t food, instead being a drink of some kind of local wine. While the alcohol wasn’t bad the real joy was smashing the small earthenware cups it came in after we had finished. Next stop was a variety of grilled vegetables, the aubergine of which was my favourite and mushrooms least favourite. This was last of our savoury dishes and next we had was skewers of hard toffee coated fruit. The selection of fruit was a little odd with tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. The old adage that it takes intelligence to know a tomato is a fruit but wisdom not to put it in a fruit salad did spring to mind. The final stop was some nut paste filled pastries but these were sadly rather dry and our guide reckoned he would find something new for the next tour.
The evening wrapped up with a drink in the hostel and lots of full stomachs. Given the number of paragraphs I have devoted to food related topics in this post, I think it is safe to say that Xi’an has some excellent food on offer and I could quite happily go back and continue eating my way around town, especially with the number of places selling cumin seasoned skewers for 1 yuan.
After a tediously long but otherwise uneventful series of trains up from Hanoi, I finally arrived in Wulingyuan Village. I am not going to go into detail of my border crossing but for those who do intend to cross the Lao Cai Vietnamese China border, I highly recommend this excellent article by The Asocial Nomad. Arriving in the evening I sought only some food and a bed that was not situated in a fog of cigarette smoke.
There is one reason and one reason alone to go to Wulingyuan and that is the amazing rock formations that surround the area. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Zhangjiajie National Park’s Hallelujah Mountains, more commonly called by the moniker of the Avatar Mountains: it was these gravity defying columns that inspired the floating mountains of Pandora in the Avatar movie. After some confusion about how to get to the ticket office for the park (one has to pass through security first), I played guess the bus to head to the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. What I didn’t realise is that the shuttle bus only stopped when the driver was shouted at in Chinese rather than at each stop. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I discovered upon my descent later in the day.
As it was I found myself disembarking at the Water Winding Four Gates stop. Just inside the entrance was the Golden Whip path and a list of rules to follow in the park. In addition to the Google translate English, what I found particularly amusing was that as I walked around the park, I saw every single rule being broken at least once by the domestic tourists, including the rule not to photograph foreigners. The only possible exception was the final rule which spouted something incomprehensible about poisons and was rather open to interpretation in its meaning.
The further I walked along the path towards the Golden Whip, the less people there were. However, this did not equate to a nice peaceful walk through the breathtaking scenery because for the final stretch before I turned off the path, a gentleman some distance behind me was continuously yelling, I presume to try and create and echo. This chorus was occasionally accompanied by screams and shouts from other individuals. As someone who purposefully leaves all forms of communication behind when they are going on a walk, I was also baffled by the number of people I passed who were facetiming on their phones as they walked. Each to their own I suppose.
Had a sedan chair not been parked at the turning off to climb up to the arching peaks of the Avatar Mountains, I most likely would have missed the narrow staircase that branched off from the main path. Fortunately, I didn’t as this climb was perhaps my favourite part of the day. It was certainly one of the most peaceful sections. Ascending the stairs, I was rewarded with occasional glimpses of sheer cliffs and rocky spires. There was a brief moment of nervousness when I heard monkeys overhead as like in all tourist stops they have a reputation for grabbing bags and trying to steal food. Happily they seemed content to leave me alone and I continued upwards as their calls faded into the distance.
As I got closer to the top, I passed a few small groups descending and a large tour group who were also climbing up to the top rather than having taken the easier and more popular options of bus, cablecar or elevator. To my amusement, they had hired porters to carry their bags for them on long shoulder poles. These were most difficult to overtake without getting knocked on the head. Finally emerging from the trees and realising I had reached the top was a glorious moment. With the famous towers of rock arranged before me, trees clutching to their tops, I once again found myself thinking “I should have studied geology”. Of course that would have involved a chemistry A-level so it is probably just as well that I didn’t.
The increasingly wonderful views were so enchanting that I quickly found myself able to ignore the heaving tides of tourists and the clamour they created. I did however take great (and slightly immature) amusement at the main walkway’s name of Ecstasy Terrace since one rarely hears the use of the word ecstasy outside of drug use and excessively amorous writing. Each corner rounded left a new vista stretching before me and my camera was working overtime. Looking back at my photos there is an element of same same but different as the grandeur of the magnificent, gravity defying karsts is lost on a 2D screen and one set of rocks begins to look much like any other. I am supremely lucky that for me the photos are only a spark to light the true fire of memory.
From the Avatar Mountain section of the park I caught the shuttle bus around to Tianzi Mountain and began my descent back to the exit of the park, passing a McDonalds near the top. This returns us to the topic of my blessing in disguise with the bus not stopping at the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. When I had missed the stop earlier in the day, I had shrugged my shoulders and decided to do my planned route in reverse. Seeing the Avatar Mountains first would be no hardship on my part.
This meant that I now descended the path. And by descend I mean descend it seemed the stairs would never end, each time I checked my location, I felt like I hadn’t moved at all. Had I already passed that rock? Was I going round in circles? The whole ten mile description suddenly seemed very accurate. I later met some guys at the hostel who had climbed up the path and they confirmed that the ascent was just as brutal as my descent had suggested it would be, so I most certainly had a narrow escape there.
Dinner that evening was acceptable but I later found out the province is known for it’s spicy food which would explain a lot. It was also tourist prices since Wulingyuan Village seems to comprise solely of hotels and restaurants for the huge influx of tourists that come to visit the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Though I can’t deny most the buildings are very prettily designed to include more traditional looking architecture.
Feeling that I had seen everything I wanted to in the National Park, despite the ticket being valid for four days, I headed in the opposite direction to the Grand Canyon and the glass bridge that spans it. I was fortunate to run into a couple of other westerners, one of whom spoke Mandarin, on the way which made the day all the more enjoyable for having someone to talk to. We had a little difficulty at the entrance as tablet computers weren’t allowed in the park (’tis a mystery why) so I had to check my bag into luggage storage.
Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but the lockers could only be open by scanning a QR code and paying with WeChat, an extremely popular payment method in China. There were staff on hand who could pay for people who don’t have the requisite 4G and accoutrements. However, the initial two gentlemen at the desk seemed rather untrustworthy, trying to get me to buy entrance tickets off them for an extra fee rather than just waiting until I was through the security check. Luckily, another staff member turned up and was much more helpful opening the locker for me and asking only for the five yuan it actually cost.
After that hassle we made it through the ubiquitous security check and purchased our tickets (yay for 50% student discounts). The bridge was amazing and, as someone who is generally terrified of heights, I was very surprised that I did not have any issue with walking over the glass sections. I suspect the ground was so far away (300m) that my brain just tricked itself into thinking I was walking over a painting rather than a terrifying drop into nothingness.
We then descended into the gorge we had just walked over. This tragically meant even more stairs and my legs, having not recovered from the previous day’s vigorous walk, complained bitterly. I really should stop moaning so profusely given the charming view but I suppose us British do enjoy a good whine. The walk along the bottom of the gorge wasn’t nearly as taxing and we had a good time discussing our various travels and laughing at the signs with such phrases as “No smoking, the mountain shall be forever green”.
For my third and final day in Wulingyuan I had initially planned to visit Tianmen Mountain in Zhanjiajie before catching my train on to Xi’an. However, looking over the costs it was rather expensive and looked suspiciously like everything would have to be paid for separately from the initial entrance fee. Furthermore, I could not find any information on what could be walked and what could only be reached by bus or cablecar, making me reluctant to visit. Instead I wondered around the scenic Xibu Street in Wulingyuan Village and down along the river with other hostel guests before giving my legs a well deserved rest at the hostel until it was time to leave and catch my flight onwards.
While I spent several days in Hanoi I did very little that makes for interesting conversation. A large amount of time was spent visiting various markets in search of fabric. Tragically this was a wasted effort as I only found one fabric that I liked, a gorgeous red velvet, only to find out there wasn’t enough left in the bolt. There were admittedly a considerable number of fabrics I fell in love with, but I went into my shopping spree with strict rules in place that I would only buy fabric for patterns I owned or specific clothing items that don’t need proper patterns. Sadly I couldn’t think of any uses for the glorious two tone brocade silk or the lovely chiffon in its wide range of colours (actual fabric types may be misnamed).
A lovely thing about the indoors markets is they are a lot less touristy and are almost inflicted with the opposite issue to all other South East Asian markets in that one has to exert effort to get the attention of the stall holders in most cases. Elsewise they seem more interested in sleeping on their hoards of fabric like eclectic dragons or eating whatever meal that time of day indicates. This made all my fabric hunting a lot more pleasant as I was not being continuously ordered to look at someone’s stall or feeling pressured to buy something. The most unprompted conversation with shopkeepers I experienced was having the cotton pointed out to me. Always the cotton. Never any other type of fabric. Just cotton. Most odd.
In terms of tourist spots, I visited only four (five if you count the lake and seven if the fabric markets are included). Three were on purpose and the fourth was a happy accident we stumbled upon. I spent my first full day chatting with a girl from my hostel as we strolled around Hanoi. We did a very quick walk by of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was the wrong time to go inside (not that either of us were particularly inclined to do so) and walking across the completely exposed square with the sun pounding down on us was almost unbearable so we had a five second photo shoot in front of the Mausoleum before scurrying off to the fractionally more shady One Pillar Pagoda. This pagoda is exactly what it says on the tin; a pagoda balanced on one pillar in a pond. This would have been another five second photo stop but we were delayed by a group of children asking to practice their English on us.
As were walking back to the hostel, looking for a suitably hipster cafe to get our condensed milk with coffee fix, we stumbled across the railway road. Tall houses crowd along both sides of the tracks. Frowning down at them as if to say how dare you intrude on our street? As there wasn’t a train coming we walked a little way up the tracks and took the compulsory photos before returning to our hunt for a cafe. We found one not much later and passed the rest of the afternoon chatting about life of the road and various escapades.
The next day was spent fabric shopping and doing yet more aimless wandering around Hanoi since the city is so well suited to it. I also spent a reasonably large time fuelling my bánh mì obsession. These mini baguettes normally filled with salad and marinated pork may just about be the best sandwich category I have ever tasted. If I liked Subway (I don’t), I imagine their subs would now turn to ash in my mouth after the delight of Vietnamese bánh mì (they already do). I’ve met many a tourist who admits to having indulged in the bánh mì diet on at least one occasion: breakfast consists of whatever the hostel offers for free (normally very good in Vietnam); lunch is bánh mì; an early dinner of bánh mì; and a final snack of bánh mì to fill up the corners before bed or partying. Since the average price in around 20,000đ (60p) it is a very affordable diet. Sadly there have to be any studies into the positive effects of the diet however, as someone who has tried it I can attest to an improved mood with every bite and sense of community with other backpackers who have had their eyes opened to this unique Vietnamese backpacker’s diet.
My last day was spent with another cold (bánh mì do not appear to improve the immune system) but I did manage to visit the Women’s museum about the role and lives of women in Vietnam, with the same young lady from my hostel. The first floor discusses marriage ceremonies, child rearing and women’s involvement in religion. The next floor was more interesting to me and discussed different women and their involvement in the Vietnam war. Some of the stories about their actions were amazing. The final floor was all about the different fashions of the various regions and ethnic minorities of Vietnam. The audio guide was good however it the tracks were rather long and we skipped quite a few on the first floor out of boredom. We did listen to all of the second floor but very little seating while standing in front of small exhibits, we were ready to leave by the end of it and only did a cursory sweep of the final floor.
This concluded my time in Vietnam and what an experience it was! There are a good few meals I will be trying to cook when I get home and a lot of fond memories to look back on. I would love to return one day but with so many places to see who knows if I will ever set foot in this unique country again? All I can say is that while I have no doubt it will have changed in that fluid way of all developing countries, it still have lots of surprises and places to discover.
Rocking up to the Easy Tiger Hostel just in time for happy hour, I unloaded my kit, grabbed a free beer and booked onto a tour for the next day. Beer finished and having reached a good stopping point in my book, I turned in for the night, determined to catch up on some sleep as rising with the sun (however unwillingly) is only maintainable for so long.
Rising early (at least for a backpacker) just after 0600 I tucked into breakfast and continued reading my book until the start of the tour. None of the times for the tour agreed, ranging for 0815 to 0845 so it was a case of sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and hope someone tells you when to get onto a bus. Around 0830 the minibus turned up and we all piled in before whizzing off to the 8 Ladies Cave. Bombing through the towering karsts, I could see why motorbike is the recommended mode of travel around the national park. As it was, I spent a large amount of time with my face smushed against the window, craning my head back in a vain attempt to see the tops of the looming monoliths.
The 8 Ladies Cave and Martyrs’ Memorial lie on Road 20 or Victory Road and are two shrines combined with memorial spots that remember the people who travelled up and down the road during the Vietnam war as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With half our group draped in royal blue skirts and capes to ensure modesty, we walked up the final stretch of road to look at them. There wasn’t much to see but we did receive an interesting explanation about the use of the road in the war and how eight people had been trapped in the cave by US bombing and eventually died after rescue attempts failed.
The next stop was Paradise Cave, one of the biggest dry caves in the world. This cave is probably the location that put the rural Phong Nha on the tourist map. As such it was absolutely teeming with tourists, most notably busloads of Chinese tour groups that appeared only at caves with easy access and nowhere else in Phong Nha. To reach the cave, we had to hike up an horribly large number of steps, using several huge spiders as excuses to stop and take photos while catching our breath. Upon reaching the top we were blessed with a heavenly breeze swirling out of the cave mouth. According to our guide, this is the origin of the Paradise Cave name. Here our guide left us to explore the cave individually. Walking down so many steps after having to climb all the way up was extremely frustrating but the deeper into the cave we descended, the further my complaints drifted from my mind.
The cave was absolutely huge and crowded with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. We walked along the plank walkway, stopping regularly to take photos and dodging tour groups as they clustered around their microphone wielding guides. The cave was very well lit which allowed for some excellent photos (at least in comparison to most of the cave photos I’ve taken in the past). Having taking so many photos as we walked in one direction, it was easy to relax and merely enjoy the fantastic cavescape on the way up out of the cave.
Having descended the stairs, passing a small snake that captured our attention for a good while, we moved on to the Dark Cave for lunch. In all honesty the lunch was something of a disappointment. It had clearly been prepared hours in advance, the sticky rice having become a rather solid block. Furthermore there was more bone, cartilage and fat than actual meat on offer. While not inedible in terms of taste, it was probably one of the worst meals I’ve had in a long time, especially compared to some of the superb local dishes I’ve sampled and I would have rather stopped at a smaller lunch spot with freshly prepared food, even if it would have meant a longer wait.
The Dark Cave, while something of a blatant tourist trap, was a huge amount of fun. We started by ziplining down to near the cave entrance before swimming the last stretch. There was some disagreement on whether the water could be classified as cold (it couldn’t) but otherwise we made it to the cave safely. From there we scrambled through the cave, head torches shining, until we made it to the mud bath. Slathered from tip to toe in mud the most reluctant of us had to be practically dragged from the cave, it was just too much fun. This did mean we got a little left behind and there was one fork where we ended up just guessing on the correct direction.
Making it out of the cave, still rather coated in mud to the amusement of some, we played around on some inflatable kayaks, which proved very hard to steer with only half oars, and rode ziplines into the water before making the most of our lifejackets and just floating around (I told you the water wasn’t cold). A couple of bottles of Vietnamese rum later and we were on our way back to the hostel in time for drinks, pizza and sunset at Momma D’s bar.
The next day saw me getting all the dits for Phong Nha at the Easy Tiger’s 0900 talk on the area. This popular hour long talk is packed with excellent advice and is open to everyone, not just hostel guests. Attending helped me plan out the perfect day trip and what has so far been the best day of my journey.
I paired up with a young lady who had been on the tour with me the day prior. We borrowed two bicycles from the hostel and set out towards Bong Lai Valley. At the recommendation of the hostel, we followed the river away from the centre instead of the main road. While this had the added advantage of cycling along a quieter back road rather than dodging cars, busses and lorries, the best part was the view over the tranquil river and the boats that slowly moved up and down it.
We saw the Pepperhouse Homestay several minutes before we reached it, its distinctive mustard yellow paintwork standing out against the backdrop of greenery. Home to a lively Australian and his Vietnamese wife, the homestay was a welcome respite from the heat and we both enjoyed a coke while sitting by the pool and chatting to the other guests. While I didn’t hear this story from the man himself and so can’t attest to its truth, David, the owner, goes by the name Multi among many of the locals due to filling in his residence permit application wrong, writing his visa type in the name slot. This led to a residence card for one Mr “Multi Entry Visa” and an amusing anecdote.
We departed the Pepperhouse for Moi Moi’s a small homestead come restaurant. At this point we hit a hill so were not surprised when everyone from the Pepperhouse whizzed passed us, perched precariously on the back of their guides’ motorbikes. Dismounting to push our bikes down the gravel hill, we emerged to see an open side dining area, complete with hammocks and a vast tapioca field stretching out behind it. Parking our bikes in the shade of some trees and next to a couple of cows, I could see chillies and a variety of herbs being grown along the field’s edge.
Originally we had planned to eat bamboo pork and spring rolls on the advice of the Easy Tiger staff but upon seeing some tapioca dumplings being carefully wrapped in banana leaves, we quickly switched to the sticky treats instead of spring rolls. This was not a decision we regretted and we tucked into the dumplings with great gusto. The bamboo pork came with rice and was such a big serving that we shared a single ome between us. Served with a plate of rice, the dish is made by stuffing a large piece of bamboo with pork and vegetables before cooking it over a fire. This results in delightfully juicy pork flavoured with caramelised onions, mushrooms and carrots. We washed all this down with sugary lemon juice. Extremely popular here in Vietnam, the drink is made differently at every restaurant and I have to say that Moi Moi’s version was particularly good.
Pleasantly stuffed we continued cycling along to the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Fortunately, before we left Moi Moi’s David had told us to look out for and cross a large metal bridge otherwise I suspect we would have ended up rather lost. With food comas threatening and the sun beating down this stretch of our route felt rather tiring but perseverance won out and we were rewarded with some spectacular views and getting to feed some wild boar and pigs. Conscious of time constraints, we had a sunset to catch, we only stayed at the Eco Farm long enough to appreciate the view and cool down a little.
The imaginatively named Pub With Cold Beer was our next stop. Until 2005 they didn’t have electricity and it was only much more recently that they got a fridge to chill the beer. The story goes that an Australian had rather cheekily stopped at the house and asked for some food. He was so blown away by the taste, he persuaded them to set up a restaurant and begun sending all his hostel guests their way. The only issue was that the beer was always warm. The initial attempt to bring huge bags of ice back to the pub from Phong Nha were unsuccessful given the minor issue that ice tends to melt. Finally someone asked why they didn’t just get a fridge and it was only at this point that it emerged they had no idea what a fridge was. Since then the beer has been consistently cold and sometimes frozen.
The beer was indeed excellently chilled when we went and the recently installed tarpaulin water slide was brilliant fun. My only regret was that I was still too full from Moi Moi’s to try what is widely claimed to be the best peanut sauce in Vietnam if not the world. We also gave the catch, kill and eat a chicken part of the Pub With Cold Beer experience a miss with too little time left in the day and the notorious Duck Stop to visit.
Forget some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, when it comes to Phong Nha the Duck Stop is now number one on Trip Advisor. What’s better than being the duck leader, feeding ducks and getting a duck foot massage, not to mention getting to chuck a duck for luck? We were kitted out in conical hats and plastic sandals before entering the duck pen. Almost immediately the ducks ran up out of the pond to greet us. Rattling the tin of food we took it in turns to let the extremely enthusiastic ducks gobble food from our hands before letting them chase us around. Never have I felt more powerful than when my duck minions spread before me awaiting their food. Next was the mildly terrifying but utterly hilarious foot massage. Sitting down we made little bowls of our feet which were filled with feed and promptly attacked. The sensation was extremely ticklish and weird, certainly not something I had ever experienced before.
The final part of out visit to the Duck Stop was the duck chuck. Done for luck, this is exactly what it sounds like, we each grasped a placid duck and threw them into the air above a large pond. By all accounts the further one’s duck goes the more luck will be forthcoming. Hopefully this is not the case as my duck plopped rather rapidly into the water. Hands and feet rinsed of mud and duck, we leapt back on our bicycles and began a mad dash for the Phong Nha Farmstay, determined to make it in time for the sunset.
Just as the sky began to turn pink, we pulled up to the Farmstay and enjoyed the two for one on gin and tonics while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a while. Rice paddies with water buffalo plodding through them stretched into the distance until the mountainous karsts suddenly leapt up on the horizon, reaching to hide the flaming disc of the sun from view. What was even better was that we could leave our bikes at the Farmstay and catch the after sunset shuttle back to the Easy Tiger instead of cycling back in the dark.
My final day in Phong Nha was spent relaxing and planning a little more of my route out. Looking back I think the best thing about Phong Nha was the determination of all the hostel and restaurent owners to support each other and the local businesses. From the locally made pizza Momma D ordered for us to all the recommendations and advice on where to stop in Bong Lai Valley, it was definitely the people as much as the scenery that made Phong Nha so special.
Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.
Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.
All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.
I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.
Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.
I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.
Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.
The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.
When I finally arrived in Hoi An, I was not in the most upbeat of moods so the crowding of tourists and price hikes to match in the old city grated somewhat against my nerves. I bought my ticket to the old city for 120,000đ and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around. The ticket allows one to enter any five of the twenty two sites or points of interest around the city but tourists are technically expected to carry the ticket with them at all times in the old city. This wasn’t something I saw enforced but apparently it does occasionally happen.
Having bought the ticket I realised I didn’t know which of the sights to use mine for so just soaked up the atmospheric streets and visited the central market. Entering the building that sold fabric and housed the cheapest of Hoi An’s famous tailoring services, I found myself walking through it with increasing speed because so much as glancing at a stall meant persistent calls to buy something, and in one case almost being herded into one. The outdoor section of the market, selling mostly produce and fish, was more enjoyable as being able to see the sky made the whole experience less claustrophobic.
After an early jaunt through the night market and dinner I watched the sunset from one on the bridges over the Thu Bon river. This proved to be a refreshing end to a stressful day of flat tires crowded tourist spots. As the light dimmed, new lights appeared on the river as the boats rigged silk lanterns and people released floating lanterns for good luck.
The next day I planned my stops in the city before setting out. My first stop was the Museum of Trading Ceramics. While the information provided was limited, the museum was situated in a beautiful old merchant house and it was amazing to read about just how long Hoi An had been a trading port before its decline. After looking around the second floor, I walked to Phuc Kien Assembly Hall where merchants used to meet it also seemed to be part shrine and I loved the huge spirals of incense that hung burning from the ceiling.
My final stop of the day was the Minh Huong Pagoda which was very quiet. I had hoped to also visit the Tan Ky house but by the time I got there after devouring some fresh spring rolls (a new favourite of mine) in the central market, they had closed for lunch. Being too impatient to wait, I wandered the shops of the city, debating whether to replace my rucksack (currently rather holey) with a nice leather one. I was strongly dissuaded when the shop keeper dropped from 2,730,000đ to 1,100,000đ in the space of a minute. While this could probably could have been a good deal, only £33 for a leather bag, having had my arm grabbed when I went to leave after turning down the bag because it didn’t have a zip closure had rather soured my mood and I returned to the hostel.
For dinner I had a life changing experience of bành mí from Bành Mí Phuong, a small stall made world renowned by Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it the best bành mí he had ever eaten.
The next day I left all valuables at the hostel and set out for the beach on a bicylce from the hostel. After the first busy stretch, the cycle was quite a bit of fun and the rice paddies were a pleasant change of scenery. The beach was crowded, even when I cycled further down it to avoid paying bicycle parking costs (an excellent piece of advice from my hostel). After a swim where my inner selkie rejoiced at being in the sea again, I lounged on a sun chair in the shade (still managing to get burnt despite reapply my sun cream) and read my book.
In hindsight I should have known my cycle to the beach was too easy as I cycled all the way back to the hostel with a headwind buffering me about. To round off my stay I visited the Tan Ky house that aftenoon. I got a nice little talk about the combination of Japanese and Chinese architecture used. My favourite bit was a series of stickers marking the heights of various floods over the years. The highest was in 1964 and almost brushed the ceiling. This reminded me of a story I heard about a pub that used to remain open during floods so locals could kayak over for a pint.
If there is one rule to travelling that must always be obeyed it is never ever whatever you do, think a journey is going well until you have arrived at your destination on time and in one piece. If you do decide to break this sacred rule, know that when you wake up at 0520 in the morning expecting your bus to have just arrived in Hoi An, you will in fact be forty five minutes outside of Hoi An with a flat tire. Naturally there will be no spare tire, the majority of the hold will be filled with packages mysteriously wrapped in black plastic – probably drugs you will joke. After a smoke and just as you exit the bus that is starting to turn into a sweatbox without the air conditioner running, one of the drivers will jump on the back of a motorbike and depart for destinations unknown.
It will only be as this point, when you observe the lean of the bus, that you will realise there is a flat tire and that it will be a while yet before you make it to Hoi An. Not to worry you will think, as the grandmother-mother-child combo that were next to you all the way from Saigon flag down a local bus and speed away, with only forty five minutes to Hoi An and allowing half an hour to fix the tire, you will be on your way again in a couple of hours (in reality you are only jinxing the situation further).
A couple of hours is still a long time though, so you will open up the hold to see if your bag is easily collectable, if it is you plan to follow the locals who are performing a gradual exodus with each local bus that passes. As you are closing the last door (you can’t even see your bag), the remaining driver will lean out the door and shout at you in Vietnamese. You presume he is telling you to stop but the language sounds so angry it is just as likely he is trying to discuss the weather (unlikely since he is such a miserable looking fellow).
Plans of escape thwarted, you will order an ice coffee at the nearby cafe, even though it isn’t yet six and the owner is still opening up. This is where you will remain for the foreseeable future, eventually joined by others as the heat of the bus becomes intolerable. Two hours will pass and the driver won’t have even returned (so much for that plan). At some point you will start playing a convoluted version of rummy where, since none of you know the actual rules, you just make them up as you go along.
At 0830 the driver will arrive bringing two tires and an air tank to power the jack and screwdriver as well as blow up the tires. Cheers all round. At 0850 the flat, rear tire and the front tire will have been removed and everyone who was fixing the bus will have disappeared. Fortunately a minibus driver who speaks English will arrive around this time and he will explain to you that the tires they bought back (probably from Da Nang you will now realise) are the wrong size so the driver has had to go twenty five kilometres down the road in the opposite direction to buy some new ones (why couldn’t he do that to start with if it is so much closer).
Some more cards and short walk up the road to see if there is anywhere selling something that can be approximated as breakfast (there isn’t unless you count crisps) later and the driver will return with two shiny new tires. It will be 0940 when you eventually leave and 1030 when you arrive in Hoi An.
There was no need to phone the hostel the day before and ask if you could check in early after all.
On the surface Bangkok does not offer much. There is a multitude of Wats and a fair number of museums but otherwise the standing agreement among backpackers is two or three days in Bangkok and then move on, maybe stretch it to five days. To an extent I agree, within the easily accessible parts of the city, there is little to do after the Wats have become a golden blur, each photo potentially belonging to a dozen different locations. However, Bangkok makes an excellent base of operations for visiting a number of other locations. In my case, I visited the Bridge on the River Kwai and Ayutthaya, which I talk about in two separate posts.
Upon dumping all my belongings at the hostel, I quickly left to fit in the famous solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. I bought my ticket and waited patiently to take my photos after climbing to the top. This took a while because the moment certain other tourists saw the spot directly in front of the Buddha was free, they were charging in and having a full blown photo shoot. The irony that they complained the moment I put a toe in their photos after they had just set up shop in mine was not lost on me. I was strongly reminded of the Chinese tour group I had encountered when taking photos of street art in George Town. Unfortunately, this is a part of being a tourist and when I find myself feeling frustrated, I take a breath, remind myself I am British and therefore that I know how to queue.
Something I was not aware of, and which wasn’t at all clear at the ticket booth, was that a different ticket to the small museum about the Golden Buddha on the floor below was needed. Hence, I decided to give the museum a miss since I knew the basic story of how the Buddha had been “discovered” when it was dropped while being moved and the plaster covering the gold cracked and fell away. Still tired from my train journey up to Bangkok, I called it a day and returned to the hostel for an early night via Chinatown and picking up some pad thai from a street vendor on the way.
The morning of day two in Bangkok found me visiting the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex with a guy from my hostel. Wat Pho was one of my two favourite wats. Whether because the design eased up on the gold paint or because it was the first wat I saw that day is hard to say for sure. Replacing all the gold were thousands of pieces of pottery, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. I was reminded of the Little Chapel back home, even if the pottery tiles here were each made specifically for the wat rather than random pottery shards slapped on at (mostly) random. The reclining Buddha was outstandingly huge. I particularly liked its lacquer and mother of pearl feet. Another winning feature of Wat Pho was that there was a reasonably large amount of it to see, unlike some wats where one feels that they enter, take a couple of photos, and then leave.
Despite plenty of offers, we declined a tuk tuk for the five minute walk to the entrance of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Getting in presented more of a challenge than we expected. First the guy I was travelling had shorts which were too short. Fair enough, they only just brushed his knees. So back across the road we went to pick up a pair of the colourful trousers, ubiquitous to backpacking tourists in South East Asia. I was wearing a top which covered my shoulders and had a T-shirt collar. However, it only had very short sleeves so I had covered my arms the rest of the way with a shawl. This had never presented an issue before and neither has it since. Apparently this time it wasn’t acceptable though, even as I watched half a dozen other female tourists walk pass with their shoulders barely hidden beneath flimsy scarves. Five minutes later and some quick improvisation on my part to adapt my shawl into a pair of sleeves, we re-entered the complex, me blending into a group of Chinese tourists who never seem to get stopped. With my height, an umbrella to block the sun, and big sunglasses this was not too difficult and we quickly made it to the ticket office, both sweltering from the crush of bodies and the sun.
Wat Phra Kaew was undeniably impressive with most surfaces glittering gold and it was cool to see the Emerald Buddha but the heat was almost unbearable and we found ourselves taking “shelter” in the shade as often as possible. Personally, the sheer volume of people was beginning to border on overwhelming as at five foot one (two on a good day) it was impossible to see further than the back or head in front of me and I was at risk of getting carried along by the tide. Making it through to the palace was less crowded but beyond looking at the exterior, we couldn’t see anywhere to enter so went to eat some ice cream before parting ways.
I caught the orange flag boat over the river to look around Wat Arun and Santa Cruz Church. Wat Arun had also avoided the gold craze and I enjoyed craning my head back to try and see the top as it reached towrds the sky. Even including the nearby ordination hall, there was not much to see but I think it is still worth a visit as it is very different to a lot of the other wats I visited. Santa Cruz Church was closed, I presume as it was a Sunday, but the outside of the building was nice and I had a lovely little amble from Wat Arun to the church and then on to the boat station.
From there I made way to the Golden Mount, pausing at a few wats I passed on the way. This was my second favourite wat. Not for its towering gold stupa but for the wonderful views of Bangkok that it offered in all directions. After descending the awkwardly shallow stairs, I realised I couldn’t stand the thought of another wat so walked past Democracy Monument and explored Khao San Road, collecting some mango sticky rice for a very belated lunch. Dinner was with another guest from the hostel and then bed.
I spent the next day and a half visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass, detailed here. Upon my return I had hoped to visit the Medical Museum however it was closed on Tuesdays and I ended up not going at all. Instead, I spent the afternoon getting a Thai massage (very relaxing) and a henna tattoo (a bit of fun).
Wednesday’s visit to Ayutthaya is also described in a separate post, here, but suffice to say it was a good visit even if it left me so exhausted by the time I got back to Bangkok that I slept half the next day away. To account for this, I only visited one place, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Entrance to here was included in my ticket to the Grand Palace from a few days before so it made sense to visit. The museum isn’t huge, with one section detailing the long and peaceful relationship between Thailand and the US, showcasing some of the gifts exchanged between the two countries over the years. The second section appealed to my inner seamstress and was a variety of restored pieces from Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, the majority from her visits to the US and Europe in the 1960s.
My final day in Bangkok was spent taking a breather and resting up for my 0100 night bus to Siem Reap where I then transferred down to Phnom Pehn.