I love Hanoi! But why?

 

I feel like I’m in Casablanca and it’s not even on the right continent. It’s the buildings, and the dark coffee shops, and the the dark men on the street corners drinking tea. The motorbikes and tourist tack are just a blur and can’t really rip me out of this romantic fantasy that I’m in. And I’m not working, just travelling, and everything has a different glow about it when you are not going to drudgery of your job the next day. I’m on the balcony of a 3rd story coffee shop in the Old Quarter, overlooking the  Hoan Kim lake. The traffic is noisy and so are the people – the sound scape is whirring, honking, tannoy and laughter. I think it’s hard here – I’m sure subsisting is a slog but there’s something so 1930’s about it.

6P9s1r8uTZShyHNsOJcM0Q_thumb_2b76

As my budget is getting really stretched now, I can’t afford anything on attractions and am doing more walking than ever.  And as always, my first day involved trying to find gluten free food. There’s plenty here, and really I don’t need to worry about it as it’s a rice based diet. So there is an immediate sense of security for me. It wasn’t until I reached here that I realised how difficult I had found China, and how I was still affected by it, as if coming out of some kind of mild trauma – which does China a disservice, because my experience there was exhilarating and  wholly momentous.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29ddTrying to extract the essence of this city is difficult. Where did I go in my 9 days? A lot of coffee shops, but mainly Highlands because it’s the cheapest  not because it’s Western. So we can start this exploration of my mysterious affinity with the premise that the Vietnamese welcome tourists, are friendly and global in their outlook.

z5O3eExdSxmInwfZQx3uyA_thumb_291a

The Old Quarter is just manic – having alter egos of day and night. In the day, it is street vendors, restaurants, and souvenirs, with some quite aggressive selling approaches, but intermingled with local everyday stuff. You can see many local people just sitting on little plastic stools or beer crates eating Pho on the street corner – you know this food is good because of this. Next door to my hostel, they are queueing for 45mins to buy a ‘swan’ dish. At night the same area is just a drinking and eating orgy like no other I’ve seen. One street, you cannot get up at night if you didn’t get there early. I don’t like this – but on the back street where my hostel, the BC Family Homestay is located, the street food stall and fruit and veg vendors are just sweeping up at about at about 9pm. eCEfQ2+8QOGGouj1wVd4oQ_thumb_292fA few streets away, Hoan Kim Lake is lit up, and pedestrianised, with buskers and entertainers of various quality every 20 yards. But you love it – for a while. In the daytime, the lake area is still busy, and great thrills can be had crossing the road. My skills have been quickly honed over the week – and after all I have been to Beijing and Guangzhou. to warm. For me, I have that perfect blend of city anonymity and solitude in a crowd here, and socialising if I want. (My hosts are very amiable).

JymSSxu%RYCxJCvzAcZHLQ_thumb_29ffWest Lake was worth a visit. It’s distinctly ex-pat – so it felt a bit weird. Is it that obvious I’m a tourist? You’ll find many of the comforts of home there, and the housing looks a bit Benidorm. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live there because I might as well be at home, but I’m sure I would frequent it quite a bit. The West Lake is very big and I like that section   where you walk through the middle of it, and you could be in Canada, and there’s the beautiful wind- beaten tall, slender Pagoda on it’s little promontory.

4E+O%quMQvCjx06nRzwlqg_thumb_29f9

And I kove ask the ‘fixer-uppers’. The buildings are so beautiful, yellow,haunted, brimming with clambering weeds, discoloured by smog, – and delightful. They bustle, higgledy piggledy,  teetering over the shops and restaurants underneath, or shyly recede behind years of neglect and rambling overgrowth.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29d4

The Long Bien bridge, overarching the milky, brown, slow slurp of the Red River is just a glorious and timeless, rusty gem. When I walk over the crumbling concrete walkway, looking through the gaps at the water lapping,  thinking ‘how is this upholding me’, to the banana plantations, and the sleepy boats, it’s like I am in a David Niven movie, and feel l have been for ever.  I can’t believe it when  a train rattles through.

fbSEl3fXQU+1npNikXSMOw_thumb_2b7c

And the temples here, of which there are many – are not central attractions like they are in some other Asian Countries. But they are no less splendid. You walk along the dirty bustling street, shuffling past the motorbikes parked everywhere, and you see a hole in the wall through which you can spy some statues or curves or glints of yellow and blue. And you just walk in – it’s like Indiana Jones – you expect a trapdoor, a snake, a sand burial. I love it. Have I answered my own question?

 

 

Beijing’s Disparate Charm

w%%sEQtJTWmAfqYPc6aXbA_thumb_21c7

Beijing has by far the most comprehensive subway system on the planet. You just can’t go wrong on it. Every station has all the stops along that line displayed near the platform and on the train. All the station names and numbers are in English and they are announced in English on the trains. The complete map is posted everywhere. It is also huge! I think I read that this is the busiest subway system in the world. It must be, because sometimes one train is almost shunting the one in front out of the way. Somewhat annoying is the distance between some of the transfers – about a kilometre, so not so good if you are dragging you’re luggage.

But the upshot of this is that it is quite easy to find your way about if you stick to the subway, because Beijing is enormous, covers an extensive area and is a real higgledy piggledy mix of the old, the new and the dreadfully dull.   I was staying in a pleasant enough hostel in the Dongdan district. I only had a week, and if you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll realise I don’t like crowds and clamour. So here is my week.

I visited Longtan Park which is not anything distinctive but a place where locals go to sing, dance and do exercise, and grandparents bring their grandchildren. But it was a good, non crowded place to start. And I found the local activities interesting. The impact over the week of Beijing’s traditional treasures was somewhat affected by the quality of the sky. But the Temple of Heaven was still exceptionally striking even on a hazy day. it was also not very busy as it lies in a very spacious, rather ordinary  park and is probably not so impressive as some other attractions.

Xt9lMNxFQqaxm7VDcKihMw_thumb_2062I was so lucky the day I went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu – the perfect weather and conditions. It was an adventure – the subway to Dongzhimen, and then a 70 minute bus journey up the expressway on the 916. When I got off at Huairou, I was immediately swarmed upon by locals offering lifts to the Wall. I was adamant I was not getting one, but then  a woman offered me a ride in a minibus for 5Y. And I thought, hang on this is actually 50p. As there was a couple of other Europeans we decided to take a chance on safety in numbers. True to her word the woman dropped us right at the entrance to the visitor centre and showed us where to get the cable car ticket . I got the cable car up/toboggan down ticket doe 265Y . Worth every penny and much better value than Capilano suspension bridge which cost about the same. The scenery was breathtaking – but I was not prepared for the actual terrain of the wall. The gradient of the slopes and steps is incredible even on this well maintained section – and the stair risers are about 2 feet high in places. But this is one of this experiences that is truly once in a lifetime, and you can forgive the tacky tea/coffee/water stalls – they are quite tasteful hidden beyond the confines of the actual wall. The same woman gave me lift back to the 916 bus stop – but this time she wasn’t going lower than 10Y – maybe she got wise to my maths.


The Summer Palace is probably next on my list of unrepeatable experiences. Again the sky made a difference – there was a little haze, but it was a warm and sunny day with beautiful lake views, and although there were a lot of tourists, they tend to centre round the Hill of Longevity (which is quite a steep climb). The temple on this mount with its distinctive golden roof tiles reminded me of something from a picture of  Thailand or Malaysia ( since I haven’t been yet). Once I got to Suzhou St and around to the West Causeway there were far fewer people. And not surprising. It’s a big lake and takes about 2 hours to walk round at my pace. But it is very pleasant indeed with all the little bridges and walkways, including the Jade Belt bridge and the Seventeen Arch.

m0k2Fwz5RH2z6CPzm8ExXA_thumb_2162The 798 Artzone, although famed,  was just too big and bewildering for me, I think it was an ‘off’ day. And what do you do in these places if you can’t eat the food and you have no money to spend on art. However, I inadvertently wandered into 751, some kind of disused foundry which you can climb up and explore. This provided the best fun of the day. Reminded me of my childhood days when I used to play on abandoned quarry machinery – not something I would advocate obviously, but in the 60’s and 70’s, I don’t think Health and Safety were high on anyone’s agenda! On the way back from that rusty playground I decided to try and find a second imaginary gluten free cafe. It became a farce, of course, as on the first day when I went looking for the imaginary Marks and Spencer’s that purportedly sold GF  bread (and walked 9 miles).

However, I did discover a very spectacular, shopping centre called Parkview – which at first I thought was a modern art museum. The pictures above should explain why. I didn’t get the artwork but that’s not unusual for left-brained me. But it was worth a quick gander. I mean, coming from the North of England, we have Meadowhall and this is the largest shopping centre in the area. (There is no modern art there, but there are certainly some travesties to observe.)

jxvdN3gLRC+DdqavpjRhSA_thumb_2199I had one weird day visiting the Temple of the Sun Park. Actually there isn’t really a temple as such, but it was a very nice park. Again, one where locals go to have lunch and practise Tai Chi. I spent an hour or two snaking round its beautiful crafted stone and water gardens, and found a couple of nooks where I could practise my Sil Lim Tao.

uTQjeDWCRVqKxcvgArbgBQ_thumb_2164I had quite an enjoyable day wandering round Shichahai, an area reputed for its ”hutongs’, quaint back streets and touristy tack. You know me – I don’t like spending unless its some kind of experience you just could not get anywhere else. Getting there cost me 2Y on the public bus, about 20p. I got off somewhere north of the lake and walked down. The area near the footbridge is the most popular, but once you stray away from there, it’s just like rambling round people’s lives really.

Beijing is really big. I probably didn’t see much of it . I do a lot of wandering, and then when I get back to the hostel, I know I have really experienced something – but it’s not always easy to say what.  It seemed to me a strange mixture of super-modern shopping developments, very moving and obvious poverty, lavish cultural  heritage, political pomp and a kind of desperation to be acceptable to tourists. I found it heavily polluted and dense, but not like the South. That’s my two penn’orth for what it’s worth.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_21bc

 

 

The Orient – but not express!

xUioq7JpSAylL3yJ+k4QTw_thumb_21feI thought I would share my experience of traveling on the overnight train from Beijing to Wudangshan, as I know there are a few articles out there on the subject which might be off-putting, and some rather more matter of fact ones. In any case, the latter turned out to be pretty much accurate. Why was I going to such an obscure place in central China? As an erstwhile practitioner, or should I say ‘dabbler’ in Chinese martial arts, I have had romantic notions of this place for many years. It would have been odd to go to China and not see Wudang Mountain, and yes, I could have got a plane to Shiyan, but what would be the fun in that?

I booked my journey on a soft sleeper many months prior to my trip, through China Highlights. It cost about £70 as opposed to the plane which was over £200. I arrived at Beijing West Station with over an hour and half to spare, and went straight through the ticket gate with ease. This was seeming far too straightforward. I do confess to cheating a bit and picking up my ticket the day before.  The queues for checking tickets were confusing but not very long and, sweeping though the station, I had to find the correct waiting room for the K507. ( you have to go specific waiting areas in China, depending on your route.) There are many waiting rooms, more than a dozen, and of course I couldn’t see the K507 on any of the notice boards . There were hordes of staff present and they directed me to No.3. Now this looked like a bottle neck – and I wasn’t wrong. After chaotically, and with much jostling, getting through the ticket checking, there followed what was probably the worst bit of the trip. The waiting room was so overcrowded,. people were just sitting on their suitcases or lying on the floor. Why I didn’t go to the toilet in the main building still haunts me. I don’t quite know how to say this tactfully, but the waiting area was clearly full of  people of an unrefined nature. There was a disheartening queue for the one toilet, coarse ladies smoking in the washroom, and the state of it was quite shocking to me. A desultory attendant was doing nothing about the smoking and would not watch my massive bags while I negotiated the narrow space. The experience was unpleasant at best, and after I extricated myself, I just found a small place by the wall amongst the heaving masses.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_220cThankfully this crowd thinned out as one of the other trains started to board. And boarding the train was very straightforward – my ticket included the car no and the bed number – and I was relieved to have a top bunk. I’ll explain why in a minute. There was a woman with a small child, a man and a fashion conscious sharing the cabin. I couldn’t see a single Western person anywhere on that train, (probably because they were on a plane), which was just a little intimidating.  The soft sleeper did not live up to my expectations of luxury. And this is where the learning part comes in. Because, to everyone on that carriage, this WAS luxury. So first you have to introduce yourself to your fellow travellers and share some food. I shared my teabags, because my GF sesame coconut crispy rolls and green tea marshmallows were too precious. And to be honest this was an interesting and enlightening intercourse.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2205
winter dates

I had some long liquorice like substance made of hawthorn, some delicious small apple-like fruit (winter dates) and some kind of chewy peanut toffee. The gentleman had sunflower seeds still in the shells which he continued to eat all through the night. The lady with the child wanted me to call her Helen, and had a little English. I thought what a strange name to choose if you’re going to be English. I managed to ascertain that her husband was a headteacher and worked in Xiangyang. I also learned that for many, many families this kind of separation is necessary because of economics, and that families have to live apart. A day’s travel apart. When I became tired form the usual travel stress, and trying to communicate in different languages, I was glad of the top bunk. If you are on the bottom bunk, I guess you have to wait until the top people go to bed as everyone sits on the bottom, socialising. And there is zero space.

F5Taw78QQdmFWSLuzE0y7A_thumb_2208
Helen and Annie – my soft sleeper companions

I retired up to the top bunk after visiting the toilets. There was a western toilet at one end of the car, but somehow this was either locked, or someone had fallen asleep in there. The squat toilet at the other end was also locked. The I had to go on search through the train for a toilet. The toilet situation is not a good one – and the stench is something we are not used to. There is no toilet paper anywhere in China – you are expected to have your own – so stock up and always have some in your bag or pocket. But, you know, we service these things – it’s part of seeing the world.So did I sleep? Well yes actually? There were a few things that disturbed me, attendants shouting the station names, a baby crying in the next room, some disconcerting jolting of the train. And the man cracking the sunflower shells. But really it was just like a moving hostel dorm. I had about 7 and a half hours sleep which is a good part of the trip. My charger didn’t fit the socket well and I had to prop it up with my washbag. Other things to remember are a flask for boiling water as this is the only water you will get on the train. There were various food trolleys coming round occasionally including plenty of fruit, but I read the advice and brought my own.AsL5V4BOR+yIW+7sRhJ1FQ_thumb_21fb

In the morning it seemed that many people must have left the train. The aisles were quiet, there was less smoke, and the toilets were accessible. I sat in the aisle so I could watch the scenery, but many people found me fascinating and wanted a picture taken with me. Funny. So actually the day time part was very comfortable, and passed quickly. My compatriots left me at Xiang yang and I had a couple of hours alone.

The verdict; completely bearable with a few grim moments.

VWljWccFTRier0g6x2Wx+w_thumb_21fc

Busan – slumbering beast

fullsizeoutput_713I have just arrived in Busan after an easy transport day from Kansai. Yes one of those days when everything goes to plan – my bag weighed in at 22.7kg – even the check-in staff were impressed. The plane was a new 737-800 – nice and with excellent service. At Gimhae Airport I headed straight for the KT roaming centre as recommended on some travel forums. I bought a 5 day SIM for 27 000 won – I had to fit it straight away for some reason but they even gave me a paper clip and it worked immediately! (In contrast to my Japan Experience B Mobile one which never worked.) Next to the KT centre was the Tourist Info – and the excellent staff member there rung my hostel and asked what was the best way to get there.  An airport limousine bus took me literally to the door for 6000 won (about £4) . I’m incredulous.

IMG_1135I enjoy traveling on a bus through cities as you are slightly above the traffic and can see many things. I have been a Japan a month and got used to its ways, and Korea definitely had a different feel. When I say slumbering beast of a city – its because it reminds me of something that spreads a bit like an oversize, uncomfortable amphibian. fullsizeoutput_73f.jpeg
Or the way bread dough spreads if you drop it down. With a little elasticity and heaviness, pulling it back from the sea – just. Very tall slender high rise clusters yawn out of the sloping, colourful traditional villages as you are looking into the distance. Closer – everything is gaudy – a bit dirty, and the graphemes look like potato printing. Traffic is bad and there is a very hurried vibe. Crossing the road to the hostel was a very dicey business.

The hostel is on the 7th storey of a high-rise with a view of Busan Harbour Bridge. I can’t complain. It’s kind of odd being sandwiched between an accountancy firm and an IT company or something. Next door is the monumental Lotte Mall – a phenomenon I have not come across before. Thirteen storeys high – it boasts a Sky Garden which is the size of an average UK city park, a 360 degree observation deck, aqua park, cinemas etc.  Hudson Bay meets Meadowhall squashed upwards. It was my first port of call as I needed some groceries. Not the right place. (£2 an apple) But the park and observation deck seem pretty  spectacular and distinctive to me.

After a brief exploration this morning – I am gratified immensely to find a plethora of proper espresso coffee shops after the complete dearth in Japan. No need to make do with  Asian Starbucks’ weird, creamy mix.

IMG_1167