Vang Vieng – sublime and ridiculous

IMG_8020I don’t think anyone would disagree with me saying frankly that the town of Vang Vieng is a stain on the universe. And yet here it is flowing constantly with two specific streams of clients,  offering a strange counterpoint into which I definitely don’t fit. It cannot be the town that draws us; it’s dirty, run down and with hardly a thread of heritage about it. And usually you have endured a bus journey through the mountains, on an unfinished road, compressed into a minivan wondering when they will stop for a toilet break.

Even though I’ve read stuff,  I get here and feel so embarrassed to be a white western person. It is full of back packers ( yes I knew that it would be ) behaving badly. And it is full of Koreans in large collectives, blocking up the footpath, taking selfies, and crowding round the entrances of all the  restaurants.  The tuk tuk drops me off at the Vang Vieng Rock Backpackers Hostel and I think – hell what have I done?

Imagine a teenager’s house party ( while parents are away) gone wrong, spilling on to the street and all the indignity that goes with that. Imagine it on all the houses along the street. A dirty street also. And you have my first impression of Vang Vieng.

fullsizeoutput_1057I was not the happiest of bunnies, but I had done my research and knew that Vang Vieng’s treasures lie hidden outside of the town. In the aftermath of a hostel borne virus, an overcast day, and a steady walk round quiet places is just what’s needed. Saysong Island, I think, was once the hub of all the drunken, dangerous ‘tubing’ incidents that marred the reputation of the town, but is now an overgrown, slightly surreal natural place where you can walk down to the riverside and watch local people harvesting shellfish. But be quick, because after 10.30am, very large cohorts of Koreans will come speeding down the river knocking everyone out of the way with their selfie sticks, disturbing the loveliness. But on land, nature is unphased, rambling, hovering and clambering.

A short cycle ride across the river and I had forgotten the awful night at the backpackers, and my sore throat. The towering Karst formations, like giant pork pies, the salmon coloured dirt tracks, the wandering cattle and people getting on with their lives – just lovely.  I had a full day riding round the area on a mountain bike, the grass of which were so stiff that they gave me RSI in my thumbs.fullsizeoutput_105a

On this side of the river, there is much to like and I ended up parking the bike and climbing the monumental Phangern. This is a tricky climb – don’t be deceived by the information thereabouts – the top is tough with proper scrambling, definitely do not attempt with flip flops, and the second half is longer than the first. You will not find many people on there, sensibly so. The sharp virgin limestone kept tempting me for a bouldering move or two. Views from the top are breathtaking, and whilst they don’t rival Wulingyuan or the likes, you have complete peace when you are up there. No noisy crowds or selfie takers. fullsizeoutput_1065

The following day I had a morning’s climbing – a bit dodgy. The instructor told me he’d only been climbing for a year, and I was being belayed by a 16 year old with no English – a first for me.  The lower offs were of variable quality  and I definitely preferred the ones that had actual bolts at the top rather than a rope round a flake. But seriously the climbing looks good and I wish I’d reserved some more time for it. But maybe I’ll visit again.fullsizeoutput_103b

In the evenings it is the turn of the western youngsters  to show  their maturity by returning from the tubing expeditions and throwing up or being loud and ridiculous around the hostels and bars – but you can find quiet places if you don’t mind a walk and have a little cash. There’s even a night market of sorts, nothing on the Luang Prabang scale – you can walk it in ten minutes and it’s quite a way out of the centre. You know, you only have to eat and sleep there, and the local people are exceptionally forbearing.

I’ll overlook Vang Vieng’s ‘other’ side because it’s a small discomfort, when its treasures are so great!

Phuket for Lunar Explorers

I would be being dishonest if I said that I had not had concerns about spending a week  in Phuket. I had it in my mind that it was like Ibiza or Waikiki – and I have seen Waikiki and couldn’t think of anything worse. But that’s where my cheap flight landed and why not have a few days there?

So  – being my normal crowd avoiding, penny pinching, anti social self – what did I do?

eJcEbKtETZ2KgJtE6h+Nhg_thumb_3259A lot of walking as per usual, in quite intensive heat. An early jaunt up to Rang Hill would be a little bit of an anticlimax, I guess, if you were after a serious hike, but it seems I went just at the right time, because it suddenly became flooded with groups and families just as I was leaving. It was a steepish climb for about 40 mins, I found myself on the back road thanks to google maps and it was my first introduction to packs of wild dogs. lfpeyzfzqusosos8ghwmuq_thumb_3219.jpg
The packs of dogs are inbred, e.g. there’s a brown pack and a black, shaggy pack etc.  As an added bonus, I became giddy as a child with the abundance of tropical butterflies – large, bright and impossible to capture in photos. And it will more than make up for the deflation you might feel from the view at the top which is a bit ‘so, so’. Even more of these butterflies are to be found going up Monkey Hill, a steeper but same-ish kind of climb to see – yes, monkeys. If, like me, you haven’t seen wild monkeys, it’s interesting and new…and a bit scary. They are somewhat aggressive.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_310bA trip to the municipal park ( I think it’s called Swan Luang) was a lot more rewarding for me even though it was kind of a weird long walk out of town. It was good couple of hours to investigate it and probably half of that was taking photos of the beautiful, old, arched bridge that is there. No idea if it’s got a name, but in the green, almost stagnant water, it seemed strangely land locked and neglected. I can see that Thai people share this Asian lack of self consciousness about exercise and activity in public that gave me that emotional moment in Guangzhou People’s Park that day.  Whether it’s dancing, cycling, bouncing on your toes or using the outdoor gym equipment – it’s so free to do so. This is a serene place for locals and a veritable green armchair for me, like mood enhancing spectacles.fullsizeoutput_e23

With the absence of Uber Moto, which was so amazing and transformational in Vietnam, I was determined not to spend money as usual. Finding the buses was an adventure – because actually they don’t register as buses. They are blue – or pink and you kind of hang about the market area waiting for one thats going roughly in the direction you want.  So to get a beach day it costs 40B plus coffee money  (which like Vietnam is more costly than your dinner).

EkmXxGL9QOqvT9vrgp7xCA_thumb_30dcI got the bus to Chalon Bay – well it’s a harbour with boats and all the things I like, and  the bus driver only charged me 25 Baht. I sat at the pier – it’s quite picturesque and exceptionally blue – a bit Agean. After walking a couple of miles along the main road out of town, I found the ‘not’ imaginary  Gluten Free Bakery and indulged in a berry muffin. Revitalised, and very grateful to the girl from the bakery  who gave me a lift to Friendship Beach on the back of her moped, I found myself on a beach front wondering if I was on private property .
fullsizeoutput_e1dFriendship Beach was quite populated by kite surfers,  essentially innocuous and out at sea, leaving the beach delightfully empty. I walked then all the way up to Rawai Beach ( about 8 miles) along the edge of the water with only the odd local family engaging in a life that I can’t imagine. This part of the coast, with its strange estuarine, lunar boulder field, and armies of tiny ‘borg’ crabs that disappear as soon as you try to approach them, made for an entirely solitary and delicious afternoon. And then I got to Rawai – and thought ‘what a shame.’

fullsizeoutput_e97Always wanting to avoid the crowds, I decided to try to get to Bang Pae waterfall, instead of the more advertised Ton Sai and Kathu waterfalls. After negotiating a strange deal with a random taxi driver at the bus ‘area’, I found myself being escorted around a very exclusive jewellery outlet. Apparently her gets a ‘stamp’ for bringing people there, and I got taken to Bang Pae for 100B. The fact that I was clearly a scruffy backpacker did not seem to deter a polished and very demure sales lady from showing me diamonds and things  wouldn’t be seen dead in. It was a surreal experience, as I bypassed coach loads of Chinese tourists to the exit. True to his word, the taxi driver was awaiting and dropped me at the falls. Quite out of the way toward the centre of the islands, there was only a handful of western tourists, and for the first time I got to swim under a waterfall as if in a shampoo advert (only for old people). It’s beautiful, secluded and was well worth the diamond outlet detour. I had to hitch a lift back – but fortuitously,  ti involved another lady on a motor bike who dropped me at a bus stop where I waited for about 50 mins – but fine.

And what of the old town? What of Phuket’s markets and old buildings and urban stuff? Quaint enough, and surprisingly uncrowded. Colourful colonial style buildings, cloisters, predictable tourist shops and a Holly’s Coffee ( always a welcome sign). Not the cleanest, or richest or coolest of places, but  I did not see any of the Phuket that I had feared. I did not see drunks, partying, sunburnt beer-bellies or over indulgence of any kind. The hostel was comfortable, spacious and friendly. They bought me sticky rice in the morning  because I  couldn’t eat the breakfast. It was my first experience of Thailand. I took what I could from Phuket and could not at that time imagine how captivated and totally at home I would come to feel in this country.


Hoi An – City of erm…

fullsizeoutput_d04Lanterns, right? Well I’m not enjoying this town quite as much as Hanoi. It’s got nothing to do with the rain or the monsoon – I mean, I come from a wet country, but we don’t get warmth with it. So the weather is indeed fairly wet, or damp, or soaking – but no problem. Blue skies do make for much better photos, but there are ways round that. So what don’t I like?  Ambleside comes to mind…maybe Bakewell … that sort of vibe.  (Because I don’t know the South of my country at all.) This is exceptionally and purposefully a tourist magnet, and perhaps Hanoi is more incidental or accidental for its visitors. Because I partially grew up in a seaside town, I could very well be a bit over sensitive and cynical. So really don’t take this post to indicate that I disliked Hoi An – it’s just for me, there were a few irksome things which made me aware I had stayed there too long.

IMG_5125There’s a tactic here that I don’t think we have even in the most up market of our UK tourist areas. For example, if the puny punnet of non-potato-origin fries is £6 at Alton Towers – everyone pays £6 – not only foreigners. Here, there is an audacious double pricing system based on the assumption that everyone from Europe or the US is swimming in wealth. Many are – and this seems a place that attracts them, but not everyone is. Like me, they may staying in an 8 bedroom dorm, wearing the same clothes for 5 days and counting the 1000D notes to see if can avoid going to the ATM today, because they are really on a budget. And yes they still are acutely aware of how much further there money goes here, how privileged they are to be able to travel, but still –  they came on a shoe-string.  I’m not getting into a deeper ethical discourse about world economy and distribution of wealth because I don’t consider myself well informed enough. I am only recounting my experience, not expressing indignation. (Well maybe just at the bus conductor.)

The offending bus ride, with the driver playing a terrible talent show on his phone for teenagers to watch, going full pelt over an off road section, delivering packages on the side, and I paid double for the privilege!

You might expect some small amount of adjustment considering the difference in our economies, and some negotiating. I was prepared and had had a little practice in Hanoi. Despite all the websites telling you that you need to negotiate, I have found here a flat out refusal to do so.  But – the thing that really got me was – I’m sorry it sounds so embarrassing … the bus conductor. The bus conductor from Da Nang charged me twice as much as the local girl sat next to me – and unabashedly put the extra 20 000 in his pocket before my very eyes! No amount of remonstration would recover the money. The aforementioned local girl told me that she had seen bus conductors charge 5 times the actual price, so perhaps I came off lightly.  And though this is a 100% profit margin for him, we are talking about very little amount. However, as I am an alarmingly honest individual, I got a bit agitated.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a6fI noticed another strategy to fudge pricing – the dollar scam. The  hostel insisted on doing this this with my bill, my bicycle hire, my tour, my water – everything! Now I am not a US citizen, and neither is my hostel owner – so why is she telling me the price of everything in dollars all the time? The entry fee for My Son Holy Site is 150, 000 dong, but you can just give her or him $7.50 please. Now you can see from the XE table below (great app) that they are over charging by a dollar. 80 people on the bus. Two tours a day. $160 in pocket. The bike hire is $1 because thy can make more than by asking for 20 000 dong. Again it’s not much, but I don’t feel that comfortable with it.IMG_6593

I always overpaid the Uber drivers in Hanoi – I didn’t feel pressure or need prompting because I looked at XE and saw it cost me 80p for a half hour ride – ridiculous. And as I said before, I think that most people backpacking are aware of their privileged situation and will be generous. But I just don’t like the underhandedness.

It was a very hard sell all the time, and I found it tough not being able to sit in a coffee shop ( until I found  the Espresso Station where I am now – address withheld ha ha ) without vendors walking in and trying to sell me peanuts, newspapers, Christmas cards, a sun hat. I can’t walk along the riverside without a chorus of “boat? photo? mango?’ This kind of selling is very bothersome to me, and I decided a few days into my stay not to spend any more money in Hoi An other than eating and coffee. Coffee at my coffee shops is 50,000 or 55,000 – more than my meal, and it is somewhat hypocritical of me to be so penny pinching in other areas. But there are plenty of people who do have money to spend here, even if I don’t. I’m sorry retired Brits and Germans, Koreans and teachers (they are not exclusive of one another obviously) – I don’t mean to be pointing any fingers.

I’ve not said anything about commission, but that goes without saying. The hostel will refer you to their ‘partner’ operators and services and that’s just that. They will charge you for the privilege of booking something you could have done so for less money on the internet.

I hope I’m not giving the impression that I didn’t enjoy Hoi An at all – no it’s a charming, picturesque, yellow, characterful town on the river, that is beautifully lit and buzzing at night. Its ramshackle, blackened old buildings hugging the river bank, the serene brown waterways, the slow, noble water buffalo, the ornate temples and shrines – this is the authentic beauty of the place for me , and actually, once I left the town centre, I felt exhilarated and thrown back in time, cycling aimlessly around the many islets.   I think what I am getting at is that, if you have plenty of money and it is ‘that’ kind of holiday for you, you will get the most out of your stay in Hoi An Town. Like Ambleside, it is mainly a cool cafe vibe, restaurants and clothes shops ( be it not ‘outdoor’ ones). And perhaps you will be able to afford the many tours to far away places. With limited funds, it might be a bit beyond the means of most backpackers for more than a couple of days. In my post ‘Whatever happened to Cam Kim?’, you will see just how much I liked the area, and all the lovely things about Hoi An that you can do with very little to spend.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.