A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

halong to hanoi

21 °C

Ah, Vietnam. A land of smiling happy people, good food, warm weather and perfect cycling conditions. Whatsmore, everything here is a lot less, how can i put this... shit than it is in China - the buildings, the roads, even the toilets. After 3 days of fantastic hospitality in untouristy areas, we arrived in the tourist capital of Vietnam, UNESCO World Heritage site Halong Bay. On first arriving in the nearby town of Bai Chai the place was deserted - "where are all the tourists" we thought. We found out the next day when coachloads descended on mass to pile onto their junk (traditional Vietnamese boat) for their 2 day tour, ready for their next experience of a lifetime. Whilst we normally avoid these kind of tours we had also signed up for one, mainly beacuse Mariana only had 2 days before she had to fly back to the UK to do an interview for a PGCE, so we didn't have time to get to the more remote and less touristy areas. After two days of being treated like a moron, packaged, processed and ferried from one place to another alondside hundreds of other eager eyed punters we were glad to have seen this beautiful place but releived to be off the boat (it turned out we were lucky to make it out alive as a couple of weeks later some other tourists did not.
I saw Mariana onto the bus and we said our farewells. I was alone for a week and decided to go crazy, flying off to Moscow and then New York for a few days.


...well not quite. I actually decided to spend a few days going further into the islands beyond Halong Bay. I took a ferry to Cat Ba and cycled across the island to Cat Ba town. The island itself is paradise, with lush green mountains and an abundance of flora and fauna. However, the developers are in the process of moving in with big plans for sprawling resorts.
Its the same story all over Vietnam, with no real consideration for the long term impacts of a smash and grab approach to tourism - build em big and build em high. You can't help get the feeling that in 10 years time Vietnam will have lost much of the beauty which hás made it such an attractive destination in the first instance. Cat Ba town is a good example of this with a depressing line of 6 story concrete hotels filling the arc of what was no doubt once a very beautful bay. After á day spent at a local beach and meeting up with a couple of cycle tourers i had met earlier, I headed to a local port to rent a kayak as a means for further exploration. Another feature of travelling in Vietnam is that the locals are constantly trying to get you to sign up for a tour and tend to make your life difficult if you want to do things independently. This proved to be the case with renting a kayak as the main rental company wouldn't let me take one overnight unless i signed up to their 100 dollar a day tour. I declined their offer and managed to convince a local to rent me one for a couple of days, or perhaps they only let me take it because they đidn't speak a word of English and couldn't make heads or tails of what i was trying to tell them. Anyhow, i spent a lovely day kayaking through floating fishing villages surounded by gorgeous limestone peaks which jutted out of turquoise waters. A traveller i had met tipped me off about a great place to stay in the Cat Ba national park so i left my kayak with the harbour master and walked the 6 km to Whisper Nature, where beautiful bungalows are situated around a lovely garden. In fact it was so nice i stayed an extra day and kayaked back two days later.
My next stop was Haiphong, an old French colonial town on the mainland, famed for its coffee shops and architecture. It proved to be a lovely stop over and i spent several hours at a tiny cafe feeling it was all rather civilised here.
The following day í cycled 120km to Ninh Binh (all flat and downwind), where you can cycle ỏ take a boart amongst more pretty limestone peaks. I was due to meet Mariana herere but decided to surprise her by going up to Hanoi for Valentines day (thís nearly went very badly ưởng when i couldn't find the hotel she left hẻr bike in and was due to go to on arrival but i luckily found it after going to pretty much every hostel in Hanoi. I left a note and a rose (much to the delight òf the lady at reception) and waited for her at the bar opposite. It was great to be back together and we spent a lovely couple of dáys wandering around this fascinating city.

Posted by roblewis 07:10 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Goodbye China, Hello Vietnam

Ningming to Halong Bay

sunny 20 °C

'A weight has been lifted!' Rob cheerfully pronounced as our visas were stamped for entry into Vietnam by a smiley border official who wished us happy new year as in a few hours the celebrations for Tet, the biggest festival of the year, would begin. It had been another mixed day, in keeping with our up and down emotions about our time in China. Having whinged about 2 weeks of grey sky the cloud lifted when we were about 30 km from the Vietnam border, quashing Rob's conspiracy theory that the sun had been dismantled in China.

With the sun on our faces 50 km passed in a breeze to where we SHOULD have reached the border crossing. We reached a crossroad which indicated that somewhere was 3 km straight ahead and somewhere else was 3 km to the right. One of those had to be the border but which one? No signs in English. As we peered down the hill to the right there was a bridge with the words 'China Vietnam Trade Border' written above the arches. Fixating on the word 'border' we made an educated guess that this was one. So we snaked down the hill, through a village but there was still no sign of it which seemed a bit odd for the main border crossing. Repeatedly stopping and asking for 'Vietnam?' all the gesturing and pointing we encountered suggested we were going the right way. So we continued to the next village. When we arrived it was a ghost town. Hankerchief sized flags flapped in the wind off every balcony lining the street. Although it was only 2pm everything had already shut down in preparation for New Year's Eve celebration that evening and the gutter was lined with red tissue from used fireworks lit by teenagers keen to start the party early.

The road ended abruptly at a gate that was firmly shut flanked by two equally shut and unmanned guard booths. On the other side of the gate a Vietnamese flag waved gently in the wind. So it seemed that this was the border and it was firmly closed. Bugger. Tet lasts until 8 February so did this mean that the border might not be open till then? We were crestfallen. We had psyched ourselves up about reaching Vietnam by that afternoon and suddenly we were faced with either staying in this village or worse still if we couldn't find anywhere open we would have to backtrack to Pingming, the last city we passed through about 13 km away. While we pondered this a man pulled up in a swanky 4x4. We hopefully pointed to the word border in our phrasebook feeling too despondent to even attempt to pronounce it. He pointed at the gate we were standing by, vigorously wagging his finger and shaking his head. Then he pointed back the way we had just cycled nodding vigorously. A glimmer of hope. It did seem a bit weird that there were no signs here at all. Perhaps the border is open after all and we are just in the wrong place. So we backtracked to the 3km turning and took the other fork road. Happily 10 minutes later we cycled through the arches of the friendship pass which marks the overland border between china and vietnam (although it is a bit of a gimmick for tourists as the actual border is another 500 metres away.

Quite a stressful and difficult end to our travels in China - adjectives that characterise many of our experiences in the country. It turned out that the border we attempted to cross was for goods rather than people. Very confusing for us but I suppose most travellers arrive at border crossings by bus or train and are therefore deposited in the right place rather than fumbling around trying to work it out from intuition and nonexistent or undecipherable road signs.

'Vietnam is so much better than China!' Rob exclaimed.
I stared at him as we cycled two abreast towards Lang Son, the border city 18 km away.
'But we have only been here for ten minutes!'
'I know. But I just have a good feeling about it'.

I hate it when Rob's wildly tenuous claims are right but so far it looks like his 'cyclist's intuition' is spot on. Despite arriving woefully underprepared as Vietnam was not on our original itinerary (we had no map, no guidebook, no phrasebook and no local currency) a couple of hours before Vietnam went into shut down for a week everything has been so easy and the hospitality we have received has been unparalleled.

We had been warned that everything in all cities and villages would be closed so as we expected our search for a restaurant for dinner in Lang Son was fruitless. When we returned empty stomached to the family run hotel we were staying in (we were the only guests) they insisted on preparing us some dinner in their kitchen including traditional food for Tet. A key dish is apparently some kind of spam but it looks and tastes more like Whiskers, but we were starving and wolfed most of it down. They did the same again for breakfast - thankfully spam-free though(!) and flatly refused to take payment for either meal. Infact as we were loading our panniers they approached us with two little red envelopes as a gift for New Year containing 30,000 Dong. First time we've ever been to a hotel that has given US money.

We decided to continue with the only plan we had which was to head south so we set off towards Halong Bay. No map but Rob had ingeniously taken a series of pictures of google maps on the computer screen in the hotel to get us through the next 2 days (175 km) of cycling. Our experiences of the generosity of the Vietnamese as we passed through villages on the way down to the coast were frequent and overwhelming. Each time we stopped for a meal or a snack enquiring where we might find somewhere with food as most places were shut we were ushered into a family's front room and they prepared banquets for us - whether they were eating or not.


We didn't pay for a meal for three days. Only once was anything requested from us in return when our dinner hosts in An Chau (where we stopped for the night) asked us to do some English songs on their karaoke machine so we literally were singing for our supper. Every meal time the spam made an appearance, chicken feet were also a regular feature as were noodles and this delicious vegetable that looks like a cross between a mushroom and an artichoke. We have also been regularly sampling the rice wine which tastes like grappa. On the second day we stopped for a late breakfast at about 10.30am and our host tried to pour us a beer each despite our protestations that we were cycling and had another 60km to go and poured us 2 rice wines each before we resorted to hiding our shot glasses. Kids and adults alike seem quite excited to see tourists travelling by bike and we had endless greetings of enthusiastic 'hello! hello! hellos!' that echoed around us as we cycled past. At quite a few points over 2 days we had a motorbike convoy with a few groups of teenagers and at one drink stop the shopkeeper was so intrigued that she asked to have a go on mine - I forgot to show her where the brakes were but luckily she didn't set off too fast.

mariana 007

mariana 007

The cycling has been incredibly enjoyable and varied. On the first day the road was amazingly smooth apart from one section of about 10km that was so bad it looked like a volcano had erupted over it as there were rocks and boulders everywhere.

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Our second day of cycling took us through amazing mountainous scenery - green and wild with barely any traffic on the road. We are assuming it can't usually be this empty as apart from the teenagers on motorbikes we have literally only seen about 10 cars. I'm sure this will change after Tet.

It will be quite interesting to spend a few days in Halong. We are quite keen to relax and unwind spending a couple of days by the sea especially after the cold of China. As Halong is one of the main tourism destinations in Vietnam, nominated as one of the LPs 'top picks', it will be quite interesting to see how mass tourism is served up Vietnam style and our individual responses to it. On one hand we are quite looking forward to having a conversation in English with someone other than each other as we haven't seen a tourist for well over a week and it will definitely be good to see some of the 'sights' in Vietnam as well as enjoying the journey through it. It is balancing that up against the trappings of tourism that will inevitably come with it like hiked up prices. Rob gets less frazzled with bargaining and haggling - I find it quite tedious quite quickly - so it will be interesting to see what the next couple of days bring.

Posted by mrs lewis 19:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

pedalling out of the cold

overcast 11 °C

You might be able to tell from Rob's last blog post that the bad weather in China - particularly the lack of sunshine - is starting to wear us down a bit. Every morning we hopefully draw the (often slightly mouldy) hotel curtains at about 7.30am to be greeted by dull grey sky and a cold blast of air if we are crazy enough to open the window. From Tanluo (the 'shit town with no redeeming features') we had initially planned to cycle for 2 days to get to the Detian Waterfalls, a transnational waterfall (between China and Vietnam) that is meant to be quite beautiful - it is the image used on the back of a 20 yuan note and on there is looks pretty good! However when we got up in the cold and saw grey sky again we made a snap decision that we weren't going to be able to spend another 2 days cycling through fairly bland scenery to stay in another tiny village with an unhygienic and cold hotel - instead we were going to head for the border crossing to Vietnam as quickly as we could.

To get to the next decent sized town en route to the border we were going to have to cycle 110 km to Chongzuo so we set off straight after our breakfast feed of youtiao and soya milk. For the first 25 km through Fushu and Zhongdong the roads were pretty bad - very dusty and bumpy so we were struggling to go at a decent speed. Things picked up a bit after about 11am. The roads were smoother and flat and banana plantations gave way to sugar cane fields, as far as the eye could see, and as it was less misty we could also enjoy the karst mountain scenery. Although we still couldn't see the sun it was warm enough to take our gloves and hats off for the first time while cycling and the day passed the breath test as we spent the entire day not being able to see our breath for the cold. Things were looking up!

We pulled into Chongzuo at about 6pm, pretty tired and in desperate need of a good shower. The responsibilities we have individually taken on since our trip started have developed organically according to our strengths. As Rob definitely has a more discerning eye for a good hotel it has naturally fallen to him to pick out our sleeping spot for the night when we pull into town while I 'guard' the bikes. Usually we pick the one that looks the nicest from the outside (although appearances are misleading as the facade of the building is usually the best bit, masking a shabbier interior). Anyway, Rob marched assertively into a decent looking hotel smack opposite the station. Five minutes later he reappeared 'It was alright but I think we can do better for that price' (a tenner). In hindsight it seems that we have been spoilt by our hotel experiences in Hezhou and Zhaoqing as four hotels and one hour later we slunk back to the original hotel. We had done the rounds of pretty much every hotel in Chongzuo (we should be on commission from the lonely planet!) and they were all pretty grim - particularly the bathrooms - and they were all about the same price. Back at the first hotel they gave us a room, but they took pleasure in telling us that they had let out the last double room ten minutes earlier so if we still wanted a room it would have to be a twin. Penance for procrastinating!

We got up early again and set off for a short day after our long cycle the previous day. So far most of our cycling days have been 'journey days' rather than 'destination days' so we decided to visit one of the few tourist sites in Chongzuo county: a leaning pagoda - apparently one of only 18 worldwide! Including our getting lost kilometres it was a 10km round trip to the pagoda that was perched precariously on a rocky outcrop in the middle of Phoenix lake. Although it was very well signposted (in English!) from the city centre there was no sign - not even one in chinese - at the actual turn off so we sailed past it, ending up by a sugar factory. Eventually after numerous attempts at asking for directions we found it. One of our best excursions in China, we were chauffered over to the pagoda on a lovely gentleman's houseboat. We did try to converse with him but didn't get very far... perhaps we were a bit ambitious when we tried to enquire about how the pagoda came to be leaning....

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We left the pagoda by mid morning heading for Ningming for what we thought would be an easy day but turned out to be one of the most punishing days of cycling yet. 10km after leaving Chongzuo we started climbing - going through the hills where we would spend the rest of the day, relentleessly going up and down. Although the gradients were initially quite gentle (they got steeper later) there were no sections of road that were flat for longer than 200 metres. The morning was pretty exhausting and we didn't pull in for lunch until about 2.30pm - into a nameless town as it wasn't on our map. Apart from a witnessing a frenzied card game there was not much there - the only cafe/restaurant in the town didn't have toilets and didn't serve tea and the only shop in town didn't sell coke (not a bad thing in principle but on a practical level it was inconvenient as it deprived us for a much needed sugar hit!).

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After lunch the roads got bad, then very bad. Better for the last 15 km as we approached Ningming where we would stay for a rest day as both of us were getting knee pain from all the hill work. Ningming is quite a small town and not unpleasant. Unlike most Chinese towns and cities we have been to it does seem to have a 'centre'. The buildings are generally rectangular concrete slabs but many of them have very intricately decorated facades and frontages.

As we will be leaving China in a couple of days after only 2 weeks here we wanted to take our rest day to explore the area before heading over the border. Only 15 km from Ningming are ancient murals on the cliff of Mount Huashan drawn by the Zhuang people about 2,000 years ago. Nice and local to where we are staying and perfect for our rest day. We woke up to rain and a drop in temperature back to about 8 degrees. A short trip on a louis vuitton upholstered rickshaw to the murals which were lovely (although we did spend about half an hour arguing over the price and Rob got quite irate that we couldn't get any tea to drink in the freezing cold!).

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So our time in China has been quite a mixed bag. We plan to head back into Yunnan in about a month hopefully when it warms up and it will be interesting to see how it compares to our experiences so far. Tomorrow is chinese new year and also the day we plan to cross the border into Vietnam heading for the warmth so our future blog posts will hopefully contain fewer obsessive rants about weather!

Posted by mrs lewis 05:50 Archived in China Tagged cycling cold karst dusty language_barrier Comments (1)

china video

We were unable to upload this video while we were in China due to most websites with anything but pro-china content being banned. This short clip was filmed when we were still relatively upbeat!


China video

Posted by roblewis 00:37 Archived in China Comments (1)

Yangshuo to Tanluo

overcast 7 °C

Our cycling days in china so far go something like this:

1. Wake up feeling very cold and stay in bed for 20 minutes before getting up and putting on all our clothes.
2. Go to breakfast and eat some steamed buns, dough sticks, warm soy milk, tea, sometimes a boiled egg (cooked in tea)
3. Go back to the hotel, get changed and get cycling (wearing most of our clothes ontop of our lycra - thid is not a modesty thing)
4. Cycle till lunch occasionally glancing up at the sky to see if there is any chance of the sun making an appearance (never)
5. Eat lunch at a random shack of a restuarant in some dead end dirty, dusty town. Communicate that we want some of the noodles in chicken soup but without all the bits of pigs head in them. A crowd of about 20 people have usually crowded around us to watch us eat in what seems to be their most entertaining event of the day.
6. Cycle through some pretty karst scenery on dirty dusty roads till about 5 when we will arrive in another dusty town. Find the best looking hotel (usually the one with the most obscene amount of marble in the lobby) and check in. Rooms in such an establishment as this will usually cost 8-10 pounds. Drink some tea. shower. find a decentish looking restuarant and eat a LOT of food. This is great not only because we are usually famished but because the Chinese sure can cook. The street food is particulary good. Definitely my favourite part of the day.
7. Wander round the dirty dusty town remarking how dirty and dusty it is before returning to the hotel.

Anyway, back to matters of business...

We arrived in Yangshuo after 7 days on the bike. The cold weather was beginning to take its toll on seemingly everything; my gear cables were frayed rendering me down to 6 usable ones (it was too cold to attempt fixing this anywhere we stayed), our GPS refused to work, and i was coming down with a nasty cold. We checked into a hotel and pondered our next move. we needed to get somewhere warmer and fast. After a day of eating some western food and drinking ginger tea in some of the many touristy places in Yangshuo, and chatting to the first westerners we have met in China, we decided to change our route which was originally going to be heading west towards Yunnan province. South was the only option to get some warmer weather so after bagging ourselves a couple of massages, we jumped on a bus to Nanning, 400km south. We seemed to have bagged the last 2 tickets on the bus and were unable to sit together so mariana sat up front whilst i was on the back row. Mariana had a particularly pleasant journey with the lady next to her using the adjascent bin as a spitting receptacle for her and a toilet for her 3 children - it was a rather smelly affair to say the least.

Nanning was another big Chinese city with skyscrapers galore. the scale at which the chinese are building these cities has to be seen to be believed. It's almost as if they are mobilising for war with every able resource (human and natural) being thrown into all manner of building projects. This brings me onto some sweeping generalisations about things that the chinese love - well there are over a billion of them!!!

1. Building. you name it they will build it. Favourites include massive skyscraper, damns and roads.
2. spitting. everywhere in anything.
3. Shouting at each other for no apparent reason.
4. Smoking (our waiters were once smoking whilst they served us our food)
5. Playing computer games - imagine walking into an internet cafe with 200 people all playing computer games
6. honking their horns. this is incessent and get pretty tedious. it doesn't matter what vehicle they are approaching the chinaman will always hoot at least 5 times using what appear to be the subwoofers of vehicle horns. This seems to me to be the equivalent of walking down the street shouting "Me, me, me, me, me!!!!!"
7. Mass extraction of all available resources, primarily in order to facilitate number 1 (building). This includes destruction of large sections of the country. As there are no apparent regulations on activities of any kind to protect local people of the environment, this is pretty relentless and very depressing.
8. Chopping up bits of pig on the side of the road. This is happening every 20 metres along an average high street. I guess its more interesting than having a Boots, next to a WH Smith, next to a KFC.

Anyway, back to the travelling... Nanning is an ok place but has an awesome food market where we ate dinner twice. All manner of animals and vegetables are displayed including crocdile, toad and numerous live birds such as sparrows.
Another thing of note about Nanning was the sheer number of people. We spent a lot of time wandering round feeling like we were leaving a football match. The Nanningians love their electric bikes with thousands of them everwhere. These have totally taken over from bicycles which are now seen as something you only use if you can't afford an electric one which is a bit sad.
The plan was now to continue south towards Vietnam in search of warmer weather so after obtaining our visas we headed south east along a very bumpy road - road quality is very variable in China with some being fantastic and others resembling a WW1 battelfield. We spent a couple of hours in an old town called Yangmei which was pleasant enough but not a patch on Hangyao as very little had been done in the way of preservation. We then cycled another 20km through miles and miles of really depresing bannana plantations before reaching the shittest town yet. I dont know the name of this place but it doesn't really matter, it had no redeeming features. Whatsmore, the weather was still really cold (7 degress in the day and 3 degrees at night). This conversation seemed to sum up the situation:

Rob (looking up at the grey sky trying to feel his toes): Well, it could be worse. Its cold and grey but it could be raining.
Mariana: It could be even worse than that. It could be freezing and raining.

... and i thought we were supposed to be on holiday. Evasive action needed to be taken before we were consumed by an all pervading misery.

Posted by roblewis 04:49 Archived in China Comments (0)

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