A Travellerspoint blog

St David's Day - The Vietnamese trip begins

Reboot in Hong Kong

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I was going to create a new blog to cover our travels in Vietnam but that seemed like a lot of trouble for a three week trip so I decided to resurrect the old 'train' blog. I last touched this almost a year ago. The title is still vaguely relevant - we will be taking a couple of rail journeys. However, most of our long distance travel will be by plane. One thing about this arrangement does concern me. Writing blogs on long train journeys is easy. You have lots of time to reflect and compose. That won't be the case this time around. But I won't lack inspiration. We visited a card shop in Dunedin last month and I noticed a card showing a New Yorker cartoon. It was of two dogs talking. One said to the other, "I used to have my own blog, but now I have returned to just mindless barking and howling". I'm sure it was some sort of sign.

We arrive in Hong Kong at 5.45, ten hours after leaving Auckland. Our flight to Hanoi leaves at 14.30. The airport is beautiful (and familiar) but we don't appreciate it. We have eight hours to kill and we've seen Hong Kong. Monica dons her eye mask and ear plugs and stretches out across two small seats. Airport seating is designed to stop this sort of thing. She didn't sleep last night and has yet to capture the holiday mood. I buy some Vietnamese currency: one pound is worth thirty three thousand dong. I purchase millions of dong. I sense there's going to be trouble ahead with this. Monica abandons all attempts to sleep and casually posts extended emails to her friends and family (she should be writing this stuff, not me).

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A half-empty Vietnamese Airlines Airbus deposits us at Hanoi airport. This is not a beautiful place - though not as ugly as Heathrow. We are met by our hotel driver who is embarrassed in front of the other drivers when Monica asks to photograph him. It turns out his name is Gwyn - though that may not be how he spells it. There is no evidence of Welsh ancestry - mention of St David's Day draws a blank stare. The journey to our hotel takes an hour. Hanoi's roads are treacherous. They are packed with people driving scooters - often whole families on a single bike. Car drivers are obliged to avoid them (I think) as the scooters weave in and out of them. Scooter drivers either have a death wish or think they are immortal. Gwyn drives like a shark among minnows. At Monica's request, he teaches us the Vietnamese for Yes, No, and Thankyou. I would prefer he kept his mind on the road. We pass safely through the metropolitan sprawl of Hanoi into the centre. It is mostly low-rise, poor and run down.

In the evening we decide to visit the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. There is a performance at 18:30, and we hope to get tickets. The theatre is on the northern edge of Lake Hoan Kiem, about twenty minutes walk from our hotel in the historic Quarter of town. We have to cross a number of roads to get there. The traffic has not abated, nothing stops. There is a technique to crossing streets. You simply take a deep breath and step off the pavement (or what serves as one). Walk steadily to the other side, not changing speed or direction. Trust the scooters to take evasive action. They've had lots of practice. We are employing the skills we acquired in Ulaan Bator, and at least there's no ice. I don't know what the road accident statistics are for Vietnam and I don't want to know.

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We arrive at 18:29 and get almost the last two tickets for the show. The tickets cost about three pounds each for seats in the front row. Amazing. The audience is almost exclusively Western - there are lots of buses outside, transport from larger posher hotels than ours. The show is enchanting. There is a small orchestra of traditional musicians, and a couple of girls expert in Van and Quo ho singing - recognised by UNESCO as " an immaterial cultural heritage of humanity" - I read the brochure. The puppets perform in a large pool, enacting scenes from rural life and Vietnamese myth. There are puppet famers, fishermen, fish and buffalow, and dragons expertly controlled by unseen puppeteers until they break cover at the finale. An "authentic Vietnamese experience that maybe few bother with now, kept alive by tourists. I felt priviledged to be there.

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We dine in a restaurant near our hotel. Its few customers are outnumbered by the charming staff. The food is great. In our room in the hotel HBO is playing with Vietnamese subtitles.

Posted by mikemonica 03:14 Comments (6)

Day 36

The last entry

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I was reading my fortune today in the Hong Kong Standard: “Hong Kong's biggest circulation English Daily”. This isn't based on astrology but on the guiding principles of Chinese metaphysics, in particular San Kei which is a form of yin fung shui. Kerby Kuek, an expert on this sort of thing says, the idea is to tap into future wealth and health. But one must bear in mind that this method is like a credit card that gives you an advance on future wealth and health for present gratification. Bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this.

It seems to me that we have been applying San Kei for the past five weeks or so. We've tapped into our future good luck by using up so much now. We've had excellent weather throughout – blue skies nearly every day, no rain. We've been able to do most things we wanted to do, and there have been no hitches in our complicated travel plans. We're bound to pay for this in the future, according to Kerby: in the immediate future as far as the rain is concerned – we fly tomorrow to the Land of the Great White Cloud. There's a reason for that name.

We intend to spend the day like proper Hong Kong tourists. No more slipping off to quiet beaches or harbours. We're going where the crowds go, the open air markets. We catch the tube to Yau Ma Tei station and make our way to the Ladies Market, recommended as a place where you can buy clothes (who knew you could get designer labels so cheaply), jewellery (we're experts now on jade and pearls), toys, bags, and so much more. I've discovered the secret of bargaining. If the seller knows you don't really want something, they'll lower the price until it is irresistible. If you are interested they can see it in your eyes and then they are less amenable. The result is you have great bargains for stuff you really didn't want, and wonder why you bought, while you pay over the odds for something you did want. We emerge from the market with a bag-full of both categories. The concern now is how to get them into our already overburdened cases.

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Our plan is to tick one of the boxes in the 'ten things to do in Hong Kong'. This is to have tea on the sixty-sixth floor of the Hopewell Centre. When we exit the lift on floor 66, our ears popping after a speedy ascent, we are confronted by a polite security guard who asks what we want. We've come for tea in R66, we say. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed for renovations, we are told. Come back in six months. It's a long way to come for afternoon tea. By way of compensation we head down the hill to Central Plaza, another skyscraper. It has a free public viewing area on the forty-sixth floor. This marble floored space surrounding the huge lift shaft is as big as a ball room. The views over the harbour are magnificent. We've been higher on the Peak, but this almost seems higher because of the immediacy of the other buildings and sheerness of the drop to the ground. We return to our hotel and find our own view is better than all. We can see the whole harbour, and make out people in the parks playing tennis and visiting the Hong Kong Flower Festival (we'll visit that tomorrow).

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In the evening we tick another box by taking a night ride by tram along the north of the island, from our base at Tin Hau to Kennedy Town and back. We take up our usual position at the front on the top deck. From Causeway Bay to past Central the streets are lit like daylight. At ten o'clock at night everyone is still on the streets. The shops are still open. It seems this city never sleeps. When we return to our hotel we leave the lights off and admire the wonderful night view once more.

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This is my last entry in the blog. It seems to me that it lost its credibility as a travel blog once we ceased our journey by train, so now is the time to call it a day. It has been fun to record our observations, and I'd like to thank those who commented, and apologise to those who had problems doing so. We will be flying out to New Zealand on Saturday to spend a month with Sinead and family, and are looking forward to that country's wide open spaces and clean air.

Posted by mikemonica 22:09 Comments (5)

Day 35

Monica and Mike scale the heights

Having missed an opportunity to go paddling yesterday, today we decide to go south, to visit one of the small beaches that run from Aberdeen to Stanley. But first we take the tram to Victoria Peak. The Peak, as it's known locally, is 552 metres high and provides a popular location for viewing Hong Kong. It says in my guidebook that fitness fanatics can walk up the steep hill - I hide this information from Monica. The Peak Tram, really a funicular railway, climbs the hill almost vertically in places. Our Oyster cards mean we don't have to queue for the tram like everybody else but are ushered straight on. We feel like locals.

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The tram eventually comes to a halt at the Peak Tower, a large multi-storey building, essentially a shopping mall with souvenir shops and restaurants. On the top of this building is the Sky Terrace which gives unparalleled views of the city and harbour. Everyone photographs the view, and themselves in the view, but really you need a cine camera to do it justice. We take our own souvenir shots and leave for the circuit walk of the Peak.

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This walk through the forest at the top of the mountain is an easy stroll around the peak. The path is well constructed and built originally by Victorian engineers by the look of it. It takes about 75 minutes to complete the circuit allowing time for photographing scenery and eating our snack. This is a quiet oasis in the middle of the city. Few who made the journey to the Peak attempt the walk. Indeed most of the people we encounter appear to live around here: joggers, nannies pushing prams, and people walking their dogs. Only the very rich can afford to live here.

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We take the 15 bus down from the Peak to Central terminus. Bus 70 runs from there taking a route through the mountains via a tunnel to the largest separate town on the island, Aberdeen. This is a working harbour, but one surrounded by multicoloured tower blocks. From here buses run all along the south coast. We catch the number 73 to Repulse Bay where we know there is a beach. As on all our bus journeys we sit upstairs at the front, like children. Before we get to Repulse we spot a quiet deserted beach at Deepwater Bay. It is late afternoon and and there's not a soul about apart from the lifeguards. There is one in each of the four concrete 'bay watch' towers. We spot a guy doing a lazy backstroke. He's the only person in the water. Was ever anyone safer? Monica certainly feels safe enough to paddle at last in the South China Sea. Another ambition realised.

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We discover a paved walkway which winds its way around the coast to Repulse Bay. This is heavily built up, unlike Deepwater. Large apartment blocks dominate the shoreline. The centrepiece of this development is the Repulse Bay Hotel, the twenty-first century incarnation of its old colonial predecessor - the original hotel was built in 1916 according to some narrative pictures in the Gents' toilets. We treat ourselves to a couple of mojitos in the hotel bar which is redolent of 1930's. At any moment, you expect Somerset Maugham to come wandering in wearing a smoking jacket. What is uncanny is that the walls, the mirrors, and the windows are all decorated with a cane motif almost identical to that in the picture we bought in Guilin.

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We catch the bus back to Aberdeen planning to eat at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant famed for its sea food. This is a gigantic, three storey Chinese junk which is lit up with thousands of lights once darkness falls. Free ferries are laid on to take customers to and from the restaurant. We eat on the outside of the second deck with a view of the harbour (actually, every view is of the harbour). We eat and drink more than we intended, and catch the bus home - maintaining the tradition of travelling by the most basic means possible, whilst living fairly lavishly once we arrive. It's not a tradition that will be sustained for much longer.

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Posted by mikemonica 08:53 Comments (0)

Day 34

A trip to Sai Kung

We wake to overcast, misty conditions and check the weather forecast. It's going to be cooler than yesterday for the rest of the week – 17 to 20 degrees, and heavy rain is predicted for Friday and Saturday. We decide to take advantage of the dry days to engage in outdoor activities, starting with today – a visit to the seaside. It is Monica's ambition to paddle in the South China Sea: ideally, what she wants is to run across an empty Chinese beach with her hair blowing in the breeze. She's seen too many shampoo adverts. We set off to achieve this ambition. Our first stop is our local MTR station, Tin Hau, where we buy a couple of Oyster cards. These cover travel on the metro, buses, trams, ferries, cable cars and even some shops. They're better than money. No need to queue or find the right change. Or communicate in Chinese.

We are leaving the city and heading for the fishing village of Sai Kung, on the Sai Kung Peninsula. Our guide book suggests taking the metro to Diamond Hill station and then switching to the number 92 bus which terminates at Sai Kung. The Hong Kong metro system, the MTR, must be the world's cleanest, most efficient, and easiest to use. Everything is well signposted: changing lines couldn't be easier – and we have two changes on our way to Diamond Hill. The 92 bus takes forty-five minutes to wind its way over the mountains and down to the fishing port of Sai Kung famed for its sea food restaurants.

The town has several piers and on one of these, I negotiate a boat trip around Kui Tsui, a small island offshore. We hope to land on one of the narrow beaches on the island, but this is not on the boat owner's agenda. He spends most of the journey on his mobile phone. Occasionally, he leaves his perch at the back of the sampan to engage in some ritual with fresh water at the front of the vessel, or to show me a piece of paper with the name of a local sight written on it e.g. the golf course on the adjacent island of Kau Sai Chau. Inevitably, Monica spots two wedding couples on a large launch and reverts to paparazzi mode. All she lacks is a telephoto lens.

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Our cruise takes an hour after which we explore the town's seafront, the central area of which comprises the famous restaurants with live fish and crabs in glass tanks outside their entrances. You pick what you want to eat from these displays and they're cooked on the spot. People even choose their live fish from the boats: the fisherman kills, guts, and sells the fish without leaving his boat.

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Monica graduates from photographing fish and crustaceans to photographing flowers in the Kwun Mun fishermen's village. The narrow alleys here, bordering the harbour are about as far away as you can get from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated regions in the world.

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On the way back we get off at Jordan Station on Nathan Road, Hong Kong's main shopping street, and head down towards the waterfront at the foot of the road. We want to visit the Avenue of Stars. This is a promenade commemorating Hong Kong's film industry, the world's third largest. It is where Hong Kong actors' hand prints in concrete are displayed, and there are film related statues for tourists to pose against. The centrepiece is a statue of Bruce Lee, popular with the Kung Fu enthusiasts.

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We are stopped by some schoolgirls who are completing a questionnaire on Tourism. They quiz Monica and complete their form. We ask them some questions. Where's the Avenue of Stars? They don't know. We happen to be on it. Where's the Bruce Lee statue? They don't know. It's about two hundred metres away along the promenade. What time is the Symphony of Light? Seven o'clock, we're told. It's eight o'clock, we establish. Time to find a restaurant.

After an excellent Vietnamese meal we return to see the show. The skyline of Hong Kong Island is beautiful, all the tall buildings are lit up. In truth, the light show adds little to the spectacle. Neon lights on the buildings and lasers flash on and off in accompaniment with some broadcast music. But it's like elephants dancing. There's no need for it. They are awesome enough without the tricks.

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We catch the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island. It costs about 20p to sit on the upper deck, and so we do. It is claimed this is the cheapest and most picturesque ferry ride in the world, and an endangered one: it runs at a loss. We take the ride before it vanishes forever.

Posted by mikemonica 20:42 Comments (0)

Day 33

We reach Hong Kong

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We arrive in Gangzhou Station at eight-forty, and make our way out onto the large crowded concourse. There is a degree of organisation, which was missing in Xian, and we join a large patient queue for a taxi. We are struck by the heat of the sun at this hour of the morning. Trains for Hong Kong leave from another station some miles away: Gangzhou East. This is a modern station and it seems almost empty. The waiting area is like an airport terminal. We pass through security and exit checks and board a 'double-decker' train. As First Class passengers we travel in the upper deck. This is light years away from what we're used to.

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The train takes us to Hung Hom railway station in Kowloon, just over the water from our hotel on Hong Kong Island. We've made it. From now on we cease to be inter-continental rail travellers. We become boring tourists. For much of our trip we were relatively unusual. Not many Europeans were holidaying in Russia, Mongolia or even China when we were there. But now we are just part of the crowd. No more trains. Hung Hom is our eighteenth and last station, this KCR train our twelfth – and only third non-sleeper.

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As we queue for passport control at the station, I notice a number of the attendants are wearing masks. There are notices all around describing the risks of unprotected coughing and sneezing. The Hong Kong people are paranoid about the risks posed by flu epidemics. The recent SARS outbreak here was a disaster for the tourist industry. I'm coughing repeatedly as I digest this information. When I'm not coughing, I'm sneezing. At any moment I expect a SWAT team to snatch me and take me to a decontamination unit. Before that can happen, Monica and I are removed from the general queue, and directed to the 'check-out' for diplomats and senior citizens. They must think I'm a diplomat, I say. Right, says Monica.

Our Hotel is in the Hong Kong district of Causeway and we enjoy a harbour view from our eighteenth floor room. We also overlook Victoria Park, one of the largest pieces of greenery in the City. There is a large flower show being conducted in a section of the park, visible from our window.

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When we've freshened up, we explore the park, and take a stroll along the harbour front. In British parks old men walk their dogs and play bowls. In Chinese parks, they exercise, and play Mah-jong.

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We return to investigate the swimming pool on the thirty-second floor. It's not a big pool but it does enjoy an incredible view. Though Hong Kong is more expensive than the rest of China, it is still possible to eat cheaply and well here. We have an excellent Thai meal in a local restaurant for less than £15. It is evening as we return to the hotel and the temperature is dropping after a daytime peak of twenty-five degrees. We may have to buy more suitable clothes.

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Posted by mikemonica 09:01 Comments (1)

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