St Petersburg (trans-siberian)

We arrived in St Petersburg at the end of May. This was our final stop on our 28 day trans-Siberian/Russian adventure. Our train arrived at 4am and we quickly arrived to our hostel and went to sleep. The thing that surprised us when we arrived was that it was already light outside at 4am, we would later find out that we arrived during the season of “white nights” in St Petersburg- it never gets completely dark, and it only starts to darken at night at around 9pm. It is very confusing, especially for people (us) who had changed time zones 4 times in the last 24 days!

We thought we would book ourselves into a 10 bed room at the hostel at a “party” hostel, obviously it was cheap, but having only spoken to each other for the last 24 days we were looking to socialize. The Cuba hostel was in a great location to all the major sites in the heart of the city. The room was social in the afternoons, and at night the 9 boys in the room created a loud symphony of snoring (Chris was a real team player here!).

It was chilly, pink nose season here

We explored some the major sites. A lot of these we saw on a free walking tour with a local guide through the city-checking out the river, statues, monuments, and museums along the way.

This is Peter the Great making a boat, one of his many trades, apparently he had several, including being a dentist!

St Petersburg is named after the Tsar Peter the Great who fought a war against Sweden to capture this area of land and the city, giving Russia access to the Baltic sea via the gulf of Finland and the ability to develop a ferocious navy. Back in the day (17th century) Russia had a “serf” population who were basically peasents who belonged to a noble family, like slaves with a bit more autonomy. These serfs were conscripted by Peter to come to his new conquered land and to build him an european city from the swapland. The conditions were terrible and tens of thousands of these people died during the construction- they call St Petersburg the city built on bones.

Peter the Great on a big horse on a big rock
We did not pack for things to be this cold!

The sight we most enjoyed was the Hermitage museum which we explored over two days (a few hours at a time) guided by a very handy English audioguide. The Hermitage was probably the most impressive museum/art gallery either of us have been to with the most impressive paintings, and at least one painting of every famous artist you have ever heard of. We were very interested to find out a lot of the painting were seized from German private collection at the end of WWII.

Posing by the hermitage photobombed by the wind

We were also lucky enough to be here during the 316th birthday of St Petersburg city. We were told by locals to expect something big, we were not disappointed. At midnight the drawbridges over the river lifted upwards to 90 degree angles to create screens that were filled with projected images of St Petersburg, followed by dances on cables in full LED suits flipping and swinging down the bridge/screen. Next came the man in the white suit playing electric violin as men in LED suits on water powered jet packs flew over the river with fire exploding out of their flame throwers, then of course the fireworks. It was pretty spectacular.

For those worried that we may not have been able to satisfy our new kebab addiction we picked up in Moscow- fear not! We found a little restaurant by our hostel called Pita’s which did delicious falafel and meat filled kebabs (visited twice).

Our last day we went to Peterhof, the former summer palace for the royal russian family.

The Grand Cascade (pictured above) forms the centrepiece of Peterhof. The three waterfalls, 67 fountains and 37 golden statues had even the most nonchalant tourists wide-eyed with amazement. Centre to all of it stands a golden statue of Samson ripping the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great North War over the Gulf of Finland. 

Russia was awesome, but after 28 days we were ready to leave to try something completely different. We are heading to central asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) to do explore the old silk road territory, previously held soviet states, deserts, dictator run countries, yurts and nomads. Let’s do some intrepid travelling!

Shanghai and Beijing

At Captain’s Bar in Shanghai

Shanghai

We took the bullet train from Huangshan to Shanghai without much issue. We stayed in a hostel that was by a metro station making it easy to get to. The first night on arriving we had some beers and shisha at the hostel bar then heading into the city to see the bund.

Shanghai (上海) , with a population of more than 23 million (with over 9 million migrants), is the largest and traditionally the most developed metropolis in Mainland China.

We went and had dinner at Captain’s bar overlooking the bund- it was a wet night but we had a really good time. Unfortunately later that night we couldn’t find the kobo’s (our ereaders we had been using during the trip), we must have left them on the train. This was a real life disaster.

The next day, Issy felt a bit ill (read hungover again), we needed to get some food into her. We had heard of a Shanghai food specialty sesame, chili noodles, and found a cheap restaurant with a Michelin recommendation (not a star but still). It was delicious, but the restaurant was quite interesting.

It was a very popular local restaurant were you paid for what you wanted on entering and got given the receipt with your order, you then had to stand beside tables of people eating there food waiting for somewhere to sit- like waiting for a go on the swings at the playground. Only once you had your seat would the waitress come and take your receipt and bring you noodles. As soon as you had finished eating, you had to give up your seat to someone else vying for a table to be able try these rich, creamy, spicy sesame noodles.

A lot of the rest of the day was spent trying to locate our kobos, we were very intent on getting them back as in less than a week we would be getting on the trans-Siberian railway and we saw having a book/ereader essential for this travel so we don’t go insane/get annoyed at each other sitting for so long on trains. I won’t bore you with the details but long story short we didn’t get them back. We were very sad.

We tried to save the day with a nice evening- and save the day we did! We went on a river cruise through Shanghai and it was amazing. See the photos below:

The next day we went to the Yu Garden (great!), and tried to go up the shanghai observatory but it was too foggy so we couldn’t, but on a positive side we did get to see the Shanghai Ball tower upclose.

We left on the overnight train to Beijing at 7:30pm that night. 

Beijing

In Beijing we stayed at a hostel called Sunrise hostel- the price of accommodation in Beijing was more than other cities we stayed in and our $50 a night room was actually pretty average (small and a bit smelly). We went to Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen square the next day- boy it was BUUSSSY. Domestic tourism is popular in China and it seemed everyone wanted to be in Tiananmen square to see Mao and the forbidden city. Mao mausoleum was interesting- no bags or cameras allowed, you had to shuffle through in a silent, orderly line to see Mao. I did a bit of reading before we went and found out that Mao himself had apparently wanted to be cremated however the man that succeeded him in power decided a mausoleum where he could be put on show indefinitely was in order. Mao was apparently embalmed by his personal doctor who had little experience in it- rumor has it he didn’t do a very good job and that it is in fact a wax statue of Mao in the glass coffin rather than Mao himself. The Chinese man in charge of construction of the mausoleum etc wrote a book about it which was promptly banned in China.

That evening we went out to a popular hutong (a neighborhood in Beijing made of one story buildings with small avenues). It was busy with tourist shops, bars, street snacks, and restaurants set along a river. We found ourselves in an amazing hot pot restaurant and proceeded to eat until we thought we might explode. P

We were lucky enough to find kindles that we could buy in Beijing for our train trip, which made us very happy.

We started our trip on the trans-mongolian train early the next day, loaded with instant noodles, chips, and chocolate…

Huangshan

Red as the strawberries we picked in Yangshou. They should call these the red mountains, not the yellow mountains!

Huangshan

We travelled from Yangshou to Guilin to Shanghai to Huangshan (more than 36 hours of travelling to get to our destination via taxi then bus then another bus then overnight train then subway train then bullet train then bus). We stayed in the Koala Youth Hostel in Huangshan town- it was a cool little hostel with a pool table and dart board in the lobby and helpful staff. The reason we travelled here was to see Huangshan.

To directly quote the wikipedia page: “Huangshan (Chinese: 黄山, literal meaning: Yellow Mountain) is a mountain range in southern Anhui province in eastern China. “The area is well known for its scenery, sunsets, peculiarly-shaped granite peaks, Huangshan pine trees, hot springs, winter snow, and views of the clouds from above. Huangshan is a frequent subject of traditional Chinese paintings and literature, as well as modern photography. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of China’s major tourist destinations.” TLDR: it’s beautiful.

We had planned to book somewhere to stay on the mountain with the help of our hostel, however without realizing we had ended up at this popular tourist sight in tourist high season on a weekend i.e. everywhere was booked up! Our hostel offered us an alternative-  camping on the mountain. Our hostel rented us a tent, two sleeping bags, and two floor mats for our trip (for the equivalent of $26 NZD). Phew. Now with our alternative accommodation sorted we were ready to go.

On arriving to the base of the mountain we showed our drivers licenses hoping they might be misidentified as student cards, and happily we got our discounted tickets saving ourselves $20 each! We chose to walk up the mountain with our gear rather than take the cable car, it was all stairs for about 2.5 hours uphill. We were sweating like a cold bottle of Tsingtao beer straight out of the fridge on a hot day.

We must have walked up thousands of steps in the park. Chris was not bananas above the incline here.
I’m sweaty and tired. I need a snickers bar.

Exhausted, at the summit of the mountain, we headed to the area that the hostel staff had suggested we set up our camp. We were surprised to find the hard ground that the hostel staff had described was actually concrete, and the number of tents! By the end of the night there must have been 40 tents out on the concrete around us!

Setting up our own Hungshan Hilton
Eating chips in the tent.

The next day we woke up at 4:30am- you read that right Chris and Issy woke up at 4:30am- along with the rest of our camp to go and see the sunrise at the top of a nearby summit. We quickly packed up our tent etc and set out. Clearly not an original thought as there would have been about 200-300 people there trying to catch first light. It was a cloudy morning so sadly the sunrise was probably not worth the very early morning. We set off from the summit to walk through a nearby canyon- touted as being the most photogenic part of the park- this was true!

Unfortunately we had not eaten and had no food that morning so we slowly became hangry walking through the canyon.

Steps down into the canyon
The look of hunger and exhaustion , someone feed this man ASAP!

Blessed be, we found at the bottom of the canyon about 2 hours after we started our walk from the sunrise we found a cable car which would take us back to the top of the mountain- to food. 

We ate a muffin and had a sugary coffee each. And now we were ok again, but tired. A big walk the day before, a poor sleep on concrete, a very early start, another big walk after that, plus hangriness = Chris and Issy ready to head out of the park. It still took another 3 or so hours to walk out of the park which was mainly down stairs, we have a new appreciation for how hard it is to walk downstairs.

We realised on arriving back to the hostel that it was Easter Sunday, which means easter eggs back home. In China we couldnt find any chocolate eggs so we got alternatives- snickers for Issy, jelly lollies for chris (we figured after the last two days we could take the calorie hit easily). We made each other an easter egg hunt around our hostel room, see below for pictures:

The next day (after some relaxation and games of pool), we bought train tickets back to Shanghai and headed into the big city…

Yangshuo

Guilin

We flew from Lijiang to Guilin- on arriving to our hostel in Guilin we were blown away by the place. Our hostel had a beautiful floor top garden bar giving a 360 degree view of the city- intermixed between the buildings were large karst type mountains. We were exhausted arriving to Guilin but ended up having a great night as the hostel put on an outdoor movie- Boheminan Rhapsody- for us. It was awesome- CAN ANYBODY FIND MMEEEEEEEEE, SOMEBODY TOOOOOO… LOOOOOVVVVVEEEE! 

A picture I took in a state of pure happiness as Bohemian Rhapsody was starting on the big screen

Yangshuo

We booked a bamboo river boat tour through our hostel which would take us from Guilin and end in Yangshuo. The river trip was lovely, the bamboo boats have all been made of PVC-pipes (with a failed bamboo resemblance, ?painted blue for some reason) with little outboard motors on the back to withstand the strong currents on the river and I guess to make it more likely everyone gets there in one piece. It was good fun!

Yangshuo is a town with awesome karst scenery, beautiful mountains, rivers, caves, and temples as well as its laid back cafes and bars.

We stayed in a great hostel out of the main part of the city called Stone Bridge hostel.

The first evening there it rained like crazy, luckily for us it let up and we were able to bike into the town. Man we were shocked with what we found in town! When we arrived into Yangshou it seemed like quite a sleepy little town, but we found a very busy, loud, and bustling tourist centre of town. We tried lots of delicious foods here- spicy fried potatoes, spicy fried tofu, dumplings, extra large fries (imagine chips the size of a subway footlong sandwich, Chris couldn’t resist), Liquan beer (the local brew) enjoyed with some live music.

We spent the next day biking (on a push bike) around Yangshuo greater area- along the river, seeing the sights, going to the local park arcade and going on the bumper cars, and we went strawberry picking!

Strawbs- we thought it was berry fun!
Right after I whopped Chris in bumper carts
Country road, take me home, to the place I BELOONNG!

The next day we went even further afield on an electric bike and were able to see more of the karst landscape that the area is famous for. We climbed to the top of one of the hills in town for a better look of the area:

please stop taking my photo now.

Of note- we also tried Jack Fruit for the first time here- it was tasty. Like the flavour of a banana with a much much better texture. Would recommend.

Image result for holy jackfruit
This is jackfruit, most of them are about as big as your head, or bigger. (note this picture is from a quick google search of Jackfruit, we don’t own any small knives or fancy orange bowls)

Next we travel Huangshan mountains…

Tsingtao

A simple beer deserves simple sentences.

I give you Liquan:

Liquan is a beer. China is a country. Liquan is a beer from China. China has 22 provinces. Bottled in Guilin. Hops are lacking. Foam is ok. Taste is subjective. Liquan is acceptable. Hangover’s are honest. A billion people. No hand-drying facilities. Not one. God is dead.

A phenomenal beer deserves an eloquent rhapsody.

I give you nothing

 A shit beer deserves a shit yarn.

I give you Tsingtao.

Legend has it that ancient brewers in the east Tibetan mountains were trying to recreate the healing powers of dragon’s urine. They searched for thousands of years, experimenting, artists masquerading as gods. Fermented goat’s milk, bottled with the waters of a naturally carbonated spring, drawn only on the fourth moon after the birthday of the eldest remaining shoe in the region. The bark of the oolong tree, thrice passed through a hawks body.  Three and a half cups of high fructose corn syrup. (1)

The legend runs that the brew was mastered, and inscribed on a goat horn. Alas, in 1846, when trusted with the transport most important recipe of eastern antiquity, Richard Smith Esq. travelling on an overnight train got drunk. Smith, too inebriated to use the squatter properly fell over when the train hit a bump, losing the horn and his favourite trackpants to boot. On arrival to the brewery he sort of made it up and we have been left with the result today. (1)

The brew has remained largely unchanged since.

I recently spent some time in Yangshuo, prettiest town in all the world. I was lucky enough to lay eyes on the most gorgeous tall blonde in a currywurst stand. I was awe struck, dumbfounded. Then, as the locks fanned out, bouncing, as the owner glided around, currywurst in both hands. I waited with bated breath. It was released in a disappointed sigh. The hair belonged to a 55 year old skinny, tattooed German man (with a crippling Schwarzkopf addiction.

In short; good head, shit body, just like Tsingtao

Taste can vary depending on a number of things like vessel type, relative spice of whatever was just eaten, bottling location etc etc. Notably though, the hops are pretty good. It ends up being being a touch more bitter than most Asian style lagers. Sadly though, when all is said and done it’s about as middle of the road as a bus hurtling towards shanghai airport in rush-hour traffic.

Alcohol lacks a bit of enthusiasm. Its nearly there. So nearly. It’s kind of like a texting Go-Go girl. Yeah, she’s there. And yeah, If I can’t call swaying dancing, then I’ve never danced in my life. But deep down you know, a texting girl is a Slow-Slow, not a Go-Go. And a 4.3% is a Slow-Slow kind of beer.

Hangovers can be pretty bad, largely due to the bottle size. It’ll put you in the sort of intellectual state where you’d breeze through any type of cultural revolution unscathed.

All this being said, my memories of this beer marr my ability to be a fair arbiter of judgement. My heart aches for from the good times had for years in cheap ‘Sichuan’ restaurants, where mispronounced orders still make it to the table. It’s probably just reflux, but perhaps I’m a touch sentimental and think it’s a little better than it is.

This beer is taking over the world (not entirely on its own merit, but still…). Take the time to walk to your local bottle shop and grab yourself a jade box, crack the top, smash a plate of dumplings and enjoy a couple of bottles of world-famous dragon piss.

Rating:

6.5/10.

If this beer tried to jump Tiger leaping gorge, it wouldn’t make it. It would valiantly hit the other side of the gorge before the water, but it’s not making it.

Reference

Unknown et al. “A poorly translated history of the Naxi people” Overheard in a bar vol 6. 2019 pg 759-773.

Tsingtao at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger leaping gorge-ous!

Tiger Leaping gorge

Our flight from Hanoi to Kunming, China was uneventful, arriving in Kunming we were pretty confused when we couldn’t find our connecting flight number to take us to Lijiang. Yep, it was cancelled. Another flight was booked for the next day and we were put up in a hotel in Kunming city at 9.30pm- we had no Chinese money and no food so we went on a mission to sort this stuff out in the city. The next morning we woke at 4:30am to catch a bus back to the airport so we could catch our flight. On arrival to Lijiang via airport bus then taxi then 2 hour bus to a place called Qiaotau- we made it to the starting point of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is touted as home to one of the finest treks through some of the most naturally beautiful and diverse landscapes China has to offer. The trail runs high on the northern side of the gorge passing through quiet villages, shady forest, blustery precipice and terraced farmland. According to legend- a hunter chased a (delicious-looking) tiger through the gorge until they reached the narrowest point. The tiger found itself trapped between the hunter and the rushing river at the base of the gorge. Left with no choice, the tiger leapt the 25m (82 ft) gap across the gorge, escaping the hunter. Hence the name- Tiger leaping gorge.

The bottom of the gorge.

Arriving to Qiaotou we stayed in Jane’s Guest House- where an exhausted Chris napped for the rest of the afternoon, and Issy- having found out the guest house had the world’s cutest 3 month old puppy- spent the afternoon chasing around said puppy.

The next day we set out on our trek at a lazy 10:30am- it was a uphill start with gorgeous views of the gorge and mountains, arriving at a Naxi (local people of the region) guest house for a lunch of fried rice and veges. The next part of the trek had an even greater incline, it was at times soul destroying thinking you might be near the top then you see more winding path going further up. The views again were amazing: 

What a beautiful view, and a mountain! (I am the beautiful view)
Chris can’t tell if he is in Tiger leaping gorge or the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (mountain range extending along much of the length of New Zealand’s South Island)
Pretty happy to be here, working out how to use the camera self timer for photos!
Still more up hill climbing to go, did any one order one soul destroyed Issy?

We arrived in the late afternoon at Tea Horse guesthouse where we had booked a room for the night. It was a lovely spot.

The next day the path was pretty flat so it was an easier walk but continued to have the wicked views basically the whole way. We stopped at halfway house for a drink.

Half Way baby!

We arrived into the gorge by the river by the end of the day, and stayed at a guest house run a Tibetan family. We tried some Tibetan food for dinner: Butter tea (did not love this- tasted quite a lot like liquid salted butter), Yak cheese hot pot (also not a massive fan, it seemed to grow on Chris), Tibetan meat ball (Chris was very happy with these).

The next day we did a big walk back up into the northern side of the gorge, needless to say we got very lost- twice- and I panicked that we would miss our bus at 3.30pm so we bush-bashed our way off the ridges back to the road. To celebrate our survival we had some beers and yak cheese dumplings before getting the bus back to Lijiang.

Footage from our trip through the gorge!

Lijiang

Took the bus in the afternoon from the Gorge back to Lijiang. Lijiang was actually very cool!

The city is built around a famous old town, which apparently is some of the best preserved Qing Dynsaty architecture. The earliest recorded history of the city can be traced back to the Warring States Period (476 BC-221 BC), so it had lot of beautiful buildings, parks, and delicious food!

We spent the morning walking around Black Dragon Pool which was built in 1737 during the Qing dynasty and offers a spectacular view of the region’s tallest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, over its white marble bridge. Unfortunately Chris had got himself a massive blister when we were hiking in the gorge so he was hobbling/limping around the park.

Next we fly to Guilin and float down a river to Yangshou!

North Viet Nam

We took an overbooked sleeper bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi, whilst we were relatively comfortable in our seat/beds some poor guys ended up on the floor of the bus for the 10 hour trip due to lack of space. The day before leaving Phong nha we went to a hostel and booked our Halong Bay tour with them, the tour left the morning we arrived in Hanoi so it was a bit of stress getting from sleeper bus to the hostel where our tour left from but we made it!

We chose to do our Halong bay tour with central backpackers hostel after a bit of research- we settled on these guys because:

  1. It was in our budget- about $100 NZD for boat tour of Halong Bay, one night accommodation on a private island in the bay, and all our food
  2. They had a bit of a party vibe with other young people, but not a crazy one
  3. We saw some positive reviews online
Island we stayed at in halong bay
Fishing Village

The tour started with a three hour bus ride arriving at a dock where we supposed to jump on a speed boat to get to the next bus. Just before jumping on the boat we saw a very ill looking young man who looked like he was about to pass out- his friends, laughing at his misfortune reassured us that he was just seasick- which was good that he wasn’t dying, but not very reassuring for us about to get on to said boat. After all that it was actually fine. Another bus trip for an hour around Cat Ba island we ended at another port where we were greeted by two enthusiastic American boys who were going to be our trip leaders- they fed us lunch then took us around the bay, through a floating fishing village where 2000 people live, reportedly only leaving to get married.

We stopped for swimming and jumping off the boat which was good fun. On the boat it was all drinking games and chatting. Arriving at the island in late afternoon we were very impressed with the set up they had there- dorms set up on bungalows on the beach, volley ball court in the sand, a little beach, and a bar area.

The next day we went on a kayaking trip around the bay which was a good way to see more of the bay and see some of the local floating fishing villages, with their guard dogs at home during business hours. After lunch we made our way back to Hanoi via boat-> bus-> boat-> bus->Hanoi.

Mai Chau

The next day we hired scooters for our journey to Mai Chau (in case you can’t tell we love scooters now, I think its about 50/50 chance we will get one when we get back). Mai Chau is a smallish village of about 50000 nestled in a valley in the north west of the country, about 4 hours from Ha noi.

On the trip which took around 4 hours- we saw some pretty amazing things:

  • Fast paced Hanoi traffic, hundreds of scooters, shoulder to shoulder at the traffic lights, and zooming around on one road weaving in and out of each other
  • Incredible Karst landscape with small mountains surrounded by green rice paddies,
  • A large bowl of Pho, so tasty and very good at curing our impeding  hanger.
  • We drove over a pass that went up into a mountain into and above the clouds and back down again, this pass took us past some small mountain villages, where the inhabitants live year round in the cloud and cold. This pass is a favourite of trucks and buses. On a small scooter, this can cause a little concern. Trucks are slow, and provide warmth when sitting behind them, however this holds up traffic. The bus drivers in Viet Nam seem to be a bold breed, part formula one driver, part chimney, and part efficient people distributor.
  • And finally down into Mai Chau which was a small village in a valley area- green paddies surrounded the town
Issy ready to ride.

We were very lucky with the weather- about 30 minutes after we arrived at our guesthouse it started to rain and thunder and lightning went on lighting up the sky and the rice paddies until we went to sleep that night.

Overlooking Mai Chau

Beautiful weather the next day! We went to a local cave where we were the only people there, there were so many stairs to get to the cave it would put the Huks in Ngawarahia to shame: 

In a Mai Chau cave, 1000 steps.

It was a day of firsts for Chris: He finally broke and bought a banana shirt that day. Tried his first yoghurt coffee (vanilla yoghurt, ice, a shot of espresso on top). And he ate a plate of fried cockroaches, apparently the thing that stands out the most with them was the crunch. 

The next day we mucked about on the scooters and went to see a local waterfall and lake.

Hanoi

And the next day was the most important day- MY BIRTHDAY (6th April, just a date to add to your calendar for next year). That’s right I finally turned 20! We started the day with a yoghurt coffee each and then got on the road to scooter back to Hanoi. Back in Hanoi in late afternoon we treated ourselves to a massage which was actually really good! We stayed in a hostel which did a free beer happy hour so we enjoyed a few drinks then headed out into the old quarter of Hanoi which had closed off its roads and had bands playing in the middle of intersections with makeshift bars (little plastic chairs and plastic tables selling 20 cent beers). It was an excellent night!

The next day Issy was ill (read hungover). We moved to a different hotel that was the cheapest on booking.com we could find, naturally the room had suspicious black spots in the corners of the ceiling (?black mold) and the only window in the room slid open to the wall of the building next door a full 2 centimetres ok.(so no natural light). But hey it was ok. Walking around we found a group of people doing temporary tattoos with henna. I chose a wave and sun pattern for my forearm and felt pretty cool. As soon as she had finished the henna an aggressive police man came up to and confiscated all of the henna pens- we tried to do a bit of research but couldn’t get a definite answer about if and why henna might be banned in Vietnam. It was a weird incident.

That night we went to a water puppet show. This show was a traditional form of entertainment. It involved an impressive performance with a mix of puppets, pyrotechnics, and traditional music.

The next day we walked around and explored a bit of Hanoi. On our 24th day in Vietnam we caught the bus to the airport to fly to China.

Vietnam Part 2- show me the Huế (way)

We heard about the Hai Van Pass whilst in Hoi An- a legendary road between Hoi An and Hue made famous by an episode of Top gear where the crew heads to Vietnam to motorbike through the country. Jeremy Clarkson described this 130km stretch between the two cities as “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world”. Naturally we had to do it so we hired some bikes in Hoi An and set off (our bags being sent ahead to Hue). Our first stop was marble mountain, which was an impressive feat, with several large statues and temple buildings located within in caves of the mountain. It was a hot day and it took all of 5 minutes before we were soaked in sweat. It had proven to be

We got back on the bikes and continued to head north through Da Nang, where towering high skyscrapers meet the white sandy beaches, with only a thin strip of four lane road for the thousands of bikes cars and buses to navigate in between.

One of the highlights of the whole pass was going over the bridge on the north side of Da Nang, the views of both city and bay were incredible as we crossed the bridge. Next came the pass itself, which travels up into the hills. It weaves back and forth through a series of hairpin bends, steep inclines and impressive forest and ocean scenery until you reach its summit.


Summit of the pass, featuring our flash prescription sunnies again! Sadly later that day Chris sat on mine and broke them.

Dodging in and out of the path of buses and trucks tackling the pass on the way down we reached an beach town, famous for its fresh seafood restaurants- wasted unfortunately on us- we just had the noodles, hold the fish. A few hours later on the road we hit Hue city, a little sunburnt, tired, but on a high from an amazing day!

Restaurant literally on the beach!

It turns out the cooling power of winds from speeding along on a Yamaha Nouvo 135 cc is still no match for the sun. We may not have eaten any seafood but Chris was full lobster by the time we got off the bikes.
We made a fun video of our trip through the pass on our go pro!

In Hue, we spent two days hanging out in the city, which used to be the old capital of imperial Vietnam.

This part of the country is littered with temples, citadels, pagodas, and tombs. Unfortunately, due to the bombing during the war a lot of these are no longer standing.

We had kept our bikes from the day before which made for a fun day getting around the busy streets and empty country roads. We made for one of the larger remaining temples, where the Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang (1820-1841) is resting. He has a rather large tomb, but I suppose this is necessary when you have 142 children, 43 wives, and what sounds like a big personality.

Issy in the deserted pavilion courtyard at the tomb of Minh Mang.

The other attraction of note in Hue was the beach. We were told it was a great place to swim and in 30 degree heat we couldn’t pass up the chance to cool off. Man, it was weird. It was what you might picture when you think of a beach in North Korea. A kind of average beach on an overcast day, very few people there, and loud jazz music playing tinnily on big speakers all along the sand line. It was a beach with a weird vibe. A really weird vibe. We didn’t swim that day.

We took a 5 hour bus (with the world’s smallest amount of leg room) to Phong Nha. There was a lightening storm during the ride providing interesting watching whilst listening to podcasts.

Phong Nha is an incredible spot. The surrounding area is filled with steep hills made from limestone, hundreds of cave systems and spectacular underground rivers. Consequently this sleepy little town now has the reputation of being the adventure capital of Vietnam! The vistas! Oh the vistas! This would mean more motorbiking for sure (sorry mum).

The end of the cave we swam through on our tour, wow right?

Ever struggling to fully embrace the poor backpacker lifestyle we splashed out on a one day caving experience ( we paid 1.8 million each! Not sure if we mentioned this but we are millionaires in Vietnam). The day of caving was amazing:

– we got wet (swimming through caves- it was BYO quick drying long pants and unfortunately had only brought his chinos overseas- he was waddling like a duck towards the end those pants were not fast drying)

-we got dirty!

-and we got very paranoid looking out for snakes, leeches, and poison ivy!

More bats and less glow worms than Waitomo caves, we were warned not to look up with our mouths open unless we wanted bat poo for morning tea
This was pre-Chris having to begin his long waddle back home

Stay tuned for our next and final leg of our Vietnam trip were we travel by sleeper bus, more buses, boats, and to mums horror- more bikes around Northern Vietnam…

Vietnam Part 1- So Phở, so good

Cruising down the Thu Bon river in Hoi An (wearing our flash new prescription sunglasses from Hoi An)

Ho chi minh city

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at night (Saigon depending on who you talk to) after more than 24 hours of travel from Auckland. Being on a budget this trip we had enthusiastically booked our first few nights in a 10 bed room in a party hostel. Naturally, we managed to be awkward in more than 3 languages to our new roommates on our first night in the shared quarters.

On our first day in the city we couldn’t believe how hectic is was (apparently there are more motorbikes in this city than people in New Zealand!). We stood for literally 10 minutes on the side of the road waiting for a gap in the traffic whilst elderly women and children crossed with clearly no care for their own mortality. Our favourite motorbiker that day was an amazing gentleman who zoomed past us carrying a tray and two full bowls of pho (noodle soup). Unfortunately he zoomed past too quick for us to get a photo, right is my accurate artistic rendition of this.

We did a walking tour of Ho Chi Mihn seeing the highlights of city (including a big statue of the man himself), and tasting for the first time Vietnamese coffee- which has since started an obsession for us of strong coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk over ice (trust me it’s good, this coming from someone who would normally consider a coffee ruined if any one added sugar to it).

Chris was treated to his first (mini) tourist scam: we met a lovely man carrying some coconuts in a chilly bin across his back about town, he jovially put the stick he was using to carry it on Chris so he would carry it down the road for him. Chris being the polite gentleman he is, awkwardly carried the stick and coconuts for a few hundred metres. The coconut man gave Chris a coconut to drink for his hard work and then asked for 100, 000 dong for this (about 4 times what a coconut was worth we later learned). What could we do but pay this clever man?

I tried to take a picture when we were crouch/walking through the tunnels, basically its a cramped tunnel

The next day we went on a tour to Cu Chi tunnels, just south of the city, which was a pretty crazy place. During the Vietnam war the VietCong (Vietnamese Communists, the ones fighting against the US) were being attacked by the US and had regular carpet bombing of the area- to try and survive they built a secret underground tunnel network of more than 250km where they ate, slept, cooked, had families etc. At this complex they showed you the tunnels and let you walk through them (they are tiny!), if you want you can shoot a gun for a small fee! A Rambo which is a machine gun mounted to the back of a jeep, M16 rifles, etc it was pretty crazy. And the best shot wins a soft toy prize- really.

Our hostel room remained a bit of a weird place while we stayed there- with no windows and half of the inhabitants hung over it was a dark and smelly sleep and the lack of light made it difficult to say if it was 4 pm or 4am waking in my jet lagged state. It was an easy decision that the next stop we were getting our own room.

hoi an

We flew to Hoi An via Da Nang (I know, we should have taken some terrible overnight bus as a rite of passage into our new lives as full-time travellers but whatever it was cheap and those buses are pretty average).

And we stayed in this place for $20/night, with our own air-conditioned room and a pool in this hot weather it was too good to miss!

We spent 6 days of chilling and exploring this little tourist town.

In Hoi An our food adventure really began- we ate so many Bahn Mi (Vietnamese sandwich in a small baguette) I lost count, bun cha, cau lau, pho, rice and vegetables cooked in banana leaves, fresh beer (at 20 cents a glass) and of course more Vietnamese coffee.

Chris enjoying a pot of fresh beer
Hoi An ancient town sits along the river

Since 1999 in Hoi An, when UNESCO status was awarded to the beautiful ancient town on the river, there has been a massive increase in tourism – with the result that most houses that made this place famous have been sold by the community to shop owners to be used to sell trinkets, clothes, art and food. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An- we didn’t go into knowing it would be impossible to carry a newly tailored suit around the world. However we did find a very reasonably price optometrist that we had some prescription “ray bans” made for us (see the first picture of this post to see how flash they are)!

The ancient town at night is lit up with lanterns and markets, and is exceptionally beautiful.

Apparently Hoi An’s obsession with lanterns began in the 16th and 17th century, when the town was home to one of southeast Asias biggest ports. Japanese merchants often hung tube and cage-shaped lanterns along the poles in front of their houses, which lit up the commercial quarters at night. Locals soon began hanging lanterns out as well, with hopes of bringing good luck to the town. Turns out we would become obsessed with lanterns too.

We found out that you could make your own lantern with “The Lantern lady” in a workshop in town. We love arts and crafts so this was right up our alley- we spent more than 2 hours assembling our lanterns with thin bamboo, wire, and silk. This was one of our highlights of our time in Hoi An! Check out the finished product:

We still have our lanterns hanging on the side of our big travel backpacks!

One day was spent at the nearby beach, filled with overweight french men and local fisherman. It was ok, but the beach didn’t hold up against the New Zealand beaches we are used to, I guess we are spoiled there.

We went on a day tour out to Mỹ Sơn.

This is a set of ruins from the ancient Cham Empire in the central coast of Vietnam. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Hindu temple complex built by the Champa who ruled South and Central Vietnam from the 3rd century until 1832. Upon their succession, Champa kings would build temple complexes at Mỹ Sơn. The name Mỹ Sơn means beautiful mountain in Vietnamese. The temple complex is located in a valley, surrounded by mountains, the sides of which are covered in thick jungle.

An old bomb crater at Mỹ Sơn

It was used a base for the VietCong during the war- as a result of the US military bombings during the War, a lot of the temples were destroyed- there were bullet holes in tomb walls and several bomb craters still visible within the complex.

We travelled back from the site along the Hoi An river which was a highlight of the tour.  

Our next leg of our trip will take place on these bad boys, stay tuned for the next adventure…

Larue

A Larue bia, Ho Chi Minh City, French Quarter (Saigon).

Bia Larue vietnam. est 1909.

Victor Laure is one of the principal antagonists in the show’ Walker, Texas Ranger’, a seminal series from the mind of our generation, Chuck Norris. Between 1997 and 1999 the show reached a zenith during its sixth and seventh seasons, seen by an average of 14.4 million spectators per evening, taking Walker Texas Ranger to be one of the most popular series in the USA . This is also the namesake of the Frenchman who first brewed the Larue in the back of the french quarter of Saigon in the middle of May 1909. The parallels between the show and the beer end here.

Heineken (who now manufacture this brew) state that the ingredients are imported from both England and Australia. I am suspicious that they may have ride share set up with the prolific amount of tourists from these areas, in order to keep costs down.

Condensation on a cold can is liberal, akin to the sheen you get after eating a spicy pho in 35 degree heat. It tastes better from a glass bottle, better yet is the second one. The carrying capacity in a session is around 8 -9 Larues, largely due to all cafes reverting the inferior un-chilled version at that point.

Head: Think of Hoi An waves hitting a 55 year old sunburnt Englishman. Overall, a foamy finish, but not something you would call clean. Slightly bigger than what you would prefer and not something you need to spend your time looking at. Golden in colour, with a slight malty aroma, once again reminding us of George from East Sussex. (once he has gotten the sunblock sorted)

Larue has about as much tastes like a still fresh ‘h e a v e n‘ tattoo on the back of the arm of an 18 year old Swedish backpacker (likely named Ana) who will ‘totally not regret it’ after she found herself on a 2 day booze cruise in Ha Long Bay. The flavour duration is highly reminiscent of the degree of attention you get from waiter in the back street bun cha place (short, to non-existent).

Like a lot of South-East Asian beers, this is very much in the traditional lager style which suits hot muggy afternoons, and the smell of a million two stroke engines. The hops have about as much kick as the drums during the first 1:49 of the skream remix of the song by that La roux chick.  At a mild 4.2% you will need a fair few of these to light up the dance floor like a hoi an lantern.

This cold drop goes down faster the price of the ‘genuine’ Ray Bans when you walk away first offer for $20,  both Ray Bans and a 6 pack of these bad boys will set you back  $2. Don’t get scammed, stay safe out there you intrepid souls.

Hangovers are not one to rue, only helped by the ease of access of Cà phê Sài Gòn. Larues are priced cheaper than water and can be found in pretty much every single shop in the country.

If you come to Viet Nam to find yourself, find this beer first. It’ll be more honest with you than you’ll ever be.


9/10, nothing phenomenal in terms of flavour, but perfect for hot afternoons. Aggressive pricing only helps the cause.

Enjoying a Larue on the Thu Bon River.