Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Züri! Züri! Wir fahren nach Züri!

So continuing with the trend of posts well after the event, in February we went to Zurich for a weekend. We knew Brush would be working there all week so we decided I should meet him there and have a fun weekend exploring Zurich.
In Germany there is a great scheme for frequent train travellers where you can purchases discount cards for the train – these are general either a 25% off or 50% card for either first class or normal class. Because Brush travels so much for work he has had one since we got here, but it hasn’t been worth it for me up until now. In the lead up to the Zurich weekend we went to get me a ‘bahncard’. First of all we tried our local station which is sometime manned – not the case on the weekend. Then we tried the next biggest station between us and Frankfurt. Also there the ticket windows were closed, so we ended up driving into the middle of Frankfurt to the main train station. There after about an hour in the que we were finally served. We were totally prepared with all the possible paper work we may need, as well as passport photos that would be then printed on my card. After almost another hour filling out forms we are all set. The card itself, we were told wont turn up for about six weeks, but we were given a piece of paper to use in the meantime… [It has now turned up without a picture – I hope I wont have any problems using it now…] Because Brush already had a 50% off card my 50% off card was 50% off, so it cost me €110, but saved my €89 on my return ticket to Zurich

World's largest church clock face at 8.7m diameter, St Peter's Kirche

So, on the Friday after work I headed off to Zurich, well prepared for the 5 hours ride with thermos mug, book, Nintendo DS, snacks, and a sushi dinner purchased at Frankfurts main station.
When I arrived it was after 9pm and Brush met me on the platform. The plan was that we chuck my suitcase in a locker and head out to find a nice café for coffee and desert. But after wandering Zurich for ages and finding no cafes still open or full restaurants we gave up on that plan, headed back to the station to pick up my bag and have a piece of pie at a café in the station. Not quite what we had in mind but not too bad a solution (by then I really was in need of tea and some sugar). After that we rolled my suitcase (carryon size so) to the hotel. The next morning after filling up on complimentary breakfast in the hotel we headed out to explore.

This was my first visit to Switzerland so I was eager to see what it was like and how much it was similar/different to Germany (Zurich is in the German speaking section). The city is gorgeous. We wandered the old streets for hours staring at all the fantastic old buildings. After a while we finally worked out why this city had so many more gorgeous old buildings than we had seen in other places – the Swiss neutrality has a nice side effect of preventing war damage to their cities and old buildings. In a cute little café we had a yummy lunch (mien was a cheese sandwich – but I am sucker for good cheese) and decent coffee we discovered that the Swiss have the same habit as the Germans of taking there dogs everywhere with them. There was an older (and very well healed) couple whose dog was with them also enjoying a nice lunch. Showing though that perhaps the Swiss really are that bit more organised that the Germans the owners had with them a small Tupperware container that they open up and sat on the floor to put the dogs snack into, as well as carrying water and a mini water bowl with them (many restaurants do have doggy water bowls that they will bring out when a custom brings there dog with them).

Put the credit card down, and step away from the Jeweler...

I did discover that the rumours about the Swiss German really are true. When we spoke they could understand our German and would (try to) speak normal German back to us, but the blank stare is a very handy tool for when shop assistants etc try speaking to you in Swiss German – I could not understand a thing!!!!!

After exploring most of the first day and WEARING ourselves out we crawled back to the hotel to recharge before heading back out to dinner. We managed a pizza restaurant nearby then we rolled back to the hotel exhausted.

Crowds of people waiting to board the ferry with the mountains in the background (hazy)

The next day after breakfast and checkout we rolled our suitcase down to the train station where we stashed then in a locker (super practical in every European train station) then took a bit more of a wander before heading to the dock to jump on a cruise around the lake the Zurich sits around. It was really interesting seeing how the city has spread and linked up with what used to be villages on the lake edge. Also the huge number of old houses was just amazing coming from Germany (or Australia). Eventually we got back to the train station, grabbed our bags and jumped on the train – so simple. I LOVE the European train network!!!

Could only be more Swiss if it was a Bank, a Pocketknife, Chocolate, or Cheese

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

So long Sapa, hooroo Halong Bay, 'f Wiedersehen Viet Nam

After the loud, dirty, and relatively dangerous traffic situation in Hanoi it was into the overnight train for a trip into the moutains to Sapa - a small mountain town that is getting more touristy by the minute.

The overnight train was an experience in itself, and one that I am not likely to repeat. I am sure that this was a small guage train, as the thing rocked and rolled the whole night, and I barely slept a wink, constantly worrying that it was going to tip. Upon arrival we were suddenly aware of the climate change from the city to the mountains, and were wishing that Bel's family hadn't shipped all their winter stuff home from HCMC. Brrrrr....

In Sapa we again stayed in a 4 or 5 star resort, but this time it wasn't as over the top as in Hoi An, so I was a little more comfortable with the whole thing. It also gave us the opportunity to meet Kym Gyngell (from Comedy Company and Coln Carpenter fame) who was staying in the same hotel. Bel's Dad and I even made him laugh! :)

The mountains near Sapa, without too many rice fields

Although Sapa is in the mountains, and relatively quiet compared to HCMC or Hanoi, it doesn't mean that the people try any less to sell you trinkets and other touristy crap. If anything it is worse here, as this really is the only income that the local minority tribes live from. And I tell you what, you really don't want to stop and talk to one of them, or all the others will come out of the woodwork, and next thing you know you are surrounded by a pack of ladies in dark blue smocks, or with red head-dress, trying desperately to offer you the same crap as everyone else. And of course, as soon as you are done with your bargaining and decide to buy something, the others will tell you "I would have given it to you for less". But please don't think that pretending not to speak English will help you! Most of the minority tribes are versed in many different European languages, and will always find some way to fleece you. :)

The tourist trap...

While in Sapa we did a half-day long guided walk through some of the country side, and through some of the minority villages. While the walk really was amazing, and the country side stunning, even this was a little spoiled by the constant sales push.
On the way down to the villages, we were joined by a group of 5 locals that then proceeded to follow us for the rest of the day. It was cool in a way, as they helped with river crossings, made stuff for you out of grass and tree leaves, and were pleasant company to talk to. Unfortunately all of that kinda disappeared into a distant memory when we got towards the end of the walk, and they started trying to sell us stuff again, even though we had tipped them for helping us along the way (done thing, and then they should usually leave you alone).

The "extended" Greig Family :)

Anyway, all of that stuff you can take with a grain of salt, and is kinda worth it for the experience and the scenery in this crazy little town.

After 3 or 4 days in Sapa (who can remember??) it was back into the train from hell and back to Hanoi (still no towers) before heading out for a 2 day cruise on Halong Bay. If the weather had have been clearer, then this would have been even more stunning, but it was still fun to spend a couple of days away from everything on a reconstructed French paddle-steamer. (Vendors still find a way to get at you out here too though).

One of the rare moments that the sun appeared on Halong Bay

A floating village on Halong Bay that even has a school

All in all, we had a great time in Viet Nam, and I would recommend it to anyone who is thinking about it. I would also recommend that you try and get around to it soon before too much more of the charm and culture of this country gives way to the inevitable wave of tourism.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Hanoi - where are the damn towers?

After Hoi An, it was off to Hanoi, where I was hoping on seeing some towers that I could rearrange by moving increasingly larger discs from one stick to another...

From the relative calmness of Hoi An, it was a bit of a shock to arrive in Hanoi and be confronted again with the extreme traffic that we had left behind in Ho Chih Minh City. Other tourists had told us that the traffic in Hanoi was better than in HCMC, but I am not sure that I would agree. It is hard to say if it was better or worse, it was simply different. eg. In HCMC you can pretty safely cross the road at any point in time, as long as you are confident and committed to the crossing - the traffic will dodge around you. In Hanoi they are not so willing to dodge, as Belinda found out on day one as she was collected by a motorbike coming through the traffic in the wrong direction. Luckily it was very light, and she only got a few bruises on the shins from the whole affair, but it was enough to make us doubt our road crossing skills for the rest of the trip.

One other thing that is different in Hanoi are the beggars and roadside vendors. In HCMC they will ask you once if you want to give them something or buy something from them, and that is it. In Hanoi they are all very persistant, and will follow you for
blocks offering you different things (vendors) or begging for money with their blind uncle in tow. The vendors here will even offer to let you hold their baskets and wear their hats for the purpose of a photo - with the expectation that you will buy something off them in return. You have been warned. :)

Hanoi is also a city where you can find a lot of copied and real name brand stuff being sold from small shops all over the city. For example, you could get your hands on hiking packs and other backpacks from Crumpler, Lowe Alpine, Jack Wolfskin, etc just near our hotel. Or there were other sections of town that were dedicated to shoes, clothing, electronics, or even optomotrists that could copy your existing prescriptions and put them into brand name frames for peanuts. Bel's mum took these guys up on their offer and was very happy with the results. Suz also took a lot of them up on their sunglasses offer... :)

On our second day in Hanoi we booked with another tour company to do a tour to the Perfume Pagoda, which is a cluster of pagodas in the perfume mountains, about 70km from Hanoi. To reach the pagodas we were rowed for about 1hr in a metal canoe along a river between fields and mountains. With the mist in the mountains, it really was quite amazing. Then to reach the largest of the pagodas - a temple inside a large natural cave - we took a gondola (built by the Swiss, thank God or Buddah) up into the mountains, which was a lot faster than the 30min walk back down again.

After a buffet lunch of questionable looking but delicious foods, it was back into the boats for the 1hr ride back to the tour bus. The piece and tranquility of the ride back in the boats was destroyed a little by the stress associated with the expected tip at the end of the trip. The "done thing" is to give them 50,000 dong and leave as fast as you can, because they will try and squeeze you for more. This happened to me after getting out of the boat first and holding it so that the others could get out. After they had given the guy the 50k, he tapped me on the shoulder and was asking for more. What did I do? Well, I just walked off... Don't know what all the stressing was for. :)

Back to Hanoi for a bit more "experiencing the city" - including two guys going at each other with sticks on the street - before packing again and heading to the train station for the overnight train to Sapa. But that's a story for another day.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Hoi An - cut to fit

On New Year's Eve we left our hotel in Ho Chih Minh City, took a brief stop at the post office so Bel's family could ship a bunch of winter clothes back to Oz (had been with us in Germany, and the weather in Viet Nam was somewhat different...), before heading out to the airport to fly to Danang.

I had an interesting experience at the airport when I bumped into a Vietnamese guy who was also travelling to Danang (not in the literal sense of bump). I noticed that this guy had a German address on his luggage, and we ended up chatting for a bit in German. Was kinda strange, but kinda cool at the same time. This was the first of many german language encounters in the last place on earth that I expected to have them...

So, landing in Danang we piled into the shuttle and were driven about 30min to our hotel on the beach. This particular area of Viet Nam was where the American soldiers came for R&R before being sent back to the battle front, and is also the area that apparently featured in some series "China Beach". Don't ask me for the details, I am just a tourist here...

This hotel / resort that we stayed in was amazing...but also a little over done in my opinion. Especially seeing how the normal Vietnamese live, living in this kind of opulence makes you feel bad. That being said, the massive bed, seaside location, swimming pool, etc. makes you quickly forget your bad feelings. :) least until you step out the door again...

So in this resort, Bel and I had our own room this time, with Bel's parents in another, and her sister in her own room (jumped up and down like a crazy idiot with glee...or so the reports go).
Outside there was a massive swimming pool that stretched along the beach front (one may ask - why have a pool at the beach??), including swim up bar - but it was a little too cold and windy to think about taking a dip.

That night, being New Year's Eve, we unfortunately had to attend the New Year's Eve Dinner at the hotel for around $50USD a head. This may not sound like much, but $1USD goes a hell of a long way here, so it really was excessive for what it was. Basically dinner was a banquet of fresh seafood and other dishes, deserts, coffee, etc. For the first couple of hours the drinks were on the house, and after that you had to pay for them. This ritualistic fleecing of the guests started around 10pm, which is when most ppl would have liked to start getting sauced in order to see in the New Year - nicely timed.
The Dinner included a live show which showcased some of the local talent (I guess the other resorts got the first pick...), including some traditional Vietnamese dancing, some guy who played a flute / pipe instrument making bird-like noises, and a band imported from the Philippines (local talent must have been thin on the ground).

The next day we got picked up early to go and visit the My Son ruins, which were where religious ceremonies and burials of royals of the Champa Dynasty from 4th to 14th Century - more info on Wikipedia. Bel and I were sitting in the back of the van with Suz, getting merrily gassed to death along the way. I am sure that there was a leak in the exhaust somewhere, but Bel's parents didn't notice it at all. In fact, they fell asleep on the way back...or did they just lose consciousness due to the fumes?!?!

Unfortunately it started raining on the way to My Son, and continued to rain the whole time we were there, which made for one grumpy and probably unbearable me. I spent most of the time trying to take photos from under an umbrella, but still succeeded in getting my lens wet and dirty, which just made matters worse. Because of all that drama, I missed most of the information, but was still impressed by the site - especially the inital walk into the valley, which was all misty and mysterous looking...

Bel's mum getting rained on at My Son

Does my phallus make you jealous?

One of the key pieces of information that I took away was that these guys loved all things phallic...especially the pouring of milk over them during religious ceremonies.

After My Son, the rest of our time in Hoi An was spent exploring this cool old city, which has unfortunately become a little touristy, but luckily still kept some of the old charm. The streets in the old town are really interesting to walk down, taking in the buildings and the people, but most of the shops are now just tourist oriented.

Locally made silk lamps swinging in the breeze

A Hoi An street at night with a motorcycle driveby

One of the main tourist activities in Hoi An is tailoring, and we weren't going to pass up this opportunity. A large amount of our time there was dedicated to the tailoring of suit pants, shirts, and jackets for Bel and I. Even Bel's Dad, who claimed that he didn't want anything, fell prey to the tailoring fever, taking home 2 suits and 11 shirts. But all of that paled into insignificance compared to Suz's purchases... :)

Hoi An also saw us celebrating Bel's birthday, which was a little drama of its own. Bel's parents had bought her some nice Lacqwork pictures in Ho Chih Minh City, which were all nicely packaged up, and which Bel had carried onto the plane on the way to Da Nang. On arrival in Da Nang the lacqwork was loaded into the bus with us, but we apparently forgot to get it out at the other end. Upon noticing this on Bel's birthday-eve there was a lot of searching, stressing, tears, etc. We finally got on to the travel agent and they tracked the lacqwork down, which was then delivered back to us by the driver when he picked us up to take us to the airport for our flight to Hanoi...

A little local teaching me how to make
boats from tree leaves

Hardly a Holden or Ford V8 ute in
sight for these local builders