A Travellerspoint blog

January 2011

Grouptrip to Ha Long Bay

Hanoi & Ha Long

semi-overcast 14 °C

Hey there!

Yesterday me and M. came back to Hanoi by bus from Ha Long. The trip to Ha Long, our first real touristy group trip ever was great fun but also really exhausting! We had to get up at seven each day and be really sporty at eight.You can imagine me and M. struggling
with early morning climbing and kayaking!
However, we did met some affable people, an Australian couple from Melbourne (Nicky and
Felix), a hilarious Chinese Indonesian (Limhendro) and two engaging Swiss guys (Patrick and Adrian). On our first boat there were just elderly people, but fortunately the groups were fluctuating constantly so you met people from different companies and hotels.
Marije, me and Hendro formed one group and we were constantly accompanied by 'Strong,' our tour guide who spoke a few memorised English sentences. He would just give very general comments ('The cave is very big', 'You have to be careful with passport') or start summing up the programme again when you asked him something. It turned out we paid twenty USD extra for him and because we booked the Ha Long trip in our 'corrupt' hostel. That said, it was definitely worth it, even though there was no sun, the views were stunning!
And it’s quite an experience to sleep on a ship there in between the sloping hills and waking up with a sunrise on the water. The food was great and so was the hotel for the second night, the night on the boat was pretty bad because it was way too cold and there was just one dirty blanket (without sheet) for everyone. But I guess that's part of the Vietnam tourist experience, just like the presence of our bodyguard Strong! The first day we visited a cave, went to Cat Ba island, climbed a peak, and went kayaking... only the promised Karaoke never happened! Something I at least was secretly looking forward to!
Tomorrow we're hopefully taking a bus to Hoi An to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year there. I say hopefully because Marije was pretty sick last night, I'm fine so it’s probably some meat she ate... you never know. We heard Hoi An would be a good place to be stuck for a few days. We booked the open bus ticket in town this time, twenty USD cheaper than in the hostel! We might seem a bit obsessed with the prices, but trust me, most backpacker are. After all, we're planning to stay away for six months at least!
Next update will be from Hoi An!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 02:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains water cat bay mist long climbing hanoi ha ba grouptrip Comments (0)

Biting the Dust in Horrible Hanoi!

From Nanning to Hanoi

overcast 12 °C

Hello everyone!

I just got some amazing news! I worked for a couple of days on my Master Thesis on
Faulkner and now I just received an email from my Professor stating she is boosting
my grade from six to seven! That will look much better on my grade list! I'm really
happy I took the time to make some last amendments and it actually helped to stare
at a screen in several noisy, cold common rooms in hostels! Now I can finally stop
worrying about that as I just made a definitive request for my master's degree.
Today is our third day in Hanoi and we kind of hate it here! The pollution is terrible,
you have to walk around with a scarf around your head most of the time! And the
traffic is a total disaster, and not in a fun way! We thought China was busy and
unorganised, but it’s well-structured and clean in comparison with Hanoi. Of course this is just one city in Vietnam, but we hope fervently it will be better when we move
down South! Yesterday we walked for an hour through the chaos to find a bus station
so we could buy a ticket to Cat Ba (near Ha Long) and get an open-bus-ticket to
Hue or Hoi An, but of course you could only buy a ticket for the day itself (the Lonely
Planet needs an update here!). So, that kind of sucked and now we will have to
go for one of the more expensive deals in the hostel or at a travel agency. We're
really fed up with the exhausting experience of finding your way around Hanoi (the pavement
is filled with holes, there is junk everywhere.. people sitting drinking thee, building iron
ladders, displaying goods and food.. so you often have to walk on the street where
the cars and scooters flash by you and use their horns in a perfect cacophony of chaos!)
That’s why we’ve decided to buy our tickets in the hostel and of course it will be terribly
overpriced, but at least there will be no more hassle for a couple of days. We want
to go to Ha Long Bay for two days and after that travel to the middle of the country, to Hue or
Hoi An for Vietnamese New Year. We need to be sure we have a place to stay then and we’re somewhere we want to be as it’s likely we get stuck for a while.

That's the plan so far! And we were really excited to finally see some sunny beaches,
but for the next week the weather is rainy in the whole of Vietnam! How is it possible?
We went here a bit quicker in order to get out of the cold, only to find the rain (fortunately
not here in Hanoi yet). Maybe the forecast will be better for the week after?! And
Ha Long Bay will probably still be beautiful in the mist! Yesterday we met Matthias en Jeroen, two Dutch guys from Groningen (!) and they had a really good time in Ha Long
and said it was definitely worth it to go on a two day organised trip, so we're going to give it a try! At least it will be easy as you don't have to worry about food and transportation!
Besides walking around in the overcrowded narrow streets, we just managed to visit one temple! It was called The Temple of Literature, and though quite cute with Turtle statues and a nice pagoda, it was much less impressive than the Jinci Temple we saw in Hangzhou for example. We also had a walk around the Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which was nice, but all in all Hanoi is a bit disappointing.
So, for today we plan on doing nothing and relaxing for a day in the hostel! The hostel is quite nice (clean rooms, a really big movie room with comfy couches en free internet) and it’s quite easy to meet other nice backpackers, something we did miss out on so far! Maybe it was just coincidence or we just went to the wrong hostels, but we met so few backpackers in China! I reckon sharing travel experiences and meeting new people are after all the best part of travelling! In Nanning we did meet some nice people; like Lau, a really outgoing, overfriendly Brazilian soccer player who played some romantic Portuguese songs for us on his guitar. But if you can't really communicate with someone it gets dull soon. There was also a friendly English/French teacher working in Shanghai, so with him (Romain) and the Brazilian (Leonardo) we played some domino's (which Lau took very seriously) and talked about travel plans. In addition, Nanning was also useful as we were able to finally wash our clothes after three weeks (!) and I managed to make a pretty good book swap deal!
I will hopefully be able to update again in a couple of days after the Ha Long trip!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 23:44 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temple busy hanoi scooters cloudy nanning pollution Comments (0)

Guangzhou and Hong Kong

sunny 10 °C

Hey there!

Marije and me arrived in Hong Kong yesterday and just had a great first day! Kenji Wong, a friend of my friend Sjoerd, showed us around town. We took a bus to Victoria Peak where you get an amazing the view of the harbour and the city. Before that he lead us through many gigantic shopping malls and through the central university district. The sightseeing was concluded viewing the nightly lightshow at the harbour, colourful patterns moving across the skyscrapers accompanied by otherworldly music, an interesting spectacle. Afterwards we dined near our hostel. As probably everywhere around Hong Kong the locals receive a differently priced menu, something we noted as two British men got seated. Fortunately we were locals today.
Tomorrow we are going to apply for a new China visa so we can travel back on Wednesday to Guangzhou and fly on to Nanning from there. Next we can hopefully arrange a bus to bring us to Hanoi after taking care of the Vietnam visa. We hope to have some time in Nanning to finally wash the clothes we've been wearing for three weeks and in addition I need to take a last look at my thesis. Did you hear that right? Yes, you did! I heard two days ago that my thesis is sufficient(!), but in order to turn a six into a seven I need to take a last look at it, something I can hopefully do there as internet is very expensive here in HK! At the moment we are in a very crowded, warm network bar in a huge flat filled with hotels, shops, and restaurants. The ground floor is crowded with Indians and Africans selling their goods and food and approaching everyone with their best deals. We sleep somewhere in this huge, dirty building in a very small room which we share with a nice Australian couple. There is hardly space to walk between the beds and the shower is above the toilet, well you get the picture! Welcome to Chunking Mansions! It’s maze-like building with absolutely no regard for fire hazard or safety regulations, a place throbbing with vibrant life, exotic chaos and some very tasty Indian curries! By the way, the Australians already offered me a couch in Sydney and Hobart, so that sounds good! Since our first great experience with couchsurfing I would love to give it another try!
Before me and Marije arrived in Hong Kong we couchsurfed for the first time at Joey Cheungs place, a very friendly and hospitable teacher living near the city centre. She was a warm, caring person and we feel very fortunate to have ended up on her couch. The first night she took us to the belly-dancing class she visits three times a week. Great fun, but very difficult! The other girls were very happy to see us join in and wanted to make lots of pictures with the clumsy newcomers. After that we cooked a good Chinese dinner and swapped travel stories and pictures. The second day we accompanied her to the English class she gives to three to six-year-old children at a little nursery school she runs nearby her home. We played some games with the children, for example, we would show them a picture of an apple and they would say the word or the other way around. It was great to be able to really join in her day to day life, we learned a lot about the changing way of life for the younger generation in the big cities. One difference, one also commented on by Kenji, was that most of them don't spit in the streets (or anywhere else) anymore!
After the toddler class we went to the railway station to buy tickets for the train to Nanning and waited for nearly four hours! After that endless wait the guy at the counter told us that he only sold tickets for 'today and tomorrow' and that we should go somewhere else! Later Joey checked for us at another desk and all tickets were booked up because of the approaching Chinese New Year. Therefore we decided the best option would be to fly to Nanning. Expensive, but at least we save ourselves a very tedious bus ride of more than 12 hours!
When this was done we returned to her high up apartment (she even gave us a key!), cooked pasta (so nice after three weeks of noodles and rice!) and saw a movie.
Our last full day with Joey was Friday the fourteenth. After a good night’s rest Joey showed us Chen’s Ancestral Hall, a beautiful old mansion that houses the Guangdong Folk Arts Museum, and lead us through the main shopping streets. We also tasted some local dishes and at night went to dinner with Joey, her friend Carol, and nephew Johnson, who also lives with her. Later Johnson's girlfriend, Candy (!) also joined us and we went to a club. The music was great and the people were a mix of locals and Western expats. An interesting difference with a club back home is that here each group is urged towards a specific table where you are expected to stay near at all times. Later on, Johnson, who drove Joey's brother's car, brought us home and we slept like roses. So, yesterday after a goodbye lunch with Joey (amazing pizza!) we took a quick train from Guangzhou to Kowloon HK and arrived here! We've been busy! I now realise what a difference it is to see the sights with people who actually know the place instead of being just tourists! We hope to couchsurf more in Vietnam and Kenji told us he also knew some people in Bangkok we could meet up with, so that would be cool!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 07:17 Archived in China Comments (0)

Heading South!

Hangzhou to Xiamen

overcast 14 °C

Hello again!

Today I woke up in a much friendlier climate than yesterday! It’s 16 degrees here in Xiamen and I'm delighted to be out of the cold! Since the last time I placed a post we have travelled from Nanjing to Hangzhou by bus and then from Hangzhou to Xiamen by train. The first full day we spend in Hangzhou we were busy arranging the travel tickets and hostel. We had just a little time left at the end of the day so we visited the supposedly vibrant Silk Road, which turned out to be a deserted street with some lanterns. Fortunately the next day in Hangzhou was more successful, we walked a bit around the West Lake, a huge scenic area around town, viewed the beautiful Leifing Pagoda on a hill near the lake and visited the Jinci Buddhist Temple. I never knew Buddhist religious sites were so elaborately decorated; it was very colourful and many of the statues were gold. Everywhere there were urns with incense burning and in the middle building someone was singing mantras. From the top temple you had a nice view over the lake, the city, and the hills. Afterwards we went to Silk Museum on the way back, but as Marije was not feeling so well we headed back to the hostel after buying some food at the large Carrefour supermarket. We ate half a baguette with tomatoes and pepper, which was very nice after all the rice and noodles! Me and Marije both picked up a cold in Nanjing and we're both still a bit sick. Fortunately we're out of the cold now at least!
Yesterday we took a six hour train drive and arrived here at four o'clock. The train stopped at the Northern station, which was not on the main island of Xiamen (pronounce: Sjamen). So we had to wait and hour or so before we could get on the next train to the island. After taking a bus and finding the hostel we went to the supermarket nearby and I had a dish of rice with
vegetables and eggs. I show the owners my paper stating I would like 'fried rice with vegetables' and that I'm a vegetarian. This usually gets you what you want! But not always! One time in Nanjing I got something with beef anyway (maybe he couldn't read) and when we tried to use gestures to make clear I did not want to eat it, he brought me a spoon! Which was hilarious, so I just sort of ate around the beef. I reckon we'll try to book a bus ticket to Guangzhou today, so we can leave tomorrow. Hopefully, we can couchsurf then, to save some money and get a different perspective. I'll keep you posted.

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 20:19 Archived in China Tagged trees temple pagoda palm climate hangzhou xiamen warmer Comments (0)

Our first week in China!

Shanghai and Nanjing

sunny -1 °C
View Backpacking 2011 on sanneastri's travel map.

Hey everyone!

A first update from China! For the first four days me and Marije wandered around Shanghai and just two days ago we arrived in Nanjing! We have met a lot of nice and a few strange people and experienced so much so it feels like we've been here for two weeks or something. For the first few days everything felt like a dream, it’s so surreal to suddenly walk between the masses in such a gigantic metropolis as Shanghai! It’s very exciting, but also incredibly exhausting!

But let's start at the beginning! On the 28th of December we flew from Amsterdam, to Frankfurt, to Beijing, and finally to Shanghai. A very long, tiring journey, but the service (and plane food) was pretty great! We checked in into a nice colorful hostel in which we had a bathroom for ourselves (and the dormroom also) for the first two nights! Furthermore, the staff was very friendly and could help us with all our questions and requests! And we had many. Especially Linda, one of the hostesses, helped us with train tickets and wrote down
some Chinese phrases. In general, we think the Chinese are a very friendly and helpful people, and there are a lot of things we would not be able to manage without them. I've never been so dependent on the kindness of strangers! We are very grateful for all the people helping us along the way, finding a simple internet cafe can be incredibly difficult without help for example!

On our second day we went to Pudong, saw the great Oriental Pearl Tower, the Bund and Nanjing Road, a megastreet! When we walked to the Shanghai Museum we met two nice Chinese people, Pei Pei and Alex, who said they were brother and sister and in town for a wedding. So we joined them for a traditional thee ceremony and dinner. The dinner was great, delicious, and cheap. The cooking tradition is called hot-pot; a pot is put in front of you with two spicy or creamy soups in it that gradually heat up. Then you just put your food in it and cook it as long as you please while it’s soaking up all the rich flavours. Naturally you do this with chopsticks which was very difficult for us in the beginning, to the amusement of our Chinese companions. The next day it turned out that the thee ceremony was a scam! And we were naive enough to believe in their sincerity! We paid 250 yen for four cups of thee and a lecture about Chinese culture, which was, to be honest, quite interesting. Not that bad of course, later we heard much worse stories about people being ‘escorted’ to the ATM machine, but still frustrating. On New Year’s Eve we started talking to some friendly English and American expats in an Irish bar, frequented mostly by old Western men and their way too young Chinese girlfriends. They made it clear to us that we were scammed, something we had considered but still didn’t quite believe before. Joe (Hang-Joe: the way to pronounce Hangzhou), a shy-ish Brit and Karl, a very outgoing guy from LA hitting on his students, told us some insider tips and we had a pretty nice New Years with them and their friends. After walking from one empty or unfriendly bar to the next we had almost given up on a good night when we came into Oscars Pub. That also seemed a bit dodgy with elderly men organizing a drinking contest and free, blue drinks with raunchy names to get the women drunk, but once you find some good company!
Particularly the sentence 'I am totally Chinese' in Mandarin stuck for a while. They claimed that when you say this the locals know they ought to give you the local price. It seemed useful, but clearly we mispronounced it and just started to get better prices as we learned the value of things in time. At the end of the night Joe shared a taxi with us to our neighborhood and walked us back in the direction of the hostel. We planned on going out to have dinner with them later on, but unfortunately lost Joe's phone number!
We left for Nanjing on the second of January and checked into a central youth hostel. The neighborhood was nice; very colourful with lots of shops, restaurants, and markets. The architecture is also more traditional here than in Shanghai. Yesterday (our first full day) we walked to the Mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen via the mountains near the city and had a great view of the misty city. After that it became so cold we returned to the hostel, we were absolutely freezing! Fortunately this will be the most Northern place we visit, because we have had enough of the cold! After warming up again we ate at a hotpot restaurant, which was okay but for the fact that we but we forgot to order the hotpot itself and just got the raw vegetables at first. There was no English menu, so we just went around asking the other guests what they had and whether they could tick the boxes on our menulist. After a lot of sign language we could finally eat! Another tricky thing with hotpot dinners is how to get the smell out of your clothes afterwards; you can smell it for days on end!
This morning, I suddenly realised I had accidentally thrown away our new train tickets to Hangzhou. I mistook them for the old ones from Shanghai to Nanjing. That happens when you start tidying up your backpack after a very long and tiring day. Unfortunately when we got back to the hostel they had just emptied the trash! The lady at the counter helped us find the trash and had four trashmen/women dig through it! We were so embarrassed! They were incredibly friendly and even found one of the tickets! Marije returned hers for part of the cash and now we are going to Hangzhou tomorrow by bus! Hopefully, it will be a bit warmer there!
I guess this is as long as a blog entry should get! I hope I can update more regularly when we are out of China because the internet is incredibly slow here and sometimes shuts down for no reason at all. There is also no facebook (blocked by the government) so I can't put pictures online till we reach Hong Kong. I hope you are all well! I miss my Dutch sandwich with cheese!

x Sanne

Posted by sanneastri 01:52 Archived in China Tagged new years hot shanghai pot nanjing thee-ceremony Comments (0)

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