We didn’t know a lot about Ninh Bình, only what Cynthia had posted, so we checked into the Green Papaya home stay and googled what to do. The Green Papaya is in a quiet residential neighbourhood, several hundred meters from down town but a nice location if you are happy to explore. From google we determined that there were a couple of main destinations, the Trang An area with the Trang An Grottoes, Hoàn Lu Temple & Citadel and Tam Coc area with Hang Mua viewpoint, its rice fields, boat ride and Bich Dong Pagoda. As most of these are only a few k’s from town and a few k’s apart we decided the best way to explore them was by bike.
We had heard this region was famous for its goat dishes so after dropping the bikes at the Homestay we headed back out to explore food offerings. The great thing about exploring a new town is what you stumble across, the local soccer teams readying for the evenings battle, the beer garden full of drunk men chatting loudly, the wet market with local delicacies chicken, goat, dog, pig!! (And remember ‘puppy is not just for Christmas, leftovers are great on Boxing Day’....)
We ended up back in down town Ninh Binh and ‘The courtyard’ restaurant which offered local mountain goat (not dog) which we were keen to try. We sat down to a couple of craft beers and goat two ways;
*traditional- De Tai Chanh which is thinly sliced goat seasoned with fried garlic and shallots and local herbs and blanched in lime juice and served with a range of green leaves and shrimp paste. To eat you roll up the goat in the leaves, dip in the paste and consume, really tasty,
*contemporary- Goat burger, probably doesn’t need a description, but also tasty.
Early the next morning we hopped on our bikes and headed for the Trang An Landscape Complex which is a spectacular landscape of massive limestone pinnacles with almost shear cliffs penetrating through the cultivated valleys and hidden wetlands. The whole area around Ninh Binh has been described as the ‘Halong Bay of the land’ and cycling into it was awe inspiring.
You type in your destination in google maps and head off, taking detours, finding new routes, exploring village as you wish. I’m glad we hired better quality touring bikes as this allowed us to opt for many off-road paths between the paddies and along the river etc. It was well worth it, despite the toll it took on Bea’s butt, the next day she found it painful!
The amazing thing about touring this area by bike is that between the tourist sites you are more or less on your own and the hoards seem to vanish only reappearing at the next ‘must see’ point of interest. Between these you just explore the lanes, the villages, the rice fields and look around in wonder at the majesty of the location.`
The size of the visitors complex and the sheer number of boats line up for visitors indicates that this is a serious tourist destination, however it is efficiently run and the landscape was stunning, and while there are masses of boats in the area it doesn’t really detract from the beauty.
Tam Coc itself is the tourist Mecca of this region and especially the boat ride through the hills and rice paddies. We chose to cycle around this area rather than taking another boat ride, just exploring the backroads and paths around the pinnacles and rice paddies.. still blown away by the scenery and the relative lack of tourists.
As the sun began to set we headed back through Tam Coc town centre, this is obviously where most tourists stay given the bike hire places and abundance of restaurants, to Ninh Binh and the Green Papaya. We were pleased we choose this area to stay as it is obvious they don’t get an abundance of tourists wandering around. Every time we ventured out, whether walking or biking, kids would take delight in yelling out “hello” to you, or running up to give you high-fives or shake your hand. When I say every kid... I mean every kid under the age of 15!
Shattered and needing a beer we headed out that evening to that beer garden full of drunken men talking loudly for a ice cold bevy, some local food and some overly hospitable attention from the local drunks!
Beers in hand we tried to use google translate on the menu- the ‘fried dandruff with melon’ didn’t sound appealing but the recommended ‘beef noodles’ and ‘fried chicken legs with chilli’ sounded safe.... *note to google- chicken leg and chicken feet aren’t the same thing. However if you do need to eat chicken feet then fried with chillies is the best option.
The proprietor seeing we were ok with unusual food then recommended apricot egg leaves with leafy leaves and leaves (according to google) which ended up being tasty leaf and batter pancake, great with beer and chilli sauce and the complimentary tasting of rice wine, 30% ABV, (aka moonshine) that was being served to the locals in large plastic jugs.
Halong Bay is a must see, bucket list item, allegedly.
The bus picked us up at 8.00am for the 2.5hour transfer to our ***star 3day 2night Halong Bay experience. It was shear pandemonium at the port as boat after boat disgorged last nights passengers and swallowed up the next nights all of whom were trying to find luggage, bus transfers, friends etc. Our boat the Seasun (one of them anyway) was perfectly adequate, as was our birth, as was the lunch that was served shortly after departure (Halong was never going to be about the food, or beer).
The next morning started early as we had plenty more experiences to experience. 8.00am (after breakfast, ditto food note) it was off to the Pearl Farm to see how they use oysters to transform a small round ball into an object of desire. We were thoughtfully also given ample time to purchase one of these objects should we wish. Experience 4 was followed quickly by experience 5- kayaking, around aforementioned pearl farm, crazy I know.
Day three - transfer back to the cruise boat, via dingy, Cat Ba Island, day boat, etc and while Belinda undertook the last of our Halong experiences, how to roll fresh spring rolls, I chose to skip it for the views.
We arrived back in Hanoi at about 5.30 where a corner selling bia hoi and delicious beef noodles and pork ribs was waiting.
In fact Halong bay is incredibly stunning and I feel really worth visiting but just experience the bay and the local life within it not the ‘experiences’. If we had our time again we would try to avoid the cruises and try and do it on your own, not even sure that this is possible but on the way back we noticed a home stay at an actual local fish farm, with guests so they got there somehow.
We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that the first taxi ride in any new country will, very likely be a rip off. You are arriving at an airport or train station or bus station, you’re tired and you just want to get to the hotel... easy prey. To decrease the rip off we shared the cab ride (lets say ride-share as he had no signs or meter) from the bus station into Hanoi’s old quarter with Abby, a zoology graduate from country New South Wales, who we met on the bus. We checked into the Hanoi Pho Hotel and a room that proves you get what you pay for and we paid $22.00!! then headed out to re-explore the old quarter.
It had been a few years since we had been here last and it still had the same vibrancy though the traffic felt a little more aggressive and the streets a little more touristy. We tried to find a cool brew pub I had frequented in the past but it had sadly closed. Heading back to the hotel we stopped at a street vender for some really good Banh Cuon (steamed rice rolls stuffed with mushrooms and minced shallots) and a couple of beers.....Hanoi was always going to be about the food...and beer.
Bia Hoi is local beer that is kegged each night and delivered very early each morning as it has no preservatives and is so fresh it has to be drunk within 24 hrs, street venders tap the keg and pour directly into glasses.
We had read about a restaurant near the west lake that had preserved its ration era ambiance called Trade Shop #37 so we thought we should check it out that evening, it was nice and the decor cool but... street food still gets my vote. On the way back to the hotel we passed another lively street corner with several venders selling bia hoi and food.. Dinner when we return from Halong bay sorted.
....Three days later it didn’t disappoint the food was great and the intersection endlessly entertaining.
One of the joys of travelling without a fixed schedule is your ability to change on a whim. Belinda’s friend Cynthia had recently facebooked about her stay in Ninh Binh, it looked amazing so we thought what the heck lets nip down and check it out. We asked at the hotel about train tickets, $15.00 each, not bad, but I had seen on the web a price of $10.00 so we strolled the 10 minutes to the train station to see if it was cheaper there- $4.50 each!!! ie a saving of $21.00 or 96 bia hois. On the way to the station there is a point where you can actually walk along the tracks with a quite amazing back story.
For the journey to Hanoi we took the “bus trip from hell”, well that’s how it’s described in the many forums or blogs. It’s a 24 hour sleeper bus trip (or 30 as some people said) and a new experience for us! We loaded up on snacks and headed to the bus station, the bloggers had noted that you can’t get food along the way.
The seating was basically three rows of bunk beds! All the seats on the bus were ‘almost’ fully reclinable with your feet under the head rest of the seat in front. Unfortunately the seats were a couple of inches too short for me, and as many of the seats were broken (ours included) you were reclined the whole trip, even the unbroken seats only went to about 45 degrees. The top row had good windows. The bottom you only had a small strip higher up so couldn’t see out properly (we were in the bottom).
I watched as small rural Lao villages, lit by street lamps, slipped past my slit window before slowly drifting to sleep. At around midnight they turned on the lights, woke everyone and made them get off for a pee!! Boys to the front of the bus girls to the back - no chance to be precious then!!!
At about 5.00am we arrived at the border and as it didn’t open until 7.00am, we had time to sleep without rolling. The actual border crossing was “ok”. We did get a fair bit of trouble with our apec card which we expected. Airports see these cards all the time.... upland border crossings....not so much. They spent what felt like an eternity inspecting the card, looking at both sides, sniffing it (It didn’t smell like a diplomat). We both got anxious our bus was going to leave, it was about 8.00am and the prospect of hitchhiking wasn’t that appealing!!! They finally understood the card and let us through to rejoin our waiting bus.
After the border crossing many locals got off so we grabbed a couple of the unbroken, upper row seats- much better. This was fortunate as that day we wound our way down through the back roads of the central highlands, the scenery was spectacular. I’ve never seen so many free range ducks, if there is duck on the menu - I’m ordering it!
Despite the ‘no food horror stories’ the bus did stop for lunch of either noodle soups or rice dishes, all rather tasty. I think lying down and not moving we just weren’t hungry, so we finished with our bag full of snacks still.
We arrived into busy, bustling Hanoi around 6.30pm, only half an hour late. So 24.5 hours with the chance to sleep, spectacular views and a tasty lunch actually wasn’t all that bad. The ‘bus trip from hell’ bloggers need to harden up.
After a short bus ride and a un-eventful border crossing, we found ourselves in Lao PDR (aka please don’t rush) which seemed fitting given we were about to undertake the “slow boat” trip to Luang Prabang.
There are two options for the 2 day slow boat... one being the cheap, rickety old boat that jam pack more than 100+ people in like a mass bus trip or the other one that take no more than 40 people, with tables and chairs, lunch provided, a couple of sightseeing stops along the way and accommodation in a hotel at the end of day one. This was one of those times we waived the “taking a bit of luxury” card! Glad we did. We only had 10 of us on the boat, so we had plenty of room to move about, change seats, take a nap on one of the 6 day beds and there was plenty of food. The trip down the mighty Mekong was peaceful. It was pretty amazing to think one side of you is Thailand and one side is Laos. It was a trip I’m glad we did. We stopped at a couple of villages along the way. The first we all felt a little bit intrusive as they stood there staring at us whilst our guide explained the way of life. I kept telling myself though this was a way of getting money into their village as all visitors generally made some sort of donation. This village didn’t have electricity and was currently installing water piping through the village.
I had heard so much about Luang Prabang and yes, it is as nice as people say. I was a little disappointed though as I found the town to be just guest houses, restaurants... and many wats. It is purely a tourist town. Although now heritage listed, which what gives it its charm. Lovely wooden shop houses line the main street giving it the charisma it is known for.
Anyone visiting Luang Prabang, then a visit to Utopia is a must. This is a bar / restaurant that is super cool. It opens all day. You can visit for breakfast and partake in a sunrise yoga session (yup... that didn’t happen!). Or lazy lunch and afternoon beers (which we did) or join the party sessions at night. Whilst there we saw a list of things to do and see and one of them was a visit to the UXO information centre.
Laos is the most the most heavily bombed country in history, and it wasn’t even ‘officially’ involved in the Vietnam war. It happened to have the best access route between North and South Vietnam so the righteous westerners ‘saving the world from communism’ bombed the crap out of it. Because Laos was not part of the ‘war’ there were no rules on what or where bombs could be dropped so everything was a target including villages and anywhere there was a road route.
President Kennedy is filmed, out rightly denying any American involvement in the bombing of Lao, yet in the next clip they film the briefing of the bombers before they take off, then say their prays asking God to look after them and bring their men back safely!! WTF!!??? How about the hundreds of thousands of innocent people your about to kill? What hypocrites. (Sorry I will get off my soap box now).
However the numbers are staggering:
*7 bombs for every man women and child who lived in Laos
We had planned on undertaking a three day trekking, biking and kayaking trip. With the continuous burning and smoke we really were undecided what to do. It was a hard decision and toyed back and forth every day but in the end we opted out. Firstly not sure what part of the forest was being burned, but the smoke was impossible for photos and the smoke was making it hard to breathe. We decided that northern Vietnam would be better!
With heavy heart we left the lovely Laos to make our onward journey to Vietnam.
We arrived in Chiang Saen, what a bustling and vibrant border town it was, Pete instantly fell in love. We planned to dump our backpacks in a locker / left luggage place and look around for a few hours, then head to Chiang Khong. We realised almost instantaneously that this was definitely not a tourist town, no tourist information, no bus timetables...no lockers! Pete had the idea to call into the police station to ask if they knew of anywhere to dump the luggage. The policemen were super nice and said if it was only for the day, we could leave it there with them! (Providing we took any valuables). We thought, that was a pretty safe option!! For their kindness, we ended up buying them a bag of chocolate biscuits and a couple of kilos of oranges to which they were surprised and grateful for.
We took a quick tuk tuk ride up to the ‘golden triangle’ - had to say we had done that! As well as a visit to the Opium Museum before collecting our bags and heading for the long tail.. oh they don’t run any more, bugger, oh well we will just get the bus.. oh the bus doesn’t run on Sunday.. so we found ourselves in the back of the local song taew for the 1hour journey to Chiang Khong.
In Chiang Khong we stayed at the Hub Pub & Funky Box hostel a cheap and cheerful hostel run by Eve and God. The hostel guests are generally backpackers on their way to the Laos border and on to Luang Prabang via the 2 day slow boat. On our arrival we discovered that the boat we wanted to take wasn’t leaving until Wednesday (it was Sunday!). We could however take the rickety cheap boat on Monday along with 100 young back packers! It took us about a nano-second to pull the “we have the option of saying no card” and the upgrade!”. This forced us slow down for a while and spend 2 days discovering Chiang Khong.
Each day consisted of a morning walk along the river, accompanied by our hostel resident “guide dog” Zelda, whom also patiently waited whilst we had our street side bowl of noodles. On one of the days, one of the owners dropped us into the national park with a kayak and fishing rod. A couple of hours were spent in the serenely quiet park on the lake just paddling and fishing. Locals were dotted around the lake either fishing themselves or attending their small farms, one building their bamboo house another herding buffalo his from his canoe.
John and Tracy of Chateau Carter dropped us off at the Chiang Mai bus terminal mid-morning for our onward journey to Chiang Rai. The 200km journey through almost continuous road-works took a little over three and a half hour but the scenery relatively brown now after a long dry season made up for the bumps.
We had visited this area on our honeymoon 26 years ago (to the week) back then we did a 3 day 2 night trek- hiking through the golden triangle, staying with ethnic hill tribes and rafting down the river. We remember this trip fondly - cooking and laughing with a local family as we helped cook dinner, chatting (more gestures and global words .. football...) to their son about the 15km round walk to the village that had electricity to watch football. We hiked, we rafted and yes we took an elephant through the forrest, it all felt authentic but then wandered into ‘more touristy areas’ where locals had started sell trinkets to tourists. Now, seeing the same treks available today we were in two minds, in the end we felt that 25 years of tourism and technology would not have improved the experience, so we choose to stay in Chiang Rai and explore the changes there.
These changes are pretty cool and include two new, wonderfully contemporary Wats and a Black House.
Chiang Rai is not just about the wats, although reading some guides it may seem to be, it is also a great place to just wander and explore. There are traditional villages within the city fabric, street markets selling fresh local produce, vendors touting local snacks and the central market, home to, the very early morning market, the morning market, the afternoon market, the evening market and the night market. There is also the old City Hall that has a great collection of old black & white photos from the past, it is free and surprisingly interesting documenting Chiang Rai’s early days.
In the evenings the tourist flock to the ‘Night Bazaar’ where they can buy typical Thai souvenirs and eat ‘authentic’ Thai hot pots or fried spring rolls while watching a pretty amateur drag show on stage. Not sure we need to experience that again.
One morning we were feeling guilty from our lack of exercise so, given it was so much cooler and less humid than Bangkok, we took the opportunity to get out and exercise. We embarked on a brisk walk to a riverside community park. Although slightly run down, there were many sporting courts and fields and a 1km running track. The walk was interesting and took us through small villages, where the locals loved to yell out “hello” to you.
Located in the grounds of the exclusive Chiang Mai Highlands Resort, Chateau Carter thrives on providing exclusive accomodation for the most discerning guests.
Unfortunately a complete lack of advertising or SMO means that it has become a dosshouse for their dodgy mates.
Like most great resorts they offer a full pick up and drop off service and will drive you anywhere you wish as long as they were going there anyway.
While there is a beautiful alfresco lounge and dining terrace we were made to bring our own food though they did provide wonderful gin tonics and ample wine. A lovely breakfast of exquisitely scrambled eggs with smoked salmon was served in the morning... well late morning.... well lets call it brunch.
The large pool is gloriously refreshing and crystal clear though the lady of the chateau obviously has cataracts as she insisted it was cloudy.
Leaving Bangkok for the start of our journey was surreal.
30 years ago when we headed off on our first European adventure family and fiends came to see us off and wish us well, this time it had all the pomp and circumstance of a trip to the wet market, albeit with a slightly heavier shopping bag.
The two weeks following our return from Japan were hectic, arranging last minute changes to packing lists, arranging last minute bill payments, arranging last minute wild parties and getting fixes at our fav restaurants. Our last day, in contrast, felt normal, we watched the Dockers loose again (1st pre-season friendly) handed the car keys to Nigel and then wandered down to the shuttle boat to cross the Chao Praya. A short ferry then tuk tuk ride later (yes we had to do the cliche bangkok departure) we arrived, way too early, at Hua Lamphong train station.
I love terminus train stations, they they have an air of nostalgic, faded, grandeur. Unlike modern airports that are just giant people processing plants, singular in pace and texture, train stations have a richness of character allowing travellers independence of will and pace.
Business people bustle on and off the commuter trains, families wait on the platform for regional trains back home, back-packers sit in dodgy coffee shops or in groups on the floor whiling away time before boarding an intercity to a new far flung destination.
Hua Lamphong is a classic example of these stations, smaller than most it is grand yet intimate, faded yet colourful, bustling yet relaxed While you may not be able to get a beer you could get a bowl of noodles or free haircut from a track side apprentice.
We boarded the night train bound for Chiang Mai around 7.00pm, The SRT had recently purchased many new sleeper carriages...our’s, unfortunately, was not one of them! It was tired but comfortable and felt appropriately in keeping with the station we were leaving.
With almost Japanese efficiency the trained rolled out at 7.35pm precisely. Shortly after a lovely stewardess offered us “complimentary” orange juice, which would cost us 60baht each the next morning when bills were settled.
Bangkok looks significantly more serene when viewed from a slowly moving train window, mercury vapour lamps give the shops and night markets a dusk like glow
While locals tuck in to bowls of noodles at track side food stalls, we tucked into our picnic dinner of more party leftovers, toasted the start of our our journey (given the alcohol ban with a paper cup or two of sparkling, fermented grape juice) and watched Bangkok give way to rural-ish Thailand. When the scene outside went completely dark we adjourning to bed in the bunks recently made up by the steward.
We woke the next morning, as dawn broke through the bamboo forests of the northern foot hills. As the sun rose we wound our way up though forested valleys past rural villages and small lot farms. These slowly gave way once again to golf courses and urbanity as we approached the outskirts of Chaing Mai
Our friend John met us at the station managing to weed us out from the throngs of back packers as we strolled down the platform ending the first stage of this journey.
I'm stressed about the packing (of course), a year is a long time and not going by any planes means I have to carry that sucker every day! We researched into various backpacks and after our safari to South Africa we did really like the Osprey range. However I found the ones we took on safari were not going to be suitable as I did not like the top opening style, as for sure the stuff I wanted was on the bottom!! So we looked at the full opening ones.
I do however have a slight issue in that I am tall... so I did have our first problem of having to buy a new backpack as the first one wasn't suitable. It is important to make sure you get properly fitted or do some research into how the backpack should fit you.
Then a lot of research went into what to actually pack. Thankfully for many YouTube bloggers providing much advice!
So what has gone into the backpack (note this will probably change on Monday!!!!!)....
5 pairs of Uniglo undies (we took 3 on our 6 week trip to Japan - too hard to keep washing) Uniglo are the best!! Super lightweight and dries very fast!
3 pairs of socks (not all too thick as hiking boots are quite hot)
One pair of thermals (top & bottoms) (yup Uniglo again!! 3 weeks of skiing these never let me down!)
1 dress (managed to get a reversible one from a hiking store - so can dress it up to go out for dinner, can be casual and made out of suitable material for hiking
1 pair of shorts
1 pair of zip off hiking pants (so have 2 shorts and a long pair of pants)
1 pair of board shorts - that are suitable to run and do fitness in, swim and also nice enough to wear as shorts during the day
1 pair of hiking pants that can also look smart
2 short sleeved tops that are made from merino wool (very important point! Merino takes the sweat and constant washing without smelling... unlike your sports wear shirts!)
1 long sleeved t-shirt that can be worn layered with the short sleeve or by itself.
1 medium warm jacket (also wind resistant)
1 down jacket that can be super squashed down as that will hardly be used but when its freezing... nothing wearing a duvet!
1 pair of very light weight sport shoes, can run and walk in
1 pair of hiking boots
1 pair of walking sandals that are also suitable to wear out to dinner
That's it!!... its all about layering!
Makeup was a little difficult but thankfully I'm not a person who cant go out without makeup! I don't like wearing it that much, but to go out it is nice to put on. So taking the very very basics! Foundation, powder, blush, one small eyeshadow mix, mascara and 1 lipstick
Toiletries... yep time to forget all the creams and lotions!! Nothing is going! Small deodorant, travel toothpaste, toothbrush and small shampoo that you can refill as you go.
What else to pack? The age of electronic gadgets don't help! Iphone and apple watch both need chargers but thankfully we both have them, so only one charger to share. We have an iPad Pro to share and a battery pack.
Being photographers this was the killer one! In the end after much discussions we are taking one camera to share (Petes is the better camera so that is going) with 2 lenses and after much deliberation one tripod. We did end up buying me a small pocket canon which will be good for blogging or social media etc.
Our luxury item (we all need one luxury item) is a hand held coffee grinder! When we were in Japan we came across this neat little fold up drip holder, super light weight.
Then there is the rain element... so we have backpack covers, a poncho and one small pocket umbrella which we discovered was needed on our Japan trip mainly to cover the camera!
Packing has been stressful for me. But someone said to me... don't worry about changing clothes, just change cities!