Tour Number 1: Best of Cambodia and Vietnam (Intrepid)

Full details of the intended trip can be found on the Intrepid Website.

Link to Travel Diary (Southern Vietnam).

14th November - Hanoi

After breakfast, I said my goodbyes as Andrew and Amber, and Paul and Jane headed off. They've all been on the trip we me since Bangkok and have been great, I was sorry to see them go, I'll especially miss the Short History of Nearly Everything inspired conversations with Paul. I then had a full day to wander around Hanoi and get a feel for the place.

Spent most of the day in the Old Quarter, 36 streets each named after the type of shop it contains. Hardware, opticians, leather, perfume. It's also the main area for backpacker hotels and travel agents which arrange tours out of Hanoi. I booked myself a 3 day / 2 night trip out into rural Vietnam. I get a private car with driver and a local guide for the whole 3 days with accommodation and food for the 3 of us, $250 total, all in. I set off tomorrow and I'm really looking forward to it.

This week Hanoi is full of world leaders who are here for the APEC leaders meeting. As usually happens in these circumstances the government have done everything they can to show the city in a good light. The APEC banners are everywhere, welcoming delegates. Also there are police everywhere all in their new uniforms. I've heard that also all the street children have been rounded up and put into detention for the duration of the meeting. The police are very visible and on every street corner, now and again you hear a siren and the police step out and forcefully where necessary stop the traffic and let a group of delegates cars speed through. Also there are squads going around moving any hawkers, bars or restaurants that have set up on the pavements away or indoors. In many ways it makes being a tourist here a nicer experience.

I had lunch at a first floor restaurant and watched world go by. The stereotype picture of Vietnamese women walking around in their conical (or should that be comical) hats and and their wares carried on a piece of wood across their shoulders is real and all around. It's great watching them they walk so upright to keep the weight straight through their backs and walk in time with the bouncing of the pole. Video to download.

15th November - Mai Chau

Up early to prepare for my trip to Mai Chau. I had booked a private trip for 3 days with my own driver and guide. I expected to have a middle aged bloke to accompany me for the trip but when I got to reception I was amazed to see a beautiful young girl waiting for me ;-) Three days in the middle of rural Vietnam, peace, quiet and a work of art as my companion. I'll have to be careful what I say as she is helping me write these entries!

We set off at 8 and headed out through the mopeds towards the edge of Hanoi. It took nearly an hour before we hit the real countryside. Soon the hills started to get bigger and more and more old women were working in the fields with hand tools, digging, reaping and sowing the rice. We stopped at a village market to stretch our legs and have a look around. We bought a big bag of mandarins from the lady in the picture, a huge bag for 40p. After about 3 1/2 hours we were at the top of the mountain pass and way below us in a flat plain surrounded by the hills was Mai Chau. Mai Chau is a district containing a town and some small villages. We passed through the main town of Mai Chau to Lac, which means a small village in the fields.The people in this area are of Thai Den (Black Thai) decent and in addition to speaking Vietnamese they also have their own language.

After a lovely lunch of local style food, rice, fried vegetables, fried pork, fried chicken, cucumber and mandarins we set off for a walk to the next village to visit Hang's friend Xuan. We had some tea (which is served very strong) and a big plate of cucumber which tastes nicer than that found in England. So nice in fact that Hang finished the whole plate full. She is only 43kgs but she can sure eat a lot. We then headed on further and sat on the edge of a dam and watched the daily life. Men were in the fields catching crickets which they eat fried. A lady passed by carrying a basket of water lilies which are used for feeding the pigs. At 5pm everyone in the fields finished work and headed home across the dam to their village. Left, Hang on the dam. Right, Hang's friend Xuan at her house.

Again some great food, although despite loving Asian food I think even I would get bored of rice meat and veg after a while. Later the Grandfather of the house who is 83 made up my room, he hangs some sheets from the beams for walls, lays my futon on the floor and puts mosquito net over the bed. It is soon time for bed, this area rises with the sun and goes to bed equally early.

My 'bedroom' as shown to the right was between the 2nd and 3rd pillars just in front of my bags.

Left is our dinner, rice, spring rolls, frog 'fishcakes', fried cabbage, homemade potato crisps bananas.

After waking up with the cockerel at day break I took a refreshing cold shower and we headed out of Lac in a different direction to explore the area some more. We passed through a meadow with a rocky hills rising to either side. Men were working on the hillsides quarrying rock and felling trees for building. After passing through the village we were out into the paddies. Everywhere you go in this area there are animals. Traditionally they lived in houses built on stilts with the living area on the first floor and space for the animals below. But nowadays it appears that they can not put up with the smell of the buffalo, pigs, chickens etc and use the area under the house to store machinery and the animals have separate pens outside the house. In the rice paddies there are buffalo and ducks and there are chickens running around everywhere.

And another lovely meal of rice and meat and veggies we headed off to get some exercise. On the otherside of Mai Chau there is a set of steps up the hillside leading to some caves. We were told it was quite a climb and to take a lot of water and they weren't kidding. Bare in mind that it is about 35 degrees and quite humid. We set off and counted the steps as we climbed. 100, 200, 300 and we had hardly started. 700, 800, 900 and although a long way up the top was still not in sight. Finally after 1203 steps we reached the cave. From the top there was a fantastic view of Mai Chau, the hills that surround the area and the road down the hillside that has been cut into the rock.

The steps rise from the road into the distance up the hillside. The view from half way up, you can see the town below and in the distance the road cut into the hillside. After a lot of huffing and puffing and drinking and sweating we finally reach the top.

After the exertions of the day we had a quiet night. I got out my laptop and we had look at some of my photos from earlier in the trip and from previous trips. Hang is 24 with a degree in English and has a qualification in Tourism, she has been a Tour Guide for 3 years and her English is great. In fact she helped me write these last two days of entries. She is from a village 50km outside of Hanoi and I find that she has not even been to Hue or Ho Chi Minh let alone abroad, so my photos fascinated her. She's hoping in the next year to be able to go to Ho Chi Minh and is planning a big trip to Thailand in the not too distant future, both to see the country and to see how tour guides operate there. She feels Thailand has a more developed tourist industry and that she will be able to learn a lot.

17th November - Mai Chau

Up early early after another patchy nights sleep. My body isn't made for life in a Vietnamese home. We spend all day sat on the floor, they have cushions but they are solid, like the cushions you get to kneel on when you are in church. Hang says she prefers sitting on the floor to using a chair but I certainly don't! The Vietnamese when sitting on a chair often sit with their feet tucked in to their bum and their knees in their chest. Given the small size of most chairs over here I can barely get one cheek onto the chair. My bed was a futon, and a very thin and hard futon at that, you can never really get comfortable. Add in the constant noise of the animals and a guy snoring in a bed on the floor below and I didn't get all that much sleep. As you can see on the left, someone with a 23in waist can sit on the stools a lot easier than I can.

The view from the main road looking back towards Lac. A common sight, rice paddies stretching into the distance and a woman working. It's always the women dong the work, my kind of country!

Our last day in Mai Chau and we decided to make the most of the peace and quiet before heading back to the noise and hassle of Hanoi. We went across to Xaun's house again. We watched Xuan making a bracelet, had some more incredibly strong tea and I sat the the top of her steps and watched village life. The cows ambling through the village as if they own the place, some villagers were catching some pigs, tying up their legs and carrying them on a bamboo pole hung between two of them on their shoulders. The pigs were making one hell of a racket squealing, I think they knew they were off the market. Two guys were trying to shoot a chicken with a cross-bow, the unlucky chicken was to a part of tonight's dinner.

Xuan making a wool bracelet. The picture in the centre shows my bracelet. I know Claret and Blue and Yellow is Aston Villa but it was the closest she had to the Hammers colours.

Hang with some sticky rice in bamboo, Xaun had made some especially for Hang to eat and to take home to her brother.Soon it was lunchtime, we then packed up our bags and headed back to Hanoi. I really enjoyed my time in Mai Chau. I only hope that Mai Cha doesn't become too commercialised. The main town is already expanding and may lose its character. Lac is still gorgeous and I hope it stays just the way it is.

18th November - Hanoi

Had a bit of a lie in, I don't need much sleep to function, but it is nice to get a few extra hours sleep now and again. Then had a quiet morning wandering around Hanoi.

After lunch I headed out to the Temple of Literature. A famous centre of learning in Hanoi. It was set up in 1010 and dedicated to Confucius 50 years later the first University of Hanoi was set up alongside. I found out later that I was lucky I chose to go along in the afternoon and not the morning. Earlier all the first wives (and the first husband from New Zealand) were there for a tour and the whole area had been sealed off.

Because of APEC the Temple of Literature had been tarted up and throughout the grounds there was an exhibition of bonsai trees. In the temple itself there was an exhibition of embroidery which was amazing. There were landscapes and still life pictures, but the most impressive were the portraits. It is a fantastic time to be in Hanoi. They Vietnamese authorities have toughened up on Visas and there are very few tourists in Hanoi so whenever they see a white man at a tourist spot they assume you are a delegate and you get treated so well. They rush to give you the prepared information and often the card of their shop in the city. Earlier in the day when I walked through town I passed through the area where the Hilton and the other big hotels are. The whole area was sealed off to locals but being white I could walk straight through, a few days ago when I walked through the roads and pavements were full.

In the evening I found a Czech Brewhouse. Brewing on-site its own pilsner and dark beer. After 3 weeks on the road drinking Tiger and the like it was heaven. Also they had an 'interesting' menu and cross between Czech and Vietnamese and basically all the more unappetising parts of each cuisine. Pigs trotter, intestine, grass hopper, cricket, sparrow and the dubiously named fried green stuff. I tried the cricket which tasted quite non-descript and sparrow which you eat bones and all. But I shyed away from the Grilled Pigs Prick as shown in the menu below.

Two sparrows (left) looking like something out of Jurassic Park and Fried Crickets (right).

19th November - Hanoi

My last day in Hanoi before I join my new group and we head off towards China. I still had a lot to see and I paced quite a bit in. Up early and off to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh is currently in Russia for his yearly wash and brush up but Madame Tusauad's had done a good job and they had a good stand in. The whole visit was an experience. The area around the Mausoleum was sealed off and before we could enter we had to hand over over bags and cameras and then go through airport style security. We were then taken in single file about 100yrds down to the entrance. There were scary looking guards all round. We then passed through the Mausoleum which was built of 3ft thick stone throughout. We went through at a slow pace, but there was no stopping, no talking and in fact you didn't dare do anything much at all. The Vietnamese in front me started crying and stopped to savour the moment but they were told to keep moving in no uncertain terms.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, notice the Vietnamese flags on the right and the Hammer and Sickle flags to the left. The hammer and sickle is everywhere.

Afterwards we passed the Presidential Palace which Ho Chi Minh only lived in for a few years and then on to Ho Chi Minh's House which he moved into and spent the last 11 years of his life because he wanted to live simply like his people. Next the One Pillar Pagoda and on to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Lots of newspaper cuttings and inspirational words from Uncle Ho along with some arty stuff to signify the struggle against the oppressors etc.

The Museum of Ethnology next. This is dedicated to the 54 different ethnic groups that make up Vietnam and also a bit about the country's history. The facial looks, the distribution, Costumes, House designs etc. The most interesting part was an area devoted to the period from 1975 to 1986 when Vietnam was under the Subsidy Economy. The most surprising part was the introduction; 'The period of the "Subsidy Economy" has been known as a time of hardships, when mechanism for socio-economic management was inappropriate, causing privations in people's material and spiritual life. Material life was poor due to a sluggish and inefficient production system, but the constraints also applied to people's creative and spiritual endeavours.' I think that's about as close as a Communist Country gets to saying we got it wrong! Everything was controlled by the state. Food was rationed and people could not even own a bicycle unless officially sanctioned.

There was also an open air-exhibition of the houses of 15 of the different groups. All the house had been constructed by the groups themselves on the site using traditional methods. It was great to wander around and being a big exhibition it was easy to find peace and quiet and get away from other tourists.

My last stop for the day was the Temple in the Restored Sword Lake which gave great views around the lake. Did a bit of shopping, had another nice meal and headed back to the hotel. I've had a great time in Hanoi and Mai Chau between my organised trips, it's a pity I have to move on.

20th November - To Cat Ba Island (Halong Bay)

Today's a travel day. About 6 hours by bus and then local ferry from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. I always like the travel days, you to see some much more of the real life of the people. The ferry made one stop on the way and it dropped off supplies the photo shows the scene at dockside. As of today I'm travelling with a new group. 5 of them are from a group who travelled from Bangkok to Hanoi via Loas, 2 Scotsmen, a 40-something Welshman, an American Phd student and an Icelandic girl, Christine. We've also got an Lynn, 40-something I guess from deepest darkest Queensland and a guy in his 30s from Toronto. The tour leader Erin, she's from San Diego.

We took a walk around the small town that we're staying in and then soon it was sun-set and the bay looked more beautiful than ever. Red Sky at night shepherd's delight! Tonight's meal as always was good and interesting. I introduced the group to cooking your own beef on a stove at the table. Delicious. But we couldn't say the same of the wine. At first it looked good a choice of 5 wines all 20,000 (60p). So a few of the group ordered some. But, the waitress went to the back of the restaurant and poured the wine from the jars which looked like dead animals in formaldehyde. It was rice wine with dead animal in it! Now that's not something you see every week. At about 7:30 the wind started to get up and lightning started to light up the sky. Soon it was pissing down, cats and dogs doesn't half tell the story. As the storm got closer the mains power to the area was cut and all the places that had generators fired them up. Now and again you'd see someone who'd been caught in the rain (invariably a tourist) and they looked like drowned rats. It must be a common thing around here because the same thing happened the next night too. I'm just thinking how lucky we were to have a calm night when we slept on the boat last week. I pity the locals sleeping on their bamboo rafts covered with a flimsy tarpaulin.

If you look closely at the bottles you can see the animals. The snakes are most obvious. The second from the left on the bottom row is the honeycomb, the third from the left in the middle row is some kind of bird. The bottom right bottle, I think it's best not to know what's in there.

21st November - Cat Ba Island (Halong Bay)

What a day. I'm totally knackered. An adventure day on Cat Ba Island. We set off at 8:30 for a moped tour of the island. I love riding around on the back of the mopeds, wind in your hair, local life passing you bay. The island's quite hilly but my man and his moped got me around, those little Hondas are quite powerful.

We then sped off around the island some more and over to The National Park. The energetic (and not hungover) members of the group then went for a trek to the top of one of the peaks. The route wasn't marked and but for Ngoc (our guide) we'd have been lost in no time. We fought our way through the forest (jungle) climbing and scrambling over the tree roots and the rocks. It was steep and after last night's downpour, quite slippery. All in all it took about an hour before we got to the top. One last awkward bit and we were on the plateau at the top of the peak. The view of all the other peaks, forest and the flat fertile land with the villages far below was fantastic.

First stop was a set of caves dug into the hills. They were used by Vietnamese in the American War. A huge complex cut into the rock. Very box like rooms and some very big. A room they used as a cinema for over 100 people to watch the war news reels and propaganda films. A hospital, kitchen, games room for the Generals. The guy in the picture and General (and War Hero) showed us around, he was great fun (or guide interpreted for him). After he showed us photos of him with previous visitors. He'd say Vietnam with American, we're all friends now!

At the top of the peak was a quite rickety looking rusty iron tower which must've stood another 30ft or so high. We left Lynn and Rob at the bottom with Ngoc, an me and Tony climbed up to the top. The picture above shows the view straight down from the top of the tower. The sign at the top of the peak said it was 225m above sea-level, climbing up it seemed a lot more, and looking down from the top of the tower with a little tremor in the knees it looked a lot higher.

Chris and Adam were the ones that felt hungover and ducked out of the climb, instead they sped off on a moped Chris on the front, Adam on the back. Chris hadn't ridden much in the past and it looked like an accident waiting to happen to me and sure enough when we got back we found that Chris had lost control (whilst doing a bit more than the 30mph that the locals do) and they had ploughed through some quite solid posts and a fence and flew off the bike in different directions. Both were shaken and had a few cuts and bruises but it could've been a lot worse. At least they are fit enough to carry on the tour, but they ducked out of the afternoons kayaking.

The Intrepid 4 from this morning plus Christine headed out on a boat around the island for our afternoons kayaking. The scenery is spectacular around the whole of Halong Bay and we were lucky the weather was perfect and everything was far clearer than last time we were up here. The rocks and islands a lot more more distinct and the colours of all the vegetation clinging to the cliffs far more vivid. The reflections of the floating fishing villages with their bamboo decking shining clearly in the the water. Already quite tired from the couple of hours of trekking in the morning we jumped into our kayaks at about 2pm. Nice we thought a leisurely paddle around for a while, perfect. In around the islands and bays the water was quite flat but there were some distinct currents which at times made paddling and more importantly steering anything but an exact science.

Left, Lynn and Ngoc. Never a good sign when your guide is wearing a life jacket!

Ngoc was leading us around but he was playing with us. I'm sure he could have kept a straighter route had he tried. He would veer left and we would follow and then he'd veer back right. It was OK for him, he had a tight turning circle but for us with the turning circle of a truck it was a big problem. After about an hour of paddling our arms were ready to drop off. we shouted to Ngoc, 'Where's the beach?', 'Just after the next mountain' he'd reply. He never told us which bloody mountain. Finally we turned a corner and he pointed out the beach on the island straight ahead. 100 yards or so, we could easily make it. But it was straight into the current, two strokes forward one stroke back, eventually we hit land and rather stiffly climbed out of the boats. After a bit of a rest we headed back to the boat which thankfully was only about 15 minutes away, 'Just after the next mountain'. The kayaking was great fun but nearly 2 hours of paddling I'm going to ache in the morning!

Link to Travel Diary (China).