We flew down from Hanoi to the Central Vietnamese city of Da Nang but as we wanted a bit of a change from all that city noise and chaos, opted to travel a little further south to the ancient small town of Hoi An. We were lucky enough to find a lovely AirBnB a couple of kilometres outside the town with gorgeous gardens, sun terrace and pool….
Our AirBnb provided bikes for free and this was the easiest way to get into and around the town. Good exercise too, and a way to work off some of the food and beer!
We loved Hoi An which is a beautiful little town although quite touristy. However we were enjoying the bikes so much that we thought we’d go a little further on our last full day, so we cycled a few miles out to the beach. An Bang beach was the first we had visited since leaving India and we were again taken by surprise at how clean, organised and frankly glamourous it was! It was busy with loads of people enjoying the clean golden sand, shallow warm water, water sports, beach bars and beautiful views out to the Cu Lao Cham islands. We treated ourselves to lunch at “The Shore Club” and spent some time ruminating on how lucky we were to be there!
January 23rd is Paul’s birthday and as things worked out this was a travelling day for us. We had train tickets for the night sleeper from Da Nang leaving at 10.40 pm for the 10 1/2 journey south to the resort city of Nha Trang. We spent a few hours in Da Nang and liked it more than we had expected to. The city had beachside boulevards that seemed to stretch for miles along the coast, and also some impressive river frontages, full of modern buildings, including big name hotels. These seemed to vie with one another for the best neon and LED light shows as it started to get dark, but for us The Novotel was probably the best…
After finding the nicest restaurant we could at short notice for a birthday meal we arrived at the station in good time. The night journey really wasn’t too bad at all.
We have a few days in Nha Trang over the New Year holiday, we hope a few restaurants and bars will still be open.
After a fairly short flight from Vientiane in Laos we arrived in Vietnam in the late afternoon of 17th January. I had been quite apprehensive about immigration procedures between SE Asian countries, but in reality the immigration officers at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi barely looked at our passports before stamping them in and seemed generally quite bored with the whole process. We got the public bus from the airport into the city which was easy and cheap, then shouldered our backpacks for the 20 minute walk into the Old City and arrived at our Airbnb at about 6pm. Our digs were located right in the centre of the old quarter and looked to be on ‘pots and pans’ street, as every other shop had pavement displays of huge metal bowls, utensils and catering sized steel urns for cooking and heating water. The street was noisy, busy and chaotic and we worried we’d struggle to sleep, but luckily found that our apartment was located 2 floors up with good sound insulation! The weather in Hanoi was pretty grey, drizzly from time to time and quite cold! It was a bit of a shock as we’d grown used to sunshine every day; we actually had to dig out our raincoats for the first time since North India!
Our Airbnb host, Phuong, suggested we go to the night market only a few hundred metres away. In Vietnam at the moment everything is being set up for the 2020 Tet Nguyen (New Year) celebrations, so the streets were full of lights flowers and street performers. Next year will be the “Year of the Mouse” so there were many mouse motifs, gold and red models and in one case real live mice for sale.
The following morning we were up bright and early to meet with our tour guide Giang (pronounced Zan) for our tour around the Old City. Giang was a very sweet university student who was able to give us lots of information about the old city and Vietnam in general. She also helped with purchase of a new SIM for the phone which was really helpful.
On our last evening we walked around Ho Hoan Kiem lake and looked around the temple in the centre before visiting the famous Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre.
We only had 3 nights in Hanoi and it went very quickly. On 20th January we got up quite early and shouldered our back packs once again to walk down to the minibus pickup point and catch the shuttle back to Hanoi airport. For the next part of our Vietnam journey, we opted for the 1 hour flight to the city of Da Nang and the nearby old town of Hoi An as this would save us a train journey of around 13 hours down the coast. Taking yet another flight is causing us some pangs of conscience in these days of global warming, but it’s a fact that the flight option can be so much easier, quicker and cheaper than booking a sleeper train or bus. However, after a couple of days exploring Hoi An we will then take a night train further south down the coast of Vietnam to the tourist city of Nha Trang. The Tet Nguyen celebrations kick off in earnest while we are there so we plan to hang around in the city for a few days and enjoy the festivities. Beyond Nha Trang we couldn’t get a train further south because they were all booked, presumably by people returning to work after the holiday. On 28th January we will catch a daytime bus from Nha Trang down to Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by most of the locals). It’s a 10 1/2 hour journey so we will definitely need some good audiobooks and a few yummy snacks and drinks that day!
Luang Prabang by Alison We didn’t know what to expect of Luang Prabang but quickly realised why the town is a Unesco World Heritage site. There are more than 30 Buddhist Temples there, old and new, many of which are ornate and colourful. Back in the colonial age, Laos was ruled by the French who have left a legacy of French colonial architecture in many of the old houses and commercial buildings. The result is a very calm, pretty and stylish town centre, one of the few places we visited where we both thought we could settle down and live for a while. The streets are lined with upmarket clothes shops and others selling artwork and gorgeous home accessories. A lot of the cafes, bakeries and restaurants seemed to be run by French people, or at least along French lines, so there was a lot of wine and good food – we even saw home produced foie gras on offer at one of the wine bars! There was a good night market with food at the end of the main street; shopping and eating here also seemed a well organised and very civilized way to spend the evening. In spite of being only a few steps from the town centre, our homestay Ssen Mekong Boutique Accommodation was in an even more relaxed area as it was on the quiet street alongside the Mekong with a great view from the small breakfast terrace down to the River. In the evenings, the restaurants along our road lit their terraces with thousands of fairy lights, so eating overlooking the great river was a magical experience!
A popular day trip from Luang Prabang is a visit to the Kuang Si waterfall. We set out quite early in the morning to avoid the crowds but almost the first people we saw were Florence and Chris from our riverboat trip! We met them on the path which passes through a sanctuary for rescued moon bears (https://freethebears.org). The bears are captured so their bile can be harvested for Chinese medicine although this is an illegal practice. There was no charge to see the bears, but visitors were encouraged to buy merchandise or make a donation. We felt happy to donate, as the bears seemed comfortable and in good condition and they were really cute! The organisation takes advantage of the thousands of daily visitors to the waterfall, and must be doing quite well as they are planning to open up a much bigger bear sanctuary in Laos. After this we felt we needed a bit of exercise so took the steep 20 minutes scramble up to the top of the waterfall.
We really didn’t feel our few days in Luang Prabang were enough and would happily have stayed there for longer. Lots of people from the UK visit Thailand for it’s gorgeous beaches (will be checking them out in a few weeks – it’s a hard old life!). However as a more adventurous alternative, we can really recommend our recent itinerary, starting in Chaing Mai, Thailand then crossing into Laos to take the river boat down to Luang Prabang before moving on to the fun activities of Vang Vieng, then coming home via Laos’s capital Vientiane and Bangkok.
One thing we have noticed about Laos is that it’s more expensive than we expected – everything is costing around twice what it did in India and we have gone well over budget already. However, we’ve seen and done some amazing things and we’re hoping that some quiet days on the beach in Vietnam during their New Year celebrations will help us rein our spending back a bit!
Vang Vieng by Paul So on to Vang Vieng in a 5 hour mini-bus ride through the mountains. The reputation of Vang Vieng was pretty bad a few years ago with 22 tourists drowning in the river in 2011. “Tubing” which consists of floating down the very rocky river in big tyre inner tubes and stopping to drink at the many bars along the river was the cause. The authorities decided this needed to be curtailed, and these days you can still tube along the river, but there are far fewer bars and there are many other activities in the town to get involved in. Our adventures were all along the river and were well organised by The Wonderful Tour Co and quite safe!
Away from the river based activity we hiked up Phangern, a nearby mountain, one day. The path was pretty tough, but the views from the top were spectacular.
After 2 quite contrasting stays in Laos we are on the move again, with an overnight stay in the capital city (Vientiane) and on to Vietnam.
At the Teak Garden Riverfront Hotel in Chiangkhong we got our first glimpse of the Mekong River and Laos on the far bank. The hotel was very comfortable with a lovely terrace complete with infinity pool overlooking the river. The Mekong itself is wide, rather brown and has a surprisingly swift and strong current which may account for why few boats seem to ply the river this far north.
The following morning we arrived bright and early at the border for the crossing into Laos. There were no queues so it was fairly easy and painless – the Lao officials stamped us in with minimal fuss. At the border we also met a few other people who would be our on-board companions for the next couple of days. Luckily they all seemed to be fun people who were looking forward to the trip as much as we were. They also had interesting travel stories to tell!
The Hartshorns – an amazing family of 6 from Seattle, USA who are world travelling for 14 whole months! http://www.hartshornhopscotch.com. We really admire how Mum, Anya and Dad, Michael are managing parenting, organising, home schooling and still making sure everyone has a great time. Of course it helps that their 4 boys are all fully engaged and committed to the family goals for their incredible year!
Through Northern Laos the Mekong River flows between unspoiled, wild landscapes with few signs of human habitation. The banks are often steep and rocky with dangerous outcrops on either side of the river. At this time of year the water swirls and eddies over the stony bed and from time to time we saw scary whirlpools close to the boat. Our captain had to concentrate carefully on his route and on one occasion when everyone surged to one side of the boat for a good view, he urgently shouted for the passengers to sit down and re-balance the boat. For us, the 2 day journey was a delight. You could sit gazing out at the scenery, read or play games or chat with fellow travellers. Our boat host and crew provided plenty of hot and cool drinks or fruit snacks, as well as a delicious local lunch.
There were a number of things that made us happy when we arrived in Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai. All of a sudden we could walk out of our homestay and go into a proper shop – 7/11’s were on every corner. In the shops we could buy everything we might need such as tissues and personal items, insect repellent, bread, magazines and a wide range of snacks. The streets were unbroken and clean, and traffic operated predictably. There were a wide variety of restaurants serving different types of food. In the evening the streets were full of couples, families and groups of girlfriends instead of large gangs of young men. Possibly best of all, we could get a refreshing beer with our meal rather than constant coke or fruit juice. On our first evening we were agog at all these luxuries – who would have thought you could become so inured in only 3 months to the normal restrictions of life in India.
Chiang Mai is full of temples and we were very impressed with the first entirely gilded pagoda we saw. We intended to visit more, but got to the “been there, done that” stage by the end of day one! There will be so may temple spotting opportunities over the next few weeks, that only the best are worth our precious time and energy!
We were lucky to be in the city over a weekend as we caught both the Saturday and Sunday night markets! They were fantastic with such quality handmade goods, we wished we were taking home gifts for everyone. The street food was also the best!!
We wanted to explore some of the Northern Thai countryside so we booked a cycle tour to the “sticky waterfall”. It turned out to be 30 km of semi-serious off-roading on good Kona mountain bikes with some fairly fit people. We saw some great views as we took the bikes on a boat across a lake, biked through the forest and did some quiet road riding as well. Paul managed to keep up pretty well and our previous mountain biking experience even stood me in good stead, but some sections were up the mountain and I had to wimp out and get a ride in the van on a couple of the steepest sections. It was great to get some exercise and do something different; the people in our group were also fun company for the day.
At the “sticky waterfall” the limestone in the water has formed a smooth, steep stair over which the water cascades. It is well named as your feet “stick” to the surface so you can clamber up and down through the clear spring water. It was a lovely place to visit and the nice Thai lunch laid on by the excellent cycle tour company, Trailhead.co.th didn’t hurt either.
We would have liked a couple more days in Chiang Mai but today (7th January) we got on a coach to the Northern Thai border with Laos. Very excited to be crossing the border into Laos tomorrow and taking to the mighty Mekong River for two days’ cruising down to Luang Prabang. Will keep you posted!
On 30th December we traveled back to Kochi City from Mararikulam:- For the 2 hour car, train, ferry and tuk-tuk journey it cost…
Free car ride to Mararikulam station from the kind manager of our homestay
20 Rupees each for the 1 hour train ride to Ernakulum Junction
A free, but very hot and sweaty walk with our backpacks from the station to the ferry terminal
6 Rupees each on the ferry
A massive 100 Rupees in Tuk-Tuk to our hotel
Total 152 Rupees – or around £1.65. Other guests we talked to at our homestay paid for a taxi from Mararikulam to Kochi at a cost of around 2,500 rupees or about £28. So public transport was a real bargain!!
Kochi City is one of India’s largest ports built around a vast area of islands and sandy spits of land formed at the mouth of the Periyar River. It is a city of opposites as Ernakulm, on the mainland, is modern and home to a sparkling new Metro, offices and shopping malls, and by contrast Fort Kochi was founded by the Portuguese in 1503 so has many ancient and historic buildings. Many islands form a barrier between the sea and the famous Keralan backwaters; some of these house naval installations, huge container docks and storage areas, and a giant LPG terminal. Interspersed with this on the islands and along the sea front are glamourous resort hotels and swanky new apartment blocks, as well as many small fishing vessels and the traditional Chinese nets which local fishermen have been using for centuries to fish in the harbour.
The normally sleepy old town of Fort Kochi is famous as the place to be in India at New Year. Over the holiday the quiet streets are filled with tourists and locals people who flood in for the festivities. In the build up to midnight we wandered along the seafront and around the many stalls. The hotels and private houses decorate their gardens with lots of colourful, sparkly lights giving the whole area a party atmosphere. There was also a big free music concert with a number of Indian bands who mainly played a mixture of rock and Bollywood type Indian music. We actually thought some of them were pretty good.
The 50 foot effigy above is called Pappanji (Portuguese for “Grandfather”) and the local tradition is to burn him on the stroke of midnight to welcome in the New Year. Originally we though he was Father Christmas which would have been weird! It turns out burning him is a metaphor for letting go of the old year and welcoming in the new. The burning took place on the concert ground after the gig in front of about 20,000 people. It was crazy crowded and afterwards everyone headed for the only 2 exits from the ground which led to some serious congestion and grid lock. There were no stewards or barriers and for about 40 minutes we were going nowhere, in a complete crush with thousands of jostling people. Ali found it quite scary, and we were both very relieved to finally emerge from the crowd. That night it took us over an hour to make the 20 minute walk back to our homestay.
The following day was all about street carnival
On our final couple of days in Fort Kochi we had some time to explore the old city.
So, farewell to India – it’s been an intense experience!
Paul wrote down some of his thoughts about our time here:- Overall India feels more friendly now than the quite scary unknown quantity it was 3 months ago at the start of the trip. You learn (slowly) how to get along, how things work, the speed at which things get done and the slightly half baked way everything seems to be finished, but what has shone through has been the kindness and helpfulness of the people we’ve met. There are things that are hard to accept – the poverty, the dreadful inequalities the rubbish everywhere and the smell in some places. After a short while you start to be able to ignore these things a bit as locals do, but from an outsiders perspective they will always be challenging to deal with. I will be sorry to leave India, but perhaps it is time to move on – a change from curry everyday will be welcome!
Luckily when we arrived at Marari Beach Paradise, our neighbours in the next room were a fabulous French couple, Sophie and Louis who we got along with immediately. We had some laughs as we don’t speak much French and they only spoke a little more English – Google translate was a godsend! Naturellement Sophie is a fantastic cook, so on 23rd December we decided we would like to do some Christmas cooking. She suggested tuna carpaccio, so we got up very early Christmas Eve morning to visit the local fish market along the coast to see what we could find.
On one of the boats coming in to shore we saw some big, shiny yellow and grey fish that looked like tuna. We eventually persuaded the fishermen to sell us one of these. It weighed 4kgs and cost 1,000 Rupees – about £10.
In the end we discovered that our fish wasn’t a tuna and also was not suitable for carpaccio, so we made fish tartare instead which was tasty and delicious. For Christmas Eve dinner we also had fresh prawns provencal made by yours truly, and small potatoes with butter and mint – yum! Our hosts, Martin and Mary were concerned this wasn’t proper food, so they also provided the ubiquitous chicken curry and rice. We topped the meal off with big platters of fresh tropical fruit.
Most of our Christmas Day was spent on the beach and we were lucky to have blue skies and hot sunshine. Swimming in the warm Indian ocean on Christmas Day was amazing!
This was our first Christmas away from home and it was odd. Surprisingly we didn’t miss any of the traditional Christmas holiday activities like Christmas dinner, TV, decorations, music, presents and too much to eat and drink. The only thing we missed was the family and as we miss them every day, that didn’t feel that much harder than usual. We were lucky to be able to FaceTime or speak to everyone, which definitely helped us feel a little better.
16th December The Keralan coastline is long and flat, edged by endless beach that unwinds like cream ribbon with a frilly, surfy edge from north to south. Behind the beach, coconut groves dotted with a few family houses and homestays are crisscrossed by sand paths that provide a shady respite from the glittery white heat of the beachfront. Our first homestay is situated in such a grove, around 500 m from the nearest road but only 50 m from the door of our room in a direct line through palm trees to the sea.
Colourful fishing boats are pulled up along the beach; they put out to sea in the early morning and evening, returning with some impressive catches – fish curry here can mean prawns, mackerel, crispy kingfish or great steaks of creamy tuna bought off the beach that day. The constant presence of fish attracts birds of prey, and at any time kites, short tailed eagles and many huge white headed fish eagles can be seen wheeling over the trees or swooping down to the smooth sea to snag up a surfacing fish in their great claws.
22nd December After a few days we moved a couple of hundred yards along the beach to a different homestay. Marari Beach Paradise only has three rooms and belongs to Mary and Martin, who is also captain and part owner of one of the local fishing boats. They are very friendly but speak almost no English so we generally communicate through their manager Rinjo. They are a happy and helpful bunch and we had great fun shopping with them in Alleppey for Christmas decorations at the market and then visiting a restaurant for lunch together.
Marari Beach Paradise is situated just behind the main fishing area on the beach. At first we weren’t too happy about this as we thought it would spoil our beach view and be noisy and smelly. In fact it has been really interesting as we’re in a prime position to see the boats come in and watch the men bring in their catch.
Rinjo is planning quite a big celebration at our homestay on Christmas Day for which the guests get to help with the cooking and preparation. There will be three guest couples, us from the U.K. one from France and one from Germany. The French couple speak a bit of English and the Germans will probably be fairly fluent, so we should all be able to muddle along enough to enjoy Christmas Day together. One thing that all of us Europeans would like is a beer or a glass of wine over Christmas. However, alcohol is very difficult to buy here, even though Kerala is not officially a “dry” state. Rinjo took us to the local booze shop – to access the counter you have to pass behind a screen wall and through a bizarre narrow section of metal barriers. The shop was manned by some very severe older men who did not seem happy that Paul asked for 6 bottles of beer – Rinjo had already vetoed asking for more than this. They also seemed disapproving of me being there at all. Although it is common knowledge that some Indian women drink, there is apparently an absolute taboo on them actually buying alcohol themselves, and any women being seen in such a place runs at the very least, the risk of damage to her reputation.
We were lucky to be able to get our flights out of Assam. We’d booked to travel from the tiny airport at Jorhat to Guwahati the state capital, then another flight south to Chennai and on to Kerala. As we flew out of Guwahati the protests against the Government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill were stepping up, with news reports of street riots, vehicles and state buildings ablaze. Our new friend texted Paul sadly that “Assam is burning”. Shortly after we left, the internet was shut down, schools closed, curfews imposed and many flights and trains cancelled. One day later and we may have struggled to leave NE India for some time. We feel so sad for the people of the region, and it seems quite unbelievable that even after more than 70 years, the shadow of partition is still impacting everyday life here.
In stark contrast to the above we had a good flight down to Kochi in Kerala and today have enjoyed a beautiful day in the sun at “Once Upon the River”, a lovely resort on the river Periyar .
Tomorrow we’ll get a train down the coast to Mararikulam for a bit of Christmas beach time. Recent events have definitely caused us to reflect that life is by no means fair or equitable – we’ve really had some roller coaster ups and downs and thought provoking experiences on our trip so far!
On the morning of 6th December we were up at the crack of dawn to catch a shared “Sumo” jeep at 6.45 am for the 3 hour trip back down the mountain from Kohima to Dimapur. This was never going to be a comfortable journey as the drivers cram in as many passengers as possible to maximise their return. There were 12 people in our Sumo including the driver, so no-one could move an inch once we had crammed in.
Unfortunately heavy traffic in Dimapur extended our journey to 4 ½ hours which meant we missed our booked train (with comfortable A/C seats) to Jorhat. A difficult hour ensued with us lugging backpacks up and down the dusty platform trying to work out alternative options. Really, almost no-one at the station spoke any English and we felt very alienated in the face of the blank stares of hundreds of local travellers. We finally realised at the very last minute that we were on the wrong platform so after running up and over the footbridge, literally jumped onto the moving train as it pulled out of the station. Other passengers helped pull us onto the train and as it was crammed, we stood with our backpacks in the space between 2 wide open doors – this was real Indian rail travel! Eventually people got off and we were able to sit on the hard bench seats of 3rd class.
Guess what? After around 2 hours the train broke down!! We waited in the middle of the Assam countryside for around an hour and a half for a replacement engine to be sent. It wasn’t too bad as some of the Indian passengers were friendly and chatted with us before asking for the inevitable selfies. Instead of arriving in Jorhat at lunchtime as planned, we eventually pulled into a different station in the dark at around 6.00 pm. Luckily we found a friendly taxi driver to take us the last 20 km to our lodgings in Afreen’s house.
Afreen is busy working around NE India but since arriving we’ve had a lot of help from Asuruddin Ali who is a friend of the family. He kindly set up WiFi in the house for us, helped us organise our laundry and has sorted out any problems we have had. We are also being well looked after by Afreen’s housekeeper Jamila and her daughter Shabana who make us the most delicious homemade breakfasts and dinners. On the first evening we had freshly picked wild fern shoots and khar which is an Assamese specialty green dhal. Many of the fruits and vegetables used in the dishes and pickles are unknown to us. Yesterday Jamila cooked us crispy river fish steaks redolent of garlic, cardamom, cloves and coriander bark. Breakfasts have been sticky rice with curd, fresh cream and jaggery, or fresh, hot and crispy puris with a potato and tomato spiced dhal – absolutely mouthwatering! It is the best food we’ve had since coming to India and as we’re not doing very much, we may well put the few pounds previously lost back on. We’ve also enjoyed Jamila’s fantastic sweet pickle made with Jolpai fruit, these are also called “olives” in India although they don’t look or taste anything like the olives we know! This pickle is so great we have been talking with Asruddin about exporting it from Assam to the UK. We reckon we could all make a lot of money in this venture!
Of course, the main purpose of coming to this area was to visit the green and beautiful Majuli Island – the largest river island in the world, in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra river. Our plan was to travel across from Jorhat one morning, stay overnight on the island and return the following day. As we have discovered travel plans can be complicated by our lack of local understanding and language, we did a trial run the day after we arrived. All went well, although in common with our previous experience of India, we hadn’t appreciated the massive size of the river and the fact that the ferry took over an hour to cross, so we returned in semi-darkness.
We duly booked a hotel room on the island and planned an early start. However, we have been totally scuppered by the political situation in NE India. We’ve discovered that today and tomorrow are both general strike days in the area, with many citizens on the streets protesting against the government’s “Citizenship Amendment Bill” which is religion based and will have a heavy impact on the different communities here. Consequently we have been advised both by locals and through the UK foreign office not to go out in the streets of the city. As the only route to Majuli goes through Jorhat (and no taxis or rickshaws are operating) we have had to cancel all our plans and resign ourselves to being pretty much stuck in our room for these 2 days.
Asuruddin told us on 10th December that the bill has been passed by the lower house of the Indian Parliament. If it’s also passed by the Upper House, this may spark further demonstrations as many people in North East India feel the legislation is threatening to their culture and way of life. Although we recognise this is an extremely important issue for the people of Assam, it has also been super frustrating for us. However, the reality of travelling as opposed to being on holiday is that you can gain some understanding of what’s going on around you; so we are trying to be philosophical and mark it down to experience. Anyway, the day after tomorrow we fly down to Kerala so are looking forward to putting these couple of days behind us and settling down to a few more nice days (weeks!) on the beach.