Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Friday 2 July: The ancient capital city of Hue, pronounced 'whey', is the centre for touring the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which divided North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. Ironically, this is where the fiercest fighting took place during the American war - The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill.
Not much remains today but at Khe Sanh Combat Base a small museum tells the story of the bloody seige
where, on 21 January 1968, up to 6,000 US troops resisted sustained Viet Cong (VC) for 75-days until a relief column broke through. The attacks were a decoy for the successful Tet offensive to the south, the base was later abandoned.
Local Bru tribe peoples suffered as much as any during the war - today the children are happy to pose for photographs. The only positive result of the war is that there are now many more duck ponds in the area - all circular.
North of the DMZ, in what was North Vietnam, Vinh Moc Tunnels sheltered 90 families from US air and naval bombardment helping keep one leg of a network of supply routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, via Con Co Island, open. In the tunnel hospital 17 babies were born during this five-year period. Back in Hue I enjoy dinner with Liza and Eric who are moving on tomorrow.
Saturday 3: The old city of Hue is dominated by The Citadel and it's iconic flag pole. Inside the moated Royal Palaces, much damaged by US bombing, give a glimpse of their former splendor.
Photos in and around Hue.

Ninh Binh

Tuesday 29 June: From Cat Ba town I buy a combined bus-boat-bus ticket and after six-hours find myself back on the mainland in Ninh Binh's accommodating little Thanh Thuy Hotel. The newish east-meets-west style cathedral looks, well, different. No one knows me here so I ignore an "Hello Dave", but it's good to see Liza and Eric again. We swap stories over dinner before they depart on the evening bus to Hue.
Wednesday 30: A motorbike taxi takes me, via a hill-top viewpoint over Tam Coc river park, to Trang An, a recently opened-up stretch of boating-river where, mostly female, rowers take you on a relaxing three-hour trip through the krast limestone waterscape. When their arms tire the women use their legs and they are amazingly good at it - I've not been on a foot-powered rowing boat before (57th mode of transport).
At 9:00pm it's the double-decker single multi-bunk sleeper bus (58th mode) for the 11-hour journey to Hue. My bed is still warm from the previous occupant who has just got off the bus.
Photos in and around Ninh Binh.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Halong Bay

Saturday 26 June: After being overcharged on the bus I arrive in Halong city. The bay is stunning but it's school holiday time and the thin beaches of imported sand are jam-packed with Vietnam weekenders.
Sunday 27: The tourist ferry to Cat Ba Island turns out to be a Vietnamese junk cruise (56th mode of transport) and I'm persuaded to stay the night aboard as "hotels all full" in Cat Ba town. I should know better but I argue it down to $30 for an evening meal, bed in a single en-suite cabin and breakfast. This seems fine. The English couple I speak to, both detectives from Hampshire constabulary, have paid more than $400 for two-nights.
It's awful - dreadful karaoke, overpriced beer, a pushy "irritating little shit" of a guide, meagre food portions, fresh water that runs out mid-afternoon, cabin air-con that shuts down in the middle of the night and none of the World Cup football that was promised. None of the passengers are happy, a little effort would have made it so much better.
Monday 28: The emerald brown sea in the UNESCO protected bay is full of
large jelly-fish, litter, scum and junks. The police couple who consider Vietnam "a shit-hole full of crooks" cut their cruise short not wanting to throw good money after bad, pay extra to get back to Hanoi and fly to Bangkok. I'm put ashore at Cai Vieng quay 18 miles from Cat Ba town, join a tour-bus group stopping for a sweaty two-hour trek in the National Park. When I eventually reach town the bars and beaches are full of local tourists but the view from my hotel balcony makes it all worthwhile.
Photos of Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island.

Saturday, 26 June 2010


Wednesday 23 June: At 5:30am we arrive in Vietnam's capital city and go our separate ways. I'm staying in Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel near St Joseph's Cathedral in the city's old quarter. Hanoi's a pleasant city with a French feel about it, set around a breezy lake. I've been humming the same tune in my head for the last three days. Eric from the Mid-west, who's father and uncle fought in Vietnam, tells me it's a Country Joe Macdonald song well known among Vietnam veterans - the chorus goes like this. . .

And it's 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it's 5, 6, 7, open those pearly gates
Well there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we're all gonna die

Thursday 24: Uncle Ho is still held in great esteem and his mausoleum certainly looks like the tomb of a well respected leader - his portrait is everywhere. After lunch, Vietnam's Temple of Literature (founded 1070) is the country's first seat of learning.
Festooned with bright banners and lanterns it's a pretty example of early Vietnamese architecture and remains fairly intact despite US air bombardment of the city during the American war. In the evening while enjoying street corner Bia Hoi or draught 'Fresh Beer' (at about 17p a glass) I have my sandals repaired again - the straps were sewn in India and are okay - this time the soles are stitched.
Friday 25: Set in a stylish French colonial building the History Museum has a range of Bronze Age relics - magnificent drums, bells and gongs as well as lacquer-wood carvings and artifacts from all over southeast Asia. The local restaurant opposite, Nha Hang Lan Chin, serves quite exotic fare -
eel, tortoise, frog, snake - all cooked in various ways. Although I'm sure it's very nice I decide to give the 'beef testicle stewed with duck' a miss (I'm not keen on duck) - the 'pork with lemongrass and chilli' served with steamed rice and more Bia Hoi suits me fine.
The Museum of Vietnamese Revolution mostly tracks the fight against the French. Helping to bring the story to life, Madame la Guillotine, from the French built Hoa Lo Prison (later nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton' by US POW's) was used to behead many Vietnamese revolutionaries during the colonial period.
Pictures of Hanoi.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Vietnam: Sapa

Monday 21 June: Finally I'm in north Vietnam - it's raining. Light rain is forecast for tomorrow and heavy rain for the next five days, so I'll not be trekking to ethnic minority villages or climbing Fansipan (10,311ft), Vietnam's highest peak - pity.
Tuesday 22: I'm a multi-millionaire!
I leave the bank's ATM with 2,000,000 dong in my pocket, sadly only worth about £70. As I walk around the town's pretty little lake it rains. It's hot and humid - yes, I'm back in the tropics. Suddenly, after lunch, the clouds clear and I run through European Garden and up Ham Rong Mountain to take in the views. It's still clear and the sun is shining so I rush back down and take a two-hour trek around the rice terraces of nearby Cat Cat village returning to the hotel just in time to join Liza and Eric for the bus to Lao Cai and a hard sleeper berth on the 8:45pm express to Hanoi.
Pictures of Sapa and Cat Cat village.

Sunday, 20 June 2010


Saturday 19 June: Eventually I arrive in Yaunyang, it's 4:00am and raining. There are prettier rice terraces a few hours away but I sleep and have a lazy but bright afternoon strolling the stepped villages near my hostel, the Photographers' Hotel.
Sunday 20: Leaving at 6:00am, I take a motor tricycle mini-truck (55th mode of transport) to the bus station, which should make reaching the Vietnam border a breeze but the five-hour bus ride my guidebook indicates turns into a 13-hour endurance test. My China visa expires today so timings are crucial but, with minutes to spare, I get into Vietnam just before the customs post shuts for the day, it's a close shave. Linking-up with a young Sino-American couple, Liza and Eric, we share a taxi from the border rail-head town of Lao Cah to the former French hill-station of Sapa.
So it's goodbye China . . . Good Morning Vietnam.

Friday, 18 June 2010


Tuesday 15 June: There's no real reason to linger long in Kunming except to wait three days for your Vietnam visa.
In Everest Michael Pallin and the film crew spent an evening in Kunming's Hump Bar. I do one better and sleep there - it's also a youth hostel. Sadly not a lot of humping goes on - the complex is dedicated to the American Flying Tigers who flew "The Hump" to supply the Chinese army from British bases in India after the Burma Road supply route was captured by the Japanese invaders during World War II.
Friday 18: Finally with visa in passport it's a slow bus to the rice terraces of Yaunyang near the Vietnamese border. But, I get lost en-route to the southern bus station so take a taxi. It's still under construction at it's new location and even the taxi driver has to ask directions. Bad news, I've missed the last morning bus and the next is at 7:30pm.
I decide to look round the shops - this is an understatement - the biggest shopping centre I have ever seen (or ever want to see) is opposite the bus station. Business is slow and most shop keepers look bored, some look very bored, the rest are asleep, or possibly dead - it's difficult to tell. I walk briskly along for four hours with wall-to-wall shops on both sides and don't see the same shop-front twice. There are hundreds of shoe shops, all different, too many to count. So I count, what I think will be, the least numerous types of shop. Amongst thousands of others there are 51 umbrella shops, more selling sunglasses, 15 teddy-bear shops, many more toy shops, 6 wig shops and 3 exclusively selling garden water features. There may be more but I can't tell because I have only walked around one floor of the five-floor complex. You really could shop till you drop.
Kunming pictures (none of shops).

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


Saturday 12 June: It's fabricated Disneyland style tourism again in this UNESCO World Heritage town, most of it rebuilt in antique style. A living museum packed to the rim with flag and umbrella-following Chinese tour groups who all want to be photographed next to the reproduction waterwheels - who cares if they're new?
Every house frontage is a hotel, guesthouse, restaurant or shop selling tea, yak meat or tourist tat. There are photo-shoots with pretty girls modeling backless tops over a backdrop of ancient rooftops,
and there are more water features than you can shake Charlie Dimmock at.
In the shadow of Snowy Mountain, Black Dragon Pool is a classic Chinese dinner-plate scene and I climb up 1,000 steps to the summit of Elephant Mountain to get an overview.
Monday 14: Farewell to the comfortable youth hostel, it even has electric blankets, goodbye to the statue of Chairman Mau and it's a double-decker sleeper train (54th mode of transport) south to Kunming.
Photos of Lijiang.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


Wednesday 9 June: Not in my original plan but as soon as I saw a map of Dali I knew that I wanted to go there. Any town with an ancient wall around it's old centre must be worth a visit - Zwolle in the Netherlands, Chaing Mai in Thailand, York in England.
Dali was the original backpacker destination in Yunnan and it's easy to see why - ancient walled city with magnificent gatehouses and pretty little streams set beneath mountains dotted with temples and pagodas - and cannabis plants growing wild by the road and lakeside.
At the friendly Jade Emu Guesthouse I get an en-suite room for the price of a dorm (40 yuan) and enjoy a traditional hotpot dinner buffet.
In the old town packs of Chinese tourists, too lazy to walk, are driven around in electric 'golf' buggies and tradesmen are rebuilding the ancient walls with reinforced concrete faced with 'traditional' stone cladding. It's Disneyland style tourism again - but even so I like the place.
An old shopkeepers tells me the story of Ziya Jiang who lived a humble life with all his ambitions unachieved. One day, when he was about to eat, a God bird flew to him and pecked his hand three times. He plucked the two twigs of bamboo on which the bird had perched to eat his meal. The sticks began to smoke indicating that the meat was toxic. Jiang used his two sticks at mealtimes ever since and this is how chopsticks came to be. They not only saved his life but brought him good fortune and he was soon appointed prime minister to king Wen of the Zhou Dynasty (1066-256BC). Since then chopsticks have always been presented as a good luck gift - "Would you like to buy some from my shop?".
Photos of Dali.

Leshan and Emei Shan

Friday 4 June: I arrive in Baoguo at the foot of China's most sacred Buddhist mountain, Emei Shan, stay in the delightfully named Teddy Bear Hotel and prepare for a mountain hike next day. It's raining so I visit Fuhu Monestery.
Saturday 5: It's raining hard so I take a local buses to visit the Grand Buddha at Leshan, at 321ft high, 28ft wide and with big toes 28ft long it's the world's largest Buddha statue - it's awful. The Buddha is fine but in typical Chinese fashion it's part of an expensive Disneyland style theme park, it's so crowded I queue for nearly an hour to see the huge statue. Once again, at 90 yaun, the Chinese are cashing-in on religious sites.
Sunday 6: It's raining so no trekking again today. The cloudy views from the summit are just not worth the effort. I visit Shanjue Temple instead but the whole of the UNESCO World Heritage mountainside is a theme park with concrete waterfalls and tour bus hoards. It's 150 yaun (£15) just to enter the National Park plus entrance fees for the various temples so instead I reserve my hard sleeper (the berths are actually soft it's just a six berth open door compartment) to Kunming. A stocky cyclist peddles me from the Emei bus terminus to the train station on a sanlunche or pedicab, a pedal-powered tricycle with a bench seat on the back for passengers (53rd mode of transport), and I'm on my way again - sleeper to Kunming, bus to Dali.
Photos of Leshan and Emei Shan.

Saturday, 5 June 2010


Monday 31 May: A wealthy modern high-rise city, China's fifth-largest, I should hate the place but, surprisingly, I rather like it. Wide leafy boulevards complete with cycle paths, clean spacious pavements and more blossoming flower tubs than you can wave a geranium at. Also, the people in their smart city clothes, are laid-back, friendly and helpful - I've not seen short-skirted long-legged girls for some time. It has pubs, bars, large stores like Wall-mart, Auchen and, surprisingly, IKEA. On the downside there are the usual fast-food chains.
The Traffic Inn is comfortable and friendly. I've been two or three miles above sea level for more than a month and today I can run up two flights of hotel stairs without becoming breathless - this is why athletes train at altitude.
Tuesday 1 June: Mao's statue, Tian Fu Square and Wenshu Monastery in the morning. A stroll through People's Park in the afternoon and the Shamrock bar in evening.
Wednesday 2: I'm on a mission to Carrefour supermarket where, like a child in a sweet shop, I snap up beer, English beer, cheaper than at home, Great Wall dry red wine, Cheddar cheese, American Cheddar but I'll make do, an authentic French stick and Danish Blue cheese - I haven't tasted blue cheese for nearly a year. I party.
Thursday 3: A real highlight - The Giant Panda Research Base is unmissable and the Pandas really are cute. But Pandas don't actually do very much. When they are not sleeping they like nothing better than laying on their backs and munching bamboo, and that's it. There's not much nutrition in bamboo. The cubs are a little more animated than the adult bears - they move quicker and like to climb trees. At £100 per minute I decline the offer to hug a baby Panda, I ask - but they don't do hugging for two seconds! - its a good day out.
Photos of Chendu.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Train T24 to Chengdu

Saturday 29 May: From Lhasa's sympathetically designed Tibetan-style station the unimaginatively named train T24 (52nd mode of transport) departs promptly at 1:10pm for the 43-hour journey to Chengdu in Sichuan province. I take my place in a comfortable four-berth soft sleeper cabin. As oxygen is pumped in to the slightly pressurised carriage I settle down to enjoy the Tibetan Plateau. Higher than 13,000ft for most of its length and topping 16,640ft at the Tibet-Sichuan border this is the world's highest railway.
I'm joined by Dan and Nicola from Manchester and we relax, mesmerised by the spectacular scenery and vast emptiness flowing past. High mountains with bright sharp snow capped peaks, vast turquoise lakes, isolated huts and tented farmsteads, remote villages - a few with petrol stations, the occasional truck. Yaks, Sheep and Goats feed on the sparse pasture. Smiling Yak herders wave and the occasional Gazelle runs for nonexistent cover. A giant hawk swoops overhead briefly filling the train window. We are two days, at least, away from the sprawling high-rise blocks of Chinese cities - I have never seen such isolation.
Only half-a-dozen train guards are using the restaurant car for lunch, one of whom speaks a little English, so I order pork with rice. What arrives is finely sliced pork fat with rind and a handfull of green beans sitting in a bed of hot orange coloured grease plus a small bowl of steamed rice - I'm hungry and eat it all - 33 yuans worth (about £3.30).
The train has a futuristic feel - plush spacious berths each with a TV monitor that doesn't work. It's mid-afternoon and most of the passengers are sleeping, eating snacks or smoking in the toilets.
For dinner I ask for something small, vegetable fried rice is suggested. I say "okay" and a set meal appears - clear soup, a big upturned basin of rice speckled with unnamed meat plus side dishes of pickles and Chinese leaf. All for just 28 yuan (about £2.80). A can of warm watery Snow beer with Dan and it's bedtime.
Sunday 30: The mountains have utterly vanished, in their place is light brown desert. It's a set breakfast of tasteless rice porridge, fried egg, fried peanuts, a steamed white bun and some sinister looking pickles.
More industrial now, towns and small patchworks of rice fields flash by. It's a dull, grey and drizzly day. On this, like most train journeys, you see the best of the countryside and the worst of the urban areas. I lay in bed and finish the last section of Paul Theroux's 1988 travelogue Riding the Iron Rooster - The Train to Tibet chapter - his journey sounds dreadful. The comfortable T24 glides effortlessly along the highest railway track in the world and gently rocks me to sleep - it opened in 2006.
Pictures of train T24 and the Tibetan Plateau.