Saturday, 26 March 2016

Vietnam Part One: Ten Reasons Vietnam Should Be on Your Travel TO DO List

I actually don't know where to start with Vietnam.  It has rivalled Spain for our destination of choice on our trip home, and that's saying something!  I think we'll do this in several parts.

Part One - Ten reasons Vietnam should be on your travel To Do List

Part Two - Eat. All. The. Food.

Part Three - more reasons Vietnam should be on your travel Must Do List

Yeah, that should cover it.

Part One - Ten reasons Vietnam should be on your travel To Do List

1. Culture Shock

Like the Middle East, South East Asia is a bit of a culture shock, in a good way. The Vietnamese people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. But being a communist nation (yep, they are still flying the red flag) means a distinct lack of any Western flavour. Although Trip Advisor stickers are still everywhere. But so are dog restaurants. Culture shock. You'll enjoy bowls of you're-not-sure-what, be the only white person you'll see in a day (or two), learn to stop watching the road because it's just too frightening, and marvel at an untouched jungle out the window instead.

These birds are not for sale as pets ...

2. UNESCO-listed Beauty

There are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam, and we saw four of them.  Halong Bay, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Hoi An, and the palace complex at Hué are true wonders for different reasons. From the towering rock formations in Halong Bay, the extensive (and only partially discovered) cave system at Phong Nha, to the ancient cities of Hué and Hoi An, Vietnam has many little secrets to discover.  Thank goodness they are protected.

Halong Bay

The gates at the ancient city of Hue

3. Bia Hoi

"Môt, hai, ba, dzo!"  Cheers in Vietnamese is raucous and a must-know to have some fun on street corners, in pubs, or drinking fresh beer ("bia Hoi") from a tiny keg after a bike ride around a traditional Vietnamese village - complete with stilt houses and rice paddies. I wanted to bring the tiny keg home, it would have fit! Bia Hoi is made on the day and served in thick glass tumblers out of a mini keg.  It is quite fizzy, and really fresh tasting, a bit like having a shandy. You can only get it in the north, we had ours in the village of Mai Chau.

4. Faded French Colonialism

The French invaded and held Vietnam for over 70 years from the late 1880s through to the 1950s. There are still some Vietnamese who speak a bit of French, but it is appropriate, I think, that traces of the French conquest are muted and seen only in the graceful building styles of Hanoi, or in the odd culinary relic like bit tet (steak with gravy). Aside from the million scooters zipping about, parts of Hanoi could be a Parisian suburb.

5. The Vietnam War

Or, the American War. I did not know enough about this conflict and when you understand it from the Vietnamese perspective, Ho Chi Minh - their beloved Uncle Ho - did everything he could to avoid conflict and unify his nation, but others thought they knew better. Visit the War Museum and be prepared for heavy, but important, history. I think it is important that those of us whose countries were involved in this war understand how it came about.

6. Tailor Made

Visit Hoi An and take along a few pictures of dream wardrobe items you'd love to own. Pick one of the several hundred tailors and let them go to work. Zane got his wedding suit made to measure, and shipped to New Zealand, in 36 hours. It fits like a dream and while not cheap as chips (as we went to one of the higher end stores) it was certainly at least half the price we would have spent on a similar suit back home. Or, for fun or a night out with your tour crew, get a "shit shirt" made. Get a matching set with your sweetheart and rock it like you'd wear it on your wedding day LOL!

7. Face Your Fears

Zip lining, caving, eating duck embryos, crawling through tunnels, karaoke, jumping off the top deck of a boat, or just trying to cross the road - Vietnam will make you face your fears and do it anyway. Well, maybe not the duck embryo! And crossing the road was just a matter of timing, once you figured that out you were away!

8.  Meeting Amazing People

I totally recommend doing a tour. We had such a brilliant guide and we learned so much more than I think we would have by ourselves. We also did more things than we probably would have! Skinny dipping in the ocean at 2am comes to mind! Our tour was pretty small and this made for some good times, with heaps of room on long bus rides. You also skip lines, get discounts and always have someone to have a beer with. Check out Busabout Asia!

Busabout Will

9. Cosmopolitan Saigon

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now known, is an immense city and after two weeks travelling down from the less developed north, it was a culture shock of a different kind. There was even a McDonalds! [we totally went there] The city has some beautiful neighbourhoods, the world's craziest roundabout (and I've seen the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe!), and street food on a whole other level. Add in cute hole-in-the-wall bars, high-end and market shopping, and tours to places like Cu Chi, HCMC is a great place to finish.

Saigon at night
10. Cheap as Chips

You can fly direct to Ho Chi Minh from Auckland now, for as little as $975 return, and you will literally be a millionaire in Vietnam. One NZD or AUD is roughly 15,000 VND and a beer from a streetside spot will cost you about 25k. Even if you do stick to safer (more Western) food spots, you'll spend maybe $50 for a decent meal with a couple of drinks. You can pick up some gorgeous souvenirs, get a tailored suit, eat until your heart's content, and you want hurt your wallet. I recommend flying from HCMC up to Hanoi and work your way back down.

Part Two - coming soon!

Love Tracy and Zane (and our Busbabout crew!)

Dazzling Dubai

Zane's Aunty Sue and Uncle David previously lived in Dubai for 15 years, and moved back there in 2015. When we found out they'd be there it firmed up that section of our itinerary and we spent a great week relaxing in the heart of the desert city.

Dubai is one of seven of the United Arab Emirates, and is a jewel of a city. Springing up out of the desert it's an almost impossible cluster of high rises and highways. The spaghetti junction under the immense Burj Khalifa has to be seen from above to appreciate the intricate traffic control. We took the lovely and clean metro to Sue & Dave's place which is on Sheikh Zayed Road - Dubai's main drag - what a view!

We visited both the Mall of the Emirates and the Dubai Mall - I wish we'd had our fitbits then as those places are huge and we walked k's around them. But we didn't do any shopping there - way out of our price range! I did manage to score a beautiful #realgenuinecopy Mulberry handbag (which is still in Dubai at time of writing as I couldn't fit it in my backpack!), and we did visit Sue's "gold and diamond guy" for a very special purchase, our wedding rings.

We had gorgeous weather in Dubai, and went to the beach one morning, which was basically deserted. We swam in bath-like water, with the iconic Burj Al Arab off to the right. Even with golden sand beaches, there was plenty to search through in the shore, and David ground a sea kayak paddle! It had been a nationalism day earlier that week and there were UAE flags everywhere - this was in the beach itself:

The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, has a lift to the 148th floor, and the view can often be obscured by sand. But we lucked out and had crystal clear views from the highest viewing deck in the world. We spent an hour up there watching the sun go down, it was pretty cool.

To top off our time in the Middle East we went for a drive up a mountain, Jebel al Feet - on the way there we saw camels in transit! We visited the old souks and took a water taxi up river to go to the museum, which was actually really good and well laid out. Sue & David took us to their favourite Indian restaurant, and it was very, very good - like, roll home complaining about how much your belly hurts, good.

Dubai was a relaxing week staying with family, home cooked meals and even Kiwi TV! It was a great break whilst still seeing one of the great new cities of the world. I must admit, picking up our backpacks again and heading to the airport was hard, but we will see Sue and David again in April at our wedding - well, they better come, they've got our wedding rings! [And my handbag :)]

Love Tracy and Zane

Biblical Journey: Jordan

The day before we flew to Egypt, a Russian commercial airliner was bombed out of the sky above Sharm El Sheik in South Sinai. Understandably there was some tension as we drove from Cairo to Dahab, via the Suez tunnel. We went through at least eight roadside checks, manned by the army, and on arrival in Dahab the beachside village was quiet. There were several people at our accommodation who were stranded following UK government decision to suspend flights from Sharm. It was an odd feeling to be in Sinai, knowing what was happening on the Israeli border albeit a few hundred k's away. The view from our hotel was the Saudi Arabian coastline, and to get to Jordan we had to pass through Israel.

Dahab, however, is a peaceful little beachside village, with cute cafes and restaurants right on the water. It was the perfect relaxing two days we needed before heading to Jordan: poolside, beer in hand, watching the sunset.

Saudi Arabia in the distance
From Dahab we drove to the Israeli border where we walked, Moses-like, into Israel, before being picked up, driving ten minutes down the road, then walking through to Jordan! It may, however, be the closest I ever come to Beer-Sheba where my great great uncle Peter was killed in World War One, and is buried in an Allied cemetery there.


Walking through the Jordanian border was the only time I ever felt nervous at a border on our all adventures (except the time in Paris where the cocky Pommie border patrol twat interrogated us before boarding the Eurostar, for no apparent reason). The border security treated several of our group with extreme scrutiny, searching through bags, and even looking through cameras. We then waited for nearly an hour before they deigned to start processing us. Our tour guide was there to meet us thankfully, and he said this was fairly normal.

From Aqaba we headed out to the desert for a night camping at Wadi Rum, via jeep safari! The desert is amazing, with camels roaming around and local Bedouin boys getting us stuck in the sand just added to the fun. We ran up a sand dune and then gratefully collapsed in front of a fire before dinner - the desert is bloody cold at night!

Jordan is home to history on literally a Biblical scale. We were here to see the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo, but first was a day trip to the secret city of Petra. Walking in through the walled road, twisting and turning, you never knew when you were going to pop out in front of the spectacular Treasury building.

Petra is incredible, a rocky desert landscape with beautiful colours caused by minerals in the soil. We hiked up a massive 731 steps to visit the Monastery (used in Mortal Kombat according to Zane) a we could have used a donkey but declined on moral grounds, and when we saw some of the poor treatment these animals were subjected to on their way up, I'm glad we chose to use our own leg-power.  As a note, if your feet can touch the ground on either side of the donkey, then you are TOO BIG to ride that donkey.

From Petra we drove to visit the Dead Sea. Now this was a fun experience! People say you float but seriously, you really do float! I was standing upright in water that should have been over my head. Insane! We had so much fun taking photos, floating around, and I even got a mud wrap done - thick, black, Dead Sea mud, dredged up from the bottom (allegedly, who knows really) and smeared everywhere, left to dry and then scrub off with the salty water. I felt like my skin was softer and it was definitely cheaper than buying it in a nice bottle from the gift shop!

The last historical site before arriving in the capital of Amman was Mt Nebo, where Moses is apparently buried. If nothing else, the Old Testament is a fairly accurate history book for the time, in that it coincides with other reports of the time. There is no doubt that Moses existed, and was a leader amongst his people. And he definitely spent time on Mt Nebo. From the viewing platform we surveyed the Holy Land, stretching out to Israel across the Dead Sea. It was very peaceful.

The Jordan extension to the Egypt trip is a new itinerary for TravelTalk, and if I could change it this is what I'd do: have an extra day in Dahab so those carrying on to Jordan could visit Mt Sinai (where Moses received the Ten Commandments) and the Catherine monastery; add a stop in Israel to do a day trip to Jerusalem before going into Jordan; and then can the time in Amman at the end. It's just not necessary and there's not enough to do there, other than visit the Citadel of Jerash - which we didn't get to do as the Jordan-only trip does this first, so those of us coming from Egypt missed out. At the end of a long trip filled with incredible experiences, finishing in Amman was a bit of low note - it is just another city, to be honest. Albeit with good, cheap food.

We flew out to Dubai, having experienced two weeks of immense history, wonderful sightseeing, and unique local experiences. We thoroughly recommend Egypt and Jordan, your view of the world will never be the same again.

Love Tracy and Zane

Friday, 4 December 2015

Walk like an Egyptian

Part One

Cairo has the population of Australia, crammed into millions of unfinished brick apartment blocks. Many without windows, walls or even roofs, yet conversely most are liberally sprinkled with satellite dishes. 22 million people is just an incomprehensible number of bodies in a single city, and Cairo unfortunately doesn't handle it well. There's rubbish everywhere, the roads are packed with traffic including horse and cart, and a pall of smog hangs over the city. But  there is something about Cairo, when you drive past the river or look upon it from up high at the Citadel - a crumpled elegance, stretching over French-styled downtown to the Giza plateau with its Great Pyramids hazy in the distance. 

So many eggs!

Our awesome guide Mega had heard that there was 'some game on tonight' and organised to take us to one of only two places in the entire city showing the Rugby World Cup Final match between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. On any given Travel Talk tour the ratio of Aussies to Kiwis is about 70:30, and we had our group and the outgoing crew at one of the fancier hotels in Cairo to watch the game in, not kidding, their Irish bar - #oneineverycity

After that stressful and ultimately AWESOME 80 minutes of rugby, straight to bed for our early start the next day. The thing about Egypt is that it is quite a big country. We would be visiting Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simble by the Sudanese border, and then heading back to Cairo, a total road distance of about 2200km's in a week. So our first couple of days were "bus days" with an overnight stop in a resort on the Red Sea to break it up. 

First things first though - what do you come to Egypt to see? The Pyramids! There is something quite humbling about standing in front of a 3500 year old monument, built solely to bury one person. To be able to climb on them is very cool! The Pyramids are everything you expect - the Great Pyramid is the biggest, but not the oldest. That one is not at Giza, it's further down the west bank of the river, and is a different style as well.  There are actually seven pyramids at Giza, there are smaller ones behind the two bigger ones, but all are burial tombs. You can see what was in each of them at the Egyptian Museum, and contrary to popular belief there were no slaves buried alive with their Pharaohs. 

The Sphinx is right next door to the pyramids

We visited the Egyptian Museum on our return to Cairo at the end of the first week. The majority of the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb are there, including the five huge stacking coffins his sarcophagus was kept in. We also saw the Royal Mummies, bodies of the Pharaohs and queens whose tombs we saw in the desert, including Ramses II and Manenptah, whose tomb we actually went inside. The Museum is a crammed mess of antiquity, but charming in its disorganisation. The coolest thing we saw (read: creepiest) were the animal mummies - cats, dogs, even a couple of crocodiles and a cow.    

Our awesome group! 

We overnighted at a resort in Hurghada on the Red Sea, an ageing coastline where all-inclusive resorts are the popular choice, before driving down to Luxor. Luxor temple is lit up at night and this truly the best way to see it, rather than going inside. 

From Luxor we visited the Valley of the Kings. This mountainous area in the desert is where the Pharaohs were buried in their extravagant underground mausoleums. The reasons they did it here are simple: first, the mountain range above it is shaped like a pyramid, so no need to build one when there is one already there. Secondly, these tombs are really deep and their entrances were hidden to discourage grave robbers. Finally, the climate kept everything nice and mummified. You can only visit three tombs in one visit to the area, and not all tombs are open every day; Tutankhamun's is then additional. We visited Ramses IV, Manenptah, and one other whose name I have completely forgotten! Ramses IV has one of the most beautifully decorated, Manenptah's tomb is incredibly deep, and the last had some beautiful examples of classical Egyptian scenes. We didn't see Tutankhamun's tomb - his mummy is still there but all the grave goods are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. You unfortunately can't take photos in the tombs (well, you probably could but we weren't interested in bribing anyone). 

Some examples of scenes and hieroglyphs from around Hatshepsut's temple near Valleg of the Kings - the only woman to be buried there. 

Zane and I, plus one of the other girls on our tour had opted to cruise the Nile, a choice well-founded given that nearly all those on the felucca had dodgy tummies and frankly I wasn't much better off. Having a flush toilet makes all the difference sometimes!  More importantly for me - because I am old - it meant a proper bed before getting up at 3am to drive to Abu Simble in a police convoy. 

We used a convoy because there have been incidents affecting tourists in the past in the area, plus Abu Simble is very close to the Sudanese border. So you get a police/army driver and an armed escort to take you down.  It's a three hour drive, and desert basically the whole way. We slept. 

The temples at Abu Simble were built by Ramses II, one to display his prominence in war and the other for his beloved wife Nefertiri. Mega made us walk down to the new shore of the Nile, grown as a result of the new dam at Aswan built on the 1950s, where he explained how they moved both temples nearly 100m to ensure they were not destroyed as part of the dam construction. They sliced the temples through the mountain creating hundreds of pieces which were then moved, rebuilt from the bottom up and a false mountain constructed above them. We then turned to look at the temple for Ramses II - and what a sight. 

Back in Aswan, we visited the second temple moved following the dam build, Philae Temple, a temple for Isis.  It is a lovely temple on an island and you take a small water taxi to get to it. The view from the water is the best.  We then spent a relaxing two days on the cruise, hopping off to take a hair-raising horse and cart ride to Edfu temple, and going through a huge lock on the Nile.   

Our last temple stop and we saved the biggest until the end. Karnak temple is really a city of temples, with one of the most complete hypostyle halls in Egypt. A beautiful place, over a hundred pillars in the hall are like a forest, from corner to corner you can see only hieroglyphs. There are also two obelisks there, including the tallest in Egypt (the tallest in the world is in Paris). 

Thus ended our Egyptian desert and Nile adventure and we boarded the bus for an eight hour night drive back to Cairo, with the only stop on the way being a dodgy petrol station with hot "meat" sandwiches - not great!

Love Tracy and Zane