Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A cruise around Halong Bay - Vietnam

Halong Bay Cruise review
Halong bay cruise
Vietnam Halong Bay
Halong Bay Cruises

We left the lovely town of Hoi An and headed up towards the capital city of Hanoi. We only stopped in Hanoi for one night before hopping on a bus that took us over to Halong City [about 3 hours away], where we boarded our cruise of Halong Bay. We booked the cruise through our guest house in Hanoi and there were a couple of companies offering different price options. We had previously been warned to stay away from the cheaper cruise options, as in many cases the cheaper price meant bad food, a disorganised tour and even rats on board the boat! The lady from our guest house also warned us away from the cheapest option, saying that a lot of guests had returned with bad reviews of the trip. Our guesthouse lady had been on the medium priced, 'Fantasea Deluxe Cruise' herself a few weeks earlier, even showing us photos of the boat and the food on her phone! We went with this option - it looked good and cost about 150GBP per person for 3 days and 2 nights. All accommodation, food, transport and activities were included in this price for the whole trip. 

Once we arrived at Halong Bay on the bus, we were shuttled across to our ship on a smaller boat. We boarded the boat and immediately went through to the dining area for a massive Vietnamese lunch - there were so many different dishes put in the middle of the table for us to help ourselves to and the food was really good. After lunch we were shown to our rooms which were really cute little cabins, just like normal hotel rooms with big comfy beds and ensuite bathrooms, but on a boat! I haven't been on a cruise before so this was all very novel for me! The first day's activities were cruising around some of the islands in Halong bay [there are nearly 2,000 rocks and islands jutting out of the sea], before exploring some caves on foot and then in kayaks. I loved seeing the amazing scenery from the top deck of the boat, there were loads of sun loungers that you could lie back on and admire the view. Our first stop was a walk through 3 huge caves, full of stalactites and stalagmites and according to our guide, rocks that looked like various animals... which unfortunately we couldn't quite see, but it was funny anyway. After we'd finished walking through the impressive caves, we got back on our boat and cruised some more to a different island with some cave tunnels leading into a secret little bay. We kayaked through the tunnel and around the bay, where were saw loads of monkeys climbing up the jungle on the rock face! It was a really fun day of activities, not too strenuous but we saw loads of wildlife and scenery. We got back on the boat and had time to shower and relax before dinner. The food was just as good as lunch - another amazing selection of Vietnamese food. There was a really lovely group of people on our trip, from all around the world but similar ages, so we all hung out together after dinner and played drinking and card games through the evening. By this point our boat was moored up in a bay with a couple of other cruises, so we spent the first night on the water.

The next morning we had an early start, with breakfast being served at 7am! By 7.30am we had arrived at our first stop of the day - Monkey Island - where we had the chance to climb the [many] steps to the viewpoint at the top of the hill. It was exhausting climbing up all those steps, which was the most exercise we'd had in a while, but the view from the top was worth it. The viewpoint overlooks the bay, where some of the cruises are still parked up [first and fourth photo]. After descending, we were able to chill out on the island's beach and swim or watch the monkeys on the rocks. Then we were taken on our boat to Cat Ba Island - the biggest and only one of the 2,000 islands to have inhabitants and towns. This is where we'd be staying for the second night of our trip. Before going to our hotel for the evening, we were taken to Cat Ba National Park where we trekked through the jungle [with footpaths] to the top of a mountain where the views were incredible, despite it being a bit misty and gloomy by the time we got to the top. It was a pretty hard trek, with some parts of the path being more like rock climbing than walking, made especially hard because I was wearing flipflops, oops! But we made it to the top, it took about an hour each way. After the trek we were taken by minibus to our hotel in Cat Ba Town, it was a lovely hotel for the evening, in-keeping with the quality of the room on the boat [much nicer than the hostels we're used to!].  We had another Vietnamese lunch in the hotel, again with good food and a massive selection, then we had the afternoon free to explore the town, local beach and island. After dinner we went into the town to have some drinks with the rest of our group, where we taught each other card games - it was fun learning games from other countries and trying to translate the names too, ha!

On our third and final day, we had breakfast in the hotel before being picked up and driven by minivan back to our boat at Cat Ba port. We spent the morning cruising slowly back through the islands towards the mainland, while relaxing on the top deck. We had one final lunch on the boat before jumping off and onto our coach to take us back to Hanoi. The trip was definitely worth the money, we packed so much into those few days! I loved being on the boat, all the activities were great and we definitely saw Halong Bay from every possible angle. The people on our trip helped make it awesome too, we've met some people that we'll try and visit if we're ever in their part of the world!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Hong Kong Photo Diary - Guest Post by Daisybutter

While Emily conquers South East Asia this autumn, she kindly asked me to help babysit her blog and share a post of my own with you lovely ladies. I’m Michelle and I write a lifestyle and fashion blog, Daisybutter. Seeing as I’ve just got back from Hong Kong myself, I thought I’d share a mini travel photo diary with my end of town, a.k.a. the highlights of my second hometown.

High rise buildings are commonplace in the New Territories. This is the amazing view from the living room (well, living space would be more accurate) in my apartment.

Mong Kok is the ultimate shopping tourist destination but also one of my favourite districts. I snapped this cliche neon signage photo on the way to Etude House and dinner.

This sausage and bread roll from my favourite Japanese bakery made my entire day. It’s like a wrap around hot dog. A hot dog that essentially never ends.

Meet Yandy, my cousin’s tiny toy poodle! She was 8 weeks and 2 days old when I got to meet her and have puppy cuddles. Tiny toy breeds are popular in Hong Kong where the living spaces are so small.

I met up with fellow blogger Winnie at Causeway Bay for some gossip and shopping - such is #bloggerlife - and she introduced me to TeaWood, an awesome place for Taiwanese bubble tea and dessert.

For the first time in my 23 years of living, I got to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong! Check out this Snow Chocolate Crunch ice-cream moon cake.

Chinese lanterns being set up for the Mid-Autumn Festival lantern carnival at Victoria Park.

Found this Hakka village style building in a garden in Tsuen Wan, my hometown. Days of exploration always pay off!

The cliche travel blogger money shot.

Thank you so much to Michelle for guest-posting while I'm away. Hong Kong is on my must visit travel list, so this post is perfect :) if only we could just pop to HK on our way home from Asia! Please make sure you check out Michelle's blog if you don't already follow her, she's an amazing writer and you'll be hooked instantly!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Hoi An - a riverside town in Vietnam

Hoi An River
backpacking in Hoi An
travelling in vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam
What to do in Hoi An, Vietnam
I LOVE Hoi An! After leaving Cambodia, we spent a few days in Hoi Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. I instantly preferred Vietnam to Cambodia and despite HCMC being an Asian city like many we've seen before, I did like it. We spent our time there wandering round the city and took a coupe of tours to museums and places of interest in the city. However, I'm not going to share too much about that as I'm too excited to tell you about Hoi An!

Hoi An is a little town, halfway up the country near the East coast. It's a riverside town, with a pedestrianised 'Old Quarter' that takes you back in time and makes you feel like you're on a film set! The Old Quarter is full of little yellow buildings and every available hanging space is taken up with lanterns. I was drawn in to a lantern shop and couldn't resist buying a big silk lantern for myself, as the shop owner kept lowering and lowering the price until it was about 3GBP! [I don't want to admit that it was too big and got in the way slightly and I've just shipped it home, with loads of other stuff, for about 30GBP - oops!] The town is full of lovely wooden fronted shops, filled with books, stationery, hundreds of tailors [it's the place to get something made!], made to measure shoes, cute cafes - it has everything! 

It's a quiet little place, compared to the cities we'd been in previously, but still packed with history and easy, fun things to do. We took a trip along the river with a hilarious Vietnamese woman, chatting away to us in very broken english, cackling and smoking a tiny cigar off the back of the boat! She also convinced us to buy candles and floating lanterns from her, to float down the river for good luck. We got the wrong end of the stick and thought we were meant to put the money in the lanterns and float that down the river! Much hilarity and scrabbling for the lantern ensued when she realised what we'd done - haha! The sun was just setting as we went on our boat trip and it was lovely to see the town from the water. 

We also bought a combined ticket to visit all the historic sites within the city. We took a day to wander around and visit the Japanese influenced bridge, the Chinese Meeting House, an ancient artifacts museum and looked inside a traditional Vietnamese house.Another popular tourist attraction in Hoi An seems to be cooking courses - we did one at One Moment Restaurant and it was great. We took a trip to the market to buy the produce with our guide, then cooked up an amazing lunch on the restaurant balcony overlooking one of the town's streets.

We met up with some friends we'd made in Cambodia for dinner one night, they suggested we go to Bale Well - a street food restaurant recommended in Lonely Planet guide book, it had also been recommended to them by some local expats. As soon as we sat down around a little table with plastic chairs [rather than stools, making it more than just streetfood...] our table was filled with plates of salad, different meat on sticks, rice paper, sauces, vegetables, spring rolls, omelettes and noodles - despite us not ordering anything yet! Apparently that's how the restaurant works, they only really sell one meal - a massive roll-your-own tasty rice paper feast! As we looked bemused, a lady came over to show us what to do. You literally just grab a bit of everything, shove it into two layers of rice paper [otherwise it falls apart] and then 'DIP, DIP' she kept shouting to us! It was a really fun, different meal out to normal and it tasted amazing. It was nice to try something that I wouldn't have normally chosen from the menu.

We also hired bikes, Sound of Music style - complete with baskets, and cycled to the local beach. It took us about 20-30minutes to cycle there, luckily in a completely straight line from the main road in the guesthouse area of Hoi An town, otherwise it may have taken longer. It was a really nice journey, through the rice fields and past the fishermen fishing in the river. The beach itself was nice too, the waves were pretty rough on the day we went so it's not really so much of a swimmers beach - we stood in the water and waited to get bashed by the next wave haha. The local restaurant provides free sunloungers and big bamboo/leaf sun shades for free, if you agree to have lunch with them. The prices and the food looked good so we agreed - and it was a tasty meal at lunchtime so that worked out well. We also met this tiny dog in the restaurant, it was so cute! It attached itself to Josh's leg and started biting his leg hair, haha!

Hoi An has been my favourite place we've visited so far, there's so much to do for such a small place but you can easily spend a lot of time doing not very much there too! We almost missed Hoi An out of our trip, as we didn't think we'd be able to make the route work. It took a couple of flights and some extra money but I'm so glad we went!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cambodia - Koh Rong & Phnom Penh

Koh Rong - a small island off the South coast of Cambodia
After touristing ourselves out in Siem Reap, visiting the Temples of Angkor, we decided to head South through Cambodia to spend a few days relaxing on an island we'd heard a lot about - Koh Rong. 

We took a 'hotel bus' through the night from Siem Reap down to Sihanoukville, a town on the coast before getting a 45 minute passenger ferry across to the island. I loved travelling on the hotel bus! We booked the tickets with the promise of our own little cabin with TV, wifi, free water, plug sockets and a light - of course none of the [sounding too good to be true] freebies were actually included but we did have a little cabin with mattress, pillows and blankets where we could lie completely flat for the 12 hour journey. None of this reclining chair sleeping for us! I would definitely book this option again if I see it, you arrive feeling like you've actually got some sleep and will be able to enjoy the day - unlike stepping off a reclining seat bus! Beware though, the cabins are pretty cosy, so make sure you know the person you're sharing with!

From the bus station, a tuk tuk driver took us to the boat ticket office then straight to the ferry port for a very cheap price, I was waiting for the catch but it never appeared. The ferry crossing was choppy, but only took 45 minutes to get across to the beautiful island! On stepping off the ferry, we knew that this was going to be different to every island we'd previously stayed on. There were no tuk tuks, no buses, no cars [there are none on the island at all] - you step straight from the pier onto the bright white sand of the island - where a couple of friendly guys were waiting to point us in the direction of food and guesthouses. They weren't after sales or commission, they'd just been living on the island for the while and wanted to help out the newcomers.

We found 'Ty Ty's Guesthouse', a little wooden building right on the beach - with private double rooms [shared bathrooms] for $5 a night [approx 3GBP]! Crazily cheap! The walls of the room were pretty thin planks of wood [it kinda felt like sleeping in a shed], but it was private, had a good bed with mozzie net and a communal balcony area with wifi which was good for chilling out on and meeting other travellers. I have to admit, we were incredibly lazy for three days, but as you can imagine once you'd got a little camp set up on the beach for the day, it was very difficult to move! The only downside to the island was that the food choice wasn't greatly varied - there was a lot of average western style food but there were some amazing BBQs on the beach in the evening!

Phnom Penh - the Capital city of Cambodia
After feeling suitably chilled out on Koh Rong for a few days, we decided it was time to see some more history. We got the boat back over to the mainland from Koh Rong and took a 6 hour bus over to the other side of the country, to Phnom Penh - the Capital. 

Phnom Penh is a really busy city, with some parts of it being set out like a holiday destination [along the riverfront] and some parts of it not catering to tourists at all. The city as a whole isn't my favourite place, it's quite hard to get around, but the history was incredible. It holds so much recent history, there's loads of must visit places! We booked a day tuk tuk tour of S-21 Prison and The Killing Fields - both incredibly harrowing visits but something I feel like we should all know more about.

S-21 Prison [pictured above] is an old school, converted into a place of detention and torture of men, women and children by the Khmer Rouge regime [a dictatorship that ruled Cambodia in the late '70s]. You can wander through the cells of the Prison, learning about the detainees [many of them innocent], their stories and the horrors that occurred at S-21. It really wasn't a nice morning, hearing about these things that happened so recently - but I didn't know much about it before, so I definitely learnt a lot. It's estimated that 17,000 people were imprisoned at S-21 and there are only 12 known survivors. 

The second part of the trip was to The Killing Fields, where many of the S-21 detainees were taken to be killed en masse. It was equally as harrowing, with mass graves marked around the site and the risk of bones moving to the surface after heavy rain. The Killing Fields entry ticket includes an audio tour - it's definitely worth listening to as you move around the site, it's so interesting and helped to fill in the gaps of our rubbish history knowledge. Despite such horrible acts being carried out at The Killing Fields, the Cambodians have now changed it's focus and turned it into an informative site plus created a memorial in the middle to commemorate those who died. The main killing areas, including a tree where children were beaten to death, and the graves have now been marked by thousands of brightly coloured friendship bracelets - left by visitors to honour the dead. It's definitely a must visit place to learn more about Cambodia's recent history and a reminder of just how lucky our generation is. 

After another day exploring the city, including the Grand Palace and riverfront [holiday] area, we decided it was time to leave Cambodia and move across to Vietnam. I was really excited about visiting Vietnam and I wasn't disappointed - more on that soon! The border crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam, with pre-arranged visas, was much easier and less stressful than the Thailand to Cambodia border! We barely even noticed we were now in Vietnam! :)