Planes, taxis and a lot of fun. . .

Friday 5th January 2007

The hours at Heathrow passed quickly enough, because we were so excited about the trip. No huge logjams at check-in or elsewhere in the airport and the flight left on time. Let’s hope we don’t ‘pay’ for that further along the route. A good flight (although BA can never really compete with Virgin for the little extra touches). The ‘in-flight’ entertainment was good with a choice of films that both Sid and I enjoyed. I saw more segments of a number of films than I intended, simply because of my seat-mate. The guy next to me was 6ft 5” tall (obviously, I’m talking about the guy on the other side of me to Sid!) and about 20 stone. Really nice young man, 25, teaching English in China, just outside Beijing. Only problem was, his bulk made him spill over into my seat and as a result he inadvertently changed channels on my arm-rest-control- panel, roughly every half-hour, or each time he moved position.

Flight was just under ten hours so we arrived in Beijing at 10.30 local time, but 2.30am to us. We’d dozed on and off, but must still be working on adrenalin, as it’s now 8am English time and 4 pm here. Just got back to the hotel and Sid’s having his afternoon nap as I write.

We’d been warned by loads of people how difficult it would be to make sense of Beijing Airport without any Chinese language or assistance. We’d boldly decided that we didn’t want to book transport to the hotel in advance, because although our oversized luggage disqualifies us from backpacker status, we certainly don’t want this trip to be a glorified package tour either. And we’d also been told there is an ‘official’ taxi desk in the airport. There isn’t! But first things first, we needed to access some Chinese Yuan. Simple. Put the card in one of the numerous cash machines scattered around, I thought, and get out a couple of hundred quid to start us off. Not so simple. Yes, the instructions could be accessed in English, which we did, but I’d omitted to check what a couple of hundred quid in Enlgish would be in Yuan (had my handy calculator that I’d carefully cut and pasted from Yahoo on Wednessday, tucked away in my bum bag.) So, I ask for 300 Yuan and out it spills. Success, except when I worked it out we’d only got the equivalent of £19. Off to Starbucks for a coffee and a rethink on currency exchange rates and to retrieve my not-so-handy guide. Back to the machine to take out (successfully this time) 3000 Yuan. OK, let’s decide how to get a taxi to the hotel, we think, and I start searching for the Hotel address details printed in Chinese. I know I had these because Ian kindly printed them out for me at work as my computer doesn’t recognise Chinese characters and his does. And I had been warned that taxi drivers here don’t read or understand English and so having the hotel address in Chinese was a necessity. I now know that the page Ian printed out form the web is in my green box file, marked holiday, in the study in the Old Forge.

Never mind, off to the desk marked ‘hotel reservations’ in English to ask the woman there to write out the name and address of the Marco Polo Hotel in Chinese. Except she couldn’t. Although she had some, limited, English and it’s her job to book hotels she couldn’t read the address in English to write it out for me. But she did manage Marco Polo in Chinese. By this time, we’d had about 20 touts offering us taxis and had refused them all, as all the good guide books tell you to do. Just as we were about to go out of the door to get a ‘metered’ taxi, a guy sees the Marco Polo written in Chinese on my sheet and says he will take us there for 450 Yuan (about £30). I say, no we know the fare should be about 180 Yuan (£12ish). He comes down to 250 and we settle on a fixed price of 200. Off we go with his ‘friend’ who proudly shows us the Airport Highway. He says it’s a toll road and he does go through a booth collecting a 100 yuan ticket (although he makes no payment). He then gives us the ticket, in the back of the car, and tells us it is for us to pay him. Sid says ‘no, we agreed a fixed price of 200 with your friend and that’s what we’re paying – he even says they ‘shook hands’ on it, though I know he didn’t. I know he didn’t because I read somewhere that the Chinese think it is bad luck or insulting or something to shake hands. Nevertheless, he takes us to the Marco Polo, we pay him 200, he goes away not very happy and we check in with no problems.

Hotel is absolutely perfect for our first ‘culture shock’ few days. Very good large room, all mod cons, staff with some, but limited English, and great facilities. We dump our gear and walk off towards Tianenman Square, about a 20 minute to half hour walk away. See the ‘Chairman’s House’ on the way, then into the square itself, which is massive. See the Great Hall of the People, the Gate to the Forbidden City, and the huge museum. Meet some very nice students in the Square, who spotted us straight away as in the hour we took to stroll to the Square and around, we did not see any other westerners at all. I know it’s January, and not the tourist season, but very surprised. Also surprised that the few people we asked for directions didn’t understand Sid saying Tianenman Square and pointing. (Sid was a bit hurt at this and did say that he thought it was ‘payback time’ for them to help us as he’d helped numerous Chinese tourists with directions in London, Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon. I think there was a bit of racial mis-stereotyping coming in there, because I’m pretty sure the tourists he’s helped in the past were Japanese, not Chinese!). The students then took us to see their art exhibition which is in a part of the museum which is being redeveloped from next week to house a new museum in time for the Olympics next year. They did us a calligraphy scroll of our names, just as a gift, because I think they enjoyed practising their English. And gave us a very welcome hot cup of china tea.

Today has been beautifully sunny, but very, very cold. Fortunately we’d packed and dressed for it, so no problem. It’s been a really exciting and fun day so far. And then, this was rounded off with a visit to the dumpling house. Fantastic – huge bowl of egg and tomato soup, absolutely gorgeous mixture of beef and tomato and duck and mushroom dumplings, with a mixture of dipping sauce, two very large beers and all for the princely sum of 46 ruan, otherwise known as £3!!!

Demons and Dragons

Saturday 6th January 2007
Sid slept badly. In his dreams/nightmares, he first fell off the Great Wall and then had to do running repairs to the roof of the cable car on its ascent (à la Where Eagles Dare). But everything was ok when he awoke properly at 6 am. He was determined to conquer his demons (fear of heights). As I’d been awake since 5.30 (overexcited, I think, about the day ahead) we went for a swim in the hotel pool. Lovely pool and had it all to ourselves. We were picked up at 8 at the hotel for our group tour to the Great Wall. In fact, as we were the only two booked from our hotel, we had a private tour, for the price of the group tour. But I hadn’t heeded the warnings I’d been given about the tour guides taking you to the government ‘factory’ shops on the way to the Wall. And they did. Two jade shops, and one pearl shop on the way to the Ming Tombs. Quite interesting though and even their pushy sales techniques resulted in us buying only one very cheap jade bangle and a ‘lucky’ pisha (not sure how you spell it, but it’s a jade charm that brings success – not worked out who to give it to yet!). The Ming Tombs were quite interesting – some 13 of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty buried there, and lots of treasure things to look at, many carved dragons, but quite honestly, I would have got through the rest of my life OK if I hadn’t seen them.

But oh no, not so the next stop. The Great Wall at Mutianyu, about 50 miles outside Beijing on a beautiful clear, sunny, very cold crisp day. One of life’s great experiences, because it is even more breathtaking than all the photos and films can show. But I’ll try to do it justice with a photo I’m attaching to this journal. We chose to go to Mutianyu after my intensive research of the past few months had suggested that the Wall at Badaling (the most popular tourist section) is quite commercialised and not nearly so spectacular as the Mutianyu section. First, the cable car, which takes you up the mountain to the wall – the wall is very high up in the mountains that surround Beijing, for obvious reasons - it was a fortress, after all. Sid took the cable car and actually enjoyed it (obviously taking on board Chairman Mao’s comments that ‘he who has not climbed the great wall is not a true man). Then the Wall. We walked it for a couple of hours. It is much steeper on the wall than I’d realised, even from the pictures I’d seen. And it really is stunning. The Wall originally ran for 5000 kms, which by my reckoning is around 3,000 miles. We did the stretch which runs for about two miles and didn’t even cover all of that in our two hours because it really is a climb, up and down, up and down. There are 20 ‘watchtowers’ along these two miles and we covered the section from tower 14 tower 18. Absolutely fantastic. And then the cable car down to the entrance point where you have to brave the onslaught of t-shirt and souvenir vendors. No wonder Chairman Mao also said ‘Every man who visits the great wall becomes a hero.’

We became heroes, splashing out £2 on two souvenir t-shirts.

Back on the minibus, we made a stop at a Chinese Tea House, to sample five types of tea, made the traditional way, each with a claim to cure a whole host of ailments. Dinner tonight was another treat – a sort of Kung Po Chicken, Egg and Tomato Noodles, another two large beers and a pot of tea. Didn’t break the bank either, as it was even cheaper than last night, at £2.20 and the waiter refused a tip. Tipping is not really in the culture here, but I guess that will change as soon as the Olympics hit town. All in all, another day that exceeded very high expectations.

Peace and Supreme Harmony

Sunday 7th January 2007
At the Forbidden City today. Very impressive and massive. Walked miles within the walls, halls and palaces of the Forbidden City seeing the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union and Imperial Garden, amongst many other things. It’s the buildings that are most impressive with far fewer artefacts than you might expect. That may be because a number of the buildings are being renovated further, presumably because of the coming Olympic games. (Forgot to mention that yesterday we passed the Olympic stadium which is being built – nicknamed the Birds Nest because the top of the building looks like one – must be some connection with bird’s nest soup here!).

Many of the exhibitions were in temporary halls, we think, and although we had the ‘audio guide’ to listen to on the way round, it is much more difficult to get beneath the skin of anything here because no-one really has any Enlgish at all. And even in the Forbidden City – very busy on a Sunday with tourists – there were very, very few Westerners. Probably saw around a dozen all day. Must be different in the summer. In the restaurant last night, for example, the menu was totally in Chinese and although a big, quite classy restaurant with loads of staff, not one spoke a single word of English and couldn’t even understand when I tried to order tea at the end of the meal. All very friendly and smiley and try to be helpful though.

That’s another thing – not surprising really in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, and a city of about 15 million, there is no labour shortage! People cleaning streets everywhere (immaculately clean city) loads of ‘guards’ on everything in all kinds of different uniforms, all very official looking but we can’t tell who are policemen, who are soldiers, who are ‘street wardens’ or whatever else they may be. We were very pleased with ourselves, because after the Forbidden City, we decided to rest our aching feet and try to get the tube back the two stops to our hotel. We’ve walked everywhere since we’ve been here. We managed the tube, bought the tickets, found the right line and arrived where we thought we would, about 100 yards from hotel. Quite an achievement, helped by the tube lines being written in Chinese as well as English. Not so this morning, when we tried to find the tourist office where we need to collect our train tickets for Xian tomorrow night. We walked round and round and round and because we only have the address in our alphabet, no-one we asked could read it and give us directions. In the morning, we’ll get our hotel to ring them, give them the address in Mandarin, so that they can then get us a cab there and tell the cab driver where we want to go. But even that will be a challenge. All good fun. Tonight we’re off to sample the famous Beijing Duck at the oldest restaurant that has been serving it since 1846.

There ARE nine million bicycles in Beijing

Monday 8th January 2007

And we got two of them! Another good day today. We got the hotel to ring the ticket office and get a taxi to take us there – even the taxi driver got lost – it was a long way from where we’d been looking yesterday. Sid says the ‘author’ should admit here to having placed an x in the wrong spot on the map. We walked from there to The Friendship Store which was interesting and then visited the Silk Market and had some fun bargaining for just about everything. It was easy as we had no intention of buying anything as we can’t fit anything else in our luggage. The plan is to go to a post office on our last day in Shanghai with all our ‘cold weather clothes’. Apparently they pack them up in a sack for you and then sew the sack and we can post them home – or to Stephanie in our case. From the Silk Market we had decided we really wanted to do the only other thing we’d planned for Beijing but hadn’t yet done – ride bicycles around the Hutongs – the narrow streets of old Beijing. We decided to go to the Hyatt Grand Hotel where we’d had coffee yesterday. We’d learnt in San Francisco that the top class hotels seem to have Concierges who can get you anything you want, even if you’re not staying there. And they came up trumps, arranged for bikes to be delivered for us. We had such fun riding the bikes around the main streets around Tianenman Square to start with – all the Chinese were laughing and pointing at us. It’s very rare for Westerners to ride bikes.

We then went off to the Hutongs which were a fascinating insight into life for the real Chinese, outside the major hotels and business areas of the new city.

We’re now on the overnight train to Xi’an, as I write this. Must give a mention to last night’s Beijing roast duck at the Quanjude restaurant – the oldest in Beijing serving duck – in fact, we got a certificate to say that ours was no. 330686 since opening. As Sid says, thank God they never named them. I say, apologies to Donald and Daffy (deceased!). Wow, tasted wonderful though and the walls were full of pictures of premiers, diplomats and despots from around the world who had eaten there over the years.

Back to the train. Very comfortable, four berth – bought it out for ourselves so we don’t have to sleep with strangers. Beds and linen look great. Will report on sleepability tomorrow.

Worthwhile Warriors?

Tuesday 9th January 2007

Is it worth travelling to Xi’an (11.5 hours from Beijing and 14 hours from Shanghai by train) just to see the Terracotta Warriors. Yes, Yes, Yes. Though at 4am, I was wondering. Don’t understand why I couldn’t sleep on the train – it was quiet, warm, comfortable bed etc etc. But somehow, I just couldn’t get to sleep. Did in the end though and woke up for a wash just before we approached the city.

I’d taken some directions off on how to go to see the Warriors on the No. 306 bus from Xi’an, so as to avoid the tour buses or private tours which take you to the ubiquitous silk factories, jade factories, carpet factories and tea houses along the way. We left our luggage at the left luggage, found the bus stop and bus all with no problem (Sid turned the tables on the numerous students who profess to ‘want to practice their English’ and got them to tell the porter that we wanted the left luggage room). It was about a 50 minute bus ride to the site of the Terracotta Warriors, a huge park-like area. The bus cost us a whole 7 Yuan (40p) and we hired the audio guide to listen to as we went around. And wow, wow, wow. No matter how good you think it’s going to be, no matter how good the posters, pictures and TV, it’s even better. Takes your breath away as you go into the first ‘pit’ and see them standing there. I’ll post a picture with this, but can’t imagine it will look anything like as impressive as the real thing.
So, as I write this sitting on the train to Shanghai, not sure whether or not we’ll get much sleep tonight, all I can say is we KNOW it was worth it.

Sleeping all the way to Shanghai

Wednesday 10th January 2007

Got a really good night’s sleep – the best since we’ve been away – a good ten hours. Which surprised us because Xi’an station was even more chaotic than Beijing, the train was older and packed, but we were ok in our ‘buy out’ four berth cabin. We saw lots of people from the seats (those without berths) trying to upgrade, but warnings we’d had that the train guards (and there are loads and loads of them) might take bribes to give them our two spare beds, proved unfounded.

Arrived in Shanghai at around 10.30 am having boarded the train at 6pm last night! Staying at the Astor House Hotel, on Val and Rin’s recommendation – and it was a really good recommendation. The room is good with an amazing view right along the Bund – so location great. We had a relaxing day, long hot shower to get rid of the train dirt, and a walk along the Bund and the Nanjing Road – the main shopping street. Shanghai and Beijing don’t seem like they’re in the same country. Beijing was historic, and beautiful, clean and lovely. Shanghai is a huge, clean modern city of skyscrapers, all beautifully lit up at night. Much more like I imagine Hong Kong or Singapore to be and not at all as you would imagine a major city in a communist country. Sid’s reading The History of Tractors in Ukranian and it quotes Lenin as saying ‘Communism is socialism with electricity’. Sid says Shanghai is a good example of Neon-Communism.

One side of the river, the Bund, has all the historic buildings and the hotel we are in was formerly known as Richard’s hotel and dates from 1846 – from British Colonial times. It was the first major international hotel in China and feels full of history – Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Bertrand Russell all stayed here.
A couple of things seem to be the same in each of the three cities we have visited: there are few westerners anywhere; no-one understands much English and we have to find the few who do to write down our destinations in Chinese for us for the taxi drivers to understand; the art students ‘practising their English’ is a national scam and not local to any one region.

A brilliant meal tonight in a restaurant called 1221, a recommendation from the Lonely Planet. But all the food has been excellent and much more like the very best Chinese restaurants at home than we could ever have hoped. But at a fraction of the price. I’m going to post this tonight as I won’t connect to the internet again until Vietnam.


Thursday 11th January 2007
The Pearl of the Orient Is one of the names for Shanghai (Whore of the East, is another!). This morning we took the ‘tourist tunnel’ from the Bund to Pudong – the ultra-modern side of the river. The tourist tunnel is a garish, illuminated, psychedelic way of crossing under the river in a capsule car. Very tasteless, but good fun. And what a surprise (not!) that once we were there, and standing at the ground floor entry point to the Peral Oriental Tower, I suggested to Sid (remember, his fear of heights) that we take the ride to the viewing towers at 630 metres, to get a view of this amazing city from above. Well, he conquered more demons and said, ‘let’s go for it’. It was a shame that this was our first day with some cloud so the view was not what it might have been, but pretty stunning nevertheless. Most interesting though was the municipal museum, back on the ground floor. Five exhibition halls beautifully illustrating the history of the city, with really good explanations about the British colonial period and the French Concession. We then took an afternoon three-hour boat cruise along the Huangpu River to where it joins the Yangtze River. I knew Shanghai was one of the biggest ports in the world, but that doesn’t mean much until you see the number of barges and boats on the river – masses of them shifting just about everything you can imagine. It was a very nice relaxing way to spend the afternoon, without having to absorb lots of facts which made a pleasant change after the past week of trying to drink everything in. Tonight we ate at another Lonely Planet recommendation (in the French Concession – no French influence apparent here anymore) – good food, but what we chose was far too spicy for me. That’s the trouble with eating-by-pictures – on one occasion Sid ended up with a plate of black worms, or at least that’s what it looked like but was in fact cold (not just cool, but deliberately very cold) noodles in something black. Tonight, I ended up with a chicken dish which was very tasty so long as you avoided the red bits (which was most of it) as they were the hottest, spiciest chillis I’ve ever tasted. Burning sensation saved by the best toffee bananas ever! (Sid’s just off to take his Gaviscon, in case). Lovely taxi ride back to the hotel. This city at night makes New York look like it’s suffering from power failure.

Gold for China

Friday 12th January 2007

China is bound to sweep the board in Beijing 2008. The Olympic host country always seems to do that (until 2012, probably!). Last night, we decided that if we were betting people, we would put money on them taking every gold medal in the gymnastics. We went to Circus World, which sounds a bit naff and is probably Shanghai’s attempt to sound Western, but we saw the best show of its kind either of us had seen. It was a sound and light spectacular but what made it special was the quality of the acrobatics. None of the oo-ing and aaah-ing coming from our seats was put on. It was incredibly exciting and skilful.

Earlier in the day, we had ‘mopped up’ the last bits we wanted to do in Shanghai – walked up the Nanjing road to buy trainers for me, walked around Remin (People’s) Square and through the old city (wonderful contrast to what Shanghai has become in just 10 years, from nothing to the whole Pudong skyscraper area) to the Yuyuan Gardens (interesting and restful in the heart of the old city) and booked the acrobatic show for the evening through the concierge at the Peace Hotel – best English speaker we’d met in China (apart from people from other English-speaking countries, of course). We obviously failed to make ourselves understood at our hotel because when we asked about getting tickets, the receptionist said something akin to ‘no open to March.’ Still even that was better than any Chinese I managed! But the real success of the day? Finding the Post Office, only 10 minutes walk from our hotel, choosing a large green box from the many different sizes on display, and sending home (to Stephanie) 10kg of ‘winter warmer’ clothing. It was so easy and relatively cheap to do and has made space in our cases for the rest of the trip. Here’s hoping we see some of it again in the future. This is one instance where delivery really is more important than strategy.

On the second flight of the night now as I write this, (early Saturday) from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh. Currency should be interesting. £1 = 31,348 dong. Yes, that is thirty-one thousand. Sid said something helpful like, ‘Just think in lire’, ‘abandon money belt, buy money suitcase’.

We took 2m (yes, 2m) Dong from the cashpoint at airport. But it’s only £64 by my reckoning. Now in hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and what a contrast to China. Busy, noisy, quite dirty and very hot. We’re only in this hotel for one night and move to the cycle tour hotel tomorrow. We will meet up with the rest of the cycling group (14 of them, I think) tomorrow evening We have gone from -8o in Beijing to around +10o in Shanghai to around +28-30o here. Fortunately the air conditioning is very strong in the room. Off to eat nearby and catch up on some sleep from last night.

Good morning Vietnam

Sunday 14th January 2007
Didn’t think we were going to like Ho Chi Minh when we arrived yesterday, but today, after a good night’s sleep, it looked good. Vibrant is the word, I think. Yes, busy, dirty, hot, loads going on. Very hot. And sunny, mostly, which was nice. Got a really good night’s sleep after a very nice meal of Pho (which seems to be the national dish – white rice noodles in a sort of chicken broth with chicken pieces) – in the hotel restaurant. We’d walked around a bit, but decided to take the easy route of hotel restaurant, not something we often do, but after all the travelling it seemed a good idea. And it was.

Moved hotels this morning to the tour hotel. Similar standard, both ok. And what a busy day. We first walked to Ben Thanh Market in the centre of the city. Sid bought some lightweight trousers – we think he got done on the first pair at around £12, but did better on the second – exactly the same but he bid them down to around £4. Everything is about bargaining, which should be good for someone who spent a large part of his working life bargaining, but somehow that doesn’t seem to follow.

We then walked to what is called the War Remnants Museum. Apparently it used to be called the Museum of American and Chinese Sins, but that didn’t go down too well with the ‘forgive but don’t forget’ philosphoy. It was incredibly moving. And very fairly balanced, recognising that the South Vietnamese were party to the American aggression, as it is called here. One exhibition hall was just photos from the photographers who were killed during the war (from all around the world) and it really was a tribute to the power of excellent photojournalism. Many of the photos were familiar to us, the Pulitzer Prize winners like the young woman running away from the Nepalm attack, the dreadful photos of the My Lai massacre. Another hall, had all the posters and news coverage of the protests around the world against the war, including a photo of the Trafalgar Square/Grosvenor Square demo of 1968 that both Sid and I were on, though separately and before we knew each other, of course. Very evocative and we both came away quite sombre. We then went on to the Reunification Palace which was the Independence Palace until the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. That cheered us up a bit because it was like a 1960s local government building anywhere in the world. But a very heavy propaganda video rounded it off and made us laugh.

Tonight we met our tour guide, Chi, and the rest of the group. Very mixed age range and all seem ok, but more on them as trip progresses and we get past the first impression, ‘let’s all be nice’ bit. Some look very fit, others not quite so, but tomorrow will be the first indication of how well I’m gong to keep up!!!!

Another thing worth mentioning is the traffic here, though no words can describe it. Motor bikes and scooters have taken over from pedal cycles and there are literally thousands on every street. I’d been warned how difficult it was to cross the street, and only some video photo may show the reality. We’ll try to capture it.

Women are heroes

Monday 15th January 2007.

Women are heroes.So declared the Vietcong at the end of the war. Another busy day, but wonderful. We set off in the (air-conditioned) coach at 7.30 and drove about an hour out of the city where the truck carrying our bikes met us. We then cycled past paddy fields, through rubber plantations and lovely countryside for about 12 miles to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We were then shown around the whole area which was a 200kilometre underground network used by the South Vietnamese guerrillas and the VietCong from 1958 to 1975.

From ground level you couldn’t see any entrances to the tunnels (which was why they used them, of course) or any sign of them. There were a number of very large craters where the US B52s had bombed and it was all in very thick forest. In the Vietnam war (or American Agression – depending on your perspective) the Americans sprayed the forest to clear the foliage to try to spot the VietCon so it would have looked very different then. Then we went into the tunnels – they had made two of them larger for Western tourists – the Vietnamese are tiny people and the tunnels were so small that no US could have got into them, if they found them. There were kitchens, workshops – everything underground and at one time there were 12,000 people in the Cu Chi area – after the war, just 4,000!All incredibly interesting.

The tour group are really good fun.

17 of us in total and I’ll try to give an initial thumbnail sketch. Mark and Karol, 40-somethings from Kent, but he’s working in Malaysia at the moment; Colin from Brighton, 50, single, looks incredibly fit, so I may attach a tow rope to his bike; Liz, a 40ish radiologist from Wigan; Norman and Beryl from Oxfordshire – celebrating their 30th anniversary with a round the world trip; Alan and Ann from Sheffield – retired local government planner/teacher; Scottish Mark, occupation/age unknown so far; Katie ‘between jobs’ from Islington – early 30s. Jenny and Steve 20-somethings from Leamington Spa – occupation unknown but have cycled round Draycote. James, real estate agent from Vancouver; Fiona from Bristol, late 20s ish. Laurie from Wales but living in Madagascar for past 20 years. In his 60s and in ‘fisheries’ whatever that means. And one I can’t remember for now. We’ve all decided to eat together tonight, so I guess I’ll remember the other one then.

Today’s cycling easy and good. Tomorrow promises something different. A drive out for the morning about 200km, then a 100 km cycle up to the mountain region of Dalat. So this blog, may end here.

The only way was up

Tuesday 16th January 2007

Last night we had a really good meal together at the Lemon Grass restaurant. – beautiful food, very similar to Thai food. After that a few of us went to the rooftop terrace at the Rex Hotel. The Rex was where the American Officers and War Correspondents stayed during the war and where the ‘5 0’clock briefings came from. The War Correspondents knew they were being fed US propaganda about the casualties/deaths etc and had a funny name for the briefings that I can’t remember now. But I will. It was also the place where the helicopters were seen evacuating US officers, war correspondents and diplomats at the time of the so-called ‘Fall of Saigon’ (the other place for the helicopter evacuation was the roof the the Indpendence Palace that we visited yesterday. I think these scenes are depicted in Apocalypse Now and other American films about Vietnam, and so the locations were familiar to us before we visited them. However, having said all that, the Rex Hotel was the snootiest and most unfriendly place we’ve visited in this country yet.

Today we set off early (7 am) for our 200 km drive out of Saigon towards Dalat, the Hill Station from French Colonial days. The drive out was interesting passing lots of tea and coffee plantations in beautiful countryside. Then we had lunch, the sun was shining, the sky was blue. And we started cycling. Up. And up. The system for the tour is excellent. We cycle in 20 km (12 mile) stretches and the coach waits, the 20km ahead, while either Chi or Tam (the bike mechanic/looker after) rides at the front of the group and the other at the rear, therefore making sure we’re safe throughout. And the cycling is wonderful, through lots of small towns and villages. All the locals, not just the children, stand by the road or pass on their bikes and motorbikes, (of which there are thousands) calling out sinchow, sinchow (hello, hello). They are very friendly people and love to see Westerners, often asking to have a photo taken with us.

Well, I earlier mentioned the fitness of some of the group. They are very, very fit and set the pace which was fast – much faster than either Sid or I are used to cycling, particularly on steep hills, which I like to take very slowly with lots of stops.

So I was at the back and Sid was just a bit ahead of me for most of the ride. I completed the first 20km, no problem. By about two-thirds of the way through the second 20km, I was struggling, or you could say, I took lots of time ‘to smell the coffee’. Sid admitted to finding it pretty tough too, but with his usual determination, had no thought of quitting. But me. Well. I don’t like struggle or pain. I was clear I had come on a cycling holiday not to prove I was a good cyclist; not to prove I’m (un)fit, but because I thought it would be a nice way to see the country. And it is. So, Mark 1 (of Mark and Karol, earlier mention) and I, decided to take the coach for the final 20 km. And I’m pleased. I don’t feel shattered tonight. I had a very nice ride that was challenging enough for me (25miles mostly uphill – not surprising really when you’re going to a hill station), and no-one made me feel bad about taking things at my own pace. So we’ll see what tomorrow brings! Sid is very happy that he completed the 63km ( 38miles). But absolutely shattered as the final 5km was a very steep, uphill climb.

The days all roll into one

Thursday 18th January 2007

I loved today. We were leaving Dalat to head out of the mountain region to the coast. I knew it was going to be a really tough day because I’d read a blog from someone who did this same trip in November. He’d described a gruelling ride uphill for miles and miles. . We set off early at 7am, knowing we had a 100km to pedal.

We left lovely Dalat, first cycling round the lake as a sort of warm up. Then we did some quite comfortable ‘undulation’ as Chi calls it, but this time it really was undulating, there were downs as well as ups, for 15km. When we stopped at the coach for our usual refreshments – they really look after us on this trip with cold drinks, chocolate bars, cashew nuts and fresh fruit, each time we meet the coach, usually every 20 kms – Chi warned us that the next 5km was a very steep uphill climb. And it was. Dalat is at an altitude of 1500m. We had dropped to 1400m during the ‘undulation’ and had to rise to 1600m before starting the promised 10km descent. I was determined to do it, as I’d promised myself that I would only allow myself the pleasure of some downhill cycling if I made it up the mountain (notice change of name, but mountain it was!) without quitting and taking the coach. So up I went. And yes, I was last up, but I did it. Then began the 10km freewheel over a very potholed road, so loads of concentration, but no real effort, as it was quite a gentle descent. This was followed by a further 17km, very steep descent round hairpin bends. For the first time ever, I felt I was doing some real mountain biking. The views were amazing, although of course Sid had to be cameraman – I’ve given up trying to stop on the cycle rides to take photos as I need to put all my effort into not falling too far behind. I’m not sure at what altitude Comares (Jane and David’s village in Andalucia) is, but the views were as wide and open, the road at least as steep and winding, and it was wonderful. And when we next reached the bus, I was not even near the last of the group. Many had been stopping along the way, taking photos and views (as I had) and so it had spread out a bit. So now, we’re up to the bit that Chi describes as fairly flat. And it was. So it felt easy to just keep going. By the time we reached our lunch stop, we’d clocked up 70km. Yes, 70km before lunch (at around midday). And that’s 42 miles, in real money.

Chi then gave us the option of two routes – one for 30km direct to Nha Trang or another, where we would take the bus for around 30 minutes, visit his family in his home village, and then cycle the 30 km on a real back road to Nha Trang. Of course, we chose the latter, which allowed him to see his wife and one month old baby. They are staying with his in-laws while he is guiding this trip, and then they will return to their home in Saigon. And it was a lovely ride through tiny villages, where again, everyone came to the front of their house to wave and say hello, and giggle as we said Sinchow. They really are the loveliest people here. Always smiling, always friendly. And we drove through some really back-road villages, where carts were still pulled by oxen, cattle and hens lined the road (don’t worry, none of the hens sneezed!). Like most places, I guess, the cities and rural areas of Vietnam are vastly different. The cities have become commercial, bustling places whilst life in the villages still seems form a different age. And then finally, it was high-fives as we’d completed 103 kms – the most Sid or I have ever ridden in a day. And it felt great – that’s around 62 miles or the London to Brighton distance. Great achievement and no aches or pains tonight.

So here in Nha Trang now. Nha Trang is the premier seaside resort, very close to China Beach where the US had their airbase and used China beach for R & R. Tomorrow we will go on a boat trip and give the bikes a rest.

Tonight we had a wonderful, fish bar-b-q ‘at your table’ meal in a local restaurant and came back to the hotel where about 10 of us had a singalong with Norman who is brilliant on the guitar. Singing old Dylan, Paul Simon, Who and other folk songs with some drinks. Great fun. The camaraderie on this trip has been one of the real highlights that we weren’t expecting.

Wednesday 17th January 2007

Had a wonderful day (sorry about so many superlatives, but this IS the trip of a lifetime). We had a lie in – didn’t meet up till 8am, after breakfast, and the hotel (Golf 1) is very comfortable with a very large room. Though all the hotels have been absolutely fine. Then we set off from the hotel on the bikes, to do the first 30km around Dalat which has a huge lake right in the centre. It really is a beautiful city, (town by our standards, population c130,000) small, very wealthy by Vietnamese standards, and all the produce for the country is grown around here, because of its cooler climate. It is at an altitude of 1500 metres (ah, so that explains yesterday’s uphill cycling!). So we were cycling through the very pretty town, then out around the rural area with beautiful flower and produce fields all around us. The city was once called Le Petit Paris and is the most popular destination for Vietnamese tourists and particularly, honeymoons. The road was what Chi calls ‘undulating’. We have learned that that means hilly. But today’s cycling was really enjoyable because for every up (and there were quite a few), there was also a down. The final 15km was virtually all downhill and took us to one of the outlying ‘minority villages’. I managed to keep up (that means I wasn’t very far behind the others at all) for all of today’s cycling and thoroughly enjoyed it. Only 4 of our group chose to cycle back the 15km back up the mountain – the rest of us took the bus to lunch.

Not quite sure I’ve got the hang of what this ‘minority community’ is because it is of course, very different to what we call minorities. They are in fact Vietnamese hill villagers who speak a totally different dialect and work in the fields and in the village making the most beautiful handicrafts, mostly silk weaving into scarves, bed covers etc. There are apparently 54 such minority communities in the Vietnam hills. It was fascinating.

We were invited into the school to see the children in class and also into someone’s home in the village of the Koho tribe that we visited.
There are about 600 people in the community, which was set up by just one couple, probably a couple of hundred years ago. For the girl (their daughter) to find a husband, her parents had to give six water buffalo, one cow and one ‘chicken with nice spurs’ which I think means a cockerel. She couldn’t manage the cockerel and so died in the hills looking for it. How the rest of the community were procreated was then lost in the translation a bit. We have some brilliant photos which I will post, when Sid returns with the camera.

Not surprisingly, as we are staying at the Golf 1 hotel, Sid, Norman and Mark 1, have chosen to play a round of golf this afternoon, as I am writing this.
I’m off to use the internet room (no wifi here) now to post this and to write to mum who triumphantly sent me her first email yesterday. So pleased for her. She sounded very happy about it, so hope she’s now getting this blog.

Laid back and enjoying it!

Friday 19th January 2007

A very different day today. A lie in – we didn’t meet up till 9 am and then the coach took us to the boat. It was a private boat, just for our group, and it took us to the island of Mun about 20 minutes away. You can see all the islands from Nha Trang. When we anchored we changed and swam and snorkelled. Although there was some cloud, it was very warm and the water was wonderfully warm and clear. On the coach, Chi had told us that we could have a massage on the boat. Three young Vietnames women came on the boat with us, and once the first guinea pig had tried the massage, just about everyone had a go.
They folded down some of the seats on the boat so they made flat platforms and off they went. But best of all, the also did pedicures and foot treatments, so after Sid had his full body massage (no, don’t let your imagination run away with you, he had shorts on and it was in full view of all passengers) I had my feet done and a back massage. It was lovely.

Then, when the temporary ‘massage table’ was cleared, along came a very appetising buffet lunch.
A bit more snorkelling and then back to Nha Trang to visit the Chan temple, 10th century, and not of huge interest to us, but it was only a ten minute visit, so that was fine. This afternoon Sid and I just wandered down to the beach with our books, and we intend to have a light meal this evening and an early night to prepare for tomorrow’s 100km, which Chi promises, is ‘mainly flat’.

Highway to Heaven

Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2007

I’m writing this on Sunday at 7.30 am on the coach, simply because last night everyone crashed out at about 9 pm, after dinner. That was because we had cycled 102 kms in beautiful, hot sunshine.

We left Nha Trang at 7am and the bus drove us out of the town for ten minutes. We then cycled along Highway 1, following the coast for most of the 75 kms that we covered before lunch. It was absolutely beautiful. Let me tell you a little bit about Highway 1. It should be the equivalent of our M1, as Vietnam is a long, thin country that stretches for 1000 miles and Highway 1, goes the full length of it. So, it is the major road in Vietnam and largely follows the coast.
But it’s not at all like our M1.Water buffalo are herded along, oxen pull carts,
street food is cooked and sold all along the side of the road, the motorbikes and scooters carry everything on their back seats from fridges, to televisons, a toilet, to bales of hay and produce that is ten times wider and ten times higher than the driver. Children line the route to wave to the English tourists, say Hello, Sinchow and giggle. And all the while, we are going through the most fantastic, picture-postcard scenery, Coastal scenes with pristine, empty beaches, fishing boats, junks, pearl and shrimp farms and paddy fields, with women working in their Vietnamese conical hats. It was a wonderful journey under a beautiful blue sky. And it was flat – in all of the first 75 kms there were some gentle ups and downs that couldn’t really be called hills. So, perfect for cycling.
And although it is Highway 1, the stretch we cycled is the least busy section. It’s a single carriageway road with a wide-ish section specifically for bikes and motor bikes, so very safe. But very hot. Not a humid heat though, as fortunately, we’re here in the dry season.

At lunch, on one of the beautiful beaches, Chi warns us that the final 25kms is ‘undulating’ and even admits that there are some steep hills. And there were, with the final hill being a real killer before dropping down to the coast, to the Seagull hotel where we stayed last night. Oh, and I did it, and did it without too much of a struggle. Another 102kms clocked up, so I’m obviously getting stronger and fitter as days go on. We arrived at the hotel in time for a quick shower before dinner, which was the first mediocre meal of the trip. We ate in the hotel and the Seagull Hotel is reminiscent of Soviet days gone by. Long, dark corridors, and a Fawlty Towers kind of service. Then everyone was totally bushed and called it a night. It was the only one night stay of the holiday as Nuy Quon is not really much of a town, just a convenient stop on the way to Hoi Ann where we’re headed now.

I’m back at the Hoi An Hotel now, after dinner on Sunday evening. The transfer from Nuy Quon was some 300 miles so a lot of today was spent on the bus.

Except for around three hours where we left the bus and cycled for just 10 kms to the My Lai museum. It felt strange driving through the villages of Son My, the region of the 1968 massacre and, in fact, the 500+ people who were brutally killed were from a number of hamlets with My Lai being just one. Again, young children lined the road along the villages to say Hello, and Whatsyourname (one word for them) to the tourists. We worked out that the reason they come out for us, is because although they see a number of tourists, they are just on coaches whizzing through their villages and it is only us cyclists that they can come out and talk to. Anyway, the reason it was weird was that you realised that these women and children would have looked almost exactly the same as those killed those 40 years ago. They could have been the women and children you see in all the photos.

As we approached the museum, we were in sombre mood. Then we watched a very moving video which showed that while it was US troops who were responsible for the massacre, it was also some of the US troops who refused to take part and within months of it happening, uncovered it to the world. It was a very balanced video including footage of interviews with some of the Americans who now fund the school in the village and provided the finance for the Peace Gardens. Walking around the site was spooky as there were the remains of the houses that had been burned to the ground in an attempt to cover up what had happened there.

But there was also footage of the Vietnamese who survived, meeting with the Americans and that reinforced what we have found since we have been here. The Vietnamese do not want to forget what happened, but they don’t want their present to be just about the wars they have been involved in over a period of around 1000 years. They want to look to the future and move on.
It was also interesting talking to Chi quietly at dinner last night. I asked about his family, something I had wanted to do for a while, but I was waiting till I knew him better, had some time alone with him and the time was right. He is 32 years old. His father is 67 and was a watchmaker or watch repairer. Chi said his father just wanted life to be normal – he wasn’t active in the war as he was an only child and so not required to do national service. He was not political but was not unhappy either with the South Vietnamese government and so did not oppose the US being here. But he also could not condone the terrible things that happened. The worse time for him however, was the ten years following 1975 and the end of the war. Everything was in demand and unavailable in the South and there were real problems even getting enough food for his family. Then things relaxed and today he and his family have a better life.

Today, I’ve had a streaming cold. Don’t feel ill with it, just uncomfortable and not too worried as I think it will pass quickly and is not stopping me doing anything.

Hanging out in Hoi An

22nd January 2007

I’m writing this on Tuesday, although it’s Monday’s entry. Just went to bed to try to sleep off cold after dinner last night. But Monday was good, despite cold. There was the option of cycling from Hoi An to the Marble Mountains and to see China Beach yesterday morning. But only about half the group went. The rest of us had a well deserved lie in and then mooched around Hoi An, which is a fabulous small town, declared a Unesco heritage site in 1998.

It is a waterfront town with an interesting ‘old town’ dominated by Chinese culture. But it’s also well known as the ‘shopping capital’ of Vietnam, particularly for tailor-made-while-you-wait (ie next day) clothes. So of course, I bought a silk outfit and a skirt at very reasonable prices, well very, very cheap really. And we both bought some t-shirts and the odd gift! The town was a delight and we could have stayed there longer and enjoyed it for a few more days.

The evening meal was spectacular. Well, spectacular in that the whole group had booked ourselves in to a Vietnames cooking class restaurant. It was great fun, we have some good recipes to bring home and really prepared and cooked the food ourselves, as the photos show.

My cold was much worse today, streaming, but again didn’t stop me doing anything. It was another lovely, different day.

The road to Hue

23rd January 2007

Woke early despite being doped up with everyone’s different cold remedies. A long cycle today, so we transferred on the bus out of Hoi Ann for about 30 minutes through bustling Danang, then took to our bikes. We knew that the first 15km would be flat and then we would face the longest, steepest hill of our cycling – 10 km climbing to the top of the Hai Van Pass. And boy was it steep. Well, we’d been given the offer of going up by bus and told the bus would stop every 2km so that anyone could give up along the way. Jenny, 27, from Leamington Spa had a dodgy knee so decided not to do the climb. Myra, 108, from Thurlaston, had a heavy cold, but decided to give it a go. For the first 5km that was, then she gave up (ie between coach 2km-stops) and climbed into the truck which carries the bikes and all the equipment. Which was fine. I didn’t feel a wimp but was glad I’d had a go. Sidney (as the name on his bike says – all the bikes were name-tagged for us on arrival last week) managed the climb, but said it was tough. We then cycled a further few kms to lunch by the beach at Lang Co, which was nice. That was followed by an undulating ride towards Hue – through the backroads, off Highway 1, and included a boat crossing to cut out Highway 1, on the ricketiest, oldest boat you have ever seen. Us and our bikes, all on board. Not sure the picture shows how dodgy it really was.

Then the rain came, and so soaked, after 70km (only 66km for Myra!) we cut the planned 100km short, boarded the bus and headed for Hue, where we are now just about to take very hot baths in the hotel. The rain seems to have dried up the cold. Everything else was so wet, that my nose seemed relatively dry. More tomorrow.

Singing all the way from Saigon

24th January 2007

Writing this on the train from Hue to Hanoi. Nice stay in Hue with a good meal last night and a particularly good hotel – the ?. Got a really good night’s sleep and the cold has dried right up. Another early start with a choice of cycling (final day) or taking the bus. The group did half and half and Sid and I were in the half that took the bus. That’s because since we arrived in Hue it’s been constant drizzle. We knew the weather would change as we travelled north in Vietnam. The country has two totally different weather patterns from South to North. First we visited the Citadel – the old King’s palace as Hue was the original capital of Vietnam. It was interesting but paled in comparison to the Forbidden City in Beijing, to which it was similar. Except that the Hue Citadel only dates from the early 1800s and much of it has been rebuilt as it was a real target of the Tet Offensive bombing in 1968. The whole area around Danang and Hue was the stronghold of the guerrillas and the American bases and so a real hot spot for the Vietcong during the war. Interesting though.
From there we went to the Pagoda, the most important of the Buddhist temples, and as we’d missed the Pagodas in China – we gave the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi’an a miss as we were ‘cultured out’ – it was worth seeing. We then took a Dragon Boat ride along the Perfume River – what a lovely name, and it used to describe the smells along the river, but today, in the rain it was pretty, but no more. Bought a nice little wooden toy for Oscar – he’ll be ready for it in about a year! Then we visited the King’s tomb, but again, having been to the Ming Tombs outside Beijing, it was just another tomb! The coach, driver, bike ‘mechanist’ and bike truck driver have left us now and headed back to Saigon. Chi is still with us, of course.

But a good fun, day nevertheless. The highlight is proving to be this train journey. We boarded at 4.30 pm and will arrive in Hanoi at 5 am. It is the ‘Reunification Express’ though you’d never know it from the speed. We have got soft sleepers, and will be sharing with Norman and Beryl tonight, which is fine, as they’ve become pretty good friends.
At the moment there are ten people in our carriage, Norman is playing the guitar and we are having a great time – lots of red wine and beer. I’m loving this. Singing lots of ‘60s and ‘70s songs and folk songs to Norman’s guitar with probably half a dozen of us being ageing hippies, but those that are younger, loving it too. It really makes me appreciate how privileged we are to be doing this trip. I always regretted not travelling more as a kid/student – only did some backpacking in Europe/Scandinavia - for about six weeks each time and then had to work to get through college, and then like most of us had kids, mortgages etc to pay. So I am loving every moment of this trip and will probably get more from it now than I would have then. And it doesn’t feel like we’re dong it ‘too late’ as it might have done, because the company has been great. Not a single ‘moaner’ on this group and out of 17 people that must be some sort of record. Think about Ian and Ben a lot and how hard they’re working now, as we did for all those years, and wish in a way that they had taken time out to travel, but their time will come as ours has.
(The Guard on the train has joined us to sing and has told us we are just passing through the 17th Parallel from South to North Vietnam.)
So, feeling very lucky tonight to have this opportunity. Back to the singing now – just starting Summertime. (Beryl has just told me to ‘blog’ her ‘tea to go’. She and James (Colonial James – as he has become known, as he’s from Canada) asked for tea to go and got it in a plastic bag with a straw. Hard to describe, but that’s exactly as it was). So, a really wonderful evening, one to remember.

Ho, ho, ho in Hanoi

25th January 2007
Arrived in Hanoi at 5.30 and went to a hotel where some day rooms were reserved for us to freshen up after breakfast, as our real hotel, the Hoa Binh, wouldn’t be ready for check in till lunchtime.

A very comfortable coach then took us on a city tour. First stop: Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Now, you may not know but there are only four former leaders (former, for obvious reasons, ie they’re dead) who have been embalmed and lay in State, in mausoleums – Lenin, Mao, Uncle Ho and the guy that used to run North Korea – don’t know his name though he is obviously as legend in his own death there. We didn’t queue in the cold to see Mao in Beijing and so were interested to see Uncle Ho. Very respectful queues formed right around the big Civic square and we were then allowed to parade in single file around the open tomb ie viewing the wax-like body.

No photography was allowed, otherwise I’d show you the pictures. Very weird. All lit up, this waxy figure, kept in this state since he died aged 80 in 1969. He used to be sent off to Moscow for three months each year, to be re-done,that is re-embalmed but more recently some Vietnamese were sent on an embalming course and it is now done here. So we were very lucky!?. Had we been here in October, November or December, we would not have met him, as that’s when he’s treated each year.

We then went around the former Palace of the former King, but Uncle Ho, as everyone here calls him, chose a simpler life, only living in the palace from 1954 for a few years, then moving to a ‘house on stilts’ in the grounds after that.

From there we went to the pagoda and saw a number of Buddhas and a very grandiose statue of Confucius.

Then for another jolly little number we were off to the Hanoi Hilton, as they call the Maison Centrale, the former prison. It was a house of horrors, we were told when the French ruled Hanoi and kept the Vietnamese political prisoners there, but became much sought-after accommodation for US Pilots, shot down and taken captive during the American aggression. Clearly, they were very welcome residents and well looked after. We were shown playing cards, billiard balls, warm sweaters and signs of their general good health and well-being while in the care of the Vietcong! There was the little side issue of them being held publicly in the centre of Hanoi as a deterrent to carpet bombing of the city, as America was determined to ‘bomb Vietnam back into the stone-age’ as Defence Secretary of the time, Robert McNamara once said. You may detect a little irony in this posting.

This was almost as funny as our afternoon visit. We had chosen, and were very keen to see a particularly Vietnamese, Hanoian, custom, the Water Puppet show.
In fact, it was brilliant. It came from centuries ago when the peasants in the paddy fields amused themselves by creating puppet shows in the water fields and lowland swamps. Very entertaining and I tried to post a video clip for those who don’t believe me, but it was taking too long to download. Maybe another day.

We had lunch at the Hanoi equivalent of Jamie Oliver’s 15 – a non profit making enterprise run by and for street children (16-24 year olds) called KOTO – Know one, Teach one. The food was great, very upmarket and we’re going back on Saturday night. Tonight was spent at a chic French restaurant in a kind-of French left-bank area of Hanoi – as Sid put it, wonderful but the most expensive bloody restaurant in the whole of South East Asia. Another note of irony there, it was still cheaper than the Crystal takeaway in Dunchurch.

Hanoi is a fantastic city – really beautiful architecture around a stunning lake. Don’t quite understand how it’s so beautiful when it was supposed to have been bombed to bits. Thank god for the US POWs, we say!

All Halong the bay

Friday 26th January 2007

Another early start today for the long bus ride to Halong Bay – a geological oddity of huge limestone islands in the middle of the South China Sea about 100 miles north of Hanoi.

We had a private boat, but much more luxurious than on the previous boat trips. We cruised around the islands for half a day and it was quite spectacular. A lovely day too, not too warm but like an English spring day. The islands were a bit misty (but apparently, they always are). We went into the caves on one of the islands, but of course, caves is the wrong word as you go in at ground level and they just go up and up with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. Wish I’d paid more attention in Geography lessons at school It was a lovely relaxing day, before the group’s ‘last supper.’

We went to a very nice French/Vietnames restaurant and had a lovely meal. On the boat trip we had all composed a ‘Song for Chi’ to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street and he was very embarrassed but pleased.

Also had a very generous collection for his tip and gave him a bottle of whisky. He was very embarrassed but very chuffed. Chi informed us that the group had cycled 463 kms – that was for those who had not ‘cheated’ (my word, not his!) and those who had cycled in the rain on the optional day. Me, I clocked up 399 kms or 240 miles in the seven days that we cycled, so not too bad. Sid, 252 miles. This tour has been exhausting – nothing to do with the cycling, more the socialising but it has been excellent. Much better than we expected and brilliant value. Would certainly do another Exodus tour in the future.

Farewell Vietnam

27th January 2007

Writing this at Bangkok airport. More on that later!

Yesterday was a chill out day. We got up to say goodbye to those from the tour who were leaving. Ten of us were staying and moving on – Laurie, to Northern Vietnam for some hill walking; Alan and Anne to spend an extra week in Hanoi; James, staying for a few days then off to Singapore en route to Vancouver; Karol and Mark who are leaving for their temporary (2 year) home in Malaysia; and Beryl and Norman who are off to Cambodia for a few days to see the Temples at Ankawot then moving on to friends in Hong Kong, Manila and a sister in New Zealand. So we’re hoping to meet them for dinner in Christchurch in the middle of March. What a funny old world, where you can make friends with people, you never knew, in Vietnam, and meet up with them again another quarter of the way round the world.

So, chilling out included shopping. And more shopping. Bought a few little bits and pieces, but generally enjoyed just mooching around Hanoi. We ten then met for dinner again at KOTO (mentioned earlier) and had a very nice meal. Sid and I packed last night and amazingly it all fitted in the suitcases, which are now heavier than when we left, despite us jettisoning 10kg in China (or posting it, at least).

Reflections on Vietnam. A beautiful country with the most smiley, friendly (and seemingly happiest) people we’ve ever met. A really rich mix of rural scenery, beautiful beaches and coastline, and the craziest cities we’ve ever been to. A weird mix of communism and capitalism that seems to work, side by side. An obviously poor country fighting to get rich.

The Supervisor of all Supervisors

28th January 2007

Now, the ‘more later’ on Hanoi airport. When we left China at 3am, Shanghai Pudong airport seemed closed. It is the largest and most modern of large and modern airports and you couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee. Our flight was the only one on the board and was a small flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

Have you ever seen a ‘round the world’ airline ticket?
What it is not: is a ticket that says ‘ round the world’.
What it is: a book of individual tickets for each leg of the journey so. for example if you are travelling between Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City via Hong Kong, one chapter or volume of the book has one ticket, in triplicate with all three places on it, with reference numbers that run into double-figure digits;
with the flight number, passenger name, and a jumble of letters and words that are indecipherable but which we think, show that the airline tax has been paid for each leg. You need to at least to have been educated to post-graduate level in How Bureaucracies Work, to even stand a chance of understanding it.

Well, at Shanghai Airport (remember, felt closed!) we had our tickets checked by a young, very young man, who not only looked like he had never seen a round the world ticket before, but also looked like he should never have been allowed to be up so late. He scratched his head. He muttered in Chinese – and despite our eight-day stay, even Sid’s Chinese wasn’t up to fathoming what he was saying. There was no one else around; no queue; nothing to distract him; nothing to rush him. Even so, this absolute klutz managed to tear off the wrong ticket. We didn’t notice at the time (remember, it was 3am for us too) but when we did – In Ho Chi Minh, we reassured ourselves that it didn’t matter that I still had my top copy of the triplicated chapter of tickets that had already carried us from London Heathrow, to Beijing and then on from Beijing to Hong Kong. Perhaps they could become a souvenir, as those journeys were long over. We reassured ourselves that it didn’t matter that I only had two of the three parts of the duplicate ticket from Hanoi to Bangkok, because after all, the three copies were carbons, they had the same information on them and of course I could not have made a flight dated 28th January from Hanoi to Bangkok before 28th January or on any other route. We then promptly forget about it, so unconcerned were we.

This morning, we arrived at Hanoi airport, excited to be on the next leg of our journey with thoughts turning particularly to seeing Dan and Carole, Sam and Jake after our few days in Sydney.

We were checked in, luggage weighed, not a word said when each case was more than 5kg over the 20 kg allowance on Vietnam Airlines (an allowance it should be said that is 3kg lower than any other airline on our travels).

The check-in woman then stopped, noticed the problem that Klutz of Shanghai had created and called her supervisor. We explained that our top copy was in Shanghai, but it should not matter as today was the 28th January, my passport said I really was Myra Benson, the flight was due to leave at 9.30 am and so we could not have used the top copy elsewhere to go on a secret flight somewhere else.

She looked blank and called her supervisor, He came over and scratched his head. He said it was not a problem for Vietnam Airlines to solve but for Cathay Pacific (our last carrier) whose office ‘might’ be open for business at 9 am on a Sunday morning (but not at Hanoi airport). Remember, our flight was leaving at 9.30, our baggage had been stopped on the weighing belt, and we were moved to one side. If you’ve ever watched Airport, you will recognise this scene. He would see at 9 am if anyone at Cathy Pacific had found a top copy of a ticket with my name on it, some two weeks earlier, in Shanghai. We said he should go and see someone else and come back and put us on this flight. He disappeared and the poor check-in woman who had started this chain of events (that is, if you forget klutz of Shanghai) promised he would be back in 10 minutes, ie 8.20 am. At 8.20 we insisted she call him back on her walkie talkie. He came back and said he thought perhaps we would have to buy another ticket. That was when Sid lost it. Sid asked to see his supervisor. He said: ‘I am the supervisor of all supervisors’, and so we were a bit stuck at that point. We had had a little side discussion while Mr Unhelpful was away and agreed that we would probably have to buy another ticket as ‘unhelpful’s’ greatest concern was that we would get out of the country and no-one would pay for the ticket as Vietnam Airlines could not present the all-important top copy.

So you’re probably a bit bored with this by now, so I’ll cut to the chase. We bought another ticket. It cost us around £70, was worth every penny to avoid further hassle and miss the connecting flight to Sydney, and we shall now work very hard to get a refund. I’ll keep you posted.

There is a moral to this story. Don’t let any airline official near the volume of tickets – only show them the chapter and page of the next flight. And that’s what we’ll do in future. Fortunately, we were both good natured with each other about this. We did not sink into a blame culture (except that we both blame klutz of Shanghai) and now, at Bangkok airport, we are having a good laugh about it. Or perhaps we’re just hysterical.

Sydney welcomes Sidney

Monday 29th January

Well, despite the efforts of klutz of Shanghai, Sidney and I are in Sydney. We arrived at about 7 am and had both managed to get a fair few hours sleep on the flight – something we never used to be able to do. It must be that practice makes perfect. We thought about trying to get a shower at the airport as we thought there was no chance of us checking into the hotel that early in the morning. It’s usually a 12 midday check in unless you pay extra. But instead, we thought, oh let’s go for it (airports are getting less interesting to us!) and when we arrived at the Crown Plaza our room was ready.

Nice hotel right on Darling Harbour and so about a pleasant 20 minute walk from The Rocks, where the Opera House, and Sydney Harbour Bridge are located (more on SHB later!).

So, showered, changed, drank cup of tea, unpacked a bit and off we went. First around Darling Harbour then through Hyde Park to The Rocks. The weather is absolutely beautiful (sorry, folks at home), blue skies around 30C and a nice dry heat.

Had a drink on the harbour and mooched around, taking it slow and lazy so that we could catch up on the culture and sightseeing we have done for the past three or more weeks. First impressions are of a beautiful city, buzzing but laid back, obviously modern and scenically beautiful with water everywhere, as you’d expect. Tonight a wonderful seafood meal on Darling Harbour. Tomorrow, who knows. But it certainly won’t be the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. We have decided against it as it could make Sidney ill for the duration for the three months yet to run. It is very, very high! Sidney’s view is that Sydney is best appreciated from the vantage position of a local pub with beer in hand!

Taking the bus to Bondi

Tuesday 30th January 2007

Jane wins the prize. Water here does go down the plug hole clockwise and Ian has requested a clip of video to prove it, so yet again Steph’s video camera comes in handy.

Last night we had the longest sleep in almost four weeks – a good ten hours and we needed it. Remember, we’ve done three overnight flights and three overnight train journeys, so next time I say it’s a small world, remind me of that.

So, refreshed and raring to go with a HUGE hotel breakfast inside us, we did the open top bus tour. We’ve done this in a few cities over the years and it is a really good way to see the sights and get a commentary as you go. And we’d walked ourselves out yesterday. Sydney city centre itself is quite small and so very comfortable to walk around. And it’s a beautiful city, clean, modern, but with some interesting old(ish) buildings too. The bus tour was good because it took us through the suburbs as well as the city centre, so we saw Kings Cross (the area that’s a bit seedy and backpacker land) Paddington (latte land, they call it here – bit like an upmarket Islington in London) and Woollloomooloo Bay as well as the old area around The Rocks, Circular Quay, the Opera House etc that we walked around yesterday. Then we changed to another open top bus to do the Bondi loop. Some beautiful areas around Bondi, particularly Rose Bay and Double Bay, although we liked Bondi itself despite having been told it would disappoint. It didn’t. It is a really lovely wide sandy beach, with no commercialism on the beach itself. Very clean and not too packed today, so great.

What’s strange here is that it’s not strange. Wherever you go you see the same shops as you would at home, the same large corporations PWC, Ernst & Young, (Knight Frank estate agent signs on offices etc); and they sort of speak the same language. Sid’s mastered it already. After the past three weeks everything is so easy. No pointing at pictures to try to get the right meal, no bargaining to get 20 dong knocked off prices in the market etc etc., no cultural challenges (although of course some of Vietnam was easier when we were with Chi, but we had a lot of time without his as a ‘stabliser’.

I can understand the attraction for young people who come here and don’t leave for a few years. I’m sure the constant sunshine helps. So all in all, we’re really enjoying this very different experience.

A 'bridge too far'' to climb so we sailed under it!

Wednesday 31st January 2007

Another ‘moochy’ day today – some people may be pleased to know that the weather is not what it was ie there is a mixture of sun and cloud (sometimes welcome) but the temperatures are still high.

First thing, we went to book our car hire from the Trailfinders office in Sydney – only about a 10 minute walk from our hotel. Trailfinders arrangements have been brilliant and when we asked the hotel about car hire, and then looked on the web for ourselves, they all came in at about double the price that Trailfinders could book us with Avis. This was the only car booking we needed to do as all others were done before we left. So booked the car, then went to book a Captain Cook’s Cruise (dinner cruise) around Sydney Harbour for this evening.

We decided to get the public ferry to Manley – another beach and suburb of Sydney about half an hour away on the ferry, mostly for the experience of going on the ferry. Manley was lovely and we just had a couple of hours relaxing and reading on the beach.

Sid has started jogging again since we’ve been in Sydney and so he had his second run today. Don’t know how he manages it in the heat but he enjoys it and said he had a lovely run right through the Botanical Gardens and around that bit of the harbour.

We thought the dinner cruise might be a bit naff but in fact it was wonderful. Sydney all lit up at night from huge viewing windows, good quality cabaret, background singers/group and really nice food. The cruise picked us up from Darling Harbour and dropped us back there, and lasted about two and a half hours altogether and well worth the very reasonable price.

Packed cases when we got back and don’t understand how they are get fuller and fuller with every packing, without any (or many) additional purchases. Another one of life’s mysteries.

Talking of which, I should say that my ‘quiz’ has caused some controversy in a certain Ludlow household. Jane, who was an easy winner of the quiz is in danger of suffering ridicule from David, who has kindly posted two comments on the blog (click ‘comments’ on entry headed ‘Lucky we posted the ski jackets’ if you’d like to see them). I wouldn’t dare say he’s poured cold water on another urban myth, but he has. My mum reckons her first school project, aged 11, – yes a little while ago – was on magnetism and polarisation and so, to this day, she is a ‘believer’.