Vietnam: Hanoi, Cat Ba and Ninh Binh.

Vietnam has so much to offer. There were so many highlights of our trip and too many tales to tell so I have picked my most favourite activities to type about.

Our first stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, the nations capital and second largest city. We stayed right in the centre of the Old Town in amongst the hustle and bustle of scooters and street vendors. We were so close to many restaurants and bars and after a day of travelling we made our way for our first Vietnamese Pho and Saigon beer. Excellent start! For us this was the perfect location. We asked for a quiet room and were given one at the back of the hotel which was protected from the noises of the street out front.

Whilst in Hanoi we took a ten minute walk to Hoan Kiem Lake which is right in the centre and a pleasant stroll. We also made a stop at the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, Tran Quoc Pagoda. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (which was ranked sixth most ugly building in the world by CNN) was another spot to stop off at as we took in the sites of the city.

One place that I found most interesting, though, in Vietnam was Hoa Lo Prison. Vietnam has a crazy history  which is noted in this prison. It was a pretty brutal and depressing existence for inmates. The prison was used by the French colonists to hold political prisoners and later for holding American POWs.

Walking around Hanoi you can instantly see the influence the French left behind. The building and streets as well as the excellent bread on offer! I had no idea the bread would be so amazing! I couldn’t stop eating it! 🙂

We spent three nights in Hanoi before making our way to the natural beauty spots of Ha Long Bay. We embarked on the messiest journey ever! We took three buses and a boat but eventually we made it to Cat Ba. This was to be our base for two nights whilst we planned our next steps and book our trip to see the thousands of lime stone islands that make up this natural of Ha Long Bay.

The day boat trip we booked was excellent. Although the weather was cold and a bit cloudy it made the views seem quite an eerie. We visited floating villages as we sailed around the islands and listened about the villagers way of life. I loved seeing how many house holds have guard dogs! We also stopped off for a spot of kayaking which was really fun.The lunch that was provided was wonderful, packed with fresh seafood which was delicious!

After our few days relaxing the next stop on our agenda was Ninh Binh and the small town of Tam Coc for more natural beauty. There were no taxis available to take us from Ninh Binh to Tam Coc so we had to climb on the back of two scooters with our giant rucksacks and belongings to whiz through the streets and in to the countryside. I was a bit scared but survived the ordeal with out injury ha ha! Our hotel was amazing and the staff so friendly. The breakfast was massive, fully loaded with fresh fruit and as much coffee as we wanted! We loved the free bikes, it made such a difference to our stay in this small town.

On our first full day we hired bikes and cycled a couple of km’s up the road to visit Bich Dong temple. We cycled past mountains and paddy fields, water buffalo and street shacks. Such a lovely bike ride. Eventually we made it to our destination. Bich Dong Temple has many layers moving up the mountain. Each level has a new pagoda or shrine to discover. We almost missed a cave that took us around the back of one of the buildings. It led us up more steps through a cave to an opening high in the hills. Once there we climbed some rocky mountain formations which was tiring but once at the top the views were gorgeous. We loved it. After taking in the views and spotting mountain goats we made our way back down to where there was a little lake at the bottom which we walked around. We met a random guy who couldn’t speak a word of English yet he proceeded to unlock a gate and take us (plus two other tourists) in a cave and talk at length in Vietnamese about the rock formations. It was quite funny looking back but at the time a little bizarre!

The following day we cycled what felt like a million miles (but was probably only 3 or 4) to Trang An for a boat tour. We arrived at the ticket booth, parked our bikes and headed over to the chaos with many other Asian tourists to buy our tickets that allowed us access to our little boat. Andy made friends in our boat with a Chinese guy called Kai and the three of us decided because of the bad weather we would do just two hours of the trip. But crazy hat lady  sitting behind us wanted three hours. When we left our hotel we thought that the day looked cloudy but OK. As the day proceeded the rain got heavier and heavier! So because of crazy hat lady we gradually got soaked as we rowed through caves and navigated around a land locked version of Ha Long Bay. It was very impressive as some of the caves were so low and tight, I’m surprised the lady steering was able to get us through. We also stopped off at numerous old temples along the way. Each on was very different and very beautiful.

At the end of our trip we climbed on our bikes and cycled as best and as fast as we could in the rain (for what felt like forever) to get back to our hotel for a much deserved hot shower and beer!

After three days in Tam Coc it was time for us to experience our first sleeper bus!

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Vietnam here we come!!

I found this picture on line. We’re so excited to see what this country has in store for us!

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South Korea: Seoul and the DMZ

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Our train from Busan to Seoul was straight forward. We collected the tickets we’d bought in advance from the ticket collection and went to the platform. We were about 40 minutes early but the train was there ready for us.

We had less time in Seoul than what we would’ve liked so we knew we had to make the most of our days in the city.

We stayed at an Airbnb which turned out to be a bit further out of the city than what we were expecting however there were many restaurants and shops nearby which helped. The place was clean and really warm. The couple we stayed with were so friendly and well travelled. They decided to go away for the weekend and leave us to look after the house but the evening before they left we had a great night talking and learning about each others cultures.

Day one was jam packed. It rained constantly but that didn’t stop us from checking out the sights! First on the agenda was Deoksugung Palace. The palace sits in between many western high rise building. The grounds are so peaceful and it was easy for us to forget about the chaos and traffic on the other side of the surrounding walls. After many name alterations as a result of changing residents and war it has finally settled on its current name meaning “palace of virtuous longevity”.

Next was Namsangol Hanok Village which was a great stop although the heavens fully opened for this part of our day out! Its a reconstruction of a traditional Korean Village. It has living quarters, kitchens, prayer rooms and temples. It was so interesting and a really enjoyable place to walk around and learn more about Korean traditions.

Due to the rain we decided to head in doors. The Trick Eye Museum was a great afternoon choice. After learning about so much history and culture it felt like a nice change and was really fun! The rooms are full of wall art which look 3-D. Great photo opportunities. There was also the freezing cold ice museum complete with ice slide, igloos, thrones Christmas themed ice sculptures.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was one of the top highlights for me in Seoul. We visited this Palace on our second day. Its name translates to “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”. The construction of the main palace started in 1395 with many more additions later added. There are so many palaces, halls, pavilions and gates it was the perfect way to spend a few hours. Plus we were lucky to see a changing of the guards precession which was great to watch.

The trip we did on our final day was one of the main reason we were keen to visit South Korea. A visit to the Demilitarized Zone. Due to the rocket being launched by North Korea we weren’t able to get to the border however the DMZ is 4 km wide and 250 km long with many points of interest in between. It was created by an agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953 to create a cease fire line and a neutral place for both countries to meet. Our day there was so cold and started to snow, but it just added to the atmosphere of the day and the mystery surrounding North Korea.

On our trip we learnt about the history of the DMZ and why it was created. We visited the Third infiltration tunnel created by the North Koreans to access the south in order to attack. We also visited Dorasan train station with its international departure lounge ready in hope that north and south can unite and connect Korea over land to Europe. Finally we visited the Dora observatory where binoculars are used to look out to North Korea. It was fascinating and one of the most interesting history lessons I’ve ever had! I was also surprised to see so many souvenirs as well as chocolate and wine which the DMZ is famous for in Korea.

The DMZ tour was brilliant. We didn’t realise at the time that the trip landed on valentines day. Our lovely guide bought us all Choco Pie’s, a famous chocolate/marshmallow cake in Asia which were really tasty and something she was proud to share with us.

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Korea was such a wonderful country. I didn’t really know what to expect but after spending time here I found it to be really modern and keen to move with the times. It has temples that can rival any part of Asia and a history just as eventful. There was so much to see and do that we couldn’t do it all however what we did experience was enough for us to go away satisfied. I’m so pleased we made it and will be talking about this visit for years to come.

 

 

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South Korea: Busan

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We originally wanted to fly straight to Seoul , but flights to Busan were much better for our budget so we went there instead and how pleased we are that it worked out this way. Known as the nation’s second city it was full of surprises.

We stayed for four nights and were really lucky with our accommodation. The location was right next to China town (or Russian town as we called it) with a three minute walk to the subway and the main train station, ideal for us to get our train to Seoul. The room felt massive which was welcomed after our box in Hong Kong and came complete with winch!

Day one saw us visit the wonderfully quirky Gamcheon Culture Village. It was so fun and interesting. We loved it!

The next day we visited Beomeosa Temple which, after a train journey, was a walk up a massive hill. We could’ve got one of the many buses which were whizzing past full of visitors but we didn’t know which one to get. The walk was good exercise for us though! The temple itself was at the top of the hill surrounded by mountains and beautiful scenery. It was such a peaceful place where locals prefer to visit. On the way back down the hill we managed to get a bus and rewarded ourselves with coffee and cakes when we got to the bottom.

Our last stop of the day was Biff Square for the food stalls and markets recognisable by their red and yellow umbrellas. The streets were full of many local food stalls and a huge row of tarot readers. It was a really exciting place to be. With all the new year sales on, the area was packed and very enjoyable.

On our third day we went out of the city to the coast. The south of the city has so many lovely beaches and although it was a cold day I was keen to pay a beach a visit. Our choice was Haeundae Beach. It was packed with locals and families having a day out in the sun shine. Although it was cold many people were sitting on the beach enjoying the ocean view. There was a nice board walk that snaked around the coastal rocks to the light house which was really enjoyable plus temples and monuments along the coast line. This area gets packed in the summer with holiday makers which doesn’t surprise me as the beach was spotless. There were many street performers, buskers and entertainers giving it a lovely holiday feel.

The food on this trip has been wonderful (although very spicy). Sushi was delicious and cheap. I was surprised at the amount of Filipino’s and Russians in the city who’d set up restaurant’s in the area. Each meal starts off with a small selection of  nibbles such as pickled veg and slices of fruit. Sometimes spicy but mostly subtle. They were always a nice surprise as you never really knew what you were going to get with each meal!

After our few days in Busan it was time to get our two and a half hour train to the north of the country to see what the capital has to offer.

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Gamcheon Culture Village

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I was really looking forward to visiting this place and was so excited when we finally arrived. We walked to the village from the train but most people took the bus up. The walk was a killer but good exercise!

The area was originally a shanty town which cascaded down the mountain side in to the valley below.

In recent years the government has given money to the area to turn it in to a creative hot spot. Now with the support of artists and designers the area is full of paintings, wall art, sculptures and random art pieces.

The narrow streets twist and turn with surprises around every corner.

Gamcheon-Dong is now a major tourist spot in Busan and has won many awards from Korea’s ministry of Culture.

The wall art is second to none.

You can go in to some of the houses and see how tiny they are with each little house having a creative theme.

So we didn’t miss anything we bought a map for 200o won. As well as directions and a recommended route to take it included a page at the back to collect stamps every time you visit a significant area such as the graffiti house and House of Peace.

We spent the whole afternoon here and couldn’t stop taking photos.

There were many visitors all enjoying the random art scene and great atmosphere. We had such a great day and recommend a visit here to anyone in Busan. Just get your camera ready!

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Flowers in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong we visited the Zoological and Botanic Gardens. It was such a lovely day with great weather. Some of the flowers were stunning (I have no idea what they’re called) so thought I’d share them! 🙂

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Hong Kong

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What a brilliant city!  I loved Hong Kong! Our train from Shanghai was delayed by 5 hours and so instead of arriving at lunch time we arrived at dinner time. We shared our overnight train cabin with an elderly couple Wu and Lu. They had bought their tickets and ended up on the top bucks. Straight away Andy and I offered them our bottom bunks. They were so happy and after trying to give us money bought us Budweiser!

We got off our train and went to get the subway. With no ATM’s around Andy had to abandon me with the bags. I think he must have walk around the whole of Hong Kong as he took ages but eventually came back with cash. It was quite tiring as our late train meant that we had to struggle through rush hour with all our bags but after getting directions from numerous suit selling men we found our hotel. It looked more like a block of flats but when we were shown to our room it was so clean and incredibly tiny. I think it was the smallest room I’ve ever slept in! Apparently this is normal. After finding food from a local restaurant we went to bed ready for our days ahead.

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Our first day took us for a ten minute walk down the street to see the Hong Kong Island skyline by day. It looked a bit hazy but was really nice with the New Years rehearsals going on in the back ground. We had a look at the clock tower which is the only remaining part of the train station that was once there. We then went back in to the city near our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui for lunch. Over our lunch time set meal I remembered a friend saying all the museums were free on Wednesday. After checking this out (and having a much needed coffee) we made our way to the Hong Kong History Museum. It was brilliant with the history starting at 400 million years ago to resent day. There were so many displays and reconstructions to help explain and recreate times gone by.

 

We went back to our hotel satisfied with our history lesson and spent the evening walking around the nearby surrounds with its bright lights, hustle and bustle. Our evening meal was in a curry house where I had a chicken tikka. It was so good with the flavours being so different to what we’d been eating over the last few months. Very satisfying especially with a glass of wine to wash it down!

On our second full day we went further afield visiting the Wong Tai Sin Temple, a much visited shrine in Hong Kong. With the approach of the New Year it was heaving but a great cultural experience with people making offerings for the coming year and giving thanks for the year just passed. The temple also has beautiful gardens that we spent some time walking around taking in the views of the water falls, walkways and turtles!

In the afternoon we made our way to the ladies market were Andy unleashed his haggling skills. He was in his element and having so much fun. I was loving it too as it meant we could splash out on a few treats, souvenirs and new clothes. We walked around all the food restaurants and eventually settled on a Korean BBQ restaurant. We would soon be visiting South Korea so thought it would be a good idea! We weren’t disappointed.

In the evening we walked back down to view Hong Kong Island by night. It was pretty impressive and definitely a high light. The lights were wonderful with the laser show. There were crowds of people watching and taking photo’s. There was such a great atmosphere and made a lovely evening walk.

Our third full day took us over the water to Hong Kong Island. The ferry in itself, although only about 8 minutes, was so cheap and gave us even better views. The island was so posh with all its designer stores, labels and brands. We had lunch in the major dining area on Lan Kwai Fong which has restaurants such as Hard Rock Cafe and Gordon Ramsay’s place as well as local bars, restaurants and dining spots. We walked up the hill to the Zoological and Botanic Gardens which were lovely to walk around. We loved seeing the different monkeys there to.

In the evening my body was starting to crave western food again so after checking out many menus (and at one point being taken in a building, up a lift to a random restaurant that looked closed) we settled on a place that had a great little set meals which included burgers! Andy had his noodles, I had my burger and both of us were happy.

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Our final day was more like a bonus day. We booked our trains but they were changed so we arrived a day earlier. We spent the day preparing for our departure and picking up some final bits and bobs. We spent all afternoon and evening Skyping with family and friends as the internet was great. We bought a bottle of wine a had a great final day in Hong Kong.

We had such a greats stay. From the tiny room, the excellent subway, great markets, amazing food and extensive history I loved every minute. The place oozed money which gave the city an exciting buzz. I saw one lady who was simply dripping with gems and jewels, really spectacular. The skyline by night was a wonder in itself that then had the major contrast of old building and temples right next door. I would love to spend six months to a year living and working in Hong Kong and getting to know the place better. May be one day. For now I have some great memories, pictures and an exciting itinerary to follow!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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