Vietnam

Interview with a Trans-Siberian traveller to Penang

Idly browsing my blog statistics one day – something I almost never do – I saw that someone had been referred to my blog from a blog called Toad’s Travel Adventures. I read “Wind in the Willows” when I was a kid, so I clicked on this, to discover the author was soon planning to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing, and then catch the train through Vietnam and travel on to Singapore.  Well, I hope to do a similar trip,  have more or less done the train myself from Hanoi to Singapore,  and as he was stopping off in Penang on the way, we decided to get together. Meanwhile I read about his progress on his blog until he actually arrived in Penang. Here are his answers to my questions.

Matthew

Matthew

Matthew, a two times veteran of the Trans-Siberian Railway, talks about his two  trips.

Tell me about about your usual travelling style.

My normal travelling style would be much more luxurious I would say.  I’ve spent 20 years probably spending too much money on business class and enjoying nice lounges. But that doesn’t necessarily equal the experience I’m looking for. I’m not now trying to be a backpacker, but find some sort of middle ground that gives me some of life’s great memories without having to spend the sort of money I used to. It’s a much richer experience travelling by train. It is not about the luxury but more about the people you are with and the experiences.

I believe you did this trip before, but to Shanghai  last time – why are you doing it a second time?

I can now call it a dress rehearsal for the current one.  It was my first foray into solo train travel to places I hadn’t been to before. From Shanghai I hopped onto a plane down to Thailand and bumped into a couple of women from London on a cooking school who told me their journey, and I realised I hadn’t been adventurous enough. I realised I’d be able to go the whole way. After two months of thinking it was a mad journey I’d done, I realised how much I’d enjoyed it and I decided to stretch myself a bit more and do the whole mission. Even though it meant repeating the beginning of the journey – as far as Beijing – which takes 10 days to two weeks. The challenge this time was getting from Beijing down to Penang. The other thing is that generally land routes from Europe to Singapore have been quite difficult, but I realised that with the train it is possible to do it.

What was different about this overland trip to the last time?

To begin with I had more certainty of what was going to happen and that has advantages of allowing you to relax a bit. But the disadvantages are it’s not quite as impactful or meaningful. It’s been a much bigger stretch than the previous trip as it’s  longer and involved a considerable deal more planning from a red tape point of view and contact with a lot more local agents. The organisational phase was probably three times longer than the previous trip, but the rewards are probably three times greater, and the reward comes from the difficulty. It’s valuing personal achievement. So you’re having fun, but it’s been more of a challenge.

How did you decide the direction – west-east – as opposed to east-west?

As someone who lives in the west and always gone east it’s normal for me to think of going this way. If I were doing the silk route classically I would think of doing it east-west, and maybe I will. I think a key reason is the planning – it is easier to plan a trip from west to east because the greatest red tape problems come around exact dates of entering and leaving countries around Russia particularly, and if you start at that end it is easier to get that right rather than the other way unless you are absolutely precise about when you are landing it could be quite hard. I think there are two styles of traveller.  The free and easy “I’ll see if I can get a train there tomorrow” kind – and I applaud those people, but then there are the kind of people who are maybe a bit control freaky who want to know more precisely what is ahead. I’m definitely in that category,but I have a degree of flexibility; but I like to stick to a plan if I can, and I think that has benefits. So for my planning phase I can recall it was much easier going from the west to the east and also there was something else about the conditionality of visas. For example, for China, where you needed to be able to show exit and entry – it definitely just flowed better going in that direction.

Why do you travel by yourself?

As I have got older more of my friends have got family travel commitments, and I find two things. Firstly, fewer and fewer people have the time and focus on the thing you are interested in, and also the slightly selfish thing is that travelling alone is more fun. And I mean that from the point of view that you get that richness of – you can’t just sit back and not talk to people when you travel alone, so it forces you to get into the culture of a place a bit more.  So I am not saying I don’t enjoy travelling with friends . but the combination of a lack of friends with the same mission in mind, plus that means that solo travel is rather good. A perfect compromise would be to meet friends for a bit of a journey  – or meet up in a city for a few days – and then you don’t have the pressure of no two people wanting to do the same thing on an itinerary.

 How did you go about planning the trip, which is a really complicated thing I imagine?

 The research phase normally starts off with a visit to Seat 61,which everyone will go to, and it’s 98% bulletproof for basic travel planning. I think then there is a phase of checking with agents that the services you need are there and that they are affordable, which gives you the confidence that you can actually do it. I tend to spend a long period of time until I commit, wanting to know as much as possible about a trip before I finally pull the pin.

Which websites did you use apart from Seat 61?

I tend to try to hunt down blogs of travellers. I think that gives a more real edge to it and then compare those with the web sites of travel agents offering ticketing, transportation or tour services to the place you’re going and see you they compare.  It’s nice to see the alternatives to Seat 61. I found this blog of a German guy who went to Pyongyang and he’s got 10 years of blogged travel experiences of train travel around the world in extreme detail. And that’s quite a treasure trove. Whereas Seat 61 would just give the broad brush context, the timetable and the cost. It doesn’t  really tell you what it’s like crossing the border so it’s nice to find that depth of detail. I’ll have a large spreadsheet containing a calendar and then I’ll try like a large jigsaw puzzle to assemble each of the sub components of the trip. And see what days of the week the trains might be going and see where it fits together and where it doesn’t. And move the pieces around in such a way that you then get a viable itinerary.   There’s then that moment of wanting to know that everything’s possible before you commit to spending money on things – before you start buying a visa to a certain country, you book the hotel OK there,is the train available etc. etc. You try to de-risk it as much as possible. I would normally start with the train – if it’s a train trip – I would then be thinking about the visa requirement and then I would be thinking about the hotels, but I would check all three from the point of view of availability before booking any of them. Not that I am that fussy about hotels. But I might change the whole thing around so I can stay where I want to.

Why do you do these trips in winter?

That’s the available time of year. It’s easier to plan. But also I’d commend a Siberian winter to anyone. It’s quite good fun. It’s not that it’s cold on the train. It’s very hot.

You still need all the cold weather gear, don’t you?

You do.  This time I thought about trying to sacrifice some of it.  Because it’s not that long you’re outside for. But I don’t recommend it. You need a good pair of boots and you  need a good jacket. This year in Moscow it wasn’t cold enough, and there was a lot of black ice, so it was really dangerous on station platforms and so on.

Having more or less carried out your plan, do you think you could have made a better plan?

I can’t think of any massive flaws. I’d like to make more of Europe. I’d like to stop in Berlin. I stopped in Warsaw this time and loved that. If I was travelling in the summer I would always get off in Mongolia and I’ve not achieved that yet. But it’s not going to be comfortable in a ger in -35. I haven’t spent enough in Cambodia. I literally just dashed through the place. Other than that everything else has come together quite nicely. I think 6 weeks is a good length of time for it. 45 days gives you enough time to have a couple of semi breaks. 60 days’d be nicer,but…

If you had unlimited time, what would your plan have been?

I’d have stopped off a bit more in Vietnam, I’d spent time in Hue, Na Trang, Halong Bay, maybe tried to do something a bit off the beaten path in Cambodia. I’m quite interested in these motorbike itineraries you can pickup in Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos would have been an interesting side journey, but not on the main path, although I understand it’s possible to take a bus from China to Laos, and then a bus from Laos to Bangkok. I’d like to see St. Petersburg.

What went well, and what didn’t?

The plan went very well. It delivered everything I wanted it to from the trip.  The only problem was self-inflicted – too many oysters in central Vietnam which destroyed one of my train journeys. I think I over packed,but it’s been easy to get over whatever the situation. Every trip is different. There were a lot more mainstream tourists on the Trans-Siberian leg than the previous trip. It didn’t feel quite so Marco Poloish. The previous year there were very few of us. It’s funny how that changes the atmosphere and dynamics of a journey. On this trip, when I left Beijing for Hanoi I didn’t see a western person for the whole journey. Apart from that health problem, everything else has gone swimmingly.

What were your best memories of the trip?

Motorbiking with a side car in Hoi An was a definite highpoint – out in the fields. The food has been a high point. I’ve had some incredible dishes from around the world. And I’ve met some incredible people – local people I’ve met on trains in the country and also travellers on their own adventures. There are thousands and thousands of people doing similar but slightly different journeys and it’s great to meet them and compare plans. There’s a real spirit on the Trans-Siberian when everyone realises they’re arriving in Beijing. And the small-world paradox where you actually bump into people you have met on trains in other countries.

Is there anything I didn’t ask – or anything you’d like to add?

My next trip – I’m quite excited about the prospect about a central Asian escapade. But I’ve got all that research to do. Either to Vladivostok or head off from Moscow down to central Asia. That’s the next big question. I’d need to vary the season a little. Something tells me I should try that trip in September. I need to do the research.  And my mind is always trying to find film connections with stuff that I do. Has there been a film made there? As you see in my blog.

Thanks very much, Matthew.

Matthew at the Penang Club

Matthew at the Penang Club

So, have a look at his trip on his blog – http://toadstraveladventures.blogspot.co.uk/

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Signs of Vietnam

I know few Vietnamese words – ga – chicken, bo – beef, pho – noodles, com – rice.  But north of Hanoi the signs of businesses sounded funny in English. Elsewhere there weren’t so many interesting ones. Honestly, I made hardly any of these up:
Hang Son – poor son
Chieu Dat Thang- love this one
Bich Nuoc – she must have upset someone
Cam Do – a good attitude to have
Dung – good for the garden I guess
Do Tho
Lay Ngay
Dien May – or he may not
Ban My Pate – it is cruel making it, isn’t it
Thep Ho Phat
Long Bien – I love biens
Phuc Long – hmm
I saw most of the above signs while zooming past in a bus, but here are some I photographed, mostly in Hanoi and on to the south.
the flag

the flag

hang back

hang back

your standard no parking sign

your standard no parking sign

I saw quite a lot of buses emblazoned with this

I saw quite a lot of buses emblazoned with this

no jetskis on this rock?

no jetskis on this rock?

Hang Sung Sot - it's popular to hang here

Hang Sung Sot – it’s popular to hang here

no canoeing?

no canoeing?

this is where the two lane bridge is blocked and only one lane open - so in each direction one lane is trying to overtake anonther which is trying to overtake another

this is where the two lane bridge is blocked and only one lane open – so in each direction one lane is trying to overtake anonther which is trying to overtake another

leaving the town sign

leaving the town sign

ah - back in Hanoi

ah – back in Hanoi

Hanoi Railway Station

Hanoi Railway Station

fresh beer!

fresh beer!

lots of regulations

lots of regulations

everywhere you go there is an Australian pub

everywhere you go there is an Australian pub

often with cheap beer

often with cheap beer

yep, we're near the DMZ

yep, we’re near the DMZ

the people marching forward to a glorious communist future - or something

the people marching forward to a glorious communist future – or something

nice pink sign

nice pink sign

the people marching forward to a glorious communist future - again

the people marching forward to a glorious communist future – again

always a welcome sign

always a welcome sign

and it is - sometimes

and it is – sometimes

we tried both - the primitive vehicle was faster

we tried both – the primitive vehicle was faster

nice sign - don't know what it means

nice sign – don’t know what it means

again

again

ants

ants

I can't imagine this sign works

I can’t imagine this sign works

solid sign

solid sign

yes, too shirt

yes, too shirt

big toothpaste

big toothpaste

you get the idea

you get the idea

Cam again

Cam again

I enjoyed my drink

I enjoyed my drink

3 days in Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City – 2013; Day 3 – Mekong Delta

For our last day in Saigon we’d organised a tour to the Mekong Delta. It cost 690,000 for two with lunch for the one day tour. In contrast to the previous day’s tour, we didn’t like the tour guide particularly, and the whole point of the tour appeared to be to take us from one place which tried to sell us stuff, to another place that tried to sell us stuff. I don’t want stuff – I travel light.  I just want to sit down with a coffee or beer – both are very good in Vietnam – and wait until it’s time to move on.

in the minibus

in the minibus

the police collecting money

the police collecting money

beer going past

beer going past

electric bike

electric bike

colourful store

colourful store

tour map

tour map

at the jetty

at the jetty

crossing

crossing

disembarking at our first port of call

disembarking at our first port of call

walking through the jungle - all us tourists went one way - because all us tourists return by boat

walking through the jungle – all us tourists went one way – because all us tourists return by boat

locals relaxing

locals relaxing

so we stop at a hut and eat fruit...

so we stop at a hut and eat fruit…

then all and sundry sang to us - and then we had to pay

then all and sundry sang to us – and then we had to pay

next we join the boat jam to be taken down the stream to the river where our boat is

next we join the boat jam to be taken down the stream to the river where our boat is

out of the jam it's nice - and we disembark and pay...

out of the jam it’s nice – and we disembark and pay…

they show us bees

they show us bees

then we sit down and they give us mini samples of seets - and try to sell us sweets

then we sit down and they give us mini samples of sweets – and try to sell us sweets

and then we go to a cocnut sweet place - they even use the shell for the energy to cook

and then we go to a coconut sweet place – they even use the shell for the energy to cook

and we see them making sweets, which they want to sell us...

and we see them making sweets, which they want to sell us…

the press

the press

then a boat ride to another island, followed by a ride in a horse driven cart

then a boat ride to another island, followed by a ride in a horse driven cart

to the restaurant for lunch - watched over by a goose

to the restaurant for lunch – watched over by a goose

restaurant

restaurant in the middle of nowhere

lunch was included - but they wanted to sell us other meals

lunch was included – but they wanted to sell us other dishes like snake or scorpion – at high prices

this was the lunch - really poor - so the idea really was to buy some of their dishes

this was the lunch – really poor – so the idea really was to buy some of their dishes

another of us bought this

another of us bought this

then we had the chance of a bike ride - on the worst maintained bikes I have ever seen

then we had the chance of a bike ride – on the worst maintained bikes I have ever seen – the alternative being a lie down in a hammock

then a boat ride down to the bigger boat - this was a really pleasant ride

then a boat ride down to the bigger boat – this was a really pleasant ride

on the small river

on the small river

Then it was back to the larger boat, which took us back to the jetty, and then on the bus and back to Saigon.

the drive along the river in Saigon was interesting

the drive along the river in Saigon was interesting

I enjoyed looking at all the buildings

I enjoyed looking at all the buildings

buildings on the river

buildings on the river

back in Saigon

back in Saigon

back at the hotel

back at the hotel

3 days in Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City – 2013; Day 2 – Cuchi Tunnels

Our first day in Saigon was looking around the city,  ensuring we had a French meal, and organising the following three days.  We took the lazy way, and booked the tours for the second and third days, and the bus tickets to Phnom Phenh for the following day.

The second day we had booked a tour to the Cuchi Tunnels – it cost VND 470,000 for two for a half day, with  no lunch.  They picked us up from the hotel on time, the guide was fun and entertaining, the driver seemed to be good, and everything was well organised.  This was a good tour.

police "at work"

police “at work”

driving out of Saigon

driving out of Saigon

our guide

our guide

price of petrol

price of petrol

our mini bus

our mini bus

approaching the tunnel area

approaching the tunnel area

map

map

example of trap

example of trap

trap - ouch!

trap – ouch!

tunnel entrance

tunnel entrance

tunnel entrance

tunnel entrance

tunnel entrance

tunnel entrance

ventilation

ventilation

captured tank

captured tank

jungle

jungle

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ammo

ammo

ammo

ammo

shooting range

shooting range

shooting range

shooting range

shooting

shooting

old tyre

old tyre

old tyre recycled

old tyre recycled

in the tunnel

in the tunnel

in the tunnel

in the tunnel

jungle

jungle

3 days in Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City – 2013; Day 1 – in the city

We arrived in Saigon around 5:30 AM, and caught a taxi from the station to the hotel we’d booked – which took only about 10 minutes. And, the taxi driver didn’t try to cheat us, so this was a good start.

Our hotel - we arrived before 6AM

Our hotel – we arrived before 6AM

The Tan Hai Long Hotel is located on the edge of the upmarket centre of town, about 10 minutes walk to the centre.  In the centre the restaurants are quite expensive, but near our hotel there are plenty of cheap alternative. It’s about 15 minutes further walk from the centre to the backpacker area. The room charge per night including tax etc. and breakfast was VND1,491,000.

lobby

lobby

bedroom

bedroom

looking out the window to a rooftop opposite

looking out the window to a rooftop opposite

chickens

chickens

he noticed me looking and held up a rooster

he noticed me looking and held up a rooster

menu

menu

breakfast buffet - you can, of course, order eggs, omelettes etc.

breakfast buffet – you can, of course, order eggs, omelettes etc.

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

yum

yum

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet

these were yummy

these were yummy

park across the road

park across the road

After some coffee and Internet browsing we went to the market – which was across the road.

the men in green uniforms are to be found at major intersections to help tourists safely cross the road

the men in green uniforms are to be found at major intersections to help tourists safely cross the road

in the markets

in the markets

in the markets

in the markets

in the markets

in the markets

Then a stroll up the main road to a pattisserie.

cake and coffee

cake and coffee

Time to look around a little…

so many bikes

so many bikes

the Rex Hotel

the Rex Hotel

the Opera House

the Opera House

and then had to have French for lunch

La Cuisine, 48 Le Thanh Ton

La Cuisine, 48 Le Thanh Ton

blackboard menu

blackboard menu

main of the 3 course menu

main of the 3 course menu

dessert

dessert

Well, we’d better do some sight seeing.

the Post Office

the Post Office

inside the post office

inside the post office

…and across the road…

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

…then a few minutes stroll through…

this park

this park

..to..

War Remnants Museum

the War Remnants Museum

This museum, on the American War (AKA the Vietnam War), is excellent, if depressing at times.  This was the highlight of my stay in Saigon, actually, as I had been alive during this war.

outside the museum

outside the museum

outside the museum

outside the museum

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caption to the next photo

caption to the next photo

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The Americans killed two million civilians, according to another exhibit.

outside the museum

outside the museum

We returned to the hotel for a rest, and later ventured out into the night.

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

the river

the river

night scenes in Saigon, on the river

night scenes in Saigon, on the river

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

night scenes in Saigon

the Rex Hotel

the Rex Hotel

the Rex Hotel

the Rex Hotel

the rooftop bar, at the Rex Hotel

the rooftop bar, at the Rex Hotel

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2013 – Day 3

Our last full day in Hoi An. We went to the beach. They told us it was about 4Km there, and it’s flat. We hired bicycles from the shop across the road for VND30,000 each but you could hire bikes for VND20,000 from other places. They had motorbikes too, but then you lay yourself open to police enforcement.

primitive vehicle!

Primitive vehicle! That’s what we had!

countryside is beautiful

the countryside is beautiful

on the way to the beach

on the way to the beach

sign

sign – hmm, still 4KM

It took about 45 minutes ride to get there.

beest to park in a parking lot

best to park in a parking lot – you get a ticket and pay on return – VND5,000

beach

the beach

funny

interesting round woven boats

When you walk along the beach the people with the sun loungers call out offering you their use for VND40,000 to 60,000 – but free if you eat their food. I had a coconut 40,000, beer 25,000, crab dish 90,000, so the lounger was free. You can use the toilet and shower. I didn’t bother with a towel because I dried quickly.

menu

menu from beach hut

menu

menu

nice

very nice there

river

the river you cross on the road to the beach

vege

on the way back we decided to stop off at the vegetable farm

veg

vege farm

worker

a worker

cows

cows

balloons

balloons on the move

beer

fresh beer – usually 40,000 or 50,000 a small mug

shop opp hotel

shop opposite the hotel

shop family

shop family

A few final words.

There were a few mosquitoes around.

Mrs SA – the shop across the road – does laundry for $1 per kilo – same day service.

Most restaurants have more or less the same (Vietnamese food) menu. I think Mrs Ly’s Vietnamese menu is hard to beat if you want to eat Vietnamese.  There are restaurants around serving “foreign” food, but they tend to be expensive. Mango Mango was also definitely a good choice.

The entry ticket for historical buildings was VND120,000.

The final hotel bill came to VND3,456,800 all in for three nights, including a nice dinner at the restaurant, a couple of cocktails, and something from the mini bar.

Anh Vu Travel at 32 Le Loi Street (anhvutravel@yahoo.com) charged us $14 for a car from our hotel to Da Nang station.  The driver was punctual, and the car in good condition.  The hotel charges a few dollars more for the same service. If you are visiting Hoi An, try arranging a pickup from the agency at the station (or airport) – if they will do it for a similar price, it’s a lot better than trying to negotiate with taxi drivers – who can’t necessarily be trusted.

Hoi An was great! So sad to leave.

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2013 – Day 2

Our second day in Hoi An was our first full day.  After a large breakfast at the hotel – a very nice buffet with a large variety of food, both Western and Asian – we headed off to take a walk around the town, using a route I’d found in Lonely Planet.

map of Hoi An

map of Hoi An

You "donate" and get tickets that allow you to enter six different places. These can be bought at several locations are oung town. Ask at your hotel for the nearest one.

You “donate” and get tickets that allow you to enter six different places. These can be bought at several locations are oung town. Ask at your hotel for the nearest one.

motor vehicles are allowed only at certain hours

motor vehicles are allowed only at certain hours

want a chilli or two?

want a chilli or two?

we started with this temple

we started with this temple

The information board

The information board

inside

inside

nice terraced buildings - typical of Hoi An

nice terraced buildings – typical of Hoi An

there are plenty of shops selling traditional wares

there are plenty of shops selling traditional wares

time for coffee?

time for coffee?

you need a ticket to enter the museum

you need one of the  tickets to enter the museum – this was the second ticket we used

inside - the building was more interesting than the exhibits for me

inside – the building was more interesting than the exhibits for me

street scene

street scene

another temple

another temple

yet another temple - this time we entered

yet another temple – this time we entered

inside the temple

inside the temple

another

another

street scene

street scene

at the market

at the market

poor birds!

poor birds!

the glorious revolution - or something

the glorious revolution – or something

where one evidently parks one's motorbike

where one evidently parks one’s motorbike

Ah, refreshment? No - they've run out.

Ah, refreshment? No – they’ve run out.

Success. And a view of the river from here.

Success. And a view of the river from here.

You can take a boat trip for an hour for $6 for two people, but we didn’t have time.

river boats

river boats 

the Japanese Bridge

the Japanese Bridge

inside the Japanese Bridge

on the Japanese Bridge – no ticket needed to cross

the Japanese Bridge entrance

the Japanese Bridge entrance

the street near the Japanese Bridge

the street near the Japanese Bridge

lots of tourist shops here

lots of tourist shops here

pub

pub

Hoi An is pretty at night, too

Hoi An is pretty at night, too

Nice for dinner - but more expensive than most

Mango Mango. Nice for dinner – but more expensive than most. The cheapest main dish was VND340,000. The staff were friendly and service was good.