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Crocodiles on mopeds and other tales from Hanoi

The crazy street life of Vietnam's second city


View North East Vietnam 2012 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last year's brief visit to Hanoi left a strong impression, even though Jen and I weren't able to make the most of our time there. Arriving straight from the Himalayas, we were tired and preoccupied by lists of errands. We arranged excursions to take us out of the city, thinking we would prefer the tranquillity of the coast and countryside to rubbing shoulders with millions of Vietnamese. It was probably the right decision at the time but it left me feeling short-changed by Hanoi. So we did the obvious thing - we went back.

Returning less than a year later felt like a homecoming rather than a holiday. Not only were we reunited with our cycling chums, David (Painted Roads tour leader), Phong (local guide) and Eddie (impossible to categorize), but we instantly fell in love with the city all over again. Hanoi casts its spell in unexpected ways. The guidebooks may try to talk up its tourist sites, but it's not the prospect of puppets, pagodas or pickled propagandists that excites me. Instead, it's the pulsating bustle of Hanoians going about their daily business in the enchanting Old Quarter. This is the beating heart of the city, an inside-out place where everything happens on the street. Ladies in shimmering blouses and stilettos revving their mopeds; pensive groups of men hunched over their cờ tướng boards on street corners; flower sellers weaving their bicycles between uniformed schoolchildren; street food vendors stirring, frying, serving and smiling. With so much life on show, we were keen to brush up on our street photography.

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side


Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

The Old Quarter was our base for the few days we spent in the city. Here, we watched Hanoi wake up, go to work, take coffee, exercise and go to sleep. A great many hours were spent at the street café opposite our hotel, sipping glasses of bia hơi and watching the city pass us by. At other times I would go off to explore, walking the streets morning, noon and night in search of the unexpected. Despite venturing no more than a mile from the hotel, my senses were thoroughly overwhelmed.

At first light, the street vendors begin to appear. Every morning, an estimated 10,000 of them - mostly women - converge on Hanoi from the surrounding rural provinces, as they have done for centuries. They bring fresh produce from their farms, but it’s not just fruit and vegetables they sell. I passed one lady whose bamboo baskets had been transformed into mobile ponds full of splashing turtles. Fresh ingredients are very important in Vietnamese cuisine, so the street vendors fulfil the same role as a Tesco Express would in the UK.

These women are amongst the poorest people in the city, earning around US$2 a day. Worse still, their earnings can be confiscated by the overzealous police, who increasingly enforce local laws which place restrictions or even outright bans on street selling. I have since discovered that the British government has recently provided funding for a project to improve the lives of Hanoi's street vendors.

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark


One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader

One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader


A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

Hanoi’s street cafés are a local institution enjoyed by city folk and foreigners alike. Space is at a premium in the Old Quarter, so the clientele sit on child-sized plastic chairs out in the street and conduct high-volume conversation over the noise of passing mopeds. Many cafés serve the aforementioned bia hơi, a weak home brew costing around 8,000 dong (25p) a glass. The quality can vary but at that price, who's complaining?

Others are purveyors of Vietnamese-branded coffee, a distinctive beverage filtered slowly into the cup and mixed with condensed milk. The connoisseur’s choice is cà phê Chồn or “weasel coffee”, the world’s most expensive variety. The coffee beans have passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (a weasel-like animal) which supposedly takes the bitter edge off the taste. A rather bizarre fact which begs the obvious question: who discovered it?

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi


A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

To the south of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city. I wrote a blog article last year which discussed the famous giant turtle which inhabits the lake, a creature so rare it seems destined to join the dodo on the path to extinction. There were no turtle sightings on this occasion, but our lakeside walks offered up a number of equally extraordinary visions.

Dragging ourselves down to Hoan Kiem at dawn, we found the paths and parks had been taken over by a small army of exercising Hanoians, all stretching, pumping and burning. Around the lake swarmed an anticlockwise wave of joggers and power-walkers, whilst in a public square nearby, impromptu classes were being held for aerobics, salsa, ballroom, tai chi and, my favourite of all, laughter yoga. Perhaps they were laughing at the committed fitness fanatic who was attempting to target all his major muscle groups whilst sat on a park bench.

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

In the evening, another swathe of the population descends on the lake’s leafy promenades. The exercisers are now a minority, but this only seems to encourage exhibitionist tendencies, judging from the shirtless men performing chin-ups on lampposts and five-minute headstands at the very edge of the water. Meanwhile, young lovers stroll hand in hand and wedding photographers fuss over their subjects as they contrive to maximise the romantic potential of the scene. Quite what the turtle makes of it all, I can only wonder.

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers


Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

The action has spread to the nearby square, where the painted lines of badminton courts are being put to good use. There are no racquets to be seen, however, for the game of choice is played with the feet. The Vietnamese call it đá cầu and have made it their national sport, but it originated as jianzi in China. The standard is (literally) very high, with some unbelievable agility on show as the players leap at the net to smash the shuttlecock down into the opponent’s forecourt with their feet.

Despite all the activity on show, the Vietnamese revert to type when it comes to road transport: everyone and everything travels by motorbike. In Bangkok airport’s duty free zone I came across a neat little book called Bikes of Burden, a photo journal from across Vietnam showing an amazing variety of cargo being transported on bikes, from furniture to scaffold frames, carpets to water tanks and livestock to ornamental goldfish. We kept an eye out for unusual bikes of burden ourselves and found the Hanoians more than lived up to expectations. My favourite was a giant cuddly crocodile toy about the same size as the rider. Sadly there’s no photo to prove this – I obviously wasn’t snappy enough.

Crocodile! Snappy! Ok, I’ll get my coat.

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike


A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food markets bikes vietnam hanoi photography Comments (3)

Snapshots from the back of beyond

The title says it all really. These are some of the most memorable moments from our travels to Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam in last few months. Enjoy...

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

As I cycled over the brow of the hill, and saw this lake, it took my breath away. Instead of enjoying the downhill, I stopped every 10 metres to take photo after photo as the scene unravelled. In the end I took this shot while eating my lunch with my cycling buddies under a tarpaulin in the scorching sunshine. While eating our bread and cheese (which had become cheese on toast), a storm was slowly approaching. Part of me wanted the deluge, but the photographer in me just wanted to freeze the moment...

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan was full of epic vistas. This was one of my favourites, and the road surface wasn't too bad at this point either!

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

When we went to sleep the night before, Son Kul Lake was enveloped in Scottish weather, just clearing with the sunset. It reminded me of the Western Isles. Fortunately the following morning dawned clear, so I set off up the hill behind our camp to capture some of the beautiful morning light.

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

If there's one thing that can be said of Kyrgyzstan, it's that it is unquestionably vast. This photo gives some sense of the scale of the place. It made me feel small.

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

The scenery of North East Vietnam is quite different to Kyrgyzstan. We often found ourselves dwarfed by the crops growing by the side of the road. This was a stunning valley, on a rare day when the atmosphere was beautifully clear, and around every corner was another bike stopping view.

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

On the same day, we rounded a corner by a forest clearing to find these children peeling nuts. Our guide, Phong didn't know why they were peeling nuts, and nor did the children, but they determinedly continued despite the obvious distraction of a group of westerners on mountain bikes. They deftly peeled the nuts with scary-looking knives, and oddly, the only injury sustained was a cut to my leg from a sharp stick poking out the ground, while I tried to capture this photo.

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Cycling across the Rocky Plateau from Yen Minh to Meo Vac, I was left speechless on numerous occasions. This was one such. We thought we'd seen it all that day. Then we rounded another corner to find this! Chris helpfully provided the splash of colour in the distance.

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

These girls were probably the eldest in a group of about 30 children who were curious to see what a group of cyclists were doing sitting on plastic chairs drinking tea at the side of the road. When they eventually plucked up the courage to come close, we entertained them by reading their school books. They're probably laughing at this point because David Walker (our tour leader) was entertaining a group of younger children with his impression of the Nieeeeeyep man (a Nepalese phenomenon). Most of the children appeared confused with a few breaking out into smiles. But then again, as I commented in my previous blog When the wanderlust strikes again..., we probably seemed quite strange...

Posted by jparsons 11:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

When the wanderlust strikes again…

...there is no cure

35 °C

So it turns out that four months travelling around the Himalayas and South East Asia is not a good cure for the wanderlust. No sooner had we touched down in the chilly North of England on January 16 2012, and we had already targeted our next big trip back to the Himalayas. They say "every cloud has a silver lining" and so when it emerged that Tibet would be off the cards this year, plan B swung into action, which is how come I’m writing this blog post only 24 hours after landing back in the UK from our second trip to Asia in six weeks (two for the price of one in the end. Just).

24,700 miles may not be brilliant for the old carbon footprint, but with the "roads" in Kyrgyzstan not boasting even a hint of tarmac, we more than made up for this in endurance on the bike: powered by plov, and the occasional bowl of fermented mare’s milk (yes you did read correctly). In North East Vietnam the scenery may look fairytale, but the absence of a magic carpet meant we had some pretty hefty undulations to cross: this time powered by morning glory, rice and deep-fried bees…

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

There is something deeply compelling about visiting the hard to reach corners of the globe, and then climbing on two wheels to explore them even further. When you have a passion for photography, the big landscapes of the Central Tien Shan, the street scenes of Hanoi old town, and the rural communities living in the remote mountainous regions of Asia simply capture the imagination. This, and a love of cycling in remote places is why I cannot stay away...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Both Kyrgyzstan and North East Vietnam share borders with China, and have a tourist industry that is still only embryonic, meaning that the opportunity to meet local people is still refreshingly absent of any transaction, and the welcome genuinely meant. However, this is where the similarity between the two countries ends. Kyrgyzstan is scarcely populated (5.5 million), whereas Vietnam is positively bustling (87.8 million). The Kyrgyz people are traditionally nomadic, moving their temporary yurt camps up into the mountains in summer and down to warmer climes in winter. Whereas Vietnamese life in the remote North East centres around village communities. Cycling in Kyrgyzstan was akin to being dry roasted, alive. In Vietnam, it was rather more akin to cycling in a giant steamer, and on occasions, the shower. We exchanged the vast plains and desert-scapes in August for the rice paddies and jungle last week. Kyrgyzstan was most definitely horse-based. Vietnam, buffalo-based. And yet, the experience of travelling in both countries was in some respects remarkably similar: astoundingly beautiful scenery; the priceless look on the faces of the local men, women, and children when they saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman on a mountain bike; the tendency for children under the age of 3 to spontaneously burst into tears, and those over 3 to race you down the road; and the enthusiasm of the local children to borrow my bicycle for a test ride in exchange for a horse ride / donkey ride / photo / a bucket of fermented mare’s milk.

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

The only thing which was saddening, in both countries, was the reality of some aspects of life in such remote areas. In NE Vietnam we cycled through the district of Bao Lac, where we ate lunch by the side of the road close to a small village. By the time we had finished our sandwiches a group of about 30 children aged between 3 and 11 had gathered around 100m from our lunch spot. Chris and I went to investigate, and like the Pied Piper, ended up leading the children back to our seats. We then pursued an enterprise in raising smiles as we captured the scene on camera. What was striking for me was the low energy level of so many of the children we met that day. In stark contrast to North West Vietnam the previous November, where we had been chased vigorously down the road, and received high-fives that left red marks on my hands, we were now met with many expressionless faces. Children who should have been curious, smiling, and playing, would stand around staring through us in the middle of the road. Either we were just too strange, or life for them was just too hard.

We were a strange sight...

We were a strange sight...

In Kyrgyzstan, the poverty surfaced in rural alcoholism. In Naryn province, we stopped for a morning water refill in the centre of a dusty village in the valley, only to quickly attract the attention of the local men. They were obviously curious to meet westerners but their intentions were hazy in their inebriated state. Our local guides were keen to make sure they stayed well out of our way, and this was not the only occasion where somebody needed to come to our rescue and physically remove the local welcoming party.

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

By far the best encounters were those where I got off my bike, put it on its stand and waited. Within a couple of minutes, I would either be surrounded by kids, horses or donkeys, or all three. The offer of a turn on my bike, testing of sunglasses, or helmet would be reciprocated with the offer of a free horse or donkey ride. And while I'd like to say I made good use of these offers, my questionable horse riding skills meant I more often than not made a beeline for the donkey in a bid to relieve my saddle soreness for a few minutes with a warm comfortable seat. In Vietnam, the only real alternative mode of transport to a bike or bicycle was a buffalo, and this wasn't something I considered a fair exchange (have you tried riding one?). But I was simply happy to offer the bike to those who wanted to test out Western wheels in exchange for the odd photo instead. Conversation was usually limited to “hello, I’m Jen from Manchester, UK, England”, but the smiles were wide, and the curiosity mutual.

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Vietnam is buffalo country

Vietnam is buffalo country

My inspiration for writing this most recent blog post was actually to acknowledge the brilliant team leading our trip through NE Vietnam over the last two weeks. But my train of thought has in the meantime taken me off down a minor a rabbit hole from which I shall attempt to recover...When Chris and I were considering destinations for our Tibet “plan B”, Vietnam was not first on our list. The North West is industrialising at an impressive rate, and the scenery we encountered there not as beautiful as we experienced in neighbouring Laos. However, we were easily persuaded to join a group of friends for some cycling and photography, with the selling point being a guaranteed good time: we knew the score, because we were returning with our tour leaders and friends David and Phong from our previous tour to Vietnam and Laos. Only since then David has set up Painted Roads, and this was his inaugural tour, the first of its kind through this region of Vietnam.

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Beautiful tarmac as well!

Beautiful tarmac as well!

North East Vietnam is a stunning place to visit, astonishingly beautiful, and with some of the best cycling I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The itinerary was faultless: quiet roads, spectacular scenery and culturally fascinating. Despite the region’s remoteness, and the absence of tourist infrastructure, the roads were relatively good (there was tarmac, and potholes no bigger than Stockport’s) and the hospitality we received was excellent. David and Phong were also reassuringly on form. David was still peddling as though surgically attached to his bike from birth, and Phong had taken up hills in the intervening months, which destroyed our infallible undulation predictor: the bike coming out of the van was no longer a useful forecast for downhills. Some new developments also emerged on this trip. David’s recital of Monty Python put downs in his banter with Phong kept us endlessly amused…”your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries...”, and the daily entertaining of crowds of children with “Nieeeeyeps” in a bid to capture their smiles on camera is undoubtedly responsible for some of our best photos.

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen

We didn’t get quite as sunburnt as last time but made up for this in spades with our squiffyness. Picking up neatly where we left off in Laos, we quickly accustomed ourselves (and the others) to finishing the ride with a few pints of Beer Hanoi, and rounding off the evening with the local fire water. Not quite as hangover free as I recall from last time, but I may have accidentally upped the quantities somewhat! We also made new friends, as we were joined by Priyen, Claire, Jim and Ros. This brought some interesting dietary challenges to the tour with the need for gluten, wheat and meat free dishes to be found in a country that wouldn’t baulk at eating your cat. It also brought good banter, some interesting Karaoke, an extremely bad Freddy Mercury impression, and many, many more good times.

If you’re interested in travel and photography, David’s blog is a great place to start, with some inspirational photographs, and entertaining stories: The Painted Roads Blog. In the meantime I'll leave you with some final photos...

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Posted by jparsons 15:08 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (4)

A journey in numbers


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

After 7 countries and 119 days on the road, we've reached the final blog entry - it's hard to believe we've written 52 of these things! Rather than trying to sum up our journey in words, I've compiled a few stats to tell the story.

8,788

Kilometres travelled, according to our Travellerspoint map. The real total will be even higher because we didn't travel as the crow flies on the overland routes.

7,343

Photos taken, to answer all those who've asked the question. This doesn't include the 4,000 photos we deleted along the way! 266 of these have been published on the blog.

14

Modes of transport used, including plane, bus, train, car, mountain bike, motorcycle, junk boat, longtail boat, dive boat, speedboat, tuk tuk, truck, songthaew and kayak.

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

964

The combined cost of all our visas and trekking permits, in US dollars. Over two thirds of this went straight into the coffers of the Nepalese government, so I like to think we gave their GDP figures a little boost in 2011.

4.5

The average speed in mph of the bus from Dhadingbesi to Arughat Bazaar (which we abandoned at nightfall after it became stuck in a quagmire).

5,450

The highest altitude of the trip (in metres), just above the Thorung La. We crossed three passes over 5000m on our five-week trek in the Nepal Himalaya.

0

Number of public conveniences in the Nepalese village of Phu. We later found out from some trekking companions that there was another lodge in the village which did have a toilet, but unfortunately the owners don't appear to have capitalized on this USP.

Looking down on the village of Phu

Looking down on the village of Phu

6.9

Magnitude of the earthquake which struck the Himalayas on 18 September 2011, the day we flew to Kathmandu. It was the second largest quake ever recorded in the region, causing at least 111 deaths and widespread damage. The quake was centred on north Sikkim, a region we visited 6 weeks later.

4:30

The earliest wake up call of the trip, in Dzongri, Sikkim. After seven consecutive days of trekking in a cloud, it was a make or break moment. "Good weather," said our guide outside the tent, not quite believing it himself.

200

Estimated maximum population of wild snow leopards in the whole of India, according to WWF, making it even more remarkable that I saw fresh snow leopard tracks in Sikkim.

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

7%

Average annual growth rate of the Vietnamese economy from 1981 to 2010, 30 unbroken years of boom with only 3 years of less than 5% growth. Quite incredible statistics for a country which was the third poorest in the world after the Vietnam War.

1,200

Kilometres in the saddle on our epic three-week mountain bike trip through Vietnam and Laos with Red Spokes. The longest day was about 120km and the toughest had 45km of hill climbs.

American Chris on the road in Laos

American Chris on the road in Laos

10

Kilometres travelled in the Red Spokes support vehicle. It's not that we'd gone soft - the Vietnamese closed the road while they carried out some roadworks, and by the time it reopened, it was getting dark!

4

The maximum distance in kilometres of continuous climbing on a bicycle without going up a hill, in Red Spokes parlance. Anything up to this point is a mere undulation.

8.11%

Gradient quoted on a road sign in northwest Vietnam. Funnily enough as we rounded the previous bend I had remarked to Jen "This feels like an 8.11%er to me!"

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

6,670,000

The largest withdrawal amount entered on an ATM keypad. No, it's not a typo. This was in Vietnamese dong, and is equivalent to about 200 pounds sterling. The traveller in Vietnam is wise to pack an expandable wallet.

14

Varieties of Asian beer sampled. They were Everest, Gorkha (Nepal), Kingfisher (India), Bia Hanoi, Bia Larue (Vietnam), Beerlao (Laos), Cambodia, Klang, Angkor, Anchor (Cambodia), Singha, Chang, Leo (Thailand) and Tiger (Malaysia). Beerlao goes down easiest.

7,500

The cheapest bottle of Beerlao in Luang Prabang, in Laotian kip. There are 12,500 kip to the pound and there's more than a pint in the bottle!

300

Casualties annually in Laos due to unexploded ordnance (UXO). More than half are children, and most are killed or maimed by cluster bombs. These and other chilling statistics we learned on a visit to Cope, a charity which provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to UXO victims.

1860

The year French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" the temples of Angkor. In fact they were well known to the local Khmer people and had been visited by other westerners before Mouhot. We were two of the 1.6 million tourists to visit the temple complex in 2011, a year-on-year rise of 23%.

2

Our longest flight "delay" in hours. What really happened was that Bangkok Airways cancelled our flight out of Siem Reap and put us on the last flight of the day, but of course they couldn't admit to that.

0

Rice-free days in Southeast Asia. Fried rice, steamed rice, sticky rice - it's all the same after two months.

160

Estimated age in millions of years of Khao Sok National Park's jungle, the oldest tropical forest on Earth. That makes it around 100 million years older than the Amazon rainforest.

10

Number of leech attacks during a two-minute walk through the jungle of Khao Sok. We had left the relatively leech-free stream bed and followed some tapir tracks through the forest to shortcut a bend in the stream.

100

Decibels of sound produced by a calling gibbon. Gibbon calls can travel more than 2 miles over the forest, and at our rafthouse in Khlong Seang I stood on the decking listening to four groups calling from different parts of the forest.

5

Years of hard training by the bar staff of Koh Lanta's Bamboo Bay Resort to perfect their fire dancing routine. And boy, did it show!

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

80

Maximum weight in pounds of a jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, which is found throughout Thailand and Malaysia. The orange flesh is similar in taste to papaya.

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

-32

Temperature drop in degrees Celsius between Langkawi, Malaysia and Manchester, UK on the day of our return home. Brrrrr!

The sun sets on our blog

The sun sets on our blog

We've had great fun writing about some of our experiences, but now the time has come to call time on our travel blog. Thanks to everyone who has been following us and to all those who have commented on Travellerspoint or liked us on Facebook! I hope we can resurrect the Parsons on Tour blog soon...

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:05 Archived in Nepal Tagged india cambodia thailand malaysia vietnam laos nepal statistics Comments (0)

Going places


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?

In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.

On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.

The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.

Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.

Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!

Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.

A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.

A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.

Longtail boat engine

Longtail boat engine

Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department


Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:39 Tagged boats bikes india cambodia thailand vietnam laos transport nepal Comments (0)

Scenes from the local market


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A few snaps from the street stalls and food markets of Southeast Asia, places rich in gastronomic interest and photographic opportunity.

Hanoi ladies queuing for their snails

Hanoi ladies queuing for their snails


Early morning shoppers in Sapa market

Early morning shoppers in Sapa market


Mekong River fish in bamboo baskets

Mekong River fish in bamboo baskets


Crowds at Luang Prabang food market

Crowds at Luang Prabang food market


Fancy a frog kebab

Fancy a frog kebab


Lao drive-through

Lao drive-through


The morning catch drying by the roadside

The morning catch drying by the roadside


A stallholder tends to the veg display

A stallholder tends to the veg display


Another formidable Thai lady serving up fast food

Another formidable Thai lady serving up fast food


Chicken yoga

Chicken yoga

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:22 Archived in Laos Tagged thailand vietnam laos Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #2: Big trouble in Indochina


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The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?

Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede


The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.

Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.

The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.

Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam


Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged wildlife cambodia vietnam laos indochina Comments (0)

Mission Impossible: South-East Asia


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In Chiang Mai we went to the local multiplex to watch the preposterous but highly entertaining Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise saves the world from a madman bent on starting a nuclear war. It seems likely that a fifth film in the series will be made, and our experiences in South East Asia have given me a few ideas for the producers....

Scene 1:
The movie opens in Hanoi, Vietnam, where IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is being chased through the Old Quarter by the communist police. Suddenly he comes to the main highway on the edge of the district, and is confronted by a moving wall of cars, buses, mopeds, tuk-tuks, trucks and bicycles. His mission? Cross the road. Cruise sets off at a run but sees a bus on collision course and makes a fatal mistake - he changes direction. Confused drivers screech to a halt on all sides, blocking his escape. Meanwhile, the commies march purposefully into the moving traffic, and like Moses crossing the Red Sea, it parts around them. Ethan Hunt is captured.

Scene 2:
Cruise is in custody in Sapa, a Vietnamese town near the Chinese border. An American agent is valuable property, and the Viets want to do a deal with the Chinese military. When his captors are distracted by the 5:30am tai chi public service broadcast, he makes a daring escape. But he hasn't reckoned with the local Hmong ladies who lie in wait and chase him down the road, sweeping him up in a chorus of "You buy from meee?", "You come to my village?" and "I follow you all day!" Resistance is futile, and Cruise is marched down to the 'ethnic' hilltribe village to purchase some hand-woven garments from an old crone in a funny hat.

Smiling with our Hmong kidnappers at Sapa

Smiling with our Hmong kidnappers at Sapa

Scene 3:
Ethan Hunt has made it to the Vietnam-Laos border, but the police are still on his tail. His new mission? To secure a Laos visa in less than 3 hours. But what's this? The border guards have closed the visa office and gone for a mid-morning 'lunch'. Not even IMF can pull strings here, leaving Cruise high and dry. His only option is to retire to the adjacent cafe and order some coffee and snacks while he waits nervously. But little does he know the cafe is owned by the visa officials, and as soon as he hands over his money the border reopens, and he is swept through in a wave of euphoria.

Form filling at the Vietnam-Laos border

Form filling at the Vietnam-Laos border

Scene 4:
Cruise is in Laos and is safe for the time being. IMF pages him with another mission - he's being redeployed to the town of Vang Vieng to save it from rampant British backpackers. This being Laos, the usual IMF sign-off has been modified to "This message will self-destruct when it feels like it." He leaps aboard the nearest vehicle to race to the scene, but unfortunately it's a squeaking, creaking Laotian bicycle. Moreover, because Cruise is only 4 foot 3, he has to stand on the pedals and ride in the manner of the local kids. (This scene should provide some much-needed light relief).

Scene 5:
Ethan Hunt spots a crowd of backpackers on the river and ditches the bike. There follows a high-octane, fast and furious chase scene down river, showcasing the latest extreme sport, tubing. (The tubes drift lazily with the current, so some bombastic music and clever editing will be required here.) But what's this? Cruise has been lassooed by a riverside bar and hauled to the bank. He is forced to down several bottles of lao lao, smoke strange substances and bop along to bad Eurodance in his bermuda shorts. He blacks out.

Scene 6:
Cruise suddenly comes to his senses. His GPS phone pinpoints his location as Chiang Mai, Thailand. The backpackers must have brought him here. He needs IMF to pull him out of here sharpish. But it's Christmas Day, the Night Market is in full swing and 15 million Thais are here to part with their baht. He's hemmed in on all sides, forced to file past the same handful of stalls repeated ad nauseum: wooden elephants, paper lanterns, silk scarves, knock-off DVDs and "I love Chiang Mai" t-shirts. Suddenly a woman approaches - at least he thinks it's a woman, but it's hard to tell under her heavy make-up. "Hello sir," she says in a suspiciously deep voice, "you wanna some fun tonight?" This could be Ethan Hunt's most daring mission yet... (to be continued)

Crowds doing the Sunday shuffle in Chiang Mai

Crowds doing the Sunday shuffle in Chiang Mai

It's only a start, but I think it's got all the ingredients of a classic summer blockbuster, plus a ladyboy. Tom will love it!

On a separate subject, Jen and I are about to disappear into the Thai rainforest for a few days, to spend New Year in the company of some gibbons. No, not British backpackers, real gibbons. So we'd like to say a slightly premature Happy New Year to everybody - have a great New Year's Eve wherever you are. We'll be blogging again in 2012!

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand vietnam laos christmas backpackers hmong visas Comments (2)

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