A Travellerspoint blog

Ninh Binh, the inland Halong Bay

SPRING FESTIVAL TRAVEL ADVENTURES: PART 2

overcast 7 °C

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After our beautiful, misty stay in Ha Long Bay, Roger and I jumped onto a local bus to drive us the 5 hours to our next destination, Ninh Binh. This was the bus journey where we learned the true nature of driving in Vietnam; the driver's hand was glued to his horn as he raced by fast moving trucks and cars, playing chicken with oncoming traffic. There doesn't seem to be many road laws here! After a teeth gritting journey, we arrived safely at Ninh Binh, a town 60 miles south of Hanoi. At first glance, the town itself didn't seem any different than a semi-industrial, concrete built, town in China. I was wondering when the next bus out was! I'm pleased we stayed for the next day journey, which proved to be a real experience.

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Ninh Binh city turned out to be more of a base to get to the surrounding countryside for which its famous for. So we jumped on our bicycles with a group from our hotel and a local tour guide and cycled the sights. We passed through local towns and villages that seemed to get quainter the farther from Ninh Binh we got. Local kids sat on the back of their friends bicycles, and followed us shouting 'Hello! What is your name!' (excited that they had the chance to practice the English they learned in school I think!).

The landscape was stunning. It's well known for its beautiful rice fields (which would be even more beautiful in slightly warmer weather when they are planted), and the magnificent limestone rock formations, which are often compared to the landscapes in Ha Long Bay... hence the nickname, Ha Long Bay on land.

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Lunch break

As we rode through the countryside, it was impossible to miss the dump trucks driving by and the construction going on. With Vietnam's tourist industry booming, they have begun to relocate local farmers (or kick them out...) from near the river, and are instead building touristy car parks and other buildings. Ironic considering its advertising itself as an eco-tourist site. It's sad to see the natural beauty changing SO much, but I'm pleased I could get a glimpse of the undisturbed natural beauty without seeing another tourist the entire day.

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Rowing with their feet & toilets of Ninh Binh

We had a boat ride down the tranquil rivers of Tam Coc, one of the new, but unknown, tourist destinations. It's famous for the caves you pass through on the river. I didn't think they'd be quite so small! to get through the limestone mountains you often have to crouch down in the boat. Needless to say, I did get a little claustrophobic at times.

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Pit-stop to try and warm up!

After the boat ride, we rode back down the roads, passing the dump trucks, and then through local villages along tiny dirt paths to reach one of the limestone mountains that we could climb. It was tiring, but well worth the stunning views.

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Preparing the rice fields

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Posted by Anna1289 18:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi's Mental Traffic & Halong's Misty Bay

Spring Festival Travel Adventures: Part 1

overcast 7 °C

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After a semester of working hard and adjusting to the Chinese way of life, we thought it was about time to hit the road and travel down south to Vietnam and Cambodia. Lucky for us, being teachers in China, we got 5 weeks off from school- just enough for a nice, long holiday. So first things first, we boarded our over night train from Guangzhou to Nanning after queuing in an enormous amount of people (to be fair, we were offered to bribe one of the guards to let us on the train half an hour early, but we didn't take up the offer). We were 'lucky' enough to get the bottom bunks (in one cabin, there are 6 beds, 3 on each side on top of each other). I say 'lucky' because as soon as one local person had enough courage to come and talk to us, then the whole carriage tried to fit on to our beds. Out of the 13 hour journey, we spent 5 of them trying to communicate with our little Chinese that we do know... needless to say I think I had a headache by the end! After an early morning arrival, and breakfast of either corn on the cob or steamed rolls with meat, we got an 8 hour bus from Nanning to Hanoi. After a few random inspection by Chinese police, the border crossing into Vietnam was quite amusing. At the Chinese side, there were very official and serious guards stamping each of our passports as we were allowed to pass into no-man's land. After a 5 minute walk, we reached the Vietnamese side where chaos prevailed in their little 'hut' (for a lack of a better description word) and everyone was shoving their passports under the glass window to a row of men who worked in an assembly line to apply the stamps, this time they all had smiles on their faces. This chaotic-yet friendly approach to life summarised our time in Vietnam.

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At Nanning Bus Station (China), and our first glimpses of Vietnam from the bus

Vietnam is a place that I have always dreamed about going. I imagined it to be like Guangzhou, where western people are few and far between. The journey from the border to Hanoi proved this to be true and it reminded me of our first day in China; when we stopped for a lunch break with the bus at a little open cafe (like what you get in the tropics where the weathers too good to ever worry about walls) with all sorts of fruits and other unrecognisable foods wrapped in banana leafs, I had no idea how to ask what the food was, how much it costs, or whether the price was a good price! It all seemed so foreign.

However it was a different story when we arrived in Hanoi; when I first stepped off the bus as saw another westerner I felt the need to spark up a conversation. But before I could, I realised that there were loads of other western people all around us. Hanoi definitely was not the tourist-free zone I imagined, but the culture was there to make up for it. Hanoi is real, and doesn't try to hide its true self. Locals walk around in the 'pyramid' hats selling corn from two baskets tied at either end of a wooden pole they hold on their shoulders, while sharing the roads with bikes and people. The thing that sticks in my mind is the traffic- it was absolutely incredible. I have never seen so many motorcycles in my LIFE. There are no such thing as lanes, or traffic lights, and there is obviously no limit to the motorcycles on the road. On our first day, we tentatively stood by the side of the road waiting for at least a small gap in the continuous, hectic, traffic that seemed to have no organisation at all, when we were quickly pushed aside and overtaken by locals who simply stepped right out into the traffic (I mean this literally, stepping in front of fast motorcycles and busses), only looking straight ahead. I realise now why they weren't looking out for traffic- its because there is so many motorcycles that you just have to put your life in their hands as your cross and hope that they see you. There is no second guessing a step, or standing still and waiting... you just walk.

Here's 2 videos other people took in Hanoi

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Some of the crazy wires that crossed the streets

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A very skinny Hanoi building. The taxes used to be done by the length of the front of your property so many of the buildings have very skinny fronts, but go back a long way.

After a couple days of exploring Hanoi, we escaped 2 hours away to the madness of Halong Bay. Halong Bay is the number one tourist destination in Vietnam, and being a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, it is absolutely flooded by tourists and traditional 'junk' boats that are based off of ancient Chinese boats. We opted for a 2 day, one night stay on the boat. After unpacking our stuff in our room, all the guests (who were mostly Australians and round the world travellers) had lunch while the boat chugged into open waters. Before I knew it we could see enormous steep mountains appearing through the thick mist. The entire area is absolutely stunning- and not small! Our first stop was at a floating village, where a woman took 6 of us in a little boat made for 4 Vietnamese-sized people (aka small); needless to say we were literally centimetres from the water overflowing into the boat. The hour journey brought us through tunnels in the rocks to lakes surrounded by the steep cliff faces. Occasionally we saw monkeys by the waters edge as we floated back to the village just in time to see the local primary school getting out for the day. Their school transportation was very different from the big yellow bus that picked me up from the end of my drive (See photo below). I'll leave you with a selection of photos that I tried to narrow down, but I just couldn't! Enjoy...

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Our boat (left) and a famous view of Halong Bay

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End of the school day, and onto the boat

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Posted by Anna1289 05:31 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Holiday season

Christmas, New Years, and my birthday... Chinese style

overcast 7 °C

Christmas

Christmas seems to come so fast every year, as remained true for this year. The difference was that this year I was secretly dreading its arrival, as it was my first Christmas away from home, and also my first Christmas in China. The culture here doesn't really appreciate Christmas in the same way that home does. Although there were glimmers of signs throughout the city, like the cardboard Santa taped inside windows with the frosted white 'Merry Christmas' painted next to it, it wasn't anything remotely like my snowy, cozy, comfortable Christmas at home surrounded by family. But it certainly made for a different experience. Lucky for me, I have some great friends here, and we were all in the same boat, away from family and in a different country. We made an extra effort to make my flat feel as close to a home-like Christmas as possible... the IKEA nearby helped with its mulled wine and Christmas scented candles. And we even had a secret santa for Christmas morning :)

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Note our effort to incorporate as many homely food products as we could find: we had lipton tea, custard, Christmas pudding, mulled wine, hot chocolate, cheese, crackers, and HP sauce!

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Christmas Breakfast chef's slaving away

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New Years

New Years was another surreal experience. In China, its their traditional Chinese New Year that really matters, so the westernised new year really hasn't caught on. We ended up in a friend's lovely flat in a high-rise next to the river, overlooking the city. There could have been worse places to celebrate!! We were thinking we had front row tickets to a fire work display of some kind with our friend's perfectly positioned balcony, but little did we know that it was just another normal night for the rest of the city. Half the party emptied out at 11:30 to go to bed... surely the whole point of the night was to make it to at least midnight? But hey, we're in China. Or as we say 'T.I.C.' 'This is China'. There was a countdown on TV... but no fireworks. The city's lights turned off as normal at about 11 o'clock, leaving us looking over a partially lit city. But nevertheless, we managed to have another great night.

A highlight of the New Year's experience here was the show's that were put on by our schools. For a few days before, there were stages and all sorts being set up. The evening of the show I was lucky enough to be promoted to front row seats, alongside all sorts of other special guests. Outside our school a giant led tv screen was set up for passerbyers, which ended up drawing in hoards of people who couldn't fit inside the schools courtyard. As tradition for any sort of public event, they had two girls, and two men act as hosts for the night. The girls traditionally wear 'shiny dresses', as they like to say, and the hosts like to say everything in cheesy unison with each other. After a long speech from the principal, the parties got started and we had a variety of special performances, ranging from hip hop dances, traditional chinese orchestras, opera singing, amazing school choirs, ballet, tae-kwon-do and other martial arts, and acting, all topped off with the occasional explosion of paper fireworks and blinking torches from the crowd. It was an experience not to be missed.

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The students eagerly awaiting the start of the show, and the principals speech

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The night's hosts

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My Birthday

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After all the excitement from Christmas, then New Year, finally finishing giving all my middle school students each an oral exam, and then teaching make up preschool classes, I was absolutely shattered by the time my birthday approached in mid-January. My friend, Luke's, birthday is the day after mine, so we decided to join forces and have a nice meal with our friends the weekend before, as most of our friends live outside the city. We had a lovely Indonesian Meal, that has a great selection of veggie food, and some very nice wine before we ventured to some Chinese style bars for a cocktail. It was lovely spending this time with such great people- we will all have a lot of shared memories from this holiday season.

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The following week, my birthday time was filled by 3 and 5 year old children, as I had my open class for the parents to come and watch in the evening (the rest of the day was stressing for what was to come!). After a few hours spent with parents, who I cannot communicate with, while trying to impress them with the English that I have taught their children (and secretly hoping to god that the children would behave and magically come out with the right English words to impress their parents!!) then I was free to relax for the night. Roger very kindly cooked me pancakes for dinner, and I used my new cocktail shaker to enjoy some cocktails with Roger and Amy. This celebration was also mixed with a goodbye party for Amy as she sadly returned back to Scotland :(

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On a sidenote, the open classes were successful, as far as I could tell, and my 3 year olds even remember how to answer 'What is your name?'. Most days, they say 'My name is......' and never fully complete this sentence. But their birthday present to me was showing off to their parents that they knew how to say what there name is. Hallelujah!! A moment to remember was when I pulled a parent up from the crowds and asked 'Whose mommy is this?'. When one child came running up, I assumed that it was her mother until the other parents corrected the child. When I went searching for the other child's mommy, all 30 kids thought that was the signal to find their mom's and give them a hug. So the class went wild... but at least they got to show off that they knew who 'mommy' was! Meanwhile my big class (AKA the 5 year olds) showed off their 'I want sandwich please, how much does it cost? 2 dollars. OK' in a store setup. The parents loved it!)

Posted by Anna1289 05:03 Archived in China Tagged holidays Comments (0)

Hello Hong Kong!

A break from Chinese culture

sunny 24 °C

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As we've had some visa issues since arriving in China, we were sent to Hong Kong for 48 hours to get a different visa. Luckily for me, Hong Kong is only 3 1/2 hours on a bus from Guangzhou. It's a bit of a treck getting there as you have to get off the bus when you get to Shenzhen (which is a special economic zone) and do a bag check and officially 'leave china', and then you get back on the bus, and drive over a bridge... some people actually just walk this... and you go through another security check allowing you to arrive into Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong the surrounding area changes drastically from city-industrial into what reminded me of the Lake District in northern England. There was finally some space that wasn't built up. That only lasted about 20 minutes on a bus until we came skirting round the edge of a mountain on a very fast bus, and we caught sight of loads of bridges and enormously tall buildings... Hello Hong Kong!

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The first thing I noticed when we piled out of the bus were that people were actually going somewhere. That sounds strange, but in Guangzhou, people kinda meander around, or sit on the streets in the neighbourhoods. There isn't any real urgency, and deffinately not that 'Official Business' vibe that Hong Kong gives out. And when people are going somewhere, like at rush hour in the metro... it is CHAOS. Looking down the road in Hong Kong at all the covered pedestrian bridges, everyone looked like little ants, in business attire, walking in an organised fashion to their next meeting. It took me back to the London culture where everyone is going somewhere, and everyone is a 'no one', invisible to the passer-byers.

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It came as a great surprise when I went into a cafe, and the menu was in English! I wasn't sure at first whether I could speak English to the waiter, but I soon realised that it is a given in Hong Kong that most people do speak English. It was also great to be part of the cafe culture again. Sitting in cafe's with friends, or going to read a book and watch the world go by is one of my favourite things to do. I didn't realise this about myself before I came to Guangzhou, where there is a severe lack of this type of culture. But in Hong Kong there are lots of cafes! And along with the cafe's comes excellent coffee. I've really got accustomed to drinking tea rather than coffee... that was until I visited Hong Kong and my taste for coffee was renewed! Due to these coffee cravings, I have become a more regular of McDonald's cafe (I am ashamed to say... but where else can I find a cup of warm coffee??!). Fortunately for me, they do free refills when you bring your cup back. Unfortunately for me, McDonald's outsmarted me when the seam of my cup broke after 6 refills.

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M&S also have stores in Hong Kong, along with many other western stores. Their prices, though, are the same as what you'd get in the west, so unfortunately it would pretty much out of my price range with my local salary! When I was walking around inside, though, I honestly felt like I could be back in England. Instead of 'spot the foreigner', like in Guangzhou, it was more like 'spot the Chinese person' as they were greatly outnumbered by foreign people. It made a nice change walking down the street without being starred and pointed at all the time. I actually felt like I fit in again!! But I have to say that it did feel like home when I got back to Guangzhou's metro's and everyone in the carriage stopped talking to stare at the group of foreigners. Ni Hao [hello] Guangzhou :D

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Posted by Anna1289 01:56 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

Guinea pigs in pink dresses

And other Chinese oddities from daily life

overcast 20 °C

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Recently I went to the IKEA in Guangzhou (yes, IKEA has made it to China! And yes it sells all the same stuff!), and when I sat down on this amazingly comfy mattress, I remembered what I had left behind at home. Ok, so I know not all beds are that comfy. But the point being that when I first got to Beijing, I remember flinging myself on to the hotel bed after a monsterously long journey, and instead of sinking into a nice soft cushion, it was like hitting a rock. I thought it was really strange and probably just a cheap bed to begin with, but now I don't question the rock solid bed that I, nor anyone else, has. It's little things like that, that every once in a while, I take a step back and I can really appreciate these oddities. Like, I've become totally accustomed to the fact that all water that comes out of taps are cold. So that means washing my face in cold water, and doing the dishes in cold water aswell. The only way to get warm water here is to boil it on the hot plate. It used to drive me insane, but now its just normality.

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A little cat on the wall outside my flat

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The new statue put up in the 'park' across the road from my flat. I call this the 'big dog meeting place' because the few people with golden retrievers all seem to meet up here everyday. You can see my flat in the background with the red roof. I'm on the 4th floor

One thing I still find really bizarre is when I see people walking around with little chickadee type birds in little old-fashioned cages. I used to think that they had just bought the birds and were bringing them home. But I've since learned that actually they are taking the birds on walks. I've witnessed the same with fish in tanks! They really don't understand the concept of going for 'walks' here. Like when they put little dogs into a pram and push them along... on their 'dog walk'. As if that will tire them out!! Or when they walk around with their little puggles in a pink button up jacket (I kid you not) in their arms. Or, they try and sell guinea pigs by putting little pink dresses on them (See the top picture). It's as if they humanise their animals, and haven't really grasped the concept of having a pet. It's either FOOD or HUMAN and their seems to be no in between.

While I'm talking about Guinea pigs.... One of Roger's students had a pet guinea pig, but his parents told him that he loved it too much and didn't spend enough time on homework. So the solution to this problem was to bring the little guinea to Baiyun Mountain, the 'mountain' in the middle of Guangzhou, which is completely commercialised but the closest Guangzhou has to nature, and to set it free. Yep, set it free... on Baiyun Mountain.

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A line of shops near me on the main road through Guangzhou, called Zhongshan Lu

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Ginger laid out for sale in the smaller, typical streets of Guangzhou

Most of the parks and things here don't really have 'nature' like we see it in western countries. A friend of mine recently went to 'the biggest waterfall in Asia', in Guangdong province. While she was there she noticed all sorts of suspicious looking pipes, but passed it off as being part of all the construction work in China. She was told that it's not really well known to people outside of Guangdong, so when she got home she looked it up, and who would've guessed... that's right, the highest waterfall in Asia is man made. They actually pipe water to the top of a man made waterfall! And this is what they call nature! When Roger was on a school trip, they went to a lake, which all the other people thought was amazingly beautiful and pure nature. Roger pointed out that actually it was man made, as said the sign which was in English and in Chinese, but the other people refused to believe that it could be man made, 'of course it isn't! this is Guangdong's largest lake! It has always been here' they said. And when Roger asked what would've happened to all of the houses in the valley, they said 'no one lived here! it was all nature'... ignoring the little bits of villages left on the shore and sticking out of the water!! Talking about rivers and lakes... while I was in Conghua at the hot springs recently, I passed by a man sat in the river, on a plastic deck chair in water up to his chest fishing. Normally I wouldn't have really noticed this, but just before that I had seen a man driving along on his motorbike with his right leg stuck out pushing a woman on a bicycle so she didn't have to peddle. Ohhhh China.

Motor bikes here are great fun, actually. Although they have recently been banned in central guangzhou, where I live, they haven't been banned where Roger lives so we take 3 Yuan motorcycle rides from the metro station to Roger's school. They drive on side walks, dodging people, and on the wrong side of the road frequently. But it's always a thrill! And we get to his school remarkably faster than walking :) While motorcycles are banned, they have recently made an odd-even license plate rule to clear up traffic: only cars with odd numbered license plates can drive on odd dates, and even numbers on even dates. So today, being the 21st of December, only the odd cards could drive. Many rich families have dealt with this by buying two cars. Our school has invested in a second van with an 'even' license plate to counter that of the 'odd' plated van they already had.

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Playing ping pong and badminton in the typical street neighbourhoods

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Kids playing badminton, with a garden fenced in with bamboo

Although I think it's really strange, I'm glad that the people are trying to do something about the pollution problem in the city. Since the Asian games have ended, the pollution seems to have come back at full force. The back of my throat sometimes seems to be burning on the bad pollution days. Adding to this horrible air people are always breathing, I've heard that cigarette's here are 3 times more potent than cigarettes at home. It's men here that smoke, not women, and they smoke anywhere and everywhere!

So that's my update on the oddities in China. I've just finished a lesson with my newest pupil.... a 2 1/2 year old little boy called Lu Lu, who loves flags and national anthems (I think he's a born politician)... so I'm going to go relax in front of the TV on my wooden couch with a cup of Oolong Tea, to the strange commercials that advertise new ports and cities in China, rather than tasty cereals like the adverts we get at home, then I'll wash my face in the cold tap water, and go to sleep on my hard-as-a-rock bed.

Zai Jian!

Posted by Anna1289 04:52 Archived in China Comments (0)

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