Friday, 31 May 2013

Six months and Seven countries down...

So here it is, our final blog (for this trip!)! It's hard to summarise six months of your life when you have been lucky enough, as we have, to  do and see so many things! However we have tried and have had A LOT of fun doing so. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did remembering and writing it!

I love travelling when:
-I experience new sights/cultures
-I have money
-its hot, but not too hot.
-I am treated like a local
-there is air con involved 
-western travellers are at arms length
-I'm covered in 80% Deet
-Something is free

I hate travelling when:
-I'm being ripped off
-I'm on a bus
-Lady boys are invading our personal space. 
-underwear reversal is necessary for cleanliness 
-all of my clothes smell like mouldy sweat and insect repelant
-there are more deadly animals per square km than people! 
-We can't eat for three days due to paying entrance fees 

Our 'ewwww' moments!:
-Female Communal squat toilets 
-Most toilets in Asia
-Eating pigs trotter and chickens blood soup
-When someone tried to convince us Milo was the same as hot chocolate

Best Journey: 
-Cruising Hanoi daily on our own motorbike. 
- Cruising Ha Long Bay on a traditional junk boat
- Sailing around the Whitsunday's on a tall ship

Worst journey:
-26 hour bus between Vientiane and Hanoi
-2am flight from Melbourne to Cairns that landed at 4am

I almost cried when:
-(Alec) someone told me I looked like Wayne Rooney 
-(Alec) I confronted a deadly animal inches from our tent.

I laughed so hard when:
-(Emma) someone told Alec he looked like Wayne Rooney 
-(Emma) The "deadly animal" that Alec confronted turned out to be my toiletries bag. 

Emma's most annoying habit:
-moulting hair everywhere 

Alec's most annoying habit:
-having sneezes that register on the richter scale. 

I saw my life flash before my eyes when: 
-We jumped out of a plane at 15000ft!

Longest time we went without washing clothes:
-Too long... 

Favourite travel songs:
-A pub with no beer - Slim Dusty 
-Les Miserables-Any

Most painful moment:
-(Alec) breaking my toe during a Vietnamese football training session (and ignoring rest/ice procedure) 
-(Emma) jumping out of a plane at 15000ft with a cold.

Things we miss about home:
-A bed with springs 
-(Alec) Mums Sunday Roast
-(Emma) Mums Shepherds Pie
-A currency we understand 
-Fixed pricing 
-Limited ladyboys

Things that we think should be brought back to the UK:
-Hanoi's Bun Bo Nam Bo
-Hanoi's Bun Cha
-Queenstown's fergburgers!!
-Lemon Ice Tea
-Kangaroo steak
-Kangaroo/buffalo jerky 

A few places we want to go back too:
-New Zealand (all of it again!)
-Vietnam (south)
-Australia (west coast)

Countries we could live in:
-New Zealand

The last six months have been some of the best times in my life! I've scaled volcanos, crawled through caves, jumped from planes, snorkelled 'THE' reef, kayaked fjordlands, partaken in a foreign wedding, lived like a local and made new friends around the world, to name a few! We have done some really amazing things and even day to day things have been a new experience. It's hard to explain a lot of the small things that ill remember so I'm glad that I have someone to turn around to and say 'hey remember that time when...'! And while I haven't yet arrived back from this trip, I am already thinking about the next one...!

6 months, 7 countries and 9 flights later and we are heading home! Emma is right in saying that we have done some truly amazing things in that time. Some of them we had planned to do (Skydive), and some of them were spontaneous (teaching English in Hanoi). All of them (even the inevitable lows!) have been so worthwhile, and we are finishing this chapter just about ready to go onto the next. I hope this blog has provided some mild entertainment since last Dec and thanks to everyone who has read it. (Especially all of the unusual traffic we have been getting through Russia and China-we don't think we know you, but enjoy!) 

Well there you have it folks, we leave tonight at 21:15hrs and land tomorrow at Heathrow at 1900hrs, see you all soon!!

Love Emma and Alec!!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Volunteering in Vietnam: Our Last Week!

Our final week in Vietnam was jam-packed with activities! After a week of riding around on a moped following the helmet of others we decided it was time to venture out onto the Hanoi streets on our own. We decided to take it easy for our first alone trip and we headed for the quieter roads around west lake. We had a lovely afternoon riding around and stoping for lemon ice tea, and more to the point, our confidence driving the moped grew.

So, over the next week, with our new found driving/dodging abilities,we ventured out to visit several places that took our fancy.

Our first stop was the Vietnam Military History Museum. We wandered around looking at the different exhibitions, dates ranging from the 1600's to modern day. One of the larger exhibitions, which we found particularly interesting, was about what we call the 'Vietnam War', but they call 'the American War'. It was very interesting to see how the Vietnamese Government portrayed the events that happened between 1954-75!

Another place we visited was the Hoa Lo Prison. The Hỏa Lò Prison was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. It was sarcastically known to American prisoners of war as the "Hanoi Hilton". Again it was interesting to see the differences in Vietnamese accounts of how the prisoners were treated during their time there.

Our final weekend in Vietnam was spent in style, we decided to spend a bit of our cash on an organised cruise around Ha long bay, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world!

We did look into making the trip a bit cheaper by doing it on our own. However at the end of day it was nice to have all of our transportation and accommodation sorted! And the best bit... We would we sleeping on the boat!

The cruise turned out to be everything we hoped for,and more! Having booked and paid for the 'backpacker' tour, we were surprised to find that when we turned up we had been bumped up to the 'luxury' tour! Apparently the backpacker one was fully booked!! 

Our luxury boat pulled away from main land Vietnam and we started off on our adventure to see the sights of Ha long bay! Our first stop was 'Surprising Cave'. A cave that went deep into the side of one of the famous islands of Ha Long Bay. The cave found its name when it was officially discovered in the 90's by tourists who squeezed through a tight corridor to find an impressively (surprisingly) sized room leading to even more impressively sized rooms. It was very interesting to wander around and I hope the pictures do the size of the cave justice.

We spent the next few days around Ha long bay kayaking (only once though as all the kayaks were quite dilapidated and most had holes in!!), eating freshly caught sea food and just chilling out on the beaches of all of the different islands. Actually the weather was so hot (40 degrees) that we spent most of our time in the sea. Luckily our room on the boat had air con! We also managed to fit in a few jumps off the roof of the junk boat (three stories high)!!!

One of the last things that was organised for us to do was visit a pearl farm (this was only on the 'luxury' itinerary as they expected you to buy something at the end)! It was interesting to see how pearls are formed naturally and how they can be engineered by the farm. We also learnt how a pearl becomes a different colour naturally and, again, how you can engineer a pearl to be the colour of your choosing. It was also interesting to see the thousands and thousands of clams in nets, and to estimate how much money laid just inches away under the surface of the water. Apparently though, pearl farming isn't as lucrative as it seems. Only one clam out of ten successfully takes to the sediment inserted to turn it into a pearl. Nightmare. 

During the tour of the farm we even got to choose a clam to cut open (from the matured net) to see for ourself if we hit the jack pot! Unfortunately you didn't get to keep your prize if you did! 

Both Alec and I picked a clam with a pearl inside! However not many other people did! We were lucky, but we pushed the luck we did have when we tried to convince the farmers of 'finders, keepers'! They were having none of it!

Returning on the Sunday evening from our trip we were told that the students had organised a leaving party for us! We had just enough time to pack our backpacks ready for the early morning flight to Bangkok (ready for our week of sun, sea and sand) before 15 or so of them arrived to take us out! We went out for dinner at the local stall and had the famous Bun Bo Nam Bo, our FAVOURITE meal in Vietnam! Then we rounded it off with few Iced chocolates down the road in the local coffee shop! All in all it was a lovely way to say goodbye! 

Goodbye Vietnam, goodbye students, but most of all, goodbye new friends. 

We expect our next blog will be our last :(, however we will be summing up the last six months in style and hope to provide you with a last ditch attempt of entertainment.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Volunteering In Vietnam Week 3

Having had an eventful 2 weeks in Vietnam so far, we were eager to find out what random places week 3 would take us to! 

First stop, Bat Trang Pottery Village. This was literally a village of pottery on the outskirts of Hanoi. A couple of our students fancied showing us around, and what a great day out it was. Firstly we tried our hand in some pottery making/moulding/destruction, after a quick lesson from a show off local! He had 'skills to pay the bills', seemingly moulding anything he wished at ease, without looking, with one hand. For us, this was more like a scene from 'Dumb and Dumber' than anything resembling the film 'Ghost'! 

After painting our perfectly moulded wine glasses (that we had 'no' help with at all) we set about perusing the rest of the village and finally resting next to a nice big bowl of Bun Cha. 

Bat Trang was a nice day away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, and the seemingly effortless skill of the craftspeople was actually really fascinating! 

The next day in between teaching English and teaching swimming, we found some time to prepare 40 home made spring rolls. Luckily, our students took us to the market for the ingredients and we were amazed at how little we paid. The whole batch did not cost any more than £2!! Unbelievable scenes... 

Standby for our expert Spring Roll making when we return. Sadly, I can't see Tesco being as generous with their pricing, or open to as much haggling... We'll see! 

This had been a pretty great start to our week. Perhaps most excitingly, Emma had learnt (from Tuay) how to do some sort of crazy hair construction. I'm reliably informed that its called a fish-tail plait. As you can tell I'm over the moon with this development, maybe ill grow my hair. :P

We were really starting to settle in to living in Hanoi by this point, and the city became less of a tourist attraction and stop over, and more of a home. The natural progression from this was to scope out the nearest Cinema! As a bonus, we were pleasantly surprised to learn of the £2-3 price tag for 'Iron Man 3'. Not only is this very cheap by our standards, but it is also economically rational to watch as many films as possible in Hanoi before returning to the UK!! 'Olympus has Fallen' followed shortly. 

Parking our motorbike outside of the cinema, the 'parking attendant'/man sitting on the curb tried to charge us 20,000 VND (60p) for the day. Pah! He must have thought we were tourists! After handing over the correct 5000 VND (16p) we walked away very happy at not being ripped off for once. It was such a great decision to volunteer! 

As you can imagine, whilst we have been in Hanoi, we have sampled a plethora of local delights. Bun Bo Nam Bo, Bun Cha, and Mien Tron rate highly, but what we had on the next day that week hit rock bottom, and hit it hard. The name is still unclear (we think 'Bun Bo Hue') and so are its contents. Our friend Kwa, and her friend were reluctant to give away the details. Pigs trotter we worked out for ourselves ("it tastes like feet!"), and congealed lumps of chicken blood they helped us with. We figured that if they told us that one, there were much more questionable ingredients in there too! They found it hilarious that we wouldn't eat Chicken Blood. :| in theory, we would eat most things, but you should have seen it!! 

Other highlights from week 3 include a visit to the HCM Mausoleum, and the leaders old house and grounds. We also got invited to a local teams football training. We weren't exactly the Wayne Rooney's they were expecting but I think we held our own. It was a great experience, and I may have broken my toe, but that will fix! Hopefully in time for some dancing at my brothers wedding in June! 

Over and out for now. Enjoy some photos. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Volunteering in Vietnam Week Two

During the second week of our time in Vietnam we experienced things that normally one never gets to see and do while just visiting a country! We got ourselves invited to a Vietnamese Wedding, we stayed in a traditional village mountain house (as we mentioned above), sang Karaoke with some government officials and unfortunately experienced the taste of rice wine!!

The Vietnamese Wedding was being held by Mr Son’s neighbors and it was their daughter who had just got married to a male villager whose name escapes me... Well actually I was told it but I can’t even say it, let alone spell it!! Even though we were uninvited (and basically just gatecrashed in time for the food) everyone wanted to talk to us (with Mr Son as translator) and to tell us how happy they were that we were there! Apparently we were the new couples ‘good luck charm’ as many of the guests had never seen a foreigner before and though it fate that we should turn up in time for the wedding. Well... who are we to disappoint a crowd? One thing that wasn't so great was that everyone and i mean EVERYONE wanted to toast to our arrival and this meant shots of rice wine, which isn't wine, its more like a spirit which makes you gag every time you drink it!!

After about six shots in about three minutes I decided that enough was enough, if i wanted to stay sober and stay in their good books by continuing to be the strange tall female giant then I had better not throw up on the bride!! This did upset a few at first as it is their custom for the guest to drink with everyone, however when i said i would still drink with everyone but just exchange the rice wine for traditional tea most were satisfied that i was just a weak westerner and wasn’t actually wishing them any ill health.

The party ended around 9pm and as we were heading to bed Mr Son declared the night not over yet! His friend, he told us, was a government official and wanted to invite us to an all paid for karaoke party just down the road! It was a very fun night filled with songs such as; Dancing Queen, Titanic- my heart will go on, 500 miles and Jessie’s Girl, not to mention all the Bia Hanoi Alec wanted and as much Pomegranate juice as i could drink, all for free!!

The next day the wedding party started up again at 5am, yes thats right 5am, and we had to sneak out the back door to avoid being dragged in for more hugs and rice wine shots. Mr Son headed off down the road with us following behind, again not really sure where we were going, with our backpacks packed with enough clothes for a few days. We hopped on and off buses all day until we reached a picturesque little port. It was here that we would be catching a four hour boat to Mr Son’s cousins house and staying there for the night.

Upon walking towards sed boat we stopped to take in our surroundings and take a few photos. At which point Alec and I heard a horrendous creaking and screaching sound. We quickly located the sound to be coming from one of the long boats that was moored up along the pier and within a split second the rear end of the boat sank straight down into the murky water. The front end lifted straight upwards and dramatically followed the first half of the boat! Within 10 seconds the whole boat was submerged and there was nothing left but bubbles.

Our mouths just fell open, we couldn’t take our eyes away from the scene that we had just witnessed, then as things started floating up to the surface we realised what had just happened. We started running towards where the boat had gone under while shouting to the ‘local’ who seemed to be in charge of the boats, what if someone had been on that boat? Everyone stared at us like we were aliens, yes everyone else had seen it too but no, no-one else was bothered. Mr Son explained that apparently it happens quite regularly as the bad storms fill up the small tin boats with water and after awhile they just can’t take the weight. “They will just pull it back up again and empty it, the boat will be fine in a few days, ready to be used again!” “Not by us” I muttered to Alec as we prepared to climb into an exact replica of the boat we had just watched sink. As you can imagine we sat right at the front of that boat and where a little on edge the whole journey.

When we reached our journeys end we had arrived in the heart of the mountains and after a short but steep walk we reached the traditional mountain house that can be seen in our pictures! It was definitely an experience, sleeping in a wooden house while a thunder and lightning storm raged outside! The whole house shook and swayed and at one point the lightning was so strong that it lit up the little cubby hole where we were sleeping. We slept on whicker mats, as is traditional in these houses. Throughout the whole house they only had one electrical light and that was used to eat dinner. The shower we used was outside, in its own little hut, and was a bucket filled with cold water which was used to pour over your self. The toilet too, was outside, had its own hut and was right down at the end of the garden. Its safe to say that after we had used it once, we didn’t use it again.

The time we spent with the local mountain family, consisting of the parents, their three sons and their spouses, was such a cultural experience. Watching the women cook on an open flame and making lovely meals of vegetables and rice while the men prepared their catch of the day, caught from the river we arrived on. One dish, we did try, but that didn’t make our top ten was the fresh pig’s intestine that had been boiled whole and looked like a horror movie on a plate.

Overall I’d say that our Vietnamese Liberation Holiday was quite eventful and that we took full advantage of the opportunities that were put in front of us. Hopefully the photos will do our experiences justice.

Ps On our way back through the pier where the boat sank we saw the locals dredging the boat from the river bed surface, we couldn't believe it! In fact we were so amazed at what they were doing we stopped and watched for 30 mins until the whole boat was once again above the water! We have included photos for those who don't believe us! 

"You are the Dancing Queeeeeeen, Young and sweet, only seventeeeeeen"

Dredging the sunken boat...

This was our bed while staying in the mountains!

Traditional Cooking!

Volunteering In Vietnam

We have been in Ha Noi for two weeks now, however, we have packed so much into the last two weeks that we decided to break up the blog and post it a week at a time. The first week was jam packed full of outings arranged by the new friends we have made in Ha Noi!

I will start by talking about what we are currently doing in Ha Noi. As you know we decided to do a bit of volunteering and decided the capital of Vietnam was the perfect place to do so. We currently teach English to 17-25 year olds for two or three hours everyday and occasionally help out in 3-6 yr old English lessons in the local primary school. We have found it to be a very rewarding and interesting experience and have enjoyed every minute of it. To us, it has been less like teaching and more like making new friends!

Over the last two weeks our new friends have been kind enough to show us so many places in Ha Noi. We have been so lucky to not only see the tourist spots but to have also seen the ‘real’ Ha Noi. That street that only the locals know about, or the best place for ‘Bun Cha’, how to tell which watermelon taste the best and how to bargain like a local and pay 1/10 of the price originally stated; these are all things we have been shown and taught and have very much appreciated.

Within our first week we managed to fit in:

The Old Quarter- The Old Quarter has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewellery, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations and the area is famous for its merchants, including many silk shops. We enjoy wandering around this area as its good for local food (if you have been shown by a local) however it is where most of the tourists congregate and so we often get hassled (which our Vietnamese friends always find funny)
A guided tour of Sword Lake Temple - According to the legend, emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when his magic sword, Heaven's Will, was grabbed by a turtle who quickly disappeared into the depths. All attempts to find either the sword or the turtle failed. Lợi concluded that the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) had come to reclaim the sword that it had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty.Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain stands. The temple was erected in the 18th century and honors the 13th-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in the fight against the Yuan Dynasty.

The Museum of Ethnic Minority - This museum focuses on the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Museum is divided into two parts: an indoor and an outdoor exhibition. The indoor part is composed of the exhibition building, where you can learn about all 54 of the different types of cultures that exist in Vietnam. The outdoor exhibition is group of  different types of traditional houses that belong to each ethnic group. One house in particular we were going to experience living in first hand, although we didn't know this at the time!!

Temple of Literature - The Temple of Literature is a former center of learning in Hanoi and includes the "Imperial Academy", Vietnam's first national university. The temple was built in 1070 at the time of King Lý Nhân Tông. It is one of several temples in Vietnam which are dedicated to scholars. This temple is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese đồng banknote.

Walking around West Lake - West Lake is the largest lake of the capital and was created from a curved part of Red River and appears in several Vietnamese legends. One legend suggests that West Lake was shaped after the battle between Lac Long Quan and a night-tail fox spirit and that the lake was once called "Fox Corpse Swamp". This Lake is very peaceful and is great to walk around, we have gone and sat by the lake to just have a few Lemon Ice Teas and chill out!

Dong Xuan Market -  Dong Xuan Market is the largest covered market of Hanoi where the wholesale traders sell everything from clothes, household goods to foodstuffs. We had fun wandering around here looking at all the bits and bobs that were on sale. We also enjoyed watching the locals making their daily rounds and picking up a few tips on how bargin... Basically you just NEVER pay the price the hawker tells you!!

As for our second week and our second blog, that consisted of the Vietnam Liberation Holiday. This holiday signifies the end of the Vietnam War and meant that we had 4 days off from our schedule. So including the weekend we had a total of 6 days off!! Mr Son (the head of the organisation we are volunteering for) decided he wanted to show us his home town out in the countryside. So we packed our bags and off we went, to where we are still not sure....

To Be Continued...