A Travellerspoint blog

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Off the Beaten Track........

sunny 31 °C
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I originally hadn't planned on visiting this town – indeed I had never even heard about the place but a few guys I met in Hanoi were planning on visiting the place so I decided to travel out with them. What a great decision that turned out to be. The place was a fantastic find and was completely off the beaten track and devoid of tourists!

We had gotten a bus to the town which we believed was going to Ninh Binh. It turned out it wasn't and was only going near the town. We were dumped on the side of the road but with vehement assurances that the town centre was only 1km away. Armed with this information we proceeded to walk towards the town. After about 2km we realised the bus driver was either a lying b*stard or else had no sense of distance. We began asking people on the side of the road how far and it seemed we had another 8km or so to go. This wasn't good news as it was hot and we were all lugging heavy rucksacks. When asking for directions as this motor bike repair shed we basically asked was there any chance of a lift in their bike contraption out the form. This cued much laughter until he realised we were serious. Next thing we know we have a crowd forming about us as we are piling onto the tiny vehicle.
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The funniest point was went the tiny plastic chairs appeared from nowhere for us to sit on. To be honest I think the chairs made it slightly more dangerous but it was a nice touch. Anyway we rocked into Ninh Binh crammed in the back of this tiny motor bike. We garnered lots of waves, car horns and plenty of smiles. We certainly were a unusual sight in Ninh Binh :-)!

Now while the town of Ninh Binh itself is devoid of anything to do just outside the town was a wealth of sights and activities. We hired some motor bikes and headed out into the countryside and so into some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. It was simply amazing to cruise around tiny back roads in the countryside bathed by beautiful sunshine (thankfully we left the humidity of Hanoi behind) and not see a western face all day! We really got off the beaten track and saw some amazing scenery. The first place we arrived to was Tam Coc. This was actually like halong bay but on rice paddies rather than water. We got onto a small boat and were rowed up a tiny river through huge limestone karsts. We actually even paddled through 70 metre long caves under this huge karsts which was quite an experience.
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We also took a hike up one of this limestone monsters which afforded us magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.

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On our second day we headed out on our bikes again and visited some old temples and tombs of the old Vietnamese kings. Once of the more interesting places we arrived into was Kahn Geh which is a tiny fishing village. What is particularly unique about the place is the fact that the major of the village is on water. It essentially floats – apparently the villagers spent the vast majority of their time on the river! The other novel feature is the fact that they row their small boats using their feet – I've never seen that before! All this info was cobbled together from a mixture of pidgin English, French and sign language. It was amazing to get away from all the tourist traps and really get out to see Vietnamese people going about their lives. It was a cool experience without a shadow of a doubt. We also visited Da Long which is the largest wet lands in Vietnam. Once again we clamoured aboard traditional canoes and were rowed up (using only feet again !!!) through through the wetlands which each turn presenting us with a view more beautiful than the last.

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It really is a county blessed with and amazing landscape! Ninh Binh and the amazing countryside in its environs was an unexpected bonus. A fantastic detour off the beaten track :-)!

Posted by ronanm32 10:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Hanoi, Vietnam

Goooooooooooooooooood Morning Vietnam

sunny 36 °C

Well after a quick visit to Kuala Lumpur I arrived in Hanoi Vietnam. The first thing that hit me was the wall of dead heat. The place is an absolute furnace! The heat, the humidity and the new surroundings certainly ensured I endured a bit of a culture shock. After getting my head around the crazy money I entered the gauntlet of guys offering lifts into the city and negotiated a fair price. Despite all my questions and sign language I got on the bus not really knowing where exactly I would be dropped off but it's the journey not the destination I suppose. Anyway a 45 minute drive I was dropped deep in the old quarter of Hanoi and I proceeded to find a bed for the night.

I have to say I love Hanoi. It's a crazy frenetic city that has a really vibrancy about the place. It's obviously quite Asian in appearance and character but the old French colonial architecture has left a prominent mark. This made the old quarter full of character which I really liked. This was in stark contrast to say China where they are tearing down all the old style buildings and replacing them with modern concrete buildings which makes for rather soulless cities. Once again the traffic situation made from some hairy moments when crossing the road due to the hundreds of motorbikes. However once you realise that all you have to do is walk slow and steady through the traffic and that the bikes will weave around you everything is fine. I barely look at the traffic now and just walk across the road as the traffic weaves its way around me – all you have to do is avoid sudden changes in speed or direction!

As regards sight seeing in the city I completed my triple crown of embalmed dictators by visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. On this trip I have now visited the preserved remains of Lenin, Mao and Ho Chin Minh – Jackpot! The other interesting place I visited was Hoi La prison. This was the prison where all the Vietnamese political prisoners were held by the French during their occupation. The Vietnamese don't hold any punches in their descriptions of the torture and brutality that was endured in prison. Graphic pictures are shown of torture victims and of the remains of victims of the guillotine. This prison became known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by the USAF pilots who were imprisoned here during the Vietnam War. John McCain was probably the most famous prisoner of that group and there were lots of photos of him, indeed there were photos of him being dragged out of the lake in Hanoi after being shot down and his flight suit was also on display. The displays for this era really stress how well the US prisoners were treated and there are lots of picture of them having Christmas dinner, playing basketball and enjoying various activities. This is why I love history as there are many ways of looking at the same events. I know that John McCain can't lift his arms above his shoulder due to the torture he endured during captivity and that he attempted suicide twice! Which side is the truth and which is fabricated propaganda? Just goes to show you that you should never take information you read as verbatim and should always try to confirm your facts and do lots of crossing checking before forming your opinions!

Indeed I enjoyed Hanoi so much that I stayed much longer than I had intended. I met so many characters and had so many fun experiences and so many great nights out that I thought I'd never leave! To be honest Hanoi was like a bit of a black hole. There was a crew of people that I met that seemed to just be hanging around Hanoi indefinitely. It was great fun though!

The absolute highlight of my time in Hanoi was the trip to Halong Bay. This natural wonder is a spectacular sight that is truly breathtaking.
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The entire bay is covered in large limescale rocks that seems to erupt out of the calm waters and make for an incredible backdrop. I went out on a large junker into the bay and stayed for two days and one night. I went kayaking, visited some spectacular caves
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, went swimming off the side of the boat and enjoyed a few colds beers watching a picture perfect sunset! You have to love travelling!

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P.S. Updates are going to be more sporadic due to internet connections in SE Asia

Posted by ronanm32 02:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Japan

Some thoughts...........

sunny 22 °C
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Having been in Japan for over two weeks and having travelling to a few different places I've formed a few thoughts about the place. In some ways it is quite familiar to a one used to the Western style of living but yet it is so so different.

It is possibly the 1st country where traffic signals are obeyed and pedestrians are not viewed like potential targets. Indeed I've on many occasions here had cars slow as they rounded a corner and wave me across the road infront of them. In China for instance I'd be rolling off the car's bonnet if I wasn't alert enough in a similar instance!

They also don't do Jay walking. There might be nothing coming in either direction but they'll patiently wait until the signal tells them to walk. They are shocked as they see me stride purposefully across the road, especially if I weave around a car. There have been occasions that a group of us have ignored the singles and have strided across the road leaving Japanese people actually pointing at us as we crossed and I assume discussing our outrageous actions. They don't take risks in this country at all.

I've learnt you never ever ever go to the second floor of a shop. It will only end in disaster! You can enter a book store and all is fine and normal then without warning the tone of the material changes very quickly and you are surrounding by anime porn of the most graphic type. On one occasion I went upstairs in a book store and suddenly found myself surrounded by gay anime porn. Of course the down escalator was no where to be seen and in a scene reminiscent of Fr. Ted in Ireland's largest lingerie store I found myself on a desperate escape mission to find the exit.

If you are thinking about looking at some DVDs go to a bookstore not a DVD store! You're more likely to find “Saving Ryan's Privates” in the DVD store rather than “Saving Private Ryan”! They are very comfortable with porn in this country. It's not uncommon that you see your average salary man on a train perusing through material that was banned in Ireland upto 20 years ago without a care in the world as to who sees him.

The entering of any shop is greeting by a chorus of greetings from all the shop assistants. Then they proceed with a long monologue which flies right over my head. I assume the are describing every item I've purchased and how much it costs. It's doesn't sound so bad as its all in Japanese and thus incomprehensible to me. I wonder how weird it would be to enter your local spar to a chorus of hellos from all the staff in turn and have the girl at the till describe everything you buy and the cost as she swipes the items through the scanner – disconcerting I would think!

The transport system is simply unbelievable. The Shinkansen bullet trains travel at over 200km an hour so a journey 900km can be completed in about 4 hours. The trains leave and arrive to the second on when they claim and the network is so extensive that you can pretty much get anywhere in the country with the greatest of ease. It's so funny to compare the Irish and Japanese rail systems. In Ireland the 10:26 train to Dublin essentially means a train might leave in or around half ten and will get to Dublin in about 2 hours ish. Compare that to Japan where there is a 10:26 and and 10:27 train and you know that you'll arrive at 12:02 at your destination. It's just so god damn efficient here!

The other difference is that no matter how full the train is (and they can get VERY full) the Japanese will not make eye contact with anyone else on the train. Everyone on the train just focuses on their phones. Sometimes I believe that people sitting on the train together are texting each other just to avoid making eye contact. There was one time on the train I was getting really freaked as the guy opposite me was staring at me constantly. I mean he wouldn't take his eyes off me. I was getting really disconcerted and didn't know where to look – this doesn't happen in curious Ireland never mind repressed Japan! Thankfully after a few minutes I realised he wasn't staring at me – he was fast asleep with his eyes open! I then spent the rest of the journey freaked out by the guy who could fall asleep with his eyes open!

Ah Japan – a truly unique country and culture!

Posted by ronanm32 19:30 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Tokyo, Japan

City of Blinding Lights

sunny 25 °C
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Whoa, I've seen big cities but Tokyo is in a league of its own. The transport network alone is phenomenal if a little confusing at times. The interconnected railways and different subway systems all give a mind boggling array of options for getting around the vast urban area. That said it's still amazing that it shuts down at midnight so like Cinderella if you aren't at home by midnight you're going to find yourself in a bit of trouble!

My first night out in Tokyo I headed into the Shibuya area. You mightn't recognise the name but you might have seen the famous 4 way crossing on various films filmed in Tokyo. On a pedestrian green all sides are allowed to cross which sparks an organised frenzy as all sides meld into a single flock.

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It's weird to see from above – it's like watching a nature documentary where a swarm of bees or a flock of birds move as if a single entity. It's even more fun to be apart of especially as if act if you have no aim but instead just weave your way through the throngs changing direction several times.

Naturally we stayed out all night and got the dawn run train home as finishing the night early at 12 wasn't really an option :-).
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Since we were up that early we also called into the famous fish market of Tokyo. This is where all the fish that were caught over the previous day are sold at auction and then distributed all over the city. It's fast and frenetic and if you are there around eight in the morning you'll have missed everything!

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Tokyo is a colossal urban area but yet there aren't a lot of “must see” sights in the city. The city itself is the attraction. You really just wander through the various areas and let yourself get wrapped up in the frenetic nature of the city decorated by the glowing lights and flashing neon signs. The city itself is slightly familiar in that is a large city much like you'd have seen around the world with all the common westerns touches. However in reality the place is like no western city and is different to anything I had ever experienced.

One of the more unique areas of the city is certainly the people watching! There is no better place to people watch in Tokyo than in Yoyogi park on a Sunday afternoon. You see it all in this park from extreme goths to “hello Kitty” girls to dancing elvises right down to the more mundane but more normal such as Tokyoites having picnics, playing baseball and practicing juggling.

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It's an amazing city – weird, wild, wacky and utterly wonderful. That said though I'm glad I'm leaving the cities behind at this point. I've done a lot of walking in large cities and I'm a little tired of urban landscapes. I'm looking forward to enjoying the more relaxed pace of life of the beaches and jungles in South East Asia!

Posted by ronanm32 23:26 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Hiroshima, Japan

Ground Zero for the world's 1st Atom bomb

sunny 25 °C
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I was not going to visit Japan without visiting the sites of one the globes most defining events – that being the location of where the world entered the nuclear age with a devastating and catastrophic moment of destruction.

They city is completely redeveloped from the devastation wreaked by “Little Boy” (so named as it was manufactured a lot smaller in length that it was designed – goddamn engineers can't get anything right ;-) ). All that remains to remind the world of the bomb is the large peace park in the centre of the city right at the epicentre of the blast. The A-bomb dome is the only building still standing from the blast. It wasn't destroyed as it was at the epi – centre of the blast.

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Every other building within a 2km radiuos was instantly levelled and all combustible materials were vapourised within the 3 second period after the blast where temperatures at ground level reached 3000 degrees Celsius. While I would have previously known alot of the details from the incident I still learnt a huge amount from the fascinated museum. It was so well laid out and very informative that I would rank it as one of the best museums I've seen on this trip. Everyone who visited commented on it and at the hostel the museum and its exhibits sparked many conversations. Like a visit to the site of a Nazi concentration camp you can't visit the A-bomb memorials without being affected in some way.

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Of particular interest to me were the US military letters and memos related to the choice of target cities. The selection criteria was just so scientific and all references to dropping the bomb were so clinical and detached. It was just another experiment, very little thought was given to the fact that tens of thousands of people were to be killed in an incident and hundreds or thousands were to be killed over the coming generations. Indeed the only dissenting voices were those who didn't want the US to be associated in future generations with such a horrendous act – PR damage limitation was how the argument came across. Thirteen cities were chosen due to their military connections, being of greater than 12km in urban radius, having no allied POW camps, having a population of over 4 miilion and of course being easy to fly to. All these 13 cities once chosen had no conventional air raids for months – the ratinoal being that there was no point dropping the A-bomb on already bombed city. The city had to be in good condition so that the true power of the new weapon could be observed. Hiroshima was the third target city on the list but on August 6th 1945, the date chosen for the 1st bomb, the weather was clear over Hiroshima and so it's fate was sealed.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of my visit to the A-bomb dome and memorial park was my conversation with an actual survivor of the event. I got chatting to this man, Mito Kosei, who is an official survivor of the atomic blast. He showed my his government card which classifies him as a survivor class 4 (he was in the womb for the blast).

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His mother was just over 3km from the epicentre of the blast. His stories about his family and the effects the bomb had on them was fascinating. His grandfather died 3 days after the blast from radiation burns and his grand mother soon after. His mother has suffered from serious cancerous diseases over the years was several times told she had weeks to live. Amazingly she is now 91, he showed me a picture of her and to be honest I look that youthful and vital at 60 I would be delighted never mind 91 and suffering from the effects of being 3km from a nuclear blast! He himself had suffered from various afflictions resulting from his proximity to the blast and he did mention he was expecting to eventually succumb to some form of cancer. It really was a fascinating conversation and one that will always make my visit to Hiroshima more memorable.H

Posted by ronanm32 21:21 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

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