Christmas in Valparaiso

Last year we were staying on a piranha farm in Northern Thailand, and Christmas day actually involved a pretty gruelling Thai boxing class….This year was not to be so strenuous! This year we would be indulging in cocktails, wine, food and street art in the enigmatic city of Valparaiso, Chile.

It is the 6th largest city in the country, yet the greater Valparaiso Metropolitan Area is the second most populous, and it lies just 70 miles from Santiago. Today it is the most important port in Chile, and indeed is one of the most important South Pacific ports, but a far cry from its signifiance pre Panama Canal. In the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, earning it the names “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. All of this would change with the opening of the mighty Panama Canal-which had a huge impact on the ship traffic that Valparaiso would see, and ergo the port based economy took a heavy fall.Since then Valparaiso has reinvented itself, its myriad of mazy streets providing inspiration for artistic and cultural expression. In 2003 the historic quarter was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its improvised urban design and unique hop scotch of hillside architecture sprawling away from the coast. It’s difficult to put into words the landscape that you are faced with upon arrival, the city literally leaps from the sea and crawls up the surrounding hillsides. A series of 26 old and rickety funiculars are scattered around the city giving your legs the option to circumnavigate the steep inclines that you face at every corner! Street art meets your gaze everywhere, a lot of it breathtaking, but equally so much of the grafitti is just a collection of banal tags. This explosion of colour on the walls, combines with the crazy streets and perilously balanced buildings certainly gives the city something of an ‘edge’, especially when placed against the contrast of previous experiences in the sleepy town of EL Monte, and the modern and cosmopolitan Santiago. But this is something that the city never denies, in fact this edginess is positively embraced. Probably the best way to describe to you Valparaiso is to quote the famous Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, a hugely influential figure in Chile-and someone who had quite a magnificent home on the hillsides of Valparaiso. On visiting his home, one of the things that you have to do while visiting the city, you apprecite what an eye for design and detail that he must have had, plus the fact tht he was a bit of  party animal-with a pretty cool bar just off his living room! Wonderful art deco design features, couple with the most superb panoramic views of the quagmire of streets falling away down the hillside to the docks nestled far below-the perfect fodder for artistic inspiration I would think:

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Molly Allison-Baker)

VALPARAÍSO,
what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
hills,
that you never finish
combing.
Never
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
naked
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.

(read the full version of the translated poem here)

Christmas turned out to be a funny time to be in the city, the streets much quieter and calmer than we were expecting-as it transpired it was the perfect time to go on a tour of discovery of the balmy alleys and streets, in search of some of the much lauded graffiti that adorns the walls, roofs and passageways around the city…What you find is a myriad of amazing artwork:

I was reaching for my camera at every turn, always eyes wide open, a smile at the corners of my mouth. Valparaiso certainly isn’t a pretty city, but it is captivating!
As for Christmas day, we had rented an apartment for the festive period, so with the opportunity to use a kitchen we did what seemed most apt…..Cocktails, red wine, beer and steak and chips!

Aside from street art and steak, we travelled up the coast a little to Viña del Mar-the neighbouring seaside resort, a little bit like the younger yet more responsible sister…Which fails to charm in the same way as the gritty streets of Valpo-but would serve a purpose should you be seeking some beach time and a swanky night out!

Getting back to Valparaiso and I cannot help but feel that our experience of the city was somewhat an oddity-the Christmas period giving the whole place a much more lazy and sedate feel than the reports I hear from others. I think if you were to visit at New Year you would get an entirely different perspective-but for us a few days in our little apartment were perfect, a very Merry Christmas!

Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

Salta, La Rioja and the Talampaya Canyon

Having said our farewells to the our ‘family’ at Aldea Luna, and having the fortune to get a lift to the bus stop from Martin and Anabella, our travels resumed and we set about having a few days of tourism before our next volunteer appointment in San Rafael. The unexpected expense in Argentina being a significant factor in restricting just how much sightseeing we were going to get to do. Still, we had 5 days and so we planned to go to the picturesque town of Salta, then onto La Rioja and the Talampaya National Park.
We easily managed to get ourselves back to Jujuy bus station and then a mere two hour wait for the bus to Salta-the perfect amount of time to catch up on a little bit of internet action-and eating some meat empanadas after our month of enforced vegetarianism!

Unlike the adventures across Asia, the journeys here lack much in the way of drama or terror-we soon arrived unscathed and not in the least bit stressed in Salta, and made our way to our hostel. It was here that we were greeted by the most delightful host, with no English and our very broken beginner Spanish-it was rugby that united us! As soon as I had managed to establish the fact that I was Welsh, the smiles were unstoppable as we shared in England’s demise at the World Cup, and Argentina’s emergence as an upcoming rugby superpower-oh how they are benefitting from inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyway, I digress, as it was late we managed to organise food to be delivered to the hostel and we ate and crashed, before rising early to discover the quaint and eerily quiet streets of Salta…It took a while for us to realise that it was Sunday, and not until the following day to understand that Sundays really are rest days in Argentina. It actually turned out to be to our benefit, as we explored Argentinian street vistas uninterrupted for the first time.

One of the ‘attractions’ of the city that we had highlighted as a must visit was the MAAM Museum, which is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and the home of the ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ in the Cryopreservation Laboratory. Basically these are mummified remains of Inca children that were sacrificed to the gods on the mountains of Lullaillaco 500 years ago, and as per the altitude and hence low temperatures they are the best preserved Inca mummies that have ever been discovered.
These remains are now actually kept frozen in the afore mentioned museum, and at any given time one of the mummies is on display. While it sounds pretty macabre and potentially bad taste, the exhibition is excellent-giving a real insight into the customs of the Inca’s and the background for these ‘sacrifices’. The children that were sacrificed were believed to have been the most intelligent and attractive, often from families of high standing in the communities. Even more surprising is the fact that the children were actually left on the mountain tops while they still alive, albeit sedated with coca leaves and a maize beer, and left to die in their sleep. Surrounding the bodies a number of artefacts and other offerings were found, rich collection Incan treasures laid out assumed to be part of the sacrifice to appease the mountain gods.
On our visit the youngest of the children to be found was on display, ‘El Nino’;

The boy
His age is around seven years. He sat on a grey tunic with legs bent and his face in-resting on his knees. A blanket of brown and red half covered his head and body. Like all men of the Inca elite he wore short hair and a trim white feathers, supported by a sling wool wrapped around the head.
He is dressed in a red garment; has in his feet leather moccasins light-coloured with brown wool appliqué; It has anklets animal skin with white fur on his right wrist and wears a silver bracelet.
His fists are clenched; The face is not visible and his eyelids are half closed.

With time limited before our start date at our next volunteering project-we left Salta after a couple of nights and headed onto La Rioja, with a view to visiting the Talampaya National Park-another UNESCO World Heritage Site for us to add to our already impressive list-the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs.
Our first challenge was getting there, as on our arrival in the pleasant surroundings of La Rioja we discovered, to our dismay, that any organised trips to the canyon were going to be way over budget! The canyon being around 3 hours bus journey from La Rioja, the trips we found were coming in at over £100 each-quite significantly more than expected. Not to be put off, we eventually found a way to get there for about half that cost-local style!! Basically this involved us getting a local bus and getting them to drop us off on the main road through the desert near the entrance, and in comparison to some of the adventures we had in Asia-it all went like absolute clockwork….Although not without a fair amount of apprehension on my part obviously!

So having negotiated our way there, we soon found ourselves amongst the sheered red boulders that had fallen from the walls of the canyon around us, upon which were a gallery of 1, 000 year old rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area. The pictures ‘apparently’ depict various animals although I was pretty certain that they were more indicative of alien invaders….Riding llamas obviously!! At one point during the tour you are brought round to the botanical garden of the area where you find a huge carob tree, which is thought to be more than one thousand years old, as well as twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees.
All in all the area was absolutely spectacular, as you will see from our photo journal…

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time was up and we hit a night bus to Mendoza ready to begin our next HelpX placement in San Rafael….La Carmelita here we come!

Beautiful, and a bit barmy-Bagan

“If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.”

Having brought ourselves up to temperature in Yangon, we were set to explore the most symbolic of landscapes that Myanmar has to offer-the pagoda saturated plains of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region, from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. I would wager that when most people think of Myanmar (or Burma), then the vista of temples stretching out over Bagan’s plains would be the image that comes to the fore of their mind.
Today there are over 2000 temples remaining in the area, and not surprisingly is the main tourist hotspot for all those visiting Myanmar.

Having done a little research, we opted for the night train from Yangon to Bagan, the words of the Man in Seat 61 providing some comfort about the journey ahead:

Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses. The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who would like to travel to Bagan from Yangon, take a bus! For sure the train was an experience of sorts, but not the type of experience you expect outside of a roller-coaster at a theme park! The reassurance that we got from it being British built, was quickly dispelled when we realised that since the British built the railways, there has been next to no maintenance on the tracks. I kid you not when I say that the train felt like it was actually airborne at some points, and fellow travellers even experienced one of the carriages disconnecting during their journey. We had even opted for 1st class sleeper-but there was no chance of getting any sleep on this journey. While it was a giggle, and while the light lasted we were treated to some gorgeous countryside-it was also hard work, and so I would approach the journey with some caution!

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

Railway side footy

Railway side footy

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Shaken, rattled and rolled with the all too familiar bleary eyes, we thanked the travel gods upon our safe arrival at Bagan and looked forward to what should be another epic experience. The usual kerfuffle greeted us at the station, with the locals fully capitalising on your confusion and charging premium rates for your transportation. In addition to the taxi fee, you also get hit with a tourist tax on entry to the area, but there can be little complaint about paying to see such a magnificent spectacle.
The first thing that struck us as we ventured towards the town of Nyaung Oo was that the area was a lot more desolate than we had expected-with memories of the images of Bagan bringing up lush green pastures dotted with temples; the reality is that the trees are few and far between-especially noticeable with the temperatures once again hitting 46 degrees. It is worth noting that we arrived at the peak of the dry season though, and so perhaps the desert plains are transformed once the rainy season arrives.
On arrival we wasted little time and immediately hired one of the many electric motorbikes to get on with exploring. The heat was intense, the breeze on the bike offering little respite as it was more akin to being blasted in the face by a hairdryer! Still, we were in one of the most evocative landscapes in Asia-and so we had little cause for complaint.
There’s not really much that I can say about the plains of Bagan that cannot be communicated through the photos of the area, we spent 3 days bombing round these plains and exploring-quite superb!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Big Buddha....

Big Buddha….

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

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The intense heat definitely had its impact, we would be up and out of the hotel at 8.30AM, only to return for 11AM to hide from the sun before setting out once again to find various sunset spots. Even with our attempts at avoiding the high noon heat, the temperatures faced were still above 40 degrees each day, and with the fact that you need to remove your shoes at each temple-the soles of our feet were starting to show the impact of the blistering heat. After a while you settle into a certain style of ‘scuttle’ walk, much like someone walking over hot coals-I imagine that you could make quite a funny silent film watching people and their ungainly walks around the temples of Bagan!
After our three days of exploring it was time to move on to our next adventure, as with the experiences at Angkor and Ayutthaya, you definitely reach a certain saturation point when you see temple after temple after temple. Not that it stopped me from taking a whole load more photos….If you have the stomach for it, read on-otherwise I’ll hopefully see you again in my next post-The Road to Mandalay!

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Cat Ba and the karsts of Halong Bay

Ha Long Bay…Wikipedia ‘facts’:

Hạ Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreen biosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystem

Possibly the most iconic and well known of Vietnamese landscapes, we were set and excited to do our own exploration of Ha Long Bay. After Angkor Wat, this part of the trip was one of my most eagerly awaited sights-ever since my first encounter with Scaramanga’s Lair in The Man With The Golden Gun I have always dreamed of visiting these shored. Having perused countless blogs and travel magazines with their stories of wonder at this geological spectacle, it was now time for us to discover them for ourselves.
We had decided to go to the island of Cat Ba and explore the area from there, resisting the urge to simply organise a package trip from Hanoi and fly through someone else’s itinerary-we made our way to the superbly named Ali Baba’s and prepared for a few days of adventure.
Ali Baba’s was the top recommended guest house that we could find, with particular plaudits for the tours that were arranged by the owner. At just $5 a night with picture perfect views of the harbour from our room, initial reactions were positive to say the least , and soon we had arranged our boat trip for the next day-a tour of the islands, some kayaking, potential rock climbing and a cliff jump-it all sounded spectacular.

Not a bad view for $5 a night, I'm sure you'll agree?!

Not a bad view for $5 a night, I’m sure you’ll agree?!

Wandering around the town of Cat Ba, and it certainly seemed like we were there ‘off season’. Many of the restaurants and bars were closed, and the town had the feeling of a place treading water until the next deluge of tourists. For us this proved to be little problem, we weren’t here to party and there were enough places open to give us quite the choice on food options, but the atmosphere lacked a little.

Next morning prepped and ready for a day out on the boat, the weather was a little overcast, but nothing to grumble about, certainly considering what we’re used to in the UK! Before long we were on a bus with about another 10 people who were on the trip, everyone quite obviously keen for the off-within 30 minutes we were on the boat and away-cameras at the ready.

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Overcast conditions just add to the drama unfolding before us

Overcast conditions just add to the drama unfolding before us

First glimpses of the floating fishing village in the shadows of many karsts

First glimpses of the floating fishing village in the shadows of many karsts

The village sprawls much further than you would expect

The village sprawls much further than you would expect

First stop, the originally named Monkey Island. As you would expect, the clue is in the title and we eagerly disembarked to explore the island to see whether we could spot some of the resident primates. As is so often the case in Asia, don’t expect the route forward to be entirely clear, so we blindly followed our guide up a surprisingly challenging climb to the peak of the island. It may surprise you to know that neither Jo or I are blessed with the rock balancing ability of a mountain goat, quite the opposite. So as we took our time and made sure there were always three points of contact between the rocks and us-we were quite put to shame by those ‘more youthful’ teetering on the very summit for ‘edge of the world selfies’
Seemingly the weather had affected the monkeys, hidden away nowhere to be seen, but no bother given the stunning surrounding vistas to enjoy.

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From here a meandering tour through various karst structures dotted all around us-we were heading to an area where we could take some time out to immerse ourselves in the surrounding beauty on kayak. The views were stunning for the whole of the journey, as you’ll be able to judge from the photos:

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Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

Scenes from a postcard pass on either side as our voyage begins

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Excitedly we gallop down the gangplank to the platform where the kayaks were waiting for us-although the first thing that we encountered was something quite unexpected. the fishermen that also use the platform had caught an absolutely massive fish. I mean this thing was huge. It was being kept in a little area under the platform, looming to the surface of the water every now and again and eyeballing us-it wouldn’t surprise me if it was just mentally logging everyone’s faces for revenge purposes, with plans for an imminent escape.

Having been distracted enough, we got presented with our two person kayak only to realise that we would be having to accommodate one more. Don’t you just hate that in Asia, always room for one more?! Fortunately this time the plus one was a crab ‘happily’ tucked away by my feet. As long as he didn’t have any desires on my toes, we’d get along just fine.

'Captain-we have a stowaway'

‘Captain-we have a stowaway’

Time to get where the big boats canny

Time to get where the big boats canny

Born to be on the water, the powerhouse of the operation

Born to be on the water, the powerhouse of the operation

More of a figurehead, happy to take photos...!

More of a figurehead, happy to take photos…!

A good couple of hours on the water, and the acquisition of another one of them old life skills! Our guide teaching us how to fish off the side of his canoe with a line and hook, using locally sourced mussels as bate to effortlessly pluck a fish for lunch from the waters. First time was great, but then we jinxed him-with all future efforts ending with failure. Still, 30% of the time it works every time….
Lunch was served back on the boat and it was a delight-as so often on these excursions it’s the meals where you expect very little, that you discover a lot-and this was one of those occasions.
Next port of call was a small deserted beach-and time for Jo and I to prove our metal as the only passengers willing to jump off the boat and swim over to the shore. The water was fresh, invigorating, made my skin tingle like I was in a bath full of Tiger Balm. as we looked round us we truly appreciated a special moment. The deep green water giving birth to the jagged rock outcrops around us, seeing the surroundings from a different perspective-it was an exhilarating feeling.
The next challenge proved to be something beyond us, the rock climb and cliff jump. I was quite bullish about the idea, and Jo was pretty pre-determined too-but when it came down to it I simply did not have the skills or guts to attempt the ‘climb and jump’! In fact the only person to do it was Ali Baba himself, treating us to a wonderful exhibition of his skills-scaling the side of the rock effortlessly, gecko like in his movement-before taking a moment, and leaping off-to our obvious glee!

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By this point we had formed friendships with others on the boat, particularly a Canadian guy called George and a Norwegian lady called Ulla. Both had been travelling extensively, with some colourful and insightful tales to share, so the rest of the journey we enjoyed engaging conversation, blessed with the most picturesque of backdrops.

Somewhat exhausted we returned to shore, found ourselves a suitable spring roll vendor, and wrapped up the evening quick time. It was once again time to take to two wheels and explore our locale, we had found an easy hike that we could do, and the sights of ‘Hospital Cave’ and the Cat Ba Cannon Station-offering the most spectacular views on the island they say. I say ‘easy hike’, but like most things in Asia, nothing is easy in this heat. It was an odd entrance into the Cat Ba National Park, you enter down an avenue which eventually reveals that it is the home of a semi abandoned village-some people still there trying to sell you a drink, or a t-shirt, but, on the whole, deserted.

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As we made our way towards the start of the hike, we intermittently passed by people on the way down….Who I have to say were a pretty grumpy and negative bunch! Most of them advised us to turn back, warning us how difficult and slippery the trail was. Usually I find that people are more encouraging and tell you how it’s worth the effort! No putting us off, and we increased pace a little to see what would be in store for us. As it turns out, it was absolutely fine-I do not know what ell the other people were on about! By good fortune we bumped into George once again on our way up-and promptly made dinner plans, always good to share your experiences with people. At the top and were once again bathing in views of misty mountains and jungle stretching out into the distance.

The goal!

The goal!

The 'achievement' pose

The ‘achievement’ pose

'Top of the World' pose!

‘Top of the World’ pose!

Misty mountains

Misty mountains

One of the locals

One of the locals

We descended from the peak like veritable mountain goats and mounted our trusty steed to hit the coastal road on our return to Cat Ba. Prompted by the recommendation of views that were quite spectacular, and that it was well worth going a little out of the way. Off we set with camera at the ready and high hopes for further enchantment from Ha Long Bay…..until we found the road to be blocked by a landslide-talk about anti-climax! Not that we’re complaining, we were still lucky enough to be scooting around a gorgeous Vietnamese island after all.

ONWARDS I tell thee!

ONWARDS I tell thee!

Ahhhh, a roadblock you say?!

Ahhhh, a roadblock you say?!

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During the Indochina wars Cat Ba was a strategic look-out point, and as such was targeted by heavy bombing. Local residents were often forced into hiding among the Island’s many caves, and one such cave was to be our next stop on our route home. Hospital Cave was a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the Vietnam War and was also used as a safe house for VC commanders. I wasn’t really prepared for what we eventually found-I was expecting a cave with a few rooms carved out-what we actually encountered was a three story fortified hospital inside a mountain…No slap dash construction here-this place was extremely impressive.

The main chamber inside Hospital Cave-apparently it was used for screening films

The main chamber inside Hospital Cave-apparently it was used for screening films

It would be foolish to claim to fully understand the conditions that people had to cope with-but for sure here you get an idea of the ingenuity and adaptability of people in the most testing of times.
From the hospital we set about heading to Cannon Fort, quite the opposite in terms of function. Strategic watch point with four old bunkers, a helicopter landing station, a number of big ground-to-air munitions, as well stunning views from a peak 177 meters above Cat Ba town. From here you could get a 360 degree view of the island, a bird’s eye view of the town and the harbours, and of course the many limestone karsts that form the unique landscape found in Lan Ha Bay. It was the perfect way to draw our visit here to a conclusion. Now a hop, skip, jump (or bus, boat, bus, bus, taxi!) back to Hanoi, and then to make our return to Nha Trang to attempt our PADI Open Water Diving qualifications.

Cannon Fort offers the best vantage point on the island

Cannon Fort offers the best vantage point on the island

360 degrees of WOW!

360 degrees of WOW!

The pathways for the fort are all hidden away-secret squirrel stylee

The pathways for the fort are all hidden away-secret squirrel stylee

Munitions tracks run throughout the fort

Munitions tracks run throughout the fort

Jo really looking the part at one of the cannons

Jo really looking the part at one of the cannons

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Tết take Tu…..

Somewhat later than planned, we finally managed to negotiate our exit from Ho Chi Minh and make our way to Rạch Giá in Kien Giang province near the Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. Here we would be meeting up with Tu, someone we had met in a backpackers hostel in Vientiane, and who had invited us to stay with his family for Vietnamese New Year.
Tu is one of the friendliest people you are ever likely to meet, and his invitation to his family home, and indeed his brother’s wedding, came within a few hours of knowing us. At first my Britishness set alarm bells ringing…. ‘Why would he invite us to his home?’, ‘what’s in it for him?’, ‘should I really trust this person who I hardly know?!’
I have to admit, these questions rattled round in the back of my mind quite frequently, we’re so used to being ‘on guard’ at home that it’s difficult to let go of your trust issues and just go with it-but that’s exactly what we did, and it turned out to be an incredible and fulfilling experience.

The bus from Ho Chi Minh was hot, cramped and longer than expected-but that’s par for the course and we suffered in good spirits, excited about what was in store for us.
We eventually arrived at around 8PM and set about trying to locate Tu, as it turns out he had been waiting with his friend at the bus station for the whole day, and was on hand to take us into Rach Gia for a catch up, some food, and to stay the evening in a guesthouse they had already found for us. We soon found out that Rạch Giá is the capital of Kien Giang province, and is something of a Vietnamese tourist destination, Tu’s family lived about an hour’s drive away from the centre.
Fed and watered, we were ushered back to the guesthouse and told to rest before setting off to see his family the next day.
Bright and early Tu and his friend arrived to pick us up and set out for breakfast followed by a coffee to get the day’s activities underway. It became apparent that our arrival had been talked up by Tu, and some of his friends, his sister, nephew and brother in law came to meet us. Mostly people weren’t able to speak English, and our Vietnamese is non-existent, so Tu acted as translator as they all were keen to talk and ask questions, and like Tu everyone made a huge effort with us.

Rach Gia morning glory!

Rach Gia morning glory!

Tu!

Tu!

Saying our goodbyes, off we went into the Vietnamese province that Tu called home-we had no idea of what was in store for the day ahead.
Driving out of the city of Rach Gia it became apparent that we were heading to a very different Vietnam to the one that we had experienced so far. Soon we were traveling along single track pathways alongside a myriad of waterways connecting various farms and their rice fields. Even though it was still early, it was already intensely hot and it wouldn’t be long before I started to feel the discomfort of sunburn on my legs! Jo didn’t seem to be suffering from the heat so much, in fact-she actually fell asleep on the back of her motorbike, head-butting the driver in the act! An extreme demonstration in her ability to sleep on pretty much any transportation method-something that would be repeated a number of times over the next couple of days!

Eventually we arrived at Tu’s family home set amongst fish lakes and rice fields-it was absolutely stunning. Our arrival was met with quite the fanfare, and as it turned out Tu’s uncles, neighbours and family friends had all come to meet us as well. It wasn’t long before we were all sat round eating lunch, drinking Vietnamese vodka and getting to know each other-it was absolutely amazing….Worth noting that when you drink vodka with the family, it is one shot glass that is passed around. The person who drinks then nominates a ‘drinking partner’ for that shot, and you drink and pass on. Needless to say, Jo and I were the subject of many drinking partner nominations, and soon were feeling the effects!
For the first time on our trip we felt Michael Palin’esque, managing to communicate with each other despite not being able to speak a common language. You couldn’t wish for better hosts, the food was fantastic, and the volume of laughter steadily increased as the vodka continued to be consumed-my hairy arms and white skin being a topic of some quite considerable hilarity! Before long Tu’s father was insisting that we return to stay with the family overnight, an offer that we simply could not refuse. We were delighted at the prospect of spending some more time at his home.

First 'family' lunch

First ‘family’ lunch

With our plans for a return visit confirmed, it was time to move onto Tu’s brother’s house, who had married the previous week and had invited us to his wedding despite never meeting us! Unfortunately we missed the ceremony, but it would seem that celebrations were ongoing as we were greeted with another gathering of people, food and drink. This time it was beer rather than vodka, and this time we got pulled into the Vietnamese tradition of downing drinks on demand….I think they were trying to get us drunk!

Lunch with Tu's brother and friends

Lunch with Tu’s brother and friends

It was at this point that we saw the first of what would be many ‘real life living’ methods.
The ability to catch, prepare and cook your food is something that we have lost in the UK. Having been molly coddled by supermarkets, buying our meat nicely prepared and wrapped, both Jo and I are somewhat lacking in these real life living methods. At Tu’s brothers house we enjoyed a lesson in fresh fish preparation. As we arrived one of the guys promptly went out to the waterway in front of the house and harvested the fishing net that was suspended there, returning with a bucket full of freshwater fish. From there the fish were taken to the back of the house, where they were cooked simply by impaling on a stick and covering with burning hay for an impromptu barbeque-I kid you not it, it was both ingenious and delicious! Second lunch of the day dealt with, and a fair few more beverages under the belt, and it was time to test the balance once more on the back of the motorbikes, and head back to Rạch Giá. It had been a great first day meeting all of Tu’s friends and family, they were all so friendly and eager for us to share in all that they had.

We got back to our guesthouse around six o clock and parted company with Tu for the evening, giving us some time to have a mooch around Rạch Giá. This in itself lead to quite a funny episode, given that Rạch Giá is a Vietnamese holiday destination, none of the menus in the restaurants have any English translation, and very few locals spoke any English whatsoever. This makes ordering dinner somewhat difficult, and so with the gung ho attitude of just picking something random on the menu, we ended up with an eel hot pot for dinner that eve! Just to explain a little further, a hot pot is a dish in Vietnam where you get served a large pan with stock in it, on a burner of some description, you are then provided with a number of ingredients which you then add to the stock to cook, and then you serve with noodles. On the whole it is a great way to eat-but cooking with eel for the first time wasn’t exactly the highlight of our culinary discovery….Still, we gave it a go and can safely say that we will not be ordering that again in a hurry! Little did we know that this was just going to be the tip of the iceberg when it came to new eating experiences…

Somewhat earlier than the expected 10AM start, Tu arrived at our hotel door at a sporting 8AM prompting us to spring into action, pack, wash, have breakfast and high tail it out of our guesthouse. We headed back out of town and into the province to spend the day with Tu’s family and friends, before spending the evening at his house. The journey was something of a shocker-the previous days’ hour and a half on the back of a scooter was about the limit in terms of comfort-this time we were in for an epic three hour adventure along the various watercourses of Kien Giang Province. Again seemingly not so much of a problem for Jo, who took the opportunity to snooze once again….Although seeing the shock on her face following one of her ‘micro snoozes’ and you realise that perhaps this wasn’t the most relaxing of experiences…More terrifying! Turns out that our first destination was a family friends house, Tu had only been there once before, and finding it was proving to be challenging. In the midst of all of this, we were hurtling over bridges, Jo got whisked off while Tu and I waited on the road so that her ‘driver’ could change clothes, and we acquired a gift hamper for the family-vodka included obviously-as is tradition at New Year in Vietnam.

Eventually we made it, pretty numb from the journey, but just in time to see the lunch being prepared. I’m not sure what type of bird it was, I think that it may have been similar to a stalk, but I can be certain of the fact that we had never eaten it before. Anyway, we had arrived just as two of these birds had been slaughtered, and I was promptly invited to assist with the plucking of the feathers-time to get a bit hands on. My contribution to the plucking over, and leaving the gutting of the bird to the experts, we were invited into the house to have a look at their ‘store room’, where to our amazement were another three of these ‘stalk-like’ birds, alive, just stood there…Not to mention the many chickens and chicks running around-this was fresh food at its most extreme! Back outside and the men had started digging around at a root in the garden, a large bright purple potato like root-which would be added to the stew that was starting to boil on the fire-literally getting all the ingredients from their surroundings, a brilliant lesson in how people live so efficiently here.

Preparation for lunch begins

Preparation for lunch begins

Before long the stew was ready, and an area was cleared for us all to sit down and eat together. A notable difference in attitude towards consumption of meat is that in Vietnam nothing is wasted-the whole bird is used and enjoyed immensely. Tu has quite the appetite for the things that we discard at home-as we found ourselves tucking into the neck of the bird! The meal was delicious, even if we had no idea what it was that we had eaten, and to top things off nicely we got invited to join them in a glass of a very special vodka.
Out came the following bottle, containing said special vodka. It would seem what was special about it, is that the bottle has a snake and a millipede fermenting in it, resulting in a pungent, thick, treacle like beverage…Which apparently is very good for you, so they say.

Special vodka

Special vodka

Feeling obligated to join in with the festivities, Jo and I had ourselves a glass and it was……Strong. Not the most pleasant drinks I’ve ever had, more of an elderflower and blackcurrant Pimms man myself, but it definitely got the heart pumping-much to the amusement of those around us.
It was time again to mount our trusty steeds and head off for Tu’s home once again-where further culinary exploration was sure to await us. Sure enough, upon arrival the wheels were in motion to start preparing the next meal-it’s a perpetual task it would seem. It wasn’t long before Tu was out on a boat herding the ducks so that we could catch the main provider for our evening meal-certainly these ducks would be classed as ‘Free Range’ in the UK.

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I don’t think that it is ever an easy task to catch a duck that is running for its life, but with little hilarity our fare was caught and in no time he was put to the sword for preparation. This time we were both given the unenviable task of plucking the feathers, and boy what a task that was-it took ages! I’m pretty sure it was something to do with our technique, but these things get better with practice and soon the duck was ready to be butchered.
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Again, no wastage here-everything was cleaned and separated and added to the pot. We continued to help with the prep of the vegetables harvested from the surrounding area, Tu’s mother and grandmother really encouraging us to learn more, and taking some delight in the gusto in which we were approaching our tasks. Before long a feast had been constructed from the single pot and open fire-something of an accomplishment in our eyes, but really just par for the course here.
While all of this was going on, various uncles and neighbours and other friends had arrived in readiness for the evening gathering.

As if we hadn’t had challenges enough on the food and drink stakes-as we settled down to dinner one of the first things that was put in our bowl was a balut…If, like me, you have no idea what balut is-quite simply it is a developing duck embryo. Yeah, that’s right…A partially formed duck chick boiled in the shell. The taste wasn’t bad at all, quite the opposite-the difficulty is the concept, it’s something very far removed from what we are used to back in good old Blighty! New culinary experiences coming thick and fast now-and Jo was presented with the ducks head to chow down on. It came as a bit of a surprise because at first Jo thought that she was getting passed a nice piece of thigh, but no, it was the head! As Jo proceeded to devour, I was passed the chicken feet to eat-a rather clumsy affair, and pretty tame in the scheme of things, but a new food trial all the same.
I must stress here that this is just a couple of the highlights from the more obscure items on the menu-the meal in its entirety was absolutely delicious, Tu and his family being absolutely faultless hosts.

The head of the household, Tu's grandmother

The head of the household, Tu’s grandmother

Jo with Tu's mother

Jo with Tu’s mother

The shot glass gets passed around the table

The shot glass gets passed around the table

A wonderful dinner is served

A wonderful dinner is served

Once again the vodka was brought out to round things off nicely, and before we knew it we were readying ourselves for slumber. As is the common theme, Tu’s family could not do enough for us and we found ourselves set up on his parents sleeping platform-it wasn’t long before we had passed out for the evening.

Morning came, and so did the realisation of how attractive mosquitos find Westerners…We had both been ravaged during the night, and my back resembled a bad case of chicken pox! It’s nigh on impossible to avoid getting bitten, but never before had I been bitten so often in one evening. Still, it was nothing to take the sheen off what was a truly fantastic experience, and the morning vista that greeted us helped to stow any feelings of discomfort well and truly to the back of our minds.

Sunrise in the province-magical

Sunrise in the province-magical

As dawn breaks

As dawn breaks

Once again the food preparation was underway, and we set about going to visit some of the neighbours with Tu’s grandmother. Again the experience made somewhat comical with the lack of English spoken, but the warmth with which we were greeted was quite wonderful. We took some time to do some more exploring of the surrounding area, and to marvel at the simplicity and practicality of the Vietnamese locals-demonstrated quite brilliantly with this bridge over one of the waterways.

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Panoramic view of the setting

Panoramic view of the setting

Another wonderful meal was presented to us for lunch, and far too quickly our time of departure had come upon us. The experience of staying with Tu’s family was absolutely magical, the warmth, friendliness, and inclusive nature of all that we met was quite something else. We have the chance for a return visit too….As soon as our friend Tu decides to become an honest man and get married! I know for sure that both Jo and I look forward to that day immensely, and hope that circumstance suits for us to return.

Tu's brother, brother-in-law and nephew

Tu’s brother, brother-in-law and nephew

Fond farewells to Tu's father and uncle

Fond farewells to Tu’s father and uncle

The magnificent setting of our Vietnamese adventure

The magnificent setting of our Vietnamese adventure

Back on the road for our return to Rach Gia

Back on the road for our return to Rach Gia

Hoi An….ya like it!

If you asked a group of travellers what they miss most when they’re on the road, I would guess that the majority would say, unsurprisingly, friends and family. Certainly that is true for us, as is evident as we clamour for bandwidth to Skype home whenever we get a good internet connection! So it came as quite the welcome surprise when I logged on to Facebook to get a message from a couple of our friends from Leicester asking for tips on things to do in Laos-as they were currently in Vietnam and heading over there in a few weeks. I had no idea that they were in Asia at all, and as supreme luck would have it, we were on a collision course. With some excitement we left Hue and made our way to Hoi An for a catch up with some familiar faces!
As is the common theme with my posts, I have to allude to the journey once again. What makes this reference different is that there is no hint of a mention of discomfort, terror or confusion! For the first time in over a month, we were going to be basking in the wonder of train travel once again, and boy what a luxury it was. The Reunification express stretches all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, right down the coast of Vietnam. The views are spectacular, and the trains are clean, spacious and generally lovely. We were like excited children, overjoyed at the prospect of leaving white knuckle bus journeys in the dim and distant past…..Well, until we return to Cambodia at least!
From Hue to Da Nang took just 5 hours, and then a 30 minute taxi to Hoi An-simple. We were fortunate enough to bump into a South African couple who were heading in the same direction, and so managed to get a good deal on the fare, and as it turns out-make some friends that we would bump into at various points throughout our time in Vietnam.

Ahhh, the luxury of Vietnamese trains!!

Ahhh, the luxury of Vietnamese trains!!

Appropriately Hoi An actually translates as ‘peaceful meeting place’, and the ancient town is yet another UNESCO World heritage site to add to the ever growing list on our travels. Checked in and freshened up, we headed into the centre to explore what was promised to be a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th century. It used to be the largest harbour in south East Asia, and as such retains architectural influences from many of the Japanese, Dutch and Chinese spice and ceramic merchants that once resided there. As you can imagine, this used to be an area of incredible wealth and upon discovering the old town, it still holds the grandeur and charm of an extremely affluent area…Although now you’re more likely to find tailors and restaurants than spice and ceramic merchants. The town and harbour have remained pretty much unchanged for the last 200 years, and they certainly don’t disappoint. It is absolutely picture perfect, along with a number of temples, communal houses, merchant houses and other historical points of interest to explore. Even more spectacular is the way that the town comes alive in the evenings, with lanterns lighting the streets and people sending candles to sail on boats in the harbour…It’s a very enchanting place!

The harbour in all its glory!

The harbour in all its glory!

The 'typical' style architecture found throughout the town

The ‘typical’ style architecture found throughout the town

The old Chinese Bridge which actually contains a temple half way across

The old Chinese Bridge which actually contains a temple half way across

Vietnamese street vendors here love to have a photo...But then you have to buy something!!

Vietnamese street vendors here love to have a photo…But then you have to buy something!!

Vietnamese woman in traditional dress walking down one of the main streets

Vietnamese woman in traditional dress walking down one of the main streets

And once the darkness hits, the lanterns light the way!

And once the darkness hits, the lanterns light the way!

Suitably dazzled by the surroundings, we then had the fortune to just bump into Josh and Aimee on our first evenings’ exploration, before we got the chance to actually plan meeting up-and so headed out for drinks and dinner and a good old chinwag. One of the things that is great about meeting up with people you already know is that you don’t engage in the standard ‘opening patter’ that is inevitable when meeting fellow travellers for the first time. Not that it isn’t great to share stories with those that you meet, just that sometimes it’s nice not to have to give people your back story! By the end of the evening, and a fair few ‘Fresh Beers’ (local beer that is brewed that day)-we decided to book ourselves onto a cooking class, and also a lantern making class….Hoi An was most certainly rubbing off on us quick time!

The following day was an absolute blast, it started in the right manner when we bumped into a guy in some form of ceremonial dress in the street-Josh and Aimee being experts in fancy dress barely struggled to contain themselves! Pictures snapped and it was onto the lantern making which turned out to much more fun than I expected, however now we find ourselves carrying round a couple of these lanterns on our travels-real useful I tell thee!
Moving on to something a little more practical, at the cookery course we learned to cook spring rolls, a crispy noodle dish, banana leaf curry and a hotpot-all of which were fantastic, sure to be attempted once we grace our homelands again. Rather more useful than lanterns to impress friends and family back home…”Oh this dish, I learned this when I was travelling in South East Asia don’t you know” (read with appropriate smug voice)

It was fantastic to get to explore the town with Josh and Aimee, a real giggle. Props to Josh for introducing us to the most incredible Vietnamese sandwich (Banh Mi) shop. It may sound like an odd thing to rave about, when you think about Vietnamese food, baguettes aren’t necessarily the first thing that pop into your head, however Banh Mi are very much a Vietnamese speciality (albeit initially influenced by the French). At it’s most basic they are baguettes filled with pate, pork, pickles, chilli, salad and other unknown entities to the uneducated Westerner (by that I refer to myself)…Delicious!

To our delight, just before the lantern making class. this guy popped out of the door opposite...yeah-really! Very 'Big Trouble in Little China'

To our delight, just before the lantern making class. this guy popped out of the door opposite…yeah-really! Very ‘Big Trouble in Little China’

With dexterity, poise and enviable attention to detail, josh led the way

With dexterity, poise and enviable attention to detail, josh led the way

It all became quite serious, and a remarkable amount of pride was being poured into our work!

It all became quite serious, and a remarkable amount of pride was being poured into our work!

Four very satisfied lantern makers

Four very satisfied lantern makers

Watch your fingers son!

Watch your fingers son!

First happy customers!

First happy customers!

Vietnamese cooking is quite brilliant for its use of just one pot and stove!!

Vietnamese cooking is quite brilliant for its use of just one pot and stove!!

Dish 1 of the cooking class, our new found staple of spring rolls

Dish 1 of the cooking class, our new found staple of spring rolls

Curry in a banana leaf-oh yeah!

Curry in a banana leaf-oh yeah!

The daily fresh beer...And yes, that is a rather flimsy plastic bottle!

The daily fresh beer…And yes, that is a rather flimsy plastic bottle!

The next morning Josh and Aimee set off to continue their travels, we were left with a day to do a little more exploring of the old town, and try to avoid spending too much money in the shops here. If it weren’t for the fact that we have a long time travelling ahead of us, for sure we would have bought an extra backpack and had a whole load of clothes and shoes made-as well as kitting ourselves out in some ‘North Face’ gear! As it is, that just isn’t practical and so our bank account survived without any significant damage. We did buy a ‘North Face’ bag (after much research on the internet), not for extra space-but to replace our other battered backpack. Top tip here is to note that you are not buying genuine ‘North Face’ products, but you are buying a cheap, high quality imitation. The standard does vary, so just try to forget about the brand, shop around, and find something that will work for you.

These are what the streets look like OUTSIDE of the Ancient Town!

These are what the streets look like OUTSIDE of the Ancient Town!

One of the many international 'Assembly halls'

One of the many international ‘Assembly halls’

Into the depths of Hoi An market

Into the depths of Hoi An market

Courtyard of one of the old communal homes that are dotted around the town

Courtyard of one of the old communal homes that are dotted around the town

Ornate decoration in Tan Ky House, an old Chinese merchant's house

Ornate decoration in Tan Ky House, an old Chinese merchant’s house

The architecture of the house is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences

The architecture of the house is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences

Where the streets have no name!

Where the streets have no name!

Don’t come here expecting to have the place to yourself though, it is a fairy tale picture perfect town and as such it is extremely popular with tourists. It definitely isn’t a hidden gem, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.