Vietnam [week 2]

We covered a lot of ground during our second week in Vietnam, and felt progressively less nervous covering it. Once you begin to understand the Vietnamese driving style, where constant vigilance is valued above any formal road rules, getting around is surprisingly simple.

Most important to learn is that right of way is given exclusively to the vehicles of greatest mass, meaning trucks and buses have priority over everyone else. Their dominance allows them to cruise for long distances on the wrong side of the road and overtake one another on blind turns, with lesser vehicles expected to swerve into the dust to avoid them.

Horns are used constantly, not as an act of aggression, but as a warning to those ahead. Bigger vehicles have extra-powerful horns which reverberate and wobble in pitch, a nightmarish though effective warning mechanism. Other common hazards include sudden, spine-altering changes in the road surface, which occur frequently, and herds of animals wandering across your path, typically cows, water buffaloes, dogs or flocks of ducks.

All this is made manageable by the sluggish pace at which traffic moves, in a country where cars are an expensive rarity, powerful motorbikes (those over 175cc) are outlawed, and no-one seems to be in a particular rush. Life-saving decisions can be made quickly and for the most part, I've felt safe enough to actually enjoy the insanity of it all.

We spent two nights in Mai Chau, enough time to explore the town and fix a couple of issues with the bikes. Sam got her entire engine replaced for the equivalent of $15, including several hours of labour.

I got food poisoning on Saturday and spent most of the day inside my mosquito net fortress feeling sorry for myself.

Meanwhile, Sam commandeered the camera and took some nice photos like this.

Early on Sunday, we pointed our bikes eastward and began our longest ride yet to Tam Coc. Our route was a patchwork of minor roads through farmland and rural settlements. It's hard to make out (taking photos whilst riding is an appalling idea) but the motorbike ahead of me had a live adult pig strapped to the back. I'd seen special pig trailers before, but this guy clearly didn't have time for that. Poor pig.

Finally nearing our destination after a series of navigational blunders, we stopped to admire the scenery the region is famous for. To get a better view, we climbed a big iron floodgate.

The gate, which presumably regulates the amount of water flowing into the surrounding rice paddies, was open and a rowboat floated underneath us.

We spent a single full day in Tam Coc. The region's main attractions are its boat tours through the karst landscape of caves and weathered limestone stubs. We were too cheap to go on one ourselves, but we watched plenty depart.

When it came to leaving Tam Coc on Tuesday, our biker gang had grown in size to seven with the addition of Nicky, another British guy Harry had enlisted at the hostel.

Making our way south, the boys and their macho bikes rode ahead, while the scooter gang trailed behind in pairs. We all regrouped for lunch around half way to discuss how terrible the roads had been so far...

...and to laugh at the brilliant restaurant decor.

The road smoothed out nicely as we joined the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a newly-laid stretch of mostly unblemished tarmac dissecting the country from north to south. We crossed the huge Ma River a couple of times.

Because of the slow start, we didn't make it to the city of Vinh as planned. Instead, we spent the night at Thai Hoa, where the gang set out to find a karaoke bar in which to celebrate Ariel's birthday.

Realising we'd need the head start, Sam and I set off at dawn the following morning. We planned to reach Phong Nha, almost 300 kilometres down the road across mountainous terrain. Along the way, it was nice to spot buffalo enjoying themselves outside their usual playground of the road.

After sharing some anonymous alcoholic fluid from an unmarked plastic bottle with some friendly local drunks over lunch, we pressed further south into the mountains, where the villages we passed got smaller and further apart. We really hoped our bikes would hold out.

The bikes did hold out, and we were treated to some beautiful scenery.

Exhausted, we finally arrived in Phong Nha just as the sun was setting. We quickly established which guesthouse was the cheapest and collapsed there for the night.

Vietnam is home to the largest known cave in the world, Sơn Đoòng Cave. It was only discovered in the nineties and wasn't surveyed properly until 2010, so tourists aren't yet allowed inside. But much smaller nearby caves such as "Paradise Cave" are open, so we decided to visit.

It was stunning, like nowhere I had ever been before. Everywhere you looked, giant, complex columns of rock erupted from the ground and ceiling, the product of millennia of dripping.

They say Sơn Đoòng Cave is so large you could fly a Boeing 747 through it. I have serious questions about how safe that would be, though for the sake of comparison, Paradise Cave is probably large enough to accommodate a Chinook helicopter if you really wanted to (though again I wouldn't recommend it).

Leaving Phong Nha the next day, we passed this massive billboard. Adverts for private companies are rare in rural Vietnam and this one looked especially out of place in the middle of an otherwise vacant field.

Far more common are billboards like this, soviet-style propaganda featuring smiley-faced Vietnamese folk of various backgrounds and social classes all getting along swimmingly, usually accompanied by a big portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary/god-figure who led the communists to victory in the civil war.

Our final stop for the week was Lang co, a small beach town offering our first glimpse of the ocean since arriving in Vietnam. It concluded a long week of travel from the north of the long, skinny country to its dead centre.

Hong Kong to Vietnam

Our sixth week in Asia straddled the geographically close though culturally distant nations of Hong Kong and Vietnam. It was a hectic, at times difficult week which didn't allow much time for taking photos and less still for writing about them. I won't waste any more time introducing it.

Free from work obligations for the weekend, Mike spent much of his spare time showing us around. This included a trip to his office building which houses a clear elevator boasting impressive views of the cityscape. There's an expensive restaurant on the top floor but if you're quick enough with the down button, you can manage a few trips before the wait staff attempt to allocate you a seat.

That evening we attended "A Symphony of Lights", a free nightly display of coordinated skyscraper flashing set to a hilariously cheesy soundtrack which could also have accompanied the end credits to a video game circa 1996.

The buildings with lasers were especially awesome.

Because of Hong Kong's mix of wealthy elites and poor immigrant workers, domestic helpers are extremely common. On Sunday, they all get the day off. Without homes of their own, the largely Filipina crowd descends on central Hong Kong in huge numbers to sit on collapsed cardboard boxes and socialise.

To avoid the Filipina flood, our hosts proposed we escape to nearby Lamma Island for the day. Lamma Island is technically part of Hong Kong though feels part of a different universe, despite only being a short ferry ride away. Devoid of anything resembling a skyscraper, the small island doesn't even have cars.

Mike took us on a hike between the two main towns and ferry terminals, Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan. There were some nice views along the way.

That night Sam and I caught the tram to Victoria Peak, a tourist outpost in the hills of Hong Kong Island. We saw the light show again but it just wasn't the same without the music.

Our final meal in Hong Kong was bottomless hotpot: two pools of delicious broth filled with unlimited ingredients of our choosing. We were super impressed by the food in Hong Kong, and this was the icing on the cake.

The following afternoon we hopped on a short flight to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The flight itself went smoothly but a series of calamities at Hanoi airport delayed our entry into the city by several hours. They included long lines at immigration, both of our checked bags getting jammed in different parts of the baggage claim machinery, and a long chain of nonexistent or existent yet static buses whose dishonest, lazy drivers refused to drive where they claimed they would. Pictured is one of them fast asleep between seats.

When we finally arrived, we checked into our hostel and met up with Harry, an old school friend of Sam's we only recently discovered would be in Vietnam at the same time as us. We wandered around the deserted streets for a while before picking up a late dinner, beef pho from a street stall.

In the half hour that followed, Harry convinced us to buy motorbikes and join him and three other conscripts (Ariel, Ida, and Sebastian) on a road trip down the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a distance of more than a thousand miles. They planned to leave the morning after next. It was clearly a stupid idea for a billion reasons but Harry was a gifted salesman and without any travel plans of our own, we set aside our numerous concerns and nodded our tired heads.

We had beef pho again the next morning on the hostel rooftop, a strange though apparently common breakfast in Vietnam. It was a nice opportunity to see Hanoi in daylight and reflect upon our terrible decision from the night before.

Realising Harry's plan only left us with a single day in Hanoi, we decided we should at least attempt some sightseeing. Vietnam has a bloody history, having been locked in various conflicts with itself and foreign aggressors for centuries, so the war museum seemed like a reasonable choice.

It was basically a trophy cabinet from the American War, a graveyard of aircraft and artillery shot down or captured, alongside patriotic biographies of the brave comrades responsible.

Later on we met up with Harry and his troupe at the mechanic's to finalise the bikes they'd already picked out, and to find a couple of our own. We spent the afternoon carefully scrutinising machines we obviously knew nothing about, frowning and shaking our heads frequently to give the illusion of knowledge. Fortunately the mechanics seemed honest enough and happily fixed any glaring problems we noticed. Before we knew it, we were $450 poorer and two old, battered but seemingly functional scooters richer.

As it turned out, we didn't end up leaving the next day. This gave us a chance to see a little more of Hanoi and gather some essentials for the month ahead. Hanoi's Old Quarter is a crazy nest of markets, grimy alleyways and scooters buzzing in all directions.

The wiring in Hanoi is about as organised as the traffic.

On Thursday morning, after a misjudged night of 5000 dong (around $0.25) beers, we finally checked out and began to nervously plan our first leg. Instead of heading directly south towards Ho Chi Minh, the gang decided on an eastern diversion to the town of Mai Chau instead. We set off after lunch.

Escaping Hanoi was a high blood pressure ordeal as my attention was divided between learning to ride the bike, keeping track of the others, and jostling with thousands of other scooters, buses and trucks in a perpetual dance of near collision. Congested Hanoi eventually gave way to countryside and dusty roads with potholes and clueless water buffalo being chased around by old women with sticks. Somewhere along the line, I relaxed enough to remove the camera from my bag.

We badly overestimated how far we could ride in a single afternoon and ended up stopping when it got dark in Hoa Binh, around half way to our intended destination. But we were alive and grateful for it. Waiting for dinner, we played a game of culturally insensitive chopstick football.

The next morning, we completed the slog to Mai Chau through some increasingly beautiful scenery, culminating with a mountain pass, the first proper test of our scooter's climbing ability.

We caught a glimpse of the town from the mountain road.

Mai Chau was no less beautiful from the ground, an isolated town of green rice paddies and wooden homes on stilts.

Eating lunch in town, a man approached us inviting us to stay at his house. The price he offered was cheaper than the guesthouses we'd already surveyed, so we decided to go for it.

That evening we shared dinner with the other guests, a couple of kiwi girls from Tauranga. They planned to leave Vietnam the following morning having spent a month doing what we intended to do, but in reverse. Their excitement about the country was infectious, and I began to realise that if I could avoid being killed, Harry's plan might not be such a bad one.

Taiwan to Hong Kong

We didn't have much luck with weather during our month in Taiwan, with grey skies forming a near-constant backdrop to our travels. It wasn't until our final few days, however, that the clouds decided to follow through with their threats, exploding precisely when we least wanted them to. The grey even followed us across international airspace to Hong Kong, where our new hosts commented it was the first time they'd seen rain in months. But weather shouldn't define a trip and despite god's largely successful attempts to drench us, it was a spectacular week of transition between two countries and their contrasting wonders, both natural and man made.

Our final stop along the east coast was Hualien, the city we'd chosen to base ourselves in while we explored the wider area over three days.

The first full day was spent dawdling around Hualien and falling asleep on the rocks at Meilun Coast Park.

Along the shoreline I noticed what looked like tiny lizards clinging to the rocks, flopping away in unison when they saw me approach. After some googling, I discovered they were actually a type of fish who have adapted to life on land, where they feed on algae growing on the rocks. It's cool to imagine our ancestors learning a similar trick a few million years ago.

The next day we rented a scooter with hopes of driving through the famous East Rift Valley in a grand loop of 150 kilometres. Unfortunately, the sky had other ideas and what began as a light drizzle quickly and brutally advanced to torrential rain.

We made it as far as Liyu Lake before developing symptoms of hypothermia, taking refuge in a restaurant for a while then driving back to Hualien feeling dejected and soaked to the skin.

Instead of holding onto our scooter for Taroko National Park the following day, we learnt our lesson and caught the minibus instead.

In terms of natural beauty, Taroko's huge marble gorge is said to be the gem in Taiwan's glittering crown, and I can see why.

Besides the highway running through, the park is largely undeveloped, with small villages dotted around mostly catering to the tourists. 

...of which there were many. We shared the park with billions of Chinese tourists ferried around in obnoxiously coloured buses too big for the narrow, windy roads.

We still managed to find small pockets of wilderness undiscovered by our helmeted friends.

It never did end up raining, but we still got a drenching inside The Cave of Water Curtain, a natural tunnel with water gushing from cracks in its roof.

The next day we caught the train back to Taipei where we stayed at Susan's for one more night. Dinner was Japanese from a mindblowing place we'd discovered during our last visit.

The next afternoon we departed Taiwan for Hong Kong, a short flight of less than two hours. Goodbye Taiwan!

We were greeted by my university friend Mike and his mate Rich, both residents of Hong Kong since graduating four years ago. Rich was awesome enough to host us for the duration of our stay, a gesture we especially appreciate given the high cost of accommodation in Hong Kong compared with elsewhere in Asia.

After dinner, Mike took us to the roof of his apartment in the crowded district of Mong Kok, which overlooked a glowing night market.

The following day, Sam and I were left alone to explore Hong Kong Island while our hosts worked. The Central district is the financial core of Hong Kong, a swarm of middle aged men in suits scurrying between adjacent glass palaces.

A long succession of outdoor escalators and walkways connect the Central and Mid-Level districts as a way for commuters to negotiate the ridiculous terrain. Mike reckoned the sign of a true Hong Kong local is never having to walk uphill.

Compared with Taiwan, Hong Kong had a very distinct international feel to it, with people and food of many colours and flavours.

We visited an amazing aviary in Hong Kong Park with hundreds of colourful birds from across Southeast Asia darting around the raised walkway.

Just outside, we bumped into a Dutch couple we'd met two weeks previously in sleepy little Dulan, one of those weird coincidences you learn to expect the more you travel.

The International Finance Center is the tallest building on Hong Kong Island. Tourists can visit the 55th floor for free, where we were treated to a spectacular panorama of dense fog.

That night we watched "Me, Myself & Irene" with Rich and some local delicacies he'd picked up from 7eleven.

The next day we followed Rich's recommendations for underrated tourist attractions along the green and blue subway lines. The first stop was the so-called "Temple of 10,000 Buddhas", a hillside temple accessible via a steep footpath flanked by hundreds of golden Buddhas.

Each Buddha had a distinct personality, or some bizarre physical abnormality that set him apart from the others.

For whatever reason, this one had a massively elongated arm.

The temple itself was especially impressive, literally containing over 10,000 unique Buddha statuettes. Sadly, photographs were prohibited inside the temple so you'll have to use your imagination.

Loitering on the statues were a handful of boisterous and somewhat aggressive monkeys.

They swung between the trees with such confidence, applying their full weight to the most feeble looking branches without anything ever going wrong. I could watch monkeys forever.

A later stop was Kowloon Walled City Park. Kowloon Walled City began its difficult life as a small Chinese enclave in British occupied Hong Kong, before uncontrolled development gave rise to a monstrous and effectively lawless city-within-a-city, home to more than 30,000 crushed residents. The government demolished it in the nineties to make way for a public park, which contains a few historic remains and a bronze model of the former microcity.