Vietnam: Hanoi & Ha Long Bay

December 11th, 2009


To be frank, Vietnam was a little disappointing. Our primary error was most likely assuming that the place would be broadly similar to Thailand; and given that the only bit of Thailand we’d seen up until that point was the über-touristy tropical paradise of Phuket, all the more silly an assumption to make.


Vietnam is, in a word, noisy. I can still scarcely believe the aggression with which scooter, car and bus drivers are prepared to use their (undoubtedly souped up) horns. The legendary traffic in Hanoi encouraged this behavior, but we saw it prevail even in sparsely populated areas and, bafflingly, even when there were few other drivers around at all.


A week of witnessing that lead me to question the sanity of this society as a whole – what possible benefit could these people derive from all the racket? Sure, you can write off these things as “cultural differences” but there is a point where you have to ask “are you mad?”. We reached that point.


We enjoyed several days on Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, not least because its raucous atmosphere (surprisingly so for such a small town) was a delightful break from the Hanoi madness. Ha Long Bay is an impressive set of rocks, no doubt. We’ve seen a hell of a lot of impressive rocks on this trip, and these measured up.


We met lots of fun & interesting people in Cat Ba – it’s a major backpacker corridor, so we had an endless stream of new faces to spend time with. Many provided us with some very useful information for our upcoming destinations.


Surprisingly we weren’t particularly wowed by the food on offer in Vietnam. Granted it’s vastly superior to much of what we’ve eaten around the world, and generally offers good nutritional value.


Our expectations were set by the fantastic array on offer in Victoria St in Melbourne, although in hindsight I’m wondering if the cuisine there is generally of more Chinese influence than Vietnamese. On the upside the food was astoundingly cheap.


Rather than pushing on with our original intention to work our way overland to the far south of Vietnam, we booked some flights with AirAsia and jetted off to Bangkok for a few days, to be followed by the quintessential tropical delights of Krabi in southern Thailand. Right now that seems like much more our style.


Hong Kong

December 7th, 2009


7 months, 25 countries, 25 flights, and 93 beer varieties later we arrived in Hong Kong. Coming from Jordan (and hence omitting India) it was a longer haul flight than we’d had for quite sometime, and we experienced proper jet-lag for the first time, really, since beginning in Hawaii.


We spent a fantastic week marveling at the transport efficiency, cleanliness, indescribably fantastic (cheap!) food, delightful weather and general excellentness that Hong Kong has to offer. As in Berlin we found an apartment to sublet for most of our stay right in the SoHo area after spending a couple of nights in the frenetic Mongkok district on the other side of the harbor.


Hong Kong demonstrates the advantages of a high density city, something Australian cities really lack – and will probably never be able to emulate. In our personal survey of metro transport Hong Kong has dethroned Vienna as the king of metro systems. And to think the brilliant Octopus card system (deployed in 1997, now helping me buy both metro trips and beers from 7-Eleven) was actually designed by an Australian company…


From a tourism perspective, there is stacks to do in Hong Kong, it’s all easy to do, and it’s almost all very cheap. Eating out is also ridiculously well priced. The only expensive thing is the accommodation. Although that’s not as pricey as an average European city, or Melbourne.


We felt a strange sense of home-coming being back in Asia after traipsing around the globe – as Jules C. pointed out the other day we’re almost done in longitudinal terms. The timezone, the cuisine and of course Asian people reminded us continually of home. And, well, the VB on sale at the supermarket also. If they’d had Coopers I probably would have caved and bought some. Actually I must admit I did buy a decent sausage roll from Starbucks on Lantau island.


There are many attributes which help make Hong Kong an excellent city to visit – and perhaps to live also. Not least its excellent location sort of in the middle of the world. I highly recommend you stop over the next time you’re passing through.



November 25th, 2009


I’m sitting at our hotel waiting for a lift to the airport. We’re enjoying our first beer in 5 days to celebrate an excellent “local” experience: A bike ride with a group of 50+ riders down to the Dead Sea coast.

It’s a nice way to end our brief Jordanian adventure – there’s been a bit too much tourist oriented activity. Our laziness once again prevented us from lining up any couchsurf hosts to hang out with, so this was an excellent way to speak to some locals and share a little of their perspective.

The Tareef cycling club bussed us all down to a quiet spot around 30km from the Dead Sea coast (Amman being a suicidal place to start a ride) gave us bikes, helmets and drinks, and off we tootled mostly downhill to the Dead Sea, ending up some 400m below sea level which, actually, is the lowest point on Earth.


We finished up with a sunset fire to cook up some kebap and drink sweet tea. Turns out Googling for “cyling jordan” was one of the more useful things I’ve done in the last week. It was great to be back on a bike (and quite a nice bike) after such a long time. Again, cycling really is something I’ve missed on this trip. You can check out the full route – be sure to select “Elevation Profile” from the “Show” menu.

Arabic script fascinates me. Actually all non-latin scripts fascinate me; each time we land in a country with a script I haven’t seen before I do get a bit excited.


Right now I’m watching a news ticker flash across the bottom of the TV screen; probably some sort of finance news. The Arabic script is interspersed with Western numbers (i.e. the kind you and I are used to). Because Arabic is read right to left, the ticker moves across the screen from left to right – the opposite of what you’d see in English language broadcasts.

Now figure this: Western numbers are, of course, read left to right. So try to imagine your eyes following text from right to left, but having to read every number sandwiched in there from left to right. Then resuming your regular right to left reading. It confounds me. Although it’s a good illustration of how we read numbers as whole units rather than by compositing individual numerals. Same goes for words, actually.


And – if you’ll forgive me for taking this too far – what do you do if you’re writing Arabic on, say, Facebook where the text is left aligned instead of right aligned? Do you write all your words in reverse order and the reader needs to start at the bottom of the paragraph and read upward? The mind boggles!

The last couple of days we spent in Petra – apparently one of the “new” seven wonders of the world. Not particularly new, mind you, but a wonder indeed it is. There aren’t many tourist attractions that can live up to their hype – especially to a long term (and perhaps slightly jaded) traveler – but Petra really does.


Petra is an entire ancient city mostly carved out of spectacular red rock. Rather than boring you with words, let’s just take a look:




It flows perfectly, from the moment you walk in you stand in awe, until the final blow is delivered after a long hike to the monastery, a structure that is probably too astonishing for words to describe. That’s Jess at the bottom, pictured for scale:


Prior to arriving at Petra we did spend an eventful day with a taxi-cum-tour-guide traveling from Amman via various sights of historic importance including Mt Nebo, the Jordan River, Bethany (where Jesus was apparently baptised) and a quick swim in the Dead Sea. All were varyingly interesting and fun, if a little underwhelming.


Our slight crazed taxi driver pulled over on the Kings Highway next to the Dead Sea and got us to pose for a photo pretending to be stranded on the Highway after a car breakdown, attempting to hitch a lift. He must do with with all his tourists, due no doubt to the indisputable hilarity of this gag.

Here you can view his enviable artistic talents in all their glory:


Slighty less hilarious, however, was the moment some 20 minutes later when the drive shaft in his Samsung built car (really!) lunched itself. And we really did find ourselves stranded on the Kings Highway.

After 30 loud minutes on the telephone which included turning the steering wheel from lock to lock in an attempt to rectify the clearly serious (and non-steering related) problem, he admitted defeat and arranged for a perfect stranger – who had pulled over out of interest – to deliver us to our destination.

Turns out our perfect stranger / new tour guide was either blind, illiterate, or both. Not only did his vehicle seem seriously unlikely to last the distance, he managed to get repeatedly lost despite asking for direction on at least five occasions. He also mentioned that he had two wives and nine children.


Due to the aforementioned affliction(s) he was unable to read roadsigns, something we were at least able to help with given they were written in English as well as Arabic. At one point we did indeed pass a sign directing us to the Iraqi border, and not any other destination.

But, as always, we made it. And in hindsight it’s all very amusing ;-) Sound familiar?



November 16th, 2009

Sad to say, the Doner Kebab is equally rubbish in Istanbul. We’re sort of gob-smacked that this is the reality: In Turkey you really can’t get a decent kebab-in-bread-for-fast-eating. No garlic sauce (or indeed any sauce at all), miserly meat portions, flaccid lettuce and average bread. Even the use of pita bread (instead of toasted white rolls) is an optional extra! Crazy.


Well perhaps it’s not crazy – what they do very well is the sit down, full plate shish kebab. With extra chilli. I guess it’s our Western fast food mentality that created the doner kebab when the Turks arrived in Berlin and started to adopt the “faster, better, cheaper” approach.


Istanbul is exquisite, even in the rain. We really enjoyed the mosques’ minarets reaching into the sky all along the horizon, enthusiastic merchants and restaurant touts, and, well, just the mind bending magnitude of the city’s history. After trying to dig a metro rail tunnel under the mighty Bosphorus strait, historians now believe Istanbul may have been first settled some 8,000 years ago.


From a tourism perspective, this really is a city where you can easily fill your days with stuff you can’t see anywhere else. We’re staying in the traveler ghetto of Sultanahmet which, whilst undoubtedly very touristy, is smack in the middle of innumerable sites of enormous architectural and cultural significance.


What’s nice for the geo-nerd in me is that in a 30 minute / 1.5 Lira ferry trip you can leave Europe and be in Asia. Istanbul is the only city that straddles an ocean and two continents.


Istanbul’s status as a mega-city like São Paulo was of substantial interest to me. It’s orientation on major waterways and hilly terrain make the built out urban area seem to stretch into eternity. Being such an old city means that it’s predominantly low rise in the inner (and I use the term loosely) area. So the sprawl extends even further than I had imagined.

We maintained our enjoyable habit of catching up with friends in exotic places, this time having the pleasure of Georgina and Glen’s company who were just embarking on a Turkey tour.


They agreed that the laneways in the bustling Beyoğlu area make something of a mockery of Melbourne’s self appointed status as the place to go for vibrant laneways. The number and extent of the drinking and eating options (and for that matter every other service) in the laneways were a revelation. Even more so as this was our first escape from the disney-esque tourist district of Sultanahmet (complete with magic carpet photo opportunities).


Turkey also happens to be our final stop on the European continent. The European segment was never intended to be a lengthy one, and with the continual rain we’ve been hit with recently I’m glad we’re moving on.


Mediterranean Turkey

November 16th, 2009


We left the Greek islands and arrived in Bodrum, Turkey after short ferry ride. It’s a nice Mediterranean coastal town, albeit heavily trafficked by day trippers resulting in most of the nicest waterfront eateries serving full English breakfasts complete with “M&S Pork Sausage”. The prices and the views were right, though.

We arrived just in time for the national day, celebrating their emergence as a republic 86 years ago. There’s nothing like tooting horns, dancing troupes and tens of thousands of red + crescent flags to let you know you’ve arrived in Turkey.


The Turks are spectacularly nice people. Even the touts – numerous and persistent as they are – are lovely to speak to and very helpful whatever the circumstances.


Unlike Greece, Turkey seems to have no problem enforcing anti-smoking laws. Also, their bus system – both local and intercity is of probably the highest standard we’ve seen in all of our travels.

So our initial impressions of Turkey were of a very civilized and developed place – in many ways much more so than Greece, something we were not expecting.

It’s often said that Turkey has more ancient Greek ruins than Greece does, and we’re inclined to believe it. From Bodum we headed to Selçuk, which is adjacent to the ancient city of Ephesus (Efes) which is probably the most impressive and complete ancient city in the world.


We tried to ride the bicycles from our hostel to Ephesus there on a sunny afternoon, but after missing the non-existent signpost of the turn off, getting a bit lost and heading back, Jess’ bike suffered a catastrophic failure and we had to walk home. After losing another hour picking up the broken bike on the proprietor’s scooter (as fun as it sounds!) we decided to save the ruins for the next day.


Which, of course, was rainy and very cold. So our trip to Ephesus was a pretty miserable experience, although the wow-factor was still available in between umbrella thwacks and trying to comprehend the Turklish audio guide. Needless to say in the afternoon, after we had left, the weather cleared up nicely. We did get plenty of use out of the jacuzzi in our “honeymoon suite” though. Turkish wine seems quite decent, too.


A rather strange attribute of Selçuk is the prevalence of Australian themed businesses. Including where we stayed The ANZ (Australian / New Zealand) Guest House, the Canberra hotel, the Boomerang guesthouse, and numerous others. We never really received a satisfactory explanation as to why this is the case, although one theory is plain old copy-catting.

Luckily we found a cheap flight to take us onto Istanbul and avoid the overnight bus. And in fact I’m writing this on the Turkish Airlines plane as we’re about to land in Istanbul. Once we arrive I’m hoping to find higher quality Doner Kebab (which, so far, was vastly superior in Berlin) than what we’ve seen so far in Turkey.