A Travellerspoint blog

Trip, Interrupted

How one minute in Australia ruined seven weeks in Asia

As some of our more astute readers may have realized by now, I was having some long-lasting ill effects of my tumble aboard the Blizzard in the Whitsundays. By the time we reached Hanoi, I had come to the conclusion that my "lucky fin" was not so lucky after all, and that there was no way I could continue lugging a 20 kg. backpack around Asia for the next seven weeks. The pain was compounded by an inability to do anything fun, alas even my favourite activity of laying on the beach is painful. After many (many) tears, I decided the only responsible thing to do was cut my losses and come home for some Western Medicine (read: narcotics) and restful healing (read: boredom). So, I write this final blog post to you from my couch at 8 Wolf Crescent, wide awake at 11:00 pm because my new favourite time to be awake is 3:00-6:00 am. I will tell you the story of how I got here though, just so you aren't left hanging.

After amazing day with Asia Outdoors, we woke up as bright and early as possible to pack a full day in to our half-day in Cat Ba. We went for breakfast (day 3/4 pho for me), scurried to Cat Co 2 for a few hours of beach time, then got one last lunch in at Bamboo Cafe (clams #3 for me). Then we got aboard the Hoang Long bus to begin the journey back to Hanoi. As you may recall, this journey consists of: Bus to boat to bus to bus. Then we got to Hanoi (hello, traffic!) and took a taxi to our hotel. Man, I have never been so glad to use my two legs (which both work, for the record)!

Once in Hanoi, we had a very quick tour by Talia, which consisted of eating at her favourite restaurant, going for ice cream by the lake, walking around the lake (ooh, nice pagoda!), and then walking around the Old City of Hanoi. It was lovely! But we were very tired from our long travel day (compounded by the very hot morning we had in Cat Ba, where there was of course no electricity and therefore no A/C), so we hit the sack early.
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My flight the next morning left at 8:35 am, which meant I only had to wake up at 5:00 am. It was a great sleep in. Lani took me to the taxi and we had a very sad hug. I don't want to leave her, she doesn't want to be left; that says it all. At the airport, I tried to make myself happy by having a final pho and Vietnamese Iced Coffee (it worked until I got a stomach ache on the flight) and then did some emotional shopping at the souvenir shops. It may be true that I spent more money that day than our entire week in Asia.
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I do have to tell you about my flight from Hanoi to Guangzhou (China, where I ate some dumplings and did more emotional shopping). I was seated next to a 20-something guy who was headed to New Zealand. I figured he was a backpacker and I should talk to him. In fact, he was a Christian missionary who decided to sing hymns during take-off and proceeded to ask if he could pray for my lucky fin. I was very proud of myself for not laughing at him when he asked: So, did it work? Is the pain gone? Oh, if only life were that easy...
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The rest of the flights were uneventful. I failed to sleep on my flight from China to Vancouver, but I did watch six movies and two TV shows, so all was not lost. I got to Edmonton, where Ari and Faren picked my sorry ass up from the airport and were kind enough not to mention the stench emanating from me. Now, it's Monday night, I should be heading to Cambodia, but instead am bored out of my mind, trying to scheme up ways to spend the next weeks that don't include crying and whining.
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I'm also planning an epic return to Asia tour. I don't know when it will be, but the itinerary will be awesome, so if you'd like to join me, I'd love to let you pay.

--Liz

Posted by Flanilandlizard 22:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A Castaway's Paradise

After another short sleep that felt more like a nap, we found ourselves back at the Good Bar restaurant for some mango pancakes, pho, and to check in for our day trip.

We took a short bus over to a boat where our 30 minute ride landed us at a small fishing house on the water in Lan Ha Bay where we picked up our kayaks. The kayak instructions were as follows- don't get too close to those little fishing houses, they all have guard dogs that will jump on your kayak and eat you. We only managed to have one bark at us. Liz and her lucky fin got into a kayak with Will (guide) and they set off to the front of the pack. Not being fully awake yet Talia and I weren't fully on our kayak "A-Game" and found ourselves somewhere near the back, being laughed at by Jesse (guide) as he questioned if we had ever actually kayaked before.
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We made our way under a natural arch into the most stunning lagoon. I've said it before but I don't know how else to say it: 360 degrees of amazing. After the bustle of Hanoi it was amazing to be in such secluded calmness. We all hopped out of our kayaks for a bit of a morning swim/float and proceeded to flop like fish to wiggle ourselves back in without flipping the kayaks.
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The swim woke us up nicely and round two of kayaking was much more in sync. Will and Jesse gave us the option of going for a long 1.5 hour kayak with less time swimming or a short 45 min trip with more swimming. Tal and I opted for laziness while Will paddled Liz through the wide open sea. I hear the long trip was beautiful, with waves and sun. The short trip turned out to be the long trip as the pass we were meant to cut through had no water due to low tide and thus we spent an hour pulling a kayak while navigating our way across coral. We did get to see crabs, a jelly fish and some other sea life up close and personal but it was much more than we had bargained for.

This brought us to another secluded beach for some more swim/floating. We then kayaked back to the main boat through some passages for a delicious home cooked lunch. Note: Food is delicious. I will keep talking about it.
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After lunch (and a short siesta) we made our way over to another beach to do some climbing. Now if you haven't caught on, the theme of the day is exhaustion and so after three hours of kayaking, our arms weren't at their strongest for climbing. There were five routes strung- the easiest being quite similar to the "hike" Tal and I had done the day before with the hardest offering a pretty steep overhang. The overhang was my Everest and unfortunately I didn't conquer it. The best part of climbing was sticking your fingers into the cracks and hoping nothing too poisonous was hanging out inside.
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Liz made a great photographer, commentator and napper throughout the afternoon.
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Once back on mainland our friendly guides offered to take us to "the best food on the island", talking us out of our milkshakes. Unfortunately when we went to the spot on the street down the alley to find said food, the lady and her cart had left for the day. So with dampened spirits we went back to Good Bar for milkshakes. You may be wondering why in a town of 200 restaurants we consistently ate at Good bar when they all have the same menu. I'd like to tell you I have an answer. But it just was.

After some napping and showering we met up with Chance (Talia's friend she met in Hanoi) to return to Bamboo (round 2) for another delicious feast and rounded out the night with some drinks at ... wait for it.....GOOD BAR! By now we were regulars and knew 90% of people in the bar, making for a nice chill night with all our new friends.

--Lani

Posted by Flanilandlizard 21:47 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cannons on Mountains and Hospitals in Caves

Exploring Cat Ba Island

On Tuesday morning we woke up to a little taste of what can only be called "rainy season". There had been an "electrical storm" (this is Camp BB speak for a thunderstorm) all night, but we hoped it would be over by the time we woke up. No such luck. Lani had gotten up in early, in typical Lani fashion, and went on a hunt for a better hotel. This entailed Lani checking out every single hotel between ours and the beach, roughly 20 hotels. She narrowed it down and eventually found us an amazing room for TEN DOLLARS A NIGHT!!! that met all our criteria: A/C, Wifi, a view, a balcony, elevator. We were still on the fifth floor, but at least there was a lift!

While Lani was getting to know Cat Ba, Talia and I eventually rose from our beauty sleep and were just about to head out for breakfast when the typhoon started. Lani managed to send us a text message with her current location before the electricity (and thus the Wifi) on the island cut out. Well, two hungry girls is no match for any rainstorm. We booked it to find Lani, and no surprise, we found her at Good Bar. We stayed at Good Bar for breakfast (this was day 1/4 of having Pho for breakfast for me), and once the rain slightly slowed we headed back to change hotels.

Once we were settled into our new room with a gorgeous view, we headed out to do some exploring. Cat Ba Island was strategically placed during the Vietnam War, and so besides being incredibly beautiful, it also has some cool leftover sights from the war. First up was Fort Cannon, which is just what it sounds like: a fort with some cannons. At the top of the mountain. The views are incredible, so up we went. Kidding- we took motorbike rides which was a slightly scary experience as I'm not sure motorbikes were meant to go 5 km straight up. There are also old bunkers with very creepy mannequins, and some other "fun" leftovers.
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After checking out the lovely views atop Fort Cannon, we came back down to the town for some lunch. We sadly decided to eat at a different restaurant than Bamboo Cafe or Good Bar, but it was still pretty yummy. We then hailed a cab to Hospital Cave, one of the cooler things that we saw on our trip!
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Hospital Cave is a big, natural cave that during the Vietnam War was repurposed as a hospital, in use until 1975. It is naturally temperate (cool in summer, warm in winter), dry, and protected by very thick rock (ie. a mountain) from the constant bombing. Hospital Cave is three floors: the first floor is a series of rooms (patient rooms, meeting rooms, operating theatre, pharmacy, etc). All of the interior is completely bare, save the electricity that was put in during the war, but we had a guide who told us what each room was for.
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The second and third floors were left as natural cave, and were used for recreation and training. Up here there was a swimming pool and even a cinema! There were also escape routes built into the cave in case the Americans were able to penetrate the natural fortress. Hospital Cave is ingenuity at its best, and I will forever be grateful that any hospital I work in is not a cave (the echo would get really annoying when you have screaming toddlers around!).

After our visit to Hospital Cave, Lani and Talia went to Cat Ba National Park for some hiking. I had recently realized that my lucky fin was getting worse, and so we mutually decided I would need to do more resting and less being stupid, so instead of hiking I went to the beach (sad, I know, but I eventually got over it). The girls report that the hike was a bit tricky due in part to the rain earlier in the day, and so they had to crabwalk and rock climb on all fours during parts of it. The mud caked all over them when they met me at the beach told me that was true.

After the beach we had some dinner, again not at Bamboo or Good Bar. We had a Hot Pot for dinner, which is really yummy but we were told that it is a winter dish so essentially that we are stupid tourists. We already knew we are stupid tourists, but the Hot Pot was delicious, so who cares? After dinner, we went to Good Bar for some drinks because you can't complete a day without a couple of visits to Good Bar.

--Liz

NB: We also made two trips to the Asia Outdoors office today, in case you were worried.

Posted by Flanilandlizard 17:48 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Rock the Cat Ba

As 5:00 am (our new favourite time) rolled in, with it came the appearance of Miss Talia Bronstein, fresh off her trek to Sapa. Talia is one of my oldest and closest friends though I'm not so sure that 20 years ago when our grandmothers took us to the zoo and told us we'd be friends, traveling Vietnam together was what they had in mind. With some excited squeals we promptly got back into bed for a 45 minute nap before beginning the venture to Cat Ba Island.

After a lengthy travel involving bus, bus, boat, bus we arrived on a stunning quaint island beach town that is completely a tourist town- but mostly geared to Vietnamese tourism.

We checked into our hotel and climbed the five flights of stairs to our room which did not offer the ocean view promised or much else of desire; dropped our bags and went to grab grub before people got too "hangry" (hungry/angry).

This was our first of MANY visits to Good Bar. This wonderful, Lonely Planet recommended establishment has a great restaurant on the main floor, houses Asia Adventures tourist office on the second, and the "American" bar on the third. There is also a hotel on the fourth but we've already stayed in one night club, and that is one more than necessary.

With hunger dealt with, it was time to look into our intended climbing/kayaking excursions for the coming days. This brought us to visit number one with Asia Adventures (AA) staff Will and Jesse. Will had recently received a package of golden syrup and Vegemite and was mostly concerned with discussing the merits of the syrup as opposed to the trip. However he did say that a guide would be happy to kayak Liz and her lucky fun around so that she would still be able to come. Little did he know he was volunteering himself. We left their office to do a bit more research before returning 20 minutes later to register. None of us actually had cash on us so we said we would come back in the morning to pay them and made our way to the beach.

Liz and I quickly realized that in Talia's short time in Vietnam she has met every traveller in the country as she promptly ran into 20 different people she knew.

We chose to go to Cat Co Beach 2, which is set around a corner from Cat Co 1 and much less busy. The view was stunning in every direction. I just kept spinning around, enjoying my surroundings and being beyond astounded.

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After some showers we made our way to Bamboo Cafe (our first of multiple visits) for an an amazing dinner of clams, shrimp, and banana leaf salad before calling it an early night.

--Lani

Posted by Flanilandlizard 17:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A Quick Bali Hop

Indonesia in 96 hours or less

We left the land of Oz on Thursday to head to Bali with the rest of the Australian population. According to my Lonely Planet bible, Bali is the “vulgar Oz ghetto not actually found in Australia”. Not sure if I 100% agree with that, but there sure are a lot of Australians in Bali. Who can blame them? When you live on a really big island at the bottom of the world, sometimes you need to escape to a really small island slightly higher up in the world.

Enough about Australia though. We left that place in the dust, with only memories and well over 1000 pictures. And maybe some souvenirs as well.

Our first stop on the Asian leg of this journey is (was) Bali. We originally intended to spend about 6 days here, but as we added extra countries, and moved some dates around so we could meet up with people, it became 3 nights, with only 2 full days in Bali. We set out to make the most of these (less than) 96 hours, though, by minimizing sleep and maximizing beer intake.

We landed at around 2:00 pm, to one of the nicer airports we have seen on our trip. There are really beautiful gardens and Buddhas, and the first thing we noticed was, of course, the wall of hot, humid air that greeted us. Sweaters off, shorts on.

After picking up our bags, we got a taxi to our hotel. Of course, we didn’t actually have a hotel, because when I called to book it on Tuesday, I was told that they don’t book rooms, you just show up. Ok… well, luckily they had a room available. When I asked if we could pay Visa, they said no, cash only, but you can pay tomorrow. I’m not sure that we actually had to pay at all, but we did eventually, because we are good people.

Next stop was the beach, obviously. There’s not much about Kuta (the area in Bali we stayed in) that I have much to say about positively, but the proximity to the beach is one tick in the win column. We hit the beach after walking through a fancy (read: Americanized) mall, then crossing a street (without being hit by either cars or traffic law-defying scooters). It was pretty packed, as Wednesday was some kind of national holiday, and there were many school-girls looking to take their picture with me. Did you know I’m famous in Bali?

We walked along the beach for a while, until the sun started to go down. Our friend Alice who we met on our Great Barrier Reef trip in Cairns was also in Bali, and we had made some plans to meet up with her that night. She and two fellow medical students (another Alice, and Lucy) were in Bali on another “elective”. They spent a few hours at the hospital that day, got their white coats, and thus, they have earned their vacation. Lani and I have some serious questions about these international electives, but according to the girls they’ve already written their exams and graduated, so this is just for fun. Okay with me- so long as I never need a doctor when I’m in England.

Anyhow, Alice squared and Lucy met us at our hotel and we headed out to wander the streets of Kuta in search of dinner and drinks. We found a place that had a nice garden feel, making you forget you’re actually sitting between two pretty gross alleys. We had a few drinks (happy hour is, apparently, all day every day in Bali), some food, and the dinner came to 629,000 Indonesian Riyadh. I think that’s about 40 cents. (Just kidding, it’s more than that; but our dollar goes so much farther in Asia than Oceania that it’s laughable). The other girls had been surfing all afternoon, and were pretty wiped, so we called it an early night at just after midnight.

Next morning, sun is shining and the beach is calling! We got right into our swimsuits and headed to the beach as quickly as we could. We ended up spending some time at the Sheraton dealing with “administrative difficulties”, but I got to finish my book, so I think the morning was well spent.

Lani had a surfing lesson at 2:00 (no surfing for Nemo over here), so we headed back to the surf shop to meet up with Popo Tomato, her surfing instructor. I stopped in for a quick $6 pedicure first, as at this point I only had nail polish on 4 of my toes, which is acceptable as a backpacker in Australia but not once you get to the land of cheap pedicures.

Popo Tomato was recommended to Lani by her friend Derek who spends time in Asia every winter. Lani messaged him the day prior to see if she could set up lessons, to which he responded: “c u in Bali. Smile n relax that my motto”. We took that to mean that he would be happy to give her surf lessons. It worked out, and she spent two hours straight surfing the waves like a pro. I sat on a beach chair and read, also like a pro.
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After our beach/surfing time, we decided some more Bali pampering was in order to soothe our sore backpacker bodies. We got massages ($5/hour) at a spa, where we listened to a weird old man get a massage as well, while a small Balinese lady stood on Lani’s back. I wouldn’t let the girl touch my lucky fin, and I think she was a bit sad she didn’t get to stand on me, too.

Dinner was at a very delicious little place right next to Popo Tomato’s surf HQ, and came highly recommended by Popo and all of his fellow Tomatoes. It was very delicious, and cost $3. Including a beer.

The food/surfing/massage combo wore Lani out, so she had a quick power nap on our wonderful balcony. She was then energized and headed out for a nice evening with her friend Martin, a German guy (of course) who she met at Tomato. My lucky fin is being extra lucky these days, so I’m opting for trying to rest and get some sleep (which isn’t easy when you can only sleep on your right side. But who’s complaining- I’m in paradise, here!). I told Lani to send me a text if she wasn’t going to be home by 1:00 am, but then fell asleep and decided she was probably fine. My cousin intuition told me she was okay. I was right- she was getting a 1:30 am pedicure (of course. Why wouldn’t a pedicure place be open at 1:30 am?!).

On Saturday, we had arranged for a day tour to Ubud, an area of Bali north of Kuta which is meant to be beautiful, and much more Balinese than Kuta has become. Our driver for the day, Ketut, picked us up in our A/C (thank god) vehicle at 8:45 am and we set off for our first stop, a traditional Barong dance show. Our ticket came with a “Playbill” that supposedly explained the show, but actually the broken English left us with a few more questions than we came in with. All I can really tell you is that there was a tiger, who bit the nose off someone, and then other people got mad, and there was fighting and killing of each other. The costumes were really cool, though!
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Our next stop was Pura Penataran Sasih, the only temple in Bali that you can go in and explore. It was very beautiful, and a quiet, contemplative moment in the hot sun is always nice.
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We then proceeded north towards Ubud, which Ketut told us was the “centre of Arts and Crafts”. We stopped at a silver making factory, but declined the offer of a Batik printing factory. Instead, Ketut took us to a coffee plantation, in the traditional Balinese style. Here, we were shown around the plantation, where we saw vanilla, bananas, ginger, coconuts, coca and coffee beans growing that are later used in the production of the plantation’s products. We also saw the Luwak, which is an animal that eats coffee beans at night, and then through natural fermentation the coffee becomes more delicious and then is pooped out by the Luwak, collected by the farmer, and processed to become very special (very expensive) coffee.

The tour concluded with a tasting of all 15 of their coffee and tea varieties, as well as their chocolate and alcohol (we tried the rice wine, but after spending 6 months in Israel, I know better than to get started on Arak). We thought you would all be so proud that we were tasting something other than beer or wine, but alas some wine snuck in there! Our very favourite, however, was the Coconut Coffee which is a very tasty treat that we will be bringing home.
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We next headed to Ubud to meet Alice and her friends for lunch. We were meant to meet at a place called Toro Sushi at 1:00 pm. Turns out, there are two Toro Sushi restaurants in Ubud, and we separately enjoyed delicious sushi lunches, wondering what happened to the other. Lani and I spent some time after lunch doing some shopping in Ubud, where there are really cute shops, with nice shopkeepers who are not hawkers (read: the opposite of Kuta shopping).

Ketut then took us to Tegalalang to the rice terraces. We spent about 45 minutes getting lost in fields of rice, thinking about how much work goes into making rice, and how long it takes to get 1 kg. of rice vs. how long it takes for this country to go through 1 kg. of rice. That’s a lot of hours spent farming and harvesting rice! Ketut told us that his family has a rice farm in his home village that he used to work in after school when he was younger, before he moved to Kuta for more work opportunities.
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Our final, penultimate stop was the Ubud Monkey Forest. I don’t think I need to tell you what we saw here— monkeys!! Although I see monkeys as evil five-fingered thieves, Lani is quite enamoured with them and we spent some time watching them climb, swing, eat, and just generally monkey around. Watch out for the monkey business!
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We then headed back to Kuta, which ended up taking a realllllly long time due to traffic. We actually ended up parking and walking at the end, as it was a million times faster than driving (which was really just sitting in traffic at that point). Another ETB for Ms. Lucky Fin, while Lani went out galavanting with Martin and the other Tomatos. We woke up this morning at 3:30 in order to start our journey towards Vietnam.

And thus concludes our very quick Bali Hop!

—Liz

Posted by Flanilandlizard 00:42 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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