South East Asia Part 1

South East Asia has become ridiculously popular amongst backpackers over the past few decades. It may be because of the cheap prices, the full moon parties and the hot weather, but South East Asia’s tourism has quickly grown.  This particular post will take you on the trip of my first, but definitely not last, tour of South East Asia, including the countries of Hong Kong (not a country -I’m aware- but close enough), Vietnam and Cambodia. As James lived in Hong Kong for a year it only seemed apt that I and my best friend go visit him and then go on to tour the unknown.
When I first thought about this trip my mind conjured up visions of travelling through the rainforest and watching out for bomb remains of the Vietnam War. As you can tell my thoughts about South East Asia were pretty naïve, however as soon as James told me to Google 'Halong Bay' my thoughts quickly changed. I didn’t really have much involvement on planning the trip; rather I left that to my other friends to decide.

Hong Kong
The trip started in Hong Kong, with a few days to explore the city and see how James had been living for the past year. I’ve got to say I loved Hong Kong; it had the perfect mix of east meets west, and it is a great place to start off as a new backpacker. There was enough of the unknown to get me out of my comfort zone but enough of the ‘holiday’ feel, which made me feel like I was still on vacation. I won’t go into too much detail about Hong Kong, has James has more to say than I do, but basically we stayed in a small hostel in the city and spent our time looking at the main sights of the Peak, Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade, the 10,000 Buddha Monastery and a selection of night markets.

Three days later, we caught our already booked flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Our visas were already sorted before we left the UK, so remember to plan ahead, but overall the visas were simple to obtain. The flight to Vietnam took about 2-3 hours and we landed in scorching hot weather. Deet repellent spray and factor 50 thrown on, we got a taxi from the airport to our hostel in Hanoi which we came across in our travel books. My first thoughts about Vietnam were sandy, very rural and quite alien. The capital of Hanoi is full of hustle and bustle and different from any city I’d ever experienced up to this point. As we were a group of blonde, red head and brunette (and all pretty tall) westerners we got many stares, many pictures taken and many odd looks. We spent about three days in Hanoi looking at the main sites, eating in very nice restaurants every night and drinking cocktails at the main bars. To travel Vietnam on a Westerner budget is ridiculous. You can live like a King and wine and dine yourselves every night.

Halong Bay
The next part of our trip involved going to one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, Halong Bay. We booked our boat trip through a shop in Hanoi, which was easy to do and easy to come across. At first look, Halong Bay was even better than I first thought. Imagine pirate ships, a bit of an eerie feel to the air and hidden caves. If you go to Vietnam, this place is a must see, and a trip of a lifetime.
When we visited we booked a mid-range boat which hosted about fifteen people. A mix of Vietnamese, Australian, Canadian and us; we had a good group for the few days. Most of the trips are pretty similar, they tend just to vary on the boat facilities and meals, but the itinerary remains the same. The trip involves a tour through some magnificent caves, plenty of swimming off the boat, and lunches/BBQs, all topped off with a sleep under the stars.

After Halong Bay, we headed back to Hanoi to catch a train to Sapa. We booked a soft sleeper train which meant a little cabin with two reasonable sized bunkbeds. Sapa was a mix of countryside, waterfalls, local people and good food. We spent the day walking round the mountains of the rice paddy fields with a local woman. She showed us some great sights and a beautiful waterfall. The rest of the day was spent getting £3 massages (30 minutes of heaven), and then bargaining at the markets and eating ridiculously cheap buffet lunches. However, after Sapa, Hell hit for a day. We were scammed on the bus back down to the train station, and then we had to experience an eight hour hard seater train back to Hanoi. Imagine a hard park bench but with no room. Then imagine an array of angry Vietnamese women shouting, and then top it off with a sweaty, clammy train journey with young Vietnamese boys thinking they’d hit the jackpot of hilarity, being able to stare at me and my friend for eight hours.

Not to depress the story but this was a dire part of the trip. On a positive note it made the rest of the trip even better. Moral of the story, always book long train journeys at least a day in advance.

Ho Chi Minh
Following on from the hell train, I refused to climb straight on a twenty hour hard seater train to Ho Chi Minh, which was our next destination of choice. However, my friend managed to find the way to a ‘sleeper bus’ terminal which sold ‘beds on a bus'. The cost was about £30 for a 36 hour bus ride. 36 hours may seem ridiculous but we got beds on the bus which was comfy, and there was plenty of air con. The bus stopped about every four hours for toilet breaks and buffet lunches which were included in the price of the bus ticket. The journey went very quickly and it allowed us to see the countryside and ocean of Vietnam.
We spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh looking at the main sites of Cu Chi Tunnels, markets and a few museums. I highly recommend the Cu Chi Tunnels which were a lot of fun. Apart from general sightseeing we drank for a few days and booked our bus to Cambodia. We were told we had booked a boat, but after a six hour bus ride we hadn’t crossed any water…. At the Cambodian border we paid $10 on arrival for our visa, which was easily done. We then ‘bused’ in the rest of the way to Phnom Penh for the remainder of our trip.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was on the agenda which also links to the town Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is more famous for scenes in Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. The site is an array of old temples, lakes and Cambodian children selling you postcards. I highly recommend spending a day in Angkor Wat. Getting driven round the whole place by a local man is really cheap and in the heat is really welcome.  Siem Reap is then most likely where you will stay, and in my opinion it’s a must. We stayed in a good hotel ($5 each), had cocktails ($1) and another 30 minute massage ($3) and then got driven around all day. Living like a king once again. However, Cambodia is stricken with child poverty. Having read about how the system works, instead of giving money to the children we often bought them drinks or gave them stuff from our hotel such as the toothbrushes etc. Money frequently goes to pimps and simply encourages the industry.

Phnom Penh
After Angkor Wat, a day or two was spent in Phnom Penh, which involved touring the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng Museum and a few other museums in relation to the war. Not a fully delightful way to spend our last day but very interesting and important to see I feel. On a lighter and final note, try and search for the ‘Happy’ Pizza Restaurant. They ask if you want your pizza ‘happy’, and it sure affected my friend with tears/laughter/craziness about an hour later, if you get what I mean….