Archive | Journeys RSS feed for this section

Easy Riders

30 May

Junk off the northern coast of Cat Ba island, Halong Bay, Vietnam

Journey's end: Cat Ba island, Halong Bay, Vietnam

We’ve been exploring Cat Ba island, which splatters like a Rorschach blot off the northern coast of Vietnam, trailing 300-odd islets in its wake.

It’s an implausible landscape to Western eyes: classic limestone karst territory, where tectonic pressures coupled with groundwater erosion carve surrealist sculptures out of the land, and the monsoon climate clothes them in forests of deepest green.

Yesterday, we hired bikes to explore the island, winding south coast to north coast, then looping around the west coast. And it’s a moot point whether Z, having been driven by his dad, will ever get on a motorbike with me again. Continue reading

Advertisements

The Reunification Express

26 May

Balloons and the iconic pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoan Kiem lake: the calm heart of Hanoi, Vietnam.

We flew from Manila into Saigon last week, the day after Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, and rode the Reunification Express 1600km or so upcountry to Hanoi to pick up our journey through mainland South-East Asia from the north.

Vietnam is one of Z’s favourite countries. And not just for the pho (we had our first bowl outside Saigon railway station at 3am after our midnight flight…). He likes the combination of very traditional, slow-paced rural life with big, modern, turbocharged cities.

Me? I loved Saigon, and the everyday people we met. But I found the aggressively entrepreneurial spirit, not to say constant scams and ripoffs, on the tourist trail oppressive. So I got on the plane with slightly mixed feelings.

Last time round, our plan still was to cover three continents and sixteen countries in a single year. This left us, as you might imagine, rather short on time. So we only made it as far north as the nineteenth-century capital, Hue, before cutting west cross-country and into Laos. And we took the bus, not the train.

A big mistake… Because the poignantly-named Reunification Express, which runs from Saigon to Hanoi, is a wonderful way to travel. Continue reading

Cargo Boats and Commandos

8 May

I’m a great fan of authenticity in travel. Travelling, where possible, as the locals do, which, given the wealth divide in the Philippines, means either with the driver(s) in the chauffeur’s seat(s), and the maid(s) and/or nanny(s) looking after the nippers, or (on our budget) by a spectacular range of public transportation.

Now, cargo boats are a mode of transport that are rapidly disappearing. Many of the big boats on the most popular worldwide routes now function as exclusive, floating hotels for baby boomers who still retain their 60s fantasies of tramp steamers, with a la carte dinners at the captain’s table, marble en suites, and the whole shebang.

So I was really excited to be taking a bona fide cargo boat from El Nido, Palawan, to Coron, in the Calamian Islands, which cluster a hundred miles or so north-east. So was the young master.

Well, he was until we boarded.

It would be fair to say that, for Z, there is such a thing as too much authenticity, and that that thing could be best expressed by reference to the good boat Josille. Continue reading

Maritime Woes

29 Apr

Fishing bangka with extra outrigging, off Palawan, the Philippines

You can find the bloody fish, though, can't you, chaps?

There are many things unique and wonderful about the Philippines. But the boatmen here are phenomenal in many of the wrong ways.

Right now, sat in utter serenity on a perfect crescent of a beach (me) and scaling a coconut palm (Z), the various unpleasantnesses of the morning feel like serendipity in action.

All the same, Filipino mariners are quite the phenomenon. I’ve traveled in heading for forty countries. This is the only nation I have ever visited where boats routinely deposit one in the wrong bloody place. Continue reading

Messing About in Boats – Part 2

17 Mar

It is pretty much a given, in rural South-East Asia, that falang (and, I guess, locals too) in need of a bed for the night will eventually find someone prepared to put them up.

So, as the sunset pink fades from the Mekong, the night fishermen come out and we moor our increasingly sodden skiff on a promising-looking stretch of bank on another substantial island which does not appear on our map, there is no hint of the Straw Dogs about the encroaching dark. It’s just an adventure. Continue reading