Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nha Trang - Perhaps the most beautiful place on Earth

I'm not the best traveled person in the world. Not by a long shot. However, I've seen my fair share of stunning scenery and I'd have to put Nha Trang on the top of my list. Perhaps it's because I reside in Saigon which isn't the most ascetically pleasing city, or maybe I'm just a sucker for a nice coast line. Whatever it is, it made me book my next holiday there 4 hours before I had even left. I've never done that before, so it has obviously struck a cord with me, particularly after the ordeal it was getting there.

On first glimpse, you might not think it's the spectacle I've started harping on about, but over the course of a weekend it quickly grabs you, astounds you and leaves you wanting more. For those of you not in the know, Nha Trang on the east coast of Vietnam, about a 9 hour bus ride from Saigon. It's a must see tourist destination in Nam and boasts a glorious beach that most coast of the UK would envy.

Now to start making you all feel jealous. This is the view from our hotel...

I kept the balcony in the second picture to prove that I was inside a room when I took the photograph. What do you think? You'll be even more amazed when I tell you that I paid $13 per night for this stunning sensation. (that's £9). It was also a spacious room in a small hotel owned by a Canadian couple who take great care of their guests. They told me that they could help me organise a private boat tour to a secluded island (with a bbq and snorkeling equipment), a mountain bike tour in the mountains (I'll come to that later) and introduce me to the best restaurants in town. Not bad I think. The name of the hotel is 'Tide Hotel' if you're interested.

Next, I also found the best western food in Vietnam in Nha Trang. To those of you at home you'll be thinking 'Why would you care about that?' Well, after being out of the country for about 32 months you start craving a few home comforts. The chips were crunchy with a substantial amount of potato (unlike the sogginess I'd become accustomed to), the bacon in my BLT was ever so close to bacon at home, and a microbrewery called 'Louisiana' makes the best desserts in the southeast Asia region. Look at this!

A proper Lemon Meringue pie! It was divine! I really wanted to go back to get a couple more to take home but I'm happy just reliving the short minute it took me to demolish it! Besides the food, the beer at the beer house was pretty fine (especially in VN) and the nightlife was pretty buzzing, although I didn't really experience too much of it as I was more concerned with finding somewhere I could watch the world cup in comfort.

If this doesn't tickle your fancy then maybe a slice of history will. You can go to visit the grounds of the last King of Vietnam's residence. It's a fairly understated villa but in a prime location as you'd imagine. There are also various temples you can look around such as the one pictured below.

Unfortunately my camera doesn't do it justice. I only have a point and click job which doesn't have a wide lens. However, I can assure you that it's a pretty impressive structure to visit with 4 or 5 temples to pray/bow to Buddha. It's elevated position gives you some good views of the city and it's just a peaceful place to be.

Finally, for this entry, driving along the coastal road is a lot of fun. Just a few kilometers from the main tourist area is a deserted Russian resort. The manager of my hotel told me they got half way through building it but there was some kind of disagreement with the government so they packed up and left about 2 years ago. We drove to the resort (the cottages below) and it's an ery

ghost town. It felt like you shouldn't be down there and felt oddly threatening. Kinda like the setting for some Teen Horror movie. It was also a sad place as obviously a lot of money had been spent which has been been wasted and as you can see, the place had a ton of potential. Anyways, just round the corner we were faced with this coastal road. It was pretty exciting! I was also shocked. Before this point you wouldn't have expected the road to open out in this way. The views were simply breathtaking and it was hard to keep the bike on the road as the eyes were wondering frantically taking to take it all it.

The final image of Nha Trang I want you to think about is this. Sea and sand in front of you. Behind that a relatively low building skyline with fashionable and modern buildings. In the background lush, green mountains illuminated in a clear blue sky with glorious sunshine. There's so much more I could talk about: the seafood, the friendly people, Vinpearl Land, the mud baths to name a few. But I'll save that until my next trip in August.

Stupid Things I've done - Part 5 - Strawpedo

I don't think this entry needs an explanation. Drinking a beer this quickly can't be good for you!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stupid Things I've done - Part 4 - Traveling to Nha Trang by Sleeper Bus

Right, it's official.... I'm a snob. I've known it for quite some time, but now I'm absolutely sure and I'm ready to face the cold, harsh reality. It all started on Thursday when my wife phoned to tell me that we would be taking a bus with a bed to Nha Trang. It all sounded very promising I thought. Travel overnight and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed and energised. It would also work out much cheaper than flying. Win Win situation, right? So where did it all go wrong?

1. Unrealistic expectations

When I heard that the bus would have a bed on it, I was thinking of a dentists chair. A reclining, leather chair which is comfortable and cushioning. However the reality was more of a rigid, hospital bed with a cardboard wafer between my back and steel rods supporting me.

2. It is designed for hobits

Those people who know me well, know that I a fondness, bordering on an obsession, for the Lord of the Rings. Well hobbits are about the only people who would feel comfortable on this particular sleeper bus. Not only are they too short for the average person (please bare in mind I'm only 170cm, about 5 foot 6), it's also too narrow. Whilst I'm certainly broader than the average Vietnamese guy, I wouldn't say I'm particularly wide. These 'beds' are just about wide enough for your body minus your arms. Now where are they supposed to go? Therefore a night of being elbowed in the ribs was in-store....fun!

3. They are poorly designed

Think about your bed at home. Does it lie horizontal? I mean, is it flat so that you don't slide to the end of it? If you answer no to these questions I'd be surprised. So, surely a sleeper bus should have flat beds? Well if you have a bed in the upper tier they are. However, if you're a novice such as me, you will book a bed downstairs. They slope downwards. As the seats are made from some nasty plastic (pretending to be leather) you slide smoothly down the chair putting a fair bit of pressure on your feet. For me, who has an ankle problem at the moment, this wasn't great to say the least.

4. The bus drivers (in VN) are crazy

Picture this, your driving behind to lorries. A bend is approaching. It's night so you can see the glare of oncoming traffic. You're a bus driver, so you have the lives of 40 odd people to consider. Do you try to overtake at this point? No. You stay behind the lorries until you come to a long straight so you can pass safely. Well not here. They just go for it. It didn't fill me full of confidence. Also, they don't give each other much margin. On coming traffic doesn't tend to slow too much, and buses often swerve severely in order to avoid head-ons. (In my experience this is common of bus drivers in Vn not just this journey)

Overall, I didn't have a great experience on the sleeper bus and I sure won't be doing it again. Maybe I'm just a snob and don't appreciate the woes of a budget conscious traveler. Maybe we just got unlucky and picked a bad company. The company (I think) was aimed towards Vietnamese travelers who are generally of a much smaller frame than me and tend to travel in more crowded transportation than I am used to at home. Maybe they provide a good respite for people who don't have enough time to stay too many days in one place. However, I found it a terribly uncomfortable, overcrowded and sleep depriving way of traveling. Give me a bog standard coach any day of the week!

Cheap it certainly is, so that is a plus. But the overriding negatives have left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Singapore Zoo

If you've ever been to Ho Chi Minh City's zoo you'll probably never want to visit another zoo again and become an animal activist. Most of the animals live in areas which are barren, not of adequate size and the animals look depressed. However, Singapore zoo has restored my faith in zoo and our ability to look after, help save endangered species and display animals in a relatively humane environment. Welcome, to Singapore Zoo.

Singapore zoo is famous for being named the sister of Australia Zoo by the legend Steve Irwin. Noteworthy praise indeed. I didn't get the chance to go to the Night Safari, but seeing the zoo is certainly the highlight of my trip to Singapore. The animals you can see are monkeys, zebras, elephants, giraffes (all of the favourites) along with polar bears, kangaroos and (my favourite) a pygmy hippo. So let's see some of the habits and other animals on show.

Please bare in mind that I'm not giving you a tour of the zoo. For that you can visit the zoo's website http://www.zoo.com.sg/ . I just want to give you a little flavour of what I saw there and why I think it's definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Singapore. Also, I can't do the zoo justice as I can't remember exactly what I saw and couldn't take manys photographs as my camera ran out of battery shortly after we arrived.

Of course the first thing we wanted to see were the tigers. They are majestic, muscular and the king of the cats in my eyes. Sure they're not lions, but they don't need a mane to be the greatest feline. Here you can see the greenery and habit built for them. It's quite something. They seemed happy, with freedom to move and do as they please. This is far from the 10 by 10 cage you see in HCMC's zoo. A home fitting for this amazing predator.

Next, some wild boars. I must admit to having a soft spot for them as the Lion King was one of my favourite films as a child. Unfortunately this picture doesn't show you much but you can see it looks fantastically strong and healthy and it again has a large habitat to roam around in and enjoy. This pretty much typifies my opinion of the zoo as all the animals looked healthy and strong with plenty of space to play in with companions to share their time with.

And I've included this picture because they're cute. Please forgive my ignorance but I have no idea what they are!

Unfortunately on the day we rained we were hampered by a pretty heavy shower, and I couldn't walk around easily because of my sprained ankle. In addition we only had 4 hours to go around the zoo as we had a plane to catch in the evening. However, the tram made it very easy to go around the zoo (for those less mobile) so we got to see pretty much everything (albeit only briefly). You need a full day to see everything and enjoy the experience fully. As comes with the territory in this part of the world, the climate is hot and sticky, but once you get over that, you'll thoroughly enjoy all their is to see. Besides the animals, you can also learn a lot about them from the feeders and trainers during feeding times (which happen twice a day per animal), there are plenty of information boards about conservation and finally there are some live some shows.

The show pictured above is about a businessman who has come to the forest to create more space for land. Throughout the show he comes face to face with various animals and conservationists who drive him out of the forest. Apparently the show has the largest animal cast of any show and it's impressive the way they've been trained. Granted, the show is a little on the corny side but it's pretty funny, well scripted and it gets the message across that we should be doing more to protect what we've got.

So, I hope I've wet your appetite enough, and get to Singapore Zoo when/if you get an opportunity. It's well worth it!