Vietnam 🇻🇳 🏍: 3 days in & around delightful Hoi An

Distance this section: 90km |Distance total: 1,400km

Staying in Hoi An was as different an experience in Vietnam as Cartagena was in Colombia. Huge amounts of tourists fill the streets as they explore the well-preserved old town and the lantern lit river & buildings at night. Truly amazing although with a very touristy feel (many Asian travellers here, feels a lot less Russian/Chinese/backpacker as in the South). Anyway, really good to see how different a Vietnamese city can look like with a bit of smart management.

Laura’s comment: Hoi An was a very different city from the previous ones. Its streets are still preserved and keep much of its great history. Unfortunately there are many tourists, but that was no problem to enjoy in the local bars, with some beers and sometimes happy balloons 🤪😁

Exploring Hoi An

Hoi An’s old town is an exceptionally well-preserved trading port from the 15th century onwards. Many cultures have influenced it over time, most notably Chinese and Japanese. Since 1999 it is listed as Unesco world heritage. To see the old buildings, you must acquire a Hoi An pass for 120,000 Dong (USD5) that gives entrance to 5 of i belive 18 possible buildings. These are mainly chinese made pagoda’s or japanese style houses of business men. Nice to visits while you hang out in streets full of shops like tailors etc.

At night, Hoi An really begins to shine as the lanterns are lit, the night market invites you to snack and a game of Hoi An bi go awaits. Lovely atmosphere – let the pictures talk.

Villages around Hoi An

We visited several villages around town such as Tra Que, Cam Tanh and Cam Kim (where stayed for the last night). All these are usually offered for day trips by bike, but aren’t that spectacular. You get some good views of the rice farmers though, which we liked a lot and insights into other crafts.

My Son hindu temple complex

My Son temples, different to many new Buddhist temples in Vietnam, are centuries old. They were built over time between the 4th and 14th century in fact. Located about 40km outside hoi an, there are plenty of tours or just go by moto. It is worth the visit.

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Vietnam 🇻🇳: Three days in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon)

After a hectic Xmas break, it was time to pack the bags once more and jet off to Vietnam. Laura was already waiting in Asia after a seemingly endless journey from Colombia and, for a few days, Daniel came over from Bangkok to join us too. Side note, as of the time of writing i am still jet lagged! 😴

Happy New Year from Ho Chi Minh

After catching up ourselves not having met since July in St. Petersburg (Back in St. Petersburg), we met with a Vietnamese business partner of Daniel and went for food and beers in Pham Van Hai – a nice district with trees alongside a canal. The beer drinking culture is pretty strong here and ordering a whole crate of beer is completely normal. Cheers! 🍻🍻🍻

In the evening we visited my friend Jan. In theory his apartment was only 10mins away by car yet the traffic was horrendous. Car not an option! So all three of us got on separate motorbikes (you can hire them with ride sharing app Grab). What a crazy journey! Got to hear that a metro project for HCM is underway – dearly needed!

In the end we arrived in time for new years. Last i had met jan was last year in Bangkok for NYE (Hello Thailand & Koh Phangan: Muay Thai training begins) and by now his wife had given birth to their daughter. Fun evening with a bunch of expats. Happy new year everyone!

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The traffic back was much better and we hit the bars and clubs nearby our hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area. One notable trend were the laughing gas balloons that many people consume here (read here) similar to what i saw in Amsterdam and Suriname. We also tried and it gives you a short rush (like 30sec). Trendy stuff!

War Remnants museum: Cruel history on New years day

We enjoyed a slow start into 2019 after the late night and hit a nearby food market to get something into our bellies. I like these markets with lots of fresh food and tasty juices and smoothies. Daniel joined us too for a coffee.

First up, we decided to get some massages nearby the hotel to relax. They are quite economic here and USD5 gets you 30min foot massage. Happy endings are extra 😉

Next stop was the war Remnants museum, which is probably the no1 place to see in HCM. It shows the Vietnamese side of the US – Vietnamese war that finished with the capture of then capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, by the communists led my Ho Chi Minh who renamed the city after himself.

For sure it is meant to be a form of propaganda yet one wonders after the visit how any american can be regarded a hero for Vietnam war efforts. To me it is just a senseless show down of the cold war and crime against the people in Vietnam. I hope that efforts of the Vietnamese to get war reparations, especially for agent orange, will be successful. At last, they have been for US army personnel.

Read more about the Vietnam war here. 

Exploring Saigon a bit more

There are only so many things you can do in Saigon. Museums are good, but there are a few more highlights of such as the magnificent post office in Colonial style, a few churches (Christianity is 2nd religion here after Buddhism), the waterfront along Saigon river with its many boats, an impressive Hindu pagoda and the night markets. The latter are definitely a tourist thing, but are vibrant with tasty food choices.

Our last evening kicked off with yet another dinner. This time with the boss and the sales department of Daniel’s partner here. They took us to a large Vietnamese restaurant with no tourists in sight. We sampled lots of local dishes (i just don’t get why snails are that popular!?) and, of course, more Saigon beer. Afterwards  .. well, an eventful night near the hotel 😈👿.

Cu Chi Tunnels: Entering Viet Cong zone

From HCM you have two main tours outside the city. The Mekong delta (we plan to do on 🛵) and the Viet Cong tunnels located some 60km outside the center. If you are early, you can book a bus half-day trip for as little as EUR8.

On the way to the tunnels we stopped at a factory for kind of mosaic paintings done by disabled people – many of which suffer in the aftermath of agent orange.

The Viet Cong were the guerilla force based in colonial south Vietnam yet part of the communist forces of the north. They digged out 250km of tunnels running from Saigon to Cambodia. This network provided for protection (especially once chemical deterrents like agent orange came into the game) and camouflage – the enemy that can’t be found.

Quite impressive to see though pretty overrun with tourists as one of the key attractions of the historical Vietnam.

French Guiana: Space. Jungle. Back in Europe.

French Guiana (FG) is officially a part of france and different to Suriname or Guyana hasn’t opted for independence. We spent just under week there and came across a few unusual things …

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Laura’s 👧🏻 comment: On this trip we had a new member with us – Carsten from Germany. On the first day we started our tour with a visit to the Kourou space center and after many hours finally managed to find a pretty house to stay in the capital Cayenne. We visited Kourou again to experience something incredible – a rocket launch. A unique moment together with new friends from Kourou. Other than that, we again visited the jungle and this time saw many animals.

Paramaribo to Albina & FG river border

Every tour in Suriname begins or starts in Paramaribo. So we found ourselves once more in a by now familiar neighbourhood. We enjoyed mobile network, gambled a bit in one of the many casinos alongside chinese gamblers and Venezuelan staff (yep, we lost our EUR20 stake…) and by chance met a familiar face from our previous trip to the jungle (Suriname 🇸🇷: Jungle life near Raleigh falls & Volksberg) – Carsten from Germany.

He had planned to visit FG too and so we teamed up to travel together. We took a 12.30 bus, the only one on sunday’s, to Moengo and from there a taxi on to albina – the main border town on the river. 3h in total. Not bad.

Our accommodation was basic yet sufficient. We had a snack in town (there was not much to do frankly) and played some strange card game carsten taught us. He won twice 😐

French Guiana basics
FG is a French oversea territory (in fact, its second largest region) and since Belize’s independence in 1981 the only EU territory on mainland America. It has 280000 inhabitants and the highest GDP/capita in South America. Economically it remains very dependent on france and unemployment frequently sits at 20-25%. FG voted against autonomy in 2010.

Back in Europe without a flight …

We jumped straight into on of the many boats that go back and forth between Suriname and french guiana (EUR2,50 one way). There were zero passport checks (though there are checkpoints on the main road either side of the border) with the positive side effect that we would not need to purchase the EUR35 entry visa to suriname again.

On the other side we were officially back in europe. Mobile data and calls come out of your normal plan, you pay with euro’s, the infrastructure and cars looks immediately much better though their remains plenty of craziness.

The border town is called St Laurent du Maroni and is the second largest town in FG. There wasn’t much to see other than the transportation camp where prisoners passed through before ending up on a nearby prison island. Historically, sending prisoners here from france was pretty prevalent.

We jetted off to Kourou in our tiny rental car 🚘

Guiana Space Center (Centre Spatial Guyanaise – CSG)

Our first main stop was at the space centre that is situated here. It launches vega, soyuz and ariane type rockets and most commercial satellites nowadays are launched from here roughly once a month. Its location close the equator allows for lower fuel cost and more payload than at other stations. For the time being, no humans are propelled from here. It is operational since 1968 and was built as a result of the independence of Algeria in the 50’s and the subsequent loss of the (just finished) space station there.

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Different rocket types launched from CSG

Before visiting the interesting space museum we got some great news – the following day a vega rocket would propel a Moroccan satellite into orbit. Brilliant… Especially having missed out on the ariane launch right at the beginning of our time here.

Negative impact of rocket launches

Depending on rocket type, aluminium (ariane/vega) and carbon monoxide / dioxide (soyuz) are released at launch. The french space agency created an environmental measurement plan after the infamous first Ariane V launch of 1996. The launch ended in disaster when the launcher exploded 36.7 seconds after lift-off. Nobody was injured, but the explosion highlighted the possible impact of launches on the local environment. So far, studies (arguably commissioned by CSG) suggest just a limited impact on nature about 1km around launch sites.

Vega launch – live!

We returned to Kourou to meet a couch surfing contact of Carsten and had a BBQ at his place. He studies his master in tropical botanics in Kourou alongside many french students, interns, PhD researchers etc. Really fun evening with plenty of interesting conversations of a field i am hardly familiar with.

By 22:42 it was time to watch our first rocket launch – here the video. We watched from the beach rather than the official observation point (that requires a minimum of 2h advance check in). Quite an event as the rocket lit up the night as if it was daytime (well, kind of) and a few mins later the rumbling noise spread from the space center.

Vega program

Vega are a joint European and Italian program. Its rockets have been launched 13 times (100% success) from here since 2012. It is the smallest rocket of the three at 30m hight, 3m diameter, 137 tons and about 1.4t payload (ariane up to 10t) using a three stage propel its load 700km high into orbit. One launch costs about USD37m.

Shopping in FG – now that’s crazy!

We went shopping several times, for our airbnb and the BBQ in Kourou. The prices were shocking! One of the key issues is that most products are imported by plane from France – many of which were imported to France itself be it from asia or countries neighbouring Suriname like Brasil.

A lot of this has to do with EU agricultural regulation. The latter, as i know well, is often designed to protect EU producers from non-EU competition and FG is probably the biggest loser of this. I mean paying the equivalent of EUR25 for a water melon 🍉 when the same costs EUR2 in Colombia is simply insane. Another reason is not so fertile grounds and the many insects (the pesticides required are one reason why it cant be produced under EU law).

However, my conversation with the agronomist suggests it is possible and there are more local businesses coming to the market like the one of Anne we met in Suriname or as evidenced by roadside vendors of melons and other fruit / vegetables.

Cacao – a distant piece of Laos & self-guided jungle trek

On of the day trips led us to Cacao – 75km away from Cayenne. There lives a small Hmong community from Laos that arrived in the 70s/80s following displacement due to the Vietnam war and continues to live in their typical stilt houses. Best to be visited on sunday for market day.

We also went for a self guided jungle hike nearby though only 6km of 18km total for time reasons. The walk was refreshingly challenging yet animals largely elusive. Back home … Beach & party time. And sweet dreams carsten 😴😉

Cayenne – not that much to miss

Cayenne is official home to some 60,000 people and about of all FG population in the wider metropolitan area. You can cover the main sights in one afternoon like the fortress, botanical garden and historical center with colonial architecture, but you wont miss much if you don’t.

Carbets – late discovery of the real way to travel in FG

After Carsten had left us to travel back to Paramaribo to catch his flight home we weren’t quite clear what to do. I checked out a link our airbnb host had provided (http://escapadecarbet.com). It has loads of outdoor tips and a superb overview of carbets in FG – covered shelters where you can put up your hammock or even get a room. This significantly improved the accommodation options, which are otherwise pretty slim or expensive.

We picked a free carbet near Sinnamary (passing many rusty car wrecks roadside) right in the jungle and with a few basic food and beverage items moved in. We weren’t alone on the first night with two other world travellers also staying there, which made for interesting travel conversations around the fire.

The spot was great for animal spotting from the large ‘blondie’ spiders and their countless kids, jungle rats who came along to pick up dinner, a huge iguana, birds, butterflies and a frog. Additionally we frequently enjoyed the monkey concert.

Daytime was to relax now that we were alone. Bath. Talk. Eat. And… Some driving lessons for laurita. She did really well once she got a little feel for the clutch and succeeded in parking between two water bottles. Who can stop her now 🤔😉🚘

Back to Paramaribo … Oh no, flat tyre… 😕

cof

Suriname 🇸🇷: Cycle trip to Peperpot & Nieuw Amsterdam

The dolphin trip made us hungry to see more of the Suriname outside paramaibo. There were several one day tours on offer, but instead of paying up for what generally seem high prices over here, we rented bikes ourselves and headed for Peperpot reserve and afterwards Nieuw Amsterdam.

About Suriname

At 164000 sqkm it is the smallest sovereign state in South America. French Guiana is smaller (91000sqkm), but belongs to France. Some 500000 people live here made up of 27% east indians, 22% maroons, 16% creole, 14% javanese, 4% amerindians and a lot of mixed and other smaller ethic groups. Religion reflects the mixed population with 40% christian, 26% hindu and 19% muslim. Tribal spirituality also plays a major role for maroons.

The country was the last outpost of dutch colonial history until 1954 (originally swapped for manhatten /new york with the english – driving is still on the left hand side). This was followed by a 21y period of self governance before suriname became independent in 1975 – a moment many 50y+ aged surinamese used to resettle to holland.

Total population (‘000)

The president is pretty much a criminal with outstanding warrants for drug dealing in holland and for killing 15 regime critics in the December murders in 1980 – but law was changed in time for his renewed presidency to escape sentence.

The route led us out of town until a steep bridge crosses the Suriname river. Definately not made for walking nor cycling, but with great views of the city, river. And harbour from its top. Laura was sweating. From there you quickly turn left into a more rural street and suddenly cycling was a pleasure.

Peperpot

Peperpot is an old coffee plantation and now a nature reserve. We arrived one of the alternative park gates and cycled the c3km hiking trail through the forest. Nice ride though the only animals we saw were sadly on signposts on the wayside barring a few birds 😐

By the main entrance you then find a little info center (if you speak Dutch, otherwise pictures only) and, more importantly, cold refreshments 😊. Those were well deserved after some 12km in dead hot conditions.

Nieuw Amsterdam

The city is located on the riverbank opposite of paramaibo and a 12km cycle trip from pepperpot. To be frank we actually didnt see much here. The hot conditions called for immediate refreshments and later on a riverside lunch at Het Bastion.

The pricing was more or less Europe like and in USD with 10% mandatory service charge. But a very nice setting as we had the place to ourselves. Further, much to Laura’s liking there was an option to cross the river by boat and thus avoid the bridge we had to cross in the morning.

So all good until we had to pay. While we had checked that visa is fine, it didnt work with their card machine. I left my email and accommodation details and sorted the bill later – giving the cash to my guesthouse who had it taxi’d over to the restaurant. Hopefully the waiter didn’t get into too much trouble for his incorrect information 😬 (he would not remain the last one to make that mistake…).

By 5pm the water taxi arrived and we crossed the river (SRD40) to head back to the guesthouse. Time for a shower and dinner at yet another upmarket place – Bodega & Grill de Waag. Nite, nite…

Back to Colombia – then the Guyana’s

Two days in London proved loaded with catch ups – cedric, hubert, yash, per, dan, bernd and a few locals. The rest of the time i spent sorting gear & clothing to get ready for the the next trip.

It was almost exactly one year ago that i visited Colombia for the first time. By now my Spanish is not bad and i have a colombian girlfriend. What difference a year can make! I am really looking forward to hang out a bit in Santa Marta and Bogota, hit the beach and meet new faces.

Off to North East South America: The Guyana’s

However, it is also time to explore some other parts of South America. I have picked a somewhat more unusual and not well travelled part – the North East of the continent. It is made up of the three countries and former colonies Guyana (english), Suriname (dutch) and French Guiana (french) followed by a stint on Aruba to learn kite surfing (fingers crossed). So i won’t get to practice Spanish in public too much.

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Why not so well travelled?

Well, there is the big issue of transport. The amazon jungle to the south, (no-go) Venezuela to the west and water on the other sides making plane travel into the region essential. There are, however, only few options such as usually one flight from the former colonial power (say Amsterdam – Paramaribo) & one from Aruba, but no direct flights from hubs like Bogota.

The other issue, partly going hand in hand, is price levels above your typical budget for backpackers. In fact, french guyana is reportedly the most expensive place in SA being effectively part of France / Europe (eg you pay with Euro’s). Many products have to be imported.

Why is it worth going?

Well, we will see but the cultural mix of locals, former runaway slaves, Caribbeans, colonialists, asians etc is truely unique in the world as is the countryside itself that is dominated by the Amazon covering some 4/5th of the surface and provides for a high degree of biodiversity. There is also the chance to spot satélite launches in French Guiana.

Exciting! Let’s see how it goes.