Friday, 30 May 2008

Vietnam - A few more days on the back of a bike

Vietnam's father of poetry - Nguyen Du


Rice, lots and lots of rice


At the mouth of Phong Nha cave


Inside the cave. Can you see the ghosts?


Mood Lighting


The soldier to war, assured never to return.  His wife cuts his wrist and blood drips into the wine filled cask held aloft by the child.  The family will drink this as a tribute to his soul.


Rescued and released



Looking north for a lost father.  The DMZ.


Inside Hue Citadel


A Chinchilla in Vietnam, who woulda thought?


Sunday, 25 May 2008

When 'Chance' gets involved in VIetnam - My Top 5

5: Arriving on the scene of an accident involving 2 mopeds. One had 2 passengers and the other 3! 2 people were killed and the mourning started before the bodies were removed. The air was heavy with burning incense. It was a sobering reminder that Vietnam's roads can be quite dangerous.

4: Meeting a cop who had just filmed what a bunch of local tribes people did to an elephant. The elephant was used to carry tourists around as a money earner. The elephant killed his 'master'. Knowing that actively killing the elephant would be illegal, the villagers decided the best thing to do was starve the creature to death instead. Once the animal had died, villagers took to it with chain saws and hacked it to pieces for food. The film footage (on his mobile) of the act was horrendous.

3: Drinking with locals and a man goes off and gets his pet monkey. A monkey who loved crackers in fact.


2: Ever wonder what it is like to 'pay off' a cop? I don't have to because we had to do it not once but twice! To the underpaid provincial cop, the roadblock opens up a world of opportunity for extorting unsuspecting motorists. After the bribe was paid, the policemen apologised to me for the delay. Are you serious?

1: Sitting at a roadside village bar and the area gets hit by a swarm of flying termites. Not to miss an opportunity, the a woman working there hurriedly collected these litter critters, which would soon end up as a deep fried snack food. I was more than happy to help her collect the little beasties. Mmm, delicious.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Easy Riding in Vietnam - the first 3 days in pictures

The smoky hills and lush green countryside west of Hanoi



Whatever your poison, it's unlikely it comes in Scorpion flavour.  A hangover is guaranteed.



Yes, he did stop his moped in the middle of the road. And yes, he did beg me to take his picture. He would be so proud.



Showing Scotland what Green really is.



Has anyone seen my chopsticks?



Heading home after a long day at work in the fields.



Processing tobacco the traditional way.



The famous water pipe of the tobacco farmer.  I hit it, coughed my lungs out, and they all promptly burst out laughing. 



Pulling a bird in Vietnam.



At the birthplace of the revered Ho Chi Minh. P5070068

Sunday, 11 May 2008

And that was Hanoi...

And I didn't even go to Ha Long Bay.  Some would say I am crazy, and others would say I am just plain stupid.  But quite frankly, if your having a great time already, why question it.  In Hanoi,  people watching really is king.  From the the street vendors to the cyclos ferrying their chubby tourist clients, to the moped passengers who think it is a good idea to get on a different moped, in motion I might add. 

Sit back and drink some traditional Bia Hoi with the locals and watch the people go by.  It really is that simple to forget all the worries of the world.

And this is a city whose people, at least on the surface, seem content.  The social understanding between Hanoi's inhabitants seems uncomplicated and to the point.  And we in the west might think of places like Vietnam as being at the other end of the earth, (culturally rather than geographically) but not so.  People are simply people.  A walk round Hoan Kiem lake will tell you everything you need to know about the people of Hanoi. There are young couples stealing a kiss while their parents aren't there to scold them, Ice cream vendors doing their best to tempt you, joggers of all ages panting with breath hoping against hope they don't have to go round again and the occasional  squabble round a small table as cards and cash trade hands quickly.  This is pure, unadulterated, uncomplicated life.

Fellows travellers will say 'you better get your tourist hat on a bit'. 

So, get yourself off to see 'Uncle Ho' as he is affectionately known to the Vietnamese.  You'll find him in his resting place within the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  The father of the revolution who ousted the French is toasted as this nation's creator. He pushed out the colonial oppressors, but also created the socialist  ideology alive in Vietnam today.

Or, head off to the Temple of Literature, where you can find peace within its gardens and pagodas, but also pay your respects to the great teacher himself, Confucius.

I am a fan of history, but far more a fan of people, today.  They are always the most exciting, and in Hanoi you will undoubtedly, find ample excitement. Walk round the Old Quarter, visit Don Xaun Market, eat ice cream on the shore of the lake, jump on a moped, and drink a beer with the locals.

And if you must, visit Ha Long Bay. I can't wait to see your snaps.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

From Bangkok's Blandness to Hanoi Heaven

I'm doing my best to see a bit of the world I have always wanted to travel to, and today it feels like I hit the big league.  If I'm honest, Bangkok was a bit of a damp squid, a very large damp squid.  The city is far from the glamorous vision of the East I had.  True, it served as a great introduction and a good place to acclimatize to the urban intensity in this part of the world. But, it's usefulness ended there.  Some beautiful temples were on offer and they proved a great calming relief to the cities heat, and it's noise.  And yes, there will be many a voice that disagrees with me, but Bangkok  is just not fun.  The depravity of the sex scene was on the one hand quite amazing, but at the same time, incredibly creepy. You'll find the Nana 'Entertainment' plaza at the heart of Bangkok's largest tourist area.  See it, but perhaps only in daylight. You can have fun in Bangkok, but limit yourself to 2-3 days, anything more is better spent in other parts of Thailand.

So, now I find myself in Hanoi's Old Quarter on the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Lake of the Returned Sword, and its rarely seen population of giant tortoise, enigmatic as they are.  I do not know how to say this any more forcefully, COME HERE AND COME HERE NOW.  It has been mere hours, but I am already in love. 


The chaos and noise combines perfectly with the old colonial architecture and the cities symbols of socialism.  The first and perhaps scariest test of any Westerner in this city is the dreaded need to cross the road.  You can wait for the traffic to stop, but believe me, your  visa will have expired by then and immigration officials will be looking for you.  Step into the road, put one foot in front of the other and go.  Hesitate at your peril though.  Move confidently and the hordes of motorcycles and cars will move  around you like a  water coursing down a river.  Get over that ordeal and your task is simple, enjoy yourself.

It helps that I arrived on a night when stages appeared around the lake.  No dilly dallying here, the stage I'm watching form a terrace bar only went up about 4 hours ago.  The general impact on traffic seems irrelevant as acts from military choirs to aerobatic performers delight the gathered ranks of mopeds and their seemingly unwitting passengers.  It only serves however, to reinforce the fact that after years in the hinterland, Vietnam is waking up and the deep pockets of the west should take notice.  In my very short time here I have come to one conclusion, this place is a jewel if ever there was one.


Monday, 28 April 2008

No Pictures of Elephants I'm Afraid...

A quiet day in Bangkok's suburbs


The 'Sleeping Buddha'


I bet he hates this...


Down river side







Sunday, 27 April 2008

"Must get money" in Bangkok

Imagine you're walking along the side of small lane.  Mopeds and cars are flying past you, there are more street stalls than you can imagine, and your senses are working overtime.  You're looking around, at everything and nothing - the cacophony from the road, the glare of headlights, the Deep smells from street food vendors and the myriad of faces are a delight to the senses.

And the next thing you know you nearly walk into an elephant. Yes, an elephant.  A real live, swaying, grey chunky elephant. RIght there, in the middle of the sidewalk.  No, it's not minding it's on business, but working. And it will walk the streets, night after night after night.

Bangkok is a city of contrasts.  Throw into the mix young Thai urbanites, the 5 star hotels and condos, the vendors, the hoards of tourists, the working girls, the lady boys, and one smallish elephant.  But then add an ample measure of poverty. There are beggars on the street who have maimed themselves (i.e. limb amputation being extreme but nonetheless a fair example)  to appear as being in greater need of your coinage, and the mothers who bring their children to the street to beg, some still infants.

That elephant represents the hoards of rural Thais who leave the country side and come to the city in the hopes they can break out of the poverty that has followed them since birth.  The elephant is a revered creature in this country. But to the mahout (handler) who brings his animal into the city to walk the streets of Sukhumvit each night, that elephant is a source of income.  He sells smalls bags of food to the tourists so they can feed the animal.

Animals being used in this way is truly shameful.  But the greater sin is poverty, were it not for it, the elephant would be in the country where it belongs. 

Come here and spend your money, and spend a lot of it.  But spend it with a conscience.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Ever feel like a cat in a washing machine?

So, can you say, mind blown??  Yes, I think you can.  I found myself in Sunny Bangkok (though today is like a rainy day in Cumbernauld - if you add on 30 degrees that is) battling a major case of jet lag and a sense of culture shock that feels a little bit like raw oysters sliding down your throat.  You want to do it but feel slightly sick as a result.

In a city where almost anything goes, I can't help feel like I've been parachuted into a mad social experiment and have no idea what will happen next. But, this is not a bad thing.  Its been said that if its your first time to SE Asia, then this is the place to start. It's a fusion of western and Asian culture, instantly recognizable but most certainly not what you expected.  The initiation is definitely worth it.

In 24 hours, the jet lag has abated but only slightly, and the attack on my senses is only just beginning. 

Spot on.

The Portland Adventure. And the Invisible Mountain too.

Portland has a secret.  Everyone has heard the rumour, but many don't believe it to be true.  Apparently, there is a large Mountain overlooking the city.  My immediate reaction was 'no, you must be kidding.  That's preposterous.'  But, if you ask the locals, they will all swear by the fact that Mt. Hood, does in fact, exist.   The only problem is, I never saw it and consequently, I can't be sure.  But, that said, I did visit Mt. Hood's  Timberline Lodge, famous for being the setting (but only the outside I grant you) of 'The Shining. The snow was so heavy, the lodge seemed but an afterthought, in keeping with the film itself. Who said Spring had arrived?


Mt Hood has been described to me as being not dissimilar to Mt. Fuji in Japan.  It's conical and snow capped reach overlooks (apparently) a city awash with micro brewery's and restaurants of every conceivable origin. You will find a world of gastronomic pleasures in this city, and don't be surprised if you find yourself sitting in a period home that has been gloriously maintained and now serves as a small enclave  where the stomach is king..  This is particularly evident in and around Portland State University, with its tree lined avenues and coffee houses, the area is a haven for students and intellectuals, so I couldn't help wondering, 'What am I doing here?'


A short stroll away you'll find the Portland Art museum. along with its permanent exhibits on both the inside and outside of the building.  Go now if your passion is Impressionism and you'll be able to enjoy the works of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec amongst others.


Enjoy a latte, stroll down towards Pioneer Square and pop into one of the many shops that envelop it.  I dare you not to walk into Macy's.  A walk down to Portland's China Town might not feel particularly Chinese but you'll find ample distraction in the 4 floor Goliath that is Powells Books.   It is without doubt, the largest bookshop I have ever been in (and America's biggest).  If you like to read, Valhalla awaits you in the state of Oregon.


You can fly to Portland, like most cities.  But you shouldn't. And don't take the train either.  Drive. Yeah, you'll probably be in the car for a while, but you'll never be bored.  And unlike airplanes, you can stop, get out and enjoy what has to one the most beautiful corners of the US.


Boring Oregon is not, despite what the sign says...



Friday, 18 April 2008

Its a compliment when...

It was nice of Simon / Molly and at TravelBuzz to take an interest, though I may have caused some controversy by describing New York as 'Past it' - Perhaps I was a bit unfair to NYC, after all, I said it myself, I avoided the things I like the most about it, the 5th Avenue glitz. So, I'll eat my words somewhat, but the East Village is no longer for me.

Go to NYC and indulge in the things you love, for it has something to satisfy any taste. Just think twice about what you tell your Mum!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Polygamists not only drink beer, they have a sense of humour too...


What can happen in 24 hours?

The Mariners hammer Kansas City


Heading through the mountains after leaving Seattle


Waking up in Leavenworth (yes, the sign is in German)

P4160154 P4160162


On the road to Oregon


Feeding squirrels in the Columbia River valley

P4160268 P4160271

The Multnomah Waterfalls


What the 'Sam Hill' is going on here?


Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Please Seperate Plastics from Paper

Um, can anyone say laid back? My impression of Seattle is that it marches to it's own beat, it's decidely lovely and there seems to be little of the usual passive aggressive undertones you find in many cities.

Perhaps temper that with the fact that this is literally 'the end of the line'. Long distance freight trains that come here end here. If you happen to be a railroad hobo, there isn't much farther for you to go unless you don't mind getting wet. There are a lot of homeless people in Seattle, and the liberal minded north west is kinder than other parts of the US. It's a unique problem as many arrived homeless. And with that way of life, the city has more than it's fair share of vagrants. It's disturbing how easy they blend into the city, how easy it is for them to become invisible.

All that said, its a refreshing place. The Puget Sound figures hugely in the cities geography. Its a nice reminder that we haven't destroyed all of nature just yet. It's a city dedicated to reusing, recycling, free-cycling and composting. This might explain why most of the people I've seen, at least downtown, appear to be tourists. The locals are all at home seperating plastics from glass and tending to water filtration systems.

I've taken a walk up to the diverse Capitol Hill, Seattle's equivalent of New York's Village. With a big dose of artsy-ness, there are lots of cafe's, bars, clubs and book stores, a smattering of tattoo parlours and a heady mixture of liberalism. Don't tell anyone from Alabama though, they'll 'send up the boys' and sort this place out in no time.

The city home of the long running comedy 'Frasier', Seattle also boasts the Elliot Bay Bookstore. It is not only an incredible warren of wooden bookshelves, but it's cafe was the model for the one appearing in the tv show itself. It's also exactly what a bookstore should be. Afterhours (read 'lock-in') poetry readings wouldn't be out of place here. Once they release you, check out all that nearby Pioneer Square has to offer.

Amuse yourself along the harbour front, dip into the buzz of Pike Place Market and walk a short distance down 1st Avenue and your in the Seattle Art Museum.

You'll find flavours to suit every taste bud so there is little chance of losing weight if your an expanding gastronome such as myself. You can try and work it off by taking advantage of this citys walking and biking trails and if your destination is across the city, unusually, you can take your bike on the bus.

If your at all human, its hard not to like Seattle.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Seattle's Pike Place Market - Where Fish Can Fly


The craziest fishmongers I have ever seen. Definitely worth a visit as they are the spirit of this bustling (and large) downtown market place.

Where it all began....

The world's first Starbucks. Opened in 1971 in Seattle's Pike Place Market.  If you have ever wondered why the logo is a mermaid, this coffee shop sits along side the wares of the local fisherman.


Though though have decided to save the mermaids blushes and cover her up these days....





The original








The modern day logo