55. The Blog is Back

March 30th, 2011

A quick bit of news....

As I've been sat doing nothing for a week or so I've managed to rebuild the blog site.

The blog will appear here at:

 http://www.dazman.info/blog/blog1.php

well at least until it happens again!!

39. Beer and Curry

January 16th, 2011

Nepal is yet another country I've been to before but last time I was here it was all very different. In July 2001 it was the world’s only Hindu Kingdom but all that charged with the events that occurred in Kathmandu during my time here. The crown prince was extremely unhappy with the arranged marriage his father the king had set up as he loved another. So his way to deal with this was to kill every member of the royal household present and then turn the gun on himself. This caused mass riots in the county with an unknown number of dead. People here could not believe that a son could kill his father and assumed it was a government conspiracy.

Using this as an excuse the Maoist rebels started an insurgency which resulted in the death of the monarchy and the creation of a republic a couple of years ago. In 2001 I was in the middle of all this crap seeing very little of Nepal as the guesthouse I was staying in locked me in for a day "for my safety" and the airline out changed the day it was flying to get westerners out quickly! But to be fair, policemen on the my route into Kathmandu had been killed the evening I had actually travelled and people were being attacked and killed in the city streets, so maybe it was fair to lock me in! I actually remember looking at people being chased down the streets from my rooftop vantage point.

Pohara, Nepal

Crossing the border from India everything was so much more relaxed, just as it had been the first time I made this journey. It’s funny how cultures change just over a simple land border but it reminds me of a quote from the Kipling book “Kim” although this was contrasting India to Tibet. In it he states, “Those who beg in silence die in silence” making reference to the culture of begging which exists widely in India, less so in Nepal and practically non-existent in Tibet. However, because of the time taken to get here the only bus to Pokhara was now overnight which having done it before I didn't want to do it again. I was lucky enough to meet a Korean couple who were desperate to get to Pokhara that evening so I managed to barter a good price on a taxi for the 5 1/2 hour journey. Then something quite spooky happened, while talking about new year the guy went on to mention that he was born in the year of the tiger, so was I. Then I wanted to see who was older.... We were born in the same month! Then I asked he day..... same day! Although you are bound to meet people with the same birthday as you, the same year as well makes it a little more unlikely, plus the randomness of meeting at a dusty hot stinky border post on the edge of the Indian subcontinent was pretty unlikely. I didn't know whether to take this as a bad omen or not as the taxi driver clearly had bad eyesight, was driving too fast around dangerous corners and the break failure light was constantly flashing on the dashboard. I could see the news headlines "two men born on same day die together on same day in road plunge.

Pohara, Nepal

I was quite happy to have arrived in Pokhara particularly as I was still alive but also because I couldn't get to this place last time because of the problems. It is a beautiful place with a laid back attitude and a glistening lake with the backdrop on the Annapurna mountain range behind it. However I can't really go on about the place as nothing really interesting happened. I can say exactly the same for Kathmandu and the famous towns in the Kathmandu valley I visited. The old town centres are really nice with Bhaktapur the most impressive and a must see for those who visit Nepal but nothing really happened! Well apart from one little thing.....

Patan, Nepal

I was walking around the small town of Patan when a guy came up to me and started to give me information about the place I didn't want. I figured he was just another guy pretending to be a guide so I didn't take much interest. He then went on to ask me where I was from so I responded “the UK” to which he replied "So you don't want a guide then". "I didn't say that, I said I was from the UK!" I said as I assumed he’ misheard. Then came a random rant from him. "Yes I heard, all you people from Britain are the same you never want a guide, you don't help out poor people here find food." with a brief pause while he stared at me expecting a response which I was not going to provide he continued, "See, all you British are the same, you don't care about the starving, it's only 150 rupees, it's for my family my children need food. Why do you come here if, you don't need a guide, what's the point you should just leave now!" The last bit was said in quite a threatening way so I rose to it and responded with the same grace he afforded me.

Bhaktapur

I asked that if he was starving why was he wasting money on expensive Nike trainers, North Face jacket and an obviously expensive hair style which sticks out like a sore thumb here. I suggested he should spend all future hair gel money on his kids. I then added that in future he may want to change his opening gambit with people as it was quite offensive and that was probably the reason were not using his services. And regarding why I travel.... I added that this was to meet people from other countries and better understand their culture, openness and friendship afforded by them to outsiders. “I think you've told me all I know without having to pay for anything further.” I added. I wished him well and said that if he visited my country I hope my fellow countrymen would provide him with the same welcome he gave me. To ensure he would I suggested that he first visit Manchester! After this "discussion" a local guy came over and apologised about him explaining that he was Indian and was here just to make money and didn't understand the Nepalese ways. He added that there was an open door policy with India and it attracts “undesirables” which causes problems. It turned out that the "guide" also pushed drugs so I was glad I didn't use him. Although my argument still stands, he should still visit Manchester, it could be good for business!

Kathmandu, Nepal

Although all that said, the only really disappointing thing for me here was the fact I no longer had Kathmandu to myself as I did in 2001, there are now thousands of tourists and the traffic and visible poverty has increased significantly. Kathmandu is not the calm after the storm of India it once was. So after barely a week and taking the short bus ride to the border with Tibet to join up my overland route (which felt a bit strange seeing the same place from the "other side") I few from Kathmandu back to Hong Kong to restart my overland adventure.

I flew the amazing Kingfisher airlines which is notable for one major reason. It's actually owned and operated by the beer company Kingfisher beer! As soon as you get on board the stewardess opens a can of kingfisher for you and then hands you a curry. It was like a Saturday night in the UK only without the hangover. Weird! It reminded me of the old advert on the TV back in he UK from Carlsberg which states "if Carlsberg did holidays then they'd be the best in the world". I've got News for them, kingfisher do and they are, but that could just be the drinking beer at altitude talking!!!!

Kngfisher...

40. The Drunk Sesame Street Puppet

January 20th, 2011

So I was back in Hong Kong again, which bought a smile to my face as usual, not only because I love the place but the first thing I heard when jumping off the plane was Christmas music. In the heat of India and the dustiness of Nepal I'd forgotten how close Christmas was. But no matter how far you get from India it always leaves a little something to remind you that it's there. This time it was my bag. My rucksack which had remained pretty much undamaged on the overland journey until Bundi in India was now making its way around the conveyer-belt in a plastic box.

When I saw it I was horrified. I had changed flights on the way here in India and I can only assume that the lovely Indian baggage handler had dragged it on the floor between planes. The shoulder strap had been ripped off and there were two holes burnt through the underneath the bag which clearly showed that it had been dragged across the Tarmac like a man trying to drag a petulant dog to the vets. Not only that, there was a customs sticker on the bag saying "India: bag inspected" and a cut down the side of the zip where they got into the bag. There was no need for this for three reasons, firstly, I'd bought special airline approved padlocks which could be opened by any reasonably clever airline security personnel if needed, secondly, to open a bag with a zip all you need to do is put a knife in-between the teeth of the zip and twist and the whole thing opens. And finally and most importantly, that's why they invented fookin' X-ray machines! Another great sign of Indian respect of others property. Anyway, this would have annoyed me more but...... I was in Hong Kong..... So checking everything was there and strapping the bag up I headed into town.

Hong Kong

I had to get my visas fast as I really didn't want to spend Christmas in China (yep the blog is a bit behind where I am now as I could not blog in China, I’ll catch up soon). So I headed straight to the Chinese embassy to get a visa. It would take three days which was a bit annoying particularly as this would really be 5 because of the weekend. Being British I also had to pay a lot more for the visa thanks to the Chinese not quite getting over the fact that Hong Kong used to be British. But the timescale was probably quite good as I had decided to prove my intolerance to lentils once and for all by having a big lentil dish. Of the 5 days I think I spent 2 on the toilet!

Hong Kong

Then came a freaky five days I hope to forget. A really odd, quite spaced out middle aged American woman from New York came to stay in the dorm. At first I just though her eccentric but my thoughts were to change quite quickly. It soon became apparent that the lady, a term I use most incorrectly, clearly had an alcohol problem. The two cans of special brew and a bottle of wine gave it away. Talking to her was quite difficult particularly as any opinion other than her own was wrong but worst of all and quite fundamentally, she talked bollocks! But I thought I'd make a bit of an effort as I did feel slightly sorry for her at first. However, when I dropped hints that I wanted to be on my own to phone people etc. she would just follow me, sit down next to me as and stare with a dazed, drunk, vacant expression while drooling as if the alcohol in her system had destroyed the use of her facial muscles. The best way I could describe what she looked like was grouch from the US kids show Sesame Street. And she reeked of beer and fags. Eventually I gave up any hope of privacy and went to bed. ....

..... I woke up with a start. The mad woman had climbed into my bed and was now lying on top of me while stoking my face. I think my first words were "What the fuck do you think you're doing!" But whatever it was she did not react at all. I tried to be polite asking her to go as she appeared mentally unstable simply staring gormlessly at the wall, but how can you be polite in such a situation. If I was a man of her age and had done this to a girl I'd probably be on my way to prison by now. I felt dirty mainly because she was not only physically repulsive but also smelled! I took a shower and got new bed linen but took it no further putting it down to her drunken mental state. She probably wouldn't even remember.

Hong Kong

.....Two nights later I went back into the room to find her laying on someone else’s bed smoking. She had no idea or cared for anyone else. You don't smoke in dorms anyway but to even do it without asking was pure selfishness or at the very least showing little regard for others. Then looking over at my nice blue plastic waterproof travel folder I noticed that she had put her cigarette out on it, melting straight through it and burning through the two family pictures I had carried with me.

I completely lost it with her as after her climbing on me the other night I took it quite personally. She just said "But it was an accident" but sorry, no it wasn't. I made it clear that it was not an accident as "If you damage something because you are inconsiderate, selfish or in your case moronic, just because you are not socially aware of your surroundings does not make it an accident because as far as you are concerned you've done nothing wrong. Do drunk drivers get off killing someone because it was an accident as they were unaware through intoxication? Nope, they show no consideration for others and at the very least are socially inconsiderate." I think she may have got the message......

...... Two days later at about 9am while dozing in my bed suddenly there was a splashing noise on the bed next to me. The drunk woman, who unfortunately was on the bunk above mine had being trying to drink a bottle of red wine while laying down had half choked and spat out loads of red wine and bile onto my bed. I was very lucky it missed me but it hit my brand new iPod case. I lost it with her for a third time. And her response? "I didn't do anything, it wasn't me". Just like an infant telling you she hadn't punched her brother even though you were stood watching it. (yes Amelia I saw you do that once!) How the he'll could she deny it, I added "Who else is up there with you then, some other fucking drunk Sesame Street puppet!". I had been overly tolerant with her, which may come as a surprise to many who know me, but using my three strikes and out rule, this was it. She was gone. Luckily being quite a regular at this hostel the guy in charge knows me well and knows if I complain, then there's trouble. But after being jumped on, set on fire, drenched in wine and spat on she was out...

Hong Kong

After picking up my Chinese visa I had a day to kill before picking up my Vietnam visa so I headed to the least visited war cemetery on the island to do my usual act of remembrance. Many go to the more picturesque Stanley cemetery but Sai Wan is by far the biggest of the two. It took ages to find someone who was 36 to whom I could give my poppy but eventually I found J Marriott. The sad thing about this guy is that he died in March 1945 during the Japanese occupation. He was likely being held in tortuous conditions by the Japanese for three years before succumbing. Always a bit of a reality check for me, especially when I get annoyed with drunken old women. At least I'm still around to get irritated by them!

Macau

So that was it, well sort of. I did pop over to Macau (the old Portuguese equivalent of Hong Kong and a real slice of Portugal overseas. But neither Hong Kong or Macau could never be considered a backpacking challenge but for various reasons it had been "challenging" so stocked up with new shoes, new iPod, new bluetooth audio transmitter, new DVD burner and new mobile phone watch with hidden spy camera! And no I don't know why I buy all this crap! (particularly as I have to carry it all, although the watch is very cool!) I restarted my journey south to New Zealand just as I had started my journey from Sheffield..... by heading north!!!!

41. The Brave New World of Capitommunism

January 24th, 2011

On the train to Shanghai I met a couple of backpackers. One of them, French Canadian, was typical of the type of backpacker you sometimes meet. She ordered breakfast on the train with me but it transpired that she had no money to pay. So I paid with her promise that she would return with money only never see her again. It was only £1, but I always find it quite sad that some backpackers see this as a proper way to subsidise their travelling, screwing money out of you just as the locals do to you. Ah well, she had hairy legs anyway!

The other guy was German bloke from Berlin. This guy freaked me out a little as he was the doppelganger of a friend I have back in the UK. He was always right, questioned everything I said as if it was all wrong and had tendencies to want to change my mind! Having said all that, I couldn't help but find him funny as he was new to backpacking and was extremely tense in situations which were new to him. More importantly he didn't rip me off so I was more than happy that he wanted to tag along with me for a few days.

Shanghai, China

I've always wanted to visit Shanghai as I remember seeing pictures of the place in an encyclopaedia when I was young but like most other parts of China I couldn't help but be a little disappointed. As with other big cities pretty much all the old buildings have been pulled down and modern sky scrapers fill the sky. One exception to this is an area called the Bund. What I didn't know about Shanghai is that it was founded by the British at around the same time as Hong Kong. I guess this makes sense with hindsight as the biggest UK based and owned bank is the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). So the Bund which is on the river front is full of European and in particular British style Buildings. The river front could be in Liverpool or Glasgow such is the similarity and the old British Consulate like a mansion in Surrey.

Shanghai, China

Shanghai does have one more old area, the French Concession, which is the reason many believe the French Settled here first. However this pace remains quite untouched due to tha national psyche and quirk of the French. After British settlement others came and eventually Shanghai was made up of many different trade concessions including the Germans, Americans etc. All the concessions decided to join together to make the modern Shanghai but the French were having none of it. So while Shanghai prospered the French Concession stayed the way it was. However the one nice result is that you have an area of Shanghai which is full tree lined boulevards and of buildings little more than two stories high which would not look out of place in a French suburb. However it is not as pretty or as wonderful as the guidebooks make out.

Shanghai, China

There is one contrast in this area which almost sums up the modern China. In the historic centre is a building and now museum to the communist party, this was the building in which the party was formed. The museum displays pro-communist propaganda while what lies in the streets surrounding it? Internationally branded restaurants and shops like Gucci with prices that the average Chinese person cannot afford never-mind I. Further to this, one evening on the Bund and elderly man who remembers the "free" times gave me an excellent insight into the Chinese modern interpretation of communism. He asked me about health care in the UK and I explained that health care was free to all people in the UK whether resident or visiting. I did of course add that there may be a waiting list if not deemed to urgent or that if you earned over a certain amount then you would have to pay for dental treatment but at an amazingly subsidised rate. He then smiled thought his broken and blackened teeth (I can use the plural as I think he had at least two!) and explained the Chinese system. Basically here you have to pay for all treatment, even if it's life threatening and you have to pay upfront. Dental work is seen as a luxury and you see many people here walking around rubbing things on their teeth to remove pain. The guy then pointed out that Britain was more socialist that China. This was something I hadn't really thought about before, he's right, a country most other countries in Europe consider a rampant capitalistic country has had free health care longer than practically all other countries and was one of the first to bring in state pensions in 1908 Here there is nothing like that. The soviets had it in their model, but not here. It's almost saying that if you are not fit enough to work for the country, that you're not fit enough to live in this fast developing country. They seem to have picked up the worst thing about capitalism, making money at all costs including costing lives, and the worst thing about communism, complete control of the people through an unelected communist party. I think in China it needs a new name; I'm going to call it capitommunism.

Definition, capitommunism: retaining absolute control on people and of thought while making as much money as possible though the exploitation of cheap labour, labour which in turn has been created by artificially keeping the currency closed and ensuring people that live in certain regions or have certain ethnicities are paid little to do hard manual work.

As you can see, I still have some issues with China, but I would with anyone pretending to be something they’re not.

Rant over.... At this point a policeman came over in his little buggy and moved the old guy on. I just explained that we were talking about the UK (for fear of the old guy saying something first and getting me arrested) but he ordered him away. A reminder that no matter how many Gucci or D&G shops or Michelin star restaurants you have, you don't have freedom of speech here. Well, actually I suppose you do as long as no one hears you! There’s no freedom of hearing!

So after heading for the amazingly disappointing Bund tunnel of lights..... See the development of the world through the amazing display of lights.... This orange light shows magma....

I feel as if I was mugged of robbed of £8! If you have a good Internet connection I’ve attached a video of the entire debacle. Click Here. To recover from this we did something a lot more worthwhile and at the same cost. The Shanghai airport Maglev train. One of the fastest trains in the world although it is not the conventional type but runs in midair held up, directed by and thrust along by opposing magnetic fields. Amazingly this got up to 434km/h or for the Brits amongst us, 270 mph. That's 4.5 miles a minute or 1 mile in 22 seconds! Pretty fast and the fastest I've been on land. In fact I've been faster than.... And I was eating a packet of prawn crackers at the time. I bet he wasn't!

After this excitement it was time to head to warmer climes, down south to Guilin and more importantly back in the right direction.

Shanghai, China

42. Dignity for Dumplings

January 28th, 2011

Arriving in Guilin on the night train I met up with a guy who was at the hostel in Shanghai. He wanted to hear about the argument I had with the officials working for the Shanghai Metro before we left. I'd bought a pay and go metro card as they had recommended when I arrived and was trying to take it back to get the deposit and the outstanding balance returned. I'd been sent to two different stations to claim it back to no luck and now was at one of Shanghai's the main train stations. At this station where you would think returns would be possible they said they couldn't do it and would have to go to yet another station at the end of a provincial line. I had no time left and simply explained to the people behind the counter, who thought it funny I couldn't get my money back, that this was slightly stupid and bureaucratic and asked whether it was an underhand way of the communist party making money out of tourists. That took the smile of their faces. Mention "The Party" and everyone goes quiet. It’s a fun game to play! Anyway, that was £3 gone! Yep, it's not a lot but it's the principle... It's a nights’ accommodation here!

Guilin, China

Anyway, Guilin is set in and around some amazing beautiful countryside however to my surprise it was cold and miserable, I had wanted to spend Christmas somewhere warm. That said I decided to stop here for two nights as the Dutch guy was costing me a fortune as he is a very fussy eater and will only eat at the pricier places. He was leaving in the morning. Now I could go back to eating the cheap Chinese delicacy, the 1000 year old egg or century egg as it’s sometimes called. I’d happened upon these by chance and it has to be said that these are the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted. Fundamentally they are made by preserving chicken eggs in an alkaline mixture of clay, lime and salt for a number of months. During the process the yolk turns green and smells like what it is...... off! The putrid sulphur and urine taste is complimented by the brown translucent jelly like substance the egg white has become. To save face after ordering it I did eat it but it was the worst thing I ever have and over 18 years of backpacking I’ve eaten some horrendous stuff. If you want to see what one looks like just do a goggle image search for “century egg”.

The following day I did have the intention of visiting many of the tourist sites in town but partly due to this being the most popular tourist destination for the Chinese in the south of the country everything was vastly overpriced and more importantly I was not paying £8 to see a temple which looks just like the ones you can see for free. But there is another bizarre Chinese quirk here, as I was cycling around I found the entry to the "national park” I'd been looking for only to see a sign asking for £10 entry. I asked what I got for the money and basically she explained "the sight". Mmm, I could see that from outside?

Guilin, China

But this is a bizarrely Chinese thing to do and has been a constant irritation throughout the country. Anywhere they declare as a scenic spot they turn into a park. Then, to generalise, as the Chinese don't really do exercise, they don't see he point as only the poor walk, so if the sight has a hill they build a cable car up it, or if the sight is flat, they build an environmentally and aesthetically incoherent concrete path to lead you to and from the sight as quickly as possible. Oh! and then charge for it of course. Even the most beautiful areas are spoiled by this way of thinking. You spend £10 to walk for 10 minutes up a small hill and then when you get to the top you find Chinese, who all used the cable car, lined up to scream and shout as loud as they can from the peak. This is a particularly annoying habit most do, which I might have understood if they'd climbed a mountain, but screaming after a 3 minute cable car ride. Mental. They really don't do anything quietly here.

Guilin, China

So thwarted from entering any parks and hassled constantly by short middle aged women offering massages, which soon became an offer of "sexy sex" if you didn't want a massage! (did make me wonder what other types of sex they offered... Gloomy sex? I didn't ask!) The next day (Christmas eve) I left. I hopped on a small bamboo boat for a 7 hour picturesque journey to Yangshuo the prettiest place in South China (some say). The scenery was undeniably beautiful with the rocky tree topped karst hills projecting out of the earth like splinters sticking out of an otherwise sheen wooden surface. But it was cold cloudy and grey so was glad to find my hostel. As I was settling in I couldn't believe it, the Dutch guy who I thought I'd lost yesterday had just arrived. I'd told him which hostel I was going to and he'd followed me! This was going to cost me a fortune!

Guilin, China

In the evening the hostel invited the western tourists out to a free Christmas dumplings party which we thought we might as well go to. When we arrived it all got a little weird as it soon became apparent that this had been organised by the Chinese government and that all the westerners had to march through the streets with Santa hats on behind a Christmas procession. All this was to take place while the press took pictures of the "funny looking" westerners. It was communist party propaganda (confirmed two days later in the local paper) and the Dutch guy and I quickly left. Dignity for dumplings, I don't think so. So we stood and watched the procession go past with the Chinese celebrating it in the only way they know. It was definitely a fake plastic Christmas and I guess few here know the true meaning, particularly if they understood it in the same way the Americans did on my boat on the way here. It's all about asking for and receiving presents it turns out. Christmas day itself was quiet one, the highlight being a random American at the party I went to walking around calling people "tw*ts" as it was a new non-American word someone had seen fit to teach him. He called me it but he soon discovered the errors of his ways. I guess he hadn't been out of America much and didn't know not to treat everyone else as if you're on a US "spring break".

Yangshuo, China

After eating my very nice Christmas dinner with the traditional goose rather than turkey, I went with a bunch of Aussies to a nightclub. In china these really have to be experienced. Basically dancing is just something the girls do while the men all play dice drinking games, dice provided free. There are also the added compulsory cabaret acts which without fail consist of a female singer followed by two female dancers, then a male singer and finally all four join in at the end for a mass display of amateur singing and dancing. Stunning! Importantly all this is performed while no one in the room takes a blind bit of notice. But I have left the most important fact out. In the corner there is nearly always a policeman stood in full uniform including white shiny helmet and gun as a constant reminder that the country is watching over your every "dance" move and not to stray into democratic "party" ways.... Truly Weird, see photo... You should just be able to make him out.

Guilin, China

Leaving this town which is even prettier than Guilin, I headed towards Vietnam with the Dutch guy still in tow.... On the way we stopped at the dragon rice terraces which were an amazing sight with paddy-fields carved all the way down the hillside. But here as one last reminder about China I had the sight of things to come for Tibet and the far west. The ethnic group that live here (the Yao tribe) have all but been turned into a freak show and the whole area a theme-park. This is exactly what I'd said about Tibet a month or two ago. Just like Tibet you have to pay to enter the town but here you have the added value of watching the elders’ indignity at having to put on a show in a purpose built hall showing you how "they" live. Han Chinese visit what they term “the natives” and take pictures of the minority here as if they are not part of China.

Dragon Terraces, China

Am I as guilty as these guys for coming here and seeing it? Probably, but would I force everyone in Wales to dress up in national costume and then take bus loads of English around to point and laugh at them. As funny as that may be I think not, although having said that...... So disappointed we left for one final night in Nanning, and a sex hotel! It was the only hotel with a room available as it had gone 11:30pm! It came with lubrication and vibrating condom included and a see-through glass bathroom wall. Needles to say as I was sharing the room with a weird Dutch guy I made sure it had twin beds, slept with my clothes on and didn't use the toilet!

Dragon Terraces, China

So bunged up and smelly it was time to say goodbye China...... A country which has left me genuinely confused. Although loud, burpy and spitty the people here have shown amazing generosity and helpfulness towards me but they treat different peoples in their own country with contempt if they don't behave in the Han way. But having said that, the Han did suffer at the hands of their own masters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests which friends in Hong Kong have shown me images of, which are ones you won't see in the press (Click here for image, WARNING, it's not nice). But this like almost everything about China is bipolar. It's a communist country but embraces capitalism more than just about any other county in the region. It sells tourism on its history, but it is pulling all the old buildings down for tower-blocks or at worst building a fake plastic version of what was there before. It promotes the need to preserve national beauty, but then builds a cable car and concrete path up a mountain. And finally, it is the world’s biggest producer of knives and forks, but everyone here uses chopsticks! Just give me a fork'n knife!

Nanning, China

43. Scootering Away

February 3rd, 2011

It's been 9 1/2 years since I was last in Vietnam so I didn't really know what to expect. I fell in love with the place back then and although it was quite touristy at that time, I'd heard it had become a lot busier now. Crossing the border from China the first thing that struck me was the state of the roads, they were tarmac and pretty smooth, before many were just dirt roads or even if they did have Tarmac on them they were so badly pitted minibuses would break and career off the road, I know this as one I was on last time did! But although the new roads came as a comfort to the old arse it was not much comfort to the heart as this only meant that the traffic could move a lot faster. This creates a massive problem here as there are two basic rules everyone is taught when learning to drive. Basically when you pull out NEVER look behind you before you do it! And secondly, just focus on the small area directly in front of your vehicle, everywhere else is someone else's problem!

Hanoi, Vietnam

To my surprise the centre of Hanoi has not changed much at all, it’s still full of small two to three storey buildings with new tower blocks still few and far between. The mixture of grey and yellow painted temples with similarly painted Indochina-French influenced buildings makes for a pleasant sight. The only sad thing for anyone returning is that 10 years ago the little maze of lanes in the old town used to be filled with cyclists making their way to and from work wearing their traditional cone shaped hats but now there are thousands of mopeds and an increasing number of cars bring the place to a much more polluted standstill. But the place still has that all important character so many towns in China lacked. The contrast could not be greater as China has become so regimented and so ordered that the mayhem that once appealed has now gone. Vietnam seems to have kept the happy medium of madness and order. The communist party are in control of the country but on the street it's the people who really run the place.

Hanoi, Vietnam

But as lovely as this place is I didn't want to spend New Year here but somewhere more peaceful. I decided on a boat trip to Halong Bay a place I couldn't get to in 2001 as it was hit by a cyclone the week that I arrived. To my immense irritation the Dutch guy decided to tag a long which was a complete surprise as I thought he'd want to spend New Year trying to sleep with a local girl. So imagine his disappointment when we arrived on the boat only to find it was predominantly filled with couples and the odd solo male backpacker, and I mean odd, I had to laugh. But that said, I enjoyed every minute of the trip. Halong Bay although extremely touristy is stunning. I jumped off the boat and swam in the sea, kayaked around the karst rock formations, ventured through caves, cycled around islands, punched a monkey and fished for squid...... Just to make it clear, punching a monkey is not a euphemism but it kept trying to steal my bag and after trying to reason with it I was left with little other choice! After the first day a smaller group of us continued to the less touristy Cat Ba and spent New Year ’s Eve evening on our personal tropical island around a campfire counting down the minutes. This was only spoiled by an American family who would interrupt a conversation by speaking Russian to each other. They even explained that they did this when they wanted to talk about other people but didn't want them to know what they were saying! Some may think that rude, actually we did and then just ostracised them!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

But with pleasure always comes pain, and so it did on the way back. We had to change boats mid journey which was not a problem but the guide on the boat was adamant that he would carry my bag for me. I explained my rule of baggage which is "if I carry it and I break it then it's my problem if you carry it and you break it then it's your problem". I don't know if it was deliberate and him having an extremely poor joke but as he carried it across the gangplank, splash, it slipped from his shoulder hit the plank and bounced straight into the sea with all my electronics and computer inside. To give him his dues he dove straight in to get it before it sank but I guess he had to otherwise I'd have pushed him in anyway. However, being a good boy scout I wasn't too concerned as everything within the bag was in waterproof dry bags and a quick check showed everything to be dry although unfortunately my rucksack now smells of fish!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Back in Hanoi I managed to give the Dutch guy the slip, it took ten days, I've had shorter relationships! I was glad to see the back of him as I’d paid for a few things as he “had no money” and then denied I’d ever lent him anything. What was more annoying is that he had a well paid job! So I settled in my guest-house and thought I'd catch up on some emails..... Great, the computer may have survived the water but the bump with the plank clearly not. Half of the keyboard no longer works which makes it pretty hard to use if I want to write anything. I have to consider myself lucky that by some miracle the keys needed for my password worked otherwise I wouldn't be able to do anything with it. But as a result I wasted the next couple of days in Hanoi trying to find the Toshiba service centre. After one day on the back of motorbike taxis which although good fun, I thought I'd just hire a bicycle and do it myself as this way each time I arrived at the wrong address it would be my fault. Trying to hire a bicycle in Hanoi turned out to be impossible as it seems that as everyone believes it to dangerous leaving the only option left for me was to hire was a scooter.....

Hanoi, Vietnam

..... There is one difficulty with this though. No national or international driving licence is accepted in Vietnam meaning that no foreigners are allowed to drive here and you could be arrested for doing it. So what to do? Well what's the point of living if you can't feel alive..... So I hired one...... Well the bad news was the Toshiba place did not have a replacement keyboard but the great thing was, scootering around Hanoi was fantastic. Over 2 days I think I must have died 4 times but amazingly once you get used to the fact that vehicles will pull out straight in front of you all of the time it's fantastic fun. At one point I pulled up in the centre of a roundabout outside the opera house so I could take a picture. I suddenly had an epiphany. I remembered seeing a great Top Gear episode where the guys met outside the sister building to this in Saigon (ten years ago everyone called it Ho Chi Minh City now it seems to have reverted back!) for the beginning of an epic journey up the coast. I'm going to do the same I thought although not all the way or in the same direction! So I shelved my plan of going from Hanoi straight to Laos but would head south a little way before driving to the border. I wouldn't go all the way to the famous touristy areas of Hue and Hoi An but turn inland just north as I've been to both places before.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Well, what can I say about the journey. It was a little cold but it was most definitely worth it. The best thing was getting lost in little villages while looking for petrol (which ran out remarkably fast, 20p a litre, it's expensive stuff!). People would come out and wave, some would go in and get the whole family, others would just ask me over to sit and eat with them although none of us could really communicate other than by smiles and laughter. And the police, most just ignored me as basically they can’t speak English so couldn't be bothered with the hassle. The one time that one officer did wave their white and red baton at me I just waved back and shouted hello and continued. As I drove on I pulled my head down into my shoulders as if I was expecting to hear a single gunshot...... However, luckily nothing came. But it was over too soon, just as most visits to Vietnam are. It's definitely not the scary place it was years ago, the one illusion I had wiped from my mind the last time I was here, it's almost too touristy now with many couples enjoying a romantic holiday but I would defy anyone to come to Vietnam and not enjoy themselves. There really is something for everyone, although I do think it about time that the tourist shops should stop selling "Good morning Vietnam" T-shirts! Get over it!!!!

Hanoi, Vietnam