Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Say Hoa Lo to my little friend

Sometimes you can learn too much about a country and lose those initial, innocent, ignorant impulses you might have had back when you weren't burdened by knowledge and experience.

I was in South Korea for over a month before I remembered 'oh yeah, this is that place they're supposed to eat dogs,' and it wasn't until my sixth day in Vietnam when I visited Hoa Lo Prison - which the incarcerated United States Air Force POWs sardonically nicknamed the 'Hanoi Hilton' - that I recalled 'oh yeah, there was that whole war thing...'

It's not like I hadn't seen 20,000 terrible films about it, all admittedly from the American perspective (though rarely with a positive outlook about the whole thing). So I was keen for the chance to redress the balance and see events portrayed from the other side of the conflict.

Though I wasn't quite prepared for the level of selective editing involved. This museum's white-washed trip down memory lane is the most darkly amusing cover-up I've seen since I visited the Korean DMZ and learned about the North's childish excuses when they were caught digging infiltration tunnels to the South. I may not be a historian, but my dad's a farmer and I know the smell of bullshit.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mm, that's nice too

Iiiiit's October 28th again, and you know what that means! No? It means I just noticed it's the pointless anniversary of a day when I presumably wasn't doing very much last year, so made a greatest hits compilation of photos of ace natural sights I'd seen over the previous year.

I'm not exactly running low on new things to show you - I've got almost two months of backblog scheduled in case I get hospitalised or something and can't provide you with your bi-weekly fix of disappointing, low resolution photos of things you'll have to trust looked spectacular when I looked at them with my eyes through slightly wrong prescription glasses. But a tradition's a tradition, even a pointless, non-existent tradition, so here's another year's worth of nice nature things.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The twenty-seven deadly Sinhs

As a child, I remember eating Asda Take A Break and Puffin chocolate bars, their cheeky own-brand knock-offs of Kit Kat and Penguin respectively, and wondering how they were getting away with that. It turns out they didn't get away with the second one after all, because there are rules to stop opportunists cutting in on someone's market niche when they've built a solid reputation over many years.

Those laws don't exist in Vietnam though, and when one particular Hanoi-based travel agent called Sinh Cafe was singled out for its good value deals and relative lack of scamming by the writers of those bulky Lonely Planet books that so many people insist on carting around even though it's 2012, it didn't take long for every other travel agent in the city's Old Quarter to steal its name and branding in a successful bid to trick gullible tourists into thinking they were dealing with a credible business.

I was looking for a good travel agent to book a tour of Ha Long Bay, and because it's 2012 I got some help from the internet. This is apparently the real Sinh Cafe website (now rebranded as The Sinh Tourist to set itself apart from the imitations), and I was told there were at least 15 dodgy knock-offs in the Hoan Kiem district alone. Walking around that area in search of a book shop, I counted at least 27 Sinh Cafes, and I wasn't even really looking.

Here's a needlessly thorough gallery. (Note: Does not include real Sinh Cafe).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The tortoise hunter

They're pretty big on tortoises in Hanoi, which is good as I'm pretty big on them myself. They carve stone effigies in their universities, cultivate mummified specimens in their temples and there are even legends about giant ones swimming around in the impractically small Hoan Kiem Lake. Oh hang on, that'll be turtles if they're swimming won't it?

Ah well, same thing, innit? Like saying 'monkeys' when you mean apes, or 'Chinese' when you mean anyone east of Bangladesh. Same thing, innit? No, it isn't. Get out of my sight!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hello there Vietnam, how are you this morning? Good.

I think I'd been postponing Vietnam so long for the same reason as China, as I didn't fancy having to arrange an annoying and expensive visa when other countries let me in with just a passport stamp. It's nicer to feel welcome than like I'm some sort of annoyance (Hanoiance?)

But I'm glad I finally got round to it, as this might be one of my favourite South East Asian countries as well as one of the worst. Great sights, fantastic food and the most mental traffic I've experienced since Cairo. Those idealised images of Vietnam you have from 1990s travel documentaries of people in conical hats getting around on non-motorised bicycles are long gone. Hanoi's population of eight million owns six million motorcycles. That means everyone apart from the kids has one, though they probably have illicit scooters stowed beneath their beds.

I didn't enjoy walking in Hanoi very much, but risking almost certain death crossing the street was still preferable to getting ripped off by taxi drivers. If these blogs suddenly cease before I get to Ha Long Bay, you know what happened. Please give my organs to the needy and let the medical students make mistakes on my corpse so they don't slip up on living ones. As a precaution, I've always had a blog post scheduled to go live in the event of my death with more details - that's normal behaviour, right?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Well, that about wraps it up for Myanmar

I know, I really should have gone to the Thai embassy in Vientiane to arrange an extension to the overland 15 day visa exemption before crossing back into Thailand from Laos, but I didn't fancy the prospect of spending another 24 hours in that place, and anyway I wasn't anticipating my bank screwing around so much with my life, feelings and bowels that I'd need to do a visa run to Myanmar and give myself more waiting time.

If I had that sort of foreknowledge, I would have done myself in a long time ago, though at least I could have saved myself some girl trouble and Sri Lanka. Let it go, there are more countries to slag off. Myanmar isn't one of them, as I didn't spend long enough in the sovereign republic to get a balanced perspective. I didn't even spend long enough to watch an episode of Ren & Stimpy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Chiang Mai of the slightly to the north east

My break-neck tour of Laos lasted just 10 days, which is probably something like the average but was a shock to my system, as I'm used to giving myself about twice as long as I need in every place to account for work days and days where I just can't really be bothered to go out and would rather watch Red Dwarf and eat biscuits. I've been travelling for two years without a break, got a problem with that?

Laos was a testing ground to see whether I could get all my work done on long distance bus journeys to free up time once I got to my destination, now that I've replaced my laptop with one that has a battery life longer than two hours (how did I cope with that for so long?) This new system works well for me, but I still could have done with spending a little longer in the old capital of Luang Prabang - the first and last place in Laos that didn't just stress me out and reminded me a lot of Chiang Mai in Thailand.

Apparently, you can take a seven-hour speedboat journey between those two places, so could theoretically divide your time between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang until your respective visas expire, making the trip across the border every two to four weeks until your inevitable death. Not the worst retirement plan.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Who said I never take pointless risks? Oh yeah, it was me. But after I missed out on the deadly tubing in Vang Vieng I was excited by the prospect of swinging Tarzan-style into the raging torrents of Kuang Si Waterfall, forgetting for a second that I hadn't been swimming in more than a year, was never all that good at it anyway, and that any time in my life I try to show off or join in with anything that requires physical fitness I just end up embarrassing myself.

It all came flooding back when I managed to swing back into the tree and get carried further out than I intended in the fast-moving river, but I somehow didn't end up dying. I guess it's back to the safety of temples and museums from now on. But first, here's some waterfalls and bears.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dave's in some more caves

I enjoyed my time in South East Asia's capital of drink, drugs and smashing your head open on jagged rocks because you had too many drinks and drugs, despite not indulging in any of those things myself. Though on Thursday I did have a hot coffee for breakfast and then bought a bottle of iced coffee from the convenience store within 30 minutes! What can I say, the hedonistic attitude is infectious.

But enough about my wild caffeinated mornings, I also got away from the shanty resort to see some of Vang Vieng's ace scenery, which is presumably the reason this place became popular among backpackers in the first place, before its popularity became a selling point in itself and kept people like me away.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Red Dwarf X is here, gimboids

Here's a break from my zany travelling escapades to inform those of you who haven't been keeping up with retro TV resurrections that the new series of Red Dwarf starts tonight on Dave at 9PM! (Or some time tomorrow on illegal torrent sites for those of us not living in the UK).

I don't know if these six new episodes will really recapture the spirit of the show that was so important to me from the age of eight and up, but the spoiler-free news I've let myself peek at suggests it's at least the best it's been for almost 20 years. I'm extremely optimistic. Plus, even if the jokes have lost it, I can just mute the volume and enjoy those spectacular sets and model shots.

I missed out being in the audience recordings earlier this year, which is one of the times I've most missed being in my home country, though even if I was there, lousy Wi-Fi probably would have meant I was beaten to the fast-selling tickets anyway.

Okay, back to my day job of [enjoying / getting pissed off by] South East Asia now. Did I forget something? Oh yeah, 'smeg' etc.

Update: Oh yes, it was good! What a relief.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How not my kind of place can you get?

I'd heard a lot about Vang Vieng since first coming to South East Asia, having to endure the same overheard conversations as each new group of fresh backpackers is wowed by lecherous travellers' tales of drunken tubing down a river in 'some country called Laos.' It was enough to put me off going this far, but the prospect of another half-day bus ride direct to Luang Prabang convinced me to stop here along the way and see whether it was as bad as I feared.

It sort of was, but weighted more towards the amusing end than just depressing.