A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: amysblog

Vietnam: Week 1

Phu Quoc, The Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City

sunny 30 °C

Arriving in Vietnam was quite a significant turning point in our travels. Until now, our journeys had been meticulously planned and yet here we were, on an island just off the south west coast with only one thing dictating our travels - our return flight to China three weeks later from Hanoi, in the north. Naturally, there was an ounce of drama upon arriving, we had arrived a day early for our accommodation. Luckily, that was easily resolved by an extra night on beautiful Phu Quoc island - you can't really complain - which gave us more time to plan the rest of the trip... well, that was the idea. We spent the next few days indulging in some much needed down time, and delicious seafood and Pho. And did very little planning. Phu Quoc was a surprisingly lively destination, with fairly busy beaches and a bustling night market, even in low season. It was in a quiet beach cafe overlooking the palm fringed beach that I had my first experience with Vietnamese coffee. Initially I thought it was just plain vile, but over the next few weeks, it became a staple part of my diet.

After three beach filled days, it was time to make a decision on where to head to next and we agreed on Can Tho, a city famous for its floating markets. It would be our first real challenge in Vietnam; we booked a ferry to the mainland and then we would have to find transport to get to the city which was about 3.5 hours away. This 'challenge' turned out to be incredibly simple. Upon arriving at the harbour, I noticed a huge banner for the bus company we were hoping to track down. As it happened, you could by tickets right there and there was a free shuttle to the main bus station. Within an hour on the mainland we were already on route to Can Tho. Even better, upon arrival, there was another free shuttle to the front door of our hostel. The whole trip could not have been more straightforward and that initial experience took all the possible stress out of future journeys. We realised then that travelling up Vietnam was going to be great.

Due to our expected late arrival at the hostel in Can Tho, we had already organised a boat trip to the floating market the next morning before we arrived. We had to be up and out by 5am latest and our guide was there on the dot to meet us. It was still dark when we left the hostel and we walked down a pitch black alley, arriving abruptly at the water edge to board our small motor boat. We then set off down the river towards Cai Rang Floating Market, about 6km away. The market is only active early in the morning and it is where people go to buy fruit such as watermelon and pineapple from large boats. There are some smaller sellers with rowing boats full of colourful produce and our little boat did laps of the market so that we could see all the action as the same came up. We stopped to get some (Vietnamese) coffee and Pho for breakfast - it's not everyday you have noodles for breakfast on a river!

When we had seen our fill, our guide took us to a noodle factory near the markets which was fairly interesting, but the most enjoyable part of the tip was leisurely meandering back along the Mekong Delta towards Can Tho. The scenery was beautiful and we passed small settlements with people washing clothes in the river and going about their daily business. It was very relaxing and the perfect temperature. We got back to the hostel around 9am and felt like we had already done a full day! We were leaving Can Tho that same afternoon so after checking out, we went for a stroll around the city. It was nice but wasn't particularly busy and we actually ended up catching an earlier bus to Ho Chi Minh because there really wasn't much else we could do with so little time.

We arrived in HCMC at about 5pm. This time the free shuttle only took us part the way into the city. It didn't seem like too far for us to then walk to the hostel, so we strapped our bags on, stopped for a snickers and then went in search of Backpackers' Street. It was evident as soon as we arrived. The streets were teeming with travellers and there was English everywhere. Arriving at the hostel, there was a tad more drama, they had missed our booking so we were shown to another hotel on a slightly louder road but it was overall OK. We went out to get some food and look around the area local to our hostel. The surrounding streets were called "walking streets" but a more accurate description would have been "stumbling streets" because they were full of bars and drunken westerners, still, it made for an amusing evening stroll.

The next morning we set off in search of a more authentic HCMC. Initially, we were fairly disappointed by the walking route we followed from the Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a lot of walking and not a lot else. However the afternoon picked up when we reached the area surrounding the Reunification Palace. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and stumbled across a small book market before ending up at the War Remnants Museum, where we spent a couple of hours reading harrowing accounts of the Vietnam War, looking through graphic photos and learning about the modern history of the country. Although it was an emotional experience, we were really glad to have taken the time to visit the museum.
That evening we went to a roof top bar called 'The View' in the backpacker's district. Although it wasn't in the city centre, the perspective we had due to being a little further out was really cool, and we made it just in time for happy hour!

The next morning, our history lesson from the previous day came into good stead as we took a trip out of the city to visit Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by Vietnamese fighters during the war. It was a great trip and we learned about the different kind of traps and avoidance techniques the Vietnamese used against the American forces. We also had the opportunity to go through a section of the tunnels. The length was just 100m - easy, right? Wrong. The tunnels were so small that it was impossible to stand up straight at any given point. They were so narrow that most of the people in our group turned back before the last section as they weren't sure they could get through. We emerged at the end of the 100m stretch breathing heavily and dumbfounded by the exertion it had taken to travel such little distance. Back in HCMC, we went for some lunch before heading to the airport; the day before we had booked a flight up to Hoi An to save us some time. It was time to leave the south and head for Central Vietnam.

Posted by amysblog 04:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beaches sea food history market river island asia traveling phu_quoc mekong_delta ho_chi_minh boat_trip war_tunnels Comments (0)

A Weekend Getaway : Nanjing

After a full day on Friday (Chinese lesson at 9am and teaching until 3:40pm, followed by a sprint across the city to the train station to catch a train at 5pm) and a week of misbehaving students (a ‘giving advice’ activity wherein the appropriate response for the issue of “my dog won’t stop barking” was repeatedly and categorically inappropriate), I was relieved to be out of Beijing and very ready to explore a new city in China - Nanjing.

The ‘Nan’ to Beijing’s ‘Bei’, Nanjing translates as “Southern Capital” but this didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. I arrived around 10.30pm and we were staying in an “Inn”, AKA someone’s spare room in a flat situated down a questionable alley, which still didn’t give me any in-cling about the city. And so it was early (10.30am) on Saturday morning that we finally started to discover what Nanjing was all about.

Our first intended stop was the Presidential Palace, but when we got off the subway, the ‘1912 Casual District’ was too enticing to bypass so we had a look around the strange little area first, which was mainly eateries and cafes. Through the decorative windows in the walls between 1912 and the Palace gardens, we caught but a glimpse of the enchanting landscapes we were soon to explore. Luckily for us, Spring has finally sprung in China and it was a warm day, so the gardens were bursting with blossom and it was so relaxing to stroll around and take in the atmosphere. Much like Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai, we could see skyscrapers above the garden walls which was kind of surreal but also very cool.

In a bid to see more of the city, we decided to use busses instead of the subway to get around. So we hopped on the 33 to take us to our next destination: Gulou. On the way we went past a bustling park where the blossoms were also in full bloom, and the world and his wife were taking the opportunity for a social-media-worthy photo shoot. The Drum Tower was also set against a backdrop of skyscrapers and the surrounding park was filled with people in traditional dress performing some kind of casual Chinese dancing. I say casual because there really doesn’t seem to be any particular skill or routine behind these park dance sessions, instead they take place purely for enjoyment and entertainment.

After a quick lunch stop we decided to head towards one of Nanjing’s most famous attractions, the Xuanwu Lake. Approaching it, we walked past a small park where people were lying on some particularly luscious grass, which is quite unheard of in Beijing and so we decided to take a break and enjoy the warm weather before following the crowds of people heading towards the lake. The lake has several islands that are joined together by various bridges so we wandered with no real direction through the very scenic park. By chance we found ourselves at Nanjing’s Sakura festival, which was mostly people indulging in more photo-taking underneath the blossoming trees.

In the evening we went to downtown Nanjing. It was getting dark and the skyscrapers were lit up with neon flashing lights. We spotted a House of Fraser - of all things! - and stopped for a bite to eat in a bright square. After dinner we stopped by a famous food street, which was much smaller than what we were expecting, but the queues for some of the stalls were extremely long; you know what they say, it’s quality, not quantity! Making a mental note to stop by for lunch the next day, we jumped on a bus to the Old Town area. It was heaving with people, but in a good way. These old style streets are a bit touristy but they usually offer a great atmosphere and lots of things to look at. There was a river between the two busiest streets with bridges joining them and little boats doing trips up and down it. It was a great end to the day.

Next morning, we were given a ‘traditional natural rice cake’ by our host for breakfast, which was essentially savoury donut sticks with egg, chicken and some onion (?) rolled up in sticky black rice. It wasn’t awful. The pollution wasn’t particularly great so we changed our plans a bit because we were going to head up a mountain to get a good view of the city… I guess we’ll do that next time! Instead we took the opportunity to explore some more of the city, including Golden Egret Park and more of the Old Town. We used bikes to get around which was also a good way of seeing more.

Our final stop was the Old City Wall and Zhonghua Gate, which has an impressive history from both ancient and contemporary times as a major military advantage in battle. It was nice to look over the city that we had spent the last day and a half exploring. Once we had had our fill, we strolled back to the subway, indulged in a milk tea in the sun and then carried on to the station, where we headed back to our respective cities.

Posted by amysblog 05:24 Archived in China Tagged parks culture history lake city china nanjing tefl Comments (0)

Beijing Blog : Back to School

The trials and tribulations of TEFL-ing

So this is an incredibly overdue update about what has been happening since I arrived back in China’s capital after an incredible six weeks travelling. Coming ‘home’ has been tricky, to say the least. Writing this, I am halfway through week 6 (!!!) of the semester and honestly, I think it has taken until now to really find my groove again.

Going back to school was harder than I ever remember it being when I was younger! I think this was partially because for the entire first semester, I had been focussed on saving for and planning Spring Festival travels, and suddenly, that was done and dusted; the only thing I had in front of me was the prospect of 17 weeks of uninterrupted teaching… Having recently had the epiphany that I do not want to be a teacher, this therefore seemed (and still seems sometimes) completely overwhelming and like a colossal task. I had also completely forgotten how to lesson plan, and to top it all off, my timetable for this semester is busier and less condensed than last, meaning that my work days are longer and I spend a lot more time hanging around at school between lessons doing, well, nothing.

Restarting my Chinese lessons was initially a bit of a burden too. After a month of not using my ‘conversational’ mandarin, it felt like I was back to basics and my homework was taking me a lot longer than usual. And I was back to living in my school's accommodation, complete with its daily 6.30am communal alarm. So all in all, I was not in a particularly good mood at the beginning of the semester and was well in need of the mini getaway that was Nanjing.

The last couple of weeks have started to feel smoother, Chinese is becoming easier, it’s warming up, the morning alarm has been disabled and I’ve taken to being and incredibly strict, no-nonsense-taking teacher in most lessons, which makes my life much easier! I’ve also explored a few new parts of Beijing, namely Yuanming Yuan or The Old Summer Palace, which these days is more or less a park with some rather inauthentic ruins of the old palace structures. However, it is Cherry Blossom Season and so the brilliantly pink blossoms that lined the paths and reflected in the lakes around the park were definitely worth the trip.

Last week, I also took part in a Chinese Calligraphy lesson with my friends Lou and Rosanna. I had assumed that this would be a fun and creative activity but the first half of the lesson left me feeling horrendously inadequate in the world of calligraphy. We were tasked with writing the calligraphic version of the character 福 or fu meaning ‘fortune’ or 'good luck'. Simple. Not. Our teacher was a professor from a university in Hubei province and has been studying calligraphy for a few decades and so we were given a brief tutorial (which we videoed in slow motion so we could try to make out what on earth we were supposed to be drawing) in Chinglish and set to work. After several failed attempts - too much ink, not enough ink, absolutely illegible, “what do I do next?!”, “that’s um… wrong” - we finally achieved somewhat OK versions of the 福, put our brushes down and made a swift retreat. In the end it was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the lesson but I’m not sure I will ever be able to describe myself as a calligrapher.

So my first six weeks back have been a bit hit and miss, but I’m starting to feel settled in Beijing again and it’s almost time to start planning the next lot of travelling! The weeks have started to pick up speed and I’ve begun to realise that before I know it I’m going to be halfway through and then nearly at the end of this semester, which I’m both looking forward to and also dreading. So in the meantime, I’ll be here, trying to make the most of this fantastic - albeit taxing - experience!

Posted by amysblog 05:45 Archived in China Tagged parks culture travel city china beijing spring chinese teaching tefl sakura caligraphy Comments (0)

Beijing Blog: Qing Ming

National Holiday in the Capital

rain 10 °C

With the arrival of April, Beijing has finally started to melt and after a week of HOT weather, the long weekend brought with it a relapse in the weather resulting in a very wet and cold few days. Not exactly the glorious holiday weekend I had been hoping for but after starting the long "weekend" with the crisis of a missing passport and a very wet journey to the hostel, by Wednesday we were ready to hit the ground running.

After a distinctly average breakfast at out hostel, our first destination was the Temple of Heaven. It was my first time visiting and i was really surprised by the size of the temple’s gardens and all the different parts of it. Unfortunately, a lot of the English descriptions were a little hard to follow and so I wasn’t really sure of the significance of all of the buildings on the complex. Nevertheless it is an impressive and very beautiful piece of architecture that we spent a good few hours exploring. When we left, we realised we were very close to Beijing’s ‘Pearl Market” - or fake market - and curiosity got the better of us. Although I had no intention of bargaining or buying, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and modern it was, especially compared to Shanghai’s underground fake market (aka maze).

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As it headed towards sunset, we crossed the city up to Beijing’s Olympic Park. It’s the second time I’ve been, but on the previous occasion it was freezing cold and the stadium was not lit up. This time, determined to see the Bird’s Nest in all its glory, I mustered up my best Chinese to try and find out what time it would be lit up. The first person I asked said “soon” the second person gave us the more accurate time of 7.30pm and sure enough, at 7.30pm there was light. We took a long walk all around the stadium and found some quieter spots with the stadium reflecting in the lake. It was very beautiful indeed.

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Day two was also packed full of tourist activities. I had managed to reserve Forbidden City tickets for the afternoon online so to fill the morning we went for a stroll around Beijing’s CBD, Guomao and saw the CCTV headquarters, a distinctive building which looks like a pair of trousers. We spent the afternoon getting cold and lost in the Forbidden City. The skies started to clear as we got to the exit gate and we decided to go into Jingshan Park, which has a big hill in it that over looks the entire Forbidden City - perfect for photos. We fought our way through the crowds to get some snaps but by this time we were in desperate need of food.

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Next stop was Wangfujing Street and we decided to try our luck at a Sichuanese restaurant which turned out to be a fantastic choice. The food was good value and delicious. It was already quite late in the day and we were supposed to be meeting some of my friends for some drinks in Sanlitun which was a fair distance from where we were. So we jumped on the bus back to the hostel for a quick refresh and then headed out to the bars.

We didn’t get back to late, but having been reunited with REAL BEER, the next morning, Will was feeling a little worse for the wear. The weather was much better so we sat on the rooftop of our hostel in the sun, nursing our heads before we went to explore Sanlitun by day. We took the bus and got dropped of in an unfamiliar part of the district which worked out quite well; we found a little shop selling delicious fruit selections and found some warm sun to enjoy while we ate them. We had a wander around the Tai Koo Li centre, which is like an outdoor mall - very new, very glam and very big before settling for some brunch in one of my favourite coffee shops, Baker and Spice. Unfortunately, due to the distance between Beijing and Shanghai, Will’s train was booked for the early afternoon, so it wasn’t long before it was time for us to get on the subway back to the station.

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I really enjoyed exploring Beijing’s touristy side. Having lived here for over six months now (?!) I feel more of a resident and less of a tourist, meaning that it’s too easy to tread the same path and feel like i’ve seen all the sights. Being a tourist for the weekend was a bit of a tonic and left me feeling refreshed and grateful for the opportunity I am living.

Posted by amysblog 02:09 Archived in China Tagged temples china olympics beijing sightseeing asia nightlife forbidden_city sanlitun Comments (0)

Gubei Water Town

Beijing Day Trips

storm 27 °C

As we are approaching the end of our time in China, our priorities have changed from trying to see as much as possible, to trying to save as much as possible. Our travel plans are coming together and with all the excitement, there are underlying nerves about whether or not we can *actually* afford to hit all of the amazing places on our bucket list. So recently we have been trying to strike the balance between still seeing new things without spending our (hard?)-earned salaries. Now that Will has visited Beijing a fair few times, we have more or less hit all of the sights, so when local travel agency CET advertised a day trip to the “nearby” water-town of Gubei, we were both keen to sign up.

The trip set of at the sociable hour of 10am. Unfortunately, we got caught in weekend traffic heading out of the city, meaning that the journey was slightly longer than we expected - around 3 and a half hours, if I remember correctly. It was a very hot day and unfortunately the pollution was relatively high, which meant some of the mountain views were a little on the fuzzy side. Gubei is a very interesting little place, it has a few large resort-style hotels, but aside from the workers, I think the village is basically uninhabited. It is completely pedestrianised and there are hundreds of tiny winding streets that you can get lost in. There are beautiful canals and the whole place is very quaint and picturesque.

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We were starving by the time we arrived so food was, of course, our first priority. We found a small canal-side courtyard selling reasonably priced noodle dishes and tucked in, before heading further into the town to explore. We tried to stay away from the main streets that were exceptionally busy. Sticking to the back streets we still came across the main attractions, such as the silk museum, opera stage and food streets, as we made our way towards Gubei’s section of the Great Wall.

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It’s a good few months since I last went to the Wall, and this is the third section I’ve visited. It was also possibly the steepest! Even with the pollution, we had great views of the wall winding into the distance and we were up there right towards the end of the day so it was quite quiet in places. I was surprised how rugged this section of the wall was. It is one of the restored sections (as are most of the ones you are *allowed* to visit) but - I don’t know if for effect - some parts were very definitely crumbling. The tumble-down effect is perhaps more striking, in terms of realising what a huge feat the building of it was, back in the day! (Even more striking having recently learned that the cement they used to hold it all together was made out of rice?!?!?! - shout out to Lou for that questionable piece of knowledge)

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It was getting dark as we arrived back at the bottom of the wall, and Gubei was starting to light up, it was beautiful with all the lights reflecting in the water. We stopped for a much needed drink at William Bar. There was a live band playing and it was a really pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. It was finally starting to cool down too. We didn’t have long left until we were due back at the coach, so we went in search of some more food, just as the first crashes of thunder happened. Most of the tourists started to panic and as a mass evacuation back to the coach park was underway, Will and I decided to take advantage of the diminishing queues for the Chinese hamburger stalls to get some grub.

When the rain finally started to pour, we too headed directly for the coach. I’m so pleased that I finally got to see Gubei, even with the high pollution levels. Our last view of the town saw it completely lit up with the Wall - also lit up - shining on the tops of the mountains in the distance. It is probably the last time I will see the Great Wall, and so it was fitting that it was so spectacular.

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Posted by amysblog 01:27 Archived in China Tagged china summer beijing sightseeing great_wall asia day_trip tefl gubei Comments (0)

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