Blogs in June 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Date: 24/06/2007 | Author: Dave

We had been promising ourselves a trek in the Himalayas since our journey started last year and promising Ella and Florence a donkey or horse on this trek in case they need it. We book with a company called High Adventure. They chose a three day trek for us and paced it perfectly. We packed a rucksack each and left our bags at Jimmy Johnson's. High Adventure's office is almost next door and our team are busy repacking as the Indian family that were to trek with us have cancelled at the last minute.
We set off and travelled for 45mins in a taxi until a rope across the road stopped us. Time to jump in the 4wd with our porters and guide. 5 minutes later we are stopped by another rope across the road that this time signifies 'Government Vehicles Only'. It takes only ten minutes for a friend of our driver's to appear in a Gov't Vehicle. India works in mysterious ways, but it does work, and this new car takes us to the start of our walk at the head of the Solang Valley.
With our backpacks on the horse we follow the River Beas up a valley that becomes increasingly steep and spectacular. After about an hour and a half we reached a nomad camp and share some hot buffalo milk while we rested. Our girls use the horse for most of the climb from there. It takes another hour and a half to get to our campsite at 3500m. Gabby and I have lagged a little behind the rest and the tents are almost pitched as we arrive at Baker Thach (place for shepherds). We are not walking at our usual pace in this rarified air. We have all been in mountains before but this is bigger and more spectacular. Higher peaks and larger valleys. Welcome to the Himalayas. We are blown away by the beauty of this place. We have two tents but choose to all sleep in one for warmth.
Sometime in the middle of the night I wake with a pressure on my lower abdomen. I reach down and feel something wet. I reach over my head and grab a torch. I have a black and white dog, I have never seen before, curled up on my sleeping bag. 'Get Out' I say, and without argument she returns to the cold. I fully zip the tent.
The second day we walk to Beas Kund, the source of the River Beas. We climbed from our camp up a hill that is actually an old buried glacier face. On the top there has been a very recent subsidence and we get to see a portion of this 300m deep block of glacial ice. It probably hasn't seen daylight for about 80 years as the glacier has now receded many kilometres up the mountain from here. We stare as the sun carves it's way into this super hard ice. Rock and dirt is sliding down into the hole as the ice melts. It is not the safest place my family and I have ever lingered.
From here we descend into the old Beas Kund lake bed. Traverse it's many streams (including a warm one!) uphill all the way over stone and ice till we finally stop at the base of a waterfall, the official source of the River Beas, at about 4200m. I know it's not Everest, but I think this is our family altitude record.
Camping at Baker Thach was ideal. Shalu cooked great food and in the evening we lit a toasty camp fire in-between two large rocks. Dead wood is hard to find here. We Braceys only ever managed to bring back a small handful of sticks whereas Rajul would appear sooner or later with a massive faggot on his back.
On our last morning our horseman appears with impeccable timing and we make our decent back down to the Solang Valley. As we drive back into Manali we are already talking about doing another trek. This was a highlight of our trip without a doubt.

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Hilly Himalayas

Date: 24/06/2007 | Author: Ella

We have been talking about doing this the whole trip. Florence and I have been bugging Mum and Dad about when we will do it and what it will be like...........
We took a car to a big pony camp and saw our horse. We had to change our car because we were on a Government road but weren't in a Government car. When we stopped driving, we met our horse and put our bags on it. Florence was very, very excited because Mum said that if we were tired we could ride on it. The horse's name was Sheeru. Our guide, Shalu, took us up the mountain, every step taking us higher and higher. We had a packed lunch so at one poit we stopped at a Nomad's camp. Nomads are people who are unsettled, for example, we are Nomads while we are away because we are unsettled. It was a 3 hour walk to our campsite but we arrived quite quickly. We all felt a bit tired when we arrived so we flopped down on our sleeping bags and read our books. Florence and I got a bit tired after a while so went for an explore on the rocks. We found loads of caves and cool climbing rocks and we had lots of fun! After our play we took Mum and Dad around the area. As evening came it got much colder. Mum, Dad, Florence and I piled ourselves up with huge blankets and coats. We all said that we wanted a fire so we split up (me with dad, Flo with Mum) and looked for wood. Of course, it was difficult, because we were near the very edge off the snow line, right on the tree line, but we found some wood in the end. Our guide helper, Rajul, took a little walk up the mountain to get wood and he always did a good job. That night we snuggled up in our blankets and sleeping bags waiting for the next day to arrive.
When morning came, Shalu, Rajul and Arun (the other guide helper) were already awake. that day we walked to Beas Kund, which means Beas lake. Beas Kund is a dried up lake and only a little bit of it is left. our guide, Shalu got a bit crazy when it came to taking photos. He would grab Dad's camera and take shots of nothing.
When we came back from Beas Kund we all had a nap. I as usual, didn't sleep a wink but after played hide and seek with dad which was extra fun because of all the boulders to hide behind.
The next day we walked back to where we started our trek, stopping at the nomad's camp on the way. This time we had a different horse called Neelu. He was very friendly.
When we finished our trek we had a picnic by a waterfall and soon we were back in Manali away from the Himalayan chill.

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A Trek In The Himalayas

Date: 24/06/2007 | Author: Florence

After my great birthday came another wild adventure - we were going on a trek high up in the Himalayas. I had been talking about it since Vietnam. There were porters, who are people who carry your bags each day. Our main porter was very nice, he was called Rajul and our main guide was called Shalu. It is much colder here than in Manali because we are higher up and there is less air for the sun to heat up. We slept in a little clearing in small tents. We saw lots of caves and streams while we were there, it made some great hiding places. It was a 3 hour walk to our camp but if we got tired there was a horse walking with us. Our horse was called Sheeru, he was very friendly. Every night it got colder and colder so each night we got a fire going. I scrambled into bed the first night feeling quite snug amongst all the blankets we had bought.
On our 2nd day we had quite a long walk, but not too long, to a dried up lake called Beas Kund. There were still some streams and rivers where the lake had been, but the guide carried us over those. It was a big lake and took quite a while to get over it. We walked over a little bit of snow and sat next to a small mountain and ate our packed lunch. For packed lunch we normally had things like tomato sandwiches and egg, chocolate and potatoes. We were right at the snow line and had lots of opportunities to walk on the snow. After lunch we started heading back to our campsite hoping for a fire that night. Sooner or later we had a nap, after all that walking - Mummy and I had the longest ;0)! After our long nap we were wide awake so Ella, me and Daddy had the longest game of hide and seek ever! We camouflaged amongst all the rocks and hid in small caves. At last, after all that running - bed time! I crawled in to those sleeping bags waiting for tomorrow to go back to Manali.
'Morning, breakfast', Shalu said waking me up. Shalu and Rajul cooked porridge for us, my favourite, it was very nice (but a bit runny). We had a different horse for the walk back, he was called Neelu. We really wanted a black horse but Neelu was friendly too! Finally, we started heading back to Manali escaping from the cold Himalayas!

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Himalayan Trek

Date: 24/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

One of the things we have discussed with the girls since the start of this trip is trekking in the Himalayas with a donkey. We had wanted to trek in Nepal or Tibet, but either the season wasn't right or we haven't had the time. Manali is one of the best places in northern India to base yourself for short treks so it was here we booked one for 2 nights. True to our word we booked a donkey, so if Ella or Florence got tired they could ride rather than walk.
A short drive from Manali to the Solang Valley took us to the start of our Beas Kund trek (the lake that is the source of the Beas river). Our walk was taking us to altitudes close to 4000m - altitude sickness can be a problem at these heights so I was hoping we'd all be OK. We were met by 3 porters as well as our guide, Shalu, his assitant, Arun and a rather ropey looking horse, Sheeru.
Of course the girls wanted to ride Sheeru straight away but we decided he should carry their bags and they should walk, at least for a bit. The valley was amazing with enormous snow clad peaks and hanging glaciers in the distance. We stopped en route at a Nomads camp. The girls shared their packed lunches with the kids there and we were all given up cup of warm buffalo milk, rich with nutrients. Even with a huge dollop of honey it tasted disgusting.
At this point the girls jumped on to Sheeru - no helmets, no safety talk - but this is India. The horse might have looked ropey but he was like a ballerina negotiating the rocky terrain and went so quickly that Dave and I had to speed along behind him to keep up. After about 10 minutes we were knackered & breathless - the thin air taking it's toll on our lungs. The girls were energetic, giggly and thoroughly enjoying their mountain ride.
After about 3 hours of walking, we eventually arrived at our campsite, Baker Thach (place for shepherds), about 10 minutes behind our guides and porters. The tents were already up and a pot of water boiling ready for chai. We enjoy camping a lot at home, but I really really like this sort of camping! It was an amazing place to spend 2 nights with streams, rocks, caves and soaring mountains surrounding us. Once the camp was completely assembled, 2 of the porters and horse, Sheeru, headed back to base camp to leave us in the elements, with Shalu, Arun and one porter, Rajul. While Bracey family explored the area, read, drank hot chocolate or dozed in our tents, Shalu cooked soup and made dinner, Arun did all the washing up and Rajul collected huge bundles of firewood. I really love this sort of camping! Dave and I loved the food - the girls only liked the chapattis and that was pretty much all they ate for 3 days. We were all exhausted by 8.30 and, dragging ourselves away from a roaring fire, all bundled in one tent rather than the 2 we had been given - it was freezing so we wanted all the warmth we could get!
We all had a blissful night's sleep (apart from Dave's dog incident......) and woke up early for the walk to Beas Kund. There were a few other groups walking in the valley - the mountain border patrol amongst them. At times our site felt like a mountain chai stall, but it was great playing host to the other trekkers. We walked over the Beas pass to Beas kund, a sacred lake for hindis, stopping to take in our surroundings and eat our packed lunch. After the exhausting walk back we all dozed, read, drank hot chocolate etc while Shalu etc cooked dinner etc...........great camping!
By 8.30 on our final day, the horseman arrived with a new horse, a not as ropey looking, Neelu. It was a much quicker walk back and. of course, the girls argued for a lot of the way about whose turn it was to go on the horse and who had been riding the longest. They didn't want to share on the way back down because it was far too uncomfortable on the way up.
It was an amazing 3 days - one of the highlights of the past 7 months for me - for all of us I think. I can't quite believe that in 3 weeks time we are going to be at home camping in a field in Norfolk........

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Getting to Manali

Date: 21/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Gabby found Nature Notes on Trip Advisor and everything pointed to it being the best place for Florence's birthday. Cabins right next to the River Beas in the beautiful Kullu Valley. The web site and Gabby's conversation with Amit sold it to us and we paid for our five days in cash as we left Rishikesh to secure the last two cabins. Nature Notes sounded like an Indian version of Centre Parcs with all inclusive facilities and "five star nature". At 6400 rupees per day it will easily be the most expensive place we stay at in India on this trip. Florence is a bit sad that she won't be seeing any friends for her birthday, so we want to make it as special as we can.
It has been a gruelling journey from Shimla and we arrive at Nature Notes in time for a late lunch. I am a little confused and not sure if we are in the right place as we get out of the car. The location is nice but we can see at a glance that we have arrived at something less than we were expecting. You know that sinking feeling. Owner in your face asking what you think of the place. "Great location" is all I can say. Gabby's only words to me are "F***ing hideous". I try to make sure the kids can't see her crying but Ella spots it. It had meant a lot to her to get this right for Florence and it is looking very wrong. We knew the rooms would be small but they are tiny, dirty and characterless. The promised facilities do actually exist. The children's play area is a small plastic slide and the pool is a direct feed from the river. Only members of the Bondi Icebergers swim in water this temperature. They seem to have an easy answer for any questions we have about their establishment. We are majorly disappointed and although the place grows on us a trip up to Manali on day three seals our destiny.
We find Jimmy Johnson's Lodge, the eighty year old building in the grounds of Johnson's Cafe. We look at a space with two large bedrooms (one with a fireplace), two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living space opening onto a garden. Very neat and oozing with charm, all for 4400 rupees per night. Still expensive by local standards but worth every rupee. For Gabby and I the choice is clear but we do the right thing and let Florence chose where she would like to spend her birthday.
She ponders this over lunch and excellent chocolate cake at Johnson's Cafe.
The following morning we pack our bags and check out of Nature Notes. I receive a bill for all of our non-veg food but in a conversation with U.S Chawla (Amit's dad and onsite boss) he not only tears up this bill but gives me 6400 rupees in cash. We are very happy to be leaving and this partial refund takes the edge off our disappointment. U. S. Chawla keeps repeating "so our account is closed, yes?" I agreed, so true to my word I will not be going back to Trip Advisor to leave a review. He did not have to give us anything. Our cottage at Johnson's is fantastic for three days and Florence has a wonderful birthday. They made her a superb chocolate cake.
We were invited that night to the hotel of a very nice Sikh family from Delhi. They were aghast at our Indian trials and tribulations so far and to my surprise had U.S.Chawla's phone number on their mobile. For a moment there was a fervency to make a call! An interesting evening with a very nice Sikh family. These encounters with Sikh's are becoming a welcome and quite regular occurrence for us.
Our tide of bad luck has turned in India and we are literally headed for the hills. The Himalayas beckon.

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Indian Birthday

Date: 21/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Florence and I were really excited about Florence's birthday. From what Mum had been telling us we were going to stay in a really nice place called Nature Notes with a kids pool, play area, flying fox etc. It was a long journey to get there so we were really tired. When we arrived, it was no way up to our expectations, the kids 'playground' had a plastic slide and a few hammocks - the flying fox wasn't a proper one. It was a bit dull. The garden outside our tiny cottages was quite big, but there was not much to do. Nature Notes is right next to the Beas river which is freezing like the Ganges , We went rafting in it once, our rafting trip was very short but a lot of fun! I wanted to do it again.
Nature Notes is a 45 minute drive from Manali so one day we ordered a car and drove there. We had lunch at a hotel called Jimmy Johnson's Lodge. It was quite expensive but very very good. While we were there we looked at a room because we were already thinking about leaving Nature Notes. The room was lovely, it had it's own kitchen, dining room, living room and had 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms!
On our car ride back to Nature Notes I was talking about Jimmy Johnson's all the way and even thought we should spend Florence's birthday there. But when I consulted Florence, she wasn't sure. After thinking for a while, Florence said that she would actually like to stay there. Mum and Dad agreed because if we stayed at Nature Notes any longer we would get bored. I was so glad when we arrived at Jimmy Johnson's and really happy as I scrambled into our soft comfy beds with the first proper duvet for ages.
Finally, Florence's birthday arrived and I was really impatient. I knew a bit about what was going to happen but Mum and Dad did all the decorating. Mum had bought this ridiculous toy dog that was inside a fluffy cake and if you squeezed his hand he would sing 'happy birthday' over and over again
Mum cooked scrambled eggs and beans on toast, in our kitchen, for birthday breakfast. We opened presents and played games. When lunch time came, Florence and I dressed up in the Indian dresses that Florence had for her birthday and we had a lovely lunch. After lunch we ate a big chocolate cake - I was the best cake I had ever had, and it was covered in chocolate sauce. We shared it with the other people in the cafe because it was so big.
We also went for a wander in Manali. Mum told everyone it was Florence's birthday. After our explore we clambered into a rickshaw and drove to Vashisht, a town just a 10 minute drive from Manali. Mum and Dad had promised Florence and I an ankle bracelet so we stopped in a shop and looked at them. Mum told the man in the shop it was Florence's birthday and he gave Florence an Indian yoga bell as a present!
We had another day in Manali before we had to leave my beloved Jimmy Johnson's Lodge. I'm definitely much happier now!

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Happy Birthday To Me!

Date: 21/06/2007 | Author: Florence

We arrived at Nature Notes agreeing to spend my birthday there! There was a very nice area for playing in. There we lots of hammocks near the Beas, which is a very cold river like the Ganges, flowing past our resort. Beside the Beas is a little, freezing swimming pool. Ella and I dared each other to swim in it - bit it didn't look very nice!!!!!!!!! I loved playing on the lawn, there were so many fun things to do at Nature Notes and I was glad I was spending my birthday there. While we were there we went white water rafting - it was dangerous and much more urgent than last time we went (in Laos)! It was a short ride, Ella wanted to do it again - but I found it a bit scary! Next I learnt how to play badminton, Dad says I'm really good but I'm still learning.
One day we drove for 45 minutes to Manali. It's crazy there and sometimes it gets really annoying when people come over and squeeze your arms. In Manali we looked at a few hotels. The first one we saw had a lovely big, cosy (remember it's cold up here) cottage. Ella absolutely loved the cottage - I did too. We had lunch at Johnson's cafe (the hotel cafe) and everyone said I should be the one to decide which hotel I was going to have my birthday in! Everyone tried to persuade me to have my birthday at Johnson's Lodge. At first I wasn't sure but then I thought that I would meet lots more people there - so I decided I definitely wanted it at Johnson's!
The next day we moved out of Nature Notes - we were staying in Johnson's one day before my birthday and one day after. Ella and I wanted to stay longer, but Mum said it's just toooooooo expensive (ggrrrrrrr!).
Finally, my birthday came - I woke up quite surprised seeing birthday balloons! For my birthday, I had 4 Indian dresses, loads of bindis and a few clothes. After breakfast we went to Vashisht. I kind man owning a shop gave me a bell he was selling as a present! We also bought some ankle bracelets (Ella has already lost hers!). We went to the tailor so he could put some elastic in my Indian dresses. We didn't do too much in Vashisht so soon we headed back to Johnson's, time for cake!!!!!! The cake was a bit too big so we shared it with other people in the restaurant, including a 2 year old girl from Russia, called Sonia.
I had a fab birthday but it would have been much better with my friends here! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!!!!!

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The Kullu Valley and Florence's Birthday

Date: 21/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

Our expectations for Nature Notes were very high. Their website proudly listed the free facilities they offered and I'd had several conversations with Amit, the owner. He'd said that the huts were basic and small which meant we either had to put the girls in a tent outside our hut or get them their own hut. As we planned to spend 5 days there, one of those days being Florence's birthday, we opted for the additional hut. Each hut was 3200 Rps (about 40) - this included breakfast as well as lunch and/or dinner, as well, of course, as the abundant facilities. We are not supposed to be spending this much money on accommodation in India, but as it was Florence's birthday we decided to splash out.
When we pulled up to the 'resort', situated in the Kullu valley about 25km before Manali, I cried! The 7 acre site on the edge of the Beas river is a lovely location - with beautiful views of the snow capped Himalayas in the distance but the place itself wasn't at all as I imagined it. The internet is a great resource for travelling in the 21st Century but the problem is that things often look better online than they really are. This is so true of Nature Notes. I can't really describe exactly what was wrong but nothing was quite right. In my mind I thought we might be going to an Indian version of Centre Parcs, but the facilities just didn't live up to scratch: a trampoline that didn't bounce; badminton facilities but with only 2 racquets and one broken shuttle cock; a kids 'pool' with ice cold water fed from the River Beas; an unsafe looking rope bridge and flying fox there was no way I'd let the kids go on! There were lovely touches, waiters brought your food out to you in the gardens and there was a big campfire lit every night. We met some really interesting Indian familes and while the kids loved it, Dave and I just weren't happy. This just wasn't where I wanted to be. Anywhere other than India - I even suggested to Dave that we just went home. India was not proving to be what I thought it would be!
We did some white water rafting while we were there, which was fun, but with little around to see, by day 2 we decided to go and spend the day in Manali to check it out. We saw some great potential accommodation there - all a lot cheaper than we were paying at Nature Notes. We really liked the town - it had a mix of Indian and Foreign tourists (peak season here) but wasn't as crazy as Rishikesh. We found an available 2 bedroom cottage, with it's own garden and kitchen - adjoining Johnson's Cafe, one of Manali's best restaurants. Dave and I needed no persuasion that we should move from Nature Notes the next day and Ella was right with us. Birthday girl, who had the ultimate say, wasn't sure..........I think she enjoyed knowing it was down to her and she wanted us all to wait as long as possible for her final say. Of course, I tried not to influence her decision in any way, but we had heard that Johnson's made the best chocolate cake in Manali - so we decided to put that to the birthday cake test. It was absolutely delicious and left Florence in no doubt where she should spend her birthday.
We moved out of Nature Notes the next day, 2 days earlier than planned. In fairness to them, they did refund us most of the money we would have lost by moving out early - which made us leave there with a smile.
Manali was great, our cottage was lovely, spacious and had an open fire we burnt every night. The weather was perfect, warm sunny days and cool nights. Florence had a great birthday - despite missing her friends. The chocolate cake was superb - the best I've ever had in India.
With a trek in the Himalayas planned, we are sure the best is yet to come. Things have improved, we've adapted to Indian ways and finally I'm loving it here!

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India please be good to us

Date: 15/06/2007 | Author: Dave

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the local time in Delhi is 9:30 p.m. and the temperature is 44 degrees Celsius." So glad to be on this Jet Airways flight. They really helped us out.
We settle into the 'Master Paying Guest House' quite late and have a 7am train to catch in the morning. The idea is to head to Rishikesh early and escape the Delhi heat. We already know that it is no cooler in Rishikesh but it is at the start of the Himalayan foothills so we are headed in the right direction. Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of the heat but dirty, dusty, smelly humid heat is not my cup of tea. Speaking of tea, we have chosen to spend time in the holy town of Rishikesh. Yoga and dipping a toe in the Ganges, yes, alcohol a definite no. Booze is not available and that can only be good for us. Anyway I am getting ahead of myself.
Back at Delhi train station and I am being 'helped' to the ticket confirmation office. We haven't managed to print out our e-ticket and the 'helpful man sitting across the desk from me under the almost official looking 'Govt Tourist Office' sign is repeatedly connecting with an automated message on his speaker phone. "Computer down" he says. In-between phone calls he is giving me quotes on cars to Rishikesh and beyond. US$1300 for one month. Very small car. Time is ticking by and that bloody computer is still down. I grab my stuff and run for it. "We will have to take our chances" I say as I run out the door and back to my family. There are no flies on me. I have allowed us 15 minutes to get to our train, totally unaware that platform 12 is a 12 minute sprint from where the girls are standing with all our bags.
That car sure would have come in handy if I had been delayed much longer.
This was not too stressful and we settled into a comfortable train journey to Haridwar. Haridwar train station was boiling hot and our car was not there to pick us up, even one hour later. It took that long to arrange a car. This area is full of pilgrims at the moment.
So started five days that made us feel like calling off the rest of our trip and going home.
Getting to our hotel in Rishikesh was a physical and mental endurance test. We dragged our bags for a kilometre through the crowds and cows after having to leave our taxi on the wrong side of the river. I left Gabby and the girls while I pressed on with two bags up about 60 steep steps to where I could finally get a rickshaw to our accommodation. Peasants Cottage did not have our booking but luckily a room was available. We stayed there in the High Bank area of Rishikesh for three nights, venturing down into the town or wandering along the ghats watching the pilgrims bathe in the Ganges and joining in the arti at sunset. As Ella sent her burning offering (puja) down this most holy of rivers she took a wrong step in this brown water and disappeared up to her neck.
It was over 40 degrees when we arrived in Rishikesh but some monsoon rains took the temperature way down.
High Bank is a backpacker enclave. Our neighbour at Peasants Cottage, Ashlie, recommended a place further up the Ganges called the Glasshouse. Peasants Cottage booked two nights there for us but as we were leaving the next day mentioned that the booking was only 99% confirmed. Our bags were already in the car so 99% sounded good odds at that point.
It is easy to guess what happened next. An hour and a half later we arrived back at Peasants Cottage. Gabby is still holding the bag of sick (flo's) as we demand the return of 1000 rupees for the taxi and our old room back for the night. The boss here, Rajeev, has been booking everything for us this side of Delhi and has been responsible for 99% of our grief so far. No one even hints at an apology and Rajeev, cleverly, never introduces himself.
We organise our own car to take us to Manali. It is a 9hr drive to Shimla, a high hill station that must have seen better days. Our hotel, 'Little Inn', is in the process of being brought up to international standards by a very patient Kiwi. He has a long way to go and we were royally overcharged for our room. A disappointment but all our fault. Our driver has stayed with us and early the next morning speeds off down the windy mountain roads toward Manali. Florence seems to have received the mantle of car-sick daughter from Ella, who now handles car journeys very well. There is nothing like the sound of someone being sick in your car to slow you down a bit around those tight curves.
After seven hours in the car we arrive at our destination for the next five days, 'Nature Notes' on the River Beas, just 25km short of Manali. We have high expectations as this is the place we have chosen to spend Florence's 7th birthday in 4 days time.

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India at Last

Date: 15/06/2007 | Author: Ella

We arrived in Delhi at 9.30 at night - it was 44 degrees. We stayed at the Master Paying Guest House. I really really wanted a cold shower but the water tank was on the roof in direct sunlight so I had no chance of cooling down. Luckily, we had an air conditioned room but it broke in the middle of the night so we had to boil in our sleep.
We woke up quite early and went to the train station. It was really busy and at one point a man told Dad that he needed to do something about our tickets. It didn't take us long to realise that the man who had taken dad away was trying to make us miss our train. When Dad finally came back we had to sprint to our platform.
We all felt a bit happier as we climbed in to our air conditioned train. Florence and I (as usual) drew and read.
When we got to Haridwar we felt cooler than when we were in Delhi because it is further north. We waited a while for the car that was supposed to pick us up. We were still waiting after an hour. Florence and I were getting bored and hot so Mum eventually found another car to drive us. A man said the car was big and had AC but when it arrived it was smaller than we expected and had no air conditioning! We were disappointed but accepted it because we needed to leave.
Mum didn't always trust the driver so she kept saying 'Rishikesh, are you sure this is the right way?' but the man didn't speak English very well so he didn't reply.
At one point I fell asleep and was woken by Mum saying 'He's taken us the wrong way - wake up'. When I woke up properly we lugged our bags out of the car and pulled them across to where we wanted to go. We crossed a pedestrian bridge and took another short taxi drive up to our hotel. Our hotel was called Peasants Cottage.
Our arrival in India (as you have probably guessed) was not a very welcoming one but it was good after coming to Rishikesh.
We took a rickshaw (an Indian version of a tuk tuk) to town. When we got there we saw loads of cows, they were just running around loose. Cows are worshipped here though so people don't get irritated if one walks through your picnic! After exploring Rishikesh we went to walk by the river Ganges. The Ganges is a holy river running through India, it comes from the Himalayas so is really cold. Some ladies offered us some little baskets with flowers and incense sticks for us to make a puja (offering or prayer). We lit them and set them off down the rapids in the Ganges. At one point I was exploring the steps leading down to the Ganges (ghats) and slipped and fell in the river. Obviously I didn't stay in long because it was freezing!
Lots of people come to Rishikesh to do yoga and we did it as well. Rishikesh is a busy, crazy town in a funny way. After Rishikesh we headed to Manali. It was a 2 day drive so we stopped in a town called Shimla, in a guest house called Little Inn. Little Inn was horrible.
Wow, what a mad way to arrive in India!

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A New Country - India

Date: 15/06/2007 | Author: Florence

We have travelled...........
from London to Thailand to Australia, then to New Zealand, back to Australia for a week then Asia. In Asia we went to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I was always really excited about going to India and now I am here.............
We arrived in Delhi, it was very hot compared to Vietnam. A very nice, tall man met us at the airport. He led us to his car, thankfully it was air conditioned. At our guest house we slept in a small room and just as we were about to fall asleep the air conditioning broke...............ggrrrrrrrrrrrrr! The overhead fan was just swishing around hot air. Early the next morning we got the train to Rishikesh. It was about 4 hours till we got to Haridwar. When we got off the train our taxi we had booked wasn't there. After a while we found a car to take us to Rishikesh but, unfortunately, the driver took us to the wrong side of the river. So we had to drag our bags across the footbridge, through cows, motorbikes and pilgrims. It was very hard. At one point one of the bags got hooked on to a motorbike and Daddy got pulled backward with our bags.
In Rishikesh we stayed at Peasants Cottage. There was a little girl called Yogda who lived there - we played with her a lot. We did lots of yoga in Rishikesh. After Rishikesh, Ashlie, who was staying in our guest house recommended the Glass House. The next day we waved goodbye to Yogda and our taxi driver took us there (not the taxi driver who took is to the wrong side of Rishikesh, of course!). But we had to come straight back because the Glass House had no rooms.
So the next day we drove to Manali. It was a TWO DAY DRIVE along wiggly, windy roads. We stopped in Shimla for one night and stayed at Little Inn - Little Inn wasn't very nice.
On the second day I was sick about 4 times but I was really excited about getting to Nature Notes because that is where I am having my birthday!

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Welcome to India

Date: 15/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

Our trip so far has been near perfect. A few dodgy accommodations we have stayed in and a few places we didn't like but generally the whole trip has been bloody amazing! The biggest pain in the arse was trying to change the date of our flights from Bangkok to Delhi, but that problem was due to having paper tickets as well as incompetence on the part of the Virgin Airlines. Eventually that was resolved but now we are in India, things have started to really go wrong................our first week went like this:
We arrive at Indira Ghandi Airport in Delhi at 9.30pm and the outside temperature is 44 degrees Celsius. Our guest house in Delhi (recommended by Alastair Sawday) is lovely but unfortunately the air conditioning breaks an hour after we check in to our room. The overhead fan just swirls 40 degree heat around the room - it is so hot, I cannot sleep. We get up at 5.15am to get the 7am Shatabdi Express train to Haridwar. This had been booked by a travel agent but we only had confirmation on email. As a result we nearly miss the train. We arrive in Haridwar 4 hours later, where a car had been booked to meet us and take us to our guest house in Rishikesh. There is no car but there are thousands of people at the train station. On the Ganges, Haridwar is one of India's most important holy towns and it is the middle of pilgrimage season - so it's busy. After about half an hour I manage to find a man who says he could get us an AC car to Rishikesh (another holy town). Twenty minutes later a non AC car with plastic seats arrives - it's midday and about 40 degrees. The car takes us to Rishikesh but to an area the wrong side of the Ganges from our guest house. To get to the right side would involve another 45 minute drive in a sweaty car. We have already been in the car for well over an hour and have had enough, so decide to take our own bags across the pedestrian bridge to the right side of the river. We fight our way through beggars, sadhus, hindis, sikhs, swamis, cows, travellers and motorbikes. Eventually, tired, sweaty, hot and very bothered we get to our pre-booked accommodation to find there is no booking. Fortunately they have a room, a bit dark and dingy but the 4 of us can squeeze in there. At this point I could murder an ice cold beer, but as this is a holy town there is no alcohol allowed so I settle for a ginger, lemon and honey tea. Everything goes OK for the next couple of days. We are staying in High Bank, a traveller enclave on the hill above Rishikesh. I am glad we are away from the madness of the town - Rishikesh is a crazy, busy, dirty town and a head first introduction to Northern India. The times we do venture there the kids get grabbed, pinched, squeezed, photographed, surrounded, hounded - they always manage a smile but they find it a bit annoying. I keep sane by doing yoga every day (I try 2 different teachers, one is a charlatan but the other is great) and having various parts of my body massaged. We like High Bank and meet some lovely people there. A fellow Londoner, Ashlie, recommends the Glasshouse to us - it's on a beach further up the Ganges, where the river is much cleaner (Rishikesh's Ganges is really dirty). Our guest house, Peasants Cottage books us a room for the following day for 2 nights.
The following day, as we are about to pull away, Peasant's Cottage manager tells us that the booking is not 100% confirmed but if the Glasshouse is full there is another great accommodation (probably owned by her company) on the way there. We drive for 45 minutes to find the Glasshouse is fully booked by one big party and has been for some time. We decide to go back to Rishikesh, stay there for one night and start our journey to Manali (our next destination) a day early. Florence throws up on the way back - we have, unnecessarily, spent the best part of the day in a car. I could murder a beer. I missed yoga so am feeling stressed. When we arrive back, we get no apology from anyone at Peasant's Cottage but after me throwing a hissy fit they refund us the money we spent on the taxi.
We have no other accommodation booked so I spend the afternoon online looking for somewhere in Shimla (a 10 hour drive from Rishikesh and half way to Manali) as well as Manali. All Shimla accommodation is expensive or looks pretty shit. Eventually we opt for the Little Inn, which describes itself as 'exotic'. I have emailed loads of places in Manali but no-one has got back to me, apart from Nature Notes, a 'resort' on the River Beas about 25km before Manali. As it is Florence's birthday in a few days I need to make sure we are staying somewhere she will enjoy. On their website, Nature Notes sounds ideal, with great kids facilities and I have some very friendly emails and phone conversations from the director of the company, Amit. He offers to throw a party for Florence when I tell him it's her birthday in a few days. We need to make a decision as I am told they only have 2 rooms available for the 18 and 19 June. The place isn't cheap but I am positive the kids will enjoy it. A quick conflab with Dave and we decide to book it for 5 nights - but we need to pay everything upfront.
Early the next day we leave for Shimla. Our car is good (and air conditioned), the driver lovely. It's a long drive but the kids cope well. Florence manages to sleep for a bit, Ella doesn't (she never does) but no one throws up and we eventually arrive in Shimla at about 6.30pm. We have trouble finding our hotel and when we do we find it's a shit hole. The included dinner is disgusting and they don't sell alcohol! We retreat to the swankier hotel up the road where I have my first drink for a week. The constant headache I have had since we arrived in India goes. Does this mean I am an alcoholic?
We sleep well, get up early the next morning, pass on the included hotel breakfast and leave for Manali (an 8 hour drive) at 7.30am. This drive isn't as successful as Florence is sick about 4 times. After all this, I just hope that the Nature Notes Resort lives up to my expectations............

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Toward India

Date: 10/06/2007 | Author: Dave

We have spent time before in Goa and Kerala. We love India, but it is the most frustrating country in the world - a cautionary tale unfolds before we even leave Vietnam.
I have made six calls to the Virgin Airways Contact Centre to change the date of our Bangkok - Delhi flight. Over four hours on the phone and all I got was erroneous information and bad advice from Ashu, Yamini, Anesh, Abhi (twice) and Paul. I am not exaggerating. Yamini told me to go to the Virgin counter at Bangkok airport to get our tickets endorsed. I was to discover that there is no Virgin counter at Bangkok airport. Three times I had to fax a copy of our tickets to them. The whole story is hours long, boring and sad to recount. It was a comedy of incompetence on the part of the Virgin call centres. Abhi had never heard of Vietnam so had trouble even appreciating where I was calling from!
All of these call centre travel professionals are based in Delhi and Mumbai.
I am good at remaining calm when all seems lost and as an introduction to India perhaps Virgin have helped prepare me for what is to come.

p.s. I arranged our new fights (myself) for the Bangkok - Delhi leg at the airport early on the morning of our departure. A lucky encounter with a local manager of Jet Airways turned the tide of my torment. He could have turned me away but instead made me smile and all for no extra charge.
Virgin are a good airline but somehow they created impossible from the incredibly simple.
tip: Avoid paper tickets if you think there is any chance you may want to change a flight.

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Moving on Again........

Date: 10/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I can't quite muster up much enthusiasm for India. It feels like moving on again. The 4 countries we have visited in South east Asia, although unalike, have somehow merged in to each other. India is going to be different, very different.
It's been really hot pretty much the whole time we have been in Asia - at the moment, Delhi's daytime high is about 46 degrees Celsius. - at least 6 degrees hotter than we are used to. Fortunately, we get there late in the evening and leave early the next morning but even the foothills of the Himalayas are still hot.
I've got a stinking cold, my second in a month - I blame constantly sleeping with the air conditioning on - something I never normally do.
I'm just longing to escape from the humid heat. Hanoi was a great city but just too hot. In a way I sort of wish we were heading back to the UK now - although I'd never say that to the kids (and try not to mention it to Dave too much).
But, I love India and I have never been to the Himalayas before. maybe I'll feel a little more enthused once we get there and when I manage to shake off this cold.
Our first stop in India (after Delhi) is Rishikesh, the vegetarian, teetotal, yoga capital of the world. It's not as hot as Delhi, but it's still going to be India hot. I wonder how we'll all fare? Watch this space................

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Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Hanoi is the place where are travels combine with real life the most. Hair cuts, new glasses, camera repair etc. We experienced this fine city in three bursts. Twice at the Hanoi Paradise Hotel in the Old Quarter and then for our last two nights at the lovely Kate's house.
The Old Quarter is by a long shot the maddest piece of a city I have ever been in. Most of the pavements are occupied by the contents of shops, street restaurant seating, cooking, bicycle repair stations and parked motorbikes. Consequently, pedestrians get to share the road with the (5) millions of motorbikes said to be in Hanoi on any given day. My first 24hrs in the Old Quarter involved three near misses. Here (as in Saigon) they are the masters of the near miss. To cross the road without flinching takes a few days of practice. (tip) Move at a slight diagonal toward the traffic and never ever stop. Gaps open up for you.
In the same way as being four up on a small motorcycle with no helmets in this traffic feels irresponsible, dragging one's children out into this oncoming traffic feels the same. You are just trusting that no-one will hit you.
We arrived back from our trip to Sapa at 5am. The life in the city at this time of day is amazing. Our taxi took us via the lake back to the Hanoi Paradise. The hotel opened up and took our bags. Straight away we jumped onto motorbikes and went back down to the lake. We probably would never have dragged ourselves out of bed that early just to see people exercising but once we started walking around Hoan Kiem Lake I was so glad to be amongst the action. We are watching an early morning ritual, as suggested by Ho Chi Minh, that thousands still partake in today, some 40 years after his death. If Tony Blair said that we should exercise in Hyde Park at 5am I doubt that 40 people would turn up. (see video)
From here we head to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum to pay our respects to this country's eminent leader. We thought we were getting a head start on the crowds but joined a queue that we could not see the other end of. After filing in strict silence past his body we carried on to have a look at his humble stilt house in the grounds of the presidential palace. A rather fractious day this turned out to be and we all should have had a siesta.
We adopted the very cosmopolitan streets near St Joseph's Cathedral for shopping and dining. There is a great tapas bar there called 'Salsa'. Ella and I both had haircuts around the corner from 'Salsa'. Mine went well, but Ella was in tears for two days. The rest of us thought it looked great!
There are many artists in Hanoi that copy (oil) paintings and we found a pencil artist that we liked and had him copy a photo of Ella and Florence. It looks fantastic. We got him to sign it so that it is not as easily mistaken for a black and white photograph. We need to post this (and also the impressive pile of dresses that Gabby has purchased) home before we leave for India.
When we first arrived in Hanoi we went out to West Lake to meet Kate and her boys. Kate had emailed us a few recommendations for Vietnam before we arrived in Asia and we were keen to meet her. An affable Australian with three very nice boys. They live, with their French dad, in a big house by the water with a pool in the attic that opens up to a nice view of the lake. After our trip to Halong Bay, we spend our last two nights in Vietnam at Kate's. Her hospitality was outstanding. A very cool lady.

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Happy in Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. It seemed much busier than Saigon. We stayed in the Hanoi Paradise Hotel.
My favourite restaurant in Hanoi was a tapas bar called La Salsa. We were up early one morning so we took the opportunity to go down to Hoan Kiem lake. When we got there we saw hundreds and hundreds of locals exercising. They do this because it keeps them fit. Most of the people were doing solo exercising but some were in groups. It was really funny watching everyone doing different jogging and stretches - some people weren't even doing proper exercises.
While we were in Hanoi we went to the water puppet show. The water puppet show was (as you have probably guessed) a puppet show but in water. it was really funny and all about what Vietnamese people do in the countryside.
Near the end of our stay in Hanoi we moved from the Hanoi Paradise Hotel to a lovely lady's house, called Kate. Kate is from Australia and has 3 boys, their names are Martin (11), Benjamin (13) and Thomas (15). Kate's house is huge and has a swimming pool on the roof! One our second day while staying with Kate she kindly let us go to her club with a swimming pool. Mum had a wax and we played there.
I really, really enjoyed staying at Kate's house and also the Hanoi Paradise Hotel. It was a lovely way to finish our time in Vietnam.

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Hanoi

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Florence

Our hotel in Hanoi was in the very old part of town and the streets were really dirty. You kept flicking mud on the back of your legs. The pavement was very narrow and all the motorbikes were parked on the pavement and the toy shops went right down to the road. We didn't mind, you just have to be careful walking on the road. We did lots of shopping there, well, Mum did the most.
In Hanoi we went to a water puppet show. The puppets were in the water and they did lots of things that the Vietnamese have done. It was really clever and some parts were very funny too. I liked it a lot.
A few days later we arrived back from Sapa to Hanoi very early in the morning. But not everyone was in bed, most of the Vietnamese were doing exercise by the lake. Ho Chi Minh told the Vietnamese people to do this and they still do. Later that morning we saw Uncle Ho in his tomb. He looked a bit waxy. We had to queue for a long long long long long long time. Loads of people were filing past his body.
Kate lives in Hanoi and she is a friend of a friend of mummy's. When we got back from Halong Bay we went to stay at her house. She has three boys called Martin, Benjamin and Thomas. The youngest is Martin, he is 11. Their house is next to West Lake and they have a swimming pool in the attic. We swam in it a lot and Martin even went in with his clothes on!
I had a great time in Hanoi and the best part was staying with the boys and Kate.

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Hanoi and Goodbye Vietnam

Date: 08/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I loved Hanoi - we spent over a week there in total, with our side trips to Sapa and Halong Bay in between.
For the first part of our stay we booked in to the Hanoi Paradise Hotel, great value - boasted that it was the only 2 star hotel in Hanoi with a swimming pool. Surrounded by windowless concrete, it was the worst indoor pool we have ever seen. Despite the humid Hanoi heat, not even the girls were tempted to have a dip!
The hotel was in the middle of the Old Quarter of Hanoi where the back streets are fascinating and a hive of activity - definitely a great place to be staying to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Most of the activity takes place on the pavements which meant we often found ourselves walking on the road. Keeping a firm grip on the girls' hands and doing our best to make sure they didn't get knocked by the thousands of motorbikes that whizz through the streets was no mean feat.
It was easy to while away several hours wandering through the narrow streets. You can buy almost anything here - Dave managed to get a couple of new pairs of designer framed reading glasses, ready in an hour, for about $19. I bought, well, lots - dresses, bags, silk - it's all dirt cheap (well that's my excuse) and as we were sending another box home, why not?? We even commissioned a local artist to do an amazing pencil drawing of one of our favourite photos of the girls to send to Mum for her 70th birthday (this is a photo of it!). The girls LOVED Hanoi, there was loads to see and do, the restaurants were great and once again they loved the thrill of getting around town on motorbikes.
A lot of Hanoi's activity takes place early in the morning. We haven't really been morning people on this trip, so we discovered this by default. We arrived back in Hanoi at 4.30am after our few days in Sapa. As we couldn't check in to our hotel until 9 we decided to head to Hoan Kiem Lake to watch the early morning Vietnamese exercise rituals (check out the video!). We couldn't believe it, thousands of people - walking or jogging around the lake, groups of people doing T'ai Chi or aerobic type exercises as well as plenty of solitary exercisers. Apparently, Ho Chi Minh told everyone they should get up early and exercise - 40 years after his death, many people are still taking his advice. By 8am we were queuing with 1000s of other people to see the man himself - Uncle Ho, as the Vietnamese often refer to their ex-President. He wanted to be cremated, but in typical communist style, he has been preserved for all to see and pay their respects to. He looked rather waxy - but the cold air conditioned mausoleum was a great place to escape from the morning heat!
For me, the real highlight of Hanoi was our last 2 nights when we stayed with the lovely de Ruty family in their gorgeous house overlooking the West Lake. I'd had an email introduction to Kate, the only female member of the de Ruty household, from a friend in London. This French/Australian family have lived in Vietnam for about 13 years. Kate invited us to her house one evening and then to stay for our last few nights in Hanoi. She is an amazing woman and her husband and 3 boys were lovely and very welcoming. Ella and Florence loved the boys, Martin (11) and Benjamin (13) were particular hits. I was especially proud of Ella's flirting abilities with Thomas (15). Kate was so generous to us while we were there and it was so great to get an insider's view of the city. It was a very special way to end our time in a magical country.

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Ahh... Halong Bay. With 3000 limestone islands rising steeply from the bay, this is a must see. We had heard that Halong Bay was dirty and crowded but visiting with this in mind we were pleasantly surprised. Twice we swam off the back of our boat. The water is a milky turquoise (probably from the limestone) and so has limited visibility but it is not polluted. As we chug slowly around in our boat we do see the occasional shoe or plastic bag floating by but this is Asia and unfortunately that is normal.
Our boat is the Lagoon Explorer, a junk that sleeps seven and boasts that it is the only junk in Halong capable of actually sailing. Always a romantic notion but I wasn't really expecting them to attempt it. The sails were hoisted for atmosphere only.
A one night trip only scratches the near edge of the bay but still manages to show us enough to satisfy. We were taken on our tender through a low cave into a peaceful lagoon completely surrounded by virgin jungle and rock escarpments. We ruined the peace of several kayakers as we chugged in, but switched our motor off and joined their tranquility for a while. Next stop was Dao Titop for a quick walk up the 402 steps to the viewing pagoda. Well worth an elevated look over the bay from here. (see photo page)
We were sharing our boat with three Australian ladies. An ex-schoolteacher, Sue, provided Ella with hours of chat. It was a match made in heaven. Someone that seemed to know something about most things and Ella, who is never short of a question.
All of the junks moor up overnight in the same location (so the police can keep an eye on them) which makes the bay seem crowded as we settle down to our dinner. Dinner, mon Dieu, I have never been so overfed. Six courses and a lot of it. Good, fresh seafood.
First stop in the morning was Hang Sot Cave, which has three chambers and a total area of one square kilometre. All the usual cave highlights here. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you use your imagination you can see..." a woman praying, a lion, a peacock and some broccoli, all very nicely lit. Myself, I was impressed by the enormity of the main chamber (the biggest I have seen) and the caves premier stalagmites, the giant pink penis and the big green turtle. No imagination required for these two.
A short trip to Halong but perhaps that is all we needed. Happily heading back to Hanoi.

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Halong Bay is a big area of quite shallow water. There are loads of rocky limestone islands which make Halong Bay really pretty.
We cruised around Halong Bay on the Lagoon Explorer. It was one of the nicest boats in Halong Bay. The Lagoon Explorer slept 7 people, us and 3 other ladies from Australia, Susan, Leonie and Kate. Florence and I had our own cabin with our own bathroom.
While we were there we went to two caves, the first one was a cave with water in. A man took us in a small motor boat through a cave which was quite small (the top was about half a metre above our heads) in to a completely enclosed lagoon. It was really pretty so we stayed for a while to listen to birds and other things. The other cave we went in was much bigger and out of the water, you had to go up steps to get there. In the big cave we saw a rock the shape of a finger pointing, another the shape of a lady Buddha praying, cauliflower shaped rocks and loads of stalactites and stalagmites. The only disappointing thing was we saw a Vietnamese girl writing her name on a rock!
Another thing we did was to go to Titop island, we walked up 420 steps to the view point at the top.
Halong Bay was soooo beautiful and, although there were lots of tourists boats, I found it very peaceful. Not even a rubbish karaoke singer on the boat next door spoilt my fun!

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A Trip Around Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Florence

We travelled by bus to Halong Bay. Our boat was called the Lagoon Explorer. We had a very nice cabin, Ella and i had our own toilet. The boat slept 7 people, there were islands surrounding our boat. We went through a little cave into a completely enclosed lagoon. Then we went on a walk to a viewpoint on an island - it took 420 steps to get there. At the bottom of the island was a beach but the water was a bit dirty. We went to some clean water and swam off the boat - the water was very cold. After that we went in to a cave. Our guide showed us parts of the cave that looked like broccoli - Ella and I said we wanted to eat some but of course we didn't! We saw a shape of a Buddha on a stalagmite. The only thing that was disappointing about the cave was that we saw a teenager drawing on the rocks. Finally we headed back to Hanoi. We didn't do much in Halong Bay but what we did was a lot of fun!

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Halong Bay

Date: 05/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I had been warned to be disappointed by Halong Bay. Everyone agrees that it is incredibly beautiful, but it's beauty means that it is incredibly busy, which frequently means it's incredibly dirty. We had been told the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin are often littered with tons of rubbish, plastic bags etc. How sad is it that the most beautiful parts of South East Asia often end up like this?
With a huge range of boats to choose from to explore the bay, we opted for the Lagoon Explorer. It is one of the few real sailing junks in operation and only accommodates 7 or 8 people, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the people you are cruising with!
We left the Old Quarter of Hanoi at about 8.30am for the 4 hour drive to the port. The guide on our bus was hysterical, microphone in hand, commenting on many aspects of Vietnamese life from the use of condoms to Hanoi street names. He then handed the mike the 12 or so people on the bus and asked us all to say a word about ourselves. Fortunately, Ella volunteered to be spokeswoman for the Bracey family - it's certainly a way of breaking the ice!
Our fellow junk passengers were 3 Australian women, 2 ex-school teachers in their 60s and one of their daughter-in-laws. They were lovely, but it was Ella who enjoyed their company the most. One of them in particular, Susie, liked to chat as much as Ella did! Needless to say, the girls home schooling was very well catered for on our trip.
Halong Bay was incredibly beautiful as not nearly as dirty as I expected. The water wasn't that clean - hardly surprising the number of boats that cruise the area - but there wasn't a lot of rubbish. The girls enjoyed a couple of swims off the boat - they just didn't spend too much time under the water! The surroundings are gorgeous and the bay certainly deserves to be a World Heritage Site.
Our boat was lovely, the food amazing and the cabins really comfortable - the girls lucked out by getting the only one with an ensuite bathroom.
It was a gorgeous trip, a bit short, as we had less than 24 hours on the water. Probably just as well as we spent most of the time eating (and drinking!) so if we had had longer we would have probably wobbled off the junk!

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Respite from the heat

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Dave

Sapa sits at 1650m on the side of a beautiful valley north-west of Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. We caught the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then early on a very misty morning wound our way by bus the last 38km to Sapa. As we drove, we climbed 1000m with the lush scenery teasing us through the fog. Sapa is touristy but we were expecting that. Our original plan was to head due north from Hanoi into reputedly stunning mountain country around Dong Van and Meo Vac. Untouched territory barely mentioned in guide books. But for several reasons (including malaria, rain/mud, and some long car journeys) we adjusted our compass from intrepid back onto the tourist trail.
We checked into the 'Royal View' and indeed, as the clouds cleared, it certainly was. I can see why the French came here to escape from the heat. Across the valley is Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and stretching out below us a variegated carpet of rice paddy terraces. We spend our three days in Sapa mainly walking through the nearby minority villages. Although a bit touristy they are far more interesting than the villages we saw in Thailand. The H'mong and Red Zoa peoples have farmed this valley for generations and would be here regardless of tourists. These villages are a model of tranquility. Water buffalo preparing the flooded ground and the hand planting of the rice seedlings. The green is vivid and the views reflecting in the flooded terraces are serene.
However, as in Sapa, all western tourists here pick up a small entourage of women and children carrying their brightly dyed wares. The older women all have blue hands from a lifetime of using their home-made indigo dye and the call of "buy for me, buy for me" is a strain on ones good humour after a while. In this temperature I could sit and stare for hours but you are not permitted to become that relaxed.
After three days I am excited about returning to Hanoi.

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Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Ella

Sapa is a town up in the mountains in the north of Vietnam. It is a bit touristy but not that busy. We stayed in the Royal View Hotel. It was very nice and we had a rather large room with a big balcony.
You can do lots of walks around Sapa. We went on three walks. Cat Cat is a village and has a waterfall in it. While we were walking we met a little girl called Chu. She was selling things and followed us right around Cat Cat. After the walk we were picked up by a jeep. Chu said she was going to walk to Sapa later on but because we were so fond of her we took her to Sapa in the jeep.
The next day we went on another walk to Lao Chai and Ta Van. Ta Van is where Chu lives. This time we had a guide and her name was Milance. She was our first girl guide ever. After the walk we took the jeep back to Sapa and played with Chu. While we were playing Chu introduced us to her friend Ha who is fifteen. There was an English bar across the road from the hotel and we went there a lot. Chu, Ha and some other kids were always waiting to play outside. We mostly played hide and seek, what's the time Mr Wolf, grandmas footsteps and chase.
There are four different tribes that live in the Hoang Lien Mountains. They are the Red Dzao, Black Dzao, H'mong and Tay. On our third day we went on another walk. This time we went to a Red Dzao village called Ta Phin. We had Milance as our guide again. Ta Phin had a cave in it so we went inside. But not too far because we didn't have a torch.
Mummy took lots of photos of Chu, Florence and I. We printed some of the photos and gave them to Chu.
We took the night train back down to Hanoi, the capital city. I had an amazing time in Sapa.

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Children in Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Florence

We left Hanoi and got the overnight train to Sapa, high up in the mountains. The train stopped at Lao Cai and we took a long bus journey up the mountain to Sapa. When we got to Sapa we went to our hotel and had a nap because we didn't sleep well on the train. We felt wide awake after that so we went to an English Pub across the road. It became our favourite bar. We went for a walk to Cat Cat village and met there a little girl called Chu. She was very nice. Chu is an H'mong girl. H'mong people live outside Sapa in small villages. Chu lives in Ta Van. Well, her parents live there, she sleeps in Sapa and spends the day selling things. She sleeps with Ha. Ha is fifteen but she is smaller than Ella. Every day we saw Chu or Ha standing outside our hotel waiting to play with us when we come outside.
Chu doesn't go to school so she learns all of her English from the tourists. Chu speaks very good English. We gave each other a big hug when we left.
We didn't do much so I really want to go back there again!

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Sapa

Date: 01/06/2007 | Author: Gabby

I had really mixed feelings leaving Sapa - a hill town close to the Chinese border that is the premier tourist destination in North West Vietnam.
It's surroundings are incredibly beautiful - the terraced rice fields carved in the steep mountain side look like a work of art and the views are stunning. We had a lovely time there and did some great walks through the local villages with their friendly and diminutive H'Mong and colourful Dzao people. It was wonderful to escape from the oppressive heat in Hanoi.
The girls made great friends with 2 H'Mong girls, Chu (who said she was 6 and, although she was small, seemed older) and Ha (who at 15 said Chu didn't really know how old she was). Both of them spoke great English (learnt from tourists - Vietnamese is the language they learn at school - if they go). Ella and Florence had a lot of fun playing games with these girls and their other friends in the courtyard in front of our hotel.
The kids all appeared to be happy and were incredibly shrewd. Their ruthless selling prowess was well beyond their years. Still, I couldn't help but judge their lives by my own western standards and found it upsetting that someone as little as Chu (and she certainly wasn't any more than 8 or 9) spent days at a time not at home with her Mum and Dad. Her village was less than 10km from Sapa, but in the whole time we were there, she never went home. Instead she spent the nights sleeping in a room in town with Ha, waking early each morning to try and sell her cloth bracelets and other ethnic trinkets to the tourists. I just wanted to take her to our room and give her a good bath!
The H'Mong, Dzao and other minority tribes in this part of Vietnam definitely supply the colour in Sapa but their constant bawl of 'You buy from me, you buy from me' while amusing at first became a little bit grating after a while. And if we didn't buy from them (and we didn't because they had nothing we wanted to buy) they'd often be furious!
So, as we left the hill town and waved goodbye to Ella's and Florence's new found friends, I couldn't help feel mixed emotions at the effect tourism is having on the locals. I know it's progression and I'm sure the tourist dollar is improving the lives of many of the villagers, I just hope that the kids lives don't suffer in the process.

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