Happy Valley

Today has been a vile day and started badly with a huge family row. I think we are all getting a bit travel weary and it shows. We discuss our plans for the next few months and even talk about going home after China. In the end I don’t feel like things have been properly resolved but we reach an uneasy truce. It leaves us all upset and I worry that this isn’t the end of it but we try and get on with the day and set off for “Happy Valley” in the hope of brightening the day.

We had planned to visit Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City but that’s not really an option today and Happy Valley Amusement Park, Beijing’s answer to Disney seems to be a better choice. It’s about half an hour taxi ride from the centre of town and we arrive mid afternoon. Its quite expensive, it costs us 11 quid each and despite the fact that we try and convince the ticket seller that Maisie is under 1.4m ( she isn’t) we have to pay full price for her also.

There are so many people here it is amazing, many people seem to be part of school or college groups and are wearing matching tracksuits. It seems to be the trend for young couples to wear matching clothes also and that makes us laugh. I can’t imagine that ever catching on at home. At first there seems to be an extraordinary amount of people on mobility scooters but we realise when we see kids jumping off them and running around that they are in fact little golf carts for getting around on. How lazy is that!

We check out some of the rides, we like the look of giant plastic bubbles which float across the lake with you scrabbling around inside and queue up for the Disco, a kind of spinning version of the pirate ship. Maisie is scared but we persuade her to go on and it turns out to be much faster than we thought, she likes it though.

Ali and Simon then queue for “Nemisis”, Maisie just won’t go on it and as she became hysterical when we tried to get her to go on during a trip to Alton Towers last year I stay with her. We have a lovely time wandering around, posing with the giant ants in Antworld, having a go on the teacups ride which makes me feel sick and chatting about her friends at school.

According to Ali the ride was really good, faster than Nemesis and as everything is starting to close we head for the gates. (Two rides each- 11 quid – not bad we feel, excellent budgeting). I look up at the sky and I’m not pleased to see it has suddenly become black. There are around 3 million people outside the gates waiting for a cab and we realise we aren’t going to get one.

We walk along the road and suddenly China starts to feel very inhospitable. Its very ugly here, massive roads, with absolutely nothing to shelter under and it becomes really cold and windy and starts to throw it down. We are surrounded by huge blocks of flats and little else and Maisie says it’s so cold she can see Russia.

We get soaked, we’re freezing, it’s getting dark and we are nowhere nearer getting a taxi. A few have gone past but they won’t stop and I am feeling a bit panicky. We walk the 2 miles back to “Happy Valley” gates (Simon says it’s a spelling mistake and it’s actually called Crappy Valley) and huddle together under a motorway bridge trying to think what to do. Suddenly we remember passing a Tesco on the way and decide that is our best option, at least we may be able to buy an umbrella, coffee, waterproof jacket etc there. We dodge the traffic to the other side (A little like trying to cross the M1 in the dark while it’s pissing down) and trudge off up the road.

Silly us for thinking we might get any of the above it’s not to be and instead we are forced to wander around looking at stuff in an attempt to dry out. After half an hour we decide to venture out again and we shelter in the doorway while Simon braves the wet. I don’t know how he managed it amongst all these people desperate for a cab but he soon appears and we run after him to the waiting taxi.

What a relief. At last we get back to the hotel and we shower and change into warm stuff. The kids don’t want to eat and we leave them snuggled up in bed. I decide to change into trousers and it’s at this point that my misery of today is complete. My baggy trousers that used to hang off me are so tight I can hardly breathe. Oh my god how can I have put on so much weight and not even noticed. That’s it, diet tomorrow.

Beijing

At last we arrived at Beijing International airport and it was the easiest immigration procedure that we have experienced since we started the trip. We were all through in around 20 minutes and soon got in a cab. Beijing is absolutely massive and our trip from the airport took around half an hour. It was now around midnight and the poor kids were shattered, I was panicking that the hostel we had booked would be closed, filthy etc and was so pleased when we arrived to find a little oasis in a somewhat dodgy looking area.

We didn’t wake up until 10am today, although we are now another hour ahead (7 hour time difference). By the time I have had a coffee and about a gallon of water I feel ok, Ali seems to be completely improved and Maisie is now the one suffering. Poor Maisie she is absolutely burning up and complaining of headaches and “feeling tender” (her words bless her!)

We spend the day quietly, go across the road for some lunch, get the laundry sorted and try and make some plans for the next few days. In the afternoon Simon and Ali go and check out the string of guitar shops around here and Maisie and I watch some DVD’s on the laptop to try and help plan our China route. We watch Destination China and Arthur’s Travels in China. I join Simon and Ali for a beer downstairs (Corona- yeh!) and unfortunately when I slam our room door closed the ceiling tiles in our room fall down on Maisie. Poor Maisie she isn’t hurt but not very impressed!

In the evening we walk 5 minutes up the road to a recommended restaurant. Its slightly intimidating walking in, the place is absolutely huge, we are the only westerners and it’s packed with families. No one seems to speak much English but eventually we order the house speciality Crispy Peking Duck. (How cool is that, eating the real deal in Peking!) The amount of food on people’s tables is amazing and it all looks beautiful. Very ornate, huge fish with teeth piled high with tiger prawns, plates of steamed vegetables, (we have celery and water lily), and lots of Chinese tea and “Snow” beer. (We have a few of them)

We sit there reading the Lonely Planet for a crash course in dinner etiquette. Most things we already know but we learn that we must point the spout of our teapot away from the table and not turn a fish over to get at the flesh underneath. (This may cause the next boat we see to capsize)

We wander back to the hotel and I decide to start taking a course of antibiotics as my throat is so painful. Previous experience tells me it probably won’t clear up otherwise and I don’t want to feel unwell for our time here. We call the kids grandparents Bob and Jude on skype and all have a good chat, then off to bed. Hope we are all feeling better tomorrow, can’t wait to get out there and explore Beijing.

Flight to China

I’m writing this diary entry from 37,000 feet. Today has been a very difficult day for us. I slept with Ali last night as he went to bed immediately when we returned from the airport and I was also feeling unwell.

When I woke up this morning I can honestly say I don’t ever remember feeling so ill. My head was splitting and my bones and joints felt like someone was tearing them apart. If it wasn’t absolutely essential to travel I would have stayed in bed all day and did in fact virtually beg Simon to change our travel plans. I thought we could perhaps stay in Vietnam in HCMC until I feel better and then get a flight to Hanoi and cross into China overland. The main flaws in this plan are that our visas expire tomorrow and if we miss our flight to Beijing our future flights may be cancelled.

In the end with a lot of help from Simon I drag my sorry arse out of bed. For the first time ever as an adult I have to have some help to shower and feel so ill I can’t even cry. I feel sorry for Simon, the kids aren’t too well either and it must be very hard trying to carry all the gear and look after us all. He’s so great and I thank my lucky stars that I have such a good travelling companion. This illness has just come at the wrong time. We are all feeling a bit low from Mum and Paul leaving and I’m very apprehensive about our visit to China. For the first time since we left I consider going home.

I feel like the day has passed in a haze of paracetamol, ibruprofen, caffeine and sugar. In an effort to relieve the headache and nerve pains I have been gobbling analgesia down like M&M’s and happily they do seem to have worked a bit. We flew from HCMC to Singapore where I bought some Clarins moisturiser, drenched myself in my favourite Vera Wang perfume and sat in a massage chair for two minutes ( had to get out – too painful).

8.30pm- at 5pm we boarded our flight to Beijing. The six hours seems to be going painfully slowly, I have watched a film with Will Smith called The Pursuit of Happiness, listened to a bit of music and now writing this. I read my diary entry for 17th Nov earlier (The last time I wrote this on board a flight). It seems such a long time ago and so many things have changed since then. I did cry as we took off, when we left Singapore last time we had our whole SE Asia adventure ahead of us, now we are almost halfway through.

Despite my complete and abject misery today I realise that I’m not ready to go home at all, just feeling unbelievably sorry for myself and hoping we’re all better tomorrow. If not then a few days in bed will do the trick I guess.

Our estimated flight arrival time is 11pm, its 9 now feeling really ill again so putting this down now. Only positive thing I can think is that Ali is slightly better today and therefore I guess this evil illness may be fairly short lived.

Leaving Vietnam

To sum up Vietnam is quite a hard thing to do. Of course we have only had a too short, 3 weeks here and as we have stayed in real luxury with Mum and Paul for 2 of them that has made it a fantastic holiday. Before we came to Vietnam we heard many people say it is very beautiful and I’m sorry that we didn’t have the time to experience some of the most picturesque areas of central and northern Vietnam.

The biggest impact Vietnam made on our family is the friendly, gentle and welcoming nature of the Vietnamese people. Without exception, everywhere we visited we have been treated to smiles, laughter and interest in us. We all admitted that prior to our visit here we had some pre conceived thoughts about Vietnam, having witnessed how American history portrayed the war here but from the minute we arrived here all those images were swept away. On reflection it’s very hard to understand the American war here and the use of chemical agents such as napalm was a terrible crime against the Vietnamese people.

My image of HCMC will always be of thousands of motorcycles. Weaving in and out of each other with amazing dexterity, we witnessed lots of minor bumps that we sorted out in seconds. I will always picture the Vietnamese women in their beautiful national dress. They are absolutely stylish, elegant and graceful with their conical hats and long silk gloves clutching a magazine and sheltering their faces from the sun.

The weather here has been at times overwhelmingly hot. In Mui Ne we were so lucky with clear blue skies and bright sunshine everyday. Paul said it is the only place he has ever been where the aircon causes condensation on the outside of the bungalow windows in the morning! I read before we started our trip that only the hardiest of travellers come to SE Asia in the killer month of April and feel proud to now class myself as one of the toughest of the tough! Come On!

The food in Vietnam has been nothing short of awesome. I have absolutely loved our diet of steamed rice with “something else” laid on top and we have certainly had our minds broadened as to the possibilities of what can constitute “edible”

I will be sorry to leave, of all the countries we have visited so far in Asia, I feel like we have seen the least of Vietnam. It has been an education for us all, particularly I think in forgiveness, pulling together and getting on with it. Despite the terror of the war that tore the country apart and only ended 35 years ago the Vietnamese people really do seem to have rebuilt Vietnam. It is a lovely country and I think we all leave here admiring the spirit of the place and hoping that we will come back one day.

Mum and Paul go home

Woke up with a massive headache and feeling slightly sick. Ali was sleeping in Mum and Paul’s room and I stumbled across the corridor to check they were up. Of course they were all bright and breezy and after a quick shower I joined them for breakfast which I then found I didn’t want.

We have decided to go shopping this morning but when we asked The Kindo Hotel if we could stay for another night they informed us they were full, leaving us with the problem of finding somewhere to stay tonight. In the end we decide the best thing to do would be to send the kids with Mum and Paul whilst we check out some rooms for tonight. As I’m not feeling too great I just can’t face staying in a crappy dive tonight and we phone a midrange place for 40 dollars.

When we arrive in the taxi I’m a bit gutted to see that it looks like a bit of a shithole and I sit on the pile of rucksacks while Simon goes up the road to find somewhere better. After about 15 mins he comes back and we walk to the 2 star Hanh Hoa Hotel. What a great find, the rooms are lovely, freshly painted with massive windows and pretty bamboo furniture. At 15 dollars per night I’m really pleased and we chuck our gear in and head back to Dong Khoi.

We have arranged to meet everyone at 1pm and they are already weighted down with shopping bags when we arrive. Mum and Paul have given the kids some money and Ali shows us his MP4 player he has bought. Maisie, Mum and I head straight off for the mall and I take advantage of the fact that we can buy some souvenirs without worrying about carrying them. I get some chopsticks, a miniature Chinese tea set and a lacquered poster of “Tintin in Vietnam”. I ‘m worried that Simon won’t like this and his look of disgust when I show him confirms it! We ring home and speak to my brother it’s his birthday today and Mum and I sing down the phone. Happy Birthday Will!

The afternoon passes too quickly and soon it is time for Mum and Paul to start preparing for their flight home. We sit in a cafe listening to The Carpenters and getting very emotional and all end up laughing when mum tells us how she cried over Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys on the way up to Birmingham one day. Its starts me off crying also and we must have looked like a bunch of crazy people to the Vietnamese waiters all laughing our heads off with tears running down our faces!

We get in taxi and make our way to The Hanh Hoa Hotel where they have a quick freshen up. Ali has a terrible headache and it gets worse on the way to the airport. Poor Ali, I think he is worried about saying goodbye and feeling stressed out. We say our goodbyes and it’s horrible. I feel very sad that they are going, in some ways worse than when we left as we know what it’s like now. There are a few tears as we wave them off. We get back into a taxi and Ali falls asleep within 10 minutes.

Back at the hotel and Ali gets straight in bed. Hope he feels better tomorrow, we are flying to Singapore and then to China. I am looking forward to it but feeling a bit down really. We watch Robots and eat take out pizza for dinner. I guess I’ll feel better tomorrow. Ready for the next bit of action.

Last day in Mui Ne

Today is our last day in Mui Nne and we pack up our stuff sadly and then make our way to breakfast. Too soon it is time to go and we all pile in the taxi. The journey takes around 4 hours and we can tell we are nearing HCMC as the number of motorcycles on the road increases massively.

We stop on the way for a drink and Mum buys some horrible” jackfruit” crisps that none of us can stomach! We arrive back at The Kimdo Hotel and check in. We had planned to go out for dinner but as I’m feeling sick and headachy we decide to stay in. We make our way to the restaurant and have a good meal. Ali has a steak and as usual raises a few eyebrows when he asks for it to be cooked rare!

We all sit in our room afterwards and Ali plays his guitar showing off the songs he has written since we have been away. Simon and I bicker over who will be his manager when he makes it as a star and he solves that row by saying he will manage himself! Checked a few emails, great to see Lou the girl we met in Cambodia had such a great time there. Also heard from Nicky she’s great keeps me in touch with the world at home. Hello mate you’re a star!

Off to bed now tomorrow Mum and Paul are leaving and we want to make the most of our last day.

Phan Thiet

Ali is better today and came in to see us first thing singing Reach for the Stars by S-Club 7 and dancing around the room. Hmmm! We have our breakfast and quickly shower and decide we will get ourselves ready and visit the nearby town of Phan Thiet. We call a taxi and all pile in. Phan Thiet is a busy fishing and market town and the cabbie drops us in the town square from where we can walk around easily.

First we head into the market and almost immediately are surrounded by women showing off their goods. Some of the silks look gorgeous but to show even the slightest interest results in an excitable crowd gathering around and high pressure selling techniques!
In the end we settle for drinks and some fried coconut and honey biscuits. We walk through the food areas and gaze around. The fish area is disgusting, huge piles of fish lie in baskets and on the floor and the smell is fairly grim.

We hurry through and make our way past the fruit and vegetables. Lots of ladies touch Maisie’s face, legs and bottom and chatter to themselves. Mum and Paul comment on how friendly the Vietnamese people are and we definitely agree with this observation. Everywhere we look people smile, wave and call out to us and very generously agree to have their photographs taken.

We leave the market, have a quick drink in a rooftop restaurant of a local hotel and then set off for a walk along the river to photograph the boats. Simon gets a few shots and it makes an interesting walk. On the way back we look in a tank at some giant snails. I’m sure these will end up on someone’s dinner plate. Urgh! We have seen some interesting food choices on the menus here including steamed claw and tail, baked pig stomach, roasted frog and fried crispy sand lizard.

We set off in a taxi back to Mui Ne and stop at The Victoria Hotel. We have a lovely lunch and a few glasses of wine sat high on a wooden veranda overlooking the sea. It is a perfect, breezy spot and Mum and I agree the kind of idyllic “honeymoon” destination place.

When we get back to Little Mui Ne Cottages Maisie, mum and I have a swim. We sit gossiping and reliving some of the best parts of this holiday. We agree it has been lovely and we’ve had a fantastic time.

Lazy Days

Ali hasn’t been very well for the past few days and spent all of yesterday in bed poor thing feeling crappy. Subsequently we have done nothing but that has suited us fine. We figure that once we arrive in China it will be much colder and there will be so much to see and do, we may as well take advantage and spending our time reading books, swimming and baking in the sun.

Mum went for a massage but although Simon asked me if I wanted to go I am too savvy for that and there’s no way I would put myself through that torture. Mum did look slightly shell shocked when she came out! The fact that the girl had walked all over her back was a bit of a surprise although not as much of a surprise Paul got when he asked the female receptionist what type of massages were offered! We explained that their shocked expressions were something to do with the fact that they weren’t used to being asked for extras!

All around the resort are huge coconut palms. The past few days a small team of fellas have been working on the trees chopping them all back, removing all the older branches and hacking down the bunches of coconuts. Watching the fella shinning up the tree is awesome. He has a rope tying his ankles together and uses this and his machete to help him up. How brave is he. I stand watching him with the Vietnamese phrasebook in my hand but can’t find “Oh my god aren’t you scared you might fall off” in it.

We eat at Little Mui Ne Cottages in the evening and share all our dishes. Off to bed now hope Ai is better tomorrow.

Fairy Stream, Fishing Village and Sand Dunes

When I woke up this morning I was surprised to see it was only 8.30 as I felt I had been asleep for days. I left Simon and the kids asleep and headed off to the bar to send a few emails. Eventually Mum and Paul appeared and I woke Simon, Ali and Maisie at 9.30 for breakfast.

Mum and Paul’s bungalow is in a prime position just by the beach and they have spent the past few days frying in the suns hot rays. The kids and I prefer the pool though and it’s very luxurious. As it is so hot in the daytime most people seem to want the beach breeze and the gorgeous pool is nearly always empty apart from us. We love swimming around in the warm sometimes hot water under the shade of the tall palm trees.

We have our lunch over the road and at 2pm set off in the back of a jeep on a trip. As there is very little to do around Mui Ne the local sights and attractions are lumped together in a combination trip and we have planned to visit the “Fairy Spring”, red and white sand dunes, the red canyon and a local fishing village.

We drive around 200 metres up the road and the fella stops, he motions that we should get out and we realise that we have arrived at the “Fairy Spring”. A small group of local children surround us and lead us up a path to the murkiest looking drizzle of a river I have ever seen. We soon realise that the general idea is that we should paddle along the stream bed to the waterfall at the end.

We do pass some pretty red and white rock formations on the way but given the fact that it is boiling hot, it takes us at least half an hour to get there and the waterfall turns out to be only around 5ft high I reckon it must win a prize for the crappest attraction so far on a our trip.

Back in the jeep and we soon reach the fishing village. As we pull up loads of children run up with trays of shells to sell. We tell them firmly that we want to see their village first before we buy anything from them. We walk down the steps to the beach and Simon gets some beautiful photographs. A little girl clutches onto my hand and we chat as we walk along. She tells me she doesn’t go to school, too expensive and that her mother has a bad chest. When we get back to the jeep I agree to buy a few shells. Simon points out that every dollar we give them encourages their parents not to send them to school but I figure that at least they aren’t out begging.

Next we arrive at the white sand dunes, they are lovely but we felt we had all seen equally impressive dunes elsewhere in the world and were more interested in the sand sledging. What a rip off really!! The local kids charge 20000 dong per slide on a piece of laminate plastic and the sand gets everywhere. Still we have a great time, we laugh at the children they really are so enterprising we admire their tough little spirits and relentless exploitation of tourists! Our kids are so great chatting away with no shyness whatsoever and I’m proud that although they both have humanitarian spirits and acknowledge and recognise how poor it is in some areas here they aren’t stupid and refuse to be ripped off by the Vietnamese kids!

We tell the driver we’re not too fussed about seeing the red dunes but stop off quickly at the red canyon. We are all tired and refuse to get out of the jeep but Simon wanders off to get a photo to show us later on the laptop!

When we get back its takes ages to shower off the mixture of sun cream and sand and we lie on the bed watching the telly. There are some really interesting programs on the discovery channel and soon the kids are engrossed in a documentary about The Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Maisie in particular likes learning ancient Egyptian history and was very disappointed when we visited Egypt not to visit Cairo. I promise her we will take her one day.

We then start watching a documentary called The First Emperor of China about the Terracotta Army. We end up ordering take out pizza and lying on the bed watching TV. It’s good for the kids to see and a bit of an easier way for them to research our next destination. Mum and Paul have their meal and join us for a quick beer. Later we all crash out completely knackered, our bit of exercise today has done us in.