Saturday, May 12, 2018

Eco Bliss, Welcome to Costa Rica

National Museum
I was needing an environmental recharge with the lack of global action on climate change and the problems with pollution in our air and oceans. So with such good news over its renewable credentials and reputation as an eco tourist spot we decided to test out the hype over Costa Rica. Costa Rica hosts more than 5 percent of the world's biodiversity on its 25% of protected areas and 52% of forest cover. With a mix of hydro, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar power, it generates around 100% of the energy it needs using renewables.

We arrived in the city of San Jose and first impression was that it was clean but still a fairly standard South/Central American capital city. Long way to go yet though and will spend the next month exploring the four corners of this eco powerhouse. We didn't intend to spend a lot of time in cities so after checking out our options we found there was a volcano close enough for an easy day trip.

Pre-Columbian Stone Sphere

Music Festival

The scene when we first arrived
Volcano Irazu was an easy public bus ride that only left twice a day and came back twice a day. We caught the morning bus which took two hours on a fairly miserable wet foggy day. We arrived at the ticket booth in cloudy rainy weather and were given the option of staying there for two hours and save the $15 entrance fee. We were told it would be unlikely we would see anything. That option was very unappealing as the area didn't even have cover and we would be sitting out in the cold for two hours doing nothing, so we paid our money and went in.

Next choice was whether to go to the lookout at the volcano's highest point or have a close up look at the caldera. We decided on the caldera and started walking. Covered in cloud we were unable to make out anything significant but consoled ourselves that at least we were out and stretching our legs after the 36 hours on planes getting here. We continued following the track when over the course of about 15 minutes the fog almost completely lifted, the sun came out and we were delighted to find there was an actual volcano just below us, complete with lake in the caldera. It was an amazing view. We were gobsmacked at our good luck. 

Inside the crater once the fog lifted

The Lookout
We then took the lookout track to the high point at around 3,500m. It was a hard uphill slog, especially as my altitude issues started to kick in. Well worth the headache I had for the rest of the day with wide sweeping views over the volcano and the surrounding countryside. We also made it down and caught the public bus on time to make it back to San Jose. Well done Costa Rica, this is a good start. Well organised cheap public transport, clean air with amazing views, accessible volcano and virtually no rubbish. I am feeling pretty confident about the next month...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bays of descending dragons

Ha Long Bay

On the deck at night
We decided to take a two day cruise on a junk with Rosa Cruises to explore the magnificent Bay of Descending Dragons (commonly known as Ha Long Bay). This was a beautiful small but luxurious boat with cosy bedrooms with double bed and tiny ensuite bathroom, dining/living room for about 12 people and an upstairs open area for viewing the scenery and doing the morning Tai Chi class.

The bay consists of nearly 2,000 limestone islands topped with lush trees and greenery, looking like huge boulders dropped in the ocean by a marauding giant. The story in Vietnam more runs along the line of a family of dragons deciding to stay around after protecting the local population from marauders. Some of the islands are hollow with caves.

We visited the Hang Sung Sot cave. The cave was humungous, which was good considering the stream of people moving through it in single file. Large stalagtites and stalagmites and rock formations were lit with different coloured lights to give an expansive romantic feel to the whole experience, which included a panoramic view of the surrounding bay. It took almost an hour to get through the cave.

The days were filled with activities which included kayaking around one of the islands. We were also treated to a cooking class making the fabulous fried spring rolls with rice paper that we made vegetarian and were naturally gluten free. As it approached evening we went swimming off the side of the boat, but after a jellyfish scare swimming didn't last much longer, and we were contented with a huge dinner of Vietnamese dishes followed by sunset and moonlit views of the bay. As the evening drew to a close a crew member treated us to a song while playing his guitar. A magical time and I would thoroughly recommend at least one night on the bay. I doubt a day trip would have been as satisfying.

Free entertainment
Cooking class

Sunset from the boat
View from the cave

Tam Coc

Tam Coc in the Ninh Binh Province is well known as the Bay of Descending Dragons on Land (or the more common title Ha Long Bay on land). This is predictably because it has the same feature of green topped rock formations sprouting out of the ground everywhere. The best way to see them is on a boat ride on the river that goes through three natural tunnels. The boat ride itself is part of the adventure as they are rowed by women who mostly use their bare feet. They are incredibly adept and fast and it is quite a unique spectacle. While pondering this feat your senses are assaulted by amazing scenery and the rocks jutting out all around you when suddenly she rows you right into a cave. Dark and low you are ducking the rocks that seem inches from your head and then you come out into the sunlight on the other side. There are two more caves before you turn around and come back again. It's worth coming to this area for that boat trip alone.

We then went by bicycle for about 3km on roads with more stunning scenery to the Bich Dong Pagoda. This 15th century pagoda is built into the side of a mountain on three levels and is a fascinating amalgamation of ancient monuments with the natural environment.

And so ends our trip to Vietnam. Well, technically it did not end there. It ended in Hanoi, which featured in the last post, but I hope you can see why I wanted to put these two unique but intertwined places together in the one post. That was the end of this travel experience and we put Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam behind us and headed home, that is until our next travel experience in Central America...

Friday, February 9, 2018

Sapa has a Fansipan Mountain but Hanoi is the Motorcycle City

It took a 12 hour overnight train to Hanoi, several hours enjoying the ambience, food and street view of the second floor of a nearby vegan restaurant (The Veg), and then a 6 hour capsule bus ride to get to Sapa, but it was worth the trip. Again proving how varied and delightful is the scenery of Vietnam, Sapa was cool, green, wet and high (about 1,500m). Surrounded by mountains, tribes and rice fields it could arguably be called the hiking capital of Vietnam.

Sapa Lake
We settled into the Paris Boutique Hotel with glorious views of the Sapa Lake, having been upgraded to the top floor due to a lack of visitors at this time of year. It was a luxurious room, we were well looked after and it was only about $35 AU per night if memory serves me correctly, one of our more expensive stays.

Town space for activities

We spent a large portion of time here (day and night) exploring the town by walking randomly. Taking in the community atmosphere with the well used public spaces made available, and the marvellous scenery from all of the different vantage spots. Not easy considering this is not a flat town. Several day trips took us into the more mountainous regions. 
Dancing in the park
Fansipan Mountain from the edge of town

Ham Rong Mountain

Day one was a hike through Ham Rong Mountain, walking distance from the town and boasting amazing gardens full of sculptures, lakes and flowers, culminating at an altitude of 1,800m on a platform with panoramic views around the town and surrounding countryside.

Day two was a cable car ride up Vietnam's highest point, the peak of Fansipan Mountain. This was not any normal cable car, why do things by half, but the longest non-stop 3 roped cable car in the world at 6,295m. Not content to stop there it also had the highest elevation change of a 3 roped cable car in the world, taking us up a further 1,410m. The ride was beyond scenic taking us over picturesque rice paddies that are the trademark of most photos on websites about Sapa. The adventure continues with a further train ride to the peak. The top was COLD so make sure you come prepared no matter what the weather down below is and you will be rewarded with amazing breathtaking views whenever those pesky clouds open up and reveal the hidden treasure beneath. We spent a few hours here as we struggled to tear ourselves away from the stunning views.


Once we left Sapa we went back to Hanoi for a day before a tour out to Ha Long Bay, but I am going to break with tradition and discuss our time at Hanoi now so that third and second last locations can share the final chapter on Vietnam. You will understand why when you read it.

Playing Mahjong at a Pagoda
Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, can arguably be called the motorcycle city with its over 4 million plus motorbikes sloshing around the streets like a rushing river. Crossing the street is an adventure sport. It also has a fascinating mix of old and new with many old districts and centuries old architecture, lovely parks and lakes that made aimless wandering around the streets, especially at night, a pure joy.

We made numerous exploratory walks around the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake and the surrounding architecture which included the Hanoi Opera House. We also watched a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which I really enjoyed. Puppets on water controlled by puppeteers in the water themselves behind a screen with live cultural music. Finally we took a day trip from a tour operator across the road from our hotel, visiting the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the humble house he lived in on stilts (because he refused more opulent surroundings), the Tran Quoc Pagoda on the huge West Lake and St Joseph's Cathedral among other things.

Hanoi was a nice, relaxing, diverse and architecturally interesting place to finish our trip and we left with many fond memories and fun and interesting experiences of our time in Vietnam.

St Joseph's Cathedral
St Joseph's Cathedral at night
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Aerobics in the park
Ho Chi Minh's very modest house
Ho Chi Minh's house outside
The place he did not like to stay in

Tran Quoc Pagoda
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Crossing the street