Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Cycle Saigon to Hanoi with Explore! Day one walking tour of Saigon.

EXPLORE! Cycle Saigon to Hanoi. Day 1.

We met the tour leader and the rest of the 12 strong group in the lobby of the Huong Sen Hotel in Saigon.
The tour leader introduced himself  as Tran Van Hoan, he then explained the way names work in Vietnam and advised us to call him Hoan ( sounding like Quan). we then had to introduce our selves. There were 12 of us, 3 couples from the UK, 4 men, three from the UK and one from the USA, 2 ladies one from the UK and one from Canada. A mixed group, as some people had only just arrived there was an optional walking tour of the city, not many did this as most of the group had jet lag, but the group was told that we were to meet in the Lobby at 19.00 for dinner, Hoan had booked this.
Hoan then took quite a long time to tell us not to complain at the end of the tour that we did not get chance to take photos or stop at locations; I felt there had been complaints in the past regarding this issue. The greeting also consisted of asking us to contribute to a 'kitty' of $45 each for tips for bellboys / porters etc. Also to contribute to money for water and fruit I think that was another $15. It was odd being aske to tip up front and a few of the group did question this. I didn't have US$$ so paid in UK ££.  
Setting off to explore the city of Saigon, we had done a bit of it in the morning as we had visited the very big a busy Ben Thanh Market and had lunch at a food stall. My chop sticks skills were improving daily! We had also sampled some very odd Bubble Tea, ice cold.
 Saigon central is quite an easy place to walk around, despite the mad traffic. Crossing the road ?? If you wait for the traffic to stop you will wait forever as it doesn't, you just walk into it! Just step into the traffic and let it avoid you, it took some doing but we did get the hang of it.  We walked to the War Remnants Museum, to see among other things weapons of War including Guillotine that was used until recently!! As history is always told from the side of the victor, this was our first exposure to what I later called ' the daily propaganda', this Museum was overflowing with it, war is horrendous and this is a reminder of just how destructive it can be.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon
War Remnants Museum, Saigon.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon
War Remnants Museum, Saigon
We also visited the Notra Dame Cathedral and the very grand and impressive General Post Office, it has the original phone booths as well as a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh looking down at me posting my postcards with Year of the Rooster stamps on.

As we made our way back to the hotel we walked down a promenade; the Nguyen Hue,  that later in the evening was the focus of night time activity in Saigon for families and admired the Ho Chi Mihn statue.
Back at the hotel; The Huong Sen, we made use of the roof top pool, this is also where breakfast is served and it is a vary nice area. The hotel has a large ornate lobby, shabby corridors and good rooms. I would stay at it again.
Later that evening the group met up and Hoan took us to a restaurant located in The Palace Hotel, the food was good but expensive, the cocktail a 'Saigon Martini' was one of the best I have ever had. But the restaurant lacked the atmosphere we had experienced on the food tour the night before, really in this hotel I could have been in any city in the world.

Cycle Saigon to Hanoi with Explore! Arriving in Saigon and Street Food Tour.

I have wanted to go to Vietnam for years, possibly due to the constant news coverage in the 1960s ; I can vividly recall the Buddhist Monk setting himself on fire on a busy Saigon road. Through to the end of the Vietnam War ( or American war as it is known to the Vietnamese ) in 1975. The news images of the time are embedded in my brain, part of my childhood.

I was looking at cycling tours and saw that Explore! did one to Vietnam. Called the 'Cycle Saigon to Hanoi', so that's what we decided to do in February 2017.

I flew with Air Emirates from Manchester to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), but as the residents call it Saigon, so will I.
I have written about the flight in a previous post, but deliberately chose Emirates as I could fly from Manchester into Saigon and out of Hanoi.
The Visa

I had to get a Visa, and again I have written about that seemingly confusing experience in an older post.
We arrived at Saigon Airport at about 20:00, and were very quickly through customs. Due to the air ticket prices we had arrived 3 days prior to the cycle tour starting so I had booked an apartment via TripAdvisor.
We go a Taxi from the arrivals hall and went to the apartment.

The apartment was in The Icon 56 Apartment Building. according to the map it was just across the river from the city center. This was all correct. Upon arrival, we could not even get into the building as it is so secure and waited outside for the owners brother who was meeting us with the keys. He arrived after about 15 mins and took us up to the apartment. The access is controlled at the main door and the lifts.  

Icon 56 Saigon
Icon 56 Saigon

The apartment was great, just as shown on TripAdvisor and perfectly located.
Icon 56 Saigon
Icon 56 Saigon

Icon 56 Saigon

Icon 56 Saigon

Icon 56 Saigon

Remember Now.....

After settling in we went for a short stroll and had some street food, Pho, noodles in broth and a few beers. then got a good nights sleep.

To recover from the jet lag the next day was a lazy one, chilling out at the roof top pool. Then the excitement started as we had been booked on a 'Night Saigon Street Food Tour'  with food tours.  Very promptly at 1800 we were picked up by three, very young girls on scooters. The girls each had a yellow T-Shirt with 'Food Tour' on it. we were given a crash helmet then we were off into the mad traffic of Saigon.  As it was the end of Tet, the streets were lit up and decorated.

Night Saigon Street Food Team
Night Saigon Street Food Team
Street Food stop number one
Night Saigon Street Food Team
Night Saigon Street Food Tour

Night Saigon Street Food Team
Night Saigon Street Food Team


We met up with the rest of the party and proceeded to be driven to various street food restaurants around Saigon.  The girls were very informative teaching us about the food and how to eat it. This stood us in good stead for the rest of our visit as we knew what to do with the place of leaves your given at each meal! As well as all the sauces. At the end of a thrilling evening we were dropped off at the apartment.
The next day we were due to start the Tour, check in at The Huong Sen Hotel was at 15.00. Following a lazy morning we got an UBER taxi over to that hotel. Tis was to be our home for the next 3 nights. There was a notice in the lobby telling us the guide would meet us there. Following a short wait we met our guide, Tran Van Hoan and our Explore! Tour commenced.

Huong Sen Hotel Saigon

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Vietnam. The Visas ??? For UK made easy!

Vietnam, The Visa?

I had booked a trip to Vietnam, I used the Company Explore as this was a cycling holiday. The tour was 14 nights. As a UK passport holder until 30 June 2017 and you are travelling for tourism or business can enter Vietnam for up to a maximum of 15 days without a visa.
I did not read this prior to booking my flights. I flew Manchester to Ho Chi Minh City on EK20 and EK 392. when looking for the flights, due to a school holiday the prices shot up; by over 50% on the Thursday 9th Feb 2017, so I booked the flights to leave on the 8th Feb 2017 - arriving on the 9th Feb 2017 and to depart on 24th Feb 2017. That's 16 days, so I had to get a Visa.
There were many misleading sights on line, with talk of letters and e- visas and some were very expensive. After a lot of research this is what I had to do;
go on the Vietnam embassy in London's web page.
The web page is confusing but you can get the Visa by post this is what you do;
I had to email them and ask what the fees are, they will email back with the details. At this time it was £60.00, plus postage of £6.00 but this can be combined. so for 2 visas it was £126.00.
Down load the application form on the web page
and to fill it in, you can scan a photo in and save the document in Word or PDF.
Pay the money to the Embassy at your bank. Get proof of payment.
Send a scan of your passport photo page with the application form and your proof of payment by email to the Embassy.
2 days later the loose leaf Visa arrived in the post. Easy !!!
Upon arrival, the passport control did ask for it and we also had to show it at each hotel, so I was glad I had got it.

Air Emirates Manchester to Ho Chi Minh City..... Or is it Saigon? EK 20 and EK 392.

Air Emirates Manchester to Ho Chi Minh City...... or  is it Saigon ? EK 20 and EK 392. Feb 2017.

I flew Emirates from Manchester to Ho Chi Minh City in February 2017.  The first flight was EK20 Manchester to Dubai.

EK 20  is a good choice if you want to do a days work then get the flight as it leaves at 20:30.
As I was using business class the pre arranged pickup took me from my house to the airport. Check in was fast and smooth and the Emirates business class lounge at Manchester was as it always is very good.
This was the first time I had flown on the two class A380, and I found the seating to be very crowded and tight. The flight was also full so it really seemed crowded.
We all boarded on time but there was a problem and take off was late, we started to taxi at 21:35 with the actual take off at 21:50, so I was concerned about our connection.
Food was offered very quickly and this was the menu;
Parsnip Soup

Smoked Duck

Roast Veal

I had the Duck, it was very nice.

then the main was;

Beef cobbler; Slow‑braised beef with a cheese scone, served with mashed potatoes
and buttered savoy cabbage

Chicken biryani; Chicken marinated in aromatic spices and slow cooked with rice,
garnished with fried cashew nuts, raisins and onions,
served with a refreshing raita

Seared sea trout with burned butter and capers;

Served with roasted artichoke, green beans and mashed potatoes with gherkin

I did not bother with a main,  and just had a dessert of  a cheese board, other puddings were

Mango and raspberry torte ;Vanilla mousse with raspberry centre, topped with mango crémeux,
served with raspberry compote

Chocolate fudge brownie; Topped with a salted caramel profiterole, served with caramel sauce.

Seasonal fruit; An assortment of fresh cut fruit.

Cheese board.
Cropwell Bishop Shropshire Blue: Semi‑soft blue with a distinct russet hue
Saint‑Paulin: Semi‑soft, buttery cow's milk cheese from Brittany
Caledonian extra mature cheddar: Hard Scottish cow's milk cheese

although it was tempting to join the crowds in the bar I went to sleep for the rest of the flight.
At 08:35 we landed in Dubai, but due to the late landing struggled to get a Gate, So it was late when we disembarked; about 08;55 and as the next flight was at 09:40 I was sure we would miss it. As we approached the security one of the ground staff was shouting for passengers connecting to the Saigon flight to go through a fast track and go quickly to the next gate as the flight was waiting. Good job we knew that Saigon and HCM City were the same!!!!

It was a long way from terminal A to terminal C but we did it, using the train from terminal A to B and our legs to the very furthest gate in terminal C. I was praying that the bags had made it, we boarded EK 392, a 777  bound for Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon take your pick. 
Once we were on, there were about 12 passengers from Manchester the aircraft started to taxi at 09:52 and took off at 10:07.
Even though this flight was shorter than the one from Manchester there were two services and we were offered lunch, I thought it would be breakfast?
Mushroom soup;
Creamy soup served with chives
Traditional Arabic mezze
Spinach bil zeit, labneh, houmous and stuffed vine leaves
Grilled chicken with sundried tomato tapenade
On mushroom salad with peppers and fennel
As usual I had the Mezze!!
This is from another flight and another airline!! but you get the meaning

The Main;
Roasted beef tenderloin;
With green pepper sauce, steamed French beans and potato cakes with truffle

Wok‑fried chilli prawns;
Served with steamed jasmine rice and glazed vegetables

Chicken biryani;
Chicken marinated in aromatic spices and slow cooked with rice, garnished with
fried cashew nuts, raisins and onions. (Again!!)

I had the Beef. Then again I didn't have pudding, but if you wanted it there was;
Chocolate truffle cake;
With cherry compote

Passion fruit tart;
Served with redcurrants

Seasonal fruit

Cheese board

As I have said there were two services on this flight, and no sooner had Lunch finished than Light Bites were served.
these snacks were sandwiches, pies, some Asian hot nibbles and a Hong Kong sweet Tart.
there were also Noodles available for request and the bulkhead had crisps and apples to help your you would not starve!!

Even though we had taken off late the flight arrived into Saigon early and we were off the aircraft by 19: 45.
overall this was a good flight and I preferred the two class 777 over the two class A380.






Wednesday, 24 May 2017

South Africa Road Trip; Upington to Kimberley ''The City that Sparkles''. The End.

5/10/2016. Today we drove from Nossob to Twee Rivieren and out of the Kgalagardi. When booking this arid park I knew there were no guarantees about what would be seen. We had seen Gemsbok, Wildebeest, Springbok and Giraffe, as far as Cats were concerned we had only seen the two young Male Lions. The birdlife was amazing and I wasn't expecting that. Mice! I saw thousands of mice, in fact I think the park is built upon mice. They are an important part of the food chain as I saw mice used as food for wild cats, birds of prey and snakes! It was an impressive park and the endless waves of red sand dunes and dry river beds make for a majestic landscape and wonderful sunsets, I am glad I visited this unspoilt wilderness and hope it stays that way.
Originally we intended to start to drive to Kimberly today, but as we were not sure how long it would take to get out of the park we booked to stay in Upington at River Place Manor again. As it turned out this was a good decision as there was no 'drop -in' accommodation between Upington and Kimberley, our next stop.
River Place Manor proved to be excellent once again and early on the moring of 6/10/ 2016 we crossed the Orange River and followed the river on the N10 to Groblershoop where we turned onto the R64. The landscape was rocky and the road straight.
Our first stop for lunch was in a town called Griekwasted, this was a mission station historically known as Griquatown. At one time it was an independent state and provided sanctuary for robbers, adventures and all kinds of schellums. the town still has a frontiers town feel to it.

Griekwasted, Northern Cape
Griekwasted, Northern Cape.

Griekwasted, Northern Cape

After lunch we drove on to Kimberley. While some cities are located on the banks of great rivers, in fertile lands or at important harbour side locations  Kimberley is a city that has developed around a big hole in the ground. The Big Hole is man made and a result of the diamond rush from 1869 onwards.

Kimberley is a very historic place with many connections to the UK. There are the diamonds and the De Beers Diamond Company, characters such as Barney Barnato and Cecil Rhodes, The connection with the Boar War and the siege of Kimberley; this leads to the connection with Baden-Powell and the Scouting movement.

In its heyday Kimberley had been a very rich town, it had the most Millionaires in the world at one time and it was the first town in the world to install electric street lighting, it has rows of elegant Victorian style houses where the wealthy lived this part of the town is known as Belgravia. Were had booked into a B&B in this area called Oleander Guest House.
The big Hole. Kimberley



The Diggers Fountain, Kimberley

First stop we called into the tourist office, they were very surprised to see us and didn't have any maps or leaflets on display, but once it was ascertained that we were oversees tourists and not just local South Africans we were given maps and other pamphlets and welcomed.
Using the maps we walked all around Kimberley and it is a very historic place. As with so many places around the world there is a statue of Queen Victoria. Many museums, the McGregor Museum is located in the same building where Cecil Rhodes lived during the Siege of Kimberley and there is memorabilia here depicting that time. There is a statue of Rhodes on horseback with a map of Africa in his hands, he faces North and it is symbolic of his vision of extending the British Empire, so very politically incorrect now! The Diggers Memorial is a fountain in the form of a diamond sieve held aloft by five life sized diggers, it is a really impressive statue but it was disappointing to see the pond green and filled with rubbish  and the sieve rusty and broken.
We called in at The Kimberley Club of a cup of tea, this is now a boutique hotel and to end the walk we called in at The Star of The West, Kimberley's oldest pub, the bar is original and Rhodes chair is still there, but the building is in a very poor state of repair.
We visited The Big Hole, this is a complex with The big hole itself, and underground mine experience, a real diamond display- housed in a vault with an armed guard! The old mining town itself, this is full of the original buildings that have been moved and preserved. There is then a tram to take you back to the modern town, but it only goes 1/2 way now as the tracks are broken.
Kimberley was fascinating, and the accommodation really good. But the town is disintegrating, there is little work and the tourist attractions are not being maintained or publicised- I think we were the only overseas tourists in the town. The place is run down and it looks like a town down on its luck. it is very sad as it has bags of potential.  
For us! having had two days of colonial history we dropped the car off at Kimberley Airport and got a South African Airways Airlink flight to Cape Town, and that was it another great road trip of South Africa done.