Hội An & Bai Xep, Vietnam…

Vietnam with a 2 and a 1/2 year old & 4 year old. People imagine all sorts of things for their children. Since we first fell pregnant, we only ever imagined this for ours – a Vietnamese sleeper train adventure. One big backpack, 4 of us, two weeks.

 


Ho Chi Minh City (Days 1 – 2)
Our tactic here was to keep it simple, like toddler simple, one ‘big’ thing a day. Namely a park when they could run free. The walk to get there became the adventure as we’d call at our favorite fresh juice and Banh Mi street stall to take refuge from the infamous traffic on the way. It did amaze us though (having both visited Vietnam a couple of times previously) how much our bodies remembered the reflex of the tactical ‘slow walk.’ AKA survival across the road whilst 100 motorbikes swarm around you.

September 23 park and Tao Dan park in District 1, have fantastic kids playgrounds; both are safe (ish), fenced, shady. Most importantly the former has a kiosk serving 60 cent beers whilst you watch the kids play. Australia get on this please!

When we felt really adventurous we’d throw in two things a day like a trip to Ben Thanh Market, the water puppets show, or an evening trip to the pedestrianised Nguyen Hue walking street. When i say evening, I of course mean 5pm, since the jet-lagged kids were still on Australian time. Afterall, getting in a swim before 6am is the new going out.


Where we stayed:
The Sunland Hotel – has a shallow toddler slide pool NEXT to a lady doing foot massages. Again, Australia please get on this!

Where we ate: Al Sham Restaurant – delirious middle eastern food and friendly owner who stuffed the kids full of Syrian honey cake & strawberry sticks on the three times we visited.

HCMC to Da Nang (For Hoi An) the SE4 sleeper train

The pros list:

  • It’s totally worth birthing two kids JUST to secure your own 4 birth soft sleeper cabin with none of the usual sharing with strangers on a train.
  • The line “we’re going to sleep on a train!” bought me us at least 6 months of excitement in the pre-holiday build up with the kids.
  • The kids actually slept. Helped by the rocking and ‘chug chug’ noises.

The reality list:

  • 17 hours is a LOT of crafting, dominoes and sticker books. Parents; Arm yourself with supplies. Oh how my husband and I longed for our Trans-Siberian express days where all we needed as a good book and vodka!
  • My youngest is a total bed-hog, meaning that I had somewhat less sleep than she did, sharing a single berth with a 2 year old in the starfish position.
  • The momentum that the kids loved, together with the screeching, jolting and excitement of sleeper trains that I also used to love just left me feeling exhausted this time. Old age maybe?

Hội An (Days 3 – 5)

There are places I know I’ll love before i get there. This is one. Cobbled old town set along a canal, French colonial architecture, quaint little shop-houses framed with lanterns. It reminded me of a glitzier version of Melaka in Malaysia.

It’s Instagram central here. Now I’d like to not be a cliche since I’m older and wiser, but nope, I donned actual red lipstick for a breakfast walk and posed like the best of them in the mustard yellow walled alleyways. All be it with my mini photo-bomber kids by my ankles.

Where I stayed: Thanh Van 1 hotel – nice courtyard pool, nice breakfast.

Where I ate: The perfect Long Island Iced Tea at a coffee shop called Wake Up, washed down with veggie spring rolls. Perfect mainly because it was ‘mama solo time’ for a few hours. Also because it was the same price as a smoothy. Easy choice.

What we did: The Lantern full moon festival, held monthly.

Cua Dai (Days 5 – 8)

We lucked out here with the beautiful homestay with home cooking and lovely staff who live on site with their two young kids, meaning that I could relax and not have to ‘shhh’ mine. It’s location might put a few people off as it was the baron building in the middle of a cows paddock, 5 minutes taxi ride from the Cua Dai main strip.  Strangely rows of pavements were all built in invisible streets looking ripe for developers, but all that seems ambiguous due to the Cua Dai’s coastal erosion problem. We personally loved the wide open space after being cooped up in cities. It’s 5 minute walk to a super quiet patch of beach with the pint sized toddler waves to play in at dusk.

Where we stayed: Sun Paradise Villa.

Sa Huynh (Day 9)

Since we couldn’t face the 5 hour drive back down south in one hit. We pit stopped for one night in the creepy Sa Huynh resort. It’s faded neon lights reminded me of the place in the movie ‘Bad times at the El Royal.’ It had one redeeming feature however….

 

 

Bai Xep (Day 10 – 13)

At last. Anywhere that’s cut off to traffic is our kind of place. We found our groove here. I liked it from the moment we walked in through the rabbit warren alleyways, where the only decision is whether to turn left to the fishing dock or right at the village well which was jammed packed with various pipelines to communally siphon off water. The beach is shared by a handful of iconic Vietnamese basket boats and three guesthouses (two backpackers and a fancy pants resort.) At sunset the whole village set up makeshift plastic furniture in the sand and sell their catch of the day. The only jolt from paradise came when the local kids came racing into the tide one day, ecstatic that they’d got their hands on an old polystyrene box. It became a shared raft, floating toy, ball and eventually disintegrated into 1000 pieces which were left all over the beach. A handful of 8 year olds then started experimenting with their heads in plastic bags whilst crashing in the waves. If ever there’s somewhere to make you appreciate the scale of the global climate emergency it was here.

Where we stayed: Haven Guesthouse.

Dieu Tri to HCMC the SE1 sleeper train (day 14)

Back on the 12 hour night train once more, which was pretty uneventful, except for it’s final moments. I’d previously joked that this trip was about re-connecting with ‘travel Kim,’ with the person and feelings that travel used to give me – moments that are few and far between once parenthood begins! Since 99% of this trip was the usual happy chaos of young children, my 1% of travel buzz came unexpectedly as we arrived into Ga Sai Gon station at dawn. Something about Asian cities in the very early hours of the morning makes me feel alive every time.

 

 

 

On the Road; NYE in NSW

Last week we covered 1000 km with trips along the Great Ocean Road & Tasmania. That’s a mere warm up by Australian standards. This New Year’s Eve we set off on our 2250 km trip from Melbourne Victoria, inland up to Newcastle in New South Wales, and then back down the East coast. That’s the equivalent of driving from London to Lisbon!

It was all worth it to end 2014 with three new travel experiences; 1) My first night in a real roadside motel. Despite my joking, the Hi-Way Inn Yass was totally pleasant & nothing like the ‘Bates Motel’ I’d imagined. 2) My first Australian New Year, filled with card games & family. 3) And being six months pregnant; my first (and last) sober NYE in about 16 years!

The Trans Siberian Express

For anyone googling ‘Trans-Siberian’ the 2 big questions are normally:

Q) How long? How much?

The long answer is – it totally depends! Use Lonely Planet and absolute guru of train travel; http://www.seat61.com for anything and everything to do with planning.

The short answer (for me) – 3 weeks & approx 600 euros for tickets. 4 stop offs; Ulaanbaatar/Irkutsk/Yekaterinburg/St Petersburg. Here’s how it was…

Train #23 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (29 hours)

Compared with train travel elsewhere in the world (ahem, India) China trains are Orient Express standard; clean, spacious, no family of 7 piled onto your berth. They have dining carts Hercule Poirot would be pleased with. The food is cheap (3 – 5 USD) and beer $2 USD. In other words; all perfectly pleasant. And that’s kupe (2nd class.)

I caveat this by the fact that you’re still rudely awakened by the off Mongolian farmer offering to share pre-packaged salami with you at 5am, but that’s part of the joy of shared 4 berth compartments after all.

Since this first leg is all exciting and new, all us tourists are happy staring wistfully at the view for hours on end, photographing every tunnel, tree and cow for the first 1000 KM. Unlike some inner China routes (See Chengdu post) the landscape isn’t as grey & industrial as you might think. It’s quite green with striking looking wind turbines running off into the horizon at sunset. Everyone settles in, talks to their english speaking neighbours, shows a new-found delight in Beijing instant noodles from the free hot thermos in each cabin. Good times.

Lessons from train #23; No matter the time of year, the heating is up to tropical. Pack lighter than you think. Strategise your toilet breaks. The train toilets are locked 30 mins either side of every station and (as I leant the hard way) for up to 6 hours on the China / Mongolia border. Opt to alight whilst they change bogies (wheels) at Erlain/Zamyn Uud.

Train #263 Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (34 hours)

Rumour has it; the higher the number, the older the train. Not true! The 263 was brand new since May 2014, and the best train of our trip. We lucked out with nice cabin mates too; Louise; a UK teacher from Hong Kong and Bovvy; an english/russian speaking Lithuanian. Entering Russia is so much easier with a translator! We kicked back with a long game of Scrabble washed down with Skittle vodka.

Lessons from train #263: Catch the fast train! The #263 spends most of its time stationary, including a staggering 11 hours halted at the Russian Mongolian border. It’s not unpleasant, as you’re allowed off to explore the border towns, Sukhbaatar and Naushki. However the twice weekly 2pm fast train west catches the most scenic stretch of track ; Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, during the daylight hours.

Train #79 Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg (52 hours)

Lessons learnt from train #79? Don’t miss train #79!!!

It all started with a hydrofoil in Listvyanka. Or hydro ‘fail’ as we’ll call it. Shane and I have travelled to 90 countries between us yet we make the monumental mistake of not checking it’s destination before we board. Instead of turning right to Irkutsk, it veered left to what we’ll call the ‘Shutter Island’ of lake Baikal. Bolshie Koty is a roadless coastal hamlet with 1 return ferry every evening and a 20 km hike back to the nearest civilisation. Despite flashing the USD and pleading with local (drunk) fishermen to charter a boat, or row ourselves back in time for the train, we were stranded. We softened the blow by drinking our remaining vodka in the sunshine and leaving our Visa MasterCard to take the hit buying replacement tickets when we made a mad dash back to Irkutsk 3 hours later than scheduled.

Lessons from (replacement) train #43: Thank you to Natasha, our Russian law student saviour who helped us out enormously by translating our desperate plee to buy last minute tickets at the station (entirely possible,) and for showing us that you can pay 100 rb to wait in the VIP lounge. Not only are they beautifully decorated like turn of the century grand ballrooms, with comfy sofas that feel like heaven at 3am. We got our train karma back with a 4 berth kupe to ourselves for 52 hours. Score.

Train #71 Yekaterinburg to Saint Petersburg (34 hours)

It’s quite cool that each train is unique. We were thrilled that this old cabins featured small shelves on the upper bunks; aka our minibar. After 5.5 days on board it’s all in the detail. This last leg goes to prove just how comfortable you become being rocked to sleep, even in carriage 1 next to the engine. It helps that we had lovely old Russian lady kupe mates who hardly made a peep, content with their Sudoku puzzles. A very peaceful and lovely arrival into the beautifully European Saint Petersburg.

Lessons from train#71: The dining cart is always a guaranteed hilarious outing. Plus it actually feels like you’ve had a night out. We ended up drinking beers and being taught the very confusing card game of ‘Durak’ by a group of 21 year old Russian soldiers, who adopted us with so friendliness and inquisitiveness they practically delivered us to our hotel when we arrived.

So after 1000 KM, 130 hours & lots of Baltika beer, here are my final top 10 Trans-Siberian tips:

1) The dining cart rocks! Don’t miss it. So many blogs claim it’s expensive, but it’s worth a $20 USD meal and bottle of red to feel the romance of the rails. Apparently the first 19 century rail carriages came with a piano bar & marble bath carriage. Treat yourself!

2) Learn to recognise a few letters of the cyrillic alphabet, if only to recognise the station names. There really is zero English outside of Moscow & Saint Petersburg.

3) It sounds like an adventure in theory, but 6 – 8 days non-stop from Beijing or Vladivostok is a mighty long time. Even if it’s just for half a day, plan some stop offs!

4) On some Russian trains the difference between 2nd and 3rd class seems non-existent, despite double the price. One benefit can by that Kupe tickets are swappable for free if you’re delayed, but it’s kind of pot luck.

5) Netflix

6) Dried fruit, dried noodles, chocolate. Our 52h train didn’t have a dining cart! Always have supplies.

7) Factor in at least 1 stop within 7 days of entering Russia to officially resister your visa. It’s a pain but a mighty fine if not.

8) It’s a well-known joke that no one on the train ever knows what time it is. Trains and station all follow Moscow time, so local time can often be +4 hours. It’s pretty weird, especially in summer when its broad daylight at midnight. Either set misc time zones on your phone, or like us; just forget time completely! You sleep and eat pretty constantly anyway :)

9) I hate to say it, but prepare some thick skin. Russian provodnitsas (train attendants) can be the rudest women on the planet. They’ve perfected the art of the shrug and scowl. Our experience was that anyone actually employed in customer service in Russia has the attitude of an angry hitman. Don’t take it personally.

10) The Trans Siberian is rewarding.  Asia to Europe overland feels like an awesome achievement. China, Mongolia & Russia are crazy, challenging & amazing in equal measure. However it’s also gruelling, hard-core and not for the faint hearted. Most backpackers we met were seasoned wanderlusters. It’s an absolute must for all of us that appreciate it’s not about the destination at all, but as De Botton would say; the art of travel. From Russia with love x

Saint Petersburg, Russia

wpid-img_20140719_175307.jpg My top 5 spots;

1) The church on spilled blood; the postcard shot it’s gem covered onion domes, even without the snow.

2)  Udelnaya Fair; the flee market of all flee markets. Vinal, funature, antiquies, leather bags. Real one-off finds, but no logic to the pricing. Bric o brac could be $1000 rb or $10 rb depending on the seller.

3)  Kazanskaya street cafe’s, namely Zoom and Soup Vino.

4)  Peter & Paul’s Fortress beach for ridiculous Russian fashion spotting.

5) White lights festival on a summer’s July night; seeing the bridges rise in almost broad daylight at 1am, and the view from Teressa roof terrace.

Where we stayed; https://m.airbnb.com

Lake Baikal, Russia

 

Everyone’s favorite Baikal fact; it contains 1/5 of the world’s water. It’s so deep and huge it’s hard to remember it’s a lake, it seems more of a sea.

As an avid ‘Risk’ board game fan, I was thrilled that the Trans Siberian stop for Baikal is Irkutsk, a 75 mins marshutka to the town Listvyanka. It’s a Russian version of Cleethorpes, mixed with Greek countryside and part ski village. Shingle beaches, pine forests and alpine ski lodge guesthouses.

The place is famous for ‘omul;’ smoked fish native only to Baikal. After 4 days on train you are craving some omega oils! Plus another local speciality, pancake caviar for only 300 rb. When in Russia…

Where we stayed; Baikal Chalet – 62 euros for a double room and tasty breakfast. Located 10 mins up the hill with views of lake from the balcony.

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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